Don’t let the serene name “small island walking” (translated from Old Norse: holmganga) fool you. It was a bloody ordeal where the honor of the participants was on stake. Basically a duel to settle disputes, the name Holmganga refers to the small area the fight takes place on. It could be a circle drawn on the ground, or even something as small as a cloak or a hide.
Put your arse on the line -literally: The 10th century berserk “Terror-Berse” Veleifson also had a less flattering name; Arse-Berse, which he got from having one of his buttocks cut off in a holmganga. The reason was Berse’s wife Steingerd – a fair woman also loved by Kormak Ögmundarson. He passionately desired Steingerd and came up with the brilliant plan to claim her through killing Berse in a holmganga. Berse was a fierce (and probably pissed off) opponent and killed Kormak, but not before Kormak managed to cut off half of his arse. Real life sagas rarely have happy endings and neither did this one since Berse’s mutilated arse led to his wife leaving him. At least the man’s honor was somewhat intact.
There are many Viking Age stories and tales like Berse’s that describe holmganga. Challenges could be thrown around by more or less anyone based on matters such as honor, ownership, property, debt, legal disagreements, revenge or intentions to help a relative. It happened that skilled, immoral fighters invented reasons and claims to challenge someone to holmganga, hoping to prosper from the outcome. Luckily it wasn’t unusual for an experienced warrior to fight in place of a clearly outclassed friend.
Follow through and mind your manners: The fight was to take place within a week and if the called out person didn’t show up, the challenger was considered to have a just cause. In other words, he “won” the dispute. However, if it was the other way around and the person throwing the challenge failed to appear to the holmganga, he was deemed a niðingr (honorless, extreme coward) and could be sentenced to outlawry. This basically meant that someone calling out a holmganga had to see it through – or leave the country, change his name and hope that no one would recognize him for the niðingr he was.
Holmganga had an effect that we at Grimfrost refer to as the “barbarian code of conduct” that was also seen in many other cultures where disputes could lead to sanctioned violence rather than court appearances. You basically couldn’t run around and be a bastard, insult people and wrong them. If you did, there was a good chance that it’d bounce right back at you with a challenge to a holmganga. Good manners were in other words as necessary as a good swordarm.
Egill Skallagrímsson engaging in holmgang with Berg-Önundr, painting by Johannes Flintoe