The Vikings settled disputes by Holmgang, a Viking Duel.
The Norse upheld a legal system much like courts, but not everything could be settled by talks and negotiation. This is when justice demanded the blood of another. A Holmgang was a duel and a commonly recognized way to settle disputes by the Norse. The word “holmgang” translates to “Island Walk” which refers to a hide or cloak which was about three meters long on each side that was staked to the ground of which was the boundaries that the participants had to stay in during the duel.
Egill Skallagrímsson engaging in holmgang with Berg-Önundr. Painting by Johannes Flintoe (1787–1870).
Just like a duel, regardless of social status, a person could be challenged to settle a dispute by means of the Holmgang. The duel usually took place within three to seven days after the challenge and if one didn’t show up, then the other was considered the winner of the dispute by default.
If it was the challenger of the holmgang that didn’t show up, then they would be outlawed and labeled as a ‘niðingr’ (a coward that had no honor and was beneath everyone else – the lowest of low).
In some cases, a capable warrior could stand in behalf of a clearly outclassed participant of a holmgang. A person’s more capable son or someone from their clan to champion on their behalf.
The results of a holmgang was not considered murder and thus a weregild was not required to be paid by the victor, even though it was seen in the film “The 13th Warrior,” the victor of a duel had paid weregild after winning a duel.
- This article is an excerpt from the book:
Kane, Njord. “Norse Law and Government” The Vikings : The Story of a People. 2nd ed. Yukon: Spangenhelm, 2015. Print. 978-1943066018.
Used by permission from the author and publisher exclusively for use on spangenhelm.com only.
by Njord Kane © 2016 Spangenhelm Publishing
Read more in The Vikings by Njord Kane
Example of Holmgang on YouTube from the film, “The 13th Warrior.”
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