12. Norse Code: Ball games of the Vikings

At the end of the day, the ancient sagas are no more or less true than the story that Adam and Eve once had a rather embarrassing episode with an apple and a snake.

There is no proof in the unlikely story that ancient Britons invented football by kicking around the heads of defeated Vikings invaders, but the Norsemen could have introduced football to the British Isles by less macabre means.

Several of the Nordic sagas refer to ball games answering to such names as knattleikr, soppleik and skofuleik. They were clearly violent affairs, including one on which six players were killed, and seemed to mix elements of rugby with the use of a bat or stick, sometimes to strike the ball and sometimes to strike other players. But in all of the descriptions the reader is assumed to already understand the basics of the game, so they are never explained. So although Viking revivalists around the world like to re-enact these games, we don’t really know much about them and can only make guesses based on such quotes as “Hrafn took the ball and Krak the bat and they played as they were wont. The Jarl sat on a chair and looked at the game, and when they had played it for a while Hrolf got hold of the ball. He snatched the bat from Krak and handed it to Stefnir. They then played for a long time and the brothers did not get hold of the ball.”

Forms of this game may have reached Britain and therefore been the origin of anything from rugby to cricket. It is also now generally established fact that the Vikings made it as far as the Americas, and in 1904 Ebbe Hertzberg proposed the theory that knattleikr was also the origin of the Native Indian stickball games. It’s a possibly, as is the reverse suggestion that it was there that the Vikings learned of such games, but there is no conclusive evidence either way.

Even less demonstrable is the idea that there’s a connection between the Scottish stickball game of shinty and the North American games. This comes from the theory that in the 14th century, when the Orkneys were ruled by Norway, its Earl, Henry Sinclair, travelled to North America almost a century before Columbus. Very few historians take the claim seriously, or agree that he was the same person as the legendary Micmac figure of Glooscap who arrived on a floating island, but it is nonetheless curious that the native game of ‘gugahawat’ bears so many similarities to Scottish shinty.

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13. CELTIC ART: Stickball games of the ancient Celts

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