From Academic Kids

Holmgang (or holmganga) was a Nordic duel practiced by Norsemen. It was a recognized way to settle disputes.

Holmgang can be translated as "to go to a small island" which may refer to the fact that the duels were fought on small piece of hide or cloak placed on the ground. Originally the combatants might have retreated to a small island or islet to fight it out.

At least in theory, anyone offended could challenge the other party to holmgang regardless of their differences in social status. This could be a matter of honor, ownership or property, demand of restitution or debt, legal disagreement or intention to help a wife or relative or avenge a friend.

Holmgangs were fought 3-7 days after the challenge. Refusing the challenge would have meant that one was dishonorable, nithigr, and could have been sentenced to outlawry. In effect, if the other party was not willing or able to defend their claim, they had no honor. Sometimes a good warrior could volunteer to fight for clearly outclassed friend.

Exact rules varied from place to place and changed over time but the main thing was that the duelists agreed to the rules they used. The duel was fought either on a prespecified plot, in a pitch or on a traditional place which was regularly used for this purpose. The challenger recited the rules ? traditional or those agreed upon ? before the duel. Rules determined the allowed weapons, who was eligible to strike first, what constituted a defeat or forfeiture and what the winner received; in Norway, the winner could claim everything the loser owned. If one party did not appear at all, he was declared nithigr. How many times the challenged actually gave in beforehand, is unrecorded.

First holmgangs probably ended on the death or incapacitation of one combatant. Killing an opponent did not constitute a murder and therefore did not lead to outlawry or payment of weregeld. Later rules turned holmgang into more ritualistic direction.

Kormakssaga states that the holmgang was fought on an ox hide or cloak with sides that were three meters long. It was staked on the ground with stakes used just for that purpose and placed in a specific manner now unknown. After that the area was marked by drawing three borders around the square hide, each about one foot from the previous one. Corners of the outermost border were marked with hazel staves. Combatants had to fight inside these borders. Stepping out of borders meant forfeiture, running away meant cowardice.

There is one reference in Kormakssaga about a sacrifice of a bull before the holmgang but there are many references about the sacrifice the winner made after the victory. Combatants were permitted a specific number of shields (usually three) they could use ? opponent?s strikes could break the shield. The challenged would strike first and then the combatants would hit each other in turn. The combat would normally end on the first blood and the winner would receive three marks of silver.

This represents mainly later Icelandic version of holmgang which was intended to avoid unnecessary loss of life and excessive profiteering; unless the dispute was about a specific property, the most the winner could receive was the three marks of silver. Later the holmgangs over property were outlawed.

Although holmgang surely is one of the forerunners of duel ordeals of the middle ages, Norsemen did not seem to think that victory represented divine favor ? just the winner's superiority in combat. Bulls sacrificed after the victory might have been made in gratitude.

Professional duelists used holmgangs as a form of legalized robbery; they could claim rights to land, women, or property, and then prove their claims in the duel at the expense of the legitimate owner. Many sagas describe berserks who abused holmgang in this way. In large part due to such practices, holmgangs were outlawed in Iceland in 1006 and in Norway in 1014.


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