Skaldic poetry comprises the distinctive types of verse written in Old Norse from the beginning of the 9th to the end of the 14th century. It employed complex metrical patterns, subtle alliteration, rich imagery, and complex kennings (adjectival noun phrases used as metaphors).
It was used extensively in the Poetic Edda to bring the old tales of Norse mythology to life.
What Is the Poetry of Skalds?
The two types of Old Norse poetry are Eddic and Skaldic. Eddic poetry appears in the Codex Regius, the Icelandic medieval manuscript containing 31 poems. The Codex Regius was used to create the Poetic Edda.
The Poetic Edda is the contemporary name for an untitled series of anonymous Old Norse poems. It differs from the Prose Edda, a collection of texts compiled and described by Snorri Sturluson.
So, Poetic Edda poems are classed as “Eddic,” and apart from a few exceptions, every other Norse poem is skaldic.
Skaldic poetry defining features: Elaborate Diction and Meter
Most skaldic poems had a named author and featured elaborate diction and meter: “dróttkvætt,” more often than not. Different meters, such as Hrynhenda, an offshoot of dróttkvætt, were also used. The subject matter often involved battles and soliloquies.
Another defining feature of skaldic poetry was the use of obscure kennings.
Eddic poetry was frequently anonymous, used an uncomplicated meter like fornyrðislag, and had a simple word order. It dealt chiefly with mythological and heroic tales involving substantial amounts of dialogue.
Kennings were rarely used and were easy to understand.
The highly complex skaldic verse form called dróttkvætt (“(poetic) meter of the royal court” or “meter of the hero”) was the lynchpin of most poems in the Poetic Edda.
It featured internal rhymes and consonance that went beyond Germanic verse and closely resembled Celtic variations.
*Make sure to check my article Norse Vs. Celtic Mythology.
Dróttkvætt stanzas had eight lines, each with six syllables and all featuring an internal rhyme. Three syllables per line were stressed, with the last one being unstressed.
Alliterating pairs connected each line, with the first line of the pair having two alliterating syllables.
Therefore, in the couplet:
Hrammtangar lætr hanga
hrynvirgil mér brynju
You would stress any first syllables, “Hramm” and “han” in the first line, with “hryn” and “bryn” being the internal rhymes. The three words beginning with “h” form the alliteration.
A kenning is a circumlocution, a roundabout way of describing using more than one word to describe something, in Old Norse, Old English, and Icelandic poetry.
“God of Thunder” to mean “Thor” is perhaps the best-known one. Some other memorable ones are:
- “Freyja’s tears” means “gold.”
- “Baldr’s bane” means “mistletoe” (mistletoe was the only thing that could kill Baldr).
- “Hanged God” means “Odin” (Odin hanged himself for nine days from the world tree, Yggdrasil, in his quest for more knowledge).
- “Ymir’s skull” means “the sky” (the jöttun’s skull created the heavens).
Sturluson’s the Prose Edda is another significant source of information on Old Norse poetic variations.
Many extant skaldic verses are called lausavísur (“loose verses” or individual stanzas). More extended versions take the form of a series of stanzas with a “stef” (refrain or chorus) called “drápa.”
Skalds and Norse Poetry in the Viking Age
Ancient poetry from Scandinavia uses several verse forms. The earliest known example was found on the 8th-century Eggja stone, excavated from Vestland county in Western Norway, with the latest one dating back to the late 13th century.
Most surviving Old Norse poetry is in Iceland, but there are over 100 preserved poems in Swedish and over 50 in Norwegian.
Poetry was a common way of telling Norse mythological tales and was an integral part of their society, religious and otherwise.
Alliteration was a crucial part of Old Norse poetry, as was “heiti,” using more ornate synonyms for everyday items. For example, humans used the word “jǫrð” to say “earth,” while the jöttun said “ígrœn” or the “vividly green one.”
Sturluson’s Use of Heiti and Kennings
Indeed, this use was characteristic of Old Norse poetry, with humans using more prosaic terms while mythical beings adopted a more floral and elaborate vocabulary.
Although heiti does tend to use a single noun and kennings an adjective and noun, it can appear as though Sturluson used heiti and kenning indiscriminately. However, this does not mean he fails to identify the two forms separately, but he uses heiti as a general term, including for kennings.
In Skáldskaparmál (The Language of Poetry), he differentiates by using the expressions “kent heiti” and “ókent heiti” to mean paraphrased heiti and non-paraphrased heiti, respectively.
The best-known skalds were:
- Bragi Boddason (“the Old”; early 9th century. Sometimes believed to be the poet god Bragi incarnate!)
- Egill Skallagrímsson (early 10th century, the main character in Egils Saga)
- Snorri Sturluson (Icelandic poet and historian, 1179-1242)
- Einarr Skúlason (Icelandic priest and skald. A prominent poet and descendent of the family of Egill Skallagrímsson, part of the lineage called the Mýramenn)
Which Instrument Did Skalds Use?
There is no written evidence that skalds, purveyors of skaldic poetry, used anything more than their voices.
However, there are images of Bragi playing the harp, so we can assume if they did use a musical instrument to accompany their readings, it would be a harp or a lyre.
Most Notable Sagas Written Using Skaldic Poetry
Glymdrápa by Þorbjörn Hornklofi, the court poet of King Harald I of Norway, was written in the late 9th century. It tells the story of the battles waged during King Harald’s unification of Norway.
The Icelandic poet and chief skald (or hǫfuðskǫld) Óttarr Svarti (“The Black”) composed Knútsdrápa for the Danish King Cnut the Great.
Queen Gunnhild commissioned the poem Eiríksmál, an anonymous skaldic poem written in the mid-10th century, in honor of her husband, Eirik Bloodaxe.
Another poetic tribute to Eirik Bloodaxe is Hǫfuðlausn (“Head-ransom”), written by Egill Skalla-Grímsson. It appears in the Egils Saga.
Krákumál (“The Lay of Kraka”) is a monologue by Ragnar Lodbrok, a heroic Scandinavian king, as he lies dying in a snake pit, a prisoner of King Ælla of Northumbria. He looks back on his life and recounts his heroic deeds.
Hákon Jarl Sigurðarson’s military successes are described in Þorleifr’s poem Þjsk Hák.
The Sturlunga Saga chronicles the life of Sturla Þórðarson – nephew of Snorri Sturluson.
Modern Skaldic Poetry Treatises
Margaret Clunies Ross has written a book about Old Norse poetry called Poetry In Sagas of Icelanders.
She is also involved in Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages, which features the late Kari Ellen Gade, former Provost Professor of Germanic Studies and Adjunct Professor of English at Indiana University, Bloomington.
The Icelandic Guðrún Nordal, Doctor of Philosophy at Oxford University, and Tarrin Wills, Editor and Head of Dictionary of Old Norse Prose, University of Copenhagen, are also contributors.