I’ve enjoyed the historical pieces that have appeared on Bloody Elbow, detailing the forebears of modern martial arts, from Greek Pankration to Japanese jujutsu, early catch wrestling and bareknuckle boxing. Being of viking descent (I’m Norwegian), I began to wonder: when not plundering and setting fire to villages, did the vikings practice anything that might be called a martial art or combat sport?
The problem we immediately run into is that most of the good textual material we have about the viking era was written centuries later. Archaeology can tell us what weapons and tools looked like, but not how they were used, or what techniques for unarmed combat the vikings might have had. Historically, the viking era began around 793 (the raid of the Lindisfarne monastery), and certainly ended by 1066 (the Norman invasion of England). However, our best textual sources are the sagas written in Iceland in the 13th and 14th century. By that time, centuries had passed, and the authors, who had long since converted to Christianity, were inclined to view pagan practices through distorted glasses. Nonetheless, there are a few things we can cobble together about what might charitably be called "viking martial arts."
Viking-era Scandinavians were intensely conscious of honor. Dishonorable or cowardly men were branded niðingr, the lowest a free man could sink, virtually an outcast. Disputes often escalated to blood feuds, where violence begat further violence. To bring some form of control to this sorry state of affairs, the institution of holmgang, a kind of duel, was created. One man could challenge another to holmgang, and refusing might mean being branded niðingr. The rules varied by place and time, but there were some constants. The duel was to be fought on a holm (small island) or an artificially enclosed area. The contestants usually fought with a sword and round shield. They might fight until first blood or to the death. The loser paid the winner a sum, often three silver marks, sometimes (in the case of death) all his earthly possessions.
The most detailed and fanciful description of the rules surrounding the holmgang comes from Kormáks saga. It was written in Iceland in the 13th century, but tells of events that supposedly happened three hundred years earlier. There is an English translation here. We probably ought to take this description with a pinch of salt, but here goes:
It was the law of the holmgang that the hide should be five ells long, with loops at its corners. Into these should be driven certain pins with heads to them, called tjosnur. He who made it ready should go to the pins in such a manner that he could see sky between his legs, holding the lobes of his ears and speaking the forewords used in the rite called "The Sacrifice of the tjosnur." Three squares should be marked round the hide, each one foot broad. At the outermost corners of the squares should be four poles, called hazels; when this is done, it is a hazelled field. Each man should have three shields, and when they were cut up he must get upon the hide if he had given way from it before, and guard himself with his weapons alone thereafter. He who had been challenged should strike the first stroke. If one was wounded so that blood fell upon the hide, he should fight no longer. If either set one foot outside the hazel poles "he went on his heel," they said; but he "ran" if both feet were outside. His own man was to hold the shield before each of the fighters. The one who was wounded should pay three marks of silver to be set free.
The fighting area was set up almost like a boxing ring, with a hide on the ground in the middle, several squares outside it, and poles in the corners. The main fighting area is only "five ells" long, which was about eight or nine feet. There wasn’t really a lot of room to move. The fighting itself seems to be very ritualistic: the combatants take turns delivering blows, and they have three shields each (provided by a second). The man who was challenged delivers the first blow. When all three shields are broken, one must parry with the sword alone. Overstepping the bounds is a losing condition; the same is being cut to the point of bleeding on the hide. It’s likely that some holmgangs had looser rules.
There is some evidence that there were professional duelists who abused the holmgang, traveling around challenging honorable men to duels which they must accept for fear of losing face. The pros would then easily defeat them, forcing them to pay up: in effect, a sort of legalized robbery or extortion. The holmgang was not a sport, however. It wasn’t used for martial training or for recreation and entertainment: it was primarily a tool for settling disputes in (somewhat) civilized form. Toward the end of the viking era, in the beginning of the 11th century, the practice was outlawed both in Iceland and in Norway.
(Illustration found on this page)
Unlike the holmgang, wrestling was more of a sport. The Scandinavian variant of folk wrestling is called glima, and was taken up as a national sport in Iceland in the 19th century. There are three traditional styles. The aim is to throw the opponent to the ground. One style is the back hold, where contestants start gripping the upper body of the opponent. Then there’s the "trouser grip", which is practiced with a specially designed leather belt. The belt is double, one part going around the waist and the other around each thigh, and the wrestlers start with one hand gripping his opponent’s waist belt and the other gripping the belt around one of his legs. The wrestlers must move around in circles continually, to prevent stalemates, while trying to trip or throw the opponent to the ground using his grips. The third style starts without fixed grips. In addition, there’s "combat glima", which is more brutal, and allows the fight to continue on the ground as long as the fighter on the bottom can still reach the fighter on top.
You can find lots of videos showing modern glima on youtube. Here’s one:
The historic evidence for glima is scant. Or, to be precise, you can find mentions of wrestling, but the exact nature of the historical "viking wrestling" is still guesswork. There are no extant manuals or other detailed descriptions of rules or techniques. It’s safe to say that the vikings practiced some form of wrestling, but whether it really resembles modern glima is anyone’s guess. In Snorri Sturlason’s Edda, one of the major primary sources on Norse mythology, there is the story of the god Thor wrestling an old hag to prove his manliness. Thor and companions come to the castle of the giant Utgard-Loki, who challenges Thor to prove his worth. But Utgard-Loki is a sly devil, first tricking Thor into attempting to empty a horn that is connected to the sea, and then to lift a "cat" that turns out to be Jörmundgandr, the giant serpent that encircles the world. Finally, having failed all Utgard-Loki’s tests, Thor issues a challenge to wrestle:
Then Utgard’s Loki answered, and looked about on the benches and said: "I do not see the man here within, who does not think it is a trifle to glíma with you." And he also said: "Let me see first, call me hither the old woman, Elli, who was my wet-nurse and let Thor wrestle with her if he wants. She has felled men who have seemed to me no less stronger than Thor is."
Then an old woman came into the hall. Then Utgard’s Loki said that she should take hold on Asa-Thor. The tale is not long; so fared the grapple, that the harder Thor tightened his hold the faster she stood. Then began the old woman to try to trip him, and then became Thor loose on his feet, and there were very hard tugging, and it was not long until Thor fell down on one knee.
Then Utgard’s Loki went up and told them to stop the fight, and said that it was no use for Thor to ask anyone else in the hall to wrestle him.
From this, we learn that the ancient form of wrestling started with a fixed grip, and ended when one contestant fell down on one knee. There isn't much more to say, except speculation.
Berserkgang, "going berserk", was an altered state some warriors entered during battle. Berserkers, though they were a small minority, might account for much of the cruel image of vikings as savage warriors. Etymologically, it’s thought that "berserk" means "bear-sark", i.e., a berserker was literally someone who dressed in bearskin to seem intimidating during battle. Upon going berserk, a fighter would be fearless, feel no pain, and display superhuman feats of strength. When leaving this state of mind, the berserker got unusually weak and tired.
Berserkers could be feared and respected as warriors, but people were also wary of them. They were outsiders, hard to trust and rely on, irritable and prone to outbursts of violence even in peacetime. They were too manly to be niðingr, but fathers weren’t exactly happy to marry off their daughters to one. In other words, they weren’t exactly "ultimate fighters", nor were earls and kings’ hird, or elite military force, generally comprised of berserkers.
It’s interesting that berserkgang exclusively appears in pre-Christian Scandinavian society. It doesn’t appear anywhere else, nor does it appear after Christianity has taken hold in the 11th century. This points to what psychologists call a culture-bound syndrome.
One thesis has been that berserkers were under the influence of the fly agaric mushroom. There is no evidence for that in the Norse texts. An article in a Norwegian medical journal speculates (my translation):
The most likely explanation for the berserkgang itself is probably that it was a dissociative trance, an autohypnoid state. The ritual in biting down on the shields, most often in groups, must have represented a form of self-suggestion, as an inductive manuever (induction). The group dynamics supported the suggestibility, a well-known phenomenon from both hypnosis in clinical conditions and from social psychology. The "clinical" picture itself is characteristic of hypnotic and self-hypnotic trance: the people appear distant, have a limited sensorium when it comes to perception of the environment and limited pain awareness. (…) And they mobilize increased muscle power.
In other words, people who already have issues find an outlet for their violent tendencies and their frustration through the socially recognized berserker behavior. Through self-suggestive rituals, they induce a kind of trance in themselves, during which they’re efficient killing machines. But while this may have been somewhat accepted on the battlefield, it was not acceptable outside it, and the berserkers were unable to fully control themselves. As important as revenge and honor were in viking society, losing control of one’s temper was not honorable. Berserkgang, being associated with ritual and pagan religion, was somewhat excused; berserkers were recognized as controlled, at least in part, by outside forces. Once Christianity was introduced and social mores changed, berserkgang was no longer a subconscious "option", and people who might have been berserkers instead, presumably, found other outlets for their problematic behavior.
Although few vikings were berserkers, many of the professional duelists who abused the holmgang institution might well have been.
The Dissing Match
In viking society, the tongue could be as sharp as the sword. Being on the receiving end of certain insults could legally entitle you to kill the offender. It’s a stretch to call it a martial art, but the flyting was a ritualized form of verbal battle. It might be compared to modern-day rap battles: the opponents took turns delivering poetically worded insults at each other, often composed in verse. In Lokesenna, part of the Poetic Edda, Loki flytes with the gods, insulting each of them in turn. Here he delivers a verbal blow to Tyr:
Be silent, Týr;
to thy wife it happened
to have a son by me.
Nor rag nor penny ever
hadst thou, poor wretch!
for this injury.
Flyting is also found in Beowulf and other medieval Germanic texts.
There are several enthusiast groups who try to reconstruct viking combat techniques using a variety of approaches. Some try retrofitting the techniques from medieval European combat manuals (published centuries after the viking era, in different countries, about different weapons) to work with viking weapons. Others try finding clues in Norse texts and sparring with replicas to work out what makes sense and actually works in practice. I’ll leave you with a link: Hurstwic.
(Note: I’ve used the term "viking" to refer to the Norse peoples of Iceland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden during the Viking era, ca. 800-1050. Many would argue that a "viking" was a raider who left his homeland to find riches abroad, and that by such a definition, only a tiny fraction of Scandinavians of the era were vikings; most were farmers. But you all know what I mean.)