Stories of the past can give us great insight into the weapons and armor we study and recreate. Some of my favorite examples are Skaldic Poetry, Norse sagas and early stories in old English such as Beowulf. They highlight an insight into the minds of the people of that day in how they understood their weapons and armor in the context of their lives. They used kennings to describe their important objects and concepts in their stories.
“A kenning is a metaphorical compound phrase that replaces a single, concrete noun. A kenning employs figurative language to represent the simpler concept, such as using the phrase “battle-sweat” to refer to blood. Kennings are plentiful in Old Norse and Old English poetry and prose.” Iterarydevices.com. In effect, these poetic devices enhance names and telling stories. Metaphors were commonly used to give extra meaning to important objects and events. Most famously, the descriptions of many famous swords, spears, axes, and shields were kennings.
Stora Hammars III detail possibly showing Odin stealing the Mead of Poetry
These are direct comments from the past on how they viewed the function and importance of the object or concept being conveyed. They are most often just two or three words combined to describe something known by a noun such as sword. Well known examples include “leg-bitter”, “serpeants-tongue” or “corpse-fish”. There are also examples where a longer phrase is used to emphasize the importance such as this example for a warrior – “the slinger of the fire of the storm of the troll-woman of the shielding moon of the horse of boathouses” Þórálfs drápa Skólmssonar, 1 [Vol. 1, 237], kenning 5) -- a particularly long description.
The mental image these kennings bring to mind help us see not only the way the authors thought, but also indications of how the weapons and armor were used and regarded. Below are some of the more unusual examples we like. These are only a scattering of the ones used but we like the tone or image these particular phrases give to our view of these items in the past. Below we have divided a bunch of our favorite kennings associated with each of the categories below.
The axe was one of the most common weapons of the Viking period. Kennings used to describe historic axes include:
“of the wolf of wounds” Stanzas from the Fourth Grammatical Treatise, 33 [Vol. 3, 610], kenning 3)
“of the troll-woman of the strife clouds” Magnússdrápa, 12 [Vol. 2, 221-2], kenning 5)
“slender monsters of the land of Odin” Halldórr ókristni, Eiríksflokkr, 7 [Vol. 1, 482], kenning 1)
According to the Sagas and stories of the Old Norse, a warrior should never leave their spear out of reach. Kennings for spears included the following.
“the flying dragon of wounds” Krákumál, 21 [Vol. 8, 760], kenning 3)
“of the blood snake” Hákonarkviða, 18 [Vol. 2, 712-13], kenning 2)
“the grey rainbow of Odin” Hrynhenda, 11 [Vol. 2, 668-9], kenning 3)
Swords were one of the most popular subjects for waxing poetic. The skaldic project lists 350 examples of sword kennings so far. Here are we include some favorites:
“The tough, blue wound-digger” Krákumál, 10 [Vol. 8, 736], kenning 1)
“The thorn of scabbards” Krákumál, 17 [Vol. 8, 751], kenning 2)
“the blood ice” Liðsmannaflokkr, 8 [Vol. 1, 1025], kenning 2)
“the whetstone-sharpened, amazingly hard resounding fire of the mail-shirt” Gráfeldardrápa, 9 [Vol. 1, 259], kenning 2)
“the piercing wolf of the neck-strap” (Gunnlaugr Leifsson, Merlínusspá II, 35) [Vol. 8, 165], kenning 2)
“of the fire-forged mail-shirt hammer” Rekstefja, 32 [Vol. 1, 934], kenning 2)
“of the stiff trout of the land of the battle-blizzard” Lausavísa, 1 [Vol. 2, 652-3], kenning 2)
“the harsh swallower of the board defence” Þórsdrápa, 12 [Vol. 3, 101], kenning 2)
These were of extreme importance and often had a description that emphasized both offensive and defensive roles.
“of the battle-awning” Brúðkaupsvísur, 19 [Vol. 7, 542], kenning 2)
“of the jewel of the gunwale” Plácitusdrápa, 20 [Vol. 7, 194], kenning 4)
“the headland of swords” Hákonarmál, 7 [Vol. 1, 182], kenning 3)
“of the cloud of the biting winds of the linden spear” Háttatal, 32 [Vol. 3, 1138], kenning 2)
“the bare ship of the god of arrows” Hákonarkviða, 20 [Vol. 2, 714], kenning 2)
Here are some additional favorites we thought you would like.
“weapon thunder” Nóregs konungatal, 39 [Vol. 2, 786-7], kenning 2)
“song of swords” Liðsmannaflokkr, 4 [Vol. 1, 1020], kenning 1)
“the breeze of swords” Krákumál, 15 [Vol. 8, 747], kenning 2)
“the stern blizzard of steel” Haraldsdrápa, 12 [Vol. 2, 273-4], kenning 1)
“of the bark of the ship of prayer” Knútsdrápa, 6 [Vol. 3, 237], kenning 2)
“of the tunic of strife” Erfidrápa Óláfs Tryggvasonar, 3 [Vol. 1, 405], kenning 2)
“garments of the spear-downpour” Hákonardrápa, 3 [Vol. 3, 218], kenning 1)
“of the beer-mansion” Lausavísa, 1 [Vol. 1, 269], kenning 2)
“the curved trees of skulls” Krákumál, 25 [Vol. 8, 767], kenning 2)
Explore some of the links above to find your own favorite kennings. Better yet, add some color to your own vocabulary and make up some new ones to fit your daily life. “Ankle bitter” is not just a dane axe, it can be a young child as well :-). Check out our fine swords, axes, and spears, and come up with a kenning for your own armaments!
Nathan Clough, Ph.D. is Vice President of Arms and Armor and a member of the governing board of The Oakeshott Institute. He is a historical martial artist and a former university professor of cultural geography. He has given presentations on historical arms at events including Longpoint and Combatcon, and presented scholarly papers at, among others, The International Congress on Medieval Studies.
Craig Johnson is the Production Manager of Arms and Armor and Secretary of The Oakeshott Institute. He has taught and published on the history of arms, armor and western martial arts for over 30 years. He has lectured at several schools and Universities, WMAW, HEMAC, 4W, and ICMS at Kalamazoo. His experiences include iron smelting, jousting, theatrical combat instruction and choreography, historical research, European martial arts and crafting weapons and armor since 1985.