The Vikings, or rather – Scandinavians (Viking was an occupation, not a nationality and not all Scandinavians were seafarers, invaders, and pirates) of ancient times loved all kinds of games. Their sports and games practices are pretty extensively documented. It would appear that they had a number of leisure and entertainment activities that featured heavily in their societies.
This is all well-documented in sagas and archaeological findings. The modern western cultural clichés on Vikings began to emerge around the 18th century. Today, they’re very rarely depicted accurately in pop-culture (the horned helmets are mostly a myth as well). The Vikings as we perceive them today are sort of a parody of themselves. They’re seen as more or less one-dimensional savages who lived to pillage and conquer. Just entire countries dedicated to that singular purpose.
This, naturally, isn’t true. They didn’t dream of plundering England or France day in and day out. These countries had complex, multi-dimensional societies rich with literature, arts and of course – sports and games of all sorts.
Viking sports and games of the olden days
Some of the games were physical, violence-ridden contests in power, speed, and determination. They taught teamwork and cooperation. They also helped the ancient Scandinavians maintain and hone their fighting skills outside of combat and war situations.
Other games were more mellow and cerebral. Physical challenges weren’t the only thing that the Vikings enjoyed for some entertainment of a competitive nature. Gambling has deep roots in Scandinavian culture and innovative companies like Yggdrasil Gaming Casinos are trying to maintain this tradition in a modernized way. Archaeological evidence uncovered points to the fact that these societies loved to play games with dice, board games and a number of other gambling activities. Great pastimes when the snow was covering their playing fields during cold winters.
The Vikings valued both physical and cerebral pastimes. Sometimes, they valued the cerebral games even more. For example, board game skills, in particular, were apparently highly regarded. Morkinskinna, chapter 71, depicts Kings Eysteinn and Sigurðr comparing their talents and strengths in a lighthearted manner. To Sigurðr’s boasting that he was a stronger fighter and a faster swimmer, Eysteinn replies: “That is true, but I am more skilled and better at board games, and that is worth as much as your strength.”
The recovered literature from those time periods often mentions leikar or sports games. Those included ball games, not unlike football or rugby. They also included power contests, wrestling, swimming challenges, and many others. These events were important social gathering occasions in these societies. They sometimes lasted for days on end. Whenever the community gathered for feasts, political assemblies or religious events, games were almost always present. Leikmót or games gatherings were also often held as separate events.
As we might expect, those games weren’t quite as regulated, civilized and cordial as the ones we have today. Those were rough times for humans and their games reflected that. Without modern medicine, life-shattering injuries and death were part of life and that translated to sports. Since the games were voluntary and you could withdraw whenever you wanted, the responsibility for your well being and health was thus placed entirely on your own shoulders.
Swimming and wrestling
The swimming contests held among Vikings would be better described as drowning contests. The key in one of these games was outlasting your opponent underwater. You won if you held your opponent submerged for longer.
Wrestling competitions, or as they called it – glíma, were displays of strength and dexterity. It was an extremely popular sport in the age of Vikings. Glíma is practiced in modern-day Iceland as well. The sport is most definitely either inspired or directly derived from the Viking wrestling practices. Unlike in some of the modern wrestling and grappling styles, there was little to no fighting on the ground. Your aim was to lift your opponent and drop him or otherwise throw him off balance so he would tumble to the ground.
The wrestling matches were held both indoors and outdoors. In chapter one of Gunnar’s saga, Gunnar lifts the person he’s fighting up and smashes him with all his might onto a bench inside the house, thus shattering his spine. As evidenced by this example, wrestling contests were also sometimes used as a device to settle feuds in a controlled environment. These clashes could have been fought to any goal. Sometimes the goal was death.
The bench that Gunnar used in the story was a substitution for fanghella, which was a large stone on the wrestling field. The stone’s purpose was to crush your opponent’s body onto it, smashing his back or head on its surface. Try to find that in a modern wrestling match.
Weight lifting and strength competitions
You probably know Iceland’s Hafthor Bjornsson as the man who lifts huge stones in strongman competitions or portrays The Mountain in HBO’s Game of Thrones. What you may not know is that the sort of competitions he participates in have been around in his country of origin for many centuries.
Weight lifting contests using stones and logs were very common in the Viking era. In them, the person who managed to pick up the heaviest and biggest boulder was declared the winner. Nordic sagas celebrate such heroes. Grettir Asmundarson was one of such characters. Some of the boulders he managed to lift are still on display in Iceland to this day.
Indoor games and gambling
Let’s move on from the games that only the strongest and fiercest members of these communities could hope to win. Dice carved from bones were apparently incredibly popular during the Viking age. Burial sites uncovered all across Nordic countries and the British isles prominently feature these instruments. Dice-based games were widely used to pass time or win wagers among these people.
Another indoor game played by Vikings was called tafl. It was a tactics-based board game not unlike chess. Some historians hold the opinion that a popular bronze figure that was unearthed in north Iceland was actually a piece in a board game and not an idol as initially presumed. The statuette depicts a man sitting down, holding his beard.
Tafl presents one of the sides with uneven odds, encompassing him and allowing him fewer figurines. We’re unsure of the exact rules of the game but seemingly, the player on one side had to defend a king with his consort from a surrounding army. Almost all of these games were played with an audience around. Betting was likely encouraged from onlookers as well as the players themselves. There was also likely quite an amount of insults, jokes, and banter being traded.
Some other games were based on drinking. Excessive alcohol consumption seems to have been a normal thing at feasts or other festive occasions. Men of high social status usually had women assigned as their drinking companions for the night. Other men were expected to pair up independently.
One of the drinking games would have a pair of men match drinks and engage in verbal sparring. The participants would down a drink and then recite an impromptu poetry verse. Imagine a rap battle but with drunk Vikings. You would inflate your achievements and courage in your verses while degrading and taunting your opponent. As you got drunker and drunker, the verses became more ridiculous and intense. Whoever outlasted the other or managed to show more skill with his poetry throughout would win.
Viking gambling practices weren’t reserved for any particular layer of society. Gambling happened everywhere and in all echelons. The sagas are full of stories of kings and other nobility engaging in this form of entertainment one way or another. Even to the point, where territorial disputes have been settled via gambling. The Vikings possessed an extensive cultural background of gambling and gaming. This is reflected even in the stories about their Gods. Hopefully, this article sheds a different light on these fascinating, even if sometimes brutal people.
Let’s finish this off with a little legend. One of the stories recounts a mid-war parlay between the kings of Norway and Sweden in the 11th century. The parlay managed to establish peace, except one issue – the ownership of the Hisingel island remained a contested point. The kings agreed to roll dice to settle the dispute. The king of Sweden rolled two sixes and assumed the matter settled. However, the king of Norway rolled his dice anyway, rolling one six while the second die cracked in two, showing a 3 and 4 simultaneously. 13 points beat Sweden’s 12 and Norway took the island.
Viking Ship – pixabay creative commons
Glima – Wikimedia creative commons
Tafl – Wikimedia creative commons
Viking – pixabay creative commons
Guest Author Bio
Mike Daniels is a historian with over a decade of experience. He specializes in the histories of Sweden, Norway, Finland and the Baltics region. Mike keeps himself up to date with the most recent updates that are coming from those parts of the world. In his spare time, he loves to travel with his dog named Daisy.