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Norse poetry

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My Norsevember I thought I’d share my knowledge of Norse poetry. I am by no means an expert on this subject, but I studied medieval poetry for a short time and it included some Norse material, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I hope you do too.

Skaldic vs Eddaic

You may have heard of Eddic poetry before as part of this month, the most famous of which are the Prose and Poetic Edda. This is one type of Norse poetry, and the oldest. These are the poems about the gods and mythology are found, and have a simple structure. Skaldic poetry was written by skalds, or poets, similar to the British bards or makars, and were written for and about real people and events. Eddas are simpler than skaldic poems, which usually included word puzzles called kennings, and often the skill of the poet heavily depended on their ability to include these little puzzles for the audience to decipher. This makes the job of a modern reader a little harder because they have to know a lot more about Nordic culture to get the full meaning. Eddas, on the other hand, had simple devices called heiti that were more easily understood. A heiti is a simple synonym or metaphor for a particular thing. For example using the word bride to mean a girl or steel to mean a weapon. They are not particularly difficult to grasp, but it’s the kennings I’m interested in.

Kenning

A kenning is a multi-worded puzzle that hint at meaning but must be deciphered. let’s start with something simple, from the poem Earl Turf-Einar of Orkney (for a long while the Orkney and Shetland islands were owned by Norway so a lot of Norse culture is still seen there). There’s a phrase “foot-thorns” in there. Have a think for a second. If you’re not sure, the full lines are

who under the foot-thorns

of the eagle has to stand

Earl Turf-Einar of Orkney, in The Triumph Tree

It means claws!

Try this one; thunder of blades (from Thorfinnsdrapa, an elegy for an Earl)…..

It means a battle.

The name of my longboat, as designed by the organiser of Norsevember is another one (and also the answer):

Several kennings refer to parts of the body, for example hood stall and shoulder cliff are both terms for a head, and hawk land and hawk’s stall mean the hand or arm, which makes sense when you think of falconry.

Pretty simple, right? Well, yes and no. These ones are pretty simple puzzles, but others need more in-depth knowledge. Sea steed may sail on “Ymir’s blood”. Ymir is a giant whose body is considered to form the cliffs, and his blood will pour out of the cliffs to make the sea. So without knowing who Ymir is, and the giants’ place in Norse mythology, this kenning is a little confusing.

I’ll leave you with one last kenning, also found in Thorfinnsdrapa I mentioned earlier;

All-father’s yeast’s surf

The verse is:

Now I plan to tell men of the merits

of the perilous-minded earl

-slowly do my griefs lighten-

All-father’s yeast’s surf roars

This needs a little bit more unpicking, and knowledge of two specific things in Norse mythology. Firstly, one of Odin’s many names is All-father. So you know it’s related to Odin. What does yeast surf mean? One of the myths about Odin is that of the dwarves who made mead (yeast for the fermentation and surf meaning water) with the blood of a giant, which gave the ability to write poems. Odin stole it, and therefore he is the god of War and of poetry. So..

Odin + mead = Odin’s drink = poetry!

Yes, this verse is the poet saying as their grief was reducing, their inspiration for poetry had come alive.

I hope you’re enjoyed this. It only scratches the very surface of the subject, and I didn’t want to bore you all or confuse you too much. This goes to partly explain why I like to read as close translations as possible to the original stories, because all of these nuances are what makes Norse poetry great for me. It feels like cracking some kind of secret code. If you’re interested, the book I got these poems from is called The Triumph Tree, edited by Thomas Owen Clancy. It’s on Scotland’s earliest poetry and includes Latin, Gaelic, Old English, Norse and Welsh poems.

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