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Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages

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Gestumblindi (Gestumbl)

volume 8; ed. Margaret Clunies Ross;

Heiðreks gátur (Heiðr) - 37

not in Skj

Heiðreks gátur (‘Riddles of Heiðrekr’) — Gestumbl HeiðrVIII (Heiðr)

Not published: do not cite (Gestumbl HeiðrVIII (Heiðr))

 1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   10   11   12   13   14   15   16   17   18   19   20   21   22   23   24   25   26   27   28   29   30   31   32   33   34   35   36   37 

Skj: Anonyme digte og vers [XIII]: D. 5. Heiðreks gátur, Gestumblindes gåder (AII, 221-8, BII, 240-7); stanzas (if different): 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | 31 | 32 | 33 | 34 | 35 | 36 | 37 | 38

SkP info: VIII, 410

old edition introduction edition manuscripts transcriptions concordance search files

1 — Gestumbl Heiðr 1VIII (Heiðr 48)

edition interactive full text transcriptions old edition references concordance


Cite as: Hannah Burrows (ed.) 2017, ‘Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks 48 (Gestumblindi, Heiðreks gátur 1)’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry in fornaldarsögur. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 8. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 410.

The following group of thirty-eight stanzas comprises a collection of riddles sometimes referred to in modern scholarship as Heiðreks gátur ‘Riddles of Heiðrekr’ (Gestumbl Heiðr 1-37 (Heiðr 48-84)), plus one response (Heiðrekr, Heiðr 38 (Heiðr 85); the other responses are in prose). Within Heiðr, the riddles are set in the context of a contest between the eponymous Heiðrekr, now a powerful, wealthy and popular king, and a man whom he believes to be his enemy Gestumblindi. The name appears as Gestr inn blindi ‘the blind stranger’ in the U redaction, and Wessén (1924, 543-8) argues that Gestumblindi is a contraction of this (cf. ÍO: Gestumblindi and Note to Þul Óðins 7/8III). The soubriquet would be an appropriate one for the one-eyed god Óðinn, whom Heiðrekr’s opponent turns out to be; Gestumblindi also occurs as an Óðinn-heiti in Þul Óðins 7/8III. The corresponding name in Saxo (Saxo 2015, I, v. 10. 1, pp. 332-5) is Gestiblindus, a king of Götaland. As Gestumblindi is replaced by Óðinn in a wisdom-contest in Heiðr, Gestiblindus is replaced by a more able hero, Eiríkr, in a duel, in Saxo, but other details of the plot do not correspond to those of Heiðr.

In Heiðr, King Heiðrekr has called Gestumblindi to his court to submit to judgement for his crimes, but offers him the option of redeeming himself by propounding riddles, on the understanding that he will be pardoned if he is able to ask a question the king is unable to solve. Gestumblindi, knowing he has little chance of success, sacrifices to Óðinn – well known from other texts as a participant in poetic wisdom contests – and the god goes to Heiðrekr’s court in his place. There is thus not a great deal of suspense as to the outcome during the propounding of the riddles, and eventually Óðinn wins by asking what would not now be considered a true riddle, since it relies on information known only to the questioner (on the so-called ‘neck riddle’ see Taylor 1951, 1): he asks what Óðinn – i.e. he himself – spoke into the ear of his son Baldr at the latter’s funeral. Óðinn also uses this get-out clause in a wisdom contest with the giant Vafþrúðnir in the eddic poem Vafþrúðnismál (Vafþr).

The riddles themselves take various forms, but all are relatively simple, having between six and eight lines plus a two-line fornyrðislag stef at the end of the main part of the stanza: Heiðrekr konungr | hyggðu at gátu, ‘King Heiðrekr, consider the riddle’, usually heavily abbreviated or omitted altogether in the mss. Lines 1-4 of riddle 7/1-4 are ljóðaháttr half-lines, riddle 12 is a mixture of ljóðaháttr and fornyrðislag, 16 a mixture of ljóðaháttr and málaháttr, 17 and 29 a mixture of fornyrðislag and málaháttr, 37 is málaháttr, and 27-8, 31, 33 and 35 are fornyrðislag; the rest are ljóðaháttr. The objects described in each riddle never speak for themselves, as they do in many of the Old English Exeter Book riddles (ed. Krapp and Dobbie 1936), although several have a first-person speaker describing something seen or experienced. Also in contrast to the Old English riddles, the Heiðr riddles (except of course the last) are accompanied by their solutions, in the form of Heiðrekr’s prose responses. The majority describe natural phenomena, although eight have man-made objects as solutions, and two, in addition to the Baldr-riddle, refer to mythological beings. Most are straightforwardly descriptive, though a few involve more complex word-play or poetic devices (e.g. ofljóst, riddle 35 (Heiðr 82), greppaminni, riddle 7 (Heiðr 54)) and one or two are somewhat obscure (e.g. ‘a dead serpent on an ice-floe’, riddle 25 (Heiðr 72)).

It is commonly stated that the Heiðr riddles are the only riddles among the entire Old Norse corpus; and moreover, that there is no mention in the sagas or other texts of riddles being asked, whereas parallel evidence exists for story-telling, poetry-reciting, and other forms of entertainment (Heiðr 1960, xix). It has also been suggested, partly for these reasons, that the riddles were composed specifically for the saga (Hall 2005, 10). However, an alternative case can be made. While it is true, and rather curious, that there is little other evidence for the propounding of riddles as riddles (ON gátur), they have close analogues in the eddic corpus and in wisdom poetry in particular (Burrows 2014), and some have parallels in riddles known from other cultures (e.g. 12 (Heiðr 59), 29 (Heiðr 76): see Notes to these riddles). Three quite separate riddles survive in a ms. from c. 1400 and are edited in SkP III (Anon Gát 1-3III). Moreover, although they have basic similarities the Heiðr riddles are rather eclectic as a group, giving the impression of having been gathered together from disparate sources.

The ms. transmission of the riddles is complex. Hb, the main ms. for the poetry in the early part of the saga, has a lacuna after the first three riddles, and the rest of the saga is lost. However, Hb, or selections from it, appears to have been copied (rather badly) when it was in a less-damaged state, and although this intermediary is now lost, two seventeenth-century paper copies of it, AM 281 4°ˣ (281ˣ) and AM 597b 4°ˣ (597bˣ), preserve the H redaction’s version of the riddle-contest, a total of 36 riddles (all those edited here but 23; 10, 11, 13, 15, 31 and 34 are exclusive to the H redaction). Since these mss are late, and their common exemplar seems to have been a poor copy, 2845 is usually preferable where there is overlapping material and is the main ms. where this is the case. It contains only thirty of the riddles, however (omitting 7, 10, 11, 13, 15, 31 and 34). Ms. 203ˣ follows the order of the R redaction, but its text is also influenced by the H redaction for the first eight riddles as they appear in H, and thus has independent significance after the lacuna in Hb (Heiðr 1924, xxx). R715ˣ contains 28 riddles (omitting those 2845 omits, plus 29 and 35).

As well as the differing numbers of riddles between the redactions, they are also differently ordered. The H redaction has the most logical order, grouping riddles with similar beginnings together; R715ˣ and 2845 often place riddles with similar subject matter next to one another, but any pattern when the subject matter is different is difficult to discern. For this reason and because it contains the most riddles, H’s ordering is followed here. The arrangement of the riddles in the three redactions is shown in the Table below (and cf. Burrows 2014). The table follows the order of the H redaction and this edition (so that 1 = Gestumbl Heiðr 1, 2 = Gestumbl Heiðr 2 and so forth) and indicates the order of the riddles in the other redactions in comparison. The symbol ‘✗’ indicates that a riddle does not appear at all in that redaction.


Disposition of riddles across the H, R and U redactions (from Burrows 2014)

H (281ˣ and 597bˣ; only first three in Hb) R (2845) U (R715ˣ)
1 Ale 1 Ale 1 Ale
2 Paths 2 Paths 2 Paths
3 Dew 3 Dew 3 Dew
4 Hammer 4 Hammer 4 Hammer
5 Fog 9 Bellows 22 Waves
6 Anchor 14 Spider 23 Waves
7 Raven, dew, fish, waterfall
8 Leek 8 Leek 21 Waves
9 Bellows 16 Obsidian 20 Ptarmigans
10 Hail
11 Dung beetle
12 Pregnant sow 17 Swan 14 Spider
13 Arrow
14 Spider 18 Angelica 8 Leek
15 Sun
16 Obsidian 25 Dead snake on an ice-floe 18 Angelica
17 Swan 32 Ítrekr & Andaðr 32 Ítrekr & Andaðr
18 Angelica 19 Hnefatafl pieces 19 Hnefatafl pieces
19 Hnefatafl pieces 30 Fire 26 Húnn in hnefatafl
20 Ptarmigans 5 Fog 16 Obsidian
21 Waves 26 Húnn in hnefatafl 30 Fire
22 Waves 27 Shield 5 Fog
20 Ptarmigans 24 Waves
24 Waves 22 Waves 6 Anchor
25 Dead snake on an ice-floe 21 Waves 9 Bellows
26 Húnn in hnefatafl 23 Waves 17 Swan
27 Shield 28 Duck nesting in a skull 25 Dead snake on an ice-floe
28 Duck nesting in a skull 6 Anchor 28 Duck nesting in a skull
29 Cow 24 Waves
30 Fire 33 Piglets 27 Shield
31 Horse & mare
32 Ítrekr & Andaðr 12 Pregnant sow 33 Piglets
33 Piglets 29 Cow 12 Pregnant sow
34 Embers
35 ofljóst riddle (natural phenomena) 35 ofljóst riddle (natural phenomena)
36 Óðinn & Sleipnir 36 Óðinn & Sleipnir 36 Óðinn & Sleipnir
37 ? (Baldr riddle) 37 ? (Baldr riddle) 37 ? (Baldr riddle)

The riddles’ later ms. history is also interesting. As 281ˣ and 597bˣ show, the riddle episode was sometimes extracted and copied independently of the rest of the saga. In addition to the mss containing Heiðr noted in the Introduction to the saga, varying numbers of the riddles are found in: Adv 21 5 2ˣ, AM 65 a 8°ˣ, AM 167 b 3 8°ˣ, AM 738 4°ˣ, BLAdd 4866ˣ, BLAdd 4877ˣ, BLAdd 6121ˣ, BLAdd 11165ˣ, BLAdd 11174ˣ, BSG 3717ˣ, Holm papp 34 4°ˣ (including Latin translations), Lbs 214 4°ˣ, Lbs 522 4°ˣ, Lbs 631 4°ˣ, Lbs 636 4°ˣ, Lbs 756 4°ˣ, Lbs 818 4°ˣ, Lbs 1199 4°ˣ, Lbs 1562 4°ˣ, Lbs 1588 4°ˣ, NKS 1866 4°ˣ, NKS 1869 4°ˣ, NKS 1873 4°ˣ, NKS 1891 4°ˣ, OsloUB 310 4°ˣ, Oslo UB 547 4°ˣ, SÁM 51ˣ, SÁM 72ˣ, Thott 773 a folˣ, Thott 1492 4°ˣ, Thott 1499 4°ˣ, TCD 1027ˣ, and UppsUB R 692ˣ. They are often accompanied by the three ofljóst riddles Anon Gát 1-3III and the poems of the so-called Poetic Edda. Although none of these later mss have independent value as textual witnesses for Heiðreks gátur, they demonstrate that the riddles were valued in their own right, often in learned contexts, which is also witnessed by the appearance of the first three lines of Gestumbl Heiðr 25 (Heiðr 72) in TGT and a commentary on the riddles (mostly following the version of the R redaction) written in 1641 by Björn Jónsson á Skarðsá, a scholar and annalist (the commentary is edited by Lavender 2015b).

The riddles have been edited in all the editions of Heiðr listed in the Introduction to the saga, in Edd. Min., 106-20 and in Ettmüller 1861, 35-40 (based on FSN I, 409-512 and Petersen and Thorarensen 1847). Skj and Skald follow the order of the R redaction and present the additional riddles in the H redaction at the end.

Hafa vildak þat,
er ek hafða í gær;
vittu, hvat þat var:
lýða lemill,
orða tefill,
ok orða upphefill.
Heiðrekr konungr,
hyggðu at gátu.


I would wish to have what I had yesterday; find out what that was: crippler of people, hinderer of words, and instigator of words. King Heiðrekr, think about the riddle.

context: See Introduction to Heiðr 48-85. Hb elaborates on the setting (Heiðr 1924, 56): Var síðan stóll settr undir Gestumblinda, ok hugðu menn gótt til at heyra þar vitrleg orð ‘Then a stool was set under Gestumblindi, and men thought it good to hear wise words there’.

notes: Heiðrekr’s response reads (Heiðr 1960, 33): Fœri honum mungát! Þat lemr margra vit, ok margir eru þá margmálgari, er mungát ferr á, en sumum vefsk tungan, svá at ekki verðr at orði ‘Bring him ale! That cripples the wit of many, and many are more talkative, when ale goes in, but with some the tongue becomes tied, so that no words come to them’. It is probably significant that the first riddle concerns ale, which ‘seems to be a requirement for a wisdom performance’ (Lindow 2007b, 299) and is also consumed by Óðinn at the beginning of Grí and Vafþr. — [1]: Ms. R715ˣ reads hafa vil ek dag, emended to hafa vil eg i dag ‘I wish to have today’ by Verelius (Heiðr 1672, 143). This is likely a misreading of vildak (Heiðr 1924, 130 n. 2), probably patterned on í gær ‘yesterday’ in l. 2. — [2]: Similar to Gestumbl Heiðr 3/2 (Heiðr 50).  — [4-5]: These lines lack alliteration, though they have end-rhyme which carries on into l. 6. Kock emends lýða ‘of people’ to óða ‘of minds’, noting (NN §792) that this corresponds semantically with Heiðrekr’s prose response: þat lemr margra vit ‘that paralyses the wit of many’. He also suggests in NN that ýta ‘of men’ would produce satisfactory alliteration and a similar meaning to the ms. readings, but without the correspondence with the prose. These are purely conjectural suggestions, however. Lemill ‘crippler’ and tefill ‘hinderer’ are hap. leg., from lemja ‘thrash, beat, disable’ and tefja ‘hinder’ respectively.

texts: Heiðr 48 (41/31)

editions: Skj Anonyme digte og vers [XIII]: D. 5. Heiðreks gátur 1 (AII, 221; BII, 240); Skald II, 124, NN §792; Heiðr 1672, 143, FSN 1, 465, 533, Heiðr 1873, 235, 333, Heiðr 1924, 57, 130, FSGJ 2, 37-8, Heiðr 1960, 32-3; Edd. Min. 106.


AM 544 4° (Hb) 76v, 31 - 76v, 32 (Heiðr)  transcr.  image  image  image  image  
GKS 2845 4° (2845) 70v, 11 - 70v, 12 (Heiðr)  transcr.  image  image  
AM 281 4°x (281x) 99r, 1 - 99r, 3 (Heiðr)  transcr.  image  
AM 597 b 4°x (597bx) 49r, 9 - 49r, 11 (Heiðr)  transcr.  image  image  
AM 203 folx (203x) 101ra, 1 - 101ra, 7 (Heiðr)  transcr.  image  
UppsUB R 715x (R715x) 26v, 16 - 26v, 18 (Heiðr)  transcr.  image  
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