Background of the Íþróttir

I established the íþróttir competition at the Egils Tournament Skallagrimssonar (Barony of Adiantum, Society for Creative Anachronism) in 1989, in order encourage the development of a broader range of Norse skills and better development of Norse personas (the role-playing identities adopted in the SCA). As far as I know there was no collective competition of this name in period, but there were individual competitions of skills. These skills were referred to as íþróttir collectively.

The íþróttir (skills pl.) are mentioned as bragging points ("what a superior fellow I am") in a number of sagas, particularly Haralds Saga Harðraða & Orkneyinga Saga.

The word íþrótt (sg.) derives from a word for power/strength/might/valor, þrótt.

The word for contest is kapp. Kappi means champion; certain champions are the equivalent of "knight", for example, King's champions (kappar (pl.) konungs) are the equivalent of in-period knights. Selection for a kappi konungs was strictly martial, they were the elite fighters of the King's household. Kappar (pl.) were commonly fighting contests (duels). Kappleikr is a fighting match. Strictly speaking the íþróttir should be refered to as kapp íþrótta.

The person who wins a kapp is a kappi.

From the Cleasby & Vigfusson (CV) definition of íþróttir:
King Harald (Hardrada) counts eight: poetry, riding, swimming, "sliding in snowshoes", shooting, rowing, playing the harp and "versification"; Earl Rognvald, Orkneyingasaga, counts nine: chess playing (tafl), runes, book, smíð (craft), sliding on skis, shooting, rowing, playing the harp, versification; the contest between Thor and Utgard-Loki could be related (run a race, eat fast, drink, "lift the cat" (weight-lifting), wrestling).

"In modern usage" (this would be 19th C Victorian period of the dictionary), Icelandic & Scandinavian, means more "fine arts".

Note, at some point many years ago, I printed out a list of the contest names and all the diacritics got garbled, big-time. Of course, this garbled-spelling copy is the one that was found and used later, and those once-garbled spellings have been further mushed up over time. Part of the motivation for writing this up is to get the proper spellings in circulation again.

Gerek's original list:

Some other possibilities for íþróttir activities, including terms for all the other things in the lists above. A lot of these did NOT get chosen for the original íþróttir for obvious logistical reasons. Will include here other things not in the Harald and Rognvald lists; also there were other occasions for competitions and will include their categories. 

Other items from the Thor and Utgard-Loki list. Remember, these contests were all tricks, the Drinking one turned out to be drinking the sea, the "cat" turned out to be the World Serpent, etc.:

About ax-throwing. This has been more recently added to the Egil's íþróttir. I have never been able to find a word for it. CV says something about "climbing walls", apparently in Eyrbyggja saga and Færœinga saga, but I have never (yet) been able to find it in those sources to confirm or otherwise. The principle source for this appears to be the Kirk Douglas movie, The Vikings. While this movie was heavily vetted by academics at the time, it WAS made in the 1950's; and is based on a Victorian version (not even a Victorian translation) of Ragnars Saga Lóðbrokka. In my opinion, if this ever existed at all, it feels to me like one of the anachronisms that often creep into the Sagas (remember, the Sagas were written up to 400 years after period, and were copied and re-copied after that). The same goes for oar dancing. (Of course there were plenty of real "stupid norse tricks".)

Two of the skills that were greatly valued by the Norse I have not included: horse fighting (hestavig, hesta-at) and norse stick ball (knattleikr).
NOTE - the above are all men's skills (except possibly the brewing and clothing). There are women's skills. But you don't see much (any?) women's-bragging in the sagas, so who knows. There was more than one known woman poet, known as skald-mær, poet-maids; we know one name, so there may have been bragging about women's skills. People did brag about how good a table they set, so cooking (matargörð, matráð, matreiða, matbuð,matgerð, etc.) could be an appropriate division; weaving (vefnaðr) was valued so that might be another. There are lots of skills referred to as íþrótt, and there are other words for "skills" (list, hagleikr, dugnaðr, görvileikr, slyngr, etc.), so there may have been some division in how different skills were regarded. The impression is that íþróttir were "elite" skills.

*Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir, recent Icelandic cookbook & SCA-cooks list. This is consistent with both the rarity of the term jastr in Icelandic sources and the odd meanings attached to its use.

© copyright 2006 Gary R.D. Walker

Last updated 13/6/06.

webmaster at