The Icelandic Sagas are a big source to our knowledge about the Viking cultures of the Scandinavian-speaking Nordic countries (Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway). Many different researching fields are having a significant use of them. Examples are religious studies and cultural history, but these are only two of many fields. What about sports for example? Did the Vikings performed any sporting activities?
The answer is yes, they had many sports. Ice skating, wrestling, board games, horse fights and knattleikr.
This article is going to focus on knattleikr. But you can read more about other Viking sports on this link: http://www.hurstwic.org/history/articles/daily_living/text/games_and_sports.htm
THE SAGA SOURCES ABOUT KNATTLEIKR AND VIKING SPORTS
In the Egill Skallagrimssons saga it is written about the game. It was played with a ball and a bat/stick but we do not know the rules of the game. The equipment they used are not know either, there are no archaeological findings of them.
In Egills saga we get the feeling that this was a violent game with huge passion. Disputes and blood spilling are mentioned. Egil himself killed a younger boy with an axe because he could not take losing repeated times.
The saga is one of the better looks in to this game. Some people are now trying to recreate it, for example Hurstwic (hurstwic.com).
Now, I have chosen to compare it to field hockey for fun. The problem is that we do not know what the best comparison is. Different authors have done different comparisons with modern sports. These are ranging from cricket to lacrosse, rugby included.
There are sources after the Viking age who are describing and depicting ball games. According to Hurstwic, these are not deriving from Knattleikr. They have attempted to reconstruct the game, you can read about it here: http://www.hurstwic.org/history/articles/daily_living/text/knattleikr.htm
So what are then the sources for this ball game? Is it only the Egil Skallgrimssons saga? No, there are also mentions in the Grettis saga, Gisla saga and Eyrbryggja saga.
HURSTWIC – VIKING SPORTS RE-ENACTORS
Hurstwic has from this concluded that (quotation):
“The bat was such that it could broken in anger, and that it could be mended on the spot (G.s. ch18). The word used in the stories is tré, meaning tree, but used for many wooden objects. However, in one instance (Gr.s. ch15), the word used is knattgildra, which has the sense of “ball catch” or “ball trap”. Perhaps the bat had some element or elements that allowed it to catch or hold or carry the ball.
The ball was hard enough that when thrown in anger at another player, it could cause a bleeding injury (Gr.s. ch15). And if thrown with enough force, it could knock over another player (G.s.ch15). Loose balls bounced a long way over the ice (Gr.s. ch15).
The playing field was usually near a pond. (The pond where Grettir played is shown to the left as it appears today.) Some modern scholars have suggested that the game was played on the surface of a frozen pond. Ice certainly figures prominently in the stories (G.s. ch18, Gr.s. ch15). Gull-Þóris saga (chapter 2) specifically states the game was played on the ice at Berufjörður (á Berufjarðarísi), and Þórðar saga hreðu (ch.3) says that games were played on the ice at Miðfjörður (á Miðfjarðarísi) between the farms of Reykir and Óss because the fjord froze easily there. (That location might be more accurately described as the estuary where the river meets the fjord.)”
To round up, it is not surprising that Vikings had sports. Humans have always need physical activity and ways to entertain themselves. Some of the games where like what we have today, kind of most. We still have board games, ice skating and wrestling. Read more about these here: http://www.hurstwic.org/history/articles/daily_living/text/games_and_sports.htm
Viking Tour Guide in Stockholm, Sweden.