Cracking The Kenning Code Of Iceland’s Skaldic Poetry


Iceland’s Snorri Sturluson wrote the Edda (also called the Prose Edda or the Younger Edda) in the early thirteenth century.  The Edda, composed of three sections, recounts many tales from Icelandic mythology.  But the real reason Sturluson wrote the Edda appears to have been so as to educate Icelandic poets (known as “skalds“) on the traditions of their craft. The book, though considered a literary treasure today, was in its day actually not very popular.

Better-systematized and more fulsome sources for learning/understanding the stories and characters of Icelandic mythology exist, but there is something special about reading a rendition so much closer to the beating heart of belief than a modern, streamlined accounting ever could be.

Because I have already been exposed to most of the stories contained in the Edda from other sources, what I enjoyed most from Sturluson’s work was his listing of “kennings.”

Kennings are poetic metaphors.  For example, when an Icelandic skald refers to poetry as “Odin’s mead,” his is employing a kenning (Odin, who apparently enjoys and/or inspires poetry, being the chief God in Icelandic mythology).

However, this is only the simplest style of kenning.  Over time, the skalds would build more complex metaphors from the most basic ones.  For instance, “poetry” migrates from being called merely “Odin’s Mead” to also “holy drink.”  

And it gets even more complicated, for kennings can be compounded.  For example, one kenning for a “sword” is to call it a “battle wolf.”   So a shield might then be called a “wolf’s bane” (I made that one up).  Furthermore, if we pretend that there is a kenning for “a high roof” that is “a hard sky“, and if we imagine a mead-hall with a roof made of shields (which was not unheard of, at least mythically), a skald might speak of the warriors regaling beneath “the hard, wolf-bane sky.” 

If we were attempt to read an Icelandic epic without knowing our kennings, and we were to come across an event occurring under “the hard, wolf-bane sky”– we might understandably have no idea that this simply meant “inside the mead-hall.”

This makes Icelandic poetry a sort of code. If one does not know the code, one cannot crack the poem.

I think my favorite kenning is the one which refers to a “fist” as the “arm’s mouth.” There is also the “hostility acorn,” a.k.a. the “heart.”

Below are listed some more of my favorite kennings that I found in the Edda.  Most of them are simple, as opposed to compounded, kennings…

blood (raven beer)

king (ring-giver)

battle (game of iron, true language of swords, greeting of metals)

man (gold tree)

woman (beer plank [?!])

tongue (word meadow)

sword (death flame, man’s doom; battle wolf)

spears (shooting snakes)

warrior (raven’s feeder)

arms (falcon perches)

sea (ship’s road; whale roof)

ship (wind-steed, wave-horse)

sky (moon’s way)

rock/stone (sea tooth; fiord bone)


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