The Ball Game

Posted: January 3, 2015 in Old Norse Language and Culture
Tags: , , , , ,

The sagas reflect how highly play was valued by the Norse people. One of the most important games was “the ball game” (knattleikr in Old Norse.)  It is never fully described in the sagas, but it occurs often as an integral part of the storylines of the heroes.

In Egil’s Saga, we see the game was played by both children and by adults. We are told the seven year old poet-warrior, Egil Skallagrimsson, killed a boy a year younger than him with an axe for besting him at the game. Later in the saga, we find that Egil still plays the game as an adult.

The importance of the game shows through in Gretti’s Saga as we are told it is an annual affair played on a special field during the autumn. The players take the game so seriously that the conduct of two players in the game serves as the impetus for a blood feud. When one player  throws the ball over another’s head, Gretti’s conduct there is later used as an example of his general ill temper when he is sentenced to outlawry.

In Gisli’s Saga, we are given more detail. We know that the ball game involved two teams of variable numbers with the individual players paired off according to strength. We learn also that it involves catching a ball and then running while being pursued by the opposing team. There was some form of tackiling and the game was very physical.

We also know that, somehow, bats are also involved as we see Gisli repairing another player’s bat, but we have no idea how they were used. A bat is also mentioned in Gretti’s Saga as being used during the fight.

What we don’t know is how scoring was accomplished and to what extent the physical contact was an essential part of the game. The number of men on each team and the size of the playing field probably varied depending on how many men were playing and how much space was available.

I imagine a game like lacrosse and wonder if there should have been a Skraeling v. Viking set of matches.

Others have imagined the game to be a bit more like rugby.

The extreme physical nature of the game was made evident by one passage in Thorthar’s Saga. There we are told that when one man was invited to play, though he considered himself still fit and strong enough to carry a sword and fight, he thought himself too old to play the game and watched instead.



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