Photo credit: Emily Chesley
The Vikings lived in an honor-based culture. A man’s self-image was based, not on what he knew about himself, but on what others thought of him. Reputation was everything.
In a culture like that, social life is a minefield. Say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, and your neighbor may take deadly offense. An apology is not an option, because that would diminish you in the eyes of your neighbors. And an offense against any man is taken personally by his kinsmen and friends.
Thus do feuds begin. And feuds are a sad waste of energy and resources for any community, not to mention a drain on much-needed manpower.
So how are quarrels to be settled without metastasizing into feuds? For small offenses, the assessment and payment of a fine will do. But for greater offenses, it’s impossible to keep trained warriors, in a society without police, from resorting to their weapons.
This is where the judicial duel comes in. The judicial duel — the “holmgang” in Viking Scandinavia – is intended to release the pressure of the quarrel by permitting — while at the same time limiting — the violence.
What “Ragnar” and I, and the other fighters in our group, do in our exhibitions is not technically a holmgang. What we’re doing is an einvigi (single combat), the kind of fight that occurs naturally when two armed men are angry, and which can easily escalate into a feud once of them is dead and his kin set out to avenge him.
A genuine holmgang was a ceremonial affair, in part a religious rite. It was designed with the purpose of moving the conflict out of this present world into a separate, sacred, supernatural place, where only the two principle fighters were permitted.
We don’t know all we’d like to know about how holmgangs were carried out. Customs seem to have varied from one place to another. The rules we know of are those of Norway and Iceland, and they seem to have developed over time.
The word “holmgang” means, literally, “going to the island.” It seems that in many localities there were traditional spots — often actual islands — set apart for dueling. If an actual island, or one of appropriate size, wasn’t available, the fighting area was (according to the sagas) laid out like this:
A cloak or animal hide, covering an area about nine feet square, was laid out on the ground. The corners of the cloak was fastened down with sewn-on loops, through which special round-headed stakes were driven. The man who drove the stakes had to approach them backwards, looking between his legs while holding onto his earlobes.
Around the cloak three furrows were dug. Then hazel poles were driven into the ground at the corners, from which ropes were suspended. This marked the limit (probably about twelve feet square) in which the combatants might maneuver. A man who put one foot out past the barrier was said to have “flinched.” If he put both feet out, he was judged to have fled, and he automatically lost the duel.
There is some reason to believe that a sacrifice may have preceded the fight, but we do not know for sure. The challenger was required to recite the rules of the duel.
Then the fighting could begin.
(Next time, the actual combat.)