Historical European Martial Arts, or HEMA, is more than just learning to fight with ancient weaponry. It is a community devoted to becoming better through discipline and friendship. It’s also a great excuse to hit people in the face with steel swords.
“HEMA is the study of historical European weapons, wrestling, all the way down to bare knuckle boxing,” Rúnar Páll Benediktsson, the president of Reykjavík HEMA Club, explains. “It’s essentially different weapons systems,” treasurer Atli Freyr Guðmundsson adds. There are different rules depending on the club or tournament one is participating in, but there are two consistent tenets you’ll find in every HEMA organization: Hit your opponent and don’t get hit in return.
At first, the two were in a HEMA club called Væringar. In the beginning, it was less formal training and more friends playing with swords. Some members wanted to turn it into a bigger, more formal thing, studying manuscripts and learning proper fencing styles. Rúnar and Atli agreed. While they didn’t intend to become the de-facto leaders of the group, it just sort of all happened and they took their new roles seriously. But that group was not destined to last.
Falling out and forming anew
In September 2019, Atli received a link to a news story. “I checked the link and it said that the president of our club, Væringar, was the president of another club here in Iceland,” he says. That other club was the Icelandic chapter of the Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM), a neo-Nazi group that has been described by many as a terrorist organisation.
“I woke up after a night shift, checked my phone and was just like ‘Oh, no.’ We immediately called an emergency meeting of the core group,” Rúnar says. Of course, they did not invite their racist leader. The group saw two options ahead of them. They could either kick him out of the group, or leave and form their own group. “The easiest choice was just to leave.”
“Even if we took over the club, it would still have that toxic aura about it,” Atli continues. “People would remember and they would say ‘wasn’t he a part of this group?’” So the five core members, who are active to this day, left to form Reykjavík HEMA Club.
But the work was far from finished. There was damage to control, so the group publicly denounced the actions of their former president on social media and news outlets. “We did everything to make sure that the only HEMA club in Reykjavík is not these guys.” As bad as the situation was, they fought to turn the misfortune into something good.
The future of Reykjavík HEMA Club
HEMA’s current practise space is under KSÍ’s stadium. The group trains with German longswords on Tuesdays and Thursdays and experiments with different styles and weapons on Saturdays. A typical practice lasts two hours, with the first hour devoted to training and learning practical moves and the second hour spent sparring. Matches last three minutes and the goal is ultimately to best one’s opponent using everything one has learned thus far.
There are plans to expand their circuit and stage competitions with the HEMA group in Akureyri. They’ve even found humanitarian goals for the fights. “The Akureyri tournament is a charity event,” Atli says. “It’s in honour of Szczepan Łakomy, who used to train with us.”
Szczepan passed away in the downtown fire that claimed several lives last year. The proceeds will go towards measures to prevent such a tragedy from occurring again.
The group also has a new youth program, which started as a three-month summer camp in 2020, but due to strong success, morphed into a long-term membership program.
Striving for the next level
Despite appearing on the surface to be all about fighting each other, the core of HEMA is community, friendship and self-improvement. “You can never be too good,” Atli says. “There is always a next level to strive for.” Rúnar adds that there is an element of intimacy to it. “You truly get to know someone when you’re fighting.” Friends are made fast in this sport.
Anyone who is interested in HEMA is encouraged to come and try it out—it’s free for the first three practices. If you don’t live in Iceland, you can always go to hemaalliance.com and find a club in your area. “No matter where you are, if you study HEMA, you are welcome at almost any club.”
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