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In literature, a kenning is a compound poetic phrase substituted for the usual name of a person or thing. For example the sea in Old English could be called seġl-rād 'sail-road', swan-rād 'swan-road', bćţ-weġ 'bath-way' or hwćl-weġ 'whale-way'. In line 10 of the epic Beowulf the sea is called the hronrāde or 'whale-road'.
The word is derived from the Old Norse phrase kenna eitt viđ, "to express a thing in terms of another", and is prevalent throughout Norse, Anglo-Saxon literature and Celtic literature. Kennings are especially associated with the practice of alliterative verse, where they tend to become traditional fixed formulas.
A good knowledge of mythology was necessary in order to understand the kennings, which is one of the reasons why Snorri Sturluson composed the Younger Edda as a work of reference for aspiring poets. Here is an example of how important this knowledge was. It was composed by the Norwegian skald Eyvind Finnson (d. ca 990), and he compares the greed of king Harald Grĺfell to the generosity of his predecessor Haakon the Good:
Translation in prose: Ullr, the onion of war! We carried the seeds of the Fyrisvellir on the mountains of the hawks during all of Hakon's life; now the enemy of the people has hidden the flour of Fródi's hapless slaves in the flesh of the mother of the enemy of the giantesses.
Onion of war is a kenning for "sword" and names for gods were often used as base word in kennings for men and women. Ullr, the onion of war means "warrior" and refers to king Harald. The seeds of the Fyrisvellir means "gold" and refers to Hrólf Kraki's saga and it was the stolen gold that Hrólf's men spread on the wolds (vellir) south of Gamla Uppsala fleeing the Swedish king Adils in order to make the king's men dismount and collect the gold. The mountains of the hawks is based to the knowledge that royalty often had tame falcons and hawks that they carried on their arms, and means "arms". In the second part the flour of Fródi's hapless slaves means "gold" and in order to understand the kenning, we need to know Grottisöng and the legend of the Danish king Fródi. In Sweden, he bought the giantesses Fenja and Menja whom he had grind a mill that produced gold as if it were flour. The two giantesses were hapless because Fródi never let them rest and in revenge they finally produced bad luck and war until the mill broke down and Fródi's hall burnt. The flesh of the mother of the enemy of the giantesses refers to the Earth (Jörd), as she was the mother of Thor, the enemy of the Jotuns.
A notable peculiarity of kennings is the possibility of constructing complicated kenning strings by means of consecutive substitution. For example, those who are keen in kenning readily know that slaughter dew worm dance is battle, since slaughter dew is blood, blood worm is sword, and sword dance is battle.
Another kind of wordplay is based on the inversion of kennings. For example, if sword dance is battle and spear-din is another kenning for battle, then sword may easily become "spear-din dancer".
The root "ken" is still used in Scandinavian (känna) and in German (kennen) whereas its English use is restricted to Scots and the North of England. In northern Britain it is used in describing what a person knows about something or what they see, especially when seafaring. For instance, if somebody queries the happenings of the North Sea, of a lighthouse resident, the watcher would say they are kenning this or that - "D'ye ken what a kenning is?". The root was applied to the "k" rune, pronounced similarly.
Despite the archaic connotations of the term, many kennings exist in the modern lexis: