The Ancient Viking Ball Game That Was Revived For The Northman

When you are making a period film, every single person working on the production has to do a tremendous amount of research on the era they will be working in. The costume designer needs to know which fabrics were available and in use. The production designer needs to know what kind of wood was being used to build houses. The hair department needs to know the styles, colors, and textures of people's hair from the time. And when you are working on a Robert Eggers movie, you really have to be on top of your research game because you know he is. Someone can't write a line like, "Black Phillip, I conjure thee to speak to me. Speak as thou dost speak to Jonas and Mercy. Dost thou understand my English tongue? Answer me," in the film "The Witch" without knowing the precise 17th Century New England vernacular.

Of course, research goes beyond aesthetics. Learning about the culture, the customs, and the structure of the day should inform a great deal about the story the filmmaker is telling. In Eggers' latest film "The Northman," that manifests itself in a few different ways. There are songs, rituals, fighting styles, and so much more that needed to be thoroughly researched before being put into the film. But Eggers included something in "The Northman" that is fairly unusual. In one scene of the film, Alexander Skarsgård's Amleth is enlisted to take part in an ancient sport no longer played anywhere outside of historical reenactments. And, wow, does it not look fun to take part in.

Knattleikr, aka gnarly lacrosse

The game Skarsgård's Amleth is forced to play is called Knattleikr. I didn't know the name of it when the scene was playing, so I just referred to it as "f**ked up lacrosse." The basic setup, as historians have been able to piece together, of Knattleikr is fairly simple. Usually, the game was played on a giant slab of ice, but in "The Northman," it is on a field, which was not unheard of for the game. There are two teams of players, each of whom is equipped with a stick (really more like a club). Two goals are set up on opposite sides of a field. There is a ball, and like many other sports, the aim is to get the ball to your opponent's goal. They could either run with the ball in hand or pass the ball to their teammates.

But these are Vikings were are talking about. Sportsmanship, I gather, had not been invented yet, because to say that Knattleikr was physical would be the grossest understatement of the century. These dudes will do anything to impede the progress of the ball or get anyone out of their way when heading to the goal. And I mean anything. Remember when I said they had sticks in hand? Well, sometimes they would use the sticks to hit the ball to their teammate. Most of the time, they just use these sticks to beat the ever-loving s**t out of one another.

One of the players on the team facing Amleth is particularly large and brutal, basically The Mountain from "Game of Thrones" but for ancient Iceland. My assumption was that this was for dramatic effect, as his brutality does play a story factor in how Amleth relates to the characters played by Claes Bang and Nicole Kidman. However, according to Health & Fitness History, Knattleikr was every bit as brutal as "The Northman" depicts:

"The Icelandic sagas that discuss knattleikr reveal that players were occasionally killed on the field – sometimes intentionally. One of the sagas recounts the tale of a man killing his opponent with an axe after a bitter match, with the two teams clashing in lethal combat in the aftermath."

And you thought the Malice at the Palace was bad. I understand why Amleth had to partake in the game. He was forced into it. But people willingly played this in real life once upon a time. I don't understand it. Bloodsport has never been my thing. How hard you can hit someone has never gotten me to watch a game. I like basketball. Sure, there's some physicality to it, but they aren't bludgeoning their opponents to serious injury with a club. So, if you ever watched MMA and thought, "This is too tame," may I suggest Knattleikr?