Old Norse poetry derived from an oral tradition, which was told in verse to slaves, freemen, Vikings and Kings alike. Such poetry was very important to Viking Age Scandinavian society, as it contained history, heroic tales, Norse mythology and words of wisdom. This poetry was not just informative, it was also entertainment, often acted out as a performance. Viking society also considered poetry as an “Idrott”, which in Old Norse means sport, and there were Viking poetry idrott competitions, something even the Norse gods participated in.
Vikings considered poetry as the primal source of the ability to speak and write beautifully and persuasively. Poetry was the gift of the gods, and the highest Norse god, Odin, was the divine patron of poetry. Odin acquired the gift of poetry after stealing the mead of poetry from the giants. The mead’s Old Norse name is Óðrœrir, meaning “The Stirrer of Óðr,”. Óðr is the root of Odin’s name, and means “ecstasy”, “fury”, and “inspiration”. After having gained the ability to compose poetry, sometimes Odin gives the magic of poetry to gods, humans, and other beings he deems worthy of it.
Old Norse poetry can be traced to the early 9th century, with the earliest being carved in stone and the majority being written on vellum in Iceland in the 13th century. Ragnarsdrápa is considered the oldest surviving Norse poem, and was written in the 9th century by the skald Bragi Boddason, of Norwegian descent. Skáld in Old Norse means ‘poet’, and a skald was an historian, a storyteller, a poet and singer of songs. Skalds were highly respected in Norse society for their skills, and there have been many famous skalds, such as Egill Skallagrímsson and Thorbjorn hornklofi, who gained much fame with their 10th century poems composed for kings.
Viking society valued poetry highly and rewarded poets handsomely, but as the centuries passed, the skald profession became almost extinct, until the most famous Icelandic skald, Snorri Sturluson, compiled the Prose Edda in the 12th century. His Prose Edda is not only an epic work, it is a manual to preserve and pass on the traditions and methods of the skalds.
Bragr is the Old Norse word for poetry, and in Norse mythology, the god Bragi is the skaldic god of poetry. Husband to the goddess Idunn, Bragi was said to have possessed eloquence surpassing all others. His name may have been derived from bragr, or the term bragr may have been formed to describe 'what Bragi does'.
Old Norse poetry is split into two types: Eddaic poetry and skaldic poetry. Eddaic poetry is the name given to an unnamed collection of Old Norse anonymous poems. Eddaic verse was usually simple, in terms of content, style and metre, and deals mostly with mythological or heroic content. Skaldic poetry is poetry from skalds who composed at the courts of Scandinavian and Icelandic leaders during the Viking Age and Middle Ages. Skaldic verse was complex, had historical content, and was usually composed as a tribute or homage to a particular jarl or king, typically have relating battles and other deeds from the king's career.
There are several forms of skaldic poetry: Drápa, Flokkr and Lausavísa.
Drápa is a long series of stanzas (usually dróttkvætt), with a refrain (stef) at intervals.
Dróttkvætt is the most predominant metre of skaldic poetry.
Flokkr (vísur or dræplingr) are a shorter series of such stanzas without refrain.
Lausavísa is a single stanza of dróttkvætt, said to have been improvised impromptu for the occasion that it marks.
Skaldic poems about kings and jarls include:
Glymdrápa - The deeds of Harald Fairhair
Knútsdrápa - The deeds of Cnut the Great
Bandadrápa - The deeds of Eiríkr Hlaðajarl
Vellekla - The deeds of Hákon Hlaðajarl
Skaldic poems that have mythological content include:
Þórsdrápa – relates to the thunder god Thor telling the tale of one of his giant-bashing expeditions.
Ragnarsdrápa - relates four tales from the mythology as painted on a shield given to the poet.
Haustlöng - relates two 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.
Viking poetry has many metrical forms which range from the simple fornyrðislag, to the very complex dróttkvætt.
Fornyrðislag – "the metre of ancient words", is generally used where the poem is mostly narrative. It is composed with four or more syllables per line.
Ljóðaháttr - "chant metre" is so called because of its structure which comprises broken stanzas, which lends itself to dialogue and discourse.
Málaháttr - "speech metre" is similar to fornyrðislag, but with a fixed metrical length of five syllables.
Kviðuháttr - "discourse metre" is another variant of fornyrðislag with alternating lines of 3 and 4 syllablesDróttkvætt - "courtly metre" or "noble warrior's meter" normally uses a structure of 6 syllables, ending in a long stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one.
Hrynhenda - “flowing metre” is a variant of dróttkvætt. It uses all the rules of dróttkvætt, with the exception that the line comprises four metrical feet rather than three.
Galdralag - "magic spell metre" contains a fourth line which echoes and varies the third line.
Many Viking poems have names that end in mál, which in Old Norse means ‘speech’. Some of the most famous of these poems include:
Skáldskaparmál – “Poet-creating-speech” tells the story of how Odin brought the mead of poetry to Asgard.
Hákonarmál - The death of king Hákon the Good and his reception in Valhalla.
Eiríksmál - The death of king Eiríkr and his reception in Valhalla.
Reginsmál – "Regin's speech" relates to Loki's dealings with Andvari and then Sigurd's relationship with Reginn and the advice given to him by Odin.
Fáfnismál – “Fáfnir's speech” is about a meeting between Sigurd and Fáfnir and the claiming of a gold hoard.
Sigrdrífumál -"Speech of the victory-bringer" (also known as Brynhildarljóð,) is the title of a section of the Poetic Edda relating to the meeting of Sigurðr and the valkyrie Brynhildr.
Hávamál – “Odin’s speech”, is one of the most valuable and most famous poems from Viking Age Scandinavia.