Exeter Riddles 75 and 76


Date: Sun 18 Mar 2018
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddles 75 and 76

It’s another two-for-one this week! Most editors treat the first two lines as one riddle, and the third as a seperate riddle. Krapp and Dobbie are among them. Others, including Craig Williamson, edit this as a single poem. Also there are runes, so scroll down for a screenshot if you can't see them. Enjoy…

Original text:

Ic swiftne geseah     on swaþe feran
.ᛞ ᚾ ᛚ ᚻ.
[Riddle 76] Ic ane geseah idese sittan.


I saw a swift one travel on the way
.d n l h.
[Riddle 76] I saw a woman sit alone.

Click to show riddle solution?
Hound, Piss, Hound and Hind, Christ


This riddle appears on folio 127r 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 234.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 73: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), page 110.

Screen shot for the runes:

Riddle 75 runes

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 75  riddle 76 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddles 68 and 69
Commentary for Exeter Riddles 75 and 76
Exeter Riddle 19

Commentary for Exeter Riddles 75 and 76


Date: Mon 26 Mar 2018
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddles 75 and 76

Here’s a riddle for you: what do a dog, Jesus, and someone taking a pee all have in common? Answer: they’re all possible solutions for this week’s riddle. Or riddles. Yes, there’s quite a bit of mystery about Riddle 75 and/or Riddle 76, and the mystery starts with how many poems it or they actually is. Or are.

For reasons that will become clear below, I’m going to set the runes aside for a moment and focus on the two longer lines of poetry. The way they’re written in the manuscript strongly suggests that they’re two separate texts – each begins with capitalisation and on a new line, and closes with the kind of punctuation flourish normally reserved for endings. This is how a lot of editors, including Krapp and Dobbie, treat them. The problem is… there isn’t much there. These might be the opening lines of two longer riddles, but if so the scribe forgot to include the rest. Other editors have preferred to combine these two lines into a single text. This has the advantage of providing a little more bulk to work with, and nods to the structural similarities between the lines. In fact, there’s a sort of chiasmus – a balancing of two parallel clauses – in the contrast between the subject of the first line moving swiftly and the subject of the second line sitting alone. My feeling is that these two riddles are, in fact, a single text even if that’s not how they’re presented in the manuscript.

However we choose to edit the poem/s, one thing we can be confident about is that the runes are later additions. You see, when we find runes in the Exeter Book riddles they’re usually integrated into the metre, meaning that they (or rather, the words they signify) carry alliteration. The first rune in Riddle 19, for example, is ᛋ (line 1b), whose name sigel picks up the s- alliteration from the preceding half line.

But that’s not what happens here. These runes are just hanging out on the end of the first line, with not the slightest regard for alliteration or metrical stress or any of the things that make Old English poetry poetic. So what are they doing there?

The answer is that these runes have been interpolated – i.e. moved – from the margins into the text proper. This happens when a scribe is copying from one manuscript to another and mistakes a note in the margin for a continuation of the line. We see another of this kind of mistake in Riddle 36, and Andy Orchard argues it’s also the source of Riddle 23’s opening line (page 290). In both cases, these stray words were originally written into the margins of earlier copies of the poems, to provide cryptic clues for the riddles’ solutions.

Now, if you’re the sort of person who gets excited by manuscript-y stuff (aren’t we all?), this is actually pretty cool. Today, all but one of the Old English riddles comes to us from the Exeter Book. Everything we think we know about these riddles – that they were written without solutions, for example – is based on this one manuscript. But what we get here is a glimpse of the earlier manuscript from which th Exeter Book itself was copied. Preserved in this odd mish-mash of a poem is the relic of what that lost manuscript looked like. It’s the manuscript equivalent of finding dino DNA preserved in amber.

insect trapped in amber

Sort of.
Photo credit: Brocken Inaglory, via Wikimedia Commons (licence: GNU Free Documentation Licence).

Once we’ve finished geeking out about palaeography, though, it’s time to get down to the real business: solving this thing. As you can see, there isn’t a great deal to go on. Taking only the poetic lines, we have either two riddles describing one thing moving quickly, and one thing sitting alone. Or we have one riddle describing both those things in tandem. No wonder someone thought it might be a good idea to include a little runic hint to help us along. What wise clue did our medieval runester grace us with?


No, that’s not an Old English sneeze. That’s what the runes say. Dnlh.

It may come as no surprise that “dnlh” isn’t a word, not in Old English nor in modern. But there are a couple of ways it might become a word, with some creative thinking and a loose approach to spelling. Reverse the letter order and add in some much-needed vowels and we might get hælend (lord). This solution was originally proposed by W. S. Mackie, who argued that the first line is a standalone riddle depicting Christ “as a hunter in pursuit of sin” (page 77). Playing around with letter order and vowels are two fairly common gambits in medieval cryptography – they’re used in Riddle 19 and Riddle 23 (reversed letters), or Riddle 36 (changed vowels). That’s solution one.

Christ stabbing devil in hellmouth

Solution one. Image from Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

But there’s actually a way of finding some vowels without adding anything to the runes at all. When written in manuscripts, runic ᛚ (l) often ends up looking similar to runic ᚢ (u). And if there’s one thing we can say for sure about the Exeter Book scribe, it’s that he or she isn’t particularly good at writing runes consistently. Changing the “l” for a “u” and reversing the letter order gives us hund (hound). So the riddle may be as simple as that: a poem about a dog running really fast, to which someone’s helpfully added the word dog so that we know it’s definitely about a dog. This is solution two, and it’s a popular one (Bitterli, pages 105-10).

Dog running

Solution two.
Image credit: Sheila Sund via Wikimedia Commons (licence: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic).

Solution three comes courtesy of Craig Williamson, who opines that “the pursuit of sin has no place in this riddle” (page 353), and that the word signified by our runic quartet is actually hland (urine). Williamson’s reading supports combining the two lines into one poem; the contrast between them speaks to the contrast between male and female peeing… postures.

Field of tulips

Solution three: not pictured. I’ll leave it to your imagination. Image credit: Tuxyso via Wikimedia Commons (licence: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0).

Which one is the correct solution? It’s honestly impossible to know. We don’t even know for sure that the runes have anything to do with conveying a solution. But that ambiguity is pretty fun. In fact, I’d argue one of the best things about this poem (or these poems) is how evocative it is. These two little lines may represent the shortest of the Exeter Book riddles, but they’ve provoked page upon page of critical commentary encompassing a truly eclectic range of solutions and creative readings. And thus we get from Jesus Christ to peeing postures, via one happy hound!


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.

Mackie, W. S. “Notes on the Text of the Exeter Book.” Modern Language Review, vol. 28 (1933), pages 75-78.

Orchard, Andy. “Enigma Variations: The Anglo-Saxon Riddle-tradition.” In Latin Learning and English Lore: Studies in Anglo-Saxon Literature for Michael Lapidge. Edited by Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe and Andy Orchard (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), pages 284-304.

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 75  riddle 76 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 36

Exeter Riddle 78


Date: Sun 18 Mar 2018
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 78

Riddle 78 is a bit of a super-damaged mess…wish me luck writing the commentary!

Original text:

Oft ic flodas…
…s         cynn… minum
…yde me to mos…
…swa ic him…
…ne æt ham gesæt
…flote cwealde
þurh orþonc…         yþum bewrigene.


Often I … floods
… to my kin
and …
… had as food for me
… so I … to it/him/them
… did not sit at home
… killed floating
with cunning … concealed by the waves.

Click to show riddle solution?
Crab, Oyster, Fish, Lamprey


This riddle appears on folio 127r 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), pages 234-5.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 75: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), page 110.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 78 

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Exeter Riddle 85

Commentary for Exeter Riddle 83


Date: Thu 01 Mar 2018
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 83

Hi all! Sorry it has been so long since our last post, but LIFE has been happening. And it has an irritating tendency to get in the way of writing. Still, I’m here now…let’s do this thing.

Riddle 83 has Alanis Morissette levels of irony in its opening lines (too dated a cultural reference? pish tosh!). That good ol’ burn mark that we’ve seen wreaking havoc upon the riddles toward the end of the Exeter Book extends down into this poem…just far enough to mess with its description of fire. Good joke, universe. Good joke.

And fire is essential to this riddle, which speaks of the production process involved in turning molten metal into coins.

Photo of molten gold (by Allen Drebert) from Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Ore does it? (see what I did there?)

Yes, yes it does. The riddle is generally solved as Ore (Old English ora), though some read it as referring more specifically to gold or to currency. It has been read alongside the late antique, North African riddler Symphosius’ take on the topic. His Enigma 91, Pecunia (Money) reads:

terra fui primo, latebris abscondita terrae.
nunc aliud pretium flammae nomenque dederunt,
nec iam terra vocor, licet ex me terra paretur.
(Leary, page 50)

(At first I was earth, hidden in the secret places of the earth. Now flames and a name have granted me a different worth, no longer am I called earth, although earth is obtained with me.)

Lots of similar ideas, yes? We can see a real focus on the earth and concealment here before the ore is mined, purified and enters into circulation. Then it comes to have aliud pretium (a different worth). This is certainly something we see in the Old English riddle as well, but with a lot more drama. Whichever metal Riddle 83 describes, its relationship with humans is clearly a contentious one: the ore tells us that entering the domain of humans brings it to grief and cuts it off from its family and history.

But ore will get its revenge.

Just as it is held against its will, it too has the power to imprison: it raises up hæftnyd (bonds of captivity). And if you aren’t sure what these bonds are, just think Gollum.

Although he looks quite cheery here! Photo of Gollum at the Wellington Airport from Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Money and treasure corrupt. This is not a new idea. And, as Craig Williamson points out (page 366), we see it in other Old English poems, like Beowulf:

                        Sinc eaðe mæg,
gold on grunde,         gumcynnes gehwone
oferhigian,         hyde se ðe wylle. (lines 2764b-6)

(Treasure, gold in the ground, easily overpowers every one of humankind, let him hide it who will.)

Clearly, Riddle 83 is riffing off these two ideas: that treasure holds a power over humans and that people like to hide it in the ground. In this case, what the earth conceals is ore in its unrefined state – so just potential treasure. When it’s converted into actual, circulating currency…shit gets real.

But what’s going on with this riddle’s focus on fromcynn (lineage) and who’s that broþor (brother) of the earth who first brought ore to gyrne (grief)? Well. WELL now. People have had many clever thoughts on this topic.

Patrick Murphy builds on earlier suggestions that the unnamed enemy of ore is Tubalcain, the biblical grandson of Cain (as in Adam and Eve’s son of the Cain-vs-Abel fame) (page 142). Tubalcain is strongly associated with metalworking and was reputed to be the first smith because of a brief reference in Genesis 4.22.  Murphy then goes on to suggest that Riddle 83 conflates Tubalcain with Cain himself: “the two figures are linked in their signature innovations: Cain invents murder, and Tubalcain invents weapons for more efficient murder” (page 146). Hence the bit about brothers. And hence all that hostility.

Here’s a nice 14th-century wood cut of Tubalcain at work. Photo (by Sailko) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY 2.5)

Tracing Riddle 83’s obsession with fromcynn (lineage) and old age (as in the word frod) back to the Old Testament creates a tidy sense of history within the riddle (Murphy, page 149). Thomas Klein argues that this riddle carries not only a sense of history, but also metaphorical echoes of a fallen angel – perhaps even Lucifer himself. There is ore’s (or specifically gold’s to Klein ) ancient lineage, its removal from his homeland, all that fire, and its ability to place people in bonds despite being captive itself (Klein, page 12).

The war in heaven imagined by Gustave Doré for John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Image from Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

So, gold is the devil then. And never forget: it owns you as much as you own it.

Righto, I’m going to leave you there to ponder your own relationship with treasure now. I’m not saying I agree with Riddle 83 in its gold-shaming, but then…I am a millennial, and we apparently have it in for the diamond industry. Why stop there, amirite?


References and Suggested Reading

Dale, Corinne. The Natural World in the Exeter Book Riddles. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2017, esp. pages 123-44.

Klein, Thomas. “The Metaphorical Cloak of Exeter Riddle 83, “Ore/Gold/Metal”,” American Notes and Queries, volume 28, issue 1 (2015), pages 11-14.

Leary, T. J., ed. Symphosius: The Aenigmata: An Introduction, Text and Commentary. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Murphy, Patrick. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011, esp. pages 139-51.

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 83 

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