Sunday, August 27, 2006

Knattleikr (Viking Ball) and other pre-modern games


For Labour Day weekend I wanted to re-create the Viking Ball Game (Knattleikr). This might have proved impossible without the help of a pamphlet from Folump Enterprises that very neatly summarizes the scattered evidence from the sagas. Now the question of whether a recreation is possible is replaced by whether it is desireable, given the modern expectation that since we might live a really long time, we should take care of ourselves.

Modern sports have a lot of structure, a feature that seems to date from the 19th century (my guess). Earlier sports often did not. For instance, a popular pre-modern European sport was the gigantic football game between two parishes or villages, in which a ball, large or small, was moved over an unmarked countryside until one side moved it to a rather undefined goal, such as their parish church or the parish church of their opponents. (There is a Wikipedia entry on the game of La Soule formerly played in Cornwall, Brittany, and maybe other parts of France; this article will give you an idea.)

Knattleikr (or Knattleikur) seems to have been a similar sort of thing. It involved a marked-off playing field (sometimes ice surfaces), a ball, sticks, and teams chosen to be even in numbers and strength, and not a lot of other rules at all. For instance, there is no mention in the sagas (which concentrate on personal rivalries between players) of goals, points, winning, or losing. The game may well have just continued until everyone was tired of it. It certainly could continue for days.

Often today a game like this is played with protective equipment. Back then, there was none. Various sagas talk about really rough tackling, slamming the ball into your opponent until he bled, and worst of all, getting so angry that getting a weapon and killing your rival seemed the only thing to do. As today, this would lead to legal action, but the old Scandinavians were pretty tolerant of manslaughter in the heat of anger. Whether you got punished depended more on how strongly your family backed you up against the family of the other guy ("feud").

Actually, "back then" is not so long ago. A hundred years ago in Canada, when hockey was played, was there protective equipment? No. Was there highsticking? Yes. What about manslaughter on the ice with weapons brought on the field? Maybe a reader can fill us in.

And in some places, "back then" is "now." The picture at the head of the post is of the Kirkwall Ba' game still played in Kirkwall, chief town of Scotland's Orkney Islands. The best short description is in the Wikipedia entry, but don't miss the longer illustrated account (pdf) from the forthcoming Orkney Guide Book. Ba', played between the Uppies and the Doonies, may or may not have Scandinavian roots (Orkney being a Viking principality a thousand years ago), but in the last two centuries it's evolved into a big part of Kirkwall's and Orkney's culture, with a lore all its own. For instance the terms Uppies and Doonies may come from the higher side of town or from the harbor, but another story on the Web says that Uppies are people who flew in from far away, while Doonies are people who've come to Kirkwall by boat. That latter story has to be pretty new, and one wonders if the far away people came to work on oil rigs...

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