In a viking’s mind the sword lay next to the spoken word. Wielding words with skill was as important as wielding a blade; a clumsy phrase could lead to more bloodshed than a misplaced sword stroke. If injury was intended then 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.
"a clumsy phrase could lead to more bloodshed than a misplaced sword stroke"
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.
"Modern song lyrics and traditional Western poems are primarily defined by
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 as a language has less phonetic diversity than modern English. Since there are literally fewer sounds within the language it is much easier to find rhymes and alliteration in Old Norse. Skaldic poetry also 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’.
"the skaldic poetry enjoyed by vikings centered around internal rhyme and alliteration"
While it is nearly impossible to re-create within the English language I will give an approximation of my own making based on a set of five dróttkvætt-like rules.
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 verse might have sounded like.
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.
“skaldic forms [were] ‘hyper-complex’ with ‘draconian rules’; however,
In addition to these challenging structural complexities skalds were famously known 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.
“Therefore, by saying ‘the venom of the battle snake’ the skald simply means ‘blood’”
For more on poetry in the Viking Age Joshua recommends Old Icelandic Poetry: Eddic Lay and Skaldic Verse by Peter Hallberg.
Joshua Gillingham is an author, editor, and game designer from Vancouver Island, Canada.