Wits have described Icelandic wrestling (or Glima) as sumo wrestling for skinny men. Glima, the national sport of Iceland though breeds strength and agility. The word Glima comes from Old Norse and means ‘flash’ which technically is what you are supposed to do to your opponent. You throw him so fast to the ground he has no idea what happened.
The Rules of Glima
In Glima, the wrestlers wear this special belts around their hips and thighs to get a grip on each other. The point of the contest is to try and throw each other from a standing position. A thrown wrestler though can land on his feet and then the fight is not over.
The wrestlers circle and try to outmanoeuvre each other. You have to keep moving in a circle and look over each other’s shoulders. So no visual intimidation. Nor can you body-slam your opponent on the floor. For such big men, the actions appear very graceful and ballet-like. In still photos, though it does look like they are trying to give each other giant wedgies.
It wasn’t always so civilised though. In historic times, even ‘friendly’ Icelandic wrestling wasn’t so friendly. Your opponent could throw you on top of a giant rock called a slaying slab. If you were slammed onto the slaying slab you either broke your back or your ribcage. By the way, this really was the ‘friendly’ Glima – there was another type of Glima where you were fighting in earnest to kill (as opposed to merely maiming).
Luckily, the Icelandic Glima Association has changed the rules so it’s no longer so violent.
The History of Glima
Like a lot of Icelandic traditions, Glima was brought to the country by the Vikings thousands of years ago. Vikings needed to fight on sea and land, with and without weapons. Glima was a way of having fun fighting while building strength, reflexes and strategic decision-making. I mean, of course, Viking fun involved picking up and hurling each other around. Nothing peaceful like a good game of golf as per the Scots.
Glima made it to the 1912 Stockholm Olympics as a demonstration sport though. Unfortunately, the first world war intervened and the next 2 Olympics were postponed and any buzz generated around Glima on the world stage died. Glima though has a history almost as old as the Greco-Roman wrestling which is recognised as an Olympic sport.
The Vikings prized strength which has been handed down to the Icelanders. Never mind the Olympics, strength-training comes in handy nowadays in strongman competitions. For example, two different Icelandic men have won the World’s Strongest Man competition 4x each. They are second only to the USA which has won 9 World’s Strongest Man titles. So not bad for a country with only 320,000 people.
The Glima Display at Geysir
We didn’t even know Icelandic wrestling was a thing until we stopped off at the visitor’s centre in Geysir. The centre had sculptures and photos explaining this Icelandic sport.
The top Icelandic prize for men’s glima is the Grettisbelti which is on display at the visitor’s centre. The Grettisbelti or Grettir’s Belt is named after Grettir, one of the heroes in the Icelandic Sagas, who killed an undead giant. Of course, Iceland’s zombies had to be giants as well.
The women’s version is the Freyjumenio or the necklace of Freyja. Although the Grettisbelti was established in 1906, the Freyjumenio has only been around since 2000. I never hope to come across an Icelandic woman who is strong enough to throw me over her head.
Anyway, the silver Grettisbelti has a round shield in the front showing the mighty old Saga warrior Grettir. The other shields are engraved with the names of the winning champions and their year. Each year the winner gets their shield added onto the belt and the oldest gets removed and placed on the shelf. There have been 34 winners of the Grettisbelti. One champion, Armann J. Larusson won it 15 times between 1952-1967. Pretty impressive.
Bouts of Glima are conducted during the winter months from September through April. Unfortunately, the website for the Icelandic Glima Association is only in Icelandic so I have no idea how to get into see a match. You can also catch matches at the Viking Festival in the city of Hafnarfjordur (only a 10 minute drive from Reykjavik itself) held annually in June.