Dr Alaric Hall riddles about plants and eggs at University of Sheffield Talk

Dr Alaric Hall presented his thoughts about medieval riddles as part of a conference series with White Rose universities at the University of Sheffield’s Medieval and Ancient Research Centre.

At a seminar in association with the Institute for Medieval Studies at the University of Leeds and the Medieval and Ancient Research Centre at the University of Sheffield, Dr Alaric Hall gave a paper discussing medieval riddles in different vernacular languages. This took place on 16th November and the paper was called ‘A Hairy Woman Gives Birth to a Bald Child … Eggs, Birds, Mothers, and More in (Mostly) Early Medieval Arabic, Hebrew, Norse, Latin and Greek riddles’. This was one of series of seminar talks between the White Rose universities of Leeds, York and Sheffield, taking place throughout the academic year. 

Dr Hall first began by acknowledging colleagues who have helped him to think about medieval riddles across different languages, including Dr Maroula Perisanidi, also from the University of Leeds. Dr Perisanidi began several medieval language reading groups with postgraduate research students and staff, for example Greek and Arabic reading groups. Dr Hall believes that sometimes the best ideas, research, and learning regarding languages can come from reading groups, and that these groups inspired him to research more vernacular texts that he was previously unaware of. 

In the paper itself, Dr Hall presented the audience firstly with a medieval Arabic riddle about a plant, with the symbolism from this riddle creating a maiden mother motif, as plants reproduce asexually. He then presented similar riddles found in Hebrew, created by tenth-century poet Dunash ben Labrat who took Arabic meters and translated them into Hebrew. Again the same maiden mother motif appears. In comparing these two riddles, Dr Hall argued for a stronger connection between women and plants and also sees the representation of a male gaze structure. In these riddles women, like plants, need to be nurtured by men. Dr Hall then compared this to a Latin plant riddle by Symphosius, where the presence of a female voice can be detected as the plant speaks about its existence. All of these riddles from different cultures then have a shared motif running throughout, being manipulated in different ways.
Dr Hall also discussed different vernacular riddles about eggs, starting with some Arabic riddles where the images that appear suggest maternity but only when the egg produces a chick, when the egg becomes the symbol for life. Another riddle from the Arabic tradition also uses eggs but the imagery that this riddle evokes suggest a failed pregnancy. Dr Hall compared these riddles to ones found in Old Norse sagas, giving the example of a swan riddle in Heiðreks saga. Eggs again offer images of pregnancy but also the swans themselves, nesting on an island. Their daily activities are allegorical of female labour, women who work on farmsteads watched by men. 

While in its early stages, Dr Hall believes that looking further into medieval vernacular riddle texts will provide meaningful understanding of a shared riddle culture across early western Eurasia. It is not just Old English riddle texts that can give us new and surprising angles on early medieval culture. 

During the debate after the talk, Dr Hall gave some more background to medieval riddles and their importance to early western society, specifically for Old Norse cultures, as he is more familiar. 

To find out more about this and other talks in the series, check out the What’s on at Leeds page.