We think of rap as having originated in 1970s New York, but as a rhythmic or poetic form of expression that is often interpreted as boastful or confrontational, its roots can be found across Africa, Asia, and Europe - and can be traced back to ancient Greece. However, without the ability to quiz Theocritus and his contemporaries, the weight of current historical evidence suggests that flyting, first written about in Norse, Celtic and Anglo-Saxon literature, is the most direct precedent for modern rap.
Derived from the Old English word for ‘quarrel’, flyting is described as a “ritual, poetic exchange of insults”, which were a kind of accusatory wordplay often engaged in ahead of any full-blooded combat.
In Saxon England flīting commonly took place at feasts, with the winner of a contest decided by the reaction of the audience before both competitors were allowed a celebratory swig of mead. In later centuries, flyting was considered a form of mainstream entertainment. In 15th Century Scotland, for instance, where public profanity was regularly rewarded with heavy fines and flogging, provocative oral exchanges were practically encouraged, not least by King James IV and his successor.
“Court flyting” is even practised today. It’s reported that many members of the Icelandic parliament, the Alþingi, “pride themselves on being good at composing rímur (a type of course poem evolved from Norse Edda of the 14th Century), using them to ridicule opposing parties in a friendly manner.”
One of the unwritten rules of rímur battling is that the duelists must respond in kind, or suffer ridicule and defeat, suggesting that Viking rap battlers (as can currently be seen via that other interactive Viking experience), together with the beat-driven griots of West Africa, informed a good deal more of modern American culture than most might give credit for.