The Saga of Gestumblindi and Odin’s Riddles
In mythology, riddles are used to test the intelligence and wisdom of mortals. They can contain elements of everyday life, but they can also contain elements from lore that would only be known by those deemed to be wise in the surrounding culture. When riddles contain elements of myths or deeper knowledge beyond just everyday life, the possibility that the one asking the riddle is more than human, even divine, increases. An example of this fact from folklore is the story of Gestumblindi and Odin where Odin, while pretending to be Gestumblindi, asked a king a characteristic riddle.
The Myth of King Heidrek and Gestumblindi
According to the original myth, King Heidrek, had become angry with Gestumblindi and told him to appear before him in a matter of days or he would be imprisoned or worse. Gestumblindi was afraid and prayed to Odin for help. Not too long afterwards, a mysterious figure appeared at Gestumblindi’s door who looked exactly like him. They exchanged clothes and the “real” Gestumblindi went into hiding. The other Gestumblindi went off to meet King Heidrek.
The story of King Heidrek and Gestumblindi appears in the Hervarar saga, a 13th century Icelandic saga that details the story of the magic sword Tyrfing which was passed between various users and eventually ended up in the hands of Heidrek, King of Reidgotaland. The saga is important for its references to wars between the Huns and Goths and, of course, for its examples of Scandinavian riddles.
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King Svafrlame Secures the Sword Tyrfing. ( Public Domain )
The Test of Odin’s Riddles
After arriving in the king’s court, the other Gestumblindi began to make riddles. He told 35 riddles in total. One riddle involved three roads, one on which a person was standing, one that was beneath him, and one that was above him. King Heidrek answered correctly that he was standing on a bridge over a river with birds flying over him. The next riddle involved something that points its head towards the sun but its feet towards Hel. The king continued to answer the riddles correctly until Gestumblindi began to make riddles which began to betray his true identity.
One of these riddles involved a creature with ten eyes, twenty tongues, and forty legs seen at the doors of Delling. This question related to deeper lore made the king suspicious. After this, Gestumblindi told a riddle which removed all doubt and immediately revealed his true identity as the god Odin. He asked a question that had been used in a famous battle of wits between two giants.
What did Odin speak into Baldr’s ear before he was placed on the pyre?
Odin’s last words to Baldr by W.G. Collingwood, 1908. ( Public Domain )
Odin asked this same question. When King Heidrek realized that it was Odin posing these riddles, he was furious and tried to kill the Allfather of the gods. Odin simply turned into a hawk and flew away. Heidrek was unable to kill Odin, but he did clip his tail.
Scandinavian Riddle Culture
Most of the 35 riddles appear only in the tale of Gestumblindi and King Heidrek, but 6 of them are found frequently in later literature. These riddles reflect the importance of riddles in ancient Scandinavian society. In Scandinavia, there were several types of riddles. There were puns, riddles that were educational and asked for specific information, riddles that involved metaphors or analogies, riddles about events witnessed by the questioner, and riddles about numbers. Riddles were not just considered important in Scandinavia of course. Greek mythology also has famous examples of riddles such as the one told by the sphinx to Oedipus.
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Odin and Vafþrúðnir battle in a game of knowledge by Lorenz Frølich, 1895. ( Public Domain )
The main riddle mentioned in this article was educational and meant to test the intelligence and knowledge of King Heidrek. King Heidrek did not know the answer to the riddle, but if he had, it would indicate that he was able to contend intellectually on the same level as the gods.
Riddles had many uses in ancient societies, one was entertainment. Riddles, especially ones about everyday life, were good for passing the time when families gathered for meals. The above riddles, however, illustrate another important use of riddles, determining whether or not someone was able to contend with the divine at least on a mental level. Classical and Biblical literature talk of the importance of the wise understanding riddles and being able to solve them. In ancient Greece, being able to solve divine riddles could be a sign of divinity. This shows how riddles were also used to determine someone’s intelligence.
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A depiction of Odin drinking from the well of wisdom by Robert Engels, 1903. ( Public Domain )
Riddles Through the Centuries
Today, solving riddles is still partly a past-time and evidence of intelligence. Modern riddles include both traditional riddles and scientific riddles such as the nature of dark matter and the wave-particle duality of light. At the time that Odin’s riddle was written down, it was considered a riddle that no one could solve save the divine. In the same way, the nature of things like interstellar spaceflight or consciousness are riddles that have not been solved and may require something greater than human intelligence to solve. They, as a result, could be said to represent modern examples of Gestumblindi or Odin’s riddles to King Heidrek.
Here are Odin’s riddles to King Heidrek from the Hervarar saga for you to test yourself with:
Top image: The one-eyed Odin with his ravens Hugin and Munin and his weapons. An illustration from an 18th-century Icelandic manuscript. ( Public Domain )
By Caleb Strom
Pulsiano, Phillip. Medieval Scandinavia: an encyclopedia . Vol. 1. Taylor & Francis, 1993.
“Gestumblindi.” Encyclopedia Mythica . Available at: https://pantheon.org/articles/g/gestumblindi.html
Edmunds, Lowell. The Sphinx in the Oedipus legend . No. 127. Hain, 1981.
Tolkien, Christopher. "The Battle of the Goths and the Huns." Saga-Book of the Viking Society 14 (1953): 141-63.