Bodily as well as mental exercises were known under the name of Idrottir. In no ancient records have we so many detailed accounts of games as we have in the Sagas. The education of the Northman was thoroughly Spartan in its character. To this day the love of athletic games is one of the characteristics of their most direct descendants, the English people; and other countries have awakened to the importance of physical training.
Their exercises or games may be classified under three heads.
1st. Athletic games or gymnastic exercises, such as wrestling, swimming, running, jumping, leaping, balancing, climbing, playing ball, racing on snowshoes, skin-pulling, &c.,&c.
2nd. Warlike exercises with weapons, which embraced fencing, spear-throwing, arrow-shooting, slinging, &c., &c.
3rd Mental exercises, consisting of poetry, Saga-telling, riddles, games of chess and draughts, and harp playing.
In those days of incessant warfare, physical training was considered of the highest importance. Old and young constantly practised games of strength and dexterity; they knew that it was only by constant exercise that they could become or remain good warriors. This made the young men supple, quick of foot, dexterous in motion, and gave them great power of endurance, insuring a good physique, which told on their children and future generations. They were thus always prepared for war, and this is the key to the character of the old Viking. We see what a healthy and powerful man he must have been, skilful alike to strike the fatal blow, and avoid the treacherous sword, spear or arrow. The result of such education was seen in the powerful and strong bodily frame that was attained by the youth of the country, the young men being of age and ready for war at the age of fifteen.
There were constant competitions for the honour of the championship in each of the particular games or exercises, and young and old competed together on special grounds which were selected for that purpose, where the assembled and admiring multitude came to witness these contests. There seem to have been no prizes given to the successful competitor—at least no mention is ever made of them. All that was desired was the fame which fell to the victor, and every great warrior always excelled in the use of weapons or in athletic exercises.
Their love of physical exercise explains how these dauntless and manly tribes, who had a virile civilisation of their own, contributed to regenerate the blood of the people among whom they settled or whom they conquered.
Jumping was a favourite exercise of the Northmen. Some men could jump higher than their own height, both backwards and forwards, and this with their weapons and complete armour on.
Agility was absolutely necessary in order to obtain victory or escape from danger; many a man owed his life either to a timely jump to one side, or to a leap from a height, or over a circle of surrounding foes.
Climbing was another of their exercises.
Wrestling was a very popular pastime, and had a beneficial effect on the body, to which it gave suppleness, strength and firmness; it was a great favourite at the Things and festivals. The most simple form of this sport was for the wrestlers to take hold of each other's arms or waists as best they could, and by the strength of their arms to throw each other off their feet. The competitors were divided by lots into two parties, each of which was drawn up in a row with its leader. These paired off their men to wrestle in the arena or space between the rows, one after the other. If one side was weaker in numbers, or one man had had all his men defeated, he could challenge his antagonist, and the result of their wrestling decided the game.
A more difficult form of wrestling was that of grappling, and attacking each other (sometimes fastened together by a belt at the waist) according to certain rules, and by systematic turnings and grip movements, with arms and legs, seeking to bring each other to the ground. These combats for the championship sometimes ended fatally.
"The Viking Age," by Paul B. Du Chaillu, vol. 2, p. 369-372