Heithreksgátur – Heithrek’s Riddles.

A.k.a The Riddles of King Heithrek.(1)

Riddles belong to the popular amusements of probably all races endowed with sufficient intellectual vivacity and reflective power to discover analogies. Yet but few collections of them possess literary value, or even originality, of any sort.

 As is so frequently the case, our Old Norse representative of this genre does show originality, both in subject and treatment. Moreover, though the collection is restricted in extent, and cannot, as a whole, lay claim to great esthetic merit, it is of exceeding interest through its revealing autochthonous, naïve folk-thought. Most of its riddles are based on specifically North Scandinavian, or at least, Northern, environment, beliefs, and conceptions; and are presented in the patterns evolved in the same region the greater part in more or less regular fornyrthislag and lióthaháttr stanzas. Again, the plastic genius of the North is evident in the many sharply observed traits of nature, whose outlines are not blurred by too great subtlety. Compared with them, the only other notable extant Old Germanic collection, viz., the Anglo-Saxon riddles of the Exeter Book, will at once be seen to have all the earmarks of sophistication. And, notwithstanding the several distinct levels of style, ranging from the homespun manner of such riddles as the seventh, twelfth, sixteenth, and twenty-eighth, to the elaborate skaldic diction, with involved kennings, of a few others, these Northern riddles nowhere smack of “learning.”

Intrinsically, the collection has nothing to do with the Hervarar saga in which it occurs, but has been rather skillfully connected with it by means of the widespread folklore motif of a king or giant allowing some one in his power to ransom himself, or attain the sought object, by guessing or propounding riddles. With variations, it is used in Old Norse literature in such poems as Vafthrúthnismól, Alvíssmól, Baldrs draumar, Fiolsvithsmól; but, to be sure, for the ulterior purpose of inculcating the knowledge of mythical lore.

 The translation here offered follows the arrangement of the Hauksbók MS—or rather, its derivatives—which is according to form, rather than to contents; which latter is the principle followed by the other main MS of the Hervarar saga.

 According to the saga, Hervor has two sons by King Heithrek, Angantýr and Heithrek; of whom the latter inherits both the ruthlessness of his mother and the wisdom of his father. When king, he makes the vow “that, however much a man had wronged him, he should have the chance of trial by his councillors, and that he should go scotfree, if he could propound any riddle the king could not solve, or else lose his head.” A certain thane of Heithrek’s, Gestumblindi,(2) had incurred the wrath of the king. In his distress he sacrificed to Óthin. One night a man came to Gestumblindi, so like him that no one could tell them apart. They exchanged garments and the stranger went up to court as Gestumblindi and insisted on his right to free himself by propounding riddles to the king.

1 – More properly, they are to be solved by him.

2 – I.e., probably, Gest hinn blindi, “Gest the blind.” This name, of course, properly belongs to Óthin himself.

Source


Gestumblindi said ;

1.
“That would I have which I had yesterday;
    heed what I had:
men’s hamperer, word’s hinderer,
    and speeder of speech.
Alright read now this riddle, Heithrek!”

Heithrek said ;

“Good is thy riddle, Gestumblindi,
    and guessed it is:
give him ale! That hampers many a man’s wits; 
by it, some become talkative, 
but other men’s wits are mazed.”

Gestumblindi said ;

2. 
“From home I hied me, and from home faring
    I saw a way of ways:
was a way beneath and a way above,
    and ways there were on all sides.
Alright guess now this riddle, Heithrek!”

Heithrek said ;

“Good is thy riddle, Gestumblindi,
    and guessed it is:
You went over a bridge, the river ran under it, 
the birds flew above your head 
and on either side of you that was their way.”

Gestumblindi said ;

3.
“What drink was it I drank yesterday?
    ’twas neither wine nor water,
neither mead nor ale, nor meat,(3) either;
    yet went I thirstless thence.
Alright guess now this riddle, Heithrek!”

Heithrek said ;

“Good is thy riddle, Gestumblindi,
    and guessed it is.
you lay down in the shade 
where the dew had fallen on the grass, 
and this cooled your lips and quenched your thirst.

Gestumblindi said ;

4.
“Harshly he clangs, on hard paths treading
    which he has fared before.
Two mouths(4) he has, and mightily kisses,
    and on gold alone he goes.
Alright guess now this riddle, Heithrek!”

Heithrek said ;

“Good is thy riddle, Gestumblindi,
    and guessed it is:
that is the goldsmith’s hammer 
with which gold is beaten.”

Gestumblindi said ;

5.
“Who is the great one that glides o’er the earth,
    and swallows both waters and woods?
The wind he fears, but wights nowise,
    and seeks to harm the sun.
Alright guess now this riddle, Heithrek!”

Heithrek said ;

“Good is thy riddle, Gestumblindi,
    and guessed it is:
That is the fog. One cannot see the sun because of him, 
but he disappears when the wind blows, 
and men can do naught against him. 
He kills the light of the sun.”

Gestumblindi said ;

6.
“Who is the mighty one who o’er much has sway,
    the half of whom turns toward Hel?
He saves many men but slashes the earth,
    if fast with trusty friend.
Alright guess now this riddle, Heithrek!”

Heithrek said ;

“Good is thy riddle, Gestumblindi,
    and guessed it is:
That is the anchor, with a stout and strong rope. 
It guards many a ship. 
It grips the earth with one fluke which thus turns Hel-ward. 
Many a man has been saved by it.”

Gestumblindi said ;

7.
“On high fells what lives? What falls in deep dales?
Without air what lives? What is not ever silent?
Alright guess now this riddle, Heithrek!”

Heithrek said ;

“Good is thy riddle, Gestumblindi,
    and guessed it is:
the raven always lives on high fells, 
the dew always falls in deep dales, 
the fish live without air, 
and the roaring waterfall is never silent.”

Gestumblindi said ;

8.
“What marvel is it which without I saw,
    before Delling’s-door,(5)
with his head ever Hel-ward turning,
    with his feet seeking the sun.
Alright guess now this riddle, Heithrek!”

Heithrek said ;

“Good is thy riddle, Gestumblindi,
    and guessed it is:
That is the leek: its head(6) 
turns into the earth, 
but the leaves, upward.”

Gestumblindi said ;

9.
“What marvel is it which without I saw,
    before Delling’s-door?
Were twain briskly, and breathless withal.
    boiling a wand-of-wounds.(7)
Alright guess now this riddle, Heithrek!”

Heithrek said ;

“Good is thy riddle, Gestumblindi,
    and guessed it is:
they are the smith’s bellows; 
they blow but have no breath.”

Gestumblindi said ;

10.
“What marvel is it which without I saw,
    before Delling’s-door?
The white fliers on the flagstones bounded.
    but the swart ones sank in the sand.
Alright guess now this riddle, Heithrek!”

Heithrek said ;

“Good is thy riddle, Gestumblindi,
    and guessed it is:
they are hail and rain; because the hail beats on the flags, 
but the rain drops sink in the sand and go into the ground.”(8)

Gestumblindi said ;

11.
“What marvel is it which without I saw,
    before Delling’s-door?
A black boar saw I bask in the mud,
    yet no bristles stood on his back.
Alright guess now this riddle, Heithrek!”

Heithrek said ;

“Good is thy riddle, Gestumblindi,
    and guessed it is:
that is the dung-beetle.”

Gestumblindi said ;

12.
“What marvel is it which without I saw,
    before Delling’s-door?
Ten tongues has it, has twenty eyes
and forty feet, slowly fares that wight.
Alright guess now this riddle, Heithrek!”

Heithrek said ;

“Good is thy riddle, Gestumblindi,
    and guessed it is:
you saw a sow in the farmyard with nine shoats in her.” 
Then the king had the sow killed, 
and nine pigs were found in her, 
just as Gestumblindi had said.

Gestumblindi said ;

13.
“What marvel is it which without I saw,
    before Delling’s-door?
Upward it flies with eagle’s voice,
    and hard grip its claws the helmet.(9)
Alright guess now this riddle, Heithrek!”

Heithrek said ;

“Good is thy riddle, Gestumblindi,
    and guessed it is:
that is the arrow.”

Gestumblindi said ;

14.
“What marvel is it which without I saw,
    before Delling’s-door?
Eight feet it has and four eyes,
    and its knees are above its belly.
Alright guess now this riddle, Heithrek!”

Heithrek said ;

“Good is thy riddle, Gestumblindi,
    and guessed it is:
it is the spider.”

Gestumblindi said ;

15.
“What marvel is it which without I saw,
    before Delling’s-door?
It lights for men, and swallows up lights,(10)
    and wolves seek ever to win it.
Alright guess now this riddle, Heithrek!”

Heithrek said ;

Good is thy riddle, Gestumblindi,
    and guessed it is:
that is the Sun. 
He lights all the world and shines on all men; 
but there are two wolves, hight Skalli and Hatti, 
one of whom goes before, and the other follows, the sun.”(11)

Gestumblindi said ;

16.
“What marvel is it which without I saw,
    before Delling’s-door?
Harder than horn, blacker than Hel,(12)
whiter than shell of egg,(13) 
straighter than shaft of spear.
Alright guess now this riddle, Heithrek!”

Heithrek said ;

“Good is thy riddle, Gestumblindi,
    and guessed it is:
that is obsidian, with the sun shining on it.”

Gestumblindi said ;

17.
“Two brides did bear, 
white-blond their locks,
and house-maids were they 
ale-casks homeward;
were they not shaped by hand 
nor by hammers wrought;
yet upright(14) sate he 
on the isles, 
who made them.
Alright guess now this riddle, Heithrek!”

Heithrek said ;

“Good is thy riddle, Gestumblindi,
    and guessed it is:
you saw two female swans going to their nests to lay their eggs. 
Their shells are neither hand-made nor wrought by hammers; 
but the he-swan sits out on the islands, 
he that gat their eggs with them.”

Gestumblindi said ;

18.
“Who be the women on wilding fell?
    One bears a babe by the other,
and maid by maid a man-child begets,
    yet man has not touched these maids.
Alright guess now this riddle, Heithrek!”

Heithrek said ;

“Good is thy riddle, Gestumblindi,
    and guessed it is:
they are two angelica stalks standing together, 
with a shoot(15) coming up between them.”

Gestumblindi said ;

19.
“Who be the women who, weaponless,
    for their king kill each other?
Every day the dark ones shield him,
    but the fair ones aye go forth.(16)
Alright guess now this riddle, Heithrek!”

Heithrek said ;

“Good is thy riddle, Gestumblindi,
    and guessed it is:
That is the game of hneftafl: 
weaponless, 
the figures slay each other for the sake of their king. 
The red ones(17) are his followers.(18)

Gestumblindi said ;

20.
“Who be the playmates that pass over the lands,
    seeming fair(19) to their father?
A white shield they show in winter,
    and a swart one in summer.
Alright guess now this riddle, Heithrek!”

Heithrek said ;

“Good is thy riddle, Gestumblindi,
    and guessed it is:
they are the ptarmigans. 
They are white in winter and black in summer.”

Gestumblindi said ;

21.
“Who be the sisters that sorrowing fare,
    seeming fair to their father?
Many a man their might hath known
    and thus they live their lives.
Alright guess now this riddle, Heithrek!”

Heithrek said ;

“Good is thy riddle, Gestumblindi,
    and guessed it is:
They are the billows. 
They are called the maids of Ægir.”(20)

Gestumblindi said ;

22.
“Who be the maids that fare, many together,
    seeming fair to their father?
Whitish hair have the white-hooded ones,
    and no man is with the maids.
Alright guess now this riddle, Heithrek!”

Heithrek said ;

“Good is thy riddle, Gestumblindi,
    and guessed it is:
but these are the waves, as before.”

Gestumblindi said ;

23.
“Who be the widows that band all together,
    seeming fair to their father?
They are seldom kind to sailor-folk,
    and are wide awake in the wind.
Alright guess now this riddle, Heithrek!”

Heithrek said ;

“Good is thy riddle, Gestumblindi,
    and guessed it is:
they are Ægir’s widows. 
Thus are called the breakers.”

Gestumblindi said ;

24.
“Who be the women that wade in the surf
    and fare along the firths?
A hard bed have the white-hooded ones,
    and quiet are they in calm.
Alright guess now this riddle, Heithrek!”

Heithrek said ;

“Good is thy riddle, Gestumblindi,
    and guessed it is:
they are the billows—their beds are skerries and shingle, 
and they become somewhat sluggish in calm weather.”

Gestumblindi said ;

25.
“I saw traveling a soil’s-earth-dweller,(21)
    a corpse sate on a corpse;
one blind rode a blind thing to the billows’-road,(22)
    and no life was in the nag.
Alright guess now this riddle, Heithrek!”

Heithrek said ;

“Good is thy riddle, Gestumblindi,
    and guessed it is:
you came to a river, and an ice-floe floated down it. 
On the floe lay a dead horse, 
and on the horse, a dead snake; 
so that one blind thing rode another blind thing.”

Gestumblindi said ;

26.
“What creature kills the cattle men have,
    and is iron-clad, without?
Eight horns it has, but head it has none,
    and runs when run it may.
Alright guess now this riddle, Heithrek!”

Heithrek said ;

“Good is thy riddle, Gestumblindi,
    and guessed it is:
that is the húnn(23) on the checkerboard. 
It shares its name with the bear, 
and it runs as soon as it is overthrown.”

Gestumblindi said ;

27.
“What beast is it which brave men shelters?
It has a bloody back and wards off blows,
goes against spears, life-giving to some.
Against lords’ left hand it lays its body.
Alright guess now this riddle, Heithrek!”

Heithrek said ;

“Good is thy riddle, Gestumblindi,
    and guessed it is:
that is the shield. 
It often becomes bloody in battle, 
shielding those men who are handy with it.”

Gestumblindi said ;

28.
“Greatly had grown a goose with big neb,
had brought timber together, for goslings eager.
Gave shelter to her the sheaves’-bite-swords;(24)
but above it lay the drink’s- dinful-rockcave,(25)
Alright guess now this riddle, Heithrek!”

Heithrek said ;

“Good is thy riddle, Gestumblindi,
    and guessed it is:
that is a duck which had built her nest between the jaws of an ox, 
with the skull roofing above it.”

Gestumblindi said ;

29.
“Four do hang and four do gang;
two show the way, two ward off dogs;
one drags after, most often dirty.
Aright guess now this riddle, Heithrek!”

Heithrek said ;

“Good is thy riddle, Gestumblindi,
    and guessed it is:
that is a cow. 
She has four feet and four tits, 
two horns and two eyes, 
and her tail drags after her.”

Gestumblindi said ;

30.
“Who is the one that in the ashpit sleeps:
    and is only struck out of stone?
Neither father nor mother has the greedy fiend—
    there he wants to live his life.
Alright guess now this riddle, Heithrek!”

Heithrek said ;

“Good is thy riddle, Gestumblindi,
    and guessed it is:
that is the fire hidden in the hearth—it 
is struck out of flint.”

Gestumblindi said ;

31.
“A stallion stood bestriding a mare;
he put buttock ’neath belly and bobbed with his tail.
Draw it out and in, work at it long!(26)
Alright guess now this riddle, Heithrek!”

Heithrek said ;

“Good is thy riddle, Gestumblindi,
    and guessed it is:
that horse is a piece of linen on the loom. 
His mare(27) is the weaver’s reed, 
and up and down is the web to be shaken.”(28)

Gestumblindi said ;

32.
“Who be the thanes to the thing who ride?
    Sixteen are in that set.
Their liege-men send they over all the lands,
    to seek a place to settle.
Alright guess now this riddle, Heithrek!”

Heithrek said ;

“Good is thy riddle, Gestumblindi,
    and guessed it is:
they are Itrek and Andath (29) 
sitting on their checkerboard.”

Gestumblindi said ;

33.
“In the summer saw I, at sunset time,
a merry band at festive board;
the men did drink their mead in peace,
the while the mead-keg muttering stood.
Alright guess now this riddle, Heithrek!”

Heithrek said ;

“Good is thy riddle, Gestumblindi,
    and guessed it is:
that is a sow with her shoats. 
When the pigs suck her she grunts, 
while they keep quiet.”

Gestumblindi said ;

34.
“Maidens saw I which were much like dust;
    boulders served them as beds.
Are they swart and sallow in sunny weather,
    but the fairer, the fainter the light.
Alright guess now this riddle, Heithrek!”

Heithrek said ;

“Good is thy riddle, Gestumblindi,
    and guessed it is:
they are the gledes dying on the hearth.”

Gestumblindi said ;

35.
“On a sail I sate and saw dead men
who a blood-vein bore to the bark of a tree.(30)
Alright guess now this riddle, Heithrek!”

Heithrek said ;

“Good is thy riddle, Gestumblindi,
    and guessed it is:
You sate on a wall 
and saw a falcon bear 
an eider duck to the cliff.”

Gestumblindi said ;

36.
“Who are the twain that on ten feet run?
three eyes they have, but only one tail.
Alright guess now this riddle, Heithrek!”

Heithrek said ;

“Good is thy riddle, Gestumblindi,
    and guessed it is:
that is Óthin riding on Sleipnir.”(31)

Gestumblindi said ;

37.
“Guess one more riddle, since wiser thou seemest
    than any other wight:(32)
what said Óthin in Baldr’s ear
    before he was borne to the fire?”(33)

The king answered:

“But wicked spells and wantonness
    I ween that it was:
the words thou spakest no wight knoweth
    but thou, ill and unclean wight.”(34)

Then the king drew the sword Tyrfing and struck at Gestumblindi, but he changed himself into a hawk and flew out through the opening of the roof. The sword reached the hawk’s tail, and that is why it now has a short tail, so heathen folk believe. But Óthin was now enraged at Heithrek, because he had struck at him. That same night the king was killed with Tyrfing (by thralls who sought revenge and their freedom).

Source


3 – In the sense of food in general.

4 – In the Old Norse conception, the edges of a tool are called “mouths.”

5 – Possibly, a kenning for “dawn.”

6 – To be sure, only according to the Old Norse figure.

7 – Kenning for “sword.” It is “boiled,” i.e.. the metal for it is melted by the bellows fanning the fire.

8 – The solution would seem to be, rather, “melting hail.”

9 – The translation of this half-stanza is conjectural.

10 – The text is uncertain; possibly, “water (fog) swallows it.”

11 – Cf. Grímnismól, 39; where they are called Skoll and Hati.

12 – In the original: “than the raven.” In Old Norse, volcanic glass , exceedingly common in Iceland, is called “raven-flint.”

13 – Or rather, than the inner membrane of the egg.

14 – Or “eager.” Both in malam partem.

15 – In Old Norse this is called the “young” of the (Arch)angelica plant, much prized in Scandinavia as a delicacy.

16 – I.e., to assail him.

17 – I.e., the “dark ones.”

18 – This game was played on a checkerboard, with hemispherical figures of bone or glass, 12 against 13, the one party white, the other dark. The game turned on one main figure (hnefi) belonging to the dark party. The turns were decided by dice.

19 – I follow Kock’s suggestion for the translation of this formula.

20 – The god of the sea. This and the following riddles closely resemble the one in Baldr’s Dreams, 12, which there brings the dénouement. The billows “weep,” casting their kerchief-corners to the sky—a figure easily interpreted.

21 – Kenning for “worm” or “snake.”

22 – Kenning for “sea.”

23 – “She-bear.” The game here referred to may have had some resemblance to “Hound and Hare.” The figures are imagined as cattle killed by a bear. The húnn must have had the shape of a die since it is said to have eight corners (Old Norse horn may mean both “horn” and “corner”). One such figure was found in Iceland together with twenty-four others of which half were red and half, white. Bugge, Norröne Skritter at Sagnhistorisk Indhold, p. 358.

24 – Literally: “the biting-blades-of-the-straw”: Kenning for the “jaws” of an ox.

25 – Kenning for “skull”: the skull bones are compared to a passage, through stones, or a “cave,” for drink.

26 – Conjectural. The whole stanza of course in malam partem.

27 – Obviously, the two are interchanged.

28 – That is, the yarn of the woof must be alternately lifted up and pressed down with the help of the crosspiece. Bugge, loc. cit., p. 360.

29 – These are the names of the kings in a modification of chess.

30 – This is a good example of the homonym riddle. Says Bugge, ibid., p. 361: “The words that are to be guessed have two, altogether different, meanings in the original. Instead of these words, the riddle has expressions which may be said to have the same meaning as the one sense of the words to be guessed.” Thus, “dead men” is put for valr “falcon,” because this word may also signify “those fallen in battle.” Instead of æthr “eider duck” is set blóthshól “vein,” because æthr has also that sense. And apparently, according to Egilsson, segl “sail” is set for væggr “wall,” which word may also mean “wedge”—the shape of the triangular sail. The last line has so far defied explanation.

31 – Óthin’s steed which has eight legs; cf. Grímnismól, 44. Óthin himself has but one eye, having pledged the other to Mimir; cf. Voluspó, 21. This riddle properly leads to the next, and the dénouement.

32 – Prose in the original, but probably representing a half-stanza. Restored here after Bugge’s suggestion.

33 – The same, insoluble, question and thus not really a riddle is propounded in Vafthrúthnismól, 55.

34 – This stanza, likewise, is in the best MSS resolved into prose. Cf. the similar situation at the end of Grímnismól.

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