Past readings of Riddle 33 would suggest that there is nothing significant about the gender of its subject. Besides two mentions by Lees and Overing (2017: p. 107, 2001: p. 104), the little scholarship we have on Riddle 33 makes no comment on the significance of the use of hio in line 5 or the rare glimpse we get of a fighting female. It comes as no surprise that Stopford A. Brooke referred to Riddle 33’s subject using masculine pronouns in his (1892) study (p. 181), but other, far more recent, studies have also side-lined the poet’s use of hio. In Anita R. Reidinger’s (2004) discussion of the depiction of the iceberg as a warrior, there is no mention of gender and her translation offers a gender-neutral subject (pp. 30–43). Indeed, the gender of riddle subjects has rarely been the focus of Old English riddle analysis, with most studies interested in identifying new solutions and analogues, or understanding how the riddle genre as a whole functions.Footnote 4 One of the few studies we have is John D. Niles’ (2006) analysis of the riddles’ solutions. Niles’ study suggests that, for many of the riddles, the depiction of a subject’s gender was driven by the grammatical gender of the solution—that is, not the concept of the solution, but the Old English word for that solution. Niles gives the example of Riddle 16, which has the answer “anchor”: “The exact answer is not the concept “anchor,” however, as is sometimes carelessly stated or assumed; rather it is the OE word ancor, which is grammatically masculine, for the riddle is phrased in such a manner that only a masculine noun will provide the solution” (2006: p. 105). According to Niles, the gendered depiction of a subject can help guide the reader to the answer. If correct, this theory would suggest that the decision to marry water and ice in Riddle 33 might have stemmed from nothing more than a desire to adhere to the rules of grammar. However, as this present study aims to show, there is much more behind the gendering of the riddle’s icy subject than grammatical associations. To explain away the subject’s gender on this account would be akin to explaining away the gender of the Anglo-Saxon elegies’ female subjects on account of a scribal error, as some critics have done in the past.Footnote 5
Riddle 33, like a large number of other Old English riddles, presents its subject through the lens of heroic culture. Where, for example, Riddle 5 depicts a shield as a wounded thane and Riddle 73 imagines a spear as a comrade in arms, Riddle 33 offers us the image of a fierce warrior who carves into shields with its sharp edges. Here is the riddle in full:
Wiht cwom æfter wege wrætlicu liþan;
cymlic from ceole cleopode to londe,
hlinsade hlude – hleahtor wæs gryrelic,
egesful on earde. Ecge wæron scearpe;
wæs hio hetegrim, hilde to sæne,
biter beadoweorca. Bordweallas grof,
heardhiþende. Heterune bond!
Sægde searocræftig ymb hyre sylfre gesceaft:
“Is min modor mægða cynnes
þæs deorestan þæt is dohtor min
eacen uploden; swa þæt is ældum cuþ,
firum on folce, þæt seo on foldan sceal
on ealra londa gehwam lissum stondan.”Footnote 6
(A rare, beautiful creature came sailing along the wave, called from its throat to the land, resounding loudly; the laughter was fearsome, terrible on earth; her edges were sharp. She was cruel, slow to combat, her battle-work was fierce; [she] carved into the ship-walls, plundering hard. She bound a hateful curse; the crafty one spoke about her own creation: “My mother is from the dearest of women-kind; that is my daughter, [who] grew up pregnant—so it is evident to men, to people in a nation, that she must stand blessedly on earth, in each and every land.”)
However, this is not the heroic male figure who has performed brave deeds in battle, serving alongside a lord or else seeking a physician for its wounds. Instead, it is a fierce female figure who destroys ships with her physical and verbal power and creates her own riddle about her mysterious ancestry. Even though the writer depicts a warrior-like subject, the riddle is perhaps most closely aligned with Riddle 84 (ll. 9a–10a), whose subject, water, is depicted as a monstrous, rampaging force of nature with a similarly mysterious ancestry, as opposed to a weapon-bearing thane. Both these riddles’ subjects are not natural entities that can be bound, shaped and ultimately controlled by humans, like the trees of Riddle 53 and 73, for example,Footnote 7 but are forces of nature that defy human mastery and cannot be easily explained. They are both female, too, and allude to their ability to reproduce more of their kind (Riddle 84, ll. 4 and 21).
The first four lines of Riddle 33 describe an attractive but intimidating creature. This creature is said to be cymlic (lovely or beautiful) (l. 2a), yet she has a laugh that is gryrelic (fearsome or horrible) (l. 3b). The creature is also vocal and the sound contributes to her intimidating nature. Her voice, which apparently originates from her ceole (throat) (although ceole has also been interpreted as “ship,” “chill” or “cold”Footnote 8), is described as hlinsade hlude (resounding loudly) (ll. 2a–3a). That the iceberg might make a noise is a little surprising, but we might imagine these to be the sound it makes when it breaks up or when it collides with a ship. After the initial description of her appearance and voice, we are presented with a creature performing beadoweorca (battle-work) and destroying ships with her sharp edges (there is a clever play on the word bordweallas here).Footnote 9 Next, we are told that the creature bond (bound) a heterune (hateful curse) and can speak about her own gesceaft (creation) (ll. 7b–8b)—perhaps the most perplexing part of the iceberg metaphor. Finally, we learn about the creature’s peculiar female ancestry: her mother is also her daughter. Here, the riddle-writer captures the process of freezing and melting, with both water and ice depicted as “eternally conceiving” (Williamson 1977: p. 242).
The first half of the riddle is essentially a complex metaphor in which the destructive power of an iceberg is equated with the destructive power of a warrior equipped with weapons and curses. The second half of the riddle takes a different approach to its subject by offering a riddle-within-a-riddle that tests the reader with its ice-water paradox. The second half appears to be influenced by a long-standing tradition of ice-water/mother-daughter analogies. “In traditional riddling,” says Patrick J. Murphy, “ice is the daughter of water and the mother of water as well. The idea is a standard conceit, well known both in English oral tradition and as a default example of aenigma in many medieval texts” (2011: p. 10; see also Tupper 1910: p. 147). Riddle 33 clearly makes use of this conceit in its final lines, offering a gendered depiction of water and ice as mother and daughter. The final thirteen-line product appears to be a hybrid, a splicing together of two traditions, Latin and Old English, which is certainly not unusual in the Exeter Book riddle collection (see Bitterli 2009).
If the riddle-writer was working with a received concept of water and ice as mother and daughter, this may arguably have led to the depiction of the iceberg as female in lines 1–7, the new or “original material of this riddle” (Beechy 2010: p. 95). This suggestion, however, would be erroneous. Feminine pronouns are not used in the description of the warrior simply because the mother-daughter paradox demands it, but because of a more deep-rooted association of women and water and all their destructive potential and mystery. As previously mentioned, the warrior in the first half of the riddle is not like those masculine warriors of other Exeter Book riddles, like the spear/thane of Riddle 73, who fights beside his lord in an eþelfæsten (fortress) in a place that ær frið hæfde “previously had peace” (25b–26b). She is a fully feminised warrior, a woman who fights alone in her watery domain, serving no lord, who uses her voice as much as her martial ability to inspire fear.
Women warriors are rare in Old English poetry; “women might invoke battles, as does Judith,” says Dana Oswald, “but they do not fight them” (2010: p. 81). Our primary example is Grendel’s Mother, the merewif mihtig (mighty sea-woman) of Beowulf, who, though undoubtedly “a woman to be reckoned with” (Oswald 2010: p. 81), still inspires less gryre (terror) than her monstrous son Grendel:
Wæs se gryre læssa
efne swa micle, swa bið mægþa cræft,
wiggryre wifes be wæpnedmen, (Klaeber 1922, ll. 1282b–84b).Footnote 10
(The terror was the lesser, just as great as is a maid’s art, a woman’s war-terror, compared with men.)
Renée Trilling’s (2007) discussion of Grendel’s Mother suggests that, for Anglo-Saxon writers, the idea of a physically active woman was inconceivable. Trilling asserts that “an active body in [the Anglo-Saxon] cultural economy is, by definition, a masculine one” (2007: p. 15). She observes that, even though Grendel’s Mother would seem to go against this notion, feminine pronouns are not always applied to the apparently female monster: “Neither the narrator nor the characters can comfortably attach a feminine pronoun to the perpetrator of an attack on Heorot,” she says, and, as a result, the attacker has “on the literal level, become male” (Trilling 2007: p. 15). This issue does not seem to concern the writer of Riddle 33, who attaches two feminine pronouns to the text’s female warrior. The riddle’s warrior woman is, after all, an iceberg, so the writer is dealing with a figurative rather than literal fighting female.
Pronouns aside, there are a number of similarities between Riddle 33’s warrior woman and Grendel’s Mother. Firstly, both creatures inhabit a watery domain. Grendel’s Mother lives in wæteregesan…ceale streamas (terrible waters, cold streams) (ll. 1260a–61a), whilst the iceberg/warrior woman sails (liþan) along the wege (wave) (l. 1).Footnote 11 Men who enter their domain do not come out unscathed. Beowulf’s encounter with Grendel’s Mother almost kills him, whilst the men behind the bordweallas of their ship are likely to face a tragic demise. Secondly, like Grendel’s mother, who inspires gryre (fear) (even if it is less than that of her son), the iceberg/warrior woman terrifies with her gryrelic (fearsome) laughter (Riddle 33, l. 3b). A further similarity can be drawn between their reproductive capabilities. The riddle-writer tells us that the subject is also her daughter eacen up liden (grown up pregnant),Footnote 12 and this implies that the female subject, fertile since birth, does not need to procreate with a male. She is, as Williamson says, “eternally conceiving” (1977: p. 242). On the one hand, lines 9a–13b seem like mere derivative metaphorical play; yet, when we take into consideration the identity of the subject as a warrior too, and compare her to Grendel’s Mother, the final lines seem intended to generate further anxiety about the threat of this creature. “The greatest threat provided by Grendel’s Mother,” says Oswald, “is her identity as mother; it is through her offspring, but more centrally through her autonomous fertility that she threatens the patriarchal order” (2010: p. 83).Footnote 13 Oswald says that Grendel’s Mother “invokes a different kind of fear” to Grendel and argues that it is because she is a “singular origin” that she must be defeated (2010: p. 83). The creature of Riddle 33 is also a “singular origin”—both water and ice come from the same source—and, like Grendel’s Mother, can also produce a “husband-less maternal creation” (Potkay and Evitt 1997: p. 45).
A particular aspect of the iceberg/warrior woman’s appearance is her beauty, and this sets her apart from Grendel’s Mother who has no alluring qualities. In this respect, she could be compared to Beowulf’s Modthryth, a powerful, ænlicu (beautiful) (l. 1941b) female figure who brings terror to her people. Modthryth does not inhabit a watery lair, but she does perform firen ondrysne (fearsome violence) (l. 1932b). We are told that no man dared hire an dæges eagum starede (stare her in the eyes at any point in the day) for fear that he would end up in wælbende (deadly bonds) (ll. 1935a–36a). Riddle 33’s powerful female also lays bonds on men, although these are achieved through her words rather than her hands. Significantly, Modthryth is eventually married to Offa, and this union puts an end to her violent ways. We are told that she leodbealewa læs gefremede, inwitniða (performed fewer crimes, wicked deeds, against [her] people) (ll. 1946a–47b). Overing argues that Modthryth’s initial behaviour “invert[s] the values of the prevailing symbolic order,” but that, after marrying Offa, the threat is contained and “things are once more under the control of the masculine economy” (2000: p. 249). In Beowulf, violent women are defeated, whether by the influence of a good husband or by the sword of a warrior, as the fates of Modthryth and Grendel’s Mother show respectively. As an elemental force, however, the iceberg/warrior woman of Riddle 33 cannot be defeated and remains a threat among the waves.
The attractive yet dangerous quality of Riddle 33’s subject, combined with its powerful, untameable nature, invites a comparison with the Icelandic “wave” riddles and their depictions of Valkyrie-like creatures who can do damage to ships. The Valkyrie figure was well-known to Anglo-Saxon writers and may have influenced the depiction of the Grendel’s Mother and Modthryth (see Damico 1990: pp. 179–181), so addressing the women of the Icelandic riddles here too makes sense. The “wave” riddles are found in Hervarar saga, a thirteenth-century text set during the war between the Goths and the Huns. The riddles form part of a contest between Odin and Heiðrek and contain Valkyrie-like maidens who echo the saga’s other martial women, including Hervör. The following is just one example of a wave riddle:
Hverjar eru þær snótir
Er ganga (margar) syrgjandi
At forvitni foður?
Hafa þær at meini orðit;
Við þat munu þær sinn aldr ala. (Burrows 2013: p. 214)
(Who are those ladies
Who go (many) sorrowing
To the curiosity of their father?
To many men
They have caused harm;
With that they must spend their lives.) (Burrows 2013: p. 215)
This riddle is one of a number of variations on the subject “waves” that present the subjects as destructive females. Other variations depict the waves as ungentle and as having pale hair or white hoods, which would seemingly reflect the foamy white crests of waves.Footnote 14 Hannah Burrows notes that the anthropomorphisation of waves as women was a common trope in Old Norse poetry and comes from Old Norse mythology in which the giants of the ocean, Ægir and Rán (a female creature with a propensity for destroying ships and capturing men), have seven daughters (2013: p. 199). “The riddles’ personification of the waves as women,” says Burrows, “is thus situated as part of a wider-spread convention, with a rich tapestry of mythological allusion behind it” (2013: p. 199). These wave-women are much like the Valkyrie figures on the battlefield who, as “malevolent, destructive, corrupt” creatures, would bring about the deaths of warriors (Damico 1990: p. 177). The primary aim of invoking these figures on the battlefield or in the sea, says Judy Quinn, was to provide consolation. “The depiction of frolicking waves that lured sailors to join them,” Quinn asserts, “or of Ran drawing men down to her beneath the surface of the ocean, allowed poets to transform tragic loss of life into the consolation of powerful elemental forces pulling men irresistibly towards them” (2014: p. 94). Yet behind this consolation lies fear too; these women are beyond the control of a paternal figure and, husbandless, are sjaldan blíðar (seldom gentle) to the men they encounter. Fear of nature and the unknown becomes equated with fear of the powerful, unbridled woman. Like the female waves of the Icelandic riddles, the iceberg of Riddle 33 is beautiful and malevolent, “desirable but dangerous” (Burrows 2013: p. 202), with the ability to destroy men in their ships. Yet Riddle 33’s subject is not used as a way to “transform tragic loss of life” into consolation; the focus is on violent destruction and terror.
One further analogue I wish to discuss here is the Anglo-Saxon metrical charms, in particular the charm For a Sudden Stitch. The charms, with their weapon-wielding women who terrify with their loud voices, add a final layer to this discussion of destructive females. The Anglo-Saxon metrical charms were used to defend against evil or cure disease and often required the speaker to perform elaborate rituals whilst speaking them (Cameron 1993: p. 157). In a 2014 article, Sara Frances Burdorff argues convincingly that there are parallels to be found between Grendel’s Mother and the women from the charms, but a parallel can also be drawn between these female figures and the female warrior of Riddle 33. One of the most compelling comparisons Burdorff makes between the charm women and Grendel’s Mother is the linguistic similarities between the two. She gives the example of gryre which is used to describe the nature of disease in the charms and the terrifying nature of Grendel’s Mother (Burdorff 2014: pp. 94, 95). She also discusses the use of wif- compounds in both texts and the depiction of the martial females as mihtig (p. 95). Aside from linguistic similarities, Burdorff also finds imagistic and verbal parallels between the women, including their power and aggressive behaviour, their vaguely female physicality and the nature of their swift appearance and disappearance (pp. 96, 97). Such similarities can be found between the martial women in these texts and the warrior woman of Riddle 33. The riddle’s warrior is also vaguely feminine in appearance (being a combination of ice and woman whose physicality is barely described), aggressive towards her “enemies” and, as noted earlier, has a laugh described as gryrelic. The iceberg/warrior woman also occupies a similar liminal space between land and water as the creatures in the charms and Grendel’s Mother.
What unites the women of these texts the most is the fear they inspire and the role their gender plays in generating that fear. These women all enter the male arena of war wielding weapons, but they are equipped with other powers associated with their gender that make them even more terrifying. The iceberg/warrior woman is not only able to cause damage physically but also verbally, through the curse she speaks, and this is a power typically associated with her gender.Footnote 15 The spoken word can be talismanic, as the charm Against a Dwarf suggests,Footnote 16 but it can also cause harm. The word heterune in Riddle 33, which means “charm which causes hatred” or “baleful spell” (Cameron et al. 2018), suggests the woman is using her words in a malignant way. Interestingly, she is not the only woman to use hateful words in the Exeter Book riddle collection; the woman of Riddle 20 does too, and against the riddle’s hagostealde (bachelor) subject:
heo me wom spreceð,
floceð hyre folmum, firenaþ mec wordum,
ungod gæleð. Ic ne gyme þæs,
compes … (ll. 33b–6)
(she utters injury to me, claps her hands, abuses me with words, chants evil. I do not care for that battle.)
We are previously told that the subject, literally a sword and metaphorically a bachelor warrior, is orlegfromne (strong in battle) (l. 15a) and will often gæstberend cwelle compwæpnum (kill men with battle-weapons) (ll. 8b–9a); yet a woman saying evil things is a “battle” he turns away from. It is implied that this is a fight he cannot win and so he chooses not to engage in it. Here, we have a riddle in which heroic (male) action is set against the harmful (female) curse; for the woman, words are weapons.Footnote 17 In Riddle 33, we have a woman who is both physically strong and equipped with harmful words. As such, she is a double threat—Craig Williamson’s term “witch-warrior” might indeed be the most fitting for her (2011: p. 20).
Notably, the iceberg/warrior woman’s curses appear to have a binding quality. We are told that she heterune bond (bound a hateful curse) (l. 7b). The writer here might be playing with the binding qualities of water and ice—the narrator of The Wanderer, for example, describes his journey over the waþema gebind (binding of waves) (Krapp and Dobbie 1936: l. 24b), whilst the narrator of Beowulf says that when ice melts God onwindeð wælrapas (unwinds the flood-ropes) (l. 1610a)—or might be alluding to the way in which Valkyries bind their victims in fetters (Damico 1990: p. 177). The nature not just of the curse but of the female voice, too, is of interest in these analogues, in terms of both its loudness and the way in inspires fear. In both Riddle 33 and the charm For a Sudden Stitch, emphasis is placed on the loudness of the women’s voices. This charm begins:
Hlude wæran hy, la, hlude, ða hy ofer þone hlæw ridan,
wæran anmode, ða hy ofer land ridan (Dobbie 1942, p. 122, ll. 3–4).
(They were loud, so loud, when they rode over the hill; they were of one mind when they rode over the land.)
In Riddle 33, the iceberg/woman’s shout hlinsade hlude (resounded loudly) (l. 3a), similarly placing emphasis on noise. Also of note is the sound of her laughter, which is described as terrible. This sound has echoes, perhaps, of the laughter of the Valkyrie Brynhild at the news of Sigurd’s death (see Rafn 1829: p. 209). It is a laugh that pre-empts victory and revels in destruction. It is a laugh that secures this woman’s identity as a monstrous source of fear and violence.