30th Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval Studies
Fordham University, Lincoln Center, New York City: March 27-28, 2010

Hannah Burrows, "From Darkness Comes Light: Reading Medieval Scandinavia from the Perspective of Riddles"

Dismissed as neither as literary nor as complex as the Anglo-Saxon Exeter Book riddles, and denying scholars the opportunity to debate their solutions, given in the text with the questions themselves, the collection of 37 Old Norse riddles preserved as part of Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks has been largely neglected in the scholarship, particularly in recent times. However, both individually and as a collection, the riddles offer exciting new perspectives on more traditional areas of study, and on literary genres, entertainment and learning in medieval Scandinavia. Among them are unusual poetic forms (e.g. greppaminni, riddle 7,1 ófljóst, riddle 35); tantalising mythological references (e.g. wave-maidens, riddles 21-4, Ítrekr and Andaðr, riddle 32); echoes of eddic texts (e.g. Fjölsvinnsmál, riddle 3, Hávamál, riddles 8-16, Vafþrúðnismál, riddle 37); and creative depictions of everyday Scandinavian objects. Their preservation is somewhat enigmatic in itself: why, apart from a scant few other traces, are these our only record of medieval Scandinavian riddles? And what is their relationship to other wisdom poetry? Are they literary entertainment, as their fornaldarsaga context indicates? Or, as would be analogous with other early European cultures, did they originate in a more learned environment, as riddle 25’s citation in the Third Grammatical Treatise and their parallel with the (separate) riddles found in the Laufás Edda redaction of Snorri’s Edda might suggest? Moreover, the riddles have an intriguing reception history, with a complex set of manuscript relations and a little-known seventeenth-century commentary by Björn á Skarðsá. The solutions to the riddles might not be in doubt, but there remains much to puzzle over, and rich rewards to be gleaned. My paper aims to rehabilitate the riddles into medieval Scandinavian literary and cultural studies, and in doing so, will demonstrate the new dimensions they can bring to our understanding of poetry, mythology, and society.


1 References are to the new edition forthcoming in Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages, http://skaldic.arts.usyd.edu.au/db.php.


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