A moving spirit (ferende gæst)

The soaring spirit whose adornments sing

This is Dēor-hord’s first riddle, an animal description that gives clues but no obvious solution. This particular riddle comes from the Exeter Book, an Anglo-Saxon manuscript from the 10th century. Like the rest of the Exeter Book, the riddle is written in Old English.

To find out more about this riddle, known as Riddle 7, visit The Riddle Ages, a blog of translations and commentaries on the Exeter Book riddles. Jessica Lockhart writes,

Although Riddle 7 may sound bizarre to our ears at first, it is actually one of those riddles about which Anglo-Saxon scholars feel confident in their solution. Franz Dietrich solved the riddle definitively as ‘swan’ (OE swon or swan) in 1859 – more specifically, as some scholars since have pointed out, the riddle refers to the mute swan, cygnus olor, a species which was resident year-round in Anglo-Saxon England and found widely throughout Europe.

Confident though Anglo-Saxon scholars may be, the riddle is far from being obvious. Upon reading my translation of the text, artist James Merry imagined a creature he describes as ‘some sort of a giant flying musical jellyfish’. Among the numerous mythical creatures found in bestiaries—phoenixes, griffins, and barnacle geese—aerial, melodious Medusozoa seem far from impossible!

A long-necked white swan. Jacob van Maerlant’s Der Naturen Bloeme. Flanders, c. 1350. Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16, fol. 79v. [MANUSCRIPTS.KB.NL]
One of the most puzzling clues in this riddle is the creature’s ‘garments’ that ‘sing’ when it flies. Jessica Lockhart’s commentary links to a recording of the mute swan from the British Library. The description that accompanies the recording of mute swans in flight says,

Although the mute swan (as its name suggests) does not have a distinctive call it does make a range of loud snorting or hissing sounds when angry or disturbed. In flight, the large and powerful wings of the mute swan make a rhythmic whistling ‘wou wou’ sound.

Swan (Cygnus). Hyginus’s Sideribus tractatus, attributed to the scribe Francesco Buzzacarini. Padua, c. 1475-1480. The New York Public Library, Spencer Collection, MS 28. [digitalcollections.nypl.org]
Translation and glossing by Hana Videen. Hover over words to see how they’re pronounced. More about this project here.

Silent is hrægl minmy garment when I tredewalk upon the ground or keep to my dwelling or agitate the wadowaters.

At times my hyrsteornaments* and this hea lyfthigh breeze lift me above the home of men; then the wolcna strengustrength of the clouds carries me far and wide over humankind.

Frætwe mineMy adornments rustle loudly, make music, singaðsing brightly, when I—ferende gæsta moving spirit—touch neither flodewater nor foldanearth.

Swimming swan with a fish. The Worksop Bestiary. England, c. 1185. Morgan Library, MS M.81, fol. 49v. [themorgan.org]
Do you think ‘swan’ is the best answer? What would you have guessed from these clues? Please comment below.


*The noun hyrste can be translated in a number of ways: ‘An ornament, a decoration, jewel, anything of value, trapping, equipment, armour, implement’ (Bosworth-Toller). I used the word ‘equipment’ in the original translation I gave James, but I’ve changed it here because the hyrste on James’s creature looks more like ‘ornaments’ to me.  [back]

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