By Yoav Tirosh
A popular sport in the Viking Age, knattleikr could often be more than just a game.
The World Cup in Qatar is more than simply a sporting event. It is a political event that is being covered around the world, with new political headlines coming almost every other day. As Dr. Yuval Rubovitch, a sports historian, points out in an interview I conducted in preparation for this piece:
Sports and politics are inseparable, since sport is created by a certain country‘s society, and it is a part of society even in its extremely commercialized contemporary form. International tournaments and leagues that are marketed to the public as shiny and transcendent products are again and again forced to take a stand and issue clear statements: Against racism, against violence, against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, etc.
And, indeed, politics and sports are intertwined in the Icelandic sagas just as much as they are today.
The medieval Icelanders had their own ball game to show off their physical prowess, called knattleikr, which the authoritative dictionaries of Cleasby and Vigfússon and Zoëga both translate as ‘playing at ball’. It was such a popular game that in the medieval Icelandic version of Saint Augustine’s life the Christian man is told to have played knattleikr as a youth. This game was recently featured in a very violent and compelling scene in the controversial Alexander Skarsgård film The Northman.
The details of the sport itself are unclear, except that it involved a playing field, a ball and a goal. Old Norse scholars I have spoken with delight at the scene and its recreation of this high-stakes sports match, so common in the Icelandic sagas. In the film, the antagonizing protagonist Amleth uses the ball game to win the trust and establish his place in the household of his fratricidal uncle. This captures the saga dynamics of the ball game very well; it is often not about playing ball, but rather about playing politics. Amleth uses the game to incorporate himself into the Viking farm community.
“The identification with the club as an imagined community,” Rubovitch says, “metonymically evokes identification with a national community, and the persistent year-long and decades-long struggles between competing sports clubs could remind us of struggles between nations. This will of course also manifest itself in games between national teams, that are often understood as a sublimation of war.”
In Sturla Þórðarson’s Íslendinga saga, for example, a man named Hafliði Höskuldsson dreams of a bloody ball game where the players are handed a rock instead of a ball and proceed to kill each other with it. This figuratively and literally heavy-handed symbol for societal discord makes it clear that the ball game was perceived as representing battle and communal politics. In Eyrbyggja saga, a gathering of men to play the ball game (at the interestingly called Leikskálavellir – Fields of the Playing Halls/Sheds) is intruded on by an outlaw who wishes to kill one of the members. It is in fact these men’s unity at the site of the ball game that allows them to stop (and kill) the would-be assassin.
What sport builds, it also destroys; the ball game in the sagas will often be used as a prelude to a rift within a community, or even constitute the reason for the rift itself. In Grettis saga, a ball game between youths ends with Auðunn humiliating the fragile ego of his kinsman Grettir the Strong; an insult that he will remember years later and try to unsuccessfully avenge.
In Gísla saga, the memorable nightly killing of the chieftain Þórgrímr by his follower (þingmaðr) and brother-in-law Gísli is anticipated by a violent ball game where the two men confront each other physically. During this confrontation Þórgrímr utters a half-stanza that indicates his role in killing Gísli’s best friend and sworn brother Vésteinn, and then Gísli follows suit by uttering a half-stanza that hints at Þórgrímr’s impending demise.
In Egils saga Skallagrímssonar the loveable protagonist and his father Skallagrímr compete in a ball game alongside Egill’s friend Þórðr. When the game doesn’t go Skallagrímr’s way, he kills Þórðr, and then proceeds to kill Egill’s foster-mother Þorgerðr brák, when she scolds him for attacking his own son. The frustration from this ball game, alongside other childhood occurrences, fuels the enmity between father and son, perhaps even beyond death.
Ball game is not the only deadly sport of medieval Iceland. Most notably, the cruel horse fights (hestaþing) often puts men of strong egos on a collision course. One can count Víga-Glúms saga, Þorsteins þáttr stangarhǫggs, Brennu-Njáls saga, Víglundar saga, Svarfdœla saga, Bjarnar saga Hítdœlakappa, and Flóamanna saga among the texts where a feud is directly sparked at a horse fight, and other texts such as Ljósvetninga saga and Gunnars þáttr Þiðrandabana as a prelude to a conflict. Horse fights were so prone to be a site of the disaster that one of the most famous Icelandic folktales about the woman-troll Jórunn starts with an overly violent reaction to a horse being hurt in a horse fight.
In a recent post on a parenting forum in Iceland, someone noted that when their daughter enters a sports club, she sees pictures of men. The walls are decorated with a huge mural of the men’s football team, and pictures of the men’s handball team, men’s badminton, men’s basketball. Where are the women? When I showed a draft this article to my wife, she had the exact same question. “Where are the women in your article?” It is quite surprising when a scholar who deals with gender and sexuality fails to make mention of what is right under his nose: the role, or lack of a role, of medieval Icelandic women in their community’s sports.
This neglect most likely stems from my own biases and assumption of sports as something masculine – growing up, my lack of interest and ability in sports was often used as fuel from the side of my friends and frenemies to mock me in the toxic masculine environment in which I grew up. Similarly, physical prowess and sporting abilities were tied with masculinity in the sagas; the Leikskálar where the assassination attempt happens in Eyrbyggja saga is a homosocial space where men get to position themselves physically in comparison with their friends and kin. Before the assassination attempt, the author relates that the assassin was wearing shoes with tasseled shoe laces; pointing out that this was the fashion of the time. The fact that an undone tassel is the would-be assassin’s undoing could be meant to contrast these sports-minded masculine men with this fashionable unmasculine outlaw; in the Saga of Njáll the Burner, overinterest in fashion is certainly a cause for ridicule. In short, the sporting space was painfully masculine, and it is important to stress this; especially when considering a society like Modern Iceland, where the women’s sports teams often do just as well if not better than the men’s.
Us cerebral types often look down upon sports research, but there is much to learn from the dynamics of sporting events. “A sports club,” Rubovitch stressed to me, “is a central part of every community, and is in some cases the community itself. Understanding the structures and the importance of the sports club can teach us much about the community, the city, the area, the ethnic or religious group that the club represented in the past.“ Sports have always been political, and will most likely continue to be politicized as long as human beings practice them. Attempts at understanding the games and how they were played are not some recreationist fancy; they add important knowledge to our understanding of the fabric of medieval Icelandic society.
Dr. Yoav Tirosh is a postdoctoral researcher focusing on disability in the sagas of Icelanders at the Centre for Disability Studies, in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Iceland. He is also an external member of CVM (Center for Vikingetid og Middelalder) at Aarhus University. He creates the Viking Comics by Yoav webcomic about life in Iceland and Vikings. Click here to view his Academia.edu page. You can learn more about his comics on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter @RealMundiRiki.
Top Image: A mossy field in Iceland. Photo by Ævar Guðmundsson / Flickr