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 too: hihte 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 these mariners in the much older Rune Poem may be engaged in any oceanic activity: fishing or trading goods, or they might well be sæman heading to battle or returning from one. Feriaþ has the sense of moving away from somewhere, and the stanza ends when the brinhengest bringeþ, brings them back to land. Either way they are traveling over the fishes’ beþ, spelled differently from the gannet’s bæþ in the Oak stanza but meaning the same thing: bath. The variation in spelling and dialects to be found in the Rune Poem means it had been copied by people speaking in different accents before it settled into the only version of it we have left.
We’ve seen the brimnhengest before, in the Sea stanza. Brim is a poetic word for the surface of the sea, the surf, and the seashore. Hengest means a stallion or gelding, or just a generic horse. I call it a sea horse in the Sea stanza and a sea stallion here for the S alliteration as this is the S stanza. A stallion also butches it up a bit if these mariners were traveling to and from a battle.
This is a very oceanic stanza. It might mean good weather for sailing. It could mean a favorable wind. It is not these things though, we know the answer is the sun, not only because the sun is indispensable for navigating at sea, but because of another sun riddle, found in the Exeter Book. Here is that riddle typed out as it looks in its manuscript, all lines except for the first line and the last break at the edge of the page:
slege dagum ⁊ nihtum :- :⁊ ᛋ
Mec gesette soð sigora ƿaldend crist to compe oft ic
cƿice bærne unrimu cyn eorþan getenge næte mid niþ
swa ic him no hrine þonne mec min frea feohtan hateþ hƿi
lum ic monigra mod arete hƿilum ic frefre þa ic ær ƿinne
on feorran sƿiþe hi þæs felað þeah sƿylce þæs oþres þonne
ic eft hyra ofer deop gedreag drohtað betan :⁊ ᛋ
Do you see them? Two sigel runes, one immediately at the end, one set apart in the manuscript just above the word crist. The riddle starts with the capital letter M in Mec (the personal pronoun me). You might not see in a screen too small that the preceding riddle ends just above the word sigora (triumph, victory), then the scribe includes two forms of ending punctuation together for some reason (a double punctus with a stroke, the other a double punctus with a positura, looks like an italicized et), that ends just above the first half of the word ƿaldend (ruler). Then there’s a good amount of space on the page before the sigel rune appears: it is deliberately placed where it is. The scribe stops writing after the word ƿinne (an opponent) and finishes the riddle on the next page, leaving a healthy margin at the bottom. The riddle, this time divided into lines by its metre, says:
The ruler of true triumph placed me.
As ᛋ Christ to combat often I burn the living
Pressing upon innumerable people on earth
Provided that I not touch them
When my lord heats me to fight.
Sometimes I cheer the spirit of many,
Sometimes I console those I opposed before,
I am very far, though they feel it.
Just as of other times when I again for them,
Above the solemn multitude, improve their condition of life. ᛋ
That second to last line gets awkward. Literally it says something like: such of others then I again of them, which I very much want to translate as: and as it is such so also as such is it unto you. I think it would work but I wouldn’t want to feel I’ve made a huge mistake. This is the sun speaking. The scribe or somebody reading it later included the sun rune at the end in case of confusion as to what can burn us without touching us, but there is enough here to figure it out. The sun is very far but we feel it as an oppression and also as a consolation. It cheers us, and it harms us. The word getenge illustrates the contradictory nature of the sun beautifully. It means pressing upon, oppressing, burdensome, but it also means to be near to somebody and to devote yourself to somebody: sometimes those devoted to us feel like a burden. Getenge can also mean something that has reached a height, like the sun in the sky, like the birch tree lyfte getenge, pressing upon the sky in its stanza. The sun presses against the sky and presses down upon us as well, commanded at times by the heaven king to attack. The line “when my lord heats me to fight,” might be better translated as “when my lord calls me to fight,” hateþ can have either meaning, but as this is the sun, when called to battle I suspect it gets very heated, which in Old English could mean to be angry just as it does today, so I think it works to remind us that the sun’s anger can burn.
There’s a pun in the Old English word for burn: bearn means to burn and it means a child, Crist with the Sigel rune above his name is the bearn of the heaven king. If Christ is also the sun, perhaps the burning sun is the child of heaven? The pun has to stop here or we could go on to connect sun and son, but in Old English son would mean soon or sound, not boy child. Sometimes we can take things too far, though here we can still find layers of meaning. This line could read often I burn alive or often I am born alive, like the sun every morning, or as I have it here, I burn the living. There are layers of puns everywhere in Old English, translating it is an act of erasure. There might be another erasure here as well. There is plenty of evidence of pre-Christian sun worship amongst the rune carvers, perhaps when the Christians came and told everybody about heaven’s king, Christ as the light of the world replaced the local sun deity? It wouldn’t be the first time. Just ask Helios, or Mithra.