The Lewis Chessmen: Lilleøren's final remark

3/27/2012 – The Icelandic-Norwegian battle over the origin of the famous (infamous?) Lewis Chessmen – a collection of chess pieces, handcrafted in the 12th century – has been waging for almost two years now. The Norwegian critic of the Icelandic theory, Morten Lilleøren, has sent us final remarks. With it we close our discussion of the subject, which may be continued in archeological and historical journals.

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The Lewis Chessmen – a final remark

By Morten Lilleøren

Under the title Morten Lilleøren's misdemeanor Einar S. Einarsson has made a reply in the question about the origin of the Lewis chessmen. This debate started because Thorarinsson and Einarsson launched a campaign, in an attempt to link the Lewis chessmen to Iceland. The problem is that their argumentation is filled with errors – i.e. not in accordance with well-established historical knowledge. This has been the cause of (my) criticism. In response I have been met with moralisations. Such arguments bring us no closer to the facts around the Lewis chessmen. The important subject is the known, recorded historical and archaeological facts. To focus I have made some brief comments on what Thorarinsson/Einarsson write is “the main issue”, that the bishop chess figure was called bishop in Iceland first, and at the time the Lewis chessmen were made.

There are no old Icelandic/Norse “manuscripts” (as Thorarinsson/Einarsson writes) in plural mentioning the chess bishop, only one – the “Màgus Saga Jarls”. The “Màgus Saga Jarls” dates to 1300-1325. The Lewis chessmen date to the period 1150-1200. This chronological gap of 100-175 years renders the “Màgus Saga Jarls” quite irrelevant to our discussion.

Regarding Thorarinsson’s and Einarsson’s claim that the word “bishopsmate” were written in one word: such a compound word should supposedly indicate that both the basic words were much older.


From Cederskiöld’s publication of Màgus Saga Jarls, the manuscript dated 1300-1325


From a handwritten manuscript written much later


From another handwritten manuscript written much later

All three sources clearly shows that this is an incorrect claim In all available ancient Icelandic sources it was written in two words.

There are two earlier Latin texts (from 1200-1250) that call the chess piece bishop (episcopus). One of these texts (an allegorical morality which happens to be of British origin) was mentioned by Twiss already in 1781. Douce mentioned the other one – “De Vetula” – in his article from 1793. Both texts were discussed by Madden (1832), van der Linde (1874), von der Lasa (1897) and Murray (1913). This list is not meant to be exhaustive, but it means that chess historians have known these texts for more than 200 years, and they have been discussed in almost every major chess history book. Still Einarsson and Thorarinsson have the denial of these texts as a part of their major argument.

  1. A chess bishop carved of walrus ivory. The ivory itself has been radiocarbon dated within the usual 95% probability to 770-990 CE.

  2. Also, note that the bishop’s miter is worn facing sideways, to borrow Robinson’s description, rather that frontally. This miter orientation predates the frontally worn type, which is found among the Lewis chessmen.

  3. Changing focus, and viewing the canopy/piece as a whole, the old Arabic abstract shape of the alfil piece (with horns) is visible, too.

    The bishop that predates the Lewis chessmen. From the private collection of Jean-Jaques Marquet, curator of the Louvre.

There are several archaeological chess bishops found at different places that predate the saga and at least one of them predates the Lewis chessmen (see image above and my two former articles linked below). This is also met with denial.

Do we know that there exist chess bishops that are older than the first Icelandic mentioning of it? Yes, we do. Are there older texts that mention the bishop earlier than Icelandic text? Yes there are. “Do we know of any other nation using (the) bishop as a chess piece at that time?” Yes we do.

The core of their argument is therefore way off the target. There are numerous other mistakes, but the errors above are more than enough. This puts the “Icelandic theory” to rest.

Incidentally We have opened a new chess historical website which is in mainly inNorwegian, but open for contributions in other languages.


Previous articles on the Lewis Chessmen

The Lewis Chessmen: Lillören's misdemeanor
06.01.2012 – The Icelanders are not going to give in: in the battle with the Norwegians over the origin of the famous Lewis Chessmen – a collection of chess pieces, handcrafted in the 12th century – they repudiate the recent article by Morten Lillören disputing the Icelandic origin. This was the subject of a symposium on the Chessmen held in the location of their assumed origin.
The Lewis Chessmen on a Fantasy Iceland
02.12.2011 – Oh dear. The Icelandic-Norwegian war over the origin of the Lewis Chessmen – they are a collection of chess pieces, handcrafted in the 12th century from walrus tusks and whale teeth and discovered on the Isle of Lewis – continues with unabated (academic) vigor. In this installment it is Norway's turn to claim heritage over the chessmen. CCGM Morten Lilleøren explains.
Lewis Chessmen Symposium at Skálholt, Iceland
01.08.2011 – In the nineteenth century a collection of chessmen, handcrafted in the twelfth century, was found on the Isle of Lewis, and have become the most famous chess set in the world. This year archaeologists discovered a new chess piece in Iceland, and the controversy surrounding the exact origins of the Lewis Chessmen takes a new twist. In August you can attend a symposium on the subject.
On the origins of the Lewis Chessmen – A reply
31.03.2011 – Gudmundur. G. Thórarinsson, the author behind the main material in The Enigma of the Lewis Chessmen, a discussion on the origins of the world's most famous chess set, was dismayed at the belligerent tone in an article seeking to refute his hypotheses regarding its Icelandic roots. He replies here and adds 'the potency of these arguments necessitates formidable counter arguments'.
Norwegian-Icelandic war over the Lewis Chessmen?
05.03.2011 – Last year we published an article on the famous Lewis Chessmen. The two Icelandic authors claimed that the pieces were carved in their country. "With few reservations parts of the chess world have adopted this theory," writes Morten Lilleøren of Norway, who finds the article "filled with faults and oversights." Lilleøren sets out to correct the facts and prove: the Lewis Chessmen are from Norway.
The enigma of the Lewis chessmen
11.09.2010 – In 1831, in Edinburgh, Scotland, a collection of chessmen found on the Isle of Lewis was displayed for the first time. These 12th century handcrafted pieces made from walrus tusks and whale teeth have since become iconic examples of our lasting love for wargames. Their origins, however, is one of theory and controversy. Here is an illustrated article on the world's most famous chess set.

Copyright Lillören/ChessBase


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