This entry is part 4 of 9 in the series The Songweaver's Vow: Easter Eggs & Background

The Songweaver's VowI’ve loved kennings since I first learned what one was. My formal introduction, the first time I knew a kenning for what it was, was swan-road, a Norse kenning for the sea, and with that romantic imagery I was hooked.

A kenning is a figurative phrase to replace a more mundane noun, and they’re especially common and appreciated in older Norse and some Anglo-Saxon literature. To travel the swan road you would need a wave horse, or a ship. If you were telling Greek legends to entertain Norse gods, you might be a songweaver. /cough cough/

Basically, kennings are metaphors cranked to eleven.

This one goes to 11.Some simple kennings were extremely popular in ancient Norse literature, such as ring-giver — a king or jarl, who would typically give arm rings as gifts and in recognition of valor or service. The toast of ravens is blood, as ravens are scavengers at battle sites. A battle itself is a storm of spears.

Some kennings can get pretty grisly; blood may be called corpse-dew or wound-sweat.  Some are figurative, as in naming an arm-ring an arm-serpent. Some seem counter-intuitive at first; a harsh one to gold or gold’s diminisher does not sound like a generous man, until you recall that a jarl was supposed to generously share out wealth among his followers, and the more he gave away — hoard-robbing — the more generous he was.

Some are just fun: a hat’s seat is your head. Tongue rocks are your teeth.

Some kennings require a bit of background. When Kvasir was killed and mead brewed from his blood, the mead retained his legendary wisdom, making those who indulged into poets or scholars. Odin embarked on a complex plan of murder, sex, and Mission: Impossible tactics to retrieve the mead and return it to Asgard, making poetry Odin’s mead and poets and storytellers servers of Odin’s mead. (A bit of this story nearly made it into The Songweaver’s Vow, but ultimately it did not happen. You can read about it here though.)

Want a near-spoiler? A kenning for entrails is Loki’s shackles. Hm.

You can click over to the Skaldic Project and find a trove of classic kennings to browse and choose. But remember that kennings persist today, in terms like ankle-biter and rug-rat, or brown-noser (highly-figurative!). Bean-counter is another fun one. If you’ve ever had a fender-bender, you’ve known a kenning.

Got a favorite kenning? Share it in the comments!

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  1. My favorite has always been “word-hoard,” as in when Beowulf speaks to the Danes and starts by “opening his word-hoard,” to find just the right term… Of course and English teacher would like that one!

  2. I think “squishy mail” (package with yarn or spinning wool enclosed) would count and is a favorite of mine.

    So does the Scottish word ‘ken’ meaning to know relate to ‘kennings’? I’m betting to does!

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