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Knattleikr (English: 'ball-game') was an ancient ball game played by the Vikings of Iceland. The term is also applied to a modern sport created by re-enactors, and now played at a few United States institutions as a college club sport, based on what is known about the historical game.
The game was probably similar to early versions of the Irish sport of hurling, which also dates to antiquity. Today, no one knows exact rules of Knattleikr, but some information has survived from the Viking Age in Iceland (beginning around the 9th century).
We know that players were divided into teams, each with a captain. The game demanded so much time that it was played from morning to night. It was a spectator game, with tournaments drawing huge crowds from all over Iceland.
Game-play involved a hard ball was hit by a stick, although players could also use their hands. Body contact was allowed in the fight for the ball where the strongest had the best chance to win. Thus, intimidation was a vital ingredient; several wars of words have been recorded in the old sagas. There were penalties and a penalty box.
It is conjectured by some[ weasel words ] that the playing field was lined, usually played on a flat ice‐covered surface, e.g. a frozen pond (though bumpy, land‐based ice, svell, is also mentioned). The Vikings may have used tar and sand under the soles of their boots for traction.
Today, knattleikr is often re-enacted at medieval fairs and by Norse culture enthusiasts. It is also played on some college campuses. Brandeis University, Clark University, Providence College, and Yale University in particular are known for their teams. The first annual New England intercollegiate knattleikr competition (right) was played in April, 2007at Clark University between Clark's team and Brandeis.
The New England Viking reenactment group cautions that the game is dangerous and refers to the Icelandic Grágás laws that a player may leave the game at any time.
The most complete descriptions of the game are to be found in the following Icelandic sagas:
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