A kenning (Old Norse "kenning" [cʰɛnːiŋg] , Modern Icelandic pronunciation [cʰɛnːiŋk] ) is a circumlocution used instead of an ordinary noun in Old Norse and later Icelandic poetry. For example, Old Norse poets might replace "sverð", the regular word for “sword”, with a compound such as "ben-grefill" “wound-hoe” (Egill Skallagrímsson: Höfuðlausn 8), or a genitive phrase such as "randa íss" “ice of shields” (Einarr Skúlason: ‘Øxarflokkr’ 9). The term kenning has been applied by modern scholars to similar figures of speech in other languages too, especially Old English.


The word was adopted into English in the 19th century from medieval Icelandic treatises on poetics, in particular the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson, and derives ultimately from the Old Norse verb "kenna" “know, recognise; perceive, feel; show; teach; etc.”, as used in the expression "kenna við" “to name after; to express [one thing] in terms of [another] ”, [ [ OED Online] ] “name after; refer to in terms of”, [ Faulkes, Anthony (1998 b).] and "kenna til" “qualify by, make into a kenning by adding”. [ Faulkes, Anthony (1998 b).]

The corresponding Modern English verb "to ken" survives only in northern British dialects including Scots, although a noun derivative exists in the standard language in the set expression "beyond one’s ken" “beyond the scope of one’s knowledge”. Old Norse "kenna" (Modern Icelandic "kenna", Swedish "känna", Danish "kende", Norwegian Bokmål and Nynorsk "kjenne") is cognate with Old English "cennan", Old Frisian "kenna", "kanna", Old Saxon ("ant")"kennian" (Middle Dutch and Dutch "kennen"), Old High German ("ir-", "in-", "pi-") "chennan" (Middle High German and German "kennen"), Gothic "kannjan" < Proto-Germanic *"kannjanan", originally causative of *"kunnanan" “to know (how to)”, whence Modern English "can" “am, is, are able” (from the same Proto-Indo European root as Modern English "know"). [ [ OED Online] ]


Old Norse kennings take the form of a genitive phrase ("báru fákr" "wave’s steed" = “ship” (Þorbjörn hornklofi: Glymdrápa 3)) or a compound word ("gjálfr-marr" "sea-steed" = “ship” (Anon.: Hervararkviða 27)). The simplest kennings consist of a base-word (Modern Icelandic "stofnorð", German "Grundwort") and a determinant (Modern Icelandic "kenniorð", German "Bestimmung") which qualifies, or modifies, the meaning of the base-word. The determinant may be a noun used uninflected as the first element in a compound word, with the base-word constituting the second element of the compound word. Alternatively the determinant may be a noun in the genitive case, placed before or after the base-word, either directly or separated from the base-word by intervening words. [ [ Verse-forms and Diction of Christian Skaldic Verse] .]

Thus the base-words in these examples are "fákr" and "marr" “steed”, the determinants "báru" “wave’s” and "gjálfr" “sea”. The unstated noun the kenning refers to is called its referent, in this case: "skip" “ship”.

In Old Norse poetry, either component of a kenning (base-word or determinant or both) could consist of an ordinary noun or else a "heiti" “poetic synonym”. In the above examples, "fákr" and "marr" are distinctively poetic lexemes; the normal word for “horse” in Old Norse prose is "hestr".

Complex kennings

The skalds also employed complex kennings in which the determinant, or sometimes the base-word, is itself made up of a further kenning: "grennir gunn-más" “feeder of war-gull” = “feeder of raven” = “warrior” (Þorbjörn hornklofi: Glymdrápa 6); "eyðendr arnar hungrs" “destroyers of eagle’s hunger” = “feeders of eagle” = “warrior” (Þorbjörn Þakkaskáld: Erlingsdrápa 1). Where one kenning is embedded in another like this, the whole figure is said to be "tvíkent" “doubly determined, twice modified”. [Faulkes (1999), p. 5/12.]

Frequently, where the determinant is itself a kenning, the base-word of the kenning that makes up the determinant is attached uninflected to the front of the base-word of the whole kenning to form a compound word: "mög-fellandi mellu" “son-slayer of giantess” = “slayer of sons of giantess” = “slayer of giants” = “the god Thor” (Steinunn Refsdóttir: Lausavísa 2).

If the figure comprises more than three elements, it is said to be "rekit" “extended”. [Faulkes (1999), p. 5/12.] Kennings of up to seven elements are recorded in skaldic verse. [ [ Fjórkennt ] ] Snorri himself characterises six-element kennings as an acceptable license but cautions against more extreme constructions: "Níunda er þat at reka til hinnar fimtu kenningar, er ór ættum er ef lengra er rekit; en þótt þat finnisk í fornskálda verka, þá látum vér þat nú ónýtt." “The ninth [license] is extending a kenning to the fifth determinant, but it is out of proportion if it is extended further. Even if it can be found in the works of ancient poets, we no longer tolerate it.” [Faulkes 1991, 8:29–31; Faulkes 1987, 172.]

Word order and comprehension

Word order in Old Norse is generally freer than in Modern English. This freedom is exploited to the full in skaldic verse and taken to extremes far beyond what would be natural in prose. Other words can intervene between a base-word and its genitive determinant, and occasionally between the elements of a compound word (tmesis). Kennings, and even whole clauses, can be interwoven. Ambiguity is usually less than it would be if an English text was subjected to the same contortions, thanks to the more elaborate morphology of Old Norse.

Another factor aiding comprehension is that Old Norse kennings tend to be highly conventional. Most refer to the same small set of topics, and do so using a relatively small set of traditional metaphors. Thus a leader or important man will be characterised as generous, according to one common convention, and called an enemy of gold, attacker of treasure, destroyer of arm-rings, etc. and a friend of his people. Nevertheless there are many instances of ambiguity in the corpus, some of which may be intentional, [Faulkes (1997), pp. 11-17,] and some evidence that, rather than merely accepting it from expediency, skalds actually favoured contorted word order for its own sake. [ Faulkes (1997), p. 15.]


Some scholars take the term kenning broadly to include any noun-substitute consisting of two or more elements, including merely descriptive epithets (such as Old Norse "grand viðar" “bane of wood” = “fire” (Snorri Sturluson: Skáldskaparmál 36)), [Meissner (1921), p. 2.] while others would restrict it to metaphorical instances (such as Old Norse "sól húsanna" “sun of the houses” = “fire” (Snorri Sturluson: Skáldskaparmál 36)), [Heusler (1941), p. 137.] specifically those where “ [t] he base-word identifies the referent with something which it is not, except in a specially conceived relation which the poet imagines between it and the sense of the limiting element'” (Brodeur (1959) pp. 248-253). Some even exclude naturalistic metaphors such as Old English "forstes bend" “bond of frost” = “ice” or "winter-ġewǣde" “winter-raiment” = “snow”: “A metaphor is a kenning only if it contains an incongruity between the referent and the meaning of the base-word; in the kenning the limiting word is essential to the figure because without it the incongruity would make any identification impossible” (Brodeur (1959) pp. 248-253). Descriptive epithets are a common literary device in many parts of the world, whereas kennings in this restricted sense are a distinctive feature of Old Norse and, to a lesser extent, Old English poetry. [Gardner (1969), p. 109-110.]

Snorri’s own usage, however, seems to fit the looser sense: “Snorri uses the term "kenning" to refer to a structural device, whereby a person of object is indicated by a periphrastic description containing two or more terms (which can be a noun with one or more dependent genitives or a compound noun or a combination of these two structures)” (Faulkes (1998 a), p. xxxiv). The term is certainly applied to non-metaphorical phrases in Skáldskaparmál: "En sú kenning er áðr var ritat, at kalla Krist konung manna, þá kenning má eiga hverr konungr." “And that kenning which was written before, calling Christ the king of men, any king can have that kenning. [Faulkes (1998 a), p. 78/17, 22.] Likewise in Háttatal: "Þat er kenning at kalla fleinbrak orrostu [...] " “It is a kenning to call battle ‘spear-crash’ [...] ”. [Faulkes (1999), p. 5/12.]

Snorri’s expression "kend heiti" "qualified terms" appears to be synonymous with "kenningar", [Faulkes (1998 a), p. xxxiv.] [Faulkes (1999), p. 5/9.] although Brodeur applies this more specifically to those periphrastic epithets which don’t come under his strict definition of kenning. [Brodeur (1959) pp. 248-253.]

Sverdlov approaches the question from a morphological standpoint. Noting that the modifying component in Germanic compound words can take the form of a genitive or a bare root, he points to behavioural similarities between genitive determinants and the modifying element in regular Old Norse compound words, such as the fact that neither can be modified by a free-standing (declined) adjective. [Sverdlov (2006).] According to this view, all kennings are formally compounds, notwithstanding widespread tmesis.


Kennings could be developed into extended, and sometimes vivid, metaphors: "tröddusk törgur fyr [...] hjalta harðfótum" “shields were trodden under the hard feet of the hilt (sword blades)” (Eyvindr Skáldaspillir: Hákonarmál 6); "svarraði sárgymir á sverða nesi" “wound-sea (=blood) sprayed on headland of swords (=shield)” (Eyvindr Skáldaspillir: Hákonarmál 7). [Faulkes (1997), p. 24.] Snorri calls such examples "nýgervingar" and exemplifies them in verse 6 of his Háttatal. The effect here seems to depend on an interplay of more or less naturalistic imagery and jarring artifice. But the skalds weren’t averse either to arbitrary, purely decorative, use of kennings: “That is, a ruler will be a distributor of gold even when he is fighting a battle and gold will be called the fire of the sea even when it is in the form of a man’s arm-ring on his arm. If the man wearing a gold ring is fighting a battle on land the mention of the sea will have no relevance to his situation at all and does not contribute to the picture of the battle being described” (Faulkes (1997), pp. 8-9).

Snorri draws the line at mixed metaphor, which he terms "nykrat" “made monstrous” (Snorri Sturluson: Háttatal 6), and his nephew called the practice "löstr" “a fault” (Óláfr hvítaskáld: Third Grammatical Treatise 80). [Faulkes (1997), pp. 24-25.] In spite of this, it seems that “many poets did not object to and some must have preferred baroque juxtapositions of unlike kennings and neutral or incongruous verbs in their verses” (Foote & Wilson (1970), p. 332). E.g. "heyr jarl Kvasis dreyra" “listen, earl, to Kvasir’s blood (=poetry)” (Einarr skálaglamm: Vellekla 1).

Sometimes there is a kind of redundancy whereby the referent of the whole kenning, or a kenning for it, is embedded: "barmi dólg-svölu" “brother of hostility-swallow” = “brother of raven” = “raven” (Oddr breiðfirðingr: Illugadrápa 1); "blik-meiðendr bauga láðs" “gleam-harmers of the land of rings” = “harmers of gleam of arm” = “harmers of ring” = “leaders, nobles, men of social standing (conceived of as generously destroying gold, i.e. giving it away freely)” (Anon.: Líknarbraut 42).

While some Old Norse kennings are relatively transparent, many depend on a knowledge of specific myths or legends. Thus the sky might be called naturalistically "él-ker" “squall-vat” (Markús Skeggjason: Eiríksdrápa 3) or described in mythical terms as "Ymis haus" “Ymir’s skull” (Arnórr jarlaskáld: Magnúsdrápa 19), referring to the idea that the sky was made out of the skull of the primeval giant Ymir. Still others name mythical entities according to certain conventions without reference to a specific story: "rimmu Yggr" “Odin of battle” = “warrior” (Arnórr jarlaskáld: Magnúsdrápa 5).

Poets in medieval Iceland even treated Christian themes using the traditional repertoire of kennings complete with allusions to heathen myths and aristocratic epithets for saints: "Þrúðr falda" “goddess of headdresses” = “Saint Catherine” (Kálfr Hallsson: Kátrínardrápa 4). [ [ Verse-forms and Diction of Christian Skaldic Verse] .]


A term may be omitted from a well-known kenning: "val-teigs Hildr" “hawk-ground’s valkyrie/goddess” (Haraldr Harðráði: Lausavísa 19). The full expression implied here is “goddess of gleam/fire/adornment of ground/land/seat/perch of hawk” = “goddess of gleam of arm” = “goddess of gold” = “lady” (characterised according to convention as wearing golden jewellery, the arm-kenning being a reference to falconry). The poet relies on listeners’ familiarity with such conventions to carry the meaning. [Gordon (1956), p. 250.]

Old Norse kennings in context

In the following dróttkvætt stanza, the Norwegian skald Eyvind Finnson skáldaspillir (d. ca 990) compares the greed of king Harald Gråfell to the generosity of his predecessor Haakon the Good:

:"Bárum," Ullr", of alla," :ímunlauks", á" HAUKA:FJÖLLUM Fýrisvalla:fræ "Hákonar ævi";

:"nú hefr fólkstríðir" Fróða:fáglýjaðra þýja:meldr "í" "móður holdi":"mellu dolgs" "of folginn"

(Eyvindr skáldaspillir: Lausavísa 8).

"Ullr of war-leek! We carried the seed of Fýrisvellir on the mountains of hawks during all of Hakon's life; now the enemy of the people has hidden the flour of Fróði's hapless slaves in the flesh of the mother of the enemy of the giantess."

This might be paraphrased: "O warrior, we carried gold on our arms during all of Hakon's life; now the enemy of the people has hidden gold in the earth."

ímun-laukr "war-leek" = "sword".

Ullr is the name of a god, Ullr. Ullr [...] ímunlauks "god of sword" = "warrior", perhaps addressing King Harald. This kenning follows a convention whereby the name of any god is combined with some male attribute (e.g. war or weaponry) to produce a kenning for "man".

HAUKA FJÖLL "mountains of hawks" are "arms", a reference to the sport of falconry. This follows a convention in which arms are called the land (or any sort of surface) of the hawk.

Fýrisvalla fræ "seed of Fýrisvellir" = "gold". This is an allusion to a legend retold in "Skáldskaparmál" and "Hrólf Kraki's saga" in which King Hrolf and his men scattered gold on the plains ("vellir") of the river Fýri south of Gamla Uppsala to delay their pusuers.

Fróða fáglýjaðra þýja meldr "flour of Fróði's hapless slaves" alludes to the Grottasöng legend and is another kenning for "gold".

"móður hold mellu dolgs" "flesh of mother of enemy of giantess" is the Earth (Jörd), personified as a goddess who was the mother of Thor, the enemy of the Jotuns.

Old English and other kennings

The practice of forming kennings has traditionally been seen as a common Germanic inheritance, but this has been disputed since, among the early Germanic languages, their use is largely restricted to Old Norse and Old English poetry. [Heusler (1941), p. 137.] [Gardner (1969), p. 109-117.] A possible early kenning for "gold" ("walha-kurna" "Roman/Gallic grain") is attested in the Ancient Nordic runic inscription on the Tjurkö (I)-C bracteate. [Krause (1971), p. 63. Cited by Hultin (1974), p. 864.] [Looijenga (1997), pp. 24, 60, 205; Looijenga (2003), p. 42, 109, 218.] Kennings are virtually absent from the surviving corpus of continental West Germanic verse; the Old Saxon Heliand contains only one example: "lîk-hamo" “body-raiment” = “body” (Heliand 3453 b), [Gardner (1969), pp. 110-111.] a compound which, in any case, is normal in West Germanic and North Germanic prose (Old English "līchama", Old High German "lîchamo", "lîchinamo", Old Icelandic "líkamr", "líkami", Old Swedish "līkhamber", Swedish "lekamen", Danish "legeme").

Old English kennings are all of the simple type, possessing just two elements, e.g. for “sea”: "seġl-rād" “sail-road” (Beowulf 1429 b), "swan-rād" “swan-road” (Beowulf 200 a), "bæð-weġ" “bath-way” (Andreas 513 a), "hron-rād" “whale-road” (Beowulf 10), "hwæl-weġ" “whale-way” (The Seafarer 63 a). Most Old English examples take the form of compound words in which the first element is uninflected: "heofon-candel" “sky-candle” = “the sun” (Exodus 115 b). Kennings consisting of a genitive phrase occur too, but rarely: "heofones ġim" “sky’s jewel” = “the sun” (The Phoenix 183).

Old English poets often place a series of synonyms in apposition, and these may include kennings (loosely or strictly defined) as well as the literal referent: "Hrōðgar maþelode, helm Scyldinga" [...] “Hrothgar, helm (=protector, lord) of the Scyldings, said [...] ” (Beowulf 456).



* Brodeur, Arthur Gilchrist (1952). "The Meaning of Snorri’s Categories". University of California Publications in Modern Philology 36.
* Brodeur, Arthur Gilchrist (1959). "The Art of Beowulf". University of California Press.
* Faulkes (1997). "Poetic Inspiration in Old Norse and Old English Poetry". Dorothea Coke Memorial Lecture in Northern Studies delivered at University College London 28 November 1997. Viking Society for Northern Research.
* Faulkes, Anthony (1998 a). "Edda: Skáldskaparmál: 1. Introduction, Text and Notes". Viking Society for Northern Research.
* Faulkes, Anthony (1998 b). "Edda: Skáldskaparmál: 2. Glossary and Index of Names". Viking Society for Northern Research.
* Foote, Peter & Wilson, D. M. (1970). "The Viking Achievement". Book Club Associates. London.
* Gardner, Thomas (1969). ‘The Old English kenning: A characteristic feature of Germanic poetical diction?’. Modern Philology 67:2, pp. 109-117.
* Gordon, E.V. (1956). "An Introduction to Old Norse". 2nd ed. revised by A.R. Taylor. Oxford.
* Heusler, Andreas (1941). "Die altgermanische Dichtung". 2nd ed. Potsdam.
* Hultin, Neil (1974). ‘Some homonyms in the Old Norse Atlakviða’. MLN 89:5, German Issue.
* Krause, Wolfgang (1971). "Die Sprache der urnordischen Runeninschriften". Carl Winter Verlag. Heidelberg.
* Kuhn, Hans (1993). ‘The rímur-poet and his audience’. "Saga-Book" 23:6.
* Looijenga, Jantina Helena (1997). " [ Runes around the North Sea and on the Continent AD150-700: Texts and Contexts] ". University of Groningen dissertation.
* Looijenga, Jantina Helena (2003). Texts and Contexts of the Oldest Runic Inscriptions. Brill. Leiden.
* Meissner, Rudolph (1921). "Die Kenningar der Skalden: Ein Beitrag zur skaldischen Poetik". Leipzig.
* Sverdlov, Ilya V. (2006). “Kenning Morphology: Towards a Formal Definition of the Skaldic Kenning, or Kennings and Adjectives”. 13th International Saga Conference: Durham and York.

ee also

* Elegant variation
* Heiti
* List of kennings
* Metonymy
* Synecdoche

External links

* [ Jörmungrund: Lexicon of Kennings — The Domain of Battle]
* [ Septentrionalia: The Medieval North (Lexica poetica)]

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