What is a Kenning in Old Norse?

If you do some research on the Internet about Old Norse  poetry, chances are that you stumble upon the word “kenning”. But what does “kenning” actually is and how awesome a kenning was in the Old Norse poetry? What is a Kenning?

To put it simply, a kenning is type of literal devices that ancient writers used to “play” the words. It is the type of periphrasis in which the authors would use the images or the bodies of the entities to depict them. So instead of calling their daily names, the authors invented a new name for that entity.

For example, the ancient authors would call the king in their times “the man of rings”. Because in the Viking Age, the kings or the chieftains would give out many rings to his people either to show off his wealth and generosity and to gain the loyalty of the people.

Example of Viking kenning and explanation

But “man of rings” is a very simple example. Kennings often come in many and in long passages:

The splendid hater of the fire of the sea defends the beloved of the enemy of the wolf; ships’ prows are set before the steep brows of Mim’s friend’s wife. The noble mighty-ruler knows how to hold the serpent’s attacker’s mother. You who torment necklaces, enjoy the troll-wife’s enemy’s mother until old age

In Norse mythology and Viking belief, gold was often associated with the bodies of water. So “fire of the sea” refers to the gold.

The “splendid hater of gold” is a kenning for the king. Why? The kings or the chieftains in the Viking Age gave out a lot of golden ring or armring that they seemed to get rid of them. Because they had too much gold, they hated them.

What is a Kenning in norse literature?
“Splendid hater of gold” referred to Viking King

The “enemy of the wolf” is Odin who fought with Fenrir the Wolf in Ragnarok. Odin’s beloved here is actually Jord the giantess of earth. “Mim’s friend” is again Odin.

“Wife” refers to Jord who was sometimes believed to be Odin’s wife. The “brows” belong to Jord and they refer to the sea cliffs or the mountains near the cliff.

“Serpent’s attacker” is Thor who was the sworn enemy of Jormungandr the Midgard Serpent. Thor was the son of Odin and Jord so the “serpent’s attacker’s mother” was Jord.

“You who tormented necklaces” is again the king or the ruler. The “troll-wife’s enemy” is Thor who always killed the trolls or the giants.


So this combination of kennings can be interpreted: The king defends their land. The ships’ prows are set before the sea cliffs. The noble mighty ruler knows how to how their land. The true king will enjoy the land until they die. That is to say it is much more exciting to use kennings in writing. Without kennings, there would have been no art at all. The Viking authors could not have been competed and found the people of the same level without kennings.

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