As of this week, here in the UK we are now apparently allowed to resume outdoor group exercise: not something I am personally very excited about, but no doubt good news for many. Risk of infectious diseases notwithstanding, however, physical activity has always had its downsides – what with torn rotator cuffs and hamstring injuries and wotnot. But if the Icelandic sagas are anything to go by (and it should be said at the outset that many of those mentioned below are either late and/or fanciful in content), outdoor recreation in the Norse world was, by some margin, altogether a much more hazardous business .
One of the silliest Viking pastimes described in the sagas was called hnútukast (which means something like ‘knuckle-chucking’). This involved the participants hurling bones at each other as hard as possible, with the intention of seriously damaging the opponent. (Ælfheah, archbishop of Canterbury, may have been the unwitting loser in a game of hnútukast when in 1012 his Viking captors killed him after pelting him with animal bones and cow heads.) Whilst hnútukast may have never really been played in the way it was remembered in saga literature, it shared its emphasis on strength and physical prowess with a number of other ill-advised Viking and medieval Norse pursuits.
The purest tests of raw physical power involved heaving lifting. The saga hero Grettir the Strong was so famed for his prowess in stone lifting contests, that the enormous boulders that litter the glacier sculpted landscape of Iceland are still known as Grettistak. There were also ‘swimming’ contests that involved holding an opponent underwater until they drowned, and toga hönk (‘tug the hank’) which was a sort of mano-e-mano tug-of-war. Wrestling (glíma) was particularly popular and took place at a variety of social get-togethers. At the Icelandic Althing (the general political assembly held at Thingvellir), teams of wrestlers are known to have competed on Fangabrekka (‘Wrestling Slope’). A variety of grapples and throws have been reconstructed from saga accounts of famous bouts and, like most medieval sports, there were few concessions to health or safety. Sometimes it could end very badly indeed: wrestling fields sometimes contained a stone called a fanghella which was apparently included for the express purpose of snapping an opponent’s spine or bursting him apart in some other way. (Indoor bouts could be just as deadly: in the fourteenth century Finnboga saga ramma, one unfortunate fellow has his back broken over a bench.)
Other games were just as brutal: knattleikr (‘ball-game’) seems to have been something like rugby, but with clubs. Passions ran high. When he was six years old, according to his eponymous saga, Egil Skallagrimsson got into a physical altercation with an older boy named Grim on the sports-field. Egil took a beating but, unbowed, he borrowed an axe from his friend Thórðr Granason, returned to where Grim was still playing knattleikr ‘and drove the axe into his head right through to the brain’. On another occasion during a ball-game, Egil’s father Skallagrim ‘picked up Thórðr bodily and dashed him to the ground so violently that every bone in his body was broken and he died on the spot.’ It is no wonder that the Grágás (‘grey goose’ laws), the oldest Icelandic law codes, specify that games were entered into entirely at the participant’s own risk but that anyone was free to leave at any time.
There were plenty of other activities that medieval Scandinavians enjoyed: aristocrats valued the ability to compose spontaneous poetry and to excel at board-game strategy. Earl Rognvald of Orkney (c.1103-1158) was keen to boast of his skills at chess, runecraft, book-learning, harp-playing and poetry, and Viking Age graves abound with gaming pieces and (less commonly) musical instruments. But although this stuff was all well and good, ultimately it counted for little if a man couldn’t demonstrate his physical power – one of the reasons, perhaps, why Thor – the god of direct action – seems to have been so popular in Viking Age society. For if subtlety, word-play and subterfuge were Odin’s domain, Thor (as we encounter him in the surviving mythology) was all about the more straightforward (and frankly violent) things in life: jumping, wrestling, lifting, feasting and fighting. Unfortunately, for those not gifted with superhuman might, a belt of strength, gloves of metal and a pulverising hammer, these activities were often a shortcut to physical misfortune.
 e.g. Hrólfs saga kraka
 Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (CDE) s.a. 1012
 Gunnars saga Keldugnúpsfífls; Kjalnesinga saga
 Finnboga saga ram; Gunnars saga Keldugnúpsfífls a
 Egils saga (B. Scudder (trans.), ‘Egil’s Saga’, in J. Smiley (ed.), The Sagas of Icelanders (2000, Penguin)
 see esp. Snorri Sturluson’s Edda
More information on Viking sports and games can be found here; see also Gardeła, L. (2012). What the Vikings did for fun? Sports and pastimes in medieval northern Europe. World Archaeology, 44(2), 234-247. Retrieved April 1, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23210597