Kennings

The term kenning comes from Old Norse (where the plural is kenningar). It denotes a poetic periphrasis, usually made up of two elements, used in lieu of the proper name of a person or thing. It may be riddling, picturesque, or simply a trite alternative to the ordinary designation. The density of kennings, often elaborate and artificial, is the dominant stylistic feature of skaldic verse, which is intelligible only to those with the knowledge to decode them. But they are to some extent a general phenomenon in Germanic and Celtic poetry. Examples can also be quoted from early Indic and Greek, and a few may have a claim to be in some sense Indo-European.20

The simplest kind of kenning appears when a poet, instead of saying 'X the son of Y', says simply 'the son of Y'. This is common in many branches of the tradition, for example RV 1. 92. 5 'Dyaus' daughter' = Dawn; MBh. 7. 15. 9 (and often) 'Drona's son' = Asvatthaman; in Homer, A-qrovs Kal AOs vios = Apollo, TvSeos vtos or TvSeiSns = Diomedes, and so on; in Welsh, Y Gododdin 1217 'Wolstan's son' = Yrfai; in English, Beowulf 268 et al. 'Healfdene's son' = Hrothgar, 1076 'Hoc's daughter' = Hildeburh; in Norse, Voluspa 56 'Hlo5yn's son' and 'Fiorgyn's child' = Thor. Or another relationship may be specified: RV 1. 114. 6 'the Maruts' father' = Rudra; AlaKiSns 'the descendant of Aiakos' = Achilles; ipiySovnos noats "Hpns 'Hera's loud-crashing husband' = Zeus; Hymiskviia 3. 5 'Sif's husband', 24. 1 'Mo5i's father', both = Thor; Voluspa 32. 5 'Baldr's brother' = Vali; Y Gododdin 975

18 First on the Rok stone (E. V. Gordon, Introduction to Old Norse, 2nd edn. (Oxford 1957), 188); Vafprudnismal 12. 3 with the commentary of Sijmons and Gering; Widsith 57; Elene 20.

20 On kennings see Wolfgang Krause, 'Die Kenning als typische Stilfigur der germanischen und keltischen Dichtersprache', Schriften der Konigsberger Gelehrten Gesellschaft (Geisteswissenschaftliche Klasse, 7(1); Halle 1930); Ingrid Wern, rHZ OZTEA. The Kenning in pre-Christian Greek Poetry (Uppsala 1951); Schmitt (1967), 277-82; Campanile (1977), 108-10; Watkins (1995), 44 f., 153. For a bibliography, especially on Germanic kennings, see Bader (1989), 15 n. 5.

'the grandson of Neithon' = Domnall Brecc.21 One such circumlocution, 'Grandson of the Waters', became at least for Indo-Iranian theology, and perhaps more widely, the proper name of a divinity.22

In principle any appositional phrase or characteristic epithet attached to a name or thing can become a kenning when used by itself, as happens with divine epithets in Homer such as rAavKwnis, 'Iox^aipa, 'A/^iyvrjeis, 'Evvoaiyaios. A specific type found in the Indo-European traditions is that by which a god or hero is identified by reference to the famous adversary that he killed. Thus in the Rigveda Vrtrahan- 'the slayer of Vrtra' = Indra, while in Avestan the cognate VaraGrayna- is the god's primary name; he became the popular national deity of Armenia, Vahagn. Hermes in Homer is often called Apyeij>ovTris, understood as 'slayer of Argos', though the original sense may have been 'dog-killer'. The name of Bellerophon (BeAAepofiovT^s) clearly means 'slayer of Bellero-', presumably an obsolete designation of the Chimaera. In Beowulf 1968 'the slayer of Ongentheow' identifies Hygelac. In the Edda we find 'the slayer of Beli' = Freyr, 'sole slayer of the serpent' = Thor, 'the slayer of Fafnir' and 'the slayer of Gothorm' = Sigurd, 'the slayer of Hogni' = Vilmund, 'the slayer of Isung' = Hodbrodd.23

In the Rigveda (10. 137. 7 = AV 4. 13. 7) dasasakha- 'ten-branched' is employed as an epithet of the hands, and in the Rumayana (6. 47. 54) pancasakha- 'five-branched'. In Hesiod (Op. 742) 'the five-branched' (nevToZos) appears as a kenning for 'the hand' in an injunction couched in oracular style: 'Do not from the five-branched, at the prosperous feast shared with the gods, cut the sere from the green with gleaming iron' (that is, do not cut your nails). In Norse poetry we meet tialgur 'branches' for arms, handar tialgur 'hand-branches' for fingers, and ilkvistir 'sole-twigs' for toes.24 It looks as if we have here an ancient Indo-European metaphor capable of conversion into a kenning.

In the Odyssey (4. 707-9) Penelope, on learning that her son has gone away by ship, complains that he had no call to board ships, a'l 6' aAos "nnoi I avSpaoi yivovTai 'which serve men as horses of the sea'. This seems a strange conceit; but 'sea-horse', expressed with numerous different words for 'sea' and for 'horse', is a frequent kenning for 'ship' in Old English and Norse

21 Some of this material is collected by Vittoria Grazi in Poetry in the Scandinavian Middle Ages (Seventh International Saga Conference, Spoleto 1990), 550-3.

22 Vedic Apam napat = Avestan Apqm napa. We shall examine this god in Chapter 6.

23 Voluspa 53. 5; Hymiskvi5a 22. 3; Gripisspa 15. 8; Gu5runarkvi5a B 7. 7; Oddrunargratr 8. 4; Helgakvi5a Hundingsbana A 20. 2.

24 Vikarsbalkr4. 2, 24. 6 (Edd. min. 38 ff.); Sighvat, Olafsdrapa 95 (CPB ii. 142); Atlamal 66. 2; other medieval material is cited in West (1978), 339. Cf. H. Humbach, MSS 21 (1967), 27; Schmitt (1967), 281 f.; Bader (1989), 106.

poetry.25 Stephanie West in her note on the Homeric passage says that 'here Innot is almost equivalent to "chariots" (Homeric heroes do not ride)', and she cites later classical poets who liken ships metaphorically to chariots. The Phaeacians' ship breasting the waves is likened to a chariot at Od. 13. 81-5. But perhaps the phrase goes back to a phase of Indo-European culture when the horse was men's normal means of travelling about, as it remained in many parts of Europe. For travel by water, the ship then appeared as a replacement for the horse, and poets might easily arrive at 'horse of the sea' as a decorative appositional phrase or kenning for a ship.

Another kenning shared by classical and Germanic verse is the 'iron shower', meaning the rain of spears or arrows in battle. It first appears in just this form in Ennius, Annals 266 Skutsch, hastati spargunt hastas: fit ferreus imber; the phrase was later borrowed by Virgil (Aen. 12. 284). Perhaps Ennius followed a lost Greek model, as aiB^peos or x'iXKeos op pos would sit very neatly in a hexameter. Pindar (Isth. 5. 49) has iv noXvj>dopwi .. . AOs op pwt (. .. xaXaZ,aevri j>ovwt) in referring to the battle of Salamis, and a bombardment of stones is compared in a Homeric simile to a snowstorm (Il. 12. 278-87). The Ennian phrase has an exact counterpart in Beowulf 3115 osernscure, and a less exact one in Guthlac 1116 hildescur 'battle-shower'. The skald Torf-Einar (quoted in Snorri's Hdttatal, st. 55) used stdla skurar . .. Gautr 'the Geat of the steel shower' as a compound kenning for 'warrior'. Other skalds offer dlmskur 'elm-shower' (sc. of missiles from bows), skotskur 'shot-shower', melskur 'biting shower', naddskur 'shield(-battering)-shower', nadd-regn 'shield-rain', while the Eddic Gripisspd (23. 7) has nadd-el 'shield-snowstorm'. Hiltibrant and Hadubrant discharge their spears at each other scarpen scurim, probably 'in sharp showers', a not very apt use of the formula (Hildebrandslied 64). If an Indo-European prototype lies behind all this, it could not, of course, have contained a reference to iron, but it might have referred to bronze, or at an earlier stage to wood or stone; the material would naturally be updated by later poets.

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