Prepare for a duel, but this time we are swapping shields and axes for rhymes and jibes.
Who could have imagined that Vikings, the pagan raiders whose infamous barbarity led them to conquer almost the entirety of England, invented the first rap battles.
Flyting is the stylized trading of insults. It is a ritualistic game of wits that was practiced between the 5th and 6th centuries. Flyting originates from the Old Norse word flyta, which means provocation or the act of provoking. By the 9th century it became a full-fledged cultural cornerstone among both the Saxons and the Norse. There are many examples of flyting in Norse mythology, for instance Lokasenna, a poem that roughly translates to The Flyting of Loki: The Lay of Greybeard. In the poem, the Norse God of Mischief, Loki disguised as the eponymous Greybeard engages in a flyt with the Norse God of Thunder, Thor. Another example of the Norse God engaging in flyt is the poem Hárbarðsljóð, Hárbarðr (generally believed to be Odin in disguise) challenged Thor to a flyt just as Loki did in the previous poem.
Most insults consisted of references to cowardice, appearance or lack intelligence and of course, when in a particularly heated flyt battle, one opponent may insult the other’s manhood, possibly by insinuating that that he is overcompensating with a massive axe for what he lacks in masculinity.
The skill required to spontaneously compose a retort in a verse-form with the proper number of syllables is what makes this such a true test of intelligence and resourcefulness. In fact, the Vikings would sometimes use flyt matches to gage how intelligent a potential ally is. As brutish as the Vikings were, their culture was one that held cunning and wit in as much regard as they did athletic skills and battle prowess.
As for the Anglo-Saxons who likely adopted the practice of flyting from their Viking invaders, flyts often, would take place in the feasting hall of the village. The winner would be determined by the audience and based on the reactions to the competitors’ insults. In typical Viking and Anglo-Saxon fashion, the winner would chug a large mug of beer in celebration of their victory, they would then invite the loser to join them in drink.
The popularity of flyting would spread well beyond England and into Scotland in the 15th and 16th century where makars, a type of poet would attack another using sexual and scatological insults.
The most famous instance of flyting was The Flyting of Dumbar and Kennedie. According to records, William Dunbar and Walter Kennedy participated in a flyting match in the court of King James IV of Scotland, who had a particular fondness for the craft. This flyt is said to contain the earliest recorded use of the word sh*t used as a personal insult.
For the most part, the public view of Vikings is that they were ruthless savages whose sole purpose was to massacre, rape and ransack. It’s true that they were skilled raiders whose battlefield tactics allowed them to conquer and expand their territory in a way that amazes historians to this day. But they were also complex, beautiful, and diverse. They created art, they had their own lore and beliefs, they traded with other cultures and even accepted non-Norse folk into their family. They managed to track and explore much farther than any civilization before them, they even reached North America about 500 years before Columbus “discovered” it. The Vikings left much more than blood in their wake and many of their customs and rituals are still practiced today, we just don’t realize it.
Man, I really was born in the wrong century, I would truly thrive during this period of poetic abuse, where I could actually gain respect for talking trash. Gosh, that would be the dream.
Of course, I would also have to live in a time where plague, famine, and execution for heresy were common pastimes. In that case, I think I will stick to engaging in one-way flyt battles here in the 21st century.