Penile Puns: Personal Names and Phallic Symbols in Skaldic Poetry
Gade, Kari Ellen
Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 6 (1989)
Personal names are an important component of skaldic poetry. Whereas Eddic poetry commemorated characters from a dim and heroic past, skaldic poems, with a few exceptions, addressed contemporary persons and events. By incorporating a name into a stanza, the skald would tie a person to a specific action and furnish his own comments on that person’s behavior; that is, he would praise or punish. In encomiastic poems the poets used names to extol chieftains and humiliate their enemies; although a chieftain might not at once have grasped the content of a stanza, he would surely have been able to recognize his own name, especially when emphasized by rhyme and alliteration, and show his immediate gratification to the composer. The lausavísur (loose stanzas) in the sagas provided the skald with the opportunity to describe contemporary events and relate his own experiences. He could address his beloved, taunt an enemy, lament a dead son, or praise his own talents as a warrior, lover, or poet. The so-called níðvísur (defamatory poems) were intended to destroy an enemy, often by mentioning his name and hinting at his connections with homosexual behavior or bestiality. In mansongr (love poetry) the skalds described coveted women in erotic terms, praised their beauty, and hinted at their promiscuous inclinations. Both níðvísur and mansongr incurred severe penalties in Old Norse law. A man who heard a slanderous poem recited about him was entitled to a large financial compensation and under certain circumstances he could kill the offender with impunity.