Commentary for Exeter Riddle 82


Date: Tue 30 Oct 2018
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 82

Where to start with Riddle 82? Barely 13 words survive of the original poem’s presumably 6 lines and yet, you may or may not be surprised to hear, we actually have a couple of competing solutions, both with suggestive evidence in their favour. Never let a lack of actual poem get in the way of a good theory.

Our first solution, courtesy of Holthausen, is “crab.” While there’s no direct reference to the sea in what’s left of our riddle, the greot (“grit,” line 2b) that the creature swallows could well refer to sand, as it does on the 8th-century Franks Casket.

Franks Casket

The Franks Casket’s description of a whale stranding: “The [whale] grew sad where it swam on the grit.” Solid joke.
Photo (by Michel wal) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0).

Crabs are, of course, notable for their many feet (line 4b).

Land crab

Many feet. Photo of a land crab (by gailhampshire) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY 2.0)

Most significant, in support of this theory, is the line fell ne flæsc (“[neither] hide nor flesh,” line 4a). Crabs, of course, don’t have skin and they’re not “fleshy” in the same way as a mammal or fish.

Land crab

“Cuddle?” Photo of a land crab (by gailhampshire) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY 2.0)

However. They may not be squishy on the outside, but crabs do have flesh and, as Craig Williamson points out (page 365), it was a bit of an early medieval delicacy. So that clue might not clinch the crab argument quite as convincingly as we could hope. Rather, Williamson suggests, the line is meant as a hint that our wiht is not a living creature at all. We’re back in the realm of the implement riddles, and the implement Williamson argues for is a harrow (pages 365-66).


Like this, only more medieval looking. Photo of a cultivator-harrow (by Rasbak) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0)

A harrow, for those not in the know, is a farming tool that’s dragged over a freshly-ploughed field to break up the smaller clods of earth in preparation for sowing. The earliest European depiction of a harrow is in the lower margins of the Bayeux Tapestry, and it’s an implement that may have been considered somewhat cutting-edge technology (ha!) in the period surrounding the Norman Conquest.

Riddle 82 Bayeux Tapestrry
How harrowing. Bayeux Tapestry detail (by Ulrich Harsh) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: Public Domain)

Back to our riddle. The swallowed grit in line 2 comes to the fore here – greot could be sand, but it can also mean regular old dirt. The multiple fotum that carry the creature suggest a larger tool such as a harrow (which would have been pulled by oxen or draught horses) rather than a smaller, hand-held rake.

horse and ox ploughing

“Ox or horse, you say?”. Image from the German Federal Archive via Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0 de)

What seems to be an emphasis on the movement of the creature (gongende and gong[…], lines 2a and 4b) would fit with a tool whose primary function is to move up and down a field. There’s also, possibly, a parallel emphasis on the tool’s mouth (this is entirely my own speculation now!). I’ve translated mæl as “time”: mæla gehwæm (“each time,” line 6a) could refer either to the annually recurring season for ploughing, or to the more immediate repetition of the tool’s laps back and forth across a field.

Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

Both kinds of repetition depicted rather neatly in this lovely scene from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (c. 1412-16). Image via Wikimedia Commons (licence: public domain)

But in other Old English texts, mæl can refer specifically to meal-time, or simply to meals. In Maxims I (also in the Exeter Book; full translation here), we have the sage observation:

Muþa gehwylc mete þearf,     mæl sceoldon tidum gongan (Maxims I, line 110)
Every mouth needs meat, meals must come in time.

So, in our riddle, mæla gehwam might refer both to the movement of the harrow across the field and to the meal it makes of the ground as it goes. And it’s not hard to see how the design of the harrow could be suggestive of a gaping mouth, teeth and all, gobbling up the earth as it passes.

Riddle 82 Harrow 2
Om nom nom. Tapestry c. 1460; image from Wikimedia Commons (licence: Public Domain)

That is… probably all I have to say about Riddle 82. You’ll be glad to hear that next week’s riddle is substantially more fleshed out. Unlike Holthausen’s crab.

Land crab

Photo of a land crab (by gailhampshire) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY 2.0)


References and Suggested Reading

Holthausen, Ferdinand. “Zu den altenglischen Ratseln.” Anglia Beiblatt 30 (1919), pages 50-55.

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 82 

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