Sorting out the rings
Astronomical tropes in Þragbysig (R.4)
in Riddles at work in the early medieval tradition
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Þragbysig is one of the most resistant of the Exeter Book collection to being solved, and it has thus received more than its fair share of solutions (fifteen, by the author’s count). These solutions have ranged from the inanimate to the animate, from the homely to the exotic, from the physical to the spiritual, and from the plausible to the implausible. This chapter seeks first to pinpoint where previous solutions have failed, so as to identify the key ambiguous language and the riddling tropes that a successful solution must address. These include the relationship between the subject of the riddle, the thegn, and the lord; the multiple rings; the breaking of the bed; the ‘warm limb’; the idea of speaking and answering; and the foolishness of the thegn. It then suggests that a learned, scientific approach to the physical world—in particular astronomy—provides a different way of understanding the text’s intractable metaphorical surface. Drawing upon Bede, Boethius, and Isidore, the chapter argues that Þragbysig is a description of a winter sun, rising over the horizon accompanied by the planet Mercury.

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