Commentary for Exeter Riddle 13


Date: Tue 08 Oct 2013
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 13

Having moved into the realm of four-footed animals with Riddle 12, we now leave the oxen to plough his lone furrow and return – supposedly – to the realm of birds. That being said, we immediately encounter the riddle’s first paradox: both the first and last half line refer to the riddle object’s ability to walk or tread (tredan) on the ground (turf and lond). However, some of the motifs used in this riddle may be familiar by now: the feorg cwico (living spirit) mentioned in line 3 takes us back to Riddles 9, 10 and 12 and strongly suggests that we are dealing with an animal. The hrægl of line 9 recalls the swan’s feathers being described by the same term back in Riddle 7. And thus, the argument goes, we are dealing with a kind of bird. At the centre of the riddle is again the transformation that this creature undergoes, when it is awoken through God’s might and gains its living spirit. However, the riddler wants us to puzzle over a more serious paradox: what kind of creature lives, walks and eats even though its skin is hanging on the wall? And who are the six brothers and four sisters of the first two lines?

Early solutions to this riddle focused on the transformation aspect and suggested, for example, a caterpillar which metamorphoses into a butterfly. But I’m sure you’ll agree that this does not really cover all the clues the riddle gives us. A more metaphorical solution was that of ten fingers in a glove (which accounts for the numerological clue and gloves were made out of a fell or skin, but the second part of the riddle doesn’t really fit the metaphor). It was the German scholar Moritz Trautmann who first hit upon the solution of "chick" or "chicken." This quickly gained general acceptance as it matches something we know from the real world: in this reading, the "skin on the wall" is the membrane on the inside of the egg that a newly-hatched chick leaves behind, its "renewed" garment is its new down. Furthermore, the idea of the chick shedding its skin as its distinctive aspect seems to have been part of a wider riddle tradition. There are several Latin riddles that play on this phenomenon; in fact most of them are boiled down (the pun is courtesy of Martha Bayless, who edited one of these Latin riddles) to a couple of lines or so but they all mention the shedding of the skin. On the other hand, one of our readers, Linden Currie, suggests that the "skin hanging on the wall" may in fact refer to the caul of a new-born calf which was used in early medieval Iceland to cover the window-holes in houses when stretched over a frame and made translucent to let light in. Might we not imagine something similar for early medieval England? Such an object, Linden argues, could easily be described as sweotol in the sense of "transparent" as well as "visible" (gesyne). And would the description of something "treading the ground" not fit a calf better than a chicken? Such a solution would also yoke (or yolk?) this riddle to its predecessor.*

At any rate, I hear you cry, what of the six brothers and four sisters? Back in 1950, Erika von Erhardt-Siebold hit on an ingenious solution to this part: she suggested that the answer to the riddle in Old English is ten ciccenu or "ten chickens." Now count the number of consonants and vowels in this phrase and what do you get? Six…and four! Brilliant! Only…the word ciccenu doesn’t really exist in Old English, at least in the texts we have. The standard Old English (or West Saxon) version of this word would be cicenu which ruins our nice solution (and it should really be tien, but we won’t mention that). But we can’t rule out that this is a possible Northern spelling, and nobody has really come up with a better solution – the most recent commentators also accept it, though Patrick Murphy is slightly unhappy with the fact that the "ten" of the answer refers both to the number of chickens in the solution and to the letters in the "name" of the solution (though this is again not unknown in medieval riddle tradition in general).

Hen with 9 chicks

Ten chickens! What are the chances of finding a photo with the right number? Image from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 4.0).

Murphy has also pointed out that this riddle may evoke other associations: some creatures who lose their garments, are "awoken" by their creator and have to walk the earth and are forced to eat what they can get through their own toil? I hope you’ve realised this is of course the story of Adam and Eve being cast out of Eden. Murphy finds some parallels between the language of this riddle and Old English poetic versions of the Edenic story. Somebody who focuses on this allusive metaphorical reading might come up with the solution Adam ond Eue – and if we count the consonants and vowels there…I assume you can guess what the answer is. Murphy is not necessarily disputing the accepted solution but it is a reminder that it is worth keeping in mind that riddles can work on several levels.

By the way, despite all this work, there are some bits in the riddle that have so far defied solution, in particular the haswe blede of line 9. Both of these words have a range of meanings – if we look at the work of previous translators and commentators, the average meaning is something like "grey(ish) fruit," though nobody has been able to come up with a convincing explanation beyond "the stuff that new-born chicks eat" – which, like greyish fruit, is slightly unsatisfying. Any thoughts on this (and anything else) would be welcome in the comments!

Not wishing to overegg the pudding, I have chickened out of giving you the full arguments, but if you want to brood on it a bit more, here are some references you can follow up on:


References and Suggested Reading:

Bitterli, Dieter. Say What I am Called: The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book and the Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009, pages 115-21.

Murphy, Patrick J. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011, pages 53-60 and 91-95.

von Erhardt-Siebold, Erika. “Old English Riddle 13.” Modern Language Notes, vol. 65 (1950), pages 97-100.

Williamson, Craig, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1977, pages 168-70.


*If you want to know more details, Linden can be contacted under linden.currie(at)gmail.com.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 13 

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Exeter Riddle 13

Exeter Riddle 14


Date: Mon 28 Oct 2013
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 14
Original text:

Ic wæs wæpenwiga.      Nu mec wlonc þeceð
geong hagostealdmon      golde ond sylfore,
woum wirbogum.      Hwilum weras cyssað,
hwilum ic to hilde      hleoþre bonne
5     wilgehleþan,      hwilum wycg byreþ
mec ofer mearce,      hwilum merehengest
fereð ofer flodas      frætwum beorhtne,
hwilum mægða sum      minne gefylleð
bosm beaghroden;      hwilum ic bordum sceal,
10     heard, heafodleas,      behlyþed licgan,
hwilum hongige      hyrstum frætwed,
wlitig on wage,      þær weras drincað,
freolic fyrdsceorp.      Hwilum folcwigan
on wicge wegað,      þonne ic winde sceal
15     sincfag swelgan      of sumes bosme;
hwilum ic gereordum      rincas laðige
wlonce to wine;      hwilum wraþum sceal
stefne minre      forstolen hreddan,
flyman feondsceaþan.      Frige hwæt ic hatte.


I was an armed warrior. Now a bold
young retainer covers me with gold and silver,
twisted coils of wire. Sometimes men kiss me,
sometimes I call close comrades
5     to battle with my voice, sometimes a horse bears me
over the bounds, sometimes a sea-steed
draws me over the depths, brightly decorated,
sometimes one of the girls fills
my bosom, ring-adorned; sometimes I must lie
10     on boards, hard, headless, despoiled,
sometimes I hang decorated with ornaments,
appealing on the wall, where men drink,
comely army-attire. Sometimes battle-warriors
carry me on a horse, when I must swallow,
15     treasure-stained, breath from a certain one’s breast;
sometimes I proudly call with cries
warriors to their wine; sometimes I have to reclaim
stolen goods from enemies with my voice,
put to flight fiendish foes. Reveal what I am called.

Click to show riddle solution?


This riddle appears on folio 104r of The Exeter Book.

The above Old English text is based on this edition: Elliott van Kirk Dobbie and George Philip Krapp, eds, The Exeter Book, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936), page 187.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 12: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), page 75.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 14 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 14


Date: Mon 28 Oct 2013
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 14

So, revealing that my childhood nickname was “Moo Moo” (thanks, Dad) is endearing, right? Well, maybe it’s because of that personal connection, but I really have a soft spot for the Old English cattle riddles. Hopefully you’ll all remember the potential “Ox and Ox-hide” of Riddle 12, and I’ll go ahead and hint that you haven’t seen the last of early medieval oxen (say that twelve times fast) in this collection. Admittedly, this riddle is more interested in the horn itself, rather than the animal that provided it, but still.

The author holding a drinking horn

Me with Corpus Christi College, Cambridge’s aurochs drinking horn at my matriculation ceremony in 2008. Photo courtesy of James Brown. But not THE James Brown.

I guess the first order of business concerns the solution. But, unfortunately for the purposes of filling out a full post, there really hasn’t been a great deal of debate for this one. In fact, because the solution “Horn” – which is the same word in Old and Modern English – has received such wide support, the riddle hasn’t been hugely popular in scholarship. But even if the solution is a bit…well…obvious, the poem still deserves to be read!

In fact, it’s a very stylish poem, as far as Old English poetics are concerned. Many of the lines employ double alliteration, which is when two words (or elements of a compound word) in the first half-line share the same initial sound as a word in the second half-line. Like “w” in line 1: Ic wæs wæpenwiga. Nu mec wlonc þeceð. In fact, there, we’ve got three “w”s in the first half-line! Calm down, poet! Sheesh! Old English poetry doesn’t require double alliteration by any stretch – the poem would still be nice and poetic-like if the half-lines were linked by only one alliterating word in each (like “g” in line 2: geong hagostealdmon golde ond sylfore). So 12+ lines of double alliteration is extra fancy. The reason I say “12+” is because it could be argued that lines 4 and 11 doubly alliterate too…it’s just that adverbs like hwilum (sometimes) don’t usually contribute to the alliteration.

But this is all getting terribly technical. Let’s pause over the use of hwilum for a moment. It certainly deserves attention because this word is used no fewer than 10 times in 19 lines! It’s as though the horn is saying: “Look at all the things I can do! I’m a multitasker!” In the very least, the poet is emphasizing the horn’s versatility through repetition. Also, I wonder if maybe all these “hw” sounds are meant to recall the shape of the mouth when blowing a horn and the actual sound that it would make. I don’t want to read too much into alliteration (sorry…back to that), but “w” and “h” alliterate A LOT in this poem. This is significant not only on an aural level, but also because Horn starts with an “h.” I get the sense that the poet wants us to solve this riddle a bit too much.

A feasting scene from the Bayeux Tapestry

A feasting scene from the Bayeux Tapestry scene (I don’t know what’s going on with the guy on the right’s hand), excerpted from an image on Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Okay, enough with the sounds now. I get it: you want themes and imagery. Well, this poem is not about to let you down. In it, we have all the trappings of the early medieval, aristocratic warrior lifestyle: treasure, horses, ships (sea-steeds!), drinking, battle and chasing off enemies. And there appears to be a bit of kissing going on, but I’ll let you read into that what you will (check out Riddle 63 too…this seems to be a thing).

One aspect I like most about this riddle is the tension between the object-as-object and the object-as-agent. Of course, this is a theme we see throughout the riddles, but I think it’s especially interesting here with all the emphasis on actions, as opposed to just attributes. In only 19 lines, the horn characterizes itself as the passive object of the following actions: it’s covered with treasure, kissed, borne by horses and ships, filled up with drink, despoiled, carried and forced to hang on the wall. These are all things done to what used to be a wæpenwiga (armed warrior) but is now an object of heroic use. However, a shift takes place in the final lines after the horn is forced to swallow someone’s breath, which seems to draw on the idea that the early English understood speech as coming from the chest (see Jager, full ref below). I find that image powerfully weird. It’s almost like it’s undergoing mouth-to-mouth, and, when it takes in the person’s breath, it gains a voice. In fact, after the ingesting of air, the horn begins to take action: it calls warriors to a feast, reclaims stolen goods and puts enemies to flight. This little theory is slightly marred by the early reference to the horn calling warriors to battle in lines 4-5, but perhaps we can assume that the calling to action is another mouth-to-mouth image…after all, it takes place just after the kissing. At any rate, all this object-agent tension is nicely summed up by the use of wlonc (proud) twice – once in line 1 and once in line 17. This is an envelope pattern that ties together the proud retainer who uses the horn and the horn itself, which proudly calls together the retainers for wine-sodden bonding. Good times.

Righto, before I let you go, there’s one final thing I want to draw your attention to. Riddle-objects that relate to drinking are not just a remnant of the past. Has anyone seen the San Miguel commercial? Watch it…I’m sure someone on the creative team was a student of Old English!:


References and Suggested Reading:

Jager, Eric. “Speech and the Chest in Old English Poetry: Orality or Pectorality?” Speculum, vol. 65 (1990), pages 845-59.

I also published an academic version of this post recently: Cavell, Megan. “Sounding the Horn in Exeter Book Riddle 14.” The Explicator, vol. 72 (2014), pages 324-7.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 14 

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