Glíma, the Martial Arts System used by the Vikings

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Viking warriors had the skills to survive against various forms of warfare and combat.

The reason for the Vikings fighting prowess is found in the way they trained both with and without weapons. For combat without weapons, the Norse had developed a martial arts system called Glima.

To be a good fighter and survive the unpredictability of combat, a warrior must know how to defend themselves unarmed against an armed opponent.

Glíma, the ancient wrestling style.
Glíma, the ancient wrestling style.

The Norse developed Glima, which is a self-defense system that employs throws, blows, kicks, chokes, locks, pain techniques and some weapon techniques. It is comparable with the best martial arts systems from all around the world. The word glíma in Old Norse means “glimpse” or “flash,” which describes the system’s techniques…speed.

The Viking martial art is so named because the methods bring down their opponents with lightening quick moves and tricks using both feet and hands.

This style of combat training helped develop the strength, reflexes, endurance and courage that Viking warriors needed to survive in combat. Glima also builds self confidence and for Norse children, Glima training usually began at around 6 or 7 years of age.

Glima self-defense training was the foundation of a Viking warrior and these techniques are still practiced today in Scandinavia, Europe, North America, and South America.

Glima is mentioned in the Prose Edda in the book of Gylfaginning when the Æsir god Thor took his journey to Utgards-Loki and was defeated in a wrestling match by the female jötunn Elli (Old Norse “Elli” means “old age”).  Yes, Thor was beaten by an old woman in hand to hand unarmed combat…but there’s more to the story as to why. (read the Gylfaginning)

In Gylfaginning, Thor and his companions Loki and Þjálfi are in the hall of the giant Útgarða-Loki where they meet difficult challenges testing their strength and skill. 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.

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.

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

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.

Glima is so important to Norse society, Thor is also the god of wrestling.

As with people of every age and nationality, the Norse loved sports.

Glima was not just used for self defense and combat, but was also a sport. Wherever Vikings gathered, Glima was a big part of the entertainment. It was the most widespread sport in the Viking Age and there were several variations of Scandinavian folk wrestling, such as: Lausatök, Hryggspenna, and Brokartök.

Glima is practiced by men and women of all ages.

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.

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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.

The skilled variants of Glíma wrestling, called Brokartök, Hryggspenna, and Lausatök, have complex rules with competitors divided into several classes based on strength and skill.

Brokartök (Trouser-grip)

Brokartök is by far the most widespread form of glima in Iceland and Sweden and it is this version of glima that is Iceland’s national sport.

Brokartök Glima wrestling
Brokartök Glima wrestling

The Brokartök form of glima favors technique over strength. Each of the two wrestlers wear a special belt around the waist and separate additional belts on the lower thighs of each leg, which connect to the main belt with vertical straps. A fixed grip is then taken with one hand in the belt and the other in the trousers at thigh height. From this position the glima-wrestler attempts to trip and throw his opponent. In this style of glima, a thrown wrestler may attempt to land on his feet and hands and if he succeeds in doing so he has not lost the fall. The winning condition in this type of glima is to make the opponent touch the ground with an area of the body between the elbow and the knee.

There are four points that differentiate Brokartök 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.

Brokartök glíma is different from all other ethnic grips in three ways:

  • Upprétt staða
    Pursuers shall remain upright. The positioning in many of the ethnic grips sports often resembles a setsquare but in Brokartök glíma that is called ousting or “bol” and is banned.
  • Stígandinn
    Brokartök glíma involves steps, which involves contestants stepping forth and back like they are dancing in a clockwise motion. Stígandi is one of the characteristics of Glíma and designed to avoid a standstill and create opportunities for offence and attack.
  • Níð
    It is forbidden in Brokartök glíma 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 Brokartök glíma sportsman or sportswoman shall 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 is considered to be more a test of strength than of technique. In Hryggspenna the opponents take hold of each other’s upper body and whoever touches the ground with any part of the body except the feet has lost.

Lausatök (Loose-Grip or Free-Grip)

Lausatök is the most widespread form of Glima practiced and there are regular competitions of this form of Glima, such as the Norwegian Glima Championship. In Lausatök Loose-Grip wrestling, the contestants may use the holds they wish.  Lausatök, or Løse-tak in Norwegian, is quite aggressive and differs in many ways from the other styles of Viking wrestling. This style was banned in Iceland for a period of about 100 years before being taken up again recently, within the last generation.

Lausatök, or Løse-tak in Norwegian, is quite aggressive and differs in many ways from the other styles of Viking wrestling. Lausatök comes in two forms: A version for self-defense or combat and a version for friendly competition.

In both, all kinds of wrestling techniques are allowed, but in the friendly version they are still taught to be executed in a way so they won’t cause the opponent injury. In such a friendly match the winner is considered the one who is standing tall while the other is lying on the ground. This means that if both the opponents fall to the ground together the match will continue on the ground by the use of techniques to keep the other down while getting up.

Excessive use of techniques aimed at deliberately injuring an opponent is frowned upon in sport Lausatök glíma. It is enough to use glima techniques that send an opponent to the floor, to inflict ‘pain’ on the floor, to ‘slap’ and opponent as opposed to ‘punch’ and kicks aimed at shocking an opponent rather than breaking bones. Such actions are considered níð; unsportsmanlike and opposing the nature of Glíma as a sport for honorable sportsmen and women. The concept “níð” does not exist in other ethnic grip sports.

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 a nīðing (Old Norse: níðingr, Old English: nīðing, nīðgæst).

Surrounding glima is 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 glima as a sport.

Lausatök glima for combat and self-defense was the basis for the Vikings fighting expertise and also includes techniques against weapons. In order to have a structured form of unarmed combatives against striking weapons, the Vikings had to know how to use a variety of weapons, such as sword, axe, spear, seax, long seax, stick and knife. The foundation for the use of these weapons is found in Lausatök combat glima.

As Brokartök is the most widespread form of Glima in Iceland and Sweden, Lausatök is by far the most widespread form of Glima practiced in Norway, Europe and North America. There are regular competitions in this form of Glima such as the Norwegian Glima Championship.

In Lausatök Loose-Grip wrestling, the contestants may use the holds they wish and it is practiced both outdoors and indoors year round in Scandinavia.

Glíma as a sport has also gone by the name of Scandinavian Wrestling and Viking Wrestling (Vikingbryting).

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).
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).

Sources:

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by Njord Kane © 2016 Spangenhelm Publishing



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