While the solutions that have been proposed for this riddle range from ‘alchemy’ and ‘baptism’ to ‘bubble’ and ‘water lily’, the most commonly accepted solution is ‘barnacle goose’ (Old English byrnete). This puts this riddle in line with the preceding bird riddles – once again the bird speaks of itself in the first person and tells the audience of its particular identifying characteristic: in this case, the genesis of the bird from wood and water. It was commonly believed in medieval times that barnacle geese were somehow grown from the barnacle shells that cling to driftwood floating in the sea. In fact, the word ‘barnacle’ stems from the name for the bird rather than the other way around! And while this folk belief in the origin of the barnacle goose pops up a lot in the later Middle Ages, this riddle is in fact the earliest evidence that people thought this. Dieter Bitterli, whose work on the bird riddles has already been mentioned in some of the other commentaries, suggests that this myth may have originated in Britain where the arctic barnacle geese spend the winter and was handed down over generations to the authors of later medieval zoology text books.
The process of the birth of the barnacle goose is somewhat obscurely referred to in lines 4b – 5 (with the bird’s body ‘touching’ a floating piece of wood) and in the first half-line, which might allude to the bird’s hanging from the piece of wood by its beak, thus obtaining nourishment. Another characteristic is the ‘black garment’ with ‘white trappings’ which the speaker describes (see below for visual proof of this, though there are probably many other creatures to whom this might apply!). And barnacle geese are indeed ‘carried widely over the seal’s bath’ – they breed on islands in the North Atlantic and come south to winter in Great Britain and the Netherlands (nothing like a balmy British winter to take the chill off…).
One interesting expression in this riddle is the feorh cwico of l. 6. I’ve translated this as ‘living spirit’, but Leslie Lockett discusses feorh as meaning something more like ‘life-force’, something that has to enter a thing to give it life – even one born from wood and water! If you look back at Riddle 9, the cuckoo likewise explains that it did not have feorh when it was in the egg, so it’s something that comes with being born. And like the cuckoo, which was covered in a protective garment, the barnacle goose is protected by water which allows it to grow and become lifgende.
For those of you who might now be worrying that the Anglo-Saxons were a bit obsessed by birds, stay tuned for the next post’s change in direction.