Photo: T. Neilsen - B. Wemundstad
Disputes throughout the ages have been ‘solved’ by combat. In Viking Age Scandinavia, sometimes a dispute became an unregulated duel called Einvigi, “single combat”, other times it was solved by a regulated duel called Holmgang “small-island walk”. This meant that all Norsemen had to be ready to fight to protect their property with their life, at all times.
In Viking Age Scandinavia, there was no regulated police force to take care of disputes. To keep peace and order, Viking society used a Viking ‘Code of honor’ system and a system of laws concerning property and crimes. In this self-regulated society, the Viking honor system was ingrained in everyone, and the concept of "honor" and of a "good name" was extremely important for the survival of the family or clan.
The Viking ‘Code of honor’ held that any apparent insult, deliberate or imagined, had to be paid for with money or blood. Honor had to be defended, or people would feel they could insult any member of any family with fear of consequences. This system left the choice of payment to the victim or victim’s family. If compensation was denied, Viking society demanded blood vengeance. This was justified revenge, which could be realized as arson or manslaughter.
Respect in the Viking community was a high priority, and any offence, in word or deed, or anything that might have hurt a person's honor, had to be dealt with in order to uphold that respect. Vengeance was not a punishment from the person whose honor was tarnished, vengeance repaired the honor of the injured person. Vengeance didn’t have to be directed against the individual who caused the offense, it could be directed at a close family member to the offender.
Grágás, the medieval Icelandic lawbook, permitted a man who was seriously injured, to avenge himself without penalty at any time, up until the time the case was brought to court. Sometimes, even when the law forbade vengeance, there were cases when public opinion demanded it. In Viking society, duels were an accepted way of making good in such situations.
The main Viking laws were rules for inheriting property and describing various crimes and their punishments. Anyone who killed a man accidentally, had to pay the man’s relatives what the man was worth, which depended on the man’s status. Blood feuds could be ended with one death cancelled out another death of equal value. The worst crimes were punished by banishment.
These laws were based upon the Ting (thing) system, the Viking legislative assembly and court, created through common-meetings that dated back to at least the 7th century. Norse legalities were created and disputed in a Ting, and there were many types of Ting in Norse society. The first settlers of Iceland were greatly influenced by their Norwegian roots when creating their own form of government, and the World’s oldest National Parliament is the Allting, or All-Thing, created in Þingvellir, Iceland in the year 930.
Not only did the Norse people have laws, we know what they were like. ‘Law and Order’ comes from the Old Norse words “Lov og Orden”, were legalities memorized and argued by a "lovsigemann" (law reader man). Every free man had to respect Norse law, including chieftains and kings. The Norse law system was democratic and included everybody as citizens, except slaves and outlaws.
If a person in Viking society was convicted of being a criminal, he or she was either fined or declared an “out-law”. Outlawry was one of the harshest penalties in the Norse legal system. Outlaws had to live outside of society and were forced to live in the wild. No one was allowed to help outlaws in any way whatsoever, and outlaws were free game for their enemies, who were free to hunt such a criminal down and kill them.
Whether it was a matter of honor, ownership, property, compensation, debt, legal disagreement, a contended fine, or to help a family member or friend, a duel could decide who was in the right. Hólmganga, the Old Norse for holmgang, was a regulated duel that was a common way of solving disputes. Anyone offended could legally challenge the other party to holmgang, regardless their difference in social status.
Egill Skallagrímsson engaging in holmgang with Berg-Önundr, painting by Johannes Flintoe (1787–1870)
If the duel was agreed inland, then the holmgang would take place either on a pre-specified area, or on a traditional place that was commonly used for a holmgang. If the duel was agreed near the coast, then a small islet, hulme (holme) or skerry was chosen as the place where the holmgang would occur. A duel fought on small, deserted island, prevented cowards from running away, and limited possible interference from third parties.
Many descriptions of holmgang duels in the sagas begin with a recitation of hólmgöngulög, the dueling law. This law varies from one saga to the next, but there are similarities and detailed rules. A holmgang would take place 3 to 7 days after the challenge, and it had to be agreed that the holmgang would be won by first blood or by death. All weapons were allowed, though swords and shields were favorite weapons for a holmgang. Combatants were permitted a specific number of shields they could use, usually three, which could be used if an opponent's strikes broke a shield. The challenged was allowed to strike first and then the combatants were free to strike.
The Swedish Hednalagen, (Pagan law) is a fragment from a 13th century document from Västergötland in Sweden, which stipulates the conditions for a holmgang:
• If someone speaks insults to another man (”You’re not the like of a man, and not a man in your chest!” – ”I’m a man like you!”), they shall meet where three roads meet. If he who has spoken comes and not the insulted one, then he shall be as he’s been called: no right to swear oaths, no right to bear witness, may it concern man or woman.
• If the insulted one comes and not he who has spoken, then he shall cry ”Niðingr!” three times and make a mark in the ground, and he is worse who spoke what he dared not keep.
• Now both meet fully armed: if the insulted one falls, the compensation is half a weregild; if he who has spoken falls, insults are the worst, the tongue the head’s bane, he shall lie in a field of no compensation.
In Kormakssaga, it’s stated that holmgang was fought on an ox hide or cloak with sides that were three meters long. The hide or cloak was staked to the ground in a specific manner that is unknown. Then the area was marked by drawing three borders around the square hide, each about one foot from the previous one. Corners of the outermost border were marked with hazel staves, and holmgang combatants had to fight inside these borders. Stepping out of borders meant forfeiture and running away meant cowardice.
Also in the Saga of Kormak is mention of a sacrifice of a bull before the holmgang and there are many references about the sacrifice the winner made after the victory. In this saga, it’s stated that holmgang combat would normally end on the first blood and the winner would receive three marks of silver. This was intended to avoid unnecessary loss of life and excessive profiteering, and is confirmed in later Icelandic versions of holmgang. If the dispute was about a specific property, the most the winner could receive was the three marks of silver.
To begin a holmgang, the challenger had to recite the rules, traditional or those agreed upon, before the duel could begin. Rules determined the allowed weapons, who was eligible to strike first, what constituted a defeat or forfeiture. In Gunnlaugs saga, it is stated that when a man became weaponless, he was defeated, but losing a weapon did not necessarily mean defeat, as a duelist could use glima. In Egils saga, it’s said that Egill killed Atli in a duel by grappling with him and biting out his throat.
Some holmgang duels were resolved quickly, such as the one described in Víga-Glúms saga, where Eyjólf's first blow cut off Ásgaut's foot. Ásgautur then paid his opponent to release himself from the duel, and lived the rest of his life as a cripple. Some holmgang duels went on for a long time, and Þorsteins þáttur stangarhöggs tells of a duel between Þórsteinn and Bjarni that lasted so long that they stopped multiple times to rest and refresh themselves.
In Ljósvetninga saga, another form of holmgang is mentions. Here, the duel has four men on each side. The challenge was offered by Hrólfur as either a duel one on one with his opponent Eyjólfur, or with four men on each side. It was agreed that the challenger had the privilege of choosing who the additional men would be on each side, and Hrólfr chose mercenaries and robbers to fight alongside him.
If a holmgang ended with the death or incapacitation of a combatant, it was not considered murder, and the winner could not become outlaw, or have to pay weregeld. To win a duel was regarded as proof that the winner was in the right, because the Norse gods always helped the "right" man to win. The Norse god Tyr was often called upon for in a Holmgang, as Tyr was the Viking god of dueling and justice.
If the person challenged did not turn up for the holmgang, the challenger was considered the winner. If the offended party did not turn up for the holmgang, they were deemed niðingr (nithinger), meaning a nothing-person. This was a social stigma implying the loss of honor, with the status of coward or villain, and such a person could be also sentenced to outlawry.
Because of the massive consequences of holmgang, if a person was clearly outclassed, unable or unwilling to defend their claim, a capable warrior could volunteer to fight in their place. The law also gave a person involved in a dispute the right to choose a warrior to fight in their stead. This led to Viking warriors traveling from thing to thing as professional duelers, fighting for someone who didn’t have the ability or means to fight for themselves.
In most instances, both parties agreed to what the winner would receive, but in Norway, the winner of a holmgang could claim everything the loser owned. With such stakes, professional Viking duelists used Holmgang as a form of legalized robbery. Some claimed rights to land, women, or property, and proved their claims in a Holmgang duel, at the expense of the legitimate owner. Many sagas describe berserks who abused holmgang in this way. With this abuse of the Viking legal system, Holmgang duels began to be outlawed in the Nordic countries.
Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu, "the Saga of Gunnlaugr Serpent-Tongue", describes the last duel to take place in Iceland, in the 11th century. This saga is about two Icelandic poets, Gunnlaugr Ormstunga and Hrafn Önundarson, and their love of Helga the Fair, granddaughter of Egill Skallagrímsson. Their competition for Helga resulted in a duel of honor at the Alþing, which ended as a draw. The next day, the law council abolished duels in Iceland. Gunnlaugur and Hrafn traveled to Norway to continue their duel, in which Hrafn killed Gunnlaugur, only to die himself shortly thereafter.
Christianity changed the Holmgang to an ordeal by fire. Járnburdr is the Old Norse name of the ordeal of grabbing a hot iron from boiling water and walking 9 paces with it carrying it with both hands to prove innocence.
With the increasing popularity of Viking fighting, friendly holmgang competitions regularly take place at Viking festivals around the world. These modern Viking duels are exciting to watch and thrilling to take part in, whether it is in training, show, demonstration or competition, and although they are not fought to first blood or death, there is still the element of danger and injury from the blunt steel weapons used.