Oar walking, underwater wrestling and horse fighting – historian examines the sports and games of the Vikings

Egill Skallagrímsson in a 17th century manuscript of Egils Saga

Playing ball games is an activity played by children around the world. While today’s parents might worry that their sons and daughters might get scrapes and bruises, in the Viking world such a game could end with an axe being driven into an opponent’s head.

This detail comes from a new article, ‘What the Vikings did for fun? Sports and pastimes in medieval northern Europe’, which was published last month in the journal World Archaeology. In it Leszek Gardeła of the University of Aberdeen uses saga accounts and archaeological evidence to see what men, women and children from Scandinavia and Iceland amused themselves with during the Viking-era, and found that their were several popular pastimes.

For example, a ball game called knattleikr was played, which involved at least four men throwing a ball, chasing and running, and sometimes also involved a bat. Gardeła relates that in the saga of Egill Skallagrimsson, a game was arranged that brought people from around the district to watch. The story goes that “Egill, who must have been under 12 years old, was competing against an 11-year-old boy named Grımr, who seems to have been much stronger. At some point Egill lost his temper and struck his opponent with a bat, but was immediately seized and dashed to the ground. After complaining about these events to his friend Þorðr Granason, Egill took an axe and drove it into Grimr’s head.”

Not all Viking games ended in bloodshed, but many often involved tests of strength and displays of manliness. The Laxdœla saga, for example recounts a swimming competition that took place in the River Nid in Norway. But this competition involved two competitors wrestling each other while they swam, with the goal being to the keep his opponent underwater. The saga explains what happened when a man named Kjartan faced an unknown adversary:

Kjartan then dived out into the river and swam over to the man who was such a strong swimmer, pushed him underwater and held him down for some time, before letting him come up again. The other had not been above water long before he grasped Kjartan and forced him underwater and held him under so long that Kjartan felt enough was enough. They both emerged once more, but neither spoke to the other. On the third try both of them went underwater and were under much longer. Kjartan was far from certain what the outcome would be and realized that he had never before been in such a tight situation. Finally both of them came up and swam ashore.

Later it was revealed that the other man was King Olafr Tryggvason. The Norwegian ruler is also known for taking part in a game of oar-walking, where he would step from oar to oar, while the men were rowing on the water.

Wrestling on land was also very popular, as was stone-lifting.  Having their horses fight too was seen as a sport too in Iceland and Norway, where contestants would hold their animals by the tail and use a stick to drive the horse on. While skating and skiing are rarely mentioned in saga accounts, archaeological evidence of these winter pastimes did exist – for example, skates made from bones.

Other archaeological finds have revealed several children toys, such as wooden miniatures of horses, ships and swords. Children would also play with many other things they could find or ‘borrow’ from adults. Gardeła writes there is “one instance a twelfth-century nobleman mistook the whiz of an axe for that of a boy’s snowball. The results of this mistake are easy to deduce.”

Northern Europeans also had indoor games, although the tight living conditions probably limited what could be played. Some would play the board game hnefatafl, but others (men and women) might  challenge each other to various drinking games.

Gardeła, a PhD student in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Aberdeen who is using archaeological remains to examine Viking society and religious beliefs, writes that “the harsh living conditions, the northern climate as well as worldviews in which war played a prominent role surely had an effect on what Norsemen considered ‘fun’ and entertainment. An ideal man, at least according to the written accounts, had to be strong and skilful, at times being able to resort to impressive trickery.”

‘What the Vikings did for fun? Sports and pastimes in medieval northern Europe’, appears in the June 2012 issue of World Archaeology (Volume 44, Issue 2) and is part of a special issue on the archaeology of sports and pastimes, which includes articles on Iron Age Europe and ancient Athens.

Click here to access this article from Taylor and Francis Online.

See also Linnaeus’s Game of Tablut and its Relationship to the Ancient Viking Game Hnefatafl

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