The Riddles of Gestumblindi

Žórrskegga Thorn

The most frequently forgotten rule of the Norse religion is there are no rules. Our ancestors' faith varied from village to village, and a lord and a cowherd working on the same farm might have utterly incompatible beliefs. The myths we know today would have been known in many forms, with subtle changes of emphasis to cater for the different cults.
When Snorri recorded the Norse lore it must have been a terrible mess, two centuries after the conversion, merged with Christian beliefs and half forgotten by a community mostly satisfied with the new God and his multitude of saints. Invaluable as Snorri's Edda is, it is the product of a very tidy mind and the myths it contains have been desperately organised. To produce the gentle run of interlocking stories building up to the climax of Ragnarok, Snorri had to choose one religious cult to dominate the others. He choose a faith steeped in poetic tradition but almost alien to the shores of his native Iceland, the cult of Óšinn.
The effects of Snorri's housekeeping are unfortunate, we are now accustomed to seeing the Norse religion from one consistent angle: a fixed hierarchy with Óšinn the undisputed all-father enthroned at the top. It is now very difficult to envisage our gods in any other scenario. Of all the Norse gods Freyr has probably suffered the worst. In the Edda he is a hostage taken from the Vanir race, a minor god of little influence, powerless after the loss of his magic sword.
This image of Freyr is far removed from his status in the Vanir cult, where he would have been the supreme lord of all creation with Freyja at his side. Snorri writing in Iceland (where the cult of Freyr was well established) must have omitted many myths of the Vanir to allow Óšinn's myths to dominate his work. One obvious example is the reference to Freyr's battle with the giant Beli, which Snorri clearly knew but declined to relate in his usual detail.
The tale of Gestumblindi is of great importance as it shows a world very different from the ordered mythology of Snorri's Edda. The story is told of the court of king Heithrek who is dedicated to Freyr and clearly sees his patron as supreme above all the other gods .....
There was once a very wise king called Heithrek. Heithrek worshipped Freyr and every Yule he would choose the finest boar from his herds to be an offering to his god. On Yule eve the boar was brought into the hall and it was the custom for members of his court to swear oaths on its bristles. Heithrek himself had sworn that if any captive could ask a riddle the king could not answer, the man would be freed without charge. Heithrek was so wise that such mercy would be hard to win, for no man had yet asked a riddle the king could not answer.
One of the king's subjects, a fellow called Gestumblindi, had broken the kings laws and was called to appear before the royal council for sentence. Gestumblindi knew his only chance of freedom was to challenge Heithrek to a contest of riddles, but Gestumblindi was well aware that his wits could not match the king's. Gestumblindi made a sacrifice to Óšinn and promised many offerings if the god would aid him.
Shortly before Gestumblindi needed to leave for the king's court, a man appeared who shared his likeness. The stranger introduced himself as 'Gestumblindi' and explained that he would represent him. The two men changed clothes and they were so alike that one could not be told from the other.
The new Gestumblindi travelled to the king's court and presented himself to king Heithrek. Gestumblindi said he had come to make his peace. Heithrek asked if he was ready to be tried by the king's seven judges. Gestumblindi asked if there was any other path open to him and Heithrek replied that he could try asking riddles. If he could ask a riddle the king could not answer he could go free, but if the king answered them correctly and he ran out of riddles to ask, he would be handed over to the judges. Gestumblindi gave the matter some thought and reluctantly agreed to try the riddles, as he felt he had little hope before the judges.
A chair was brought up for Gestumblindi and the contest began. Each riddle Gestumblindi asked was answered quickly and accurately by wise king Heithrek. But Gestumblindi's store of riddles showed no sign of abating. Heithrek showed more and more respect for his humble opponent.
Eventually Gestumblindi asked the king his final riddle 'What did Óšinn whisper in Balder's ear before he was placed on his funeral pyre ?'. At these words the king realised the true identity of his opponent, as only Óšinn would know what he had told his dead son. Heithrek stood up and drew his sword crying 'I am sure that it was something scandalous and cowardly ! But only you know the answer, you evil creature !' Óšinn turned himself into a falcon to escape the king's wrath but his tail feathers were cut short when the king swung his sword. And this is why the falcon's tail has been short to this day.
Óšinn was enraged by this attempt on his life and arranged for the king's death that very night.
The most striking element of this story is king Heithrek's undisguised disgust when he realises that he is facing Óšinn. There is no sign of respect here for a benign all-father figure, Heithrek simply goes in for the kill, fully aware of what he is doing. Why he should do so is somewhat puzzling but Óšinn has beguiled the king with trickery, both by appearing as Gestumblindi and by asking his final and unanswerable riddle. There is also an element of hatred between this devotee of Freyr and Óšinn, as if the two faiths had a tradition of hostility in this region, which is seen elsewhere in myths concerning Óšinn and Žórr.
Heithrek's opinion of both Óšinn and his son Balder is very similar in style to the writings of Saxo Grammaticus (13th century Danish historian). Saxo was mercilessly damning of the Norse gods in general but he recorded a Danish version of the Balder myth in which Balder is clearly the villain and Hoder is the hero. The varying myths associated with the highly diverse Norse cults may be a clue as to how Saxo's tale arose.
A less obvious lesson in this tale is the connection between the wise king and his patron. Heithrek appears to be the wisest man in the land and he would expect Freyr to live up to the same standard. Thus for followers of the Vanir cult Freyr is the god of wisdom. It is interesting to note that Óšinn is unable to win the contest without resorting to trickery, despite the fact that his riddles are new to the king, and many of them could have several answers.
The tale of Gestumblindi is very reminiscent of the story of Ottar and Freyja. Again in this myth the devotee requires knowledge to present an appeal. Freyja aids Ottar by giving him magic to extend his memory. As Ottar's case is based on him knowing his ancestry no trickery is required because his reward is deserved. On the other hand Gestumblindi is a far more shady character, one can only assume that Heithrek was well justified in calling him before the royal judges.
In the two sources named below Gestumblindi's riddles are quoted in full, both the riddles and the answers, and they make very interesting reading on their own. Riddles would have been an important part of the Norse oral tradition, and many of the riddles in this story draw on mythological material.

Gestumblindi's Riddles

Norse Poems, WH Auden & Paul B. Taylor (tr), Faber and Faber 1983
Northern Lights, legends, and sagas folk tales, Kevin Crossley-Holland (ed.), Faber and Faber 1987
Stories and Ballads of the Far Past, N. Kershaw, Cambridge University Press 1921
Other References

Edda, Snorri Sturluson. JM Dent & Sons 1987 (translated by Anthony Faulkes)
Poetic Edda translated by Lee M. Hollander University of Texas Press 1962
The History of the Danes Saxo Grammaticus (translated by P. Fisher) D.S. Brewer 1980