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Flyting- The OG of Rap Battles, Diss Tracks and Roasts

by Kareena Dodeja
Flyting- The OG of Rap Battles, Diss Tracks and Roasts

February 8, 2021

We've all thoroughly enjoyed the MTV's Rap Battles and Comedy Central's Roasts. It's about time we know about what can be said the OG of these roasts and diss tracks- Flyting. A battle of insults and wits, flyting can be well credited for the AIB heartthrob and intense comic actions.

Practised between the 5th and 16th centuries in England and Scotland, Flyting is the “art” of using the tools of provocation, perversion and satire to tackle opponents. The term ‘flyting’ comes from the Old English and Old Norse words for ‘quarrel’ and ‘provocation.’

This is a form of poetic abuse or abusive poetry (don’t be so lyrical about it) – a precursor to today’s diss tracks and MTV’s Yo Mama.

Etymology of Flyting

The word ‘flyting’ comes from the English word, ‘filtan’ which means ‘quarrel.’ ‘Quarrel’ comes from the Old Norse word ‘flyta’ which means ‘provocation.’ The modern rap battles, which have become provocative and include accusations of cowardice or clout-chasing, take from this “art-form”.

Even Nordic literature contains stories of God’s flyting. For example, God Loki in Lokasenna, Hárbarðr (generally considered to be Odin in disguise) and other gods in the hall of ofÆgir engage in flyting with Thor in the poem Hárbarðsljóð.

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Picture showing Loki's flyting.

Flyting in the Renaissance- 'Shit Without A Wit'

The challenge of composing a retort was a verse-form to test the intelligence and wit of ancient mockers (talk about expectations). ‘Court Flyting’ was a medium of entertainment for the royals and aristocrats, predominantly found in the courts of Scottish Kings James IV and James V. A popular exchange ‘The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie’ was performed in the 16th century by William Dunbar and Walter Kennedy for James IV’s court.

A “rap battle” back then was between two clever men. Records from the past show that the first insult used in flyting was “poop”. The moment when Kennedy called Dunbar a “shit without a wit” ushered in a new era of dissing humour.

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The flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie.

Insulting Throughout History

Flyting was not the first foray of competitive insults. The famous 1938 book Homo Ludens written by Dutch historian and theorist Johan Huizinga makes the basic argument that the dawn of civilisation began when people started insulting each other rather than physically attacking each other. 

There are various forms of verbal jousting, like Japanese Haikainaqa’id in Arabic poetry and the Mande practice of Sanankuya. In Anglo-Saxon England, flyting was a common form of entertainment, and the winner was decided based on the audience’s reactions. The winner drank a large cup of beer to celebrate the victory and invited the loser to drink – all in good spirit (pun intended).

Flyting was made a form of public entertainment in Scotland in the 15th and 16th centuries where Makars (a type of poets) engaged in verbal poetic contests. Flytings even appeared in several of William Shakespeare’s plays. They were comical and ritual exchanges in tragedies often, like Troilus and Cressida.

Flyting in Assassin's Creed Valhalla

Flyting in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla takes place in medieval history. The battles in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla are fought with iron and blood. The flyting players are given options to fight with rhymes and poetry. The modern rap battles consist of exchanging insults and exciting each other up with disses.

In Eivor’s medieval European adventure, a short bar of insults is dropped, and the player is given three choices. The choices are the parameters for the most provocative and rhythmic giving Eivor some coins and popularity. Flyting in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is a duel wherein it is a rap battle where each opponent insults the other while praising them.

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Flyting in Assasin's creed Valhalla.

The practise began in the 5th century and continued till the Renaissance. By the late 9th century, flyting was considered a full-fledged cultural phenomenon throughout England and Nordics, and this practice is found in notable works of literature. Valhalla’s flyts were shorter and concise compared to an hour-long insult battle could be cumbersome.

The public perception of Vikings had painted them to be barbaric and bloodlust. They had a complex and diverse society where they produced art and explored cultures beyond any other European civilisation, including North America. Valhalla accurately depicts Vikings with the inclusion of Flyting to be a unique and essential part of their culture.

The Modern-Day Flyting to Rapping

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Modern day rapping is equivalent to flyting.

The modern-day equivalent of flyting is the rap battle, but it is unclear if the two verbal combats have a common ancestry. The late Ferenc Szasz was convinced that flyting and rap battles are similar, and there is a link between them. The hit musical Hamilton has recently proven that politicians can conduct rap battles in the cabinet, and everyone can win (influential people are always ready to spit a rhyme).

Rick Riordan’s novel The Ship of the Dead consists of flyting between Magnus Chase and the Norse God Loki. Even in the video game Monkey Island, insults are used as a part of the duel during sword fighting and arm wrestling. Flyting was and is prevalent in pop culture. It continues to show that battle of wits has way more baggage than one might imagine. 

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