Kennings in Beowulf

Kennings Examples in Beowulf:

I 3

"God-Father..."   (I)

Note that although the Beowulf poet and his audience are Christian, the story the poet tells predates Christianity. Consequently, although the world described in Beowulf is pagan, the poet uses both Christian and pagan imagery throughout the poem, sometimes blending and confusing the two. This contributes to a major theme throughout Beowulf. Additionally, the "God-Father" of Beowulf's time likely refers to Odin, the All-Father, as it has appeared in other translations of this story.

"world-honor..."   (I)

This is known a kenning, or compound two-word phrase, which is commonly used metaphorically in Anglo-Saxon poetry. Kennings play an important role throughout Beowulf as they not only help the audience visualize the poet's imagery but also provide additional metaphorical meaning and context to the world. For example, "world-honor" is a kenning for "fame," which tells us that Scyld is known over great distances and greatly respected.

"mead-benches..."   (I)

These mead-benches came from mead-halls, which were fortresses and gathering places for medieval Norse and Germanic tribes. Members of society gathered there in safety under the king's protection so that they could feast, share stories, and receive gifts. It is also notable that Valhalla and Folkvang, two divine mead-halls from Scandinavian mythology, are the places where dead souls go in the afterlife. The mead-hall is the center of society, making any attack on the hall, therefore, an assault upon the fabric of society itself.

"o'er the ocean..."   (IV)

In some translations, the ocean is referred to literally as the “swan-road.” In Old English poetry, this is known as a kenning—a compound word in place of a single word, in this case, "sea" or "ocean." Another common kenning is "bone-house" instead of "body." Old English poets were expected to use kennings as part of their poetic process.

"word-treasure..."   (V)

Another kenning, to unlock one's “word-treasure” is a very common formulaic phrase in Old English or Anglo-Saxon. It refers to one’s personal vocabulary. Often one unlocks one’s “word-hoard” before delivering a formal, ceremonial speech. In answering the guard's question, the still-unnamed hero of the Geats conforms to such expected conventions to explain his unexpected presence in Hrothgar's territory. In doing so, we not only learn more about the hero's respect for the customs of the land, but we also are able to see how eloquent of a speaker he is.

"The giver of rings..."   (VI)

Good leaders in Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon societies are often described by the kenning givers of rings. This kenning refers to the generosity lords display by distributing wealth to their followers in exchange for loyalty.

"Thou needest not trouble           A head-watch to give me;..."   (VII)

Beowulf’s warning may allude to a still-controversial theory concerning the practices of a head-taking cult in Scandinavia that took warrior's heads as trophies. It was important to guard a fallen warrior's head to prevent it from being removed, stolen, and/or desecrated. In this case, the kenning head-watch can be read as helmet.

"Unferth spoke up, Ecglaf his son,           Who sat at the feet of the lord of the Scyldings,           Opened the jousting..."   (IX)

In the original Old English, the phrase “opened the jousting” translates literally as unlocked his word-hoard or unlocked his battle-speech, which are kennings which indicate to the audience that formal speeches are coming up. Unferth, whose name may be a play on the Old English word unfrith, which means un-peaceful, seems to be the designated challenger of Beowulf among Hrothgar's retainers.

"giver of treasure..."   (X)

The kenning giver-of-treasure was used for kings at the time, similar to another kenning ring-giver. These kennings are easier to understand in the sense that kings, queens, and monarchs had riches to bestow on their champions and people. The poet indicates that Hrothgar is pleased with Beowulf's resolve to help his people. As a result, the atmosphere in the mead-hall turns festive.

"And bade him bide with his battle-equipments...."   (XI)

Beowulf fulfills his promise to battle Grendel without the aid of his “battle-equipments” (another kenning for weapons and armor). Beowulf justifies his choice by declaring that since Grendel doesn't use such equipment, he must fight Grendel on the same conditions. Considering what we later learn of Grendel, Beowulf's decision is viewed as extremely cunning.

"bone-prison..."   (XII)

Another kenning, “bone-prison” simply means one’s body. Hence, Grendel tears and bites into the sleeping soldier’s body, quickly devouring it.

"Open the entrance..."   (XII)

“The entrance” is often translated as house’s mouth, a kenning typical of Old Norse and Old English poetry. Other common kennings are banhus (“bone-house”) for the body and saewudu (“sea-wood”) to describe a ship.

"war-bills..."   (XIII)

The noun “bill” refers to a broadsword or falchion, and when combined with “war,” this kenning then means a weapon of war.

"Afterward Heremod's hero-strength failed him,..."   (XIV)

Heremod (here-mod) in Old English means “warlike-disposition” or “war-mad,” so King Heremod, whose reputation is based on violence and cruelty to his own people, is used in this digression as a negative example and contrast to both Sigemund and Beowulf.