Skaldcraft 101:


an Introduction to Germanic-Style Ritual Poetry

©2000-2005 Ingeborg S. Nordén




 reciting poetry


Lesson 1:  Alliteration


Most people today think of "traditional" poetry as rhyming, repeating sounds at the end of a word or line:


Hickory, dickory, dock--

the mouse ran up the clock…


That wasn't always true historically, however.  The Norsemen and Anglo-Saxons rarely used rhyme to connect lines or important words in a poem.  Instead of repeating sounds at the end of a word, they repeated sounds at the beginning (or at least, the first accented syllable of a word).  This kind of repetition is called alliteration.  Here is an example of alliteration in an authentic Norse poem:[1]


Silence I ask of the sacred folk,

Silence of the kith and kin of Heimdal:

At your will, Valfather, I shall well relate

The old songs of men I remember best.


The rules for alliteration in Norse poetry aren't as obvious as you might think:


1.   Most words that begin with the same letter do alliterate, but what counts is the pronunciation--the sound of the word, not its spelling.  (The Germanic peoples composed poetry to be heard, not read!)  "Sun" and "shine" both begin with the letter S, but the first sound in each one is different; they would not count as alliterating words.  "Sure" and "shine" do alliterate, because they begin with the same sound.


2.   Alliteration in Norse poetry always falls on a stressed syllable--the one which gets most emphasis when saying a word out loud.  In the verse I quoted above, "men" and "remember" begin with different letters; but they still count as alliterating because the "-mem-" of "remember" is a stressed syllable.  On the other hand, "remember" would not have matched "relate" if the two had been used in the same line.

3.   Vowels are treated as "wild card" sounds:  any vowel counts as alliterating with another vowel, even if the two are different.  (In fact, the Norsemen actually thought that using different vowels in "alliterating" lines was artistically better.)  Here are more examples from the poem I quoted above, showing this "wild card" rule:


Arm rings and necklaces, Odhinn [,] you gave me
To learn my lore, to learn my magic:…
Odhinn, I know where your eye is concealed,
Hidden away in the well of Mimir….


It's obvious that "arm", "eye" and "Odhinn" don't begin with exactly the same sound; but Norse poetic rules consider them a match anyway.


4.   The combinations sk-, sp-, and st- are considered sounds in their own right:  they can't alliterate with a plain S, or with S plus some other consonant.  "Skin" alliterates with "scream", "speak" with "spell", "stand" with "strong" under Norse rules.  None of those words would match "sun" or "swear", however…and alliterating "speak" with "stand" would be technically wrong as well.


Lesson 2:         Introduction to Poetic Meters



The Norsemen had literally hundreds of poetic styles, judging by Snorri Sturluson's descriptions in the Prose Edda:  he actually wrote that book as a style manual, explaining both the verse forms and the myths commonly mentioned in conventional Norse poetry.


Imitating some of the older styles in modern English would require a huge vocabulary, a strong sense of rhythm and sound, and a thorough understanding of Norse culture.  Most Heathens today, however, just want to compose simple ritual poetry in a style that the Germanic peoples would recognize if they heard it.  For that they need to learn only the most common meters--the ones used for the better-known mythological poetry in the Eddas.


Lesson Three deals with the most common and simplest poetic style used by the Norsemen:  fornyršislag or "Old Lore Meter."  If there is a specific Norse/Germanic poetic form (or a technical aspect of composing in that style) that you would like to see me cover in a future article, please let me know.

Lesson 3:  Fornyršislag ("Old Lore Meter")


For people who are familiar with older Germanic literature at all, fornyršislag is THE style they think of when they think of the Eddas and Norse poetry.  The verses I quoted from "The Song of the Sibyl" above are a perfect example of this meter:


Silence I ask of the sacred folk,

Silence of the kith and kin of Heimdal:

At your will, Valfather, I shall well relate

The old songs of men I remember best.


To be technically correct, a verse in this style must follow these rules:


1.   Each stanza must have four lines.


2.   Each line must have four stressed syllables; the number of unstressed syllables varies freely.


3.   Each line must contain at least two alliterating syllables, although it is acceptable to have three. Using the same initial sound more than three times, however, was considered a serious flaw in Norse poetry:  the technical name for that mistake was ofstušling, or "over-support" of the repeated sound.


4.   The fourth stressed syllable may never alliterate with any of the other three.

Here is my own sample poem written in fornyršislag, with the stresses and alliterations marked so that you can see how it works.

On wind-borne wings, my way I made

to hail the gods with gathered folk:

Kveldulf, my kinsman, the keeper of Troth-lore,

at blessčd Yuletide bid me come.


The friend of Odin awed me then:

sheer wonder stole away my speech.

Three nights I stayed with that stave-wise man;

well he knew how to help his guests.


High the hallowed horn we raised;

bright the boar's head blazed, that sent

oaths to the Ęsir--the awesome gods;

I seldom have seen a sight more wondrous.



[1] Völuspį (The Song of the Sybil), stanza 1; from the Poetic Edda, translated by W.H. Auden and P.B. Taylor.


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