Commentary for Exeter Riddle 63


Date: Wed 07 Jun 2017
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 63

If Riddle 63 has anything to teach us, it’s that people with hot pokers SHOULD NOT BE ALLOWED NEAR MANUSCRIPTS! Sorry…got a bit shouty there. All those years of pent-up scholarly rage have to take their toll at some point. I’m fine now.


So, Riddle 63. This is the first of many very damaged riddles that we’re going to be working through from this point on. They’re damaged because – as you might have guessed – there’s a long, diagonal burn from where someone put a hot poker or fiery brand on the back of the Exeter Book.

Damaged manuscript page

A photo of the damage to this page of the manuscript (folio 125r). I am *very* grateful to the manuscripts and archives team for providing this Exeter Cathedral Library photo (reproduced by courtesy of the Dean and Chapter of Exeter)


Even with the damage, we can still have a conversation about Riddle 63 because – thankfully – several of its opening lines are intact, and intriguing hints survive further on in the poem. We have enough information, for example, to have a convincing stab at the solution, which seems to be a glass beaker or perhaps glæs-fæt in Old English (though early solvers also suggested “flute” and “flask”).

Glass beakers are a fairly common find in early medieval graves, and there’s pretty good evidence for solving the riddle this way. Some of this evidence comes from within the poem: the references to a servant handling and kissing the object from line 4 onward suggest that it’s a drinking vessel. And the object’s statement Ne mæg ic þy miþan (Nor can I conceal that) in line 10a implies that it’s transparent.

Riddle 63 Claw beaker from Ringmere Farm British Museum.jpg

A claw beaker from Ringlemere Farm, Kent, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain). You can find out more about it here.


I suppose you could argue that the holes in flutes would make concealing anything difficult too, and of course kissing and pressing with fingers are entirely relevant for a musical instrument of that kind. But we also have evidence for reading Riddle 63 as glass beaker that comes from outside of the poem. There’s a really, really, really useful parallel in one of the Anglo-Latin riddles written by the 7th/8th-century abbot and bishop Aldhelm. His Enigma 80, Calix Vitreus (Glass Chalice) has a similar reference to grasping with fingers and kissing, you see:

Nempe uolunt plures collum constringere dextra
Et pulchre digitis lubricum comprendere corpus;
Sed mentes muto, dum labris oscula trado
Dulcia compressis impendens basia buccis,
Atque pedum gressus titubantes sterno ruina.
(Glorie, vol. 133, page 496, lines 5-9)
(Truly, many wish to squeeze my neck with their right hand and seize my beautifully sinuous body with their fingers; 
but I change their minds, while I deliver kisses to their lips,
 dispensing sweet kisses to puckered mouths, and yet I throw off the faltering steps of their feet in a fall.)

This is a deeply disturbing vision of a sexual encounter loaded with complicated and competing power dynamics. There’s a lot of kissing here, sure, but there’s also a hint of violence in that term constringere, which can mean “to embrace,” but also “to bind/constrict” (hence I’ve gone for “squeeze”). Fifty Shades of Græg, amirite?

And while it’s the drinkers who initially want to inflict this violence on the drinking vessel, the vessel ends up turning the tables, so to speak, when the drinkers become so intoxicated that they fall over. This leads Mercedes Salvador-Bello to discuss Aldhelm’s Latin riddle in the light of early medieval views on prostitution: she argues convincingly that the riddle imagines a prostitute bringing about the downfall of a man through a combination of sexual charms and excessive wine (page 371). She also suggests the poem might be alluding to the apocalyptic Whore of Babylon from the biblical Book of Revelation (see also Magennis, page 519). Heavy stuff.

I also think there’s a possible pun here in the verb muto (I change), which could easily be confused for the terribly rude noun muto (penis). I mean, it doesn’t work grammatically, but it might have caused an embarrassed titter nonetheless.

And this leads us back again to Riddle 63, which is equally euphemistic but with a very different tone (at least as far as we can tell!). There are certainly similarities between the Latin and Old English riddles – both involve what my mum used to call “kissy face, pressy bod” (otherwise known as “sex”). Riddle 63’s reference to the human in the riddle who wyrceð his willa (works his will) in line 7a should look familiar from Riddle 54 (line 6a). And þyð (presses) also appears in sexual contexts in Riddle 12 (line 8b), Riddle 21 (line 5b) and Riddle 62 (5a).

But what I quite like about this riddle is that the sexual act is clearly a mutually enjoyable one: þa unc geryde wæs (when it was pleasant for us two) (line 15b). Look at that glorious dual pronoun! Unc! “Us two”! This glass beaker is properly into it.

Still, there are some issues with class that muddy the waters a bit. Patrick Murphy reminds us that this riddle – like so many others – confuses the matter of who is serving whom; this speaker is “habitually compelled to serve men but also itself attended at times by a tillic esne ‘useful servant’” (page 205). While the one handling the glass beaker is imagined as a person from a lower status background, the beaker itself is glæd mid golde (shining with gold). This level of bling makes me wonder if Riddle 63’s glass beaker is – rather than a prostitute, like in Aldhelm’s Latin riddle – imagined as a high-status person having a fling with a servant in a private chamber. On a literal level, this gold could be metal ornamentation around the glass beaker (Salvador-Bello, page 372), but figuratively it might point to all those wondrous arm- and neck-rings that bedeck elite lords, ladies and retainers in heroic poetry.

I want to point to one final comparison before I close up shop for the day. A few weeks ago at a fascinating lecture about fear, Alice Jorgensen from Trinity College Dublin reminded me about a funny little reference in Blickling Homily 10, Þisses Middangeardes Ende Neah Is. This late 10th-century homily says that the dead will be forced to reveal their sins on Judgement Day:

biþ þonne se flæschoma ascyred swa glæs, ne mæg ðæs unrihtes beon awiht bedigled (Morris, pages 109/11)
(then the flesh will be as clear as glass, nor may its wrongs be at all concealed).

Isn’t this too perfect? The glassy flesh of sinners will no longer be able to conceal sins when the end of the world comes! Just like the glass of a beaker reveals what’s in it. Those sins – whether consensual sex between people of different social ranks, or the prostitute and drunken patron’s power struggle – are all going to be on display. A sobering note to end on, I know. (get it?)


References and Suggested Reading:

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

Leahy, Kevin. Anglo-Saxon Crafts. Stroud: Tempus, 2003, esp. pages 106-7.

Magennis, Hugh. “The Cup as Symbol and Metaphor in Old English Literature.” Speculum, vol. 60 (1985), pages 517-36.

Morris, Richard, ed. The Blickling Homilies. Early English Text Society o.s. (original series) 58, 63, 73. London: Oxford University Press, 1874-80.

Murphy, Patrick J. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011, pages 204-6.

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. “The Sexual Riddle Type in Aldhelm’s Enigmata, the Exeter Book, and Early Medieval Latin.” Philological Quarterly, vol. 90 (2012), pages 357-85, esp. 371-2.

Stephens, Win. “The Bright Cup: Early Medieval Vessel Glass.” In The Material Culture of Daily Living in the Anglo-Saxon World. Edited by Maren Clegg Hyer and Gale R. Owen-Crocker. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2011 (repr. 2013 by Liverpool University Press), pages 275-92.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 63  bibliography  latin 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 12
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 21
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 54
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 62

Commentary for Bern Riddle 63: De vino


Date: Thu 01 Apr 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 63: De vino

The final riddle in the Bern collection only appears in two manuscripts. It is untitled, but the solution is obvious. It is not as madcap or creative as many other Bern riddles, and it is also written in a different meter, so it is doubtful whether it belongs to the original collection. Perhaps the most interesting thing about it is its use of acrostic, spelling out the name PAULUS in the first letter of each line—presumably the author of the poem was called Paul. Acrostic is not so common in literature today, although it does get used from time to time, but it was a well-used feature of early medieval Latin literature. For example, the seventh century riddler, Aldhelm, uses the technique in the preface to his riddles to spell out twice Aldhelmus Cecinit millenis versibus odas (“Aldhelm composed poems in one thousand lines”).

As I explained in my commentary on Riddle 50, riddles had a long association with wine. Two other Bern riddles were written about of wine and winemaking: Riddles 13 and 50. However, unlike the others, which disguise their subjects in some unusual and cryptic ways, Riddle 63 pretty much gives the solution away in the very first line, when it tells us that “No one more beautiful than me ever lives in cups” (Pulchrior me nullus versatur in poculis umquam).

“Monks feasting and drinking wine, from the late 11th century/early 12th century Tiberius Psalter (London, British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, folio 5v). Photograph from The British Library Digitalised Manuscripts (copyright: British Library).

Riddles often depict the relationship between humans and their alcoholic tipples as one of temporary overthrow, where the beverage overpowers or takes revenge upon its imbiber. Thus, the wine “ensnares” or “misleads” (decipere) and “stupifies” (stupere) the drinker in lines 2 & 6, and it subverts “laws and rules” (leges atque iura) with its strength in line 4. None of this really goes beyond the level of description, but the riddler does at least capture the typical themes of the genre. However, it lacks the depth of disguise and playfulness that make the Bern riddles so endlessly fascinating. At least, that’s what I think!

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

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Bern Riddle 13: De vite
Bern Riddle 50: De vino

Commentary for Exeter Riddle 78


Date: Wed 06 Jun 2018
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 78

How do you solve a problem like a GIANT HOLE IN A MANUSCRIPT?

The damage to the Exeter Book is so extensive when it comes to Riddle 78 that nearly the entire riddle is wiped out. We have a handful of words at the beginning of the first few lines, and then just nothing at all until nearly the end of the text block. I suppose this means there are lots of exciting opportunities to fill in the gaps? That’s me trying to be an optimist (not my usual thing, so not sure whether it worked!).

Right, well I suppose what we can do is approach this problem from the zero point, and start with a list of things we do know about what’s going on in this riddle. Here we are:

1) There’s a first-person speaker.
2) The speaker can be found under the water, concealed by the waves.
3) The speaker has family or kin.
4) The speaker eats another creature.
5) Either the speaker or its victim travels through the water rather than staying at home.
6) The speaker’s hunting methods are particularly clever.

As in the previous riddle – usually solved as Oyster – there’s an overall focus on water and the concealment that comes from living in such an element, including some rather specific verbal overlap (flod, , (be-)wreon). Even so, this concealment doesn’t protect the speaker’s victim.

But what sort of animal is the speaker? Reacting to previous scholarship’s lack of interest in this mangled little poem – most folks just wrote it off as yet another Oyster riddle – Craig Williamson argues for Lamprey (pages 357-9). He interprets the clues (well…the ones we can actually read) as referring to a migratory creature with an interesting hunting adaptation. This leads him to suggest the fearsome sea lamprey: jawless, parasitic fish who feed by attaching their suctiony mouths to other fish and then chewing through the scales and flesh with their sharp teeth in circular rows until they can suck their blood.

Photo of a sea lamprey’s mouth (by Drow male) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0)

Wow. You’re not going to sleep tonight, are you?

Williamson’s solution is, however, more than a tad speculative, considering how little of this riddle survives. Much tidier is Mercedes Salvador(-Bello)’s suggestion that the aquatic predator of Riddle 78 may well be preying on an oyster not unlike the one being devoured by a human right before this poem in the manuscript (page 410). The predator and subject of Riddle 78, then, is likely a crab – because crabs were known as the fierce enemies of oysters.

Photo of a shore crab (by Hans Hillewaert) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 4.0)

Strangely enough, crabs were reputed to have a particularly clever hunting behaviour: a number of sources from St Ambrose to Isidore of Seville (and beyond!) suggest that they waited for oysters to open their shells and then stuck stones inside to prevent them from closing properly. This enabled them to feast to their little hearts’ delight.

Of course, crabs don’t need to use stones in this way…their pinchers are actually super-efficient:

But this still got me thinking about animal tool use, and I went down the rabbit hole of the internetz to find out more. Interestingly, some types of crab have been observed using tools, even if not – as far as I can tell – in the manner described above (other aquatic animals do use rocks for bashing shells though!). A number of species of crab actually carry plants/algae, shells and rocks, or even deck themselves out with anemones for camouflage and protection (Mann and Patterson). Don’t say I never teach you cool facts.

Crab tool use isn’t just pretty amazing – it also kind of makes you think that late antique and medieval stories about crabs pummeling oysters with stones aren’t really that far-fetched. Unfortunately, we don’t have any of these in Old English, but this may well be what the 7th-century Aldhelm of Malmesbury was getting at in his Latin Enigma 37, Cancer (Crab):

‘Nepa’ mihi nomen ueteres dixere Latini:
Humida spumiferi spatior per litora ponti;
Passibus oceanum retrograda transeo uersis:
Et tamen aethereus per me decoratur Olimpus,
Dum ruber in caelo bisseno sidera scando;
Ostrea quem metuit duris perterrita saxis.
(Glorie, vol. 133, page 421)
(Ancient Romans called my name ‘Nepa’: I stroll along the sodden shores of the foaming sea; I cross the ocean in reverse with turned steps, and yet celestial heaven is embellished by me, when I, rosy, ascend into the sky with twelve stars: the oyster dreads me, frightened by hard stones.)

Could this intimidating use of stones be the clever hunting method that the heavily damaged Riddle 78 was referring to? That’s certainly what Salvador(-Bello) reckons! She suggests that the audience of the Exeter Book riddles would likely have known about the oyster and crab’s association, and that they may have even interpreted the two allegorically. They clearly did so for oysters (see Riddle 77’s commentary), and we have early theological texts that suggest crabs were up for grabs, allegorically-speaking, as well. Here’s an excerpt from St Ambrose’s fourth-century Hexameron:

Sunt ergo homines, qui cancri usu in alienae usum circumscriptionis irrepant, et infirmitatem propriae virtutis astu quodam suffulciant, fratri dolum nectant, et alterius pascantur aerumna. Tu autem propriis esto contentus, et aliena te damna non pascant. Bonus cibus est simplicitas innocentiae. (book 5, chapter 8, number 22; Patrologia Latina sections 216A–216B)
(Now, there are people who, like crabs, skillfully creep into the trust of other people, and bolster the weakness of their own virtue by a certain cunning; they bind deceit to their brother, and feed on another’s hardship. Conversely, be content with what is your own, and do not feed on others’ misfortunes. An honest meal is the simplicity of innocence.)

This truly fabulous allegory leads Salvador(-Bello) to suggest that Riddles 77 and 78 make a very tidy thematic and moralistic pairing: innocent and defenseless oyster vs voracious crab.

We all know who wins in real life.


References and Suggested Reading

St Ambrose. Hexaemeron. Patrologia Latina Database. Vol. 14.

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

Mann, Janet, and Eric M. Patterson. “Tool Use by Aquatic Animals,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, volume 368 (2013), online here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4027413/

Salvador(-Bello), Mercedes. “The Oyster and the Crab: A Riddle Duo (nos. 77 and 78) in the Exeter Book.” Modern Philology, vol. 101, issue 3 (Feb. 2004), pages 400-19.

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 78  latin 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 77

Commentary for Exeter Riddle 85


Date: Thu 18 Jul 2019
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 85

Riddle 85 tells a story that we all know well: fish can’t survive out of water. I think there may even be a saying about that…

Carp bream swimming

Here is a nice Carp Bream via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

This riddle topic is found around the world and in many different historical contexts, so we can be fairly certain of its solution (Bitterli, page 14). The first recorded instance seems to be that of the 4th/5th-century North African riddler Symphosius. His Latin Enigma 12, Flumen et Piscis (River and Fish) reads:

est domus in terris clara quae voce resultat.
ipsa domus resonat, tacitus sed non sonat hospes.
ambo tamen currunt hospes simul et domus una. (Leary, page 41)

(There is a house on earth that rebounds with a clear voice.
The house itself resounds, but its silent host does not make a sound.
Nevertheless, both the host and the house travel together at the same time.)

Pretty similar to Riddle 85, right? We have a noisy house and a silent inhabitant traveling together. Here the inhabitant is a hospes (host…or guest for that matter), which is a little different from our Old English riddle, but it’s still much of a muchness.


There’s another – much shorter this time – Latin version that makes use of the same motif in Alcuin of York’s fabulously titled Disputatio regalis et nobilissimi iuvenis Pippini cum Albino scholastico (Debate between the regal and noble youth Pippin and Alcuin the scholar). Alcuin wrote this prose debate with its many puzzles and riddles for Pippin, the son of Charlemagne, likely when he was working at the Carolingian court from the years 781-794 (Bitterli, page 13). I *really* like this version because the Pippin of the text is a cheeky little thing:

A. Vidi hospitem currentem cum domo sua, et ille tacebat et domus sonabat.
B. Para mihi rete, et pandam tibi. (Alcuin, page 142, number 98)

(Alcuin: I saw a host travelling with his house; he was silent, and his house resounded.
Pippin: Get a net for me, and I will lay it out for you.)

Pippin is saying that he knows full well where to look for the solution to this riddle. And his command to get him a net hints at the death of the fish, which he jokes about removing from its watery habitat.

When it comes to Riddle 85, I like to think that this watery habitat is evident in the repeated sounds that snake their way through the poem. There are a heck of a lot of ‘s’ and ‘sh’ and ‘ch’ sounds (in Old English ‘sc’ is pronounced ‘sh’ and ‘c’ is often ‘ch’), echoing the noisy, rushing river described in the opening lines. But then we reach the final line’s hard ‘d’s, which slow the rushing water to a standstill, linking gedælað (are divided) and deað (death) in the process. The sonic play of this poem is DEEP, guys.

And the fish’s death is an innovation of the Old English poet – no OE poem is complete without a good helping of angst! Hence, death is the focus of the final lines. The fish – now the speaker rather than mere subject of the riddle – muses: Ic him in wunige a þenden ic lifge; / gif wit unc gedælað, me bið deað witod (I always dwell within him for as long as I live; if we two are divided, death is certain for me). Just as the water back in Riddle 77 protected the oyster from voracious humans, here the river is life-sustaining for the fish. But it’s more than that: this animal and its habitat share a symbiotic existence, a common siþ (journey). They’re linked firmly together by the fabulous dual pronouns unc and wit, pronouns whose meaning – “the two of us” – suggests an especially close bond. And the animal/habitat are also linked in that the riddle, as Marie Nelson puts it, “has a strangely compound single subject. There is a solution, but it is fish and river, two identities so dependent that they seem one” (page 611). Two become one.

The journey of the fish and river is placed firmly within a Christian framework, as the fish-speaker (good compound, that!) proclaims that dryhten (the lord) created both the animal and its home. This and the poem’s focus on unity vs separation and life vs death has led to the suggestion of an alternate solution: Soul and Body (Orchard, page 294; Murphy, page 20). Poems about the soul and body are pretty common in Old English, and the idea that one lives within the other – often rather unwillingly! – comes up time and time again. See, for example, Soul and Body II (full translation here), which lives in the same manuscript as Riddle 85:

Eardode ic þe in innan.      No ic þe of meahte,
flæsce bifongen,      ond me firenlustas
þine geþrungon. (lines 30-2a)

(I lived within you. Nor was I able get out of you,
surrounded by flesh, and your sinful pleasures
oppressed me.)

Yeah, I can see how this is similar to Riddle 85, apart from the fact that the body does the soul wrong (earthly temptations and all that), while the river is essential to the fish. So it’s more likely, as Patrick Murphy argues, that a soul-and-body metaphor is being used to give this riddle about a fish and river a little extra something something…my words, not his (page 20).

With that in mind and with the prospect of my own river-side holiday looming large, I’m going to leave you to ponder this riddle on your own now.

Here, have some nice, ambient background sounds as you go:


References and Suggested Reading

Alcuin. “Disputatio regalis et nobilissimi juvenis Pippini cum Albino scholastico.” In Altercatio Hadriani Augusti et Epicteti Philosophi. Edited by Lloyd William Daly and Walther Suchier. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1939, pages 134-46.

Bitterli, Dieter. Say What I am Called: The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book and the Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009, esp. pages 14-18.

Leary, T. J., ed. Symphosius: The Aenigmata: An Introduction, Text and Commentary. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Murphy, Patrick. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011, esp. pages 19-20.

Nelson, Marie. “The Paradox of Silent Speech in the Exeter Book Riddles.” Neophilologus, volume 62, issue 4 (1978), pages 609-15.

Orchard, Andy. “Enigma Variations: The Anglo-Saxon Riddle-tradition.” In Latin Learning and English Lore: Studies in Anglo-Saxon Literature for Michael Lapidge. Edited by Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe and Andy Orchard (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), pages 284-304.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 85  latin 

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Exeter Riddle 77
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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 86


Date: Mon 07 Oct 2019
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 86

Not gonna lie: I’m having trouble getting enthused enough about garlic to write this post. I mean, I love garlic as much as the next person. But can I devote an entire blog post to this love? I guess we’re about to find out…

So, Riddle 86. This nearly impossible-to-solve riddle has in fact been solved since 1865 when F. Dietrich noted that it bears similarities to a 4th/5th-century Latin riddle by the North African poet Symphosius. Symphosius’ Enigma 94 is solved as luscus alium vendens (one-eyed seller of garlic), and it goes a little something like this:

cernere iam fas est quod vix tibi credere fas est:
unus inest oculus, capitum sed milia multa.
qui quod habet vendit, quod non habet unde parabit?
(Leary, page 51)

(Now might you see what you might scarcely believe:
he has one eye but many thousands of heads.
From where will he, who sells what he has, procure what he has not?)
(Leary, page 233)

Like Riddle 86, Symphosius’ riddles turns on the central figure’s one-eyed-ness, in relation his thousands of heads. Unlike Riddle 86, the Latin poem also tells us that this figure is selling something, and that allows us to make the leap from actual heads to heads of garlic. In Symphosius’ riddle collection, the one-eyed seller of garlic follows a riddle about a gouty soldier, so there’s a link between folks who travel – whether soldier or pedlar (Leary, page 233). This collection’s editor, T. J. Leary, also notes that the luscus, or one-eyed man, “was commonly the subject of jokes” (page 234). Leary goes on: “His ‘low-status’ disability [in contrast to soldier whose gout was result of rich living] aside, the luscus would have been looked down on too for being a hawker […]; and he would have been despised the more for hawking garlic, since this was traditionally a poor man’s food” (page 234). And so, the riddle expresses “amazement that someone who has just one eye in his own head sells all the heads of garlic he possesses and so denies himself the only hope he has, scant though it is, since heads of garlic do not possess eyes, of procuring a second from one of them” (page 234). So, there’s a lot going on here with regard to both disability and class. This Latin riddle punches down, not up.

Riddle 86 Tacuinum_sanitatis-garlic
Harvesting garlic in the 15th-century Tacuinum sanitatis, a Latin translation of the 11th-century Arabic medical treatise called Taqwīm as‑Siḥḥa by Ibn Butlan of Baghdad. Image from Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, Latin 9333, fol. 23, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

But a lot of this context is lost in the Old English version. Robert DiNapoli notes that “barring the egregiously odd detail of the twelve hundred heads, this riddle offers no more than a wholly unremarkable description of a one-eyed man, almost prosaic in its catalogue of basic features of the human body” (page 453). This man also isn’t depicted in the act of selling. Instead, he’s seen approaching wise men in conversation. Wise men are frequently invited in the last lines of the Exeter Book riddles to show off this wisdom by solving them, so perhaps we could even view this character as approaching a group of riddlers. DiNapoli further suggests that the riddle may be taunting us with echoes of the Germanic god Odin, who is well known for both his one-eyed-ness and his tendency to travel widely and engage in contests of wisdom (page 453). But all those thousands of garlic heads would still need explaining in this context. Perhaps the joke is that we think something mysterious is happening before we realise that this is simply a travelling salesman at work.

Riddle 86 Onion_seller_in_Heath_Street_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1072379
Photo of an Onion Seller in Heath Street (from ceridwen, via geograph.org.uk) via Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 2.0)

Something that also needs explaining in this Old English riddle’s reception by academics is their tendency to throw around a lot of very loaded terms. “Grotesque” and “monstrous” come up a lot. So does “freakish.” I hope colleagues working in the field of disability studies someday take up the opportunity to unpack this sort of language in relation to Riddle 86, especially given that the central figure is in fact a disabled man with one eye. Sure, it’s the combination of this fact with the list of body-parts that crescendos in its reference to the TWELVE HUNDRED HEADS that spars on accusations of grotesquerie…but using the term “freakish” uncritically seems irresponsible to me in a world that once saw people with disabilities and developmental differences exhibited in freak shows. Check your language, academics.

A desire to over-interpret the twelve-hundred-headed character, who is otherwise simply described according to a list of body-parts, jumps off the page in Craig Williamson’s edition of the riddles: “The sight of old garlic- or onion-sellers lurching many-headed across the Anglo-Saxon marketplace may have been more common to Old English riddle-solvers than it is to us, but presumably not all of those grisly garlic-sellers were one-eyed” (pages 376-7). Nowhere in the riddle is the garlic-seller described as old. Nowhere in the riddle is the garlic-seller described as lurching. Nowhere in the riddle is the garlic-seller described as grisly. This is an over-interpretation based on a great deal of speculation. When presented with what is essentially a numerical puzzle – these body-parts don’t add up! – some folks have desperately attempted to fill in the gaps and make the poem do a lot more than it’s actually doing.

And what it is actually doing is something we still need to think about when it comes to the final line of the poem. Attention to detail is key here! As Jonathan Wilcox notes, the manuscript’s Saga hwæt ic hatte (Say what I am called) is often corrected by scholars to Saga hwæt hio hatte (Say what it is called). Given that the rest of the riddle is in the 3rd-person, the shift to 1st-person is startling: “A character came walking…what am I called?” Does this make any sense? Wilcox argues that this is actually a mock riddle and that ignoring the shift in pronouns “flattens the levels of complexity in this playful poem and misses the possibility that it parodies the very form of the riddle” (page 185). For Wilcox, the riddle’s piling on of body-parts is all a distraction. The “impossibly difficult inferences” are there “precisely because solving the central conundrum is not the point” (p. 187). In the end, the riddle doesn’t ask us to solve the numerical puzzle, but simply to identify the person who is speaking it. Is this is a clever little game on the riddler’s part or a mistake by whoever copied it into the manuscript? We may never know!

Oh the mystery.


References and Suggested Reading

Dietrich, F. “Die Räthsel des Exeterbuchs: Verfasser; weitere Lösungen.” Zeitschrift für deutsches Alterthum, vol. 12 (1865), pages 232-52.

DiNapoli, Robert. “In The Kingdom of the Blind, the One-Eyed Man is a Seller of Garlic: Depth-Perception and the Poet’s Perspective in the Exeter Book Riddles.” English Studies, vol. 81, issue 5 (2000), pages 422-55.

Leary, T. J., ed. Symphosius: The Aenigmata: An Introduction, Text and Commentary. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Wilcox, Jonathan. “Mock Riddles in Old English: Riddles 86 and 19.” Studies in Philology, vol. 93, issue 2 (1996), pages 180-7.

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



The photo at the top of this post (by Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (Lmbuga)) is from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0)

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 86  latin  one-eyed seller of garlic  symphosius 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 85

Exeter Riddle 90


Date: Fri 30 Oct 2020
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 90
This is the famous Latin Riddle – the only non-Old English poem in the Exeter Book!

Original text:
Mirum videtur mihi –           lupus ab agno tenetur;
obcu[..]it agnus * * *(1)           et capit viscera lupi.
Dum starem et mirarem,           vidi gloriam magnam:
duo lupi stantes           et tertium tribulantes –
quattuor pedes habebant;           cum septem oculis videbant.
It seems wondrous to me – a wolf is held by a lamb;
the lamb lay down and grasps the wolf’s innards.
While I stood and marveled, I saw a great wonder:
two wolves standing and afflicting a third –
they had four feet; they saw with seven eyes.
Click to show riddle solution?
Lamb of God, Web and Loom, Candelabra


This riddle appears on folio 129v of The Exeter Book.

The above Latin text is based on this edition, where it is numbered Riddle 86: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), pages 117-18.

The Exeter Book, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936), page 240.

Textual Note:

(1) Something seems to be missing here in terms of sense, but there is no damage to the manuscript at this point (only obcu[..]it is damaged by a burnt spot right above the word). Editors frequently sub in a suggested missing word – most commonly rupi (on a stone) because of the rhyme with lupi.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  solutions  latin  riddle 90