RIDDLE POSTS BY TAG: 'ANGLO SAXON'

Commentary for Exeter Riddle 32

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Tue 23 Dec 2014
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 32

Hello, readers. Have you missed me? I’m sure that you have, but my need for validation means I just gotta ask. I’ve had a busy-busy term, and have been oh so very lucky that all sorts of lovely guest bloggers have turned up to entertain you. But now it’s the holidays, which means it’s my turn again.

Let’s talk about ships.

But is the subject of Riddle 32 a ship? You are, perhaps, not convinced. There are other suggestions for the solution, which include Wagon, Millstone, Wheel and Wheelbarrow. Naturally, the library has none of the books I need to tell you all about the folks who suggested these things (it’s the holidays, so the library has already been pillaged from pillar to post by keen vacationers). However, I can tell you that Ship is a scholarly favourite. How’s about I explain why I like it and then you write in if you prefer one of the other readings? Yes, let’s do that.

Right, so ships. The first thing I’ll say is that the screaming we see in line 4b (giellende) is quite a bird-like act. Huh? Let me rephrase: in other Old English poems, the verb gyllan (to scream/yell/call) is applied to the sounds of birds. So in Solomon and Saturn II, the strange, apocalyptic bird referred to as the Vasa Mortis gilleð geomorlice and his gyrn sefað (Anlezark, line 90 or ASPR, line 282) (calls miserably and mourns its misfortune). Equally, The Seafarer is marked by avian imagery when it describes the gifre ond grædig (eager and greedy) anfloga (lone-flier), which gielleð (calls) in line 62. Finally, Riddle 24’s magpie hwilum gielle swa hafoc (line 3b) (sometimes calls like a hawk). And, as we know from poems like Beowulf, ships are the giant manmade birds of the sea (write that in an essay…I dare you!). Hence, the poem refers to the flota famiheals fugle gelicost (line 218) (foamy-necked ship most like a bird) and the swanrad (line 200a) (swan-road), the latter of which is a kenning for the sea (also appearing in Andreas, line 196b). So, the sound that the subject of Riddle 32 makes gels with other Old English poetic approaches to ships.

Oseberg Ship viewed from front

Here’s the famous Norwegian Oseberg ship. Photo (by Uwe kils) from the Wikimedia Commons.

What about all that grinding? Surely grindan in line 4a could be better linked to a millstone, non? Well, yes, but that’s not to say that ships don’t also grind (best mental image ever: Old English dance-party…ships grinding to hiphop music…shocked monks looking on from the sidelines). In fact, in Guthlac B, we have almost the exact same half-line applied to a ship:

                              Lagumearg snyrede,
gehlæsted to hyðe,     þæt se hærnflota
æfter sundplegan     sondlond gespearn,
grond wið greote. (1332b-5a)

(The sea-steed hastened, laden to the landing, so that the wave-floater after the swim-play perched upon the sandy land, ground against the grit.)

The half-line is again repeated in Andreas, as grund wið greote (line 425a). These three instances are the only times that grindan and greot are linked in Old English literature. So, what we can now see is clearly a poetic formula (a repeated, variable verse unit) – grindan wið greote – has clear shippy connotations. These aren’t the only formulas in Riddle 32: the opening and closing half-lines can be found in the riddle directly before this one in the manuscript. These poets know their shiz, man.

Anywho, the formulaic stuff I’ve just discussed has me convinced of the ship reading, although I recognize that faran ofer feldas (line 8a) (going over fields) is a better literal description of a wheelbarrow. To that I say: since when are riddles literal? Directly following this half-line, we have ribs, which are almost certainly not literal ribs. This metaphor could be applied to any rounded object, but I like the image of the ship’s wooden planks as the creature’s ribs.

Ship burial indentations

It’s a bit blurry, but check out this model of the Sutton Hoo ship burial. Look ribby enough for you? Photo (by Steven J. Plunkett) from the Wikimedia Commons.

A ship is also a terribly cunning contraption that looks a heck of a lot like a giant foot (á la line 6b). Fact. So, I’m throwing my lot in with Ship.

If you want to know just what type of ship this might be, then look no further than lines 9b-13. Here, the poet tells us that the riddle-subject brings food and treasures (metaphorical or literal) to people rich and poor. This reference points to the use of ships as transport vessels for all things mercantile – hence Niles has solved the riddle in Old English as Ceap-scip (merchant ship) (page 141). The transportation of goods via waterways in early medieval England was common (Williamson, page 236). Katrin Thier talks about ships of various breeds and creeds in her article on nautical material culture, but…as with all the other books in the library, her article is currently unavailable to me.

Given the general library pillaging that has gone on up here in Durham, I can only conclude that it must be the holiday season! So, with that realization, I’m going to stop blogging at you and go eat some mince pies. May the ships of the holiday season bring you all an abundance of food and treasure! That’s a thing, right?

*hastily re-reads riddle to check whether it could in fact describe Santa’s sleigh*

Notes:

References and Suggested Reading:

Anlezark, Daniel, ed. and trans. The Old English Dialogues of Solomon and Saturn. Anglo-Saxon Texts, vol. 7. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2009.

Niles, John D. Old English Enigmatic Poems and the Play of the Texts. Studies in the Early Middle Ages, vol. 13. Turnhout: Brepols, 2006.

Thier, Katrin. “Steep Vessel, High Horn-ship: Water Transport.” In The Material Culture of Daily Living in the Anglo-Saxon World. Edited by Maren Clegg Hyer and Gale R. Owen-Crocker. Exeter Studies in Medieval Europe. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2011, pages 49-72.

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 32 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 24

Exeter Riddle 33

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Wed 07 Jan 2015
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 33

Riddle 33’s translation is by Britt Mize. Britt is Associate Professor of English and Rothrock Research Fellow at Texas A&M University where he works on Old and Middle English language, literature and poetics.



Original text:

Wiht cwom æfter wege      wrætlicu liþan,
cymlic from ceole     cleopode to londe,
hlinsade hlude;      hleahtor wæs gryrelic,
egesful on earde,      ecge wæron scearpe.
5     Wæs hio hetegrim,     hilde to sæne,
biter beadoweorca;     bordweallas grof,
heard, hiþende,      heterune bond.
Sægde searocræftig     ymb hyre sylfre gesceaft:
“Is min modor     mægða cynnes
10     þæs deorestan,      þæt is dohtor min
eacen up liden;     swa þæt is ældum cuþ,
firum on folce,     þæt seo on foldan sceal
on ealra londa gehwam     lissum stondan.”

Translation:

Something wondrous came moving over wave;
the beautiful thing called out to shore from the ship,
resounded loudly. Its laughter was horrible,
terrible in the land. Its edges were sharp.
5   She was hate-fierce, slow in combat,
bitter in battle-deeds; hard, ravaging,
she carved into shield-walls, bound them with a hate-rune.
The cunning thing spoke of her own creation:
“My mother, the dearest of maiden-kind,
10   is the one who is my daughter,
grown up strong. It is known to men,
to folk among the people, that she shall come with joy
to the surface of the earth in every single land.”

Click to show riddle solution?
Iceberg, Ice, Ice-floe


Notes:

This riddle appears on folios 108v-109r 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 197, but note that the punctuation differs at lines 7-8 and 11.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 31: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), pages 87-8.



Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 33 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 33

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Thu 22 Jan 2015
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 33

As with the translation, the commentary for Riddle 33 comes to us from Britt Mize. Take it away, Britt!



When Megan invited me to write a Riddle Ages posting and gave me my pick of Exeter Book riddles, it didn’t take me long to choose. Number 33 has always been my favorite.

The only solution to this riddle that accounts for all the details is “iceberg,” and I agree with those who have thought over the years that the iceberg is colliding with a ship. In other words, I believe that ceol (meaning “ship”) in line 2 is not metaphoric as the Dictionary of Old English assumes in citing this riddle, but a literal ship, and the bordweallas in line 6 are likewise real “walls of board” – here the ship’s hull (although this is also an image from battle poetry, a point I’ll come back to). The iceberg is described as a marvelous, beautiful floating thing, but this one isn’t just floating around beautifully. Although water is beneficial, a fact also referenced in the riddle, as we’ll see, the frozen form that it takes here it is clearly performing an action that is harmful to humans. Otherwise its “laughter,” the noise it makes when it “calls out to shore from the ship,” wouldn’t be, in line 4, egesful on earde (terrible in the land).

Riddle 33 is a little unusual in focusing on a specific, momentary event. Many of the Exeter Book riddles that have a narrative aspect either recount the object’s creation as a lengthy process, like the transition from animal to detached skin to usable parchment to finished gospel manuscript (Riddle 26), or else they describe habitual, repeated, ordinary actions rather than something that happens once at a certain instant in time (examples of this kind include Riddles 5 and 16). The riddles’ tendency to typify is consistent with their affiliation with wisdom literature – in many cultures the riddle is a wisdom genre – because they are addressing what the world is like, forcing new perspectives or understandings by defamiliarizing the familiar. Even riddles of the “I saw . . .” type, whose narrative setup of witnessing would seem to promise the particular, generally tell of something commonplace and easily or repeatedly observed, like a hand guiding a pen in Riddle 51, or the chicken love that inspires bizarrely ornate poetic stylings in Riddle 42. But while number 33 is a departure from the usual in offering a snapshot of a more singular occurrence and meditating on it poetically, this is not to say that there are no others like it. You might compare the famous Riddle 47, which perhaps has a similar immediacy if we imagine it capturing the moment of discovery that hungry insect larvae have destroyed a precious book, or, outside of the Exeter collection, the riddle carved on the front of a small whalebone box known as the Franks Casket, which narrates the beaching of a whale.

Franks Casket viewed from front

Photo of the Franks Casket (by Michel wal) from the Wikimedia Commons.

Riddle 33 is organized around two different conceits. If you’re a fan of 17th-century metaphysical verse and thus already know what a poetic “conceit” is, you can skip the rest of this paragraph. If you are still reading: a conceit is a metaphor that a poet holds on to through an extended pattern of images and analogies, in order to structure a whole poem according to some non-literal comparison. When John Donne – in a seduction attempt that surely, please, could not possibly work – humorously describes a flea as if it were a marriage bed or bridal chamber, and then will not let go of the idea but just keeps on about it, he has us (and his reluctant lady) in the grips of a conceit.

We don’t normally use the term “conceit” in application to Old English poems, but I’m going to, because it’s a useful angle of approach in this case. So as I was saying, two conceits help to structure Riddle 33 and generate its content. One emerges in a series of details portraying the iceberg as an entity that is not just vocal, but actually linguistic, endowed with the ability to communicate. This is different from the riddles that are in the first person, as if the object were speaking the riddle about itself to us. Rather, this poet as putative observer of a maritime collision describes the iceberg as possessing voice. It “calls out to shore”; even its “laughter” is intelligible, mocking and causing terror to those on land who hear it. The berg’s articulateness is not limited to sound, either. It also writes, when the poet represents the gash it leaves in the broken hull of the ship as a carved character with meaning, a “hate-rune.”

Most interestingly, the “cunning” iceberg “speaks of her own creation” and serves up a riddle-within-a-riddle (a device occasionally found elsewhere, as in Riddle 1’s allusion to the Great Flood, at lines 12-13). The embedded riddle within 33, occupying the last five lines of the poem, is a logic puzzle based on generational paradoxes:

My mother . . .
is the one who is my daughter,
grown up strong. (lines 9-11)

This intellectual stunt compares loosely with the one in Riddle 46, where familial relationships get tangled up in the kind of arithmetic that only incest can solve. A more exact comparison, albeit from modern times, is William Wordsworth’s famous line “The child is father of the man” (“My Heart Leaps Up”). The poet of Riddle 33 plays the same game of putting something logical into an illogical form of statement, forcing the reader to squint at the truth sideways and see it in an unaccustomed way.

Here the trick applies to elemental rather than human relations. The short, embedded riddle summarizes a northern version of the hydrologic cycle. An iceberg’s mother is water, “grown up strong” into a glacier or icecap, from which the iceberg calves off into the sea. Its daughter is meltwater. After evaporating and falling again, often as the rain that is welcomed in “every single land,” the water “grow[s] up strong” again into ice and glaciers, and around and around we go.

The other conceit in Riddle 33 is, of course, battle. Several details represent the collision as a violent fight in which the adversarial party is, counter-intuitively, slow-moving and also female. Seemingly contradictory notions like being dangerous yet “slow in combat” are around every corner in the Exeter Book riddles; the imagery here is like describing the sea floor as a “wave-covered land” or saying that “homeland is foreign” to a ship’s anchor (both examples from Riddle 5). Old English riddle writers loved these kinds of formulations, and once the solution is found they always turn out to make impeccable sense after all.

The battle conceit is also where the bordweallas I mentioned earlier fit in. In heroic poetry, a row of wooden shields carried by warriors standing side by side is described as a “board-wall.” What the maker of Riddle 33 does here is literalize a term that is expected to be semi-metaphorical. A reader familiar with conventional battle description could chase this word into the wrong frame of reference. Similarly, the ecge (edges) in line 4 are here just edges, but in Old English poetry the word is more often a metonym for “swords” – so often, in fact, that like bordweallas, the literal meaning needed to make sense of the cryptic presentation here might be too obvious to see at first glance. It’s a clever move, exploiting customary poetic language to make a reader think of swords and shields, while leaving the solution hidden in plain sight.

For Old English poets, nature is splendid and God-created, providing abundantly for human needs, but it’s also very, very dangerous. Nature doesn’t care. Death is part of it, at least in the post-Edenic world, and something is eventually going to get every single one of us. Individuals who find themselves isolated from community are painfully subject to the elements, and groups of people are not safe either: natural forces and processes are always, in this literature, potentially antithetical to orderly human enterprise.

This is the context of thought in which Riddle 33 speaks of an encounter between a piece of technology and a natural phenomenon as if it were a battle. Old English poetry shows us strife between animals and their environments; it shows us the vulnerability of individuals in the face of atmospheric and elemental forces; and it shows us conflict between organized human interests (like those that cause a ship to be built and launched) and the disruptive, damaging power of the things around us we can’t control. A sea-surge strands the whale of the Franks Casket. Fire is the “greediest of spirits” (Beowulf and elsewhere). A storm rampages across human habitations and forests too, in a chaos of wind and lightning (Riddle 1). Exiles risk their lives on the frigid sea and are beaten by hail, the coldest of grains (The Seafarer). Winter weather is said to come with hostile intent (The Wanderer), and frost will tear down even the greatest stone buildings in time (The Ruin, The Wanderer). The same water that life requires can also gather into a terrifying and irresistible torrent (Riddle 84) – or, here, freeze rock-hard into an iceberg that strikes a ship, as if in an attack fueled by malice.

An iceberg striking a ship: I’ll bet that at some point, the wreck of the Titanic has flickered through the mind of nearly everyone reading this. Go with me just a few steps down a crooked path.

RMS_Titanic

Photo of the Titanic leaving Southampton in 1912 (by F.G.O. Stuart (1843-1923)) from the Wikimedia Commons.

If you did think of the Titanic and instantly dismissed it as irrelevant to Riddle 33, you were right, of course. The 1912 collision of a ship with an iceberg cannot possibly have anything to do with a poem that had been sitting in the Exeter Book for nearly a millennium by then. Except – the very fact that the Titanic likely came to mind suggests that an awareness of the modern event will lurk within present-day subjective reception of a riddle about an iceberg wrecking a ship. Our history affects the way this little text exists in our world now. Because the Titanic has presence in our consciousness, it has some influence on the kind of life Riddle 33 takes on in twenty-first-century eyes, ears, mouths, and minds.

The Titanic’s demise came as such a shock to the public that even a century later, it’s hard to think of icebergs without also thinking of the mechanical leviathan whose promoters notoriously billed it as “unsinkable.” That wreck gave us the most famous iceberg in history, and it also gave lasting fame to the Titanic: although a ship so grand was big news in its day, few of us might recognize the name now had it not sunk in spectacular fashion, with massive loss of life owing in equal parts to error and hubris.

In this sense, you could even say the iceberg and the Titanic made each other. Neither would be remarkable in the long view of history had they passed silently in the North Atlantic darkness; it’s their catastrophic meeting that immortalized both, providing us with a touchstone for transit disasters, and for icebergs. To put it another way, the materially destructive encounter was equally – from the perspective of historiography and the popular imagination – a creative one, in that it took the ship’s and the iceberg’s simultaneous arrival at one pinpoint on a map to make an event that large numbers of humans would remember and interpret and tell about again and again.

The English poet and novelist Thomas Hardy (1840–1928) understood this. Late in his long life Hardy responded to the improbable intersection of these two objects in the vastness of time and sea, brought about by the inconceivable coincidence of many unconnected events, with his poem “The Convergence of the Twain,” which represents the disaster as an appointment set by divine powers and punctually kept. It’s a spine-tingling piece worth stopping to read if you haven’t. After a few stanzas contemplating the opulence and wealth that lies mouldering on the seabed, where uncomprehending marine creatures gaze on it vacantly, Hardy backtracks to describe the slow formation of the iceberg and the simultaneous, painstaking construction of the huge ship.

In Hardy’s measured verses the two growing hulks become more tightly associated line by line until Titanic and berg both launch, in perfect synchronicity thousands of miles apart, and journey toward their shared destiny:

. . . the Spinner of the Years
Said “Now!” And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.

To Hardy, the Titanic and the iceberg not only made each other; they were also made for each other, from the very start. Hardy is well known for his dark, ironic outlook, and for him the wreck of the Titanic encapsulates the vanity of human ambition and delusions of permanence.

If you’ve read much Old English poetry, even just some of the often-translated pieces like The Wanderer and The Ruin, you may already see one of the directions I’m heading with this. Writers in this tradition return again and again to the idea that earthly grandeur and human achievement, however impressive they may briefly be, do not last. Ephemerality is a constant theme. In this respect, Hardy’s attitude toward the decaying remains of the greatest moving object devised within his lifetime has much in common with how an Old English poet might have analyzed the same shipwreck (although the earlier poets, unlike Hardy, take earthly impermanence as a cue to seek the embrace of a merciful God).

Hardy’s poem, with its notion that the Titanic and the iceberg were two interlocking parts of a single fated creation, also always brings to my mind the Beowulf poet’s insistent pairing of references to the hero and the dragon at the site of the battle that neither survives, a pattern that gradually accumulates into a tableau of the death of ancient powers. When old king and old dragon meet their fates in one another, each arrives riding a foamy crest of deep time. As Beowulf approaches what he seems to recognize as his last fight, the aged king pauses to retrace for his men, too young to know for themselves, the course of his extraordinary reign; and that poet backtracks like Hardy to the dragon’s centuries-long possession of a treasure placed in the ground by the nameless last survivor of a nameless, long-dead tribe. The rings and swords of that treasure were as useless to the dragon as the Titanic’s china and mirrors to Hardy’s staring fishes, and like the submerged luxury liner, will remain so after Beowulf’s people burn and rebury it in their grief.

Scholars of Thomas Hardy’s life and works will be able to say whether he was familiar with any Old English poetry. It would surprise me if he had not read at least the Beowulf translation by William Morris. But what draws me into these winding associations when I muse on Exeter Book Riddle 33 is the sense of tragedy and irrecoverable loss – laced with a hint of fatalism – with which I, a cultural heir of the Titanic disaster (and of Hardy’s refraction of it through his own art), cannot help but consider icebergs and ships. Whether the riddle’s early audiences would have heard in it the same overtones of cataclysm I somewhat doubt.

Yet the danger and especially the malice ascribed to the iceberg in Riddle 33 feel urgent and universal: too much so to be explained by such a wreck’s resulting property loss or even death, risked by early English seafarers in relatively small numbers. It’s true that no amount of death is small if it belongs to you or someone dear. But I do think scale is key here, perhaps, because this poem is not really about one iceberg and one ship. It’s about the way the world works. If measuring the greatness of a misfortune by its notoriety, shock value, or number of lives lost – as we tend to do – helps us open a back door into that sense of totality that Old English writers might find in the particular, then irrelevance aside, the comparison may reduce a gap of understanding.

The way of the world, in Old English poetry, leads finally to the destruction and decay of everything under the heavens that touches human interests. You may have a good run for a while, but the icebergs are out there waiting. According to the poet of Riddle 33, their beauty and stately movement – and the astonishing fact that they are made of the same water that is “the dearest of maidenkind,” greeted “with joy . . . in every single land” – must not distract from their hardness when “grown up strong” into floating mountains that crush what people make and do.

It all comes back to the board-walls, in which this poem’s battle conceit and its motif of communication brilliantly unite. The image of a hate-rune carved on the ship’s shield/hull is so moving not because we imagine the inscribed character as carrying magic or a nasty message (although those ideas are present), but because we also get the more basic fact that it lets the water in. One meaning of the Old English verb bindan (bind) is to transfix or immobilize – as if miraculously or magically – and I take this to be a salient sense here, when we are told in line 7 that the iceberg “bound” the ship’s hull “with a hate-rune.” The ship will sink; where it is is where it will stay. Like “I now pronounce you man and wife,” this rune as an act of language doesn’t just announce a thing to be true, but causes its truth. When water’s hatred is written by iron-hard water that is both stylus and battering ram, and when it is written on a ship surrounded by this substance that it can’t function without, but which will doom it once the shield-wall is breached, the declaration of hate is itself a weapon with mortal power.

What Thomas Hardy (with his always vexed perspective on the Deity) attributed to some kind of sinister providence, Old English poets put down instead to chaotic, uncontrollable, impersonal forces of the natural world: forces that play havoc with humans’ attempts to organize and manage their surroundings, and which could thus be imagined as figuratively hostile to rational human undertakings. It may seem curious to describe an iceberg as purposeful and inimical, but the choice is quite effective once we realize that Old English nature poetry is really not about nature, but about subjective experience taking place through interactions with nature – and about the necessity of reckoning wisely with our weakness, individually and as a species, against powers bigger than ourselves. Many of the Exeter Book riddles celebrate human artifice and its products; many others ponder with fascination the properties of animals and other parts of the natural world. Number 33 reminds its readers that useful things are also dangerous, and that dangerous things may be magnificent.

If at times we need our own history – with its Titanics and a million other modern ghosts – to hear authenticity in the words chosen by unknown writers long ago as they confronted the wonders and fears of their lives, then so be it. We cannot shed our history in any case, can never stand outside of culture or stop being ourselves. What we can try to do, even knowing that success is always partial, is conduct ever more informed acts of imagination that help us map experiential worlds we will never inhabit. Who’s to say, in learning and teaching, that the path to more sympathetic understanding of the past must never thread across an outcropping anachronism? Let’s just not stop there long, or get too fond of the view.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 33  britt mize 

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Exeter Riddle 34

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Tue 27 Jan 2015
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 34

Riddle 34 comes to us from Corinne Dale. Corinne is a PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London, where she works on riddles and ecocriticism.



Original text:

Ic wiht geseah      in wera burgum
seo þæt feoh fedeð.      Hafað fela toþa;
nebb biþ hyre æt nytte,      niþerweard gongeð,
hiþeð holdlice      ond to ham tyhð,
5     wæþeð geond weallas,      wyrte seceð;
aa heo þa findeð      þa þe fæst ne biþ;
læteð hio þa wlitigan,      wyrtum fæste,
stille stondan      on staþolwonge,
beorhte blican,      blowan ond growan.

Translation:

I saw a creature in men’s dwellings,
the one who feeds the herds. It has many teeth;
its nose is at use; downward it goes,
plunders faithfully and proceeds towards home,
5     hunts through walls, seeks plants.
It always finds the ones that are not firmly rooted;
it lets the beautiful ones, firm in their roots,
stand still in their foundations,
shine brightly, bloom and grow.

Click to show riddle solution?
Rake


Notes:

This riddle appears on folio 109r 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 197.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 32: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), page 88.



Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 34 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 34

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Mon 02 Feb 2015
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 34

This week’s commentary is also by Corinne Dale of Royal Holloway. Go, Corinne:

 

Riddle 34 has been widely solved as “rake.” This solution makes perfect sense; anyone who has had the good fortune of becoming acquainted with the simple but effective rake, if only by watching others use one from afar whilst being fanned by palm leaves, will know that its predominant feature is the many “teeth” affixed to its bar. They will also have observed that a rake travels across the ground as it is pulled towards the user. A similar motion is described in Riddle 34; the subject’s nebb (nose) points niþerweard (downwards) and the creature is described as travelling ham (home) (lines 3-4). A rake can be used for weeding, thus explaining the way Riddle 34’s subject leaves behind only the beautiful plants (line 7a), although apparently there is little evidence to say exactly how weeding was carried out in early medieval England (see Banham and Faith, pages 59-60).

A rake can also collect dead grass or dying plants, explaining those plants that fæst ne biþ (are not firmly rooted) in Riddle 34 (line 6b), and can be used to gather in hay, hence the riddle-subject’s ability to feed the feoh (herds) in line 2a. Presumably, the riddle’s wera burgum refers to a human setting, such as a farmstead (line 1b). The reference to weallas (line 5a) takes a little more explanation; Williamson suggests that it could refer to domestic gardening, the walls being the perimeters of the settlement, but also suggests emending the word to wealdas, meaning “forest” (Williamson, page 243). Though forests and woods were used in farming for pasture (Banham and Faith, page 203), it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which a rake would be used among trees.

Very little has been said about Riddle 34 in Old English scholarship; Williamson’s notes and commentary on the riddle are particularly short, among the shortest (perhaps the shortest) in his edition. Yet there are some pretty interesting aspects to the riddle that invite investigation and comment.

wooden rake on ground

Photo of a wooden hand rake (by Chmee2) from the Wikimedia Commons.

Firstly, the riddle-writer’s explicit reference to wyrtum (plants) removes much of the ambiguity from the riddle – why not choose a more ambiguous term to help disguise the answer? Why refer explicitly to blooming and growing as well? Perhaps all this raking business is a metaphor for something else, something that requires a more imaginative leap?

I suggest the answer to the riddle could also be “scholar” or “successful scholar.” The riddle’s description of a creature that has many teeth and a nose pointing downwards brings to my mind the somewhat comic image of a human being with his or her nose buried in a book. We medievalists have all been there, nebb niþerweard…

6636556953_08a05f7fe2_z

This gentleman may be an avid scholar or may simply enjoy the smell of books, in which case, fair play. Photograph by Henti Smith, subject to CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

In the growing dark, with just a flickering candle for light, the medieval scholar’s nose would have quite literally been in the pages, much like this fellow’s threatens to:

Eadwine writing

Portrait of Eadwine (public domain) from the Wikimedia Commons.

 

Nebb, however, can also be translated as “nib,” which, if we are to read the riddle’s solution as “successful scholar,” would refer to the nib of a scholar’s pen. Interpreted this way, it would be the nib that points downwards and moves across the page (the page being the ground/field), before returning to ham (home), i.e. back to the beginning, the margin. There are depictions of pages as fields in other early medieval riddles, including Aldhelm’s Enigma 59, Penna and Eusebius’s Enigma 32, De membrano.

My interpretation of Riddle 34 is inspired by Fred C. Robinson’s reading of Riddle 47’s bookworm as an unsuccessful scholar who does not take in the words he reads. Robinson notes a number of puns throughout the riddle, including the play on swealgan, meaning both “to swallow” and “to take into the mind, accept, imbibe (wisdom)” (Robinson, page 357). It is possible that Riddle 34 depicts the contrasting concept of the successful scholar in its depiction of a subject that hiþeð holdlice (faithfully plunders), findeð (finds) the ones (i.e. plants or words) that fæst ne biþ (are not firmly rooted) and læteð (leaves) þa wlitigan, wyrtum fæste, / stille stondan on staþolwonge (the beautiful ones, firmly rooted, standing still in their foundation place) (lines 4a-9b). The idea is that the attentive scholar can root out those words that are not valuable but leave those that are more valuable to stand firm, either in his or her mind or on the page. Perhaps this is just the imaginings of a PhD student used to a supervisor’s scrupulous weeding-out of weaker ideas within her thesis and leaving the stronger ones to bloom, but I think the notion is worth pursuing.

Riddle 47’s bookworm is a thief, a plunderer; in Riddle 34 the rake is also a plunderer, but it “plunders faithfully” (or “attentively”) – a bizarre word pairing that perhaps suggests the creature is careful of what it roots up. Both texts refer to foundations, too; Riddle 47 refers to the staþol the worm swallows, whilst Riddle 34 refers to the staþolwonge in which the plants grow. Staþol, says Robinson, can be used to refer to a book’s foundations but can also be used in an abstract sense “to refer to intellectual foundations or to the context of a thought or an argument” (Robinson, page 357). This dual meaning can also be applied to Riddle 34. Likewise, the weallas of Riddle 34 could refer to the “walls” of the book – its covers – whilst also referring to natural walls or the walls of a human settlement. This theory could explain the somewhat peculiar use of weallas in the riddle.

I wonder if the last four lines have religious connotations. Scripture contains references to good and bad seeds, to cultivation and weeds; for example, in the Parable of the Growing Seed, Christ says that a “sower” – one who spreads the Word – will sow some seeds that will necessarily fall by the wayside. He says of these people, “Satan comes immediately and takes away the word that was sown in their hearts”; but there are some people in whom the seed will grow, bloom and bear fruit (Mark 4:14-20). Could Riddle 34’s plants be metaphors for human beings, for the sinners that are uprooted and the faithful that stand firm, bloom and grow? The Exeter Book’s largely pious readership – monks – would no doubt have noted the evocative nature of the imagery, even though the first half of the riddle invites a mundane solution (exhibiting the miraculous in the mundane is what the riddle-writers do, after all). Monks often cultivated their own plots within the monastery grounds, but this metaphorical “weeding” is a type of gardening they would also have been familiar with.

Riddle 34 Monk Gardening

Gardening, Medieval monk-style. Photo by Hans S, subject to CC BY-ND 2.0 license.

 

An afterthought: I have been talking about male scholars, but the subject of Riddle 34 is apparently female (seo is a feminine pronoun). Why is this? Could this disqualify my solution? Or could this be evidence of (thriving?) female literacy in the later centuries of the early medieval period?

Notes:

References and Suggested Reading:

Banham, Debby, and Rosalind Faith. Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farming. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Robinson, Fred C. “Artful Ambiguities in the Old English “Book-Moth” Riddle.” In Anglo-Saxon Poetry: Essays in Appreciation for John C. McGalliard. Edited by Lewis E. Nicholson and Dolores Warwick Frese. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975, pages 355-75.

Williamson, Craig, ed. The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979.



Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 34  corrine dale 

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Exeter Riddle 35 and the Leiden Riddle

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Mon 09 Feb 2015
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 35 and the Leiden Riddle

It’s BOGOFF day at The Riddle Ages! For the low, low (free) price of one riddle, you get two related poems! First, take a look at Riddle 35 from the (West Saxon) Exeter Book. Then scroll down to see the Leiden Riddle, a very similar version in another Old English dialect (Northumbrian). Notice any interesting differences?



Original text:

Riddle 35

Mec se wæta wong,    wundrum freorig,
of his innaþe     ærist cende.
Ne wat ic mec beworhtne    wulle flysum,
hærum þurh heahcræft,     hygeþoncum min.
5     Wundene me ne beoð wefle,   ne ic wearp hafu,
ne þurh þreata geþræcu    þræd me ne hlimmeð,
ne æt me hrutende     hrisil scriþeð,
ne mec ohwonan   sceal am cnyssan.
Wyrmas mec ne awæfan   wyrda cræftum,
10     þa þe geolo godwebb   geatwum frætwað.
Wile mec mon hwæþre seþeah   wide ofer eorþan
hatan for hæleþum   hyhtlic gewæde.
Saga soðcwidum,   searoþoncum gleaw,
wordum wisfæst,   hwæt þis gewæde sy.

The Leiden Riddle

Mec se ueta uong,     uundrum freorig,
ob his innaðae     aerest cæn[.]æ.
Ni uaat ic mec biuorthæ   uullan fliusum,
herum ðerh hehcraeft,     hygiðonc[…..].
Uundnae me ni biað ueflæ,   ni ic uarp hafæ,
5     ni ðerih ðreatun giðraec    ðret me hlimmith,
ne me hrutendu     hrisil scelfath,
ni mec ouana     aam sceal cnyssa.
Uyrmas mec ni auefun    uyrdi craeftum,
ða ði geolu godueb     geatum fraetuath.
10     Uil mec huethrae suae ðeh    uidæ ofaer eorðu
hatan mith heliðum   hyhtlic giuæde;
ni anoegun ic me aerigfaerae   egsan brogum,
ðeh ði n[…]n siæ     niudlicae ob cocrum.

Translation:

Riddle 35

The wet plain, wonderfully cold,
first bore me out of its womb.
I know in my mind I was not wrought
of wool from fleeces, with hair through great skill.
5    Wefts are not wound for me, nor do I have a warp,
nor does thread resound in me through the force of blows,
nor does a whirring shuttle glide upon me,
nor must the beater strike me anywhere.
The worms who adorn fine yellow cloth with trappings
10     did not weave me together with the skills of the fates.
Nevertheless widely over the earth
someone will call me a fortunate garment for warriors.
Say with true words, clever with skillful-thoughts,
with very wise words, what this garment might be.

The Leiden Riddle

The wet plain, wonderfully cold,
first bore me out of its womb.
I know in my mind I was not wrought
of wool from fleeces, with hair through great skill.
5     Wefts are not wound for me, nor do I have a warp,
nor does thread resound in me through the force of blows,
nor does a whirring shuttle shake upon me,
nor must the beater strike me anywhere.
The worms who adorn fine yellow cloth with trappings
10     did not weave me together with the skills of fate.
Nevertheless widely over the earth
one will call me a fortunate garment for warriors;
nor do I fear terror from the peril of a flight of arrows,
though they be eagerly pulled from the quiver.

Click to show riddle solution?
Mail-coat (i.e. armour)


Notes:

This riddle appears on folios 109r-109v of The Exeter Book and folio 25v of MS Leiden, Voss 106.

The above Old English text is based on these two editions: Elliott van Kirk Dobbie and George Philip Krapp, eds, The Exeter Book, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936), page 198; and A. H. Smith, ed., Three Northumbrian Poems (London: Methuen, 1933), pages 44/46.

Note that this edition numbers the first text Riddle 33: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), pages 88-9.



Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 35  leiden riddle 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 35 and the Leiden Riddle

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Mon 23 Feb 2015
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 35 and the Leiden Riddle

Ding ding ding! It’s official, folks, we’ve reached the most popular riddle in early medieval England. I’m not just saying that because I’ve done research on early medieval textiles and this riddle includes pretty much ALL the Old English textile terms (k, slight exaggeration). And I’m not just saying that because scholars have been squabbling over the meaning of ONE of its half-lines for years (line 6a: “through the pressure of weights”?; “through the crowded many”?; “through the violence of blows”?; what does it mean?!). I’m saying that because this riddle exists in not one, not even two, but THREE versions!

“But wait, Megan,” I hear you saying. “You’ve been holding out on us. I distinctly remember the term BOGOFF being used in your translation post, and that means two.” And you’re not wrong. But there’s also a sneaky little Latin version – Enigma 33, De lorica (on the mail-coat) – that I neglected to mention. Let’s rectify that now:

Roscida me genuit gelido de uiscere tellus;
Non sum setigero lanarum uellere facta,
Licia nulla trahunt nec garrula fila resultant
Nec crocea seres taxunt lanugine uermes
Nec radiis carpor duro nec pectine pulsor;
Et tamen en ‘uestis’ uulgi sermone uocabor.
Spicula non uereor longis exempta faretris.
(Glorie, vol. 133, page 417)

(The dewy earth brought me forth from its icy innards;
I am not made from the bristly fleece of wool;
no loom-leashes pull me nor do noisy threads rebound,
nor do Chinese worms weave me from their yellow floss;
I am not tortured by beams nor beaten by the cruel comb;
yet, lo, I am called a coat in common speech.
I do not fear arrows drawn from long quivers.)

This lurvely little gem appears in a late seventh-century metrical treatise, known as the Epistola ad Acircium, which the Anglo-Latin poet Aldhelm sent to King Aldfrith of Northumbria. What’s that? Northumbria? Isn’t there a Northumbrian Old English riddle bouncing around too? OH YES THERE IS! Sorry, I’m getting carried away with the caps lock. I’ll try to calm myself down.

Dating the Northumbrian version has presented a few problems (dating always does, my dears; it always does), but it has recently been assigned to the eighth century. That would be the poem, not the manuscript in which the Leiden Riddle is copied at a later date. This manuscript also includes Latin enigmata by Symphosius and Aldhelm, so the Old English riddle isn’t terribly out of place.

The biggest differences between the poems (aside from language/dialect) are the differing final lines of Exeter Book Riddle 35, as well as the shifting of clues in both Old English versions (so the torturey image occurs after the fate-filled silkworms, rather than before, as in the Latin poem). There are also minor differences here and there, like the very fact that the silkworms are associated with wyrda (“fates,” plural) in the Exeter Book version and only uyrdi (“fate,” singular) in the Leiden Riddle. Any talk of fate in relation to textiles and scholars start to get antsy (think Greek Fates spinning/measuring/snipping your life-thread), so I feel like I should point out that there doesn’t seem to be anything fate-ish in the Latin enigma. There, the worms are associated with the silk-producing region of their origin.

An image should’ve gone here. But you trying googling “silkworms.” EURGH!

Of course, the textiley imagery in these poems has been quite popular in and of itself. The riddles are some of the only poetic texts to preserve information about daily life, so this poem often gets read alongside the list of textile implements found in Gerefa, an eleventh/twelfth-century guide for an estate manager or reeve. From this list, we learn all sorts of interesting terms, like gearnwindan (yarn-winder), amb (beater?) and sceaðele (shuttle).

Baskets of wool

Here are some textiley bits from the Viking Craft Fair in York, February 2010.

But these riddles don’t actually show us a textile, do they? That’s, well, sort of the whole point. For a long time, scholars focused on the poetic paradox of a shirt that vocally negates any relationship to weaving. “I’m not woven!” it seemed to say. “Not even a little bit!” Then along came the very sensible Benjamin Weber to remind us that this shirt most definitely IS woven, just not with the materials that are used to weave textiles. He reminded us that the interlocking of metal rings to make mail-coats is referred to as “weaving” all over the place in early medieval literature.

Close-up of mail coat

Detail of a replica mail-coat at Bede’s World in Jarrow. Photo courtesy of C.J.W. Brown.

This is a common way of describing the making of mail in Beowulf, Elene and even Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies: Lorica vocata eo quod loris careat; solis enim circulis ferreis contexta est (The lorica is called thus because it lacks leather ties; for it is woven from entirely iron hoops) (2: XVIII.xiii.1). So, the paradox of this poem isn’t: “I’m not a woven shirt; what am I?” It’s: “I’m a shirt that’s woven, but not out of what you might think.” Does that make sense? I feel like it’s an important distinction, but then again I do like me a good bit o’ textilin’.

But you know what I like more? Sleep. So no more writey tonighty.

Notes:

References and Suggested Readings:

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

Isidore of Seville, Etymologiarum sive Originum libri XX. Edited by W. M. Lindsay. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911.

Weber, Benjamin. “The Isidorian Context of Aldhelm’s “Lorica” and Exeter Riddle 35.” Neophilologus, vol. 96 (2012), pages 457-66.



Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 35  leiden riddle 

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Exeter Riddle 36

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Mon 09 Mar 2015
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 36
Original text:

Ic wiht geseah     on wege feran,
seo was wrætlice     wundrum gegierwed.
Hæfde feowere     fet under wombe
ond ehtuwe
5     monn h w M wiif m x l kf wf hors qxxs
ufon on hrycge;
hæfde tu fiþru     ond twelf eagan
ond siex heafdu.     Saga hwæt hio wære.
For flodwegas;     ne wæs þæt na fugul ana,
10     ac þær wæs æghwylces     anra gelicnes
horses ond monnes,     hundes ond fugles,
ond eac wifes wlite.     Þu wast, gif þu const,
to gesecganne,     þæt we soð witan,
hu þære wihte     wise gonge.

Translation:

I saw a creature travel on the way,
she was miraculously adorned with wonders.
She had four feet under her belly
and eight
5     monn h w M wiif m x l kf wf hors qxxs
up on her back;
she had two wings and twelve eyes
and six heads. Say what she was.
It travelled the water-ways; nor was it only a bird,
10     but there was the likeness of every one of these:
of horse and of man, of hound and of bird,
and also the appearance of a woman. You know, if you understand
speaking, what we know [to be] the truth,
how the nature of that creature goes.

Click to show riddle solution?
Ship; Man woman horse; Two men, woman, horses, dog, bird on ship; Waterfowl hunt; Pregnant horse, two pregnant women; Hunting; Sow and five piglets


Notes:

This riddle appears on folio 109v 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 198.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 34: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), page 89.



Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 36 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 36

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Sat 21 Mar 2015
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 36

I gotta confess: I’ve never been a puzzler. This might come as a thoroughly shocking announcement from someone who spends her time wading through scholarship on Old English riddles, but it’s not the solving that I like…it’s all the other bits. So, you’ll understand when I say that writing up Riddle 36 has been tough. I mean, have you read Riddle 36? It’s a nightmare to solve. But I have learned things, and I intend to share them with you because I’m generous like that.

Soooooooooo, I’m guessing the first thing on your minds is: what, what, what is with line 5? (a reminder of what it looks like: monn h w M wiif m x l kf wf hors qxxs) Is this jumble intentional? Or did the scribe just have some sort of random hand spasm and reckon that no one would notice? A combination of the two? Maybe!

Scholarly opinion has it that line 5 was copied down by mistake. It seems to be a code for the solution that was scribbled between the lines, and some scribe or other managed to merge with the riddle itself. The code places the Old English words monn (man), wiif (woman) and hors (horse) next to a series of letter forms that conceal their Latin equivalents: homo (man), mulier (woman) and equus (horse). In order to get to these forms, we need to swap the consonants b, f, k, p and x with the vowels that precede them in the alphabet (a, e, i, o and u). We also need to account for copying errors, dropped letters and the replacing of “p” with the runic letter “wynn” (google it; they look similar). All this to say that line 5 really ought not to be in this riddle at all.

This particular cryptographic code seems to have been well known to early medieval folks. If you’re curious about puzzles like this, check out Dieter Bitterli’s book in the references below. Should you be at all like me, you may well guffaw loudly at Bitterli’s statement that “the boundaries between recreational mathematics on the one side and literary riddling on the other must have been fluid” at the time (page 68). What a shame that we don’t hear more about “recreational mathematics” these days.

Now back to the riddle in question. I say “riddle,” but of course some scholars think this is actually two separate riddles. Given that line 5 has actually been plunked down in the middle of a verse (the alliteration of lines 4 and 6 indicates that they’re meant to be one line), it’s not such a stretch to imagine that other mistakes have occurred. And the two parts of the riddle do read quite differently.

First we have a numerical, “add’em up”-style riddle, which is rounded off by a challenge to name the solution in line 8. And then we have a descriptive, “it’s sorta like this but not that”-style section with another challenge. Norman E. Eliason has argued that the adding-of-body-parts-section is reminiscent of both riddles that refer to a horse and rider and riddles that refer to a pregnant animal. This leads him to propose that lines 1-8 comprise a riddle that can be solved as “a pregnant horse with two pregnant women on its back,” while lines 9-14 make up a ship-riddle. He actually goes so far to claim “attempts to solve it as a single riddle are unsatisfactory, for the solutions proposed are so fanciful and complicated that the riddle is made to seem absurd” (pages 563-4). Because a pregnant horse carrying two pregnant women isn’t absurd at all. In fact, this poem has attracted sarcasm like no tomorrow. Craig Williamson, commenting on Eliason’s interpretation, writes: “This is a burden too heavy to bear.” HA! Get it? Too much of a burden for the horse AND too much of a burden for the interpretation. You’re terribly droll, Williamson.

I feel like that little debate deserves a picture:

Line drawing of pregnant horse and women

Now that you’re all done appreciating my mad artist’s skillz, it’s time to accept that, even if we don’t solve the first section as a pregnancy party, it is very possible that the two sections are separate poems. Or that the second section is an elaboration on the first in a different style. Will we ever know? (prolly not…soz)

But what do we know? Well, we know that we’re dealing with the sort of imagery that crops up in other ship riddles (see Riddle 19 and Riddle 64). In these riddles, the man = the sailor, the horse = the ship and the bird = the sails. That’s why most scholars take Riddle 36 to point to a ship too. Williamson certainly agrees, and he argues that the likenesses of a hound and woman in lines 11-12 indicate figureheads on both the fore and aft. He points out that the Bayeux Tapestry includes an image of such a ship, although I couldn’t find an open access one. Here, have this single figure-headed ship pic instead:

Scene from Bayeux Tapestry

Photo from the Wikimedia Commons.

Incidentally, Williamson also thinks that this riddle can stand as one text, maintaining that the array of body parts in the first section refer thusly:

  • the four feet below = oars
  • the eight feet above = those of the oarsmen/travelers
  • the two wings = sails
  • the six heads and twelve eyes = those of the oarsmen/travelers and the figureheads

As you know, I’m not that into puzzles. So, as the simplest explanation of a very complicated poem (or poems), I’m inclined to agree with this interpretation. But if you don’t, feel free to rage and rail against me. Just do it in the comments section below…

Notes:

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, esp. pages 68-74.

Eliason, Norman E. “Four Old English Cryptographic Riddles.” Studies in Philology, vol. 49 (1952), pages 553-65.

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 36 

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Exeter Riddle 37

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Wed 01 Apr 2015
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 37
Original text:

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.
5     Ne swylteð he symle,     þonne syllan sceal
innað þam oþrum,     ac him eft cymeð
bot in bosme,     blæd biþ aræred;
he sunu wyrceð,     bið him sylfa fæder.

Translation:

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.
5     He does not die continually, when he has to give
his insides to the other, but there comes again from him
a remedy in the breast, breath is raised up;
he makes sons, he is his own father.

Click to show riddle solution?
Bellows, Wagon


Notes:

This riddle appears on folio 109v 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 198-9.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 35: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), pages 89-90.



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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 37

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Wed 15 Apr 2015
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 37

When it comes to over-the-top manly virility, the smith has got it going on (is a sentence I never thought I would write until this very moment). So it makes sense that the smith’s tools – in this case, the bellows – might be associated with a certain amount of naughtiness. If you didn’t realize that this riddle is a bit naughty (bless), then please allow me to direct you to line 2a’s swollenness, whatever is shooting out of an “eye” in line 5b, as well as all the servantile following and filling going on in between. Still don’t believe me that this poem is chock-a-block full of double entendre? Then mosey on down to the final line’s reference to the impossibly incestuous fathering of sons (not unlike Riddle 33’s mother-daughter imagery). This riddle is having fun with tools, in every sense of the word.

“Why a smith?,” you might wonder. To which I reply:

Völund

Image of Völundr (apparently) from Wikimedia Commons.

Whoa there, put away those guns! I am joking, obviously. This particular blacksmith is far too grim for my tastes. But it does remind us that hyper-masculinity is associated with smithing, servitude and sexual acts elsewhere in the Old English corpus. I’m referring to the poem Deor (also in the Exeter Book), which mentions the nasty lengths to which Weland/Völundr the Smith will go to take revenge on the enemy who imprisoned him because of his skillful smithing: namely, the rape and impregnation of his daughter, Beadohild/Böðvildr.

The goings on of Riddle 37 may be more consensual, although with a servant involved there’s an element of power/hierarchy here too. Furthermore, violence lurks under the surface in lines 5-7’s reference to death. This death reference is quite clever, since it relates to the expiration of the bellows: it breathes out all of its air, but rather than dying it is revived again and again. It’s this particular clue that makes the solution “bellows” fairly certain (despite “wagon” also having been suggested). In fact, the same clue can be found in Symphosius’ Latin bellows-riddle, Enigma 73, Uter Follis:

Non ego continuo morior, dum spiritus exit;
Nam redit adsidue, quamvis et saepe recedit:
Et mihi nunc magna est animae, nunc nulla facultas.
(Glorie, vol. 133A, page 694)

(I do not die continually, when breath leaves;
for it returns regularly, although it often departs:
sometimes my supply of spirit is large, sometimes not.)

The early English riddler Aldhelm also has a Latin bellows-riddle (Enigma 11, Poalum), but it doesn’t overlap nearly as nicely as Symphosius’ text does.

A further indication that we’re dealing with a bellows rather than a wagon comes in the form of line 7b’s verbal play. Blæd (breath/glory) is the first element of the compound blædbylig, which glosses the Latin follis in The Harley Latin-Old English Glossary (Oliphant F625). What does follis mean? Dun-dah-dah-dun: Bellows! I think we have a winner, folks:

Drawing of bellows

Image from Wikimedia Commons(public domain).

One final thing to mention before I run away to frolic with lambs and stuff vast quantities of hoarded chocolate into my face (I  wrote this post over Easter): this is not the only Old English bellows riddle. Oh no, folks, it most certainly is not. You’ll have to wait a while to hear about Riddle 87, but I assure you it is a clear relative of Riddle 37. “Children of the bellows”…now if that isn’t a good title for some Old English riddle-inspired erotic fan fic, then I don’t know what is.

Notes:

References and Suggested Reading:

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

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

Oliphant, Robert T. The Harley Latin-Old English Glossary. The Hague: Mouton, 1966.



Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  riddle 37 

Related Posts:
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 33
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 87

Exeter Riddle 38

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Wed 27 May 2015
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 38
Original text:

Ic þa wiht geseah     wæpnedcynnes,
geoguðmyrþe grædig;     him on gafol forlet
ferðfriþende      feower wellan
scire sceotan,     on gesceap þeotan.
5     Mon maþelade,     se þe me gesægde:
“Seo wiht, gif hio gedygeð,     duna briceð;
gif he tobirsteð,      bindeð cwice.”

Translation:

I saw a creature of the weaponed kind/male sex,
greedy with youthful joy; as tribute for him
the life-saving one let four springs
shoot forth brightly, murmur to his delight.
5     Someone spoke, the one who said to me:
“That creature, if she survives, breaks the hills;
if he dies, binds the living.”

Click to show riddle solution?
(Young) Ox, Bullock


Notes:

This riddle appears on folio 109v 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 199.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 36: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), page 90.



Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 38 

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Response to Exeter Riddle 39
Exeter Riddle 23
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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 38

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Mon 04 May 2015
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 38

So, what am I gonna say about Riddle 38, eh? That’s the question, my friends. That is the question.

I suppose I could talk about how this riddle seems to depict a young ox or bullock, i.e. a castrated bull. This makes for a rather ironic use of the lovely Old English compound wæpned-cynn, which literally means “weaponed kind” and metaphorically means “dudes” (or maybe “the male sex”…depends on whether you’re translating for the internet or for an essay/exam/any-academic-enterprise-in-which-the-word-dude-is-unfortunately-a-no-go).

Riddle 38 isn’t the only Old English text to use the term wæpned-cynn or the related compounds wæpned-bearn/-cild (male child), wæpned-had (male sex), wæpned-hand/-healf (male side/line), wæpned-man (male person). In fact, these compounds are fairly common in prose and appear in several poetic texts, including Beowulf, Exodus and Genesis A. The last of these poems also includes the first element of the compound on its own in the formula wif and wæpned (women and men) (lines 195a and 2746a).

Distinguishing men by the weapons they carried seems to have roots in Germanic tradition. In fact, a Thuringian law-code that survives in a tenth-century manuscript refers to the male line as lancea (spear) and the female line as fusus (spindle) (von Schwerin, page 61, line 25). The ox of Riddle 38 is obviously not carrying a spear or sword (because hooves!), but horns and antlers are characterized as weapony in other riddles (Spoiler Alert!: Riddles 14, 88 and 93). Of course, that’s not to say that there isn’t another sort of weapon in this riddle. The Old English term wæpen was a euphemism for a particular part of the male anatomy, if you know what I mean (penis…what I mean is obviously penis…you may all stop giggling now). This is where I read the irony in Riddle 38. The poem refers to an ox – although obviously still a male creature with a penis, the castrated beast of burden is lacking in other rather obvious features of the male body (testicles…now I’m referring to testicles…seriously, STOP laughing). Is this riddle making fun, perchance? Possibly. Although I should also note that the reference to ploughing in this poem is problematic, as I’ll discuss below. So, maybe we’re wrong to assume this fella is a castrated ox…maybe he’s just a run of the mill, fully intact young bull.

I hope I haven’t put you all to sleep by musing about cattle genitalia. If not, let’s move on to some other, slightly less physical compounds: geoguðmyrþe in line 2a and ferðfriþende in line 3a. Geoguðmyrþe means something like “youthful joy,” which goes quite nicely with the fantastic image in my head of a frolicking calf following his mum around a field. This is what the calf in my head looks like:

Highland calf

FLUFFY! Photo (by Aconcagua) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0).

The manuscript actually reads geoguð myrwe, but most scholars accept the change to geoguðmyrþe, since myrwe presents all manner of linguistic problems, which I promise not to bore you with (if you want to know more, see Williamson, page 256). As for ferðfriþende, this compound means “life-saving,” and it’s a bit unclear what it refers to (i.e. the mother cow – which is how I read it – or the four springs). In fact, lines 2b-4 are quite tricksy in general and have been translated all sorts of different ways (see Williamson, pp. 256-7).

I should also mention the weird shift in grammatical gender (grammar, wonderful grammar!) that comes at the end of the riddle. Line 6 begins with what is clearly the feminine form of the third-person pronoun (i.e. Modern English “she/he/it”…here “she” = hio), while line 7 includes the masculine form of the third-person pronoun (he). The first, feminine instance may refer back to the grammatical gender of seo wiht (the creature) and the second, masculine instance may refer to the natural gender of the ox/bull. Why shift, though? Most scholars/translators just elide the shift entirely and translate with “he” or “it,” but I suppose it’s possible that the “she” is the mother cow, who will go on to become a beast of burden, while the “he” is the calf, who will go on to become leather. Debby Banham and Rosamond Faith have recently pointed out that female cattle may have also played a role in ploughing, particularly in small-scale agriculture (page 108). So, we can’t make the claim that only an ox would be appropriately placed to “break the hills.”

Still, this explanation may be reaching slightly when we take the clunkiness of the final lines into account. Because the real problem with Riddle 38 is that the beginning and the end kinda jar. We start off with a nice little pastoral poem, which seems poised to build into one of those riddles that contrasts the happy freedom of youth with the sad incarceration of age. There are unique compounds and careful metrics. And then, where we’d expect a turn in the poem, we get a quick formulaic ending in a verse style that’s full of strange metrical irregularities (Williamson, page 257). This has led some scholars to suggest that the end of the poem may have actually been prose, which was tacked on to the beginning of a poem for some reason (Williamson, pages 257-8).

In fact, you may remember the formulaic ending from Riddle 12 and its commentary. Lines 13b-15 of that riddle read:

                         Saga hwæt ic hatte,

þe ic lifgende      lond reafige

ond æfter deaþe     dryhtum þeowige.

(Say what I am called, I who living ravage the land and after death serve the masses.)

Similar sentiment, eh? Even closer to Riddle 38 is the Latin prose riddle of pseudo-Bede: Vidi filium inter quatuor fons nutritum: si uiuus fuit, disrupit montes; si mortuus fuit, alligauit uiuos (Bayless and Lapidge, page 144, no. 144) (I saw a son raised among four springs: if he was living, he shattered mountains; if he was dead, he fettered the living). Springs and shattering mountains and fetters! We know that these elements were travelling around in a bundle because we also have similar depictions of the living/dead bovine binary in Aldhelm’s Latin Enigma 83, De iuvenco and the Lorsch riddle, Enigma 11, De tauro.

But, actually, the closest Latin enigma to Riddle 38 is from the collection of the Anglo-Latin poet Eusebius. His Enigma 37, De vitulo goes a little something like this:

Post genitrix me quam peperit mea saepe solesco

Inter ab uno fonte riuos bis bibere binos

Progredientes; et si uixero, rumpere colles

Incipiam; uiuos moriens aut alligo multos. (Glorie, vol. 133, page 247)

(After my mother bore me, I often used to go forth to drink among two by two [i.e. four] streams from one source; and if I live, I will begin to break the hills; or dying I bind many of the living.)

Scholars like to comment that these two poems are very closely related (Bitterli, pages 28-9), and they most certainly seem to be. But I’d also like to point out that Eusebius has two other bovine riddles in his collection: Enigma 12, De bove and 13, De vacca. The first of these is all about the toil of ploughing, while the second is about the nourishing nature of the cow. De vacca reads:

Sunt pecudes multae mihi, quas nutrire solebam;

Meque premente fame non lacteque carneue uescor,

Cumque cibis aliis et pascor aquis alienis;

Ex me multi uiuunt, ex me et flumina currunt. (Glorie, vol. 133, page 223)

(There are many creatures for me, which I used to nourish; but with hunger oppressing me I do not consume milk or meat, since I feed on other foods and different drinks; many live from me, and from me streams flow.)

I can’t help but wonder if the emphasis on the mother as life-saver in Riddle 38 draws not only on Eusebius’ calf poem, but also his cow riddle. Either way, I think it’s time for me to moo-ve on and stop milking this post for all it’s worth.

Notes:

References and Suggested Reading:

Banham, Debby, and Rosamond Faith. Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farming. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Bayless, Martha, and Michael Lapidge, eds and trans. Collectanea Pseudo-Bedae. Scriptores Latini Hiberniae 14. Dublin: School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, 1998.

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.

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

von Schwerin, Claudius, ed. Leges Saxonum und Lex Thuringorum. Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Fontes Iuris Germanici Antiqui. Hanover: Hahnsche Buchhandlung, 1918.

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 38 

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Exeter Riddle 39

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Wed 01 Apr 2015
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 39 | Response to Exeter Riddle 39
Original text:

Gewritu secgað      þæt seo wiht sy
mid moncynne     miclum tidum
sweotol ond gesyne.      Sundorcræft hafað
maran micle,      þonne hit men witen.
5     Heo wile gesecan      sundor æghwylcne
feorhberendra,      gewiteð eft feran on weg.
Ne bið hio næfre      niht þær oþre,
ac hio sceal wideferh      wreccan laste
hamleas hweorfan;     no þy heanre biþ.
10     Ne hafað hio fot ne folme,      ne æfre foldan hran,
ne eagena     ægþer twega,
ne muð hafaþ,      ne wiþ monnum spræc,
ne gewit hafað,      ac gewritu secgað
þæt seo sy earmost      ealra wihta,
15     þara þe æfter gecyndum     cenned wære.
Ne hafað hio sawle ne feorh,     ac hio siþas sceal
geond þas wundorworuld     wide dreogan.
Ne hafaþ hio blod ne ban,      hwæþre bearnum wearð
geond þisne middangeard     mongum to frofre.
20     Næfre hio heofonum hran,     ne to helle mot,
ac hio sceal wideferh      wuldorcyninges
larum lifgan.      Long is to secganne
hu hyre ealdorgesceaft      æfter gongeð,
woh wyrda gesceapu;      þæt is wrætlic þing
25     to gesecganne.      Soð is æghwylc
þara þe ymb þas wiht      wordum becneð;
ne hafað heo ænig lim,      leofaþ efne seþeah.
Gif þu mæge reselan     recene gesecgan
soþum wordum,      saga hwæt hio hatte.

Translation:

Writings say that the creature is
among humankind much of the time
plain and perceivable. She has a special skill
much greater, when people know it.
5     She will seek specially every one
of life-bearers, departs again to travel away.
She is never there a second night,
but she must roam the wretched path
homeless for a long time; she is not humbled by that.
10     She does not have a foot nor hand, she has not ever touched the earth,
nor does she have either of two eyes,
nor a mouth, nor speaks with humans,
nor has a mind, but writings say
that she is the saddest of all creatures,
15     of those who were born naturally.
She does not have a soul nor life, but she must endure
journeys widely throughout this wonder-world.
She does not have blood nor bone, but is a comfort
for many children throughout this middle-earth.
20     She has never touched heaven, nor may she [go] to hell,
but she must for a long time live in the teachings
of the glory-king. It is long to tell
how her life-condition goes afterwards,
the twisted shapes of events; that is a wondrous thing
25     to say. Everything is true
of that which is indicated with words about this creature;
she does not have any limbs, yet lives even so.
If you may say the solution straightaway
with true words, say what she is called.

Click to show riddle solution?
Dream, Death, Cloud, Speech, Faith, Day, Moon, Time, Comet


Notes:

This riddle appears on folios 109v-110r 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 199-200.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 37: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), pages 90-1.



Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 39 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 39

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Mon 08 Jun 2015
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 39

I can’t help it, guys, I keep thinking about Harry Potter. “But you’re a grown-up academic, Megan! Whatcha doin’ thinking about children’s books?” I hear you saying. To which, I reply, respectfully of course, that people from all walks of life can (and should) read Harry Potter, and it’s totally steeped in medieval references, and, anyway, who do you think you are questioning my life-choices and acting all hoity-toity?

But, imagined attacks based on what I keep my bookshelf aside, I keep thinking about Harry Potter because of one of the proposed solutions to this riddle: Death (see Erhardt-Siebold). In fairness, interpreting this riddle as Death also has me thinking about Chaucer, but that’s sort of encouraged in my line of work. Not familiar with either of those references? Allow me to expand.

Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale tells the story of three greedy, boastful chaps who set out to defeat Death, only to be tricked by an old man into killing each other. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows picks up on this personification of Death and the folktale motif of three brothers trying to outwit him, and includes it in a story within the story (meta, right?). And, yes, I know that Riddle 39 doesn’t have three dudes in it, but, according to some, it most certainly does have a personified Death character who – neither properly alive nor dead – wanders in exile and seeks out each and every mortal. I know what you’re thinking: grim reaper, much?

LEGO Grim Reaper

Photo by kosmolaut, subject to a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

But the Old English depiction is less scary, and more, well…wistful…I suppose. The figure is the earmost ealra wihta (saddest/poorest of all creatures) (line 14), but also a comfort (frofre) (line 19b) to people (the poem says bearnum, “children,” but this is a fairly common way of speaking about all human beings). Marie Nelson points out that the obsession with the lives of saints and martyrs in the medieval period may have meant that some viewed death in a fairly positive light (see page 430, footnote 22).

Of course, this Death figure is also depicted as female in Riddle 39. Notably, the Old English term deað is NOT grammatically feminine, which means – if we accept this solution – we’re dealing with a deliberate choice on the part of the poet. There are other words for “death” that are feminine, but these tend to be quite specific (like cwalu, meaning “violent death”) or fairly rare (like the various “travelling forth” terms, forþferednes / forþfering / forþgeleoredness / forþfor, which typically appear as translations or glosses of Latin terms).

But Death is not the only solution. In fact, if we push Death to one side (I HAVE DEFEATED DEATH! KNEEL BEFORE ME, MORTALS!), we find quite a few other contenders in our path. Suggested in the past, but not greatly taken up, are Day, Moon and Time. Despite those being unpopular, the closely related Cloud has attracted a following. The Old English term wolcen, notably, is a feminine one. And two separate chaps in the 1970s pointed out the appropriateness of the riddle-subject’s wandering, suspension between heaven and earth, lack of body, and visibility, in relation to this solution (see Kennedy and Meyvaert).

Ruined castle

Photo of clouds courtesy of yours truly. The castle is an added bonus.

Paul Meyvaert also suggested that Riddle 39 derives from Aldhelm’s Anglo-Latin Enigma 3, De nube (on the cloud):

 Versicolor fugiens caelum terramque relinquo,

Non tellure locus mihi, non in parte polorum est:

Exilium nullus modo tam crudele ueretur;

Sed madidis mundum faciam frondescere guttis.

(Glorie, vol. 133, pages 384-5)

(With changing colours, I, fleeing, abandon sky and land, there is no place for me on the earth, nor in the region of the heavens: no one else fears so cruel an exile; but with wet drops I make the world flourish.)

Of course, as Stanley B. Greenfield points out, this Latin riddle has a few clues that the Old English one doesn’t, namely the reference to rain and the cloud’s changing of colour (see pages 97-8). The Old English riddle also has a number of clues that separate it from Enigma 3, including the fact that the riddle-subject seeks people out individually (lines 5-6) and doesn’t return a second night (line 7). This reference to niht is key – do clouds tend to be sweotol ond gesyne (plain and perceivable) (line 3a) at night?

Not only does Greenfield aim to do away with Cloud as a solution, he also deftly defeats Craig Williamson’s idea of Speech (page 259), pointing out that line 12’s reference to not having a mouth and not speaking with people (ne muð hafað, ne wiþ monnum spræc) roundly contradicts that particular solution (Greenfield, page 98).

Greenfield’s own suggestion is Dream, which is quite a tidy solution and fits most of the riddle’s clues. He has lots of clever things to say about dreams in biblical scripture, about Old English glosses of Latin hymns that have similar exilic imagery and about the cryptic image in line 24a, woh wyrda gesceapu (the twisted shapes of events), which he takes as a reference to how difficult it is to interpret dreams (see pages 99-100).

The solution Dream is backed by a number of critics who aim to refine Greenfield’s suggestion, including Eric G. Stanley and Antonina Harbus. Harbus in particular points out the visual emphasis of the poem, and says this riddle depicts a Revelatory Dream. This is important, given that the riddle-subject says she doesn’t speak to people in line 12. A dream vision, of course, doesn’t have to include speech – the images do the talking (metaphorically-speaking).

I know I spent a long time dwelling on Death at the beginning of this post, but between the two of them, Greenfield and Harbus make a pretty damn good case for Dream based on particular keywords – like recene (at once) (line 28b), near homophone of recenes (interpretation) – and references to other Old English accounts of “dreams as roaming, noisy bearers of information” (Harbus, page 144).

What’s the Old English word for “dream,” then? Well, swefn, of course…which is a neuter noun. So, now we’re back to wondering about grammatical versus natural gender. Should we be using a far less common Old English term that is feminine, like mæting (dream)? Or did the poet make the Dream figure female on purpose? Should we be looking to other texts that depict personified women bringing visions to individuals, like, say, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy (which we know was very popular, and which was translated into Old English prose and verse)? Is this Dream figure linked to Lady Wisdom, who would go on to lead a very full literary life in the later Middle Ages (see Schaus, page 840)?

So many questions…it’s not hard to see why this riddle has been considered “one of the finest of the Old English riddle collection” (Erhardt-Siebold, page 915). It’s also, I think, one of the hardest to solve. So, I’ll leave the final word on the matter up to you lot. I’ve got a sudden hankering to listen to the Everly Brothers.

Notes:

References and Suggested Reading

Erhardt-Siebold, Erika von. “Old English Riddle No. 39: Creature Death.” Publications of the Modern Language Association, vol. 61 (1946), pages 910-15.

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

Greenfield, Stanley B. “Old English Riddle 39 Clear and Visible.” Anglia, vol. 98 (1980), pages 95-100.

Harbus, Antonina. “Exeter Book Riddle 39 Reconsidered.” Studia Neophilologica, vol. 70 (1998), pages 139-48.

Kennedy, Christopher B. “Old English Riddle No. 39.” English Language Notes, vol. 13 (1975), pages 81-85.

Meyvaert, Paul. “The Solution to Old English Riddle 39.” Speculum, vol. 51 (1976), pages 195-201.

Nelson, Marie. “The Rhetoric of the Exeter Book Riddles.” Speculum, vol. 49 (1974), pages 421-40.

Schaus, Margaret, ed. Women and Gender in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Stanley, Eric G. “Stanley B. Greenfield’s Solution of Riddle (ASPR) 39: ‘Dream’.” Notes and Queries, vol. 236 (1991), pages 148-9.

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 39 

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Response to Exeter Riddle 39

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Wed 10 Jun 2015
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 39

Didn’t I say at the end of my last post that Riddle 39 is one of the hardest to solve? Well, it’s because of the riddle’s tricksy-ness that The Riddle Ages can now offer you a special, extra post with another option for solving this bad boy.

Our response post comes to us from Bob DiNapoli, a medievalist who has lectured on Old and Middle English texts at universities in North America, England and Australia. He’s currently working on a translation/commentary of Beowulf and, as the founder/director of The Melbourne Literature Seminars, he offers courses for the public on all manner of medieval and literary things.

Righto, take it away, Bob!:

The opening lines of Riddle 39 make claims for its “creature” (wiht) that are both imposing and maddeningly vague:

Gewritu secgað    þæt seo wiht sy
mid moncynne     miclum tidum
sweotol ond gesyne.   Sundorcræft hafað
maram micle,   þonne hit men witen.
Heo wile gesecan   sundor æghwylcne
feorhberendra,     gewiteð eft feran on weg.
Ne bið hio næfre     niht þær oþre,
ac hio sceal wideferh   wreccan laste
hamleas hweorfan;   no þy heanre biþ. (lines 1-9)
(Writings say this creature is obvious, many times seen among the race of men. A peculiar power it wields, far greater than people comprehend. It will seek out each and every living thing, then departs on its way, never standing still from night to night, but without a home it must wander far and wide along the exile’s path, yet none the more wretched for that.)

Did I mention contradictory? This critter is an exile, but it’s not wretched – unlike every other exile in Old English literature (ask The Wanderer). Its power is uncanny, and it gets around, as we know from “writings” or “scripture” (gewritu). Much of the rest of the riddle seems to tell us what this being is not: it has no limbs and no face, no soul nor spirit. It resides nowhere: endlessly restless on earth, it touches neither heaven nor hell. In the Middle Ages that’s tantamount to saying it lives nowhere.

Once again the riddle references gewritu:

                             gewritu secgað
þæt seo sy earmost     ealra wihta,
þara þe æfter gecyndum     cenned wære. (lines 13b-15)
(writings say that it is the most disadvantaged creature of all that were ever brought forth according to kind.)

Note how the idea of textual literacy seems to float somewhere above this wiht, characterizing it and assessing it for us with unquestioned authority, and with no little condescension: “most disadvantaged,” indeed! That will turn out to be part of the joke, by the time we get to the end.

“Yet,” the riddle continues from line 21,

ac hio sceal wideferh     wuldorcyninges
larum lifgan.   Long is to secganne
hu hyre ealdorgesceaft     æfter gongeð —
woh wyrda gesceapu;     þæt is wrætlic þing
to gesecganne. (lines 21-5a)
(in the teaching of the glory-King it lives forever. It would take long to tell how its life is appointed to go thereafter – the twisting courses of its appointed fate; that is a complex matter to relate.)

“The teaching of the glory-King” could refer only to the teachings of Christ in the gospels, where this creature “lives forever.” Remember that Christ taught his disciples and the crowds who followed him orally: like Plato’s Socrates, he left the scribbling of his words (gewritu again) to others. This is one of the riddle’s key tell-tales, for, along with Craig Williamson, I reckon its solution has got to be “the spoken word.” Greenfield’s objection to this solution is not supported by the poem’s reference to the wiht not speaking with mouth to men. “Spoken” words don’t speak. They are spoken. Humans actually “speak” them. It’s a bit of grammatico-syntactic jiggery-pokery, what I call “riddlic camouflage” in my article, but that’s what the riddles often traffic in, no?

Also, remember that the Old English poetry we know from its many manuscript survivals represents a textualised variant of an originally oral tradition. Most early English poets seem consciously or subliminally aware of their native literature’s pre-textual history. Along comes Christianity in 597, with all its monks, monasteries and scriptoria in tow, and suddenly the scop’s oral authority finds itself trumped by the new culture’s textual authority.

This riddle celebrates the traditional spoken word’s deft evasion of the monolithic claims to authority staked by the textual culture administered by the monks. Look at its cheeky stashing of its solution in plain view where it says the creature’s later history would be long to gesecganne (“to say” or “to speak”). Does this hint that Christ’s spoken teachings made their way into the written record of the gospels by overly complex or devious routes? Might Christ’s sayings in the written gospels then somehow differ from what he actually said? Perhaps not literally, but the issue’s left dangling uneasily.

Much more jolly is this riddle’s conclusion, which assures us that

Soð is æghwylc
þara þe ymb þas wiht     wordum becneð. (lines 25b-6)
(True is anything that signifies about this creature in words.)

In other words, anything we might say in response to this riddle, whose answer is “the spoken word,” constitutes a correct answer: “sword” or “Jane Austen” or “chicken tikka masala” would all constitute satisfactory answers. Bear in mind that the culture of textual authority that dominated the monastic Christianity of early medieval England fostered a certain anxiety: in the reading and interpretation of scripture, there was a fairly restricted range of correct responses to authoritative text and a literal infinity of incorrect ones. And getting it right mattered. This riddle represents a kind of holiday from that anxious culture of textual authority.

Try it. You can’t go wrong!

 

[One last note from The Riddle Ages: Bob reckons the gendered portrayal of the Spoken Word stems from the grammatically feminine term wiht. This is possible, but some riddles do use masculine pronouns alongside wiht and I think we should at least entertain the possibility that the solution is supposed to be a grammatically feminine one. Williamson’s proposed solution in Old English – word – is neuter, but something like the equally common term spræc (speech) would do away with the issue of why the speaker is female, because it is in fact grammatically feminine.]

Notes:

References and Suggested Reading

DiNapoli, Robert. “In the Kingdom of the Blind, the One-Eyed Man is a Seller of Garlic: Depth-Perception and the Poet’s Perspective in the Exeter Book Riddles.” English Studies, vol. 81 (2000), pages 422-55.

Greenfield, Stanley B. “Old English Riddle 39 Clear and Visible.” Anglia, vol. 98 (1980), pages 95-100.



Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 39  bob dinapoli 

Related Posts:
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 39
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 81
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 86

Exeter Riddle 40

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Wed 24 Jun 2015
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 40

This riddle is super-duper long! You’ll understand why when you get to the solution…



Original text:

Ece is se scyppend,      se þas eorþan nu
wreðstuþum wealdeð      ond þas world healdeð.
Rice is se reccend     ond on ryht cyning
ealra anwalda,      eorþan ond heofones,
5     healdeð ond wealdeð,      swa he ymb þas utan hweorfeð.
He mec wrætlice      worhte æt frymþe,
þa he þisne ymbhwyrft     ærest sette,
heht mec wæccende     wunian longe,
þæt ic ne slepe      siþþan æfre,
10     ond mec semninga     slæp ofergongeþ,
beoð eagan min     ofestum betyned.
Þisne middangeard     meahtig dryhten
mid his onwalde     æghwær styreð;
swa ic mid waldendes      worde ealne
15     þisne ymbhwyrft      utan ymbclyppe.
Ic eom to þon bleað,     þæt mec bealdlice mæg
gearu gongende      grima abregan,
ond eofore eom     æghwær cenra,
þonne he gebolgen     bidsteal giefeð;
20     ne mæg mec oferswiþan     segnberendra
ænig ofer eorþan,      nymþe se ana god
se þisne hean heofon     healdeþ ond wealdeþ.
Ic eom on stence      strengre micle
þonne ricels      oþþe rose sy,
25     [a half-line is missing here] on eorþan tyrf
wynlic weaxeð;     ic eom wræstre þonne heo.
Þeah þe lilie sy     leof moncynne,
beorht on blostman,     ic eom betre þonne heo;
swylce ic nardes stenc     nyde oferswiþe
30     mid minre swetnesse      symle æghwær,
ond ic fulre eom     þonne þis fen swearte
þæt her yfle      adelan stinceð.
Eal ic under heofones      hwearfte recce,
swa me leof fæder     lærde æt frymþe,
35     þæt ic þa mid ryhte      reccan moste
þicce ond þynne;     þinga gehwylces
onlicnesse     æghwær healde.
Hyrre ic eom heofone,      hateþ mec heahcyning
his deagol þing     dyre bihealdan;
40     eac ic under eorþan      eal sceawige
wom wraðscrafu      wraþra gæsta.
Ic eom micle yldra     þonne ymbhwyrft þes
oþþe þes middangeard     meahte geweorþan,
ond ic giestron wæs     geong acenned
45     mære to monnum     þurh minre modor hrif.
Ic eom fægerre     frætwum goldes,
þeah hit mon awerge     wirum utan;
ic eom wyrslicre      þonne þes wudu fula
oððe þis waroð     þe her aworpen ligeð.
50     Ic eorþan eom     æghwær brædre,
ond widgielra      þonne þes wong grena;
folm mec mæg bifon      ond fingras þry
utan eaþe     ealle ymbclyppan.
Heardra ic eom ond caldra      þonne se hearda forst,
55     hrim heorugrimma,     þonne he to hrusan cymeð;
ic eom Ulcanus     up irnendan
leohtan leoman     lege hatra.
Ic eom on goman      gena swetra
þonne þu beobread      blende mid hunige;
60     swylce ic eom wraþre     þonne wermod sy,
þe her on hyrstum      heasewe stondeþ.
Ic mesan mæg     meahtelicor
ond efnetan      ealdum þyrse,
ond ic gesælig mæg     symle lifgan
65     þeah ic ætes ne sy     æfre to feore.
Ic mæg fromlicor     fleogan þonne pernex
oþþe earn oþþe hafoc     æfre meahte;
nis zefferus,     se swifta wind,
þæt swa fromlice mæg      feran æghwær;
70     me is snægl swiftra,      snelra regnwyrm
ond fenyce     fore hreþre;
is þæs gores sunu     gonge hrædra,
þone we wifel      wordum nemnað.
Hefigere ic eom micle      þonne se hara stan
75     oþþe unlytel     leades clympre,
leohtre ic eom micle      þonne þes lytla wyrm
þe her on flode gæð      fotum dryge.
Flinte ic eom heardre     þe þis fyr drifeþ
of þissum strongan      style heardan,
80     hnescre ic eom micle     halsrefeþre,
seo her on winde      wæweð on lyfte.
Ic eorþan eom      æghwær brædre
ond widgelra     þonne þes wong grena;
ic uttor eaþe      eal ymbwinde,
85     wrætlice gewefen     wundorcræfte.
Nis under me      ænig oþer
wiht waldendre     on worldlife;
ic eom ufor      ealra gesceafta,
þara þe worhte      waldend user,
90     se mec ana mæg      ecan meahtum,
geþeon þrymme,     þæt ic onþunian ne sceal.
Mara ic eom ond strengra      þonne se micla hwæl,
se þe garsecges      grund bihealdeð
sweartan syne;      ic eom swiþre þonne he,
95     swylce ic eom on mægene     minum læsse
þonne se hondwyrm,      se þe hæleþa bearn,
secgas searoþoncle,      seaxe delfað.
Nu hafu ic in heafde      hwite loccas
wræste gewundne,      ac ic eom wide calu;
100     ne ic breaga ne bruna     brucan moste,
ac mec bescyrede      scyppend eallum;
nu me wrætlice      weaxað on heafde
þæt me on gescyldrum     scinan motan
ful wrætlice      wundne loccas.
105   Mara ic eom ond fættra      þonne amæsted swin,
bearg bellende,     þe on bocwuda,
won wrotende      wynnum lifde
þæt he … [a page is missing in the manuscript here at the end]

Translation:

The creator is eternal, he who now controls
and holds this earth to its foundations.
The ruler is powerful and king by right,
the lone wielder of all, he holds and controls
5   earth and heaven, just as he encompasses about these things.
He wondrously created me in the beginning,
when he first built this world,
commanded me to remain watching for a long time,
so that I should not sleep ever after,
10     and sleep comes upon me suddenly,
my eyes are quickly shut.
The mighty lord controls in every respect
this middle-earth with his power;
just as I by the word of my leader
15     entirely enclose this globe.
I am so timid that a spectre quickly
travelling can frighten me fully,
and I am everywhere bolder
than a boar when he, enraged, makes a stand;
20     no standard-bearer in the world
can overpower me, except the one God
who holds and controls this high heaven.
I am in scent much stronger
than incense or rose are,
25     [a half-line is missing here] in the turf of the earth
agreeably grows; I am more delicate than she.
Although the lily is beloved to humankind,
bright in blossom, I am better than she;
likewise I necessarily overpower the nard’s scent
30     with my sweetness everywhere at all times,
and I am fouler than this dark fen
that stinks nastily here with its filth.
I rule all under the circuit of heaven,
just as the beloved father taught me in the beginning,
35     so that I might rule by right
the thick and thin; I held the likeness
everywhere of everything.
Higher I am than heaven, the high-king calls commands me
secretly to behold his mysterious nature;
40     I also see all the impure, foul dens
of evil spirits under the earth.
I am much older than this world
or this middle-earth might become,
and I was born young yesterday
45     famous among humans through my mother’s womb.
I am fairer than treasure of gold,
though it be covered all over with wires;
I am more vile than this foul wood
or this sea-weed that lies cast up here.
50     I am broader everywhere than the earth,
and wider than this green plain;
a hand can seize me and three fingers
easily enclose me entirely.
I am harder and colder than the hard frost
55     the sword-grim rime, when it goes to the ground;
I am hotter than the fire of bright light
of Vulcan moving quickly on high.
I am yet sweeter in the mouth
than when you blend bee-bread with honey;
60     likewise I am harsher than wormwood is,
which stands here grey in the wood.
I can feast more mightily
and eat as much as an old giant,
and I can live happily forever
65     although I see no food ever again.
I can fly faster than a pernex
or an eagle or a hawk ever might;
there is no zephyr, that swift wind,
that can journey anywhere faster;
70     a snail is swifter than me, an earth-worm quicker
and the fen-turtle journeys faster;
the son of dung is speedier of step,
that which we call in words ‘weevil’.
I am much heavier than the grey stone
75     or an not-little lump of lead,
I am much lighter than this little insect
that walks here on the water with dry feet.
I am harder than the flint that forces this fire
from this strong, hard steel,
80     I am much softer than the downy-feather,
that blows about here in the air on the breeze.
I am broader everywhere than the earth
and wider than this green plain;
I easily encircle everything,
85     miraculously woven with wondrous skill.
There is no other creature under me
more powerful in this worldly life;
I am above all created things,
those that our ruler wrought,
90     he alone can increase my might,
subdue my strength, so that I do not swell up.
I am bigger and stronger than the great whale,
that beholds the bottom of the sea
with its dark countenance; I am stronger than he,
95     likewise I am less in my strength
than the hand-worm, which the children of warriors,
clever-minded men, dig out with a knife.
I do not have light locks on my head,
delicately wound, but I am bare far and wide;
100     nor might I enjoy eyelids nor eyebrows,
but the creator deprived me of all;
now wondrously wound locks
grow on my head, so that they might shine
on my shoulders most wondrously,
105     I am bigger and fatter than a fattened swine,
a swarthy boar, who lived joyfully
bellowing in a beech-wood, rooting away,
so that he … [a page is missing in the manuscript here at the end]

Click to show riddle solution?
Creation


Notes:

This riddle appears on folios 110r-111v 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 200-3.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 38: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), pages 91-4.



Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 40 

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Exeter Riddle 88
Exeter Riddle 26
Exeter Riddle 73

Commentary for Exeter Riddle 40

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Wed 10 Jun 2015
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 40

I hope that you’ve all enjoyed reading the marathon of a poem that is Riddle 40. It reaches a grand total of 109 lines before a missing manuscript page deprives us of its no doubt beauteous ending. And, indeed, Riddle 40 is a work of beauty. Where else do you hear seamlessly poetic phrasing like: “I am fouler than this dark fen that stinks nastily here with its filth” (lines 31-2), or “I am more vile than this foul wood or this sea-weed that lies cast up here” (lines 48-9), or “the son of dung is speedier of step, that which we call in words ‘weevil’” (lines 72-3)? This is truly a poem after my own heart.

Admittedly, there are pretty images in here too. In fact, that’s kind of the point: the riddle puts forward a list of paradoxes as if to ask what can be both all the goods things and all the bad things. That’s why the poem reminds me of a combination of “All Things Bright and Beautiful” and the Monty Python spoof song “All Things Dull and Ugly.” Because, of course, this is a creation-riddle. What makes me so sure? Riddle 40 is one of those occasional Old English riddles with a known Latin original. In this case, the final text in Aldhelm’s riddle collection: Enigma 100, De creatura (on creation). And so we have, creatura, gesceaft (in Old English), creation, the world, nature – whatever you want to call it – depicted as the biggest riddle of all.

Now when it comes to the relationship between the Old English and its Latin source, you’re going to have to bear with me. As you might have guessed, like Riddle 40, the Latin original is also pretty frickin’ long. So, I’m not going to quote it in full. But I will say that the first 81 lines of the Old English poem stick fairly closely to the Latin source. After that, the poet (or perhaps another poet?) goes off book a bit (this starts, as you may have noticed, with the wholesale repetition of lines 50-1 at 82-3).

But even when the poem is fairly faithful to its source, there’s a fair bit of room for improvising. My favourites relate to strange creatures. Because, let’s face it, who doesn’t like a made-up bird, an old giant or a gender-bending piggy?

Let’s start with the bird. Lines 66-9 of the Old English riddle read: Ic mæg fromlicor fleogan þonne pernex / oþþe earn oþþe hafoc æfre meahte; nis zefferus, se swifta wind, / þæt swa fromlice mæg feran æghwær (I can fly faster than a pernex or an eagle or a hawk ever might; there is no zephyr, that swift wind, that can journey anywhere faster). Not familiar with the pernex? That’s because it doesn’t exist. The translator appears to have gotten a tad confused when translating the Latin lines 35-6: Plus pernix aquilis, Zephiri velocior alis, / Necnon accipiter properantior (Glorie, vol. 133, page 533) (faster than eagles, quicker than the wings of the Zephyr, nor [is] the hawk speedier). As Janie Steen notes (page 103), it’s possible that the poet confused pernix (swift) with perdix (partridge)…although the partridge is not the speediest of birds…

Perdix_perdix_(Marek_Szczepanek)

Photo (by Marek Szczepanek) from the Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

You want more strange creatures? How’s about that old, hungry þyrs (giant) in lines 62-3? This famished fella is a translation of the Cyclopes (plural of Cyclops!) that appear at line 33 of the Latin version. It’s a bit strange that the poet chose to paraphrase here, when other classical references are left in (Vulcan and Zephyrus, for example). Maybe there was no good substitute for them, while hungry, hungry giants have a nice, long tradition in the world of Germanic myth.

Giants_and_Freia

Arthur Rackham’s illustration of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen from the Wikimedia Commons.

Hmm…what else is odd about Riddle 40? I suppose my favourite change is made to the pig that comes right at the end of the Old English poem. In Riddle 40, we have a single amæsted swin, / bearg bellende, þe on bocwuda, / won wrotende wynnum lifde (lines 105b-8) (fattened swine, a swarthy boar, who lived joyfully bellowing in a beech-wood, rooting away). In other words, a male pig enjoying his freedom and wild lifestyle. The Latin version, on the other hand, shows us a very different critter:

Pinguior, en, multo scrofarum axungia glisco,
Glandiferis iterum referunt dum corpora fagis
Atque saginata laetantur carne subulci
(Glorie, vol. 133, page 535, lines 48-50).
(See, I grow far fatter than the grease of sows, as they carry 
their bodies back again from the acorn-bearing beech trees, and the swineherds rejoice at the fattened flesh).

The Latin pig is female and fat because she’s a food animal. So, joyous, romping dude-pig on the one hand, and domesticated female who’s destined to be eaten on the other. Erin Sebo notes that the Old English translator adapts this image and removes the only other reference to food in the Latin poem, arguing that the Old English poet is more interested in awe-inspiring creation than tense hierarchies of creator/created (and in this case, human/nonhuman).

Pig in mud at Bede's World

A pig at Bede’s World in Jarrow stares me down. Photo courtesy of C.J.W. Brown.

This isn’t the only time that the Old English poet intentionally changes the tone/meaning of the Latin source. We also end up with a reference to bee-bread in lines 58-9: Ic eom on goman gena swetra / þonne þu beobread blende mid hunige (I am yet sweeter in the mouth than when you blend bee-bread with honey). In the Latin version, we have: Dulcior in palato quam lenti nectaris haustus (Glorie, vol. 133, page 533, line 31) (Sweeter on the palate than a draught of smooth nectar). As Patrick Murphy notes (pages 155-6), the wording of Riddle 40 implies that the translator was familiar with Psalm 18.11: Desiderabilia super aurum et lapidem pretiosum multum; et dulciora super mel et favum (More to be desired than gold and many precious stones: and sweeter than honey and the honeycomb) (from Douay-Rheims). “Bee-bread” is honeycomb, as Latin/Old English glosses tell us. But it’s also a pretty awesome compound in and of itself. Remember that next time you order yourself up a double-scoop of honeycomb ice cream.

Wait…did someone just say ice cream? Sorry to leave you there without a proper conclusion, but…uh…ice cream.

I’m off.

Notes:

References and Suggested Reading:

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

Murphy, Patrick J. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2011.

O’Brien O’Keeffe, Katherine. “Exeter Riddle 40: The Art of an Old English Translator.” Proceedings of the Patristic, Medieval and Renaissance Conference, vol. 5 (1983 for 1980), pages 107-17.

O’Brien O’Keeffe, Katherine. “The Text of Aldhelm’s Enigma no. c in Oxford, Bodleian Library, Rawlinson C.697 and Exeter Riddle 40.” Anglo-Saxon England, vol. 14 (1985), pages 61-73.

Sebo, Erin. “The Creation Riddle and Anglo-Saxon Cosmology. In The Anglo-Saxons: The World Through Their Eyes. Edited by Gale R. Owen-Crocker and Brian W. Schneider. Oxford: Archeaopress, 2014, pages 149-56.

Steen, Janie. Verse and Virtuosity: The Adaptation of Latin Rhetoric in Old English Poetry. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.



Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 40 

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Exeter Riddle 40

Exeter Riddle 41

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Wed 15 Jul 2015
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 41

Riddle 41 is brought to you by the very clever and talented Helen Price. Helen recently finished her PhD at the University of Leeds, and she’s currently working on ecocritical approaches to water in medieval and modern Icelandic literature. Didn’t I say she was clever? I’m positively green with envy.

Take it away, Helen!



Original text:

…. edniwu;
þæt is moddor      monigra cynna,
þæs selestan,      þæs sweartestan,
þæs deorestan      þæs þe dryhta bearn
5     ofer foldan sceat      to gefean agen.
Ne magon we her in eorþan      owiht lifgan,
nymðe we brucen      þæs þa bearn doð.
Þæt is to geþencanne      þeoda gehwylcum,
wisfæstum werum,      hwæt seo wiht sy.

Translation:

…. renewed;
that is mother of many kins,
of the best, of the darkest,
the dearest that the children of the multitudes
5     over the surface of the earth rejoice to own.
We cannot, by any means, live here on earth
unless we enjoy what those children do.
That is something to think about for every nation,
for men who are wise of mind, what that creature may be.

Click to show riddle solution?
Water, Wisdom, Creation


Notes:

This riddle appears on folio 112r 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 203.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 39: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), page 95.



Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 41 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 41
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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 41

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Tue 21 Jul 2015
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 41

Riddle 41’s commentary, like its translation, comes to us from the fab Helen Price:

 

Poor Riddle 41, it’s unlikely to ever be named anyone’s favourite Exeter Book riddle. In fact, it has struggled to receive any real attention whatsoever *cue sad violin music*. Most riddle commentators have either glossed over it or attempted to brush it under the carpet in the hope that it’ll go away…it hasn’t. The longest discussion I have been able to find on Riddle 41 is actually arguing that it is a continuation of the previous riddle (see Konick). *Sigh*. However, this absence of discussion is not entirely unjustified, and is mainly due to the fact that the beginning of the riddle appears to be missing, leaving only the final eight and a half lines intact. Apparently, it has proved difficult and unappealing to discuss something when a chunk of it seems to be absent. Well fear not noble readers, because I am about to do just that! Well, not quite, but here’s hoping I can say something to give this plucky half of a riddle a moment in the spotlight.

Somewhat surprisingly for a text from the Exeter Book, the missing first lines of Riddle 41 are not due to damage of the actual folio page of the manuscript, as is the case with folios 117-130 of the Exeter Book – these folios are scarred by a large burn which increases in size the further through the manuscript you go. However, the fact that Riddle 40 seems to end as abruptly as Riddle 41 starts suggests that something has definitely gone awry.

Some scholars have suggested that the incomplete state of both riddles is due to a scribal error. The Exeter Book manuscript appears to have been copied by just one scribal hand. I suppose when you are hand-copying that much text, probably by candle light, a little missed page here and there is forgivable. However, it is impossible to know (unless the missing Exeter Book page somewhat miraculously turns up from behind a dusty shelf somewhere) whether this is a mistake on the part of the scribe or whether a folio just never made it into (or has been removed from) the bound manuscript. But this uncertainty can also give us food for thought. Thoughts such as: how do we read texts which are (excuse the expression) not all there? What can we glean from the bit of Riddle 41 which we do have? And how can literary context help us to make sense of these few disjointed lines?

And so to the text itself… I can’t help but smile every time I start reading Riddle 41. Edniwu (“renewed!”) it chimes, completely out of the blue. I had to resist placing a little exclamation mark after this opening word in my translation (it turns out I couldn’t resist adding it in here). Scribal error or missing folio, it is a wonderful coincidence that the start of this surviving bit of the riddle happens to have landed at this point. “Renewed” from what? By what? As what? Riddles are fond of their internal mysteries and games (as you will no doubt be more than familiar with from the other riddles and fantastic commentaries posted so far on this website), but here it is the manuscript itself which has landed us with these questions to ponder…and ponder I shall.

Aside from those who have argued that Riddle 41 is a continuation of Riddle 40 (see Konick), the solution “water” has almost unanimously been agreed by editors and commentators alike. I am firmly in favour of this solution for a number of reasons, most of which are drawn from evidence outside of the riddle itself.

Close-up of water droplet

“Water Droplet” photo (by fir0002 | flagstaffotos.com.au), licensed under GFDL 1.2 via Wikimedia Commons.

The surviving lines offer a reasonable indication of Riddle 41’s solution; a substance which is vital to human beings and which plays a key part in the production of life. But, let’s face it, on the surface of this text there is little to conclusively make water, as opposed to say “air” or “food” or some other important life-sustaining substance, the most viable solution. However, when we read and understand Riddle 41 in the context of both other water riddles and water in early medieval poetic texts more generally, then things start to become a little clearer and more convincing.

One of the stock ways to conceptualise water which circulates in early English poetic contexts is the idea of water as a mother figure. This idea appears in the form of two different motifs across the riddles. Firstly, there is the notion that water is a substance which begets itself in different forms i.e. water becomes ice and ice melts back into water (this was discussed far more competently by Britt Mize in his marvellous commentary post for Riddle 33). Obviously, we can’t see this directly at work in Riddle 41 but, bearing in mind the way that the riddles tend to draw on similar themes and stock descriptions, I would like to muse that perhaps this is the point where we enter the surviving part of Riddle 41. Remember that opening declaration “renewed” which forms the first half line? Well, it might not be too farfetched to suggest that the first part of the riddle has described water in one state (perhaps in the form of ice as in Riddle 33), and when ice melts it is “renewed” in a new form of itself, i.e. liquid water.

Seal's head above water

This seal agrees with the metaphor. Photo by Megan Cavell.

As you may well already be familiar with from previous posts, the Exeter Book riddles were copied and circulated in an intellectual context of book-learning. As such, the Exeter Book riddles often riff on a theme or way of describing something. Quite often these ideas are drawn from Anglo-Latin riddles from the likes of Aldhelm (7th century) and sometimes the even earlier (5th century) enigmata of Symphosius.

A key example of water as “life-giver to all things” motif can be seen at work in Aldhelm’s fountain enigma.

Per cava telluris clam serpo celerrimus antra
Flexos venarum girans anfractibus orbes;
Cum caream vita sensu quoque funditus expers,
Quis numerus capiat vel quis laterculus aequet,
Vita viventum generem quot milia partu?
His neque per cselum rutilantis sidera sperae
Fluctivagi ponti nec compensantur harenae.

(I creep stealthily and speedily through empty hollows of the earth, winding my twisted route along the curves of its arteries. Although I am devoid of life and utterly lacking in sensation, what number could embrace or what calculation encompass the many thousands of living creatures which I engender through birth? Neither the stars of the glowing firmament in the sky nor the sands of the billowing sea can equal them.) (Lapidge and Rosier, pages 85-6)

Though the title of the enigma is “fountain”, it is the properties of the water which are most prominent in the poem. As you can see, the poem focuses on the life-giving properties of water, specifically characterizing it as engendering all living creatures.

Water is also presented as engendering multitudes of living things elsewhere in the Exeter Book riddles and more widely in Old English poetry. [SPOILER ALERT: reference to a later Exeter Book riddle about to come up!] Riddle 85 which is also usually solved as “water”, shows this idea at work with the lines:

nænig oþrum mæg
wlite wisan     wordum gecyþan
hu mislic biþ     mægen þara cynna (lines 6-8)

(none to any other can, with wise words, expound its features, how copious is the multitude of its kin.)

Riddle 85 also directly refers to its subject as moddor (mother) a few lines later. I don’t want to spoil the fun of Riddle 85 by giving too much away, so enough said about that for now. But you get the picture – the life-giving/sustaining properties of water are presented by characterising it as mother to all life.

So we can begin to see that when Riddle 41 refers to its subject as þæt is moddor monigra cynna (line 2) (which is the mother of many kins), that there is a literary context which supports the answer specifically as water rather than another life-sustaining object/substance such as food or air. But there are also other clues which support the solution “water” which we can pick up from looking elsewhere in the surviving body of early English poetry.

As you will have surely picked up from this website, the Exeter Book riddles love puns. Water is a substance whose qualities make it ripe for punning – a poet brims with verbs and participles to flood their lines with gushing descriptions, overflowing with watery associations! Raymond Tripp (pages 65-6) talks through one such particular passage in Beowulf (lines 2854-61) where Wiglaf attempts to save Beowulf after the fight with the dragon. Tripp explains that these lines of Beowulf demonstrate how the Christian poet’s worldview is reflected in the poems use of humour by using an “extended concatenation of ‘water’ images […] to show the utter uselessness of pagan ‘baptism’ to save dying men” (Tripp, page 65).

The latter part of Riddle 41 may be read as no exception to this tradition of punning. Lines six and seven of Riddle 41 state:

Ne magon we her in eorþan      owiht lifgan,
nymðe we brucen      þæs þa bearn doð.
(We cannot, by any means, live here on earth unless we profit as those children do.)

The word brucen can mean either “to profit” or “consume” food or drink – marking the subject as something which is taken into the body. Bearing in mind the use of water puns in poems such as Beowulf, it is also possible that the word brucen is itself nodding to the noun broc (brook). While these two words do not share the same root, the word (ge)brocen is a past participle form of (ge)brucan which has the attested spelling variation of (ge)brocen, suggesting that a lexical connection between brucen (to profit/consume) and the noun broc (a brook) may have made sense to an early medieval reader/listener as a water-based pun.

So, it might be that Riddle 41 is a little bit broken but it definitely still has its charms. Its brokenness forces us to think about Riddle 41’s place in a wider literary context, and highlights the shared motifs which circulate not only in early medieval riddle poems but more broadly across surviving early English poetry. Now, in Riddle 41’s very own words, þæt is to geþencanne þeoda gehwylcum (that is something for people to think about).

Notes:

Bibliography and Suggested Reading

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!]

Konick, Marcus. “Exeter Book Riddle 41 as a Continuation of Riddle 40.” Modern Language Notes, vol. 54 (1939), pages 259-62.

Lapidge, Michael and James Rosier. Aldhelm: The Poetic Works. Woodbridge: Brewer, 1985.

Muir, Bernard J., ed. The Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry. Vol II Commentary. Exeter: Short Run, 2000.

Tripp, Raymond P. “Humour, Word Play, and Semantic Resonance in Beowulf.” In Humour in Anglo-Saxon Literature. Ed. by Jonathan Wilcox. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000, pages 49-70.



Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 41  helen price 

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Exeter Riddle 42

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Thu 30 Jul 2015
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 42

This riddle translation comes to us from Jennifer Neville, Reader in Early Medieval Literature at Royal Holloway University of London. She has published on several of the riddles and is currently working on a book about them. You may remember her from her brilliant translation and commentary of Riddle 9.



Original text:

Ic seah wyhte      wrætlice twa
undearnunga      ute plegan
hæmedlaces;     hwitloc anfeng
wlanc under wædum,      gif þæs weorces speow,
5     fæmne fyllo.      Ic on flette mæg
þurh runstafas      rincum secgan,
þam þe bec witan,      bega ætsomne
naman þara wihta.     Þær sceal Nyd wesan
twega oþer      ond se torhta æsc
10     an an linan,     Acas twegen,
Hægelas swa some.      Hwylc þæs hordgates
cægan cræfte      þa clamme onleac
þe þa rædellan      wið rynemenn
hygefæste heold      heortan bewrigene
15     orþoncbendum?      Nu is undyrne
werum æt wine      hu þa wihte mid us,
heanmode twa,     hatne sindon.

Translation:

I saw two amazing creatures —
they were playing openly outside
in the sport of sex. The woman,
proud and bright-haired, received her fill under her garments,
5     if the work was successful.  Through rune-letters
I can say the names of both creatures together
to those men in the hall
who know books. There must be two needs
and the bright ash
10     one on the line — two oaks
and as many hails. Who can unlock
the bar of the hoard-gate with the power of the key?
The heart of the riddle was hidden
by cunning bonds, proof against the ingenuity
15     of men who know secrets. But now
for men at wine it is obvious how those two
low-minded creatures are named among us.

Click to show riddle solution?
N N Æ A A H H = hana & hæn, or Cock and Hen


Notes:

This riddle appears on folio 112r 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 203-4.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 40: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), page 95.

This post, specifically the lineation of the translation, was edited for clarity on 30 November 2020.



Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 42  jennifer neville 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 42

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Thu 24 Sep 2015
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 42

We’re stepping back in time this week to revisit a riddle translation from last year! The fabulous Jennifer Neville (from Royal Holloway, University of London) shares some thoughts on early medieval chickens, sex and hall-life:

 

Riddle 42 is often classified as one of the double entendre riddles, but actually this is a single entendre riddle: when the text tells us, in its very first sentence, that it’s about sex (hæmedlac), it isn’t lying and it isn’t being metaphorical (although it does resort to metaphor a couple lines later).  Unlike any other Old English text, this one does not cloak its depiction of sex in either euphemism or double-meaning. Everything is up front and open (undearnunga), public and outside (ute): if the man is up to the job, the lady will get her fill. This openness would make Riddle 42 even less prudish than most modern media, if it were about people, but, of course, it’s not. It’s about chickens.

Two chickens

Photo of a cock and hen (by Andrei Niemimäki) from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 2.0).

Chickens are interesting, and there are some things we could note here about early medieval husbandry. For example, the chickens are apparently running loose outside, not contained in a pen. The hen, at least, is not boring brown but proudly blonde (wlanc, hwitloc); perhaps some early medieval farmer has been practising selective breeding for colour. But the text doesn’t invite us to linger on those things. Rather, it wants us to think about sex.

We are used to hearing how negative early medieval writers were about sex, but here we see something different. Depending on how you look at them, the heanmode chickens are either "high-spirited" (frisky?) or "low-minded" (having their minds focused on worldly things?); regardless, their activity is not characterised as sinful. We are also familiar with the idea that sex should be only for the purposes of reproduction, but here there is no reference to offspring. Instead, the activity seems to take place purely for its own sake, and it is not a slothful leisure activity: the metaphor used to sum it up is weorc "work." Interestingly enough, most of the other twelve Old English riddles with (apparently) sexual content (Riddles 12, 20, 25, 37, 44, 45, 54, 61, 62, 63, 80, and 91) also use the idea of work to indicate the sexual act. Is this how the early English really felt about sex? Was it simply hard "work"? If so, they share the idea with us in the 21st century: the 2015 song by Fifth Harmony, "Work from Home", for example, explores the metaphor in great detail.

But the always fascinating topic of sex takes us only as far as line 5. At this point, we have to change gears and move into the world of the hall: the social centre of early English noble society, the place where kings presented gifts to their followers, where social drinking occurred, and where the speaker of this text offers to reveal the names of the sexy couple to the men drinking wine in the hall.[1] Again, this statement is tantalising: did the early English exchange riddles with each other in the hall, just as Symphosius did, centuries earlier, at his Saturnalian feast?[2] Before it was written down in the Exeter Book, was Riddle 42 part of an evening’s entertainment, an alternative to playing board games, singing a song in turn (as Caedmon refused to do), or listening to a professional singer?

Reconstructed hall

The hall at the place formerly known as Bede’s World. Photo courtesy of C.J.W. Brown.

Perhaps. But the only people who could solve this riddle would be those who could assemble and unscramble the letters named in the text, and most early medieval laymen were not literate. A normal gathering in the meadhall would have very few of those þe bec witan "who know books" (line 7a). Literacy was a technology reserved—for the most part—for the clergy. Once again, then, we need to change gears and move into another world, the world of the monastery and the scriptorium.

In the world of the scriptorium, there were plenty of people who could read ordinary letters, but in this text even that education wouldn’t be enough. The successful solver of the riddle would have to recognise the names of the run-stafas "runic letters" that have been woven into the metre and alliteration of this poem (Nyd, Æsc, Ac, and Hægl), assemble the collection of letters (some of which have to appear twice), and then rearrange them into not one but two words, hana "cock" and hæn "hen." The runic letters themselves don’t appear in the manuscript: a reader (or listener) would have to know that the words "need," "ash," "oak," and "hail" represent letters in order to understand what the text was asking him or her to do next.

riddle-42-runes

This is what the runes would’ve looked like if they had been included (and rearranged to spell hana and hæn).

It’s thus unsurprising that the text taunts us: who here is smart enough to unlock the orþonc-bendas [3] "cunning bonds" that conceal the solution of this text? Not me: I’m very glad that Dietrich managed to work it out back in 1859. Otherwise, there would be no way to see the chickens. We could probably guess that they weren’t human beings having sex out in public, but, without the letters, their identity would most definitely not be undyrne "manifest, revealed, discovered."

Another puzzle remains, however: why are well-educated monks talking about fornicating fowls? And how did they get away with writing it down? The fact that we can’t answer those questions tells us that we still don’t know as much about the early English as we might have thought.

 

Notes:

[1] Or on the floor: flet literally means "floor," but it can be metonymy for the whole building.

[2] There’s a recent edition by T. J. Leary, or you can read Symphosius’ riddles (in Latin and in two published translations) on the LacusCurtius site.

[3] Tolkien uses this word, Orþonc, as the name of Saruman’s tower, which is unassailable by human or entish hands.

Notes:

References and Suggested Reading:

Banham, Debby, and Rosamond Faith. Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farming. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Dewa, Roberta. “The Runic Riddles of the Exeter Book: Language Games and Anglo-Saxon Scholarship.” Nottingham Medieval Studies, vol. 39 (1995), pages 26-36.

Dietrich, F. “Die Rätsel des Exeterbuchs: Würdigung, Lösung und Herstellung.” Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum, vol. 11 (1859), pages 448-490.

Lerer, Seth. “The Riddle and the Book: Exeter Book Riddle 42 in its Contexts.” Papers on Language and Literature, vol. 25 (1989), pages 3-18.

Nolan, Barbara, and Morton W. Bloomfield. “Beotword, Gilpcwidas, and the Gilphlæden Scop of Beowulf.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. 79 (1980), pages 499-516.

O’Donnell, Daniel Paul. Cædmon’s Hymn: A Multi-media Study, Edition and Archive. SEENET 8. Cambridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2006.

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. “The Key to the Body: Unlocking Riddles 42-46.” In Naked Before God: Uncovering the Body in Anglo-Saxon England. Edited by Benjamin C. Withers and Jonathan Wilcox. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2003, pages 60-96.

Smith, D. K. “Humor in Hiding: Laughter Between the Sheets in the Exeter Book Riddles.” In Humour in Anglo-Saxon England. Edited by Jonathan Wilcox. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000, pages 79-98.

Symons, Victoria. Runes and Roman Letters in Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016.



Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 42  jennifer neville 

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Exeter Riddle 43

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Tue 11 Aug 2015
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 43

This riddle comes to us from James Paz, Lecturer in early medieval English literature at the University of Manchester. He’s especially interested in ‘thing theory’ and medieval science. Take it away, James!



Original text:

Ic wat indryhtne    æþelum deorne
giest in geardum,      þam se grimma ne mæg
hungor sceððan      ne se hata þurst,
yldo ne adle.      Gif him arlice
5     esne þenað,    se þe agan sceal
on þam siðfate,     hy gesunde æt ham
findað witode him    wiste ond blisse,
cnosles unrim,    care, gif se esne
his hlaforde      hyreð yfle,
10     frean on fore.      Ne wile forht wesan
broþor oþrum;    him þæt bam sceðeð,
þonne hy from bearme    begen hweorfað
anre magan    ellorfuse,
moddor ond sweostor.    Mon, se þe wille,
15     cyþe cynewordum      hu se cuma hatte,
eðþa se esne,      þe ic her ymb sprice.

Translation:

I know a worthy one, treasured for nobility,
a guest in dwellings, whom grim hunger
cannot harm, nor hot thirst,
nor age, nor illness. If the servant
5     serves him honourably, he who must possess him
on the journey, they, safe at home,
will find afforded to them well-being and bliss;
an unspeakable progeny of sorrows shall be theirs,
if the servant obeys his lord and master
10     evilly on the way, if one brother will not fear
the other; that will harm them both,
when they turn away, eager to flee
from the breast of their only kinswoman,
mother and sister. Let he who holds the willpower
15     make known in fitting words what the guest is called,
or the servant I speak about here.

Click to show riddle solution?
Soul and Body


Notes:

This riddle appears on folios 112r-112v 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 204.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 41: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), page 96.



Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 43 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 43

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Mon 17 Aug 2015
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 43

Riddle 43’s commentary is once again by the terribly clever James Paz, Lecturer in early medieval English literature at the University of Manchester.

 

I imagine that solving Riddle 43 would have been fairly easy for most contemporary readers of the Exeter Book, especially if we’re to picture this riddling taking place in a monastic setting. It might not be as immediately obvious for a modern reader today, given the changes to our religious beliefs across time. Even so, literary scholars have arrived at an uncontroversial solution: “soul and body.”

As such, this is a riddle whose solution is not a single word but two, a pairing of some kind (others include “moon and sun” and “cock and hen”). The key to solving this riddle, then, lies in identifying not one wiht (creature/created thing) but two disguised figures: the noble guest and the servant. The closing lines (14b-16) of the riddle point us in this direction, instructing the would-be solver to make known in fitting words (OE cyþe cynewordum) what the guest (cuma) or the servant (esne) is called.

Social and cultural tropes (evocative of Beowulf as well as other heroic and elegiac poems) are referenced but also played with, in order to lead us to the right answer. The riddle asks us to puzzle over the proper relationship between host and guest, the hierarchy of lord and servant, to consider the threat of hunger and disease and old age, the joys of feasting and the mead hall. It also creates confusion over traditional familial roles (why should one brother fear, or be in awe of, the other? how can one woman be both mother and sister?) and privileges honourable conduct while raising the threat of its disruption (what happens when a servant obeys his master evilly?).

A basic explanation of the “soul and body” solution would be as follows. The noble guest is the soul, which, as the riddle explains, is not vulnerable to hunger pangs or burning thirst or even old age. Its servant is the body, whose proper role is to tend to this guest honourably (arlice) before it departs for a journey. Having some knowledge of Old English kennings for “body” such as ban-hus (i.e. bone-house) help us to reach this solution. These compressed metaphors (miniature riddles, if you like) suggest that human bodies are temporary dwellings, sheltering and safeguarding something dear that must nevertheless be on its way again before long.

Franks casket

Photo of the 8th-century whalebone Franks Casket (by Michel wal). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The woman referred to in lines 13-14 has proved a little trickier to identify, but most critics and translators think that she represents the earth. She is called a mother, because the body of Adam was made from dust (see Genesis 2:7), and a sister because she (the earth) was shaped by the same father, God.

The critic John D. Niles has recently encouraged us to answer the Exeter Book Riddles in their own (Old English, though sometimes Latin) tongue whenever possible. If we’re to do so with Riddle 43, one half of the answer should correspond to the masculine noun hlaford (i.e. “lord”) and the other half to the masculine noun esne (i.e. “servant”). For Niles and, before him, Moritz Trautmann, the spoken solution should be the Old English doublet gæst ond lic-hama.

But speaking the solution is not where this riddle ends; it is, perhaps, where it begins to reveal its meaning. I’ve said that this riddle is “easy” to solve but, actually, its solution encourages us to contemplate “soul and body” as a concept at a far deeper level.

Regular readers of this website might have gained the sense that the Exeter Book Riddles are all about what we’d nowadays call the “nonhuman” world in its various forms: shields, swords, swans, leather, horns, mead, moon and sun, storms and earthquakes. But Riddle 43 examines medieval ideas about what it means to be a human being: embodied yet rational of mind or soul, of this world yet alienated from it, intellectually curious yet driven by carnal desire.

For an early medieval Christian audience, humans are essentially embodied souls. So the owner of a body really ought to be its master. But that servile role is tested throughout these riddles. Recall Riddle 25 (onion?). As we read this riddle (and, tellingly, Riddles 44, 45, 46), genitalia and sex acts shift in and out of focus… and our body responds?

Even the act of reading a non-obscene riddle is not purely intellectual. Riddles are about body parts and they call on body parts: eyes, ears, mouths, even hands. Riddling asks for a reader who’ll engage with the words on the page in a sensuous way. Recurring phrases that run throughout the Exeter Riddles support this claim: ic seah, ic gefrægn, saga hwæt ic hatte (see, hear, say). And so the relationship that Riddle 43 sets up between our “higher” intellectual faculties and our “baser” or more servile bodily functions is particularly appropriate to this enigmatic collection.

Mastery of the body is central to Riddle 43. It’s all about how the body should respond to its hlaforde (lord) and frean (master). The body, described as an esne, must keep his noble guest honourably, serve him, and fear retaliation after death should he disobey the superior soul. Notice how Riddle 43 uses this term, esne, three times in sixteen lines to emphasise the role of the body.

Leslie Lockett has shown that in the Old English laws, esne is a term for a servant of indeterminate status, higher than the slave (ðeow or wealh) but subordinate to the free labourer (ceorl). Therefore, an esne performs a servile role yet has more autonomy than a slave. This is definitely worth remembering when thinking about the relationship between soul and body in Riddle 43.

When I teach Riddle 43 on my “Things that Talk” course at the University of Manchester, it starts to spark deeper discussion when compared with the other Soul and Body poems found in Old English literature. The issue of the soul’s control over the body was obviously very important to early medieval readers, as a longer Soul and Body poem exists in two versions, which is unusual for an OE text. Those two versions appear in the Vercelli Book and in the same Exeter Book that contains the riddles.

What’s interesting here is that the two versions of the Soul and Body poem provide a different take on the master-servant relationship to that portrayed in Riddle 43. In this poem, the damned soul speaks to an offending body which, during their life-journey together, indulged its own desires, worked against the soul, starved it of spiritual sustenance, and imprisoned, even tortured, it. The soul’s apparent helplessness in the Old English Soul and Body poems has surprised some critics, who expect a deeply Christian text to depict a soul endowed with free will and reason, capable of disciplining the body. Yet the soul that emerges from these poems often seems to be an entity incapable of completely independent thought or action, an entity that struggles to bring about the fulfilment of its desires, as long as it’s enclosed in flesh.

The contrasting depictions of a servile body labouring for its noble guest on the one hand, and a damned soul addressing a domineering body, to which it was bound unwillingly, suggest that early medieval poets had complex ways of comprehending the human condition. Of course, these issues remain fascinating (and maybe even disquieting) for us as modern readers of early medieval poetry…

… To what extent are we responsible for our own actions? Who or what is in control of our everyday thoughts, words and deeds during life? Do we know where our dreams and desires come from? Does our body always behave as we want it to? Are our bodies us, or are we our brains, or minds, or do we still believe our true identity to be spiritual in nature? The Exeter Riddles seem to be about speaking objects. Yet where do we locate the speaking and thinking and acting “I” within our own, human selves? In the body? In the mind? Or within that elusive concept of a soul?

That’s the real mystery at the heart of Riddle 43, and, over one thousand years on, we are not much closer to solving it.

Notes:

References and Suggested Reading

Crossley-Holland, Kevin, trans. The Exeter Book Riddles. London: Enitharmon, 2008.

Dailey, Patricia. “Riddles, Wonder and Responsiveness in Anglo-Saxon Literature.” In The Cambridge History of Early Medieval English Literature. Edited by Clare A. Lees. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, pages 451-72.

Lockett, Leslie. Anglo-Saxon Psychologies in the Vernacular and Latin Traditions. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011.

Murphy, Patrick J. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2011.

Niles, John D. Old English Enigmatic Poems and the Play of the Texts. Turnhout: Brepols, 2006.

Williamson, Craig, ed. and trans. A Feast of Creatures: Anglo-Saxon Riddle Songs. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.



Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 43  james paz 

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Exeter Riddle 44

MEGANCAVELL

Date: Thu 27 Aug 2015
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 44
Original text:

Wrætlic hongað      bi weres þeo,
frean under sceate.      Foran is þyrel.
Bið stiþ ond heard.      Stede hafað godne.
Þonne se esne     his agen hrægl
5     ofer cneo hefeð,      wile þæt cuþe hol
mid his hangellan      heafde gretan
þæt he efenlang ær      oft gefylde.

Translation:

A wondrous thing hangs by a man’s thigh,
under its lord’s clothing. In front there is a hole.
It stands stiff and hard. It has a good home.
When the servant raises his own garment
5     up over his knee, he wants to greet
with his dangling head that well-known hole,
of equal length, which he has often filled before.

Click to show riddle solution?
Key and lock, Phallus, Dagger sheath


Notes:

This riddle appears on folio 112v 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 204-5.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 42: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), page 96.



Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 44 

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