What is a Kenning in Old Norse?

Posted by Ms Elly on

What is a Kenning in Old Norse?

Kenning is a stylistic device that once appeared a lot in Old Norse poetry. Generally, it is a way of figurative expression replacing a name/a noun with something more ambiguous. But of course, it sounds awesome and makes sense after all. 

A kenning is a form of periphrasis which people use to write and speak about something indirectly. 

For example, "a man of rings" refers to "the king" or "the chieftain of the clan". Because in the Viking society, a king or a chieftain was supposed to give his people rings to show his generosity. Accordingly, we have the phrase "a man of rings".

But that is just a very simple example. Kennings that appeared in Old Norse verse are so complicated that they can drive us insane. Imagine reading a piece of writing and understanding nothing though you have put a lot of effort into it:

The splendid hater of the fire of the sea defends the beloved of the enemy of the wolf; ships’ prows are set before the steep brows of Mim’s friend’s wife. The noble mighty-ruler knows how to hold the serpent’s attacker’s mother. You who torment necklaces, enjoy the troll-wife’s enemy’s mother until old age.

Seriously? What do those 53 words even mean? It is a very real example of kenning in Old Norse poetry. 

So let's break them down.

Norse mythology and Germanic folklores often associated gold with the water. So the "fire of the sea" is gold. And the "splendid hater of the fire of sea" refers to the king or the chieftain. This "man of rings" was so wealthy that he tried to give out as much gold as possible like a way to rid of them. Then he became a kind of hater of the gold. 

"The enemy of the wolf" is Odin the Allfather. In Norse mythology, Odin's sworn enemy was Fenrir the Wolf who was destined to slay Odin in Ragnarok. "The beloved" of Odin in this context refers to Jord the giantess of the earth. Though Frigg was the Aesir chief goddess and wife of Odin in Valhalla, Odin had some other love affairs. Jord was one of the Odin's beloved. 

"Mim's friend" is Odin who kept the head of Mimir when Mimir was beheaded by the Vanir gods. And "Mim's friend's wife" is Jord. The "steep brows of Mim's friend's wife" is the sea cliff or the mountain near the sea. 

"Serpent's attacker" is Thor God of thunder and lightning. Because in Norse mythology, Thor was the sworn enemy of Jormungand the Midgard Serpent. Thor is the son of Jord and Odin. So the "serpent's attacker's mother" here is Jord. 

"You who torment necklaces" once again refers to the king or the chieftain. The action of "torment necklaces" means this figure was so wealthy that he wanted to rid of his valuable jewelry. "Troll-wife's enemy" is Thor because Thor often fought against the giant in Norse mythology. 

Writing in a kenning-less way, those 53 words can be condensed like this: The king protects the land; the ships lie before the cliff. The king knows how to keep the land. The king enjoys the land until old age. 

It is far easier to understand than the kenning version. But it does not sound as awesome as the keening version, does it?

Besides using the kenning to heighten the emotion of the poems, Old Norse poets took great pleasure in giving out kenning in their poems. Because it made them find out the readers who could fully understand them and were as steeped in Viking and Norse traditional culture as them. It could also be a way to show off their talents. 

At large, poems with kenning are the mental games from which the readers could find joy in deciphering the hidden meanings. 

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