Saturday, 8 February 2014

The Anglo-Saxon Sword Riddles

The Anglo-Saxon Sword Riddles

Anglo-Saxon swords were not merely death-dealing weapons, ‘wigena weorðmynd’ (“joy of warriors” (Beowulf 1559) but potent symbols of leadership, social status and ancestral lineage. Oaths of fealty and maybe even marriage vows were sworn on the sword, probably to invoke the power of the sword-god Tiw, who protected the sanctity of oaths.

The 10th Century Exeter Book contains numerous Anglo-Saxon Riddles; two of which clearly have a sword as the solution. In her seminal book on the Anglo-Saxon sword, HR Ellis Davidson discusses the sword-riddles in some detail. In light of new discoveries; particularly that of the Staffordshire Hoard, the Sword Riddles are well worth re-examining.

Ic eom wunderlicu wiht on gewin sceapen
frean minū · leof fægre gegyrwed
byrne is min bleofag swylce beorht seo mað
wīr ymb þone wælgim þe me waldend geaf
se me widgalum wisað hwilum
sylfum to sace þōn ic sinc wege
þurh hlutterne dæg hondweorc smiþa
gold ofer geardas oft ic gæstberend
cwelle compwæpnū cyning mec gyrweð
since ond seolfre ond mec on sele weorþað
ne wyrneð wordlofes wisan mæneð
mine for mengo þær hy meodu drincað
healdeð mec on heaþore hwilum læteð eft
radwerigne on gerūm sceacan
orlegfromne oft ic oþrum scod
frecne æt his freonde fah eom ic wide
wæpnum awyrged ic me wenan ne þearf
þæt me bearn wræce on bonan feore
gif me gromra hwylc guþe genægeð
ne weorþeð sio mægburg gemicledu
eaforan minum þe ic æfter woc ·
nymþe ic hlafordleas hweorfan mote
from þā healdende þe me hringas geaf
me bið forð witod gif ic frean hyre
guþe fremme swa ic gien dyde
minū þeodne on þonc þæt ic þolian sceal
bearngestreona ic wiþ bryde ne mot
hæmed habban ac me þæs hyhtplegan
geno wyrneð se mec gearo ōn ·
bende legde forþon ic brucan sceal
on hagostealde hæleþa gestreona ·
oft ic wirum dol wife abelge
wonie hyre willan heo me wom spreceð
floceð hyre folmum firenaþ mec wordum
ungod gæleð ic ne gyme þæs
compes . . . . .

I am a wondrous wight shapen in strife,
dear to my lord and beautifully adorned.
My byrnie is beautifully patterned; likewise bright wire is hidden,
set about the death-jewel which a ruler gave me,
he, who in his wanderings, sometimes guides
me to war, himself. Then do I carry treasure
through the bright day smiths’ golden handiwork
through the dwellings. Often do I slay a living soul
with weapons of war. A king decks me out
with treasure and silver and honours me in the hall;
nor withholds words of praise, publicly proclaims
my merits before men, as they drink their mead.

He keeps me in confinement but sometimes set free again
when weary of the road keen for combat,
spears are shaken. I have often injured another severely
in the hands of his friend; I am far and wide
accursed among weapons. I must never hope
that a son will avenge me on the life of my slayer
if any fierce enemy should assail me in battle.

Nor will the family from which I sprang be increased
by any child of mine which I later engender -
unless I, lordless, must turn away
from the guardian he who gave me rings.
Henceforth I am fated if I follow a new lord
to support him in battle as I hitherto did
for my leader’s favour, that I shall forfeit
the begetting of children and not be allowed a bride;
to have sex moreover that sport
is also denied me; by him who of yore
placed his bonds upon me. Forthwith I shall enjoy
a perpetual bachelor life, the treasure of heroes.
Often, foolish in my wire-ornament, I offend a lady,
frustrate her will, she screams her distress to me;
claps her hands, tormenting me with lustful words,
evil curses. I care not for this conflict....
Ic eom rices æht reade bewæfed
stið ond steapwong staþol wæs Iu þa
wyrta wlitetorhtra nu eom wraþra laf
fyres ond feole fæste genearwad
wire geweorþad wepeð hwilum
for minum gripe se þe gold wigeð ·
þōn ic yþan sceal […]fe
hringum gehyrsted me bi[…]
[…]go[…]dryhtne min[…]
[…]wlite bete

I am a powerful man’s property clothed in gold.
My place was first the hard steep ground
with fair bright herbs. Now I am the leavings of harsh things,
the fire and the file. I am fast confined
and adorned with wires. He sometimes weeps,
he that bears gold, because of my grip.
when I must destroy… [...]
ring-adorned me [...]
[........] my master [...]
[...] splendour restored
(All translations are by the author)

The Anglo-Saxon riddles have layers of complexity which would have delighted their original audience but may baffle us today as they employ complex, highly symbolic rhetoric. The subject of the riddle is often personified and extols its virtues from the point of view of an external observer. It then most often concluded with the challenge: ‘saga hwæt ic hatte’ (Say what I am called!). This rhetorical technique is termed 'Prosopopœia'.

Riddle 20 has had three solutions proposed: namely ‘Sword’, ‘Hawk’ and ‘Phallus’. The hawk solution works to some degree but is unconvincing whereas the sword solution is fairly obvious and clear, at least initially in the first half of the passage. The phallus solution is suggested by the second portion of the riddle. Thus we are presented with a verbal puzzle with two solutions which have a degree of unity; just like the famous pommel-cap from the Staffordshire Hoard (K358) which features a helmeted moustachioed face when observed in one way and a tusked boar face when observed in another. (http://www.flickr.com/photos/staffordshirehoard/6959267909)

The observer identifies himself as a ‘bachelor-warrior’ (termed a hagostealdman in Old English - literally a ‘fenced-in dwelling man’). Such a young, unmarried warrior might also be called a geoguð (youth). The unmarried professional warrior was a recognised class in Anglo-Saxon England, as across Northern Europe, particularly in Denmark where they lived apart, building up their Óðinn-inspired esprit-de-corps.

Concerning the first section of the riddle; the term ‘shaped in strife’ brings to mind the picture of the sword-blade being beaten into shape by the muscular smith. ‘Was nicht mich umbringt, mach mich stärker!’ - to quote Nietzsche (whatever doesn’t destroy me, makes me stronger!).

The ‘byrnie’ described as bleofag, meaning ‘gleaming and beautifully patterned’, cannot refer to the sword’s sheath but must refer to the intricate beauties of a ‘pattern-welded’ blade. This was termed hringmæl or wyrmfah by the Anglo-Saxons. The ‘bright wire’ mentioned probably refers to gold filigree-work on the hilt and pommel-cap.

C7th Market-Rasen hilt fittings showing intricate 'bright wire' filligree.

The term wælgim is fascinating; it can be translated as ‘death-jewel’ or ‘killing-gem’ but is likely to refer to the blood-red garnets set into the pommel-caps of many early Anglo-Saxon swords.

Replica 'waelgim'/garnet-cloisonne sword fittings from the Staffordshire Hoard (danegeld.co.uk)
That the sword is embellished with much gold and silver is stressed. The sword’s martial virtues are lauded by its master in the mead-hall, much as today men in the pub might boast of their cars’ performance. The sword is kept confined, almost imprisoned, in its sheath, tied in by ‘peace-bands’, but is sometimes set free to do battle.

Thegns sword reconstruction 'Slithrung' showing peace-bands

At this point, the riddle becomes more cryptic; lamenting that it has neither wife nor child and will be unable to have them unless it acquires a new lord. The sword is an ancient and well-understood phallic-symbol: it represents the male (phallic) principle and its insertion into the sheath, which in Latin is vagi'na, is symbolic of the female yonic principle. Perhaps the sword laments that it is denied sexual penetration - pleasant and leading to procreation and must make do with penetrating the bodies of its master’s enemies; bloody, painful and leading to death.

Some have suggested that the last four lines describe the act of rape or, at least, sexual violence but close examination of the text suggests otherwise. The lady in question begrudges the treasure lavished on the sword’s hilts and scabbard and, moreover, sees its celibacy as a challenge and curses it. The sword, however, ‘cares not for this game ...’ and determines to, in the words of the Cliff Richard song to ‘remain a bachelor-boy until (his) dying day’.

The second riddle (71) is incomplete but clearly relates to a sword. The text makes it clear that the possession of a sword is the prerequisite of a rich and powerful man. The phrase ‘clothed in red’, in all likelihood, relates to the gold decoration on the scabbard and hilts of the sword rather than a red-coloured sword-sheath. Gold is often described as ‘read’ in Old English literature, as in Norse texts and on into the High Medieval Period and beyond. It is unclear why but by the time the riddles were composed, it is likely that ‘red gold’ had become one of the set phrases in the poetic vocabulary. ‘Reade bewæfed’ could also relate to the red garnets set into the gold of the pommel-cap.

It seems clear that the ‘stiðond steap wong’ (hard high ground) refers to iron mined from the rocks. The sword is often described poetically as ‘fela laf’ (the survivor of the files) and this is here described with the sword being ‘the leavings of harsh things’’ these being the forge-fire and the file. The sword being held ‘fast confined’ in its scabbard is once more described; giving a vivid image of its being a violent criminal eager to escape from prison in order to kill again. ‘Wire geweorþad’ directly translated as ‘decorated with wires’, might better be stated as ‘adorned with (gold) filigree'.

The remainder of the riddle is unclear but does include one telling phrase: ‘hringum gehyrsted’ - meaning ‘ring-adorned’ relates to the ring-fittings fitted (often grotesquely) to the hilts of 6th-7th century swords, which may represent oath rings. Sadly the incompleteness of the end of this riddle robs us of what may have been valuable insight into this unusual practice.

Late 6th century Buckland / 'Dover Ring Sword', British Museum
Davidson also mentions two other riddles (or ænigmata) composed in Latin hexameters by Tatwine, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 731-734 CE and Aldhelm, who was abbot of Malmesbury from 685-704 CE.
1. Armigeri dura cordis compagine fingor,
cuius et hirsuti extat circumstantia pepli,
pangitur et secto cunctum de robore culmen,
pellibus exterius strictim qui tegmina tute
offensam diris defendunt imbribus aulam. (Tatwine’s De Ense et Vag'ina).

I am formed with a hard body and a warrior’s heart, surrounded by an enveloping hairy robe; this is fixed at the top with cut wood and on the outside these coverings defend the dwelling securely with skins, when attacked by hostile showers. 

2. De terrae gremiis formabar primitus arte,
materia trucibus processit cætera tauris,
aut potius putidis constat fabricata capellis.
Per me multorum clauduntur lumina letho,
qui domini nudus nitor defendere vitam.
Nam domus est mihi constructa de tergore secto,
nec non et tabulis quas findunt stipite rasis.     (Aldhelm’s De Pugione vel Spata)

First I was skilfully formed from the lap of earth and the rest of my material came from savage bulls or else consists of what is made from stinking goats. Through me, the lights of many are extinguished in death. Naked, I strive to defend the life of my lord. For I have a home framed from cut leather and also from smoothed planks, which men cleave from the tree-trunk. 

These ænigmata are blunt and clumsy compared to the Old English riddles but are nevertheless useful, particularly by providing useful descriptions of organic sword components which do not survive well, if at all, in archaeological contexts. Aldhelm’s suggestion of the use of horn (material from savage bulls) in the sword’s construction is of particular interest. Horn is an excellent material to combine with thin gold plates (scenna) when constructing composite hilts and polishes up to a fine pale-green or dark sheen. The use of goatskin is also suggested; presumably to wrap the grip. The sword-sheath is described as being formed from leather-covered wood, while the "hairy robe" mentioned in Tatwine's enigma likely refers to the animal-skin lining within. The components and materials described match closely with conclusions drawn from analysis of finds. 

It is certain that all the sword riddles relate far better to the ornate, gold and jewel-rich weapons of the 6 - 8th centuries than the more practical ones of the later, desperate wars. They are thus likely to have been composed early on, even if only written down later. Certainly, the Latin ones date to no later than the late 7th century.

The riddles make it clear that the sword was perceived with some degree of ambiguity in Anglo-Saxon England; a sword was a source of pride to the warrior but also an instrument of death, capable of slaughtering both enemies and friends. It is interesting to note that, in Riddle 20, the narrator thinks of himself as a young bachelor-warrior, probably a member of the geoguð, rather than of the duguð; who, as older ‘tried and tested’ warriors, more likely to have wives and families. It has always been easier to get young men to fight in wars, to kill and be killed than men with responsibilities.

Quemadmodum gladius neminem occidit: occidentis telum est.
A sword never kills anyone; it is a tool in the killer's hand.    - Seneca the Younger


‘The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England’ by H.R. Ellis Davidson.
'Sheaths and Scabbards in England AD400-1100' by E. A. Cameron.

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