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 20

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
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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 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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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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