Verbal duelling is a major part of the sagas and Eddas, as a substitute for other kinds of violence. Mostly it happens between two men, who accuse each other of cowardice, effeminacy, and general unmanliness.
However, there are incidents of male – female flyting as well, with men and women trading insults, usually much the same insults. The two best-known examples of male – female flyting in the Eddas are the quarrel between Skadi and Loki in Lokasenna, a poem which is essentially Loki’s verbal duel with each god and goddess in turn, and the heroic poem Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar, which features a bout between the hero and a giantess.
Flyting itself is a general term for any kind of verbal combat. These can range from the duels between Inuit to the more formalized bouts between 15th and 16th century Scots poets, and the more modern form known as the dozens, prevalent in African-American communities. Rap battles are another, modern, form of flyting.
What all these have in common is the ritualized exchange of insults, often in front of an audience. With the Scots poets the audience was often readers, but in earlier, especially Anglo-Saxon times, it would be the other men present in the hall. Those watching would decide on a winner, who would be given a drink for his efforts. It was then customary for him to offer a drink to the loser. Presumably this was to show that here were no hard feelings.
The specifically Norse version of this was known as senna, plural sennur, and it appears in the sagas as well as in Eddic poetry. Ölkofra Þáttr (The Tale of the Ale-Hood), for example, has the hero being accused of burning down six woods while burning charcoal, which in treeless Iceland was a fairly serious charge. Beowulf and other Old English poems also have many examples of ritualized insult.
Hrimgerdr and Atli
A classic example of woman – man flyting is the quarrel in the Eddic poem Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar. This verbal duel between Hrimgerdr and Atli (and later Helgi) is famous enough that it has its own name, the Hrimgerdamal.
The flyting begins after the main character, Helgi, and his companion Atli tether their ships in a fjord for the night. Atli takes first watch, and a giantess, Hrimgerdr, approaches him. The fjord is called Hati’s Fjord, and she is Hati’s daughter. (Hati, significantly, means “Hater”, so we know he’s not the friendly, helpful giant type.)
Their flyting follows the classic pattern, beginning with each demanding to know who the other is (Introduction – see the flying between Odin and Thor in Harbardsljod), and proceeds from there to insults. This is when we learn that Helgi has killed Hrimgerdr’s father, whom she describes in familiar terms:
‘My name is Hrimgerd, my father’s name Hati,
whom I knew as the most mighty of giants,
many a bride he had snatched from their homes,
till Helgi hewed him down.’
The insults that fly are just as nasty as in man to man sennur, with Hrimgerdr accusing Atli, and by extension Helgi, of impotence and effeminacy (“You would neigh, if your balls weren’t cut off”) at a time when calling a man a “mare” was a legitimate reason for that man to kill you, and Atli responding by affirming his masculinity by calling himself a “stallion” and saying that if he came ashore she’d “lower her tail”. (HH 20-1) The sexual taunting is of a very feminine kind – the invitation is anything but sincere, simply a stick to beat the male with.
Helgi’s response is equally blunt: he tells her directly that he refuses to sleep with her to compensate her for her father, and furthermore he thinks that the most loathsome of the giants should be her mate instead (HH 24-50).
The difference between Skadi and Hrimgerdr is mainly that Hrimgerdr openly boasts about drowning “Hlodvard’s sons in the sea”. Perhaps that’s why Skadi was more acceptable to the Aesir – she hadn’t actually killed any humans or attacked any gods.
The parallels continue. In Martinez-Pizzaro’s paper he discusses bridal-quests and flyting as genres, and sees many continuities between them. Skadi’s viewing of the gods’ feet is a burlesque of the interview with the bride in the quest narratives, where a proxy of the would-be groom’s (Skirnir, for example) inspects the bride.
Skadi, as befits a parody version, acts as her own proxy, while in the quarrel between giantess and human hero Atli acts as a proxy for Helgi, until the very end, where Hrimgerdr addresses Helgi directly, and he rejects her. In fact, Hrimgerdr’s version is even worse – she offers to “raise her tail” like a mare for Atli, so she is implicitly exposing her genitals to Helgi’s representative.
The duel ends when the heroes trick Hrimgerdr into talking with them until sunrise, when she is turned to stone. This is odd, because normally it’s dwarves and not giants who are allergic to sunlight, but clearly the composer of the poem was thinking of Alvissmal, where a dwarf who wishes to marry Thor’s daughter is tricked in the same way. Clearly Hrimgerdr had to suffer for her presumption.
Lokasenna: Loki vs. Skadi
The exchange between Loki and Skadi in the Lokasenna or “Loki’s Quarrel” is not so crude, but the stakes involved are much higher. This poem is set in the time after Baldr has died, and we are told in a prose epilogue that the Aesir captured Loki and bound him; both these events are signs that the Ragnarök, or Doom of the Gods, is getting closer.
Loki appears at the Aesir’s banquet and insults all the guests in turn, sparing none. (It is significant that the banquet is hosted by the giant Aegir – is Loki trying to spoil a possible rapprochement between the gods and giants?)
Loki and Skadi are well-matched antagonists because of their trajectories; they are travelling in opposite directions. Loki, who is half-giant (and possibly half Aesir through his mother) has thrown in his lot with the giants after a long period of at best ambivalence, while Skadi, who is a full giant, has decided for the gods, despite the fact that they killed her father, and despite her failed marriage to Njord.
Loki’s taunts are focussed on Skadi’s loyalties – he reminds her about the death of her father, and accuses her of having slept with him, both of which suggest that Skadi willing forewent her duty of vengeance for her father in exchange for sex. (And, it is implied, for someone as low-status as Loki.)
You could argue that both of them have turned on their own. Loki, who is associated with the Aesir either through his mother (if we accept that she is an Asynia) or through blood-brotherhood with Odin, has abandoned that bond to side with the giants, and will be with them at Ragnarök. Skadi, a giantess, has gone over to the Aesir, whose relationship with giants is problematic at best, murderous at worst. They haven’t killed her, but Thor is not shy when it comes to killing giantesses.
Skadi, in fact, is one of four deities accused by Loki of betraying their own family. The others are Frigg (slept with Odin’s two brothers), Idunn (slept with Loki), Njord (incest), and Skadi. The insults that Loki offers to Skadi, in fact, assault her both as a female and in the male role she assumed to avenge her father.
First he accuses her of failing in her self-assumed role as avenger, taunting her with his role in Thiazi’s death, which since he’s responding to her comment that he won’t be going around free for long, implies that she should have done something to him long ago. The Icelanders often considered anyone who settled for compensation rather than blood was cowardly, so Loki means to say that in her self-assumed male role she is inadequate. (See Miller for more on this.)
Skadi demanded a husband and that they should make her laugh; this is easily portrayed as self-indulgence. This may be why in his follow-up, Loki accuses her of having sex with him, suggesting that she valued sexual pleasure and amusement above her family, just as he insults other goddesses either by accusing them of being his secret lovers, or of having other lovers (in Freyja’s case, of having had them all as lovers), and that is a typical insult to a woman, since a promiscuous woman was ragr the way an effeminate man was.
While Loki can accuse Skadi of failing in her duty and of betraying her aett, his own record is not so good: he has betrayed both sides, and brags about it in the course of the poem. He caused the death of Thiazi, a giant like his own father, and he was responsible for the death of Baldr, the son and heir of the god he swore blood-brotherhood with.
Presumably Loki is an expert in betrayal. The difference between Frigga and Skadi is that Frigga can’t avenge the murder of Baldr, not directly anyway, whereas Skadi could and didn’t.
The other difference between Frigga and Skadi is that Skadi stands up for herself. Frigg herself says that Baldr would defend her if he were here, and then Freyja steps in to stand up for her, warning Loki that Frigg knows fate and shouldn’t be antagonized.
Skadi bluntly threatens Loki with being bound with his son’s own guts, a terrible fate for someone who likes to wander so much. The tone of the exchange is interesting, too – Loki is smoothly malicious, while Skadi is blunt, threatening, and comes directly to the point. Note that in each of the two strophes she speaks she warns him: you will be bound, from my temples and groves will come ill will to you. She doesn’t back off.
It may be that because Skadi comes from an out-group, the giants, she can ignore the traditional expectation that women are “peace-weavers”, whose role is to smooth over conflicts among the men. The flip side of this is the role of “whetter”, who encourages and shames her menfolk into taking revenge. Skadi takes on a male role, again, to argue directly with Loki.
John McKinnell thinks that Skadi may have intervened when she did because of Loki’s dismissal of Heimdall as an inadequate watchman. The implication is that giants like Skadi should never be let into Asgard.
The obscure insult Loki aims at Heimdall – aurugr, which suggests muddiness, is connected among other things to several prominent giant names: Aurboda, Aurekr, Aurgelmir, Aurgrímnir, and Aurnir, and one giant kenning, aurmýlis Narfi. McKinnell suggests that muddy giants are sneaking into Asgard behind Heimdall’s muddy back. Skadi may have taken this personally.
There are many parallels between Hrimgerd and Skadi: both made demands for compensation that were sexual in nature, both see themselves as equals to the humans or gods they speak with, and both are blunt and even coarse in speech. This may be in part because both come from an out-group, being giants.
Hrimgerdr is the bluntest, insulting the sexuality of Atli and Helgi in the same way that the men do in their verbal duels. Skadi is less coarse, but equally to the point, saying the things everyone wishes to leave unsaid, and threatening Loki. Compare them to the goddesses in Lokasenna, who try to soft-soap Loki or at best, threaten him with a beating from a man.
While Hrimgerdr has to be punished for her presumption, tricked into turning to stone, Skadi, who has status as a goddess, gets away with her insults. Perhaps because Loki has no status to lose, she not only suffers no consequences but actually gets her revenge on him.
 Orchard 1990: Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar: 19.
 Martinez-Pizzaro 1990: 343.
 McKinnell 1986-9: 253.
Edda, Snorri Sturluson/Anthony Faulkes, Everyman, London, 1987.
Bax, Marcel and Tineke Padmos 1983: “Two Types of Verbal Duelling in Old Icelandic: the Interactional Structure of the senna and mannijafnaðr in Hárbardsljód“, Scandinavian Studies 55/2: 149-74.
Campbell, Dan 2011: ‘”The Bound God”: Fetters, Kinship and the Gods’, Idunna 89: 24-9.
Clunies Ross, Margaret 1994: Prolonged Echoes: Old Norse myths in medieval Northern society, vol. 1, The Viking Society Vol. 7, Odense UP.
Lindow, John, 1997, Murder and Vengeance Among the Gods: Baldr in Scandinavian Mythology, FF Communications 262, Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia/Academia Scientiaram Fennica.
Martínez Pizarro, Joaquín 1990 “Woman-to-man senna”, Poetry in the Scandinavian Middle Ages: The Seventh International Saga Conference, Presso la Sede del Centro Studi, Spoleto.
McKinnell, John. 1986-9: “Motivation in Lokasenna’, Saga-Book, XXII: 234 – 262. (pdf here)
Miller, William Ian 1990: Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law and Society in Saga Iceland, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Orchard, Andy, 1998/2002: Cassell Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend, Cassell, London.
Strom, Folke 1974: “Níð, ergi and Old Norse moral attitudes”, Doretha Coke Memorial Lecture, Viking-Society for Northern Research, London. (pdf here)
Swenson, Karen 1991: Performing Definitions: Two Genres of Insult in Old Norse Literature, Cadmen House.