Commentary for Exeter Riddle 22


Date: Wed 07 May 2014
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 22

This riddle’s commentary is a guest post from the stellar David Callander. David is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, where he works on early medieval Welsh and English poetry. Take it away, David!


If you’re anything like me, this riddle will have completely foxed you. Different possibilities are gradually taken away until we’re left wondering, what on earth could this be? Or not on earth, perhaps.

First of all, we’re told that we’re dealing with LX men riding on horseback (Arabic numbers weren’t used in England yet, so the residents of early medieval England were stuck with Roman numerals.) Instead of moving on to describe different aspects of these men, we’re told a short story about them trying to cross a river. They want to cross this river, but are held back by the atol yþa geþræc, the ‘terrible tumult of the waves’. So then this wægn (it is what it looks like) turns up and, with a conveniently introduced pole, both ‘mounts and men’ are borne cheerfully over the water. But they do this in a seemingly impossible way – it did not disturb the water, nor fly in the air (so the Wind’s out), and also they weren’t pulled by the strength of slaves, or beasts of burden (13-14). This concludes with a happy ending, the men and horses have reached the greener grass of the far bank gesund (‘unharmed’ – the word is still used in Modern German and forms the first part of Gesundheit.) To me it all sounds a bit like punting.

Punting on River Cam

Photo (by Evans1551) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0).

So, a lovely story, but we aren’t really left any the wiser as to what is being described, and there’s just so much going on! What are the men and horses, and what’s the teleporting wagon doing? And why are there sixty men, eleven with noble steeds and four with white ones? Presumably the rest had to make do with tiny Viking horses:

Icelandic horse in snow

Photo (by Andreas Tille) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0).

Well, as you might expect, scholars have been arguing about this for at least 150 years. What can cross water, but not in the sky nor through the water itself? We are compelled to look up.

For some of us nowadays, it can be easy to forget the stars. But for the people of early medieval England they would have been vivid in the unclouded sky, without fumes and smog to blot them out. The constellation we now know as the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) was then known as Carles wæn (literally "a churl’s wagon"). This seems to have represented a wagon with a single pole, as L. Blakeley explains. Ælfric refers to how this constellation goes up and down both by day and by night in his De temporibus anni. The constellation under the “Wain” (Canes Venatici) consists of eleven stars visible to the naked eye, four of which Blakeley sees as particularly bright (the eleven noble steeds and four white ones.) Patrick Murphy has preferred to see the constellation Draco here, which, conveniently, consists of fifteen stars.

Big dipper

Can you see it? Photo (by adkiscool) from Deviant Art.

But why sixty horsemen altogether? Marijane Osborn makes the ingenious suggestion that this refers to sixty days after the winter solstice, when the position of the Big Dipper in relation to the pole would mark the seasons, or it could just be used more loosely to refer to many stars. Like other Old English riddles, this poem might draw upon Aldhelm’s Latin riddles (Riddle 53 in particular, which also refers to the Wain.)

Other solutions have been suggested, such as "month" and "bridge." A "month" (December in particular) was the earliest proposed solution, with the sixty days referring to the half-days of the month. It runs into a bit of trouble because it relies on counting feast days (seven) and Sundays (four, although there could be five) in terms of full days, rather than half-days like the other days of the month. It seems a bit of a leap to take this out of the riddle. A "bridge" would certainly have allowed the horsemen to cross the river without disturbing the water. But how would this explain the horsemen? And why would they have been stuck on one side of the water if there was already a bridge there?

One last tantalizing titbit. Classical writers refer to the Big Dipper as a plough (the constellation Boötes being the ploughman.) If we look at the first three riddles of the Exeter Book (unless we see them as one super-riddle), it seems that some of the riddles have been grouped together by theme. I wonder whether the idea of the Big Dipper as a plough was in the mind of a compiler when he decided to place the text after Riddle 21 (the Plough)?


References and Suggested Reading:

Ælfric. De Temporibus Anni. Ed. Heinrich Henel. Early English Text Society, vol. 213. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1942, section 9.6.

Blakeley, L. “Riddles 22 and 58 of the Exeter Book.” Review of English Studies, new series, vol. 9 (1958), pages 241-7.

Murphy, Patrick J. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011, pages 111-23.

Osborne, Marijane. “Old English Ing and his Wain.” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, vol. 81 (1980), pages 388-9.

Williamson, Craig, ed. The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977, pages 201-4.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 22  david callander 

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Exeter Riddle 23


Date: Thu 15 May 2014
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 23
Original text:

Agof is min noma      eft onhwyrfed;
ic eom wrætlic wiht      on gewin sceapen.
Þonne ic onbuge,      ond me of bosme fareð
ætren onga,     ic beom eallgearo
5     þæt ic me þæt feorhbealo     feor aswape.
Siþþan me se waldend,     se me þæt wite gescop,
leoþo forlæteð,     ic beo lengre þonne ær,
oþþæt ic spæte,      spilde geblonden,
ealfelo attor     þæt ic ær geap.
10     Ne togongeð þæs     gumena hwylcum,
ænigum eaþe      þæt ic þær ymb sprice,
gif hine hrineð     þæt me of hrife fleogeð,
þæt þone mandrinc      mægne geceapaþ,
fullwered fæste      feore sine.
15     Nelle ic unbunden      ænigum hyran
nymþe searosæled.     Saga hwæt ic hatte.


Wob is my name turned back;
I am a wondrous being, shaped for battle.
When I bend, and from my bosom travels
a poisonous dart, I am very ready
5     so that I sweep that deadly evil far away from me.
When my ruler, he who designed that distress,
looses my limbs, I am longer than before,
until I spit, debased by destruction,
the terrible poison that I took in before.
10     What I speak about here does not
easily pass away from anyone,
if that which flies from my belly strikes him,
so that he buys that evil drink with his strength,
[pays] full compensation with his very life.
15     Unbound, I will not obey anyone
unless skillfully tied. Say what I am called.

Click to show riddle solution?


This riddle appears on folio 106v 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 192.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 21: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), page 81.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 23 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 23


Date: Mon 26 May 2014
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 23

Erm…is anyone else a bit scared of whatever Riddle 23 is packing? I mean, I like heroic battling as much as the next person, but this poem is a tad intense. It’s also fairly easy to solve. In fact, the consensus that it refers to a bow (OE boga) is pretty strong.

Scene from Bayeux Tapestry

Can you spot the archer in this scene from the Bayeux Tapestry? Photo (by Gabriel Seah) from Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

According to Donald K. Fry, “Crossbow” and “Phallus” also get a shout out (p. 23), but since the first is a type of bow and the second is pretty horrific in this context, I won’t take an extended go at solutions. I will say, however, that the first line gives the game away. At least it does if you think really hard about it. Taking up the speaker’s recommendation to turn back the name Agof, we get Foga, which then needs to be corrected to Boga. This change requires us to speculate that a scribe copying out this poem was used to replacing “b”s with “f”s to suit her/his own pronunciation and spelling conventions (Williamson, pp. 204-5). Oh, early medieval England. You’re so complex.

More straightforward are all the references to poison in the poem. The venomous association of arrows is pretty strongly signaled, with references to an ætren onga (poisonous dart) at line 4a and ealfelo attor (terrible poison) at line 9a. In line 8b, the bow also refers to itself as spilde geblonden (debased by destruction), and we know from looking at (ge)blandan’s Dictionary of Old English (DOE) entries that we’re dealing with a liquid-y sort of blending or mixing that can also denote infection or taint. This liquidity (SUCH a good word!) is carried out in the poetic metaphor of the bow delivering a mandrinc (evil drink) at line 13a.

There’s also some debate about lines 13-14 in general and the term fullwer (compensation, i.e. “full wergild“) in specific. Noting that this word might not actually be a compound at all, the DOE offers a few options for translating this passage: “‘so that he pays for that evil drink with his strength, [pays] full compensation at once with his life,’ or, if the subject is wer (man) and full (cup) is the object of geceapaþ:‘the man pays for that evil drink with his strength, [for] the cup at once with his life.'” The “cup” reading works nicely with the poison, of course, but the rest of the poem’s connotations of crime and punishment make room for the “compensation” version.

So now you’re probably wondering: did early English folks actually poison the tips of their weapons? That’s a really good question. I don’t know about the archaeological record off the top of my head (homework!), but certainly there are other poetic references to poisoned points in The Battle of Maldon (see lines 46-7 and 145b-6a) and potentially Beowulf (see lines 1457-60a). Of course, the poison/bow motif might also relate to the fact that the yew used to make bows was poisonous. Here, we’ve got a nice little Anglo-Latin riddle in the way of Aldhelm of Malmesbury’s Enigma 69, De taxo (about the yew-tree) for a comparison. Lines 5-8 read:

Sed me pestiferam fecerunt fata reorum,
Cumque venenatus glescit de corpore stipes,
Lurcones rabidi quem carpunt rictibus oris,
Occido mandentum mox plura cadavera leto. (in Glorie)

(but the fates have made me deadly to the guilty. A poisonous branch grows from my body, and when pillagers, mad of mouth, seize it with open jaws, I soon wipe out many corpses of the chewers with death.)

This 7th/8th-century abbot, bishop and writer extraordinaire is a font of riddley knowledge on all sorts of topics. And his poem is proof that some early English folks knew that yew was a tad on the massively dangerous side (although there’s also an article by Lenore Abraham suggesting that yew wasn’t all that accessible in early medieval England). But that doesn’t seem to have stopped the figure on the right side of the 8th-century Franks Casket’s lid from shooting up the place:

Riddle 23 Franks Casket Lid

Photo (by FinnWikiNo) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0).

Since we’re doing a bit of Latin show-and-tell, let’s also take a look at another related riddle. Tatwine, the 8th-century Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote a pretty gosh-darn similar poem, called Enigma 34, De faretra (about the quiver). It goes a little something like this:

Omnes enim diris complent mea uiscera flammae
Nam me flamma ferox stimulis deuastat acerius
Vt pacis pia mox truculenter foedera frangam
Non tamen oblectat me sponte subire duellum. (in Glorie)

(Flames, terrible indeed, fill all my insides, for a bold fire lays waste to me with sharp spurs so that, wildly, I soon break faithful agreements of peace; nevertheless it does not delight me in myself to go to war.)

Well hello there, fiery flames! Aren’t you frequently linked to poison in Old English lit? (the answer is yes…yes they are). Of course, this quiver full of arrows isn’t creepily eager to get involved in the whole warfare thing. But I guess bows and quivers can be attributed with different personalities. I’m so tempted to draw you a picture of this. So tempted.

But I suppose I’ll stick to proper commentary this week.

What else should we notice about this poem? Well, did anyone catch that opening formula? Line 2b’s reference to being on gewin sceapen (shaped for battle) is – quite importantly – the same phrase that describes the sword in line 1b of Riddle 20. Weapons of the world, unite! Other linguistic cleverness can be seen at the very end of Riddle 23 in that little binding-pun. The tongue-in-cheek final flourish – Nelle ic unbunden ænigum hyran / nymþe searosæled (Unbound, I will not obey anyone unless skillfully tied) – is clearly a reference to both 1) the controlling sort of binding that one could inflict upon a living creature and 2) the stringing of a bow. Such a clever riddler.

I’m going to stop now, although I could go on. I could list the references to archery that come up in other brilliant early English texts. I could talk about that rather optimistic compound feorhbealu (deadly evil) and how it only occurs here and in Beowulf. I could remark that this bow’s ruler is clearly not a very nice fellow, with all his designing of distress (line 6b) and what-not. But I’m quite tired. And I need to go buy milk.


References and Suggested Reading:

Abraham, Lenore. “The Devil, the Yew Bow, and the Saxon Archer.” Proceedings of the PMR Conference, vol. 16-17 (1992-3), pages 1-12.

Dictionary of Old English: A-G Online. Ed. by Antonette diPaolo Healey, Dorothy Haines, Joan Holland, David McDougall, and Ian McDougall, with Pauline Thompson and Nancy Speirs. Web interface by Peter Mielke and Xin Xiang. Toronto: Dictionary of Old English Project, 2007. [with the next roll-out, you’ll be able to access the DOE a set amount of times for free!]

Fry, Donald K. “Exeter Book Riddle Solutions.” Old English Newsletter, vol. 15 (1981), pages 22-33.

Glorie, F., ed. Variae Collectiones Aenigmatum Merovingicae Aetatis. Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, vol. 133-133A. Turnhout: Brepols, 1968.

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

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 23 

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