The Riddles of the Mead Halls

I’ve been reading a lot about the Saxons over the summer, and our visit to Yeavering inspired me to dig deeper into so-called ‘Dark Age’ life and what went on in those great mead halls. As a picture emerged of Saxon-style downtime, I was particularly intrigued by the entertainment that accompanied all the feasting which seems to have involved a fair bit of verse in one form or another. As someone who can listen to the beguiling Old English tongue until the proverbial cows come home, I wanted to get a taste of what I might hear at an Anglo-Saxon gathering, so when we visited Lindisfarne Priory I found a book that would help me get into the revellers’ heads. So come along to the feast, fill your goblet with mead and lend me your ears for some fanciful poetry and some fine music, and you can even try solving a riddle or two…

Come join the fun: a reconstruction of an Anglo-Saxon mead hall feast.

Communal feasts were an important part of Saxon society, taking a variety of forms from informal community get-togethers to ritual or ceremonial gatherings. The act of eating and drinking together within the lord’s timber hall served to promote and reward worthy retainers, reinforce social bonds and seal new deals. Amid a spirited atmosphere the meal itself was a big part of the fun, but the occasion also provided an opportunity for entertainment. Storytelling in verse was key to the Anglo-Saxon mead hall culture, and poetry could be used in several ways, from conveying important information to the community to making stories memorable and keeping them alive.

Around a hundred poems from the era have survived, composed in the oral tradition and preserved in later manuscripts, allowing us a unique window directly into the mead halls of Saxon kings and leaders. Thanks to these precious writings, we can still hear the epic story of Beowulf, the memoirs of a distant traveller in the poem-song Widsith and the tale of the Saxons’ crushing defeat against the Vikings in The Battle of Maldon. Then there are the haunting Saxon elegies such as The Wanderer, in which a lone warrior laments the death of his lord as he roams the land in search of another, or The Seafarer which tells of one man’s hardships alone on a treacherous wintry sea. The most popular poems were stories of heroic deeds of yore, a tradition which endured into Christian times with appropriate adaptations reflecting the new faith. The Dream of the Rood, surviving in its earliest form in runic inscription on a stone cross at Ruthwell in south-west Scotland, portrays Christ as a fearless warrior inspiring loyalty among his men.

The Ruthwell Cross in Scotland bears the earliest form of ‘The Dream of the Rood‘ in runic inscription

The opening page of Beowulf, the greatest surviving Old English poem. You can imagine the drama as the first word is called out, guaranteeing to grab the audience’s attention: ‘Hwæt’ (Listen!)

While the honey wine flowed and the fire crackled in the heart of the hall, these tales might be performed by a professional storyteller, sometimes accompanied by musicians playing a variety of instruments including the lyre, horn and tambourine. But even with paid performers, it was customary for everyone present – even the king – to contribute to the entertainments. An early Christian story relates how a cowherd named Caedmon, who was working for the monastery of St Hilda, got dreadful stage fright when his turn to perform grew near. Ashamed of his awful singing voice he scarpered, taking refuge in the cowshed to pray for divine intervention. Luckily for him, his prayers paid off, and he returned to the hall in time to croon a tuneful ditty in praise of God. His lyrics were immortalised in the seventh century poem Caedmon’s Hymn, believed to be the earliest verse in the English language and recorded for posterity in the works of the Venerable Bede.

An image from the eighth century Vespasian Psalter depicting King David playing a lyre surrounded by musicians playing horns and people clapping, perhaps as percussion… or are they dancing to his tune?

Professional musicians might be employed to entertain at a feast, and at Jarrow Hall in Tyne and Wear a few years ago, Adam’s lyre playing and song in Old English gave me goosebumps…

Another form of communal poetic entertainment involved wordplay of another kind. Old English poets loved riddles, and by using metaphor, analogy and anthropormorphism they would elaborately disguise even the most mundane of everyday objects to challenge the audience. Some were intellectual exercises while others were deliberately mischievous and saucy, and they must have added a great deal of fun and amusement to any Saxon banquet. Fortunately, ninety five of them survive, written down by a single scribe around 970 AD in a manuscript known as the Exeter Book, an important poetic anthology kept in the library of Exeter Cathedral. The book I bought in Northumberland, called Anglo-Saxon Riddles by John Porter, features translations of all of them, so in honour of the entertainments at those fabulous Saxon mead hall feasts I thought it would be fun to have a go at a few. Like the original authors, you need a good imagination to solve them, but as with many riddles, once you know the solution all becomes clear and they make sense. So enjoy bending your mind, and when you’re ready, the answers are at the end of this post. Here goes:

1. Riddle 11

My coat is dark, my dress bright,
red and gleaming in my garments.

I fool the foolish and urge the silly
on unwise journeys; others I steer
on a useful path. I know not why
they, thus maddened, mind-stolen,
deed-perverse, should praise
my crooked ways to all. Woe to them in their acts,
when they bring their precious hoards on high,
if they from folly have not yet refrained.

2. Riddle 16

Often I must wrestle with waves and fight with wind,
tussle them both together when, thatched with billows,
I dive to seek the depth, a stranger in my homeland.
I am strong in the struggle if I grow still;
if I fail in that, their force outweighs mine
and, wrenching me, they rout me instantly,
want to fetch off what I must fasten.
I can resist them if my root holds
and stones may stoutly keep me firm
against their force. Find out my name.

3. Riddle 25

I am a wondrous thing, woman’s delight,
handy in the home; I harm no
householder but him who hurts me.
My stalk is tall, I stand in bed,
my root rather hairy. The haughty girl,
churl’s gorgeous daughter,
sometimes has courage to clasp me,
rushes my redness, rapes my head,
stows me in her stronghold. Straightway
the curly-locked lady who clamps me
weeps at our wedding. Wet is her eye.

4. Riddle 5

I am an exile, iron-wounded,
blade-battered, battle-sated,
sword-weary. War I see often,
fight foes. I fear no comfort
or help comes for me in cruel strife
before I am wrecked among warriors
but hammered blades hack me,
hard-edged hate-sharp handwork of smiths
strikes me in strongholds; I must stay for
a crueller clash. No cure was ever
found by folk in their fields
which could heal my wounds with herbs,
but day and night through deadly blows
the swords’ wounds widen in my flesh.

And finally, to get an idea of how all this rich verse sounded and the voices resounded in those great timber halls, why not listen to a bit of this recording of The Wanderer, read in Old English with a translation on screen. Time to sit back and let the mesmerizing language of the Anglo-Saxons transport you to a far distant time. I’ll see you there in the hall, with a goblet of mead and a seat beside the glowing hearth…

Here’s to the poems and the riddles of the mead hall…

Riddle Answers:

1. Wine
2. Anchor
3. Onion
4. Shield

Taken from ‘Anglo-Saxon Riddles‘ by John Porter