People who know me will be aware that barely concealed beneath my ruthlessly sharp academic persona is a crazy cat lady begging to come out and play. Not just a cat lady, in fact: an all-the-cute-animals-all-the-time lady. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this in past posts, but it’s about to become very apparent indeed. That’s because Riddle 24 – my new favourite – has references to not one fluffy creature, not even two fluffy creatures, but SEVEN FLUFFY CREATURES!!! Yes, I’m including all the birds in this category, because baby birds are basically the best things ever.
A goose and a million goslings. Did you know when you google “gosling” all you get is a whole lot of Ryan? Photo (author: Dhinakaran Gajavarathan) from the Wikimedia Commons.
Aside from its compendium of animal noises, other special features of this week’s riddle include: a runic cypher and a narrative structure to rival that of the children’s classic, See Spot Run (just kidding).
But I’m sure you’re all dying to know the solution first. Well it turns out it isn’t so very hard to figure out if you know your runes and your Old English (and who doesn’t these days?). When we translate all the runes into the alphabet that you and I are more familiar with, we get: G, Æ, R, O, H and I. I should say that rather than a runic ᚷ (G), the manuscript actually contains the letter “x,” but editors like Craig Williamson (p. 207-9) reckon that can be marked down to a bit of scribal confusion (considering the poem lumps it in with þa siex stafas (those six characters)). So, what’s a GÆROHI? Sounds cool! But in fact it means absolutely nothing. However, if you switch the letters around enough times, you’ll end up with “higoræ” and that is most certainly a something. The specific something that it is: is a “jay” (probably).
A spelling variant of the Old English nouns higera (boy birdies) and higere (girl birdies), what we’re dealing with here is a winged creature famous for being able to mimic the sounds that other animals (and things) make. Of course, as a close relation to the (also mimicky) magpie, there has been a bit of confusion and disagreement amongst scholars. The ever-so-clever Dieter Bitterli points out that an Anglo-Saxon glossary can clear this up for us (pp. 91-7). Old English for “magpie” seems to be agu. Of course, there’s always the possibility of having more than one word for a concept, a position that’s strengthened by the fact that Latin pica can mean either “jay” or “magpie.” How about we make things more complicated? The similarity of the Latin word picus (woodpecker) has at least once confused an Anglo-Saxon translator who glossed it with higera instead of the more usual Old English fina. But it seems unlikely that the bird in this riddle is a woodpecker because woodpeckers don’t mimic…they peck. SO: we’re probably looking at a jay. Or maybe a magpie. And it’s the fault of the Old English gloss of Latin picus that woodpecker’s also in the mix.
There was also at least one kinda cray cray suggestion made well over a hundred years ago now. Emma Sonke suggested (in German, so some of you won’t be able to check up on me!) that the poem refers to an actor who mimics animal and bird sounds. Sort of like a medieval Michael Winslow (i.e. the guy from Police Academy who made all the fun noises: here have a NINE MINUTE video of him).
But in general, the fact that the runes spell out a word in Old English means solution-squabbling is not so common for this riddle. “If not solutions, then what else can you tell us, Megan?” I hear you cry. Well…I could fill up the rest of this post with pictures of the animals it names. There’s a barky dog:
I have no idea what Anglo-Saxon dogs looked like. I’m guessing like this. Photo (author: Dux) from the Wikimedia Commons.
There’s a bleaty goat:
Mommy and baby goats! Photo (author: Jason Pratt) from the Wikimedia Commons.
There’s a bellowy goose, but I already showed you tons of those.
There’s a yelly hawk:
Red-tailed hawks. Photo (author: Thomas O’Neil) from the Wikimedia Commons.
There’s an ashy eagle:
The most golden of eagles. Photo (author: Tony Hisgett) from the Wikimedia Commons.
There’s a vocal kite:
Kite in flight. Photo (no author listed) from the Wikimedia Commons.
And there’s a singy gull:
Snow-gull! Photo (author: jomilo75) from the Wikimedia Commons.
“You’re just being lazy, Megan!” I hear the particularly annoying ones among you yelling. “You can’t fill up a whole blog post with pictures of (modern) animals!” (just watch me…just you watch me). Well, I suppose you might be right. I suppose I ought to say things like “boy, isn’t there an awful lot of hwilum-anaphora going on here!” But you wouldn’t like that, would you? (P.S. “anaphora” means repeating the same word at the start of successive clauses).
But I’ve had a card hidden up my sleeve the whole time. I know what you prolly will like. Beasts of battle! I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned these in a previous post, but Old English (and other early Germanic) poets love gross, gory birds and wolves that swoop down on battles and clean up the mess (by eating people). These are pretty horrid, really, but they’re an important part of the poetics of the time. So when you see an eagle, raven or wolf in the poetry, it’s generally quite a bad sign. This poem makes the link very clear by calling the ashy eagle (a lot of eagles are described by the indistinctive colour-term hasu in OE poetry) a guðfugol (war-bird). No folks, this isn’t a military plane we’ve got here, but a literal bird-of-war. We can compare the compound to guðhafoc (war-hawk) at line 64a of The Battle of Brunanburh and herefugol at line 162b of Exodus. So next time you’re out at the park, enjoying a bit of sun, taking the air, maybe having a little walk, remember that eagles want to eat you. Maybe you can stave them off by reciting this poem to them.
Good luck with that.
Over and out.
References and Suggested Reading:
Bitterli, Dieter. 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.
Sonke, Emma. “Zu dem 25. Rätsel des Exeterbuches.” Englische Studien, vol. 37 (1907), pages 313-18.
Williamson, Craig, ed. The Old English Riddles of The Exeter Book. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977.