Despite popular depictions in Hollywood and on streaming services, people in Viking societies were not all bloodthirsty, rapacious warriors hell-bent on satisfying their primal urges. 

It was only a tiny fragment of each village that went on Viking raids or faced off against an enemy on the battlefield. 

Most of the ancestors of the modern population of the Nordics would be far more comfortable wielding a plow than a battle axe. 

Given the recent surge in popularity of all things Viking – a boom that we here at The Viking Herald hope never crashes – many people have been drawn to the rich tapestry of Norse mythology, legends, and stories. 

Much of this rich tapestry was written down centuries later by medieval scholars and chroniclers, from the German monk Adam of Bremen to the Icelandic poet and politician Snorri Sturluson

Despite this font of literary knowledge, people in Viking societies – though not illiterate – heavily relied on an oral culture

The later medieval chroniclers wrote down histories, myths, legends, sagas, and stories that had once been spoken and performed by skalds. 

These poets often served at the courts of Scandinavian rulers, from local rulers and petty kings to the later medieval kings of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. 

Why would the fierce Viking warriors, who ascended to the pinnacle of power in the ruthless early medieval period, employ such artists? 

Well, the skalds' jobs were to perfect the staggering ability to compose and recite poetry that chronicled (in a glowing light, of course) the deeds of their patrons, celebrating heroic exploits and recording important events. 

They were a forerunner of the medieval troubadour and a modern political "spin doctor." 

Located on the island of Öland, Sweden, the Karlevi Runestone (Öl 1) from the late 10th century holds the oldest stanza of skaldic poetry, notable for mentioning Thor's daughter Thrúd and Viðurr (Odin). Photo: Marco Bianchi (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Practice makes perfect poetry 

Given they were retained by the powerful and mighty, a skald was not just someone who could rattle off a few lines that were pleasing to the ear. 

Skalds required extensive training, which could often take years. 

Not only did they need to memorize a vast array of contemporary and historical events, but they also needed to master complex meters, an extensive vocabulary of kennings (metaphorical expressions), and heiti (poetic synonyms). 

Their development had an element of a modern traineeship, where an aspiring skald would train under an established poet and learn largely through memorizing and adapting traditional compositions.

Having learned their craft, the skald's first step in crafting a poem would be thinking about a theme. 

Popular themes included heroism and valor in battle, along with the glorification of local chieftains, kings, or rulers. 

They delved into the rich tapestry of Norse mythology, recounting the deeds of the vast pantheon of Norse gods and legendary figures. 

Their poems were reflections and musings on fate and mortality, as well as expressions of loyalty, honor, and the harsh realities of early medieval life. 

After choosing a theme, the skald would need to create a poem. What literary tools could a skald use? 

The poetic meter was the basic rhythmic structure, serving as the literary building blocks of skaldic poetry. 

By far, the most prominent meter in skaldic poetry was dróttkvætt, sometimes translated in English as the "court meter." 

This meter has eight-line stanzas, with each line consisting of six syllables. It also features alliteration and internal rhyme. 

Kennings – metaphorical expressions – were another prominent feature of skaldic poetry. These were composed of more than two words, often used to describe nouns in a poetic and indirect manner. 

The sea might be referred to as the "whale-road," blood as "battle-sweat," and gold as "the fire of the sea," alluding to its bright and valuable nature. 

If we look at Ragnarsdrápa by Bragi Boddason, we can see a clever kenning he employs: 

Hrǫnn grés viðum skýjum,
Skúrar meinþvarra,
Greipar veðrs mun græna,
Við gǫld of vitja.
 

Which translates in English as: 

The wave of the grass of the clouds,
The harm-soother of the storm,
The green of the grip's storm,
Shall visit us with woe. 

Whereby the "wave of the grass of clouds" refers to the rain and the "harm-soother of the storm" is a trusted Viking ship, as explained by Margaret Clunies Ross in Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 3 (2017). 

Historians estimate that around 300 skalds operated in the Viking world during the early medieval period, though many more have likely been lost to history, with the earliest recorded skald being Bragi the Old. Illustration: The Viking Herald

A few famous skalds 

According to modern historians, some 300 skalds operated throughout the Viking world during the early medieval period. We can safely assume that hundreds more have been lost through the cracks of history. 

The earliest skald we have a reference to is Bragi the Old, sometimes known as Bragi Boddason. 

Operating in the early 9th century, his most famous work is the Ragnarsdrápa (Ragnar's Poem), which was said to have been composed for the legendary Viking Ragnar Lothbrok

This poem features some of the most vivid mythological stories, including Thor fishing the great world serpent Jörmungandr out of the ocean, the Norse goddess Gefjon plowing the Danish Island of Zealand out of the ocean, and a detailed account of the semi-mythical battle of Siglid. 

Performing a century later was the Icelandic skald Egil Skallagrímsson, whose life spanned almost all of the 10th century; he died in 995 at the age of 91. 

Whilst he was renowned for his martial skills, he was also a skilled poet and composed works featuring both royalty (Anglo-Saxon King Æthelstan) and family (Sonatorrek – a moving lamentation on the loss of his son who drowned in a boating accident). 

In a case of art imitating life, he became a central character in his own saga, Egil’s Saga.

Historians believe that this saga was compiled long after his death, in the 12th century, and was a mixture of tall tales and true-life events, as noted by Alistair Campbell in Skaldic Verse and Anglo-Saxon History (1971).

Eyvindr Skáldaspillir was also a 10th-century skald. Whilst he did not have as adventurous a life as Egil was said to have had, Eyvindr served in the court of the Norwegian kings Harald Greycloak and Hákon the Good

His most famous work is Hákonarmál, which describes the death of the latter king and his reception into Valhalla

Highlighting the resurgence of skaldic poetry in contemporary music, this image captures Wardruna performing at the Roadburn Festival in April 2015, blending ancient traditions with modern sounds. Photo: Grywnn (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Skaldic poetry has left an enduring impact 

Despite the last skaldic poet having performed centuries ago, skaldic poetry has seen a recent resurgence in popularity. 

This contemporary revival, especially in the Nordic region, has kept alive a rich literary and oral tradition, as well as a form of entertainment, that stretches back over a millennium. 

Bands such as Norway's Wardruna and Sweden's Amon Amarth have both incorporated elements of skaldic poetry into their lyrics and musical compositions. 

Skaldic poetry showed how artists in Viking societies had a mastery of language and a deep cultural knowledge that helped create a lasting impact on Norse culture, literature, and entertainment that has echoed down to us through the ages. 

The BBC program The Forum has dedicated an entire episode to skaldic poetry, which was favored by Viking King Cnut the Great. Listen to it here.

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