Archive for the ‘Old Norse Language and Culture’ Category

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.



Heil ok Sael!

Proper greeting has apparently become an issue among heathens and viking-wannabes (like myself) recently (or at least I just heard about it) and here’s my input.

In Old Norse, there are two main words that mean “greeting.” Those words are the commonly known “heilsa” and the less common “kvethja” (which was probably used more often to mean farewell.) These words are verbs, and not actually greetings. Its important to note that the verb “hailsa” would require a dative noun form and not an accusative form.

One might write a sentence: Heilsa Igor, Sven upp Hondina. (There are umlauts and stuff in there and I am an amateur with a keyboard.) This would translate to: “Greeting Igor, Sven raised his hand.”

To say “Heilsa, Igor!” would sound rather like someone unfamiliar with English saying, “Thanking you” rather than “Thank you” or “Greeting you” rather than simply “Greetings” (which works in English but not ON.)

The word “heilsa” also translates to “health” and the relationship between health and greeting should be obvious. Still, in Old Norse and Icelandic, simply saying “health” is not the same as wishing one health.

What Sven might say would be a simple “heill” or a variant recognizing his audience, male or female, singular or plural. “Heilir” for a group of men. “Heilar” for a group of women.

For greeting a group of mixed gender, one would simply say “Heil” just as one would for greeting a single woman. Less formally, one might say “Sit Heill” which would be an invitation to sit and get comfortable.

The difference between “L” and “LL” in Old Norse really is simply the length of the sound. “Heill” sounds like “hail” and “Heil” almost sounds like “hey.”

But my personal favorite Old Norse greeting is “Heil ok Sael” which is to wish someone “health and happiness.” But no variant of this greeting is EVER used in Scandanavia today as it has connections to the Nazi Occupation.

I will continue to use it, even though I have no racist sympathies.

FROM: An Icelandic-English Dictionary by Cleasby/Vigfusson (1874)

heilsa, u, f. [Dan. helsen; Swed. helsa], health, Fms. vii. 241, x. 215, Sks. 620. Al. 24, Hom. 10, Bs. i. 337; sterk, góð h., strong, good health; veyk, lin, tæp h., poor, weak health, passim. COMPDS: heilsu-bót, f. health-bettering, healing, Hkr. ii. 386; til heilsubótar, Magn. 414, Bs. heilsu-bragð, n. a cure, ek skal sýna þér öruggt h., Fb. i. 439. heilsu-drykkr, m. a potion, draught, Al. 24, 656 B. 12. heilsu-far, n. state of health, Grett. 153. heilsu-gjafari, a, m. a healer, eccl. heilsu-gjöf, f. a ‘gift of health,’ cure, Fas. iii. 277, Magn. 532: eccl. salvation, Stj. 141. heilsu-góðr, adj. in good health. heilsu-gæði, n. strong health. heilsu-lauss, adj. ‘health-less,’ in bad health. heilsu-leysi, n. bad health. Mar. heilsu-linr, adj. = heilsulítill. heilsu-lítill, adj. in weak health, Sturl. iii. 34. heilsu-orð, n. a word of salvation, (MS.) 656 and 555 heilsu-ráð, n. counsel whereby to recover health, Fms. ii. 229. heilsu-samligr, adj. (-liga, adv.), wholesome, salutary, Bs. heilsu-samr, adj. wholesome, Sks. 96. heilsu-sterkr, adj. strong in health. heilsu-tapan, f. perdition, eccl., K. Á. 76. heilsu-tæpr, adj. in poor health. heilsu-veiki, f. weak health. heilsu-veykr, adj. having weak health.

heilsa, að, [Dan. hilse], to say hail to one, greet one, with dat.; it was an ancient custom for the host to welcome (heilsa) the stranger, as may be seen from the following references :– Osvífr (the guest) kvaddi út Höskuld ok Rút (the master of the house), þeir gengu út báðir ok heilsuðu Osvífi, Nj. 21; hann (the master) gengr út ok heilsar Gísla (dat. the stranger), Gísl. 83; kona ein gékk til hurðar ok heilsar þeim ok spyrr þá at nafni, Fbr. 44 new Ed.; Þorsteinn gékk þegar til búðar Þorkels, en hann (Thorkel) heilsar honum vel ok spyrr hvat hann árnar, Lv. 33; Ólafr gengr inn á gólfit … en enginn heilsar honum ok þögðu allir, Háv. 39; in case the host was a great personage (a king, earl, or the like), the stranger used in token of honour or homage to walk up to him and greet him, ‘sit hail!’ ok er hann kom inn, heilsaði hann konungi, konungr tók kveðju hans, Eg. 63; jarlinn (the guest) gékk fyrir hann (the host in his high-seat) ok heilsaði honum, Ó. H. 66; Haukr heilsaði konungi, Fb. i. 47: h. á en, id.; Ásgrímr (the guest) gékk at honum ok heilsaði á hann, Nj. 182, Fms. i. 16; ok er hann kemr á fund Knúts konungs, gékk hann fyrir hann ok heilsar upp á konunginn, konungr tók ekki kveðju hans, xi. 264. In mod. usage a coming guest is said ‘heilsa,’ a parting guest ‘kveðja,’ q.v.

FROM: A CONCISE DICTIONARY OF OLD ICELANDIC (OI and Old Norwegian being WEST ON and Old Danish being EAST ON)
heilsa (að), v. to say hail to one, greet one (= biðja e-n heilan vera), with dat. h. á. e-n = h. e-m.
heilsa, f. (1) health; (2) restoration to health (hann var feginn heilsu sinni); (3) salvation.
heilsan, f. salutation, greeting.


heill, a. (1) hale, sound; illa h., in ill health; hann sagði at þar var vel heilt, he said they were all well there; kona eigi heil, enceinte; grœða e-n at heilu, to heal one fully; (2) whole, healed, in respect of wounds or illness, with gen. (verða h. sára sinna); er um heilt bezt at binda, it is better to bind a hale than a hurt limb; (3) blessed, happy; njótið heilir handa, ‘bless your hands’, well done; kom heill! welcome, hail! far h., farewell! (4) whole, entire; h. hleifr, a whole loaf; sjau hundruð heil, full seven hundred; (5) true, upright; ráða e-m heilt, to give one a wholesome (good) advice; af heilum hug, af heilu, sincerely; heilt ráð, wholesome advice; heil kenning, a useful, profitable lesson.