Here are some thoughts I had about Skaldic poetry:
THE SKALDS AND SKALDIC POETRY
Skaldic poetry was a form of poetry used by the Old Norse or Viking poets, called Skalds, during and after the Viking era. They were particularly prevalent in Norway and Iceland. The Skalds used a specific form of poetry that had strict and exact rules and techniques. There were many forms or variations and techniques that developed over the years.
I tend to feel that much of the Skaldic tradition originates from the Norse god Odin and is associated with his worship. In the Ynglinga saga it speaks of how Odin resided in the religious center of Uppsala, Sweden. There, it is said, Odin had ‘songsmiths’. These, probably, are the origin of the Skalds. From there the Odinic ‘songsmith’ tradition spread to other Norse lands and, as they spread, they changed with changing conditions and situations, which altered its form but, despite this, they often still revealed traits of its Odinic origins.
Over the centuries there appears to be a progession:
Odinic poetry. Earliest years to about 1000 or thereabouts.
Drottkvaett/Skaldic poetry. Probably ranging from 800-1200 or thereabouts, though some people continued to practice it into the 1800’s. It was strongest in Norway and Iceland.
General poetry, saga, literature, etc. Probably beginning in 1000 or thereabouts.
This shows a progression from small tribal religious-based society to a more populated secular-type society. It suggests that Skaldic poetry changed to the changing social and historical conditions. Its beginnings, though, show that Skaldic poetry was more than just a type of poetry but one that is associated, and originates, with actual religious practice, belief, and tradition. As time went on, though, it became further removed from its original religious base. Despite this, “hints” of its religious origins survives in its traditions. Inquiry into Skaldic poetry seems to suggest this.
With the coming of Christianity (about 1000-1200, depending on where you’re at) Skaldic poetry fell into disuse. This, in many ways, is another example, perhaps, of its association with the pagan religion of Odin. The “pagan poetry” could not hold up against the new Christian beliefs. This would even show that there was a ‘belief system’ associated with Skaldic poetry. This sounds very likely as it is said that many people would go to famous Skalds to learn about Skaldic poetry and religious myth.
Skaldic poetry seems to be found primarily in Norway and Iceland where anyone could become a Skald, assuming they have the ability and inclination. The sagas even suggest that it was done, to some extent, even by everyday common people, perhaps in their daily life. In other words, it was not necessarily associated with any specific “office” or social function. There are times, though, where the Skald was an actual “office” a person held, much like a Court Composer or Prime Minister. Many kings kept Skalds at their court. This was often a position of great honor and respect.
(The Skald Bersi Skaldtorfuson composing poetry as a prisoner in chains. From Christian Krohg’s illustration in the 1899 edition of Heimskringla.)
THE DROTTKVAETT VERSE FORM AND ITS ASSOCIATION WITH ODDINIC AND SKALDIC POETRY
Snorri Struluson says, in the Hattatal, that the Drottkvaett verse form is the form most used in elaborate poetry. He also goes on to say that it is the foundation for all verse forms. There is probably truth in this. The question of whether this verse form was created later, in Norway, or if it was already established in Sweden is difficult to say. Because of its ‘artistic’ and specific format I’m inclined to think it was something created in Norway after it had become removed from Odinic ‘songsmithing’. In other words, the Drottkvaett verse form is a result of when it became an ‘art’, not a medium of religion. As a result, its form and formats do not reveal anything specific about the original ‘songsmiths’ of Odin, which seems to be the case. Once it became an ‘art’ many forms and styles of verse forms appeared, which would not of existed, probably, in Odinic ‘songsmithing’.
This is probably why I don’t see any special significance of the Drottkvaett verse forms that are revealing. Some common qualities of this verse form include traits such as these:
- Six syllables per line.
- Each line has three stresses, the last one usually being a trochee.
- There are two alliterative syllables in the odd, and one in the even, half line. This latter one must land on the first syllable of the even line, which is accented.
Snorri Struluson tells us that there are many variations of Drottkvaett verse forms. No doubt, this a product of years of development. Here is an example of the Drottkvaett verse form:
Jor rennr aptanskaeru
allvangsr gotur langur,
voll kna hofr til hallar
hofum litinn dag slita;
nu’s, that’s blakkr of bekki
berr mik donum ferri;
fakr laust drengs i diki
doegr matask nu foeti.
It shows a very stylistic and specific format. It no doubt took great skill to write this, particularly if it was done spontaneously. I would not be surprised if it was this one reason why it became so ‘prized’ and ‘favoured’ and why men who could do this were looked at so highly. It also shows that it had become an art form by this time.
But aspects of the Drottkvett verse forms reveal deeper things. On a closer look, it seems to show that it had earlier, more religious, origins that may reveal a lot about the origins of Skaldic poetry in general. There are a couple of things that point this out:
- The word “Drott”. This is a word that was used in Sweden in Uppsala to describe the king there, who was often called the “Drottnar”. Even to this day, the home of the Swedish king is called Drottningholm Palace, originating from this word (located westward of Stockholm). It appears to of been used in Norway to mean someone under a king or, possibly, someone that was over you, such as a Lord. I am unaware of this word having any meaning anywhere else than these two areas. I’ve often speculated that the reason why Drott continued to be used in Norway is because it was more secluded. As a result, many early customs of the Norse, such as those coming from Uppsala, continued there while they ceased to be used in other Norse lands (Sweden and Denmark). This is possibly why this term, such as used in the name ‘Drottkvaett’, continued to be used in Norway and nowhere else. In the Ynglinga saga it states that it was the Swedich King Dygvi who was the first to be called “King” in Sweden (a term it says was first used in Denmark) and ceased using the word Drott. After that Sweden and Denmark did not use ‘Drott’ anymore. Its early origin in the religious center of Uppsala may suggest that Drott may of had a different connotation than King. The word Drott may have been closely associated with the Odinic religion in Uppsala, and may refer to something like a ‘priest-king’ or ‘sacrificial King’ with a specific religious function (sort of like the Pope). It also shows that the origin of the Drottkvaett verse form may of originally been part of the religious ritual there, conducted as part of the rituals of the Drott in Upsalla.
(Drottningholm Palace in Sweden)
This verse form primarily consists in praising. Again, this may suggest religious connotations. It may of originated from a ‘blessing’ or ‘prayer’. Being that it is done toward a man of power suggests that it is associated with religious function of the Drott in Uppsala. Perhaps its origins were in blessings or prayers of the Drott, which was taken over by priests, which was then taken over by the poets or Skalds, who turned it into the many artistic Drottkvaett verse forms???
There are traits in Skaldic poetry, in general, that also suggest its religious origins:
- The word “Skald”. This word seems to originate from “skal” which means ‘cup’ or ‘bowl’. Its also interesting that the word ‘skal’ is often said before a toast or drinking in Sweden. This suggests that its origins may of come from a statement, most certainly religious in tone, that was done before a drinking or, more properly, a feast. Most likely this was something like a ‘blessing’ or ‘prayer’ of some sort. This may have origins in religious customs possibly originating from the drinking of blood from a sacrificial animal (The Heimskringla describes the drinking of blood at sacrifice in Norway). This would of been done originally to sanctify feasts, events, and such. This suggests that the very word Skald may have religious connotations of a ‘blessing’ or ‘a prayer’.
(In Sweden they say “Skal!” before a toast. Artist unknown.)
- The ‘brew of poetry’, that all Skalds “drink” (which makes them poets), comes from the blood of Kvasir who was supposed to know everything. This shows that poetry is associated with knowledge of the world and life. This suggests that poetry was viewed as being more than a ‘song’ or ‘entertainment’, and even more than a ‘blessing’. It suggests that poetry “was” the origin and source of knowledge. Of course, in Viking days, any knowledge of life was religious knowledge. This makes poetry more than poetry but a repository of knowledge about life, reflective of a religous viewpoint.
- That the Norse god Odin, who was supposed to live in Uppsala, is spoken of as a “songsmith” and the creator of poetry. It is said that Odin created poetry in the Norse lands. Odin, being the god who created poetry, suggests that poetry was religious in function.
- Skaldic poetry was often done in reference to war, particularly in the later violent Viking years, which is associated with Odin. We know that war was often viewed in a sacrificial way, as the dead were often ‘offered’ to Odin. Not only that, in the early years a spear was often thrown over the opposing army to ‘sanctify’ them to Odin. So we see an assocation of Odin with war with sacrifice. We see again a religious connection.
- Often, dwarfs, mermen, trolls, etc. are often written, in the sagas, as speaking in rhyme. Again, this suggests a religious association with Skaldic poetry. It suggests a strong ‘verse association’ with the ‘spirit world’, so to speak.
All these suggests a possible religious origin of the Skaldic poetry.
THE SKALDIC POETRY OF NORWAY AND ICELAND
It appears that Norway (and Iceland, who was populated by Norwegians) probably expanded on the Odinic ‘songsmiths’ technique and took it in a whole new direction. Their mountainous seclusion may of helped in the preserving of these older traditions and ways which had ceased to be used in Sweden and Denmark. As a result, the original Odinic ‘songsmith’, prayer, or blessing continued as a force in their lives whereas its use dwindled in Sweden and Denmark.
The Drottkvaett verse, as a defined form, may of really began in the reign of Harold Fair-Hair (reigned about 872-930). It no doubt began to flower during and after his reign. It was Harold who subdued and subjegated all the kings in Norway and basically created Norway. As a result, his status as ‘King’ was different and more serious than the previous regional Kings he overpowered. This may of helped spurn on the development of the Drottkvaett verse form in that country at that time, to emphasize the new importance of the King of Norway.
Another thing that may of made Norway create the Drottkvaett verse form and Skaldic poetry is because the ‘Odin cult’ was not strong in Norway (in fact, he’s hardly mentioned at all, except in poetic references). Thor seemed particularly powerful there, and then Frey. Because of this, they did not continue the tradition of poetry as a religious function in the Odinic way as was done in Sweden and in Denmark. This allowed it to go in whole other directions and develop in a whole new way, which is what it seemed to do. Because they were not motivated for religious reasons, the poetry went beyond religion and transformed into an art form. It began to take manifest itself in other ways such as:
- It was used to praise authority (such as the Drottkvaett verse form). This may be a carryover of how it was used in honor of the gods.
- It was used in the telling of stories. This may be a carryover of how it may of been used in religious mythology.
- It was used as statements in everyday life. Often, these are spontaneous, entailing an authoritative, prophetic, or insightful statement.
- It was used in competitions between people.
- It was used as entertainment.
- Since it required knowledge of the myths an lore of the Norse, many Skalds became the ‘repository’ of these things.
It appears that these were done to a greater degree in Norway and Iceland than in Sweden or Denmark. It also made it so that the poetry was used by common people and in common everyday life, showing that it had jumped the bonds of religion and people of authority (the Drott, King, priest, Skald, and poet). This does not appear to of happened in Denmark or Sweden (at least as near as I can tell). As a result, a great deal of Skaldic poetry originates from Norway and Iceland. Very little Odinic or Skaldic poetry has come down to us from Sweden and Denmark.
Because of this, it gives this illusion that the style of Skaldic poetry of Norway and Iceland were typical throughout the Viking world. I seem to think otherwise. I do not feel that Sweden and Denmark were doing the same form of Skaldic poetry as Norway and Iceland. The Drottkvaett verse form may of never even of been used in Sweden and Denmark, for example. Its possible that Skaldic-like poetry may of never even been used at all by common people in everyday life either in Sweden and Denmark. As a result, many of the sagas, poems, and such that come from Norway and Iceland are somewhat misleading . . . they do not necessarily represent what was happening all over the Viking world.
DIFFERENT SKALDIC VERSE FORMS IN THE ‘HATTATAL’
Snorri Sturluson, in the ‘Hattatal’, states that there are many forms and techniques. As to how many of these were existing during the Viking era is uncertain (as he wrote in the 1200’s). He, himself, states that many people were wanting to know how to do Skaldic poetry. Of course, by this time Skaldic poetry had become just ‘poetry’ to most of the people of Iceland and Norway. Most likely, the many forms he described had been developed after the Viking era. I tend to feel that much of the different forms of Skaldic verse is a creation of later years, when it became very well established in the common people. As a result, they may not necessarily be representative of the early Oddinic verse. Because of this, much of what Snorri Sturluson wrote in ‘Hattatal’ are representative of Norwegian/Icelandic Skaldic poetry from the 900-1200’s.
THE ODINIC POETRY
Because nothing has survived of Skaldic poetry in Denmark and Sweden, nothing has survived of the ‘religious Skaldic poetry’ and of the Odinic songs sung in Uppsala. No one knows what the songs of the Odinic ‘songsmiths’ were like, what they sounded like, or what they were about. We don’t even know if they may have been accompanied by instruments. Nor do we know of the different forms.
Sometimes, they are described as songs. Sometimes, they were described as poems. Because everything that has survived is poetic, I’m inclined to think that the original Odinic ‘songsmiths’ spoke in a verse-form that may could, very easily, become song-like. As a result, the term ‘poem’ and ‘song’ could almost be looked at as the same. No doubt, there were variations and different forms of Odinic ‘songsmithing’.
I tend to feel that there were several traits and qualities that could be seen with the Odinic ‘songsmiths’. These are shown in various accounts and sagas where Skaldic poetry is used and include:
- The spontaneousness of statements in Skaldic poetry and its rhyme may suggest that one of the purpose of the Odinic ‘songsmiths’ was as a form of prophesizing or determining the will of god. This would be similar to the Delphic oracle in ancient Greece. There the priest of Apollo would chant a rhyme as he watched the Delphic oracle writhed and move about convulsively. In so chanting the rhyme he would reveal the will of god. Many sagas describe people prophesying about the future in verse form.
- It may of been used to remember stories and myths. All throughout Skaldic poetry there is continuous references to the myths and legends of the Norse. Skaldcraft required an extensive knowledge of the myths and legends of the Norse, as they often used them in their kennings in the poem. As a result, many Skalds became knowladgeable about Norse myth and legend and were often sought out by other Skalds. In fact, one of the reasons why Snorri Struluson wrote about Norse myth is for the purpose of teaching poets the source of the kennings that were used in the old poems. If he had not of done this we would know very little about Norse myth.
- That it was used in magic. In the Hovamal (or Havamal) it speaks of 18 songs Odin knew, which entail magic (I wrote an article on this blog called “Thoughts on the ‘Hovamal’ – The sayings of Odin” which describe these). This makes them appear more like magical incantations, which they probably were. Unfortunately, it does not state what was sung, only that he knows the song, and many are unclear as to their function. But each song performed a special function and use. It also states that some of these songs were associated with runes. He speaks of “coloring the runes” which probably refers to sacrifice and putting the blood on the runes that were cut into something like bone or wood. This would then fill in the letter with blood (the coloring). This suggests that Odinic ‘songsmithing’ was often associated with runes. This makes it more than song, more than poem, and shows that the songs and poems were originally a part of something larger, something religious in nature. Earlier it states “Runes shalt thou find, and fateful signs, that the king of singers colored, and the mighty gods have made”. Here it again associates the ‘singer’ with ‘coloring’ the runes, an association of singer/poet with runes. Could the ‘king of singers’ refer to the Drott??? Even later, during the Viking era, Skaldic poetry was still associated with runes. Poems were often written in runes on sticks, and other things, as memorials (such as described in Egils saga) and possibly for magical properties.
- That it was used as a form of protection. In the Hovamal (or Havamal) the 18 songs Odin knew entailed quite a few of which are used for protection, mainly from situations involving war.
- There may of been traditional songs believed to of been received from god. In the Hovamal (or Havamal) it states that Odin said “Nine mighty songs I got from the son of Bolthorn, Bestla’s father; And a drink I got from of the goodly mead poured out from Othrorir”. He would of receieved these songs from his grandfather. The mead of Othrorir is a reference to poetry. This suggests that poetry was something received from god, specifying its original religious function.
There are other aspects that it most certainly could of entailed:
- That it was a form of worship or praise of the gods. In this case, they would sing, rhyme, or chant specific learned passages for this purpose, similarly as they do in church.
- That it was a form of prayer. Here, it would be a form of generally asking the gods for something.
TRAITS OF ODINIC POETRY
I’ve always wondered what the Odinic ‘songsmiths’ sounded like and how they sung them. No doubt there were varieties of this singing. Looking at Skaldic poetry it shows some qualities that may reveal aspects of it:
- Skaldic poetry was often said spontaneously. This, perhaps, may suggest a ‘prophetic’ origin in skaldic poetry. This may of been how priests found out the ‘will of god’ by chanting a rhyme and having the ‘answer’ appear in the rhyme, as I described above.
- It may of used kennings. These are expressions that use other words to refer to something (such as calling a viking a ‘ship-steed’). Skaldic poetry used these quite extensively. In fact, without knowing the use of kennings it would be very difficult to understand Skaldic poetry. This shows that Skaldic poetry is very much associated with mythology and mythological thinking . . . another evidence of its strong religious origins. It may also reveal that there was, at one time, a ‘secret knowledge’ in the Odin cult that was portrayed through the song or poetry. Perhaps, the Odinic ‘songsmith’ was a ‘language’ in itself that only certain people (such as priests) could understand???
- It no doubt used rhymes or something similar. It may of been poetical in form, or had a melody like a song, or it may of been as simple as a chant.
- It often entailed statements that had great authoritative value. The sagas seem to show that saying something in poetic form often had this authority quality about it, almost like quoting the bible today. This may refer to how it was meant to speak of ‘god’ and refer to ‘godly’ things.
- That it was associated with sacrifice. Uppsala, where the original ‘Odinic songsmiths’ resided, was also associated with great sacrifice. It would not be surprising if there is a strong association with sacrifice and Odinic songs and poetry. A lot of ‘Odinc songsmithing’ may of been something like a prayer or blessing during the sacrificial ritual.
In regard to the latter point of sacrifice there are many references to an association between ‘Odinic song’ and sacrifice:
- Uppsala was a great center for sacrifice.
- Odin is associated with sacrifice. War was one of his forms of sacrifice. During the Viking era, where there was much war and violence, he became very much associated with war. Isn’t it interesting how, during this time, Skaldcraft flowered as they were describing acts of war. There is like an association: Odin/sacrifice/war and poetry/Skald.
- Poetry is supposed to come from the drinking of the blood of Kvasir.
- The assocation of songs with “coloring runes” with blood (as described above).
- The word ‘Skald’ may represent a cup that was drunk after a sacrifice.
- Many of the expressions of poetry refer to some form of drinking or the mouth (as I’ll explain below).
DIFFERENT NAMES FOR POETRY
There are many names for poetry used by the Skalds over the years. Many of these names originate from the tales of the origin of poetry as described in the ‘Skaldsaparmal’. They include:
“The mouth tale of Thiassi”
“The mouth tale of Idi”
“The mouth tale of Gang”
“Liquid of Odrerir”
“Liquid of Bodn”
“Liquid of Son”
“Liquid of Hnitbiorg”
“Sea of the dwarf’s”
“Liquid of the dwarf’s”
” . . . rein the rigging of the dwarf’s ship”
“Rushing tide of word-craft”
“Rolls the raging billows” . . . of poetry
” . . . foams the flood-of-song on tongue-blade”
“Wax the wave of Suttung’s-weltering-sea-of-song”
These are names of poetry that are associated with the different names of Odin:
“The deities’ fjord”
“The stipend of the god’s atoner” (god’s atoner is Odin)
“Storm-cleaver’s work noble mead”
“Vidrir’s thoughts-strand-mere” (this seems to say something like, “Odin’s simple thought-strand”)
“Getter of Gaut’s gift”
“Server of Ygg’s ale”
“Ale of Odin’s hall”
“Wolf’s danger’s wine-making” (‘wolf danger’ refers to Odin)
” . . . stir the waves of Har’s hall-vat”
SOME REMARKS ABOUT THE DIFFERENT NAMES FOR POETRY
Its interesting that many of the names for poetry refer to a number of themes:
- A liquid.
- The mouth.
- A drink.
I tend to feel that this is because of a number of things:
- It may of originated from drinking as a ritual (such as toasting) and possibly the drinking of blood at a sacrificial feast.
- The origins of poetry describe it as coming from the blood of Kvasir, which all poets are supposed to “drink” to make them Skalds. This, also, suggest a sacrificial origin to poetry.
- That both ‘speaking’ and ‘drinking’ are associated with the mouth. In that sense, words can be compared to a drink or liquid.
- It refers to the feast in the King’s hall. There one drinks and there is often praising of the King as well.
- I often wondered if there is an association with how mead makes one ‘speak more easily’ as one gets drunk.
THE TRANSFORMATION OF SKALDIC POETRY AS A RESULT OF THE VIKING WORLD – ODIN’S CHANGING IMAGE
It seems to me that Skaldic poetry made a transformation that seemed typical for much of the Norse world. Basically, there are two worlds or phases:
- The pre-Viking world (before about 800 or so).
- The Viking world (between 800-1100 or so).
Most of what we have of the Norse comes from the Viking world. This gives the illlusion that the Norse were always as they were during the Viking world (that is, during the pre-Viking world). I think this is not correct. The Viking world only lasted 4 or so centuries (depending on how you want to look at it). But, during the Viking world, the existing culture and customs had to be transformed to fit its conditions, particularly as they were a violent time. In some ways, these conditions created a ‘forced transformation’. Some of the things that caused this ‘forced transformation’ include:
- War, raiding, and violence.
- Power struggles.
- Expansion and colonization
Because of this, we see many examples of customs, beliefs, etc. that have been given a specific “Viking” meaning, as a result of the conditions of the Viking world, which did not exist before (such as, I believe, the over-strong association of Odin with war). But many of these are based in qualities that come from the pre-Viking world and have no “Viking” meaning, nor have they any relation to the Viking world as they pre-date it. As a result, we see a mixture of these two worlds. In general, the pre-Viking world is overshadowed by the Viking world, such was the power of the Viking world.
One thing that was changed quite extensively as a result of the conditions of Viking world is the image of Odin. It seems, to me, that it was the conditions of the Viking world that “turned” him into something like a ‘war god’, but he has other traits that show that he was not a ‘war god’ originally (I discussed this in an article in this blog called “Thoughts on how the Norse god Odin’s association with sacrifice, and historical circumstance, turned him into a ‘war god’ and a ‘god of the dead'”). With the changing image of Odin came the changing image of Skaldic poetry, which he is the creator of. In many ways, the change in Skaldic poetry is probably in direct association with the change in the image of Odin. As a result of the conditions of the Viking world Skaldic poetry went out of the realm of ‘religion’ and became more centered in ‘secular’ and ‘political’ areas. After this, it went into the area of literature. With this it caused a progression much like:
Religion >>> secular/poliltical >>> literature
As a result, we see a big transformation of Odinic ‘songsmith’ and Skaldcraft from about 800 to 1100.
Overall, I tend to feel that Skaldic poetry was not just a “poetry of entertainment” (like poetry is today), but that it originates from verse-forms that were intended for religious reasons, possibly to determine the will of god or, possibly, in praising god. This appears, from the accounts, to originate in Uppsala, Sweden, and was part of the ‘cult of Odin’. From there, it expanded to the rest of Norse culture. Because of the isolation and separation of Norway, they began to develop their own religious customs which did not emphasize Odin. As a result, the Odinic poetry became disconnected from Odin and developed on its own, going in whole other directions. With the coming of Harold Fair-Hair, the specifically Norwegian Skaldic poetry flowered, creating many verse-forms and techniques such as the Drottkvaett verse form. Because the Norwegian Skaldic verses are practically all that survived it gives the illusion that Norwegian Skaldic poetry was typical Viking poetry, which it was not. The original Odinic poetry in Uppsala has been lost and no one knows what it was like.
Copyright by Mike Michelsen