Glima – The Viking Martial Art Still Practised Today

glima viking martial

Ask about martial arts today and most people will immediately assume you mean one of the oriental, open-hand disciplines such as karate, judo, aikido or taekwondo. But in Europe our ancestors faced life-and-death struggles with opponents on the battlefields throughout history.

English and Welsh archers were renowned for their skills with the longbow, as the slaughter at Agincourt bears witness. Sword skills often meant the difference between life and death, so regular practice was crucial.

But what if a weapon was not available? It may have broken, been knocked from your hand or just lost in the heat of battle. Survival then meant using any means to stay alive. No doubt grappling and other forms of wrestling were regularly practiced, but as far as I’m aware, no formal name was given to this form of self-defence in England, or ever written down.

The Vikings had a style of hand-to-hand fighting that is still practised today, albeit mainly as a sport. Little known outside of Scandinavia, it is called Glima, and in old Norse, glima meant glimpse or flash, which describes the techniques used. Glima techniques includes throws, blows, kicks, chokes, locks, pain techniques and weapon techniques.

In deadly combat all available grips (holds) were employed, including tricks with the feet and the legs, designed to bring the opponent down to the ground with a view of maiming or killing, e.g. by planting his knee in the opponent’s belly and biting or cutting his throat.

Glima was the most popular sport during the Viking Age. Both men and women participated in the sport. Glima as a sport has several types; Brokatrok, Hyrgspenna, and Lausatok. In many a Viking film, warriors are seen wrestling for fun (usually after consuming vast amounts of alcohol).

The settlers of Iceland brought with them a form of wrestling which they resorted to when unarmed. But there were other forms as well, which they indulged in for exercise and amusement.

In ancient legends there are accounts of epic wrestling matches fought by famous wrestling champions in Iceland who are still household names, and “they were ferocious when they fought blåmenn (dark-skinned foreigners from the south) and berserkers.”

In the north of England and southern Scotland, which was heavily settled by the Vikings, Cumberland wrestling developed, also called the North Country style. Today this form of wrestling is showcased in agricultural shows and fairs throughout the Lake District, much like they have for over two hundred years.

Cumberland wrestling is something akin to Icelandic wrestling, or Glima. Like this Norse version of the sport, it has Viking influences apparent in its techniques and movements. The back hold already gives a hint of that old Norse influence. You can see it the way the wrestlers start squaring off with each other, chest against chest. They then wrap their arms around one another, their chins on either side of the opponent’s shoulder.

Though the exact historical roots have been lost in the mists of time, current thinking and evidence indicates that it may have come over to these Isles with the Vikings as Norse Wrestling.

Cumberland & Westmorland Wrestling is a traditional sport, and is all about the traditional values of loyalty, sincerity, respect, and fair play. In fact at the Opening Ceremony of major IFCW Wrestling Championships, the Wrestler’s Oath is recited in unison:

“I swear to wrestle with entire loyalty,
Without treachery and brutality,
For my honour and that of my country.
In testimony of my sincerity,
And to follow the custom of my ancestors,
I present to my fellow my hand and my cheek.”

To read more about Glima as a martial art:

“Lars Magnar Enoksen (b. 1960) is president of the Viking Glima Federation and its master instructor. The following text is a short presentation of the grand masters who are Lars Magnar’s most influential instructors in the art of Glima. Lars Magnar began his apprenticeship in the late 1980s when he was tutored by experienced masters of Glima in Iceland which was the only place at the time where this art was still practiced in unbroken traditions since the Viking age.”

“It should be mentioned that in the late 1980s there was almost nobody who knew of Glima in Scandinavia except a few practitioners of this martial art to be found in Iceland. These keepers of the flame had all been taught Glima through family traditions or were fostered in an area where Glima had strong traditions. These masters had a great understanding of Glima which was quite different from those who only practiced it as a modern sport. It is their knowledge of the martial arts applications of Glima that truly distinguishes them from those who are only aware of it as a modern sports style.”

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