Kenning: Poems & Examples

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

If you've ever used the term, 'gas-guzzler,' then you've employed a kenning in your speech, even if you didn't know it at the time. Come learn more about this complex metaphor and see it used to compose some riddling poetry.

Name-Changer: Kenning Defined

Have you ever heard someone with a desk job referred to as a 'pencil-pusher?' Or maybe you've been called a 'tree-hugger' for your environmental work? These alternate terms for a clerical worker and an environmentalist are both examples of kennings. A kenning is a concise metaphorical representation of one person, place, or thing through its associations with another. It is usually found as a two-word combination.

Modern kennings typically use a combination of two nouns, i.e., 'tree' and 'hugger' or 'cancer' and 'stick' (for 'cigarette') to identify a person, place, thing, or idea. Kennings like these very closely resemble their ancestors in Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic poetry from the 9th to 13th centuries. The earliest kennings often combined two nouns, i.e., 'whale-road' for 'sea,' to stand in for another. This practice comes from the Old Norse phrase kenna eitt við ('to express one thing in terms of another') from which the kenning takes its name.

Kenning Poems

When the Norse and other peoples of the North Atlantic created kennings, they often employed literary devices like alliteration (repeating consonant sounds, i.e., 'gas-guzzler'), assonance (repeating vowel sounds, i.e., 'elf-ender'), and rhyme (i.e., 'sky-rider'). This made them extremely useful for inserting in larger poetic works to provide colorful and artistic representations of everyday things (i.e., 'helmet-bearer' for warrior). Many of them were also rather complex in their associations. Take for instance, the name Beowulf, which literally means 'bee-wolf.' This legendary hero's name is a kenning for 'bear,' since bears are known to be voracious predators (i.e., 'wolves') of the honey produced by bees. This creates an even deeper association, then, between the hero and a bear's typical ferocity and strength.

As kennings became more complicated, they were integrated into a rich tradition of telling riddles. Kenning poems were riddles crafted from complex metaphorical representations. This was usually accomplished either by simply filling a poem with kennings or by using words and associations to describe something that could easily be combined into a kenning to identify it. Most modern kenning poems are of the former variety, quite often containing only a series of kennings meant to express a certain subject. Others - particularly the more traditional ones - frequently interweave various associations into complete thoughts (rather than a list of two-word descriptors). Take a look below and you'll get to see both sorts of kenning poem in action.

Examples of Kenning Poems

A Moth Devoured Words

This early example of a kenning poem is from the Exeter Book, a collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry from around the 10th and 11th centuries. Notice how, although the kenning poem's first line has already revealed its subject (a moth), it is still full of possible kennings to identify it: 'word-devourer,' 'song-feaster,' grandiloquence-gorger,' or 'rhetoric-riddler' (note the alliteration).

'A moth devoured words!

When I heard about this absurd theft,

I thought it passing strange

that an insect can feast on a man's finest song,

gorge on his grandiloquence,

riddle his most righteous rhetoric.

But then I realized: the wee bookworm

left not one whit the wiser!'

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