Riddle 22 (or 20)

ætsomne cwom LX monna

to wægstæþe wicgum ridan;

hæfdon XI eoredmæcgas

fridhengestas, IIII sceamas.

5     Ne meahton magorincas ofer mere feolan,

swa hi fundedon, ac wæs flod to deop,

atol yþa geþræc, ofras hea,

streamas stronge. Ongunnon stigan þa

on wægn weras ond hyra wicg somod

10     hlodan under hrunge; þa þa hors oðbær

eh ond eorlas, æscum dealle,

ofer wætres byht wægn to lande,

swa hine oxa ne teah ne esna mægen

ne fæthengest, ne on flode swom,

15     ne be grunde wod gestum under,

ne lagu drefde, ne on lyfte fleag,

ne under bæc cyrde; brohte hwæþre

beornas ofer burnan ond hyra bloncan mid

from stæðe heaum, þæt hy stopan up

20     on oþerne, ellenrofe,

weras of wæge, ond hyra wicg gesund.


Together 60 men came

Riding to the bank on horses;

11 horsemen had

Noble steeds, 4 had white ones.

5     The warriors could not pass over the water,

As they intended, but the sea was too deep,

The terrible tumult of the waves, the banks too high,

The streams too strong. Then the men began

To climb up on the wagon together with their horses,

10     To load under the pole; then the wagon carried the horses,

Mounts and men, proud in spears,

To land across the bay of the water,

In such a way that no ox pulled it, nor the strength of slaves,

Nor a draught horse, nor did it swim on the water,

15     Nor did it wade along the ground under its guests,

Nor did it disturb the waters, nor fly in the air,

Nor turned back; nevertheless it brought

The warriors over the stream, and their horses with them

From the high bank, so that they stepped up

20     Onto the other, strong in courage,

The men from the waves, and also their horses, unharmed.


Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Ursa Major, (days of the) month, bridge, New Year, stars

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Commentary for Riddle 21

Boy, we sure are plowing through these riddles, aren’t we? Get it? Get it? If not, you must have forgotten the solution to Riddle 21: plough or plow (depending on how you prefer to spell)! If you prefer to spell like an Anglo-Saxon, then you’d be spelling it sulh. There isn’t a great deal of debate over this riddle’s solution, which – I have to say – is kind of obvious. So instead of scholarly debate, I’m going to impress you with pictures. And also details and suchlike.

Here is a reproduction of a plough drawing in an eleventh-century calendar now housed in the British Library:

Riddle 21 Anglo-Saxon ploughFrom The New Gresham Encyclopedia, available free online at Project Gutenberg

 To view the original in all its colourful glory, click here.

The (quite lumpy-looking, though nonetheless smiley) team of oxen is nicely visible here, as are the various parts of the plough. These include the share (the bit that breaks up the earth) and the coulter (the bit that makes a groove for sowing seeds), which are represented in the poem as the creature’s neb (nose), as well as the weapon that pierces the plough’s head (similar to the orþoncpil (skillful spear) driven through its back). Here’s a picture of a seventh-century iron coulter from Lyminge, Kent:

Riddle 21 Lyminge plough coulter

Excavated by archaeologists at the University of Reading and published online by the BBC

In addition to the specifics of actual ploughing (i.e. the description of the object laying horizontally and being pushed along, the sowing of seeds, the churning up of earth to make a path and the elements that pierce the object’s body), this poem provides useful information on an important aspect of the Anglo-Saxon world: slavery. Whether born into it, taken in warfare or punished for criminal activity, slaves were common in the Anglo-Saxon period. Despite the widespread nature of slavery at this time, few slaves are given voice in Old English literature, which is one of the reasons Riddle 21 is such an important text.

“Why the plough?” you might ask. “Surely there are all sorts of objects and animals that could have been chosen to represent the Anglo-Saxon slave.” That’s true, of course, and there are other riddles that give evidence of slavery. However, the fact that ploughing was a common role for slaves (according to the Domesday Book) goes some way to explaining the riddler’s choice. The unhappy conditions of slavery are also expounded in the Colloquy that Ælfric of Eynsham wrote in order to help his students learn Latin. It introduces a variety of figures who are quizzed about their roles and responsibilities. In a particularly empathetic passage, the enslaved ploughman cries: O! O! magnus labor. etiam, magnus labor est, quia non sum liber in Latin, or Hig! Hig! micel gedeorf ys hyt. / Geleof, micel gedeorf hit ys, forþam ic neom freoh (34-5) (Oh! Oh! The labour is great. Yes, the labour is great, because I am not free) in Old English (at page 21, lines 34-5). This is a rare example of a slave having a voice at all, let alone one that demands empathy.

Riddle 21 Cuban bull

Anyone fancy a bull-ride? This one is Cuban rather than Anglo-Saxon. But still…close enough.

Riddle 21 is another example of a metaphorical slave describing her/his condition. In fact, this riddle provides us with information about the type of slave the poem depicts: this slave has been brought from the forest, bound and borne into the settlement (brungen of bearwe, bunden cræfte, / wegen on wægne). The implication of the half-line har holtes feond (the old foe of the forest) is that the ploughman or ox responsible for clearing the land takes slaves during battle, an idea driven home by the weapon-imagery toward the end of the poem.

This context of slavery makes the poem’s innuendo pretty disturbing, if you ask me (Murphy talks about this innuendo at pages 175-6 of his book, cited below). All the riddle’s references to the prone speaker being aggressively pushed by its master (class/status implications are also clear when the poem refers to the plough’s hlaford (lord) twice) who sows seed are brought to a head by the final lines’ description of being served from behind. It doesn’t take an especially pervy imagination to see how this could be read sexually, particularly given the connotations of “plowing” in Modern English. Of course, the reference to the speaker’s steort (tail) and tearing teeth (ic toþum tere) may introduce a bestial element that only makes things worse.

All in all, Riddle 21 presents us with a creature forced to perform hard labour for its captor. I’d like to think that this image is a sympathetic one, but the introduction of innuendo may imply that the enslaved victim is the butt of the joke. Or maybe the fact that we’re dealing with an object rather than a person can ease our discomfort. I haven’t decided yet.


References and Suggested Reading:

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

Bintley, Michael D. J. “Brungen of Bearwe: Ploughing Common Furrows in Riddle 21, The Dream of the Rood, and the Æcerbot Charm.” In Trees and Timber in the Anglo-Saxon World. Edited by Michael D. J. Bintley and Michael G. Shapland. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, pages 144-57. (I have to admit that I haven’t managed to get my hands on a copy of this article yet, but it’s on my list!)

Cochran, Shannon Ferri. “The Plough’s the Thing: A New Solution to Old English Riddle 4 of the Exeter Book.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. 108, (2009), pages 301-9. (although this article deals with a different riddle, its discussion of the plough is relevant here)

Colgrave, Bertram. “Some Notes on Riddle 21.” Modern Language Review, vol. 32 (1937), pages 281-3.

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

Williams, Edith Whitehurst. “Annals of the Poor: Folk Life in Old English Riddles.” Medieval Perspectives, vol. 3 (1988), pages 67-82.

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Riddle 21 (or 19)

Neb is min niþerweard;      neol ic fere

ond be grunde græfe,      geonge swa me wisað

har holtes feond,      ond hlaford min

woh færeð      weard æt steorte,

5     wrigaþ on wonge,     wegeð mec on þyð,

saweþ on swæð min.      Ic snyþige forð,

brungen of bearwe,      bunden cræfte,

wegen on wægne,      hæbbe wundra fela;

me biþ gongendre      grene on healfe

10     ond min swæð sweotol      sweart on oþre.

Me þurh hrycg wrecen      hongaþ under

an orþoncpil,      oþer on heafde,

fæst ond forðweard.      Fealleþ on sidan

þæt ic toþum tere,      gif me teala þenaþ

15     hindeweardre,      þæt biþ hlaford min.


My nose is turned downward; I travel flat

and carve out the ground, going as the old foe

of the forest directs me, and my lord

travels crooked, a watchman at my tail,

5     moves over the plain, moves me and presses,

sows in my path. I go nose forwards,

brought from the wood, skillfully bound,

borne on a wagon, I have many marvels;

travelling, there is green on one side of me

10     and my path is clear, black on the other.

Driven through my back, there hangs underneath

a skillful spear, another on my head,

firm and forward-facing. To the side falls

what I tear with my teeth, if he serves me rightly

15     from behind, he who is my lord.


Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solution: Plough

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Commentary for Riddle 20

This week’s riddle has layers. Not the sort of layers that an onion has (you’ll have to wait for those). But, still, layers. Also: controversy! Like so many of the riddles that offer multiple solutions and interpretations, this riddle has caused Anglo-Saxon scholars to regress to childhood and offer an over-abundance of passive-aggressive digs at each other. I shall try to refrain from such behaviour myself…even though a blog format is really the only format in which writing something like “stupid-face” is acceptable for an academic.

But actually, there is nothing stupid (or face-ish, for that matter) about the main solutions proposed for this particular riddle. In fact, they’re all so good that it can be quite difficult to pick a side. Let’s start with Falcon or Hawk. Here’s a particularly charming one:

Brown Falcon

Photo (by Jjron/John O’Neill) from the Wikimedia Commons.

Suggested by an early riddle-editor, this solution was fairly unpopular until Laurence K. Shook rehabilitated it in 1965. His article points out that taking into account a poetic compound word in another poem brings the Falcon solution into line with the more popular Sword solution. This compound is heoruswealwe, which means literally “sword-swallow” (as in the type of bird, rather than the throat action), and appears in the beautiful and at times depressing Fortunes of Men. The relevant lines are usefully descriptive of the trained falcon’s relationship with its human captor and so worth quoting in full:

Sum sceal wildne fugel      wloncne atemian,

heafoc on honda,      oþþæt seo heoroswealwe

wynsum weorþeð;      deþ he wyrplas on,

fedeþ swa on feterum      fiþrum dealne,

lepeþ lyftswiftne      lytlum gieflum,

oþþæt se wælisca      wædum ond dædum

his ætgiefan      eaðmod weoþeð

ond to hagostealdes      honda gelæred. (85-92)

(One shall tame the proud, wild bird,

the hawk on the hand, so that the sword-swallow

becomes pleasant; he puts jesses on,

feeds thus in fetters the one proud in feathers,

gives the air-swift one little morsels,

until the alien creature becomes easy-minded

toward his food-giver in dress and deeds

and used to the young warrior’s hands.)

It’s also worth noticing that hagosteald, which refers to a celibate young man who lives in the household of his lord (so likely a warrior/retainer) or to the state of being such a man, appears in both this passage and in Riddle 20 (at line 31a).

In general, then, a close reading of the riddle-as-Falcon would go something like this: all the references to clothing, wires and treasure refer to the jesses and varvels (cords and rings) that are attached to the bird’s legs/feet. These are the poetic trappings of the warrior bird whose battle is the hunt, yet they also hold it in confinement and so provide an ironic context of forced servitude. Likewise, the colourful byrne (mail-coat) mentioned in line 3a is the bird’s plumage. If you’re unconvinced of this detail, take a look at lines 305-6 of The Phoenix, in which that creature’s feathers are described using jewel/armour diction (esp. rings: hring/beag and interlocking construction: brogden). The compwæpna (battle-weapons) of line 9a are of course the beak and talons, but far more elusive is the wælgim (slaughter-gem) of line 4a. Your guess is as good as mine on this one. It could be a general adornment-term and so connote weaponry. Or it could refer to the bird’s eyes, gimm being elsewhere connected to the orbs of the sun and the head (see the Dictionary of Old English, senses 2.-3. The “eyes” reference is from Guthlac B, line 1302a).

As for line 5a’s reference to the riddle-subject “wandering widely” (similarly line 14a’s travel-weariness), Shook argues that this better fits a living creature than a weapon. That being said, the broad strokes of a sword could be described in this way. Generally accepted as more in line with falcons than swords is the description of the riddle-subject’s inability to procreate in lines 17b-31a. Shook explains that this passage relates to the tendency not to allow the captive birds to mate. The only way these hawks can have widdle baby birds is to abandon their lord. This is what separates avian retainers from human ones (although also see Tanke’s article for more on the sexual restraints of young warriors).

Finally, the much-debated last four lines of the riddle (before it trails off due to the loss of at least one manuscript leaf) deserve attention. Why are they much-debated? Because they refer to a woman. As you may have inferred from previous riddles and from other texts, Old English poetry tends to shy away from lady-folks in a rather annoying way. So when a clear reference to a woman does come up, we Anglo-Saxonists get excited. The fact that this particular woman seems to have been upset by the riddle-solution has led to a great array of speculations, which I’ll briefly deal with below in relation to the Sword reading. Shook’s interpretation, though, is lovely. He links this female figure to the falcon-subject itself, noting both that more than one bird would often be placed on the same perch and that captive birds are given to “bating” or the occasional beating of their wings as though about to take off. All this flapping about and squawking may well appear to the casual onlooker as a confrontation between the mixed company of male and female falcons.

Shook’s interpretation is supported by Marie Nelson, who reads a combination of bird, warrior and monk connotations in the riddle’s approach to sexuality and by Eric G. Stanley in his treatment of the riddles’ heroic content (at pp. 207-8). In general, the Falcon/Hawk solution has a lot going for it, not least the fact that the verb galan (to sing/call), which is invoked in relation to the woman at the end of the poem, carries specific connotations of birdsong in lines 20b-3 of The Husband’s Message and lines 52b-3a of Elene (see the Dictionary of Old English entry for galan, sense B.). If you want to learn more about falconry, there are plenty of resources in print (see Oggins, for example) and online. Here’s a video of a rescued peregrine falcon and its trainer to start you off:

Right, that’s an awful lot of material about falcons. Sorry about that…it’s just that they’re  really cool. Also cool is the other solution-contender for Riddle 20: the sword! The Sword-reading is the more popular solution amongst scholars, and there’s a slew of research that aims to work out the ins and outs of this interpretation. The gist of it is as follows. The various references to treasure, clothing and the hondweorc smiþa (handiwork of smiths) are obvious here: the sword is made of metal and is itself a treasure with adornments on the hilt and sheath. The courtly context (praise! mead! battle!) is also pretty run-of-the-mill if we’re talking about a sword, since it is the heroic accoutrement par excellence. The confinement references relate to the sheathing of the weapon or perhaps to the tying of it onto the belt, and it is of course here that the voice of the weapon-as-a-retainer becomes ironic: it’s not generally advisable to tie up your followers…unless they’re actually weapons.


The Sutton Hoo Sword © Trustees of the British Museum and subject to the Standard Terms of Use

As for the procreation bit, well this is where things get a bit dicey. If we stick with Sword, then H. R. E. Davidson would have us believe this passage may refer to the re-forging of old swords (pp. 152-4). There’s certainly a pun on the use of streona, which can mean both literal treasures and those metaphorical little treasures some people call children. But if we’re really honest with ourselves, the procreation passage is where the Sword reading breaks down. And this is where the third suggestion comes in: Phallus. Obviously, I’m not going to include a picture, but I will just leave this little link to the Icelandic Phallological Museum right here (it’s a museum. So it’s legit). Anyway, the scholar who most ardently argued for the Phallus-reading was Donald Kay (too bad his name wasn’t Richard or William…I would have had a world of puns to work with). Kay was all like “don’t you think Sword is…well…a bit obvious?” (not a direct quote!), and certainly given the reference to offspring, the poem seems to offer a way into his reading.

The way in, though, seems to be through a metaphorical relationship between the sword and a man. In fact, John D. Niles indicates that this sword/man imagery-play actually derives from an Old English play on the word wæpen, literally “weapon,” but also occasionally used in compounds referring to men as wæpnedmen (weaponed-humans) (p. 141). But this sword is not a human or a body part and therefore will never procreate. It’s sad.

As for the woman at the end of the poem, scholars go a bit off the rails with speculation here, given the lack of textual evidence. Some suggest that the woman is angry because the celibate sword has denied her desire (obviously, this works better with a sword-phallus metaphor), or that the reference is to a sexual crime (because wom can mean “shame” or “defilement”). I don’t think either of these readings really stands up to scrutiny. Better is Melanie Heyworth’s suggestion that “the sword is self-condemnatory because he has diminished the wife’s joy – her marriage – presumably by killing her husband” (p. 176). And best is Patrick J. Murphy summary of the poem’s conclusion: “The rage of the woman in Riddle 20 could be explained by any number of unfortunate incidents: swords can slaughter enemies and friends, husbands and wives, children as well as kings. Perhaps the sword has slaughtered the hawk? The riddling point, however, is simply that one kind of wæpen causes pleasure, another causes pain. One can be conventionally desired, the other painfully reviled. Whatever its imagined literal cause, the displeasure the woman takes in the solution (a sword) is described in terms that echo the pleasures of the riddle’s phallic focus” (p. 214).

And so we come to the end of another post. I’ll leave you with one final tidbit. Andy Orchard in his as-of-yet-unpublished edition of the Anglo-Saxon riddles offers one last solution, or rather a synthesis of those discussed above. The Old English word secg can, usefully, be translated as both “sword” and “man.” This would seem to put the matter to rest when it comes to sorting out the complicated sword/phallus/procreation/infuriated-woman details. But I’m afraid you still have to choose between secg and heoruswealwe. I’ll leave that to you.


References and Suggested Reading:

Davidson, Hilda Roderick Ellis. The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England: its Archaeology and Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962.

Heyworth, Melanie. “Perceptions of Marriage in Exeter Book Riddles 20 and 61.” Studia Neophilologica, vol. 79 (2007), pages 171-84.

Kay, Donald. “Riddle 20: A Reevaluation.” Tennessee Studies in Literature, vol. 13 (1968), pages 133-9.

Murphy, Patrick J. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011, pages 206-15.

Nelson, Marie. “Old English Riddle 18 (20): a Description of Ambivalence.” Neophilologus, vol. 66 (1982), pages 291-300.

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

Oggins, Robin S. The Kings and Their Hawks: Falconry in Medieval England. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

Shook, Laurence K. “Old English Riddle No. 20: Heoruswealwe.” In Franciplegius: Medieval and Linguistic Studies in Honor of Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr. Edited by Jess B. Bessinger and Robert P. Creed. New York: New York University Press, 1965, pages 194-204.

Stanley, Eric G. “Heroic Aspects of the Exeter Book Riddles.” In Prosody and Poetics in the Early Middle Ages: Essays in Honour of C. B. Hieatt. Edited by M. J. Toswell. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995, pages 197-218.

Tanke, John W. “The Bachelor-Warrior of Exeter Book Riddle 20.” Philological Quarterly, vol. 79 (2000), pages 409-27.

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Riddle 20 (or 18)

Ic eom wunderlicu wiht,      on gewin sceapen,

frean minum leof,      fægre gegyrwed.

Byrne is min bleofag,      swylce beorht seomað

wir ymb þone wælgim      þe me waldend geaf,

5     se me widgalum      wisað hwilum

sylfum to sace.      Þonne ic sinc wege

þurh hlutterne dæg,      hondweorc smiþa,

gold ofer geardas.      Oft ic gæstberend

cwelle compwæpnum.      Cyning mec gyrweð

10     since ond seolfre      ond mec on sele weorþað;

ne wyrneð wordlofes,      wisan mæneð

mine for mengo,      þær hy meodu drincað,

healdeð mec on heaþore,      hwilum læteð eft

radwerigne      on gerum sceacan,

15     orlegfromne.      Oft ic oþrum scod

frecne æt his freonde;      fah eom ic wide,

wæpnum awyrged.      Ic me wenan ne þearf

þæt me bearn wræce      on bonan feore,

gif me gromra hwylc      guþe genægeð;

20     ne weorþeð sio mægburg      gemicledu

eaforan minum      þe ic æfter woc,

nymþe ic hlafordleas      hweorfan mote

from þam healdende      þe me hringas geaf.

Me bið forð witod,      gif ic frean hyre,

25     guþe fremme,      swa ic gien dyde

minum þeodne on þonc,      þæt ic þolian sceal

bearngestreona.      Ic wiþ bryde ne mot

hæmed habban,      ac me þæs hyhtplegan

geno wyrneð,      se mec geara on

30     bende legde;      forþon ic brucan sceal

on hagostealde      hæleþa gestreona.

Oft ic wirum dol      wife abelge,

wonie hyre willan;      heo me wom spreceð,

floceð hyre folmum,      firenaþ mec wordum,

35     ungod gæleð.      Ic ne gyme þæs compes…


I am a marvelous creature, shaped in conflict,

dear to my lord, beautifully clothed.

My mail-coat is particoloured, likewise bright wire

stands about the slaughter-gem that my ruler gave me,

5     he who sometimes directs me,

wandering widely, to battle. Then I carry treasure,

throughout the clear day, the handiwork of smiths,

gold in the courtyards. Often I kill

soul-bearers with battle-weapons. The king clothes me

10     with treasure and silver and honours me in the hall;

he does not withhold words of praise, proclaims my nature

to the company, where they drink mead,

he holds me in confinement, sometimes he allows me again,

travel-weary, to hasten unrestricted,

15     battle-bold. I often injured another,

fierce to a friend; I am widely hostile,

accursed among weapons. I do not need to expect

that a son should avenge me on the life of my killer

if a certain enemy should attack me in battle,

20     nor will the race into which I was born

become increased by my children

unless I may turn lord-less

from the protector who gave me rings.

Hence it is certain for me, if I obey my lord,

25     take part in battle, as I have already done

for my lord’s satisfaction, that I must forfeit

the wealth of descendants. I must not be intimate

with a bride, but he now denies me

that pleasant play, who earlier

30     laid bonds upon me; therefore I must enjoy

the treasure of warriors in celibacy.

Often I, foolish in wires, infuriate a woman,

frustrate her wish; she speaks terribly to me,

strikes me with her hands, reviles me with words,

cries unkindness. I do not care for that conflict…


Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Sword, Falcon/Hawk, Phallus

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Commentary for Riddle 19

Warning: a LOT of ink has been spilled on this bad boy. I’ll try to sum it up as best I can, but if you’re interested in this riddle in particular, you really ought to follow up with the suggested reading below, which should provide you with a fuller scholarly back-story. Why so popular, you might ask? Well…that’s easy…RUNES! And horses and hawks and all the other lovely things that spring to mind when we think of Anglo-Saxons. Here, have a picture of a horse. Because I can.


Well, that’s a very nice horse, you might say, but where, oh where, is the horse in this poem? Of course, it’s the runes that hold the key. The four groups of runes spell out words in reverse. If you flip the first, ᛋ ᚱ ᚩ ᚻ (SROH), you get hors (horse). Similarly, the second, ᚾ ᚩ ᛗ (NOM) spells mon (man) and the fourth, ᚳ ᚩ ᚠ ᚩ ᚪ ᚻ (C O F O A H), haofoc (hawk). These largely equate with the closely-related Riddle 64’s runic horse/man/hawk. You may be wondering why I’ve skipped the third, ᚪ ᚷ ᛖ ᚹ (A G E W), and that is of course because people fight about it a lot. We’re talking mega scholarly bloodbath when it comes to interpreting wega. Okay, maybe it’s not quite that dramatic, but there are certainly a few options to pick from. One is that it is a variant spelling of wiga (warrior), which would mean we have two people in the runes (or perhaps poetic variation). Another option is a form of wægn (wagon), but that’s a bit of a stretch. Better options include a plural form of weg (way/path) or weg with a long e (wave). What we have, then, is a man with a hawk travelling on a horse over some paths or waves. Sounds like a nice little holiday.

Of course, when it comes to solutions, some people stop right there. Donald K. Fry’s list of proposed riddle solutions (at p. 23) points to quite a few scholars who feel that decoding the runes leads directly to the solution, which they take to be Falconry, Hunting or even just a Horseman and Hawk (sometimes wega is interpreted as another person leading to a warrior/servant reading and sometimes these creatures are assumed to be accompanied by a wagon, as mentioned above). Here, have a drawing of what this group might look like. Because I can.

Riddle 19 Horse Man HawkBut this all seems a little obvious. And we know that Anglo-Saxon riddlers are really quite clever, which is why some people push this poem a little further. Metaphorical interpretations of the riddle include Norman E. Eliason’s: Writing. According to Eliason, the swiftly travelling group represents the fingers and pen tip, as well as the hand (with a pun on nægledne (nailed) pointing to finger-nails) and the pen’s plume, which together leave tracks of ink on the page. I get the plume/hawk equation, but I must admit I’m a bit stumped as to how the fingers, pen tip and hand represent a horse and man. I guess it would look something like this:

Riddle 10 WritingNow you understand why I’ve gotten into cartooning…you try finding a ready-made picture of this craziness!

But there’s another metaphorical reading available to us, and it works better for many reasons. This is of course: Ship. Craig Williamson suggested this solution in his edition of the riddles and developed it in his later translation (pp. 186-92 and 173, respectively). The key, he claims, lies in the common Old English kenning that associates the ship with a sea-horse. This explains why it is nailed and works nicely with the reading of wega as “ways” or “waves” (although Williamson takes it as a “man” word). If the horse is a ship, then the hawk is its sail and the man its sailor. Not convinced yet? You soon will be. Indeed, Mark Griffith developed this solution by pointing out a nifty linguistic feature. Questioning why the runes are written in reverse, Griffith demonstrates that the first rune of each cluster (or final letter of each word) together spells SNAC. Rather than a tasty treat, an Old English snac(c) refers to a swiftly sailing war-ship. Oh snap. This is why it is so, so, so, so, so, so important to solve the riddles in their original language and not just using Modern English words/concepts.

Riddle 19 Oseberg ShipThe Oseberg ship in Oslo, Norway (not technically Anglo-Saxon, but close enough). Photo (by Grzegorz Wysocki) from the Wikimedia Commons.

So, those are our solutions. But of course we’re not done yet. We still have to talk quickly about emendations (or changes made to the manuscript reading by its editors). First of all, you should note that on siþe (on a journey) doesn’t actually appear in the manuscript. Editors have added it in to lengthen out the first half-line and preserve the poem’s metrics. A less major change is to the beginning of line 3, which actually reads swist ne, not swiftne. But even scribes make mistakes, so modern editors occasionally have to reinterpret bits like this to make sense of them. We run into trouble, though, when editors read errors where there are none and emend in ways that change the poem’s interpretation. This is what Jonathan Wilcox argues Craig Williamson has done in his edition. Williamson changes the final half-line from Saga hwæt ic hatte (Say what I am called) to Saga hwæt hit hatte (Say what it is called). This is an attempt to make the final question more logical – the poem isn’t written in the first person, so why would it ask a who-am-I question at the end? Surely, it should ask what all this hullabaloo the riddler has just described indicates instead. Well, Wilcox argues that the complexity of the riddle, the concatenation of descriptive details and the use of runes are all intended to trick the solver and distract him or her from answering the simple question at the end: Who am I? To which we should respond: “You are the riddler! And who cares about all that other stuff!” This, Wilcox takes as a mock-riddle that parodies normal riddling conventions (at pp. 186-7). That’s “conventions” as in “practices” rather than “gatherings”…although a Comic-Con-style riddle convention would be worth seeing. Costume ideas, anyone?

Right, this post is already quite long, so I think I should start to wrap it up. But before I do, I feel I ought to at least allude to the wider discussion of runes and how they functioned in Old English. The question of runic pronunciation came up in the previous post’s comments, although unfortunately whether runes in Old English poetry were read out as letters, read out by their runic name or merely a written device that was never intended to be spoken is open for debate. What is clear is that – whatever their origins – they were often written or copied in a Christian context. To quote Robert DiNapoli’s rather eloquent conclusions about runic use in Old English: “The runes, for Anglo-Saxon poets at least, are ambiguity incarnate. However much assimilated to scribal and authorial practice in a monastic setting, their angular forms continue to point to their origins outside the cloister and outside the grand edifice of Christian literacy erected in Anglo-Saxon England by the Church. With only vague and scant knowledge of what the runes may have meant to their pagan forebears in the poetic craft, the poets who use them in surviving texts make them very much their own, emblems of an ancient and venerable verbal art whose authority they continued to honour alongside that of the institutional authorities of Scripture and the Church Fathers” (p. 161). How wonderfully syncretistic.

I’ll leave you on that note. I need to go pursue my newfound (and promising, no doubt) career in obscure cartooning.

Riddle 19 Runic Sign Off

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 86-91.

DiNapoli, Robert. “Odd Characters: Runes in Old English Poetry.” In Verbal Encounters: Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse Studies for Roberta Frank. Edited by Antonina Harbus and Russell Poole. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005, pages 145-61.

Eliason, Norman E. “Four Old English Cryptographic Riddles.” Studies in Philology, vol. 49 (1952), pages 553-65.

Fry, Donald K. “Exeter Book Riddle Solutions.” Old English Newsletter, vol. 15 (1981), pages 22-33.

Griffith, Mark. “Riddle 19 of the Exeter Book: SNAC, an Old English Acronym.” Notes and Queries, new series, vol. 237 (1992), pages 15-16.

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

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

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

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Riddle 19 (or 17)

We have a slight complication this week, folks: RUNES! Runes are great, but they can be a bit of a technological nightmare, so bear with me. If you can’t see the runes in the Old English riddle below, you have two options: download the Junicode font or just scroll to the bottom of the post, where you’ll find a screen shot from a word-processing program. Not ideal, I know, but this way everyone should get to revel in the glory of runes. Aaaaaaaaand, go!


Ic on siþe seah      . ᛋ ᚱ ᚩ

ᚻ . hygewloncne,      heafodbeortne,

swiftne ofer sælwong      swiþe þrægan.

Hæfde him on hrycge      hildeþryþe

5     . ᚾ ᚩ ᛗ .      nægledne rad

. ᚪ ᚷ ᛖ ᚹ.      Widlast ferede

rynestrong on rade      rofne . ᚳ ᚩ

ᚠᚩ ᚪ ᚻ .      For wæs þy beorhtre,

swylcra siþfæt.      Saga hwæt ic hatte.


I saw on a journey a mind-proud,

bright-headed S R O H,

the swift one running quickly over the prosperous plain.

It had on its back a battle-power,

5     the N O M rode the nailed one

A G E W. The far-stretching track conveyed,

strong in movement on the road, a valiant C O

F O A H. The journey was all the brighter,

the expedition of such ones. Say what I am called.


Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Ship, Falconry/Horseman and hawk [sometimes with wagon/servant] and Writing

Screen shot for Junicode-less readers:

Riddle 19 runes screen shot


Filed under Riddle Translations