Thoughts on how Old English riddles may of come from Norse Skaldic poetry

I’ve always felt that there was a similarity between Old English riddles and Norse Skaldic poetry.  Here’s are some thoughts on it:


It seems to me, that what we call “Skaldic poetry” appears to originate from a religious form of poetry that was practiced in Sweden and Denmark, though it no doubt has a basis in Norse society in general (I’ve written aspects of this in my article “Thoughts on Skaldic poetry and the Norse god Odin“).  As far as I know, we do not know what was said, what it sounded like, if it was associated with a ritual, and so forth.  In fact, it may not of originally been poetry at all, but a form of singing.  More than likely it was, and it slowly turned into a more formal type of poetry as the society became settled and established.  I mention this as more primitive societies tend to do song.  As the society becomes more organized it often seems to change to poetry.  I tend to feel this happened in Norse society.

It appears that the original religious Skaldic song/poetry was associated with the Norse god Odin.  In both Sweden and Denmark there was a “center” of Odin worship (Leire in Denmark and Uppsala in Sweden).  This seems to suggest that the original Skaldic poetry probably developed a particular form at those “centers” probably creating a uniqueness in qualities such as:

  • Style
  • Intent and purpose
  • Content

Now, I am of the opinion that Odin was greatly associated with sacrifice, one of which was war.  This is why Odin became so associated with war with the Vikings (see my article “Thoughts on how the Norse god Odin’s association with sacrifice, and historical circumstance, turned him into a ‘war god’ and a ‘god of the dead’“).  Because Odin is associated with sacrifice and the original Skaldic poetry is associated with Odin its probably likely that the original Skaldic poetry is associated with sacrifice.  Since it is through sacrifice that the Gods are “contacted” its probable that the original Skaldic poetry was also a means to “contact” the Divine, so to speak.  This, then, makes it more of a religious-based poetry, based in direct association with the Gods.  Some of these religious-based qualities of the original Skaldic poetry would carry on down to Skaldic poetry and riddles.


Two large areas that are not directly associated with the Swedish/Danish connection with Odin, but which are part of the Norse world, are Norway and England.  It almost seems as if each area took the original religious Skaldic poetry of Sweden/Denmark and modified it due to its different conditions and also because it was not a “center” for Odin worship.  This may of given it more leeway, perhaps, to change.  Because of this, the original Skaldic poetry of the Odin worship changed form in these two areas.  It changed in ways such as:

  • It became “watered down”.  Not being part of the religious “centers” for Odin they did not have as much authority or importance.
  • It became mixed with other things.  New and novel things tended to change it.
  • It became more ‘secular’.  That is, it became less religious in orientation and more directed toward people and situations.

Each area had differing conditions and realities which seemed to of changed the original religious Skaldic poetry to fit its environment.  As a result, each area altered the original religious Skaldic poetry and created a new a prevalent form in that area:

  1. Norway:  Skaldic poetry
  2. England:  Riddles

Norway – Skaldic poetry

The Norse Skaldic poetry, as we know it, is primarily Norwegian.  Norway, being removed from the Sweden/Denmark, did not have a religious “center” for Odin and appears to of been removed from much of this in addition to being more remote and secluded in the mountains and fjords.  As a result, the original religious Skaldic poetic tradition took a “turn” in Norway and developed differently, such as:

  • It became more removed from religion and religious ceremony.
  • It was not practiced by people who catered to the Gods.
  • It became more “secularized” and became more of a “public performance”.

In this way, the original religious Skaldic poetry changed to a new form, probably even turning into a poetry in Norway especially, where it became very refined and developed.

England – Riddles

England, with its different conditions, may of altered the original religious Skaldic poetry the most.  In general, it seems that there were a number of things that put a “damper” on Skaldic poetry in England making it change quite a bit:

  • It appears that England was more remote and removed from the Norse world.  It was influenced primarily from Denmark, being far removed from Norway and Sweden.  Even then, Denmark’s influence seems to be rather minor.  In this way, England seemed to “be on its own” in comparison to much of the Norse world.
  • England become Christian early.  This appears to be a big factor that had great impact on pagan-based things, such as the original religious Skaldic poetry.  In fact, Christianity seems to of caused a “suppression” of religious Skaldic poetry forcing it to go in new directions and paths, one of which was riddles.  Its almost as if the riddles are a Christianized reaction to the pagan-based Skaldic poetry.

Christianity, especially, seems to of made a great impact.  In fact, the association between Skaldic poetry and paganism is seen in the “Skáldskaparmál” by the Icelander Snorri Sturluson where he states that he was teaching the pagan stories and kennings (see below) of Skaldic poetry as a matter of tradition and not to endorse paganism, showing that even in Iceland, in the 1100-1200’s, there was a Christian “repulsion” to pagan Skaldic poetry.  Naturally, we could assume that this also took place in England as well.  Being that England started to become Christian centuries earlier we can surmise that this “suppression” had been going on for generations.

But, in order for the original religious Skaldic poetry to turn into riddles there must be a relationship between the two . . .


There are some common traits of Skaldic poetry that is also seen with English riddles which include:

  1. The use of kennings as a form of speech
  2. The use of rhyme
  3. The influence of mystery


A significant aspect of Skaldic poetry is kennings.  Kennings are basically saying something using different words.  It was commonly used by the Norse.  For example, in a poem you can say something like “the ship steeds plow through the fish fields”.  The “ship steeds” refer to Vikings.  The “fish fields” refer to the ocean.  “Plowing” refers to a ship travelling through the ocean.  The poem then basically says, “the Vikings travel through the ocean in their ship”.  In many cases, if a person does not know the kenning then its hard to determine what is being said.  If you didn’t know the meaning then some would be almost impossible to interpret.  In other words, this may reveal that the original religious Skaldic poetry may have entailed a “language” of its own.  In this way, the original religious Skaldic poetry, or song, was probably used as a prayer to the Gods using a “special language”.  In addition, the “special language” may also have been as a way to “divine” the will of the Gods.  If this were true then its possible that the kenning may of originated as a special “Divine language”, perhaps, that was associated with the Gods.  As a result, only the people associated with the Gods would know it.  Even in Norway and Iceland future Skalds had to learn the origins of the kennings and what they meant as part of their learning.   Supposedly, certain people were known for teaching it and Skalds from all over would travel to learn things from them.  Snorri Sturluson would later make a book about it commonly called the “Prose Edda”.

But if one looks closer at kennings one cannot help but see that it doesn’t take much to change a kenning into a riddle.  Kennings and riddles are basically variations of the same thing:  saying something using different words.  In Skaldic poetry, a person has been taught what they mean.  In the case of riddles, though, you must figure out what it means.  The example poem above (“the ship steeds plow through the fish fields”) no longer of becomes a Skaldic poem, but a riddle . . . what does it mean?

Perhaps it was the Christian “suppression” of pagan things (that is, Skaldic poetry) that “forced” the “forgetting” of the meaning of kennings, which slowly turned them into riddles over time?  Soon, in England, riddles became a popular thing to do, a form of entertainment.  There were even books of riddles, such as the “Exeter Book”.

If the above is true it would mean that the Old English riddles are a direct derivative of Skaldic poetry and their use of kennings.


Rhyme, of course, figures prominently in Skaldic poetry.  Snorri Sturluson even wrote a book on it (the “Hattatal”).  Many Old English riddles, oftentimes, are spoken in verse form, much like a poem.  In that way, one could say that it is a modified Skaldic poem.  In this way, one can see that there is a great similarity between Skaldic poetry and Old English riddles.  This may very well refer to the Skaldic poetry/riddle association.


Mystery is an aspect of the gods and religion as they are part of the “unknown”.  Naturally, this would figure prominently in the original religious Skaldic poetry.  This tendency to religious mystery would carry on down to Norwegian Skaldic poetry and even into English riddles as well.  The Norwegian Skaldic poetry would maintain a connection with the Gods, often referring to the Gods and mythology.  English riddles, though, would maintain this sense of mystery in other ways.  Because Christian England could not speak of pagan Gods this sense of mystery found in Skaldic poetry became reflected in what the riddle was saying.  That is to say, the religious reference to the “unknown” would change to “what does it mean?”  Naturally, it could not maintain the connection with the pagan Gods and mythology . . . the once religious institution of Skaldic poetry had to become “gutted” to be acceptable in Christian society.  Therefore the pagan associations had to be severed.  Despite this, the sense of mystery continued making a big influence in the formation of riddles.


It seems, to me, that English riddles may of continued even further in England creating other tendencies down through the years.   It created a need as if to solve various forms of mystery.  I speak of things such as:

  • A fascination in knowledge and discovering new things.  This would create things like science and a fascination of scientific inquiry.
  • A fascination with exploration.  This would create England as a world empire.
  • A fascination with criminal mysteries.  This would create things like Sherlock Holmes and other stories of mystery that continue on down to today.

All these have had great impact on England.  In some sense, they have made a major contribution in its direction in the world.  These fascinations, interestingly, seem to accelerate after the Protestant Reformation and the split from Rome perhaps showing that riddles still had a “religious” quality at that time.  Once there was a break from the Pope this “religious” quality was broken unleashing much more qualities.


With all this it appears that a timeline can be developed showing a progression from the Norse world to England:

  1. The original religious Skaldic poetry as a form of “contacting” the Gods.  This primarily took place in Sweden/Denmark which appears to of had “centers” for this.  It was associated with Odin and sacrifice and may of entailed a “special language”.  Because of this only some people knew it.
  2. Its passed to England, when it became settled, but in a “watered down” form.
  3. Christianity comes and destroys the pagan associations.  Despite this many qualities of the Skaldic tradition continue, such as the use of kennings, rhyme, and mystery.
  4. This causes a transformation into riddles.
  5. After the Protestant Reformation, this turns into a fascination with solving various forms of mysteries creating things such as knowledge, exploration, a strong mystery tradition in literature, solving crime, a prevalence of scientific investigation, etc.


Is any of this true?

Well, its speculation.  In many ways, I don’t think there is any way to prove it.  It “seems” like it could be true but there is no way to really prove it.  This is primarily because the subject matter is of a nature that isn’t really “definable” and easily “palpable” (such as, say, the changes in government in a country over the years).  Because of this, its speculative nature must be kept in mind.  In actuality, though, much of history is made of such speculation, but it is seldom mentioned or stressed.


Copyright by Mike Michelsen

This entry was posted in Christianity, Christian conversion, Post-Christianity, and Christian influence, England, Britain, and all that, Historical stuff, Mythology, Vikings - Odin, Thor, the Norse, and such and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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