Icelandic Grappling: From the Sagas to Modern Glima

Jan 25, 2023Martial Arts

The island nation of Iceland has a rugged landscape shaped by volcanoes, glaciers, and the North Atlantic Ocean. This remote and often harsh environment fostered a resilient society with a strong sense of national identity. An important piece of Icelandic cultural heritage is the unique indigenous style of wrestling known as glíma.

Grappling holds an important place in Iceland’s history, from the era of settlement chronicled in the medieval sagas to the present day. The country’s unique geography and culture influenced the evolution of glíma over the centuries. This article will trace that evolution—the origins, techniques, and role that glíma has played in Icelandic society.

We’ll explore how it emerged from the saga-age practice of “fang” into a more refined style designed to minimize harm. We’ll see how rules and methods were adapted to make matches possible even in cramped dwellings during Iceland’s long winters. And we’ll learn how glíma persisted through the generations as a communal tradition that connected communities across Iceland’s rugged terrain.

The Age of Settlement: Wrestling in Iceland’s Early Days

The settlement of Iceland began in the late 9th century AD, mainly by Norse emigrants from Scandinavia and the British Isles. The settlers scattered around the island’s coasts and carved out an existence on isolated farmsteads.

Wrestling seems to have been popular from the very beginning. The old Norse term “fang”, meaning to catch or take hold, was used to refer to wrestling matches during the settlement period. Fang reflected both the Norse roots of most settlers and the Celtic roots of a significant minority. Matches often involved clinch work and trips, but could frequently turn violent.

There are many references to fang wrestling contests and techniques in the medieval Icelandic sagas. These historical narratives describe Iceland’s early days and the lives of its first generations of settlers. The sagas contain accounts of wrestling between individuals, rival groups, travellers, and at games and assemblies.

Wrestling appears to have been both a leisure activity and a way to resolve conflicts. However, their authors likely exaggerated the violent society depicted in the sagas. Iceland avoided fracturing into clans or chieftaincies and instead forged an interconnected, literary-focused, and legislature-governed commonwealth.

Nonetheless, the sagas do provide insight into wrestling’s role in early Icelandic life. Matches sometimes ended dangerously with participants drawing weapons on each other. At this stage, wrestling stemmed from anger and pride as much as recreation. Serious injury and death were not unheard of outcomes. There seem to have been few rules limiting potential harm.

This began to change as Icelandic society matured…

The Emergence of Glíma

By the 11th century AD, unrestrained violence had become less socially acceptable in Iceland. The practice of “convivial wrestling” emerged, with matches designed to test skill while strengthening the bonds between participants and communities.

The name glíma gradually replaced “fang” and appeared in sagas from the 12th century onwards. Glíma roughly means “game of joy”, contrasting with the often bitter rivalries of earlier wrestling encounters. Matches aimed to maintain the all-important harmony and cooperation within Iceland’s scattered but close-knit society.

As glíma evolved, rules were established requiring upright posture and constant stepping in a circle around opponents. This minimized uncontrolled movements in Iceland’s confined dwellings while allowing matches to continue through the long winter months.

Glíma’s characteristic footwork and space-conscious techniques reflect how grappling evolved to fit Iceland’s unique environment and society. Violent clinching and throws were highly dangerous indoors. Fishermen and churchgoers wrestled during breaks to socialize and stay warm. The circular stepping uniquely allowed for ongoing matches without damage.

Glíma became engrained as a cultural tradition that both unified and entertained the “great Icelandic village”. It crossed generations, social classes, and regions. Public contests demonstrated skill while maintaining good relations vital to society’s function.

Glíma represented Iceland’s needs and values in a way foreign styles never could…

Glíma’s Legacy and Practice Today

Glíma has remained a living tradition in Iceland for over 800 years since the days of the sagas. It embodies a critical piece of the nation’s intangible cultural heritage, on par with the Icelandic language and medieval literature. Glima’s values of cooperation and convivial competition continue to resonate with Icelanders today.

While the iconic hero Grettir embodied Icelanders’ hardiness and physical prowess, his inability to control his actions posed a threat to an orderly society. Glíma has always represented the opposing values of discipline and social harmony.

The fundamentals of glíma have changed little over the centuries. The only notable addition has been the standardized leather belt or harness adopted since 1905. This replaced gripping an opponent’s trousers which modern attire could not withstand.

Visitors to Iceland can still experience this cultural legacy firsthand. Local glíma clubs offer open training sessions. Competitions test practitioners’ skills through public displays evolving directly from the saga-age. Although geographically isolated, Iceland’s indigenous grappling art preserves a long, proud tradition for all to enjoy.

From the Sagas to Modern Glima

In glíma, Iceland created something uniquely its own—a grappling style forged by the landscape and society of this remote North Atlantic island. While founded on universal wrestling techniques, glíma evolved to allow matches even during harsh winters in cramped dwellings. Its focus on harmony and harmlessness embodied Icelanders’ intimate interconnectedness through the generations.

Glíma remains a banner for Icelandic culture and history today. By experiencing Iceland’s own “game of joy”, visitors can connect with a communal, convivial spirit over 800 years in the making.

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