Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Skald Craft: Understanding and Writing Poetry in the Old Norse Meters

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Writing Poetry In Old Norse Meters- Jon Cyr
Writing Poetry In Old Norse Meters- Jon Cyr
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Date:August 8, 2014


There have been many approaches to the study of Old Norse Poetry.  Modern academia has spent an exhaustive amount of effort in identifying metrical patterns and trends within the lines of the voluminous collected works.  They have asserted sometimes arguable theories varying from simple to complex and from mundane to fantastic.  However (un)interesting the results may be, the decades of scholarship have failed to contribute to the most important body of listeners: the audience of common would-be poets and budding artisans who are ripe with a genuine and fervent love of Old Norse culture.  The direction of this paper will be one of modern practical application so that listeners will be able to apply the concepts learned to their personal or professional poetic endeavors, whether they are religious, magical or purely artistic in nature.  Other practical guides to writing poetry in the Old Norse meters do exist.  Many however are woefully incomplete and the works of up-and-coming skalds have suffered.  Rather than point out the errors of modern authors, this article can equip the reader with the ability to identify correctly conforming poetry that adheres to the restrictions of each meter.

Old Norse Poetry: Eddic and Skaldic

Old Norse poetry is in modern times classified in two distinct groups: Eddic and Skaldic poetry. The term ‘Eddic’ has been imposed on a group of poems composed in different meter, but mainly about the same subject matter: Old Norse mythology and legendry. The term itself is borrowed from Snorri Sturluson’s book on Old Norse mythology from 1220 called Edda.  Eddic poetry comprises several metrical forms, three of which are galdralag, ljoðháttr and fornyrðislag.  Skaldic poetry is a specifically Scandinavian metrical form that does not seem to have any counterparts outside Scandinavia in general and the West-Nordic area in particular.  The most prominent meter of Skaldic poetry is commonly called dróttkvætt and this poetic form is mostly known for its complex circumlocutions called kenningar and heiti.[1]

Where Eddic poetry seems to have roots in a common Germanic form of poetry about gods and heroes, Skaldic poetry seems to have developed during the Viking Age to serve as homage for contemporary kings.  The metrical forms that are identifiable as “Eddic” must have been established for some time in a common Germanic heritage and Skaldic poetry likely sprung out of these older, simpler forms of alliteration.  In many ways we may trace the evolutionary path that Old Norse poetry has taken, which allows us to better understand its varied forms.

The Evolution of Old Norse Poetry

There are many examples of ‘pre-poetics’ in history to choose from, beginning with the Roman historian Tacitus in the 2nd century.  Although no alliterative poetry from this period has been discovered, he makes brief mention of the ancient oral traditions practiced by all pre-literate Germanic peoples and the songs sung regarding the heroes of that day.[2]


[1] – Jesch, Judith, Ed. Meleungracht Sørensen, Preben: Kapitler af Nordens litteratur i oldtid og middelalder, Aarhus Universitetsforlag, 2006.
[2] – Tacitus, Cornelius Works of Cornelius Tacitus.  Includes Agricola, The Annals, A Dialogue Concerning Oratory, Germania and The Hisotories, MobileReferences 2009