Beware the slaying stone
In settlement times glíma fell under two categories: “leikfang” or play wrestling and wrestling “in earnest,” the purpose of which was to get a man on the ground and kill him. Yet even leikfang had potential for harm. As it says in Jónsbók, a book of laws dating from 1325, “whosoever participates in the contest of friendly wrestling does so on his own responsibility.” This warning may have had something to do with the involvement of “the slaying slab.” This was a waist-high tapered stone stuck into the ground that a wrestler would try to bring his opponent to in order to throw him onto it and break his back or, for varietes sake, on occasion slam him belly-down on it and crush his ribcage.
Today’s glíma is, as Jón Birgir Valsson of the Icelandic Glíma Association (GLÍ) says, “a bit more civilised than that.” Insisting despite repeated questioning that they no longer use the slaying stone, he also made the well-worn argument that his sport takes a lot of strategy. As he spoke, I kept looking over at two men sparring. The rules require that each competitor keep both hands gripped to the leather handles of his opponent’s belt at all times. The object is to put your opponent down on the floor. Seems like a no-brainer, but then I noticed that these guys weren’t playing on a mat – they were throwing each other down, sometimes from shoulder height onto their backs, onto a hardwood floor. Yet when one of them hit the ground it was almost soundless.
“This is because a big part of the training is just learning how to hit the floor,” says Jón, “You have to learn how to relax your muscles effectively. Just learning this much takes years. We’ve had judo champs or weightlifters walk in here and think they’re going to teach us how to glíma. They’re wrong every time.”
And grown men weep…
Glíma puts most of its emphasis on balance, knowing the proper way to shift one’s weight offensively and defensively, and the vast vocabulary of throws and counters takes many competitors a greater part of their lives to learn.
The competition structure itself is a combination of team sport and individual competition. Different glíma clubs compete with each other throughout the season (October to April) and when one club is victorious, the individual members of that club compete with each other. The most coveted prize of all in glíma – and perhaps in all Icelandic sports – is the “Grettisbelti,” a prize trophy created in 1906 by wrestlers from the HSÞ glíma club in Akureyri. So valued is this prize that, as Jón says, “I’ve seen grown men cry receiving it.”
The Icelandic Glíma Association is currently undergoing a project to bring the sport to other Scandinavian countries and has already gotten a foothold in Sweden, Denmark and Holland. The goal is to one day have pan-European competitions.
Jón says the sport has helped teach troubled youth the values of respect, discipline and fair play, adding, “It’s a difficult sport to play. I’ve been playing it for twenty years and I’m still learning. But once you get involved, it’s just too much fun to give up.”