Friday, December 11, 2020

Viking Age Poetry: Kennings

Poetry of the Viking Age and the Anglo-Saxons

Hello, friends.  I have something different for you.  It's no news that Månegard is heavily inspired by Northern European lore. Part of that is because I have a fascination with early medieval history.  I have been deeply involved with research into that time period for the last seven years of my life, and have spent a huge amount of time studying the literature and poetry as well.  A lot of that has come through as I write in Månegard, and so I'd like to put on my research hat for a minute and go into that.  Buckle up!

Photo by Erik Mclean from Pexels

Vikings: Not Just Terrifying Killing Machines

Photo by Erik Mclean from Pexels
The viking age is renowned as a period of violence and strife.  From the time the vikings exploded onto the scene at Lindisfarne (792 ce) to the end of the viking age (1066 ce), their deeds were met with raw terror; they even found their way into the prayers, with churchmen pleading  "Our supreme and holy Grace, protecting us and ours, deliver us, God, from the savage race of Northmen which lays waste our realms." (attributed to dedications for churches venerating St. Medard or St. Vaast.)

What doesn't get talked about nearly as much is the intricate verse learned and performed by the
Scandinavian poets of that time (called Skalds by the vikings and their kin). 

In a High School in the Southern United States, I was taught about kennings as a poetic device used by the Anglo-Saxons, particularly in Beowulf, but I don't ever them being mentioned in relation to the Viking Age Scandinavians.  

Viking Age Scandinavian Poetry is a fascinating subject.  It is a troublesome one, as by and large they were a pre-literate culture, which means we have very few primary sources other than some runestones.  But some of the language has made it through the years.  We know that they favored intricate verses with tight schemes of alliteration, internal rhyme, and rhythm, which is suited for a post of its own, but in today's post I'd like to talk about their kennings.

Kennings: Viking Age Wordplay and Allusions

Photo by Erik Mclean from Pexels
Kennings, put simply, are a way to describe a thing without using its name. We use these today.  People will call television the the 'idiot box', a fast car a 'speed machine', or McDonalds the 'golden arches.'  In Viking age poetry, 'gull-road' or 'whale-road' can mean the ocean, 'sea-steed' can mean a ship, and so on.  

But wait, there's more!  Viking age kennings are also full of mythological references.  Thunder can be called 'Thor's laugh,'  Snakes can be called 'Loki's bane.'  And sometimes those are used in reverse, like 'One-eyed god' meaning Odin, or 'High Hall' for Valhalla. We also see this in entertainment today.  In the television series Supernatural,   it is absolutely rampant.  Castiel is referred to as "Clarence."  Sam Winchester is called Bigfoot.  Dean gets called a Ken Doll.  These are all references easily understood to most watchers, and convey meaning instantly.

Simple Kennings do the same thing.  They are such a part of Viking-age scandinavian culture that you will often hear them on the lips of Brandr and other Skardr.  

Complex Kennings also exist, but they, too, will deserve a post of their own.

Check out some of my references below for further reading!

Faulkes, Anthony (1997). “Poetic Inspiration in Old Norse and Old English Poetry." Dorothea Coke Memorial Lecture in Northern Studies delivered at University College London 28 November 1997. 
Viking Society for Northern Research

Foote, Peter and Wilson, D.M. (1970). The Viking Achievement. Book Club Associates. London.

Magnus Magnusson. Vikings! New York: E.P. Dutton. 1980.

 Viking Answer Lady, Origin of the phrase, "A furore Normannorum libera nos, Domine,"


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