Skaldic Poetry

What is skaldic poetry?

For Viking Age kings, reputation was extremely important. Performing acts of valour in battle and rewarding one’s followers were both key aspects of being a successful ruler, both in Scandinavia and in other areas of medieval Europe besides. A positive reputation meant more followers, more allies, and ultimately, more political success. For most European societies between the eighth and eleventh centuries, famous deeds could be captured and spread in writing: saints and kings were commemorated in literary works called vitae—literally, ‘lives’—that could be widely read, and stored for posterity in libraries. In Viking Age Scandinavia there was no manuscript culture, and carving runes into wood and stone did not make for an ideal medium for recording or spreading information. Instead, the recording of famous deeds fell to figures called skalds—or poets.

 

The skald was a figure who made his living by performing poetry in praise of Scandinavian rulers in their halls. Kings and jarls would pay handsomely for a poem which gave them a good reputation. The Icelandic sagas tell us that some kings gave gold rings and swords in exchange for poems, and others gave ships and even islands for them. The high premium placed on poetry can be accounted for on the basis that, in the absence of writing, catchy poetry was the best way that a ruler’s reputation could be spread and preserved long after his death. In other words, without the work of Old Norse poets, events like famous battles would simply be forgotten. This would have been an alarming prospect for Viking Age kings, whose power and that of their descendants depended in part on their deeds being remembered. It is also largely thanks to the skalds of the Viking Age that we know so much about the events that took place in Scandinavia itself in this period.

 

The reason why skaldic poetry was seen to be such a good way to preserve information, and why it was therefore worth so much, is quite complicated. Old Norse skaldic praise poetry was composed in a very complicated alliterating metre called dróttkvætt (literally ‘retinue-metre’, in reference to the fact that this poetry was performed before the warriors in the hall). Dróttkvætt is considered one of the most elaborate metres ever to have existed in Western Europe, and so skalds were clearly very talented in the craft of poetic composition. Without going into too much detail, composing in this metre required very precise consideration of syllables, stress, and sound. This meant that skaldic poems would have to be remembered exactly. If words or syllables are changed, then this poetry becomes corrupted—in other words, its metre and possibly its meaning becomes confused.

 

Kennings

Skalds also filled their poetry with devices called kennings. Put simply, kennings are a sort of riddle. They consist of an object (or base word) which is similar to but not exactly like the solution, and another word (the determinant) which defines the nature of the object and allows a solution to be reached. The best way to explain this is through examples. Viking Age skalds often refer to ships as ‘horses of the sea’, or to shields as ‘moons of battle’. The base words here—‘horse’ in the first kenning and ‘moon’ in the second—are of course not ships and shields on their own, but this can be understood when thinking about the nature of the things which they associated with in the kennings. A horse is a steerable mode of transport which when associated with the determinant ‘sea’ must be a ship, and a moon is a round object that when defined by the determinant ‘battle’ is logically a shield. In fact, we still use some kennings today. A book-worm (which might be expressed in skaldic terms as a ‘worm of books’) is of course not actually a worm, but a person who is defined by how stuck in books they are.

 

Just as with the complex metrics of skaldic poetry, the words that make up kennings have to stay the same if they are to continue to make proper sense, and this constitutes another way in which skaldic poetry could be self-preserving. Kennings are also a central part of the style of skaldic poetry, and knowing about them is important. Again, the ability of skaldic poetry to preserve information in this way was central to its extreme value in Viking Age Scandinavia. Skalds were well aware that their poetry could survive the test of time thanks to their complicated makeup. In the late-tenth century, the skald Eyvind Finnsson announced in a poem that ‘I have produced once more a poem—praise of the ruler—like a bridge of stones.’ And indeed, skaldic poetry, with its complex metrics, kennings, and ability to last longer than a ruler’s lifetime, might well be likened to a stone bridge.

Dating and preservation

Some 6,000 lines of skaldic poetry are found across Old Norse literature. Most appears in Icelandic sagas and in Snorri Sturluson’s Edda, both of which begin to appear in manuscripts from the thirteenth century onwards. Although this poetry only appears in manuscripts from after the Viking Age had ended, it is thought that much of it was composed in the Viking Age, and that it was passed down in oral tradition until it could be committed to vellum by Icelandic scribes. The earliest skald who is mentioned in Old Norse texts is thought to be Bragi Boddason ‘The Old’, a poet who allegedly composed for Ragnar Lothbrok and whose poetry is usually dated to around the year 870. However, the composition of skaldic poetry likely extends back even further than this. It should be said that the dating of skaldic poetry is a notoriously difficult task—skalds never refer to the date on which they compose and deliver their poems. Ancient vocabulary and word-forms in individual poems can allow us to say roughly how old these poems are. The date of skaldic poetry can also be estimated on the basis of the events it mentions. For instance, the poem Knútsdrápa (‘Knut’s praise poem’), composed by Sigvat Thordarson, mentions the Danish conquest of England in 1016, and this allows the poem to be dated to the first half of the eleventh century. It should of course be remembered that these dating criteria are not foolproof. Poets could employ old-fashioned language to give their verse an air of antiquity, or they could compose retrospectively about famous events. Nevertheless, these can be used as reasonably effective tests to date skaldic poetry.

The late ninth-century skaldic poem Glymdrápa, as preserved in the early fourteenth-century manuscript Codex Frisianus. The poem was composed by Thorbjorn hornklofi in honour of King Harald Finehair of Norway. Image sourced from handrit.is.

The topics of skaldic poetry

Thinking about Sigvat’s poem brings up one of the key obsessions of skaldic poetry: battle. As mentioned above, Scandinavian rulers were keen to have their military successes recorded for posterity, and paid well for the privilege. Poets, in turn, cast their patrons as heroic lords and their men as loyal troops. Consider this verse addressed to Jarl Hakon of Lade by Thorleif Raudfeldarson:

 

‘Hakon, I do not know a jarl

anywhere more distinguished than you

beneath the path of the moon; the tree

of the battle-Ran has elevated himself

by warfare. You have sent nine

nobles to Odin; the raven eats from

provided corpses; prince, from this

you can have a wide domain.’

 

Thorleif employs many strategies which are quite typical of skaldic poetry to flatter his patron. He first refers to Hakon’s renown, suggesting that it is greater than anyone’s under the ‘path of the moon’—a kenning for the sky. The implication here is that he is most famous of all men in the world. The next part of the verse turns to the topic of warfare. Here we see another splendid kenning which refers to Hakon as the ‘tree of battle-Ran’. This is a three-part kenning, and needs to be solved in stages. Ran is a goddess of the sea, and a battle-Ran (or Ran of battle) is a valkyrie. So we are left with the kenning ‘tree of the valkyrie’. Men are often likened to trees in skaldic poetry, and a valkyrie’s tree is therefore a warrior. This kind of kenning, which brings up the mythology of battle, would have been an effective strategy for flattering a warlord. The same is true of the next section, which suggests that Hakon sent nobles to Odin. The suggestion here is that he sent men to Odin’s home, Valhalla, where slain heroes reside. He also gives their corpses to ravens, which are a ‘beast of battle’ commonly referred to in skaldic poetry. It is perhaps the last line that is most important, since this records Hakon’s success. Because of his military success, Thorleif suggests, Hakon achieved great power. Thorleif’s portrait is one of a terrifying warlord which would strike fear into his potential enemies and attract ferocious warriors to his court, and it is easy to see why a ruler such as Hakon would pay well for an ennobling verse such as this.

 
 
 
 
The Viking Age

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