What is a kenning?

A kenning is a poetic device which allows the skald to replace a noun needed in a poem with a construction that represents it, but paints a different picture. For example, a leader can be a gold-breaker — someone who breaks the gold to divide amongst his followers — or a whale could be the sea’s snake. In period poetry, you might see kennings in various verse forms, you even see fairly simple and conventional ones occasionally in Anglo-Saxon poetry, but dróttkvætt is where they are used abundantly, and this is due to the nature of this metre, which has many conditions the skald must meet. Sometimes one is trying to meet a poetic theme and needs something that adds to that, but sometimes a skald just needs another way to say what they are saying with a certain amount of syllables, or alliterate with a certain sound, and/or must produce a certain rhyme/catch, and that is when kennings are very useful.

The term kenning is related to the verb kenna, a cognate to the rare English verb to ken (still used in Scotland). It means ‘to know, perceive, understand’ and had the same meaning (plus some additional secondary meanings, like ‘to call, name’) in Old Norse, (see Cleasby-Vigfusson pp. 335 and 336). Kennari and kennandi ‘teacher’ are also related words, as is kenni ‘a mark’. In Old Norse, at least in the thirteenth century, the word kenning was not just used as a poetic term, but in other contexts could also mean ‘doctrine, teaching, lesson’ or ‘mark of recognition’.

The formation of a kenning is fairly simple. It consists of two nouns that are either compound (N1-N2, like swan-bench) or in a genitive formation (N1s N2, swan’s bench; N2 of N1, bench of the swan). (A swan-bench, incidentally, is a kenning for the “sea”.)

A skald can even replace one of the nouns in a kenning, forming longer kenning chains: swan-bench’s snake (N3-N4s N2) as a variation of the original sea’s snake kenning (N1s N2). These complex kennings did not often get very long, but one of the longest period kennings is in Þórólfs dráps Skolmssonar by Þórðr Særeksson, which is eight elements long. The stanza reads:

Ok gimsløngvir ganga
gífrs hlémána drífu
nausta blakks it næsta
Norðmanna gram þorði.

The translation given on the Skaldic Database reads:

“And {the slinger {of the fire {of the storm {of the troll-woman {of the shielding moon {of the horse of boathouses}}}}}} [(lit.‘fire-slinger of the storm of the troll-woman of the shielding moon of the horse of boathouses’)] dared to advance next to {the lord of the Norwegians}”

Pulling out the entire kenning, without changing the poetic word order: gim-sløngvir gífrs hlé-mána drífu nausta blakks. This literally reads “fire-slinger of giantess’ shielding-moon’s storm’s boathouses’ horse”. As you can see in the translation, this must be rearranged out of the poetic order to understand the kenning chains.

If you compare the Old Norse kennings to how they are given in the translation, the kennings in the Old Norse are both compounds and genitive formations, while the English only uses the genitive formation, and because the English translation favors the “of” formation, the nouns actually appear in reverse order. Scholars usually do level the translation like this because their purpose is to compare, and having one standard formation for comparison is useful for that. But it is not accurate to the Old Norse or poetic reality. Any skald looking at translations should be aware of this situation.

A modern skald can of course mine the Skaldic Database for ideas for kennings. 

However, as one explores the Database, or reads Snorri’s poetical treatises in the Edda (the Viking Society of Northern Research has a whole section devoted to the Prose Edda in their Publications section) one will notice that kennings form a spectrum between crystallized and generative, (see Frog’s article “Oral Poetry As Language Practice: A Perspective on Old Norse Dróttkvætt Composition”).

Crystalized Formula —————————- Generative Formula
Hróðir’s Swedes ——– Vladimer’s trail —— Black Griffin Moot

In a Generative Formula, all elements in the kenning can be switched out for synonyms, like warrior-gathering “battle” could also be soldier-party or fighter-þing. Or instead of the generic warrior, a skald could use something more specific, like any name of a fighting group: Commando or Navy Seal for some modern examples, or Black Griffin (Northshield GOA fighting order).

On the other end is the Crystalized Formula, where all elements in the kenning are locked in place. One Twelfth Night during court, a knight, Hróðir, came forward to present the prize he won in victory against the Swedes: a flag Argent, a pale gules, overall a dragon passant vert, in chief an ancient crown Or within a laurel wreath proper. So, in a kenning like Hróðir’s Swedes, because it references a very particular story, I couldn’t substitute Swedes for Danes (after all, Hróðir also captured the Danish flag) or another group or something generic like folk, and I can’t substitute Hróðir’s name with Edwin or Sigmund or a generic referent like knight or warrior without compromising the reference.

And of course, being a spectrum, there is something in between, a Semi-Crystalized Formula, where only one element of the kenning is fixed. When Vladimir and Petranella reigned, His Majesty announced that in Russia, wintertime was wartime because the Russians used the frozen rivers as roads to transport their troops quickly, and for His winter reign, He wanted Northshield to likewise arm itself. Now, for a kenning referencing that, the element for the road is pretty interchangeable: highway, path, street, avenue. But Vladimir must remain in order to fish out the correct reference.

As my examples above demonstrate, I believe a modern skald should not be limited to direct copying of period examples when forming a kenning. Inside references to the group you are writing to is historically accurate, and I personally find it fun. The modern skald also has the disadvantage that this poetic language is not commonly familiar to or understood by the modern audience, and zeroing in on meaningful in-group references can help your audience connect with the piece. Plus, who wants to end up with variants of the byname ‘plagerist’ like Auðunn illskælda and Eyvindr skáldaspillir?

I also find that the metre shapes the kenning you eventually form. Consider something like sea-snake as a concept, because as you form your poetry, you may need to adapt to meet the structure requirements:

Heed the hidden serpent
hooked ‘neath bench of sea-hen

Bench of sea-hen in the second line is a complex kenning (N2 of N3-N4). Sea-hen substitutes “swan” because I needed two syllables, and because hen forms a rhyme/catch with bench. And it specifically a compound formation: And bench of swan is the kenning for “sea” used above. While it’s not technically a kenning, my use of serpent in combination with the “sea” kenning is referencing the kenning snake of the sea “whale”. I specifically chose serpent instead of snake because of the syllable requirements. Without the metre’s rules, I doubt I would have replaced swan with sea-hen.

After figuring out the referent, the underlying meaning of the couplet should become clear: “heed the hidden serpent [=whale] hooked ‘neath [the sea].”