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Games and Sports in the Viking Age

The Norse people delighted in games and sports. Both indoor board games and outdoor sporting competitions appear to have been regular leisure time activities, based on both saga literature and archaeological evidence.

gaming pieces

Game boards and playing pieces are common finds in grave goods. The game boards that have been found have playing surfaces ranging from 7x7 squares (right) up to 19x19 squares. Playing pieces have been found made from a wide variety of material: glass; bone (left); antler; amber; bronze; and wood. It's unclear whether dice (left), which are also found, are a part of this board game, or, more likely, a different game.

playing board

The dice themselves are marked with pips from 3 through 6 on the four long faces, and 1 on the two short faces. Because of the geometry of the dice, it seems unlikely that the short faces would come up when thrown. The medieval Icelandic lawbook Grágás (K 233) prohibited gambling on dice games or board games.

In the stories, some of the playing pieces are described as having long pins which fit into the board. In chapter 70 of Grettis saga, Þorbjörn's step-mother threw a playing piece at him, which gouged out his eye.

runestone board game

One board game was called hnefatafl. Carvings on memorial stones (left) show people playing board games. We don't know the rules, but it appears to have been a strategy game in which a king and his retainers opposed an army. The player holding the king had only a small number of playing pieces to protect the king from the larger number of playing pieces controlled by his opponent.

hneftafl game pieces from Baldursheimur

The hnefatafl set found in a grave at Baldursheimur in north Iceland contained: 12 red "pawns", 12 white "pawns"; one "king"; and one die. The pawns were made from the teeth of a marine mammal (perhaps whale or walrus), and the king, made from whalebone, shows the figure of a crouching man, gripping his forked beard.

game pieces

It has been suggested that the iconic bronze figure found at Eyrarland in north Iceland is a playing piece for a board game, rather than an idol. Like the playing piece from Baldursheimur, it shows a seated male figure holding his beard.

game piece

Modern replicas of hnefatafl kings are shown to the left, carved from wood.

It is possible that Viking people learned Shatranj, an early form of chess, through their trading contacts in Constantinople. It seems likely that chess arrived in Scandinavia before the end of the Viking age. Chapter 12 of Króka-Refs saga says that Bárðr brought gifts with him from Greenland when he visited the king of Norway. He gave the king an ivory board game as a gift, and the board was both a hneftafl (for the Viking board game) and skáktafl (for chess). Perhaps it was laid out for a chess-like game on one side and for hnefatafl on the other. In chapter 22 of Víglundar saga, Víglundur and Örn played an unspecified board game that ended in mate (mát), suggesting the game was chess.

The carved walrus-ivory game pieces found on the Isle of Lewis in the Hebrides (right) have long been interpreted as chess pieces made in Norway in the last half of the 12th century, when Lewis was under the rule of the king of Norway. Since a number of identical pieces were found, and since some pieces seemed to be unfinished, it was assumed that they were merchandise: multiple sets offered for sale by the merchant-smith who made the pieces and who lost them or buried them while visiting Lewis.

More recent analysis suggests that the pieces were made by as many as five different smiths. Additionally, the reported location of the find on Lewis in the 19th century has been called into question. Perhaps the pieces belonged to the chieftain who lived on Lewis. The pieces might have been used for chess, for hnefatafl, or perhaps for some other similar board game.

Skill at playing board games apparently was held in some esteem. In Morkinskinna (chapter 71), King Eysteinn and King Sigurðr compared their accomplishments. Sigurðr claimed he was stronger and a better swimmer. Eysteinn countered, "That is true, but I am more skilled and better at board games, and that is worth as much as your strength."

The mythological poem Völuspá says that the gods, too, once played board games in the meadow, during the golden age of the gods. The poem predicts that after Ragnorök, good fortune will return, beginning with finding the golden playing pieces once again in the meadow.

Other indoor games included drinking games. Drinking to excess appears to have been routine at feasts and other celebrations. Typically, people drank in pairs, with each important man having a woman as his exclusive drinking partner for the evening. (In chapter 48 of Egils saga, the women were assigned to men by lot, with the remaining men pairing up on their own.)

The game consisted of pairs of men trading drinks and verbally sparring. With each drink, the participants were expected to compose and recite a verse of poetry, boosting their own reputation (with boasts of courageous and manly behavior) while disparaging their opponents (with taunts of cowardly or womanly behavior). As the drinking progressed, the intensity of the ridicule, boasts, and taunts increased as the drinkers became less and less inhibited. The goal was to maintain (or even enhance) verbal skill throughout the competition without showing the effects of alcohol.

An example occurs in chapter 27 of Örvar-Odds saga. Sigurd and Sjolf made a bet that together, they could outdrink Arrow-Odd. After each drink, each participant composed and spoke a verse of insulting poetry. Odd matched them two drinks for one each for Sigurd and Sjolf, all the while creating better and more scurrilous poetry.

Another game played in the longhouse after the evening meal was hnútukast. In the game, players threw bones (presumably left over from the meal) at other players with the intent of causing an injury. The game is described only in legendary sagas and in supernatural settings, so perhaps the game was no longer played by the time of the sagas.

Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss (ch.15) describes the game as it was played in a cave filled with people, along with monsters and ogres. Kolbjörn asked Þórdður what he would like to do for amusement after the meal, glíma (wrestling) or hnútukast? Without waiting for an answer, Glámur took up a large bone and threw it at Þórður. Gestur grabbed the bone in flight and returned it to Glámur, hitting his eye so that it fell out onto his cheek.

In Hrólfs saga kraka (ch. 23), the men of King Hrólfr played the game. One of the men threw a bone at Böðvarr, who caught it and returned it so that it hit the man in the head, causing his death.

The saga literature is full of references to sporting games (leikar). Some of the games mentioned include ball games, skin throwing games, scraper games, wrestling, swimming, and horse fights. The games were important social events for the community and might last for days. Games took place whenever people came together for feasts, assemblies, or religious festivals. Sometimes prominent men called people together for a leikmót (games meeting) specifically to take part in games.

However, the competition was a bit more rugged than might be acceptable today. The stories suggest that serious injury or death was not uncommon. Grágás (K 92) states that a man may leave a game at any time he pleases, thus he himself is responsible for any unintentional injuries he may suffer.

swimming

The swimming competitions might be more accurately called drowning competitions; the goal was to see who could hold his opponent underwater the longest. Chapter 40 of Laxdæla saga tells of a match between Kjartan Ólafsson and King Ólafur Tryggvason.

Knattleikr (ball game) was played with a hard ball and a bat. Again, we don't know the rules. We don't know the object of the game. We don't know the nature of the equipment or the playing field. Regardless, the sagas suggest the game was widely played and enjoyed. The stories provide a few clues to help us understand the nature of the game.

Chapter 15 of Gísla saga Súrssonar has a brief description of the game. It appears to have been a full contact sport, in which people were physically held back and tackled while the ball was in play. Chapter 15 of Grettis saga says that ball games were played every autumn at Miðfjarðarvatn (shown to the right as it looks today). The saga describes opposing players lined up facing one another. Individual players on opposing sides were matched based on strength. In one case, exceptionally strong players played only against one another, for the sake of fairness (Eyrbyggja saga chapter 43). Chapter 40 of Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonar says that players were divided into teams, but opposing players were paired up. At one point, a player caught the ball and ran with it while opposing players chased him.

Midfjardarvatn

It's clear that the games were extremely vigorous. Þórðar saga hreðu (ch. 3) says that Skeggi was getting on in years. He could still carry a sword (and thus was still capable in battle), but he was too old to participate in the games. He sat and watched.

The playing equipment is never described, although we learn in chapter 18 of Gísla saga that when Börkur broke Þorstein's bat in two in anger, Gísli was able to mend it on the spot. In chapter 15, Gísli threw the ball so hard that it struck Þorgrímur between the shoulder blades and knocked him over.

knattleikr rough play

In this, as in all the games, disputes between players could turn bloody. As the game progressed in chapter 15 of Grettis saga, Auðun hit the ball over Grettir's head so that he couldn't catch it. Grettir lost his temper, thinking that Auðun had done this to make fun of him. Grettir fetched the ball over the ice, and when he returned, he hurled the ball at Auðun's forehead, making him bleed. Auðun struck at Grettir with his bat, but Grettir dodged the blow. They grappled and started wrestling. Grettir lost his balance and went down, and Auðun kneed him in the groin. At this point, many stepped forward to stop the fight. The incident was not permitted to develop into a quarrel, but nonetheless, a bloody feud ultimately developed.

And, as one of the players in chapter 40 of Egils saga ran with the ball, Egill ran up to him and drove an axe into his head, in payment for some rough treatment earlier in the game. Egill was six years old at the time.

At a recent feast, we tried to recreate the game of knattleikr. A separate page describes our attempts.

wrestle

Wrestling (glíma) was a contest of strength. A win was recorded if the opponent was thrown off his feet, or lifted clear and then dropped onto any body part except the feet.

The stories suggest that some wrestling matches took place indoors. In chapter 37 of Finnboga saga ramma and in chapter 1 of Gunnars saga Keldugnúpsfífls, the games took place in the house. Gunnar lifted his opponent up and threw him onto the raised bench in the main room of the house, breaking his spine.

wrestle
wrestling at Thingvellir

At the annual Alþing assembly, men wrestled for sport at Fangabrekka (Wrestling Slope), to the north of Lögberg and the other areas where legal matters were discussed. The photo to the right shows Fangabrekka as it appears today.

fanghella used in Viking grappling

Some wrestling matches appear to have been duel-like and were fought to the death. The wrestling field contained a fanghella, a flat stone set on end, on which an opponent's back could be broken. Chapter 15 of Kjalnesinga saga tells of a wrestling match in Norway attended by the king. Over his shirt, Búi put on a wrestling jacket (fangastakkur) that helped protect him from broken bones. As his opponent forced him back on to the stone, Búi jumped backwards over it, and he pulled the man down onto the stone. Búi jumped onto his back, breaking his ribs on the stone and killing him.

Gunnars saga Keldugnúpsfífls (ch. 7) tells a similar story, in which Gunnar pulled his opponent forward across the stone, splitting him open. A speculative reconstruction of this move (left) is shown in this combat demo video, part of a longer fight.

We now believe that grappling was an important element in Viking-age combat, as discussed in the article on swords. It seems likely that these sport-wrestling competitions were also the means by which Viking-age fighters kept their fighting skills honed. The modern Icelandic sport glíma is no doubt derived from the wrestling practiced in the Viking age.

Weight lifting competitions used stones. The man who could lift the heaviest boulder was the winner.

Another competition of strength was toga hönk (tug-of-war). The name literally means tugging on a loop, or a hank. The sagas are silent on the details, but it is thought that two men sat on the floor or the ground, knees bent, with the soles of their feet pressed flat on the soles of their opponents feet. They pulled on a loop of rope, which may have been marked in the middle with a tag, or with a bit of rope. By pulling on the loop with the arms and straightening the legs, it is possible to pull an opponent over, winning the competition. A modern toga hönk competition is shown to the right, as played during Hurstwic Viking combat training.

The competition uses movements and muscle groups similar to those used in rowing a ship. Perhaps the game was also a way to sort out who might be a capable rower and thus a desirable candidate for the crew of a ship.

viking tug of war
tug of war

The game is not described in any detail in the sagas since it usually shows up in dreams, such as in chapter 24 of Flóamanna saga. Þorgils dreamed he was in a tug-of-war with Ásgrímr at a þing meeting. Þorleifr interpreted the dream to mean that Þorgils would be involved in a legal battle with Ásgrímr.

(The sketch to the left shows another interpretation, an incident in which the king of Denmark played single-handedly against eight competitors.)

Our knowledge of scraper games (sköfuleikr) is extremely limited. It appears to have involved the use of pot scrapers made of horn. In chapter 23 of Harðar saga og Hólmverja, it is mentioned that during one game, which lasted all day, six people received fatal injuries. On the way home from that game, Önundr told his companions that he had to sit down to tie his shoe. He sat down abruptly and died from the injuries he had received in the game.

We know even less about turf games (torfleikr), which are mentioned in Eyrbyggja saga chapter 41. The game was played at the regional assembly at Þórsnessþing. A sandy piece of turf flew up during the game and hit Þórðr blíg so hard that it knocked him off his feet, which started a fight.

In chapter 13 of Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss, there is a description of a four corner skin throwing game (hornaskinnleikr or skinnleikr). The game was played indoors, in the hall, using a rolled up bearskin. Four players threw the bearskin back and forth among themselves while a fifth player tried to get the skin. People stood on the benches while the game was played, and it appeared to involve shoving, tripping, and no small amount of commotion. In chapter 22 of Fóstbræðra saga, Loðinn grabbed the feet of Þormóður and dragged him off the bench and along the floor of the house. Þormóður said that he was used to such things in skin throwing games.

Apparently, young boys had their own games, called sveinaleikur. In chapter 10 of Flóamanna saga, Þorgils, who was five years old, marked off a playing field and said he wanted to play. The other boys said he could not play unless he had killed some living creature. Þorgils left the field, displeased to have been excluded. In chapter 40 of Egils saga, the boys were playing in a sveinaleikur when Egill used an axe to kill the boy who had been rough earlier in the game.

In horse fights, two stallions were goaded to fight against each other until one of them was killed or ran away. To further incite the stallions, mares were tethered at the edge of the grounds, within sight and smell of the stallions. Chapter 23 of Reykdæla saga og Viga-Skútu describes how the horses were goaded. Eyjólf's stallion got a grip on the upper jaw of Bjarni's stallion and held on until Bjarni came up and knocked the stallion loose with his staff.

Thingvellir horsefight
Laugarbakki

Chapter 29 of Grettis saga tells of a horse fight at Langafit. (The location of the fight is not known, but was probably on the banks of the Miðfjarðará close to where the photo to the left was taken.) The story describes Grettir holding his stallion back by the tail during a fight while goading him with a stick. His opponent, Oddur, jabbed at Grettir with his stick during the horse fight. Later, Grettir jabbed Oddur so hard that Oddur and his horse fell into the river.

Chapter 59 of Brennu-Njáls saga says that Þorgeir and Kolur threw their weight against their horse's rump when he charged (right), hoping to knock down Gunnar, who was goading the other horse. But Gunnar pushed back on his horse, and Þorgeir and Kolur ended up on the ground with their horse on top of them.

horse fight

The playing of games appears to have been limited to men. Women are described as watching knattleikur, but never playing it. In chapter 2 of Hallfreðar saga vandræskálds, Valgerður and other women sat on the slopes near the ball field, watching the game. Ingólfur threw a ball which flew up towards the woman. Valgerður caught the ball and allowed it to slip under her cloak, saying that whoever threw the ball should come fetch it.

Women were unlikely to attend, for instance, a horse fight, where trouble and violence seems to have always ensued. Board games were apparently played by both genders. In chapter 4 of Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu, Helga and Gunnlaugur played board games together while Gunnlaugur was staying with the family and studying law with Helga's father.

toy sword

A variety of carved wooden children's toys from the period have been found, including dolls, horses, ships, and other figures. Child sized wooden weapons have also been found. The photo to the left shows a two-year-old playing with a modern replica.

Other toys are mentioned in the sagas. In chapter 12 of Víga-Glúms saga, a six year old boy gave his bronze toy horse to a four year old, saying it suited the younger child better.

toy dolls
making a ball

Children played with soft felt balls (right). The balls were made (left) by taking a handful of wool fibers, wetting them, and then squeezing them into a round ball by rolling between the hands. Repeatedly, loose fibers were pulled out and around the ball, and the rolling and squeezing process continued. Eventually, one ended up with a tightly matted wool felt, which was tied with yarn to prevent it from falling apart during play.

I'm surprised at how satisfactory a ball one can make using this technique. The ball rolls well, bounces well, and has enough of a heft for a good game of catch.

playing with a ball

The sagas say that children played "make-believe" games. In chapter 1 of Bolla þáttr Bollasonar, it says that Óláfr, who was seven or eight years old, went away from the farm house "to play and build himself a house, as children often do". In chapter 8 of Brennu-Njáls saga, two boys and a girl played a game on the floor in the house, acting out a law case from the recently concluded session of the Alþing.

Adults played make-believe games, too. Ljósvetninga saga (ch.9) says that Brandur invented a new game while staying at Krossavík, called syrpuþing, a mock court with mock lawsuits. People came from many neighboring farms to enjoy the entertainment, which was noisy and disruptive. There are no details about the game, but both the saga, and the name of the game itself, suggest that it was scarcely high-class entertainment. The women were not pleased at the ribald nature of the entertainment, and the farmer Þorkell asked Brandur to change his ways.

Icelandic bone skates

Ice skates made from bone are common finds and were probably used not only as toys, but also as a useful means to travel across the ice. The bones, usually the metatarsal bones of horses or cattle, were tied to the bottom of the feet using leather thongs (right). Skaters used wooden poles tipped with iron spikes to help propel themselves across the ice. The bottoms of the skates were made flat and smooth to permit the skater to glide across the ice. Since the skates lacked any kind of edge to cut the ice, skating techniques must have been very different than with modern skates. An ice skating page describes our attempts to make and use bone ice skates.

In the stories, the Icelandic family sagas do not seem to mention ice skating anywhere. That's surprising, since bone ice skates were known and used in Iceland from medieval times into the 20th century. A pair of skates used in rural Iceland in the 20th century is shown to the left.

ice skates

Other literary sources show that skill at skating was prized. In chapter 21 of Magnússona saga, King Eysteinn and King Sigurðr compared their accomplishments.  Eysteinn said, "I was so good at skating that I did not know anyone who could beat me, but you could no more skate than a cow."


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