From the Archive: The Ancient Art of Glíma

glíma wrestling iceland

From the archive: In this 1999 article from Iceland Review, Jón Ívarson delves into the history of Icelandic wrestling. Note that this archival content may not necessarily reflect the current editorial standards of Iceland Review.

The one truly Icelandic national sport is a type of wrestling known as glíma. After decades of neglect, glíma has been enjoying a major revival in popularity during recent years, especially among young people.

Wrestling has been practiced in Iceland ever since the country was settled, and there are early references to a form based on tricks performed with the legs and feet. The name “glíma” is first mentioned in the 12th century, and it is thought probable that the word means “the game of gladness.”

The most likely explanation of the origin of glíma seems to be that two types of wrestling, that of the “Eastmen” (Norwegians) which did not employ foot tricks, and that of the “Westmen” (Irish) which did, merged in Iceland to produce a new sport – glíma. Wrestling based on so-called “trouser-grips” was practiced for hundreds of years in Iceland and continued almost unchanged right up to this century. At the same time, however, other forms of wrestling were also in use: the so-called “loose-grips,” in which it was permitted to grip the opponent’s body more or less anywhere, and “back-spanning,” both of which often amounted to a mere trial of strength. It is worth noting that glíma-trained men would sometimes incorporate tricks from “back-spanning” if they could get away with them.

glíma wrestling iceland

More or less everything in Iceland was originally imported - our language, industry, occupations, sports - everything, that is, except glíma, which is wholly Icelandic. It seems quite miraculous that here in Iceland we should develop a form of wrestling which is based more on technique and artistry than on energy, weight and strength as is the case with most other types of wrestling in the world. Glíma is one of 112 recognised types of national wrestling throughout the world.

Glíma wrestlers keep a firm grasp on a harness which is fastened around each contestant’s waist and thighs. No other grips are permitted. Tricks are then applied with the feet, and the body is employed with bends, jerks and swings to upset the opponent’s balance and knock him to the ground, a fall marking the end of the contest.

A picturesque sport

Foreigners who watch glíma wrestling are without exception struck by its lightness, and many people find it a picturesque sport. Our neighbors, the Norwegians and Danes, once had their own traditional wrestling sports, but these disappeared long ago, and in Sweden, the only remnant survives on the island of Gotland. These countries greatly envy the Icelanders their glíma. The English, Scots, and Bretons, on the other hand, have their own national wrestling styles that are enthusiastically maintained.

Right up until this century, glíma was a form of wrestling in which the contestants took a grip on each other’s clothes using so-called “trouser-grips.” The trousers of glíma heroes had to suffer a great deal of wear and tear before people came up with the idea of gripping-straps, which subsequently developed into a special harness used in Iceland since the first decade of this century.

In glíma the contestants must stand upright. In all other forms of wrestling contestants bend over as far as they can, their stance resembling a 90° angle, but bending is banned in glíma where it is considered a major fault.

During the last few centuries, glíma was practiced in schools, at fishing camps, and as a recreation on festive occasions, such as wedding feasts. People also used to enjoy a match or two after church. The usual practice was for contestants to be divided into two groups for team-wrestling (lit. “farmers’ wrestling”), a form which was especially common in temporary fishing camps where two crews would compete to defend the honor of their boats.

iceland glima wrestling

Symbol of nationalism

Shortly after the turn of the century, there was a great upsurge of national feeling among Iceland’s young people. Although still ruled by Denmark, the nation was beginning to find its feet again and was no longer content with its lack of freedom. One sign of this was the formation of youth societies in every district. These were highly nationalist in their sympathies and came to see glíma as a symbol of national revival and the struggle for independence.

Glíma is characterised by treading or stepping. Contestants take a special sequence of steps between bouts which cause them to move in a circle, keeping constantly in motion. An airy, circular movement which resembles the steps of a dancer, stepping serves the purpose of maintaining the sport’s lightness and creating openings for attack and defence. Competent stepping is an essential feature of good glíma.

Glíma has probably never been practiced as widely as it was during this period. In 1907, a wrestling competition was held on Thingvellir, the Parliament Plains, which was without doubt the most famous sporting event ever held in Iceland. It was known as the King’s glíma of 1907, as in that year Iceland was visited by the King of Denmark for only the second time in history. Glíma was the natural choice as representing the best, most nationalist display the Icelanders could put on for such an important head of state. Johannes Josefsson, the great champion from Akureyri in the north of Iceland, swore an please clean up this text by fixing the spacing and spelling:  oath to uphold the honour of the Northerners by remaining undefeated in the King’s glíma on Thingvellir plains, or never hold up his head again. The Icelandic nation went wild at this bold claim and glíma champions from the south of Iceland began to train for all they were worth to take the swaggering Northerner down a peg or two. For months no one talked of anything in Iceland but who would triumph in the King’s glíma. No national games or sporting event today has attracted anything like as much attention. In the event, Josefsson came third, and the story of the competition is related in many books, not least in Josefsson’s own highly entertaining biography Johannes of Borg. Josefsson later went abroad and became a famous circus-performer in America. Using glíma as the basis for his self-defence method, he took on everyone from boxers to knife-fighters and was victorious every time. Josefsson came home in 1927, so rich as a result of his shows that he was able to build Hotel Borg in Reykjavik largely out of his own pocket.

Glíma becomes a competitive sport

During these years, glíma changed from being a popular pastime, practised in a haphazard fashion according to the occasion, into being a competitive sport with strict regulations and official tournaments. People stopped ripping each other’s trousers and began instead to use the glíma harness. In 1906 the first Icelandic glíma championship was held. This tournament celebrated its 90th anniversary last year and is thus the oldest sports competition in the country. The “Grettir” Belt (named after one of the most famous wrestlers and saga heroes of ancient times) is the most magnificent and historically renowned prize in Icelandic sporting history and the title of “glíma king” has a special ring to it. Two other historic glíma competitions are Skjaldarglíma Armanns, named in honour of Reykjavik’s greatest wrestling champion, which has been going since 1908, and Skjaldarglíma Skarphedins which has been held in the south of Iceland since 1910.

glima wrestling in iceland

During the Second World War years, glíma was abandoned in many districts as a large number of people moved away from the countryside. Many went to Reykjavik, however, where wrestling continued to be practised vigorously. The greatest glíma champion in the country at that time was Gudmundur Agustsson, who some consider the best wrestler of the century. Agustsson was a glamorous figure and fine wrestler and there is no doubt that the attendance at glíma matches increased greatly when he took part, the increase being largely accounted for by female admirers.

On the rise

The rules of glíma were amended in 1966 to make the sport lighter and nimbler and to reduce the abuses or fouls which had always tended to blight the game. As part of this process the wrestlers’ canvas shoes were replaced with leather ones and adjustments were made to their harnesses.

It is not permitted to commit a foul in glíma. The attacker must keep his balance once the trick has been executed and must not fall on top of his opponent on the ground, as this would be considered a foul. The concept of a foul hardly exists in foreign forms of wrestling. In the opinion of the Glíma Association, these three factors combine to make glíma a particularly attractive spectator sport and it is therefore vital that we continue to honour them.

During the last decade, the age of glíma contestants has been lowered and women have at last been permitted to enter the arena. Teenagers are now allowed to wrestle but must do so on mattresses to avoid injury, and this has given good results. The main problem facing glíma is that few practise the sport and there are barely enough trainers to go round. The Glíma Association has reacted to this state of affairs with an energetic campaign to introduce the sport to elementary schools all over the country. This has proved successful and glíma is now practised in places where it had not been seen for decades, and the number of contestants in wrestling competitions, particularly in the younger categories, has dramatically increased. For example, in 1983 there were only 9 contestants for the Icelandic glíma championship in all age and weight categories while, in contrast, at the last Championship in 1997 there were 120 participants. This has led to increased optimism that glíma is on the way to enjoying a new heyday at the end of the century, reminiscent of its popularity in the early days of the youth society movement.

Einar Is Iceland’s New Glíma King Despite Injuries

Iceland's latest Glíma King Einar Eyþórsson was taken to hospital for his injuries sustained during the final match

Einar Eyþórsson became Iceland’s glíma king for the first time this weekend despite having injured his foot before the last glíma match. Reigning Glíma Queen Kristín Embla Guðjónsdóttir defended her title.

The 112th Íslandsglíma competition took place on April 15th in Akureyri, where contestants wrestled for the chance to take home the Grettir Belt or the Freyja Chain. In addition, the victors are name Iceland’s Glíma King and Glíma Queen respectively. Before the contest, it was clear that Iceland would have a new glíma King as none of the male contestants had ever held the Belt before.

Newly belted Glíma King Einar Eyþórsson and Reigning Glíma Queen Kristín Embla Guðjónsdóttir.
Skapti Hallgrímsson. Newly belted Glíma King Einar Eyþórsson and Reigning Glíma Queen Kristín Embla Guðjónsdóttir

Kristín Embla Guðjónsdóttir, Iceland’s reigning glíma Queen successfully defended her title again, making her the Glíma Queen for the third year running. In the final glíma, she was up against her sister, Elín Eik Guðjónsdóttir, competing in the national championships for the first time.

In the final round for the Grettir Belt, Einar Eyþórsson was up against Hákon Gunnarsson. They had equal points once the time was up after their first match, meaning that they would compete again in an untimed round for the win. However, before the final match took place, Einar injured his foot, telling Akureyri.net that some cartilage between the bones in his foot had become loose. During the final untimed round lasting close to five minutes, his injury got worse and after Einar had secured his victory, medics transported Einar to hospital.

Einar was injured during his final match with Hákon Gunnarsson
Skapti Hallgrímsson. Einar was injured during his final glíma match with Hákon Gunnarsson

Winning the Grettir belt had been Einar’s dream since childhood, as the son of a two-time Glíma king Eyþór Pétursson (1983 and 1987) and younger brother to nine-time glíma King Pétur Eyþórsson (2004-2014).

Read more on Einar’s journey to becoming Glíma King: In the Balance

In the Balance

Icelandic wrestling glima

“HE COMES FROM A GREAT LINEOF GLÍMA WRESTLERS.”  “Stigið!” calls the referee, and the two glíma wrestlers – who had just shaken hands, grabbed each other’s belts, and gotten into position, chin to cheek – start a sort of dance, their backs straight as arrows. After two or three steps, the referee blows his whistle. […]

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Glíma: Icelandic Wrestling Applies for UNESCO Status

glíma Icelandic wrestling

Icelandic wrestling, known as glíma, could soon be on the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage, RÚV reports. The sport involves wrestlers gripping their opponent by the waist and attempting to throw them to the ground.

Glíma was brought to Iceland by Norwegian settlers. Though originally opponents held onto each other’s trousers, in 1905 a special belt or harness was introduced to the sport, allowing wrestlers to have a better grip on each other. The sport is known for emphasising technique over force and was featured in a demonstration at the 1912 Summer Olympics.

Guðmundur Stefán Gunnarsson teaches glíma in Njarðvík, Southwest Iceland. He is working to get the sport onto UNESCO’s official list of intangible cultural heritage. It recently reached the first milestone in that process, which is to be registered as Icelandic cultural heritage.

According to Guðmundur Stefán, the atmosphere of glíma is very positive and competitions are characterised by respect among athletes. Heiðrún Fjóla Pálsdóttir, an award-winning glíma competitor who teaches alongside Guðmundur, agrees. “There’s such incredibly good morale in Icelandic glíma. Everyone is friends and it’s always so much fun.”

More information about glíma is available in English on the website Lifandi hefðir (Living Traditions).

What is the history of boxing in Iceland?

Boxing has been practiced in Iceland since 1916 when Danish boxing coach Wilhelm Jackobson introduced the sport to the country. The first official boxing tournament was organised on April 22, 1928 in Gamla Bíó in downtown Reykjavík. The first championship was held June 1936 at Melavöllur stadium. Even though the sport had quickly proven popular, […]

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