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The skald was a member of a group of poets, whose courtly poetry (Icelandic: dróttkvæði) is associated with the courts of Scandinavian and Icelandic leaders during the Viking age, who composed and performed renditions of aspects of what we now characterise as Old Norse poetry (the complementary aspect being the anonymous Eddaic poetry).
The technical demands of the skaldic form were equal to the complicated verse forms mastered by the Welsh bards and Irish ollaves, and like those poets, much of the skaldic verse consisted of panegyrics to kings and aristocrats, or memorials and testimonials to their battles. The kings and nobles, for their part, were not only intelligent and appreciative audiences for gifted skalds; some of them were poets in their own right.
The West Germanic counterpart of the skald is the scop. Not unlike the scop, which is related to Modern English scoff, the name skald is continued in English scold, reflecting the central position of mocking taunts in Germanic poetry. The word is perhaps ultimately related to Proto-Germanic *skalliz "sound, voice, shout" (OHG skal "sound"). OHG has skalsang "song of praise, psalm". skellan means "ring, clang, resound". The OHG variant stem skeltan etymologically identical to the skald- stem (Proto-Germanic *skeldan) means "to scold, blame, accuse, insult". The person doing the insulting is a skelto or skeltāri.
We can trace skaldic poetry to the earlier 9th century with Bragi Boddason and his Ragnarsdrápa, the oldest surviving Norse poem besides the poem preserved epigraphically on the Eggjum stone. Þorbjörn Hornklofi's Glymdrápa of the late 9th century is the oldest surviving poem in the dróttkvætt metre, and the Karlevi Runestone from the late 10th century has the oldest surviving text in the metre. From the 10th century, the poems begin to syncretize pagan and Christian elements. In the 11th century, the professional skald is extinct in continental Scandinavia with the progressing Christianisation of Scandinavia, but survives in Iceland into the 13th century. As the profession was threatened with extinction in Iceland as well, Snorri Sturluson compiled the Prose Edda as a manual with the aim to preserve an appreciative understanding of their art. Snorri's Heimskringla also preserves many poems.
Most Nordic verse of the Viking time came in one of two forms: eddic or skaldic. Eddic verse was usually simple, in terms of content, style and metre, dealing largely with mythological or heroic content. Skaldic verse, conversely, was complex, and usually composed as a tribute or homage to a particular Jarl or king. Performance of skaldic poetry was spoken, not sung or chanted.
Unlike many other literary forms of the time, much skaldic poetry is attributable to an author, and these attributions may be relied on with a reasonable degree of confidence. Many skalds were men of influence and power, and were thus biographically noted. The meter is ornate, usually dróttkvætt or a variation thereof. The syntax is complex, with sentences commonly interwoven, with kennings and heiti are used frequently and gratuitously.
Forms of skaldic poetry
One prominent sort of incidental verse found in the sagas is the drápa usually containing a refrain. Lighter skaldic verse was called flokkr. Other incidental skaldic verse found in the sagas and histories includes the lausavísur, which is a single stanza of dróttkvætt said to have been improvised impromptu for the occasion it marks. Skalds also composed satire (níðvísur) and very occasionally, erotic verse (mansöngr).
The skalds wrote their verses in variants and dialects of Old Norse languages. Technically, their verse was usually a form of alliterative verse, and almost always using the dróttkvætt stanza (also known as the Court or Lordly Metre). Dróttkvætt is effectively an eight line form, with a split in the middle of each line.
The verses of the skalds contain a great profusion of kennings, the fixed metaphors found in most northern European poetry of the time. Kennings are devices ready to supply a standard image to form an alliterating half-line to fit the requirements of dróttkvætt; but the substantially greater technical demands of skaldic verse required that these devices be multiplied and compounded in order to meet its demands for skill and wordplay. These images can therefore become somewhat hermetic, at least to those who fail to grasp the allusions that lie at the root of many of them.
Most of the skaldic poetry we have are poems composed to individual kings by their court poets. They typically have historical content, relating battles and other deeds from the king's carrier. Examples:
A few surviving skaldic poems have mythological content.
- Þórsdrápa - A drápa to the god Thor telling the tale of one of his giant-bashing expeditions.
- Haustlöng - Relates two tales from the mythology as painted on a shield given to the poet.
- Ragnarsdrápa - Relates four 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.
To this could be added two poems relating the death of a king and his reception in Valhalla.
- Hákonarmál - The death of king Hákon and his reception in Valhalla.
- Eiríksmál - The death of king Eiríkr and his reception in Valhalla.
And some other were composed as circumstance pieces, such as those by Egill Skallagrímsson
- Sonatorrek - A lament on the death of Egill's sons
- Höfuðlausn - a praise for King Eiríkr Bloodaxe , that saved its author's head
- Arinbjarnarkviða - In praise of the poet's friend Arinbjörn
More than 300 skalds are known from the period between AD 800 and 1200. Notable names include:
- Bragi Boddason "the Old", author of Ragnarsdrápa (possibly the basis for Bragi, the god of poetry)
- Þorbjörn hornklofi
- Þjóðólfr of Hvinir - author of Haustlöng and Ynglingatal
- Einarr Skúlason, author of Geisli
- Eyvindr Finnsson, known also as Eyvindr skáldaspillir, or Eyvindr the Plagiarist, the author of Hákonarmál and Háleygjatal
- Eilífr Goðrúnarson author of Þórsdrápa
- Tindr Hallkelsson one of Hákon Sigurðarson's court poets
- Egill Skallagrímsson author of Sonatorrek, Höfuðlausn and Arinbjarnarkviða
- Einarr Helgason "Skálaglamm", "of the gleaming coins" - author of Vellekla
- Gunnlaugr Illugason nicknamed "Ormstunga", "Worm-tongue", on account of his propensity for satire and invective
- Úlfr Uggason author of the Húsdrápa
- Kormákr Ögmundarson the main character of Kormáks saga
- Hallfreðr Óttarsson court poet of King Óláfr Tryggvason
- Arnórr Þórðarson, "Jarlaskald", the Earls' Skald
- King Haraldr Harðráði
- Sigvatr Þórðarson
- Snorri Sturluson
- Þórarinn loftunga
- Þórir Jökull Steinfinnsson
- Þórvaldr Hjaltason, a skald of king Eric the Victorious
- Óttarr svarti, a skald at the court of king Olof Skötkonung and Olaf the Stout
- Old Norse poetry
- Alliterative verse
- The griots perform similar functions in West African societies.
- Finnur Jónsson, ed. Den norsk-islandske skjaldedigtning. 4 vols. Copenhagen: Villadsen og Christensen, 1912-15. Photographic reprint Copenhagen: Rosenkilde og Bagger, 1967. Still the definitive edition.
- Skaldic Project homepage: home to the edition of skaldic poetry currently under edition (Clunies Ross et al.).
- Skaldic poetry in Old Norse from «Kulturformidlingen norrøne tekster og kvad» Norway.
- Index of Old Norse/Icelandic Skaldic Poetry at the Jörmungrund database
- Sveinbjörn Egilsson and Finnur Jónsson, eds. Lexicon poeticum antiquæ linguæ septentriolanis: ordbog over det norsk-islandske skjaldesprog. 2nd ed. Copenhagen: Det kongelige nordiske oldskriftselskab, 1913-16 Also in partial form at the Jörmungrund database
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