GLÍMA - The Martial Art of the Vikings by Tyr Neilsen

The Viking Age is the 300 year period of history between 790 - 1100 A.D. It is also the only period in history named after warriors.

Throughout Europe, Vikings were admired and feared as they opened up trade routes, fought to keep them open, and carved out kingdoms. In the East, Viking warriors were admired and feared as the elite fighting force called the Varangian Guard. In the Middle East in the year 922, Muslim diplomat Ibn Fadlan wrote that he had never seen more perfect physical specimens than Viking warriors, and that they were the fiercest fighters he had ever seen.

On land and at sea, Vikings had the skills to survive against the various forms of warfare they encountered in their travels around the world. The reason for the Viking warriors fighting prowess is found in the way they trained both with and without weapons. Although people all around the world have heard of Vikings, few have heard of the Viking martial art of Glíma.

In Old Norse, Glíma means ‘glimpse or flash’, which describes the techniques of this Viking martial art. Glima techniques include grappling, wrestling, throws, hand strikes, elbow strikes, kicks, chokes, locks, pain techniques and weapon techniques, and glima is comparable with the best complete martial arts systems from around the world. 

Glima was created and developed by warriors who had to survive attacks from all kinds of weapons. It is a no-nonsense way of fighting that cuts out all unnecessary movements, and has been tried and tested in single combat and on the battlefield, with life and death on the line.

The martial art of glima is separated into two categories, sport glima and combat glima. Glima as a sport covers several types of Scandinavian folk wrestling; Lausatök is free-grip wrestling, Brokartök is trouser-grip wrestling, and Hryggspenna is back-hold wrestling.

Scandinavian children began training in these forms of glima at the age of 6 or 7, and glima was practiced by male and female alike. The people of Viking Age Scandinavia loved all forms of sport, but glima was by far the most widespread sport. Glima wrestling competitions were extremely popular and wherever the people of the north gathered, glima was a big part of the entertainment. Glima was so important for Viking society that their most popular god, Thor, was also the god of wrestling.

Viking Age children learned balance, grappling, wrestling, and pain techniques, from training in Lausatök sport glima. These techniques could be used for self-defense, and this training formed the basis for Viking armed and unarmed combat. Training in Lausatök glima also developed strength, reflexes, endurance and courage, the perfect foundation Viking warriors needed to survive in battle.

In order to have a structured form of unarmed combatives against weapons, the Vikings had to know how to use a variety of weapons, such as sword, axe, spear, seax, stick and knife. Through combat glima, Vikings became experts in knife fighting, stick fighting, spear fighting, axe fighting and sword fighting.

Training in glima with and without weapons from an early age, gave the Vikings such a comprehensive combat foundation, that they had no problem adapting to the different styles of warfare, or other fighting styles they met on their travels. Viking warriors were renowned for their fighting abilities in raids and against larger and less mobile soldiers, because glima, combined with forestry and hunting skills, made Vikings extremely dangerous in guerilla warfare.

Over the centuries, the nature of combat in war has changed due to the constant development of weapons, but when it comes down to hand to hand combat, glima is an extremely effective martial art. Since the Viking Age, glima has always been practiced for realistic combat situations in Scandinavia. From historical documents, we can see that Viking fighting techniques were in use all the way to the 19th century, when combat glima was used as the foundation for bajonettkamp (bayonet fighting) by the Swedish and Norwegian military.

With the changing methods of warfare, where one on one combat on the battlefield began to disappear, combat glima also began to disappear. At the beginning of the 20th century, combat glima was even made illegal in some parts of Scandinavia, when all dangerous hand to hand combat techniques for the common man were banned. Combat glima survived only by keeping it a secret.

As a sport, glima not only survived, it became the national sport of Iceland, and there are now national championships in all forms of sport glima throughout Scandinavia. Thanks to the interest of Viking groups, Viking festivals, historical reenactment and martial artists, sports glima and combat glima are also gaining in popularity all over the world.

Just as was the case in the Viking Age when Norse warriors had to compete with different styles of fighting from around the world, modern combat glima has continued to develop so that it remains a relevant martial art in today’s world.

As a sport, glima builds flexibility, endurance and strength, as well as being energetic, effective, educational and fun. As a means of self-defense, combat glima is a martial art that is unrestricted by style, and can be used against any and all individual martial art techniques.

Glíma - the martial art of the Vikings


Þagalt og hugalt
skyldi þjóðans barn
og vígdjarft vera.
Glaður og reifur
skyli gumna hver
uns sinn bíður bana.

People should be
quiet and thoughtful
and brave in conflict
Each person should live
happy and joyful
until their last day.

 Hávamál – Verse 15

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