Commentary for Exeter Riddle 87


Date: Tue 10 Dec 2019
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 87

Hello hello hello! What do I have to say about Riddle 87? Well at first I thought…very little! But this riddle actually has some cool stuff going on, which I’ll attempt to make thoroughly exciting for you. It’s still worth asking yourself how excited you can possibly be about BELLOWS, which is how this riddle is generally solved.

Engraving of two men using bellows

A 12th-century carving of two men operating a bellows from the Museum zu Allerheiligen in Schaffhausen, Switzerland. A little after our time, but the principle’s the same. From Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Wait a minute now…bellows sounds like a familiar solution, doesn’t it? Well, it might if you cast your mind aaaaaaaaall the way back to Riddle 37. And you should. Because these riddles are in conversation with each other. Let’s take a look:

Ic þa wihte geseah;     womb wæs on hindan
þriþum aþrunten.     Þegn folgade,
mægenrofa man,     ond micel hæfde
gefered þæt hit felde,     fleah þurh his eage.

(I saw that being; its belly was in the back
greatly swollen. A servant followed it,
a mighty, strong man, and the great one had
brought forth what filled it; it flew through its eye.)

These are the first four lines of Riddle 37, and they look awfully similar to the opening lines of Riddle 87. We’ve got the same wiht (creature or being). We’ve got the same swollen womb (belly). We’ve got the same reference to a servant (a smith!) following behind the riddle-object (Þegn folgade). That servant is mægen (mighty), micel (great or large) and strong in both poems. And there’s a weird reference to something blowing or flying through the implement’s eage (eye) in both as well.

Reconstructed bellows

Photo (by Wolfgang Sauber) of a medieval reproduction from Eiríksstaðir Living Museum in Iceland, from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0)

Riddle 37 then goes to on to describe the continuous cycle of the bellows’ filling and expelling of air in a rather saucy and eroticized fashion. That riddle ends with a reference to the bellows’ air fathering sons and to the fact that this air is its own father. Sexy, amirite?

All this fathering of sons has made me think again about one of my favourite subjects: grammatical gender. I know…I have no life.

“Grammatical gender” refers to the masculine, feminine or neuter status of all nouns in Old English (while modern English has lost it, many other languages use grammatical gender today). When it comes to interpreting these poems, riddle-solvers sometimes get excited by the apparent gendering of a particular image only to decide that all those, for example, feminine pronouns are really just there because the riddle opens with the word wiht (creature/being), which is grammatically feminine.

BUT in Riddle 37, we have a wiht AND we have overt masculine imagery (i.e. fathering sons). Riddle 87 doesn’t have this. This riddle does have feminine pronouns (like hio, which I’ve translated as “it,” but could have translated as “she” instead). So, if one bellows riddle is using masculine pronouns and one bellows riddle is using feminine pronouns, should we read these two poems as approaching the subject through the lens of two different genderings? Or should we just assume that Riddle 87 is using feminine markers neutrally because of the grammatical gender of wiht. I really don’t know!

This shows how complicated the process of translation can be, and how in translating we’re always making decisions that influence the interpretation of the text. A strong man grasping a barking object and a strong man grasping a barking woman would and should be interpreted differently. This is the sort of thing that keeps me up at night, folks. I hope I’ve managed to explain it clearly. Drop me a line, if not!

At any rate, while Riddle 87 may still include a bit of innuendo like Riddle 37, it does move in a distinctly non-erotic direction when it comes to the bizarre imagery of heofones toþe (heaven’s tooth). As Frederick Tupper, Jr. notes (page 227), this could be related to a 7th/8th-century continental Latin riddle that clearly refers to wind as biting. I’m Canadian…I get this.

The Latin Bern Enigma 41, De Vento (On Wind) reads:

Os est mihi nullum, dente nec vulnero quemquam,
Mordeo sed cunctos silvis campisque morantes.
(Glorie, page 587, lines 3-4)

(There is no mouth for me, nor do I injure anyone by tooth,
though I bite all who linger in forests and fields.)

So “heaven’s tooth” is the wind, which kind of makes sense in a poem that’s interested in the inspiration and expiration of breath/air.

After the heaven’s tooth reference and the weird barking and wavering object, we reach an unsatisfactory ending. This is because this riddle is again again fragmentary due to the damage to the end of the manuscript. So, we don’t know what we’re missing in the final line.

We can guess a teensy bit about that final syllable that I haven’t translated: it’s just about possible to make out “niol” before the damage to the manuscript becomes too extreme. Niol almost certainly refers to something deep down, underneath or prostrate (see the entry for neowol in Bosworth and Toller’s dictionary). But if this tidbit is a word in and of itself or part of a compound, we simply don’t know. Either way, looking at the manuscript, it appears that the poem is only a few words away from ending. So at least we’re not missing much!

[I should also note that the gap in line 5b isn’t due to damage. Here, we know that something’s missing from the poem because its regular alliteration falters. This could be a case of a copying error, or perhaps eye-skip or a muddled transmission if this riddle was being copied out from another written version. Who knows?!]‏‏

There we are, that’s me done. I’m not sure if I’ve managed to follow through on my promise of exciting content! But as a parting farewell, I gift unto you this image of a bellows at work in a medieval festival in Belgium. You’re welcome.

Medieval festival blacksmith with bellows

A blacksmith using a bellows to fire his forge at the medieval festival of Vaulx, Belgium. Photo (by Jamain) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 4.0).


 References and Suggested Reading:

Bosworth, Joseph, and T. Northcote Toller. An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1898; Digital edition. Prague: Faculty of Arts, Charles University, 2010.

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

Murphy, Patrick. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011, esp. pages 215-19.

Tupper, Frederick, ed. The Riddles of the Exeter Book. Boston: Ginn and Company, 1910.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 87 

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Exeter Riddle 37
Exeter Riddle 87

Exeter Riddle 88


Date: Thu 19 Dec 2019
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 88
We have a guest translator for this riddle: the one and only Denis Ferhatović. Denis is associate professor of English at Connecticut College and an enthusiast when it comes to poetic creativity. He has brought some of this creativity to the below translation, which I hope you enjoy reading as much as I have!

Original text:
Ic weox þær ic s[……………………
……..]ond sumor mi[…………….
……………]me wæs min ti[…..
5 …]d ic on staðol[………………..
……….]um geong, swa[……….
oft geond [………………..]fgeaf,
ac ic uplong stod, þær ic [………]
10 ond min broþor; begen wæron hearde.
Eard wæs þy weorðra þe wit on stodan,
hyrstum þy hyrra. Ful oft unc holt wrugon,
wudubeama helm wonnum nihtum,
scildon wið scurum; unc gescop meotud.
15 Nu unc mæran twam magas uncre
sculon æfter cuman, eard oðþringan
gingran broþor. Eom ic gumcynnes
anga ofer eorþan; is min agen bæc
wonn ond wundorlic. Ic on wuda stonde
20 bordes on ende. Nis min broþor her,
ac ic sceal broþorleas bordes on ende
staþol weardian, stondan fæste;
ne wat hwær min broþor on wera æhtum
eorþan sceata eardian sceal,
25 se me ær be healfe heah eardade.
Wit wæron gesome sæcce to fremmanne;
næfre uncer awþer his ellen cyðde,
swa wit þære beadwe begen ne onþungan.
Nu mec unsceafta innan slitað,
30 wyrdaþ mec be wombe; ic gewendan ne mæg.
Æt þam spore findeð sped se þe se[…
………..] sawle rædes.
I grew where I s[……………………
……..]and summer mi[…………….
……………]me was my ti[…..
…………………… …]d I in the position[………………..
……….]um young, so[……….
……………..] nevertheless,
often throughout [………………..]fgave,
but I stood straight where I [………]
and my brother. We were both hardened.
Our shelter was worthier, adorned more highly,
as the two of us stood on top. The forest always protected us,
on dark nights, its helm of arboreal branches made a shield
against downpours. The Almighty molded us.
Now our kinsmen, our younger brothers
must come after us, and snatch away
our shelter. I am the only human individual
left in the world. My own back is
murky and marvelous. I stand on wood,
on the border of the shield/on the edge of the table/on the margin of the page.(1)
Mi hermano no está aquí.(2)
But I have to guard the position, brotherless
on the border of the shield/on the edge of the table/on the margin of the page.(3)
I must stand unmoved.
No sé dónde mi hermano debe habitar,(4) possessed by men, their property
in what quarter of the world
he who used to shelter high by my side.
We two were one when waging war.
Yet neither could make his valor known
as we were both no good when it came to battle.
Now some degenerates slit my insides,
tear into my abdomen. I cannot escape.
Following these traces finds abundance who […
………..] advantage to the soul.
Click to show riddle solution?
Antler, Inkhorn, Horn, Body and Soul


This riddle appears on folios 129r-129v 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 239-40.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 84: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), pages 116-17.

Translation Notes:

(1) and (3) Please see the commentary for more information regarding this multiple translation.

(2) and (4) Likewise, an explanation of the parts in Spanish, and my reason for their use, can be found in the commentary.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 88  denis ferhatovic 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 88


Date: Thu 19 Dec 2019
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 88

A special holiday treat for you: two posts on the same day! Denis Ferhatović of Connecticut College returns with this commentary on the most fabulous Riddle 88. Enjoy!:

Red deer stag looking at camera

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

Thank you, Megan, for giving me an opportunity to try out one of my favorite genres, translator’s note, and combine it with scholarly commentary.

I will begin with a quotation from a poem by Nahir Otaño Gracia, “¡Si es tuyo, es mío! / Old English is mine!” Although Otaño Gracia and I have different marginalizations, like her, I claim the vernacular of early medieval England as mine. This past summer, as I sat down in a train that would take me from Manchester Airport to Leeds for the International Medieval Congress, I noticed a sign nearby. It explained how to obtain a luggage cart in two languages and scripts, English in the Roman alphabet, and Urdu in the Perso-Arabic alphabet.

Riddle 88 sign.jpeg
Bilingual luggage cart instructions in Manchester, UK

Later on the train, a young heterosexual couple with a child sat next to me. The little one pointed to a herd of ungulates [i.e. hoofed mammals] on a field outside, exclaiming the word “horse” in Polish, which I recognized because of its similarity to the same word in my native language. England is, and has always been, multilingual and multicultural. This is also true for the time that produced the Exeter Book riddles: Riddle 90 is in Latin rather than Old English; runes give Riddles 19, 24, 64, and 75 one more layer to decode; Welsh characters appear in Riddles 12 and 52 (for more, see the work of Lindy Brady in the reading list below).

Anyone glancing at my Modern English translation of Riddle 88 will notice two lines in Spanish. Let me explain my decision to include them. You might remember the scandal that Seamus Heaney caused when he incorporated a small but prominent number of Irish and Hiberno-English words in his masterful translation of Beowulf. I, too, wish to underline potential postcolonial resonances of the poem that I am translating – that is, its ability to speak to complex histories of conquest, colonization, and cross-cultural exchange, of its immediate time and our own. I, too, seek to distinguish my English from the dominant mode of the language. Aware of the aesthetic and political stakes of inter/intralingual transfer, I choose not to be invisible as a translator.

Marginal voices and perspectives surface in the Exeter riddles, hidden in the startling speeches and descriptions of everyday things and creatures. Edward B. Irving, Jr. argues that the riddles often complicate the epic mode by expressing what is usually unexpressed in poems like Beowulf, the point of view of the small and the weak, the oppressed and the frightened. Jennifer Neville finds the possibility of social critique and Derridean deconstruction avant la lettre [before the term existed] in the corpus. When we read the lines Nis min broþor her (my brother is not here, line 20) and ne wat hwær min broþor/… eardian sceal (I do not know where my brother…/ must dwell, lines 23-24), I think that we are meant to hear more than the lament of an antler-turned-inkhorn for his twin.

Riddle 88 Inkhorn_and_ivory_case,_9th-13th.jpg
An ivory inkhorn from the early-medieval (9th/11th-century) Rhineland, along with an ivory pen case from 12th/13th-century Sicily. Photo (by Zde) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 4.0)

Broþor, according to the Dictionary of Old English (DOE), has several related shades of meanings, much like its modern descendent, familial, religious, and affectionate. If I read like a bædling (“sexual deviant”), I could recover a queer charge to the antler/inkhorn’s longing: momentarily revealed in the middle of the details dealing with the process of crafting the object is a lament for a kinsman, fellow monk, or male friend; hidden in that lament might be an erotic yearning of a man for another man, an expression of non-normative desire (for more on reading as a bædling, see Vaccaro’s forthcoming book). The speaker of Riddle 88 lost his brother who may be in a precarious situation somewhere. So many enigmas and other poems from the Exeter Book, including the Wanderer and Wife’s Lament, speak of the pain and, less often, consolation of exiles. My decision to translate lines 20 and 23-24 into Spanish comes from hearing a(n im)migrant or a refugee voice in the Old English and desiring to amplify it as such in the midst of the American English I use in this historical moment. And yet the statements do not come from a real person; they are stylized and embedded in an intellectual, poetic exercise about a piece of now-obsolete technology. If you want to hear from actual refugees, talk to them.

The DOE (see under ānga) echoes Craig Williamson (page 381) in calling lines 17 and 18 “hyperbolic and metaphoric.” Both sources also offer less literal renditions, but I perceive in the speaker’s assumption of humanness and assertion of utter loneliness an apocalyptic quality, convincing because the loss of a loved one can feel like the loss of the entire humankind.

“Bordes on ende” (lines 20, 21) fascinated me as a phrase; I aimed to render it with as much of its polysemy [i.e. multiplicity of meaning] as possible. The DOE gives “shield” and “table” for bord, and speculates that the word in that particular phrase in Riddle 88 may play on borda, “ornamental border.” Ende can have the sense of “remotest limit, border” (DOE, sense A.1.a), which works well with my (im)migrant reading. In any case, this enigma suggests a number of liminal positions, some of them central to textual production.

Now on to some other traductorial decisions. The poem is a fragment because of the damage to the manuscript at its beginning and end. I foreground the physical state of the text by keeping the ellipses (as presented by the editors Krapp and Dobbie) in my version. I leave the bits that cannot be parsed in Old English, typographically enshrining them to challenge our attempts at interpretation.

Since eardian, “to dwell,” and its noun form eard seem crucial to Riddle 88 (appearing in lines 10, 24, 25), I consistently translate them as “shelter” to capture an important thematic thread in the poem.

I read humor in lines 27-28. The stag is not a particularly fearsome beast in Old English literature. In a memorable passage of Beowulf, the narrator says that a deer pursued by hounds would rather perish on the shores of Grendel’s mere than venture inside (lines 1368-72). The Danish royal hall in that poem, Heorot gets its name from the animal because its gables look like antlers. Heor(o)tes horn, “hart’s horn, i.e., antler” and blæc-horn, “inkhorn” would be the solutions of Riddle 88 in its language. [SPOILER ALERT!] Riddle 93 has the same solution, and the Exeter Book features at least one more horn enigma, Riddle 14.

Williamson points out that unsceafta (line 29) literally means “uncreations” and figuratively “monsters” (page 382); I translate as “degenerates.” The reference is either to the tools carving a hole in the antler to create the inkhorn or the writing quills dipping inside the inkhorn to absorb the ink (as above). The word unsceafta sounds etymologically transparent – its constituent parts un– and –sceafta seem instantly understandable in Old English – in a way that monsters would not be in Modern English. Coming from the speaker, this powerful term maintains a rather different point of view for things typically considered useful, whether horn-working tools or writing utensils. The antler/inkhorn’s pain qualifies the redemptive message at the end of Riddle 88 (as it survives today). The speaker’s suffering facilitates human salvation because it holds ink for copied-out words of the Biblical Scriptures or other religious text, but, even if for a moment, our benefit does not automatically redeem its pain.

The speaker uses throughout the dual form of the first person pronoun – wit in the nominative case (i.e. for the subject of the sentence), uncre genitive (for the possessive), unc accusative (for the object). This is a special form used to refer to two persons or things (as opposed to the singular which deals with one and the plural with more than two), which has not survived into Modern English; I sometimes translate it as “we…both,” “we two,” and “the two of us” to keep the sense that though the antlers are separated in the world of the riddle, they remain together in the grammar.

Megan: And on that note of grammatical togetherness (love it!), we leave you now for a little holiday break. Look after each other out there and see you in the new year.


References and Suggested Reading:

Brady, Lindy. Writing the Welsh Borderlands in Anglo-Saxon England. Manchester:  Manchester University Press, 2017.

Dictionary of Old English: A-I 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, 2018.

Fulk, R. D., Robert E. Bjork, and John D. Niles, eds. Klaeber’s Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg. 4th edition. Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2008.

Heaney, Seamus, trans. Beowulf. London: Faber and Faber, 1999.

Irving, Edward B., Jr. “Heroic Experience in the Old English Riddles.” In Old English Shorter Poems: Basic Readings. Edited by Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe. New York:  Garland, 1994, pages 199-212.

Krapp, George Philip, and Elliott van Kirk Dobbie, eds. The Exeter Book. New York: Columbia University Press, 1936.

Neville, Jennifer. “Speaking the Unspeakable: Appetite for Deconstruction in Exeter Book Riddle 12.” English Studies, volume 93 (2012), pages 519-28.

Otaño Gracia, Nahir. “Old English is Mine!” posted on Susan Signe Morrison’s blog, 6 October 2016. https://grendelsmotherthenovel.com/2016../../../riddles/post/old-english-is-mine-diversity-and-old-english/

Vaccaro, Christopher. Sadomasochistic Beowulf: Psychic and Somatic Dispersal in Old English Literature. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, forthcoming.

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

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 88  denis ferhatovic 

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