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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 5.2. Heiti

5.2. Heiti

Edith Marold 2012, ‘Heiti’ 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. lxxxvi-lxxxix.

The second group of stylistic characteristics of skaldic poetry is called heiti in modern scholarship. This term denotes a poetic expression that is a simplex. Many heiti are poetic synonyms for a range of nominal terms that are frequent in skaldic poetry. As with the kenning, Snorri Sturluson in the Skáldskaparmál section of Snorra Edda is an outstanding medieval authority on the nature of the heiti, but a clear definition of the heiti and its relationship to the kenning does not emerge from Snorra Edda. Snorri’s position has been much debated (e.g. Heusler 1922; Merwe Scholtz 1927; Trost 1933; Brodeur 1952), and has been used by some scholars to support a view that some heiti have two parts and are kent heiti, as distinct from the simplex ókent heiti. Thus scholars such as Heusler who favour a narrower definition of the kenning as essentially based on metaphor would see non-metaphorical kennings as kent heiti. An example cited by Brodeur (1952, 142) is stillir lýða ‘the controller of men [ruler]’ (Bragi Rdr 10/1III).

A closer study of the word heiti in the Skáldskaparmál section of Snorra Edda (Marold 1999a) has shown that it serves to denote the following phenomena:

1. The common name of an object, for example … þá tek ek með heiti af eign annars Ássins (SnE 1998, I, 5) ‘… then I add a term for the attribute of another Áss’ (Faulkes 1987, 64).

2. The poetic name of an object, for example … nema áðr finni hann í verka hǫfuðskálda þvílík heiti (SnE 1998, I, 85) ‘… unless one finds similar terms already in the work of major poets’ (Faulkes 1987, 133). Subsequently, both simplex and composite examples are presented, like the following expressions for the sky, but none of these can properly be referred to as a circumlocution (e.g. heiðþornir ‘bright-clouded’, víðfeðmir‘wide-embracer’, víðbláinn ‘wide-blue’; cf. translations in SnE 1998, II, 304, 427 and interpretations offered in Þul Himins IIII).

3. Kenning (SnE 1998, I, 5): … svá sem vér kǫllum Sigtý eða Hangatý eða Farmatý, þat er þá Óðins heiti, ok kǫllum vér þat kent heiti ‘… for instance when we speak of Victory-Týr or Hanged-Týr or Cargo-Týr, these areheiti for Óðinn, and these we call kent heiti [periphrastic terms]’.

4. Even the terms fornǫfnviðkenning and sannkenning are called heiti (SnE 1998, I, 107): 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 [circumlocutions] or sannkenningar [(true) descriptions] or fornofn [substitutions]’ (cf. Faulkes 1987, 152). For the explanation of these terms, see §5.1.1.

It appears as if Snorri indeed used the terms heiti and kenning indiscriminately. However, this should not be seen as a failure to distinguish between the categories, but the result of the fact that Snorri uses heiti as a generic term for all the expressions he discusses in his Skáldskaparmálnafnsannkenningfornǫfnkenning and viðkenning. If he wants to be more precise, he uses the terms kent heiti ‘paraphrased heiti’ and ókent heiti‘non-paraphrased heiti’.

The present edition follows the modern scholarly tradition in comprehending heiti as a poetic simplex or synonym, as opposed to a periphrasis (a kenning). The question remains, however, whether a heiti can be distinguished from an everyday word? Such a distinction presumably cannot be established for certain, and a look at medieval synonym collections like the second part of Skáldskaparmál and the poetic þulur reveals that even plain everyday words found their way into them.

Snorri’s collections of kennings and heiti in Skáldskaparmál show that there are heiti for roughly the same sets of terms for which there are also kennings, e.g. for ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘ruler’, for all manner of weapons and animals and for mythological beings like giants and dwarfs. People had already begun collecting heiti in the Middle Ages. The older collections take the form of mnemonic stanzas giving synonyms one after another, usually in fornyrðislag metre. These are called þulur (sg. þula) (for a detailed discussion of the þulur, see their Introduction in SkP III). Although they may have had older precursors, the surviving þulur demonstrate that their authors not only collected, but also coined heiti themselves, because only about fifteen percent of the heiti found in þulur are also attested in the surviving body of skaldic verse. These collections can therefore also be viewed as the result of a systematisation of knowledge and ideas about poetic language (Gurevich 1992c).

The second part of Skáldskaparmál represents a different type of heiti collection. In essence, it is set up the same way as the kenning collection in the first part, i.e. the same terms for which kennings were given there appear again here. In response to the question ‘What are the names/heiti of ... X?’, there appears a list of synonyms, cited in part (but to a lesser extent) in stanzas. The fact that kennings sometimes appear in this section also has been explained by Sigurður Nordal (1920, 101), probably correctly, as the result of kennings forgotten in the first part having been added later.

In addition to these poetic collections, two poems of the Poetic Edda that make use of this great variety of poetic expressions should also be mentioned. The doubtless very late Alvíssmál engages with the subject of the languages of various mythological beings and personages by representing a contest of knowledge between Þórr and the dwarf Alvíss. The several heiti for a single notion are then associated with various languages. In response to a question about the word for ‘earth’, the audience is informed that humans say jǫrð, the Æsir say fold, the Vanir refer to it as vegir ‘paths’, the giants as the ígrœn ‘greening one, vividly green one’, the elves say gróandi ‘growing one’, and the regin ‘divine powers’ call it aurr ‘wet, muddy earth’ (Alv 9-10, NK 125). What stands out here is that the language of humans always uses the everyday term, whereas the mythical beings use the poetic terms. The theological and sociolinguistic importance of this collection has been the subject of a voluminous scholarly discussion in connection with research into tabu languages (Olrik 1897; Güntert 1921; Meissner 1924; Lie 1963a; Watkins 1970). In the poem Rígsþula, which portrays the mythical origins of the social classes, heiti referring to the various classes are associated with their mythical progenitors. For example, the following genealogy is developed: Afi ‘grandfather’ and Amma ‘grandmother’ have a son Karl ‘free farmer’, who is married to Snør ‘daughter-in-law’ and has a large number of children whose names are theheiti for males or females of these social classes. Some of the sons’ names are Halr ‘man’, Drengr ‘young man, warrior’, Hǫlðr ‘freeholder’, Þegn ‘thane’, Smiðr ‘smith’, Bóndi ‘farmer’, Búi ‘dweller’ and Seggr ‘man, warrior, boy’. The daughters’ names are woman-heitiSnót ‘woman’, Brúðr ‘bride, young married woman, wife’ and so on ( 16, 21, 24-5, NK 282-3; for the translations, see LT).

The heiti are in part appellatives, in part proper nouns. In Skáldskaparmál, for example, (SnE 1998, I, 85-7, translations from SnE 1998, II; cf. also Þul JarðarIII), the appellatives for ‘earth’ jǫrð ‘earth’, fold ‘field’,grund ‘(grassy) ground’, hauðr ‘surface’, land ‘land’, láð ‘land, territory’ and frón ‘land, country’ are listed, as well as the mythological personal names Hlǫðyn and Fjǫrgyn. From the perspective of morphology, there are simplices, nouns formed from adjectives, participles and compounds, as demonstrated by the heiti Snorri gives for ‘sun’: sunna ‘sun’, rǫðull ‘wheel, disk’, eyglóa ‘ever-shiner’, alskír ‘all-bright’, fagra-hvél ‘fair-wheel’ and so forth (SnE 1998, I, 85-7; translations from SnE 1998, II). Likewise, a heiti for ‘sky, the heavens’ is drífandi ‘the drifting one’. The nomina agentis form the largest group among the derivations: cf. ljósfari ‘light-traveller’, meaning ‘sky’ in Skáldskaparmál (SnE 1998, I, 85), but ‘sun’ in a þula (Þul Sóla 1/6III). Heiti can thus be very diverse words, and several attempts have been made to suggest various groupings for them. The groupings are mostly based on the words’ presumed origins. The following categories have been suggested: loan words, old poetic words, coinages, personal or god-names used as appellatives, nouns derived from adjectives, original metaphors, and words that have a special meaning in poetry.

Elena Gurevich (1992c) deals especially with the semantics of newly created heiti in the þulur. She distinguishes two varieties: 1) characterising heiti such as herkir ‘noise-maker’ for ‘fire’, which do not refer to the denoted object directly, but instead describe it. This group is much more common in the þulur than are direct references, constituting more than fifty per cent of the items listed in stanzas comprising animal-, bird- and weapon-heiti. The relationship of these characterising heiti to their referents can only be established via the context of the kenning or stanza in which they occur. If frequently used, they can develop a direct relationship to their referent, but then their original motivation is lost. 2) The second group comprises mythical personal names that develop into appellatives, thereby becoming remotivated so that their ‘inner form’ (Gurevich 1992c, 43) can become the model for new synonyms. These processes give rise to a phenomenon Gurevich refers to as ‘polysemy of the heiti’ (ibid.): characterising heiti, because of their meaning, can be associated with various referents. For instance, ólgr ‘noise’ is a heiti for goshawk, bull, fire and Óðinn; viðnir ‘forest-dweller’ is a heiti for goshawk, wolf and snake. The use of mythological nomina propria as heiti also motivates polysemies that are based not only on the meaning of the name in question but also on the myths associated with that name. An example is Andvariheiti for both ‘dwarf’ and ‘fish’, since this particular mythical dwarf was able to transform himself from the one into the other.

Various theories about the origin of heiti have been put forth, but no consensus has been reached. Olrik (1897) thought they derived from fishermen’s tabu language, since he found similarities and correspondences between tabu words in fishermen’s speech in Orkney and Shetland Norn and heiti in Skáldskaparmál. Portengen (1915) produced further ethnological parallels to support her assertion that poetic language had its origins in tabu languages. Lie (1957) also considered the possibility that circumlocutions and heiti had arisen from tabu languages, but he rejected their purported origins in the language of fishermen. Meissner (1924) completely refused to entertain these theories. In general, one cannot completely discount the possibility that a body of synonyms may have arisen in this way. However, if one considers the wealth of heiti found in our sources, one must assume that they had very diverse origins.

The function of heiti in Old Norse poetry has been the subject of very little detailed study. In general, the literature mentions the following functions: they can serve as synonyms for the device of variation, whether in apposition or in substitution (Meyer 1889; Paetzel 1913; Wolff 1923), and they provide a way for the poet to satisfy metrical demands, which are considerable, particularly in skaldic poetry. It is more difficult to determine the extent to which heiti can also contribute to content, for example by emphasising certain themes (cf. Turville-Petre 1976). This depends on how linguistically transparent such constructions are. Functions such as description, comparison and metaphor have been mentioned in this context (Mohr 1933), but perhaps one should also consider an associative function.


  1. Bibliography
  2. Gurevich, Elena A. 1992c. ‘Þulur in Skáldskaparmál: An Attempt at Skaldic Lexicology’. ANF 107, 35-52.
  3. Turville-Petre, Gabriel. 1976. Scaldic Poetry. Oxford: Clarendon.
  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. NK = Neckel, Gustav and Hans Kuhn (1899), eds. 1983. Edda: Die Lieder des Codex Regius nebst verwandten Denkmälern. 2 vols. I: Text. 5th edn. Heidelberg: Winter.
  6. LT = La Farge, Beatrice and John Tucker. 1992. Glossary to the Poetic Edda, based on Hans Kuhn’s Kurzes Wörterbuch. Skandinavistische Arbeiten 15. Heidelberg: Winter.
  7. SnE 1998 = Snorri Sturluson. 1998. Edda: Skáldskaparmál. Ed. Anthony Faulkes. 2 vols. University College London: Viking Society for Northern Research.
  8. SkP III = Poetry from Treatises on Poetics. Ed. Kari Ellen Gade in collaboration with Edith Marold. 2017.
  9. Brodeur, Arthur G. 1952. ‘The Meaning of Snorri’s Categories’. University of California Publications in Modern Philology 36, 129-47.
  10. Güntert, Hermann. 1921. Von der Sprache der Götter und Geister. Halle (Saale): Niemeyer.
  11. 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.
  12. Lie, Hallvard. 1963a. ‘Heiti’. KLNM 6, 302-4.
  13. Meissner, Rudolf. 1924. ‘Die Sprache der Götter, Riesen und Zwerge in den Alvíssmál’. ZDA 61, 128-40.
  14. Merwe Scholtz, Hendrik van de. 1927. The Kenning in Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse Poetry. Utrecht: N. V. Dekker & Van de Vegt en J. W. Van Leeuwen.
  15. Meyer, Richard M. 1889. Die altgermanische Poesie nach ihren formelhaften Elementen beschrieben. Berlin: W. Hertz.
  16. Mohr, Wolfgang. 1933. Kenningstudien. Beiträge zur Stilgeschichte der altgermanischen Dichtung. Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer.
  17. Paetzel, W. 1913. Die variationen in der altgermanischen Alliterationspoesie. Berlin: Mayer & Müller.
  18. Sigurður Nordal. 1920. Snorri Sturluson. Reykjavík: Þór B. Þorláksson.
  19. Trost, P. 1933. ‘Zur Wesensbestimmung der Kenning’. ZDA 70, 235-6.
  20. Watkins, Calvert. 1970. ‘Language of Gods and Language of Men: Remarks on some Indo-European Metalinguistic Traditions’. In Puhvel 1970, 1-17.
  21. Wolff, Ludwig. 1923. ‘Über den Stil der altgermanischen Poesie’. Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 1, 214-29.
  22. Lie, Hallvard. 1957. ‘Natur’ og ‘unatur’ i skaldekunsten. Avhandlinger utgitt av Det norske Videnskaps-Akademi i Oslo, II. Hist.-filos. kl., no. 1. Oslo: Aschehoug. Rpt. in Lie 1982, 201-315.
  23. Olrik, Axel. 1897a. Review of Jakob Jakobsen. 1897. Det norrøne Sprog på Shetland. Copenhagen: Prior. NT, 339-44.
  24. Portengen, Alberta Johanna. 1915. De Oudgermaansche dichtertaal in haar ethnologisch verband. Diss. University of Leiden. Leiden: H. L. van Niflerik.
  25. Marold, Edith. 1999a. ‘Heiti’. In RGA, 14, 253-7.
  26. Internal references
  27. 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].
  28. Not published: do not cite (SkmIII)
  29. Not published: do not cite (RunVI)
  30. Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.) 2017, ‘Bragi inn gamli Boddason, Ragnarsdrápa 10’ in Kari Ellen Gade and Edith Marold (eds), Poetry from Treatises on Poetics. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 3. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 42.
  31. Not published: do not cite ()
  32. Not published: do not cite ()
  33. Elena Gurevich 2017, ‘(Introduction to) Anonymous, Jarðar heiti’ in Kari Ellen Gade and Edith Marold (eds), Poetry from Treatises on Poetics. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 3. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 877.
  34. Elena Gurevich 2017, ‘(Introduction to) Anonymous, Himins heiti I’ in Kari Ellen Gade and Edith Marold (eds), Poetry from Treatises on Poetics. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 3. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 905.

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