Medieval Icelanders may not have been able to charge $100,000 per second for advertising, but they too had their spectator sports, including the ball games that accompanied the two-day bout of feasting and drinking at the start of every winter.
In Gisli’s Saga, crowds gather to cheer on their favorite players of knattleikr, a sport sometimes described as a combination of rugby, hockey, cricket, and lacrosse. Gisli—widely acclaimed as the second-cleverest outlaw in the sagas—hits the ice against a background of family drama: Gisli’s wife’s brother, Vestein, has just been murdered, because Gisli’s sister-in-law, Asgerd, was making eyes at him, which made Asgerd’s husband, Gisli’s brother Thorkel, jealous. Thorgrim, who’s married to the sister of Thorkel and Gisli, is the likely suspect.
Get all that? Doesn’t matter. Here (from Martin Regal’s translation) are Gisli and Thorgrim working out their rivalry on the frozen gridiron, with Thogrim sort of confessing to the murder in skaldic verse:
The games now started up as if nothing had happened. Gisli and his brother-in-law, Thorgrim, usually played against each other. There was some disagreement as to who was the stronger, but most people thought it was Gisli. They played ball games at Seftjorn pond and there was always a large crowd.
One day, when the gathering was even larger than usual, Gisli suggested that the game be evenly matched.
“That’s exactly what we want,” said Thorkel. “What’s more, we don’t want you to hold back against Thorgrim. Word is going around that you are not giving your all. I’d be pleased to see you honoured if you are the stronger.”
“We have not been fully proven against each other yet,” said Gisli, “but perhaps it’s leading up to that.”
They started the game and Thorgrim was outmatched. Gisli brought him down and the ball went out of play. Then Gisli went for the ball, but Thorgrim held him back and stopped him from getting it. Then Gisli tackled Thorgrim so hard that he could do nothing to stop falling. His knuckles were grazed, blood rushed from his nose and the flesh was scraped from his knees. Thorgrim rose very slowly, looked towards Vestein’s burial mound, and said:
Spear screeched in his wound
sorely — I cannot be sorry.
Running, Gisli took the ball and pitched it between Thorgrim’s shoulder-blades. The blow thrust him flat on his face. Then Gisli said
Ball smashed his shoulders
broadly — I cannot be sorry.
Thorkel sprang to his feet and said, “It’s clear who is the strongest and most highly accomplished. Now, let’s put an end to this.” And so they did.
A modern reader can greet Gisli’s Saga with a sigh of relief, happy not to be living in those awful Middle Ages. After all, the days when star athletes might work out their personal issues on the field or throw tantrums, let alone murder someone, are clearly long behind us.