Commentary for Exeter Riddle 59


Date: Mon 27 Feb 2017
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 59

This week’s commentary post is once again from Brett Roscoe of The King’s University, Alberta.


Imagine a hall where a lord and his warriors are drinking and laughing and generally just having a good time. The lord rewards a fighter with a ring, and the warrior proudly sends it around the table for all to admire (it is wylted ond wended wloncra folmum (rolled and turned in the hands of bold fighters)). This is the picture painted by Riddle 59, and at first it seems like a standard heroic scene. But there are some oddities that suggest there is more to this poem than meets the eye (cue eerie music). If the men are just looking at a ring, what makes them gleaw (prudent) and frod (wise) (lines 2b-3a)? And if the ring is a tacen (sign/emblem/symbol), what is it a sign of? Though in the foreground of this riddle we see warriors drinking in a hall, in the background we can hear the faint sounds of a priest’s sermon or a church choir.

The solution to Riddle 59 is “chalice,” which means the riddle is closely related to Riddle 48, whose possible solutions are “paten,” “chalice,” or “sacramental vessel” (though Megan thinks “paten” most likely). When Jesus instituted what we now know as the Lord’s Supper (or the Eucharist or Communion), he took a cup of wine and offered it to his disciples, and he said, “Drink ye all of this. For this is my blood of the new testament, which shall be shed for many unto remission of sins” (Bibite ex hoc omnes. Hic est enim sanguis meus novi testamenti, qui pro multis effundetur in remissionem peccatorum; Matthew 26:27-28). So now we know why the ring (the chalice) is called a golden tacen (sign/symbol/emblem). To the church, this chalice is more than just a cup; it is a sign of Jesus’ death and of God’s gift of forgiveness. It is meant for all of Jesus’ disciples, and so it is wylted and wended (rolled and turned) from hand to hand, the riddler’s tricky way of saying the cup is passed from person to person.

Small chalice from Hexham Abbey

Here’s a nice, little, early medieval chalice from Hexham Abbey
(photo courtesy of C.J.W. Brown).

Now, the only time I stare at my mug is when I’m bored, and I don’t think that’s why the men gaze at this cup (lines 1-3a). So what is it about the cup that makes people stare? It probably helps that the cup is wounded (lines 11-12). I might not stare at any old cup, but I might look twice at a bleeding one. The riddle shows us a cup that is similar to Jesus, who was wounded on the cross. But how is a cup wounded? By chipping or denting it? By throwing it across the room and then stomping on it? Craig Williamson suggests that the wounds on the cup refer to engravings in the gold gilding (page 313). To help us see what he means, here is a picture of the Tassilo Chalice, a cup from the 8th century:

Photo (by Andreas Püttmann) from Wikipedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 2.0 de).

 The chalice is engraved (or wounded) with pictures of Jesus and the four Evangelists, the Virgin Mary, and John the Baptist, and all the portraits are surrounded by a beautiful interlace pattern. If I had a cup like this, I’d probably stare at it too! The people gazing at the chalice, though, are doing more than admiring the artwork. They are called gleaw (prudent) and frod (wise) because by looking at the cup they are meditating on Christ’s death. Through its engravings, the cup brings a clear image of Christ into the gazers’ eyes and minds (lines 7b-9a), helping them contemplate the grace offered by God to those who take and drink.

If lines 12b-15a (“The prayer of any man…”) confuse you, you are in good company. Even scholars don’t agree on what they mean. I’ve followed the translation suggested by Frederick Tupper Jr., which should clarify a bit, but the lines are still somewhat cryptic. Let’s start by looking at the phrase þære bene (the prayer). Though Tupper translates þære as “the,” it could also be translated “that,” and so we can assume the phrase þære bene refers to a specific prayer that has already been mentioned in the riddle. If we move backwards through the riddle looking for a prayer, it doesn’t take long before we find one. Two, actually. The first is in 3b-5a (“He who turned the ring asked for abundant peace…”), and the second in lines 5b-7a (when the ring speaks and names “the Healer”). The first prayer is from a Christian who drinks from the chalice, and the second prayer is from the chalice itself, possibly on behalf of the drinker. Since both are probably praying for grace for the drinker, we might say that they are both part of the same prayer, “that prayer” mentioned in line 12b. And if that prayer were to go ungefullodre (unfulfilled), if the person were not granted grace through the drinking of the wine, or, in other words, if the person did not have the gift of the eucharist and the sacrifice it represents, then he or she would never reach heaven.

So what’s in a cup? Wine, blood, and a lot of religious meaning. Looking up from writing this post, I suddenly find myself disappointed in my coffee mug.


References and Suggested Reading:

Allen, Michael J. B., and Daniel G. Calder, trans. Sources and Analogues of Old English Poetry: The Major Latin Texts in Translation. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1976.

Cosjin, P. J. “Anglosaxonica. IV.” Beitrage, vol. 23 (1898), pages 109-30.

Krapp, George Philip, and Elliott van Kirk Dobbie, eds. The Exeter Book. New York: Columbia University Press, 1936, pages 209-10, 351-52.

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

Williamson, Craig, ed. The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977, pages 102, 313-14.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 59  brett roscoe 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 48

Exeter Riddle 60


Date: Fri 17 Mar 2017
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 60

Riddle 60’s translation is once again by Brett Roscoe of The King’s University, Alberta. (thanks, Brett!)

Original text:

Ic wæs be sonde,      sæwealle neah,
æt merefaroþe,*      minum gewunade
frumstaþole fæst;       fea ænig wæs
monna cynnes,      þæt minne þær
5    on anæde      eard beheolde,
ac mec uhtna gehwam     yð sio brune
lagufæðme beleolc.      Lyt ic wende
þæt ic ær oþþe sið      æfre sceolde
ofer meodubence       muðleas sprecan,
10     wordum wrixlan.       Þæt is wundres dæl,
on sefan searolic      þam þe swylc ne conn,
hu mec seaxes ord       ond seo swiþre hond,
eorles ingeþonc      on ord somod,
þingum geþydan,       þæt ic wiþ þe sceolde
15     for unc anum twam       ærendspræce
abeodan bealdlice,      swa hit beorna ma
uncre wordcwidas     widdor ne mænden.**


I was by the shore, near the sea-cliff,
with the surging of the waves.* I remained
fixed at my first place; there were few
of mankind who there,
5     in that solitude, could see my home,
but each morning the wave in its dark,
watery embrace enclosed me. Little did I know
that ever before or after,
I – mouth-less – across the mead-bench would have to speak,
10     exchange words. It is a kind of wonder
to one who does not know such things,
how, with a clever mind, the point of a knife,
the right hand and the thought of man together in a point,
press me for this purpose: that I with you should,
15     in the presence of us two alone,
boldly declare my message, so that no men
should spread our words more widely.**

Click to show riddle solution?
Reed (pen), Rune staff


This riddle appears on folios 122v-123r 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 225.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 58: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), page 103.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 60  brett roscoe 

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Exeter Riddle 67
Exeter Riddle 72

Commentary for Exeter Riddle 60


Date: Mon 24 Apr 2017
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 60

Brett Roscoe from The King’s University, Alberta leads us through Riddle 60’s commentary:


You know the kinds of kids who always have to be different? They stand when others sit and lie down when others stand. They dye their hair purple, and when the rest of the class dyes their hair purple they shave their heads. Well, that’s the kind of riddle we’re looking at. Almost all the other riddles in the Exeter Book fall into two large groups, 1-59 and 61-95. But Riddles 30b and 60? They refuse to conform, appearing instead in the middle of a series of Old English elegies (such as The Wife’s Lament and The Ruin) and religious poems (such as The Descent into Hell and Pharaoh). So the first question we need to ask is whether or not Riddle 60 is successful in its quest for independence.

Here’s the problem: the riddle is on folio 122b of the Exeter Book, and on the very next page (123a) is a poem called The Husband’s Message. Because of the proximity of these two works and similarity in phrasing, some have suggested that they actually belong together and should be seen as a single poem. If Riddle 60 were a teenager, I’m sure s/he would have thrown something at me as I wrote that last sentence, but it’s true. And those who want to see Riddle 60 together with The Husband’s Message usually hold that the answer to the riddle is a “rune staff.”

Engraving with runes

Artwork (by Olaus Magnus) from Wikipedia Commons (public domain).

This is a woodcut from Olaus Magnus’ description of Nordic history, customs, and folklore in a book called Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (1555). It shows two wise men, each holding a rune-staff. And here is a picture of a rune-staff from 17th century Norway:

Riddle 60 Primstav_2
Photo (by Roede) from Wikimedia Commons (license CC BY-SA 3.0).

The Husband’s Message is, as the title suggests, a message from a husband to his wife. He was exiled, and so he has not seen his wife in years, but now he decides it’s safe to send her a messenger. The messenger finds the woman and tries to convince her to come to where her husband now lives. The messenger presumably shows her a rune-staff (or stick or stone) with the runes S, R, EA, W, M engraved on it, a cryptic record of earlier vows made by the husband and wife. In relation to Riddle 60, the most important figure is not the husband or wife, and not even the message. It’s the messenger. The Husband’s Message begins,

Nu ic onsundran þe   secgan wille
[. . . . . . . . ] treocyn   ic tudre aweox;
in mec æld[. . . . . . . . . .] sceal   ellor londes
settan [. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .]   sealte streamas
[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ]sse. (lines 1-4a)

(“Now will I tell to you who live apart
How I grew up in youth among the trees.
On me must sons of men write messages,
Send me from foreign lands across the waves.”)
(trans. by Hamer, page 79)

It may be just me, but these lines sound very much like a riddle. And if they are a riddle, the clear solution would be a rune-staff, which is made from wood and engraved with messages. Admittedly, the messenger could just be a human who carries a rune-staff, and The Husband’s Message may not be a riddle at all. Though scholarly consensus favours the latter, either reading is possible. Seen in the context of Riddle 60, the rune-staff solution does seem tempting. A rune-staff speaks or conveys a message even though it is muðleas (mouth-less; line 9); it is pressed (or carved) with a knife that is guided by human hands and intent (lines 12-14a); and it can also be used to convey secret messages (lines 14b-17). In fact, in the Old Norse-Icelandic Völsunga saga Guðrun uses runes for that very purpose—she sends a secret runic message to her brothers to warn them of a plot against their lives (ch. 35). (Unfortunately Guðrun’s messenger is not as trustworthy as the one in The Husband’s Message. If you want to find out what happens, feel free to read the story for yourself—you can download a text and translation here). It would seem that a rune-staff fits a lot of the details of the riddle.

But what, then, are we to do about lines 1-7? These lines tell us that the solution to the riddle lives near the shore, that it is so close to the sea it actually touches the waters. F. A. Blackburn suggests that the lines describe a swamp, and the rune-staff is made from the wood of a willow or a swamp cedar (page 7), but this seems like a stretch to me. And what are we to make of the fact that the riddle solution speaks ofer meodubence (across the meadbench; line 9a)? As we will see in Riddle 67, written texts were often read out loud in public settings in the Middle Ages, but the last lines of this riddle suggest the message is a secret. Who would read a secret message out loud in a meadhall? (unless the person were exceptionally bad at keeping secrets!)

In fact, the present consensus is not to read Riddle 60 as part of The Husband’s Message. In modern editions and translations, the two are printed as separate works. And most now agree that the answer to Riddle 60 is a reed or reed pen. A possible source or influence can be found in Symphosius’ Latin Enigma 2 (called Harundo or Reed):

Dulcis amica dei, semper vicina profundis,
Suave cano Musis, nigro perfusa colore
Nuntia sum linguae digitis signata ministris.

(Sweet mistress of a god, the steep bank’s neighbor, sweetly singing for the Muses; when drenched with black, I am the tongue’s messenger by guiding fingers pressed.) (text and trans. from Ohl, page 36)

The interesting thing about Symphosius’ riddle is that the reed takes on a number of forms: first it is the nymph Syrinx, who, according to Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Book 1, lines 689-721), is pursued by the god Pan and transformed into a reed; then it is just a plain old reed along the bank; then it starts to sing, probably in the form of a reed flute; and then, as a reed pen, it writes. We’re dealing with quite a multi-talented reed here.

Similarly, Riddle 60 also describes a reed near the bank (lines 1-7), and then it goes on to talk of the reed as a tool. A knife is used to carve the tip of a reed pen, which is then gripped by a hand and guided by human intent as it is pressed onto parchment (lines 12-14a). The ic (I) of lines 14b-17 is the reed pen, and the þe (you) could be the reader of the lines (the person to whom the pen, through its writing, “speaks”), or it could even be the writer, in whose presence the pen “declares” its message (i.e. puts the message on paper or parchment). The pen speaks ofer meodubence (across the mead-bench) by writing books that are subsequently read aloud or discussed at meals. This last point may seem odd, given that the end of the riddle focuses on secrecy. But we have to keep in mind that, like Symphosius’ riddle, Riddle 60 lists more than one use of the reed. In fact, lines 7b-10a may not even be about a reed pen, but about a reed flute, played during meals as entertainment. Capturing all of these reed forms in a single English word is difficult, which is why I’ve added the word “pen” in parentheses to the solution. John Niles suggests that instead of answering Riddle 60 with a Modern English word, we answer it with an Old English one, hreod, which is flexible enough to mean reed, reed pen, or reed flute (pages 131-2).

So please join me in congratulating Riddle 60! It seems that it has achieved its independence after all. But it must keep its guard up—the rune-staff solution still lurks in dark places, just waiting to latch on to this fascinating riddle.


References and Suggested Reading:

Blackburn, F. A. “The Husband’s Message and the Accompanying Riddles of the Exeter Book.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. 3 (1901), pages 1-13.

Hamer, Richard, trans. “The Husband’s Message.” A Choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse. London: Faber and Faber, 1970, pages 79-81.

Krapp, George Philip, and Elliott van Kirk Dobbie, eds. The Exeter Book. New York: Columbia University Press, 1936, pages 225, 361-62.

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

Ohl, Raymond. The Enigmas of Symphosius. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1928. (an online version of Ohl’s editions and translations can be found here)

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 60  brett roscoe  old norse 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 67

Commentary for Exeter Riddle 67


Date: Mon 09 Oct 2017
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 67

Riddle 67's commentary is once again by Brett Roscoe of The King’s University, Alberta. Go, Brett, go!

Let me start by assuring you that this is not a connect-the-dot puzzle, though it looks like one. The rows of periods show where we cannot read the riddle because the manuscript has been damaged. In the Middle Ages, manuscripts weren’t used just used for writing. The manuscript in which most of the Old English riddles are found, the Exeter Book, was used as a coaster, a chopping-board, and later even as kindling for fire! (though to be fair, I should say that this last use was accidental). When you add to that dirt, dust and mould, and natural wear and tear over time, it actually isn’t surprising that the manuscript is damaged. It’s more surprising that it survived, and that we’re fortunate enough to read it today.

That said, though, we’re still faced with the problem of reading this riddle. It may not be a connect-the-dot, but what if it were a fill-in-the-blank exercise? Here is the poem after filling in some of the blanks with suggestions made by various scholars (these are summarized in Krapp and Dobbie, pages 368-9):

Ic on þinge gefrægn    þeodcyninges
wrætlice wiht,    wordgaldra [sum
secgan mid] snytt[ro,    swa] hio symle deð
fira gehw[am. . . . . . . . . . . . . .]
. . . .] wisdome.    Wundor me þæt [þuhte
þæt hio mihte swa]    nænne muð hafað.
fet ne [folme. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . .]    welan oft sacað,
cwiþeð cy[mlice . . . . . . . . .] wearð
leoda lareow.    Forþon nu longe m[æ]g
[awa to] ealdre    ece lifgan
missenlice,    þenden men bugað
eorþan sceatas.    Ic þæt oft geseah
golde gegierwed,    þær guman druncon,
since ond seolfre.    Secge se þe cunne,
wisfæstra hwylc,    hwæt seo wiht sy.

O.k., so it’s still not perfect, but we could at least say it’s a bit better. And it can help us flesh out our translation:

I have heard of a wondrous creature
in the king’s council, speaking magical words
with wisdom, as it always does
men[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . .] wisdom. It seemed a wonder to me that
it could speak as it has no mouth.
No feet or hands[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . .] often contend for wealth,
says fittingly [. . .] “(I) have become
a teacher of peoples. Therefore now for a long time,
always unto life, I can eternally live,
in various places, while people inhabit
the expanses of the earth.” I have often seen it,
adorned with gold, treasure and silver,
where men drank. Let him who knows,
each one who is wise, say what that creature is.

Now the riddle is – though still unclear – legible enough to point to a solution. Most agree that its solution is “Bible,” or some sort of gilded religious book. Lines 5-6 express amazement that this speaker, whoever or whatever it is, is mouth-less. And a mouth-less speaker in Latin and Old English riddles often suggests a kind of writing or writing utensil, since a written text conveys its message to the eyes of the reader without making a sound (see Riddle 60, Riddle 95, and Eusebius’ Latin Enigma 7, De Littera and 33, De Membrano). Besides having no mouth, this strange speaker also has fet ne (no feet), and possibly no hands (if we accept the reconstruction of folme), and it speaks wordgaldra (magical words). Magical words suggest that the book has power outside of its covers; it has authority in the “real” world. It is, after all, a leoda lareow (teacher of peoples). What kind of book would have this kind of authority and power? The Bible, with its message of salvation and world transformation, would seem to fit the bill.

The strongest hint at the religious nature of this book is the fact that it is gilded with gold and silver (lines 13b-15a). Gold and silver were often used to decorate Bible manuscripts. We’ve already seen this kind of decoration in Riddle 26, but just to refresh our memories, here is an example from the Lindisfarne Gospels showing the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew:

Photo from Wikipedia Commons (public domain)

This kind of attention was usually reserved for religious texts such as Bibles, psalters, lectionaries, and books of hours. The elaborate decorations reflected the value placed on the content of the manuscript.

So if the answer is a Bible, why are we told that it is often seen þær guman druncon (“where men drank,” line 14b)? If you’re like me, you probably think of reading as a quiet, solitary activity. When I read I make myself a cup of tea, go to a quiet room, and maybe turn on some mellow music. I don’t invite friends over for a party and then pull out a book. Though we may not often think of reading as a public event, it is an activity that provides an opportunity for social bonding. Have you ever been to a public poetry or book reading? Or have you ever read a children’s book to your son or daughter at bedtime? Have you heard the Bible read out loud during a Sunday church service? If so, you’ll have a sense of what this riddle is talking about. In fact, in medieval monasteries it was a common practice to listen to the Bible read out loud during meals. We might say, then, that Riddle 67 uses the kingly hall to represent the monastery. I’m not sure who this comparison would flatter more, the monks or the warriors, but it is not an uncommon comparison in the Exeter Book riddles.

If you’re interested in reading more about early medieval Bibles, you might want to compare this riddle to Riddles 26, 59, and perhaps 95.


References and Suggested Reading:

Clemens, Raymond, and Timothy Graham. Introduction to Manuscript Studies. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007.

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

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

Tags: anglo saxon  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 67  brett roscoe 

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Exeter Riddle 95


Date: Wed 17 Feb 2021
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 95

Riddle 95’s translation is by Brett Roscoe of The King’s University, Alberta. Thanks for taking on the very last Exeter riddle, Brett!

Original text:
Ic eom indryhten           ond eorlum cuð,
ond reste oft;           ricum ond heanum,
folcum gefræge           fere (1) wide,
ond me fremdes (2) ær           freondum stondeð (3)
5     hiþendra hyht,           gif ic habban sceal
blæd in burgum           oþþe beorhtne god. (4)
Nu snottre men           swiþast lufiaþ
midwist mine;           ic monigum sceal
wisdom cyþan;           no þær word sprecað
10     ænig ofer eorðan.           Þeah nu ælda bearn
londbuendra           lastas mine
swiþe secað,           ic swaþe hwilum
mine bemiþe           monna gehwylcum.
I am noble and known to men of rank,
and I rest often; to rich and poor,
to people far and wide I am known,
and to me, formerly estranged from friends, remains
5     the hope of plunderers, if I should have
honour in the cities or bright wealth.
Now wise men above all cherish
my company; to many I must
tell of wisdom, where they speak not a word,
10     nothing throughout the earth. Though now the sons of men,
sons of land-dwellers, eagerly seek
my tracks, I sometimes hide
my trail from all of them.
Click to show riddle solution?
Book, Quill Pen, Riddle (Book), Wandering Singer, Prostitute, Moon


This riddle appears on folio 130v 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 243.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 91: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), pages 120-1.

Translation Notes:

  • (1) The manuscript reads fereð. Williamson takes hiþendra hyht as the subject of fereð wide, translating, “The plunderers’ joy (gold) travels far, and, once estranged from friends, stands on me (shines from me?), if I should have glory in the cities or bright wealth” (pp. 398-99). Murphy translates, “The plunderer’s joy travels widely and stands as a friend to me, who was a stranger’s before, if I am to have success in the cities or possess the bright Lord.” See Patrick J. Murphy’s Unriddling the Exeter Riddles (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011), page 87.
  • (2) The manuscript fremdes does not make sense because there is no genitive noun in the sentence. I follow Williamson’s suggestion in reading this as fremde (pages 399-400).
  • (3) Stondeð literally means “stands,” so a literal translation would be “stands on me.” But the meaning may be understood as “remains (to me)” or “falls to my lot” (Williamson, page 400).
  • (4) Here I have followed the suggestion of numerous editors in assuming that beorthne should be beorhte, an adjective describing god, which here means “goods” or “wealth.” See Williamson, page 401.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  brett roscoe  riddle 95 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 95


Date: Thu 18 Feb 2021
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 95

Riddle 95’s commentary is by Brett Roscoe of The King’s University, Alberta. Go get’em, Brett!

If you like reading riddles, and I mean really like reading them, and you have a habit of reading them over and over again, then this riddle is for you. The last riddle in the Exeter Book is one of those infamous riddles that has (too) many possible answers. Rather than single out one solution, I think it would be best to try on one solution at a time, like shoes, so we can get a feel for how each fits the riddle.

Medieval Scandinavian leather shoes

Like these medieval shoes? Photo of Scandinavian shoes from the National Museum of Denmark, with thanks to Prof. Michael J. Fuller for permission to display them here.

This means that for each solution, the riddle has to be re-read and its details reconsidered, because with each solution the riddle is a new riddle. And so without further ado (and since we have much to do!), let’s begin:

First, the Wandering Singer. A wandering singer is known “far and wide” (fere wide; line 3b), and his lore is valued by “wise men” (snottre men; 7a). The “hope of plunderers” (hiþendra hyht; 5a) can be read as a kenning (a poetic circumlocution, or a way of hinting at something without actually saying it) meaning gold, the payment for which a wandering singer hopes. Finally, a wandering singer may want to hide his tracks if he has been exiled or has reason to fear for his life.

The problem with this solution, in my mind, is that it is too literal. If the Exeter Book riddles are any indication, early medieval riddlers enjoyed using metaphor, paradox, and word-play to trick the riddlee. We have to make our way through figurative twists and turns to get at the answer. And to me the answer of a wandering singer just seems a bit too easy.

Now let’s read the riddle again, this time with Prostitute as the answer. Kevin Kiernan, the scholar who suggests this solution, argues that the lastas in line 11 are “observances” or practices rather than “tracks.” So the speaker hides her practices from others. The hiþendra hyht, which Kiernan translates “the joy of ravagers,” may be a kenning for sexual gratification. With lots of clients, a prostitute can be known “far and wide.” And we can probably guess what happens in a place where “not a word” (no…word) is spoken (9b)!

The intriguing thing about this riddle solution is that it is not exclusive. A number of the Exeter Book riddles have two possible answers, one sexual, intended to make the audience blush, and one more “appropriate,” so to speak (see Riddles 25, 37, 44, 45, 54, 61, 62, and 87). So perhaps Riddle 95 also has two answers, “prostitute” and something less prone to make people blush. Ultimately, however, I don’t find this solution convincing because there is an important difference between the dual-answer riddles and Riddle 95: the sexual content in them is very explicit, even obvious, whereas in Riddle 95 it is difficult to see. That is, if the sexual content is really there at all.

Waxing half-moon over water

A very nice image of the moon from Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Ready to read the riddle again? This time, the solution to keep in mind is Moon. As lord of the night sky, the moon could certainly be called indryhten (noble; 1a). It is seen by the rich and poor alike, and when the morning comes, it fades, hiding its tracks (15-16). Frederick Tupper Jr., the strongest supporter of the “moon” solution, points to a number of similarities between this riddle and Riddle 29 (page 104). In both riddles, Tupper observes, the moon is famous, known to all who live on the earth; in both the moon possesses plunder or booty, which is another way of saying that the moon captures light from the sun; and in both the moon disappears from sight, in Riddle 95 hiding its tracks from those who would follow. Moreover, in both riddles the moon desires to settle comfortably in a burg (city) (try comparing lines 5b-6 to Riddle 29's lines 5-6).

This solution, besides fitting a number of the riddles’ details, has the added benefit of being a bit romantic, inviting us to picture a moonlit, starry night. But it is difficult to see what wisdom the moon is supposed to tell of or why wise men would cherish it (lines 7-9a), unless these lines somehow refer to the practice of astrology.

And now it’s time to read the riddle yet again, this time keeping in mind the solution Book. Craig Williamson, a strong supporter of this solution, argues that the hiþendra hyht (which he translates “plunderers’ joy”) refers to gold used as gilding on a book. According to Williamson the gold is the subject of fereð wide (travels far; 3b); it leaves its home (when it is mined) and, separated from its friends (other gold?), is taken far away to be used in book illumination. The idea of gold traveling may seem strange, but there may be a parallel in Riddle 83 (if gold is accepted as the solution). Finally, Riddle 95 says that the gold stondeð (literally “stands”) on the book, which probably means that the gold is gilded onto the pages.

Ornate cover of Lindisfarne Gospels

This decorative binding was added to the Lindisfarne Gospels in the 19th century, since the original treasure case went missing. Photo of London, British Library, Cotton Nero D IV © British Library.

If you’ve been reading the Exeter Book riddles in order, then by the time you get to the last lines of Riddle 95 you might experience déjà vu. That’s because the following of a last (track, footstep) or swaþu (track, trail, trace) is also mentioned in Riddles 26 (lines 7b-9a) and 51 (lines 2b-3a). The answers to these riddles (spoiler alert!) are likely a book or Bible and a quill pen, respectively. So given the link we’ve noticed between these riddles and Riddle 95, we can argue that the solution to Riddle 95 is probably also one of these.

So it’s time to – yes, you’ve guessed it – read the riddle again! This time we can imagine a Quill Pen as the solution. The ink is used to write books that are known to many people (lines 1-2). The hiþendra hyht (hope of plunderers) refers to the ink which is plundered by the pen. Or if the hope of plunderers is the subject of fereð wide (see Murphy’s rendering in the translation note), then it refers to the quill pen itself, a pen that fereð wide (travels widely) over the page as it writes, like a bird flying over the page. Murphy points out that Riddle 26 contains a similar kenning, fugles wyn (bird’s joy), which means a feather. This reading is given extra weight by the fact that a number of riddles, both Old English and Latin, associate birds with writing (for an Old English example see Riddle 26; for Latin examples see Aldhelm’s Riddle 59, Eusebius’ Riddle 35, and Tatwine’s Riddle 6).

There’s just one problem. If the answer to Riddle 95 is a book or a quill pen, why does it sometimes hide its tracks? These lines may refer to the fact that books, and writing in general, can sometimes be elitist, written in a way that only the learned can understand. And sometimes even the learned have trouble understanding what is written. Let’s face it – sometimes texts are confusing, whether they intend to be or not. And to find perfect examples, we need look no further than the Exeter Book riddles themselves. Multiple solutions, manuscript damage, translation difficulties, and cultural differences are just a few of the challenges that face readers of the Old English riddles. And what’s more, the riddle genre deliberately tries to trick its audience, adding an extra layer of difficulty.

The riddles are such a good example of hidden tracks that some have actually solved Riddle 95 as Riddle or Riddle Book. This solution is fitting for the last riddle in the Exeter Book collection, as it invites us to reflect on the nature of riddles. Riddles teach “wisdom” (line 9) by challenging the way we view the world. They encourage us to see a cuckoo as an orphan and an anchor as an exile, to see the suffering of a plough and the wisdom of ink, in short, to see the world afresh and anew, never settling for a “normal” perspective. The Old English riddles in particular invite us to read them again and again, partly because we don’t always agree on the solutions, but also because of the beauty of the poetry. A riddle offers joy to the plunderer (hiþendra hyht), even if we already know the solution.

Front panel of Franks Casket with runic inscription and engraved figures

An image of the delightfully enigmatic Franks Casket with its runic whale riddle from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY 2.0).


References and Suggested Reading:

Erhardt-Siebold, Erika von. “Old English Riddle No. 95.” Modern Language Notes, vol. 62 (1947), pages 558-9.

Kiernan, Kevin S. “Cwene: The Old Profession of Exeter Riddle 95.” Modern Philology, vol. 72, issue 4 (1975), pages 384-9.

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

Tupper, Frederick Jr. “Solutions of the Exeter Book Riddles.” Modern Language Notes, vol. 21, issue 4 (1906), pages 97-105.

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

Note that you may also wish to read this article, which was published after this commentary post was first written:

Bitterli, Dieter. "Exeter Book Riddle 95: ‘The Sun’, a New Solution." Anglia, vol. 137, issue 4 (2019), pages 612-38.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  brett roscoe  riddle 95 

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