A kenning (Modern Icelandic pronunciation: [cʰɛnːiŋk]; derived from Old Norse) is a type of circumlocution, in the form of a compound that employs figurative language in place of a more concrete single-word noun. Kennings are strongly associated with Old Norse and later Icelandic and Anglo-Saxon poetry.
They usually consist of two words, and are often hyphenated. For example, Old Norse poets might replace sverð, the regular word for “sword”, with a more abstract compound such as “wound-hoe” (Egill Skallagrímsson: Höfuðlausn 8), or a genitive phrase such as randa íss “ice of shields” (Einarr Skúlason: ‘Øxarflokkr’ 9). Modern scholars have also applied the term kenning to similar figures of speech in other languages, especially Old English.
The word was adopted into English in the nineteenth 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]”, “name after; refer to in terms of”, and kenna til “qualify by, make into a kenning by adding”.
The corresponding Modern English verb to ken survives only in highly remote English dialects, other than the derivative existing in the standard language in the set expression beyond one’s ken, “beyond the scope of one’s knowledge” and in the phonologically altered forms uncanny, “surreal” or “supernatural”, and canny, "shrewd", "prudent". Modern Scots retains (with slight differences between dialects) tae ken. Old Norse kenna (Modern Icelandic kenna, Swedish känna, Danish kende, Norwegian kjenne or kjenna) 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 'to be able' (from the same Proto-Indo-European root as Modern English know and Latin-derived cognition).
Old Norse kennings take the form of a genitive phrase (báru fákr "wave’s horse" = “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 (Icelandic stofnorð, German Grundwort) and a determinant (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.
Thus the base-words in these examples are fákr "horse" and marr “steed”, the determinants báru “wave’s” and gjálfr “sea”. The unstated noun which the kenning refers to is called its referent, in this case: skip “ship”.
In Old Norse poetry, either component of a kenning (base-word, determinant or both) could consist of an ordinary noun or 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.
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) (referring to carnivorous birds scavenging after a battle). Where one kenning is embedded in another like this, the whole figure is said to be tvíkent “doubly determined, twice modified”.
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”. Kennings of up to seven elements are recorded in skaldic verse. Snorri himself characterises five-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.” The longest kenning found in skaldic poetry occurs in Hafgerðingadrápa by Þórður Sjáreksson and reads nausta blakks hlé-mána gífrs drífu gim-slöngvir “fire-brandisher of blizzard of ogress of protection-moon of steed of boat-shed”, which simply means "warrior".
Word order and comprehension
Word order in Old Norse was 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 were 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, and some evidence that, rather than merely accepting it from expediency, skalds favoured contorted word order for its own sake.
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)), while others would restrict it to metaphorical instances (such as Old Norse sól húsanna “sun of the houses” = “fire” (Snorri Sturluson: Skáldskaparmál 36)), 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.
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 or 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. Likewise in Háttatal: Þat er kenning at kalla fleinbrak orrostu [...] “It is a kenning to call battle ‘spear-crash’ [...]”.
Snorri’s expression kend heiti "qualified terms" appears to be synonymous with kenningar, although Brodeur applies this more specifically to those periphrastic epithets which don’t come under his strict definition of kenning.
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. 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). 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). 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).
Kennings of the type AB, where B routinely has the characteristic A and thus this AB is tautological, tend to mean "like B in that it has the characteristic A", e.g. "shield-Njörðr", tautological because the god Njörðr by nature has his own shield, means "like Njörðr in that he has a shield", i.e. "warrior". A modern English example is "painted Jezebel" as a disapproving expression for a woman too fond of using cosmetics.
Sometimes a name given to one well-known member of a species, is used to mean any member of that species. For example, Old Norse valr means "falcon", but Old Norse mythology mentions a horse named Valr, and thus in Old Norse poetry valr is sometimes used to mean "horse". A modern example of this is an ad hoc usage by a helicopter ambulance pilot: "the Heathrow of hang gliders" for the hills behind Hawes on Yorkshire in England, when he found the air over the emergency site crowded with hang-gliders.
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.
Old Norse kennings in context
- Bárum, Ullr, of alla,
- ímunlauks, á HAUKA
- 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 pursuers.
Fróða fáglýjaðra þýja meldr "flour of Fróði's hapless slaves" alludes to the Grottasöng legend and is another kenning for "gold".
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. 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. 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), a compound which, in any case, is normal in West Germanic and North Germanic prose (Old English līchama, Old High German lîchamo, lîchinamo, Dutch lichaam, Old Icelandic líkamr, líkami, Old Swedish līkhamber, Swedish lekamen, Danish and Norwegian Bokmål legeme, Norwegian Nynorsk lekam).
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).
The experiment is well-intentioned, but it remains idiosyncratic to the point of absurdity. Steinbeck invented compound phrases (similar to the Old English use of kennings), such as "wife-loss" and "friend-right" and "laughter-starving," that simply seem eccentric.
Kennings remain somewhat common in German (Drahtesel "wire-donkey" for bike, Feuerstuhl "fire-chair" for motorcycle, and so on).
- The Oxford English Dictionary says "late 19th century".
- OED Online
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- Faulkes 1991, 8:29–31; Faulkes 1987, 172.
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- Meissner (1921), p. 2.
- Heusler (1941), p. 137.
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- Faulkes (1998 a), p. 78/17, 22.
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- Krause (1971), p. 63. Cited by Hultin (1974), p. 864.
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- Skaldic Project – Index of Kennings
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- Septentrionalia: The Medieval North (Lexica poetica)