Tag Archives: The Exeter Book

Translating Sigel

The answer to this riddle is the sun, though when you read it it could be something else related to seafaring. Semannum, more commonly spelled sæmanum, means mariners, plural, people in boats on the sea. Such people this stanza tells us, are always hoping for the answer to this riddle. They expect it toohihte means joy as well as hope, but in the sense of an expectation of joy with elements of trust and comfort, which might otherwise be lacking in the cold and perilous waters of the North Sea.

Much of the time sæmanum is used to mean a general sailor, but it is also a word for invaders by sea and by the ninth and tenth centuries became a word for Viking. In the Old English poem “The Battle of Malden,” about a Viking attack that happened in the year 991, the Vikings were called sæman. But … More

Sitting to Battle

Imagine yourself sitting in a beer hall with the rune carvers, playing a game requiring strategy, skill, luck. You are feeling wlanc, proud, boastful. What are you boasting about? Other times you relied on strategy, skill, and luck. These were a seafaring people, you might be boasting about what you got up to at sea, what you plan to do next when the sun comes back and the weather turns favorable again for sea voyages. This is all you want to do, to get back out there on a boat and really do something to be proud of.

Imagine yourself sitting in a boat, battling big waves sending you in all directions, the sea horse has lost its bridle, the sun is obscured by storm clouds or gone altogether and you must navigate by the stars. You’ve been in the wars, and you want the sun to come back to … More

Translating Mann

In Old English, a mann is a human being of any gender, translated into modern English as anyone, they, people, a citizen, a human. Mann is not a male person here, so when you see Mann as the name of this rune, it does not mean man as in male. Most correctly it can be either Person or Human but I need to pick one: Human. Person says more about ourselves as bodies. We carry things on our person, we are a person in a room. We are also a human in a room, but we do have a collective human nature, a human understanding, and human sensibilities. Human is a word that suggests the connection we have from our shared experience of being people in the world. It’s a choice that feels right to me as an answer to the riddle of the stanza. Maybe I’m wrong. As a person I’m only human.… More


Both the Need and Human stanzas say that life is guided and determined by the gods, and they both highlight two seemingly contradictory aspects of fate, its changeability and its certainty. Need sends a warning. Listening to omens can bring help when fate turns against us, so you’d better listen up. The Human stanza warns something else: we enjoy life with each other, but only until the gods decide our ultimate fate, the permanence of death, so let’s enjoy each other now while we can.

This is powerful stuff. The gods do not, however, have absolute power. In a world governed by fate (wyrd in Old English), it is not the case that the gods have sole and complete charge over every aspect of our lives. Even with deities such as the omnipresent ones (nosy, deeply involved in human business) belonging to the people of the Rune Poem, people have discernment. People are … More

How to make a Torch

Find a pine tree, a nice sticky one full of resin, that stuff will burn in rain. Look for dead branches, go for one near the base of the tree and cut it off as close to the trunk as possible. You’ll know when you find a good one.

Split the end of the branch with an axe four ways, north south east west, quarter it. Cut down several inches. Break nothing off.

Carve out some kindling from the inner edges of your cuts. Shave it out, make an X of airflow. Fill the X with the shaved bits. Now fill the X with fire. Try not to burn the place down.



Well this is weird. Here’s what’s happened. At the start of The Exeter Maxims I part C, we get a window into how runes were once used, so I wanted to include it somewhere in Letters for Titles. I thought there’s plenty of places to put it, and I did work it into the first draft of Rune Casting: Ur, where it lived for a year. But it doesn’t quite fit there so I removed it from the final version. I say final but everything is temporary. Then I removed a whole piece called The Beasts of the Field which once held this spot, unfortunately losing as well a gif of Brazil‘s fly falling into the typewriter and turning Tuttle into Buttle. Something had to replace it, so I went to the maxims in The Exeter Book, folio 91r, and translated this:

Ræd sceal mon secgan     rune writan
leoþ gesingan     leofes More

Translating Ear

Old English uses very few words at a time, but in all the minimalism there’s a massive amount of meaning: often multiple meanings of the same word are intended, black is sometimes white, and frequently there’s a pun in there somewhere. To translate Old English we need to use more words than the original, and still it’s difficult to pack all that meaning back in. Translation fills graveyards of context and nuance, left behind to grow cold. What is lost by gaining? What do we kill dead? Alliteration and meter, the music makers of language. The beat, deceased, sounds abandoned. Look at this:

blac to gebeddan     bleda gedreosaþ

Now say it:

black to yeh-bed-an     blea-da yeh-dre-o-sath

There’s some sound in it, listen. Alliteration and beat. Three repetitions of B making a beat and there’s a pause in the middle: two parts sung as one statement. Or a call and response. Old English poetry has a … More