The FREQUENTLY OCCURRING EPISODES involving sports and games in the Icelandic sagas (1) serve a variety of dramatic purposes and again raise questions about the verisimilitude of saga literature. Dramatic episodes centered on competitive activities--most notably ball games, horse fights, swimming contests, and table games--provide both psychological insight into and a social context for the deeds of chief actors in the sagas as well as insight into the role that such competitive activities played in medieval Scandinavian society. In order to understand the functions of competitive activities in the sagas, this essay will first examine a number of such episodes as literary constructions explicating their role in character revelation and in the depiction of social dynamics between groups of characters. Afterward, the literary depictions of the social dynamics surrounding competitive activities will be considered in light of real-world data on the role of such activities in warrior societies. It will be argued that the resemblance between the social dynamics depicted in the sagas and similar dynamics observed in real world cultures is too strong to be coincidental and that in their depictions of social interactions surrounding competitive activity, at least, the saga compilers were writing as close to life as they could. The guiding idea that the sagas can provide useful ethnographic data about life in medieval Scandinavia, an idea that has gained much scholarly acceptance in recent years (Palsson 1-25; Whaley 161-202), will inform much of the work presented here.
SPORTS, GAMES, AND CONFLICT: THE GREAT OUTDOORS
Early in Egils saga Skalla-Grimssonar, we read the following description of the eponymous hero's father:
Skalla-Grimr hendi mikit gaman at aflraunum ok leikum; um pat potti honum gott at roeda. Knattleikar varu pa tidir; var par i sveit gott til sterkra manna i pann tima, en po hafdi engi afl vid Skalla-Grim; hann gerdisk pa heldr hniginn at aldri. (IF 2:98-9) (Skalla-Grimr delighted greatly in contests of strength and sports; that seemed good to him. Ball games were in fashion then, and at that time there was a good supply of strong men in the district. But none of them had any strength compared to Skalla-Grimr. He was, at that time, rather stricken with old age.)
After this description of Skalla-Grimr's prodigous athletic prowess and enthusiasm, there follows an episode in which the young Egill, having been roughly treated by an older boy named Grimr, avenges himself on Grimr by driving an axe into his skull (IF 2:100). Egill's killing of his competitor at a public sporting event precipitates a general melee in which seven men are killed before the violence can again be brought under control. At this early point in the saga, ball games are already associated with violent conflict in that they provide a social outlet for aggression that quickly moves from non-lethal violence whose scope is limited by rules to lethal battle with considerably fewer restraints. The incident provides one of the first illustrations of Egill's violent temper and leads to conflict within his family as his father and mother react differently to his deeds. Aware of the potential dangers posed by so recklessly violent a son, his father disapproves, while his mother expresses her pride in his martial skill.
In this particular episode, the social consequences of Egill's killings at the ball game are limited. No one demands compensation for the killings, nor does anyone from the family of the murdered boy take revenge on Egill or his family. In another episode from the saga, though, the bloodshed on the playing field produces significant repercussions. In a fit of rage recalling his lycanthropic ancestry as the son of Kveld-Ulfr, Skalla-Grimr kills Egill's playmate, Pordr, along with the slave woman, Porgerdr Brak. To avenge their deaths, Egill himself kills the overseer of his father's estates (IF 2:100). …