Have you ever wondered what people played prior to chess? Throughout Europe people played various board games. Some ranging in giant tables sizes with many pieces right down to some boards that were only a foot in size.
Fidchell was a board game people played in Ireland. It was simple in design, a 7 square by 7 square board with 25 pieces. Fidchell also went by other spellings in Irish as Fitchneal and Fithcheall. They all have one thing in common and that is the etymology of the word comes to translate to, wood-sense/wood-intelligence/wood-knowledge. A game about having a wisdom from playing with and on pieces of wood. Let us begin on our adventure to a theme behind the surface of this wonderful game. So, What of this wood wisdom?
So far we have mentioned that the game was played on a 7 by 7 board and that there was 25 pieces. The defenders had 9 pieces and the attackers had 16. If we know about the trees in Ireland we will quickly see this in reference to that of the Ogham. It was no doubt a game made up of the 25 trees on a board, a board that was a map. A sort of Battle of the Trees if you will. To have this wood-intelligence was to know the Trees & to know the Ogham. For those who are unfamiliar the Ogham, is a complex system of hidden meanings behind a very simple written language. The Gaelic tribes used this method to mark boundries all over the countryside, to mark important graves and even later for divination. It was a system of mnemonics as well. The basic pattern of 5 groups of 5 with slashes down a central line or on the edge of a standing stone. The ancient Poetic/Filidh class were said to know how to communicate using a special technique called Dordacht or Iarmberla (darkness or dark speech).
While holding a normal conversation a Bard or Poet could use hand signs, finger placements on the wrist/shin/nose bridge. By a Bards 6th year in training they would have been able to not only read inscriptions but know how to communicate through speech patterns, gestures, different patters on finger placements and other secretive signs used for private conversation. That would have only been about half way through his/her 12 year training program in becoming an Ollamh (Dr. of Poetry) Needless to say it didn’t take the High King (Ard Rí) too long to be offended about this hidden speech done in front himself and other warrior elite noble class. It is interesting to note that in Ogham the letters are called feda, & the consonants are referred to as taebomnai. A series of notches, or letters grouped together is called a flesc. These old names of letters, groups, and consonants give us this connection to the trees. The word flesc means twig, whereas feda means wood, or trees, and the word taebomnai means side of the trunk of a tree. Was Fidchell then not a game that Lugh played at Tara in his ritualistic poetic conversation; A game of Ogham trees on a board. For Fidchell even translates to wood-sense, wood intelligence, or wood wisdom. Not hard to see where we have a Celtic tree language of sorts. Who then, in those times before the carving of Ogham stones were the keepers of language, tree-lore, the older use of a non-spoken hand language, and those who held a sacred form of poetic communication? Yes the Druids/Draoithe a social and political role that seems to have been stamped out, or better yet replaced from the Druid (Draoi) to the Ollamh during this time; but look at what is still being taught; Poetry, language, communication & divination, etc.
What does Ogham have to do with Fidchell? If we look at the diagram of the board we see that it is divided up into quadrants. We see 4 major corners and a central quadrant as well. This would be the layout of Irelands provinces. Ulster in the North, Leinster in the East, Munster in the South and Connacht in the West. Leaving Meath in the Center of the board. Meath being where The Hill of Tara is, the High King in classical times would have been seated there.
The Lia Fal or Stone of Destiny would scream out announcing to all who the unquestionable King was on this sacred ground and the true rightful King of the land. On the Hill of Tara certain seasonal festivals were held and sacred fires were lit. There on this Ancient hill the Druids themselves instructed those to gather up the 9 sacred woods to kindle a balefire on such days as Samhuinn.
Mentioned mostly throughout Gaelic mythology was the number three. Many people are aware of the references that pertain to the Irish reguarding the Shamrock or Trefoil. We can see these Proto-Celtic carvings on stones of triple spiral patterns at New Grange. The Triskele patterns found on swords, helmets, jewelry and even pottery by the Tribes of the Celts. There are Triadic sayings from early Irish lore like:
“What are 3 Candles that illuminate every darkness?
and the Truth
This numeral was important to people in the Isles from Neolithic times, through the Bronze age, and all the way through the Iron Age as well.
This number three is important in Fidchell, for at the very start of the game the King is only three squares away from winning the match. Sounds fairly easy right?
Sacred trees? Ogham? Fidchell...
So far this Game is like entering a tall Bardic tale or even a Seannachie’s history lesson. With the nine sacred trees used to light the Fires on Tara, and the 9 defenders of the Game Fidchell they are the High King and his people are we seeing a theme yet? We are starting to glimpse where this wood-knowledge is going. The game we mentioned is played on a 7 by 7 square board. The 7th letter of the Ogham alphabet was D. for Duir / Oak. Seeming unfitting that the King Tree of this game is the Oak by Irish ranking systems of Ogham. Seven colors in the rainbow, humm...Old Irish Brehon law states that according to the dress customs of the time, only the King can wear seven colors, all others in a lesser ranked color system of fewer colors. What of the musical notes A-G could an Irish harper not play the Ogham as well? Its certain that the Bardic Harpers knew of such compositions for the 7days of the week. There is also mention of the 'house of doors' on the hill Tara that had 7 doors with 7 views. The Door itself being another poetic allusion to the Oak tree itself.
The Oak is considered now a-days as a gentle father of the forest. This King of the woods was not seen as the most important tree to the Gales in Ireland of the time when Fidchell was played. The Yew, the Rowan, or even the Hazel, would have held greater importance to the customs and lore of the people back then. The question is, why are we placing this Oak Ogham upon the King Status of this board?
If one looks at the ancient place names throughout Ireland the most repetitive and numerous ones are all associated with the Oak. A central meeting place a town could have easily grew up around? The place having a giant (bile) a sacred tree, would have allowed many to know where to gather and where meetings would be held. Villiages could have been built around it much like a square of a town is today.
Irelands other provinces had sacred centers as well during this classical period of history. Ulster had Emain Macha, Uisneach was in Leinster, Connacht had Cruachan, Munster had Caiseal. Each region respresents an aspect on the compass as well. The center- Meath had Tara the central meeting point of the tribes.
In the game we see that on the Central square the High King is seated, surrounded by 4 of his closest people. Could these members be his royal council? Could we not call them his ,Ollamh (highest rank of Bard), Filidh,(poet, diviner) Druid(for council and advice) and best Warrior (for protection)? Could it not be The High King with a Wife, and three children? The High King with wife, his mother and father and a single child? The possibilities are numerous but lost to us today.
There is some debate as to where some of the invasions of Ireland came from, but we do have note of 4 sacred (mythological) cities to where four treasures came from. The Cauldron came from the city of Murias and was called The Undry. The Sword came Findias, The Spear from Gorias and the Lia Fial or Stone of Destiny came from Falias, that sat upon Tara.
Are we drawn in yet by this Fidchell Game and wish to know even more?
Besides all this facinating information, what of the Game already?
First, Welcome (Fáilte) to the lovely world of the mind of the Gael. So far on our journey to the hidden, have we not seen many references to all these things making up the complexity of the game? Something you may wish to take pride in while playing. Things to debate while gaming with a friend beside a fire, over some good food and some beverages. Possibly the Heros portion and some Miodh (Mead)
So now that we have some basic history on Fidchell some insight into the Ogham and of the nature of the complexity of the background of this game how do we play it? It appears that from litature only the Gods and the Heros played this game. For its not mentioned as a common game among the mundane world. Perhaps another variant called Brandubh was played by the masses?
Through story it appears that every time its mentioned the game is reflecting what is going on in a battle, or away from them in a hidden fashion. Could this be where the Ogham was used on the board for a type of casting of lots? Possibly reading the moves of your opponent to gain insight into the otherwise hidden agendas of what is going on and around your kingdom. Now to the Fun itself!
Basic Set up:
The King on the central square surrounded by his mates in the way of an equal cross or compass setting. The other 4 members of his class are seated in their proper provinces. I see these members as Provincial Kings ruling over that area. You may wish to set up all eight of the kings men surrounding him if you so choose. I deem its a more changeling game if the Provincial Kings are seated in their own domains, as one per corner of the board.
The Invaders are always set up the same. Attacking from the four sides three in the back row with one above the middle.
Here are a few suggestions for setting up the board. Each option offers a different approach to the game.
It is obvious that right off the start the King and his people are out numbered by the invaders. To add to the madness the invaders are the ones who always make the first move. It is proper etiquette that the guest plays the invader side with the advantage. Taking turns they would after the game trade sides and be in the place of the Defender/King. A game is measured by the score of playing both sides meaning two games equal one game having played both positions. The score being held from the out come from playing each side.
How the players move:
All players move like a Rook in Chess. Up and down in as many spaces as wished. No player can move diagonal or jump. The King moves like a rook also but moves only one square at a time.
The Goal for the defenders is to protect the King and to aid him in his escape from the board. By doing so the King must land on any given square on the permeter of the boards circumference, thus escaping the invaders and regrouping to fight another day!
The Goal of the attackers is to Capture the King. To do so they must prevent him from landing on the permeter squares. In order to capture the King one must attack him by surrounding him all four sides, preventing any movement. If they do so while he is seated on the Central square its stalemate.
On the Kings seat at Tara The Center Square:
There is some objection as to how to use this square, I have seen and played with all possibilities and feel the proficient way is to have each party agree on set rules and set ups before entering the game.
The most common way to use the Central Square is that its a Safety square for the King to land on at any given point during the game. If surrounded by all four sides while on the central square the game is void and must be played again. Any player may move over the Central Square but none can land on it except for the King himself. I have played with methods as its off limits and all players must move around it, and even if the King leaves the square he can not return. The possibilities are up to you to play with. Have fun discovering what you feel is favorable.
Capturing an opponent is done by flanking the person on two sides. If you are next to an opponent and he does not move, you can move a player on his other side thus removing him from the board. Double moves are known to happen. If there happens to be two members from the opposing side set up in such a way where you can enter between them, they can not take your player on the next move. This is known commonly as a induced suicide maneuver. By you freely placing your player between two of the other sides pieces you are safe from being removed. Because you willingly and knowingly put yourself in that position. BUT if they move on the next turn and you remain there and they happen to move back again, your toast!
There are methods of playing where each person casts a die before they move to see how many spaces they are allowed, there is no real set rules in this area, so feel free again to make it work for yourself, and your company. Remember the guest goes 1st and plays the role of the invader/attacker, and thus one complete game consists of each party having a go at both ends of the spectrum.
Now off you go to play the game of wood sense, the game of the Gods, that High Kings and Warriors played. To battle side by side with the ancient trees to aid your King to safety. May you move wisely from city to city knowing the trees along the way. With the Ogham to guide your King a passageway to salvation; So that he may fight again another day.