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Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages

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Vol. I. Poetry for Scandinavian Rulers 1: From Mythological Times to c. 1035 2. General Introduction 5. The diction of skaldic poetry 5.1. Kenning 5.1.1. Defining the term A. A modern definition of the kenning

A. A modern definition of the kenning

Edith Marold 2012, ‘A modern definition of the kenning’ in Diana Whaley (ed.), Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 1: From Mythical Times to c. 1035. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 1. Turnhout: Brepols, pp. lxx-lxxiii.

In modern research on kennings, there have long been two opposing definitions: a broader one proposed originally by Rudolf Meissner (1921), in which the kenning is viewed as a circumlocution of more than one part; and another, narrower definition recognising only a metaphorical kenning, that is, one based on a metaphor. Its advocate was Andreas Heusler (1922). Some scholars of Old English have used the term kenning even more broadly (Bode 1886; Rankin 1909-10; Marquardt 1938; Singer 1933). Scholars of Old Norse literary history have paid special attention to the metaphorical kenning, finding in it the visual imagery and vividness that skaldic poetry otherwise seemed to lack. However, Meissner’s definition, founded on the extensive material of his own corpus, has prevailed. But his definition covers more than just the circumlocutory structure. The following definition can be gleaned from the introduction to his book on kennings: a kenning replaces a noun of ordinary discourse, consists of at least two parts and follows typical circumlocutionary patterns, on the basis of which the actual kennings are formed by variation. A similar definition is found in Krause (1930).

It is generally recognised that a kenning has multiple parts. A basic kenning consists of two elements that can appear in various syntactic and semantic arrangements. These constituents are traditionally referred to in English as the base-word and the determinant. The base-word assumes the syntactic position of the element being paraphrased. The two elements may form a genitive construction like brjótr baugs ‘breaker of the ring’ (Rloð Lv 8/1, 2VIII (Ragn 24)), or a compound such as hringbrjótr ‘ring-breaker’ (Egill Hfl 17/4V (Eg 50)), and the two structures are absolutely equivalent in skaldic style, both referring to a generous man. The choice may be determined in some cases by metre. Further, both structures can be developed to form extended kennings of three or more parts, described below.

Essential to the nature and poetic effect of the kenning is its substitutive character. It replaces a common word or proper noun in a sentence, as when the concept ‘giant’ is represented as gljúfrskeljungr ‘gully-whale’ (Ggnæv Þórr 1/4III). Constructions that use a kenning as a predicate (e.g. those linking it with verbs meaning ‘be’ or ‘be called’) infringe this substitutive rule and are rare. The same is true of kennings that appear in apposition to another word.

Scholars agree that there is essentially only a group of about one hundred referents for which kenning patterns or types exist, as Meissner’s 1921 corpus also shows. A kenning pattern can be described as a combination of two terms referring to a single referent, for example ‘fire of the sea/of water’ for ‘gold’. Specific kennings are developed by variation on a pattern, e.g. in this case eldr lagar ‘fire of the ocean’ (SnSt Ht 69/7III) for ‘gold’, and see further below Referents from a military milieu, such as warrior, weapons, wounds, corpses and ships, are particularly common, but so too are concepts like gold, earth, sea, sun, moon, animals, humans (as men or women) and body parts. As well as these generic concepts, both individual human beings and gods are also referred to using kennings. In Christian skaldic poetry new kennings were created for the new content according to the old paradigms (see §1.2 above).

One can conceive of the kenning patterns as a kind of corpus for poets, but it was also one that was indispensable to the listener’s understanding of the poetry. Poets created kennings by varying these patterns. Variation can be described linguistically as paradigmatic substitution. For each element of the pattern, a sort of paradigm of available substitutes exists for the poet to select from according to his needs. This paradigm consists not only of synonyms, but also of words belonging to a logical taxonomical hierarchy, and of kennings. That is to say, one word is replaced by another, related word that is often only similar in meaning, or by a kenning. (It must be emphasised here that – a few exceptions aside, to be discussed below – substitution with a kenning is only possible for determinants, not base-words.) For example, in a kenning like unnvigg ‘wave-horses’ (ÞjóðA Frag 1/8II), all synonyms for ‘horse’ (e.g. hestrfákrviggrdrasill) could stand in for the base-word ‘horse’, as could words for every other four-legged animal such as ‘elk’, ‘buck’ or indeed even ‘bear’ or ‘boar’. The same is true for the determinant unnr ‘wave’, which can itself be replaced by any term for water such as ‘sea’, ‘river’, ‘surf’ and so on.

Further complexity is possible, however, since the determinant (and very rarely the base-word) can be substituted by a kenning, thus producing an extended kenning. An example is viðir bála elfar ‘trees of the fires of the river [gold > men]’ (Sigv ErfÓl 1/1, 2I). Here ‘trees of gold’ refers to men, while the determinant, ‘fires of the river’, standing for gold, is connected to the base-word ‘tree’ through a genitive construction. Another example is viðir hjǫrþings ‘trees of the sword-assembly [battle > warriors]’ (Ólbjarn Lv 1/4V), where the base-word viðir ‘trees’ are again men, and the determinant kenning is a compound (‘sword-assembly’ standing for ‘battle’). Snorri refers to this technique as tvíkent ‘doubly paraphrased’ or ‘doubly modified’, and the term is also used in modern scholarship. However, the technique can be taken further still, when the determinant of the determining kenning is replaced by yet another kenning, producing complex kennings that Snorri calls rekit, literally ‘driven’. A kenning from Egill Lv 23/1-2V (Eg 30) will serve as an example: bǫrr ljósheims fjarðǫlna lyngs ‘tree of the bright world of the fjord-fish (plural) of the heather’. This kenning is resolved as follows: ‘fjord of the heather’ is land, its ‘fish’ are snakes, the ‘bright world of snakes’ is the gold snakes lie upon (as in the legend of Sigurðr and Fáfnir), and the ‘tree of gold’ is a man.

In rare instances, however, a kenning’s base-word can also be replaced by a kenning. Two very common kenning-patterns exemplify this observation. In the first example a warrior can be referred to as a ‘feeder of wolves or birds of prey’, wherein the base-word ‘feeder’ can appear either as a simplex, e.g. fœðir døkks hrafns ‘feeder of the dark raven [WARRIOR]’ (ÞjóðA Sex 16/2, 4II) and nistir varga ‘feeder of wolves [WARRIOR]’ (ÞhamMagndr 2/1II), or be paraphrased with a kenning, as shown by the following examples, in which ‘destroyer of hunger’ stands for the base-word ‘feeder’: eyðir gráðar ulfa ‘queller of the greed [FEEDER] of wolves [WARRIOR]’ (Arn Hryn 7/1, 2II), hungrdeyfir ins hvassa hrafns ‘hunger-appeaser [FEEDER] of the fierce raven [WARRIOR]’ (Steinn Nizv 6/1-2II). A further example of this device occurs in mythological kennings like farmr arma Sigynjar‘cargo of the arms [HUSBAND] of Sigyn <goddess> [= Loki]’ (Þjóð Haustl 7/2III).

In the present edition, the following principles apply to the explanation of these kennings. For a two-part kenning, the referent or paraphrased concept is given in small capital letters inside square brackets, e.g. Gerðr gollhrings ‘the Gerðr <goddess> of the gold ring [WOMAN]’ (Hharð Gamv 1/7, 8II). If the kenning refers to an identifiable human or mythical personage, the following notation is used: hefnir leifs ‘avenger of Óláfr [= Magnús]’ (Arn Hryn 14/1, 2II). For three-part (tvíkent) kennings, an arrow (>) denotes the further reference, e.g. lýsibrekka íss leggjar ‘the bright slope of the ice of the arm [SILVER > WOMAN]’ (Hfr Lv 15/1-2V (Hallfr 18)) or (in the case of an inverted kenning) randa rymskyndir ‘hastener of the noise of shield-rims [(lit. ‘noise-hastener of shield-rims’) BATTLE > WARRIOR]’ (SnH Lv 3/3II). This should be read as ‘the noise of shield-rims’ = ‘battle’, and then as ‘hastener of battle’ = ‘warrior’. The complex kenning cited above from Egill Lv 23V would receive the following explanation in the translation: [LAND > SNAKES > GOLD > MAN]. As seen here (and cf. §2. 4.), explanations of proper names such as Gerðr <goddess> or Hlǫkk <valkyrie> and literal translations of inverted kennings are added where appropriate.

The technique of substitution provides the skald with innumerable ways not only of finding the appropriate words to satisfy requirements of metre and rhyme, but also of highlighting content through allusion. Numerous scholars have regarded the variation on kenning patterns as the skalds’ main poetic achievement (Meissner; Mohr 1933; Krijn 1927; Einar Ól. Sveinsson 1947; Gutenbrunner 1963b; Marold 1983). Because the kenning is based on traditional paraphrasing patterns, and is not primarily the product of individual poetic inspiration, it was not highly regarded by literary scholars from the Romantic era until the mid-twentieth century. Holding up an individual style as the ideal, scholars bemoaned the kenning’s lack of originality and its stereotypical quality. However, modern literary studies have come to recognise a stereotypical ornamental language as both acceptable and interesting.


  1. Bibliography
  2. Meissner = Meissner, Rudolf. 1921. Die Kenningar der Skalden: Ein Beitrag zur skaldischen Poetik. Rheinische Beiträge und Hülfsbücher zur germanischen Philologie und Volkskunde 1. Bonn and Leipzig: Schroeder. Rpt. 1984. Hildesheim etc.: Olms.
  3. Gutenbrunner, Siegfried. 1963b. ‘Sprachliche Toreutik der Skalden’. In Gutenbrunner et al. 1963, 284-304.
  4. Marold, Edith. 1983. Kenningkunst: Ein Beitrag zu einer Poetik der Skaldendichtung. Quellen und Forschungen zur Sprach- und Kulturgeschichte der germanischen Völker, new ser. 80. Berlin: de Gruyter.
  5. Bode, W. 1886. Die Kenningar in der angelsächsischen Dichtung. Mit Ausblicken auf andere Litteraturen. Darmstadt and Leipzig: Eduard Zernin.
  6. Einar Ólafur Sveinsson. 1947. ‘Dróttkvæða háttur’. Skírnir 121, 5-32.
  7. Heusler, Andreas. 1922. Review of Rudolf Meissner. 1921. Die Kenningar der Skalden. Bonn and Leipzig: Schroeder. Anzeiger für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Litteratur 41, 127-34.
  8. Krijn, S. A. 1927. ‘Nogle bemærkninger om Egils stil’. Edda 7, 462-85.
  9. Mohr, Wolfgang. 1933. Kenningstudien. Beiträge zur Stilgeschichte der altgermanischen Dichtung. Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer.
  10. Rankin, James Walter. 1909-10. ‘A Study of the Kennings in Anglo-Saxon Poetry.’ JEGP 8, 357-422; 9, 49-84.
  11. Singer, Samuel. 1933. Review of Wolfgang Krause. 1930. Die Kenning als typische Stilfigur der germanischen und keltischen Dichtersprache. Halle: Niemeyer. IF 43, 164-7.
  12. Krause, Wolfgang. 1930. Die Kenning als typische Stilfigur der germanischen und keltischen Dichtersprache. Schriften der Königsberger Gelehrten Gesellschaft 7. Geisteswiss. Kl. 1. Halle: Niemeyer.
  13. Marquardt, Hertha. 1938. Die altenglischen Kenningar. Schriften der Königsberger Gelehrten Gesellschaft, Geisteswiss. Kl. 14, 3. Halle: Niemeyer.
  14. Internal references
  15. Not published: do not cite (Egill Hfl 17V (Eg 50))
  16. Not published: do not cite (Egill Lv 23V (Eg 30))
  17. Not published: do not cite (Hfr Lv 15V (Hallfr 18))
  18. Kari Ellen Gade (ed.) 2009, ‘Haraldr harðráði Sigurðarson, Gamanvísur 1’ in Kari Ellen Gade (ed.), Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 2: From c. 1035 to c. 1300. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 2. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 36.
  19. Not published: do not cite (Ólbjarn Lv 1V (Háv 1))
  20. Kari Ellen Gade (ed.) 2009, ‘Sneglu-Halli, Lausavísur 3’ in Kari Ellen Gade (ed.), Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 2: From c. 1035 to c. 1300. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 2. Turnhout: Brepols, pp. 325-6.
  21. Kari Ellen Gade (ed.) 2017, ‘Snorri Sturluson, Háttatal 69’ in Kari Ellen Gade and Edith Marold (eds), Poetry from Treatises on Poetics. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 3. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 1181.
  22. Kari Ellen Gade (ed.) 2009, ‘Steinn Herdísarson, Nizarvísur 6’ in Kari Ellen Gade (ed.), Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 2: From c. 1035 to c. 1300. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 2. Turnhout: Brepols, pp. 364-5.
  23. Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.) 2017, ‘Þjóðólfr ór Hvini, Haustlǫng 7’ in Kari Ellen Gade and Edith Marold (eds), Poetry from Treatises on Poetics. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 3. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 441.
  24. Diana Whaley (ed.) 2009, ‘Þjóðólfr Arnórsson, Sexstefja 16’ in Kari Ellen Gade (ed.), Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 2: From c. 1035 to c. 1300. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 2. Turnhout: Brepols, pp. 129-30.
  25. Diana Whaley (ed.) 2009, ‘Þjóðólfr Arnórsson, Fragments 1’ in Kari Ellen Gade (ed.), Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 2: From c. 1035 to c. 1300. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 2. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 159.
  26. Rory McTurk (ed.) 2017, ‘Ragnars saga loðbrókar 24 (Ragnarr loðbrók, Lausavísur 8)’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry in fornaldarsögur. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 8. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 672.

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