Viking and Anglo-Saxon sagas

Anglo-Saxon and Viking Riddles

Although the image of Vikings as a vicious, church-burning peoples is undoubtedly true, they also had a much more refined side. A side that favoured wits and knowledge. This shows in two customs the Old Norse sagas tell us about. One is a "wisdom contest" between two persons, where people take turns to ask each other questions about the world or mythology. The other is in the form of riddles.

Unfortunately, the Vikings themselves have only left us few riddles, few of which are still solvable today (more about this later on). Luckily though, their Anglo-Saxon relatives have left us more. In the 10th century Exeter Book, more than 90 riddles were written down. The answers are not given though, and quite often there's actually more than one possible solution. It is therefore thought that the riddles were also a way of provoking discussion about the possible answers. Most of the Anglo-Saxon riddles are given from the perspective of the often inanimate subject. This is very characteristic of Anglo-Saxon literature: in the poem The dream of the Rood it goes as far as the cross recounting the crucifixion of Jesus.

It's interesting to note that the Anglo-Saxon riddles had an echo in modern literature, when in 1937 an Oxford professor of Anglo-Saxon recreated the practice for a novel. Many will recall the riddle battle between Bilbo Baggins and Gollum in J.R.R. Tolkien's story The Hobbit, just one of the countless references to Anglo-Saxon and Viking culture in his books.

Oft I'll fight the wind / and war with waves,
fight them both / as I fall to the bottom.
This wave-covered world / looks weird to me.
I'm strong in this strife / if I stay still;
but should I move / they're stronger than me.
They tear me away / at once make me flee,
and want to take / what I try to protect.
If my tail endures / they don't succeed.
I'll resist / if the stones
hold me firm. / Now how's my name?


The ocean fed me / over me was the sea;
waves covered me, / close to the ground.
Footless I often, / when the flood came,
opened my mouth. / Now men do eagerly
desire my meat; / with a sharp knife
they cut my skin, / discard my hide,
before they swiftly / swallow my flesh:
they eat me uncooked.

Oyster. Skin and hide are of course its shell.

Alone I wage war, / wounded by steel,
wounded by swords. / Weary of war,
weary of blades. / I battle often.
All I see / is savage fighting.
No assistance will come / for my cursed self,
ere I demise / amidst men.
But the enemy strikes me / with sharp edges:
smiths made those / with mighty hammers.
They batter me in cities. / I shall abide
the meeting of foes. / Among healers
I never met / in men's towns
those who with herbs / could heal my wounds.
But the wounds and cuts / become wider
through death-blows / day and night.


My head was forged / by hammer's hit,
pricked by a point / and polished by files.
What comes before me, / I frequently eat.
With rings adorned / I doth strike,
hard against hard, / a hole in my back.
Shoved forth / I shall defend
my master's money / amidst the night.
Sometimes I spin / my skull backwards,
when my lord wants me / - the warden of his wealth -
to hand him the treasures / of hundreds of heroes
he killed in battle / to capture their gold.

Key. Perhaps the lock too, as it seems from line 3.

It beautifully hangs / by a bloke's thigh,
under the master's shirt / it hangs stiff and hard.
A hole in its head, / it's got a heavenly place
when the young lad / lifts his shirt
over his hips. / With the head of what hangs
he wants to visit / the well-known hole
of fitting length / he's filled before.

Key again, although this is perhaps one of the clearest examples of the double entendre often found in Anglo-Saxon riddles. Since the Exeter Book was compiled in a monastery, riddles like this one make you wonder how pious monastic life really was in those times.

Long ago / they left me for dead,
my father and mother, / before my birth.
My body still cold, / A kinswoman found me,
covered me with her clothes / and cared for me,
kept me warm / and warmly embraced me,
- to her own kids / not kinder than me -
'till under her lap / to life I came
and grew into a stranger, / a strong guest.
My guardian woman / gave me food
until I grew / and my travels became
increasingly longer. / Because of her kindness
less of her lads / and lasses live.


Many of the Norse riddles are much more obscure than the Anglo-Saxon ones: answers (they are given in the Norse riddles) like "a dead snake on a dead horse on an iceberg" are not uncommon. Perhaps this is because the main source is a saga in which the (disguised) god of wisdom Odin himself fights a riddle contest against king Heiðrek, one of the wisest legendary kings, and therefore the riddles are not meant to be solvable for "normal people". Nevertheless, a few easy riddles are interjected between the hard ones. One can only wonder if the bards of old would pause their songs here, and give the youth a chance to solve them.

You may notice that the poetic metre is different from that of the Anglo-Saxon riddles. Whereas the Anglo-Saxon poems are constructed of two half-lines per line, with two lifts per half-line, the Old-Norse riddles put whole lines with three lifts between those. This newer metre, very characteristic for Viking poetry, is called the ljóðaháttr, or song-metre.

I yearn to have / what I had yesterday.
What do I long for, my lord?
It hurts men / and hinders words,
yet also elevates speech.
Can you solve / oh King, this riddle?

Ale. It causes hangovers and tends to keep people from saying anything useful, yet also makes people talkative.

Who is that giant / that goes o'er the earth
who swallows the waters and woods,
who dreads the wind / but doesn't fear men
and fiercely fights the sun?
Can you solve, / oh King, this riddle?


What is that wonder / that walks in this world,
before the doors of Delling1?
It's got eight eyes / and eight feet
and knees above its belly.
Can you solve, / oh King, this riddle?

Spider. Interestingly, the original speaks of four eyes, whereas by far the most spiders have eight eyes. Perhaps the poet meant four pairs of eyes?

I went from home / when this happened:
I saw a road of roads.
A road above / a road below
A road in all directions.
Can you solve, / oh King, this riddle?

Bridge. The road below is the river, which fish and boats use for transport. Above is the sky, used by birds (and aircraft nowadays).

What is that wonder / that walks in this world,
before the doors of Delling?
Down to Hel / his head is turned;
his feet face the sun.
Can you solve, / oh King, this riddle?

A leek.

Who are the maidens / on the mountains of Regin?
A woman seduces a woman.
A girl's with a girl / till they get a son
yet neither has a husband.
Can you solve, / oh King, this riddle?

Two stalks of Angelica. Although they're quite alike, they can fertilise each other.

Who are those girls / that go for the king?
They charge the unarmed chief.
The black fighters / defend all day
while the white ones attack.
Can you solve, / oh King, this riddle?

A game of Tafl, a board game popular in Viking-age Scandinavia.

What is that wonder / that walks in this world,
before the doors of Delling?
White they fly / when they fall onto stone
but dark they dig into sand.
Can you solve, / oh King, this riddle?

Hail and rain. Hail is white if it strikes the ground, but the molten drops darken the sand.

Who are those women / that walk near the coast
and take trips down the fjords?
Their beds are hard, / their hoods are white.
They seldom play when it's still.

Breakers. The seabed is hard, and they show more when it's stormy weather.

1 Delling is likely the personified dawn. This would make the meaning of this phrase "at sunrise". Many riddles start with this same phrase, so it doesn't have any particular meaning here. In the saga, the annoyed king Heiðrek even remarks: "But can you not pose your riddles in a better way than have the same beginning for each […]?"

© 2016 F.D.W. Radstake, CC-BY 4.0


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