Exeter Riddle 23 in Spanish / en Español


Date: Mon 05 Jul 2021

This Spanish translation of Riddle 23 from the Exeter Book is by Carlos M. Cepero. Carlos is an architect who was born, raised and lives in Rosario, Argentina. He studied English and German at and after school, is a ravenous reader and a declared Britophile. He is passionate about medieval literature, especially Old English and Old Norse literature. Thank you for your translation, Carlos!

Esta traducción al español del Acertijo 23 del Libro de Exeter es de Carlos M. Cepero. Carlos es un arquitecto que nació, creció y vive en Rosario, Argentina. Estudió inglés y alemán en y después de la escuela, es un lector voraz y un britófilo declarado. Es un apasionado de la literatura medieval, especialmente la literatura antigua inglesa y nórdica antigua. ¡Gracias por tu traducción, Carlos!

Original text:

Agof is min noma      eft onhwyrfed;
ic eom wrætlic wiht      on gewin sceapen. (1)
Þonne ic onbuge,      ond me of bosme fareð
ætren onga,     ic beom eallgearo
5     þæt ic me þæt feorhbealo     feor aswape.
Siþþan me se waldend,     se me þæt wite gescop,
leoþo forlæteð,     ic beo lengre þonne ær,
oþþæt ic spæte,      spilde geblonden,
ealfelo attor     þæt ic ær geap.
10     Ne togongeð þæs     gumena hwylcum,
ænigum eaþe      þæt ic þær ymb sprice,
gif hine hrineð     þæt me of hrife fleogeð,
þæt þone mandrinc      mægne geceapaþ,
fullwered fæste      feore sine.
15     Nelle ic unbunden      ænigum hyran
nymþe searosæled.     Saga hwæt ic hatte.


Ocra es my nombre del revés;
soy una maravillosa criatura, creada para la lid. (1)
Cuando soy arqueado, y de mi seno vuela
el ponzoñoso aguijón, estoy presto
5     a llevar lejos el mortal mal.
Cuando mi manipulador, que me destinó a ese tormento,
suelta mis miembros, soy más luengo que antes,
hasta que escupo, ciego de destrucción,
el maligno veneno que antes ingerí.
10     Eso de lo cual platico
no deja fácilmente indemne a nadie
a quien acaricie aquello que vuela de mi vientre;
tal es así que compra el veneno con su fortaleza,
una compensación pagada con su vida.
15     Suelto no obedeceré a nadie
salvo atado diestramente. Decid cómo me llamo.

Click to show riddle solution?
Un arco

(1) Se repite la misma frase formulaica que en el verso 1 del Acertijo 20 / The same formulaic phrase is repeated as in verse 1 of Riddle 20.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  old english  riddle 23  Carlos M. Cepero 

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Exeter Riddle 23

Commentary for Exeter Riddle 23


Date: Mon 26 May 2014
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 23

Erm…is anyone else a bit scared of whatever Riddle 23 is packing? I mean, I like heroic battling as much as the next person, but this poem is a tad intense. It’s also fairly easy to solve. In fact, the consensus that it refers to a bow (OE boga) is pretty strong.

Scene from Bayeux Tapestry

Can you spot the archer in this scene from the Bayeux Tapestry? Photo (by Gabriel Seah) from Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

According to Donald K. Fry, “Crossbow” and “Phallus” also get a shout out (p. 23), but since the first is a type of bow and the second is pretty horrific in this context, I won’t take an extended go at solutions. I will say, however, that the first line gives the game away. At least it does if you think really hard about it. Taking up the speaker’s recommendation to turn back the name Agof, we get Foga, which then needs to be corrected to Boga. This change requires us to speculate that a scribe copying out this poem was used to replacing “b”s with “f”s to suit her/his own pronunciation and spelling conventions (Williamson, pp. 204-5). Oh, early medieval England. You’re so complex.

More straightforward are all the references to poison in the poem. The venomous association of arrows is pretty strongly signaled, with references to an ætren onga (poisonous dart) at line 4a and ealfelo attor (terrible poison) at line 9a. In line 8b, the bow also refers to itself as spilde geblonden (debased by destruction), and we know from looking at (ge)blandan’s Dictionary of Old English (DOE) entries that we’re dealing with a liquid-y sort of blending or mixing that can also denote infection or taint. This liquidity (SUCH a good word!) is carried out in the poetic metaphor of the bow delivering a mandrinc (evil drink) at line 13a.

There’s also some debate about lines 13-14 in general and the term fullwer (compensation, i.e. “full wergild“) in specific. Noting that this word might not actually be a compound at all, the DOE offers a few options for translating this passage: “‘so that he pays for that evil drink with his strength, [pays] full compensation at once with his life,’ or, if the subject is wer (man) and full (cup) is the object of geceapaþ:‘the man pays for that evil drink with his strength, [for] the cup at once with his life.'” The “cup” reading works nicely with the poison, of course, but the rest of the poem’s connotations of crime and punishment make room for the “compensation” version.

So now you’re probably wondering: did early English folks actually poison the tips of their weapons? That’s a really good question. I don’t know about the archaeological record off the top of my head (homework!), but certainly there are other poetic references to poisoned points in The Battle of Maldon (see lines 46-7 and 145b-6a) and potentially Beowulf (see lines 1457-60a). Of course, the poison/bow motif might also relate to the fact that the yew used to make bows was poisonous. Here, we’ve got a nice little Anglo-Latin riddle in the way of Aldhelm of Malmesbury’s Enigma 69, De taxo (about the yew-tree) for a comparison. Lines 5-8 read:

Sed me pestiferam fecerunt fata reorum,
Cumque venenatus glescit de corpore stipes,
Lurcones rabidi quem carpunt rictibus oris,
Occido mandentum mox plura cadavera leto. (in Glorie)

(but the fates have made me deadly to the guilty. A poisonous branch grows from my body, and when pillagers, mad of mouth, seize it with open jaws, I soon wipe out many corpses of the chewers with death.)

This 7th/8th-century abbot, bishop and writer extraordinaire is a font of riddley knowledge on all sorts of topics. And his poem is proof that some early English folks knew that yew was a tad on the massively dangerous side (although there’s also an article by Lenore Abraham suggesting that yew wasn’t all that accessible in early medieval England). But that doesn’t seem to have stopped the figure on the right side of the 8th-century Franks Casket’s lid from shooting up the place:

Riddle 23 Franks Casket Lid

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

Since we’re doing a bit of Latin show-and-tell, let’s also take a look at another related riddle. Tatwine, the 8th-century Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote a pretty gosh-darn similar poem, called Enigma 34, De faretra (about the quiver). It goes a little something like this:

Omnes enim diris complent mea uiscera flammae
Nam me flamma ferox stimulis deuastat acerius
Vt pacis pia mox truculenter foedera frangam
Non tamen oblectat me sponte subire duellum. (in Glorie)

(Flames, terrible indeed, fill all my insides, for a bold fire lays waste to me with sharp spurs so that, wildly, I soon break faithful agreements of peace; nevertheless it does not delight me in myself to go to war.)

Well hello there, fiery flames! Aren’t you frequently linked to poison in Old English lit? (the answer is yes…yes they are). Of course, this quiver full of arrows isn’t creepily eager to get involved in the whole warfare thing. But I guess bows and quivers can be attributed with different personalities. I’m so tempted to draw you a picture of this. So tempted.

But I suppose I’ll stick to proper commentary this week.

What else should we notice about this poem? Well, did anyone catch that opening formula? Line 2b’s reference to being on gewin sceapen (shaped for battle) is – quite importantly – the same phrase that describes the sword in line 1b of Riddle 20. Weapons of the world, unite! Other linguistic cleverness can be seen at the very end of Riddle 23 in that little binding-pun. The tongue-in-cheek final flourish – Nelle ic unbunden ænigum hyran / nymþe searosæled (Unbound, I will not obey anyone unless skillfully tied) – is clearly a reference to both 1) the controlling sort of binding that one could inflict upon a living creature and 2) the stringing of a bow. Such a clever riddler.

I’m going to stop now, although I could go on. I could list the references to archery that come up in other brilliant early English texts. I could talk about that rather optimistic compound feorhbealu (deadly evil) and how it only occurs here and in Beowulf. I could remark that this bow’s ruler is clearly not a very nice fellow, with all his designing of distress (line 6b) and what-not. But I’m quite tired. And I need to go buy milk.


References and Suggested Reading:

Abraham, Lenore. “The Devil, the Yew Bow, and the Saxon Archer.” Proceedings of the PMR Conference, vol. 16-17 (1992-3), pages 1-12.

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!]

Fry, Donald K. “Exeter Book Riddle Solutions.” Old English Newsletter, vol. 15 (1981), pages 22-33.

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

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 23 

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Exeter Riddle 24


Date: Tue 03 Jun 2014
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 24

Righto, folks…we’ve got runes again this week. If you can’t see the runes in the Old English riddle below, scroll down for a screen shot at the bottom of the post.

Original text:

Ic eom wunderlicu wiht,      wræsne mine stefne,
hwilum beorce swa hund,     hwilum blæte swa gat,
hwilum græde swa gos,    hwilum gielle swa hafoc,
hwilum ic onhyrge     þone haswan earn,
5     guðfugles hleoþor,     hwilum glidan reorde
muþe gemæne,     hwilum mæwes song,
þær ic glado sitte.     . ᚷ. mec nemnað,
swylce . ᚫ. ond . ᚱ.      . ᚩ. fullesteð,
. ᚻ. ond . ᛁ .     Nu ic haten eom
10     swa þa siex stafas      sweotule becnaþ.


I am a wondrous creature, I vary my voice,
sometimes I bark like a dog, sometimes I bleat like a goat,
sometimes I bellow like a goose, sometimes I yell like a hawk,
sometimes I echo the ashy eagle,
5     the noise of the war-bird, sometimes the voice of the kite
I convey from my mouth, sometimes the gull’s song,
where I sit gladly. G they call me,
likewise Æ and R. O helps,
H and I. Now I am named
10     as those six characters clearly connote.

Click to show riddle solution?
Jay, Magpie, Woodpecker


This riddle appears on folio 106v 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 192-3.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 22: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), page 82.

Screen shot for the runes:
Riddle 24 with runes

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 24 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 24


Date: Sun 15 Jun 2014
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 24

People who know me will be aware that barely concealed beneath my ruthlessly sharp academic persona is a crazy cat lady begging to come out and play. Not just a cat lady, in fact: an all-the-cute-animals-all-the-time lady. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this in past posts, but it’s about to become very apparent indeed. That’s because Riddle 24 – my new favourite – has references to not one fluffy creature, not even two fluffy creatures, but SEVEN FLUFFY CREATURES!!! Yes, I’m including all the birds in this category, because baby birds are basically the best things ever.

Goose and goslings

A goose and a million goslings. Did you know when you google “gosling” all you get is a whole lot of Ryan? Photo (author: Dhinakaran Gajavarathan) from Wikimedia Commons.


Aside from its compendium of animal noises, other special features of this week’s riddle include: a runic cypher and a narrative structure to rival that of the children’s classic, See Spot Run (just kidding).

But I’m sure you’re all dying to know the solution first. Well it turns out it isn’t so very hard to figure out if you know your runes and your Old English (and who doesn’t these days?). When we translate all the runes into the alphabet that you and I are more familiar with, we get: G, Æ, R, O, H and I. I should say that rather than a runic ᚷ (G), the manuscript actually contains the letter “x,” but editors like Craig Williamson (p. 207-9) reckon that can be marked down to a bit of scribal confusion (considering the poem lumps it in with þa siex stafas (those six characters)). So, what’s a GÆROHI? Sounds cool! But in fact it means absolutely nothing. However, if you switch the letters around enough times, you’ll end up with “higoræ” and that is most certainly a something. The specific something that it is: is a “jay” (probably).

A spelling variant of the Old English nouns higera (boy birdies) and higere (girl birdies), what we’re dealing with here is a winged creature famous for being able to mimic the sounds that other animals (and things) make. Of course, as a close relation to the (also mimicky) magpie, there has been a bit of confusion and disagreement amongst scholars. The ever-so-clever Dieter Bitterli points out that an early English glossary can clear this up for us (pp. 91-7). Old English for “magpie” seems to be agu. Of course, there’s always the possibility of having more than one word for a concept, a position that’s strengthened by the fact that Latin pica can mean either “jay” or “magpie.” How about we make things more complicated? The similarity of the Latin word picus (woodpecker) has at least once confused an early medieval translator who glossed it with higera instead of the more usual Old English fina. But it seems unlikely that the bird in this riddle is a woodpecker because woodpeckers don’t mimic…they peck. SO: we’re probably looking at a jay. Or maybe a magpie. And it’s the fault of the Old English gloss of Latin picus that woodpecker’s also in the mix.

There was also at least one kinda cray cray suggestion made well over a hundred years ago now. Emma Sonke suggested (in German, so some of you won’t be able to check up on me!) that the poem refers to an actor who mimics animal and bird sounds. Sort of like a medieval Michael Winslow (i.e. the guy from Police Academy who made all the fun noises: here have a NINE MINUTE video of him).

But in general, the fact that the runes spell out a word in Old English means solution-squabbling is not so common for this riddle. “If not solutions, then what else can you tell us, Megan?” I hear you cry. Well…I could fill up the rest of this post with pictures of the animals it names. There’s a barky dog:

Irish Wolfhound from side

I have no idea what early medieval dogs looked like. I’m guessing like this. Photo (author: Dux) from the Wikimedia Commons.


There’s a bleaty goat:


Mommy and baby goats! Photo (author: Jason Pratt) from the Wikimedia Commons.


There’s a bellowy goose, but I already showed you tons of those.

There’s a yelly hawk:

Hawk and chicks

Red-tailed hawks. Photo (author: Thomas O’Neil) from the Wikimedia Commons.


There’s an ashy eagle:

Golden eagle

The most golden of eagles. Photo (author: Tony Hisgett) from Wikimedia Commons.


There’s a vocal kite:


Kite in flight. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.


And there’s a singy gull:

Gull on snow

Snow-gull! Photo (author: jomilo75) from Wikimedia Commons.


“You’re just being lazy, Megan!” I hear the particularly annoying ones among you yelling. “You can’t fill up a whole blog post with pictures of (modern) animals!” (just watch me…just you watch me). Well, I suppose you might be right. I suppose I ought to say things like “boy, isn’t there an awful lot of hwilum-anaphora going on here!” But you wouldn’t like that, would you? (P.S. “anaphora” means repeating the same word at the start of successive clauses).

But I’ve had a card hidden up my sleeve the whole time. I know what you prolly will like. Beasts of battle! I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned these in a previous post, but Old English (and other early Germanic) poets love gross, gory birds and wolves that swoop down on battles and clean up the mess (by eating people). These are pretty horrid, really, but they’re an important part of the poetics of the time. So when you see an eagle, raven or wolf in the poetry, it’s generally quite a bad sign. This poem makes the link very clear by calling the ashy eagle (a lot of eagles are described by the indistinctive colour-term hasu in OE poetry) a guðfugol (war-bird). No folks, this isn’t a military plane we’ve got here, but a literal bird-of-war. We can compare the compound to guðhafoc (war-hawk) at line 64a of The Battle of Brunanburh and herefugol at line 162b of Exodus. So next time you’re out at the park, enjoying a bit of sun, taking the air, maybe having a little walk, remember that eagles want to eat you. Maybe you can stave them off by reciting this poem to them.

Good luck with that.

Over and out.


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.

Sonke, Emma. “Zu dem 25. Rätsel des Exeterbuches.” Englische Studien, vol. 37 (1907), pages 313-18.

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 24 

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Exeter Riddle 25


Date: Thu 26 Jun 2014
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 25
Original text:

Ic eom wunderlicu wiht,     wifum on hyhte,
neahbuendum nyt;     nængum sceþþe
burgsittendra,     nymþe bonan anum.
Staþol min is steapheah,     stonde ic on bedde,
5     neoþan ruh nathwær.     Neþeð hwilum
ful cyrtenu     ceorles dohtor,
modwlonc meowle,     þæt heo on mec gripeð,
ræseð mec on reodne,     reafað min heafod,
fegeð mec on fæsten.     Feleþ sona
10     mines gemotes, seo þe mec nearwað,
wif wundenlocc.     Wæt bið þæt eage.


I am a wondrous creature, a joy to women,
a help to neighbours; I harm none
of the city-dwellers, except for my killer.
My base is steep and high, I stand in a bed,
5     shaggy somewhere beneath. Sometimes ventures
the very beautiful daughter of a churl,
a maid proud in mind, so that she grabs hold of me,
rubs me to redness, ravages my head,
forces me into a fastness. Immediately she feels
10     my meeting, the one who confines me,
the curly-locked woman. Wet will be that eye.

Click to show riddle solution?
Onion, leek, mustard, phallus, etc.


This riddle appears on folios 106v-107r 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 193.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 23: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), page 82.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 25 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 25


Date: Thu 03 Jul 2014
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 25

Just a little content warning to begin with. If you’ve already read Riddle 25’s translation, you’re probably aware that there’s some pretty obvious body humour going on in this poem. So prepare yourself to read the word “phallus” more times in one post than perhaps you would prefer.


(I did warn you)

So, Riddle 25, eh? What might the solution be? According to Donald K. Fry’s list of riddle solutions, this poem has been interpreted as: Hemp, Leek, Onion, Rosehip, Mustard and Phallus (p. 23). Onion, the Old English for which is cipe or cipeleac, has the most supporters.

Uprooted red onions on ground

This is what an onion looks like, for those of you who don’t know. Photo (author: Stephen Ausmus) from Wikimedia Commons.

The onion plant’s shape explains the riddle’s reference to a steapheah (literally, “steep-high”) staþol (foundation/base). I’m not entirely certain how you can have a “steep” foundation, although I’ve gone with editors Krapp and Dobbie here. This line would perhaps make a little more sense if we emend to stapol (pillar/shaft), as suggested by Andy Orchard (among others) in his forthcoming riddle edition for the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. He notes that line 927a of Beowulf similarly reads staþole in the manuscript, where stapole would make more sense. So, yeah: a really steep…erect, even…shaft would make this poem’s clear phallic undertones (overtones?) even more pronounced. The verses immediately following this possible emendation refer to standing in a bed (bed of hair? bed of veggies? bed of sexcapades? or all of the above?) and to a lower roughness or shagginess that similarly signifies both the onion’s roots and hair in the nether regions. “Nether regions”: a term that is simultaneously hilarious and kind of gross. Alright, poet, we get it: vegetables are a bit rude (Blackadder, much?). So rude, in fact, that years ago one of my housemates taped a print-out of suggestively-shaped vegetables to her bedroom door in order to irritate her next-door neighbour. It worked.

Of course, all of the above descriptions could equally refer to other veggies. The leek is also a contender:

Uprooted leeks on table

Leeks look a bit like green onions or shallots, but don’t taste as delicious. Fact. Photo (author: Björn König) from Wikimedia Commons.

But do leeks make you cry? (this is an honest question…I don’t really cook…ever…so I don’t know) Because the final half-line’s Wæt bið þæt eage (Wet will be that eye) seems to be playing with similarities between sex-related and non-sex-related wetness. According to the onion-reading, we’re dealing with actual eyes tearing up whilst chopping particularly aggressive vegetables (this is where the eye-wateringly strong mustard-interpretation comes in too). According to the phallus-reading…well (how to put this delicately?), we’re dealing with semen. I hope you can figure out precisely how that works for yourself.

This riddle also offers us a great deal to talk about beyond all the double entendre. For example, anyone who’s interested in gender and sexuality has a lot to sort through here. Yes, the suggestive, phallic solution relates to man parts, but the poem also hands us a pretty interesting picture of a sexually assertive woman. LOTS of people have written on this topic (see Davis, Hermann, Kim, Shaw and Whitehurst Williams, for example), so of course there’s disagreement about whether or not the poem judges the woman’s assertiveness – perhaps even aggressiveness, given how grabby those hands seem to be. It has been noted that she’s a ceorles dohtor (daughter of a churl/freeman), and so her aggressive approach may be linked to class prejudices (see Tanke).

I’ve also already spent some time thinking about the interesting hair-compound wundenlocc that the poem uses to describe the woman in the final line. I have a note on this, which you can access here (scroll down to my name). To sum that essay up: past scholarship can’t seem to agree on whether or not wundenlocc means “curly” or “braided” hair. A minor point, perhaps, but contentious enough to cause all sorts of divergent readings. However, given that Riddle 40 translates a Latin poem that describes the use of a curling iron with references to (ge)wundne loccas, I think “curly” hair is a better reading. I do note in that essay (p. 124, fn. 15) that Patrick Murphy (pp. 230-3) points out interesting parallels in the much later oral riddles collected by Archer Taylor (p. 196). Some of these riddles involve veggies with braided hair. Because of this and because of the grammatical ambiguity of these lines, Murphy argues that the wif wundenlocc is not just the grabby-handed woman, but also the onion itself. Now there’s some food for thought.

But who cares about hair? I’m sure some of you are thinking that. I mean, does it really matter? Well, yes, I think. Hair is culturally significant. In fact, Philip Shaw’s discussion of verbal parallels between Riddle 25 and Judith (a versification of the famous apocryphal story about a woman who decapitated the leader of an invading army) is concerned with precisely this. According to Shaw, hair is situated “within a rich intertextual matrix of ideas about Christianity versus heathenism” (p. 350). And such issues of religious identity are, of course, one of the big concerns of Old English literature. This puts hair (and onions, I guess) at the forefront of the entire field of study. Okay, that might be a slight exaggeration, but I do hope that it makes you think twice next time you see the smirking face of an actor whipping her/his hair about in a Pantene commercial. Cultural significance, people.



References and Suggested Reading:

If you want to know more about Anglo-Saxon approaches to sex, you should check out Christopher Monk’s work here.

Cavell, Megan. “Old English ‘Wundenlocc’ Hair in Context.” Medium Ævum, vol. 82 (2013), pages 119-25.

Davis, Glenn. “The Exeter Book Riddles and the Place of Sexual Idiom.” In Medieval Obscenities. Edited by Nicola McDonald. York: York Medieval Press, 2006, pages 39-54.

Fry, Donald K. “Exeter Book Riddle Solutions.” Old English Newsletter, vol. 15, issue 1 (1981), pages 22-33.

Hermann, John P. Allegories of War: Language and Violence in Old English Poetry. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1989 (page 191 onward).

Kim, Susan. “Bloody Signs: Circumcision and Pregnancy in the Old English Judith.” Exemplaria, vol. 11, issue 2 (Fall 1999), pages 285-307.

Murphy, Patrick J. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2011, pages 203, 222, and 230-3.

Shaw, Philip. “Hair and Heathens: Picturing Pagans and the Carolingian Connection in the Exeter Book and Beowulf-Manuscript.” In Texts and Identities in the Early Middle Ages. Edited by Richard Corradini, Rob Meens, Christina Pössel and Philip Shaw. Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters, vol. 12 (Vienna: Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2006), pages 345-57.

Tanke, John W. “Wonfeax wale: Ideology and Figuration in the Sexual Riddles of the Exeter Book.” In Class and Gender in Early English Literature: Intersections. Edited by Britton J. Harwood and Gillian R. Overing. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994, pages 21-42.

Taylor, Archer. English Riddles from Oral Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951.

Whitehurst Williams, Edith. “What’s so New about the Sexual Revolution? Some Comments on Anglo-Saxon Attitudes toward Sexuality in Women based on Four Exeter Book Riddles.” Texas Quarterly, vol. 18, issue 2 (1975), pages 46–55 (reprinted in New Readings on Women in Old English Literature, edited by Helen Damico and Alexandra Hennessey Olsen. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990, pages 137-45).

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 25 

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Exeter Riddle 26


Date: Mon 11 Aug 2014
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 26
Original text:

Mec feonda sum      feore besnyþede,
woruldstrenga binom,      wætte siþþan,
dyfde on wætre,      dyde eft þonan,
sette on sunnan,      þær ic swiþe beleas
5     herum þam þe ic hæfde.      Heard mec siþþan
snað seaxses ecg,      sindrum begrunden;
fingras feoldan,      ond mec fugles wyn
geond speddropum      spyrede geneahhe,
ofer brunne brerd,      beamtelge swealg,
10     streames dæle,      stop eft on mec,
siþade sweartlast.      Mec siþþan wrah
hæleð hleobordum,      hyde beþenede,
gierede mec mid golde;      forþon me gliwedon
wrætlic weorc smiþa,      wire bifongen.
15     Nu þa gereno      ond se reada telg
ond þa wuldorgesteald      wide mære
dryhtfolca helm,      nales dol wite.
Gif min bearn wera      brucan willað,
hy beoð þy gesundran      ond þy sigefæstran,
20     heortum þy hwætran      ond þy hygebliþran,
ferþe þy frodran,      habbaþ freonda þy ma,
swæsra ond gesibbra,      soþra ond godra,
tilra ond getreowra,      þa hyra tyr ond ead
estum ycað      ond hy arstafum
25     lissum bilecgað      ond hi lufan fæþmum
fæste clyppað.      Frige hwæt ic hatte,
niþum to nytte.      Nama min is mære,
hæleþum gifre      ond halig sylf.


A certain enemy robbed me of my life,
stole my world-strength; afterward he soaked me,
dunked me in water, dragged me out again,
set me in the sun, where I swiftly lost
5     the hairs that I had. Afterward the hard
edge of a knife, with all unevenness ground away, slashed me;
fingers folded, and the bird’s joy
[spread] over me with worthwhile drops, often made tracks,
over the bright border, swallowed tree-dye,
10     a portion of the stream, stepped again on me,
journeyed, leaving behind a dark track. Afterward a hero
encircled me with protective boards, covered me with hide,
garnished me with gold; therefore the wonderful
work of smiths glitters on me, surrounded by wire.
15     Now those ornaments and the red dye
and that wondrous dwelling widely worship
the protector of the people, not at all foolish in wisdom.
If the children of men wish to enjoy me,
they will be the more sound and the more victory-fast,
20     the bolder in heart and the more blithe in mind,
the wiser in spirit, they will have more friends,
dear and near, faithful and good,
upright and true; then their glory and prosperity
will increase with favour and lay down
25     goodwill and kindness and in the grasp of love
clasp firmly. Find what I am called,
useful to men. My name is famous,
handy to heroes and holy in itself.

Click to show riddle solution?
Book, Bible, Gospel Book


This riddle appears on folios 107r-107v 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 193-4.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 24: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), pages 82-3.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 26 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 26


Date: Fri 22 Aug 2014
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 26

Let me warn you now: I’m sick and I might be contagious. Oh wait…this is the internet, and that’s not how germs work. Still, if this commentary comes across as particularly grumpy or incoherent, now you know why.

So, Riddle 26, eh? Straight from the inappropriate touching of root vegetables to animal martyrs and religious book-making in one fell swoop…no one ever said the Exeter Book compiler was a person of limited interests. “But why, oh why, are you so sure we’re dealing with religious book-making?” you might ask. My un-sick self would probably answer something like “What a good question. Let’s take a look at the scholarship.” My sick self, on the other hand, is going to reply thusly: “Because I bothered to read the riddle, and it’s soooooooooo obvious, and everyone else agrees with me anyway, you cheeky imaginary questioner, you.” Then I might stop to realize that I’m having this debate in my head and you, real-life readers, were probably on the same page as me the whole time. Sigh.

Anyway, let’s all stop arguing with myself and look at the details of the solution. I’ve listed Book, Bible and Gospel Book, although Hide has also been suggested in the past. Of course, we’re dealing with a period when book-making involved using the skins of animals (sheep, goats, cows, etc.), so all four of these solutions are really interconnected.

Parchment being stretched on a racks

Here’s a photo of parchment drying in Pergamena’s workshop from April Hannah Llewellyn’s (no longer live) website.

The question is, then, whether we’re dealing with a particularly religious book or not. Well, the reference to the ornamentation of the book being used to worship the dryhtfolca helm (protector of the people) in lines 16b-17a does seem to imply a Christian context. If you’re not convinced, then perhaps the even more strongly religious implications of the final line and a half will change your mind: Nama min is mære, / hæleþum gifre ond halig sylf (My name is famous, / handy to heroes and holy in itself). So, it’s a religious book then (case closed!). But why quibble between Bible and Gospel Book? Because it seems that complete Bibles were fairly rare in early medieval England (see Niles, pages 118-19). This is not to say that the early English didn’t have access to biblical texts (whether in Old English or in Latin). Of course they did! It’s just that they didn’t necessarily all travel together in a tidy package. That’s why Gospel Book, or godspell-boc in Old English (or Cristes boc, as Niles solves it on page 141), is a solid suggestion.

Illuminated manuscript

Here is a VERY PRETTY picture of an 8th-century Latin gospel book known as the Codex Aureus of Canterbury (folios 9v and 10r). Photo (by David Stapleton (Dsmdgold) from Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

But let’s look a bit more at the contents of the poem. The first thing that strikes me and likely strikes most people (probably since it’s…well…the first thing we read) is the nastiness of the opening lines. In identifying with whichever animal provided the raw material, the speaker accuses the book-maker of being feonda sum (a certain enemy) who robs and steals the animal’s life and strength. This may sound a bit out of place for a religious text: shouldn’t those who practice this religion believe the book’s making is a happy thing? Well, maybe in other cultures and literary traditions, but in early medieval England, I assure you that the tone is spot on. Not only is the movement from alive/free to dead/in service a common Old English riddling trope, but it also speaks to a broader interest in affliction throughout early medieval literature. To put it simply, Old English poets love a good martyr. In this literary context, if you aren’t suffering, then you probably aren’t doing it right. So, even though it might make a modern audience a bit uncomfortable to think that the clerical types making books and writing this poetry down were very much aware of the sacrifice that their enterprise required, it really does provide an excellent window into early medieval culture. Of course, biblical and apocryphal narratives are full of suffering and sacrifice, so why shouldn’t the manuscript that contains them be?

Manuscript open on cushion

A 8th/9th-century Italian medical manuscript, Glasgow University, Hunterian Library, MS Hunter 96 (own photo, with thanks to the library).

Speaking of manuscripts, how’s about a little intro to medieval book-making? Well, you really need look no further than the images of Riddle 26. K, maybe a little bit further, but that was a classy sentence and I reserve the right to include classy sentences in my writing from time to time. But, seriously, from the second line of the poem, we have a list of processes involved in making a manuscript. The soaking refers to the water and lime bath that helps loosen the skin’s hairs and fat. After scraping these away, the skin would be stretched on a frame and smoothed. When ready, it would be cut and folded, ruled and written on. This is where we get the lovely image of the fugles wyn (bird’s joy) making tracks upon the speaker. This little riddle within the riddle points toward the quill pen used for writing. We also have references to tracks in other, related riddles from early medieval England like Tatwine’s Latin Enigma 5, De membrano:

Efferus exuviis populator me spoliavit,
Vitalis pariter flatus spiramina dempsit;
In planum me iterum campum sed verterat auctor.
Frugiferos cultor sulcos mox irrigat undis;
Omnigenam nardi messem mea prata rependunt,
Qua sanis victum et lesis praestabo medelam.
(Glorie, vol. 133, page 172)

(A savage ravager robbed me of my clothing, and likewise deprived my pores of the breath of life; but a craftsman turned me into a level plain again. A cultivator soon irrigates fertile furrows with waves; my meadows render a harvest of balsam of every kind, with which I will supply nourishment to the healthy and healing to the sick.)

But the Old English text pays much closer attention to the nitty-gritty of book-making. After the preparation of the manuscript and writing of the text, the riddle alludes to additional steps: the stitched up gatherings of folded manuscript pages (or leaves) would be bound to the front and back boards and covered in leather. The riddle’s manuscript is also blinged out beyond mere functionality. It’s covered in gold and intricate metalwork. This sort of fancy-pants decoration was generally reserved for biblical and liturgical books in early medieval England (see Bitterli, page 177). There are lots and lots of lovely images of ornamented books available online, but check out the 12th-century Eadwine Psalter on Trinity College, Cambridge’s website for a particularly user-friendly, scrollable one that includes the front and back covers.

There’s lots more to say about this riddle’s style, diction, poetics, etc., but I think I’m going to leave it there. Mainly because I’m giving you homework! (I think you and I knew it would come to this eventually). Luckily for you, the homework is fun and optional! If you want to learn more about medieval book history, then I strongly suggest that you trot on over to the University of Nottingham’s website and take advantage of the resources (videos! photos! links!) provided on the materials and processes involved in manuscripting. I’ve just coined that verb. Or verbed that noun, rather. Which seems to me a good place to say good-bye for now. Go do your homework.


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.

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

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

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 26 

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Exeter Riddle 27


Date: Tue 26 Aug 2014
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 27

This week’s riddle comes to us from Wendy Hennequin (you may remember Wendy from Riddle 17). She has provided us with a poetic translation (and a few notes), as well as a prose translation. You’ll have to scroll all the way down to find the possible solutions. Take it away, Wendy!

Original text:

Ic eom weorð werum,      wide funden,
brungen of bearwum      ond of burghleoþum,
of denum ond of dunum.     Dæges mec wægun
feþre on lifte,      feredon mid liste
5     under hrofes hleo.      Hæleð mec siþþan
baþedan in bydene.      Nu ic eom bindere
ond swingere,      sona weorpe
esne to eorþan,      hwilum ealdne ceorl.
Sona þæt onfindeð,      se þe mec fehð ongean,
10     ond wið mægenþisan     minre genæsteð,
þæt he hrycge sceal      hrusan secan,
gif he unrædes     ær ne geswiceð,
strengo bistolen,      strong on spræce,
mægene binumen;      nah his modes geweald,
15     fota ne folma.     Frige hwæt ic hatte,
ðe on eorþan swa      esnas binde,
dole æfter dyntum     be dæges leohte.


Poetic translation:

I am worthy to folk,    and found widely,
brought from forests      and fortress-hills,
from dales and from downs.      By day, feathers
brought me by craft,      carried me aloft
5     under house-roof’s shelter.     Heroes afterwards
bathed me in barrels.      Binder now I am,
striker and scourger (1),    and soon, hurler
of old freemen     even to the earth.
Who seizes me    and seeks to challenge
10     my mighty strength    soon will discover
that he must find the earth     flat on his back.
Unless he ceases earlier   to seek folly.
Stolen his might—      though strong his speech—
no power he has    of hands nor of feet
15     of mind or of soul (2).      Say what I am called (3),
who alone on earth,    by light of day,
so binds fellows (4)    with folly and blows.

Prose translation:

I am worthy to men, found widely, brought from the woods and fort-hills, from dales and mountains; wings carried me aloft by day, brought with skill under the roof’s shelter. Afterwards, heroes bathed me in a bucket. Now I am binder, striker, and soon, thrower of an old churl even to the earth. He who seizes me and against my might contends—soon finds that he must seek the earth with his back if he doesn’t leave off his folly beforehand. Stolen his strength, strong his speech, deprived of might, he does not have the possession of mind, feet, or hands. Learn what am I called, who on earth so binds men, foolish (or with folly) after blows, by day’s light.

Click to show riddle solution?
Mead, Whip, Sleep


This riddle appears on folio 107v 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 194.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 25: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), pages 83-4.

Translation Notes

  • (1) There is only one word in the original, swingere, which can mean both striker and scourger. I use both meanings, as variations of each other, to fill the half-line.
  • (2) Line 14b of the original, when translated into modern English, has three stresses and had to be split between lines 14a and 15a of my translation. In order to fit the poem poetically into its original number of lines, I eliminated the variation in the original riddle’s line 14a.
  • (3) Instead of the familiar tag line, “saga hwæt ic hatte,” which appears in Riddle 19, among others, Riddle 27 says, “frige hwæt ic hatte,” “learn by asking what I am called.” I’ve reverted to the more familiar formula to match the alliteration.
  • (4) The original’s esnas seems to mean a man of lower social class: Clark-Hall defines the word esne as “labourer, slave, servant, retainer: youth, man” (esne, 107). It is difficult to convey this connotation in Modern English without resorting to old-fashioned words such as “peasant.”

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 27 

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Exeter Riddle 27 in Spanish / en Español


Date: Tue 22 Jun 2021

Dr. José Antonio Alonso Navarro holds a PhD in English Philology from the Coruña University (Spain) and a BA in English Philology from the Complutense University of Madrid (Spain). Currently, Alonso Navarro is a Full Professor of History of the English Language at the National University of Asuncion (Paraguay). His main interest revolves around the translation of Middle English texts into Spanish. Needless to say, he is also very enthusiastic about Old English riddles.

El Dr. José Antonio Alonso Navarro es Doctor en Filología Inglesa por la Universidad de La Coruña (España) y Licenciado en Filología Inglesa por la Universidad Complutense de Madrid (España). Actualmente, Alonso Navarro es Catedrático de Historia de la Lengua Inglesa en la Universidad Nacional de Asunción (Paraguay). Su principal interés gira en torno a la traducción de textos del inglés medio al español. No hace falta decir que también está muy entusiasmado con los acertijos en inglés antiguo.

Original text:

Ic eom weorð werum,      wide funden,
brungen of bearwum      ond of burghleoþum,
of denum ond of dunum.     Dæges mec wægun
feþre on lifte,      feredon mid liste
5     under hrofes hleo.      Hæleð mec siþþan
baþedan in bydene.      Nu ic eom bindere
ond swingere,      sona weorpe
esne to eorþan,      hwilum ealdne ceorl.
Sona þæt onfindeð,      se þe mec fehð ongean,
10     ond wið mægenþisan     minre genæsteð,
þæt he hrycge sceal      hrusan secan,
gif he unrædes     ær ne geswiceð,
strengo bistolen,      strong on spræce,
mægene binumen;      nah his modes geweald,
15     fota ne folma.     Frige hwæt ic hatte,
ðe on eorþan swa      esnas binde,
dole æfter dyntum     be dæges leohte.

Yo soy de valor para los hombres, hallado por todas partes, traído de los bosques y de las pendientes montañosas, de los valles y de las colinas. De día las alas me llevaron en lo alto, y me transportaron con destreza bajo la protección de un techo. Después, los hombres me bañaron en un recipiente. Ahora yo ato y azoto; y a veces con rapidez arrojo a la tierra ora a un sirviente joven ora a un viejo campesino. En seguida aquel descubre que quien lucha contra mí y combate contra mi fuerza contundente con la espalda dará en la tierra si no desiste antes de su necio plan. Privado de la fuerza, poderoso de palabra, arrebatado el vigor, no ejerce ya el control de la mente ni de los pies ni de las manos. Pregunta cómo me llaman a mí que en la tierra ato así a los hombres necios después de golpearlos a la mañana siguiente.
Click to show riddle solution?

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  old english  riddle 27  José Antonio Alonso Navarro 

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Exeter Riddle 27

Commentary for Exeter Riddle 27


Date: Tue 02 Sep 2014
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 27

Here’s Wendy Hennequin‘s follow-up to her translation:


The general consensus about Riddle 27 is that the solution is “mead” (Tupper Jr., page 132; Rodrigues, page 131; Niles, page 135). Tupper and Rodrigues note that whip and sleep have also been proposed (pages 132; 131). Niles has recently proposed a double solution: “nectar (honey-dew) and mead” to account for both the first part of the poem regarding the origins of honey and the second part of the riddle, which describes mead’s effects (pages 135-36). Certainly, Niles is correct in identifying two parts of the riddle—a sort of “before and after.” At first, the mysterious object is found everywhere: mountains, valleys, woods, and cities. Then, afterwards, the object fells men. The transition between these two stages is the bath in a barrel (or bucket). The other proposed solutions, whip and sleep, do not account for that transition.


Here’s a picture of some home-brewed honey-fruit mead. Photo (by Evan-Amos) from Wikimedia Commons.

Except for Niles’ very brief discussion of word play in Riddle 27 (pages 135-36), I have not found any critical discussion of Riddle 27. Only a few of the Exeter Book Riddles have been examined extensively beyond the search for their solutions and their relationships to other riddles, Latin or Old Norse. [editorial note: Elinor Teele’s PhD thesis does devote a section to this riddle, but it is — very unfortunately — not widely available. If you are ever in Cambridge, a trip to the University Library to read it is highly recommended]

I am struck, however, by the image of the riddle’s object being a scourger, a hurler. This image is noteworthy not only for its vividness, but for its repetition: we are told twice that the riddle’s object can knock people flat on their backs. This wrestling imagery brings to mind the Snorri Sturluson’s Old Norse story of Thor’s journey to the house of Útgarða-Loki. While there, Thor wrestles an old woman named Elli in order to prove his strength and prowess. Elli forces him to kneel even though Thor is the god of strength (Sturluson, pages 44-45). Elli turns out to be Old Age. (Kevin Crossley-Holland retells this story as “Thor’s Journey to Utgard” in The Norse Myths; the story has also appeared frequently in children’s books). Elli, like the mead in the riddle, can fell anyone, “for there never has been anyone, and there never will be anyone, if they get so old that they experience old age, that old age will not bring them all down” (Sturluson, page 45).

In contrast, Riddle 27 emphasizes that overindulgence in mead is foolish (lines 12 and 17) and that it is a choice. We don’t have to wrestle with mead: we can stop seeking folly before it’s too late (line 12). Elli’s victory is inevitable. But mead wins only when we allow it. This emphasis on the imprudence of getting drunk—and that getting drunk is a choice—may indicate something of the early English attitude towards alcohol and drunkenness. Certainly, poems like Beowulf and The Wanderer tell us that sharing mead was an integral part of the communal culture of the comitatus (war-band) and the mead hall. But Riddle 27’s portrayal of drunkenness as folly and defeat, and its invocation of an image of defeat by an old woman, tells us that early medieval culture did not consider intoxication an inevitable part of mead sharing but rather as an unfortunate and foolish loss of self-control that leads to the defeat of one’s body and senses—if one is lucky. For some of Hrothgar’s thanes in Beowulf are not so lucky: their drunken boasts to defeat Grendel lead to their deaths (lines 480-87). Certainly, Riddle 27 emphasizes a metaphorical and temporary defeat: the loss of physical and mental control while intoxicated. But in a world of feuds and Viking incursions (let alone mythical monster attacks), a drunk warrior might well suffer a more permanent and lethal defeat if he chose to fall to the power of mead.


References and Suggested Reading:

Beowulf. Ed. Francis Klaeber. 3rd ed. Lexington, Massachusetts: D.C. Heath, 1950.

Crossley-Holland, Kevin. The Norse Myths. New York: Pantheon, 1980.

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

Rodrigues, Louis J. Sixty-five Anglo-Saxon Riddles. 2nd ed. Felinfach, Wales: Llanerch, 1998.

Sturluson, Snorri. Edda. Ed. and trans. Anthony Faulkes. London: Everyman / J.M. Dent, 2002.

Teele, Elinor. “The Heroic Tradition in the Old English Riddles.” Diss. University of Cambridge, 2004.

Tupper, Frederick, Jr., ed. and introduction. The Riddles of the Exeter Book. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1968.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 27  wendy hennequin 

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Exeter Riddle 28


Date: Tue 09 Sep 2014
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 28
Original text:

Biþ foldan dæl      fægre gegierwed
mid þy heardestan      ond mid þy scearpestan
ond mid þy grymmestan      gumena gestreona,
corfen, sworfen,      cyrred, þyrred,
5     bunden, wunden,      blæced, wæced,
frætwed, geatwed,      feorran læded
to durum dryhta.      Dream bið in innan
cwicra wihta,      clengeð, lengeð,
þara þe ær lifgende      longe hwile
10     wilna bruceð      ond no wið spriceð,
ond þonne æfter deaþe      deman onginneð,
meldan mislice.      Micel is to hycganne
wisfæstum menn,      hwæt seo wiht sy.


A portion of the earth is garnished beautifully
with the hardest and sharpest
and fiercest of treasures of men,
cut, filed, turned, dried,
5     bound, wound, bleached, weakened,
adorned, equipped, led far
to the doors of men. The joy of living beings
is within it, it remains, it lasts,
that which, while alive, enjoys itself
10     for a long time and does not speak against their wishes,
and then, after death, it begins to praise,
to declare in various ways. Great is it to think,
for wisdom-fast men, [to say] what the creature is.

Click to show riddle solution?
John Barleycorn, Wine cask, Beer, Ale, Mead, Harp, Stringed instrument, Tortoise lyre, Yew horn, Barrow, Trial of soul, Pattern-welded sword, Parchment, Biblical codex


This riddle appears on folio 107v 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 194-5.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 26: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), page 84.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 28 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 28


Date: Tue 16 Sep 2014
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 28

I know what you’re all thinking. You’re thinking: “Goodness gracious me! What a lot of past participles!” See – I’m psychic. But I’ll tell you what: not only does this riddle contain all the past participles in the world, it also has a ridiculous number of suggested solutions. Pretty much everyone who has a crack at it solves it differently. So we’re going to have to opt for a speedy run-through according to group. (I almost used the word “cluster” here, but then I decided not to because it sounds too much like “crusty” and that word can only legitimately be used of bread. True story.) Please note that I’m going to be skipping some solutions, specifically Barrow and Trial of Soul (suggested by Jember) because the poem’s direct reference to death makes these seem a bit too obvious (and because Jember suggests Trial of Soul for like a million riddles). If I were going to talk about barrows, I’d probably post a photo kind of like this one:

Barrow chamber

Photo inside Uley Long Barrow (by Pasicles) from Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Group Number One: Alcohol

Forget picking up a quick bottle or two from a shop on your way to a party. And forget picturesque images of vineyards and stomping on grapes in giant barrels. And definitely forget every hipster-ish micro-brewery tour you’ve ever gone on. Because according to this poem, getting your hands on alcohol ain’t convenient and it certainly ain’t pleasant. One of the earliest suggested solutions for Riddle 28 was John Barleycorn, the barley-man known to us through folk literature and ballads (perhaps most famous from the Robbie Burns version). The harvesting of this much put-upon, personified cereal crop is depicted as torture and murder…hence the link to Riddle 28’s turning, cutting and binding. Of course, the speculative leaps required to trace John Barleycorn back to early medieval England mean that some scholars prefer Beer/Ale/Mead (or Wine Cask, for that matter, since there’s no mashing, boiling or fermenting in this riddle) as the solution – that’s beor/ealu/medu in Old English (and I suppose “wine cask” would be something like win-tunne, although this compound isn’t attested). These solutions are certainly possible, especially when we take into account the fact that the preceding riddle very likely describes alcohol. Mightn’t Riddle 28 be a companion riddle? Indeed, it might…or perhaps the scribe/compiler of the manuscript understood it that way. The power dynamics are flipped, of course, since Riddle 27 focuses on alcohol’s ability to completely thrash people, while those in charge of crafting whatever Riddle 28 describes are very much in control. But what about lines 7b onward? That’s where the next solution seems a better fit. But first, beer:

Riddle 28 GravityTap

This is what beer looks like today. Photo (by SilkTork) from the Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 2.5).

Group Number Two: Musical Instrument

If we’re completely honest with ourselves, we have to admit that the construction-y words at the beginning of the poem could really be applied to almost any object. They’re all vague enough that their meanings could be stretched to fit more than one solution, and some of them may well have been included simply because they rhyme. Old English poetry doesn’t often rhyme, by the way, so the poet is clearly interested in being a bit flashy. That means what we should be doing is focusing on the second half of the poem when we’re looking for a solution. Except that this is where things get confusing. Grammatically-speaking, these lines have a lot of people flummoxed. That’s right, flummoxed. Here are some of the reasons why: 1) we don’t really know what clengeð means (although we’ve got some good guesses based on similar words in Middle English), and 2) þara þe is plural, but the verbs in lines 9-10 are all singular. So the question is: does the relative phrase in lines 9-10 refer back to line 7b’s dream (joy) or line 8a’s cwicra wihta (of living beings)? Or should þara þe really read þær þær (there where) instead? (see Williamson, page 224) Your guess is as good as mine. What is clear from these lines is that there’s a living-dead, silent-vocal contrast going on: whatever object we have was made from a living thing that only gained a voice in death. It’s this suggestion that links the riddle to the earlier work of the Latin riddler, Symphosius. His Enigma 20, Testudo reads:

Tarda, gradu lento, specioso praedita dorso;
Docta quidem studio, sed saevo prodita fato,
Viva nihil dixi, quae sic modo mortua canto.
(Glorie, vol. 133A, page 641)

(Slow, with sluggish step, furnished with a beautiful back; shrewd indeed through study, but betrayed by fierce fate, living I said nothing, but dead I sing in this way.)

See the link? Quiet in life and singing in death? To really drive this link home, we should note that Old English dream, which I’ve translated as “joy” also means “song.” This is one of many reasons that Laurence K. Shook (building on earlier suggestions of harp/stringed instrument) solves Riddle 28 as Latin testudo (tortoise/musical instrument).

Lyre made from tortoise shell

In case you wondered just what exactly a tortoise lyre was. Photo © Trustees of the British Museum (licence: CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

Craig Williamson isn’t so keen on this solution, but does agree with the musical instrument angle. And so, he raises the possibility of Yew-horn in his edition of the riddles (pages 218-24). Yew is a hard wood (hence, line 2a: heardestan (hardest)) and it’s poisonous (hence, lines 2b and 3a: scearpestan (sharpest) and grymmestan (fiercest)). He also points out that a yew-horn dating from between the eighth and tenth centuries was discovered in the River Erne in Northern Ireland. So make of that what you will.

Group Number Three: Other Crafted Object

Williamson’s suggestion was just barely in print by the time the next solution came ’round, so let’s pretend that Yew-horn hadn’t happened yet and jump back to tortoise-lyre briefly. We know that instruments made out of tortoise shells existed in other countries as far back as classical Greece, but the evidence for early medieval England is thin on the ground. And by thin, I mean there is none…except for the fact that Symphosius’ works were known in England at this time. Arguing that this lack of evidence rules out the tortoise-lyre solution (what about other instruments?!), Heidi and Rüdiger Göbel solve Riddle 28 as a “pattern-welded sword.” A pattern-welded sword (sweord in OE) is, of course, a weapon made by twisting multiple strips of metal together for extra strength. The Göbels give quite an in-depth breakdown of the processes involved in sword-making, but slightly undermine their interpretation by basing it upon “the desire to take the superlatives heardestan, scearpestan and grymmestan literally” (page 187). Is it just me, or is taking anything in a riddle literally kind of missing the point? At any rate, they also argue for a change in perspective at the end of the poem, when the owner of the sword who was so full of joy to receive the object (lines 7-8) is killed by it. Hence, they translate æfter deaþe deman onginneð, meldan mislice as “after death he changes his opinion and talks differently” (page 191).

Speaking of things that speak without speaking…do you remember Riddle 26? Well, I know that books don’t actually talk for realzies (unless you’ve got an audio-book or one of those birthday cards with the little chip in it that makes it sing really annoyingly whenever you open it), but they do contain words, and the idea that letters speak from the page is an old one. This leads to the final solutions I’m going to discuss: Parchment and Biblical Codex (Boc-fell or Cristes boc in OE).

Parchment being stretched on a rack

Here’s some parchment being stretched in Bede’s World, Jarrow. Photo courtesy of C.J.W. Brown.

Waltraud Ziegler argued for the first of these after looking at several Latin riddles that cover similar ground. Cattle/parchment-y imagery can be found in the enigmatic collections of the Anglo-Latin poets, Tatwine and Eusebius, as well as in other collections known in early medieval England. For example, the Bern riddle, Enigma 24, De membrana, reads:

Lucrum uiua manens toto nam confero mundo
Et defuncta mirum praesto de corpore quaestum.
Vestibus exuta multoque uinculo tensa,
Gladio sic mihi desecta uiscera pendent.
Manibus me postquam reges et uisu mirantur,
Miliaque porto nullo sub pondere multa.
(Glorie, vol. 133A, page 570)

(Remaining alive, I provide profit for the entire world, and dead I furnish remarkable gain from my body. Deprived of garments and pressed by many chains, cut by a sword my innards hang down. Afterward kings admire me with hands and sight, and I carry many thousands with no weight.)

Building on Ziegler, Dieter Bitterli suggests Biblical Codex is more apt than simply Parchment, since the object of Riddle 28 is bound and adorned (pages 178-89). You can look back at Riddle 26’s commentary for a discussion of book-making because many of the steps covered there could be applied to the past participle-y list at the beginning of this riddle (and I wouldn’t want to get repetitive, would I?). But for lines 7b onward, we now have a tidy little religious interpretation: the lasting nature of the living joy/song and the posthumous praising/declaring are down to the creature’s recruitment to a martyr’s higher purpose. Keep in mind that early English manuscripts were penned and maintained by clerics. And keep in mind that they were obsessed with martyrdom and general affliction. So obsessed, in fact, that the Old English reading group my co-editor and I used to attend had one rule and only one rule: if you don’t know what a word means, translate it as “affliction” and move on. I think I’ll take that advice now.


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.

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

Göbel, Heidi, and Rüdiger Göbel. “The Solution of an Old English Riddle.” Studia Neophilologica, vol. 50 (1978), pages 185-91.

Jember, Gregory K., trans. The Old English Riddles: A New Translation. Denver: Society for New Language Study, 1976.

Shook, Laurence K. “Old-English Riddle 28—Testudo (Tortoise-Lyre).” Mediaeval Studies, vol. 20 (1958), pages 93-97.

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

Ziegler, Waltraud. “Ein neuer Losungsversuch fur das altenglische Ratsel Nr. 28.” Arbeiten aus Anglistik und Amerikanistik, vol. 7 (1982), pages 185-190.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 28 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 26
Exeter Riddle 26

Exeter Riddle 29


Date: Fri 26 Sep 2014
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 29
Original text:

Ic wiht geseah      wundorlice
hornum bitweonum      huþe lædan,
lyftfæt leohtlic,      listum gegierwed,
huþe to þam ham      of þam heresiþe;
5     walde hyre on þære byrig      bur atimbran
searwum asettan,      gif hit swa meahte.
Ða cwom wundorlicu wiht      ofer wealles hrof,
seo is eallum cuð      eorðbuendum,
ahredde þa þa huþe      ond to ham bedraf
10     wreccan ofer willan,      gewat hyre west þonan
fæhþum feran,      forð onette.
Dust stonc to heofonum,      deaw feol on eorþan,
niht forð gewat.      Nænig siþþan
wera gewiste      þære wihte sið.


I saw a creature wondrously
carrying spoils between its horns,
a bright air-vessel, skillfully adorned,
the spoils to its home from the war-journey,
5     it wanted to build for itself a dwelling in that stronghold,
skilfully set it, if it could.
Then a wondrous creature came over the roof of the wall,
it is known to all earth-dwellers,
it liberated the spoils and drove the stranger
10     back to its home against its will, it departed west from there
going in strife, it hastened forth.
Dust rose to the heavens, dew fell on the earth,
the night departed. Afterwards none of men
knew the journey of that creature.

Click to show riddle solution?
Sun and moon, swallow and sparrow, cloud and wind, bird and wind


This riddle appears on folios 107v-108r 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 195.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 27: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), page 85.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 29 

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Exeter Riddle 56

Commentary for Exeter Riddle 29


Date: Tue 07 Oct 2014
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 29

Did you get this one without looking at the solution? It’s usually seen as one of the more obvious Riddles: the sun and the moon. And because it is so obvious, people haven’t really found very much else to say about it. But let’s run through it quickly: The “creature” carrying the booty “between its horns” is the waxing moon – the image below nicely shows the “horns” and the space “between” them that gets filled up with light as the moon grows fuller. Then the sun comes over the horizon (if that’s what we think “over the roof/top of the wall” means) and slowly “takes back” its light, until the waning moon disappears into the new moon – nobody knows where it went, as in the final two lines. That’s it, then – done, dusted, let’s head off to the pub, shall we (maybe not this one though)?


Photo (by Christine Matthews) from the Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 2.0).

But I know you’ve got used to much more in-depth analysis here at The Riddle Ages, so let’s see what we can do, shall we? Sticking for the moment with the natural phenomena, what are we to make of the dew and dust in the final few lines of the poem? There was a medieval belief that the moon produced dew, so let’s run with that. But how can there be dew and dust at the same time? Wouldn’t you have to have some sort of muddy grit? Well, yes – nobody has really found a good explanation for this yet but maybe we shouldn’t take the riddle quite so literally here and just enjoy the nice balance between the rising dust and the falling dew.

However, as you may have come to expect by now, the riddle can also be read on an allegorical level: some scholars have argued that it also describes the Harrowing of Hell, where Christ overcomes Satan to rescue or liberate (ahreddan) condemned souls from hell and lead them into heaven. The sun is often a symbol for Christ in early medieval writings (and think back for example to Riddle 6). Occasionally we find the moon standing in for Satan (but not because of the horns!) and so the struggle described in the riddle can be seen as a battle between those two. The story of Satan’s uprising against God and his downfall was very popular in early medieval England and the language used in the riddle may give us a further hint here: like the moon in the riddle, Satan tries to build a home for himself in heaven, with the help of ill-gotten gains, and is eventually driven out into exile by God. There’s a nice play on the ham here: the moon is trying to establish a ham (in line 4) but is driven out of there into a different ham (line 9): his real home, the exile outside of heaven.

So even in riddles where everyone agrees on the solution, there’s usually still a lot more to be said if you get into it. That’s why the riddles are brilliant!


References and Suggested Reading:

Joyce, John H. “Natural Process in Exeter Book Riddle #29.” Annuale Mediaevale, vol. 14 (1974), pages 5-13.

Murphy, Patrick J. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2011, pages 123-39.

Whitman, Frank H. “The Christian Background to Two Riddle Motifs.” Studia Neophilologica, vol. 41 (1969), pages 93-8.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 29 

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Exeter Riddles 30a and b


Date: Mon 13 Oct 2014
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddles 30a and b

We have all sorts of treats for you today, so I hope you’re glued to your seats and screens. Not literally…that would be more than a little weird. First of all, we have a double riddle. That sounds amazing, I know, but it also requires explanation. Up until now, the riddles have all appeared one after another in the Exeter Book, but there are two versions of Riddle 30 — one here, and one later in the manuscript, following Homiletic Fragment II (absolutely scintillating name…). We’ve decided to do both versions of Riddle 30 at the same time, and for these we have a guest translator. Pirkko Koppinen completed her PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London, where she is currently a visiting lecturer. She also brings to us an expertise in museum and heritage studies, as well as Finnish. Pirkko has generously offered us not only English translations of both Riddle 30a and b, but also Finnish ones. Surely this can be described as nothing short of a cornucopia of riddle-fun. Take it away, Pirkko!

Original text:

Riddle 30a

Ic eom legbysig,      lace mid winde,
bewunden mid wuldre,      wedre gesomnad,
fus forðweges,      fyre gebysgad,
bearu blowende,      byrnende gled.
5     Ful oft mec gesiþas      sendað æfter hondum,
þæt mec weras ond wif      wlonce cyssað.
Þonne ic mec onhæbbe,      ond hi onhnigaþ to me
monige mid miltse,      þær ic monnum sceal
ycan upcyme      eadignesse.






Riddle 30b

Ic eom ligbysig,      lace mid winde,
w[……………..]dre gesomnad,
fus forðweges,      fyre gemylted,
b[ . ] blowende,      byrnende gled.
5     Ful oft mec gesiþas      sendað æfter hondum,
þær mec weras ond wif      wlonce gecyssað.
Þonne ic mec onhæbbe,      hi onhnigað to me,
modge miltsum,      swa ic mongum sceal
ycan upcyme      eadignesse.


Riddle 30a

I am busy with fire, fight with the wind,
wound around with glory, united with storm,
eager for the journey, agitated by fire;
[I am] a blooming grove, a burning ember.
5     Very often companions send me from hand to hand
so that proud men and women kiss me.
When I exalt myself and they bow to me,
many with humility, there I shall
bring increasing happiness to humans.

A free rendering of Riddle 30a into Finnish:

Minä ahkeroin tulen kanssa, leikin tuulella. [Minä olen] kietoutunut kunniaan, yhdistetty myrskyyn. [Olen] innokas lähtemään, liekillä kiihotettu. [Olen] kukoistava lehto, hehkuva hiillos. Kumppanit kierrättävät minua usein kädestä käteen siellä, missä korskeat miehet ja naiset suutelevat minua. Kun ylistän itseäni ja he, monet, nöyränä kumartavat minua, siellä minä tuon karttuvaa riemua ihmisille.


Riddle 30b

I am busy with fire, fight with the wind,
[…] united […],
eager for the journey, consumed by fire;
[I am] a blooming […], a burning ember.
5     Very often companions send me from hand to hand
where proud men and women kiss me.
When I exalt myself, high-spirited [ones]
bow to me with humility, in this way I shall
bring increasing happiness to many.

A free rendering of Riddle 30b into Finnish:

Minä ahkeroin tulen kanssa. Leikin tuulella. […] on kiedottu […]. [Olen] innokas lähtemään, tulessa tuhottu. [Olen] kukoistava […], hehkuva hiillos. Useasti kumppanit kierrättävät minua kädestä käteen siellä, missä korskeat miehet ja naiset suutelevat minua. Kun ylistän itseäni, ja he, ylväät, nöyränä kumartavat minua. Täten minä tuon karttuvaa riemua monille.

Click to show riddle solution?
Beam, Cross, Wood, Tree, Snowflake


This riddle appears on folios 108r and 122v 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 195-6 and 224-5.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 28a and b: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), pages 85-6.

Textual Notes

The damaged words in Riddle 30b are marked with square brackets. I have highlighted the differences in the two texts in bold and translated accordingly. Line 7b in Riddle 30a reads on hin gað (which is a nonsensical form) in the manuscript and is emended to onhnigað by using the text of Riddle 30b (line 7b); see Krapp and Dobbie, page 338.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 30 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddles 30a and b


Date: Tue 21 Oct 2014
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddles 30a and b

Like last week’s translations, Riddle 30a and b’s commentary once again comes to us from Pirkko Koppinen:


Riddle 30 exists as two separate texts in the manuscript, Riddle 30a and Riddle 30b (Krapp and Dobbie’s numbering). Such a double text is rare in Old English poetry. The reason why the riddle was copied in the manuscript twice will never be known for sure. There are some minor differences, however, which suggest to A. N. Doane that the scribe was copying the texts also “sonically” rather than just visually (page 49). The differences affect the interpretation of the two poems in terms of nuance, but in terms of solution they are of no major consequence (unless you wish to contest the accepted solution, of course). Riddle 30a is intact, but Riddle 30b has been damaged with a hot poker, which curiously fits the content of the poem; that is, the poem makes several references to fire.

Translating the first four lines of Riddle 30a and Riddle 30b is translating “earth, wind, and fire.” No, I do not mean that wonderful, American band that brought us many a disco tune; I mean the elements. At the beginning of the poem (of both texts) we learn about the riddle creature’s various preoccupations first with fire (line 1a), then wind (line 1b) and storm (line 2b), then fire (line 3b) again, then earth (“grove”, line 4a), and then once more its dealings with fire (line 4b). It is not surprising then that these lines have suggested to the solvers that we are dealing with a “tree.” Solving the rest of the riddle means understanding how trees were metamorphosed into wooden objects and matching those with the clues of the riddle.

As a cup, the riddle creature – transformed from wood into a material object – is passed from hand to hand and kissed by proud men and women (lines 5-6 in both riddles). The image recalls the communal drinking rituals in Beowulf where the men drink from their lord’s – or lady’s – cup as a gesture of loyalty (see e.g. Beowulf, lines 491-95a, 615-24, 1014b-17a, 1024b-25a, 1170, 1192-93a and 1231). The word wlonce (proud) in Riddle 30a and Riddle 30b, which in Old English is often used to describe princes and queens, suggests that we are indeed dealing with the high-ranking people, such as those depicted in Beowulf. The cup in the riddles may be a wooden cup decorated with an interlace collar, such as that found in the Sutton Hoo boat burial – a worthy drinking vessel of the early medieval royalty. It has been suggested that fus forweges (“eager for the journey,” line 3a) refers to a “ship” constructed of wood, but the phrase could also refer to the way a wooden log is quickly engulfed in flames once it ignites.

The last three lines of the poems explain how people show reverence to the riddle creature, and these lines have suggested to solvers that what we are dealing with is “a cross.” It was an important symbol for the newly converted early English Christian, as is demonstrated through the wonderful poem The Dream of the Rood (full translation here), which describes how the tree first grows free in the forest before it is cut down and transformed into gallows and then – washed with the Saviour’s blood – is transformed into a revered symbol of salvation. The cross, a narrator in The Rood, decorated with jewels is bewunden mid wuldre (“wound around with glory,” Riddle 30a, line 2a; Riddle 30b is damaged at this point). Just like the cross in The Rood, the riddle creature brings eadignesse (happiness/joy) to people when they bow to it; that is, when they pray to the cross for their salvation.

Wood as a material was of utmost importance for the early English. They built houses from timber, domestic objects from wood, and woodland trees were part of their economic landscape. Wood and trees were used in their food and drink production as a fuel and produce. In other words, wood was an integral part of the peoples' everyday life – not only in terms of their physical existence but also in terms of their religious beliefs (see Bintley and Shapland).

As a Finn, I understand this closeness to trees and wood as material of the everyday. I grew up in a house that was built in 1890 from wood and which was also heated solely with wood in the cold months. Wooden objects may not be as ubiquitous today as they were a hundred years ago, but, like the early medieval economy at the time, Finnish economy has been always also partially reliant on its forests. So translating Riddle 30a and Riddle 30b was a nostalgic affair to me. It made me think of how fire consumed wood when we heated the sauna in our wooden summer cottage. I remembered how we heated the coffee pot and cooked our meals on top of the wood burning stove where the logs turned into burning embers and still do in many Finnish houses and summer and winter cottages.

Wood burning fire

Photograph by Mira Suopelto

I remembered how we walked through the woods in a windy day and watched the trees bend and struggle in the wind and storm.

Trees blowing in wind

Photograph by P. Koppinen

Spoons, cups, jugs, and bowls would have been “kissed” by both men and women – of high status as well as others. Wooden objects are still crafted and used today, although not used as often as they were a hundred years ago.

Wooden dishes

Photograph by P. Koppinen

Our wooden churches were often built in the form of a cross and many a decorated altar piece is built from wood and “wound around with glory,” in front of which the congregation bow their heads in humility. This personal experience of trees, wood and woodlands of Finland created for me an intimate relationship with the riddle creature, which aided me in my attempt to translate the two riddles into Finnish. The Finnish translations are a little crude, literal translations, but they convey my nostalgia of Finnish forest, trees, and woodlands in my childhood so beautifully described in Riddle 30a and Riddle 30b. Of course, the riddle-texts may have led the solvers – along with me – astray and these riddles remain, as A. J. Wyatt has suggested, still unsolved. But that is the fun of riddles; there is always another way of reading the text, mystery to be solved and solution to be found. For now, I am happy to reminisce about the trees of my childhood.


References and Suggested Reading:

Bintley, Michael D. J., and Michael G. Shapland, eds. Trees and Timber in the Anglo-Saxon World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Doane, A. N. “Spacing, Placing and Effacing: Scribal Textuality and Exeter Riddle 30 a/b.” In New Approaches to Editing Old English Verse. Ed. by Sarah Larratt Keefer and Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe. Cambridge: Brewer, 1998, pages 45-65.

Koppinen, Pirkko Anneli. “Breaking the Mould: Solving Riddle 12 as Wudu “Wood”.” In Trees and Timber in the Anglo-Saxon World. Ed. by Bintley and Shapland (see above), pages 158-76.

Liuzza, R. M. “The Texts of the Old English Riddle 30.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. 87 (1988), pages 1-15.

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

Wyatt, A. J., ed. Old English Riddles. The Belles Lettres Series, vol. 1. Boston, MA: Heath, 1912.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 30  pirkko koppinen  riddle 30a  riddle 30b 

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Exeter Riddle 31


Date: Thu 13 Nov 2014
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 31

This week’s translation is a guest post from Christopher Laprade. Christopher is a PhD student at the University of Toronto, where he is working on book history and early modern drama.

Original text:

Is þes middangeard     missenlicum
wisum gewlitegad,     wrættum gefrætwad.
Ic seah sellic þing     singan on ræcede;
wiht wæs nower (1)      werum on gemonge
5     sio hæfde wæstum     wundorlicran.
Niþerweard      wæs neb hyre,
fet ond folme     fugele gelice;
no hwæþre fleogan mæg     ne fela gongan,
hwæþre feþegeorn     fremman onginneð,
10     gecoren cræftum,
     cyrreð geneahhe
oft ond gelome     eorlum on gemonge,
siteð æt symble,     sæles bideþ,
hwonne ær heo cræft hyre     cyþan mote
werum on gemonge.     Ne heo þær wiht þigeð
15     þæs þe him æt blisse     beornas habbað.
Deor domes georn,     hio dumb wunað;
hwæþre hyre is on fote     fæger hleoþor,
wynlicu woðgiefu.     Wrætlic me þinceð,
hu seo wiht mæge     wordum lacan
20     þurh fot neoþan,     frætwed hyrstum.
Hafað hyre on halse,     þonne hio hord warað,
baru (2), beagum deall,     broþor sine,
mæg mid mægne.     Micel is to hycgenne
wisum woðboran     hwæt sio (3) wiht sie.


This middle earth is in manifold
ways made beautiful, with works of art adorned.
I saw a strange thing sing in a hall;
nowhere was there a creature among men
5     that had a more fantastic form.
Downward was her beak,
feet and hands like a bird;
she may not fly, however, nor walk much,
yet eager to go she begins to perform,
10     chosen with skill, she moves frequently
often and again among men,
sits at the feast, bides her time,
until when she might make known her skill
amidst the men. She consumes nothing
15     that the men there have for their pleasure.
Brave, eager for glory, she sits silent;
yet there is in her foot a fair sound,
a charming gift of song. It seems curious to me,
how that creature can play with words
20     through that foot from beneath, adorned with finery.
They have her by the neck, when she guards treasure,
bare, proud with rings, her brothers,
maid among an army. It is a great thing to think
for a wise songster what that creature may be.

Click to show riddle solution?
Bagpipes, Quill Pen and Fingers, Psaltery and Quill-pick, Fiddle, Portable Organ, Organistrum, Harp, Cithara


This riddle appears on folios 108r-108v 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 196.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 29: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), pages 86-7.

Textual Notes

  • (1) nower is an editorial intervention that does not appear in the manuscript;
  • (2) note that Krapp and Dobbie retain the manuscript form bær, while Williamson emends to baru;
  • (3) sio also does not appear in the manuscript.

This page was edited for clarity on 30 November 2020.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 31 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 31


Date: Wed 17 Feb 2021
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 31

How do you solve a problem like a bird who sings through her foot? That, my friends, is the question on my mind.

Riddle 31 is a riddle (obv) about an object living her best life. What, precisely, she is…well, that’s up for debate. Most editors of the Old English riddles solve Riddle 31 as Bagpipes. They reckon that the multiple references to a creature singing and showing off mad skillz in the hall means this is a musical instrument. And they reckon that the fantastic form of the object – with her downward beak and musical foot – suggests the chanter and drones of the bagpipes. The guarding of treasure in line 21 becomes the breath of the performer, which the instrument takes in, controls and releases to musical effect. It’s quite common for birds to be associated with musicality in the riddles – I’m thinking here of Riddle 7’s swan and Riddle 57’s crows or swifts – but bagpipe tunes are perhaps less bird-like in their song than many other types of music.

Here are some very un-bird-like bagpipes being butchered:

Other musical instruments have also been mooted (I love the word mooted, btw…we should all use this word way more often) as the solution, partly because evidence for the use of bagpipes in early medieval England is, shall we say, lacking. But, as Jonathan Wilcox reassures us, this instrument was widespread in agricultural societies and there are plenty of later medieval references and drawings to suggest that early medieval bagpipes were probably a thing (pages 138-40).

In fact, even though there isn’t much evidence for their use in early medieval England, it is very possible that the protruding drones and bird-like feet in the early 11th-century image below could depict the instrument (Wilcox, page 144, note 41):

Bagpipes in Junius Manuscript

Image from the famous Junius Manuscript (p. 57) Photo: © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford (licence: CC-BY-NC 4.0).

So, we could have a case of the ol’ bagpipes here in Riddle 31.

The other, non-musical instrument option is a Quill Pen and Fingers. Yes, Donald K. Fry grappled with the birdy imagery in this riddle and its references to songs, treasure and flying-not-flying, and decided this is clearly another riddle about the scriptorium. Unfortunately, I can’t get a hold of this article right now (#pandemic), but I’ve written myself a note to follow up on this later.*

Still, I imagine that to read the riddle as a quill pen, we’d assume the riddle’s birdy imagery stems from the feather used to create the quill, with the downward beak as its pointed tip. The references to the bird’s foot could perhaps point toward a feathery wing and line 8-9’s description of the object’s eagerness to perform despite being unable to fly or walk should make us think of feather pens furiously scribbling across a page. All those songs – well those are the words that the pen delivers, a veritable treasure-hoard of ideas.

Hand holding quill pen

Image from Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

While we might imagine the hall setting with its music and feasting as a literal location for the use of the bagpipes, in order to solve the riddle as quill pen, the hall is probably best interpreted as a metaphor for the scriptorium. Songs are still appropriate in this setting if they’re words read out from the page. But the feasting? I don’t really know what to do with that, unless we imagine a scene change that moves us back into a literal hall where a written document is read out to frolickers. Hmm…not sure about that. Give me a shout if you have better ideas.

All in all, I prefer the bagpipes reading myself, in part because Jonathan Wilcox has made such a good case for interpreting the incongruity of this riddle as humorous. The monstrosity of this object with all the wrong sorts of body-parts could be priming us for humour, while the bagpipes attract humour because of the instrument’s “lack of subtlety as an object built on a literal windbag. Bagpipes can encode the windiness of unrestrained speech or the flatulent pouring forth of an unrestrained body” (page 140). The fact that the instrument is compared to bird-like song is all the funnier if you imagine a real bird letting out the sound of a bagpipe.

As a final gift to you, I’d also like to note that Wilcox’s essay led me to a range of truly brilliant medieval images including this fabulous late 11th-century Spanish musical duo:

Drawing of men playing instrument and bird

Illustration in Beatus of Liebena’s Commentary on the Apocalypse from London, British Library Add MS 11695, folio 86r (Photo: © British Library).

A work of genius. Truly, my life is now complete.

*Editorial Note (22 February 2021): I have now tracked down Fry’s article and it chimes with what I said above. Fry notes lots of examples of riddles in both Old English and Anglo-Latin that play with the following motifs: “banquet, bird, inability to speak, and words as treasure” (page 236). He points to a few instances where the tasting of wisdom or words might explain what the feast hall is doing in this riddle. I don’t personally think that any of the examples given are close enough to Riddle 31 to fully explain its scene of feasting, but feel free to read the article and judge for yourselves!


References and Suggested Reading:

Fry, Donald K. “Exeter Riddle 31: Feather-Pen.” In De Gustibus: Essays for Alain Renoir. Edited by J. M. Foley, C. J. Womack, and W. A. Womack. New York: Garland, 1992, pages 234-49.

Wilcox, Jonathan. “Humour and the Exeter Book Riddles: Incongruity in Feþegeorn (R.31).” In Riddles at Work in the Early Medieval Tradition: Words, Ideas, Interactions. Edited by Megan Cavell and Jennifer Neville. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020, pages 128-45.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 31 

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Exeter Riddle 32


Date: Sun 07 Dec 2014
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 32
Original text:

Is þes middangeard     missenlicum
wisum gewlitegad,     wrættum gefrætwad.
Siþum sellic     ic seah searo hweorfan,
grindan wið greote,     giellende faran.
5     Næfde sellicu wiht     syne ne folme,
exle ne earmas;     sceal on anum fet
searoceap swifan,     swiþe feran,
faran ofer feldas.     Hæfde fela ribba;
muð wæs on middan.     Moncynne nyt,
10     fereð foddurwelan,     folcscipe dreogeð,
wist in wigeð,     ond werum gieldeð
gaful geara gehwam     þæs þe guman brucað,
rice ond heane.     Rece, gif þu cunne,
wis worda gleaw,     hwæt sio wiht sie.


This middle-earth is made beautiful
in various ways, adorned with ornaments.
At times I saw strange contraption move about,
grind against the grit, go screaming.
5     The strange creature did not have sight nor hands,
shoulders nor arms; on one foot must
the cunning contraption move, powerfully journey,
going over fields. It had many ribs;
its mouth was in the middle. Useful to mankind,
10     it bears an abundance of food, works for the people,
carries sustenance within, and yields to men
treasure every year that those men enjoy,
rich and poor. Tell, if you know,
wise and prudent in words, what that creature may be.

Click to show riddle solution?
Ship, Wagon, Millstone, Wheel, Wheelbarrow


This riddle appears on folio 108v 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 196-7.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 30: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), page 87.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 32 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 32


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*


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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Exeter Riddle 33


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.”


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


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


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.


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


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.


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?


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


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…


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?


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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