Rimur (the Icelandic word for ‘rhymes’) are long cycles of poetic verse delivered in a distinctively Icelandic half sung/half chanted style. The Rimur are one of Iceland’s oldest traditions. They stretch as far back as the fourteenth century and have their roots in the country’s ancient literature. In many cases, the poetry of the Rimur is transformed directly from the Sagas and Eddas, and contain many of the same themes: dramatic tales of battles and heroes, stories of the supernatural, chivalry and romance are all material for the Rimur, though rhymes also exist which are no more than elaborate gossip stories about communities and individuals.
The structure of the poetry itself is complex enough to make experienced wordsmith’s wince. Though it may sound straightforward enough, the rhymes are in fact deceptively convoluted and adhere to a mind-boggling array of rules and regulations which are quite strictly enforced. One of the main rules of Rimur verse is that the syllables of each line must be arranged in trochaic form, which means that a long syllable is always followed by a short, or that a stressed syllable is followed by an unstressed one. There are then rules as to the amount of syllables you can have in the diffrent lines of every stanza (stanzas can have 2, 3 or 4 lines). And there are also rules regarding alliteration, such as alliteration should always occur in the long syllable of the trochee, and must appear for the third and last time in the first trochee in the second half of the couplet.
It is also possible to alliterate either consonants or vowels. On top of this there are often internal rhymes and, less commonly, rimur which have to be palindromes, i.e. be intelligible when read both forward and backwards. There is also the question of the content. The metaphors used in Rimur are known as kennings. These often relate back to the mythology enclosed in Snorri Sturlusson’s Edda and were used originally in the Skaldic poetic form. This removes the language of Rimur far from the daily speech of the Icelanders and means that an understanding of the mythology which they often refer to is essential.
The other unique aspect about Rimur is the way they are performed. The golden age of the rhymes was on the 18th and 19th centuries after the readings of sagas and dancing had been outlawed. The rhymes at this time were most commonly chanted at farms during a nightly ceremony where families would meet in the (living room and while they continued with the day’s work – scraping sheep skins, sewing, weaving etc. – someone would often chant Rimur, either from the many manuscripts which were written and passed around from farm to farm, or simply from memory.
The performer would take up a space in the room, sit down in a chair and recite these stories as people worked by candlelight. Traditionally the reader would begin with an introductory stanza, usually a praise to women or a ditty about the tribulations of love. These were usually unrelated to the subject matter of the Rimur and increasingly they were omitted in performances that delayed the progress of the story.
One of the most immediate things to grab you about Rimur is the way it is sung. The chant is reminiscent – and possibly derived from – ancient European styles such as Gregorian chanting. The melodies often bear a resemblance to middle eastern chants but there are no obvious connections between the Icelandic Rimur and the Arabic scales. The melodies did not come with inherent rhythms; they followed the rhythm of the text, making each melody unique.