Sorting out the Rings: Astronomical Tropes in Þragbysig (R.4)

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Þragbysig (R.4) 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 my 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. In this article I seek 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. I then suggest that the Anglo-Saxons’ learned understanding of their physical world—in particular astronomy—provides a different way of understanding the text’s intractable metaphorical surface. Drawing upon Bede, Boethius, and Isidore, I argue that Þragbysig is a description of a winter sun, rising over the horizon accompanied by the planet Mercury.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationRiddles at work in the early medieval tradition
Subtitle of host publicationWords, ideas, interactions
EditorsMegan Cavell, Jennifer Neville
Place of PublicationManchester
PublisherManchester University Press
Number of pages22
ISBN (Electronic)978-1-5261-3373-1
ISBN (Print)978-1-5261-3371-7
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2020

Publication series

NameManchester Medieval Literature and Culture
PublisherManchester University Press


  • exeter book riddles
  • astronomy
  • Bede
  • Boethius
  • Isidore

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