Glíma, the Martial Arts System Used by the Vikings

Viking warriors were well prepared to engage in many forms of combat and warfare. The secret behind their fighting mastery lies in the fact that they trained combat both with and without weapons. In the case of hand-to-hand combat, they developed a martial arts system called Glíma.

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In order to be a skilled fighter, and survive unpredictable attacks, a warrior must know how to defend himself against both an armed and unarmed opponent. The Glíma is a self-defense system consisting of throws, kicks, chokes, blows, locks, pain techniques and some weapon techniques. It’s refined enough to compete with the world’s best martial arts. In ancient Norse, the word glímameans “glimpse” or “flash”, signifying the systems technique, namely, speed. This is because the methods employed are meant to overcome opponents with lightning-fast moves and tricks, using both the feet and hands. Such a style of combat helped develop the reflexes, stamina, strength and courage that were essential to a Viking warrior. Glíma also helped build Norse children’s confidence, since training began at the tender age of 6 ot 7 years. The Glíma was the basis of Norse warriors’ education, and these techniques survive to this day, in Europe and North and South America.

Glíma is described in the Prose Edda, in the book of Gylfaginning, where the Æsir god Thor engaged on his journey to Utgards-Loki and was defeated in a wrestling match with the female jötunn Elli (in old Norse “Elli” means “old age”).

In Gylfaginning, Thor and his companions Loki and Þjálfi are in the hall of the giant Útgarða-Loki. Here, they face difficult challenges that try their strength and skills. Thor has just been humiliated in a drinking challenge and wants to get even.

“Then said Thor: ‘Little as ye call me, let any one come up now and wrestle with me; now I am angry.’ Then Útgarda-Loki answered, looking about him on the benches, and spake: ‘I see no such man here within, who would not hold it a disgrace to wrestle with thee;’ and yet he said: ‘Let us see first; let the old woman my nurse be called hither, Elli, and let Thor wrestle with her if he will.

A depiction of Elli wrestling Thor (1919) by Robert Engels.

She has thrown such men as have seemed to me no less strong than Thor.’ Straightway there came into the hall an old woman, stricken in years. Then Útgarda-Loki said that she should grapple with Ása-Thor. There is no need to make a long matter of it: that struggle went in such wise that the harder Thor strove in gripping, the faster she stood; then the old woman attempted a hold, and then Thor became totty on his feet, and their tuggings were very hard.

Yet it was not long before Thor fell to his knee, on one foot. Then Útgarda-Loki went up and bade them cease the wrestling, saying that Thor should not need to challenge more men of his body-guard to wrestling.”

The Glíma was practiced by both men and women, and it was so important to the Norse, that Thor is also the god of wrestling. And just like all people, the Norse loved sports, so the Glíma was not just for combat, but for recreation too.

The original Norwegian settlers in Iceland took Viking wrestling and the Glima combat systems with them, according to the Jónsbók law book from 1325 AD. In the Icelandic medieval book of laws known as Grágás (Gray Goose Laws), which refers to a collection of earlier Norwegian laws, there were rules for wrestling. The Icelandic populace has taken very good care of their Norwegian heritage, and Glima there is almost unchanged since Viking times.”

Water wrestling was a wrestling match in the water and was the most popular form of swimming competition. The idea was to keep the opponents head under water until he gave up, and such matches could last for hours.

It was the most popular sport during the Viking Age, and there also existed several variations of Scandinavian folk wrestling, like: Lausatök, Hryggspenna and Brokartök. These variants of Glíma wrestling have complex rules, with competitors being divided into classes based on their strength and skill.

Brokartök (Trouser-grip)

Brokartök Glima wrestling

Brokartök is the most wide-spread form of Glíma in Iceland and Sweden, and it’s also Iceland’s national sport. It favors technique over strength. The competitors wear special belts around their waists, and additional belts tied around the lower thigh of each leg, which connect to the main belt via vertical straps. A fixed grip is performed with one hand on the thigh belt, ant the other on the waist. In this position the wrestler attempts to trip and throw his opponent. In this style of Glíma, the opponent being thrown may try to land on his hands and feet, and in this instance, he doesn’t lose the fall. The winner is the one who makes his opponent touch the ground with any part of the body between the elbows and the knees.

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Four things make Brokatörk different from other forms of wrestling:

  • The opponents must always stand erect.
  • The opponents step clockwise around each other (looks similar to a waltz). This is to create opportunities for offense and defense and to prevent a stalemate.
  • It is not permitted to fall down on your opponent or to push him down in a forceful manner, as it is not considered sportsman-like.
  • The opponents are supposed to look across each other’s shoulders as much as possible because it is considered proper to wrestle by touch and feel rather than sight.

The core of the system are eight main brögð (techniques) which form the basic training for approximately 50 ways to execute a throw or takedown. Brokartökglíma is different from all other ethnic grips in three ways:

  • Uppréttstaða
    Attackers need to remain upright. The position in many of the ethnic grip sports often resembles a setsquare, but in BrokartökGlíma this is called ousting or “bol”, and it’s banned.
  • Stígandinn
    BrokartökGlíma employs steps, consisting of contestants stepping forwards and backwards as though they’re dancing in a clockwise motion. Stígandi is one of the characteristics of Glíma, and it’s designed to avoid a standstill and create opportunities for offence and attack.
  • Níð
    It’s forbidden in BrokartökGlíma to tail your opponent to the floor or push your opponent down with force. That is considered to be unsportsmanlike and opposing the nature of Glíma as a sport for honorable sportsmen and women. The BrokartökGlíma sportsman or sportswoman needs to conquer his or her opponent with a Glíma grip so well implemented, that it suffices in a “bylta”, which forces your opponent to fall to the ground without any further action. The concept “níð” does not exist in other ethnic grip sports.

Hryggspenna (Backhold wrestling)

Hryggspenna is more similar to other styles of wrestling, and it’s rather a test of strength than technique. In Hryggspenna the wrestlers take hold of each other’s upper body, and the first one touching the ground with anything other than his feet, loses.

Glíma, the ancient wrestling style.

Lausatök (Loose-Grip or Free-Grip)

The most widespread form of Glíma. InLausatök Loose-Grip wrestling, the contestants are allowed to use any hold they want. Lausatök, or Løse-tak in Norwegian, is quite aggressive and differs in many ways from the other styles of Viking wrestling. It was banned in Iceland for almost 100 years, before being taken up again recently. Lausatök comes in two forms: A version for self-defense or combat and a version for friendly competition.

In both forms, all kinds of wrestling techniques are allowed, but in the friendly version, it’s habitual to teach techniques that will not harm the opponent.In this friendly match, the winner is the one standing, and the loser is the one on the ground. If both of them are on the ground, the match goes on on the ground, and the goal is to keep the opponent from standing up.

Excessive use of techniques meant to deliberately injure the opponent is frowned upon. Glímatechniques are enough to pin the opponent to the floor. Techniques meant to inflict “pain” like slapping the opponent while on the ground or shocking him are preferred to techniques aimed to inflict actual injury, like kicking. Such actions are considered níð- unsportsmanlike and opposing the nature of Glíma as a sport for honorable sportsmen and women.

Old Norse: nīð (Old English: nīþ) was a term for a social stigma implying the loss of honor and the status of a villain. A person affected with the stigma is anīðing (Old Norse: níðingr, Old English: nīðing, nīðgæst).

The Glímais supported by a code of honor called drengskapur that calls for fairness, respect for and caring about the security of one’s training partners.  You do not injure your opponent in the training and Glíma as a sport. LausatökGlíma for combat and self-defense was the basis of the Vikings fighting expertise, and also includes techniques against weapons. In order to have a structured form of unarmed combatants fighting against weapons, the Vikings had to possess a detailed knowledge of various weapons, like swords, axes, spears, seaxes, long seaxes, sticks and knifes. Brokartök is the most widespread form of Glima in Iceland and Sweden, and Lausatök is most popular in Norway, Europe and North America. There are regular competitions in this form of Glímasuch as the NorwegianGlímaChampionship.

The Official logo of the IGA association Two staves, kept in the shoes, gapaldur under the heel of the right foot and ginfaxi under the toes of the left foot, to magically ensure victory in bouts of Icelandic wrestling (glíma).

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