Glíma-wrestling in medieval Iceland: Technical characteristics and social functions in the light of Old Norse literature.

From the mythical match of the thunder god fiórr with Elli, personified old age, to the fights of the notorious outlaw Grettir the Strong, Old Icelandic literature is rich in descriptions of wrestling as a competitive pastime. The sources give details on techniques and rule sets: heel hooks, hip and shoulder throws are applied, and saga authors obviously aimed at an audience that had a clear understanding of wrestling terminology and techniques. The kind of wrestling described – often, but not exclusively called glíma – is a typical example of European “sports” wrestling, as we also find it in Fabian von Auerswald’s wrestling manual from 1539, in the Schwingen of Switzerland, or Breton Gouren. Glíma wrestling fulfilled several functions in social life. The wrestling ground was a stage for men to demonstrate their physical skills, but also their adherence to a socially accepted code of conduct. Social prestige was the reward for those wrestlers who dominated their opponents without breaking the rules of fair play. In this way, wrestling highlighted the Icelandic ideals of proper, manly behaviour, and enabled participants to integrate themselves into the network of friendships, mutual support, and legal dependencies that was constituting for the Icelandic commonwealth. The lecture will give an introduction into the historical properties and social implications of medieval Icelandic wrestling. On a methodological level, it will discuss how narrative medieval literature can serve as a source for the study of historical European martial arts. Furthermore, Icelandic wrestling shall be compared to practices of combat sports with similar social functions, like later European Fechtschulen, or Zulu stickfighting.


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