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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