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Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Mythological Cycle
The ancient game of Fidchell, spoken of in legend
Woven through many Irish stories, myths and legends is the ancient game of Fidchell, which means “wisdom of the wood”. It's said that it was invented by none other than Lugh of the Tuatha De Dannan, and predates chess by many centuries.
Fidchell held a central role in the celebrations of Lugh, and at Samhain festivities as well, where it was consulted for prophetic hints about the year to come. No battles were allowed except those which took place on the Fidchell board. It was reserved for the nobility, the warriors, and the druids for a long time, and they were required to master it! Those skilled in Fidchell were held in great esteem as people of cunning mind and wit, adversaries to be respected.
Conchobar Mac Nessa, fabled king of Ulster and Cúchulainn's patron, spent a third of his days playing the game, with the rest of his time divided between drinking and watching games of hurling.
When one of his warriors, a man called Celtair, spilled blood on a Fidchell game being played between the king and Cúchulainn, it was seen as a grave violation of the hospitality laws and he was given three impossible tasks to restore his honour. He succeeded at two of them but died when the venomous blood of a fearsome spectral dog he was sent to kill splattered on him.
Fidchell boards were often very ornate, richly carved and with gold and silver pieces, and even set with gemstones! In the cattle raid of Froech, friend of Queen Maeve, a board is described as being made of white gold, and the edges and corners were of gold, while the pieces were of gold and silver, and a candle of precious stone provided light, while the board itself was too heavy for a boy to lift.
It was said the game could play itself if it wanted, and there are even tales of enemies playing a game in the midst of battle, to see which side would win!
When Fionn Mac Cumhaill was hunting for his wayward wife Gráinne, he came very close to where herself and Diarmuid were hidden, and well he knew it, so he conceived a plan. Knowing how much Diarmuid loved Fidcheall, he challenged Oisín to a game, but when he spotted acorns dropping onto the places where Oisín should move his pieces next, the game was up! And so he dragged Diarmuid down from the tree where he had been hiding.
Even the lords of the otherworld loved a good game of Fidchell, as when Midir knew his former lover Etain had been reincarnated, and he goaded her husband, Eochaid the King of Tara into putting a kiss from her lips up as a wager. Eochaid lost that game and lost his wife too, when the kiss restored her memories of her former life!
And yet for all its importance to peoples of times past, we know little enough about the rules of Fidchell. The board was square and checked like a chess board – any circular versions you might see are a very modern invention with no basis in reality – and could have had anywhere from seven to nineteen or more squares on a side.
There was a central square for the High King in Tara, and the four corner squares represented the other four provinces of Ireland. The numbers of pieces could have been odd or even, and varied from place to place and time to time. The tale of Mac de Cherda and Cummaine Fota tells us how pieces were taken:
“Good,” says Guaire, “Let’s play Fidchell.” “How are the men slain?” asks Cummaine. “Not hard, a black pair of mine about a man of yours on the same line.”
There are other ancient games of this sort, such as the Tafl of the northerners and Bran Dubh, and it is likely that they found their roots in Fidchell – indeed Bran Dubh may be the same game under a different name!
An ancient Fidchell board was found in Ballinderry, marked on the map below:
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