Anglo-Saxon Kenning

A 'Kenning' is a roundabout figure of speech, a circumlocution usually constructed of two alliterated words (see rules) in order to provide a disguised meaning while conforming to the poetic form. Although used to make sagas such as Beowulf more eloquent, it is most seen in riddles where the intent is to disguise the meaning.

Kennings take the form of a genitive phrase, eg. Hronrade, literally 'Whale's riding' (but generally translated as 'Whale's Road' or alliteratively 'Whale's Way'), meaning the sea. In Anglo-Saxon, most kennings are simple in form however complex kennings sometimes occur, when a new kenning is built on another kenning which is usually well known.

To give an example in modern English:

The Outpouring of Mead's Making

'Mead's Making' would be a kenning for drunkenness, consequently the outpouring of mead's making would be drunken speech/rambling, 'outpouring', being the determinant of the new kenning. On occasions, the determinant can be the original kenning, eg:

Whale's Way's Traveller

As we have seen, 'Whale's Way' means the sea, therfore a Whale's Way's Traveller would be a ship. Generally Anglo-Saxon kennings only have three elements like this, however Skaldic verses have kennings which contain up to seven elements. Kennings could also be developed into verbose metaphors:

The hordworm who seeks hollow headlands found the gallic grain bereft of braves

might translate to "The dragon who seeks barrows, found the ancient gold unguarded".Some kennings may display elipsis, that is an element omission to conform to a poetical structure. This can only happen when the omission is commonly known:

And thus the giver, gave his life.

In this case 'giver' is used as the remaining elemnt of the kenning 'ring giver' or 'lord'. Whereas most kennings are fairly guessable, many require a knowledge of Saxon myths and beliefs in order to be understood.


Some Anglo-Saxon Kennings from the poem Beowulf

Kenning Translated Meaning
geardagum Year's days (Literally the days of past years) days gone by
weorðmyndum mind's worth honour
fyrenðearfe fire need comfort
hron-rād whale-road the sea
seġl-rād sail road the sea
hwæl-weġ whale's way the sea
swan-rād swan-road the sea
heofon-candel sky-candle the sun
heofones ġim sky's jewel the sun

Of course the most important kennings are the names in Beowulf:

Beowulf Beo Wulf a wolf, or hunter, of bees Bear
Heorot Heo Rot Initially Heorot means hart or stag but is also made of the elements 'heo' meaning 'hall' and 'rot' meaning 'cheer' Cheerful Hall