Eusebius Riddle 53: De ypotoma pisce


Date: Mon 27 Dec 2021
Original text:

Nomen imago dedit servandum voce Pelasga.
Narratur mihi quod dorsum, iuba, hinnitus aeque
Assimilatus equo, sed rostrum vertit aduncum
Ad frontem versus, mordens ceu dentibus apri.
Rorifluo cunctos degens in gurgite phoebos, 
Rura per umbriferas depascor florida noctes.


My appearance gave me my name preserved in the Pelasgian tongue.
It is said that my back, mane, and neighing too
Are compared to a horse, but my hooked snout turns
Toward my forehead, biting with teeth as would befit a wild boar.
I spend all my days in the flowing river, 
And through the shadowy nights I feed on flowery fields.

Click to show riddle solution?
On the hippo-potama fish

Tags: riddles  latin  Eusebius 

Aldhelm Riddle 53: Arcturus


Date: Tue 15 Mar 2022
Original text:

Sidereis stipor turmis in vertice mundi:
Esseda famoso gesto cognomina vulgo;
In giro volvens iugiter non vergo deorsum,
Cetera ceu properant caelorum lumina ponto.
Hac gaza ditor, quoniam sum proximus axi,
Qui Ripheis Scithiae praelatus montibus errat,
Vergilias numeris aequans in arce polorum;
Pars cuius inferior Stigia Letheaque palude
Fertur et inferni manibus succumbere nigris.


At the top of the world I am surrounded by starry crowds;
I have the name “esseda” (chariot) in common speech; 
Turning perpetually in my orbit, I do not incline downwards 
Like the others stars of the heavens do when they rush to the sea. 
I am enriched by this wealth for I am near the pole,
Which wanders, visible, around the Riphaean mountains of Scythia. 
I equal in number the Pleiades at the crown of the sky,
The lower part of which is reported to sink down into the Stygian or Lethean 
Swamp and among the black spirits of hell. 

Click to show riddle solution?
Arcturus, the star


This edition is based on Rudolf Ehwald, ed. Aldhelmi Opera Omnia. Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Auctores Antiquissimi, 15. Berlin: Weidmann, 1919, pages 59-150. Available online here.

Tags: riddles  latin  Aldhelm 

Commentary for Exeter Riddle 53


Date: Tue 06 Feb 2018
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 53

This commentary comes to us once again from Sharon Rhodes of the University of Rochester. Congratulations on successfully defending your thesis this week, Sharon!


There have been three major solutions proposed for Riddle 53: battering ram, gallows, and cross. Battering ram seems the most literal — something that was a once tree, but was then chopped down, outfitted with metal fittings and used to storm castles. But gallows and cross stretch our perspectives. In any case, the development of these modern solutions has a history.

In 1859, F. Dietrich solved Riddle 53 as “battering ram.” The iron work involved in battering rams allows us to read line 6 quite literally: deope gedolgod, dumb in bendum (deeply wounded, silent in his shackles). Cross and gallows are less clear and more dependent on context: there are multiple ways of constructing a gallows, crucifix or otherwise. The first solution also allows for an easy reading of lines 8b through 10a: Nu he fæcnum weg / þurh his heafdes mægen hildegieste / oþrum rymeð (Now he, through the might of head, clears the path to another treacherous enemy). If the solution is “battering ram,” then this is a simple description of attacking and then plundering a castle.

Battering ram

Photo of a battering ram (by eltpics) from Flickr (licence: CC BY-NC 2.0).

But “battering ram” is a solution that is contextually lacking: there were no battering rams in early medieval England! At least, according to Craig Williamson, “there is no archaeological evidence for the existence of an Anglo-Saxon battering ram,” which makes sense when we recall that there were no early medieval castles to lay siege to with a battering ram (page 297). Of course, there’s no reason to think that the early English couldn’t comprehend battering rams and Aldhelm’s Riddle 86 — a Latin riddle written in early medieval England — suggests a battering ram at least twice (Williamson, page 297):

Sum namque armatus rugosis cornibus horrens.
Herbas arvorum buccis decerpo virentes,
Et tamen astrifero procedens agmine stipor;
Culmina caelorum quae scadunt celsa catervis.
Turritas urbes capitis certamine quasso
Oppida murorum prosternens arcibus altis.
Induo mortales retorto stamine pepli;
Littera quindecima praestat quod pars domus adsto.
(Aldhelm, ed. by Juster, pages 52-3)
(Yes, armed with wrinkled horns, I’m quite a fright. / I chew huge mouthfuls of the meadow grass, / Yet starry swarms escort me as I pass; / They rise in hordes to Heaven’s highest height. / Headstrong, I bang the turrets of the town / So its tall fortress walls will tumble down. / With twisted thread I fill man’s clothing needs; / I’m right at home if letter fifteen leads.)

Battering ram with head

Photo of a battering ram head (by Clarinetlover) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0).

However, while Aldhelm’s riddle dances between the idea of a ram (male sheep) and the siege weapon — the Latin word aries can refer to either — there’s no real sheep reference in Exeter Riddle 53, unless you consider sheep inveterate thieves of the night.


Photo of a Gute ram (by Oskari Löytynoja) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY 3.0).

So too, the imagery of Riddle 53 is strikingly similar to that of the famous Old English poem The Dream of the Rood. For instance, the dreamer describes the Rood tree as forwundod mid wonnum (sorely wounded with wounds) at line 14, which is reminiscent of Riddle 53’s line 7: wriþen ofer wunda, wonnum hyrstum (racked all over with wounds, adorned with dark ornaments). In fact, Jonathan Wilcox reads Riddle 53 as an analog of The Dream of the Rood and, accordingly, suggests the solution of “gallows,” and Andy Orchard reads The Dream of the Rood as a riddle writ large and, consequently, solves 53 as “cross”: a very specific gallows.

Riddle 53 Bewick Gallows and Crows.jpg

Image of crows and gallows from Bewick, page 71.

As Orchard points out, The Dream of the Rood uses the word beam — which occurs in Riddle 53 — with a number of meanings. Beam can mean “tree,” “gallows” or “sunbeam” — the cross’s function as Christ’s retainer — so this singular word accounts for the rood-tree’s three states, a trinity, so to speak. Through its homonyms, beam points to multiple aspects of the rood-tree’s function and identity. And beam of course is exactly how we’re introduced to the solution of Riddle 53 in line 1: Ic seah on bearwe beam hlifian (I saw a tree towering in a wood).


Photo of a cross (by Ian Britton) from Flickr (licence: CC BY-NC 2.0).

Each of these solutions — battering ram, gallows and cross — reconfirms that the Exeter riddles are poems that force us to consider the parallels between different things by viewing them from unfamiliar perspectives. John D. Niles points out that the cross is a gallows — an instrument of execution — and a source of life in the Christian tradition (page 147; note that Niles suggests the Old English solution of gealg-treow (gallows-tree)).

Riddle 53 Biogradska_suma.jpg

Photo of Biogradska forest in Montenegro (by Snežana Trifunović) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0)

Perhaps most significantly, Riddle 53 stands with The Dream of the Rood and other riddles of torture in forcing the audience to consider the world from the point of view of what humanity typically views as “raw materials” for our built world. As Jennifer Neville points out, “in Exeter Book Riddles 53 and 88, [. . .] a tree and the antler of a deer, both dwelling happily and naturally in the forest (bearu, holt), are seized, removed from their environment, wounded and used by human beings; as tools, as battering rams and ink-horns” (page 115). These things “are forced on wera æhtum ‘into the possessions of men’ (Exeter Book Riddle 88, 23b)” (page 115).

If we keep “battering ram” while adding “cross” and “gallows,” then we can start exploring the idea of Christ and the crucifix as invaders. Perhaps this is an oblique reference to the harrowing of hell — when Christ invaded hell to bring salvation to the righteous who died before his crucifixion, thereby “stealing” souls from Satan. As with so many of the Exeter riddles, no one solution is totally satisfying; it’s the collection of possible answers that allows us to see a tree in a forest for all of the potential lives it may lead after its felling.


References and Suggested Reading:

Aldhelm. Saint Aldhelm’s ‘Riddles.’ Edited and translated by A. M. Juster. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015.

Bewick, Thomas. A History of British Birds. Vol. I (Newcastle: R. Ward and Sons, 1885) [Memorial Edition]

Bitterli, Dieter. Say What I Am Called. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009 (esp. pages 151-69).

Neville, Jennifer. Representations of the Natural World in Old English Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

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

Orchard, Andy. “The Dream of the Rood: Cross-References.” In New Readings in the Vercelli Book. Edited by Samantha Zacher and Andy Orchard. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015, pages 225-53.

Wilcox, Jonathan. “New Solutions to Old English Riddles 17 and 53.” Philological Quarterly, vol. 69 (1990), pages 393-408.

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

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 53  sharon rhodes 

Related Posts:
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 53
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 55
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 73

Exeter Riddle 54


Date: Tue 23 Aug 2016
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 54

This post comes to us from Andrea Di Carlo, who’s a PhD candidate at Pisa University. Andrea’s research interests include the “obscene” riddles from the Exeter Book, and Protestant medievalism in Renaissance England. Take it away, Andrea:

Original text:

Hyse cwom gangan,      þær he hie wisse
stondan in wincsele,      stop feorran to,
hror hægstealdmon,      hof his agen
hrægl hondum up,      hrand under gyrdels
5     hyre stondendre      stiþes nathwæt,
worhte his willan;      wagedan buta.
Þegn onnette,      wæs þragum nyt
tillic esne,      teorode hwæþre
æt stunda gehwam      strong ær þon hio,
10     werig þæs weorces.      Hyre weaxan ongon
under gyrdelse      þæt oft gode men
ferðþum freogað      ond mid feo bicgað.


There came walking a young man, to where he knew
she was standing in a corner. From afar he went,
the resolute young man, heaving his own clothing
with his hands, pushing something stiff
5     under her girdle while she was standing there,
worked his will; the two of them shook.
A retainer hastened, his capable servant
was useful sometimes; still, at times, he grew tired
though stronger than her at first,
10     weary due to work. Under the girdle,
there began to grow what good men often
love in their hearts and buy with money.

Click to show riddle solution?
Butter churn, Baker’s boy and oven


This riddle appears on folios 113v-114r 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 207-8.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 52: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), page 100.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 54 

Related Posts:
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 88
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 54
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 61

Eusebius Riddle 54: De oceano pisce


Date: Mon 27 Dec 2021
Original text:

Forma manet tenuis cum semipedalis imago est
Et tamen immensas solus retinebo liburnas
Sic tantum (1) haerendo. Licet irruat aequora ventus,
Saeviat aut pelagus validis motabile flabris,
Ceu radicata ratis perstans at cernitur undis,
Inde meumque “moram” nomen dixere Latini.


My appearance remains small for my image is half-a-foot long,
And yet alone I hold back immense ships
By clinging so much thus. Even if wind should rush onto the seas
Or the moving waves should rage under strong gales, 
The ship is seen nevertheless to stand, as if rooted to the waves.
And from that the Latins called my name “delay.”

Click to show riddle solution?
On the ocean fish


(1) The manuscripts read tamen, but tamen also appears in the previous line—other editors have also emended it.

Tags: riddles  latin  Eusebius 

Aldhelm Riddle 54: Cocuma duplex


Date: Tue 15 Mar 2022
Original text:

Credere quis poterit tantis spectaeula causis
Temperet et fatis rerum contraria fata?
Ecce larem, laticem quoque gesto in viscere ventris,
Nec tamen undantes vincunt incendia limphae
Ignibus aut atris siccantur flumina fontis,
Foedera sed pacis sunt flammas inter et undas;
Malleus in primo memet formabat et incus.


Who could believe the spectacle of such affairs
And who could govern fates that are contrary to things’ fates? 
Behold: I carry fire and also water inside my belly,
And yet the surging waters do not conquer the fires
Nor are the water’s streams dried out by the dark flames.
Instead there are peace pacts between the flames and waves;
A hammer and anvil formed me to begin with.

Click to show riddle solution?
Double pot


This edition is based on Rudolf Ehwald, ed. Aldhelmi Opera Omnia. Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Auctores Antiquissimi, 15. Berlin: Weidmann, 1919, pages 59-150. Available online here.

Tags: riddles  latin  Aldhelm 

Commentary for Exeter Riddle 54


Date: Thu 22 Feb 2018
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 54

For this post, we’re going to experiment with a new commentary style. I’m all for collaboration, so Andrea Di Carlo and I are going to take turns talking about Riddle 54. Will it work? You can be the judge of that! (but don’t actually judge us, because our egos are too fragile for all that)

Let’s start with the basics: what are the “obscene” riddles and how does Riddle 54 fit in?


Andrea: Over the last few decades, the riddles of the Exeter Book have attracted a lot of scholarship, especially after the critical reviews carried out by Mercedes Salvador-Bello, Glenn Davis, Patrick Murphy and Ruth Evans. If, in 1910, Frederick Tupper had rejected any type of unsavoury interpretation and overruled the category “obscene riddles,” George Phillip Krapp and Elliott van Kirk Dobbie later made allowances for euphemistic wording and images, and acknowledged that obscene content had to be taken into account.

Riddle 54 perfectly fits into this category because its imagery is certainly problematic and far from ambiguous. Krapp and Dobbie solve the riddle as “churn” (page 188), relying on the earlier suggestion of Moritz Trautmann. The backdrop of the obscene riddles tends to be mundane, as is the case with the start of Riddle 54: readers follow the progress of a young man travelling toward a woman, only to hear that, when he arrives in the corner where the woman stands, he thrusts stiþes nathwæt (line 5b) (something stiff) under her girdle.


Megan: Okay, so pretty obviously euphemistic then. While we can translate nathwæt as just “something,” the nat part of the compound is actually from the contracted verb, nytan, that is: ne + witan (to know not). In other words, it means something like “a stiff know-not-what.” This is a pretty obvious attempt to avoid saying what it is the poet means, which just screams euphemism! Nathwæt also appears in Riddle 45 and Riddle 61, both of which are interested in sex in their own right.

So, the word is a dead giveaway that we’re definitely looking at a rude riddle.


Andrea: What else are we readers supposed to think? It’s pretty clear that the anonymous riddle-composer is showing us a short scene of sexual intercourse (suspicion is only aroused further by the use of wagedan in line 6, which means “shake” or “shag,” and by the tillic esne (capable servant) hastening in lines 7-8a). This idea is emphasised by Murphy (pages 184-195) and Evans (page 28), whose interpretations of the text are based upon these sequences of obscene and potentially aggressive images: the hyse (young man) of line 1a worhte his willan (line 6a) (worked his will), while the female figure stands there.


Megan: So, is this a disturbing example of sex where the woman is simply the object of the man’s desire, or could there be something more going on here? Well, Murphy actually provides an alternative interpretation to the two-people-having-sex-in-a-corner reading. He reminds us that we shouldn’t confuse the grammatical and natural gender of pronouns – that is, the poet never actually describes the female character (while other rude riddles, like Riddle 25 and Riddle 45, do include more elaborate descriptions), and so she might not be a woman at all.

The female pronouns (hio/hie/hire, i.e. she/her) could also be applied to objects that are grammatically feminine…which, coincidentally, Old English cyrn is. So, if we read every reference to “she/her” as “it” instead and swap the translation “belt” for “girdle,” then maybe we’re actually witnessing a young man working his will on his “capable servant” all by himself. This certainly makes the joke a lot less aggressive and so, I’d say, funnier. And it just gets more amusing when we read this potential masturbation scene alongside the more wholesome butter churn interpretation.


Andrea: Yes! We should always expect some sort of a twist in the Old English riddles. And the turning point takes place in the last line, where our sexual assumptions are quashed and we’re brought back to a reality that both encourages and rejects the double entendre. In lines 11-12 we hear that under the woman’s girdle (or man’s belt) grows what men mid feo bicgað (buy with money). Surely, there’s no euphemistic way to read this financial transaction?! With these lines, the sexual reading of Riddle 54 is dispelled and we find that the author was simply referring to the making of butter in a churn.

Lots of butter churns

Here are some Icelandic butter churns on display at a museum Megan once visited. Sadly, she has no idea where she saw these bad boys. Possibly in the south of Iceland?


Megan: If we accept that we’re hearing about a cyrn or churn, then the riddle also provides a useful corrective to any food prep-based gender assumptions we might want to make. It’s tempting to assume that all food production was a female task in early medieval England, and certainly much of women’s work did involve preparing food. We do, for example, have a reference to a female cheese-maker whose duties also involved making butter from the eleventh-century law-text known as the Rectitudines Singularum Personarum (Rights of Different People).

It reads: cyswyrhtan gebyreð hundred cyse, & þæt heo of wringhwæge buteran macige to hlafordes beode (a hundred cheeses are allotted to the cheese-maker, and that she makes butter from the whey pressed out of cheese for the lord’s table (Liebermann, vol. 1, page 451, no. 16). The feminine ending attached to the cheese-maker here tells us that she’s female. But the method of preparation – of cheese first and then butter – also tells us that the raw material is likely sheep’s milk (Banham and Faith, pages 111-12). Could this be important?

Because, after all, the person doing the churning here in Riddle 54 is definitely male. And he’s not the only man to own up to doing a bit of churning on the side. In fact, he reminds me of the shepherd in Ælfric’s Colloquy (a dialogue-style, bilingual text aimed at teaching Latin to youngsters in early medieval England). After the teacher asks the pupil assigned the role of shepherd what work he does, the pupil replies that he watches over the sheep in their pastures, milks them, etc., and finishes with the statement: ge cyse ge buteran ic do, ond ic eom getrywe hlaforde minum (I make both butter and cheese, and I am faithful to my lord) (Ælfric, page 22). So, perhaps it makes sense to think of farming as the task of a household rather than dividing specific bits and pieces of it down gender lines.

Someone had better tell the be-skirted churners at the Durham Medieval Family Fun Weekend I attended last year to get their male collaborators to help out a bit more!

Reconstructed butter churn

The butter churn on show at the Medieval Family Fun Weekend, Durham Cathedral, August 2015.


So, we’ve heard about the various ways of reading this riddle’s sexual encounter, and we’ve heard a bit about churning butter (which is really tiring, hard work, by the way!). But what’s the take-home point of this riddle, then?


Andrea: I think it’s important to note that the riddles capitalise on double entendre and dubiety, because it’s in their nature to intellectually challenge and defy readers. “No sex, please, we’re Anglo-Saxons,” as Hugh Magennis famously wrote some time ago! I’d argue that sexual imagery or sexually laden content in the riddles conveys a more domestic and less remote picture of the past, while also challenging commonplaces about sexual life in medieval Europe.

In the end, mystifying or nonplussing the audience is the main target of the riddle-composer and this one perfectly manages to play his/her cards right: the poet tricks us into believing we’re viewing sexual intercourse in the opening lines, only to undercut our assumptions at the end by making it clear that it wasn’t sex at all, but the making of something that can be bought and sold (butter, of course!). And, after all, this is the nature of riddles, to engage participants in a mental and intellectual process that’s supposed to enrich their knowledge, as Krapp and Dobbie maintain. Or, in this case, to baffle them!


References and Suggested Reading:

Ælfric of Eynsham. Ælfric’s Colloquy. Edited by G.N. Garmonsway. London: Methuen, 1939.

Banham, Debby, and Rosamond Faith. Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farming. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

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

Evans, Ruth, ed. A Cultural History of Sexuality in the Middle Ages. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Krapp, George Philip, and Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie, eds. The Exeter Book, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Record, vol. 3. New York: Columbia University Press, 1936.

Liebermann, F., ed. Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen. 3 vols. Halle: Max Niemeyer, 1903-16.

Magennis, Hugh. “‘No Sex Please, We’re Anglo-Saxons’? Attitudes to Sexuality in Old English Prose and Poetry.” Leeds Studies in English, vol. 26 (1995), pages 1-27.

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

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. “The Key to the Body: Unlocking Riddles 42-46.” In Naked Before God: Uncovering Body in Anglo-Saxon England. Edited by Benjamin C. Withers and Jonathan Wilcox. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2003, pages 60-96.

Trautmann, Moritz. “Alte und Neue Antworten auf altenglische Rätsel.” Bonner Beiträge zur Anglistik, vol. 19 (1905), pages 167-215.

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

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 54  andrea di carlo 

Related Posts:
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 25
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 45
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 61

Exeter Riddle 55


Date: Wed 21 Sep 2016
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 55

Riddle 55’s translation is by Franziska Wenzel from Ruhr-Universität Bochum. Franziska is currently writing a PhD on the Exeter Book riddles, their Latin counterparts and narratological theory.

Original text:

Ic seah in healle,      þær hæleð druncon,
on flet beran      feower cynna,
wrætlic wudutreow      ond wunden gold,
sinc searobunden,      ond seolfres dæl
5     ond rode tacn,     þæs us to roderum up
hlædre rærde,     ær he helwara
burg abræce.     Ic þæs beames mæg
eaþe for eorlum      æþelu secgan;
þær wæs hlin ond acc      ond se hearda iw
10     ond se fealwa holen;      frean sindon ealle
nyt ætgædre,      naman habbað anne,
wulfheafedtreo,      þæt oft wæpen abæd
his mondryhtne,     maðm in healle,
goldhilted sweord.      Nu me þisses gieddes
15     ondsware ywe,      se hine on mede
wordum secgan     hu se wudu hatte.


I saw in the hall, where the warriors drink,
four different kinds carried onto the floor,
a wondrous forest-tree and twisted gold,
a cunningly bound treasure, and some silver
5     and the sign of the cross of him who
raised a ladder for us up to the skies, before he
conquered the stronghold of the hell-dwellers. I can
easily speak before men of the tree’s nobility:
there was maple and oak and the hard yew
10     and the tawny holly. All of them
together are useful to a lord; they have one name,
wolf’s-head-tree, that often obtained a weapon,
for its lord, treasure in the hall,
a gold-hilted sword. Now reveal to me
15     the answer of this song, he who has the courage
to say with words how the wood is called.

Click to show riddle solution?
Shield, Scabbard, Harp, Cross, Gallows, Sword rack, Sword box, Hengen (see commentary for more on this last one!)


This riddle appears on folio 114r 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 208.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 53: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), pages 100-1.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 55 

Related Posts:
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 55
Exeter Riddle 23
Exeter Riddle 59

Eusebius Riddle 55: De torpedine pisce


Date: Mon 27 Dec 2021
Original text:

Corpora si viva tangam torpescere faxo.
Propter hoc opus infantum, mihi nomen adhesit.
Quin magis: Indicus etsi me generamine Pontus
Ediderit, validi qui tunc me forte lacerti
Longius attingerint, contis seu qualibus hastis,
Torpescerent, et veloces vincire pedestres
Possum – vel potius sic vis mea tanta videtur
Aura mea afficiat sanos quo corporis artus.


If I touch living bodies, I will numb them.
Because of this unspeakable act, my name stuck.
Not just that, but more: although the Indian Ocean birthed me, 
Strong arms which then by chance 
Touch me from farther away, with pikes or some kind of spear,
Are numbed, and I can bind those swift of foot – 
Or rather my strength seems so great
That my breath affects healthy limbs of the body.

Click to show riddle solution?
On the electric eel

Tags: riddles  latin  Eusebius 

Aldhelm Riddle 55: Crismal


Date: Tue 15 Mar 2022
Original text:

Alma domus veneror divino munere plena,
Valvas sed nullus reserat nec limina pandit,
Culmina ni fuerint aulis sublata quaternis,
Et licet exterius rutilent de corpore gemmae,
Aurea dum fulvis flavescit bulla metallis,
Sed tamen uberius ditantur viscera crassa
Intus, qua species flagrat pulcherrima Christi:
Candida sanctarum sic floret gloria rerum,
Nec trabis in templo, surgunt nec tecta columnis.


I am honoured as a holy house, filled with a divine gift,
But none unlock my doors or cross my doorway   
If the roofs are not removed from my four rooms,
And although jewels shine on the outside of my body,
While a golden boss shines with its yellow metal, 
My substantial innards are even more abundantly enriched
Within, where the most beautiful vision of Christ blazes:
Thus blooms the shining glory of holy things:
In the church, the roofs do not rise from rafters or columns.

Click to show riddle solution?


This edition is based on Rudolf Ehwald, ed. Aldhelmi Opera Omnia. Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Auctores Antiquissimi, 15. Berlin: Weidmann, 1919, pages 59-150. Available online here.

Tags: riddles  latin  Aldhelm 

Commentary for Exeter Riddle 55


Date: Wed 28 Sep 2016
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 55

Riddle 55’s commentary is once again by Franziska Wenzel of Ruhr-Universität Bochum. Take it away, Franziska!


A tree, splendid and otherworldly? Sounds familiar. Wasn’t there a movie about that? Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain? Except that’s not what we’re talking about; we’re talking about an Old English poem. No problem, I know it either way: that’s The Dream of the Rood (full translation here)! Oh, wait…except it’s not. It’s another riddle pretending to be about something entirely different than you’d think.

Still, it reminds me of The Dream of the Rood very much, especially the beginning. For comparison, the tree in that poem is introduced as follows:

Þuhte me þæt ic gesawe     syllicre treow
on lyft lædan,       leohte bewunden,
beama beorhtost.     Eall þæt beacen wæs
begoten mid golde;     gimmas stodon
fægere æt foldan sceatum,     swlyce þær fife wæron
uppe on þam eaxlegespanne.     Beheoldon þær engel Dryhtnes ealle,
fægere þurh forðgesceaft.     Ne wæs ðær huru fracodes gealga.
Ac hine þær beheoldon     halige gastas,
men ofe rmoldan     ond eall þeps mære gesceaft.
(Swanton, page 89)

(It seemed to me that I saw a wondrous tree spreading aloft spun about with light, a most magnificent timber. The portent was all covered with gold; beautiful gems appeared at the corner of the earth and there were also five upon the cross-beam. All the beautiful angels of the Lord throughout the universe gaze thereon; certainly it was not the gallows of a criminal there, but holy spirits gazed thereon, men across the earth and all this glorious creation.) (Bradley, page 160, lines 4-12).

Similar to that wondrous tree, the tree in Riddle 55 is adorned with gold, and it also bears the sign of the cross. The riddle even alludes to the harrowing of hell (see lines 5-7a), an apocryphal biblical story in which Jesus frees human souls from hell after his crucifixion. Thus, the riddle deliberately alludes to Christ and the cross upon which he died. And yet the last lines invite us to use our wits and find out hu se wudu hatte (what the wood is called), so there’s more to the riddle than just a short version of The Dream of the Rood. Our mysterious wrætlic wudutreow (wondrous forest-tree; line 3a) isn’t the same wood of which Christ’s cross was made, but we’re made to feel as if it is.

So what kind of wood is it then?

One early solution is “harp” (Trautmann, page 113), because a hall is where you’d play such an instrument. This solution has already been dismissed, but it’s still an interesting idea, so I’d like to comment on it briefly.

Watch Michael J. King demonstrating his replica early medieval lyre (a similar-ish instrument to the harp).


It makes perfect sense to have a harp in a hall. The different types of wood mentioned in the riddle also make more or less sense for a musical instrument, as Moritz Trautmann points out when he explains his suggestion. And yet he never explains the feower cynna (four different kinds) that are brought into the hall as the parts of a harp in line 2b. A harp is made of wood, sure. Gold decorations? Okay, maybe. But silver strings? Animal guts were originally used to make strings, and nowadays nylon or metal. But no silver strings. Trautmann also proposes a psalterium, which is a similar type of instrument, but the solution has the same issues. There are some riddles that seem to be about musical instruments in the Exeter collection, so it’s not unthinkable to find another riddle on this topic. Still, it doesn’t quite fit. For the moment, let’s just keep in mind that it’s a valuable object in a hall because that’s important.

Craig Williamson, in his translation of the Exeter riddles, assumes that the riddle’s clues can’t be explained nowadays because the cultural knowledge behind them is lost to us (Feast of Creatures, page 196). However, it’s hard to imagine how it should be possible to combine actual kinds of woods into another, holy kind of wood. Therefore I believe that we don’t understand the metaphor correctly, which is probably more of a problem than a loss of cultural knowledge. Let’s move on, then, and keep trying.

Other suggested solutions are shield or scabbard, but neither is cross-shaped (also summarized in Williamson, Old English Riddles, page 301). A cross has also been suggested, which would be a simple solution. Trautmann thinks this would be too simple to be satisfying (page 112).

The Ruthwell Cross

The Ruthwell Cross (not made of wood, but still suitably early medieval!)


A gallows has also been suggested. If this is a gallows, it would again be an interesting parallel to The Dream of the Rood, where it’s explicitly stated that the wondrous tree is not a gallows tree. If Riddle 55 describes a gallows tree, it would propose a counterpart to the holy rood upon which Christ died: two wondrous trees, one holy, and one vile.

Liebermann reads the first letters of the types of wood in Riddle 55 as an acrostic for gealga to support this solution. Unfortunately, that requires a quite liberal reading of the letters, and it would be the only acrostic in the whole Exeter collection. Acrostics are not unheard of in riddles: for example, Aldhelm’s entire introduction to his riddles is an acrostic. However, that does not mean that they we can necessarily expect all stylistic devices used in Latin riddles in the Exeter riddles as well. So – even though it can’t be ruled out (and it wouldn’t be too different from the clues in runic riddles) – it’s fairly unlikely (Williamson, Old English Riddles, pages 301-2). However, it would explain the wulfheafedtreo from line 12: if outlaws are metaphorically called wolves, they would hang on a wolf’s head tree when they meet their deaths (Williamson, Feast of Creatures, page 196). The solution “gallows” doesn’t explain the four kinds of wood, though.

A sword rack has also been proposed, but that has the same issue. Furthermore, there is no evidence for the use of sword racks in early medieval England. Williamson doubts it and suggests it might rather be an ornamented box (Old English Riddles, pages 302-3).

John D. Niles has a different idea. He convincingly suggests that the riddle might not be about gallows or crosses of any sort at all, and that it might be a form of a hengen (basically anything on which you can…well…hang things). Thus, we’re talking about a cross-shaped rack with a mail-coat hanging from it, so it looks like a hanged man on the gallows (pages 73-80).


A mail-coat from the Museum of Bayeux from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 3.0).


Even Niles doesn’t explain what exactly is useful for a lord, though. The individual woods or the wonder-tree? Or the feower cynna (four different kinds) that are brought into the hall in line 2b? He raises the question as well, but leaves it open, for it doesn’t affect the solution he comes up with (page 64). Still, it makes me wonder whether we’re actually busting our chops trying to chew over the correct clues.

Anyway, what I like about this solution is that it means that Riddle 55 looks on the surface like a devotional poem, like a hymn, while its solution is a mundane object. It wouldn’t be the first riddle that reads not like a riddle but like another specific kind of poetry. I like to call this “literary mimicry,” and I love the Exeter riddles for it. The best examples I can think of are Riddle 6, which also sounds pretty hymnic and always reminds me of the hymn to the morning star and the sun in The Advent Lyrics; Riddles 3, 81, 88, and 93, which borrow elements from elegiac poems; Riddle 29, which reads like a mythical tale; and several riddles that read like miniature heroic poems, like most of the weapon riddles, or the very courageous animal in Riddle 15.

In addition, Riddle 55 is one of twenty-seven “witness” riddles: it’s written from a first-person perspective, but the narrator is a bystander rather than the solution itself. Some unknown person relates his or her experiences to the audience. Sound familiar? That’s what the dreamer in The Dream of the Rood does, too. These narrators don’t reveal much about themselves, the witness in Riddle 55 even less so than the dreamer in The Dream of the Rood. They’re not interesting for being narrators. They’re interesting because the mode of presenting a narrative as the account of an eye-witness affects the mood of a poem. This is part of the reason why both poems sound devout and make us imagine such vivid pictures like glorious golden trees in our heads.

I’ll leave you at that. I still don’t know what the wonder-tree is. Niles’ approach sounds most plausible to me, but even it can’t explain all the mysteries of this poem. I choose not to bother but to enjoy it for all its beauty, and think of all the splendid, otherworldly wonder-trees I can recall from popular culture. As my inclination to read the poem as another instance of “literary mimicry” might tell you, I assume that this is what the poet might have intended. It doesn’t matter that much which shape the mysterious wonder wood assumes. The poem describes what it’s like to look at it. I think we can enjoy that without actually knowing what we’re looking at.

Go hug a golden tree, folks!


References and Suggested Reading:

Adams, John F. “The Anglo-Saxon Riddles as Lyric Mode.” Criticism, vol. 7 (1965), pages 335-48.

Bradley, S. A. J., trans. Anglo-Saxon Poetry: An Anthology of Old English Poems in Prose Translation. Everyman: London, 1982.

Galpin, Canon Francis W. Old English Instruments of Music. 4th edition. New York: Barnes and Noble Inc., 1965.

Liebermann, F. “Das anglesächsische Rätsel 56: ‘Galgen als Waffenständer’.” Archiv, vol. 114 (1905), pages 163-4.

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

Stewart, Ann Harleman. “Old English Riddle 47 as Stylistic Parody.” Papers on Language and Literature, vol. 11 (1975), pages 227-41.

Swanton, Michael James, ed. The Dream of the Rood. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1996. Print. Exeter Medieval English Texts and Studies.

Trautmann, Moritz, ed. Die Altenglischen Rätsel. Heidelberg: Carl Winters Universitätsbuchhandlung, 1915.

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

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

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

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 55  franziska wenzel 

Related Posts:
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 88
Commentary for Exeter Riddles 1-3
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 6
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 15
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 29
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 81
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 93

Exeter Riddle 56


Date: Wed 05 Oct 2016
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 56
Original text:

Ic wæs þær inne      þær ic ane geseah
winnende wiht      wido bennegean,
holt hweorfende;      heaþoglemma feng,
deopra dolga.      Daroþas wæron
5     weo þære wihte,      ond se wudu searwum
fæste gebunden.      Hyre fota wæs
biidfæst oþer,      oþer bisgo dreag,
leolc on lyfte,      hwilum londe neah.
Treow wæs getenge      þam þær torhtan stod
10     leafum bihongen.      Ic lafe geseah
minum hlaforde,      þær hæleð druncon,
þara flana,(1)       on flet beran.


I was inside there, where I saw
a wooden object wounding a certain struggling creature,
the turning wood; it received battle-wounds,
deep gashes. Darts were
5     woeful to that creature, and the wood skillfully
bound fast. One of its feet was
held fixed, the other endured affliction,
leapt into the air, sometimes near the land.
A tree, hung about by leaves, was near
10     to that bright thing [which] stood there. I saw the leavings
of those arrows, carried onto the floor
to my lord, where the warriors drank.

Click to show riddle solution?
Loom, Lathe


This riddle appears on folio 114r 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 208.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 54: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), page 101.

Textual Note:

(1) The manuscript reads þara flan here. I have followed Williamson’s emendation and explanation (pages 208 and 307), since Krapp and Dobbie unnecessarily supply an extra word in their edition: þara flana geweorc.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 56 

Related Posts:
Exeter Riddle 36
Exeter Riddle 55
Exeter Riddle 63

Eusebius Riddle 56: De ciconia avi


Date: Mon 27 Dec 2021
Original text:

Porro, soni crepitus proprii me fecit habere
Nomen, nam quatiente ferensque crepacula rostro,
Nuntia sum veris, multis stipata catervis.
Hostis chelidri, nullum vitabo venenum.
Quin, potius, pulli pascentur carne colubri.
Aequora transcendens, me ducet praevia cornix.
Lata cibabit multigenas has Asia turmas,
Quas ego rorifluis collecta per agmina limphis
Ut comites iteris habeo. Sic sollicitudo
Circa communis cunctis stat tam pia multos
Natos, sic ut alentes hos, vestimine carnes
Nostras nudemus. Sed quanto tempore nostras
Progenies nutrimus, sic et alemur ab illis.


Next, the noise of my own voice made me have 
My name, for by rattling as I shake my beak,
I am the messenger of spring, attended by many crowds.
Enemy of the snake, I dodge no poison.
No, rather, my young feed on serpent’s flesh.
Crossing the seas, a crow goes ahead, leading me.
Wide Asia feeds these many crowds,
Whom, gathered by troops from the flowing waters,
I have as companions on my journey. Thus such loyal solicitude
Around our many children stands shared by all,
To the point that, in so feeding them, we strip our flesh
Of its covering. But for such time that we nurse
Our progeny, thus are we nourished by them.

Click to show riddle solution?
On the stork-bird

Tags: riddles  latin  Eusebius 

Aldhelm Riddle 56: Castor


Date: Thu 14 Apr 2022
Original text:

Hospes praeruptis habitans in margine ripis
Non sum torpescens, oris sed belliger armis,
Quin potius duro vitam sustento labore
Grossaque prosternens mox ligna securibus uncis;
Humidus in fundo, tranat qua piscis, aquoso
Saepe caput proprium tingens in gurgite mergo.
Vulnera fibrarum necnon et lurida tabo
Membra medens pestemque luemque resolvo necantem;
Libris corrosis et cortice vescor amara.


A guest living on the edge of steep banks,
I am not sluggish, but am instead a warrior with weapon-teeth;
Moreover, I maintain my life with hard work
And fell large forests directly with these curved axes;
To the watery bottom through which swims the wet fish 
Often I, dipping, plunge my own head in the waters.
Healing internal wounds as well as limbs stinking 
With gore, I destroy both disease and deadly plague;
I am fed on gnawed bark and bitter rind.

Click to show riddle solution?


This edition is based on Rudolf Ehwald, ed. Aldhelmi Opera Omnia. Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Auctores Antiquissimi, 15. Berlin: Weidmann, 1919, pages 59-150. Available online here

Tags: riddles  latin  Aldhelm 

Commentary for Exeter Riddle 56


Date: Fri 14 Oct 2016
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 56

I love Riddle 56 for many, many, many, many, many, many reasons, and I’ve been working on it on and off for about eight years, so BE PREPARED for me to unleash my inner geek. Disclaimer: this inner geek is possibly not quite as well hidden as I sometimes believe it to be. At least I’m self-aware.

So. Riddle 56. Why do I love it so much? Well, one of the reasons is that it’s very hard to solve without knowledge of early medieval material culture and craft. And the harder to solve ones are always more fun, non? The reason we need a bit of insight into early medieval craft is because the two most convincing solutions are Loom and Lathe.

“Tell us more, Megan,” I hear you cry! And I will. Oooooooh, I will.

Let’s start with Loom. One of the main types of weaving looms that early medieval folks used is called the warp-weighted loom (sounds ominous!). Here’s what it would’ve looked like.


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

Warp-weighted loom

Reconstructed loom on display at a Viking craft fair in York, 2010

This sort of loom would’ve stood upright and likely leaned against a wall. It had a large number of vertical threads – together referred to as the “warp” – dangling down to where they were tied in bunches. These threads would be tied not just to each other, but also to clay weights, which kept tension in the threads. Why so tense? Well, the weaver would be hard at work rapidly pulling and pushing the threads forward and backward by means of a horizontal bar partway down the front of the loom (known as a “heddle rod”). When one group of threads was pulled forward, the weaver would insert the horizontal (weft) threads. Then she’d push that lot back and insert the weft thread through a second batch of warp-threads. The tension stops the threads from getting all stuck together and ensures some easy peasy weaving (weavy?). The weights, by the way, often looked like doughnuts. I’m not even joking. Behold some doughnut-like weights!:

Three loom weights from Bedford Museum

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

Doughnutty loom-weights aside, how does this sort of loom map onto the action of Riddle 56? Let’s start with the struggling creature: that appears to be the cloth mid-production. Its swinging and fixed feet seem to be the two separate groups of warp-threads (i.e. the ones pulled back and forth, and the ones that stay hanging at the back). The turning wood is probably a bar holding the finished fabric, which could be rotated to allow for weaving a longer piece of cloth than the actual size of the loom would normally allow.

There’s plenty of room to interpret this set-up as a bit torture-y, and John D. Niles has argued for this very assessment when analysing Old English descriptions of devices for hanging and stretching criminals (pages 61-84). And, of course, all those references to darts and bound wood that together inflict heaþoglemma (battle-wounds) and deopra dolga (deep gashes) in lines 3-4 of the riddle point quite clearly to a context of physical pain and punishment. This is helped along by the fact that the weaver would use a wooden or sometimes iron sword-shaped beater (or batten) to thwack the woven threads up and into place, as well as small picks to straighten out the occasional stubborn patch. Several surviving beaters were actually fashioned out of blunt swords or spear-heads (Walton Rogers, pages 33-4). So, there are definitely some violent undertones to textile-making.

Metal weaving batten

Photo of a 9th-century sword beater from the Portable Antiquities Scheme (license CC BY 2.0).

In the Old Norse tradition, this violence is very noticeable. The poem Darraðarljóð (which can be found in Njáls saga) describes in great and gruesome detail a group of Valkyries weaving on a loom made from human body-parts. Likewise, Jómsvíkinga saga involves a dream sequence of the same sort. Their loom weights aren’t delicious doughnuts at all, but severed heads. Which is obviously gross.

All this means that violence is part and parcel of at least some northern medieval textile traditions. The question is, then, am I just a warped individual (get the pun? get it? get it?) or do I have a more nuanced reason for being attracted to Riddle 56, this most violent of riddles?

Well, I like to believe the latter is true. I personally think the combination of creative construction and violent destruction makes this riddle absolutely fascinating. Even if we don’t take the thing-being-made as a textile (some people have problems with that tree at the end of the poem, though it’s also been explained as a distaff standing near the loom, like in the drawing above), we’re certainly dealing with a riddle that describes a craft. And imagining a skilled craftsperson as a violent tormentor is, frankly, solid gold to anyone interested in ecocriticism (i.e. approaching literary texts by focusing on their representation of the natural world). Whether this is wool or flax twisted into a new shape – or whether it’s a completely different, wooden object – the raw material would once have been a part of the early medieval environment.

Which leads me to the second option for the riddle’s solution: Lathe. This is one that I become more and more convinced by each time I read the riddle. I know I’ve spent years talking about the poem in the light of textiles research, but a little part of me thinks that maybe, just maybe, the lathe reading works…even better. Here’s a video of a reconstructed pole lathe in process:

So, what we have here is a very clear case of one foot being fixed (i.e. the bit of the wooden pole stuck into the ground) and one swinging (i.e. the bit of the wooden pole that’s pulled and released by the foot treadle). Riddle 56’s reference to turning wood is especially apt, since a lathe is used to rotate wood while the operator shaves and grinds it into a particular shape (this is what’s going on behind the group of onlookers). A metal blade is also an essential part of the process, which explains all those battle-wounds. What do we make of that leafy tree in line 9, though? Well, this could potentially refer to the use of a fresh, green tree, which would be necessary for the lathe to keep its springiness.

And, finally, the creature that’s brought into the hall – well in this case it would be a bowl, cup or another dish made from wood. In the case of the loom, it would be a high-status textile, perhaps an item of clothing or a wall-hanging for decking out the hall. Either would be appropriate in the context of a feast for warriors. But, of course, a cup would add to the drinking party atmosphere in a pretty obvious way.

Unfortunately, I haven’t read many interpretations of this riddle that accept Lathe as the solution. Drawing on the passing suggestion of early riddle-scholars, Hans Pinsker and Waltraud Ziegler solve it this way in their German edition of the riddles, but they don’t go into a great detail (pages 277-8). This is too bad, because I think someone out there could make a real go of this. Maybe it could be you? If so, be sure to get in touch, eh?


References and Suggested Reading:

Cavell, Megan. “Looming Danger and Dangerous Looms: Violence and Weaving in Exeter Book Riddle 56.” Leeds Studies in English, vol. 42 (2011), pages 29-42. Online here.

Cavell, Megan. Weaving Words and Binding Bodies: The Poetics of Human Experience in Old English Literature. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016.

Clegg Hyer, Maren. “Riddles of Anglo-Saxon England.” In Encyclopedia of Medieval Dress and Textiles of the British Isles, c. 450–1450. Edited by Gale R. Owen-Crocker, Elizabeth Coatsworth and Maria Hayward. Leiden: Brill, 2012.

Erhardt-Siebold, Erika von. “The Old English Loom Riddles.” In Philologica: The Malone Anniversary Studies. Edited by Thomas A. Kirkby and Henry Bosley Woolf. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1949, pages 9-17.

Montelius, Oscar. Civilisation of Sweden in Heathen Times. Translated by Rev. F.H. Woods. 2nd ed. London: Macmillan, 1888.

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

Pinsker, Hans, and Waltraud Ziegler, eds. Die altenglischen Rätsel des Exeterbuchs. Heidelberg: Winter, 1985.

Roth, H. Ling. Ancient Egyptian and Greek Looms. Halifax: Bankfield Museum, 
1913. Online at Project Gutenberg.

Walton Rogers, Penelope. Cloth and Clothing in Early Anglo-Saxon England: AD 450–700. York: Council for British Archaeology, 2006.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 56 

Related Posts:
Exeter Riddle 90
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 90

Exeter Riddle 57


Date: Thu 12 Jan 2017
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 57

Today’s translation post is by Michael J. Warren. He has just completed his PhD on birds in medieval English poetry at Royal Holloway, where he is now a visiting lecturer. His new projects continue to focus on animal studies and ecocritical approaches to the natural world. Check out Michael’s blog, The Compleat Birder, here.

Original text:

Ðeos lyft byreð      lytle wihte
ofer beorghleoþa.      Þa sind blace swiþe,
swearte salopade.      Sanges rope
heapum ferað,      hlude cirmað,
tredað bearonæssas,      hwilum burgsalo
niþþa bearna.      Nemnað hy sylfe.


The air bears little creatures
over the hillsides. They are very black,
swarthy, dark-coated. Bountiful of song
they journey in groups, cry loudly,
tread the woody headlands, sometimes the town-dwellings
of the sons of men. They name themselves.

Click to show riddle solution?
Swifts, Swallows, Crows, Jackdaws, Starlings, House martins, Letters, Musical notes, Gnats, Stormclouds, Hailstones, Raindrops, Bees, Midges, Damned souls, or Demons


There is an interactive Riddle 57 activity available here.

This riddle appears on folios 114r-114v 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 209.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 55: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), page 101.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 57 

Related Posts:
Response to Exeter Riddle 39
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 55
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 57

Eusebius Riddle 57: De strutione


Date: Mon 27 Dec 2021
Original text:

Infandus volucer sum et nomen habeo Pelasgum.
Et pennas velut usurpans avis, advolo numquam
Altius a terra, et conceptum neglego foetum
Forte fovere meum, sed foetu pulveris ova
Sparsa foventur, vel potius animantur in illo.


I am an unspeakable winged thing and I have a Greek name.
Though I pretend to wings like a bird, I never fly
Higher from the ground, and I fail to care for my offspring 
Conceived casually, but by dust’s incubation are the scattered eggs
Kept warm, or rather, in it are they infused with life.

Click to show riddle solution?
On the ostrich

Tags: riddles  latin  Eusebius 

Aldhelm Riddle 57: Aquila


Date: Thu 14 Apr 2022
Original text:

“Armiger infausti Iovis et raptor Ganimidis”
Quamquam pellaces cantarent carmine vates,
Non fueram praepes, quo fertur Dardana proles,
Sed magis in summis cicnos agitabo fugaces
Arsantesque grues proturbo sub aetheris axe.
Corpora dum senio corrumpit fessa vetustas,
Fontibus in liquidis mergentis membra madescunt;
Post haec restauror praeclaro lumine Phoebi.


“The esquire of unfortunate Jove and abductor of Ganymede” 
Deceitful poets may sing of me in their verses,
But I was not that bird by which the Trojan youth was brought,
Rather, I chase fleeing swans high in the air 
And I drive away rattling cranes beneath the pole of the heavens.
While weary old age destroys my body with decline,
My limbs grow wet, dipped into liquid streams;
After this I am restored by the brilliant light of Phoebus.

Click to show riddle solution?


This edition is based on Rudolf Ehwald, ed. Aldhelmi Opera Omnia. Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Auctores Antiquissimi, 15. Berlin: Weidmann, 1919, pages 59-150. Available online here

Tags: riddles  latin  Aldhelm 

Commentary for Exeter Riddle 57


Date: Tue 24 Jan 2017
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 57

This commentary post is once again by Michael J. Warren from Royal Holloway. Take it away, Michael!


This has to be my favourite of all the Old English riddles, for two reasons. Firstly, the solution is probably a bird (my specialism), but even more intriguing is the fact that we just don’t know what the solution is. The Exeter Book riddles are renowned, of course, for their enigmatic absence of answers in the manuscript (unlike the various Anglo-Latin examples), but this is one of the few that still lacks a solution with general or near unanimous agreement. Scholars are still debating the possible solutions for this little critter; the only thing most scholars agree on is that the “subject is quite firmly assigned to the category bird” (Barley, page 169).

For John D. Niles, the “most likely self-naming black bird we are ever likely to snare” (page 129) is the crow, but a wide number of avian suspects have been recommended over the years, and various other “flying” answers as well (see the solutions following my translation of this riddle). For starters, then, what this pithy riddle does is demonstrate very nicely how this collection of conundrums is still playing out its effects over a thousand years after the poems were written down: they continue to tease us with a curious blend of obfuscation and illumination. As it turns out, this is something birds characteristically do as well. I like to think it’s no accident that birds are probably the answer to Riddle 57: a devious subject at the heart of a devious genre that continually escapes identification and finality.

Pretty much all European corvid species have been suggested as solutions to Riddle 57, but only jackdaws and rooks habitually gather in groups. Photo (by Bob Jones) of jackdaws from Wikipedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 2.0).

When we compare the mystery subjects of this Riddle 57 with the other bird riddles (Riddles 7, 8, 9, 10 and 24), there are enough similarities to make me think that some sort of bird must be the answer. These creatures hlude cirmað “cry loudly” (like the nightingale in Riddle 8, line 3b), the lyft byreð “the air bears” the birds in the same way it does the swan (Riddle 7, lines 4b-5a) and barnacle goose (Riddle 10, line 9b), and both the swan and the birds of Riddle 57 tredað “tread” when they alight, inhabiting opposing human and nonhuman territories. These nifty birds also inhabit what I call the “sometimes” motif – hwilum “sometimes” (line 5b) behaviours typify these creatures. As we’ll see below, birds are known for this sort of unpredictability (see Riddle 24’s jay for a whole load of hwilum!).

The final half line also seems like it really should be a clincher: Nemnað hy sylfe. The grammar of this line allows us to read it in two ways: either “Name them yourselves,” which fits the usual instruction from the riddles’ subjects (“Say what I am called”), or the now more popular reading, “They name themselves.” The latter might point us, then, to song as a clue. Certainly in other bird riddles, sound can be an important indicator, and many Old English bird names recorded in the glossaries onomatopoeically mimic song. On this basis, Dieter Bitterli has argued for an etymological tactic for solving the bird riddles: the diversity of the bird’s call in Riddle 8 leads us to nightingale (OE niht “night” + galan “to sing”) as evident in the poem’s synonym æfensceop “evening-singer” (line 5a). Similarly, Riddle 7 leads us to Old English swan (mute swan) through the use of paronomasia (word play on similar sounding words): the various /sw/ words direct us towards the name of the bird and its characteristic wing-music in flight.

Photo of swifts (by Keta) – a popular solution to Riddle 57 – from Wikipedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 3.0).

Bitterli’s theory is convincing. The problem is that while birds do conveniently sometimes spell out their names for us with their calls, they also have a tendency to transform, obscure and avoid identity. Take Riddle 24, for instance. We know what the answer is here, because it’s spelt out for us in runes which we must translate into Old English (higoræ “jay”), but the most distinctive sonic feature of this bird is that its tell-tale song keeps changing – it’s defined, apparently, according to the fact that it sounds like just about everything else. And birds generally in the Exeter Book riddles are characterised by their continual changing: the swan (Riddle 7) is paradoxically silent and loud, and travels afar. The cuckoo (Riddle 9), also a far-traveller, grows to be a huge bird that far outsizes the nest of its host and its usurped earlier identity, so moving from cuckoo to host-species to cuckoo again. The barnacle goose (Riddle 10) undergoes a remarkable metamorphosis, emerging and deriving from another creature entirely, and, like two other birds, does a disappearing act for half the year. The nightingale (Riddle 8) and jay (Riddle 24) change their voices as they please, also appropriating new identities.

Readers will undoubtedly continue to propose answers to Riddle 57. I’m for swift or swallow as it goes, but, actually, I think this might be beside the point. Perhaps we shouldn’t be in the business of seeking an answer at all. In fact, my point is rather to suggest that these secretive lytle wihte “little creatures” (line 1b) achieve their impact so well because they can’t be identified. This might seem counterintuitive on the face of it, but it’s borne out by other early medieval writings on birds. Indeed, scholars across the medieval period stress that what is most birdy about birds is their transformative abilities. Or to put it another way, what most defines birds is their habit of avoiding definition – they’re intrinsically unknowable in some respects, escapologists.

The most popular encyclopaedist of the late Middle Ages, Bartholomew the Englishman, notes repeatedly that there’s an in between-ness apparent in their very substance, þat beþ bytwene þe tweye elementis þat beþ most heuy and most liȝt (that is between the two elements that are most heavy and most light) (Seymour, page 596). Bartholomew’s immediate source, though, is one of the most influential texts of the early medieval period – Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies. In his introduction to birds, Isidore remarks how “They are called birds (avis) because they do not have set paths (via), but travel by means of pathless (avia) ways” (Barney, page 264). In his commentary on Riddle 51 on this site, Britt Mize makes a great case for the importance of paths or tracks (a motif that occurs in a number of the riddles). In Riddle 51, birds and (inky) paths are associable. As Britt suggests, “a reader, just like a hunter or tracker, must carefully observe and interpret the signs he or she finds, endeavouring to stay with them, going where they lead in pursuit of a goal.”

Page of from Isidore’s Etymologies (8th century), Brussels, Royal Library of Belgium, from Wikipedia Commons (public domain)

In Isidore’s statement, however, and in Riddle 57, this pursuit turns out to be rather more complicated. Birds outfly our pursuit, and overwhelm us with their great variety and multitude: “There is a single word for birds, but various kinds, for just as they differ among themselves in appearance, so do they differ also in the diversity of their natures” (Isidore, in Barney, page 263). Names and categories, it is implied, just aren’t sufficient to account for all the bird species that there are, even if we could know them all, which we can’t, because birds can disappear without signe neiþer tokene (sign nor token) (Bartholomew, in Seymour, page 596) – it’s impossible for mankind “to penetrate all the wildernesses of India and Ethiopia and Scythia, so as to know the kinds of birds and their differentiating characteristics” (Isidore, in Barney, page 263). These sentiments are echoed in a 10th century Latin poem on birdsong:

Quis volucrum species numeret, quis nomina discat?
Mille avium cantus, vocum discrimina mille.
Nec nostrum (fateor) tantas discernere voces.
(De cantibus avium, lines 1-3, in Buecheler and Riese, page 197)

(Whoever counts the types of birds, who learns their names? There are a thousand songs of birds, a thousand different voices. Nor do I, myself, claim to distinguish such voices.)

These sorts of issues seem to me to be at the heart of Riddle 57. The brief description identifies something which is very bird-like (particularly in comparison with the other bird riddles), and yet avoids offering us anything more precise. They force us to inhabit a space somewhere between knowledge and ignorance, just as the birds themselves sometimes dwell with niþþa bearna “the sons of men” (line 6a) and sometimes move beyond our boundaries to the bearonæssas “woody headlands” (lines 5a). Whatever its immediate sources or contexts may have been, Riddle 57 manifests the sorts of anxieties over naming birds and their characteristics evident in texts like Isidore’s – these are birds that apparently name themselves, but (still) can’t be named.

All of this avian mystery points up another potential, related concern of this poem. Birds remind us how frequently these poems cause us to go round in circles: the switchback evasions of the dark birds in Riddle 57 place them firmly in line with an important effect of the Exeter Book riddles’ strategies – they expose the limits of knowledge, even within texts that urge us to exceed limitations and certify uncertainties. In my reading of Riddle 57, then, two important aspects come together – birds and elusive answers – to emphasise the sophistication of these texts that are so often about testing the limits of knowledge. Birds, that is, might actually be employed purposefully in this riddle and in other bird riddles, because like the mysterious and evasive solutions that we’re required to guess at through complex linguistic play, they’re continuously seen to escape definition or certainties.

In her discussion of wonder in the Exeter Book riddles, Patricia Dailey observes that by “forcing us to think through the means of how we come to know the creature described in language,” these texts highlight “a link in epistemological knowing and a limit inscribed in naming” (page 464). In other words, even if we can correctly guess a solution, a name can only get us so far – there is still a gap between the mysterious thing itself and the name we choose to give it; mysteries still exist. Birds, I think, show us this particularly well. In Riddle 57, the grammatical ambiguity of line 6b demands, on the one hand, that we partake in the typical naming game, and on the other states that the birds, in fact, name themselves, neither requiring our intervention (as namers), nor, in fact, allowing us this privilege. Naming birds doesn’t satisfactorily encompass their ever-changing, diverse identities, and particularly not when we can’t saga “say” a name at all.

Editorial note: if you'd like to play with Riddle 57 some more, check out this interactive activity here.


References and Suggested Reading:

Barley, Nigel F. “Structural Aspects of the Anglo-Saxon Riddle.” Semiotica, vol. 10 (1974), pages 143-75.

Barney, Stephen A., and others, trans. The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Bitterli, Dieter. Say What I Am Called: The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book and the Anglo-Latin Tradition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009.

Buecheler, Franciscus, and Alexander Riese, eds. Anthologia Latina, sive Poesis Latinae supplementum. 2 vols. Leipzig: B. G. Teubneri, 1869-1926. Translation from Latin by Virginia Warren.

Dailey, Patricia. “Riddles, Wonder and Responsiveness in Anglo-Saxon Literature.” In The Cambridge History of Early Medieval English Literature. Edited by Clare A. Lees. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013, pages 451-72.

Krapp, George Philip, and Elliott van Kirk Dobbie, eds. The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records. 6 vols. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1931-1953.

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

Seymour, M. C., and others, ed. On the Properties of Things: John Trevisa’s Translation of Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De proprietatibus rerum. 3 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 57  micheal warren 

Related Posts:
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 7
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 8
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 9
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 10
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 24
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 51

Exeter Riddle 58


Date: Thu 12 Jan 2017
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 58
Original text:

Ic wat anfete      ellen dreogan
wiht on wonge.      Wide ne fereð,
ne fela rideð,      ne fleogan mæg
þurh scirne dæg,      ne hie scip fereð,
5     naca nægledbord;      nyt bið hwæþre
hyre mondryhtne      monegum tidum.
Hafað hefigne steort,      heafod lytel,
tungan lange,      toð nænigne,
isernes dæl;      eorðgræf pæþeð.
10     Wætan ne swelgeþ      ne wiht iteþ,
foþres ne gitsað,      fereð oft swa þeah
lagoflod on lyfte;      life ne gielpeð,
hlafordes gifum,      hyreð swa þeana
þeodne sinum.      Þry sind in naman
15     ryhte runstafas,      þara is Rad foran.


I know a one-footed thing, working with strength,
a creature on the plain. It does not travel far,
nor rides much, nor can it fly
through the bright day, no ship ferries it,
5     no nail-planked boat; it is however a benefit
to its master at many times.
It has a heavy tail, a little head,
a long tongue, not any teeth,
a share of iron; it treads an earth-hole.
10     It swallows no water nor eats a thing,
nor desires food, often however it ferries
a flood into the air; it boasts not of life
of a lord’s gifts, nonetheless it obeys
its own ruler. In its name are three
15     right rune-letters, with ‘rad’ at the front.

Click to show riddle solution?


This riddle appears on folio 114v 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 209.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 56: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), pages 101-2.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 58 

Related Posts:
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 58
Exeter Riddle 32
Exeter Riddle 39

Eusebius Riddle 58: De noctua


Date: Mon 27 Dec 2021
Original text:

Garrula, nigriferas noctis discurro per umbras,
Vitans luciflui suffundi lumine Phoebi.
Nomen habens furvum, visus habitatus ob ortam
Titanis lucem, at Cretensis tellus habere
Sola nequibit me, potius, aliunde relata,
Extemplo austriferi patior discrimina loeti.


Noisy, I run through the night’s dark-bearing shadows,
Avoiding suffusion with the light of shining Phoebus.
I have a nocturnal name, my vision weakened by the rising
Light of Titan, but the land of Crete alone
Will never hold me, but rather, brought here from elsewhere, 
I immediately suffer the crises of violent death brought on the south wind.

Click to show riddle solution?
On the night owl

Tags: riddles  latin  Eusebius 

Aldhelm Riddle 58: Vesper sidus


Date: Thu 14 Apr 2022
Original text:

Tempore de primo noctis mihi nomen adhaesit,
Occiduas mundi complector cardine partes;
Oceano Titan dum corpus tinxerit almum
Et polus in glaucis relabens volvitur undis,
Tum sequor, in vitreis recondens lumina campis
Et fortunatus, subito ni tollar ab aethra,
Ut furvas lumen noctis depelleret umbras.


My name sticks because of the early time of night,
When I encircle the western parts at the axis of the world;
While Titan immerses his nourishing body in the ocean,
And the sky, sliding down, is revolved into the grey waves,
Then I follow, hiding my lights in the glassy plains,
And I am fortunate that I am not suddenly removed from the skies,
So that my light may dispel the night’s dark shadows.

Click to show riddle solution?
Evening Star


This edition is based on Rudolf Ehwald, ed. Aldhelmi Opera Omnia. Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Auctores Antiquissimi, 15. Berlin: Weidmann, 1919, pages 59-150. Available online here

Tags: riddles  latin  Aldhelm 

Commentary for Exeter Riddle 58


Date: Mon 06 Feb 2017
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 58

Well, well, well. Here we go with Riddle 58.

Early critics had little trouble solving this riddle, because apparently early critics were far better versed in basic irrigation technology than I am. Have you ever seen one of these?

Well sweep and barn

Photograph (by Rafał Klisowski) from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 3.0).

No, neither have I. It’s a well-sweep, also known as a shaduf or shadoof, a counterpoise lift, a well-pole, or a swep. Also the creature described in Riddle 58 (proposed long ago by Holthausen).

It’s actually a pretty snazzy piece of machinery. That tall vertical pole (the anfot of the riddle) creates a base on which the diagonal rod can pivot. The diagonal rod is weighted on the one end (the heavy tail), and the other (the small head) is attached to a long rope (the tongue), carrying a bucket. When you want water, you pull on the rope to lower the bucket; when it’s full (and heavy), you simply let go – the counterweight does the job of raising the water so you don’t have to. Genius.

Ok, so here’s my first question. Why isn’t this one of the obscene riddles? How is it that early medieval folks found more suggestive imagery in an onion than this particular contraption? Maybe it was just too easy. Low-hanging fruit and all that. Moving on.

Any fan of the Exeter Book riddles knows how fond they are of playing positive and negative attributes against one another: things are in turn portrayed by what they are and what they’re not. But I can’t think of another riddle that manages the balance between the two quite as skilfully as this one. Starting at the start (where else?) we get a very important detail: our wiht is one-footed. But that’s left behind almost immediately, as we move onto a list of the things it doesn’t do. This creature doesn’t get around much on its lone foot: not by riding, nor flying, nor sailing on boats – and that’s pretty much all the travel options covered. But then we’re back to what it is, or at least what it has. Its body parts include a tail, a head, a tongue – but no teeth – and a measure of iron. It doesn’t drink, but it does carry water; it doesn’t boast of life but it does serve its master (nice iteration of the implement trope here; see Neville).

There’s a kind of rhythm that develops as we read through this flip-flopping description. The repeated use of ne gives a secondary alliteration on n-, particularly in lines 2-4, but it’s only in line 5 that we find n- carrying metrical alliteration, and that finishes by describing something that the creature is (a nyt “benefit”) rather than what it isn’t. We could compare these oscillations to the see-sawing motion of the well sweep in action. Or at least, I assume we could. I’ve only seen them in pictures.


A well-sweep in “action” from Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

These oscillations continue across the poem. The verb ferian (to carry) is used three times (lines 2, 4, 11). The first two are negative: this is a creature that neither moves itself nor is carried by ships. But then in line 11 we’re told that it fereð (carries) water – and it does it a lot. Water, too, is evoked both positively and negatively. This creature doesn’t drink (line 10a), but it does raise lagoflod (water: line 12a). It’s also a wiht (thing: line 2a), but it ne wiht iteþ (doesn’t eat a thing: line 10b). No nægledbord (nail-boarded) boat carries it (line 5a), but it does have its own share of isern (iron: line 9a), and we might think here of the visual and material affinities between a boat and a bucket. We’re told it doesn’t travel – either on the earth, in the air, or over water (lines 2-4). And yet later we find it traversing an earthen hole in order to lift water into the air (lines 9-12).

I said that critics have had little trouble solving Riddle 58 and that’s true. Sort of. The thing being described does seem to answer to all the attributes of a well-sweep. But what’s the Old English for well-sweep? Apparently it’s a three letter word with rad at the start. Unfortunately, no early medieval person ever bothered to write it down for us.

I ask because the riddle ends not by describing its subject, but by describing the name of its subject. Specifically, a name comprised of three ryhte runstafas (right rune-letters), and starting with rad (lines 14b-15). Runes aren’t all that common in the Exeter Book riddles, and when they are used they tend to be something of a showpiece: either introduced early (as in Riddles 19, 42 and 64), or discussed over several lines (as in Riddle 24, and also the other three I just mentioned). But Dieter Bitterli isn’t wrong when he describes these closing lines as rather abrupt (page 98). I guess if there’s anything better than runes, it’s surprise runes. The rune here is indicated using its name rather than its letter (a technique we’ve also seen in Riddle 42). In the manuscript there’s an accent over rad, perhaps as a hint at the word’s significance.

On its surface the runic conundrum that ends Riddle 58 is as straightforward as they come. Rad (riding) is the name of the rune ᚱ (‘r’). There’s only so many three-lettered words, and not even most of them start with r-. How hard can it be? Early critics settled on rod (rod). Job done.

Others, though, took the puzzle another way: they put the element rad– at the start of a three-letter word to make a compound, like radlim (riding-pole) or radpyt (riding-pit, well) (see Blakeley and Grein). Williamson notes, entirely in passing, that radrod (riding-rod, sweep?) may be a better fit, since “it is the pole and not the pit that is the subject” (page 312).

Well sweep

And yet, still not about sex. Photograph (by Jan Stubenitzky) from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 3.0).

Hang on, though. Radrod? That works both ways! It’s a compound comprising rad– and a second element, with that second element being a three lettered word starting with r- (Murphy, page 65). It even captures tonally the poem’s see-sawing rhythm. Better yet, because runic letters can stand for their names as well as their phonemes, it’s possible to write rad-rod in runes as ᚱ-ᚱᚩᛞ. As Niles points out (page 92), this construction contains only three distinct letters (with ᚱ repeated), and it starts with rad. So much for a creature that ne fela rideð (doesn’t ride much: line 3a), and yes I do think that’s an intentional joke by the riddle’s author (see Bitterli, page 105). By the end of the poem there’s quite a lot riding on ᚱ.

I’ll stop now.

The runic conundrum at the end of this riddle is uniquely peripheral, but it raises an interesting question. When we solve riddles, do we do it with objects or with words?

I have to confess, the term “well-sweep” meant not a thing to me the first time I read it; my “aha!” moment only came when I saw the photo at the top of this post. Niles argues for the importance of answering the riddles in their own language (that is, Old English rather than modern English), but the riddles themselves tend to place much greater emphasis on their subjects’ physical attributes than on their names. Many of the riddles begin by describing the form of a thing (ic seah “I saw,” or ic eom “I am”). Then again, many also end by asking us to say or to name their subject (saga hwæt ic hatte “say what I am called”).

So, have we solved Riddle 58 when we’ve identified an object that fits all the clues in its first fourteen lines, or when we’ve found an Old English word that answers the letter game in its final two? Is this riddle asking us to think about a thing in the world, or about the word used to signify that thing?

Well sweep

Bonus question: does it matter that the word radrod is a modern invention not attested anywhere in the Old English corpus? Photograph (by Andrzej Otrębsk) from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 3.0).


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.

Blakeley, L. “Riddles 22 and 58 of the Exeter Book.” Review of English Studies, vol. 9 (1958), pages 241-252.

Grein, Christian W. M. “Kleine Mittheilungen.” Germania, vol. 10 (1865), pages 305-310.

Holthausen, Ferdinand. “Beiträge zur Erklärung und Textkritik altenglischer Dichtungen.” Indogermanische Forschungen, vol. 4 (1894), pages 379-88.

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

Neville, Jennifer. “The Unexpected Treasure of the ‘Implement Trope’: Hierarchical Relationships in the Old English Riddles”. Review of English Studies, vol. 62 (2011), pages 505-519.

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

Symons, Victoria. Runes and Roman Letters in Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016.

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

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 58 

Related Posts:
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 19
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 24
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 43
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 42
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 64

Exeter Riddle 59


Date: Sun 19 Feb 2017
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 59

The following translation post is by Brett Roscoe, Assistant Professor at The King’s University in Alberta, and researcher of medieval wisdom literature. Take it away, Brett!

Original text:

Ic seah in healle      hring gyldenne
men sceawian,       modum gleawe,
ferþþum frode.      Friþospede bæd
god nergende       gæste sinum
5      se þe wende wriþan;       word æfter cwæð
hring on hyrede,      hælend nemde
tillfremmendra.      Him torhte in gemynd
his dryhtnes naman      dumba brohte
ond in eagna gesihð,      gif þæs æþelan
10      goldes tacen       ongietan cuþe
ond dryhtnes dolg,      don swa þæs beages
benne cwædon.      Ne mæg þære bene
æniges monnes      ungefullodre
godes ealdorburg      gæst gesecan,
15       rodera ceastre.       Ræde, se þe wille,
hu ðæs wrætlican      wunda cwæden
hringes to hæleþum,       þa he in healle wæs
wylted ond wended       wloncra folmum.


I saw in the hall men behold
a golden ring, prudent in mind,
wise in spirit. He who turned the ring
asked for abundant peace for his spirit
5      from God the Saviour.(1) Then it spoke a word,
the ring in the gathering. It named the Healer
of those who do good. Clearly into memory
and into the sight of their eyes it brought, without words,
the Lord’s name, if one could perceive
10      the meaning of that noble, golden sign
and the wounds of the Lord, and do as the wounds
of the ring said. The prayer
of any man being unfulfilled,(2)
his soul cannot reach God’s royal city,
15      the fortress of the heavens. Let him who wishes explain
how the wounds of that curious ring
spoke to men, when, in the hall,
it was rolled and turned in the hands of the bold ones.

Click to show riddle solution?


This riddle appears on folios 114v-115r 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 209-10.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 57: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), pages 102-3.

Translation Notes:

(1) Here I follow Craig Williamson in translating god nergende as the object of the clause. Given the meaning of biddan (to pray, entreat, ask), I don’t think it likely that God is the subject. After all, who would God pray to?

(2) P. J. Cosijn suggests changing the manuscript ungefullodre to ungefullodra, translating it “of the unbaptized” (“Anglosaxonica. IV,” Beitrage, vol. 23 (1898), pages 109-30, at 130), the sense then being that the prayer of the unbaptized will not get them to heaven. The translation given here adopts the suggestion made by Frederick Tupper, Jr., The Riddles of the Exeter Book (Boston: Ginn, 1910), page 198.

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

Related Posts:
Exeter Riddle 42
Exeter Riddle 60
Exeter Riddle 67

Eusebius Riddle 59: De psittaco


Date: Mon 27 Dec 2021
Original text:

India litoribus propriis me gignit amoenam,
Collum nam torques ruber emicat, ala colore
Tam viridi decorata est, et mea latior instat
Lingua loquax reliquis avibus. Hinc verba sonabo,
Nomina et humanae reddam de more loquelae,
Nam natura mihi “Ave!” est vel iam dicere “Care!”
Cetera per studiam depromam nomina rerum.


India begets lovely me (1) within her own shores,
For a red torc shines on my neck, and my wing is
Highly decorated with a green color, and my chattering tongue
Goes on more extensively than that of other birds. Hence I speak words,
And I give names in the manner of human speech,
For it is my nature to say “Hail!” or now “Greetings!” (2)
I declare other names through the study of things.

Click to show riddle solution?
On the parrot


(1) Or, it could be “lovely India.” The grammar does not work perfectly in either instance.
(2) This is a Latin transcription of the Greek Χαίρε.

Tags: riddles  latin  Eusebius