Chessmen Past from the Isle of Lewis

by William Smith jr

This article is presented to the interested reader as a way of shedding light on an aspect of the history of chess that the reader may not be too familiar with. The Isle of Lewis chessmen form at least one interesting boundary between the Arabic and European eras in chess piece interpretation and design. Prior to the 11th century the predominant influence on chess in Europe was from Islam. Muslim craftsmen, following the dictates of their religion, were loath to paint, carve, draw, or chisel anything resembling the human figure. Europeans however, were not so constrained, and the Isle of Lewis chessmen were one result of that artistic freedom.

The Isle of Lewis chessmen were discovered in the New Hebrides, a group of islands off the west coast of Scotland in 1831. There are 93 pieces altogether, and they were first put on public display on April 11, 1831 by the Society of Antiquaries in Scotland. It is thought that they probably originated from a craftsman`s shop in Trondheim, Norway, dating from a period ranging from 1150-1200 AD. One can easily see in the Isle of Lewis chessmen, that European influence had finally arrived on the medieval European chessboard. Far from the abstract Muslim designs, the Isle of Lewis chessmen were clearly, even aggressively, imitative of the human form. The pieces are clearly recognizable as the King and Queen (both carved in seated positions), the bishop with his mitred headdress, a knight mounted on his horse complete with shield, helmet, and nose guard. The rook was represented by a warder (a prison guard), and is usually depicted as a "berserker", a Norse warrior who probably went into battle after eating hallucinogenic mushrooms. The pawns were carved as boundary marker obelisks, and, the original Isle of Lewis chessmen were made from walrus tusks and whale teeth.

Unlike today`s more standardized Staunton designs, the Isle of Lewis chessmen have a surplus of personality and craftsmanship. The first thing one notices about them is the short stature of the body compared to the head. The queen has her left hand up to her face as if to say, "Oh my, what next?" The warder, or berserker (i.e., the rook) is shown wild eyed, and biting down fiercely on his shield. The bishop is easily recognized with mitred headdress and a staff in his right hand. Both the berserkers and the knights have a very skillful design of chain mail on their entire body. The Isle of Lewis chessmen would make a very good gift for either display or play.

Today, the original 93 pieces of the Isle of Lewis chessmen are on display in two regions. Eleven pieces are in Edinburgh, at the National Museum of Scotland, and the other 82 pieces are in the British Museum. It is interesting to note, that if one wishes to play a game of chess using those pieces, a board about 32-3/4" square would be necessary. In the history of chess, the Isle of Lewis chessmen had their time, but, they are not gone. Many online chess sites-including the one this article is tied to-recognize their historic value and sell them. The Isle of Lewis chessmen are dead, long live the Isle of Lewis chessmen!

About the Author

William Smith jr although not an expert player, has had a life long interest in chess, which has lead him to the creation of this general purpose chess website. He may be reached at: William Smith jr
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