August 12, 2011

Illuminations: The Viking Holmganga


Egill Skallagrimsson engaging in Holmganga with Berg-Önundr, painting by Johannes Flintoe (1787-1870).


With the release of The Duel x5, Melville House is launching a new digital innovation, HybridBooks, which combines the concept of a digitally enhanced eBook with the printed book. For more information on HybridBooks please click here.

Throughout August we will be posting samples from the Illuminations — additional material that will appear exclusively in the first releases in our Hybrid Books series. So sharpen your sword, keep your powder dry and get ready for a month of dueling history, lore and technique. That’s right. Dueling technique…

Trial by combat is generally conceived of as a phenomena of the Christian era. The notion of a just god ruling over personal combat goes hand-in-hand with the storybook image of Lancelot defending Guenevere’s honor, or Ivanhoe championing Rebecca. The reality is that the roots of trial by combat lie in the traditions of the Germanic tribes, and the Norseman before them.  And it had little to do with justice before god, but rather a way to settle disputes about property.

The Holmganga, or “Island Walk,” was actually an evolution of the concept of a fair trial. No, really. There were two prevailing types of trial by combat used by Nordic cultures. Einvigi and and Holmganga. Einvigi had been the standard for years, and by way of rules had only one: To the victor goes the spoils. There were no rules concerning equal weaponry, perimeters for the field of contest or when one could fight. You bring your axe and I’ll bring my sword and we’ll settle our dispute. It was that simple/crazy. Feel that your neighbor’s horse is better than yours? Einvigi. Like your neighbor’s house? Einvigi. Ironically, the system was not always a fatal one, and often involved a bartering arrangement either before battle or after an opponent’s skill was realized to be far better than one’s own.

Obviously this system left much to exploit. The best man with an axe in his hand is not necessarily the best farmer or governor but Einvigi rewarded skill in battle alone. This brought about the concept of Holmganga. Known as the “Island Walk” because it is believed to have originally used islands as the dueling ground perimeter, the Holmganga defined equal terms for weapons, spacing and allowed for a greater use of strategy and less underhanded trickery or foul play.

So how did a couple of Viking warriors negotiate their duels? In this passage from Ivar The Viking by Paul du Chailu one gets a sense of the etiquette of such an affair, which is interestingly very orderly.

“What kind of duel dost thou wish us to have,” asked Ketil of Ivar, “the Holmganga or the Einvigi? Thou art the challenged man, and thou has the right to choose which of the two thou wilt have.”

Ivar answered: “I choose the Holmganga, for there is more honor and fame in this than in the other; and when I left Gotland for Upsalir, to participate in the games, it was to win more fame than I had before. There are two alternatives before me: the one, to get bravely the victory in fighting against thee; the other, to fall with valor; and that is better than to live with shame and dishonor.”

“But,” said Ketil, “why dost thou choose the Holmganga instead of the Einvingi? Thou art young and inexperienced, and in the Holmganga there are difficult rules, but none in the Einvingi.”

Ivar answered: “I shall not fight better in the Einvigi, and I will risk the Holmganga, and in all be on equal footing with thee. Though much younger than thyself, and of less experience, I am not afraid of the Holmganga rules. I have handled the sword many a time, though I have never done so in a duel. My foster-father taught me well its use, and the rules of dueling also.”

Then the laws of the Holmganga were recited by Sigurd, this being obligatory before a duel took place.

“This is,” said he, “the Holmganga law: The cloak must be ten feet from one end to the other, with loops in the corners, and in these pegs must be put down. The one who makes the preparations must go towards the pegs, hold his earlobes, and, bending over, stand with his feet apart, seeing the sky between them. Three squares each one foot wide, must be marked around the cloak. Outside the squares must be placed four poles, called hazel poles. The place is called a hazelled field when it is prepared thus. Each man must have three shields, and when these are made useless he must stand upon the cloak, and thereafter defend himself with his weapons. He who has been challenged is to strike first. If one is wounded so that the blood falls upon the cloak, he is not obliged to fight any longer. If either steps with one of his feet outside the boundary, it is held that he has retreated; and if he steps outside with both feet, he is held to have fled, and is accounted vanquished.

“Have you, Ketil and Ivar, taken heed of the Holmganga law which I have just recited to you?” asked Sigurd in conclusion.

“Thou hast recited well and correctly the laws of the Holmganga, Sigurd,” replied Ivar.

And then they tried to kill each other.

On Monday we’ll continue our look into the Illuminations for The Duel by Joseph Conrad by exploring code duello of the American South. I do declare!