Commentary for Exeter Riddle 43


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

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


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

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

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

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

Franks casket

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


References and Suggested Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Exeter Riddle 74


Date: Mon 12 Feb 2018
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 74

Riddle 74’s translation is by returning guest contributor James Paz, lecturer in early medieval literature at the University of Manchester. Welcome back, James!

Original text:

Ic wæs fæmne geong,      feaxhar cwene,
ond ænlic rinc      on ane tid;
fleah mid fuglum      ond on flode swom,
deaf under yþe      dead mid fiscum,
ond on foldan stop,      hæfde ferþ cwicu.


I was a young girl, a grey-haired woman,
and a singular warrior at the same time;
I soared with the birds and swam in the water,
dove under the waves, dead among the fish,
and stepped on land. I held a living spirit.

Click to show riddle solution?
Cuttlefish, Boat and oak, Quill pen, Ship’s figurehead, Siren, Water


This riddle appears on folio 126v 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 234.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 72: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), page 109.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 74  james paz 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 74


Date: Tue 19 Dec 2017
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 74

Riddle 74’s commentary is once again by guest contributor James Paz at the University of Manchester. Take it away, James!


Riddle 74 is a shapeshifter. The speaker has been identified as everything from a made artefact to a living creature, a wonder of nature to a mythological being. Even the first two lines of the riddle are mind-bending. The riddling voice tells us that it was a fæmne geong. I’ve translated this neutrally as a “young girl” but the Old English noun fæmne could be rendered more specifically as “virgin” or “maiden.” In the next half-line, the speaker says that it was also a feaxhar cwene, that is, a grey-haired, older woman. The speaker has aged before our eyes in the first line, and in the second line it suddenly shifts gender, as well. A rinc is a man, perhaps a warrior, and an ænlic rinc is a singular warrior who is “unlike” anything or anyone else, surpassingly noble, beautiful or elegant. The speaker claims that this changing of identity all occurred on ane tid. Since the Old English tid is a vague term for an indefinite period of time (an hour? a year? several years? a season? an age or era?), this phrase could be translated in a number of different ways: “at the same time” or “in a single hour” or “all at once” or even “once upon a time.”

As if this weren’t perplexing enough, the riddle then presents us with a further puzzle: the speaker is capable of flight (fleah mid fuglum) and it can swim (ond on flode swom) and walk on dry land (ond on foldan stop). This amphibious creature says that it was “dead” among the fish and yet, in the last half-line of the poem, it states that it hæfde ferþ cwicu. The most obvious rendering would be “I had a living spirit” but “I held” or even “I contained” a living spirit are equally plausible translations and, as the verb hæfde can be read in the pluperfect sense and the noun ferþ could also be grammatically plural, “I had held living spirits” is another possible interpretation. Is the speaker a living animal, then? Or an artefact that was formerly alive? Or maybe a container or vessel of some kind, something dead bearing something living?

Riddle 74 plays with the tension between transformation and continuity: transformation, because the speaker takes on multiple forms and roles; continuity, because it possesses a single voice and memory, and perhaps a single quickening spirit, depending on how we read the final half-line. The riddle either expands or contracts our perception of time, again depending on how we read the term tid: the metamorphoses from a young girl to a grey-haired woman might seem wondrous if it occurs overnight, but what if the riddle has condensed an entire season or age into a few lines of verse? As a poem, therefore, this riddle raises complex questions about identity. Is it possible to change age, gender and environment so many times and yet still be a nameable, classifiable creature? Can language capture such a multifaceted life experience with a single solution? Or do words ultimately fail to fix this amorphous, slippery speaker in its proper place?

This riddle has sent scholars of Old English away shaking their heads in confusion. Many have ventured an answer, but those answers differ wildly from one another. Over the years, solutions have included: barnacle goose, cuttlefish, ship’s figurehead, oak and boat, quill pen, sea eagle, shadows, siren, soul, sun, swan and water. It would take a good deal of time (and patience!) to cover every solution in detail, so I’ll only discuss some of the highlights (for a more comprehensive survey, see the Niles article under Suggested Reading below).

Riddle 74 Cuttlefish
Photo of a cuttlefish (by João Carvalho) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 2.5)

Squid or cuttlefish was one solution offered by earlier scholars such as Franz Dietrich in 1859. The Roman author, Pliny, had reported in his Natural History that squid could “fly” above the sea and the Anglo-Latin author, Aldhelm, penned an enigma about the luligo (squid or cuttlefish) which parallels some aspects of Riddle 74. In A. M. Juster’s recent translation of Aldhelm’s Latin Enigma 16 (pages 10-11), we read:

Nunc cernenda placent nostrae spectacula vitae;
Cum grege piscoso scrutor maris aequora squamis.
Cum volucrum turma quoque scando per aethera pennis,
Et tamen aethereo non possum vivere flatu.

(Seeing life’s spectacles now entertains;
With fishy, scaly flocks, I search sea plains.
With mobs of birds I also rise through sky,
And yet I can’t survive in breeze that’s high.)

Here, the luligo searches the waters of the deep with fish and ascends through the air with birds, but an ability to change age and sex, and to walk on land as well as swim and fly, is not accounted for by Aldhelm’s enigma. So this answer can’t be deemed completely satisfactory.

Could it be a siren? This was the answer proposed by Frederick Tupper in 1903. The mythological siren is both aged and young, centuries old and yet with the face of a girl. It is not only a woman but sometimes a man.

Riddle 74 Siren from Bestiary (1230-1240), f.47v_-_BL_Harley_MS_4751
An image of a siren in a 13th-century bestiary from British Library Harley MS 4751 (folio 47v), via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Tupper claimed that at an early period of the Middle Ages, the Teutonic conception of a fish-woman met and mingled with the Graeco-Roman idea of a bird-maiden. The combined bird and fish aspects of this partly classical, partly medieval creature explain line 3 of the riddle (“I soared with the birds and swam in the water”). As for line 4 (“dove under the waves, dead among the fish”) Tupper draws our attention to what “every student of myths” apparently knows: the sirens threw themselves into the sea and were transformed into rocks when Ulysses or the Argonauts had passed by in safety. Sceptics of this solution point to the peripheral place of the siren in early medieval lore, which makes this interpretation a little farfetched.

Quill pen was the solution of F. H. Whitman in 1968. This was the answer that first leapt into my mind when I read the riddle, due to some similarities with Riddle 51, which links the penna (feather) of the bird with the penna (quill pen) of the scribe. Feathers literally fly through air (and sometimes dive in water and walk the land) when attached to a living bird. The voyage is repeated in the scriptorium, where the writing pen “flies” as the scribe lifts the quill, dips it into the watery inkwell, and then the pen “steps” on the dry land of the parchment, leaving tracks on the page. However, a couple of phrases are harder to account for with the quill pen solution: why would a pen be described as a “singular warrior” and in what sense is it dead among the fish?

Riddle 74 Quills
Photo of feathers being turned into quill pens (by Jonathunder) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0)

Ship’s figurehead was suggested by Craig Williamson (pages 349-52). The speaker is to be imagined as carved in the form of young girl who gradually turns ashen and visibly “ages” as the wood becomes weathered over time, through exposure to the salty waves. As an artefact, the figurehead is “dead” but was made from once living wood. It charges the waves like a warrior. Critics of this solution cite a lack of archaeological evidence for figureheads in the shape of a girl: only those in the form of dragons and other beasts survive from the early medieval English and Viking periods.

Water or, more precisely, water in its various forms is an attractive solution, first proposed by Moritz Trautmann in 1894 and then refined in 1905 and 1915. Snow flies through the air, ice floats on water as an iceberg and, when it melts away and mingles with the sea, could be said to “die” among the fish, while streams and rivers flow across the land. The young girl is a stream, the grey-haired woman is an iceberg and the singular warrior is snow. Trautmann uses grammatical gender as a clue to solving the riddle. For instance, the Old English word for stream is burne, a feminine noun, while snaw is a masculine noun. Water itself doesn’t have a living spirit but it might be said to “hold” or contain living sea creatures.

Another ingenious solution which relies, in part, on grammatical gender is the one offered by John D. Niles in 1998. For Niles, the speaker is an ac (oak tree) which has been cut down and made into a bat (boat). The tree changes from sapling to a hoary, old oak before it is turned into a warrior-like ship. This answer relies on us taking the oak tree as feminine and the boat as masculine, based on the fact that in Old English ac is a feminine noun, whereas bat is masculine. Niles argues that this reading is consistent with gender biases that were firmly entrenched in early medieval society, whereby trees are rooted to one spot in the same way that “women are traditionally associated with hearth and home” whereas ships are “daring rovers, as men have been known to be” (page 190). And yet, by having one speaker embody both of these gendered roles, the riddle could be said to question, rather than reinforce, the categories that have traditionally divided men from women, perhaps inviting the audience to rethink such biases.

Niles’s reading is unsettled somewhat if the speaker is understood as having been a sapling (young girl) and old tree (grey-haired woman) and ship (warrior) all at the same time: on ane tid. One way out is to punctuate the riddle differently from modern convention, so that it reads along the lines of: “at a single time, / I soared with the birds and swam in the water, / dove under the waves, dead among the fish, /and stepped on land.” Another way to resolve this problem is to take the term tid as indicating a long stretch of time. The first two lines of the riddle then become a bit like a wildlife documentary using time-lapse photography to compress the rhythms of nature into a few seconds.

There’s still no consensus on the correct solution. As you can see, each proposal has potential flaws. If I had to choose one, then I’d probably opt for water. I find this one appealing because it expresses both endurance across time and a continuous shifting in form. It’s also a pleasingly “fluid” solution. What I mean by this is that the solution is not simply “water.” It is “water” and then “ice” and then “snow” and then “water” again. Just as we attempt to freeze the shapeshifting speaker with a spoken word, the warmth of our breath causes it to crack and melt once more, changing its form and function as the hydrologic cycle goes ever on and on.

Riddle 74 is therefore a perfect illustration of how things always exceed our names for them – and of how riddles always exceed their solutions.

Riddle 74 Feathery Snow Crystals
A photo of some very fine snowflakes (by Jason Hollinger) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY 2.0)

References and Suggested Reading

Dietrich, Franz Eduard. “Die Räthsel des Exeterbuchs: Würdigung, Lösung und Herstellung.” ZfdA, vol. 11 (1859), pages 448-90.

Erhardt-Siebold, Erika von. “The Anglo-Saxon Riddle 74 and Empedokles’ Fragment 117.” Medium Ævum, vol. 15 (1946), pages 48-54.

Juster, A. M., trans. Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015.

Klein, Thomas. “Of Water and the Spirit: Metaphorical Focus in Exeter Book Riddle 74.” Review of English Studies, vol. 66, issue 273 (2014), pages 1-19.

Niles, John D. “Exeter Book Riddle 74 and the Play of the Text.” Anglo-Saxon England, vol. 27 (1998), pages 169-207.

Paz, James. Nonhuman Voices in Anglo-Saxon Literature and Material Culture. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017, pages 78-83.

Salvador Bello, Mercedes. “Direct and Indirect Clues: Exeter Riddle no. 74 Reconsidered.” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, vol. 99 (1998), pages 17-29.

Trautmann, Moritz. “Die Auflösungen der altenglischen Rätsel.” Beiblatt zur Anglia, vol. 5 (1894), pages 46-51.

Tupper, Frederick. “Originals and Analogues of the Exeter Book Riddles.” Modern Language Notes, vol. 18 (1903), pages 97-106.

Whitman, F. H. “OE Riddle 74.” English Language Notes, vol. 6 (1968), pages 1-5.

Williamson, Craig, ed. and trans. The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977, pages 349-52.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 74  james paz 

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