It’s that time again! You may have noticed that this feature was conspicuously absent last week; I was on a brief holiday in London and, as fate and a bottle of water would have it, sans laptop. I’m making it up to you this week with a bonus word – in honour of my trip to the British Museum’s new Viking exhibit, I bring you this week’s special guest star: Old Norse Word of the Week!
And that word is sverð, the Old Norse word for sword. It’s cognate to the Old English sweord.
This word isn’t the only way you’d find swords mentioned in Old Norse literature, however. Skalds made liberal use of a device called a kenning, which is a sort of compressed metaphor in which an object is described as a two-word phrase; the phrase ‘whale-road’ as a kenning for ‘the sea’ is a probably familiar example from the Old English text Beowulf.
One Old Norse kenning for sword is ben-grefill – literally, wound-hoe. This one appears in the poem Höfuðlausn, by Viking farmer, warrior, and poet Egill Skalla-Grímsson. The image created in that kenning is evocative – imagine using a sword as a hoe, stabbing it in and carving out chunks of your enemy — but also draws on both aspects of the poet’s life, where farming was often a fight against the earth and the weather, and fighting could be as necessary to living as growing food.