Vikings loved all kinds of sports, but the best loved sport in Viking Age Scandinavia, was by far, wrestling.
Over the centuries, the forms of wrestling used by the Vikings have been known by many names, Glíma, Scandinavian wrestling, Farmer wrestling, Icelandic wresting and Norwegian wrestling, but the name this sport is probably best known as, is Viking wrestling.
Whether it was as a form of physical, mental or spiritual training, as competition, or as a form of entertainment, Viking wrestling was a major part of Viking Age life. Men, women, and children trained in this sport, and whenever the people of the north gathered, at home, in a village, at a market, or at a Thing, Viking wrestling was always a major attraction.
Viking wrestling was so important in Viking Age society, that their most popular god, Thor, was also the god of wrestling. In fact, the first written mention of Viking wresting is a Norse myth about Thor. It was written in the form of a poem and dates back to the 9th century. The poem involves Thor in a wrestling competition with a magical old woman who is actually old age. The ancient poem was written by Bragi hinn gamli Boddason and Kveldúlfr Bjálfason, who were both of Norwegian descent, which means that glíma could possibly be of Norwegian origin.
There were several types of Viking wrestling, and all of them are part of the Viking martial art called Glíma, which means glimpse or flash in Old Norse. Most of the written documents we have about glima and Viking wrestling come from Iceland, which started to be populated in the mid-9th century by Norwegian settlers. These Norwegian settlers took with them their culture, and from the early 13th century, the people of Iceland have been very clever to take care of their original culture and document it. This includes their original form of traditional wrestling, which has been documented in the Eddas, the Icelandic Sagas and Icelandic law books.
These sources tell us of the 3 forms of glima; Lausatök, Hryggspenna and Brókartök. Lausatök means free-grip, and is the most popular form of glima in Norway, Europe and USA. Hryggspenna means back-hold, and is the most popular form of folk wrestling in Scotland, of which many regions were under Norwegian rule or colonization until the 15th century. Brókartök means trouser-grip glima, which is the most popular form of sport glima in Sweden, and is the national sport of Iceland.
The Old Norse name Lausatök is now called Løse-tak in modern Norwegian and free-grip in English. Of the several forms of Viking wrestling, Løse-tak most closely resembles the close quarters hand to hand battlefield combat of the Vikings, where the aim was to be standing whilst an opponent was down.
A Løse-tak competition starts when opponents clasp each other’s forearm. This is called the Handsal, which means that the opponents are friends before the wrestling starts, are friends during the competition, and are friends after the competition, regardless of who wins. The handsal was a legally binding contract in the Viking Age, and is still a form for making a deal legal in Norway today.
A competition can immediately transform from the handsal into a clinch or wrestling.
As with the other forms of Viking wrestling, the aim in løse-tak glima is to send an opponent to the ground, either by a throw, trip, sweep or pull, but in løse-tak glima, the competition is not over just because an opponent hits the ground first. If the person who is sent to the ground first is within reach of the standing opponent, then the person on the ground can immediately pull, sweep, trip or throw the person who initiated the takedown, and in this way the competition can continue.
If both competitors end up on the ground, this situation leads to exciting battles in the fight to be the first person on their feet and away. Løse-tak Viking wrestling is incredibly effective on the ground, where skill, speed, strength, endurance and balance are as important as when the competitors are standing. The contest is only won by the person who is on their feet and out of grabbing distance of the person on the ground.
Viking wrestling, as it is practiced today in Norway, is almost unchanged since the Viking Age, and there is regular training in sports halls as well as outdoors training, year round, in sun, rain and snow. There are also regular Viking wrestling competitions such as the Norwegian Løse-tak Glima Championship.
I feel immensely proud to be able to keep this unbroken line from the Viking Age intact, and preserve Viking wrestling techniques so they can be handed over to the next generation. It is an honor to be able to sustain this unique part of the Viking heritage that goes back over a thousand years.