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 most prevalent metre of skaldic poetry is dróttkvætt. The subject is usually historical and eulogic, detailing the deeds of the skald's king.
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
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
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
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 (called a skald), 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.
Skaldic poetry was written 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, where each pair of lines is an original single long line which is conventionally written as two lines.
Forms of skaldic poetry
Forms of skaldic poetry are:
- Drápa, a long series of stanzas (usually dróttkvætt), with a refrain (stef) at intervals.
- Flokkr or dræplingr, a shorter series of such stanzas without refrain.
- Lausavísur, 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 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.
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.
Some other were composed as circumstance pieces, such as those by Egill Skallagrímsson
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