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Wielder of Words: On Vikings & Poetry

This article, originally published over at author Joshua Gillingham’s website, is based on Peter Hallberg’s 1975 publication ‘Old Icelandic Poetry: Eddic Lay and Skaldic Verse’ as well as Haukur Þorgeirsson and Óskar Guðlaugsson’s ‘Old Norse for Beginners’

History presents the Vikings (accurately or otherwise) as ruthless raiders, seafaring traders, horn-helmeted heathens, and ferocious fighters. However, one of the most enviable traits of a Norse hero at the height of the Viking Age is regrettably overlooked today: skill in poetry.

In a Viking’s mind the sword lay next to the spoken word. Wielding words with skill was as important as wielding a blade as a clumsy phrase could lead to more bloodshed than a misplaced sword stroke. If injury was intended, every Viking knew that a well-crafted insult aimed at an enemy could fly farther and sink deeper than any hand-fletched arrow. Intelligence could be measured by one’s ability to interpret poetic riddles and, for those seeking glory, a deed enshrined in verse would outlast the richest treasure. Therefore, no study of the Viking Age could be complete without considering their poetry.

Translated verses of famous Viking skalds (poets) such as Egill Skallagrímsson and Kormákr Ögmundarson bear little resemblance to what most people today would consider to be poetry. Modern song lyrics and traditional Western poems are primarily defined by rough syllabic consistency and end-rhyme between lines. An excellent example can be found in Lennon & McCartney’s classic Beatle’s hit She Loves You:

You think you've lost your love (6 syllables)
Well, I saw her yesterday (7 syllables)
It's you she's thinking of (6 syllables)
And she told me what to say (7 syllables)

The end-rhyme pairs love/of and day/say in an ABAB scheme satisfy, to the modern ear, what poetry should ‘sound’ like. Each line has either six or seven syllables which demonstrates a fair amount of consistency between lines.

By contrast, the skaldic poetry enjoyed by Vikings centered around internal rhyme and alliteration instead. Both of these were made easier by the fact that Old Norse had specific linguistic features that made it better suited to these kinds of verse structures. First, Old Norse as a language has less phonetic diversity than modern English. Since there are literally fewer sounds within the language it was much easier to find rhymes and to alliterate in Old Norse.

Additionally, both nouns and pronouns Old Norse are declined in cases. This means that what defines the subject (nomative case) and object (accusative case) in a sentence is not determined by word order, such as in English, but by special forms of the nouns themselves. In English, pronouns are declined in cases (e.g., she/her) but not nouns; further, you still have to follow word order rules in English to make any sense.

To give an example, in English we might say, “The dog chased the cat.” The dog (subject) is doing the action (chasing) to the cat (object). We can switch the subject and object by changing the order of the sentence to, “The cat chased the dog.” The words ‘cat’ and ‘dog’ did not change, but their role as either the subject or the object did because we changed the word order. Also, altering the word order (e.g. “Chased cat dog.”) leads to pure nonsense.

By contrast, in Old Norse the word order did not determine which noun was the subject (nomative case) and which was the object (accusative case). This granted skaldic poets extra flexibility in wrestling their verses into rigid forms. For example, in Old Norse we could say that the dwarf (dvergr – subject) has (á) a ring (baug – object) with the sentence, “Dvergr á baug.” Because nouns are declined in Old Norse we could also say “Á baug dvergr”, “Baug á dvergr”, or “Baug dvergr á” without changing the subject (dvergr – the dwarf), the object (baug – a ring), or the overall meaning of the sentence. Unfortunately, we do not have the privilege of this level of flexibility in English!

A reconstructed Viking longhouse

Skaldic poetry featured over one hundred distinctive structured verse forms, each of which had its own strict set of rules. One of the most popular forms was dróttkvætt, also known as ‘court metre’. While it is nearly impossible to re-create within the English language because of the structural linguistic differences, I will give an approximation of my own making based on a set of five dróttkvætt-like rules which is perhaps more similar to looser skaldic forms like málaháttr or fornyrðislag.

1. Each verse should consist of four lines
2. Every line must have exactly six syllables
3. Odd lines must have one case of full-rhyme (shown in italics; e.g. ‘wave’ and ‘gave’)
4. Even lines must have one case of half-rhyme (shown in italics; e.g. ‘cut’ and ‘bit’)
5. Every pair of lines must have triple alliteration occurring twice in the odd line and once in the even line (shown in bold; e.g. ‘sword’, ‘sea’, ‘sailed’)

With those five rules in mind, here is an example of how they can be applied and what (with a great stretch of the imagination) Viking verses might have sounded like.

Now light logs to brighten
Longhouse dim and gloomy
Let long flames grow stronger
Like red wolves wood licking

Bring here beer in barrels
Fill every horn brim-full
Also fine wine and mead
Till throats are dry no more

Attempt to construct a verse of your own with these five rules and you’ll find it a synapse-stretching task. However, a skald would not consider the verse above to be dróttkvætt at all as it does not strictly follow the additional rules of the form. In conversations with doctoral students of Norse literature I have heard these skaldic forms described as ‘hyper-complex’ with ‘draconian rules’; however, Viking Age skalds were famed for being able to improvise such forms on the spot.

In addition to these challenging structural complexities, skalds were famous for their use of a unique poetic device known as a kenning. Kennings were metaphorical phrases that alluded to Norse myth and culture. For example, the ‘whale road’ is a kenning for ‘the ocean’; the ‘sea of swords’ is a kenning for ‘battle’; ‘Freya’s tears’ is a kenning for ‘gold’. The best skalds might employ a double kenning, a reference to a reference. A phrase like ‘the venom of the battle snake’ employs the kenning ‘battle snake’ for ‘sword’, presumably making its ‘venom’ a kenning for ‘blood’. Therefore, by saying ‘the venom of the battle snake’ the skald simply means ‘blood’. While triple or even quadruple kennings may have existed, scholars such as Peter Hallberg declare that the intimate knowledge of Norse culture and skaldic traditions needed to decipher these kennings makes them practically inaccessible to the modern reader.

The poetry of the skalds then becomes not only an epic demonstration of linguistic acrobatics but a nearly sadistic interweaving of kennings that may all but conceal whatever meaning was originally intended. Modern scholars share the frustration of interpreting these poems with ancient Vikings who themselves often could make little sense of the more complex skaldic verses. However, that which we can translate and understand gives us a glimpse of a culture that, despite its harshness, had a keen ear for quality verse and a fascination with vexing poetic riddles.

For more from Joshua, check out his debut troll-hunting fantasy, The Gatewatch, and his upcoming Norse phrasebook, Old Norse for Modern Times.

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