Knattleikr was an Icelandic ballgame with similarities to lacrosse. One of the most notable features of this Viking ball-and-stick sport was the focus on paired opponents. Before each match, every player would be paired off with an opponent from the other team, roughly equal in strength and agility. These rivaling pairs would stick with each other during the whole match; no one was allowed to interfere with another pair. These pairs would chase, fight, wrestle, and sometimes strike each other with their bats throughout the course of the match. In this way, knattleikr was akin to a battle, with each individual struggling against another for the good of their respective teams. The sport was nearly as violent, too; the Icelandic sagas that discuss knattleikr reveal that players were occasionally killed on the field – sometimes intentionally. One of the sagas recounts the tale of a man killing his opponent with an axe after a bitter match, with the two teams clashing in lethal combat in the aftermath.
Excerpts from the Icelandic sagas reveal that knattleikr was typically played on large bodies of ice, though flat, open fields were an acceptable substitution. A referee would be chosen to mark the goals and the boundaries of the field. The objective of each team was to pass the ball (or balls – see How to Play further down) through the goal of the opposing team, either by throwing or running it. The game appears to have had less of a focus on passing the ball past the opposition (for example, a primary feature of basketball) and more on the individual with the ball overcoming his opponent. Of course, the ball could be passed to a teammate if a player found his rival to be too much of a challenge.
Due to the similarities between the two sports, knattleikr is theorized to have a connection with lacrosse – technically, through lacrosse’s predecessors played among Native American/Canadian tribes. These sports were played with some variation among these tribes and naturally developed some differences. Though many of these sports’ key elements are commonly found among many athletic games (such as the use of open fields, two goals, two teams, etc.), some of their similarities with knattleikr are fairly unique. For example, as discussed by William Hovgaard in his 1914 Scandinavian Monographs, in the Iroquois variation of the sport, players were paired against each other based on comparable athletic ability, much like knattleikr. More comparisons can be made between the sports, although despite these, the lack of hard evidence here ultimately makes the connection between knattleikr and lacrosse quite speculative.
As the only known records of knattleikr lie in the Icelandic sagas, its recorded history is very short, lacking in detail. The sagas that mention knattleikr* date primarily to the 13th and 14th centuries, though as they describe Icelandic life from the 9th to 11th centuries, the sport’s origins are at least slightly earlier. Beyond this information, any conjecture of knattleikr’s history would be educated speculation at best.
*According to Veturliði Óskarsson, PhD., Professor of Nordic Language as the University of Uppsala, the sagas that contain information on knattleikr are the Egils saga, Grettis saga, Gísla saga, Eyrbyggja saga, and Vápnfirðinga saga.
How to Play
The rules of knattleikr have been pieced together in part using excerpts from the Icelandic sagas, though the ambiguity of these sources makes some of the details unclear. The deducible details of the sport are as follows:
Each player would be paired off against a comparable player from the other team. In outstanding cases, two players would be matched against one. For the length of the match, these pairs were only to contend with each other; nobody was allowed to interfere with a player they were not paired against. In contesting with each other, these rivals would run, fight, wrestle, and do whatever was necessary overcome their opponent. If they were able to slip past or disable their opposition, they could directly or indirectly aid their own team.
The objective of each team was to pass a ball through the opponents’ back boundary/goal. Some sources suggest each pair had their own ball to fight over, though the majority of sources agree that one ball was used among all the players. In addition, the absence of any plural usage of the Old Nordic word for ball in the context of knattleikr games suggests the same. It appears that the player with the ball would primarily try to overcome his opponent to either run or throw it through the goal. He had the freedom to pass the ball to a teammate, though it appears this was not the focus of the sport. The objective of the offensive players not currently handling the ball was likely to remain open to receive it, while each rival opponent would likely try to block them (probably with wrestling more often than field positioning).
The players also wielded bats with which to handle the ball. Some sources suggest each pair shared a bat between them, alternating intermittently, but the practicality of this is hard to imagine; most sources agree that each player had his own bat. This bat, discussed under Equipment immediately below, was likely used both for catching and striking the ball, though the specific rules regarding such mechanics are not known. It is clear that in addition to its ball-handling, the bat was often used to attack rival players.
The knattleikr knottr (ball) was hard, likely made of wood, and heavy enough to be lethal at high speeds. It was around the size of a baseball or smaller. Other than that, nothing of it is known.
There is more debate over the construction of the bat, called the knatttre in the sagas. As the knatttre was likely used for both catching and striking the ball, it was probably of wood construction, with the far end being broader and scoop-shaped. (Some sources suggest it may have featured a net like modern lacrosse sticks, but this is purely speculation, and can presumably be attributed to the desire to connect the two sports.) As players often struck their opponents with the knatttre, it had to have been light enough to mitigate otherwise lethal blows (though it can be assumed that some of the recorded instances of manslaughter were nonetheless the work of this bat).
Hovgaard, W. (1914). Scandinavian Monographs, Volume 1: The Voyages of the Norsemen to America. American-Scandinavian Foundation.
Óskarsson, V., Ph.D. (2016, September). Fornnordisterna: Idrott och knattleikr i sagorna. Retrieved January 16, 2017.
Peters, F. (1991). Glima and Knattleikr in the Icelandic Sagas. Germanic Notes,22.