Heortling Skaldic Poetry
Hail Drogarsi! First of Poets, Kenning Keeper, Storm Skald, Word-Wright, Victory Voice…
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Mead Hall Skalds, Wind Weavers & Cattle Boasters
Poetry is the gift of Orlanth, his weapon, wit and wonder, a strength in battle and a delight in rest!
Heortling poetry – Orlanthi poetry – is performance poetry—glorious, chanted, simple, passionate mead hall poetry.
Poetry has always been associated with heroic and epic storytelling, and poetry—oral, skaldic, mead hall verse—is an important part of Heortling culture. The Gloranthan community has its share of mead hall poets, storytellers and skalds, and a suitably twisted poetic phrase can add a lot to the atmosphere of our in-game boasting, description and storytelling.
The following paragraphs explore the techniques of Heortling poetry, with an emphasis on simplicity and in-game, in-character use. I begin by describing the basic forms of Heortling verse, kennings, and then specific forms such as triads and cattle boasts.
From ‘KallyrKarla: The Song of the Betrayed’
There was many corpse cold on blood-blackened ground;
From warriors ravens grew red
And the Kheldon Queen called clans to vengeance,
Hurricane Rebels! – I sing to their valour.
From tulas harsh-stripped
streamed the strong called to battle,
Spears each held ready, shield-clash they sought.
Fyrd-fierce and fearless, from hearth called and harstings
Fashioned they feasting for Humakt’s dark-swans.
My kinsmen, my comrades, they budged not in battle
Brought courage to combat, feat-strong and fierce.
Like berries in harvest, bright red their bounty
they made shame of armies, caused red moon to flee.
Until I am old and ailing,
waiting for the final journey,
I shall not be true to the winds
if I do not praise Kallyr.
The dominant form of Heortling poetry uses alliteration and internal stress over strict rhyme, is typically divided into half lines through use of a ceasura, and makes strong use of kenning as its dominant form of description and metaphor. Confused by the terminology? Please read on! It’s easier than you think…
Alliteration & Internal Stress
Heortling poetry, like Old English and Norse poetry, is rich in alliteration – the repetition of initial sounds in stressed syllables. Heortling poetry does not generally rhyme the way many modern English poems do. Instead of rhyming, Heortling poetry alliterates.
Hail-born Harmast hacked and hewed a hairy horde of heroes!
Stand strong on dark earth ||| see in the sunrise
Web weaving windward ||| wyrd writhing round.
As a result of the primacy of alliteration, the dominant, Drogarsi forms of Heortling poetry are more likely to use internal stress rather than strict rhyme.
The skalds also make use of a caesura, or pause mid line, where traditionally a harp is strummed, a slow hand claps are sounded or spears are thumped on the earth. (The technical term comes from the Latin for ‘cut off’). It can also be the point where the chanters swap over, trading phrase for phrase.
In the following examples, caesura are marked by a ||| symbol. (And why not: Harmony is Donander’s Rune after all!)
Argrath, Iron-quester ||| first among heroes,
Slew with the sword edge ||| the spear point the spell.
Vanquished the Red Ones ||| brake we their shield-wall,
Hacked through the lindenwood ||| hewed through the shield.
– From The Ten Sorrows of Alda Chur.
Hindina, Snow Leaper ||| Vinga’s Proud Daughter
Patience and wisdom ||| Tongue sharp as spear!
Hindina, Spear Leaper ||| Keen-eyed avenger
Knows soft words of peace ||| and the harsh howl of war!
– From the Cattle Boast (and character description) of Hindina the Snowleaper.
You now know enough to write your own skaldic verse!
My own approach to Heortling poetry has been to try and keep it related to game use; to provide narrators and players with a few tricks and examples to spice up their storytelling, and to use it as a source of colour and background in stories. While the skalds of Drogarsi have intricate, highly developed, formal poetic forms, it is also true that every warrior and host must be able to perform their own cattle boast or entertain others with tales of daring deeds at a feast. Folk of all ages compose triads to pass on news or rumours, and children learn their first cattle boasts at their mother’s knee. So few simple poetic tricks can go a long way.
Following this ‘bottom-up’ approach, I personally try to keep the forms as open as possible rather than imposing particular structures or metres. There are many other types of poem in addition to the dominant Drogarsi style outlined above!
Storm Tribe lists some of Sartar’s favourite stories, and suggests that some at least are sung by two tellers swapping line for line, Kalevala fashion.
There are exceptions to all of these rules, so find what works for you and use it. There have obviously been changes to poetic style over time; the most common ritual forms (which are most likely to be the earliest) subscribe to different rules:
Sweet Green Woman, look at me! I am come, the Conqueror!
In addition to the alliterative Drogarsi forms, I personally like to use Kalevala metres, with the content of a line repeated (‘parallelism’) and a strong metrical beat:
Now I name the marks of heroes
Now I sing these signs of greatness,
By their ways our clan is honoured
By these traits are heroes known!
Reckless raiders of fair cattle
Bold herd-takers strong and daring,
Gifters generous in granting
Bind the clan with lavish bounty.
From – The Path of the Hero, quoted in part in Thunder Rebels.
If you would like to learn more about the technical aspects of metre, stress and alliteration in Old English poetry (which is our dominant analogue for Heortling Drogarsi poetry), then jump to Building Blocks of Old English Poetry.
Hold On, What’s A Kenning?
Kennings are one of several poetic devices used by Heortling skalds and storytellers. Deriving from Norse and Anglo-Saxon poetry, a kenning is a riddling reference to one item or concept which does not name it directly, but rather suggests it by the elliptical way in which the subject is spoken of. It is part literature, part entertainment, part game, and part code that cannot be broken by outsiders. Simple kennings are a mainstay of Heortling poetry, more complex ones are riddle games in themselves.
Some examples of simple kennings…
“high tongue of hilts” or “hilt-wand of Hu” is a sword
“mouse chaser” or “day sleeper” is a stead alynx
“purse snow” or “air-bone” is silver
“mead maker” or “Minlister’s fly” is a bee
“forest of the skull” is hair
“floor of storm hall” is the earth
“Elmal’s Road” is the middle air
Kennings are often used for the gods: it can be impolite or dangerous to
call a god by name! When naming the gods, mythological references to their
deeds and attributes are common.
For example, Orlanth is the Wind Lord, the Great Mover and the Breath of the
World – all fairly straightforward and not necessarily ‘poetic’, but, more
playfully (and obliquely) he is also the Bath-Survivor, the Last Son of the
Mountain, and the Horn-Blower – titles only meaningful to those who know
And of course, once you start combining simple kennings to form more complex
allusions, the fun really starts.
Who is “Umath-heir Orl’s son, tempted-by-grapes”?
What is the “broad-leaf balm that dams the carrion-brook of Humakt’s swans”?
Well carrion-brook is blood, Humakt’s swans are ravens, and broad-leaf balm
is a healing plant. So the full answer… see below.
And you get extra marks for alliteration!
I have compiled a list of Heortling kennings and similar poetic devices such as titles and epithets, available below in both Excel and tab-delineated text formats. The list also includes contributions from Otto Leppa and Gregor Scott. It represents a beginning rather than anything definitive, but I hope it may prove useful. It presently contains some 2,200 separate entries representing approximately 3,500 kennings. The list began life as a scholarly listing of Viking kennings (hence the pedantic tone in some entries – like the nineteen different bird names for a raven), but I have deleted some 80% of the originals, ‘translated’ many of the rest into Heortling cultural terms, and added thousands more from our prime Gloranthan sources (Thunder Rebels, Storm Tribe, Anaxial’s Roster, King Of Sartar), Viking sources (Skaldskaparmal) and my own twisted imagination. The categories covered include Animals, The Body, Characteristics, Concepts, Deities, Heroes, Landscape, Metals, Objects, Places, Seasons, War, and Weapons.
Download The Kenning Master List
- Kenning Master List in Microsoft Excel format (292 K).
How To Use The Kenning Lists
- If you’re playing or narrating a Gloranthan campaign, I suggest you choose a dozen or so terms you like, and use them in play. Incorporate them into your description and storytelling. Start using simple kenning games to add to game colour. Use more terms as you become more familiar with their use.
- If you’re a storyteller or a mead hall poet, share some of your own complex kennings. Experiment with some simple verses. Challenge and entertain us!
Complex Kenning Answers
2. A healing poultice that stops bleeding.
From ‘The Raven Speaks’
‘Tween red sky-wall and lake of rain and Mother of all Peaks,
The clans cringe low before the tainted prince.
The heirs of the Ridgewalker and those of Terasin
swear oaths before the altar.
The Righteous Wind calls combat!
In Alda Chur and Herongreen,
fighting shakes the ancient walls.
A wind-rushing hurricane
fyrd cry of vengeance.
Hero bands stream forth, champion seeking champion.
Hear the voice of the Raven.
‘These are the seasons of thunder.
Slaughter of enemiesarmies ravaging in packs
affliction and outcry and war!’
The cloaked one’s hero heat shakes wide the city wall.
With feat and spear and magic bolt the final rite begins.
War-band’s white bull, a dragon in strife,
Feeds he most fulsome the dogs of the Death-Lord.
The Righteous Wind returns to range free!
Open your arms, let it hurl against your faces,
hair and eyes streaming. You have breath,
voice, limb and power.
Hurricane rebels, do what you must.
Heortling triads are short poems, at their most simple, lists of three. Short and easily remembered, in a few lines they encapsulate beauty, wonder, poetry, magic… and even the occasional hard fact. For the majority of Heortlings who are not trained as skalds, they are a way of remembering and passing on law, history, myth, folk wisdom and rules for proper conduct. They comprise a common medium for self-boasting and spreading your reputation, and are also one of the most common methods of passing on news, opinion, and rumour. A good deal of cult lore is also retained and taught as triads.
Lists? What Do You Mean, Lists? Lists Aren’t Poetry!
Some examples of Heortling Triads:
Three things not easy to check: the stream of a cataract, an arrow from a bow, and the deeds of a vengeful man.
Three kings of Dragon Pass: Sartar the Founder, Tarkalor Trollkiller, and the hidden hero-son who rides the Freedom Wind.
Three Winds of future seasons: the Freedom Wind, The Righteous Wind, the Hurricane Rebellion.
(Prophecy and hope).
An example of the cultic use of Triads:
Three battles the elements to master; Duro, Kara, Vanda – to win, to draw, to lose.
(A Daylanus mystery – see Storm Tribe page 10).
Sometimes triads come in short groups that stress oppositions:
Three good visitors: the mother of cows, the mother of grain, the father of sheep. Three bad visitors: the daughter of Malia, the daughter of seven, the son of winter. Three uncertain visitors: rain, wind, a mercenary band.
There’s a particularly Sartarite form that names a god, a hero and a local in that order:
In Sartar’s land three great ploughmen; Barntar, who ploughed the bed of the retreating sea; Kargrin, who ploughed Blue Mountain with the winged bull of brass; and little Braggi Bent-Bow, who ploughed the lettuce patch with a bent stick for a cup of mead.
Three weapons are known to all, first is Humakt the final end, second comes Vingot’s spear, bright in darkness, third comes Braggi’s brown bent bow that Nalda Mudshins liked.
(This example by Bo Rosen.)
It’s considered good form to put something unexpected, ironic or humorous as the third term:
Three fine things for a chief: the staff of Andrin, the peace of Ernalda, the bronze of kinsfolk.
And occasionally, they join in more complex groupings:
Praise not the day till evening has come; a woman till buried, a man till burned. Praise not a horse till broken; a sword till bloodied; a youth till married. Praise not a life till death has judged it. Thereafter, nothing can change the song of our valiant dead.
In our own world triads are a Celtic verse form, and the Welsh and Irish triads contain a large number of verses that simply list things – the biggest, the best, the bravest, the three cities, the three mountains, the three greatest heroes and what they did, the three greatest lovers and their exploits, kings, horses, traitors, raiders, battles, wonders, horrors, cattle magics, winds… you name it, its there. I am sure the Heortlings create and share exactly the same sorts of lists.
Go on, make up a triad! It might be personal (three things I’ve fought, three steads I’ve raided, three boasts of my becoming…), clan level (the three great deeds of the founder, the three wonders of the tula, the three greatest cattle raids of your memory), tribal level (three heroes of the Quivini, three great lovers of the Kheldon, three Far Walker chiefs who avoided kinstrife (difficult that!), three tribal heroes the Lunars cannot catch…) or national (three kings of Dragon Pass, three miracles of Sartar, three battles where kings died, three unlikely heroes, three greatest lovers, thieves, raiders, warriors, berserkers, weavers, rug-throwers, peace-makers etc. of the Kingdom). King of Sartar is an excellent source for ideas, and you’ll each have your own areas of expertise. Don’t be afraid to make names up, just add a single sentence reason/explanation for their deeds. And e sure to post me a copy to add to this page!
And if some triads disagree, all the better! Over time I’m sure triads will get combined until a broad consensus emerges, just as it happens in Sartar.
Although triads vary from tribe to tribe, there are some standard forms…
Three things in Kerofin I name…
In Sartar’s land three great [subjects]…
Two things I name, three things I proclaim…
Great Lovers of the Land of Sartar
By way of example, here are some triads I’ve composed on the theme of great lovers of the land of Sartar:
Three great lovers in the Land of Kero Finn: Elmal and Redalda, from whose love was forged the foreigner’s wedding; Jenest and Oranda, heroes whose pact made peace between two warring tribes; young Braggi Bent-Bow and Nalda Mudshins, whose bed was bought with three poddy calves.
This is humorous, and would be passed from person to person as a way of announcing the betrothal of Braggi and Nalda, a local stickpicker and his mash-tub bride. (I’m beginning to wonder if Braggi Bent-Bow and Nalda Mudshins aren’t Everyman figures who pop up all the time). It follows the form of naming god-hero-local. I usually mock stuffy Elmal, but here I acknowledge his place as a true romantic. And I’ve made a case for two famous lovers, Jenest and Oranda.
In Sartar’s land, three lovers grand; Jenest the Patient and Oranda the Faithful, whose bed was a battlefield and whose bride-price was peace between two tribes; Prince Jarosar, who ransomed his kingdom for the love of Yaransoar; Hogarth and Harlii, whose life was long, whose breath was one and who died the same death by the love of Orlanth and Ernalda.
Here I’m offering three great pairs of lovers; Jenest and Oranda again, who had to bring peace between the Kheldon and Culbrea before they could wed; Jorasor, Prince of Sartar, who endured some (previously unrecorded) trial to marry Yaransoar; and Hogarth and Harlii, who lost everything but each other and yet were perfectly content. Jorasor and Yaransoar are historical figures, the rest I’ve created. I hope to return to Jenest and Oranda in particular to tell their story and justify their status as the lovers par-excellence of Sartar legend. Because Heortling folk-heroes are as yet largely unexplored, there are few barriers to wholesale creativity and invention. By writing and posting a few triads you may in effect create Sartar’s equivalent of Romeo and Juliet, MacBeth, or Hamlet. In the meantime, I’d be delighted to hear other stories and triads of great Sartarite lovers, and of other triads. ‘So warrior, who are the great lovers of your tribe?’
Balmyr Love Triads
In response to my challenge, Otto Leppa (who writes in English as his second language!) created an entire love story composed entirely in triads.
Balmyr tribe knows three great romances: Old Balmyr and sweet Elea, who loved each other passionately; Ivarth Sweaty and Tarkala Trothful, who never were to consummate their love; and Horthgar Wordwright, who was loved by every woman of the tribe.
Old Balmyr loved three things in sweet Elea: her youthful innocence, astonishing beauty and that she would make every man in Quiviniland jealous.
Thrice did they renew their vows: after the first year was over and their passion tested, after Elea had shamed him with Hrothgar, and in the funeral pyre of Balmyr.
In three ways was this love of unique kind: no night went in the King’s hall without Elea’s moaning, no other thing restrained violent Balmyr from raiding endlessly but passion for his wife, and never have people lamented so deeply but in the final farewell of these lovers in the pyre of Balmyr.
Ivarth Sweaty met Tarkala three times before they were in love: the first time he was irritated by her stubbornness, the second time she got angry at his rudeness, and the third time they almost killed each other but fell hopelessly in love.
Three things kept them apart forever: They were of Hervald’s and Haloric’s blood and therefore of feuding lines, she had been married and Ivarth had killed her husband – but the most important thing that kept them apart was that they both were afraid of the great daimon that Uleria bestowed upon them.
Thrice did people try to get them married: First it was Hengall Wise, who took the blame of the killing of Tarkalor’s husband, then her father Hemrid Hiordsson tried to persuade them as he saw their longing for each other, and finally in many poems written after them where they are united more often than not.
Hrothgar Wordwright was loved for three things: his excellence with passionate words, his charisma that left no-one cold, and his indifference of marrying anyone.
Three times he felled in love instead of being the object of someone’s love: when he sang to Sorang’s beautiful daughters, in the wedding of Balmyr the Brave and sweet Elea, and when he received the Fourth Song from Drogarsi to spread amongst the people.
Three things were immortalised of his harp and heart: The passion of Balmyr and Elea, origins of the great feud that made the life of Ivarth and Tarkala dismal, and his own self even though he never started a song to sing of himself.
A Company of Skalds
Triads by Bo Rosen
Three good sons is a father’s need, one helps his mother in the stead, one helps his father in the field, one helps the Dar in times of need.
(This refers to the different ages of a man. First as a toddler, then as young boy, then as a young man – probably recited when a teenager wants to hang with his mates instead of mending the fence.)
Three good things when a stranger is met: a proper greeting to tell who you are, a generous table to show who you are, a listening ear to judge who he is.
Three great mothers in the Land of Sartar: Loam-bosomed valley, mother of barley, ripening gold; Snow-capped peak, mother of winds, glistening cold; High-perched roost, mother of tribes, home of the bold.
Triads by Tim Ellis
Three things a Heortling woman looks for in a husband: as strong as Vogarth, as loyal as Elmal, and as sensual as Niskis.
Three things a Heortling woman ends up with in a husband: as wise as Vogarth, as loyal as Niskis and as sober as Minlister.
Three things a Heortling woman looks forward to; The first flower of spring, her husband’s safe return from a raid, a visit from Niskis while her husband is away.
A Triad by Mike Dawson
Three things unwise to have: A dragonewt friend, An Uroxi lawspeaker, a Humakti cook.
Triads by Keith Nellist
Some slightly tongue-in-cheek Hero Wars triads:
Three ways to measure moolah, through a rating of Wealth, by the number of cows, by the generosity of the chief.
Three lists of things Gloranthan; the Hero Wars where things are begun, the Rules where extended contests take place, and the Digest to which all things are taken.
Three types of Heortling; those who can count cows, and poets.
To overcome the two ram style, use the fiendish monster forehead, an impossible ox pounce or a laughing ghost jab.
(Uh Keith… )
Guy Hoyle’s First Triad…
Three helpful horns are welcome in our halls: Rigsdal’s, full of warning; Uralda’s, full of milk and meat; Minlister’s, full of mead.
Triads by Bryan Thexton
Three great mountains define Sartar: The towering peak of Kero Finn, mother of all of us; The broad peaks of Quivin, supporter of all of us; The growing lunar tribute pile, taxer of all us.
Three signs your son will never bring more sons to your hearth: To strong the pull of Humakt, too great the strife of brothers, too loud the call of freedom.
Three things not to trust: A trickster with no black, ice with no white, a lunar with no silver.
(Black refering to bruises, suggesting that a trickster who hasn’t been beaten lately is apt to be trouble).
Three kings have shown us a new way: Colymar who brought us together as a tribe, Sartar who brought us into a kingdom, and Blackmor who would bring us into an empire.
(Refering to King Kangharl “Blackmor” Kagradusson only by his cognomen suggests that the speaker is not amongst his supporters, the expectation that the third item of the triad is in some way the opposite of the first two gives all else that is needed to say what the speaker thinks of his king).
A Triad from Nils Weinander
Three great kings of the Storm Tribe: Orlanth, father of all Vingkot, champion of all Heort, rebuilder of all.
More Triads from Your Mead Host
Three wealths of the Bull: beer, brawling, and pain without ceasing.
Two things of beauty I name, three things that bring great joy: smoke from an altar, the flash of iron, the company of the mead horn.
Three fools for the feast: a trickster, a juggler, a mead-mouthed warrior.
Three famines at a feast: an empty plate, a dry cask, a man with no story to tell.
(As much a warning against empty tales as silence).
A feast of feasts, great joy in my telling: Orlanth your Host, Minlister your barrel man, and Roitina dancing free!
Three joys in the tasting: Colymar wine, Lismelder beer, and the sweet river water where freedom dwells.
(A subtle allusion to the banned freedom ballad Cold Wind Over Sartar, with its mournful chorus, ‘only our rivers run free’).
Three smiles that bring no joy: the smile of a raider, the smile of an uroxi in his cups, the smile of an alynx ready to leap.
Three wealths of the fortunate; a wealth of kin, a wealth of cattle, a wealth of gods.
Three wealths of the well-armed: the wealth of neighbours, the wealth of enemies, the wealth of monsters.
Three wealths of the Sword: honour, blood, and loneliness.
Three wealths of the Storm Tribe: Generosity, Courage, and Change. Three wealths of the Earth Tribe: Wisdom, Plenty, and Power. Three wealths of the joined tribes: Generosity in Wisdom, Courage in Plenty, Power in Change.
Three taboos for a chief: a feast hall lacking ale, a weaponthane lacking torcs, a fyrd lacking a champion.
Three harsh things at the hearth: burnt stew, a scolding hearthmistress, a sullen steadmaid.
(A steadmaiden is a minor air daimon responsible for clearing smoke – a sullen steadmaid means a smoky hearth!)
Triads by Chris Lemens
Three northern lights, dimmed be they:
the Evil Emperor, Orlanth cut;
the Damned Deceiver, Arkat ate;
the Bloody Seducer.
(The failure of the final parallel leaves the Heortling
listener in a state of expectation. Note also that
“dimmed” in the first line and “damned” in the third
are often pronounced similarly, even when that is
contrary to the local dialect.)
Three fire breathers to avoid:
the Youfic Dragon, best left dead;
The Vent Volcano, sleep in peace;
Garlic-Mouth Barth, hold your breath!
One meeting of fame;
Two things I name;
Three things I proclaim:
Death, who meets all;
Taxmen, who try;
Dead taxmen, a fine meeting.
Three bad things at the moot:
Warriors full of drink;
Lawspeakers full of lies;
Chiefs full of shit.
Three good things at the beginning of a feast:
A full mug;
A full purse;
A full heart.
Three good things at the end of a feast:
An empty mug;
An empty purse;
A full stomach.
Three challenges of the cattle raid:
Passing unseen by the guards;
Taking unheard by the stead;
Returning unforgiven by the wife.
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