Jorunn Skaldmaer: the Viking age female poet

“The ruler reddened weapons in the blood of evil people;
The army suffered the king’s anger;
Houses often collapsed because of fires.”*

These words were created by a rarity in the Viking world–a female poet. Jorunn Skaldmaer (poet-maiden) lived in Norway in the 10th century and was a court poet, along with others, of King Harald Fine-Hair. 

In an age and place where people did not have a written language, except for runes, poets were an important part of the community. Runes were meant to be carved into wood or stone, hence all the straight lines in the runic alphabet, not etched onto paper, so long-form storytelling happened orally. 

Families would no doubt have had their own storytellers, those people who had good memories or had the ability to turn a phrase, just as it is today. In the Viking period, though, the recounting of family stories of ancestors or of warnings would have served to keep those stories alive in a way we can barely understand today. Except for runestones, they had no pictures, no videos, nothing but their voices and stories to remember those who had passed. 

Skaldic Poets and Kings

In a larger context, poets were hugely important to kings and other powerful people of the time. Kings employed court poets, paying them handsomely to recount their deeds and those of their ancestors. These poets, known as skalds, had a critical function in Norse society–they kept the deeds of those kings front and center in the minds of their followers and guests. Furthermore, they proclaimed kings’ deeds far and wide so men would flock to them and rivals would fear them.

The Viking world was an honor culture, where your honor and reputation were more important than anything. If you were a king who wanted to draw men to follow you, you had to do so through your reputation–as a bold leader, a ferocious fighter, and a generous ring-giver. The way to project and solidify this reputation was through your court skald. 

A good skaldic poet was a master at their craft. Poetry was written in very specific meters, which may have taken years to learn and master. Poets used precise meters, syllables and stresses, including alliteration, most likely because that made it easier to memorize. A talented skald was worth his weight in gold, maybe even literally. 

The king looks interested in the skald’s words. The wife, not so much.

Most court skalds were men. 

Or, more accurately, the court poets we know about were men. Who knows? Future academics may discover evidence of more female skalds. 

A female viking poet

But, at least we have Jorunn Skaldmaer. Her poem is featured in Snorri Sturlasson’s Heimskringla, his collection of stories about the kings of Norway and Sweden. 

Jorunn’s poem appears in a longer one about the Norwegian King Harald Fine-Hair. Her poem, sendibitr, which means ‘biting message’, is the longest skaldic poem recorded having been written by a woman.  

In this poem, Jorunn commemorates a reconciliation between two kings who had been fighting, Harald Fine-Hair, and his son, Halvdan the Black. The two were at odds after Halvdan attacked his brother, and Harald amassed an army against his son in retaliation. Another poet, Guthorm, convinced the two kings to come to an agreement and stop their fighting.

From her position as a witness to the reconciliation between the two kings, Jorunn Skaldmaer must have been a valuable member of King Harald’s court. Because she is called Poet-Maiden, we can infer that she was an unmarried young woman, so it is quite remarkable to me that she attended the King in such an important matter. Was she a young noble woman? It was much more likely for a woman of high status to do something like become a poet or pick up a weapon and fight, as they had more options than poor women. But if Jorunn was high status, why do we not know the name of her father or mother?

How did she get her training? Since skaldic poetry was so precise and complicated, skalds spent years learning how to construct their poetry. Did she mentor with another female poet or did she learn on her own? How did she come to be in the employ of a king as renowned as Harald Fine-Hair?

So many questions! And, unfortunately, no answers. 

It shows, though, that it was possible for women to hold positions other than running a household and being a mother, although the majority of Viking age women did just that. Jorunn may have been an extreme outlier, or she may have been one of many female poets who were employed by other kings or other lords and their words have simply been lost in time.   

It’s all a part of the mystery that is women in the Viking age!

Jorunn Skaldmaer’s Poem

In the final stanza of Jorunn’s poem (or the last of what still exists), she recites:

“The enemy of rings performed a powerful panegyric for Harald;
Guthorm got good reward for the recited poem from the sovereign.
The tree of battle ended the clash between the truly successful rulers;
Previously the army of the two princes had prepared for a storm of swords.”

In this stanza, she praises the court poet Guthrum for the poem he performed that kept the two kings from fighting.

Jorunn, like all skalds, used “kennings” in her poetry. A kenning is a figure of speech that was very popular at the time; it was two or more words combined in an expression to refer to a person or thing. For example, a skaldic poet might use “sea-steed” to refer to a ship or “whale-road” as a metaphor for the sea. 

In the above stanza, Jorunn used “tree of battle” as a kenning for warrior and “storm of swords” to refer to a battle. They are quite beautiful and evocative; I can actually see men in battle with hundreds of swords slicing and arcing, like a storm

It is not known for certain if skaldic poets, like Jorunn, ever sang their poems or if they were strictly recited. It is likely, though, that they were accompanied by a musical instrument like a lyre. 

I like the possibility of them singing–the people of that time period believed in the power of voices, so I can imagine a young maiden named Jorunn, stepping proudly into the center of the feast hall of the mighty King Harald Fine-Hair and, with her lyre in hand, singing of how he and Halvdan the Black reconciled. 

If you are interested, here is the entire poem that has come down to us.*

“The ruler reddened weapons in the blood of evil people;
The army suffered the king’s anger;
Houses often collapsed because of fires.

Halfdan, I have learned that Harald Fair-Hair heard about your tough deeds,
And that poem seems dark-faced to the tester of the sword.

Because the powerful king of warriors prepared to rejoice when the quickeners of slaughter
Dared to stain the reed of the wound-sea with blood.

Where do two especially brave princes know of greater honor, fame of arrow-storm, granted to destroyers of moons of the prow-board than tough-minded land-rulers granted to firs of gold because of the praise of clear-sighted Sindri. The trouble of the princes was lifted.

The enemy of rings performed a powerful panegyric for Harald;
Guthorm got good reward for the recited poem from the sovereign.
The tree of battle ended the clash between the truly successful rulers;
Previously the army of the two princes had prepared for a storm of swords.”


*All excerpts translated by Judith Jensch