Leikmót, 2015

by Eric Beebe

Photo Courtesy of Hurstwic.

Photo Courtesy of Hurstwic.

When Matt invited me to Bill’s house for leikmót, I decided I’d bring a pie. I felt like I owed some offering in exchange for the welcome Matt had extended to me from Hurstwic, a group of modern-day warrior-scholars of ancient Scandinavian tradition. I had attended and participated in a few of their combat training sessions before, but I paled in comparison to Matt. I liked Viking history and the culture of the Norseman. He practically lived it. He’d refused to shave his beard for about a decade, and his skin was decorated with tattoos of runes and symbols linked to Odin. When we first became friends I could see myself striving for the same, but then years passed, and I accepted my place in this century while he held the link between the periods tighter than I could even hold a sword.

I made the pie with wild boar and apple and acorn, striving for whatever historical relevance I could muster. The day of the event, Matt drove us to Bill’s house. Bill was head of Hurstwic, and he hosted the leikmót and annual Winternights Feast in his backyard. I remember thinking his home bore surprising Colonial influence for what I half-expected to be a Nordic longhouse. His driveway wound through a thicket of trees like some hidden path to a wise man from a fantasy series.

The other visitors hailed us from the back porch. I recognized few faces and introduced myself to the rest with trepidation. After only making training on a couple occasions, it was hard to feel worthy among the more dedicated at this yearly ritual. Even their conversation was alien to me. Talk with friends and family always seemed such a contest of who spoke first and loudest. But these men and women around me took time with their words, letting spans of silence pass between them in peace, enjoying the October air.

Within the hour, Bill called all to order with an opening speech. He gave the history of the leikmót as a contest of might, speed, and cunning held with annual feasts before days grew short and larders keenly measured. Bill announced there would be prizes for the most impressive competitors.

We played knattleikur first. Like much known of the Norse, many fine details were lost outside of the sagas, but what resulted was some distant relative of rugby and hockey. The Swift Wings of the Valkyrie faced off against The Old Berserkers, blocking runs, stealing balls, and trying to trip each other with their staves. The Swift Wings won a bag of Icelandic candy. Everyone broke after the contest to cast a silent vote on an MVP.

There were then shield- and spear-throwing competitions. I watched Matt throw a shield every conceivable way for optimum yardage. Reynir, our resident Icelander, hit truer with each consecutive spear he threw. I couldn’t hit anything with a shield, and my spear-throws were far from any of our target’s imaginary vitals.

After archery and barrel-fighting drills, we prepared to feast. I helped two other guests bake flat disks of bread beneath the pot over Bill’s fire pit, where he had been cooking stew over the open flame. We just warmed my pie in the kitchen stove. Wooden bowls were brought out for us to serve ourselves, and we gathered in a circle to eat. Plenty complimented my pie, but I found it too bitter after parboiling the meat in an IPA and wondered how they could enjoy it. Bill’s stew was much more appealing to me, but I waited and waited for someone else to lead the charge before daring to grab seconds. We washed our dinner down with beer and Brennivín, Icelandic schnapps traditionally imbibed with rotted shark meat.

As we finished the meal, two attendees brought out a wooden chest and a hula-hoop wrapped in decorative tape. Bill explained Nordic reverence for rings and oaths taken on them and held the hoop out between us to grasp in unison. With our hands locked in place he convened Hurstwic’s bi-yearly meeting of associates. We talked as much about the blessings native Icelanders sent us from their ancestors as we did the groups P.R. and marketing.

With talk of business done, Bill conveyed the day’s prizes: Icelandic licorice candies, certificates, and stones. In Iceland, Matt had told me, the locals protected even their smallest stones. They were a part of cultural history, the spirit of the land.

“Rocks don’t grow back,” he had told me.

But now Bill awarded stones from famous sites of the sagas to a number of the games’ participants, and somehow even I’d made the cut. He handed me one the shape of a rounded triangle he said came from the site of knattleikur in the saga of Gísli Súrsson. I told him it was going on my mantle.

We concluded the meeting, and Bill insisted we leave our dishes and take any leftover beer and skyr, yogurt still made from Nordic bacterial cultures and once used to extinguish fires. He gave out books that he and a colleague were ready to pass on. Matt and I were keen on his offers and last to leave. As we toted paper bags of our spoils back to his SUV, I carried my stone in my shirt pocket. We set course for home with a vessel full of weapons, bodies pleased by the ache of exhaustion, and a piece of Iceland’s soul resting over my chest.