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 

Related Posts:
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 77
Exeter Riddle 77
Exeter Riddle 85

Exeter Riddle 86


Date: Tue 06 Aug 2019
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 86
Original text:

Wiht cwom gongan         þær weras sæton
monige on mæðle,         mode snottre;
hæfde an eage         ond earan twa,
ond II fet,         XII hund heafda,
hrycg ond wombe         ond honda twa,
earmas ond eaxle,         anne sweoran
ond sidan twa.         Saga hwæt ic hatte.


A creature came walking to where men sat
many in a meeting, wise in mind;
it had one eye and two ears,
and two feet, twelve hundred heads,
a back and a belly and two hands,
arms and shoulders, one neck
and two sides. Say what I am called.

Click to show riddle solution?
One-eyed Seller of Garlic (yes, really…)


This riddle appears on folios 128v-129r 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 238.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 82: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), page 115.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 86 

Related Posts:
Exeter Riddle 42
Exeter Riddle 46
Exeter Riddle 81

Exeter Riddle 86 in Spanish / en Español


Date: Mon 05 Jul 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:

Wiht cwom gongan         þær weras sæton
monige on mæðle,         mode snottre;
hæfde an eage         ond earan twa,
ond II fet,         XII hund heafda,
hrycg ond wombe         ond honda twa,
earmas ond eaxle,         anne sweoran
ond sidan twa.         Saga hwæt ic hatte.

Una criatura pasó caminando por donde había muchos hombres sentados en asamblea, (todos de) mente sagaz; tenía un ojo y dos orejas, y dos pies, mil doscientas cabezas, una espalda y un vientre y dos manos, brazos y hombros, un cuello y dos lados. Decid cómo me llaman.
Click to show riddle solution?
Un vendedor de ajos de un solo ojo

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  old english  riddle 86  José Antonio Alonso Navarro 

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 35 and the Leiden Riddle
Response to Exeter Riddle 39
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 85

Exeter Riddle 87


Date: Wed 16 Oct 2019
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 87
Original text:

Ic seah wundorlice wiht;      wombe hæfde micle,
þryþum geþrunge.     Þegn folgade,
mægenstrong ond mundrof;      micel me þuhte
godlic gumrinc;      grap on sona,
heofones toþe      * * *
bleowe on eage;      hio borcade,
wancode willum.      Hio wolde seþeah


I saw a wondrous creature; it had a great belly,
extremely swollen. A servant followed,
strong in might and tough in hand; he seemed large to me,
a good warrior; he grasped at once,
heaven’s tooth * * *
blew in its eye. It barked,
wavered in will. Nonetheless it wanted

Click to show riddle solution?


This riddle appears on folio 129r 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 239.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 83: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), pages 115-16.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 87 

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Response to Exeter Riddle 39
Exeter Riddle 38
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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 87


Date: Tue 10 Dec 2019
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 87

Hello hello hello! What do I have to say about Riddle 87? Well at first I thought…very little! But this riddle actually has some cool stuff going on, which I’ll attempt to make thoroughly exciting for you. It’s still worth asking yourself how excited you can possibly be about BELLOWS, which is how this riddle is generally solved.

Engraving of two men using bellows

A 12th-century carving of two men operating a bellows from the Museum zu Allerheiligen in Schaffhausen, Switzerland. A little after our time, but the principle’s the same. From Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Wait a minute now…bellows sounds like a familiar solution, doesn’t it? Well, it might if you cast your mind aaaaaaaaall the way back to Riddle 37. And you should. Because these riddles are in conversation with each other. Let’s take a look:

Ic þa wihte geseah;     womb wæs on hindan
þriþum aþrunten.     Þegn folgade,
mægenrofa man,     ond micel hæfde
gefered þæt hit felde,     fleah þurh his eage.

(I saw that being; its belly was in the back
greatly swollen. A servant followed it,
a mighty, strong man, and the great one had
brought forth what filled it; it flew through its eye.)

These are the first four lines of Riddle 37, and they look awfully similar to the opening lines of Riddle 87. We’ve got the same wiht (creature or being). We’ve got the same swollen womb (belly). We’ve got the same reference to a servant (a smith!) following behind the riddle-object (Þegn folgade). That servant is mægen (mighty), micel (great or large) and strong in both poems. And there’s a weird reference to something blowing or flying through the implement’s eage (eye) in both as well.

Reconstructed bellows

Photo (by Wolfgang Sauber) of a medieval reproduction from Eiríksstaðir Living Museum in Iceland, from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0)

Riddle 37 then goes to on to describe the continuous cycle of the bellows’ filling and expelling of air in a rather saucy and eroticized fashion. That riddle ends with a reference to the bellows’ air fathering sons and to the fact that this air is its own father. Sexy, amirite?

All this fathering of sons has made me think again about one of my favourite subjects: grammatical gender. I know…I have no life.

“Grammatical gender” refers to the masculine, feminine or neuter status of all nouns in Old English (while modern English has lost it, many other languages use grammatical gender today). When it comes to interpreting these poems, riddle-solvers sometimes get excited by the apparent gendering of a particular image only to decide that all those, for example, feminine pronouns are really just there because the riddle opens with the word wiht (creature/being), which is grammatically feminine.

BUT in Riddle 37, we have a wiht AND we have overt masculine imagery (i.e. fathering sons). Riddle 87 doesn’t have this. This riddle does have feminine pronouns (like hio, which I’ve translated as “it,” but could have translated as “she” instead). So, if one bellows riddle is using masculine pronouns and one bellows riddle is using feminine pronouns, should we read these two poems as approaching the subject through the lens of two different genderings? Or should we just assume that Riddle 87 is using feminine markers neutrally because of the grammatical gender of wiht. I really don’t know!

This shows how complicated the process of translation can be, and how in translating we’re always making decisions that influence the interpretation of the text. A strong man grasping a barking object and a strong man grasping a barking woman would and should be interpreted differently. This is the sort of thing that keeps me up at night, folks. I hope I’ve managed to explain it clearly. Drop me a line, if not!

At any rate, while Riddle 87 may still include a bit of innuendo like Riddle 37, it does move in a distinctly non-erotic direction when it comes to the bizarre imagery of heofones toþe (heaven’s tooth). As Frederick Tupper, Jr. notes (page 227), this could be related to a 7th/8th-century continental Latin riddle that clearly refers to wind as biting. I’m Canadian…I get this.

The Latin Bern Enigma 41, De Vento (On Wind) reads:

Os est mihi nullum, dente nec vulnero quemquam,
Mordeo sed cunctos silvis campisque morantes.
(Glorie, page 587, lines 3-4)

(There is no mouth for me, nor do I injure anyone by tooth,
though I bite all who linger in forests and fields.)

So “heaven’s tooth” is the wind, which kind of makes sense in a poem that’s interested in the inspiration and expiration of breath/air.

After the heaven’s tooth reference and the weird barking and wavering object, we reach an unsatisfactory ending. This is because this riddle is again again fragmentary due to the damage to the end of the manuscript. So, we don’t know what we’re missing in the final line.

We can guess a teensy bit about that final syllable that I haven’t translated: it’s just about possible to make out “niol” before the damage to the manuscript becomes too extreme. Niol almost certainly refers to something deep down, underneath or prostrate (see the entry for neowol in Bosworth and Toller’s dictionary). But if this tidbit is a word in and of itself or part of a compound, we simply don’t know. Either way, looking at the manuscript, it appears that the poem is only a few words away from ending. So at least we’re not missing much!

[I should also note that the gap in line 5b isn’t due to damage. Here, we know that something’s missing from the poem because its regular alliteration falters. This could be a case of a copying error, or perhaps eye-skip or a muddled transmission if this riddle was being copied out from another written version. Who knows?!]‏‏

There we are, that’s me done. I’m not sure if I’ve managed to follow through on my promise of exciting content! But as a parting farewell, I gift unto you this image of a bellows at work in a medieval festival in Belgium. You’re welcome.

Medieval festival blacksmith with bellows

A blacksmith using a bellows to fire his forge at the medieval festival of Vaulx, Belgium. Photo (by Jamain) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 4.0).


 References and Suggested Reading:

Bosworth, Joseph, and T. Northcote Toller. An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1898; Digital edition. Prague: Faculty of Arts, Charles University, 2010.

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

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

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

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 87 

Related Posts:
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 37
Exeter Riddle 37
Exeter Riddle 87

Exeter Riddle 88


Date: Thu 19 Dec 2019
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 88
We have a guest translator for this riddle: the one and only Denis Ferhatović. Denis is associate professor of English at Connecticut College and an enthusiast when it comes to poetic creativity. He has brought some of this creativity to the below translation, which I hope you enjoy reading as much as I have!

Original text:
Ic weox þær ic s[……………………
……..]ond sumor mi[…………….
……………]me wæs min ti[…..
5 …]d ic on staðol[………………..
……….]um geong, swa[……….
oft geond [………………..]fgeaf,
ac ic uplong stod, þær ic [………]
10 ond min broþor; begen wæron hearde.
Eard wæs þy weorðra þe wit on stodan,
hyrstum þy hyrra. Ful oft unc holt wrugon,
wudubeama helm wonnum nihtum,
scildon wið scurum; unc gescop meotud.
15 Nu unc mæran twam magas uncre
sculon æfter cuman, eard oðþringan
gingran broþor. Eom ic gumcynnes
anga ofer eorþan; is min agen bæc
wonn ond wundorlic. Ic on wuda stonde
20 bordes on ende. Nis min broþor her,
ac ic sceal broþorleas bordes on ende
staþol weardian, stondan fæste;
ne wat hwær min broþor on wera æhtum
eorþan sceata eardian sceal,
25 se me ær be healfe heah eardade.
Wit wæron gesome sæcce to fremmanne;
næfre uncer awþer his ellen cyðde,
swa wit þære beadwe begen ne onþungan.
Nu mec unsceafta innan slitað,
30 wyrdaþ mec be wombe; ic gewendan ne mæg.
Æt þam spore findeð sped se þe se[…
………..] sawle rædes.
I grew where I s[……………………
……..]and summer mi[…………….
……………]me was my ti[…..
…………………… …]d I in the position[………………..
……….]um young, so[……….
……………..] nevertheless,
often throughout [………………..]fgave,
but I stood straight where I [………]
and my brother. We were both hardened.
Our shelter was worthier, adorned more highly,
as the two of us stood on top. The forest always protected us,
on dark nights, its helm of arboreal branches made a shield
against downpours. The Almighty molded us.
Now our kinsmen, our younger brothers
must come after us, and snatch away
our shelter. I am the only human individual
left in the world. My own back is
murky and marvelous. I stand on wood,
on the border of the shield/on the edge of the table/on the margin of the page.(1)
Mi hermano no está aquí.(2)
But I have to guard the position, brotherless
on the border of the shield/on the edge of the table/on the margin of the page.(3)
I must stand unmoved.
No sé dónde mi hermano debe habitar,(4) possessed by men, their property
in what quarter of the world
he who used to shelter high by my side.
We two were one when waging war.
Yet neither could make his valor known
as we were both no good when it came to battle.
Now some degenerates slit my insides,
tear into my abdomen. I cannot escape.
Following these traces finds abundance who […
………..] advantage to the soul.
Click to show riddle solution?
Antler, Inkhorn, Horn, Body and Soul


This riddle appears on folios 129r-129v 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 239-40.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 84: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), pages 116-17.

Translation Notes:

(1) and (3) Please see the commentary for more information regarding this multiple translation.

(2) and (4) Likewise, an explanation of the parts in Spanish, and my reason for their use, can be found in the commentary.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 88  denis ferhatovic 

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Exeter Riddle 83

Commentary for Exeter Riddle 88


Date: Thu 19 Dec 2019
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 88

A special holiday treat for you: two posts on the same day! Denis Ferhatović of Connecticut College returns with this commentary on the most fabulous Riddle 88. Enjoy!:

Red deer stag looking at camera

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

Thank you, Megan, for giving me an opportunity to try out one of my favorite genres, translator’s note, and combine it with scholarly commentary.

I will begin with a quotation from a poem by Nahir Otaño Gracia, “¡Si es tuyo, es mío! / Old English is mine!” Although Otaño Gracia and I have different marginalizations, like her, I claim the vernacular of early medieval England as mine. This past summer, as I sat down in a train that would take me from Manchester Airport to Leeds for the International Medieval Congress, I noticed a sign nearby. It explained how to obtain a luggage cart in two languages and scripts, English in the Roman alphabet, and Urdu in the Perso-Arabic alphabet.

Riddle 88 sign.jpeg
Bilingual luggage cart instructions in Manchester, UK

Later on the train, a young heterosexual couple with a child sat next to me. The little one pointed to a herd of ungulates [i.e. hoofed mammals] on a field outside, exclaiming the word “horse” in Polish, which I recognized because of its similarity to the same word in my native language. England is, and has always been, multilingual and multicultural. This is also true for the time that produced the Exeter Book riddles: Riddle 90 is in Latin rather than Old English; runes give Riddles 19, 24, 64, and 75 one more layer to decode; Welsh characters appear in Riddles 12 and 52 (for more, see the work of Lindy Brady in the reading list below).

Anyone glancing at my Modern English translation of Riddle 88 will notice two lines in Spanish. Let me explain my decision to include them. You might remember the scandal that Seamus Heaney caused when he incorporated a small but prominent number of Irish and Hiberno-English words in his masterful translation of Beowulf. I, too, wish to underline potential postcolonial resonances of the poem that I am translating – that is, its ability to speak to complex histories of conquest, colonization, and cross-cultural exchange, of its immediate time and our own. I, too, seek to distinguish my English from the dominant mode of the language. Aware of the aesthetic and political stakes of inter/intralingual transfer, I choose not to be invisible as a translator.

Marginal voices and perspectives surface in the Exeter riddles, hidden in the startling speeches and descriptions of everyday things and creatures. Edward B. Irving, Jr. argues that the riddles often complicate the epic mode by expressing what is usually unexpressed in poems like Beowulf, the point of view of the small and the weak, the oppressed and the frightened. Jennifer Neville finds the possibility of social critique and Derridean deconstruction avant la lettre [before the term existed] in the corpus. When we read the lines Nis min broþor her (my brother is not here, line 20) and ne wat hwær min broþor/… eardian sceal (I do not know where my brother…/ must dwell, lines 23-24), I think that we are meant to hear more than the lament of an antler-turned-inkhorn for his twin.

Riddle 88 Inkhorn_and_ivory_case,_9th-13th.jpg
An ivory inkhorn from the early-medieval (9th/11th-century) Rhineland, along with an ivory pen case from 12th/13th-century Sicily. Photo (by Zde) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 4.0)

Broþor, according to the Dictionary of Old English (DOE), has several related shades of meanings, much like its modern descendent, familial, religious, and affectionate. If I read like a bædling (“sexual deviant”), I could recover a queer charge to the antler/inkhorn’s longing: momentarily revealed in the middle of the details dealing with the process of crafting the object is a lament for a kinsman, fellow monk, or male friend; hidden in that lament might be an erotic yearning of a man for another man, an expression of non-normative desire (for more on reading as a bædling, see Vaccaro’s forthcoming book). The speaker of Riddle 88 lost his brother who may be in a precarious situation somewhere. So many enigmas and other poems from the Exeter Book, including the Wanderer and Wife’s Lament, speak of the pain and, less often, consolation of exiles. My decision to translate lines 20 and 23-24 into Spanish comes from hearing a(n im)migrant or a refugee voice in the Old English and desiring to amplify it as such in the midst of the American English I use in this historical moment. And yet the statements do not come from a real person; they are stylized and embedded in an intellectual, poetic exercise about a piece of now-obsolete technology. If you want to hear from actual refugees, talk to them.

The DOE (see under ānga) echoes Craig Williamson (page 381) in calling lines 17 and 18 “hyperbolic and metaphoric.” Both sources also offer less literal renditions, but I perceive in the speaker’s assumption of humanness and assertion of utter loneliness an apocalyptic quality, convincing because the loss of a loved one can feel like the loss of the entire humankind.

“Bordes on ende” (lines 20, 21) fascinated me as a phrase; I aimed to render it with as much of its polysemy [i.e. multiplicity of meaning] as possible. The DOE gives “shield” and “table” for bord, and speculates that the word in that particular phrase in Riddle 88 may play on borda, “ornamental border.” Ende can have the sense of “remotest limit, border” (DOE, sense A.1.a), which works well with my (im)migrant reading. In any case, this enigma suggests a number of liminal positions, some of them central to textual production.

Now on to some other traductorial decisions. The poem is a fragment because of the damage to the manuscript at its beginning and end. I foreground the physical state of the text by keeping the ellipses (as presented by the editors Krapp and Dobbie) in my version. I leave the bits that cannot be parsed in Old English, typographically enshrining them to challenge our attempts at interpretation.

Since eardian, “to dwell,” and its noun form eard seem crucial to Riddle 88 (appearing in lines 10, 24, 25), I consistently translate them as “shelter” to capture an important thematic thread in the poem.

I read humor in lines 27-28. The stag is not a particularly fearsome beast in Old English literature. In a memorable passage of Beowulf, the narrator says that a deer pursued by hounds would rather perish on the shores of Grendel’s mere than venture inside (lines 1368-72). The Danish royal hall in that poem, Heorot gets its name from the animal because its gables look like antlers. Heor(o)tes horn, “hart’s horn, i.e., antler” and blæc-horn, “inkhorn” would be the solutions of Riddle 88 in its language. [SPOILER ALERT!] Riddle 93 has the same solution, and the Exeter Book features at least one more horn enigma, Riddle 14.

Williamson points out that unsceafta (line 29) literally means “uncreations” and figuratively “monsters” (page 382); I translate as “degenerates.” The reference is either to the tools carving a hole in the antler to create the inkhorn or the writing quills dipping inside the inkhorn to absorb the ink (as above). The word unsceafta sounds etymologically transparent – its constituent parts un– and –sceafta seem instantly understandable in Old English – in a way that monsters would not be in Modern English. Coming from the speaker, this powerful term maintains a rather different point of view for things typically considered useful, whether horn-working tools or writing utensils. The antler/inkhorn’s pain qualifies the redemptive message at the end of Riddle 88 (as it survives today). The speaker’s suffering facilitates human salvation because it holds ink for copied-out words of the Biblical Scriptures or other religious text, but, even if for a moment, our benefit does not automatically redeem its pain.

The speaker uses throughout the dual form of the first person pronoun – wit in the nominative case (i.e. for the subject of the sentence), uncre genitive (for the possessive), unc accusative (for the object). This is a special form used to refer to two persons or things (as opposed to the singular which deals with one and the plural with more than two), which has not survived into Modern English; I sometimes translate it as “we…both,” “we two,” and “the two of us” to keep the sense that though the antlers are separated in the world of the riddle, they remain together in the grammar.

Megan: And on that note of grammatical togetherness (love it!), we leave you now for a little holiday break. Look after each other out there and see you in the new year.


References and Suggested Reading:

Brady, Lindy. Writing the Welsh Borderlands in Anglo-Saxon England. Manchester:  Manchester University Press, 2017.

Dictionary of Old English: A-I 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, 2018.

Fulk, R. D., Robert E. Bjork, and John D. Niles, eds. Klaeber’s Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg. 4th edition. Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2008.

Heaney, Seamus, trans. Beowulf. London: Faber and Faber, 1999.

Irving, Edward B., Jr. “Heroic Experience in the Old English Riddles.” In Old English Shorter Poems: Basic Readings. Edited by Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe. New York:  Garland, 1994, pages 199-212.

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

Neville, Jennifer. “Speaking the Unspeakable: Appetite for Deconstruction in Exeter Book Riddle 12.” English Studies, volume 93 (2012), pages 519-28.

Otaño Gracia, Nahir. “Old English is Mine!” posted on Susan Signe Morrison’s blog, 6 October 2016. https://grendelsmotherthenovel.com/2016../../../riddles/post/old-english-is-mine-diversity-and-old-english/

Vaccaro, Christopher. Sadomasochistic Beowulf: Psychic and Somatic Dispersal in Old English Literature. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, forthcoming.

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

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 88  denis ferhatovic 

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Exeter Riddle 89


Date: Fri 30 Oct 2020
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 89
Our guest riddler this week is Calum Cockburn, Digitisation Officer of Medieval Manuscripts at the British Library and PhD Student at University College London. He's especially interested in Hellish motifs in early medieval art and literature (who wouldn’t be?!).

Original text:
[………………………………] se wiht,
wombe hæfde [……………….
………..]tne,             leþre wæs beg[…….
………………………]on hindan.
Grette wea[…………………..
………………...]             listum worhte,
hwilum eft [……………………
………..…] þygan,             him þoncade,
siþþan u[………………………
….] swæsendum             swylce þrage.
[………………………………] the creature
had a belly [……………….
………..] in leather, he was […….
………………………] behind
He approached […………………..
………………...] artfully he made
once again [……………………
………..…] to receive, thanked him
then [………………………
….] food, for such a time.
Click to show riddle solution?
Too fragmentary to guess, though Bellows and Leather Bottle have been tentatively suggested


This riddle appears on folio 129v 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 240.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 85: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), page 117.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 89  calum cockburn 

Commentary for Exeter Riddle 89


Date: Wed 24 Feb 2021
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 89

This is easily the trickiest riddle I’ve had to write a commentary for! How do I analyse and solve such a fragmentary little, burned up scrap? So scrappy is this riddle that many of the early editors of the Exeter Book didn’t bother to include it, let alone solve it.

But I suppose I can start by telling you that those folks who did grapple with Riddle 89 went in for the solutions: Bellows and Leather Bottle. Frederick Tupper, Jr. is responsible for proposing these, basing his tentative suggestions on the words wombe (belly) and leþre (leather) in lines 2-3 (page 229). Bellies come up in A LOT other riddles. In fact, apart from describing the birdy’s colourful belly in The Phoenix (line 307a), the word womb really only appears in poetic riddles and an assortment of prose texts. No. Other. Poetry. Interesting!

Large water-powered bellows

Photo (by Daderot) of water-powered bellows in a reconstructed forge, Saugus Iron Works, Massachusetts, from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0).

The most intriguing and relevant references to bellies in other riddles appear in Riddles 37 and 87 (lines 1b and 1b), which have both been solved as Bellows, and Riddle 18 (line 3), which has been solved as Jug, Leather Bottle, etc. Nip over and read those now because Riddle 37 especially has a lot to offer us here, with its reference to a wiht (creature) that has a womb (belly) on hindan (in the back/behind; line 1), much like the one in Riddle 89. Bellows is looking like a solid bet.

A 19th-century leather bottle

Here’s a leather water bottle used during the Crimean War, from Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

The Leather Bottle solution draws on that reference to leþre (leather) in line 3. This word is wonderfully concrete and specific for a riddle full of holes! Except…sigh…Craig Williamson casts doubt on whether we should be translating leþre as “leather” at all. He notes that this word might actually be a form of ly‏þre, which means “evil” or “wicked” (page 383). So that just leaves us with a lot more questions.

But let’s focus on the words that we can translate with certainty. We know that we have a wiht (creature; line 1b) of some sort – this refers to the riddle-subject and could be pretty much anything. This creature has a wombe/belly (line 2a) – so, perhaps a place to store something, literally or metaphorically. Something is located or happening on hindan (at the back of/behind; line 4b) the creature. That’s the opening riddle gambit.

Then we get into the closest this riddle comes to action! Someone – either the creature or another character in this confusing little vignette – grette (line 5a), which is translated here as “approached,” but could also mean “visited,” “touched,” “attacked,” “greeted,” “welcomed,” etc. etc. Line 6b tells us that someone (again, the creature? someone else?) listum worhte/artfully made something. And then in the final three lines we have receiving (þygan) and thanking (þoncade) and food (swæsendum).

From this scanty textual evidence, we can – just about – piece together a reading of the riddle that focuses on a skillfully-made object, which a person handles and fills with something life-sustaining (liquid into a bottle, air into bellows?). So, yeah, I can see how the two tentative solutions come together here.

Engraving of man working bellows

Photo (by Wolfgang Sauber) of a 1st-century forge bellows in an archeological museum in Aquileia, from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0).

Gregory K. Jember, who likes to solve riddles as “Phallus” willy-nilly (harhar, but seriously, he proposes this solution to no fewer than 23 riddles!), also suggests that sexuality is the main motif of Riddle 89 (page 56). It’s true that those other bellies I mentioned above tend to appear in sexual contexts, which is certainly the case of Riddles 37 and 87. In fact, Riddle 37 is pretty obviously fixated on reproduction when it mentions the bellows making sons and fathering himself. It’s a shame to think that we may well have had another hilariously rude riddle to play with if the Exeter Book hadn’t been so badly damaged by the infamous hot poker (not a euphemism).

Okay, so we’ve covered textual evidence, possible solutions and a bit of hanky-panky. What more could you want from a riddle commentary? Well, you might not have known that you want this, but I give you Miller Wolf Oberman’s musings on how he translates fragmentary poems into modern English: “While many translators attempt to smooth over missing language, I am fascinated by the ways in which Old English poetry allows me to walk through its bones, and part of my translation instinct is about paying respect to gaps in these poetic remains, rather than attempting to force a seeming wholeness onto them” (page 278). Oberman’s discussion of his poetic process is fascinating and beautifully expressed – as we might expect from a poet! – and I encourage you to read it as soon as you possibly can. He discusses Riddle 89 in some detail and provides a series of translations that show how he grappled with this riddle and turned it into something new.

I’d like to leave you with a final thought from Oberman: “In some sense, though, all riddles are fragmentary. They operate through withholding crucial and obvious information; they aim to cleverly trick, revealing themselves, and their ‘meaning’ through unusual description, through misdirection, through removal of the ordinary means of communication” (page 278). So, we can read Riddle 89, the fragmentary little scrap that it is, as simply a more difficult puzzle than the riddles that survive intact, with additional layers of obfuscation caused by the manuscript’s fire damage. How profound!


References and Suggested Reading:

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

Oberman, Miller Wolf. “Dyre Cræft: New Translations of Exeter Riddle Fragments Modor Monigra (R.84), Se Wiht Wombe Hæfde (R.89), and Brunra Beot (R.92), Accompanied by Notes on Process.” 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 277-87.

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

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

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  Riddle 89 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 90


Date: Fri 30 Oct 2020
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 90

The first thing to note about Riddle 90 is that it’s not in Old English! In fact, this little five-liner is the only entirely Latin poem to appear in the Exeter Book. There are bits of Latin elsewhere – a chunk of The Phoenix (lines 667-77) switches between Old English and Latin, and a cipher in Riddle 36 includes a Latin encryption (line 5) – but Riddle 90 is its own special beast.

There are, of course, hundreds of Latin riddles that were composed in and around England during the early medieval period. We have whole collections by high-ranking ecclesiasts Aldhelm, Tatwine, Eusebius, Boniface and several anonymous folks. Some of these collections (and their predecessor Symphosius, the late antique North African riddler extraordinaire) inspired Old English riddles from the Exeter Book.

Click through HERE for some very nice manuscript images of Aldhelm’s riddles on the British Library website!

But why include a single Latin riddle among the otherwise entirely Old English collection? I don’t have an answer to that question because Riddle 90 has stumped scholars for centuries (sorry)!

Several early would-be solvers suggested that the riddle was pointing to a particular individual like the Old English poet Cynewulf or archbishop Wulfstan, while Patricia Davis and Mary Schlueter – arguing for the solution “Augustine and Tertullian” (both famous theologians) – maintain that an anagram solution made it impossible to translate this riddle out of Latin.

Mercedes Salvador-Bello recently suggested that the compiler of the Exeter Book, in trying to assemble a collection of a hundred riddles (like Symphosius’ and Aldhelm’s collections), began to run out of material and started adding miscellaneous riddles to get to this number (page 108). There are often links between sequences of riddle earlier in the manuscript, but at the end it’s a free-for-all!

In fact, Salvador-Bello argues that Riddle 90 isn’t a riddle at all. Instead, she suggests it’s a school exercise in Latin grammar, and that the composer is either a student or an amateur poet who makes a LOT of mistakes (page 121). Some of these Latin errors have been smoothed out in Williamson’s edition, so you’ll need to consult his book’s notes (pages 387-8) or Salvador-Bello’s article for a full reckoning of how truly terrible the Latin riddle is!

So, if Riddle 90 isn’t a riddle, that goes a long way to explaining why no one has been able to solve it conclusively. Not that people haven’t tried…

One of the earliest convincing solutions – and I’m leaving out all the folks who translated lupus as a type of fish and came up with bizarre solutions based on that reading – is Henry Morley’s Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) (pages 224-5). The first few lines of Riddle 90, where a lamb tackles and holds down a wolf, work really well with a Christian theological interpretation like this. Christ is the Lamb of God and the wolf is the devil – a common metaphorical association in the Bible and biblically-inspired medieval writings. Leslie Whitbread develops this suggestion in 1946 by suggesting that the bizarre end to Riddle 90 involves the two criminals crucified with Christ. This isn’t entirely convincing and gets a bit silly when it comes to figuring out what the final line’s play-with-numbers means.

Sutton Hoo Purse Lid

Photo (by Rob Roy) of the Sutton Hoo purse lid with its violent wolves on either side, via Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 2.5

I actually quite like Whitbread’s follow-up note in 1949 that points to the wolves on the Sutton Hoo purse lid who are attacking a warrior. But there’s still no persuasive explanation of how the seven eyes come into play, as Whitbread imagines the composer of Riddle 90 had a particular material object in mind (unlikely!).

James E. Anderson’s overly complicated solution Candelabra does focus on the number seven in great detail. He suggests that the riddle is playing on the Lamb of God idea and the use of a seven-branched candelabrum in a mass about Christ’s harrowing of hell during Easter holy weekend.

Large candelabrum in Essen Minster

Photo of a late 10th/early 11th-century seven-branched candelabrum from Essen Minster, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Light is frequently associated with eyes and vision in early medieval literature, so the seven candles could be evoked in that reference to seeing in the final line. Anderson also suggests that a spiked candelabrum without its candles could evoke a sharp-toothed wolf (page 84). Perhaps there was even a wolf engraved at the base of the four-footed candelabrum? Of course, we’d need to imagine the use of two of these candelabra both for liturgical purposes and because there are two wolves afflicting a third figure in Riddle 90. I’m not sure I’ve done Anderson’s interpretation justice because it’s really quite complicated. I don’t buy it, personally, but I’m a grumpy person and hard to convince at the best of times.

I do really want to believe Craig Williamson’s suggestion that the Latin riddle is a play on an Old English word (and so the Latin poem does belong in this Old English collection!) (page 385). Williamson argues that we should solve it as Web and Loom, assuming wordplay on the Old English wulflyswul meaning “wool” and flys meaning “fleece.” This wool-fleece would be the web that’s in process upon the loom. He notes that “the riddler makes a game of construing the word as a wulf plus flys where the lamb (agnus) holds the wolf (lupus) and indeed seizes (capit) the belly or entrails (viscera) of the wolf and thus metaphorically commandeers its last letter. Thus the flys seizes f from the wulf” (page 385). I think this reading is ingeniously clever, but the final lines still don’t really add up.


Drawing of a loom from Montelius’s Civilisation of Sweden in Heathen Times, p. 160, via Roth’s Ancient Egyptian and Greek Looms, p. 34.

We could read the riddle alongside Riddle 56’s violent loom because wolves definitely have a connection to battle and death (they’re always eating the dead in the gorier Old English poems, with their “Beasts of Battle” motif). It doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch – if you know a thing or two about looms – to read the two wolves in the final lines as the two sets of dangling-down warp threads taking hold of the third set of threads, the weft that is being woven (page 385-6). But the four feet and seven eyes work less well. Most warp-weighted looms have two feet and are propped against a wall because this makes them easy to disassemble and put away. I suppose we could imagine a more permanent, four-footed loom. So, fine, the four feet aren’t a problem.

Three loom weights from Bedford Museum

Photo of early medieval loom weights from Bedford Museum, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Williamson’s suggestion that the seven eyes are the round loom-weights at the bottom makes little sense, though, since these weights should appear in an even number. He concludes that maybe “the riddler meant to refer to seven pairs of eyes, fourteen rings together, seven on each side in a row” (page 386). Sure, maybe. Or maybe this isn’t a riddle at all, and we’ve been making it work waaaaaaaay too hard for too long.

What is clear from Riddle 90 is that we have a similar interest in witnessing a wonder as we do in other Exeter Book riddles. We also have some sort of number puzzle, even if no one can work it out! We’ve got all sorts of wolves running rampant, but that’s to be expected from early medieval poetry, which likes to use these animals as a metaphor for the devil, sinners and all manner of unpleasant individuals. And we have a really striking image of power dynamics reversed, in the lamb taking hold of the wolf, which seems to have religious connotations. Whether we try to push these images, puzzles and clues to find a solution or whether we accept that this little poem is just an exercise in Latin grammar that has got out of hand…well, ultimately that’s up to you!


References and Suggested Reading:

Anderson, James E. “Exeter Latin Riddle 90: A Liturgical Vision.” Viator, vol. 23 (1992), pages 73-93.

Davis, Patricia, and Mary Schlueter. “The Latin Riddle of the Exeter Book.” Archiv für das Studium der neueren Sprachen und Literaturen, vol. 226 (1989), pages 92-9.

Morley, Henry. English Writers II, From Caedmon to the Conquest. London, 1888.

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. “Exeter Book Riddle 90 under a New Light: A School Drill in Hisperic Robes.” Neophilologus, vol. 102 (2018), pages 107-23.

Whitbread, Leslie. “The Latin Riddle in the Exeter Book.” Notes and Queries, vol. 190 (1946), pages 156-8.

Whitbread, Leslie. “The Latin Riddle in the Exeter Book.” Notes and Queries, vol. 194 (1949), pages 80-2.

Williamson, Craig. 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 90 

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Exeter Riddle 91


Date: Mon 02 Nov 2020
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 91
Original text:
Min heafod is           homere geþuren,
searopila wund,           sworfen feole.
Oft ic begine           þæt me ongean sticað,
þonne ic hnitan sceal,           hringum gyrded,
5    hearde wið heardum,           hindan þyrel,
forð ascufan           þæt mines frean
mod · ᚹ · freoþað           middelnihtum.
Hwilum ic under bæc           bregde nebbe,
hyrde þæs hordes,           þonne min hlaford wile
10    lafe þicgan           þara þe he of life het
wælcræfte awrecan           willum sinum.
My head is beaten by a hammer,
wounded by crafty points, polished by a file.
Often I swallow what sticks against me,
when I must thrust, encircled with rings,
5     hard against a hard thing, a hole from behind,
push forward what preserves my lord’s
mind-JOY in the middle of the night.
Sometimes I pull back with my nose
the hoard’s guardian, when my lord wants
10     to consume the remains of those whom he commanded
be driven from life through slaughter-skill, for his own desire.
Click to show riddle solution?
Key, Keyhole


This riddle appears on folios 129v-130r 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 240-1.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 87: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), page 118.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 91 

Commentary for Exeter Riddle 91


Date: Mon 02 Nov 2020
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 91

Content Warning: the post discusses sexual assault and violence

I honestly don’t know what I think about Riddle 91. While the object in question seems to be a Key, or perhaps Keyhole, the way it’s violently sexualized needs *a lot* of contextualizing.

The first thing to do is remember all the way back to Riddle 44 and its delightful double entendre approach to the same solution. That riddle similarly dwells on the key’s hardness and mentions a þyrel (hole), but it does so with a cheeky glint in its metaphorical eye.

Lincolnshire key from several angles

Check out this cool 9th-century key on the Portable Antiquities Scheme website (licence: CC BY 2.0).

Riddle 91, on the other hand, conflates sex and violence in a way that should make us question just how “funny” this particular double entendre riddle is supposed to be. It’s certainly meant to catch out any would-be solver with their mind in the gutter (see Bitterli, page 431). It starts by telling us that the riddle-object is manufactured violently – all those hammers and pointy objects – before being chained up and thrust into a hole. All of this is done in order to serve a lord’s mod · ᚹ · (mind-JOY), with an interesting use of the wynn rune here, which means “joy,” acting as a little riddle within the riddle. But, on the whole, Riddle 91 is a lot less joyful than Riddle 44, as it replaces the cheeky sexual reading with battle imagery, warfare and conquest.

So what have previous scholars made of this riddle? Elinor Teele argues that the riddle plays off its descriptions of both sexual conquest and the plundering of a treasure hoard (pages 193-7). She notes that the Key is itself a victim of violence in the opening lines of the riddle, before it becomes an object of violence wielded by a lord who is driven by violent appetites. The violent coercion of lords is something we see in other riddles, even if they sometimes treat their retainers less cruelly (I’m thinking of Riddle 20 here).

Edith Whitehurst Williams, on the other hand, reads the riddle as empowering. She takes the solution to be Keyhole and points out that the riddle fits within well-established conquest motifs, as well as sexual metaphors of hammering, wounding, etc. Touching upon the violence of the poem, Whitehurst Williams claims that it nonetheless “offers the strongest argument of all for the mutuality of the sex experience. A female persona relates the incident; four of the significant verbs in the power describe her own actions which seem to be both voluntary and vigorous. Her allusions to joy and pleasure place the same high value on the circumstance that we have seen in the other Riddles. As for the conquest, she seems to take an Amazonian delight in it – except for the figurative “wounded” there is no other word which suggests either discomfort or distaste” (page 144). Was there BDSM in early medieval England?

A square comprised of 50 shades of grey

It’s 50 shades of grey…get it? Image via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

I’m not sure I buy Whitehurst Williams’ reading, which hinges on an imagined female persona who is both assertive and appropriated into a violent fantasy. And I would also question the heteronormativity of these sorts of interpretations, in assuming that the sexually-charged riddles only ever depict sex between a man and a woman. Why can’t this riddle be about male lovers? Do the power dynamics change if we read it that way? Does imagining that this riddle invites us to observe sex between men as a battle say something about warrior culture? Or about the monks recording these riddles and, in so doing, writing themselves into said warrior culture? Food for thought.

However we interpret the beginning of this riddle and its various key players, the final four lines ask us to read in a new context. Here, the riddle seems to move away from double entendre to focus on eating. The scene turns to a lord plundering dead bodies for his own desire (ew), though the heroism is seriously deflated when we realize we’re actually reading about a person raiding the store cupboard for a midnight snack.

Sandwich and crisps

Behold, a midnight snack! Image via Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0).

Still, there’s a link between literal and sexual appetites here, which is interesting, especially in the context of all the hyper-masculinity this riddle packs in. The ecofeminist in me wants you all to go read Carol J. Adams’ The Sexual Politics of Meat, which argues that patriarchy and misogyny go hand-in-hand with meat-eating. Oh looky look, Carol, Riddle 91 got there first! There’s certainly something very uncomfortable in those final lines’ references to consuming the lafe (remains) of those the lord commanded to be killed wælcræfte (through slaughter-skill). We’re 100% being invited to think about cannibalism here. As if the beginning of the riddle wasn’t unpleasant enough…

So, is this riddle supposed to be one of those “so-uncomfortable-that-it-is-funny” jokes? Realizing that descriptions of an aggressive sexual encounter and cannibalism are actually a person jiggling a key in a lock to nick a bit of food is certainly deflating enough that it might bring about some nervous laughter. But – sorry Riddle 91 – I prefer jokes that punch up.


References and Suggested Reading:

Bitterli, Dieter. “The One-Liners Among the Exeter Book Riddles.” Neophilologus, vol. 103 (2019), pages 419-34.

Teele, Elinor. “The Heroic Tradition in the Old English Riddles.” Diss. University of Cambridge, 2004. esp. pages 193-7.

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.” 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 91 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 20
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 44
Exeter Riddle 20
Exeter Riddle 44

Exeter Riddle 92


Date: Wed 02 Dec 2020
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 92
Judy Kendall, Reader in English and Creative Writing at Salford University, returns with a translation of Riddle 92.

Original text:
Ic wæs brunra beot,       beam on holte,
freolic feorhbora       ond foldan wæstm,
weres wynnstaþol       ond wifes sond,
gold on geardum.       Nu eom guðwigan
hyhtlic hildewæpen,       hringe beg...
...e...       byreð,
I was the boast of red-brown things, a bough in a forest
flourishing life-giver and fruit of the soil
stock of man’s merry-making and woman’s love missive
gold at the hearth. Now I am a hero’s
exultant battle-arm, with a ring
    to another.
Click to show riddle solution?
Beech, Beech-wood Shield, Beech Battering Ram, Ash, Book, Oak


This riddle appears on folio 130r 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 241.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 88: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), page 118.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  judy kendall  riddle 92 

Commentary for Exeter Riddle 92


Date: Thu 03 Dec 2020
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 92

Judy Kendall, Reader in English and Creative Writing at Salford University, has provided Riddle 92’s commentary, including a new solution to the riddle. Take it away, Judy!

There have been various solutions to this riddle. While a number keep to the theme of beech (“beech,” “beech-wood shield,” “beech battering ram”), we also have “book,” and Ferdinand Holthausen’s initial suggestion of “ash.” Craig Williamson records that A. J. Wyatt read it as the Old English bōc, “beech with its several uses, and book,” and the tendency since then has been for riddle solvers to select “beech” rather than another kind of tree, linking it to “book” as Wyatt does (page 391). This is largely because of the record of pigs enjoying beechmast in line 107 of Riddle 40 where a boar is observed “rooting away” in a beech-wood. So, the argument goes, in line 1 of Riddle 92, “brown” or “red-brown” must indicate pig while “boast” clearly alludes to the beechmast that it is snuffling up.

However, there are other brown or red animals that also feast on forest tree produce. Red squirrels come to mind. Here’s a really nice picture of one:


Photo (by 4028mdk09) from Wikimedia Commons (licence CC BY-SA-3.0).

Squirrels also eat hazelnuts and acorns. In fact the Old English for squirrel is ācweorna, not that dissimilar to áccærn or áccorn, the word for nuts or “mast” of both beech and oak (ac), so there could perhaps be an intentional allusion to a squirrel gorging on a feast of nuts. After all ácweorran means "to guzzle or glut," and here is a red squirrel about to guzzle an acorn (not that we need proof that they love nuts!).

Squirrel on ground

Photo (by Klearchos Kapoutsis) from Wikimedia Commons (licence CC BY 2.0).

Still, we shouldn’t forget the pigs. So here is an 1894 painting of pigs rooting for beechmast:

Pigs rooting for beechmast

From William Sharp’s Fair Women in Painting and Poetry (1894, page 181), via Wikimedia Commons (no known copyright restrictions).

And an excellent little film of a whole row of pigs cracking and eating hazelnuts – spot the red-brown ones:

So boast or beot could refer to the red coat of a squirrel or the brown skin of a pig. However, it could also allude to a red-brown carpet of beechnuts, or indeed, acorns. See the glorious russet colours they create here:

Wet beech bark

Wet beech bark: Trees alongside the Gloucestershire Way in the Forest of Dean. Photo (by Jonathan Billinger) from Wikimedia Commons (licence CC BY-SA 2.0).

Who wouldn’t want to boast of that? Here’s an acorn carpet too:

Acorn carpet

White oak (Quercus alba) acorns - one prolific tree can nearly cover the ground in a good year. Duke Forest Korstian Division, Durham North Carolina. Photo (by Dcrjsr) from Wikimedia Commons (licence CC BY 3.0). (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

When Williamson dissects Wyatt’s argument for "beech," he stresses the way the riddle seems to turn on the homonymic uses of the word bōc – that is, as referring to both “book” and “beech” (page 391). Strictly speaking, the etymological connection between the two may be in doubt, but it is feasible that Old English speakers would have seen and heard them as linked, and, as Williamson argues, beech is also connected to books in the form of writing on beech-bark.

However, should we be content with beech? We have already mentioned the nuts of both the hazel and the oak, and certainly, the oak’s magnificent broad crown and reddish-brown or golden autumn leaves fit the celebratory description of many of the lines, while the hazel, too, similarly glorious in autumn, would also provide a possible match. So I would like to suggest "oak" as a new solution to this riddle, as well as urging you to consider the possibility of "hazel" too.

To this end, I will now work through the riddle as if the answer was “beech” and then recast it with an oak in tow, plus a few references to hazel thrown in along the way. Let's see where we get to.

One strong impression I had when approaching this riddle as a poet-translator is its continuous untiring celebration of a tree’s transformative journey in every line. Right from the word “go,” even down in the mud as pig or squirrel fodder, we have beot or “boast.” We have already noted how this could fit the description of an oak or hazel in autumn, and indeed it does also fit the image of a large handsome beech, resplendent in glorious gleaming yellow or orange autumn foliage, surrounded by a carpet of rich russet-coloured beechnuts. Perhaps this riddle is less of a beech teaser and more of a beech feaster:

Burnham Beeches

Watercolour painting by Myles Birket Foster from Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

More celebratory references occur in the next line which describes other, wider forms of fine or noble nourishment. A sense of exultation gleams through line 3’s focus on forms of pleasure, possibly in book, or beech-bark, form, and we can see why such a bark might be chosen and celebrated in this picture of beautiful grey smooth beech:

Beech bark

Photo of beech bark (by Jonathan Billinger) from Wikimedia Commons (licence CC BY-SA 2.0).

Note, however, that the tree’s transformation into book occurs halfway through the riddle. It is therefore just a stage on the tree’s journey, not its final destination. This throws doubt on the suggestion that “book” constitutes the answer to the riddle. Instead, it would seem that “book” is just a part of the process, as the tree, and riddle, works towards its solution.

Indeed, does an assessment of which tree is intended really help us solve the riddle? My first thought when looking at this riddle was that it is far too obviously about a tree to be actually referring, in a riddle-like way, to a tree. We riddle, surely, to confuse. If the solution is a kind of the tree, then the usual translation of the second half of line 1 as “tree in the forest” seems a bit much. Surely that kind of obvious hint should be saved till later – till the last line perhaps (a line of course to which we no longer have much access).

Observations like these are partly why I have allowed myself to translate beam as “a bough” rather than “tree,” making it more riddle-like, as well of course as facilitating alliteration.

Frederick Tupper, Jr. describes this riddle a series of kennings, compound descriptions that transform into each other on the way to a final manifestation of the original tree, whatever kind of tree that may be (page xciv).

However, for the moment, on with the beech! For me, the reference to gold in line 4 could evoke a chest of treasure, or the warming gold of flames of a beech-log fire. It could be the gilded decorations on a book, perhaps a book valued like gold. I even see the glinting gold of the beech leaves in the last chilly days of autumn:

Golden beech leaves

Photo of golden beech leaves (by Jonathan Billinger) from Wikimedia Commons (licence CC BY-SA 2.0).

But let us place such imaginings against the reference Tupper picks out in line 8 of Riddle 20, with its very similar gold ofer geardas referring to the making of a sword. Perhaps, in our current riddle, the tree is at this point being turned into the exultant battle-weapon that, after the hiatus of the middle of this line, both closes the end of this line and opens the next. In that next line, we have moved on to a heightened moment, as we are presented with the heroic warrior’s joyful battle-weapon. This, whether it be battering ram or shield, could be the final transformation of the tree and therefore the solution to the riddle, particularly since byreð (bears) and oþrum (to another) – the words still visible in the largely obliterated last lines – could be references to carrying, defending or attacking in battle.

But is it a beech battering ram, a beechwood shield, or another kind of wood? Let’s consider oak. As noted earlier, like the beech, the oak too can be glorious:

Oak tree

Photo of oak tree near the Teign (by Derek Harper) from Wikimedia Commons (licence CC BY-SA 2.0).

So of course can the hazel tree, and both oak and hazel produce catkins and nuts - sources of protein for squirrels and birds – “flourishing life-givers” indeed. And here I am going to give the hazel tree a little look-in as I think this photograph really suggests that life-giving element well:

Common Hazel

Photo of Common Hazel fruits (by H. Zell) from Wikimedia Commons (licence CC BY-SA 3.0).

However, oak is more prized for its strength and density, and therefore stands up better in terms of the references to nourishment, stability and power in lines 2 and 3. As for the wifes sond (woman’s love missive), here oak for me also trumps beech: oak galls were used as the main ingredient in writing ink at this time and oak bark was also used by tanners to tan the leather that formed the vellum of manuscripts. I more easily imagine “gold at the hearth” as an allusion to a strong oaken chest of treasure than a chest made of beech. It could of course also allude to the decoration of a manuscript; oak, like beech, makes great gold flaming firewood; and oak, perhaps more than beech, could at this point be in the process of being fashioned into a weapon. Battering rams were typically made of oak, ash or fir, although I am not sure if they would have included gold, as perhaps a shield might. However, while a shield is used in defence, what more celebratory, joyful or “exultant” weapon can there be than the thrusting battering ram?

Well, in the end, there’s no clear answer – because of course we have, to this riddle, no end. Whether it refers to beech, oak, hazel or book, what seems clear is that this riddle is tracking, and celebrating, a tree’s metamorphosis through a series of kenning-like phrases – and that perhaps (given the last lines, which presumably hold the essential clue, are practically obliterated), it is only appropriate that we do not know for sure what the tree’s final transformation is. Indeed, if this is a good riddle, such an uncertainty in our knowledge and our guessing would seem fitting. Otherwise those last invisible words become redundant...and no poet worth the name wants redundancy.


References and Suggested Reading:

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

Porter, John. Anglo-Saxon Riddles. Hockwold-cum-Wilton: Anglo-Saxon Books, 1995 and 2013.

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

Williamson, Craig, trans. The Complete Old English Poems. Penn State University Press, 2017.

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

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  judy kendall  riddle 92 

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Exeter Riddle 93


Date: Mon 11 Jan 2021
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 93
The beginning and end of this riddle are obscured by the burn that has damaged both pages the poem appears on, but there is plenty of excitement in the middle!

Original text:
Frea min          
...de           willum sinum,
heah ond hyht...
5     ...rpne,           hwilum
...wilum sohte
frea...          ...s wod,
dægrime frod,           deo... ...s ,
hwilum stealc hliþo           stigan sceolde
10     up in eþel,           hwilum eft gewat
in deop dalu           duguþe secan
strong on stæpe,           stanwongas grof
hrimighearde,           hwilum hara scoc
forst of feaxe.           Ic on fusum rad
15     oþþæt him þone gleawstol           gingra broþor
min agnade           ond mec of earde adraf.
Siþþan mec isern           innanweardne
brun bennade;           blod ut ne com,
heolfor of hreþre,           þeah mec heard bite
20     stiðecg style.           No ic þa stunde bemearn,
ne for wunde weop,           ne wrecan meahte
on wigan feore           wonnsceaft mine,
ac ic aglæca           ealle þolige,
þæt ...e bord biton.           Nu ic blace swelge
25     wuda ond wætre,           w... ...b... befæðme
þæt mec on fealleð          ufan þær ic stonde,
eorpes nathwæt;           hæbbe anne fot.
Nu min hord warað           hiþende feond,
se þe ær wide bær           wulfes gehleþan;
30     oft me of wombe           bewaden fereð,
steppeð on stið bord, …
deaþes d...           þonne dægcondel,
sunne …
...eorc           eagum wliteð
35     ond spe....
My lord …
… according to his wishes

high and hope…
5     … [sha]rp, sometimes
…sometimes sought
lord… went,
aged in the count of days dee[p]… ,
sometimes had to ascend steep hillsides
10     up in the homeland, sometimes departed again
into deep dales to seek a troop
strong in step, dig up the stony plains
hard with rime, sometimes the hoary frost
shook out of his hair. I rode on the eager one
15     until my younger brother claimed for himself
the seat of wisdom and drove me from my homeland.
Afterwards dusky iron wounded me
inwardly; blood did not come forth,
gore from the heart, although the hard thing bit me,
20     the strong-edged steel. I did not bemoan that time,
nor weep because of the wound, nor might I take vengeance
on the warrior’s life for my misfortune,
but I suffer all the miseries,
that … have snapped at shields. Now I swallow black
25     wood and water, … embrace
what falls on me from above where I stand,
something dark; I have one foot.
Now a pillaging enemy protects my hoard,
who once widely carried the companion of the wolf;
30     often travels, filled from my belly,
steps onto a hard board, …
death’s … when the day-candle,
sun …
… gazes with eyes
35     and …
Click to show riddle solution?
Ink-well, Antler, Horn


This riddle appears on folios 130r-130v of The Exeter Book.

The above Old English text is based on this edition: Elliott van Kirk Dobbie and George Philip Krapp, eds, The Exeter Book, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936), pages 241-2.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 89: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), pages 119-20.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 93 

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Exeter Riddle 88
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 88
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 93

Commentary for Exeter Riddle 93


Date: Tue 12 Jan 2021
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 93

Like so many of the riddles in the final part of the Exeter Book, Riddle 93 is a bit of a mess. The long burn that stretches across both pages of the open book befuddles (yes, befuddles!) both the beginning and end of this poem. Luckily, it’s one of the longer riddles in the collection, so there is plenty of detail in the middle to sink our teeth into.

Riddle 93 is one of those rare riddles whose solution doesn’t cause much scholarly in-fighting. Everyone is pretty much agreed that this riddle describes an antler that is used to make an ink-well. In Old English, we might solve it as either horn (antler/horn) or blæc-horn (ink-well/ink-horn).

St Matthew with Ink Horn

Behold, a 12th-century inkhorn! St Matthew is busy at work in © British Library, Add MS 11850, folio 17v.

The riddle is easy to solve in part because it builds upon the many other antler/horn and stag references throughout the Exeter Book. In particular, it’s a companion piece to Riddle 88, which also frames the shed antlers of a stag as exiled warriors – brothers – facing violence at the hands of human craftsmen. But here in Riddle 93, it's the relationship between stag and antler – lord and retainer – that is prized above all and mourned when the antler is displaced.

The first 16 lines of the riddle describe the antler’s place on the head of a stag, his frea (lord) in lines 1a and 7a. The stag’s behaviour is described as he wanders the wilderness and its hills, seeking out a duguþ (troop) in line 11b, which is presumably his herd. Dieter Bitterli emphasizes just how accurate the riddle’s account of red deer is – both their behaviour and their habitat: “male and female red deer segregate for most of the year. Whereas the hinds remain in a herd with their young, stags form their own, less stable groups, or sometimes live alone, and seek out the hinds only during the rut” in the autumn, leaving again when winter comes (page 158). At that point, “hind populations tend to occupy richer soils and grassland, while stags are generally found on poorer ground; this tallies with the ‘stony plains’ (12) the stag in the riddle is said to dig into when the ground is ‘hard with rime’ (13)” (page 158).

While the stag is separated from the herd throughout the frosty winter, the antler remains with his lord, secure upon his head – his gleawstol (seat of wisdom) in line 15a. But as the seasons move on, line 15b’s gingra broþor‏ (younger brother) forces the antler into exile. The stag has shed his antlers, which are replaced by new growth, something that is also described as a kin relationship in Riddle 88 (lines 15-17a).

Red deer stag standing in forest

A fantastic red deer (by Luc Viatour) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0).

Siþþan (Afterwards) at line 17 signals a change in the antler’s fortunes and a turn in the narrative. In exile, the shed antler is found and put to new purpose. An iron implement is used to gouge it out, creating a wound that does not bleed because the object is antler rather than flesh, as lines 17-20a remind us. The imagery in this section is full of references to warfare and violence – lots of biting and sharp edges, which we might expect to apply to swords rather than a craftsman’s tool. In fact, Patrick Murphy reads Riddle 93 alongside Riddle 5’s bord (shield or chopping board), noting the play with heroic imagery that describes a fairly mundane task in both poems (pages 69-70).

While the task of making the ink-well may be mundane, as Mercedes Salvador-Bello notes, Riddle 93 takes the elegiac theme it shares with Riddle 88 down a darker path, focusing especially on “the dire consequences of the creature’s change of status by giving free rein to the notion of feud” (page 428). Here, the antler laments that it can’t take revenge for its miseries (because it’s an inanimate object) by lashing out at the wiga (warrior, line 23a) who abuses it.

When we reach lines 24b-5a, the antler’s new purpose has become very clear: Nu ic blace swelge / wuda ond wætre (Now I swallow black wood and water). The antler has been used to create an ink-well that has to hold black ink made from a mixture of various types of wood, wine and chemicals (Bitterli, pages 160-1). Into the ink-well dips the hiþende feond (pillaging enemy) of line 28b – a quill pen.

Quill pen, ink and parchment

A quill pen, ink and parchment (by Mushki Brichta) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 4.0)

The description that follows includes a kenning, a mini riddle-within-a-riddle, as it were. The wulfes gehleþan (companion of the wolf) of line 29b refers to the “beasts of battle” motif that crops up in a variety of Old English poems (Bitterli, page 162). Wherever we find wolves, ravens and eagles feasting upon people who have been killed in battle, we have the (equal parts unpleasant and fascinating) beasts of battle motif! Here in Riddle 93, the wolf’s companion is one of these birds – likely the raven, whose feathers were used as quills for fine and detailed work by medieval scribes (Bitterli, page 162). The raven-feather quill is here dipped into the unwilling ink-well, creating a strange mishmash of animal body parts, conflict and agency.

Ultimately, this scene of violence is clearly the work of human scribes, which is presumably how the riddle ends. In among the damaged lines, we can catch glimpses of the sense. Lines 32b-33a include references to the light of the dægcondel (day-candle) and sunne (sun), and line 34 suggests that someone who eagum wliteð (gazes with eyes) was imagined as looking upon the work of the scribe.

If we want to get really meta (and of course we do – don’t we?), we might think of the poem that we’re reading as the work of this scribe. We might think that the quill, ink and ink-well used to pen the Exeter Book found a life of their own in this antler’s lament. How profound.


References and Suggested Reading:

Bitterli, Dieter. Say What I am Called: The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book and the Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009, esp. pages 157-63.

Murphy, Patrick. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011, esp. pages 69-70.

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. Isidorean Perceptions of Order: the Exeter Book Riddles and Medieval Latin Enigmata. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2015, esp. pages 425-31.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 93 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 88
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Exeter Riddle 94


Date: Wed 09 Jun 2021
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 94
Riddle 94’s translation is by Erin Sebo, senior lecturer in English at Flinders University in Australia.

Original text:
Smeþr[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .]ad,
hyrre þonne heofon[. . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . ]           glædre þonne sunne,
[ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ] style,
5       smeare þonne sealt ry[ . . . . . . . . . . . ]
leofre þonne þis leoht eall,           leohtre þon w[ . . . . ]
Smoother [. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .]
higher than heaven [. . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . ]           brighter than the sun,
[ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ] … steel
5       sharper than salt [ . . . . . . . . . . . ]
dearer than all this light, lighter than the w[ind]
Click to show riddle solution?


This riddle appears on folio 130v of The Exeter Book.

The above Old English text is based on this edition: Elliott van Kirk Dobbie and George Philip Krapp, eds, The Exeter Book, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936), page 242.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 90: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), page 120.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  erin sebo  riddle 94 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 40
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 66
Exeter Riddle 40
Exeter Riddle 66
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 94

Commentary for Exeter Riddle 94


Date: Wed 09 Jun 2021
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 94

Riddle 94’s commentary is also by Erin Sebo, senior lecturer in English at Flinders University in Australia. Take it away, Erin!

Riddle 94 is one of the most fragmented riddles in the Exeter Book. It is often ignored and even left out of translations, such as in Kevin Crossley-Holland’s excellent translation. Just enough survives for it to be identified as a creation riddle, a version of the same idea found in Riddles 40 and 66. Which seems to make it even less interesting: why waste time on a few disconnected words when we have two complete versions of the riddle already as well as Aldhelm’s original Latin version?!

But, actually, the fact we have something to compare this riddle to – an absolute luxury in Old English literature – means that it is possible to learn things that we can’t with texts that survive in one version (or one manuscript!). In this case – as I argued in my book – because we have different versions of the same text, we can see a range of different popular cosmological and astronomical ideas, and possibly even get a hint of how these ideas changed over time.

Night sky with stars rotating

Photo of stars rotating (by Jordan Condon) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY 3.0).

Riddle 94 draws on much of the imagery of Riddles 40 and 66 and is also based around a series of comparatives, but the form is simplified, perhaps suggesting it was composed later or had circulated in popular culture. Often we have lost what is being compared but we can still tell the order of these images – and that’s revealing. For example, the riddles doesn’t begin with the large celestial comparatives “higher than heaven” and “brighter than the sun.” Both are demoted to after whatever thing was designated “smoother.” It’s an odd choice. The other creation riddles start with the celestial…and what could the universe be smeþr (smoother) than that could be theologically and cosmologically important enough to earn it a place above the heavens and the sun? There is no other instance of smeðe in its comparative form in the Old English corpus so the comparison was not common. Obviously, this riddle was doing something new.

The seven surviving adjectives in Riddle 94 are: smeþr (smoother), hyrre (higher), glædre (brighter), smeare (sharper), leofre (dearer) and leohtre (lighter). Since these are virtually all we have to go on, it’s worth looking at how they’re used elsewhere. The first, smoother is not found in Riddles 40 or 66, but Aldhelm and Symphosius use a Latin equivalent, teres (smooth), for the stars – in Aldhelm’s Enigma 100, De Creatura (line 57) and the horn casing of a lantern in Symphosius’s Enigma 67, Lanterna (line 1), respectively. The next adjective, higher, in very common and usually contrasts heaven or heavenly things with infernal depths. Brighter, the next, refers to the sun. It seems the obvious adjective to moderns but actually the sun is usually described as swift in Old English poetry. (Riddle 66 describes the moon as brighter!)

late medieval drawing of sun and moon

Sun vs Moon in a late 15th-century calendar by Johannes von Gmunden from Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Smeare, especially in the metaphorical sense in which it applies to salt, is absent from earlier creation riddles, though Aldhelm makes saltiness a comparative in its own right. Leofre is equally absent from Riddle 94’s antecedents and it is the first instance of a “subjective” quality: something may only be dear if it is dear to someone. Leohtre, the last, is more fraught since we can’t be sure if it’s used in the sense of “brighter” or “less weighty.”

These last two form the most complete line of the fragment: “dearer than all this light, lighter than…” Unlike the other Creation riddles which have dualistic parings, this seems to be associative – for a sense of how unusual this is, it’s worth comparing it with “religious” cosmological descriptions. The most influential of these is the creation of the world in the Book of Genesis which works through a hierarchy of oppositions, starting with the division of earth and heaven, then light, then sky from sea, then sea from land. This basic structure is echoed elsewhere, such as this description of God’s power in Homily 5 of the Vercelli Book: his miht is ufor þonne heofon & bradre þonne eorðe & deopre þonne sæ & leohtre þonne heofones tungel (Scragg, page 121, line 194) (…His might is higher than heaven, and broader than the earth, and deeper than the sea and lighter than Heaven’s star).

This is a version of the “creation comparatives,” which conforms to the Christian structure and order of the images in Genesis. God makes Heaven (ufor þonne heofon), then separates the land (bradre þonne eorðe) from the sea (deopre þonne sæ) and then sets the celestial bodies on their trajectory (leohtre þonne heofones tungel).

Although this riddle in its fragmented state is easy to ignore, it survived long after most of the Exeter Book riddles were forgotten (except by scholars). Unlike most of the Exeter riddles, Riddle 94 is the first which is not characterized by word pictures, instead favouring a stable structure into which any number of formulaic elements may be fitted. This makes it far better suited to popular riddle-telling (as opposed to riddle reading) than most in the Exeter Book. And that’s what happened. The question implicit in Riddle 94’s statement that Creation is “higher than heaven” becomes overt in a 1430 lyric “Inter Diabolus et Virgo”* (Rawlinson MS. D. 328, folio 174b): “What ys hyer than ys…?” Each adjective is turned into its own question and new adjectives are added. The lyric survives as a ballad into the 19th century, when it was collected by the folklorist Francis James Child who made it the first ballad in his monumental collection, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, under the title “Riddles Wisely Expounded”. Anything set to music tends to survive and you can even find the very last traces of “Riddles Wisely Expounded” in Tom Waits’ 2006 recording of “Two sisters” on Orphans: brawlers, bawlers and bastards (Sebo, page. 136). Go have a listen!

*Don’t @ me, I know what case inter takes.


References and Suggested Reading:

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

Scragg, D. G., ed. The Vercelli Homilies and Related Texts. Early English Text Society 300. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Sebo, Erin. In Enigmate: The History of a Riddle, 400–1500. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2018.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  erin sebo  riddle 94 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 40
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Exeter Riddle 95


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

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

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


This riddle appears on folio 130v of The Exeter Book.

The above Old English text is based on this edition: Elliott van Kirk Dobbie and George Philip Krapp, eds, The Exeter Book, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936), page 243.

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

Translation Notes:

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

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

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 95


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

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

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

Medieval Scandinavian leather shoes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waxing half-moon over water

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

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

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

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

Ornate cover of Lindisfarne Gospels

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

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

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

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

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

Front panel of Franks Casket with runic inscription and engraved figures

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


References and Suggested Reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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