Holmgang 

For today’s article, I have written a few facts about the practise of ‘holmgang’.

• holmgang was an ancient Scandinavian duel used to settle disputes.

• holmgang, literally translated, means ‘to go to a small island (holme)’. This is thought to be because the duels were commonly practised within stone circles, or upon cloaks or hides placed on the ground. It could also be a reference to the fact that, in the saga of Egill Skallagrimmsson, Egill fought his opponent on a small piece of land in the middle of a lake.

• the word ‘holmgang’ is of Danish origin, but it is also known as ‘hólmganga’ (Icelandic and Old Norse), and ‘holmgång’ (Swedish and Norwegian).

• anyone could challenge any opponent, regardless of differences in social status. 

• duels could take place for matters of honour, ownership or property, demand of debt, legal disagreements, etc.

• holmgangs occurred three to seven days after a challenge was made. If a man didn’t turn up for the duel, the other man was considered to be the winner. In this case, the person who proposed the challenge would be labelled a ‘nidingr’ (implying that the person had lost their honour, or was a villain). In extreme cases, a nidingr could be ostracised and become an outlaw. A more capable warrior could also fight in a friend’s place, if this was agreed in the terms.

• the exact terms and rules of a holmgang would be discussed and agreed by both parties prior to the duel.

• the duel would be fought either in a pre-specified place, agreed by both parties, or in a traditional place which was regularly used for this purpose.

• the challenger would recite the rules before the duel began; this also included which weapons were allowed, what would constitute as a loss or victory, and what the winner would gain. Usually it was deemed that the winner could take or have only what the duel was fought for in the first place, but in Norway it was common for the victorious party to take everything the loser owned.

• in the early days of holmgangs, it is believed that opponents would have fought till the first bloodshed, or even death. Later, however, it was more commonplace to simply rid the opponent of his weapon, or push him outside of the duelling area. If a man died during a holmgang, it was not considered murder, and therefore it did not result in outlawry of the killer, or payment of compensation (weregeld) to the dead man’s family. 

• professional duelists would use holmgang as a method of robbery – by challenging an opponent, and winning, they could lay claim to women, land, wealth or property at the expense of the legitimate owner. Many berserkers used holmgang in this way, as described in several of the sagas.

• holmgangs were banned in Iceland from the year 1006, as a result of the duel between Gunnlaugr Ormstunga and Hrafn Önundarson. Norway outlawed the practise in 1014, with the rest of Scandinavia following suit shortly after.

•  there is an account of the terms and conditions of holmgang in the Hednalagen (‘pagan law’), a 13th century document found in Västergötland, Sweden. This can be read in full on Wikipedia.

I hope you have enjoyed reading some fascinating facts about holmgang! Feel free to let me know of any other subjects you’d like me to write about in the future. 

Photo: Egill Skallagrimmsson engaging in holmgang with Berg-Önundr, a painting by Johannes Flintoe.

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