‘Berserker’ chess mate quite Uigly


Here’s a piece of good news: another Lewis chess piece has been found.

The Lewis chess pieces (92 of them) are figures in a chess set that date back to the 12th century, and this newly discovered piece has been sitting in a drawer for 50 years. The piece belongs to a family descended from an antiques dealer, who apparently bought the chess piece for £5 in 1964. It has now been valued at about £1-million. For those out of touch with today’s exchange rates, that’s about R18.7-million.

The Lewis chess pieces were found in 1831 on one of the Outer Hebrides, a group of islands off the west coast of Scotland. This particular island is called the Isle of Lewis, hence the chess set’s name. Well, it’s also called Lewis and Harris — one island with two bits, joined by an isthmus. It has been so long since the word “isthmus” has appeared in this newspaper that nobody knows how to spell it. Perhaps nobody ever knows how to spell it unless you’ve just completed your grade 9 geography revision. Me, I had to check.

The Lewis chess pieces are also known as the Uig chess pieces, because the specific place they were found was Uig Bay, on the western edge of this western island. That name is actually tautological (rather like Kuala Lumpur), because the derivation of Uig is the Norse word “Vik”, which means “bay”. So these chess pieces come from an island that is one island yet two islands and they were found at Bay Bay.

Never mind. There are other nomenclature problems. I am resisting referring to the chess pieces as “chessmen” (one word) even though that’s the conventional name, because, well, at least one of them is a woman.

Anyway, the chess pieces are made from walrus ivory and whale teeth, and probably belonged to a rich Norse family, Norse people having occupied the relevant island(s) sometime in the 8th century. In fact, they took over a great deal of mainland Scotland, too, and stayed for 700 years, but that’s another story. Today, we’d call the Norse Norwegians, though they sometimes came from other parts of Scandinavia too. I’m trying not to say “Vikings”, because it has been repeatedly pointed out that “viking” is really an activity (raiding and trading), not the name of an ethnic group.

The main point is that the Lewis or Uig chess pieces are great little sculptures, carved with considerable verve and character. Between 5cm and 10cm high, they have bulging eyes that make them look rather cartoonish, but they can also be a bit scary. The recently rediscovered piece is a warder, what today would be a rook. He (it?) is a berserker figure, one of those Norse warriors known for going quite mad ahead of a battle. This tendency is shown, in the chess piece, by the fact that he’s biting into the top of his shield.


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Author Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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