When one brings up the Nordic peoples of the Viking Age in a conversation, the image that comes to the minds of most people is one of blood thirsty barbarians ravaging and plundering their way across Europe. Unless the people among which this topic is being discussed are historians, professional or otherwise, they are not likely to know of the highly complex social structure of the Nordic people during this period. One such area of this complex social structure is law. For instance, unless one is a student of this period, or a linguist, one is not likely to know that the English word "law" comes from the Old Norse word lög.And just as modern law can be twisted to benefit the unjust, so too could the law during the Viking Age. however, during that time there was a way in Iceland and Norway for a litigant to achieve the justice sought by a faster route than a suit. Anyone could challenge his opponent to a duel called a hólmganga. It is this aspect of Nordic law, the hólmganga, and it's regulations, use, abuse, and possible fictionalization that will be discussed herein.

"Hólmganga (Literally "to go to a small island") was formal, following precise rules." These rules were known as the hólmgöngulög. The hólmgöngulög was recited at the beginning of a duel by the challenger. however, "it is clear that the rules and customs that are mentioned in the sagas never had a uniform character." they varied from region to region and could change over a period of time within a region. The onlything truly consistent was the the two combatants agreed to the rules under which they fought.

As stated, the word hólmganga means to go to an islet. this would indicate that this form of duel was developed in an area with many coastal islands, and western Norway fits this descriptive element. It also follows that since the first law code of Iceland was based on Norwegian law that the hólmganga and the hólmgöngulög would also have been brought from Norway and later modified to suit the needs of the Icelanders. "Law adopted the (hólmganga) as one of its authorized methods, although it did not really make it part of itself. It was the simplest of all legal procedures, and required no proof, no pleading, no sophistries, and no subtleties." "The right of settling a legal dispute by ...combat was a neutralizing influence at the uncertainty of Icelandic law. It was a shield against the dominating principle of Formalism, and as a means of deliverance from the ...false oath of an opponent ...it was a ready means for ...settlement of the ...issue, and was ...a[n] ...answer to any ...legal chicanery."

One of the customs of the hólmganga was that the challenger was to recite the rules of the hólmgöngulög prior to combat. From Kormak's Saga we are given a fairly detailed list of the rules for a particular holmgang. In chapter 10 (Pp 33-34) the author writes that a cloak, or ox hide, of a specific size is to be laid out and staked down with a particular type of stake. These stakes were to be put in following a formulaic pattern called the tjösnublót. From this saga the details for the tjösnublót were either lost or so well known at the time that they were excluded. More will be said later about the tjösnublót. After the cloak was laid out, three borders were to be made around the cloak, and finally hazel staves were to be planted in the corners of the borders. When finished the place was said to be "hazelled" and had the appearance of a modern boxing ring. The saga then goes on to tell the number of shields permitted, who was to strike first, when fighting was to cease, what was to be considered forfeiture after fighting commenced, and compensation to the winner.

Kormak's Saga shows that the Icelanders had modified the law to allow the setting up of a special dueling "ring". This innovation then made it's way around the Nordic world as duels fought in Norway, and at least one in England, show that a cloak was laid out for the duel. there is even one duel in Egil's Saga in which the dueling cloak is set up on an islet. The cloak was to be five ells square, or approximately twenty square feet. After the cloak, or hide, was staked the rings were put around the cloak. there were to be three, and they could be marked with stones or dug into the ground at the four croners of the ring, or pitch, completed the pitch, and it was said to be "hazeled" and ready for combat. "[The] cloak was a symbolical representation of the island on which the combatants [once] stood. the pitch ...was itself a court for the settlement of disputes by legal methods." Because the holmgang was legally recognized, if not condoned, the winner could not be prosecuted for killing his opponent.

The actual combat of a holmgang was another aspect that could have great variance. In Iceland the blows were regulated, each combatant taking turns with the challenged man going first. Whereas in Norway, the two attacked each other as in normal, open battle. The weapons, too, were open to the choice of the duellers. "Probably every man choose the weapon which best suited him." The sword was the most common weapon of choice, and was restricted in its length, but other weapons were used. For example, Egil, in his various holmgangs, uses one or two swords, a spear, a club, and even his teeth.

For defense, each combatant was allowed three shields. in Iceland, these could be held during the combat for the fighters by a second. However, in Norway each man held his own shield. One example of seconds being used comes from Hrolf Gautreksson's Saga.

"The king [Hrolf] said he thought fighting
Harek wasn't much of a risk, and then
they went outside. A cloak was spread
under their feet, and the berserk [Harek]
recited the rules of combat. The king
had no weapon except the giant's
sword. thord held the shield for the
king, and with the first blow the king
split the berserk's head right through
to the shoulders."

Although the above example refers to a Swedish king and a holmgang in England, the duel still follows the aforementioned rules of Icelandic hólmganga. The only difference between this example and the rules noted above deals with the death of one of the combatants.

The Icelanders, realizing that their population was small and that it was a waste to have the important men of the country killing each other, incorporated two rules that virtually ended this loss of life. These were the rules that combat would end as soon as blood fell to the cloak, and that the party that lost would pay a "ransom" of three marks of silver to the winner in holgangs where the reason for the duel was not an easily transportable item. "these two rules must have been fairly late additions to the hólmgöngulög. They are legal modifications in the stern spirit of wager-of-battle, and show a considerable amelioration of its earlier principles. Originally the holmgang was a fight to the finish, or until one of the combatants was so badly wounded that he could not continue."

As stated earlier, the holmgang was a legally recognized way to settle a dispute. It was used and worked primarily because "[t]he ideal of the warrior was so entrenched... That refusal... to ...dual was considered dishonorable. When emotions ran very high, a duelist threatened... public dishonor during the wording of, or acceptance of, the challenge. If he failed to appear, he would be legally declared a nithingr, a man devoid of honor." Honor was a concept that was at the core of the Nordic culture. A man without honor was better off dead since no one, not even relatives, would have dealings with a man declared nithigr. "There is some fragmentary evidence that the nithigr declaration meant more than public dishonor. A curse in Vatnsdale Saga indicates that the penalty was outlawry." Because one's social status was at stake, as well as the object being fought over (wether physical or moral), normally challenges were not made lightly. For the most part, challenges were made because someone's honor had been called into question, as a form of legal redress, or to aid a family member or close friend. Of these three reasons, holmgangs in defense of one's honor are the most dominant.

One example of this situation comes from The Saga of Gunnlaugur Snake's Tougue. In this saga Gunnlaugur had lent some money to a man he thought to be of good standing, but in reality the man was nothing more than a thief and berserk who enjoyed cheating people. After a second attempt to persuade the berserk failed, Gunnlaugur challenged him to a duel. "'Now I want to offer you law' says Gunnlaugur, 'That you pay my money or else duel with me three nights from now.'" The time frame here is another aspect of the hólmgöngulög that was variable. Almost all duels were to be fought three to seven days after the challenge, although as will be shown later, there were exceptions to this. Something possibly confusing here is the fact that Gunnlaugur states the time lapse in nights. One might then assume that the duel was to be fought at night. This would, however, be incorrect. Until after the complete implementation of Christianity in the Nordic world, the calendar was ticked off in nights instead of days. Thus would wonder why this example comes under the heading of duels fought for honor. This is due to the fact that if a warrior such as Gunnlaugur were to allow the berserk to cheat him, Gunnlaugur would suffer a loss of prestige and his ability to function in society as he would become nithingr. Some might ask why Gunnlaugur did not take the berserk to court over the money. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, courts in the Nordic world met only once every three months. Secondly, although both men were from Nordic countries and knew their laws well, the incident takes place in England, and the English king was reluctant to involve himself in a dispute between two foreigners. Finally, even if the case were to go to court, English or Nordic, the court would most likely rule that the man was a known cheat and thus Gunnlaugur got what he deserved for dealing with the berserk; such was the mind of the people in the Viking Age. Thus the only course of action open to Gunnlaugur was to challenge the berserk.

Another illustration of the honor driven holmgang comes from Kormak's Saga. Here Kormak challenges his long time rival, Bersi, because Bersi has married a woman betrothed to Kormak.

"Then Kormák said: 'I challenge
you , Bersi, to go to the holm
with me within a half month's
time, on Leidholm (Assembly
Island) in Middale.' It is now
called Battle Island. Bersi said
he would come. He said Kormák
chose that which would bring
him less honor"

This last statement by Bersi was made as Bersi was the better fighter of the two and he knew that he would defeat Kormak, thus lessening Kormak's honor.

A similar situation to the example from Gunnlaugur's Saga involved a legal dispute between Egil and another man named Atli. Their argument was over Egil's wife's inheritance. In short, through earlier legal chicanery, and the bad will of King Eirik of Norway toward Egil, Egil's wife was unable to claim her inheritance after her father died. A number of years had past and a new king was on the throne. The new king, Haakon, was the foster son of the king of England, Ćthelstan, and Egil was a good friend of Ćthelstan. Egil now believed that a letter from Ćthelstan to Haakon would help him get his wife's inheritance. Egil and Atli went to the Gula Assembly to put their claim before the court there. But when it appeared that Atli would again cheat Egil through false witnesses, Egil stood and said: "'I'm offering you another law, 'he said, 'that the two of us fight a duel here at the assembly, winner take all."'

Egil's challenge is similar to Gunnlaugur's, but only in that the main characters involved are attempting to regain moneys and/or properties owed them. For Egil this was not a matter of honor, but a matter of legal redress. Egil won the duel and was thus able to claim his wife's inheritance without further interference. "Holmgang was a step in the slow transition from private to communal law, a deft attempt to lead what could not be driven. It was a private sentence and execution carried out in an enjoined manner, and on that account sanctioned by the community."

"There was a particularly binding element about a challenge to holmgang. It was a challenge to one's manhood, which could be vindicated only by a ready acceptance of the offer of battle. It went further than a legal summons - it was a private arraignment and a matter of personal honor or dishonor. to refuse ... was to refuse the manly course ... and this laid a man open to the charge of cowardice." Ljósvetninga Saga offers another example of a challenge to a holmgang for legal redress which falls within the auspices of the above quote.

"Then Thorir spoke for all to hear:
'I haven't gotten to the last of my
offers yet, Gumund, for I know that
you have a lot more against me
than just the marks on Thorir
Akraskegg's goats; I know that you
blame me alone for saying what
many say, though others are no
less implicated, namely that I have
called you an effeminate pervert. I
now wish to test whether that is true
or not, so I am challenging you to
single combat to be held in three
days on the islet in Oxar River
where duels used to be fought. Let
the two of us do battle according to
the ancient laws.'"

In this situation the man issuing the challenge has done so to forestall the courts from possibly issuing a verdict against him. Thorir knew that Gudmund had no chance of defeating him in battle, thus for Thorir, this was a win/win situation. If he defeated Gudmund the lawsuit would be over, and, if Gudmund refused, the court would believe the slanders against Gudmund were true and decide in favor of Thorir.

In legal usage, the third most common reason after honor and legal redress for a challenge to a holmgang would be an instance where one aids a family member or a close friend. Chapter sixty-four of Egil's Saga gives another good example. Egil had been staying at the home of his blood-brother's sister. Egil noticed that his host's family was quite subdued and asked what was the matter. The woman answered that a berserk named Ljot had come and asked for the woman's daughter in marriage. When this was refused Ljot challenged the woman's son, Fridgeir, to a duel. The challenge was accepted, but the family knew that the tough man had no chance of winning against the berserk. This brought the family to a state of near depression for the woman knew that she would lose both her son and her daughter. When Egil asked if he could do anything to help she said:

"What I'd like, Egil, is for you to go
duel with Fridgeir. I know that if
Arinbjorn [her brother and Egil's
blood-brother] were in Norway we
wouldn't have to endure the brute
force of men like Ljot." "Lady,"
said Egil, "for your brother
Arinbjorn's sake it's my duty to
go with your son if he thinks I can \
be any help."

Once again Egil showed how honor "...is perhaps the most important feature..." in Nordic life, especially in the area of dueling. Here Egil showed that by not offering aid he sullied his honor; Arinbjorn is his blood-brother and in the Nordic world this was a tie that could be closer than that of two siblings. He also showed that he would not bring insult on Fridgeir by just stepping in, he will only of if "... he thinks I can be any help." This acknowledged that the fight was Fridgeir's and that it must be Fridgeir who asked for the aid.

From Njal's Saga comes an example which fits the headings of Aid to others and Legal Redress.

"Gunnar said, 'I shall challenge
you to single combat, Ulf Uggason,
if people are not to get their just
rights from you. Njal and my friend
Helgi would, I know, expect me to
support you Asgrim, if they cannot
be present themselves.' 'But you
have no quarrel over this claim,'
said Ulf. 'That does not matter,'
replied Gunnar. The outcome was
that Ulf had to pay the whole claim."

In this situation Ulf was not required to fight or be called coward; he was being given the choice of either dealing fairly in the lawsuit or facing Gunnar at the holmgang. Either choice here was honorable. As to Gunnar's actions, he was not well acquainted with Asgrim, but Asgrim was a friend of Gunnar's very good friends Njal and Helgi, both of whom would have supported Asgrim in his suit. Gunnar, however, being not as law wise as Njal, gave the only aid that he knew how to give that would best aid the friend of his friends.

"The victory clause [that the winner takes all that is being fought over] clearly favored the duelist of the superior strength and skill. While the victory clause permitted a socially disadvantaged warrior to press for his legal rights ... it also allowed unscrupulous warriors to gain ... wealth' through what could be termed legal abuse of the holmgang. There are many stories throughout the sagas wherein a warrior challenged someone solely to gain a woman and/or property, either land or movable property. "References from Iceland and in particular Norway ... show that the intrepid considered the duel an instrument to better their way of life. Men of small means would put a claim on alien property by challenging the owner to a duel. Victory or the challenger's refusal to fight ... automatically legalized the claim. Berserks ... oppressed the rich by challenging them to duels."

Another reference to a berserk making a claim comes from Hrolf Gautreksson: A Viking Romance. Again a berserk has come and asked for a man's sister, this time for her to be a concubine. When the berserk is refused he makes the challenge. It is accepted, but for unexplained reasons the berserk sets the date of the duel three years in the future. This allows the man challenged time to find someone to fight in his place. From Eyrbyggia Saga comes this reference: "Thorolf thought that the land his mother had taken not nearly extensive enough, so he challenged Ulfar the Champion to single combat for the land he owned, Ulfar being old and childless." In the early days of the Icelandic Republic, as it came to be called later, duels for land and/or women had not yet been outlawed. There is only one reference in the sagas set in Iceland of a challenge for a woman, and a number of short references to property duels in Landnamabok in addition to the one noted above, that show that these type of duels were completely unjustified. As such they were outlawed and "[a] man could no longer be challenged for his lands or his women-folk, since the only result of the holmgang the law would allow, apart from wounds or death, was a claim for the payment of the agreed upon stakes. Any further act of personal aggrandizement was unauthorized pillage, and could be resisted by the kinsmen or friends of the defeated fighter."

The Nordic peoples were pragmatic and relied on their abilities to achieve what they needed or desired. They looked on their gods as beings that could give aid, but the Nordics did not always count on that aid coming through. This view point is apparent in that the duelers did not see the hólmganga as any kind of judgment by the gods, or after Christianization, God. "A statement by Snorri and several references to religious ceremonies at the duel suggest ... that a closer bond existed between the duel and religious conceptions prior to the Viking Age. Other comments from the close of the heathen era ... indicate that a segment of the population still believed the gods to be interested in the duel even though they did not intervene." There are only two religious rites mentioned in any of the sagas. These are the tjösnublót, and the offering of a sacrificial bull, called the blótnaut. "Kormak's Saga (Chapter 10) is the only source which speaks of the tjösnublót. The saga asserts that the sacrifice owed its name to the pegs which secured the cloak on which the duelist opposed each other. The purpose of the tjösnublót. isobscure ... because the saga omits the wording
of the spell or incantation pronounced at the rite." According to Professor Gwen Jones, the tjösnublót. was an outworn ceremony no longer in practical use by the time of the Icelandic settlement period. He believes that the sacrifice may have been an emplemistic ritual and a commendation of the warrior's soul to Odin, in his role as the god of death.

While the tjösnublót. was carried out before combat, the blónaut was occurred after. "[B]oth combatants would have a steer in readiness. In this way they signify their willingness to repay to the gods any favors granted them." After his duel with Atli, Egil sacrificed a bull. In this reference it is stated that sometimes a third party brought the bull and that occasionally both of the duelers brought their own. Kormaks Saga also has an entry for the use of the bull sacrifice. "Kormak slaughtered the sacrificial bull, as was the custom."

Even though the hólmganga held some religious elements it was not considered to be Ordeal as were some duels in the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance. "The combatants relied absolutely on their strength, their cunning, their ferocity, and their weapons. Holmgang was often a test of moral issues, but it was always decided by physical means. At times ... a fighter would have recourse to supernatural and unearthly powers to help him in his contest, either ... witchcraft ... magic ... or berserkergangr, but [these] can hardly be ... divine assistance."

There seems to be only one passage that refers to a holmgang as being an Ordeal, or a judgment of God. In one saga, King Olaf Tryggvason diverts a supporter from fighting a holmgang after it is revealed that the man's opponent had appealed to God to grant victory to the combatant with the most just cause. In Vallaljot's Saga, chapter twenty three, an Ordeal of hot iron is performed. As hostile commentary was set forth by neither the author nor the characters involved in the scene about the Ordeal's use, it would seem to indicate that the Icelandic people did not see the hólmganga as a form of Ordeal. Had the Nordics seen the duel as an Ordeal, a duel would have been fought instead of the use of the hot iron, or at least a challenge made. Thus it can be seen that to the Nordic people the holmgang "was not a form of Ordeal. It was peculiar and segregated legal procedure, and not an attempt to provoke an impartial pronouncement from the ... Aesir [or God] about ... mundane affairs. [The] holmgang rested on a legal basis, and was recognized as a legal proceeding.

"There is mention of hólmganga in seventeen sagas, [and they] give more or less detailed accounts of about twenty-five holmgangs." And inspite of the fact that there are a number of historically provable people with the epithet "the Duelist", many of the twenty-five duels are considered to be nothing more than literary inventions to spice up an otherwise dull story. The motive for this conjecture is the overwhelming use of berserks as the antagonist. The foundation of this is the so called "victory clause" of the hólmgöngulög. This clause granted the winner of the duel the object(s) sought. Because of this "[b]erserks fought without regard to the legal rights of their opponents." Thus a "berserk / duel" motif was developed.

The motif has a berserk show up and ask (or demand) that some woman in the house be handed over to become his wife or concubine as was shown earlier in both Egil's Saga and Hrolf Gautreksson. The "request" is denied and so the berserk challenges the man who has legal guardianship over the woman. Then the challengee either fights using magical weapons, or he finds someone to fight for him that is more than the equal of the berserk. It was easy for the author of the later sagas to fall into this pattern, if these sagas are truly using the berserk as a literary tool, as berserks were already "inextricably linked to the history of hólmganga" through historically verifiable holmgangs, and because they fit the role of a villain so well.

The duel in the Nordic world was a legalized feud "...and it relied on personal effort for the realization of the participator's aims. Unlike blood-vengeance it was regulated in its methods and confined in its application." The holmgang was used, and abused, legally until it was outlawed. The Icelanders regulated the duel more heavily than Norway and were the first to ban its practice in 1006, two years after the establishment of the Fifth Court as an appeals court. "As the law of the clenched fist it [holmgang] suited well the spirit of the time, and could not be dispensed with until something less brutal, but equally effacious, had been found to take its place." Norway forbade the holmgang eight years later. According to Grettis Saga it was Earl Eirik who made the law banning the duel.

As has been shown, all duels were fought on a plot or pitch. "Originally this was an island or islet to which the combatants could repair, and then fight out their quarrel at will. The choice of an island was was obvious mean {of} ensuring {that} neither party... step{ped} outside the prescribed limit{s}." It is probable that each district, in both Iceland and Norway, had a traditional site that was used for many generations whereupon the duels were fought. The pitch, with its cloak or hide as a center, had the look of a modern boxing ring. Here the "ring", all disputes were discharged by the combatants without the interference of false witnesses or mass numbers of supporters. the social rank of the two disputants had no bearing. The social rank of the two disputants had no bearing. As stated in Egil's Saga, "...everyone had the right to challenge another to a duel."

Although anyone could make a challenge, the sagas show that the majority of duels were fought between men who could afford good weapons and had the time to train with them. These were the members of the aristocracy. "It is possible that the aristocracy would have resorted less to the duel, if the consequences of defeat had not been exclusively in the hands of the combatants." This means that the whole of the duel, from the reason for the duel, to the rules it was fought under, to the reward or punishment of its outcome, was solely in the hands of the combatants. In Norway, until dueling was outlawed, the winner gained all the property of the loser; while in Iceland winnings came to be controlled. The victor was restricted on what could be gained. In Iceland only, property in dispute of ownership and matters of honor could be fought over. And with the exception of the property, the highest monetary gain that could be made was three marks of silver. It should also be remembered that although the hólmganga was a legal procedure, the courts never encouraged its use.

The hólmganga was a battle between individuals. Some men knew themselves incapable of defeating their challenger, and so occasionally the use of a substitute was made. One should remember that this was shown in Egil's Saga, Hrolf Gautreksson, and, to an extent, in Njal's Saga.

Examples of the abuse of the hólmganga were also shown. "That such a method of procedure was abused was evident from its very nature, that no means of checking it existed was unfortunate, but inevitable, because of the pusillanimity of the executive side of the ...courts." The holmgang was an easy road to riches for the skilled warrior who had little honor. By challenging those weaker than themselves, berserks could amass vast fortunes. For the Nordic warrior, wealth could only be attained through battle, or trade. Any other approach was theft and would bar the warrior from Valhalla. Since the hólmgöngulög had no rules against it, nor were there any laws against it, the warrior, especially the berserk, would render an opponent unfit for further strife before taking what he wanted.

" The influence of religious conceptions on hólmganga was confined to the presence of certain sacrificial elements. These are found rarely, and do not imply any suggestion of divine intervention." The two forms of sacrifice in the hólmganga where the tjösnublót and the blótnaut. From its position in the holmlaws, it appears that the tjösnublót took place before combat. However, it's exact significance is lost to modern readers. Blótnaut was the sacrificing of a bull after the combat took place and was done by the winner of the duel. There is no evidence in the sagas that suggests the that the Nordic peoples considered the hólmganga as a form of Ordeal.

The Nordic countries came to realized that the duel was not an appropriate way to solve disputes. Eventually, for reasons suited to their own countries, the Norwegians and the Icelanders forbade to practice of hólmganga. However, it should be remembered that "[h]olmgang was a compromise between private and communal law. It was strife every step of which was regulated by... the hólmgöngulög."

By Garfield Matson
This artical appeared in Valhalla's Svar Vol. 6 No.7