Fighting Vikings on a bild stone from Smiss, Gotland. 8th Century. Historiska Museet. Source: wikipedia
Fighting Vikings on a bild stone from Smiss, Gotland. 8th Century. Notice the figure behind the man to the right, whose mouth indicates he is screaming. Perhaps the figure is a Valkyrie helping the man to his death. Something hovers above, a Raven or an Eagle? Waiting to devour the dying man's flesh? Historiska Museet. Source: wikipedia

The Heroic World of the Vikings Depicted in their Skaldic Verses

Since 2002, the Skaldic project has published a large part of the Skaldic Verses from the Viking world. Although not complete, it does offer us a preview of what was the main outline of the heroic world of the Vikings as depicted here.

The Skaldic Project has been editing the grand corpus of our medieval Norse-Icelandic skaldic poetry since 2002. With more than 853 poems and workgroups, and 164 prose works, the database offer up 5797 stanzas or verses. So far 75% of the full corpus has been published by the 55 editors. The Skaldic project represents a vast and precious effort to make this world heritage available to us all.

The Skaldic poetry was at first created for and performed in the privileged milieu of the ruler, king or chieftain in the 9th century. And yet, we continue to find the complexities of the skaldic metre and its intricate diction both wondrous and amazing; as is the mythopoetic language used in the elaborate construction. Some scholars are of the opinion that the Skaldic Poetry may even have functioned as a kind of secret or hermetic language known to the initiated in the royal and noble halls from Iceland to the Baltic. After the conversion to Christianity, the tradition to compose and perform the poetry continued, now occasionally playing a religious as well as educational role. But in its heyday in the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries it may primarily have served as a poetic soundboard to the grand feasts in the mead-hall.

One of the characteristic elements of the Skaldic poetry are the Kennings, circumlocutions where two nouns refer to a third, unspoken noun, the referent. Sometimes, whole sentences may be built out of such circumlocutions. With the kennings layered upon each other, such verses may have presented themselves as a kind of rebuses or riddles challenging the audience; somewhat like youngsters outdistancing their elders by solely communicating in emojis.

One of the more elaborate of these linguistic riddles stems from a verse by Þórðr Særeksson (Sjáreksson), from his poem, Þórálfs drápa Skólmssonar. This poet lived and worked at the beginning of the 11th century. In the poem, we hear the story of Þórálf inn Sterki. In one of the verses, we are told about how Þórálfr advances next to King Hákon Góði at the battle of Fitjar. The description tells us Þórálf is a mighty warrior. As such, he is described through a grand, elaborate and yet extremely convoluted so-called big kenning. It goes like this:

Nausta blakks hléman gifrs drífu gimsløngvir.

Reading the verse backwards, it literally may be translated as “fire-slinger of the storm of the troll-woman of the shielding moon of the horse of the boathouses”. The verse unpacks as follows:

  • The horse of the boathouses means SHIP
  • The shielding moon of the SHIP means SHIELD
  • The troll-woman of the SHIELD means AXE
  • The storm of the AXE means BATTLE
  • The fire of the BATTLE means SWORD
  • The slinger of the SWORD means WARRIOR.

According to the website, there are approximately 10.000 kennings in the corpus. Of these, 9237 from about 2995 verses have so far been painstakingly entered into a database. Most of these kennings, though, are much simpler than the “big kenning” quoted above.

The Word-Hoards

Any literary scholar fascinated by the beauty of the Old Norse language may well spend a lifetime unpacking these marvellous pieces of literature. Here, though, another and much more straightforward approach will be taken, in which we shall explore the “words” and “worlds” hidden behind the kennings.

After lumping the singular and plurals (like battle and battles), together, as well as words, which are listed together (like ravens/eagles as well as singular ravens and eagles), we find there are 441 “words” in the Skaldic poems, subjected to being rewritten as kennings. Of these two-thirds occur only 1 – 3 times, while a few – perhaps 7-10 %, attract the majority of the compound expressions.

With the numeral indicating the number of kennings each word attracts, the top scorers in three quite distinct word-hoards may be identified.

  • Bild stone from Hnninge, Gotland. 8th century. Photo from 1933. Source: wikipedia
    Bild stone from Hunninge, Gotland. 8th century. Photo from 1933. Notice the battlefield on top with the assisting valkyrie , the ship below, and the scene in the Netherworld with the birds feasting on the dead. Source: Wikipedia

    Warrior   1112

  • Battle   743
  • Gold   543
  • Ship   432
  • Sword   397
  • Generous   384
  • Woman   331
  • Sea   276
  • Man    257
  • Sky/Heaven   233
  • Ruler   216
  • Shield   250
  • King   177
  • Seafarer   176

 

  • Raven/Eagle   167
  • Giants/Giantesses  128
  • Poems/Poetry/Poets   117
  • Blood   107
  • Poetry/Poem   89
  • Snake/Serpent   81

 

  • Bishop   43
  • Wolf   47
  • Valkyrie   35
  • Holy Woman    22
  • Ale/Mead/Beer   19
  • Apostle   17
  • Saint  17
  • Priest  15
  • Angles 14
  • Cross 12
Banner with three word-hoards from the Scaldic Project
Banner with the three word-hoards from the Skaldic Project. The comparative size of the three word-hoards does not reflect the actual relative importance, but aims to indicate the different focus of the Scalds and their audience. © Medieval Histories (CC-BY)

The result is quite clear: 85 % of the kennings registered in these three groups are attached to the first word-hoard and focus on the noble warriors and their heroic lifestyle. Only a miserly 4 % focus on the spiritual Netherworld and the individuals catering for the dead – whether Christian or Pagan. In between is the group of words referring to the dead left on the battlefield, while the carrion-cleavers or hræskuðr hover above, and the poets lament. This word-hord is referred to by 10 % of the kennings. It should be noted that apart from blood in this middle group, several very distinctive body parts are also listed. Each is only mentioned a few times (between four to ten), and while some of them – but not all – catalogues the wounds received in battle, they have been left out here. “Blood” stands pars pro toto for the corporeality of the dying warrior.

The first conclusion, we may reach, is the marked prevalence of the central topos, the living and breathing heroic world, as opposed to the afterlife. What matters in this genre is the preoccupation with life here and now, not what follows after the transcendence.

Caveat

The overall sparsity of these three word-hoards – compared to the number of kennings involved – obviously reflects the intention by the commentators, editors and literary scholars to reduce the complexity of the messages in the verses by “translating” the kennings to stock icons. The structural clarity may be a result of this endeavour. Nevertheless, the 441 words in the complete compendium indicate that more specific meanings were often enough intended by the poets; and also recognised by the editors and translators. At least for now it seems safe to conclude that most of the circumlocations, the kennings, does indeed refer to a strictly limited and clearly structured word-hoard; which fall neatly into the three carefully outlined worlds, outlined here:

  • the lived experience of the heroic warrior
  • the warrior’s death on the battlefield and the rite des passage into a heroic fame fostered by the poet and his poetry
  • the spiritual world of the afterlife served by either valkyries in Valhal or Christian priests or religious persons in Heaven.

Another challenge is posed by the long period in which the Skaldic poetry was created and performed. Due to the intricate metres, it is now generally believed that the earliest verses have been preserved intact. Hence, its is possible to outline at least two chronological layers, with the first covering the period from mythical times to c. 1035, and the second encompassing poems from c.
c. 1035 to c. 1300. Perhaps, the balance between the three scenes – the Heroic world, the dying on the battlefield, and the afterlife would look differently, if the referents of the kennings were divided according to chronology. On the other hand, the number of valkyries (35) compared to bishops (43) – with the first one pointing to a pagan and the second to a christianised afterworld – is not that worrying.

Further work

Is this the whole story? No, lots of details surface, when we begin to study the patterns in this “heroic vocabulary”. For instance, God or Gods are only mentioned eight measly times, while bishops, priests and valkyries are recorded 93 times. On the other hand, Óðinn is a presence in the poetry, though not as a kenning per se, but rather as a figure entering the scene in 130 different disguises. Which tells us that the heroic world is not just outlined by the word-hoards behind the kennings. Other items figure prominently, not least the God of the Skalds.

Another fascinating detail concerns the fascination with ships versus horses. The latter has only received five kennings, while the former – the ship –  is poetically rendered in the form of kennings 432 times. Also, while swords and shields feature prominently, other weapons are treated to kennings only a few times; for instance, axes are rendered poetically 27 times, mail-shirts and -coats 17 times, arrows six times, and helmets only three times; swords, on the other hand, are mentioned 397 times and shields 253.

Finally, it might be noted that drinking – whether drinking horns, cups or ale, mead, and beer – is mentioned only sparingly. Acting, perhaps, as a correction to the perceived character of the communal feasting of the Vikings.

Such are some of the results of a very cursory forage into the material. The result will look different when the full corpus has been published. Also, others may wish to wiggle the material in another way. Please feel free!

A special thanks is owed to Søren Sindbæk, who discovered the possibility of studying the structures of the referents behind the kennings in the material from the Skaldic Project, and generously shared it on FB.

Karen Schousboe

SOURCE:

The Skaldic Project. An international project to edit the corpus of medieval Norse-Icelandic skaldic poetry.