The people of Iceland know their history. When the Vikings arrived in 871, they left behind not only a mythical legacy but a great deal of archaeological and historical evidence too. We know, for example, exactly where Iceland’s first settler first made landfall; we know he explored westwards along the south shore; we know where he stayed during his first, second and third winters; we have found his original settlement which he established in Reykjavík in 874. Everything is carefully archived, dated and catalogued. There is a rich vein of source material, and the Icelandic historians have been exhaustive in mining it.
We know that the Vikings had an annual parliament in the geological rifts to the north east of the capital, and there are remarkably detailed records of the legal disputes that caused much stroking of tangled beards and furrowing of auburn brows. We know that the Vikings populated every fjord and inlet around Iceland’s rugged and unwelcoming shore, deriving every possible resource from nature’s scant store until the country’s young birch forests were all but gone. We know how they lived their lives, how they loved to hunt, drink, and play games. It is the last of these that is most intriguing – and most pertinent – for there is now a suggestion that the Vikings may have invented cricket.
Can it really be so? This game of mind and mettle, of gentlemanly conduct, of intellect and instinct – can it really have been devised by the most bloodthirsty and aggressive of European races? The Icelanders – or more specifically, Krikketsamband Íslands (the Icelandic Cricket Board) – earnestly believe that it was. They point to the famous Viking sagas, several of which tell of ‘the ball game’ (knattleikr in Old Norse) which, they claim, has more than a passing similarity to cricket. Several students of ancient history have attempted to recreate the game they call knattleikr, using the descriptions of the games in the sagas and bridging the gaps with their own assumptions – or best guesses – based on what they know of Viking recreation and competitive values. Some of them lean towards an early form of the Irish sport of hurling, but there are just as many good and plausible reasons to consider a kinship with cricket.
It is not by any means clear whether the Vikings actually referred to the game as knattleikr. It is referred to thus – ‘the ball game’ – on the half a dozen occasions it appears in the sagas, and certainly the Vikings were very literal in their nomenclature. Their place names, for instance, are simple descriptions of site and situation (Reykjavík meaning ‘smoky bay’ and Eyjafjallajökull meaning ‘island mountain glacier’ for instance). Their nouns for inventions are similarly derived: the Icelandic word for television is sjónvarp (literally ‘seen broadcast’) and the word for computer is tölva (literally ‘prophetess of numbers’). It seems perfectly plausible that knattleikr could have been the actual name of the game. It’s a ball game, so call it ‘the ball game’.
There are five detailed descriptions of the game in the Icelandic sagas. Its first appearance is in Grettir’s saga (beginning in the first quarter of a century after Iceland was settled in 871), then in Egil’s saga (in about 911), followed by two appearances in Gísli’s saga (set between 960 and 980) and finally in Eyrbyggja saga (set in the late 900s). There are a couple of passing mentions in other manuscripts – it is briefly mentioned in Vopnfirðingar saga – but only as a context for other events. Even a casual reader of the excerpts in question would note a striking resemblance between the ball game and cricket; unquestionably there are far more similarities than differences.
The ball game was popular among spectators as well as players. The tournaments drew huge crowds from all over Iceland and many people would camp near the field of play, since the game demanded so much time that it was played from morning to night over many consecutive days. Frozen lakes were deemed most suitable for play; any visitor to Iceland will know that the country has no natural flat, unhindered grassland. The tournaments tended to get underway in the autumn, when the freeze began in earnest. The participants represented teams from their homesteads, and thus the teams were often divided not only geographically but also along family lines. Each of the teams had a captain, and this tended to be a senior member of the family rather than the strongest or best player; however, the stories in the sagas focus on the sporting prowess of their eponymous hero.
Men played against men, though there were also secondary games for the juniors, but there is no mention of women players. From what we know of Viking women, it is by no means unlikely that they did play. Viking women were strong, occupied important roles in society, and feature prominently throughout the sagas, though there is little mention of them in tales of law and war. It is possible that they were considered to be above such coarse and acrimonious competition.
When the game got underway, players from opposing teams faced each other in pairs. One had a ball and hurled it at his opponent, who wielded a bat. The batsman could strike the ball and, having been thus hit, the ball could be chased or caught by the ballman. Very hard hits by the batsman could put the ball beyond the boundary of the playing area.
Intimidation was common, and indeed was part and parcel of the game. The ballman was embarrassed if the batsman hit the ball back over his head, forcing him to chase it. The ball was hard enough to fell the batsman if it hit him. Physical fights frequently ensued and sledging was not only commonplace but highly esteemed.
Grettir’s saga begins in the last decades of the ninth century. The eponymous hero, Grettir Ásmundarson, is a typically impetuous and hot-tempered outlaw from Viking Norway. When he is fourteen, his brother Atli asks him to join the Bjarg homestead’s team travelling to the ball game tournament at Lake Miðfjarðarvatn in north Iceland. It is only a short distance from Bjarg, but teams and spectators come from distant places such as Vesturhóp, Vatnsnes and Hrútafjörður; they set up tents and stay for the duration of the competition. Atli decides that Grettir will bowl to Auðun, who is batting for the Auðunarstaðir team and is several years Grettir’s senior. He embarrasses Grettir by hitting the ball back over his head and it bounces far away over the ice. Grettir retrieves the ball and is so incensed by the humiliation that he hurls the next ball straight at the batsman’s head, drawing blood.
This provokes a fight. Auðun tries to hit Grettir with the bat, but Grettir dodges and is only struck a glancing blow. The pair start grappling and wrestling, and it is remarked that Grettir is much stronger than everybody thought, what with Auðun being so much older and supposedly more powerful. Eventually, Grettir loses his balance and stumbles, whereupon Auðun deals what is apparently the decisive blow by kneeing the fourteen-year-old in the groin. Atli and many others then break up the fight. Nobody wants the ruck to develop into a full-blown feud because Grettir and Auðun are distant relatives; wars within extended Viking families make the Middle East look like a Punch and Judy show, and much to everyone’s relief ‘the game went on as before and nothing else caused any friction.’
Egil Skalagrímsson was born in 904 and is one of the most famous antiheroes of the Viking sagas. It’s not hard to see why. He is, by all accounts, an utter bastard, incapable of even the slightest civility to any man or woman he meets. This is perhaps best demonstrated when Egil’s saga recounts how he responds to hospitality at the homestead of a man named Armod Beard. Armod treats Egil and his men to meat, skyr and as much ale as they can drink. Not unusually for the time, the drinking becomes competitive. Then as now, young men lost masculinity points by bailing out; it was a question of ‘last man standing’. Egil’s men fall into stupor one by one, while Egil drinks not only his ale but also theirs. Eventually, though, he too is beaten by the drink. He rises, staggers across the floor to his host, and:
He put his hands on Armod’s shoulders and pushed him up against a post. Then Egil brought up so much vomit that it poured all over Armod’s face, in his eyes, up his nostrils and into his mouth. Armod inhaled Egil’s vomit and started choking. Once he recovered, Armod in turn vomited everywhere. Armod’s servants all exclaimed that Egil was a disgusting man. Only the worst kind of person would do such a thing and not go outside to vomit. Egil retorted, ‘Don’t you start. I’m doing nothing worse than your master is doing. Look, he’s throwing up his guts the same as I am.’ Then Egil went back to his seat and demanded more drink.
It will not surprise you to learn that Egil’s participation in the ball game between Borg and Mýrar at Borgarfjörður in 911 is not a study in refined sportsmanship and subtle play. The contest takes place on the plains by the river Hvítá in south Iceland. Egil’s father puts together a team from his farmstead, Borg, with Þórð Granason as captain. Though only seven years old, Egil persuades Þórð to let him come along, and when the game begins, Egil goes off to play a side-game with the other children. He is paired against an eleven-year-old from Mýrar by the name of Grím. Pleased to be pitted against someone so much younger than him, Grím shows off his strength as much as he can, which enrages the diminutive and less powerful Egil. Egil hits Grím with the bat, but Grím puts an end to Egil’s tantrum by pinning him to the ground and warning him that he would suffer if he did not learn how to behave. Egil leaves the game in a sulk and is jeered by Grím’s team-mates.
Somewhat surprisingly, Egil finds a sympathetic listener in Þórð, who decides they will take some revenge on Grím and the boys from Mýrar. He gives Egil an axe and they return to the field where the children are playing. Grím has just completed a catch and is running around, being chased by the others. It is evident that Grím is something of a show pony. Egil runs up to him and drives the axe into his head, ‘right down to the brain’. Then – and this shows remarkable sang-froid, even for Skaldic heroes – the saga says simply ‘Egil and Þórd walked back to their camp.’ This is, of course, not the end of the matter. The men of Mýrar subsequently launch into battle against those of Borg, and seven men are killed.
At the end of the same century, a tournament took place on Snæfellsnes in west Iceland. This had become a very popular venue for the ball game, and indeed there were not camps but a permanent pavilion (leikskála or ‘game shed’) where the teams and spectators stayed for a fortnight or longer. This suggests that the games held here were rather better planned and organised; they were evidently also less violent, as Eyrbyggja saga recounts that ‘a good supply of fit men played, except Blig, who did not participate on account of his aggressive temperament.’
The two best players in the region were the brothers Bjorn and Arnbjorn, who lived at the homesteads of Hofgarð and Bakki. They were so good that it was considered unfair for them to play on the same team, so their people played in opposition to teach other. This all seems unusually considered and reasonable for the Vikings, and it demonstrates that for all their machismo and violence, they could be fair and peaceable people. The question might reasonably be asked ‘why then was Egil so revered?’ The answer is evidently that despite being unpredictable, violent and a psychopath, he was also very good at poetry.
At the turn of the 900s and into the eleventh century, the ball game was recorded way up in the rocky and windswept west fjords of Iceland, at the now-uninhabited and remote Dyrafjörður, which was once a thriving Viking homestead. An epic tussle between the two strongest and best players in the region was decided not by strength but by stanza. The combatants were both fugitives from Norway, Gísli (from Hól) and his brother-in-law Þórgrím (from Sæból). Nobody was quite sure which of them was better, though public opinion tended to lean towards Gísli. A game at Seftjörn pond would settle the matter, and the outlawed in-laws each brought substantial crowds of team-mates, acolytes and spectators. The Hól players were keen that their team should prove to be a good match for Sæból, and Gísli’s brother urged him not to hold back against Þórgrím. ‘Word is going round that you’re not giving your all,’ he said. Gísli responded pragmatically: ‘We haven’t been fully proven against each other yet. But perhaps it’s leading up to that.’
It certainly was. As the public had suspected, Gísli had the better of the early exchanges. He ‘brought Þórgrím down and the ball went out of play,’ says the manuscript. This doesn’t necessarily imply bodily contact. One plausible – and indeed, for our current purposes, preferable – interpretation is that Gísli bowled a short-pitched delivery at Þórgrím which knocked him over, and the ball ran away to the boundary (the idea of four leg byes thus being scored was no doubt a Victorian invention, and a needless one at that).
Þórgrím rose and held Gísli back from fetching the ball, whereupon Gísli wrestled Þórgrím back to the ground so violently that ‘He could do nothing to break his fall. His knuckles were grazed, blood rushed from his nose and the flesh was scraped from his knees.’ Gathering himself for one final attempt, Þórgrím looked up and saw, in the distance, the burial mound of Gísli’s brother Vestein, whom Þórgrím had killed in a feud a few months previously. Gaining confidence from recalling the killing, he said: ‘The spear screeched his wound sorely. I cannot be sorry.’ He rose once more. And again came Gísli with the ball, sticking to his bodyline method. This time the ball hit Þórgrím between the shoulder blades and he fell onto his face for a third time. A triumphant Gísli declared: ‘The ball smashed his shoulders broadly. I cannot be sorry either.’ Thus completing an undoubted victory, by thrice flattening his opponent and coming up with better verse, Gísli was unanimously declared the superior player (and sayer) and the men from Hól took the spoils.
Sæból’s defeat rankled, and they felt that if only they could have another crack at Hól they might prove themselves the better team. In due course, the two teams met again, and this time it was Gísli and Þórgrím’s brothers who faced each other. A great crowd came again, anxious to see what was now not only a rematch but also definitely a grudge match. But again, Gísli’s family had the upper hand, his sibling Þórstein seeing off the efforts of Bork from Sæból, who ‘made no headway all day.’ Eventually Bork became so angry that he seized Þórstein’s bat and broke it in two. Gísli was gobsmacked by this effrontery and brought his brother to one side. He told Þórstein he absolutely must press for victory, gave him his own bat, and set about repairing the broken one. Here, unfortunately, the author of Gísli’s saga becomes somewhat distracted by a particularly good poem recited by his hero, and almost as an afterthought concludes ‘the game then came to a close and Þórstein went home.’ We will, alas, never know whether Sæból levelled the series. There is no Viking Wisden. There isn’t even a ‘W’ in the Icelandic alphabet.
The physical contact may have disappeared from the game played by our ancestors – it seems that the batsman could tackle the ballman as he chased or attempted to catch the ball, and the ballman could tackle the batsman as he ran – but there are some smaller subtleties that will resonate with any cricket fan.
The passage in Gisli’s saga ends with the timeless observation that ‘as the men made their way home from the game, they began to talk and debate about how it was played, and eventually they began to argue.’ Clearly the Vikings were no less prone than their modern descendants to lengthy discussions of all time elevens, managerial tactics and which team was the best in the fjord. No doubt they enjoyed these debates all the more when they were pissed, which was of course often.
This weekend, more than a millennium since cricket’s ancestor threw its weight about, Icelandic teams will compete in a modern variation of ‘the ball game’. This is the newly-created Íslensk Premier League (a sort of Hong Kong Sixes with 24-hour daylight). The five teams are drawn from Iceland’s expat communities: Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, West Indian and English. There will be no alcohol, no physical contact, no blood and axes, no lasting feuds. At least, they’re not in the match regulations these days.