by G.G. Thorarinsson







Click here to read the full revised and extended article.


Gudmundur G. Thórarinsson is a civil engineer, a lecturer and theorist. A former MP of Althingi - The Icelandic Parliament and of the Reykjavik City Council. He has served on several governmental committees and has been a member of The European Council. Thorarinsson is the former President of the Icelandic Chess Federation and was the chairman of the Organizing Committee of the "Match of the century", the historical World Chess Championship Match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky in Reykavik 1972. GGTH has written several articles about the works of Shakespeare and lectured on various subjects including the origin of the Icelandic people, the Icelandic Sagas, and even Jesus Christ in The New Testament. His most recent article concerns the unique and enigmatic chessmen found on the isle of Lewis in 1831. In this paper he hypothesizes that the Lewis Chessmen were, in fact, made in Iceland around the year 1200.


Skálholt is one of Iceland’s most important historic sites. It has been a bishopric since 1056 and today the School of Skálholt is a centre for education, culture and dialogue between church and society.

This summer, Skálholt will host several events to commemorate the 800 Year Anniversary of Bishop Páll Jónsson (1155-1211), who is believed to have perhaps orchestrated the making of the Lewis Chessmen by Margrét the Adroit and other craftsmen at the old workshop at Skálholt.

On Friday, August 19th, 2011, Skálholt will host a symposium on the possible origins of the mystical artefacts, the Lewis Chessmen, which date from the late 12th century.

Among guest speakers will be scholars from the British Museum, the National Museum of Scotland and the University of Iceland apart from Mr. Thorarinsson, the Icelandic theorist who has recently presented a paper on the possible origins of these precious artefacts.


By Gudm. G. Thórarinsson, Reykjavík, March 2011

Click here to download the full rejoinder

I must admit that I was quite surprised when I read the article “The Lewis Chessmen Were never Anywhere Near Iceland” written by the Norwegian Morten Lilleören. I also found the comments about my friend and colleague, Einar S. Einarsson, offensive and inappropriate. Without his valuable help, my theory regarding the origin of the Lewis Chessmen would not have become global news. I would thus like to stress that Mr. Einarsson is not responsible for the substance and argumentation in my article--that is wholly my responsibility.

Through the years there have been various theories regarding the origin of the Lewis Chessmen. In my article I include the countries Iceland, Norway (or Scandinavia), Ireland, and England as possible originating locations. I still believe that the hypothesis that the chessmen were made in Iceland is the most probable explanation for their origin. In my revised and extended article, I have compiled additional arguments that, I think, are of value. The article can be found online here: In my view, the potency of these arguments necessitates formidable counter arguments. At the very least, the dialogue about the Lewis Chessmen should remain fluid, open, and elevated. That said, I am thus far disappointed in Lilleören's handling of the case...

In my work on the possible origins of the Lewis Chessmen, now available in an extended, revised version, I have argued that the Lewis chessmen might have been produced in Iceland. The question concerning the origin of these marvelously artistic chess pieces is not an easy one to answer. What really happened in the years 1150 to 1200 remains a mystery. Despite our best forensic efforts, our conclusions about the Lewis chessmen are, ultimately, speculative in nature.  

However, I must say that I find many of the arguments for the Trondheim theory unsupported by any substantial evidence.  Mr. Morten Lilleören devotes considerable space to arguments which have little or no bearing on the central question of this riddle.  On behalf of Norway, I am thoroughly disappointed if these are the strongest arguments for the Trondheim theory that can be harnessed.

 I meant only to participate in literate discussions and studies made by the esteemed scholars that have for decades tried unsuccessfully to solve this mysterious and endlessly compelling enigma.

At any rate, I still believe that my theory regarding the Icelandic origins of the Lewis chessmen is at least as potent as any theory that has yet been put forth.  And perhaps someday excavations at the 12th century workshop site at Skálholt might reveal cuttings from walrus tusks and whale teeth which might then shed additional light on the question of where the Lewis chessmen originated.  

View Skálholt Gallery

Special thanks for indispensible help to:

Jón G. Fridjónsson, Professor of Linguistic Science at the University of Iceland
Helgi Gudmundsson, Professor dr. phil. at the University of Iceland
Thor Magnússon, former Director of the National Museum of Iceland
Jónas Kristjánsson, former Director of the Institution for Icelandic Manuscripts
Einar S. Einarsson, former President & CEO of Visa Iceland and chess aficionado


Click here to read the full revised and extended article.

Introduction by Einar S. Einarsson

Around 1830, whilst digging a sandbank on the shores of Uig Bay on the Isle of Lewis (Hebrides), west of Scotland, a peasant is said to have discovered 93 handcrafted objects of ivory, made from walrus tusks and whale teeth. The find consisted of 14 board game men, 78 chess pieces and a buckle (for a leather box or bag). It is hypothesized that these items were, perhaps, buried in the sand by a shipwrecked sailor or a merchant.

These mystical and precious artifacts are believed to have been produced not later than the year 1200. Thus, it is assumed that they remained hidden for at least 6 centuries.

The Lewis Chessmen, as they have come to be known, are the world's oldest chess pieces that bear the features of modern chessmen. They are also considered to be a great works of art.  Their origin, however, remains a mystery and has been the source of lively debate among various publications and institutions—chief among these being the British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland. Both museums count the Lewis Chessmen among their most treasured relics.

Until recently, the best guess among scholars and historians was that the chessmen probably originated in Trondheim, Norway. But in the following essay G.G. Thórarinsson puts forward a compelling new theory about the enigma of the origin of these unique masterpieces. His tantalizing hypothesis—based on circumstantial evidence--is that the Lewis Chessmen might have been handcrafted in Iceland.

One of Thórarinsson's primary arguments is predicated on the fact that chess is, at the most fundamental level, a war game. And yet the Lewis Chessmen are the first known chess pieces where the game is connected to the Church—for one of the pieces is carved in the image of a bishop.  

Icelandic is the first language where the word “bishop” is used to describe a chess piece. In old Icelandic manuscripts, written in the 13th and 14th centuries, there are references to the “bishop” in chess. According to Oxford dictionaries, the word “bishop” in chess entered the English language around the year 1470--long after the carving of the Lewis Chessmen. Of particular note is the fact that this date coincides with the era when trade activity between Iceland and England was quite lively.

In most other languages, including Norwegian, this piece was--and still is--called a „löber“ which means runner. Thus, it seems likely that at the time of the creation of the Lewis Chessmen (1150-1200), Iceland was the only country where a connection had been made between the Church and the game of chess—by way of the bishop.

It is important to note that Iceland had no king until it came under the rule of the Norwegian throne in 1262 and power was concentrated in the hands of the bishops. Perhaps this is why, in Iceland, the chess piece that resides beside the king underwent a transformation from “runner” into “bishop.”

Another key element of Thórarinsson's thesis is the fact that Iceland's commerce with Greenland in the eleventh through thirteenth centuries resulted in an economic boom that enabled the writing of the Sagas and the true flowering of a uniquely Icelandic culture. And it was this flowering that engendered carving and ornamentation techniques that are highly advanced—techniques that would be prerequisites for the exquisite style manifest in the crafting of the Lewis Chessmen.

Whatever the origins of the Lewis Chessmen, one thing remains clear—these artifacts are an enduring testament to mankind's love of war games. But more importantly, the dazzling intricacies of their workmanship will never cease to enchant.

The highlights of "THE ICELANDIC THEORY"


British Museum publications theorise that the Lewis chessmen were carved in Trondheim, Norway, where facilities and tools for such work were available and where the patterns on the pieces were most fashionable at the time. The arguments for the Trondheim origin are rather weak as there  exist no written sources to build on. Furthermore, the Norwegians  would know little about their history before 1200, except for what was written in by Icelanders in Iceland.   In 1832, a year after the pieces were first exhibited, an Englishman, Sir Frederic Madden of the British Museum, wrote an article entitled “Historical Remarks on the Ancient Chessmen discovered in the Isle of Lewis” where he advanced the hypothesis that the chessmen were carved in Iceland before the year 1200.1  


In his essay, G.G. Thórarinsson puts forward the tantalising hypothesis that the Lewis chessmen were probably carved in Iceland. To support his theory about the origin of those relics, he presents the following circumstantial evidence:


  1. It seems that the Lewis chessmen are indeed the first chess pieces to intertwine the Church and the chessboard. A bishop with mitre and a crosier becomes a chess piece.

  2. The use of the word “bishop” on the chessboard is a keyword in the argumentation.  In Norway, there is no evidence that “bishop” was used to describe a chess piece at any point in history. At the time the chessmen were made, this word in relationship to chess was only used in Iceland. Written records show that the word “bishop” was used in Iceland around 1300 and in England in the late 15th century. Records indicate that the word “alfin” fell out of use in English around 1475, after which the chess piece was exclusively known as a bishop. When the Lewis chessmen were carved, these pieces were most likely only known as bishops in Iceland. They were probably carved here at the behest of a bishop who thought it appropriate that pieces closest to the king and queen be bishops. Should this prove correct, then the English adopted the word “bishop” for a chess piece from Icelanders.  Dr. Helgi Gudmundsson points out that the timing of this change coincides with the so-called English century (1400–1500) in Iceland, when trade and interaction with the English was at its zenith. He then asks whether it can be ascertained where this usage was first adopted, whether it may have been in Bristol, for example, or other hometowns of companies that traded in Iceland at the time.

  3. When the Lewis chessmen were made, the attitude of the Catholic Church toward chess was overwhelmingly negative.   We only have to look to following facts: 

    -  The letter from cardinal Dominiani from 1061, writing against chess.

    -  A bishop in Paris did not permit his clergy to keep a chessboard in the house in these   years.
    -  King Louis IX  of France under the influence of the clergy officially forbade chess in France 1254.
    -  It was not until the end of the 14th century that The Catholic Council of Regensburg revoked the ban on chess.
    Give the Cathtolic Church's beligerance toward the game, it can be inferred that the church authorities would not have been willing to sponsor the carving of bishops as chess pieces. Archbishops, for example, were firmly influence of the Vatican.
  4. The Arcbishop at Trondheim persuaded the Pope in Rome to excommunicate the King of Norway after a long and  severe dispute between the king and the Church in 1194. This fact, combined with Rome's negative attitude, makes it unlikely--to say the least--that the Church was involved in carving the chessmen.

  5. It might also be worth considering that the clothing of an archbishop differs from that of a bishop.  The archbishop had a pallium over his shoulders and in front of him. This is not to be seen on the Lewis bishops. Carvers in Throndheim would probably have carved the bishop with a pallium.

  6. The British Museum says in its pamplets that the horses used by the knight “appear almost Icelandic in character.”

  7. The Lewis rooks seem to be berserkers and are depicted biting the edge of their shields. This is probably the only chess set where the rooks are berserks.  Berserkers are presumably an older phenomenon and are well known from Scandinavia, but they were at the forefront of Icelanders’ consciousness at this time.  They occur in Icelandic writings  and they also appear in Icelandic toponyms such as Berserkjahraun (berserkers’ lava field)  and Berserkseyri  (name of a farm in Iceland). Written records of berserkers from other countries are scarce. In Iceland the names of the berserks who dwelled here are known.

  8. Decorative art and carving were highly developed in Iceland at this time. There are many examples of Icelandic bishops bestowing upon foreigners fine gifts carved from walrus tusks. Artists, goldsmiths, painters and master carvers were employed at the bishops’ seats, and written records state outright that walrus tusk was among the raw materials used in their creations.  In his book A History of Chess, published in 1913,  H.J.R.Murray says :  “The carving of the Rooks as warriors on foot undoubtedly points to Icelandic workmanship” and  “Sir Frederic Madden, in his Historical Remarks: (Archaeologia, 1852, xxiv; also separately printed in CPC., i) endeavoured to prove that these pieces are of Icelandic carving of the middle of the 12th century.”   Iceland had a strong connection to Greenland at this time. Icelanders settled Greenland with a large fleet of ships, and Greenlanders in turn had many friends and relatives in Iceland. Records describe bishops’ ships that brought goods from Greenland at that time. Though this connection was severed when Icelanders lost their fleet of seaworthy ships, it does support the conclusion that Icelandic craftsmen had access—by way of Greenland--to walrus tusks and other raw materials.

  9. A ship carrying the Lewis chessmen from Iceland could have been shipwrecked near the Isle of Lewis on its way to Islivig/Mangersta (par. 14) or Dublin and the pieces would've thus been washed ashore.  It is telling that the men are from four chess sets, none of which are complete, which indicates that a number of pieces were lost. Perhaps more pieces remain buried there in the sand. Icelanders sold a great deal of their exports in Scotland and Ireland, because in Norway they were required to pay a toll.  This brings to the mind a recording from a journal which states that a bishop’s ship was shipwrecked at Hítarnes in Iceland circa 1266 while carrying a load of goods from Greenland; walrus tusks were found on nearby beaches for quite some time afterwards.

  10. The bishopric at Skálholt was very rich at this time. Ships owned by the bishopric often sailed to Greenland to fetch goods and local artists, supported by the bishopric, were engaged in carving end other artistic activities. The church built at Skálholt around 1150, “Klængschurch”, is said to have been the largest woodenhouse in the Nordic Countries, and Europe for that matter, at that time of its construction. Most of the timber had to be imported.  

  11. In Sturlunga saga it is said that the ship of Gudmundur Arason, later bishop at Hólar,  came to the Southern Isles in the year 1202 in bad weather and there he learned about the death of king Sverrir of Norway.

  12. In The Saga Writing of the Oddi Clan, Einar Ólafur Sveinsson, professor at the University of Iceland, advances the hypothesis that men from the Oddi clan wrote Orkneyinga saga, the History of the Earls of Orkney. A friendship existed between Bishop Páll and the Earls of Orkney at this time, and there was considerable communication between them; there are stories of gifts’ being exchanged. From there the Outer Hebrides are not far off. 

  13. It  is noteworthy that in Icelandic the Hebrides are called The Southern Isles. When sailing to Orkney islands and Norway these islands are to the south. In the Icelandic sagas  there are numerous references of the Southern Isles and the sailings of the Icelanders to Orkney islands and to Lewis. 

  14. It is interesting to study the toponyms in Lewis.  UIG is derived from the Icelandic word vik which means bay. In close proximity to Uig Bay is ISLIVIK which can be derived from Islendingavik, the bay of Icelanders, and MANGERSTA (Mhangarstadh) can be from the Icelandic word Mangarastadur, the place of merchants, Copenhagen. This further supports the notion of an Icelandic connection in Lewis.

  15. And finally, one might even entertain the notion that the Lewis chessmen were made at the request of Bishop Páll of Skálholt and carved by Margrét the Adroit, whose carving skills were legendary. The chessmen were then sent abroad for sale or as a gift, but the ship was then lost.


A History of the World in 100 Objects...

Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum
on BBC Radio 4, 28th June 2010

In every place the chess pieces will change to reflect that society that played it?.

?European pieces by contrast are often intensely human and the Lewis Chessmen not only appear to show us particularly kinds of characters but strikingly reflect the structures of the great medieval power game as it was fought out across Northern Europe, from ICELAND and Ireland to Scandinavia and the Baltic!?

?At the edges of the board where we now have castles are the ultimate shock troops of the Scandinavian world ....these are the fighters called Berserkers. It is an Icelandic word for a soldier wearing a shirt made of bearskin?.

?There is one piece I have not looked at yet but it is perhaps the most fascinating figure of all the Lewis Chessmen, the one which gives us a crucial insight into the society that made it!?

It is the Bishop ....



The author:
Guđmundur G. Ţórarinsson
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