Physical strength, speed, resilience and endurance were important qualities for a Viking. Man against man competitions were normal forms of sport. In this type of competition there would usually be a champion and a challenger.
Archery was of course something all Vikings needed to master. The bow and arrow was used both in battle and in the hunt. Archery competitions were common. There are many tales of championship shots in the sagas. Some of these in several versions. Here is an example. You may recognise the story, but take a look at the note below!
Palnatoke said once, “after a few mugs of ale”, that shooting an apple off a stick didn’t show much class. King Harald Bluetooth heard of this and ordered Palnatoke to shoot an apple off of his own son’s head. He would only get one try. Palnatoke had to obey the King’s wishes but when the King asked Palnatoke, after he had succesfully shot the apple, why he had taken out three arrows before he shot, he replied: “The other two were to avenge my son against you in case I missed with the first”.
There is a similar story told about Hemming Aslakson and Harald Hardråde.
This story is from the period 900-1000. The legend of William Tell comes from the 1400’s, many years later!
One ball game was very popular amongst the Vikings. It was played by children and adults and the surface it was played on could be either ice or grass. From west-Iceland we hear tell that at Lekskalvollane there were annual tournaments that lasted 14 days. Shelters were erected where people lived during the tournaments.
Today no one knows the game’s rules but there is some information. We know that:
- They were divided into teams
- the teams were usually two against two though more could take part
- a hard ball was hit by a bat
- the opponent who didn’t have the ball caught and threw the ball with his hands
- body contact was allowed in the fight for the ball where the strongest had the best chance to win
- the game demanded so much time that it was played from morning to night
- there was a captain on each team
- there were penalties and a penalty box
- the playing field was lined
- one had to change clothes for the game
- it was played on the ice or grass
To be able to throw a javelin with great strength and accuracy was just as important for a Viking as being a good archer, practice in the javelin began at a very young age. The most important thing was being able to hit a target. Throwing at a target became a sort of people’s sport. You were also required to be able to throw with both hands. You could always be injured in one arm and have to throw with the other. You would also have to be able to throw the javelin over your own ranks and hit the opponent. It was therefore important to be able to throw for great distance.
The ability to ski was a necessity of life throughout most of Scandinavia during the Viking era. If you wanted to get around when there was snow on the ground you had better be able to ski. Skis were also used during the hunt in the winter. If you were a good archer and skier you could get food in the winter too.
A skier’s equipment consisted of one long and one short ski and a long pole. The long ski was used for gliding, the short ski to propel you forward. Animal fur was fastened to the bottom of the short ski in order to make it easier to climb uphill.
A good skier would master the climbing of hills and mountainsides as well as going downhill. When he was skiing downhill he had to be able to avoid or jump over obstacles. Slalom and ski-jumping were therefore skills all skiers needed to master. But the great test of manhood was cross-country. Tales and legends of cross-country tours from those days of up to 500 km. are still remembered in Scandinavia today.
The breast stroke was the preferred Viking method. It was normal to learn to swim as a child. In order to strengthen the leg strokes they often swam with weights on their backs. Swimming was a popular competitive activity, the most common competitions were:
This was a wrestling match in the water. The idea was to keep the opponents head under water until he gave up. These matches often lasted for hours and were the most popular form of swimming competition.
The swimmers started from the beach and swam out towards the open sea. They would turn around when they didn’t dare swim any further out. The last one to turn was the winner. The longest swims that we know of were about 30 km.
The goal here was to be the first across the finish line. This was a very popular form of competition.
Wrestling was the most widespread of sports during the Viking era. It was practiced in all classes of society. Women participated in wrestling too. Wherever Vikings gathered wrestling was a part of the entertainment. Thor was the god of wrestling and wrestling was even written into the system of laws. In the book of laws known as “Grågås” there were rules for wrestling. There were three styles of wrestling: Free-style, Glima-wrestling and Crude wrestling.
Free-style and Glima wrestling
These variants were a game and they were greatly loved by the people. Boys began training at the age of 7 or 8 and continued wrestling until they were well up in years. Competition was divided into several classes based on strength and skill. Team competitions between different districts were often arranged.
Free-style was little different from today. In Glima strength wasn’t as important as technical skill and balance. The combatants brought each other down with lightening quick moves and tricks as much with the feet as with the hands.
Glima-wrestling is still practiced in Scandinavis today and it is believed that it is almost unchanged from the Viking era.
These matches were crude and wild. The combatants were extremely powerful and even psychologically unbalanced (crazy!)! The strength of these men is the basis for legends of how these giants wrestled with supernatural creatures. The struggles were decided by pinning either from the front or in a back throw. Another method of pinning the opponent when nothing else helped was to chop off both of his legs!!
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