Skald – Norse Poet

The term skald or skáld (Icelandic: ‘skault’), meaning ‘poet’, is generally used for poets who composed at the courts of Scandinavian and Icelandic leaders during the Viking Age and Middle Ages. Skaldic poetry forms one of two main groupings of Old Norse poetry, the other being the anonymous Eddic poetry.

The most prevalent metre of skaldic poetry is dróttkvætt. The subject is usually historical and encomiastic, detailing the deeds of the skald’s patron. There is no evidence that the skalds employed musical instruments, but some speculate that they may have accompanied their verses with the harp or lyre.

The technical demands of the skaldic form were equal to the complicated verse forms mastered by the Welsh bards and Gaelic (in both Scotland and Ireland) ollaves. Like those poets, much skaldic verse consisted of panegyrics to kings and aristocrats or memorials and testimonials to their battles.

Skaldic poetry can be traced to the earlier 9th century with Bragi Boddason and his Ragnarsdrápa, considered the oldest surviving Norse poem. Bragi is considered the oldest and original Skald. However, many Skalds came after him, like Egill Skallagrímsson and Thorbjorn hornklofi, who gained much fame in the 10th century for the poems composed for the kings they served of their own exploits. At the time, the Icelanders and Nordic people were still pagan, and their work reflected that by many references to gods like Thor and Odin and to seers and runes. The poetry from then also can be noted for its portrayal of a “heroic age” for the Vikings and “praise poetry, designed to commemorate kings and other prominent people, often in the form of quite long poems.”

As time went on, Skalds became the main source of Icelandic and Norse history and culture, as it was the Skalds who learned and shared the largely oral history.

That led to a shift in the role of the Skald, allowing them to gain more prominent positions. Every king and chieftain needed a Skald to record their feats and ensure their legacy lived on, as well as becoming the main historians of their society. The written artifacts of that time come from Skalds, as they were the first from the time and place to record on paper. Some Skalds became clerical workers, recording laws and happenings of the government, some even being elected to the Thing and Althing.

Snorri Sturluson compiled the Prose Edda, as a manual to preserve an appreciative understanding of their art. Snorri, born in Iceland during the 12th century is the most famous skald. In addition to being a great poet, he was leader of the Althing for part of his life, leading the government of Iceland. His Prose Edda preserved and passed on the traditions and methods of the Skalds, adding a much needed stimulus to the profession, and providing much of the information now known about skalds and how they worked. For example, the Prose Edda broke down and explained kennings used in skaldic poetry, allowing many of them to be understood today.

Beyond writing the Prose Edda, Snorri had many great poems from retelling old Norse legends to tales on exploits of kings, which gave him much fame and made his reputation live on beyond his death.

Skaldic poetry

Most Nordic verse of the Viking Age came in one of two forms: eddic or skaldic. Eddic verse was usually simple, in terms of content, style and metre, dealing largely with mythological or heroic content. Skaldic verse, conversely, was complex, and usually composed as a tribute or homage to a particular jarl or king. There is debate over the performance of skaldic poetry, but there is a general scholalry consensus that it was spoken rather than sung.

Unlike many other literary forms of the time, much skaldic poetry is attributable to an author (called a skald), and those attributions may be relied on with a reasonable degree of confidence. Many skalds were men of influence and power and so were biographically noted. The meter is ornate, usually dróttkvætt or a variation thereof. The syntax is complex, with sentences commonly interwoven, with kennings and heiti being used frequently and gratuitously.

Skaldic poetry was written in variants and dialects of Old Norse languages. Technically, the verse was usually a form of alliterative verse and almost always used the dróttkvætt stanza (also known as the Court or Lordly Metre). Dróttkvætt is effectively an eight-line form, and each pair of lines is an original single long line which is conventionally written as two lines.

Forms of skaldic poetry

These are forms of skaldic poetry:

  • Drápa, a long series of stanzas (usually dróttkvætt), with a refrain (stef) at intervals.
  • Flokkr, vísur or dræplingr, a shorter series of such stanzas without refrain.
  • Lausavísa, a single stanza of dróttkvætt, said to have been improvised impromptu for the occasion that it marks.

Skalds also composed insult (níðvísur) and very occasionally, erotic verse (mansöngr).

Kennings

The verses of the skalds contain a great profusion of kennings, the fixed metaphors found in most Northern European poetry of the time. Kennings are devices ready to supply a standard image to form an alliterating half-line to fit the requirements of dróttkvætt, but the substantially greater technical demands of skaldic verse required the devices to be multiplied and compounded to meet its demands for skill and wordplay. The images can therefore become somewhat hermetic, at least to those who fail to grasp the allusions that are at the root of many of them.

Skaldic poems

Most skaldic poetry are poems composed to individual kings by their court poets. They typically have historical content, relating battles and other deeds from the king’s career.

A few surviving skaldic poems have mythological content.

  • Þórsdrápa – A drápa to the god Thor telling the tale of one of his giant-bashing expeditions.
  • Haustlöng – Relates two tales from the mythology as painted on a shield given to the poet.
  • Ragnarsdrápa – Relates four tales from the mythology as painted on a shield given to the poet.
  • Húsdrápa – Describes mythological scenes as carved on kitchen panels.
  • Ynglingatal – describes the origin of the Norwegian kings and the history of the House of Yngling. It is preserved in the Heimskringla.

To that could be added two poems relating the death of a king and his reception in Valhalla.

Some other were composed as circumstance pieces, such as those by Egill Skallagrímsson

An early modern depiction of Thor’s fight with the World Serpent, the subject of early skaldic verses by Bragi Boddason and Ulfr Uggason

Notable skalds

More than 300 skalds are known from the period between AD 800 and 1200. Many are listed in the Skáldatal, not all of whom are known from extant material. Notable names include:

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