Commentary for Riddle 7

This post once again comes to us from Jessica Lockhart. Enjoy!

I still remember how baffled I was the first time I came across this riddle in undergrad. A person who walks on earth, inhabits a home, riles up water, and has a singing garment that lifts them over houses? Could it be a saint? Some kind of spirit? A medieval Boba Fett with a jetpack and some jingle bells?

Although Riddle 7 may sound bizarre to our ears at first, it is actually one of those riddles about which Anglo-Saxon scholars feel confident in their solution. Franz Dietrich solved the riddle definitively as ‘swan’ (OE swon or swan) in 1859 – more specifically, as some scholars since have pointed out, the riddle refers to the mute swan, cygnus olor, a species which was resident year-round in Anglo-Saxon England and found widely throughout Europe.


(This photo is from wikimedia commons (user: Arpingstone) where it is available in the public domain.)

The pivotal clue is the singing of the creature’s clothing in the final lines:

                               Frætwe mine

swogað hlude         ond swinsiað,

torhte singað,         þonne ic getenge ne beom

flode ond foldan,   ferende gæst.

(My adornments sound out loud and entune sweetly, (1) sing clearly, when I am not touching flood and fold, a soul faring.)

This is a beautiful description of the sound the mute swan’s feathers make when the swan is beating its wings in flight. Once we know the solution, the riddle’s earlier clues make sense as well: ‘treading the land’ becomes the swan’s waddle, the dwelling it settles on becomes its nest, and ‘disturbing the waters’ becomes an apt description of the paddling of the swan’s oary feet. Only when the swan is travelling in its third element, the windy air, does the swan’s clothing demonstrate its twin marvellous potentials for flight and song.

But as Megan would say, the fun doesn’t stop there. As you’ve probably noticed, this riddle uses a set of four alliterating verbs to describe the swan’s clothes: first they swigað (keep silent), and then they swogað (make a sound), *swinsiað (make melody), and singað (sing). These similar-sounding words lend the riddle some nice unity (and anticipate the final ‘sw-’ word of ‘swan’), but as Dieter Bitterli has recently shown, they also work on another level. In the Middle Ages, common wisdom held that the Latin word for swan, cygnus, came from the verb canere, ‘to sing’. Isidore of Seville gives this origin in his Etymologies, and claimed this was because the swan actually sings beautifully with its long throat. (Our legend about the dying ‘swan-song’ actually goes all the way back to ancient Greece). By connecting the swan to singing, this riddle evokes this etymology. But interestingly, instead of going with Isidore’s explanation, the Exeter riddle poet has created a set of clues that explains the mute swan’s ‘song’ using the actual behaviour of the bird, and also implies that the Old English word ‘swan’, too, reveals the bird’s connection with these verbs, especially ‘swinsiað’. (2) Neat, eh?

So, what else is interesting about this riddle? Let’s look at how this riddle establishes a worldview. The first and last sentences of this riddle do a lot of work: they convey all the essential etymological and behavioural clues for ‘swan’ and set up the rhetorical antithesis (poetic contrast) between silence and sound that forms the riddle’s semantic core. These sentences do so much work that if you were to eliminate everything but these first and last sentences, arguably the riddle would still be perfectly complete. (Short pithy riddles like it were very much the style of the Latin riddler Symphosius and several of his Anglo-Saxon followers.) But what else the riddle does, is create for us a moving meditation on the place of this extraordinary bird in a human-inhabited world. The creature lives in a dwelling, wears adornments, and treads the ground like a human, (3) and when it is carried astonishingly through the air, the riddle emphasizes how close it remains to human civilization:

Hwilum mec ahebbað         ofer hæleþa byht

hyrste mine,         ond þeos hea lyft,

ond mec þonne wide         wolcna strengu

                                                                                            ofer folc byreð.

(Sometimes my dress and this lofty air lift me over the home of heroes; and widely, then, does the clouds’ strength bear me over mankind.)

This is a trick we should watch out for in later riddles: the speaker playfully offers a perspective down on those who (if looking up) would not see an amazing speaker with singing clothes, but the bird we’d know and recognize.

There’s a playful artistry involved in making a riddle very specific while at the same time very misleading, and a new bonus level of artistry when a riddle takes something we have always accepted as normal (a water-bird, a name, a genre, an idea) and uses that concept to crack open reality like an eggshell, to show us wonder and potential that we ignore. Riddles like Exeter 7 work to show us how much more curious we should be than we are.



(1) For translating ‘swinsiað’, last week I adapted the Middle English verb ‘entune’ to convey this idea of music, and added ‘sweetly’ to preserve the ‘sw’ alliteration – it’s also my own secret clue for those who know Chaucer’s description of birdsong in The Book of the Duchess l. 309 as ‘So mery a soun, so swete entewnes.’

(2) Even more impressively, he may have been right; etymologically, the word ‘swan’ does have to do with sound.

(3) Exeter 7 is the first of a series of riddles on birds and other animals in the Exeter Book, and later riddles often closely parallel its wording. Watch out for especially close similarities when we get to Riddle 10, which I won’t spoil here.


References and Further Reading:

Bitterli, Dieter. “Tell-Tale Birds: The Etymological Principle.” In Say What I Am Called: the Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book and the Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009, pages 35-46.

Kitson, Peter. “Swans and Geese in Old English Riddles.” Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History, vol. 7 (1994), pages 79-84.

Meaney, Audrey. “Birds on the Stream of Consciousness: Riddles 7 to 10 of the Exeter Book.” Archaeological Review from Cambridge, vol. 18 (2002), pages 120-52.


One thought on “Commentary for Riddle 7

  1. Pingback: A moving spirit (ferende gæst) – Dēor-hord: a medieval and modern bestiary

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