Heavenly Discourses: Myth, Astronomy, and Culture

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The Movement of Celestial Bodies in the Exeter Book Riddles

It is a commonplace that astronomy died in western Europe during the ‘Dark Ages’: despite the continued observations of computists, who diligently recorded the information needed to calculate the date of Easter, or of monks who sought guidance on blood-letting based on the phases of the moon, the history of astronomy tends to leap from the Greeks to the Arabs as if no one looked at the sky for hundreds of years. In this paper, I look at three short riddles from the tenth-century anthology of Old English poetry known as the Exeter Book to explore what the Anglo-Saxons saw when they looked at the sky. For the most part, they saw themselves, and so Riddles 6, 22, and 29 reflect social structures and values familiar from other texts of the time—ideologies imposed to explain the mysteries of the sky. However, the Exeter Book Riddles, unlike the modern conception of riddles as two-part, open-and-shut texts, do not merely present sun, moon, and stars as ambiguous objects to be identified. Instead, they reveal the unsuccessful struggle to assimilate the vast unknown, with the result that the narratives used to describe the movement of celestial bodies across the sky remain ambiguous, consciously inaccurate and insufficient. Although the riddles cannot be considered steps forward in the history of Astronomy, they nevertheless provide insight into a wavering understanding of the shape of the heavens at a time when most commentators assume that Christian doctrine had fixed all meaning and ended all questions.
Period15 Oct 2011
Event typeConference
LocationBristol, United KingdomShow on map