Introduction To Historical Research

How We Find the Roots of the Krigarenve

Introduction to the established research used to recreate a modern functioning, realistic martial art system developed from the traditional practices and techniques of our northern European ancestors.

The Norse during the Viking Age were a very mobile society. Now I don't mean that they moved a lot from place to place (even though they did), what I mean is that a person had the ability to move socially. It was possible for a person to be born into slavery, be freed as an adult, and eventually become a very powerful person in the district. The reason that this would be possible is due to something called idrottir.

Idrottir could be defined as skills. These skills can be academic, athletic, and/or craft. Examples of each would include languages spoken, rune reading and writing, and genealogy under academic; weapons usage (each weapon known would be counted separately), swimming, rock lifting and throwing (counts as two), and climbing cliffs for athletic; carpentry, carving (count individually if you know how to carve on more than one medium, i.e. stone, bone, wood, etc.), blacksmithing, and fishing would be areas under crafts. The more one knows, the more one is worth. This worth is both figurative and literal.

People in Scandinavian society had a price fixed to them at birth. This was called a rett, or blood-price. This was the amount of silver that a person was worth based on what social level they belonged to when they were born. This amount was fixed only in that a persons worth could never go below this amount. Thus, if a person was born, say, into the level of a landless freeman, he or she would be worth two marks of silver (this is a arbitrary amount. I have no documentation that lists actual rett for the various social standings). This means two things: one, if the person is killed the family is entitled to two marks of silver from the killer (or the killers family) as long as the death did not occur as part of a battle during war or from a holmgang. Two, and this is the more important to this article, a person could not put themselves into more debt then their rett unless they were in a thriving business. If this freeman borrowed two marks silver and was unable to repay the loan at the specified time, he or she could be made a slave to the lender until such time as the amount of the loan was repaid. This then brings me back to the topic of idrottir.

Like I said earlier, the more one knows the more one is worth. For example, a boy is born to a family that owns a small farm. The family holds their own but is unable to hire anyone to help work the farm. So as the boy grows he is taught a number of skills that he needs to work the farm. First he is taught to herd geese, next how to cut hay. When he is a bit older he is taught to plow and cast seed. Still later he will be taught the skills to repair farm equipment. Once this is learned he can learn how to make furniture. He will also learn some blacksmithing as part of the need to be able to repair equipment. If he shows skill he will be able to work at creating other items; tools, utensils, etc. When the boy reaches the age of seventeen he will start going to market with his father to learn how to buy and sell the goods needed and grown. Since the market places usually have a number of foreigners in them the boy, if he is quick witted, will start to learn the languages of at least some of the foreign merchants (at least enough to do business). Thus this young man by the time he has reached twenty winters in age can list the following as his idrottir:

Herding geese
Herding cattle
Herding goats (or sheep, or both)
Sowing grain
Plowing, harvesting
Carpentry (possibly carving as well)
Blacksmithing (at least of iron, but possibly
Gold and silver smithing as well)
Languages (list each known separately)

And because he lives on a farm and needs to clear land, he can usually add the lifting and throwing of rocks. So our young man can list at least twelve idrottir.

Although my example has been of that of a young man, the same holds true of women. A woman can list all the same farming skills as the young man above. However she most likely would not list carpentry, smithing, or rock lifting and throwing. She would, though, list such skills as weaving (both regular and tablet), sewing, cooking, baking, brewing (this one was highly prized and could bring a higher bride price), and tanning of hides.

Now we can get into the "worth" part in more detail. First, all this knowledge gave the person more personal worth. They would be a more confident and likable person (unless they became braggarts). Second, all these skills would make the person more sought after. If a chieftain knew of a young man that could work a farm, be a smith, speak to foreigners, and use a number of weapons, that chieftain would want that person probably as a foreman to look over one, or possibly more, of the chieftains farms. If you throw in that the young man is also a competent poet, he could become sought after by a king. In the case of a young woman, she could be sought after by all the most powerful men in the district, if not the country. Her father can demand high bride-prices, especially if she knows how to brew good beer.

In the case of men, the offers from chieftains, jarls, and kings can lead to very comfortable lives. These leaders pay their employees well for the knowledge that their foremen hold. Also, if their skills are of a high enough caliber, the leading men of the district would ask to send their children to those with knowledge to be fostered so that the child can become wise and much learned. This applies to female children also. Then there is the possibility for those who know a great deal to attract their own followers. This is how the person born the slave can become a power in the district or country.

To close this up and give an example that is easier to see, I will list my idrottir.

Story telling
Rune reading
Public speaking
Herding cattle
Herding pigs
Carving (wood and antler)
Leather working
Stav use
Knife use
Sword use
Spear use
Shield use
Riding a horse
Driving a car / motor cycle
Weight lifting
Riding a bike
Play chess

This makes a list of 37 idrottir. I have a feeling that I have forgotten some, but it doesn't matter. Also, I have included some that are not period to the Viking Age. But that is because I live in the modern world. So go make a list of your idrottir, it will make you feel better about yourself to realize just how much stuff you really know. Make sure you list everything, even if you only have a passing understanding of the subject. If you know something about it, it's enough to allow you to be of some aid to someone who knows less.

Bodily as well as mental exercises were known under the name of Idrottir. In no ancient records have we so many detailed accounts of games as we have in the Sagas. The education of the Northman was thoroughly Spartan in its character. To this day the love of athletic games is one of the characteristics of their most direct descendants, the English people; and other countries have awakened to the importance of physical training.

Their exercises or games may be classified under three heads.

1st. Athletic games or gymnastic exercises, such as wrestling (Glima), free fighting, swimming, running, jumping, leaping, balancing, climbing, playing ball, racing on snowshoes, skin-pulling and so on.

2nd. Warlike exercises with weapons, which embraced fencing, spear throwing, arrow shooting, horse riding, slinging and so on.

3rd Mental exercises, consisting of poetry, Saga-telling, riddles, games of chess and draughts, and harp playing.

In those days of incessant warfare, physical training was considered of the highest importance. Old and young constantly practiced games of strength and dexterity; they knew that it was only by constant exercise that they could become or remain good warriors. This made the young men supple, quick of foot, dexterous in motion, and gave them great power of endurance, insuring a good physique, which told on their children and future generations. They were thus always prepared for war, and this is the key to the character of the old Viking. We see what a healthy and powerful man he must have been, skillful alike to strike the fatal blow, and avoid the treacherous sword, spear or arrow. The result of such education was seen in the powerful and strong bodily frame that was attained by the youth of the country, the young men being of age and ready for war at the age of fifteen.

There were constant competitions for the honor of the championship in each of the particular games or exercises, and young and old competed together on special grounds which were selected for that purpose, where the assembled and admiring multitude came to witness these contests. There seem to have been no prizes given to the successful competitor—at least no mention is ever made of them. All that was desired was the fame, which fell to the victor, and every great warrior always excelled in the use of weapons or in athletic exercises.

Their love of physical exercise explains how these dauntless and manly tribes, who had a virile civilization of their own, contributed to regenerate the blood of the people among whom they settled or whom they conquered.

Jumping was a favorite exercise of the Northmen. Some men could jump higher than their own height, both backwards and forwards, and this with their weapons and complete armor on.

Agility was absolutely necessary in order to obtain victory or escape from danger; many a man owed his life either to a timely jump to one side, or to a leap from a height, or over a circle of surrounding foes.

Climbing was another of their exercises.

Wrestling was a very popular pastime, and had a beneficial effect on the body, to which it gave suppleness, strength and firmness; it was a great favorite at the Things and festivals. The simplest form of this sport was for the wrestlers to take hold of each other's arms or waists as best they could, and by the strength of their arms to throw each other off their feet. The wrestlers often threw off not only the outer clothing, but also their under-garments, in order to be more free and agile. The competitors were divided by lots into two parties, each of which was drawn up in a row with its leader. These paired off their men to wrestle in the arena or space between the rows, one after the other. If one side was weaker in numbers, or one man had had all his men defeated, he could challenge his antagonist, and the result of their wrestling decided the game.

A more difficult form of wrestling was that of grappling, and attacking each other (sometimes fastened together by a belt at the waist) according to certain rules, and by systematic turnings and grip movements, with arms and legs, seeking to bring each other to the ground. These combats for the championship sometimes ended fatally.

There are two important things that made the Viking achievement possible. The first thing was that the Vikings were a maritime people and were able to build ships that was the best in the world at that particular period of time. The other important ting was that the Vikings mastered a martial art that was on a high evolutional level, because it allowed them to successfully fight against anyone that dared to meet them with weapons in hand.

A lot of historical and archaeological research has been made about the Viking ships, but almost none has been done concerning the Viking fighting arts. This presentation is a little teaser of what can be done in this fascinating subject that is equally important for our understanding of the Viking age as the maritime angleis.

The Vikings fought both at land and at sea. Their martial art was mostly a close combat fighting system, where axe, sword and spear was the most preferred weapons, but they also used distance weapons as bow and arrow and stone throwing.

To be able to be engaged in hand to hand combat, a warrior has to be trained and prepared in the most efficient way if he wanted to have the slightest possibility to survive a fight in earnest when life was at stake.

If we look at the historical sources, we can get some useful information about how often the Vikings did train hand to hand combat by studying the Valhalla myth. In Vafţrúđnismál (40) from the Elder Edda we are given an interesting reference that states that the einherjar or the dead warriors in Valhalla trained hand to hand combat with weapons every day. And the Younger Edda (Gylfagining, 40, 50) explains that they do this daily training to be well prepared for the Ragnarökr or the final battle of the worlds when gods and the einherjar will die side by side.

The Norse warrior religion was closely connected to their martial arts. The Viking poetry and the Elder and the Younger Edda have lots of references to the after life in Valhalla, which seams to reflect the kind of life that the warriors lived when they were connected to a mighty king or a chieftain.

The most skillful and fearful of the Norse warriors were the berserkr, and they were also regarded as the warriors of Odin. Heimskringla (Ynglingasaga, 6) states that the Odin had the power to make his enemies blind, deaf or terrified in battle and that their weapons did not bite more than soft branches of tree. The warriors of Odin fought without armour or chain mail, and it was said that they had the power of the mighty bear and the deadly wolf. When the berserkr were engaged in battle they possessed a fighting spirit that made them insensible of pain and did not feel when any harm was inflicted on them. This phenomena was called beserksgangr or berserk-fury.

The berserkr has been wrongly portrayed in later centuries as mad warriors that was crazy people and possessed almost no fighting skills. But if we read the oldest Norse poetry from late 9th Century (Haraldskvćđi, 8, 20, 21) we find out that the berserkr was the most admirable and honored warriors of the Vikings themselves.

If we look at the Norse Viking age society, we notice that they lived in a world where all the free men were supposed to know how to fight. In the old Laws of the North you could always solve a dispute by challenging the other to an einvigi, holmgangr or a duel. This meant that anyone could lawfully take away all your possessing and your life if you did not have the power or skills to defend it with weapons in hand.

The other thing that constantly threatened your life was the custom of Blood-revenge, that made all the male relatives in a family an accepted target to kill for other families who had a Vendetta with them. Therefore every male family member had to foster fighting skills at an early age and be able to keep this skills intact through all their life.

The Norse community had a very special way of fostering fighting skills and a useful fighting attitude. This training system was called Glíma. Glima (a form of Viking wrestling) translates literally as “The Game of Joy”, and is an art roughly 1100 years old. It was brought to Iceland by Viking settlers, and has been practiced as a folk art ever since. It is mentioned in writing in the “Jonsbok” law-book in 1325. With Glíma you could enhance the physical fitness and pass on the fighting skills needed from the old to the new generation – and this was done in a playful way that had a lot of useful and pedagogical values.

Fangbrögđ or Glíma (or Glímur in plurals) was the old Norse names for the unarmed combat training that later in history become a term for traditional wrestling. Glíma could be practiced in three different styles – buxnatök, hryggspenna and lausa tök. In buxnatök and hryggspenna they wrestled with fixed grips that was taken before the fight begun, but in the lausa tök you had to wrestle for the grip.

The basic idea is to grip your opponent in the proper way, and then force them to touch their torso or any area above the elbows or knees, to the ground for the best 2 out of 3 falls. Also, if both of their arms touch the ground, it is a fall. If both players fall together then it is called a “brother-fall” and neither player gets the point.

Buxnatök or the Trouser-grip was the technical and most advanced form of Glíma, because in this style the wrestlers had to fight with an upright body-position. It was forbidden to stand against the opponents movements with pure strength, and therefore you had to do all defensive maneuvers in an evasive way.

In Glíma you learned that it is good if the opponents attacks you, because every defense was the beginning of an attack. The Buxnatök style of Glíma was recognized for its very advanced leg work that was used to get the opponent out of balance.

Hryggspenna or Back-hold was a more strength-consuming form of Glíma, because in this style you were allowed stand in a stiff and immovable position with your back bent forward and you could also use all your strength to hinder the opponent from wrestling you down to the ground. This meant that the hryggspenna was used as a method to enhance that kind of fighting spirit, physical endurance and stamina that was useful to have on the battle-field when the fighting went on for a very long time.

But if you wanted the fight to end as quickly as possible in hryggspenna, you still had to straighten your back and raise the body-position as in buxnatök when you went for the attack.

With modern terms we could say that the hryggspenna was a form of active fight-meditation that was trained under very harsh and strenuous circumstances.

Lausa tök or Free-gripping was a kind of self-defense wrestling that was very close to the way you wrestle when you could use every means possible to stay alive in a fight and at the same time try to concur your opponent so that he was no longer a threat to you.

It was the lausa tök style of Glíma that you used in any kind of fight situation when your life was at stake.

The most useful thing that the Glíma-practice gave you was a good balance. And to have a good balance and be able to quickly regain a lost balance are of course the essence of all fighting styles in the world.

The upright body-position that was put emphasis on in all the three styles of Glíma and particular in the buxnatök style made it very easy for the wrestler to change from unarmed combat exercises to weapon-training, because you already had the straight back that you needed in weapon fighting.

The straight upright back and upper body was the backbone of all defensive maneuvers or positions in all the three styles of Glíma, if the aim was to quickly and successfully be able to counter every possible attack from an aggressor. The relaxed body-movement that was not strength-consuming and the intuitive fighting attitude that all the three styles of Glíma fostered was useful things to master on the battle field.

The buxnatök style of Glíma was practiced in the Scandinavian mainland of Norway, Sweden and Finland at least up until the first half of the 20th Century. After that time it has only survived in unbroken traditions on Iceland – where it actually is the official National Sport of the Nation. Since the late 20th Century it is again practiced in Sweden, Norway and Denmark.

The hryggspenna style of Glíma was practiced in Scandinavia up until the end of the 19th Century in Denmark and Iceland, and up until the first half of the 20th Century in Norway, Sweden and Finland. Nowadays hryggspenna is still practiced in unbroken Viking-tradition in the North of England and in Scotland were it is called Cumberland-Westmoreland wrestling or Backhold wrestling. Since the late 20th Century it is again practiced on Iceland and in Sweden, Norway and Denmark.

The lausa tök style of Glíma was still practiced by the soldiers in the armies of Scandinavia in the late 19th Century and the early 20th Century, but since then it has emerged with modern hand to hand combat training.

Techniques from all the three styles of Glíma can also be found in the modern Olympic wrestling styles (Greco-Roman wrestling and Free style wrestling). It is mostly the hryggspenna grip that becomes the most obvious survivor in the Greco-Roman wrestling – that more correctly should be called French-Finnish wrestling because it was developed in these two countries in the second part of the 19th Century and had nothing to do with the historical wrestling styles of ancient Greece or the Roman Empire.

Lausa tök Glíma and its self-defense applications are being recreated since the late 20th Century by older Glíma-masters on Iceland and younger practitioners in Scandinavia and Europe. The leading person in this theoretical and practical project is Lars Magnar Enoksen.

It is difficult for a martial art to survive in a old form longer than 150–200 years, because warfare always changes when new weapon develops and therefore ancient combat styles become obsolete. But a sport has better possibilities to keep and preserve old rules for a much longer period of time.

If we look at the Viking society, it seams that there was a lot of changes going on in Scandinavia in the 11th Century. In the subject of fighting we see that the traditional Viking raids changes to army operations under this Century. A new religion and stronger national kingdoms finally took power and political and military control over the Scandinavian nations of Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

In the beginning of the 11th Century the represents of Christianity was able to banned the duel form einvigi and holmgangr as lawfully accepted means to solve a dispute, and at the same time the berserkr and the beserksgangr was made illegal. Later on in the same Century the new religion also worked hard to change the custom of Blood revenge, that even the strong ţing or law assemblies in Scandinavia had tried to work out methods to solve disputes in a more civilized way. But it took some time to make this old custom extinct in Scandinavia. Iceland was the last stronghold of the Blood-revenge, where this deadly tradition culminated in the middle of the 13th Century (Sturlunga saga) and died quickly out after that.

The changes from a warrior religion to Christianity, and the fact that the old duel forms, the Blood-revenge of the family Vendettas became fewer and that the famous bear-warriors was no longer around – was important things that changed the old Viking style of hand to hand combat forever.

Even if the Scandinavian warfare changed in the 11th Century, the male population of Scandinavia was still expected by its kings to be fit for fighting and military activities. The leiđangr or leidungr or the peoples maritime army (founded in Norway ca. 940 AD), was still used in the 13th Century and made it necessary for the population to know the basics of hand to hand combat and weapon fighting.

We actually still can find some references to the Viking style of fighting in the Norwegian Konungs Skuggsja or the Kings Mirror from the middle of 13th Century and the Hirdskrá or the Warrior code from the end of the same Century.

In Glíma the old Viking training systems of hand to hand combat could survive when it was made an iţrottir or a sport in the modern meaning of the word. The old concept of drengskapr or fair play taught the Glíma-wrestlers to uphold the warrior code of how to behave in a honorable way when training hand to hand combat. The concept of niđ or foul play was both taught to make the injures fewer and to learn what kind of techniques you used in a self-defense situation.

The fact that Glíma was guarded with very strict rules already in the early 12th Century on Iceland (Grágás; Vigslođi chapter) and in late 13th Century in both Norway and on Iceland (Jónsbok; Manhelgi chapter) tells the medieval Law-books of the North. In modern Glíma, or the way as Glíma is practiced since the late 19th Century and the early 20th Century, we still find the old rules of niđ and drengskapr, which stills is regarded as the essential concept of Glíma-practice.

Do not think that Glíma has survived in a unbroken tradition since the Viking age only because it is a great fighting system. The reason why Glíma has survived has more to do with that it was often used as a quick and efficient way to heat up your body when it was cold and that it also enabled you to have a strong and an agile body up until a fairly old age.

Just remember that the Viking warriors in the late 10th Century were supposed to be vigr or in fighting shape at least up until you were 60 years old as it is said in Heimskringla in Olafs saga Tryggvasonar before the battle of Svoldr.

Perhaps the most immediately discernible characteristic of modern Glima is that the participants today wear special leather belts. These have a main belt around the waist, and separate belts on the lower thighs of each leg, which are connected to the main belt with vertical straps. These belts allow a specific grip to be taken which is wrestled out of.

The reason that the belts are still worn today is that they are symbolic of wearing the heavy pants and jackets as they did in the past. The belt gives something to grab, and it is fair to all competitors. It is also important to note just where the Glima player is grabbing. The left hip and right thigh are both places where an opponent’s sword or dagger would have been kept in the old days – and so it should be no surprise that this is where you grip for play. Your left hand grabs his right thigh and your right hand grips his left hip. From here you start to circle to the right, both circling around each other, trying to find a weakness.

There were three main ways Glima was played in the old days. There was formal Glima and Loose Grips wrestling; and then there was also wrestling for settling a duel – to the death! In the deadly matches, which would have only been done over the most serious of offenses, the two men would go into a field with a large, waist-high, tapered slab of rock – a stone to smash your opponent down on to slay him. One of these still stands today on a farm in the western part of Iceland. Let this be a lesson to modern grapplers – look for the “slaying stones” in urban areas and other places you might have to fight, and let the terrain magnify the power of your throw!

In Loose Grips, the formal rules of play are not followed to the letter and a player is allowed to “cheat” in that sense, since Loose Grips is not considered “correct wrestling” (by the rules of Glima). The initial grip is different than the one used in the formal game, and follows after the familiar “collar-and-elbow” style seen the world over. The match doesn’t stop when one player touches the ground, and sacrifice throws and other tactics that might be used that are specifically referred to as being “illegal” in Formal Glima are used. One such throw seen in Loose Grips is the Somersault throw (similar to Tomo-Nage). This is fine for loose-grips play, but in technical Glima you would be touching your own body to the ground, so you would lose the fall! In the case where both players fall to the ground in Loose Grips, whomever stands up first is declared the winner. There are at least 27 traditional techniques used in Loose Grips only.

The game was further formalized when the Icelandic Sports Federation published official rules for competition in 1916. In the modern day, Formal Glima is characterized by 4 key points and 8 basic tricks (bragd) using the legs, hips, and feet to throw with.

4 Key Points, without which you don't have true, formal Glima:

1. The fixed grip on the opponent’s waistband and outside of their leg
2. The upright position of the contestants
3. The circular movement of the wrestlers, called Stigandi (Treading)
4. Distinctive throws done with the legs, hips, and feet

8 Basic Tricks, each of course has variations:

1. The Outside Stroke
2. The inside-click, the cross-click & the back-heel
3. The twist over the knee, the outside hip
4. The hook
5. The cross buttock
6. The inside hip
7. The cross-buttock aloft
8. The full or half buttock

In a glima match the two wrestlers is constantly walking around each other and try to bring down the opponent with tricks like to trip the opponent up, or lifting the opponent up. The match end when one of the wrestlers falls down. There are eight basic tricks, but they can be combined infinitely.

The sport can be practiced by both genders, in all ages. In the Icelandic sagas there is written about a match between a man and a woman, which run over several days and ended unsettled (in the sagas they often overstated theirs ability a bit).

It is possible to do glima in Copenhagen (Denmark) two times a week. It is also possible to do glima in Malmř (Sweden), and in Whangarei (New Zeeland) and of course in Iceland.

This is only a very short introduction to the process of how I started researching the necessary information to create the Krigarenve. If you would like to read through more of the research please feel free to download a PDF at the “HISTORICAL RESEARCH” link on the Literature page of this website.


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