Riddle 60 – The Medium Is The Message

The 95 riddles in the Exeter Book are not for the faint hearted and this humble scribe normally safeguards his mental health by staying well clear of them. But a possible connection with The Husband’s Message has forced my hand on this occasion. See my post on The Husband’s Message here.)

Riddle 60, which is found immediately before The Husband’s Message, has attracted considerable attention since F. A. Blackburn proposed in 1900 that the two pieces were actually one poem. This idea seems attractive, because both pieces seem to deal with a message of some sort. But Blackburn’s hypothesis is generally rejected today. The original with Blackburn’s emendations is as follows:

Ic wæs be sonde,      sæwealle neah,
æt merefaroþe,      minum gewunade
frumstaþole fæst;      fea ænig wæs
monna cynnes,      þæt minne þær
5
on anæde      eard beheolde,
ac mec uhtna gehwam      yð sio brune
lagufæðme beleolc.      Lyt ic wende
þæt ic ær oþþe sið      æfre sceolde
ofer meodu[drincende]      muðleas sprecan,
10
wordum wrixlan.      þæt is wundres dæl,
on sefan searolic      þam þe swylc ne conn,
hu mec seaxe[s] ord      ond seo swiþre hond,
eorles ingeþonc      ond ord somod,
þingum geþydan,      þæt ic wiþ þe sceolde
15
for unc anum twa[m]      ærendspræce
abeodan bealdlice,      swa hit beorna ma
uncre wordcwidas      widdor ne mænden.

Blackburn’s translation is as follows:

My home was on the beach near the sea-shore ;
Beside the ocean’s brim I dwelt, fast fixed
In my first abode. Few of mankind there were
That there beheld my home in the solitude,
But every morn the brown wave encircled me
With its watery embrace. Little weened I then
That I should ever, earlier or later.
Though mouthless, speak among the mead-drinkers
And utter words. A great marvel it is,
Strange in the mind that knoweth it not.
How the point of the knife and the right hand,
The thought of a man, and his blade therewith.
Shaped me with skill, that boldly I might
So deliver a message to thee
In the presence of us two alone,
That to other men our talk
May not make it more widely known.

Now the message in The Husband’s Message is carved on a tree or a mast, as is clear from the phrase se þisne beam agrof at line 13. Blackburn’s position is that the message from the Husband in the next poem is carved on a piece of wood and that the initial lines in the riddle refer to a tree. But the speaker, whatever it is, was on the sand, by the sea-wall, near the waves. Every night the dark waves played around him in a watery embrace. Here, at the edge of the sea, it is hard to see the speaker being a tree, as the tidal salt water would kill it. The description would fit a reed and one plausible explanation by Baum is that the speaker is a pen made from a reed. We will come back to this.

There are three emendations, at lines 9, 12 and 15. The change at line 15 is clear and we need not worry about it. But the other two lines are puzzling.

There are two problems with the proposed emendation at line 9. The line in the MS reads: ofer meodu   muðleas sprecan. The first problem is that there is no space after ‘meodu’ to justify adding another word. The second is that the resulting half-line only has a single alliterating word. Neither of these objections are fatal, but should lead us to look at the line again. Why do we need to change meodu to meodudrincende or meodubence (ASCP)? Presumably the first half-line is felt to be too short and the preposition ofer presents some difficulties if it only governs medu. With the acc. it can mean during, but the normal way of saying this is æt or to medu. These are reasonable points. One thing that struck me early on was that there is a word ofermede which means ‘proud’ (cf. German Übermut). If we look to line 16, we see that the message is being delivered ‘boldly’, so this would fit nicely. Note that the adjectival ending -u would have to be either f. s. nom.-acc. or n. pl. nom.-acc. Otherwise, we can stick with ofer and translate loosely as ‘over a drink’.

As for the weak alliteration and short half-line, wouldn’t it be better to look for another word starting with ‘m’? I would suggest that mæl (f. = ‘conversation’) is a pretty good candidate. In The Battle Of Maldon, we have the following line:

gemuna þa mæla þe we oft æt meodo spræcon

where mæl is found with sprecan and meodo. Mæl is also feminine, so it matches ofermedu.

Perhaps then we should emend line 9 to read:

[mæl ofermedu],   muðleas sprecan

At line 12 the MS has seaxeð, which all editors emend to seaxes. This change, while in itself quite sensible, leaves the infinitive geþydan in line 14 without a governing verb. Whatever seaxeð was supposed to mean, at least it had a verbal ending and might have governed geþydan. The only verb which can govern mec in line 12 is this geþydan, two lines later, which is acceptable but not required for the sense. Once again we have a line with only a single alliterating word in the first half. Not only that, but the repetition of ord in two successive lines seems suspect. No simple emendation will solve these last two issues, but if we change mec to meg, mæg, at least we will have a verb to govern the hanging infinitive.

So I suggest emending line 12 to read:

hu me[g] seaxe[s] ord      ond seo swiþre hond

These emendations would tidy up the grammar and metre, but they do nothing to alter the meaning, which is still far from clear.

If the speaker is a reed pen, then the reference to the seaxes ord would fit the sense, as the pen has to be sharpened, although actually ord is the point, not the blade of the knife. The second occurrence of ord would then refer to the pen’s own point. However, it seems odd that a pen is conceived as delivering (abeodan bealdlice) a message. A pen writes a message, but the letter or other written medium actually delivers it – the pen is not present at the delivery. For this reason Blackburn thought that the speaker is a letter. In order to tie this to the following poem, he had to read the first passage on the beach as referring to a tree, which is unlikely on grounds of basic botany. So Blackburn’s idea that the two poems are connected cannot be accepted. However, he still may be right that the speaker in Riddle 60 is a letter.

If we go with the reed idea for a letter, we could think of papyrus, which is a kind of reed, being transformed into paper. Now the Anglo-Saxons had some idea about papyrus, because the word is found in at least one glossary. But they almost certainly didn’t use it, as its use died out even in France by the 8th century. The Popes still used it for Papal Bulls until after the turn of the millenium, so presumably monks would have known about it. The reference to the seaxes ord, while fitting a reed pen, doesn’t really fit paper, as the text is not cut into it. There is however a word writseax, which means pen. Alternatively, we could have a pun here, as secg means both ‘reed’ (i.e. ‘sedge’) and ‘sword’. Ecg is also a synonym for ord,  seaxes ecg is the same as seaxes ord. So papyrus made from reeds is clearly a possible answer. Another similar suggestion cited by Baum, that the letter is written on kelp, is intriguing, but seems too abstruse to be an acceptable answer.

Is there any other possibility? One other idea that comes to mind is that the speaker might be a piece of whale bone, which was found washed up on a remote beach and remained lodged where it landed (minum gewunade frumstaþole fæst). Whale bone would be a suitable medium for carving messages – other kinds of bone were used for amulets (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lindholm_amulet).

Another intriguing possibility is the word eolhsecg, which means a kind of reed with sharp edges. The rune which is used for the sound ‘x’ has a name which is connected to this. Exactly what the rune’s name is is not clear, but it is either eol(h)x or eolhsecg. The Salzburg Futhorc has ilcs, while the Hickes version of the Rune Poem has eolhx, both genitives of eolh (‘elk’). Neither of these sources is completely reliable and the use of a genitive as a rune name has always looked a little strange.

The passage from the Rune Poem dealing with this rune joins it with the word secg:

 eolhx (eolhx) secg eard hæfþ oftust on fenne,
wexeð on wature, wundaþ grimme,
blode breneð* beorna gehwylcne
ðe him ænigne onfeng gedeð.

*breneð  = bærneð? ‘burns’ (B-T), Clarke Hall suggests “stains”

It is possible that the name of the rune, or at least an alternative name, was actually eolhsecg, not eolhx. If the rune poem or something like it was used orally as an aide-memoire for the rune names, confusion as to whether the name of the rune was eolx or eolhsecg could easily arise. I note that Toller, in his Supplement to the Bosworth-Toller Dictionary, deletes the entry for eolhx and gives the rune name as eolhsecg. The entry in Clarke Hall for eolhsecg also states that this is the name of the rune.

The interesting thing here is that, if eolhsecg is the name of the rune, then it is a perfect solution to Riddle 60. The first 6 ½ lines would refer to the reed eolhsecg, while the rest of the riddle would refer not to a letter written on papyrus, but to a letter within a letter, i.e. the rune X which has the name eolhsecg. This is a better solution than a message on papyrus because:

  • The Anglo-Saxons didn’t use papyrus
  • It gives a more natural sense to lines 12 and 13 (seaxes ord ond seo swiþre hond, eorles ingeþonc ond ord somod), which would refer to the carving of runes
  • It explains why the speaker is being “joined” to the enterprise (þingum geþydan), as a rune would be added to other runes to spell out the message.
  • It gives better sense to “on sefan searolic þam þe swylc ne conn“, as not everyone can read runes.

The only problem is that it can’t be proven that the name of the rune was eolhsecg and not eolhx. Still, I believe this is the correct solution.

So I have three suggestions for the meaning of Riddle 60:

  • A letter on papyrus.
  • A letter on whale bone.
  • The rune eolhx ‘eolhsecg’.

Take your pick. For my money, the last one is the winner.

It all sounds a bit like modern communications theory — either ‘the medium is the message’, or the text is speaking to us!

BTW, if you like Anglo-Saxon riddles, the complete text of  Baum’s Anglo-Saxon riddles of the Exeter Book is available on Wikisouce  here.

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