Old Norse poetry – to a far lesser extent, Anglo-Saxon poetry too – is distinguished by ornate use of comparisons or metaphors. We know the lore, so we have an advantage over other modern readers; still, it takes some basic knowledge and practice to become comfortable with this feature of the poetry.
The comparisons fall into two classes, which modern writers tend to confuse, but things are a lot easier if they are distinguished.
One group is pretty easy to understand. These are called heitir [HEY-teer], sing. heiti [HEY-ti], or sometimes (particularly in the Prose Edda) þulur [THOO-luhr, with unvoiced “th” and short “oo”], sing. þulr [thoolrr]. These are epithets that describe gods and occasionally heroes in terms of their actual characteristics and accomplishments. We sometimes use them when we hail the gods. For example, Midgard’s Warder (Miðgarðs Vörðr, Middangeardes Weard, Middilgards Uuard) is a heiti – it factually describes Thor/Thunor/Donar. Skaði is öndurdís – the snowshoe goddess – and Ullr önduráss. Since Jörð is a goddess, the skalds sometimes use heitir referring to her for the earth: Bragi inn Aldri talks about flung clods in terms of Hergauts vina, “Hergaut’s (i.e., Óðin’s) mistress,” and Eyvindr Skáldaspillir talks about digging holes in terms of hold móður mellu dolgs, “the flesh of the mother of the giantess’ enemy (i.e.: of Thor).” (Strictly speaking this is called ofljóst – punning.) Heitir can be challenging, but we have usually read the necessary stories; most of the material in the Gylfaginning and Skáldskaparmál sections of the Prose Edda was intended to elucidate them and facilitate their generation, and the þulur there are first and foremost lists of heitir.
Heiti means “a way in which something/someone is referred to” or “something something/someone can be called.” Kenning (plur. kenningar [KENN-ing-uhr] means “a term based on knowledge of something’s nature, on familiarity.” This does express the distinction, but to make it clearer in English: unlike heitir, kenningar are metaphors; that is to say, at least one part of a kenning is not true. A heiti is always literally true; a kenning rests on a comparison or equivalency. For example, many kennings for ships refer to them as horses of the sea. Ships do sail on the sea, but they are not horses. They resemble horses in function. In Anglo-Saxon, the sea is called hronrád, “whaleroad” and ganetes bæþ, “gannet’s bath”; it is only metaphorically a road and really too large to be called a bath even if gannets bathe, so obvious though these metaphors may be, they are not literally true. So, while knowledge of the particular point of lore will suffice for understanding a heiti, even the easiest kenning requires interpretation – it has to be decoded. In fact part of the artistry of Norse poetry – particularly for the skalds – lay in using less than obvious kennings. (Snorri referred to new variations on old themes as nýgervingar, “new coinages.”) “Sea-goat,” “swan of Gestill (a sea-king),” and “bison of the sea-mew’s perch” are less obvious kennings for ship than “wave-steed.”
Here are some general guidelines for interpreting kennings.
1. A person – particularly a man – can be referred to as a tree of virtually any kind; even though we think of Embla as an elm in contrast to Askr the ash, Helgi is called almr itrborinn, “high-born elm.” A woman can also be referred to as a tróða (pole), stoð (prop), or words of similar meaning, because she can be draped with jewels and precious metals. Lundr, “grove” can be used to mean a group of men.
2. A man can be referred to by the name of a god. (Týr is the favorite, Ullr also common; Óðinn is very rare, other names for him apparently less taboo.) So “Týr of the meadbench” is “warrior.” A woman can also be referred to by the name of a goddess, or as a dís (which etymologically means “goddess,” and that is probably why it is used in kennings). It may or may not be because of the essentially epic subject matter of the poetry that these kennings for women tend to involve stereotypically feminine roles in the truthful half; thus, ölgefjon, ölsaga, ölgerðr, and ölnanna (ale Gefjon, ale Saga, ale Gerðr, ale Nanna) all refer to the fact the woman was or could be pouring drinks, and Hlín linu, “Hlín of the linen headdress” and hörbil, “linen Bil” refer to the ideal of a woman having sufficient wealth to be married in a white linen headdress and even wear white linen after that. Women are also habitually associated with gold, jewels, and necklaces.
For both men and women, this class of kennings is relatively easy to decode; one must simply remember that in skaldic poetry, above all, a reference to a god or goddess is almost always part of such a kenning and not to be taken literally.
For some reason, the Norwegian island of Hrund is used like a goddess name: “Hrund of rings” means “woman.”
3. A ship can be referred to as any sort of horse of any sort of sea, or of actual ship characteristics such as hawsers – less obviously, as some other sort of swift and/or useful animal. e.g.: gjálf(a)rdýr, “creatures of the sounding wave(s)” and gjálfrstóð, “wave-stud” both refer to groups of ships.
4. Because of the subject matter of the poetry, there are myriad kennings for battle (and by association for warriors). They tend to refer to wild beasts (especially ravens, or wolves referred to as vargr), weapon use, a storm or simply noise, or Óðinn. e.g.: veþr grára geira, “storm of steel-grey spears,” Óðins gramr, “fury of Óðinn,” járna leikr, “play of iron weapons,” gný malma, “din of metal.”
5. Conversely, there are many kennings for weapons, especially swords, where the untrue/metaphorical part is a reference to the long thin shape or the gleam of the metal and the reference to battle is the truthful or clear part: a sword can be a valteinn, “twig of slaughter,” lakkar ís, “ice of battle,” blóðvönd, “blood-wand,” etc. In one verse, Eyvindr Skáldaspillir plays with the comparisons by first calling herring “slim arrows of the sea,” mævörum sævar, and then calling arrows hlaupsildr Egils gaupna, “leaping silt (herrings) of Egil’s palms” (referring to Völund’s brother).
6. Gold and poetry, as subjects of lore and legend in themselves, can be referred to by heitir. In a single verse, Eyvindr Skáldaspillir refers to gold as both Fýrisvalla fræ, “seed of Fýrisvellir,” a reference to Hrólfr Kraki’s tactics, and meldr fáglýjaðra þýja Fróða, “grinding product of the hapless thrall-women of Fróði,” a reference to Fenja and Menja. In Sonatorrek, Egill refers to poetry as Viðris þýfi, “Viðrir’s, i.e. Óðin’s, booty” and fagnafundr Friggjar niðja, “the joyful find of Frigg’s kin.” Less obviously, as Snorri says, it can be called farskostra dverga, “vessel of dwarves,” since the dwarves Fjalar and Galar used it to get Suttungr to release them from the skerry where he had marooned them. This last example has crossed the line from heiti to kenning; Fenja and Menja did grind gold, Hrólfr Kraki did strew it about the plain, and Óðinn did steal the mead of poetry, but poetry isn’t really a ship.
Many kennings for poetry use some other liquid to allude to the story of the mead of poetry. For example, Kormakr calls it día fjörðr, “fjord of the gods.”
Kennings for gold usually refer to its brightness—for example, eldr handar, “fire of the hands.” In general, because of the story of Andvari’s hoard or the treasure of the Nibelungs, gold can be described in terms of any kind of light, particularly fire, under or of any kind of water. e.g.: hrannhyr, “wave-ember,” hrannblik, “wave-light,” sól sunds, “sun of the deep,” etc.
7. The poetry is overwhelmingly about epic subject-matter or about courts, so things associated with these tend to have kennings. For example, trained hawks land on hawkers’ outstretched arms, so “mountains (or other settling places) of hawks means “arms.” Shed blood can be referred to as a wide range of liquids, but particularly dew: valdögg, “corpse-dew,” dögg benja, “dew of wounds,” sverða flaumr, “eddy of swords,” odda flóð, “flood of spear-points,” dólglíð, “enmity-ale,” etc. Fire was a devastating destroyer and burning down halls was a battle tactic, so fire can be bani viðar, “bane of wood,” sviga læ, “doom of switches,” and so on.
8. The rhetorical figure of synecdoche, a part for the whole (a bawdy modern English example is “broad” for “woman”) means that hringr, “coiled ring” can refer to a ship (they had rings on the prows when they weren’t displaying dragon heads) or baugr, “ring, circle” can refer to a shield (they were circular and had a ring painted on them). Gramr, “fury” can refer to a king or warlord.
Anglo-Saxon æsc for ash spear and lind for linden shield can be classed here.
9. Some kennings are products of pure joy in invention, often with some wordplay. Thus, mead was drunk from horns, so in Þjóðólfr or Hvín’s Ynglingatál, it is svigðis geira vágr vindlauss, “the windless wave of the spears of the curved-horned one (ox).”
10. Since at least one element in a kenning can often itself be expressed by a kenning, kennings can be doubled up. For example, Þórarinn Svarti’s valnaðr styrr, “tumult of the corpse snake” means battle and includes “corpse-snake” rather than a simple word for “sword.” Kormákr refers to a woman as Hildr hrannbliks, “Hildr (valkyrie) of the wave-light (gold)” and greipa glóðar Gerðr, “Gerðr of the fire of the hands (gold).” Even triple kennings can occur. De Vries (p. 113) cites one example, Eyjólfr Dáðaskáld’s stafns hrafna flatbalkar dynbeiðir, “those awaiting the din of the flat planks of the stems of ravens”: “din of shields” is battle, “stems of ravens” are warships (part for the whole – “stem” or “keel” for “ship), and shields were hung against the sides of the ship, where they were flat boards against the curved sides. Double kennings for “woman” are sometimes left incomplete – for example, E.V. Gordon points out (p. 250) that in Haraldr Harðráði’s verse about the Battle of Stamford Bridge, valtæigs Hildr, “Hildr of the hawk-land (arm)” lacks a word for “adornment” or “fire” to complete the idea of “gold.”
11. Skalds commonly interleave kenning-phrases in a regular pattern, leaving one hanging to go to another. This further increases the difficulty of interpretation for us, and many scholars have disapproved of it and of the increasing complexity of the kennings in later skalds, but it was clearly expected and approved by the original audiences and the mode of performance must have enabled them to keep parallel kennings straight. E.V. Gordon (pp. xli-xlii) refers to “a rhythm of sense as well as sound” produced by the interleaving and analyzes the following example, Haraldr Harðráði’s verse about Stamford Bridge:
His literal translation (p. 250): “We do not creep in battle into the shelter of a shield before the crash of weapons – so bade me the divinity of hawk-land (fair lady), true of word. The wearer of the necklace long ago bade me bear the head high amid the din of metal, where the ice of battle (gleaming sword) and skulls do meet.”
In writing this I drew on the following:
Edda Snorra Sturlusonar. Ed. Finnur Jónsson for the Arnamagnæan Commission. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1931.
Gordon, E.V. An Introduction to Old Norse. 2nd ed., rev. A.R. Taylor. Oxford: Clarendon, 1957, repr. 1971.
“Kenning.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 11 July 2005. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kenning
Turville-Petre, E.O.G. Scaldic Poetry. Oxford: Clarendon, 1976.
de Vries, Jan. Altnordische Literaturgeschichte. 2 vols. 1, 2nd, ed. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1964, pp. 105-20.