‘Did the Vikings play cricket?’ is not a question that is often asked; but it is worth considering. We believe that merely in asking the question we may well be opening up a new field of scientific enquiry which has the potential to keep many sociological think-tanks busy for years to come. On the face of it, cricket-playing Vikings seem unlikely, but so did the possibility when I was a schoolboy of India beating England at cricket. Today we lost not just by 150-odd runs in the England v India Lord’s Test match but did so in an utterly humiliating way after we had victory within our grasp. Why has this happened? Are the Vikings to blame? Could the laws of cricket be written in runic? – we need to know.
A cricket match taking place at Lords, the home of cricket with a name derived from Viking ‘swords’. The man with the wooden object in the air is batting with a bat, a skeuomorph for a Viking sword or phallus; but in the absence of a ball the white-clothed figures have taken up significant positions and postures around the wicket for the next stage of the ceremony. The man with splayed legs off the wicket on the extreme left is paradoxically at mid-wicket; the man with arms akimbo, or in ‘tea-pot stance’, nearest the camera is at slip; to his right is gully, a reminder of the rough terrain on which Viking cricket developed. The abundance of white everywhere clearly points to some sort of purification ritual in progress. Viking influence is also suggested by the surrogate long-ship sailing the seas of Sky high above the pilgrims. The fertility undertones of the whole scene are encapsulated by the function of the special ground out of sight behind the stands, called ‘the Nursery’.
The Vikings probably first played something akin to cricket on the beaches where they pulled up their long-ships to trade and relax; they could use their swords to swipe at pebbles and skulls tossed to them. When they missed, they were sometimes hit in a delicate part of the male anatomy, giving rise to to the painful condition still known today as ‘hurtigruten.’ Through simple letter-loss, that sword scenario is recalled to this day by the name of the self-styled home of cricket, Lords. Other words also hint at past games: the terms ‘long leg’ and ‘slips’, for example, may be survivors from this Early Phase (EP), and another specialist word, ‘wicket’, plausibly derives from Anglo-Saxon ‘wic’, the actual 8th century word for such beaches. Cultural anthropologists argue that primitive survivals of such early games can be seen in ‘beach’ or ‘French’ cricket played by, for example, familial groups and in backward places like parts of France. Indeed, the French national game of boules may well be a variant of early cricket as played by Vikings who settled in what became Normandy, flirting in its name as it does with one of the basics of the traditional English game, ‘to bowl’.
As they developed the game, Vikings had difficulty finding suitable places with a large enough area of level ground on which to lay out a properly-prepared wicket; so they headed towards monasteries where they knew they could find a nice flat bit of grass surrounded by the cloisters. Of course, that did not leave room for much of an outfield but perhaps they played a sort of reverse Hundred cricket in which the object was to keep the ball inside the cloisters, not hit it outside into the crowd. Such a setting was regulated by the Danelaw. It had the additional advantage that spectators could be charged for entry – hence the term ‘Danegeld’ – and slain at stumps without the bother of having to chase them. This is almost certainly how the tradition began of having a bier after the match.
All of which implies of course that Vikings had cricket balls; yet, though there is a hint of such existing in the name of the god Ba’al (see below), not a single Viking ball is archaeologically attested. This has led one interpreter to suggest that, not understanding cricket at all, they went through the motions of playing without a ball as a sort of ceremonial ritual – a sort of Tai Chi in horned helmets. This would accord with the very large cricket bats, wrongly interpreted as oars, found in several boat burials; such shaped lengths of wood would certainly have been too long and heavy to use gracefully in a cover drive but they can be seen as ritual bats forever missing a phantom ball (rather like English batsmen today). Hence the bowler’s dictum: ‘You miss, I hit.’
And what did this existential sphere hit? – nothing less than the Holy Grail of EP cricket, the wicket. This use of the same word for both the flat ground on which bowling takes place and the target at which the bowler aims is unfortunate, an ambiguity resulting from a slipped chisel, or ‘chiselo’, when a mason was typing to express the laws of cricket by chipping a series of short, runic lines along the edge of a megalith at Gamla, Uppsala, a Viking religious centre. Given the already complicated laws, such mistakes made the arrival of vampires to supervise ‘cricket ceremonies’ inevitable; but the basic nature of their function was maintained by robing them in white and allowing them to wave their arms about in an early form of Norse Code. Yet, as the Vikings became less hairy and more cuddlesome, the ‘priests’ of their religious practices became less blood-thirsty and morphed into ‘umpires’, heralding the start of Phase 2, or the ‘Umperial Era’ (UE). The game spread as it followed the long-ships trading up the rivers of much of the known world. Cricket’s reputation for fair players – most Vikings were of course blonde – helped in the establishment of colonies which, collectively, became the Viking Umpire based on tenets of ‘spin’ (‘you can’t believe a word they say’), lbw (‘land before wic’) and cunningly-conceived ‘declarations’ (‘this was yours; now it’s mine – you’re out’). This led to the invention of maps so that the Viking bits could be painted red.
When the masonic accident with the chipped Gamla stone it was lying horizontally, supported by two upright stones, as if it were a prehistoric dolmen; perhaps it was, for it was called ‘the Baal stone’, a name reflecting ancient eastern Mediterranean roots in Viking paganism, best translated into English as ‘balls’, later ‘bails’. The whole structure was called, in an attempt to translate from the runic into English, ‘stumps’, an Anglo-Saxon alternative to ‘wicket’; though strictly-speaking a wicket then consisted of two uprights, called the ‘stumps’, capped by the bails linking their tops. ‘Stumps’ were called when play for the day ended. Nowadays, there are three stumps, upright sticks stuck into the ground, indicating the shift over the centuries from a paganism rooted in Baalesian fertility towards a supposedly more benevolent Christianity; for of course the three sticks represent the shaft and two arms of a cross. When cricketers today talk of ‘sacrificing’ their wicket to help the team, they are not only unconsciously voicing echoes from the dim and bloody origins of their sport in the pagan temples of the Viking north but also sensing, however slightly, the even greater sacrifice made for Planet Earth by the great Umpire in the Sky.
There is clearly much more research to be done e.g. we do not know whether the Vikings had a heavy roller. The answer to the question posed by this pioneer note, ‘Did Vikings play cricket?’, is nevertheless provisionally ‘yes’. Equally clearly, there is much more to this than just a game; issues of feminism, for example, arise around the concept of ‘caught’ in a multi-gender sport. Can the single, raised and erect umperial forefinger indicating ‘out’ continue as appropriate code in an age of increasing sexual sensitivities? Was this a problem for the Vikings? An interdisciplinary, international, community project will shortly be conceptualized to research such matters under the title ‘Vikwicric’ (VWC).