Monday, July 22, 2019

Skaldic Poetry

The epic saga: the retelling of stories of brave heroes who have overcome monstrous odds and come out victorious or lost and taught us a lesson. For many Northmen and women, being remembered in a saga was a dream goal. Towards that end, poetry encompassed a decent portion of the lives of the Nordic peoples: it was how you heard your history, your myth, and in some cases your laws. The wide variety of uses meant that there were also many different styles of poems, from the slightly freeform fornyrðislag, or song like ljóðaháttr, to the rigid dróttkvætt or courtly style.

I have been working on somewhat understanding Norse alliterative poetry for a handful of years, and have never made much progress on it. I will read and research a bit and then try my hand at a poem, then I will remember that English is a difficult language and that alliterative/rhyming poems in a language with no internal consistency is a pain. This blog post is the most concerted effort I have ever invested to really get into the idea of the rules of the dróttkvætt, which really helped me understand the others better as well. In each of the sections below, as I describe the styles, I will share my attempts at recreating them.

Different Formats
Before getting into the specifics of the three forms I address in this post, I want to discuss alliteration, one of the key factors of Norse poetry. When I first started, I understood alliteration as the first sound of a word, such as bed and beat, which have a strong B as the first sound. In Nordic poetry, I found that they want the stressed syllable to alliterate, which took me forever to understand. I still don't quite get it, especially since in English the stressed syllable is a little unclear to me.

Count Takamatsu Sadamitsu no kami Tadayoshi
This is a poetic form known as the ballad style. Now, some of the places I search said the ljóðaháttr meant song or ballad. That doesn't quite add up with what I have seen, but I will leave direct translations to people who actually speak the language (future goals!). From what I can tell, Ljoda means poetry or poem, and Hattr means way.

The rules for this are relatively free-form as far as line length, but the lines were clustered into 4-line stanzas. Each line should have two to three alliterations. Charging Tiger was my attempt at this form of poem.

Charging Tiger
Westward we go to war, Seas and Star
A past-prime first-time fighter I was.
Reaching the ravine, amassing our armies.
Scarred soldiers speak, laughing loudly at youth’s yearning.

Joining the joy, my unmerited mirth, my Jarl jokes to his man:
“You are young!’ ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Very, join the van’
‘Yes my Jarl!’ Helm on head and testing my knee,
I survey terrain ahead: rough ground, loose leaves, many many trees

Reckless Rookie at my side, grinning greatly
Sighing, shield raised. Surely I can do this safely.
No time to be weak, neither for friends or foes
Horns howl; avalanching armies close

Speed belongs to Spring, Wisdom to Winter.
Carefully chosen path meant I kept up with the sprinter.
As we approached; shields up, slowing down
Almost arrived, claiming ground.

Bolt of blue blasting past; Old Samurai gave us the lead
Helm howling with a laugh, still surpassed with his speed.
Protecting the point, spear ready for warring
Enemy army stutters seeing an old tiger roaring.

A hero held them at bay, as our shields locked into place.
A great knight with bravery and speed, a grin always on his face.
He held the point, it would not fall,
Banzai Y'all.

This was written earlier this year and was inspired by one of my favourite stories from my first war, Gulf Wars XXIII: during the Ravine battle, I was told to run full-tilt as soon as the horns were sounded. I was very concerned about this because I’m not an overly fast runner and even less in full armour, but I was determined to give it my all. As I was running full tilt I was passed by a blue blur: none other than everyone’s favourite Southern Samurai, Sir Takamatsu. Taka passed suddenly two years ago and I miss him dearly, but I will carry him with me anytime I charge down that ravine ready to take a point.

This is the most common form of Norse poetry that we have found. It is slightly more rigid than ljóðaháttr, but less rigid than dróttkvætt. As near as I can translate, fornyrðislag comes from the words “forn” meaning old, “ord” meaning word, and “slag” meaning path, so Way of the Old Words.
It also has several sub styles which change things like the number of unstressed syllables and the total number of syllables per line.

The Fyrby Runestone in Sodermanland, Sweden
like many runestones this one has writings which
are in verse.
The basic rules of this form are two to three alliterations of the stressed syllables in each line, with stanzas being 2-8 lines. This is different from Old English poems like Beowulf even though they share a similar metre. Ulfkarl is my attempt at a málaháttr version of this form.

Horns Howl, Heroes Answer
Hard Hirdsmen, who have no fear
Axe, Armour, and Ardent loyalty
Worn wielded, warriors all

Defense, Duty, Death
Daily done, Dangers faced
Hersir, House, Hallowed Land
Wolves working, they shelter sheep

Nine Noble Virtues
Each Echoing, explaining
What warriors would be
Extolling exact expectations.

Honour, honing hearts,  Discipline
Builds body, brings Self-reliance.
Hospitality, homes handed over.
Works wrought with sweat, pitfalls
overcome. Overt Industry, outright Perseverance.
Courage comes calling. Defiance,
fueled from Faith, found in Truth.

Ulfkarls under brothers banner
Heathens who fight for family
Glory given glory gained
Ancestors watching.

Dróttkvætt is the most complicated and rigid of the forms that we have seen for Norse poetry. The word comes from Drótt meaning ruler, and kvætt meaning poem, and known as the courtly metre because of this. I dont think I was overly successful at my attempts in following the rules overall, but I came up with a decent attempt that got my feelings across. I’ve heard it said that the rules were so difficult that some skalds would include a side by side narrative to make it easier to follow.

The basic rules for this form are 8 lines per stanza each with 6 syllables. Odd numbered lines would have alliteration between two syllables and the even lines would rhyme with a stressed syllable from the line above.

Two Wolves
Moons ceaseless movement means
Seas rise, Tides fall. Time moves
a crawl. Ticking rules all,
thrall, freeman, sheep, or tree.
Fate’s skein ours to design.
Drawing of the Sigtuna box showing the runes,
the runes are a verse in Dróttkvæt.
Twine wound with end unfound.
Roads unfollowed. Paths Walked.
No one knows which is right.

Our heart plays hearth to twins,
Apart. Wolves strive to thrive.
Bête noire et bête blanche, each
set to win. Vice and sin,
Virtue and ideal. Two
true wolves biting, fighting.
Eternal their  battle,
lest harmony leave me.

White wolf armed just right with
Tight discipline makes might.
Courage steels and anneals.
Real honor, faces
peril with feral grit.
With Truth and Faith we stand.
Band of brothers among others.

Labour builds for neighbors,
Or all suffer lack of hall.
Hospitality, host
homes to those who roam far.
Eight before create, the
greatest self-reliance.
Theses traits men emulate,
great, noble, low, and humble.

Dark beast, on evil feasts,
Stark cowardice and vice.
Blood red wrath fills its head.
Flooding resentment bent,
Pride to tarnished ego. Lies
banish trust, punish faith,
Till all honour falls, breaks
shaken down into dust.

Two wolves this much is true,
such their battle, it rattles
quakes, and nearly breaks us.
Years pass and the fight lasts.
Moons set and wounds heal,
ordeal begins, but who wins.
The white wolf? the black wolf?
Right and virtue? Vice and blight?

Grandfather, understands
Hand to heart, each day starts,
with simple choice, which voice?
Which path we walk? Which wolf
we will choose to feed. For
see who wins is up to me.
Evil wins when good men
would do nothing. Bring good.

This was a retelling of the story of two wolves, Cherokee fable that I have always loved. This is the second time that I use it as a basis for a Norse alliterative poem, but the first one was before I really understood the rules at all.

Two Wolves (First Attempt)
Moons motion means,
time still turning
My devise is the two wolves, also represents
Skol and Hati.
Twin wolves working, within
a struggle for a soul

White wolf working with:
Courage calmed, cold kiln
Truth tells all things
Fidelity found in friends

Discipline driving forth
Honour Odin’s own
Industriousness not idle
Self reliance, self made

Perseverance paving my path
honed by hospitality, a hearth, a home
The Nine Noble
a warrior’s way

Black wolf brings vice
dishonor darkens long dead
Cowardice a clear path to
Helheim's hollow halls

Wrath reduces righteous thought
ego entangles
falsehoods founder
Greed’s great hunger harms heroes

resentment, jealousy, and
entitlement earns a fool’s gold
roads well traveled
man’s many mistakes

Which wolf will win?
a black beast, a white warrior
fed from our own actions
Which wolf will you feed?

Hear their howling
grandfather gave me good advice.
Follow, feed, fight for
the wolf which you want to win.

I think I did a better job of alliteration in the first attempt, but only because I alliterated nearly everything, which isn't how it was done!

Why is this Important to me?
“I thought this was a blog about fighting and Knighthood!” Well yeah sort of, but it's also a research blog for all things regarding my persona as a 10c Kievan Rus/Norseman. As I said at the beginning, poetry was a part of daily life for these people. It’s seen in grave markers and would have been recited at Allthings. It would be how children are taught their history, and how ancestors are remembered. Beyond any of this, it would have been one of the main forms of entertainment in a time before TV or even written books. Some of my favourite SCA moments have been sitting around the campfire and telling stories, or going to bardic circle and listening to them ply their trade.

You guys have also heard me say before that to me being a knight means so much more than just being a hot stick: it means being a well-rounded example that others can follow. If the only thing I can teach is combat, I can’t keep the society alive and I can’t help newcomers find their interests. Balance in all things, martial arts and actual arts!

Thank you all so much for getting all the way to the end through my attempts at working out Norse poetry. It was actually a ton of fun even though it was really difficult. It has inspired me to go ahead and learn more about the language, which will give me more insight into the culture overall.

If any of you have tried your hand at this kind of verse, I’d love to see some examples. If you have any ideas on how I can improve my poetry, that would be awesome to hear also.

As always if you have any topics you would like to see covered in a future blog post I am always up for suggestions, and be sure to follow so you don’t miss any of my updates!

Viking Answer Lady-
Skaldic Project-
English to Old Norse Dictionary-
(Note about translations the dictionary isn’t complete and I sometimes look to modern Icelandic to find word meanings)


  1. This one of my original pieces, in Old English:

    Memorial Day Poem

    Murnaþ we meduselas æmtige
    Mourn we mead-halls empty

    bencwina leofra, boren wælcyrgum
    Of bench-friends, born by valkyries

    to forþfarum mid forlornum
    To forth-farers among the forlorn.

    Hæleþ-rípu micle hilderincas reafodon
    Hero-reapings great battle-men robbed,

    in guþfeldum hwær grim-nædran biton
    in war-fields where grim-adders bit

    mid iren fængteþ and árfæstan feldon
    with iron fangs and the honor-fast ones fell.

    Ece geongan licgaþ in eorþærnum
    Eternally young lie in earthen-tombs

    sawolhus wigenda. In slæplican friþe
    soul-houses of warriors. In sleep-like peace

    þa mihtigan onbidaþ magas and cynn
    the mighty abide family and kin

    swa tide wending bringeþ togædere eale.
    as time’s wending brings together all.

    Þeah forloren, næron forgietan
    Though forlorn, they are not forgotten.

    Læt wynsangas, cræft wordsmiþa,
    Let joy-songs, the craft of wordsmiths,

    mid gladwoþ sungen gleomannum beon.
    with glad-voice sung by gleemen be.

    On gemynddæg þissum find myrgþþancas
    On this memory day find mirth-thoughts

    hildefrumena and heorþgeneata,
    of war-leaders and of hearth-companions,

    swa lippanbogan wide and lofsangas hlude
    so lip-bows wide and praise-songs loud

    cwaciaþ heofonas mid healwynne
    quake the heavens with hall-joys.

    Becwele feoh, becwelaþ freondas
    Cattle die, kinsmen/friends die,

    swa same þín self becwileþ;
    as yourself die the same;

    Ic wat anne on aldre ne becwileþ,
    I wit one in ages never dies,

    dóm ymbe deadan hwone.
    The doom around who is the dead.

    1. Damn that is really good. I love the Old English!