The Ancient Art of the Rap Battle

The Ancient Art of the Rap Battle

If you think that 1980s rappers should get the credit for creating rap battles, think again. This kind of poetic verbal exchange of insults, often humorous in nature and usually done in verse, is actually quite ancient.

The contest is called flyting and its inception is attributed to the Scottish poets of the 15th century. However, they seemed to have been inspired by older Gaelic poets called filid who would write insulting poems against those who wronged them. So, in keeping with the modern comparison, flyters would engage in rap battles while filid would compose diss tracks. Actually, flytings would have been very similar to the rap battles of today. They usually took place in large buildings such as feasting halls. The contestants were free to say pretty much what they wanted, but the skill was in maintaining a poetic sound while insulting each other. At the end, the winner was judged by public reaction.

Loki and Norse Gods in Lokasenna

Flyting became quite popular in Scotland and even certain Scottish kings were known to be fans who would employ court poets to engage in flyting. One of the most famous and oldest exchanges is called The Flyting of Dumbar and Kennedie which features two professional Scottish poets (who are called makars, by the way) engaging in a flyting contest in front of King James IV. You can read the whole thing here (be advised – it’s 20 pages long). Another famous flyting belonged to poet Sir David Lyndsay who wrote it in response to a previous flyting addressed to him by James V, King of Scots.

Unsurprisingly, flyting’s increasing popularity ensured that it started making appearances in literature, as well. Shakespeare, for example, featured it in several of his plays. However, even before flyting was popular in Scotland, it was already present in certain works of literature, most famously the Lokasenna. This epic poem, roughly translated as Loki’s Quarrel, is part of the Poetic Edda, one of our main sources of information on Norse mythology. It basically presents Loki engaging in flyting with the other Nordic gods. Again, you can read it in its entirety here.



Featured image courtesy of Andrew Currie via Flickr.