Beowulf: Kennings


3. The action of calling by a name; nomenclature.

b. to a class: A descriptive or connotative name.


1. An adjective indicating some quality or attribute which the speaker or writer regards as characteristic of the person or thing described.

2. A significant appellation.


A word used in a transferred sense.


A figure of speech which consists in substituting for the name of a thing the name of an attribute of it or of something closely related.


6. One of the periphrastic expressions used instead of the simple name of a thing, characteristic of Old Teutonic, and esp. Old Norse, poetry. Examples are oar-steed = ship, storm of swords = battle. The term is adopted from the mediæval Icelandic treatises on poetics, and is derived from the idiomatic use of kenna við or til, "to name after."

(the above definitions are from the Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition, on CD -- version 2.0)

The Wikipedia pages for kennings are at and There is also a good kennings page at

I am unsure as to the distinction between appellation and epithet, although it seems that an epithet might be a particular type of appellation.

At the bottom of this page are several kennings from Beowulf, and how various authors have translated them.

The more I read about the definition of "kenning," the less I understand about precisely what they are. I know that they are some sort of metaphorical appellation (epithet?), with a good dose of metonymy, and that they are often two-word compounds, but beyond that I'm not sure. Read the various excerpts below, and see if you don't feel the same way.

The following is from Edward B. Irving Jr. (1969), page 32:

    An important feature of the vocabulary of Old English poetry was the poetic compound, a traditional form of concentrated metaphor. The most striking form of compound to us is the kenning (a term borrowed for convenience from Old Norse). The following are examples of kennings: hronrad, "wale riding place," or ganotes bæth, "seabird's bath," for the sea; beadoleoma, "battle-light," or hamera laf, "what the (smith's) hammers leave," or guthwine, "war friend," for a sword; woruldcandel, "world-candel," for the sun, and mere-hrægl, "sea-garment," for a ship's sail. Such compounds and phrases formed part of the inherited poetic language of Anglo-Saxon poets. No doubt individual poets invented new ones from time to time, but most of these expressions were as stereotyped as Homer's rosy-fingered dawn. The Beowulf poet differs from other poets of the time only in the relatively large number of compounds he uses and the imaginative way in which he uses them. One might well expect so conventional a style to lack freshness and vitality, but for some reason it does not. The very compression of the kennings and of phrases like them succeeds in charging the verse with a consistently high level of metaphorical energy. Perhaps one might even say that the mosaic of the larger poem is build up out of the many tiny "poems" in the form of these expressions, giving the surface a texture of interesting depth.

And this is from Malcolm Godden & Michael Lapidge (1991), page 65-6:

...Many poetic compounds are not simple descriptive terms but circumlocutory, incorporating a metaphor, as when Hroðgar in line 1012 is called sincgyfan "giver of treasure," a reference to the pervasive image of the comitatus in Old English poetry, that is, a body of men who vow total loyalty to a lord in return for rich gifts. Such descriptive terms, often periphrastic, are known as kennings. Compound words lend themselves to adaptation to different metrical and semantic conditions, since one element of the compound can be replaced by a synonym or a word in a related semantic field. For instance, King Beowulf is called sincgifan in line 2311 but goldgyfan "giver of gold" in line 2652 where the poet needs to alliterate on a different consonant. However, the Beowulf poet also uses the kenning goldwine, literally "gold-friend," of both Kings Hroðgar and Beowulf, because the relationship between lord and retainer was much more complicated than that suggested by the mercenary arrangement of services offered in return for profit. The Wanderer expresses very movingly the desolation of a retainer deprived of the love and protection of his goldwine (lines 34-44). If sincgifa and goldgyfa may be said to be literal descriptions, albeit within the convention of the comitatus, goldwine involves the greater degree of compression found in many kennings.

Often kennings are found as phrases rather than compounds. Hroðgar is called sinces brytta "distributor of treasure" or beaga brytta "distributor of gold rings" to give double alliteration in the first verse of a line. In Judith this formula is developed to great effect: in line 30, the poet used the traditional phrase sinces brytta with references to the villain of the poem, Holofernus, when he was entertaining his troops at a feast (the usual opportunity for the distribution of treasure), but an adaptation of the term is then employed twice by the heroine as she is about to behead her would-be ravisher, first when she refers to Holofernus as morðres brytta "distributor of murder" (line 90) and immediately afterwards when she invokes God as tires brytta "distributor of glory." It was this ability to transfer epithets from heroic concepts to religious ones that encouraged the use of the traditional verse form for Christian purposes. Cædmon's nine-line hymn of Creation, cited by Bede as the first Christian poetry to be composed in English, has a number of examples of compounds and phrases which are developed from heroic vocabulary; for example the kennings used for God, heofonrices weard "guardian of heaven's kingdom" and moncynnes weard "guardian of mankind," may be compared with the Beowulf-poet's description of Hroðgar as beahhorda weard "guardian of hoards of gold-rings" (line 921) or with the commonly used heroic formula for kings, folces hyrde "guardian of the people." The success of poets in adapting traditional forms to serve a variety of Christian purposes, from biblical paraphrase to hymns to the Virgin, testifies to the flexibility of poetic diction and imagery.

The following is from "The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics," edited by Alex Preminger and T.V.F. Brogan, Princeton University, 1993 (ISBN: 0-691-03271-8, LC: PN1021.P75), page 670:

KENNING (pl. kennigar). A multi-noun substitution for a single noun, e.g. "din of spears" for battle. Although found in many poetries, the k. is best known from Old Germanic verse. Ks. are common in West Germanic poetry, and scholars have recognized a k. in the expression of "corpse-sea," i.e. "blood," on the Eggjum runic inscription from Western Norway, ca. 700 A.D. O[ld] N[orse] Eddic poetry also makes use of ks., but their greatest importance was in skaldic poetry.

     In medieval Icelandic rhet., the verb kenna (við), "make known (by)," was used to explain these expressions: "din" (the "base word" in modern analysis) is "made known" as battle by "of spears" (the "determinant"). The determinant may be in the genitive case, as here, or may attach to the base word to form a compound ("spear-din"); the base word takes the morphological and syntactic form of the concept the k. replaces. In skaldic poetry the determinant could in turn be replaced by another determinant; if "flame of battle" means "sword," then "flame of the din of spears" makes an acceptable k. Snorri Sturluson, the 13th-c. poet and man of letters and the first to attempt a rhetoric of ks., called this example tvíkennt ("twice-2determined") in the commentary to Háttatal in his Edda. If another determinant were added, to make a four-part k., he would call it rekit, "driven." Snorri cautioned against "driven" ks. with more than six parts.

     The relationship between the base word and determinant(s) could be essentially metonymic, as in "Baldr's father" for Odin, or metaphoric, as in the examples above. The ks. of West Germanic poetry, frequently used in connection with variation, tend toward the first category, those of skaldic poetry toward the second. Many skaldic ks. rely on Norse mythology or heroic legend for the links between the parts; thus poetry is the "theft of Odin" because he stole it from the giants. In skaldic poetry the number of concepts for which ks. may substitute is limited to about one hundred, among which warrior, woman, weapons, and battle are well represented. Since the base words tend to be fairly stereotyped (ks. for "woman" often have the name of a goddess as base word, for example), the system is relatively closed, but ks. make up nearly all the nouns in skaldic poetry, and the verbs are not important. Having imposed on themselves this closed system, the skalds exploited it brilliantly. In skaldic poetry the sum of the ks. is, to be sure, greater than their parts, but the best skalds made every word count.

     As the following ks. for "sea" from Beowulf show, ks. enabled poets to express various aspects of an underlying noun: ganotes bæd "gannet's bath": a shoreward salt-water area where the sea-fowl fishes, sports and bathes; floda begang "expanse of the floods or currents": emphasizes the vast extent of the oceans, esp. between the lands of the Geats and the Danes; lagustræt "path of the sea": the sea on which men sail their ships from one port to another; windgeard "enclosure or home of the winds": the sea, its storms, a watery expanse marked off from and enclosed by land, to be compared with middan-geard "middle enclosure," the land surrounded by the sea.

This passage is from "Language, Sign, and Gender in Beowulf," by Gillian R. Overing, Southern Illinois University Press, 1990 (ISBN: 0-8093-1563-7, LC: PR1585.O94), page 14 (the discussion of kennings and metonymy goes on for several pages after this passage):

     It seems appropriate to begin a discussion of linguistic building blocks of Old English poetic diction with one of its major characteristic tropes, the kenning. I could find no consensus of definition, however, on this central term, and so will set about definition by default. The kenning does not quite function as a metaphor, which is "the figure of speech in which a name or descriptive term is transferred to some object different from, but analogous to, that to which is it properly applicable" (OED) The idea of transferral of meaning in the definition of a metaphor is at odds with the idea of substitution of meaning in the OED definition of the kenning: "one of the periphrastic expressions used instead of the simple name of a thing."

     C. L. Wrenn further differentiates between the merely descriptive epithet or word compound and the "pure" kenning, which must contain a condensed simile: "Thus, for example, not, strictly, a kenning for 'ship,' but only describes a fact about the ship -- namely that it has a ring-shaped prow or stem. But a true 'kenning' for ship, because it implies a simile comparing the ship to a horse (hengest), moving over the sea as it does over the plain" (81-82). That several scholars subscribe to either "loose" or "strict" definitions based on degree of metaphoricity is apparent in Ann Harlemann Stewart's survey of critical opinions on the matter (115-118).

J. D. A. Ogilvy & Donald C. Baker (1983), page 138-9:

     One kind of epithet, the kenning, is the best known of the formulas. It is a condensed metaphor or simile, for example, "hron-rad" (whale road) for the sea, "sund-wudu" (sea wood) for a ship, "isern-scur" (iron shower) for a flight of arrows, "hildegicelum" (battle icicle) for a sword, and "hædstapa" (heath stepper) for a deer. Other noun epithets verge on the kenning, but many are literal descriptions. All of them share the characteristics of being compounds, and they most frequently occupy an entire half line of verse. They form by far the greater part of the "building-block" material of Old English poetry.

One can scan the glossary of Klaeber's third edition of Beowulf and find the nature of the noun epithet amply illustrated. A good place to begin is under the letter h with the "hilde-" (battle) compounds. We find "hilde-bord" (battle shield), "hilde-cumbor" (battle banner), "hilde-mece" (battle sword), "hilde-ræs" (battle rush), and twenty others. The difference between these straightforward compounds and the kennings is made clear when one compares "hilde-mace" (battle sword) with a kenning for sword, "hilde-leoma" (battle light). All are formulaic in that they are repeated, in Beowulf and elsewhere, and many have their counterparts in similar metrical patterns under different alliterative heads. Battle was one of the richest sources of formulas in Old English poetry; a number of words besides "hilde" convey the idea: "beado," "gud," wæl," and so on. For "hilde-rinc" (warrior) we have "beado-rinc," and so on. They do not necessarily mean the exactly the same thing; usually there are distinctive nuances. They provide the variation that is essential to a poetic based upon repetition. Most of the equivalent epithets, as one would expect, reflect the concerns of a warrior culture: the attributes of the warrior and his weapons and the nature of his lord and his companions.

In Beowulf each person or important thing has its characteristic epithets, as in the Homeric poems, but with considerably more variety of choice for the poet. The proper names are themselves epithets, like Beowulf (probably "bee-wolf" or bear), Hrothgar (glory spear), Unferth (mar peace). Beowulf's most common epithet is "bearn Ecgdeowes" (son of Ecgetheow), but with different alliteration and meter -- and a different function for the hero -- he is also "lidmanna helm" (protector of the seamen, line 1623) when he leads his men ashore in Denmark. Hrothgar is variously "Helm Scyldinga" (protector of the Scyldings, line 371), "wine Syldinga" (friend of the Scyldings, line 30), "maga Healfdenes" (kinsman of Half-Dane, line 189), and "Deniga frean" (Lord of the Danes, line 271). Grendel is the "grimma gæst" (grim guest, line 102) and the "mære mearcstapa" (mighty wanderer of the wastes, line 103). Heorot, the famous hall built by Hrothgar, is "beahsele beorta" (bright ring hall, i.e., hall where treasure is dispensed, line 1177). And so the list goes.

J. D. A. Ogilvy & Donald C. Baker (1983), page 156-7:

     Although it must be admitted that Old English kennings and epithets frequently clog up the movement of the narrative, in Beowulf particularly the modifiers tend to be cumulative, each adding a quality or aspect to character or action. This incremental effect is seen in a long passage already cited, that of Beowulf's sea voyage to Hrothgar's court. [this section is on my website at Syd.] The poet uses in the passage a variety of kennings for the boat: It is "flota" at line 210, "bat" at line 211, "nacan" (of the ship) at line 214, "wudu bundenne" at line 216, "flota famiheals" at line 218, and "wundenstefna" at line 220. Now "flota," "bat," and "nacan" do not much improve on one another, for they all rather nakedly mean "boat" or "ship." But the poet is at the beginning simply saying that the boat is there, on the waves in shallow water, being loaded. When the boat begins to move, the poet selects kennings that focus attention on the ship itself, its ornament and motion. The poet's imagination has been awakened. The ship is a craftsman's work, we learn, "wudu bundenne," well-joined wood. As it moves into the open sea, the "famiheals" or "foamy-necked" image pictures for us the waves being sliced by the long prow of the ship. This prow is itself the next image, the curved stem of "wundenstefna." All the words are kennings for "ship," but they tell us, in themselves, something of what is happening. They reflect the changing focus of the narrative. We could arrange these figures in their order, remove them from their context, and learn that the "flota" has become "foamy-necked," that the well-built ship of "wudu bundenne" is now represented by another aspect, its curved prow -- the "wundenstefna," suggestive of the outward thrust of the ship. When at the end of the journey the ship is tied to the Danish shore, it becomes "saewudu" or "sea wood," simply another kenning for "ship" but one that now has the nuance "seaworthy wood," wood that has been tried. The incremental effect of the series of images suggests the progress of the narrative.

The following is from "Anglo-Saxon Sarcasm: Verbal and Written Irony in the Anglo-Saxon and Germanic Tradition," page 3, written by Dr. Erin D. Smale, and published at

A more subtle vehicle for irony typical of Anglo-Saxon poetry is the "kenning," a formal compound metaphor that uses common words to describe simple, everyday concepts. It is through the oftcomplex combinations of these common words, however, that the kenning supports the ironic traditions of Old Germanic literature.

To understand the role of the kenning, one must realise that the compound metaphor is not merely a word substitution. Instead, the kenning frequently represents more than the actual subject of the metaphor itself by implying the potential of the idea or object it describes. In short, the whole of the kenning is greater than the sum of its parts. The resulting construction therefore provides an intimate, contextual detail and a significantly emotional connotation that a less formal metaphor could not accomplish.

In Beowulf, for example, the feud between the Heatho-Bard, Ingeld, and his father-in-law, Hrothgar, is referred to as "sword-hate," which conveys more than mere violence and more than just enmity. Instead, the audience is left with images of emotional hostility that culminate in force of arms. Beowulf himself describes the battle history of the Heatho-Bards as "shield-play," indicating an almost light-hearted view of warfare, but at the same time implying their traditionally defensive posture in combat.

The following long passage is from Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur (1959), page 248-53. Note that Brodeur has a very restricted definition of kenning, which says that in order to qualify as a kenning, an epithet cannot describe something which the object actually is, so that, for instance, "heath-stepper" would not be, according to Brodeur, a kenning for "deer," because deer do literally "step on the heath." I leave it to the scholars to determine the precise meaning of "kenning."

     Among the compound or combinatory appellations which may substitute for the literal word for a concept or accompany it in variation, the kenning is the most strained, the farthest from the natural and obvious image. As Heusler observed, Meissner's definition of the kenning as a substitution of two or more members for the literal substantive appellation: that which calls the referent something that it is, and that which calls it something which it actually is not. Under Meissner's definition the appellations "helm-bearer" for "warrior," "wave-crosser" for "ship," "slayer of Fafnir" for Sigurðr are kennings; so also are "oak of the enforced ransom of the otter" for "woman," and "snow of the crucible" for "silver." But we must observe a fundamental distinction herre: a warrior actually is a helm-bearer; a ship is a wave-traverser; whereas a woman is not an oak of any kind; nor is silver snow. We are dealing here with two quite distinct rhetorical devices, structurally analogous but in quality utterly distinct. Periphrastic substitutions of the nature of "helm-bearer," "wave-traverser," "slayer of Fafnir" can be found on almost any page of Milton; but nothering comparable with "oak of the enforced ransom of the otter" exists outside of Old Norse poetry. The one is a simple, immediately intelligible allusion; the other is an elaborate, far-fetched conceit, intelligible only to a special audience. The one is not intended to puzzle the hearer even for a moment, but rather to please him by recalling a familiar story or situation or a useful or pleasant quality of the referent, and to permit him to share in the poetic experience. The other pleases only as a riddle pleases; it also contains an allusion or a comparison, but requires the listener to ferret out its secret through the exercise of his own ingenuity.

     The skaldic periphrasis for "woman" just cited is a complex puzzle, involving allusion, substitution, and a grammatical trick. The limiting element is not a single word, but is itself a substituting periphrasis: "enforced ransom of the otter" stands for the concept "gold," in allusion to the ransom which three of the Æsir were compelled to pay Hreiðmarr for the killing of his son Ottarr, the gold of the ransom having itself been taken by force from Andvari. Woman is conceived as the giver of gold, selja gulls. Having periphrased the concept "gold" (gull) by ótrs nauðgjöld, the skald then substituted for the word selja, "giver" -- which also means "willow" -- the word eik, which, like selja is a feminine tree-name. But there is a difference between the character of the puzzle involved in periphrasing "gold" as "enforced ransom of the otter" and that presented by "oak" for "giver": the first is a mythological allusion, and in the myth gold was a ransom demanded and paid under duress -- gold is characterized as something which, in a given context, it actually was. But a giver is not an oak: woman, as giver, is called something which woman is not. And here, in the identification of a person or thing with something that it is not, except in a very special and artifical sense, lies the nature of the true kenning; a kenning is not merely a metaphor; it is, in Heusler's words, metapher mit ablenkung. The base-word identifies the referent with something which it is not, except in a specially conceived relation which the poet imagines between it and the sense of the limiting element. An example which is clearer because it involves no play on words is the skaldic hliðar þang, "tang of the hillside," for grass or brush, which is not tang, but is called tang because it grows on the hillside as tang grows in the sea. Similarly "sea of beasts" is a kenning for "earth": earth is the abiding-place of beasts, as the sea is of fish.

     I have used skaldic examples to illustrate the kenning because the extremes to which they carry the principle underlying the figure emphasize the difference between the kenning and other images of similar structure. The Old English kennings are much simpler and more transparent. Hildenædre, "battle-adder," is a kenning for "arrow" or "javelin" (Elene, Judith); garbeam, "spear-tree," is a kenning for "warrior" (Exodus). In these, as in the skaldic kennings, the base-word identifies the referent with something which is it not, except in relation to the concept expressed in the limiting word: an arrow is thought of as stinging those wounded by it in battle, as an adder stings in the field; a warrior stands firm in strife, as a tree stands in the forest; the limiting noun "spear" substitutes for a noun denoting "battle," the sphere in which the warrior functions. In all kennings there is a tension between the concept and the base-word; the limiting word partially resolves the unreality of that relation.

     The qualitative difference between these kennings and such compounds and combinations as "helm-bearer," wave-traverser," "heath-stepper," "breaker of rings" is obvious. These last, unlike kennings, express the concepts for which they stand through and identification of the referent with something which it actually is. In the four metaphorical instances cited by Klaeber, however, we have genuine kennings: "candle of the sky," "gem of heaven" are terms for "sun" in which the base-word calls the referent something which it is not, except in an imagined relation to the sky or the heavens. The sun is neither a candle nor a gem; but it illumines the sky as a candle illumines a room, and it adorns the heavens with its gleam as a gem adorns and shines upon a garment. The body is not a house; but it may be called banhus because it contains the bones as a house contains its occupants. A sword is not a flame; but in the kenning beadoleoma it is imagined as giving forth light in battle as a torch or brand gives light in darkness.

     The kenning is indeed a metaphor; but it is not a direct or a just metaphor. It depends for its effect not upon the listener's recognition that a given thing is so like that with which it is identified that the identification has immediate poetic truth; it depends upon the hearer's ability and willingness to see likeness within unlikeness, and the unlikeness must seem to be dissipated through the limiting word, which expresses an area, or a condition, within which likeness may be imagined. There are metaphors which are not kennings: for example, forstes bend for the ice which "binds" the water in winter; wintergewæde (Phoenix) for the snow which covers the earth. A metaphor is a kenning only if it contains an incongruity between the referent and the meaning of the base-word; in the kenning the limiting word is essential to the figure because without it the incongruity would make any identification impossible.

     Those periphrases which are not kennings, but which possess the same structure as the kenning, and which identify the referent as something which it is, may best be called by the Old Icelandic term kend heiti. A heiti, in its more precise sense, is a substantive simplex; such a heiti becomes kent, that is, "characterized," in terms of some actual quality or relationship, when it is combined with some limiting word. Kend heiti emphasize "a certain quality of a person or thing," as Klaeber says, or one of its aspects or functions. A great many kend heiti denoting persons have as base-word a noun of agency: a king is "breaker of rings"; a warrior is a "helm-bearer." Even kend heiti denoting some animals or objects may have nouns of agency as base-words: a dragon is an "air-flyer," a ship is a "wave-traverser."

     One special variety of kent heiti, very common in both Icelandic and Old English poetry, is called by the Icelanders viðkenning. This is one of two varieties of appellation which Snorri groups together as fornöfn -- that is, as substitutions not for concepts, but for the names of persons. The viðkenning has the structure base-noun combined with limiting genitive; but its base-word is always a term of ownership or of personal relationship (e.g., "owner," "father," "brother," "son," "friend," enemy," "slayer," etc.); and its limiting word is the name of the person or the owned object with whom, or with which, the specified relationship exists, or a recognizable substitute therefor. In skaldic poetry Thor is called "Lord of Bilskirnir"; Njörðr is "father of Freyr"; Freyr is "foe" or "slayer of Beli"; King Olaf I of Norway is "son of Tryggvi." In Old English poetry Beowulf is sunu Ecgðeowes, bearn Ecgðeowes, etc. Hrothgar is Healfdenes hildewisa; Hygelac is bona Ongenþeoes.

     The viðkenning is NOT a variety of kenning, nor does its name imply that it partakes of the nature of the kenning. The word means, simply and literally, "a characterization in terms of" a specific person or named thing; it is derived from the verb kenna, which in rhetoric meant "to make a characterizing periphrasis." Snorri, in his initial classification of the skaldic poetic appellations, carefully excluded the fornöfn from the category of the kenning. The word fornafn is regularly used in the Icelandic grammatical treatises to translate prænomen; and indeed the viðkenning is pronominal in function; it stands for a name. Other types of kend heiti, and all kennings, stand not for names, but for concepts. As fornafn, a viðkenning always stands for the name of one specific individual, and distinguishes him from all others; whereas other kinds of kend heiti, and kennings, describe the referent typically. Thus eodor Scyldinga, "protector of the Shieldings," is a kent heiti applied to Hrothgar, but it could be applied with equal propriety to any Danish king; but the viðkenning sunu Healfdenes, used of Hrothgar after the death of his brothers, could mean no one but Hrothgar. The viðkenning identifies a specific individual, and stands for him alone. It stands lower than any other type of appellation in its poetic quality, which resides entirely in its allusiveness; in its direct and unmistakable identification it is poles apart from the kenning.

     In the use of the viðkenning for the name of any person, there is no intent to mystify, to compel the listener to supply the answer to an unasked question. The scop's audience was thoroughly familiar with royal genealogy and with heroic legend, and recognized instantly the person referred to. The viðkenning at once lost its character as a rhetorical device when it was used with, instead of as a substitution for, the name of the referent. Mago Healfdenes, sunu Frodan, used instead of the name, had the same poetic quality that attaches to any simple literary allusion; but this was instantly lost when the viðkenning stood in close juxtaposition to the name. Thus, in the well-known formula Beowulf maþelode, bearn Ecgðeowes, the combination bearn Ecðeowes is not a viðkenning, but a mere patronymic.

     And therein lies a most important distinction between the viðkenning on the one hand and other varieties of kend heiti and the kenning on the other: whereas the viðkenning loses all poetic quality, and its very existence as an allusion, in combination with the name of the referent, other kind of kend heiti, and kennings, are used freely in Old English poetry either as substitutions for, or side by side with, the literal word for the referent, without losing, in either case, any of their poetic effect. Too much emphasis has been placed upon substitution in Old Norse, but not in Old English. Most frequently, in Old English poetry, we find kennings and kend heiti used as variations of the direct and literal word for the referent, or as variations of one another. Old English poets did not share the fondness of the skalds for mystification; and they carried variation to lengths undreamed of by Norse poets. In Elene 117-120 we find the kenning hildenædran used as a variation for the specific term for the referent, flana scuras, garas; and in Judith 221-222:

leton forð fleogan flana scuras,
hildenædran of hornbogan.

In Beowulf 1965b-66a the kenning woruldcandel is explained in the next line by the variation sigel, an ókent heiti (i.e., a poetic simplex) for the referent, the sun. Indeed, it is one of the characteristic traits of Old English poetic style that kenning and heiti are most often used in variations; the variation, rather than kenning or heiti, is, for the poet, the prime consideration; the poetic simplex or periphrasis is the material out of which the variation is made.

     The essence of the kenning is the incongruity between its referent and that which it is called in the base-word, and an artificial resolution of the incongruity through the choice of limiting word. When a ship is called "wain of the roller," it is conceived as moving forward on the rollers which permit it to be thrust down to the water as a wain moves forward on its wheels. The identification is unreal; the very resolution is imperfect, since a wain moves forward not on rollers, but on wheels. Creation and apprehension of such a strained metaphor require an act of intellectual exercise not unlike that required by a riddle. The kent heiti, possessing the same structure as the kenning, embodies not a strained image, not an identification of the referent with something which it is not, but a just metaphor or metonymy; it involves no incongruity, and may be apprehended at once. Its base-word may be anoun denoting the material of which the referent is made, or one of its parts, or one of its functions or qualities; the limiting word expresses the medium or area in which the function is performed, or the object upon which it is performed, or some characterizing attribute (as in fetelhild, wundenstefna) or some quality which gives the thing its value (mægenwudu, ellenweorc).

     In the formation of kennings and kend heiti substitution plays a most important part. Once a poetic appellation has been formed and has become an accepted part of the language of poetry, new compounds and combinations may be formed to express the same concept, by the substitution for either one, or for both, of its parts of an exact or approximate synonym. This is, indeed, the primary manner in which the poetic vocabulary was expanded. A spear may be called mægenwudeu; for the first element its approximate synonym þrec- may be substituted. Since hild and beado are synonyms, a sword may be called either hildeleoma or beadoleoma. A warrior may be called guðwiga, guðfreca, guðbeorn; or hilderinc, hildemecg, hildfreca. This is a procedure less artificial than it may appear: it is almost inevitable that the poetic vocabulary should develop largely in this manner in a compounding language.

Here are a few kennings from the story (at least I think they are kennings), and how some of the translators have phrased them. Note that line numbers in different OE editions do not always agree exactly. These line numbers are from Howell D. Chickering Jr. (1977).

Line 10: The sea

    hé þæs frófre gebád
wéox under wolcnum,   weorð-myndum þáh,
oðþæt him æghwylc   þára ymb-sittendra
ofer hron-ráde  10  hýran scolde,
gomban gyldan.    

John Porter (1993): he its relief knew, grew under skies, in honours throve, until to him each neighbour over whale-road submit must, tribute yield;
Ben Slade (2002) he waxed under the skies, throve in honours, until to him each of the bordering tribes behond the whale-road had to submit, and yield tribute:
Seamus Heaney (2000) In the end each clan on the outlying coasts beyond the whale-road had to yield to him and begin to pay tribute.
Frederick Rebsamen (1991/2004) Scyld grew tall then roamed the waterways rode through the land till every strongman each warleader sailed the whalepaths sought him with gold there knelt to him.
Michael Alexander (1973) Yet he lived and prospered, grew in strength and stature under the heavens until the clans settled in the sea-coasts neighbouring over the whale-road all must obey him and give tribute.
John Mitchell Kemble (1835,37) he flourished with dignities, until each one of the surrounding peoples over the whale's path must obey him, must pay him tribute;
Marijane Osborn (1983): he grew and prospered in glory until those who lived in the neighboring lands over the whale's road had to obey him, yield him tribute.
Bertha Rogers (2000): he grew tall under the clouds, enjoyed honors until all the nations in that region nearest the whale road attended him, paid him tribute.

Line 200: The sea

    cwæð, hé guð-cyning
ofer swan-ráde  200  sécean wolde,
mærne þéoden,   þá him wæmanna þearf.

John Porter (1993): He ordered him wave-crosser good prepared; said he battle-king over swan-road seek would, mighty chieftain, when he was man-needy.
Ben Slade (2002) he ordered them a wave-crosser -- a good one -- prepare; he said: the war-king over swan-road he wished to seek, that mightly clan-chief, since he was in need of men;
Seamus Heaney (2000) He announded his plan: to sail the swan's road and search out that king, the famous prince who needed defenders.
Frederick Rebsamen (1991/2004) He ordered a boat lithe wave-cutter loudly proclaimed he would seek the Battle-Danes sail the waveswells hail their king there kindle their hearts.
Michael Alexander (1973) He bade a seaworthy wave-cutter be fitted out for him; the warrior king he would seek, he said, over swan's riding, that lord of great name, needing men.
John Mitchell Kemble (1835,37) quoth he, he would seek the war-king over the swan's path; the renowned prince, since he had need of men.
Marijane Osborn (1983): He ordered prepared a goodly ship, and said he would go over the swan's road to seek out Hrothgar, knowing that prince had need of men.
Bertha Rogers (2000): he made it known that he would seek, across the swan's course, the battle king. He would find the chief who was in need of warriors.

Line 818: Ligaments

    him on eaxle wearð
syn-dolh sweotol;   seonowe onsprungon,
burston bán-locan.  818   

John Porter (1993): him on shoulder was huge-wound seen, sinews sprang apart, burst bone-locks.
Ben Slade (2002) on his shoulder was a great wound apparent, sinews sprang asunder, bone-locks burst;
Seamus Heaney (2000) a tremendous wound appeared on his shoulder. Sinews split and the bone-lappings burst.
Frederick Rebsamen (1991/2004) a great death-wound gaped in his shoulder sinew-bonds weakened snapped viciously bonelockings burst.
Michael Alexander (1973) shoulder-muscles sprang apart, there was a snapping of tendons, bone-locks burst.
John Mitchell Kemble (1835,37) a mighty gash was evident upon his shoulder; the sinews spring asunder, the junctures of the bones burst;
Marijane Osborn (1983): ...pulling his body to pieces, cracking his shoulder wide open. Sinews sprang out and the body burst apart.
Bertha Rogers (2000): his arm was torn from his shoulder; tendons quivered, muscles slid, separated from bones.

Line 1321: Hrothgar

Hroðgar maþelode,  1321  helm Scyldinga

John Porter (1993): Hrothgar spoke, helm of the Scyldings:
Ben Slade (2002) Hrothgar spoke, the Helm of the Scyldings:
Seamus Heaney (2000) Then Hrothgar, the Shieldings' helmet, spoke.
Frederick Rebsamen (1991/2004) Hrothgar answered helm of the Shield-Danes:
Michael Alexander (1973) Hrothgar spoke, the Helmet of the Scyldings:
John Mitchell Kemble (1835,37) Hrothgar, the protector of the Scyldings, spake:
Marijane Osborn (1983): Hrothgar spoke, the Shielding's protector:
Bertha Rogers (2000): Hrothgar said, the helm of the Scyldings:

Line 1368: A Hart (deer)

hæð-stapa  1368   

John Porter (1993): heath-stepper
Ben Slade (2002) heath-stepper
Seamus Heaney (2000) heather-stepper
Frederick Rebsamen (1991/2004) heath-prancer
Michael Alexander (1973) hart that roams the heath
John Mitchell Kemble (1835,37) the stepper over the heath
Marijane Osborn (1983): stag of the heath
Bertha Rogers (2000): strong-horned stag

Line 1518: Grendel's Mother

Ongeat þa se goda  1518  grund-wyrgenne,
mere-wif mihtig    

John Porter (1993): Saw then the good man depth-monster, mere-woman mighty;
Ben Slade (2002) then the good man saw the accursed one of the deep, the mighty mere-wife;
Seamus Heaney (2000) The hero observed that swamp thing from hell, the tarn-hag in all her terrible strength,
Frederick Rebsamen (1991/2004) Now he could see her sorrowful blood-fiend great mere-monster.
Michael Alexander (1973) It was then that he saw the size of this water-hag damned thing of the deep.
John Mitchell Kemble (1835,37) then did the good champion perceive the she-wolf of the abyss, the mighty sea-woman;
Marijane Osborn (1983): And then the hero saw that hag, the incredible mere-witch,
Bertha Rogers (2000): It was then that he beheld the witch of the deep, the mighty mere-wife;

Line 1523: Hrunting (Unferth's sword)

    Ða se gist onfand
þæt se beado-leoma  1523  bitan no lde
aldre sceþðan.   ac seo ecg geswac
ðéodne æt þearfe.    

John Porter (1993): Then the guest found out that the battle-brand bite would not, life scathe, but the edge failed the noble hero at need;
Ben Slade (2002) then the guest discovered that the battle-brand did not wish to bite, to crush life, rather the edge failed the noble in his need;
Seamus Heaney (2000) But he soon found his battle-torch extinguished; the shining blade refused to bite. It spared her and failed the man in his need.
Frederick Rebsamen (1991/2004) He soon discovered that his bright swordedge could not bite that flesh strike to that life -- that strong treasure sword failed him at need.
Michael Alexander (1973) But the stranger saw his battle-flame refuse to bite or hurt her at all; the edge failed its lord in his need.
John Mitchell Kemble (1835,37) then did the guest discover that the beam of war would not bite, would not injure her life, but the edge deceived the prince at his need;
Marijane Osborn (1983): Then her guest found out that his gleaming blade would not bite or harm her, no, that heavy sword failed him at need.
Bertha Rogers (2000): Then he learned that his battle-brand would not bite through her head bone, nor cause her death; the edge failed his hand when he needed it.

Line 1572: The Sun

Lixte se leoma,   leoht inne stod,
efne swa of hefene   hadre scineð
rodores candel.  1572   

John Porter (1993): Gleamed the glimmer, light within stood, even as from heaven brightly shines sky's candle.
Ben Slade (2002) The gleam flashed, the light stood within, even as from heaven shines brightly the sky's candle;
Seamus Heaney (2000) A light appeared and the place brightened the way the sky does when heaven's candle is shining clearly.
Frederick Rebsamen (1991/2004) Light came rushing radiant and warm as God's bright candle glows in the heavens glittering above.
Michael Alexander (1973) Light glowed out and illuminated the chamber with a cleaerness such as the candle of heaven sheds in the sky.
John Mitchell Kemble (1835,37) the beam shone, light stood within, even as from heaven mildly shines the lamp of the firmament;
Marijane Osborn (1983): The flame leapt up and light poured out, shining as bright as the sun in heaven, the sky's candle.
Bertha Rogers (2000): Then the light of the cave flared, the fire within the hall, even as from heaven shines the light of God's candle.

Line 1610: Icicles

    Þa þæt sweord ongan
æfter heaþo-swate   hilde-gicelum,
wig-bil wanian.   Þæt wæs wundra sum,
þæt hit eal gemealt   ise gelicost,
ðonne forstes bend   Fæder onlæteð,
onwindeð l-rapas,  1610   

John Porter (1993): Then the sword began from battle-blood in deadly icicles war-blade to wane; it was a wonder great, that it all melted ice most-like, when frost's bond Father loosens, unwinds water-ropes,
Ben Slade (2002) Then that sword began caused by the gore of battle in icycles of battle, the war-bill to wane; that was a great wonder that it all melted, so like ice, when frost's bond the Father loosens, unwinds water-ropes
Seamus Heaney (2000) Meanwhile, the sword began to wilt into gory icicles, to slather and thaw. It was a wonderful thing, the way it all melted as ice melts when the Father eases the fetters off the frost and unravels the water-ropes.
Frederick Rebsamen (1991/2004) Deep below the earth that broad wonder-blade wasted and quivered withered in that blood -- it wavered and dripped melted and shrunk like sun-warmed icicles when the Ruler of heaven unwraps frost-bindings unwinds water-ropes
Michael Alexander (1973) The blood it had shed made the sword dwindle into deadly icicles; the war-tool wasted away. It was wonderful indeed how it melted away entirely, as the ice does in the spring when the Father unfastens the frost's grip, unwinds the water's ropes
John Mitchell Kemble (1835,37) Then the sword, the battle-bill began, after the gore, with war-drops to diminish; that was a marvel, that it all melted away, likest unto ice, when the Father (he who hath power over times and seasons, that is the true God) looseneth the chains of frost, and unwindeth the wave-ropes
Marijane Osborn (1983): It soon diminished entirely, wondrously, like the winter ice when the Father loosens the bonds of frost, unwinding the water ropes,
Bertha Rogers (2000): But below, that great sword, the war blade, combat stained, began to melt in icicles of blood. That it unsteeled was a wonder, like ice when the Father, Who sways the seasons, unwinds the bonds of frost, shrinks the freezing chains of water;

Line 1801: The Dawn

    reced hliuade
geap ond gold-fah;   gæst inne swæf
oþþæt hrefn blaca  1801  heofones wynne
blið-heort bodode.   Ða com beorht scacan
[scima ofer sceadwa;]    

Note that there is no gap in the manuscript between the two words in the middle of the line at the top of the second image, but Chickering has emended his Old English version to add "scíma ofer sceadwa" here.

Ben Slade, in his excellent annotated OE version, has the following note:

[1806] no gap in MS. Sievers interpolates <scima æfter sceadwe> ; Heyne interpolates <ofter grundas> ; Sedgefield adopts <scima scynded>, emending from Sievers.

John Porter (1993): hall towered, gabled and gold-adorned; guest within slept, until raven black heaven's joy glad-hearted greeted.
Ben Slade (2002) the hall towered vaulted and gold-adorned; the guest slept inside until the black raven, the joy of the sky declared glad-heartedly.
Seamus Heaney (2000) The hall towered, gold-shingled and gabled, and the guest slept in it until the black raven with raucous glee announced heaven's joy, and a hurry of brightness overran the shadows.
Frederick Rebsamen (1991/2004) that steep-gabled hall tall and gold-trimmed -- Geats resting there till the black-shining raven raised morning-gray a lifting of darkness. Dawnlight came shoving bright above the shadows scattering night creatures.
Michael Alexander (1973) the hall towered up gilded, wide-gabled, its guest within sleeping until the black raven blith-hearted greeted the heaven's gladness. Hastening, the sunlight shook out above the shadows.
John Mitchell Kemble (1835,37) the house rose aloft, curved and variegated with gold; the stranger slept therein until the pale raven blithe of heart announced the joy of heaven, the bright sun to be come.
Marijane Osborn (1983): The generous hero lay in a hall that arched high and golden; the guest slept there until the black raven blithely announced a joyous daybreak.
Bertha Rogers (2000): Golden shone the towering hall in the small hours; the guest slept inside until the black raven, happy soul, called heaven's pleasure, the morning.

Line 1862: The sea, and a ship

    manig óþerne
gódum gegréttan  1862  ofer ganotes bæð;
sceal hring-naca   ofer h[f]u bringan
lác ond luf-tácen.    

John Porter (1993): many a man another with good gifts will greet over gannet's bath; shall ring-prow over ocean bring gifts and love-tokens.
Ben Slade (2002) many an other with good things will greet over the gannet's bath; the ring-prowed ship shall bring over the high seas offerings and tokens of friendship;
Seamus Heaney (2000) across the gannet's bath, over the broad sea, whorled prows will bring presents and tokens.
Frederick Rebsamen (1991/2004) the ring-prowed ship will send across the waves gifts and love-tokens.
Michael Alexander (1973) a chief shall greet his fellow with gifts over the gannet's bath as the ship with curved prow crosses the seas with presents and pledges.
John Mitchell Kemble (1835,37) many a one shall greet the other with benefits, over the sea-gull's bath; the ringed ship shall bring over the deeps offerings and signs of love.
Marijane Osborn (1983): So long as I guard this land and its coffers, treasure shall pass between us, fine gifts of greeting shall cross the gannet's bath.
Bertha Rogers (2000): we swhall trade treasures, give gifts to one another far across the gannet's bath; the ring-coiled prow will deliver presents and tokens of camaraderie.

Line 1965: The Sun

   1965  woruld-candel scán
sigel suðan fús.    

John Porter (1993): World-candle shone, sun from south eager.
Ben Slade (2002) the world-candle shone, the sun eagerly from the south;
Seamus Heaney (2000) the sun shone, the world's candle warmed them from the south
Frederick Rebsamen (1991/2004) The world-candle shone southward to the sea.
Michael Alexander (1973) From the south blazed the sun, the world's candle.
John Mitchell Kemble (1835,37) the world-lamp shone, the gem hastening southward
Marijane Osborn (1983): From the south was shining the candle of the world, the sun,
Bertha Rogers (2000): the world's candle bright, high, hot in the south.

Line 2072: The Sun

   2072  Syððan heofones gim.
glad ofer grundas    

John Porter (1993): When heaven's gem had glided over earth,
Ben Slade (2002) when heaven's gem has glided over the earth,
Seamus Heaney (2000) After heaven's gem had gone mildly to earth
Frederick Rebsamen (1991/2004) When heaven's gem glided under earth
Michael Alexander (1973) When heaven's jewel had glided from the world,
John Mitchell Kemble (1835,37) the gem of heaven glided over the deeps,
Marijane Osborn (1983): When heaven's gem had vanished from the sky,
Bertha Rogers (2000): When heaven's gem had slid out of the world,

Line 2271: The Dragon

    Hord-wynne fond
eald uht-sceaða  2271  opene standan,
se ðe byrnende   biorgas seceð
nacod nið-draca,   nihtes fleogeð
fyre befangen;    

John Porter (1993): Hoard-joy found, old dawn-destroyer open standing, he who, burning, barrows seeks, naked foe-dragon, by night flies in fire enfolded;
Ben Slade (2002) Hoard-joy he found, the old twilight-scather, standing open, he who, burning, seeks barrows, the naked malevolent dragon; he flies by night, encircled by fire;
Seamus Heaney (2000) Then an old harrower of the dark happened to find the hoard open, the burning one who hunts out barrows, the slick-skinned dragon, threatening the night sky with streamers of fire.
Frederick Rebsamen (1991/2004) The hoard lay open -- the old fire-serpent found it waiting there who burns through the air blasting hall-timbers -- searing hate-creature soaring through the night ringed with fire-breath.
Michael Alexander (1973) The Ravager of the night, the burner who has sought out barrows from of old, then found this hoard of undefended joy. The smooth evil dragon swims through the gloom enfolded in flame;
John Mitchell Kemble (1835,37) The old twilight plague found the pleasant treasure stand open, he, viz. who burning seeketh the hills, the naked furious dragon flieth by night involved in fire
Marijane Osborn (1983): The hoard was found standing open by that old dawn fiend, he who burning seeks out barrows, the smooth evil dragon who soars through the night surrounded by flame,
Bertha Rogers (2000): Then the stockpile was chanced upon, in the open tumulus, by that scavenger -- that dragon, that night flyer, he who swims through the darkness ringed in flames

Line 2508: Ribcage

ac him hilde-grap   heortan wylmas,
banhus gebræc.  2508   

John Porter (1993): my battle-grip heart's surges, bone-house broke.
Ben Slade (2002) my battle-grip on him his heart's beats, his bone-house broke.
Seamus Heaney (2000) my bare hands stilled his heartbeats and wrecked the bone-house.
Frederick Rebsamen (1991/2004) my clenched battle-grip crushed his bone-house the springs of his heart.
Michael Alexander (1973) It was not my sword that broke his bone-cage and the beatings of his heart but my warlike hand-grasp.
John Mitchell Kemble (1835,37) but I in war clutched the waves of his heart, I brake the bone-house:
Marijane Osborn (1983): beneath my grip his body broke.
Bertha Rogers (2000): I took him to my hand, gripped his bone frame, and stilled his heart.

Line 2900: King Beowulf

Nu is wil-geofa  2900  Wedra leoda,
dryhten Geata   deað-bedde fæst,
wunað wæl-reste   wyrmes dædum;

John Porter (1993): Now is joy-giver of Wederas' nation lord of Geats on deathbed still, lies in slaughter-rest from serpent's deeds;
Ben Slade (2002) Now is the wish-giver of the Wederas' nation, the lord of the Geats unmoving on his death-bed, remaining in the repose of slaughter by the wyrm's deeds;
Seamus Heaney (2000) Now the people's pride and love, the lord of the Geats, is laid on his deathbed, brought down by the dragon's attack.
Frederick Rebsamen (1991/2004) Now is the goldking of the Geatish landfolk friendlord to us all fast in his death-sleep dwelling in slaughter-rest through that serpent's teeth.
Michael Alexander (1973) The Lord of the Geats lies now on his slaughter-bed, the leader of the Weathers, our loving provider dwells in his death-rest through the dragon's power.
John Mitchell Kemble (1835,37) Now is the joy-giver of the people of the Westerns, the Lord of the Geats, fast on the death-bed, he dwelleth in fatal rest:
Marijane Osborn (1983): Now gone is out joy, our generous prince! The lord of the Geats lies on his deathbed, stretched out in slaughter by the serpent's deed!
Bertha Rogers (2000): Now is the giver of the Weder's joys, the lord of the Geats, on his death bed; he was assassinated by the dragon's deeds.

It has been pointed out to me that the next example is not really a kenning at all, because it is a metaphor (similarity of two different things) and not a metonym (a portion or attribute of something representing the whole thing). Well then, that just shows you that kennings are not the only effective epithets (appellations?) in Beowulf.

Line 3116: Incoming Arrows

    Nu sceal gled fretan,
-- weaxan wonna leg --   wigena strengel,
þone ðe oft gebád  3116  isern-scure,
þonne stræla storm   strengum gebæded
scoc ofter scild-weall.    

John Porter (1993): Now shall fire consume, grown dark the flame, warriors' ruler, he who often braved iron shower when arrow's storm by strings impelled shot over shield wall,
Ben Slade (2002) Now must the fire devour, the dim flame grow, the ruler of warriors, he who often endured shower of iron, when storms of arrows, impelled by bow-strings, shot over the shield-wall;
Seamus Heaney (2000) Now shall flame consume our leader in battle, the blaze darken round him who stood his ground in the steel-hail, when arrow-storm shot from bowstrings pelted the shield-wall.
Frederick Rebsamen (1991/2004) Now the fire shall rise dark flames roaring with our dear gift-lord who held against war-hail hard iron-showers when storms of arrows angrily impelled shot over shieldwall.
Michael Alexander (1973) Now the flames shall grow dark and the fire destroy the sustainer of the warriors who often endured the iron shower when, string-driven, the storm of arrows sang over shield-wall.
John Mitchell Kemble (1835,37) now shall the glede devour, the wan fire grow strong over the prince of warriors, him who oft awaited the iron-shower, when the storms of darts compelled with strength went over the wall of shields,
Marijane Osborn (1983): For the leaping flame now must devour the noblest of men, who has often stood in a shower of iron, a blizzard of arrows impelled by the bow over the shield-wall.
Bertha Rogers (2000): Now the fire -- the flames heavy and black -- must devour him, the warrior prince, he who often held back iron rains, war storms, as the string-propelled arrows made loud noise on the shield wall; --