Kennings

We are not on-site today, but many of our students and staff are taking this opportunity to take a break from archaeology…just kidding, just about everyone is touring the region looking at archaeological and historical sites in their free time for fun.

In that spirit, we’d like to share with you a fun and sometimes head-scratching Anglo-Saxon figure of speech. One thread that runs through the entire corpus of Old English (and Old Norse and Icelandic) literature is the “kenning.” A kenning is like a tiny riddle that you have to solve to really comprehend what the Anglo-Saxon authors were trying to tell you. Many are metaphors, and they are usually presented as a compound word: a base word preceded by what we call a “determinant.” The very word “kenning” comes from an Old Norse word meaning “to know.” As a consumer of prose and poetry, a contemporary audience was therefore expected to know what these euphemisms meant, either by rote or by solving the riddle.

A panorama of partly cloudy blue skies, the North Sea, and grass-covered sand-dunes.

The dunes and sea from the West Ward of Bamburgh Castle.

There are numerous kennings for the sea in Old English, many of them found in the epic poem Beowulf: whale-road (“hron-rād”), swan-road (“swan-rād”), and sail-road (“seġl-rād”). In Norse sources, sometimes they put multiple kennings together nested inside a clause: “of the land of the high-strider of planks” where “high-strider” means horse, but a “horse of planks” is a ship, and “the land of the ship” is the sea.

We’d love to hear your favorite kennings. Whether it’s an existing kenning or an original you created, comment below or on any of our social media accounts with your kenning and its meaning!

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