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!'

To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com

Become a Study.com member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about Study.com
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? Study.com has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account
Support