What Am I? Riddles, Riddling Language and World View in Old Norse Poetry

Lead Research Organisation: University of Aberdeen
Department Name: Centre for Scandinavian Studies


Describing the world and understanding our place in it has always been one of the major preoccupations of humanity. Riddles may seem little more than an amusing distraction today, but they were a crucial way in which earlier societies came to terms with the world and their place in it. In today's scientifically advanced world it is easy to underestimate the importance of earlier societies' means of grappling with big ontological questions, and to forget the legacy they have had on our own cultural heritage. This project offers a new understanding of the multivalent medieval Scandinavian world view, achieved through a study of Old Norse poetry, in particular its riddles and riddling language.

Riddles allow for profound wonder and for mischievous delight. They offer unfamiliarity and recognition. In creating and resolving paradoxes, they are a particularly suitable medium with which to encapsulate the multiplicity of complex and potentially conflicting experiences, emotions, and thoughts we have about our environments. Riddles and riddling language are fundamental to Old Norse poetry, which capitalises on the potential of paradox, humour, mystery, and incongruity to describe the world. This is true not only of the corpus of riddles proper contained in the legendary saga Hervarar saga ok Heidreks ('The saga of Hervör and Heidrekr'), but of the mythological and heroic poems of the Poetic Edda, eddic poetry found in prose texts describing Scandinavia's legendary past, and the huge corpus of court skaldic poetry. This material is a rich source of information on how medieval Scandinavians saw the natural world and thought about their relation to it. It is steeped in native tradition, but is also outward-looking and open to European influence as poets and their audiences negotiated ways of being in the world.

This project has five major objectives. First, it will provide the first detailed study of the Old Norse riddle-corpus. Second, it will investigate the riddling strtegies to be found everywhere in Old Norse poetry, both eddic and skaldic, aiming to provide a more holistic understanding of Old Norse poetic culture that does not maintain a sharp divide between these two 'genres'. Third, it will contribute to understanding the complex world views of medieval Scandinavians, considering especially their responses to and interactions with the natural environment and material objects. Fourth, it will develop knowledge of the changing uses of poetry, particularly riddling poetry and wordplay, in the pre-modern world. Finally, it will engage schoolchildren, creative writers, environmental bodies, the third sector, and others in exploring the natural world through 'Viking' and through contemporary eyes.

Old Norse literature, culture and myth is still a prominent part of our cultural heritage. We are fascinated by the History Channel's Vikings, Marvel Comics' Thor, and Tolkien's The Hobbit (the riddle-scene of which, prominent in the first of Peter Jackson's recent film trilogy, was inspired by a riddle-match in the Old Norse saga of Hervör and Heidrekr). This project will bring the artistic and literary endeavours of medieval Iceland and Scandinavia closer to the forefront of our thinking about the Viking and medieval world.

Planned Impact

This project involves a number of collaborative activities and outputs to ensure the research has far-reaching impact beyond its benefit to the academic community. Most of the events relate to creating new ways of thinking about and describing responses to the environment, and to engaging with the Viking heritage of North-East Scotland. The groups targeted include:

Creative writers/poets, particularly in Orkney and North-East Scotland: the PI will run workshops and discussion about riddles and riddling language as a medium for describing the natural world and addressing environmental concerns. Amateur writers will benefit from the opportunity to take inspiration from new research into old forms of poetry, to discuss issues and their work with researchers, established writers, community arts leaders, and representatives from the heritage sector, and to have their work published and distributed in an openly accessible booklet.

Walkers and visitors to Orkney: The booklet of poems reflecting on the local surroundings will offer members of the public visiting heritage sites in Orkney new ways of experiencing the landscape and of engaging with the history, particularly the Viking impact, of the area.

Audiences interested in creative writing about the environment: Since the booklet will be made available as a downloadable PDF, it will be accessible to anyone with an interest in nature poetry.

Local communities and community groups: A poetry workshop will be held specifically for young people in conjunction with local council-supported galas in Aberdeenshire regeneration areas. Poems produced by participants will be broadcast on a special programme on local radio station shmu FM, as well as performed at the galas. Young people will thus have the chance to critically engage with medieval sources they are otherwise unlikely to encounter, to express themselves in a creative way, to be involved in the production of a radio programme, and to have their views heard by local audiences.

Other third sector groups, particularly the museum and heritage sector, in this instance focused on the King's Museum in Aberdeen and the Brough of Birsay area in Orkney: These bodies will benefit from innovative research-led projects (the treasure hunt and Viking Hiking activities described in the Pathways to Impact document), bringing in new audiences and offering the opportunity to develop further collaborative events and activities.

Members of the public, particularly families with primary-school age children, will benefit from the educational opportunities offered by the treasure hunt, which will encourage participants to engage more closely with the museum's collections and to learn about 'Viking'-style poetry.


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Description 'Night Song', Arizona Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact I presented research about the application of ecocritical methods to medieval, specifically Old Norse, texts to an international audience of scholars and students without my specific field. The presentation and discussion helped in refining my own methodologies as well as sparking debate about the use of critical theories.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description International Saga Conference 2018 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact I participated in a panel on law and legal culture in medieval Iceland, contributing specifically a discussion on the role of poetry. I have received requests for further information from several audience members, and a publication based on similar material is in preparation.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018