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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 B. The terminology of Snorra Edda

B. The terminology of Snorra Edda

Edith Marold 2012, ‘The terminology of Snorra Edda’ 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. lxxiii-lxxv.

The evidence of Snorra Edda is important to a discussion of Old Norse poetic terminology but difficult to interpret. The earliest use of the noun kenning in the context of a discussion of poetics is found in this treatise. It can also mean ‘emotion’, ‘feeling’, ‘knowledge’ and ‘teachings’ in Old Icelandic. In addition to the simplex kenning Snorri also uses compounds like sannkenning and viðkenning and terms related to kenning like heiti andkent heiti. There is also a verb kenna, along with prepositional constructions like kenna til or kenna við. Unfortunately there are differences between the way the words are defined and used in Skáldskaparmál and Háttatal, and they sometimes even seem to contradict one another (see Marold 1994b and 1995).

If one looks at the structure of Skáldskaparmál as a whole, one finds a clear twofold opposition drawn between periphrases of two or more parts on the one hand and simple poetic synonyms on the other. The classification of poetic terms either as kent ‘paraphrased’ or as ókent ‘non-paraphrased’ – found only in ms. U – corresponds to this opposition. However, not only does the introduction to Skáldskaparmál in mss R, W and contradict this, but so does the system described at the beginning of Háttatal. Both make a clear threefold distinction, but these, too, differ from one another.

Skáldskaparmál in R, W and begins by dividing the poetic devices according to whether they refer to metre or to diction. This also corresponds to the presentation in Háttatal. But then comes the following sentence, one that has had repercussions throughout skaldic studies (SnE 1998, I, 5): Þrenn *er grein skáldskaparmáls. Hver? Svá: at nefna hvern hlut sem heitir; ǫnnur grein er sú er heitir fornǫfn; in þriðja málsgrein er kǫlluð er kenning ‘“There are three categories of the language of poetry.” “What are they?” “To call everything by its name; the second category is the one called fornǫfn; and the third category of language is what is called kenning”’ (Translation modified from Faulkes 1987, 64). The method of kenning formation is then exemplified with kennings for Óðinn such as Sigtýr ‘Victory-Týr’, Hangatýr ‘Hanged-Týr’, and Farmatýr ‘Cargo-Týr’. But these are then referred to as Óðinn’s heiti and called kent heiti ‘paraphrased heiti’. Clearly, Snorri’s usage differs from that of modern Old Norse poetics, where heiti has established itself as a word denoting a poetic term that is a simplex. In Snorri’s work, even a kenning can be referred to as heiti.

By contrast, Háttatal offers a threefold distinction of another kind entirely: the verb kenna is introduced as part of the art of breyta/skipta með máli ‘varying the language’ (SnE 2007, 5). The basic concept is familiar from Latin rhetoric, which views poetic devices as variations on ordinary expressions. Háttatal lists three devices: 1. kenning (with the sub-categories kenttvíkent and rekit for kennings of two, three or more parts), which serves to ‘increase the vocabulary’ (SnE 2007, 5-7); 2. sannkenning (with the sub-categories sannkenningstuðning and tvíriðit, indicating the number of elements). Sannkenning is introduced here as a combination of a noun with a corresponding adjective or of a verb with a corresponding adverb. The role of the sannkenning is ‘to beautify and fill out the language’ (SnE 2007, 7); 3. nýgervingar ‘new constructions’ or ‘new creations’: These can be described as extensions of the metaphorical domain of one kenning into another and/or into the verb of the sentence. Nýgervingar are meant to demonstrate ‘knowledge and skill at speech’ (SnE 2007, 7).

The two terms fornǫfn (from Skáldskaparmál) and sannkenning (from Háttatal) appear once more in Skáldskaparmál (SnE 1998, I, 107), but here they seem to have a completely different meaning: Enn eru þau heiti er menn láta ganga fyrir nǫfn manna. Þat kǫllum vér viðkenningar eða sannkenningar eða fornǫfn ‘There are also those terms that are put in place of men’s names. We call these viðkenningar … or sannkenningar … or fornofn…’ (Translation modified from Faulkes 1987, 152). The viðkenningar, as is further explained, paraphrase persons through things they own, their relatives, or their social relationships (e.g. friend, enemy). The explanations and examples of sannkenningar show that they paraphrase individuals on the basis of their personal qualities. Two linguistic devices are employed for this: compounds with -maðr (e.g. spekimaðr ‘wise man’), or nouns derived from adjectives such as orðspekingr ‘wisely-speaking man’. In this case, the similarity to the definition in Háttatal is clear (cf. Marold 1995).

The main problem here is the term fornǫfn, which is also used at the beginning of Skáldskaparmál (see further Marold 1995). Neither there nor anywhere else do we find the term explained nor examples of it given. Some scholars (Brodeur 1952, 145; Halldór Halldórsson 1975, 24; Clunies Ross 1987, 24) take fornǫfn to be an umbrella term for sannkenningar and viðkenningar, but this leads to problems with the passage from the beginning of Skáldskaparmál, because the examples given there under kenning are actually viðkenningar, so there would then no longer be a clear distinction between the second group (fornǫfn) and the third group (kenningar). It thus seems plausible to follow Halldór Halldórsson’s (1975, 25) suggestion and view fornǫfn as a calque on the less common Latin term pronominatio for the more frequent antonomasiaViðkenning could then be viewed as a sort of loose translation of Latin antonomasia. Latin antonomasia encompasses both devices – epitheton and periphrasis – which correspond exactly to sannkenning ‘description (of a person) in terms of their qualities or essence’ and viðkenning ‘description of a person in terms of his possessions, relatives, or social relationships’. While viðkenning can be seen as a two-part periphrasis in the same sense as kenning,sannkenning cannot, because the examples of sannkenning given in Skáldskaparmál are derivations and compounds – and as such they are simplices. The same is true of the attributive use of adjectives as described inHáttatal. That explains why there are no sannkenningar among the kennings listed in Skáldskaparmál. These irregularities can possibly be explained if the distinction between kent heiti and ókent heiti in ms. U is taken to represent the original concept, which also corresponds to the structure of Skáldskaparmál. The original concept was altered in a later version, in which the author attempted to apply the concept of antonomasia from Latin rhetoric to Old Icelandic poetry with his calques viðkenning and fornǫfn (Marold 1994b). Altogether, it must be said that the terminology of Snorra Edda, because of its contradictory nature, does not lend itself to use in a modern definition of skaldic diction.


  1. Bibliography
  2. Clunies Ross, Margaret. 1987. Skáldskaparmál: Snorri Sturluson’s ars poetica and Medieval Theories of Language. VC 4. [Odense]: Odense University Press.
  3. Halldór Halldórsson. 1975. Old Icelandic heiti in Modern Icelandic. University of Iceland Publications in Linguistics 3. Reykjavík: Institute of Nordic Linguistics.
  4. Faulkes, Anthony, trans. 1987. Snorri Sturluson. Edda. Everyman’s Library. London and Rutland, Vermont: J. M. Dent & Sons and Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc. Rpt. with new chronology and synopsis 2005.
  5. SnE 1998 = Snorri Sturluson. 1998. Edda: Skáldskaparmál. Ed. Anthony Faulkes. 2 vols. University College London: Viking Society for Northern Research.
  6. Marold, Edith. 1995. ‘Zur Poetik von Háttatal und Skáldskaparmál’. In Fix 1995, 103-24.
  7. Brodeur, Arthur G. 1952. ‘The Meaning of Snorri’s Categories’. University of California Publications in Modern Philology 36, 129-47.
  8. Marold, Edith. 1994b. ‘Zur poetologischen Terminologie der Snorra Edda’. In Schottmann 1994, 156-75.
  9. SnE 2007 = Snorri Sturluson. 2007. Edda: Háttatal. Ed. Anthony Faulkes. 2nd edn. University College London: Viking Society for Northern Research.
  10. Internal references
  11. Edith Marold 2017, ‘Snorra Edda (Prologue, Gylfaginning, Skáldskaparmál)’ in Kari Ellen Gade and Edith Marold (eds), Poetry from Treatises on Poetics. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 3. Turnhout: Brepols [check printed volume for citation].
  12. Not published: do not cite (SkmIII)
  13. Kari Ellen Gade 2017, ‘Háttatal’ in Kari Ellen Gade and Edith Marold (eds), Poetry from Treatises on Poetics. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 3. Turnhout: Brepols [check printed volume for citation].

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