Games, Sports, and Competition in the Viking Age

The games and sports of the Viking-age people reveal much about Viking society. These competitions were a test of many of the attributes that Viking people held to be important. They were a challenge, as well as a competition. They were a way to hone valuable skills and keep one's abilities sharp.

Generally, the competitions had a clear winner and loser, but some did not. Usually, the outcome of the competition determined who was stronger or was more clever or could endure more. They served to test the competitor's rank: his place against other competitors. Even if the nature of the competition was such that there was no winner or loser, the competitor's performance served to show where he stood relative to others. That ranking was given to the competitors based on performance, and so spectators were often a big part of the competitions. The contests provided entertainment for the spectators.

Hnefatafl, the Viking board game, being played using a modern replica set at a Hurstwic game festival.

The words that tie all these activities together are the pair leika (to play) and leikr (game / play / sport). As with the equivalent modern English word play, the words leika and leikr have a wide range of meanings. Many of these meanings in the old language overlap with the meanings of play in modern English. Leika was used to describe: playing a sport; playing a game; and playing a musical instrument. In later times, it was also used to mean playing a role, dancing, and other entertainments.

And so with the modern English word to play, the word leika is not a narrow concept. It can be used for varied activities from violence (illa leikinn) to pondering over things in one's mind (hug leikinn). But the most typical use was to play games.

Leikr is used in many compound words, such as the names of games, for example, knattleikr (ball game) and skinnleikr (skin throwing game). Leikr is used in compounds for game related objects, such as leikskáli (game house), leikmót (game festival / tournament) and leikborđ (game board). Compound words based on leikr described the attributes of people, such as skjótleikinn (speedy), leikmikill (enthusiastic).

Leikr also included music, and in later times, dance. There is virtually no evidence of any kind of dance in Viking times in Viking lands. Indeed, there is not even a word for dance in the ancient language until the loanword danz was introduced after the end of the Viking age, suggesting dance was not a leikr of the Vikings. Leikr such as dancing would be hard to associate with the rougher leikr of Vikings for which we have good evidence.

The word íţrótt was used to describe many sorts of accomplishments. The word is possibly a compound of and ţróttr meaning a doing of strength, might, or fortitude. These accomplishments included sporting achievements, along with many others. For example, skill in poetry was an íţrótt (Skáldskaparmál G57), as was skiing, shooting, rowing, and others (Morkinskinna 13). When the king wanted to know a guest's accomplishments, often sporting accomplishments were what was offered as evidence.

Another word related to games and sports is skemmtun, which means entertainment. Games were skemmtun (Laxdćla saga ch.71), as was swimming (Laxdćla saga, ch.33) and wrestling (Grettis saga, ch.72).

Gaman has the sense of fun and was often used for game and sport and pleasure and amusement. It is cognate with the modern English word game. In the ancient language, it was used for a wide variety of other pleasures, such as in describing Grettir, who found much pleasure (gaman) with the daughter of a half-troll he stayed with one winter (Grettis saga, ch.61).

To sum up the ancient words, leikr was a test of íţróttr which was meant to be skemmtun (mostly for the spectators) and gaman (mostly for the competitors).

To form a clearer picture of Viking sports, it might be helpful to compare these Viking-age competitions to more familiar games, such as the competitions from the classical periods of ancient Greece or Rome. These ancient games were connected with and originated with the gods. Athletes were renowned and celebrated for their sporting abilities. The games had strong political elements, since the victor brought glory to his home political base. The games were highly theatrical, and even, at times, gladiatorial. The games were a special event that, in the case of the Olympic games for example, happened every four years in a special place reserved for these games. Many of these same elements can be seen in the modern Olympic games and professional game and sport competitions.

Viking-age games were different. While the Norse gods played some games, there was no strong connection between the gods and the games. The competitors were just normal people, rather than trained athletes. There are few if any examples of people specializing in a sport, per se. Grettir, for example, was clearly a good wrestler, swimmer, and strong man: someone fit for his society and his rough and tumble life. But he was not an athlete specializing in the sports he is said to have participated in. There are scarcely any examples of men with sports-related nicknames; one of the very few is Ţórđr fangari (the grappler) (Svarfdćla saga ch.13).

Viking-age games were generally played in front of spectators, but there was not the sense of a theatrical presentation present in ancient classical games. Viking-age games do not appear to have been gladiatorial, with perhaps only one or two examples in all the sources that suggest otherwise (Kjalnesinga saga, ch.15).

Viking-age games were events that happened routinely and could take place anywhere with little advance notice. The competitions benefited the individual competitors, not a political entity. They were a means for a person to test himself and to show his place compared to other people. When a guest came before the king, he might ask the guest about his sporting accomplishments so the king knew where to place the guest in his hall (Örvar-Odds saga, ch.24.). The king might even arrange for guests to compete with the king's men (Brennu-Njáls saga, ch.31). When Ţórr, Loki, and their servants came before the giant Útgarđa-Loki in his hall, they were asked what accomplishments (íţrótt) they had and then were tested to prove their íţrótt through leikr (Gylfaginning 46).

Knattleikr, the Viking ball game, played at a Hurstwic game festival.

While a part of this testing was for entertainment, the competitions played another role. For a man to test well in a game suggests that he will test well in other aspects of Viking life. This was a man you wanted with you, whether king or commoner. Thus the competitions were an important part of Viking society.

These games were not for the weak of heart, or weak in strength. Like many aspects of Viking life, the competitions carried risk of injury during the game, and death was possible. Additionally, a player might be forced to stand and fight as a result of a dispute during the gameplay. The games were sufficiently intense that an older man still capable of fighting and carrying a weapon thought himself too old to participate in the game (Ţórđar saga hređu ch.3). Regardless, Vikings considered this rough and tumble activity to be fun: gaman.

The games, sports, and competitions played by Vikings included full-contact physical games, such as ball sports and combat sports, but also included board games, swimming sports, poetry competitions, and others.

Games and sports took place almost anywhere and anytime in the Viking world. Wherever people gathered, impromptu competitions might take place: at feasts, at ţing meetings; at harbors while waiting for ships to sail; in the longhouse; at fishing encampments; and many others.

Games and sports were not reserved for the nobility or the elite. Literary sources give many examples of men from nearly all levels of society participating in games.

Formal game festivals called leikmót were held, called together by the local chieftains, where people of the district gathered and stayed for an extended period for games and sports. The Breiđavík people were accustomed to holding a game festival around Winter Nights at Leikskálavellir (game shed fields). People stayed for two weeks or more, living in large leikskálar (game sheds) built for the purpose (Eyrbyggja saga, ch.43).

The Breiđavík people held their game festival below the mountain Öxl, south of the farm Knörr, shown as it appears today.

Much of our information about the games and sports played in the Viking age is speculative, since the sports all died in the centuries after the Viking age and so have faded from memory. Glíma (wrestling) is the only sport to have survived from the Viking age until today, kept alive by Glímusamband Íslands (the Glíma Association of Iceland). There is a nearly unbroken record between the glíma of the Viking age and glíma in the modern era.

Glíma competition
Modern glíma competition (2019). Photo: GSÍ

Today, Glíma is the national sport of Iceland, and the Glíma Association sponsors regular competitions. Hurstwic has recently assisted the association with an application to have Glíma included in the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage (application text in Icelandic or in English translation).

In the Viking age, glíma was not only a sporting competition, it was also a combat art — the unarmed combat of the Vikings. The words glíma and fang were used interchangeably for this activity.

glima end move
Combat glíma sometimes ended in a superior ground position, such as láta kné fylgja kvíđi shown here, to finish the fight with a weapon or empty hand. Photo: ©NAEPHOTO

Fangabrekka (wrestling slopes) at Ţingvellir, where according to the literary sources, glíma competitions took place during Alţing.

Glíma competitions took place at game festivals (Bárđar saga Snćfellsáss, ch.9), indoors in the longhouse (Gunnars saga Keldugnupsfífls, ch.1), and notably, at outdoor sites where numbers of spectators could watch, such as at the spring assembly at Hegranesţing (Grettis saga, ch.72) and during Alţing at Fangabrekka (wrestling slopes) at Ţingvellir (Víga-Glúms saga, ch.13).

Glíma was all about power and strength; glíma tested strength. As a young man, Grettir was thought to be strong, but no one knew how strong because no one had yet seen him wrestle (Grettis saga, ch.14). When Ţorgeirr asked Finnbogi to perform a feat of power, Finnbogi asked Ţorgeirr if he wanted to see him wrestle (Finnboga saga, ch.36).

Glíma knee trick
Glíma takedown using Hnébragđ (knee trick). Photo: ©NAEPHOTO

stone lifting competition
Stone lifting competition at a Hurstwic game festival.

Rather than wrestle, Finnbogi lifted a heavy stone to demonstrate his power to Ţorgeirr. There do not appear to have been stone lifting contests between competitors. Rather, men lifted heavy stones that served to benchmark their strength and ability. Grettir lifted a stone so large that people who saw it were astonished by the feat (Grettis saga, ch.16). Even Ţórr was put to a lifting challenge using the cat in the hall of Útgarđa-Loki (Gylfaginning 46).

While there are literally hundreds of mentions of glíma and fang in the literary sources, the other forms of competition are less frequently mentioned. A sport that is mentioned multiple times is knattleikr (ball game), yet few details are known about the game. In the same way that in a modern novel in which some characters play a pickup game of basketball, the author doesn't recite the rules or describe the equipment or playing court, neither do the authors of the ancient literary sources describe any details about knattleikr — their audience was already familiar with the game and did not need a reminder.

Knattleikr was played by two opposing groups of men wielding wooden bats on a playing field using a hard ball. It appears to have been a full-contact sport, in which players hit, threw, and carried the ball while being chased by opposing players who tackled or held back the opposition while the ball was in play.

Many believe the game was played on ice, but the literary sources are less clear. Only two sources seem to state categorically that the game was played on ice (Ţorskfirđinga saga, ch.2 and Gull-Ţóris saga (ch.2). In many cases, the game was played near ponds, estuaries, or other bodies of water, yet games were sometimes played at times of year when the water was unlikely to have been frozen (Gísla saga, ch.18).

Knattleikr being played at a Hurstwic game festival. Hurstwic's conjectures on how to play the game are detailed on a separate knattleikr page.

The nature of the bat is unknown, other than being made from wood. In one case, it is referred to as knattgildra, which has the sense of a trap for the ball, so perhaps the bat had a feature that allowed the ball to be captured and held by the bat (Grettis saga, ch.15). The ball was of a size that allowed it to be thrown and carried by players, and it was capable of rolling or bouncing a long distance over the ground. The ball probably was hard, since when Grettir threw the ball at Auđunn's face, the ball caused Auđunn's forehead to bleed (Grettis saga, ch.15).

Play started with the individual players on opposing sides lined up facing one another. Individual players on opposing sides were matched based on strength. This kind of fair start to a competition is seen in other Viking activities including dueling and glíma. In one case, it was said to be only proper that two exceptionally strong players competed only against one another (Eyrbyggja saga, ch.43).

The area where knattleikr was played, according to Gísla saga. The pond Seftjörn is in the foreground, now greatly filled in with silt and vegetation compared to saga times. The slopes where spectators watched the game are behind the pond,

The game was played where spectators could watch, such as the pond Seftjörn in Dýrafjörđur (Gísla saga, ch.18) and Hagi in Vopnafjörđr (Vopnfirđinga saga, ch.4), where several slopes around the playing field provided seating with good visibility for spectators.

The game soppleikr (ball game) is mentioned only once (Bósa saga og Herrauđs ch.3). It appears to have been very similar to knattleikr. In addition, young boys had their own game, called sveinaleikr and played by children as young as five years old (Flóamanna saga, ch.10) which, likewise, seems to share many of the same features and gameplay as knattleikr.

In addition to games involving full-power physical activity, Vikings also played more sedate games, such as hnefatafl (board game). The game was a strategy game pitting a king protected by his men surrounded by an opposing army of men. While the boards and playing pieces are found in archeology, the rules of play, once again, are highly speculative. It seems likely that the game was won when either the king safely reached any corner of the board, or when the opposing men captured the king. Two hnefatafl players and the gameboard are seen on the Ockelbo runestone in Sweden (Gs 19).

The Ockelbo stone depicts what many interpret to be a game of hnefatafl, the Viking board game.

hnefatafl board
A Viking-age hnefatafl board.

The game board was marked with intersecting lines forming squares. Playing pieces were placed at the intersections of the lines, and some sets had playing pieces with pegs that fitted in holes in the board. Game boards have been found ranging from 7x7 to 19x19 intersections.

Sets of playing pieces have been found made of bone, antler, amber, bronze, and wood. The set found at Baldursheimur contains 12 white pawns, 12 red pawns, 1 king, and one die.

Men at many levels of society played the game. Kings prided themselves on their ability at hnefatafl. When King Sigurđr claimed he was a better swimmer than King Eysteinn, Eysteinn replied he was better at hnefatafl, and that was worth as much as Sigurđr's strength (afl) (Morkinskinna, ch.71). The myths tell us that the gods, too, played the game in the early, idyllic days (Völuspá 8) and that after Ragnarök, the golden playing pieces will once again be found (Völuspá 58).

Hnefatafl is one of the few Viking games where there are clear examples of women playing (Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu ch.4) and children playing the game (Víglundar saga, ch.4).

Hurstwic has speculated on the nature of the game play, and our on-line library has a game board and suggested rules that may be printed on standard size paper so you can try the game for yourself.

Hnefatafl set found at Baldursheimur
A hnefatafl set found at Baldursheimur in north Iceland.

Some of the Lewis chess pieces.
Several of the Lewis chessmen, including a rook in a classic berserkr pose.

Chess (skák) is mentioned in the literary sources, for example when Barđr gave King Haraldr a game board with hnefatafl on one side and chess on the other (Króka-Refs saga, ch.12). The evidence suggests that chess may have reached the Viking lands by the end of the Viking era. The famed Lewis chessmen are playing pieces with Nordic motifs found on Lewis in the Hebrides of Scotland. They date from shortly after the close of the Viking age. Some of the rooks exhibit classic berserkr poses.

There are a number of other forms of competition for which we have only a few examples in the literary sources or indeed, in any other source. With so few sources, it is hard to draw conclusions, but we include those competitions here for completeness.

There are several other full-contact physical games mentioned in the literary sources, each mentioned in only a few instances. Hnútukast was a bone-throwing game played in the longhouse after the evening meal in which joint-bones (probably knuckle bones) were thrown at opposing players with the intent of hitting them (Hrólfs saga kraka, ch. 23).

Skinnleikr (also called hornaskinnleikr) was a skin throwing game using a rolled-up animal skin, such as bearskin. Four players standing in the corners of the hall on the benches threw the skin from one to another, while the fifth man in the middle tried to intercept it. The game involved no small amount of commotion and interference and shoving among the players. Saxo also describes the game being played in Biarmaland, thought to be in lands now part of Russia (Saxo, bk.8 ch.242).

Almost nothing is known of sköfuleikr, a game played with pot scrapers made of horn (Harđar saga, ch.23). Torfleikr is thought to have been a throwing game involving blocks of turf (Eyrbyggja saga, ch.41).

Viking-age people prided themselves on their swimming abilities, but swimming competitions might more accurately be called ducking or even drowning competitions, where each competitor took turns trying to hold his opponent underwater longer and longer. When the kings Eysteinn and Sigurđr compared their accomplishments, Sigurđr told Eysteinn he could duck him whenever he wanted (Magnússona saga, ch.21). In Norway, Kjartan competed against an unknown townsman who turned out to be King Óláfr (Laxdćla saga, ch.40). The king was impressed with Kjartan's abilities in this game and asked if he was as equally accomplished in any other sports.

Physical altercations with an opponent while in the water was a life skill in the Viking age. Not only did naval battles continue after men had jumped overboard, there are also examples of empty-hand fights that ended up in the water, and the fight continued underwater. (Fóstbrćđra saga ch.23, Göngu-Hrólfs saga ch 6). These swimming games were more than mere pastimes; they were training for Viking life skills.

Viking swimming competition
Viking swimming competition at a Hurstwic games festival.

There are a few examples of men priding themselves on their running abilities, but even fewer examples of running competitions. One such competition resulted from a drunken bet between Magnús, the king's son, and a man from Ireland who claimed the king was his father (Magnússona saga, ch.27). Another race took place between Loki and Logi in the hall of Útgarđa-Loki (Gylfaginning 46).

horse fight
Men goad their horses to fight in a hestavíg.

In a horse fight (hestavíg) two stallions were goaded to fight one another until one of the horses either was killed or ran away. In the literary sources, the horse fights frequently resulted into the fight spilling over to the men goading their horses. (Grettis saga, ch.29, Brennu-Njáls saga, ch.59).

The name for tug-of-war (toga honk) literally means tugging on a loop, or a hank, presumably with the intent of one competitor pulling the other competitor across a line or off his feet. It is mentioned only infrequently in the sources (Flóamanna saga, ch.24).

Viking tug of war
Toga honk, the Viking tug-of-war played in the Hurstwic training room.

Another kind of game is a drinking competition, which tested a man’s ability to endure massive amounts of alcohol while retaining his wits and acuity. In the hall of Útgarđa-Loki, Ţórr offered to compete in a drinking contest. He was given a horn full of drink, and Útgarđa-Loki challenged him to drink it all, saying that most men drain it in one draught, and no one takes as many as three (Gylfaginning 46).

The intensity of the drinking is illustrated by a comment by King Sigurđr to his son Magnús after the young man made a foolish and drunken challenge to a race and lost to a foreign visitor. Calling his son a fool, the king said, "Don’t you know that people in other lands train themselves in other sports (íţróttir) besides filling their bellies with drink and making themselves senseless and unfit?" (Magnússona saga, ch.27)

Loki insults the gods, as told in Lokasenna.

In addition, there are several examples of flytings, competitive exchanges of insulting verses (Lokasenna, Hárbarđsljóđ). The word flyting is not in the Old Icelandic language and may derive from Old English. Similar exchanges of insults in verse appear in other cultures, in effect, trading punches delivered through poetry, an everyday occurrence in Viking life. Saxo tells of a poetry competition that continued until one contestant was unable to create a response to his opponent’s previous verse (Saxo, bk.5, ch.118).

In the prose sources, the competition involved one man drinking the horn to the bottom and reciting a toast (Egils saga, ch.44) or a scurrilous verse insulting his opponent (Örvar-Odds saga, ch.27), followed by the other man doing the same. The competition continued until the loser was unable to compose a verse in response, either because of the effects of the drink, or because of lack of inspiration to create a suitable response to the previous insult. The game was the ultimate test of enduring massive amounts of alcohol while maintaining acuity and sharp wits.

There is an aspect of these games and competitions that must be mentioned in passing. It seems likely that there were no fixed rules for these games that were uniform across the Viking lands and across the centuries of the Viking era. While there may not have been standardized rules, there was a method of gameplay that was accepted, and it is this common thread that we seek in order to learn about Viking games and sports. The game was recognized as being the same over a wide variation in play, in rules, and in equipment.

All of these competitions were welcome entertainment and diversions (skemmtun and gaman). More importantly, they tested one's capabilities at life as a Viking. They helped prove a man's capabilities and benchmarked his performance compared to others. They determined who was more accomplished. And the games honed a player's capabilities.

The games show the essence of Viking society. The games held great risks. A man died playing hnútukast (Hrólfs saga kraka, ch.23). A man was killed in a friendly glíma competition (Gunnars saga Keldugnúpsfífls ch.1). Six men died during a game of sköfuleikr (Harđar saga, ch.23). The competitions were not nice, jolly, friendly games, nor were they joyful dances; Vikings did not dance. The competitions represent yet another aspect of the violent thread that ran through all of Viking society. The competition was dangerous, and players could expect injuries or even death, not only from the competition itself, but from disputes that might arise over the gameplay. When injuries did occur during gameplay, the law code stated that, since a man may leave the game at any time he pleases, he himself is responsible for any unintentional injuries he may suffer during the game (Grágás K 92). Thus, any injury during a game was the fault of the injured man. It was not uncommon to come back from a game illa leikinn (badly beaten up).

A game of knattleikr played at a Hurstwic game festival.

Yet despite the brutal nature of the games, they were gaman and skemmtun (fun and entertaining). But more than that, they tested and honed accomplishments (íţróttir) that were important enough in society that successful accomplishments pushed a man up to a higher rank. They tested and honed aggression, brute strength, endurance, wit, acuity, and tactical military skills: all íţróttir needed to succeed in the violent society of the Vikings. They were a way to test and to prove one's capabilities as a man living a Viking life in the Viking age: a life that was not one of peace, serenity, or sportsmanship, but instead, a brutal society that thought that playing games that resulted in injury or death were entertaining and fun and who eagerly participated.


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