Riddle 27 (or 25)

This week’s riddle comes to us from Dr. Wendy Hennequin (you may remember Wendy from Riddle 17). She has provided us with a poetic translation (and a few notes), as well as a prose translation. You’ll have to scroll all the way down to find the possible solutions. Take it away, Wendy!


Ic eom weorð werum,      wide funden,

brungen of bearwum      ond of burghleoþum,

of denum ond of dunum.     Dæges mec wægun

feþre on lifte,      feredon mid liste

5     under hrofes hleo.      Hæleð mec siþþan

baþedan in bydene.      Nu ic eom bindere

ond swingere,      sona weorpe

esne to eorþan,      hwilum ealdne ceorl.

Sona þæt onfindeð,      se þe mec fehð ongean,

10     ond wið mægenþisan     minre genæsteð,

þæt he hrycge sceal      hrusan secan,

gif he unrædes     ær ne geswiceð,

strengo bistolen,      strong on spræce,

mægene binumen;      nah his modes geweald,

15     fota ne folma.     Frige hwæt ic hatte,

ðe on eorþan swa      esnas binde,

dole æfter dyntum     be dæges leohte.


Poetic translation:

I am worthy to folk,    and found widely,

Brought from forests      and fortress-hills,

From dales and from downs.      By day, feathers

Brought me by craft,      carried me aloft

5     Under house-roof’s shelter.     Heroes afterwards

Bathed me in barrels.      Binder now I am,

Striker and scourger (1),    and soon, hurler

Of old freemen     even to the earth.

Who seizes me    and seeks to challenge

10     My mighty strength    soon will discover

That he must find the earth     flat on his back.

Unless he ceases earlier   to seek folly.

Stolen his might—      though strong his speech—

No power he has    of hands nor of feet

15     Of mind or of soul (2).      Say what I am called (3),

Who alone on earth,    by light of day,

So binds fellows (4)    with folly and blows.



  • (1) There is only one word in the original, swingere, which can mean both striker and scourger. I use both meanings, as variations of each other, to fill the half-line.
  • (2) Line 14b of the original, when translated into modern English, has three stresses and had to be split between lines 14a and 15a of my translation. In order to fit the poem poetically into its original number of lines, I eliminated the variation in the original riddle’s line 14a.
  • (3) Instead of the familiar tag line, “saga hwæt ic hatte,” which appears in Riddle 19, among others, Riddle 27 says, “frige hwæt ic hatte,” “learn by asking what I am called.” I’ve reverted to the more familiar formula to match the alliteration.
  • (4) The original’s esnas seems to mean a man of lower social class: Clark-Hall defines the word esne as “labourer, slave, servant, retainer: youth, man” (esne, 107). It is difficult to convey this connotation in Modern English without resorting to old-fashioned words such as “peasant.”


Prose translation:

I am worthy to men, found widely, brought from the woods and fort-hills, from dales and mountains; wings carried me aloft by day, brought with skill under the roof’s shelter. Afterwards, heroes bathed me in a bucket. Now I am binder, striker, and soon, thrower of an old churl even to the earth. He who seizes me and against my might contends—soon finds that he must seek the earth with his back if he doesn’t leave off his folly beforehand. Stolen his strength, strong his speech, deprived of might, he does not have the possession of mind, feet, or hands. Learn what am I called, who on earth so binds men, foolish (or with folly) after blows, by day’s light.
Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Mead, Whip, Sleep

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Commentary for Riddle 26

Let me warn you now: I’m sick and I might be contagious. Oh wait…this is the internet, and that’s not how germs work. Still, if this commentary comes across as particularly grumpy or incoherent, now you know why.

So, Riddle 26, eh? Straight from the inappropriate touching of root vegetables to animal martyrs and religious book-making in one fell swoop…no one ever said the Exeter Book compiler was a person of limited interests. “But why, oh why, are you so sure we’re dealing with religious book-making?” you might ask. My un-sick self would probably answer something like “What a good question. Let’s take a look at the scholarship.” My sick self, on the other hand, is going to reply thusly: “Because I bothered to read the riddle, and it’s soooooooooo obvious, and everyone else agrees with me anyway, you cheeky imaginary questioner, you.” Then I might stop to realize that I’m having this debate in my head and you, real-life readers, were probably on the same page as me the whole time. Sigh.

Anyway, let’s all stop arguing with myself and look at the details of the solution. I’ve listed Book, Bible and Gospel Book, although Hide has also been suggested in the past. Of course, we’re dealing with a period when book-making involved using the skins of animals (sheep, goats, cows, etc.), so all four of these solutions are really interconnected.

SAMSUNGHere’s a photo of parchment drying in Pergamena’s workshop from April Hannah Llewellyn’s website.

The question is, then, whether we’re dealing with a particularly religious book or not. Well, the reference to the ornamentation of the book being used to worship the dryhtfolca helm (protector of the people) in lines 16b-17a does seem to imply a Christian context. If you’re not convinced, then perhaps the even more strongly religious implications of the final line and a half will change your mind: Nama min is mære, / hæleþum gifre ond halig sylf (My name is famous, / handy to heroes and holy in itself). So, it’s a religious book then (case closed!). But why quibble between Bible and Gospel Book? Because it seems that complete Bibles were fairly rare in Anglo-Saxon England (see Niles, pages 118-19). This is not to say that the Anglo-Saxons didn’t have access to biblical texts (whether in Old English or in Latin). Of course they did! It’s just that they didn’t necessarily all travel together in a tidy package. That’s why Gospel Book, or Cristes boc in Old English (as Niles solves it on page 141), is a solid suggestion.


Here is a VERY PRETTY picture of an 8th-century Latin gospel book known as the Codex Aureus of Canterbury (folios 9v and 10r). Photo (by David Stapleton (Dsmdgold) from the Wikimedia Commons.

But let’s look a bit more at the contents of the poem. The first thing that strikes me and likely strikes most people (probably since it’s…well…the first thing we read) is the nastiness of the opening lines. In identifying with whichever animal provided the raw material, the speaker accuses the book-maker of being feonda sum (a certain enemy) who robs and steals the animal’s life and strength. This may sound a bit out of place for a religious text: shouldn’t those who practice this religion believe the book’s making is a happy thing? Well, maybe in other cultures and literary traditions, but in Anglo-Saxon England, I assure you that the tone is spot on. Not only is the movement from alive/free to dead/in service a common Old English riddling trope, but it also speaks to a broader interest in affliction throughout Anglo-Saxon literature. To put it simply, Anglo-Saxon poets love a good martyr. In this literary context, if you aren’t suffering, then you probably aren’t doing it right. So, even though it might make a modern audience a bit uncomfortable to think that the clerical types making books and writing this poetry down were very much aware of the sacrifice that their enterprise required, it really does provide an excellent window into Anglo-Saxon culture. Of course, biblical and apocryphal narratives are full of suffering and sacrifice, so why shouldn’t the manuscript that contains them be?

M0001845 John Haygarth. Line engraving by W. Cooke, 1827, after J. H.Page 114 of a later medieval (14th- or 15th-century) Leech-book. Photo courtesy of Wellcome Library, London (http://wellcomeimages.org/). Search L0073621in their catalogue.

Speaking of manuscripts, how’s about a little intro to medieval book-making? Well, you really need look no further than the images of Riddle 26. K, maybe a little bit further, but that was a classy sentence and I reserve the right to include classy sentences in my blog from time to time. But, seriously, from the second line of the poem, we have a list of processes involved in making a manuscript. The soaking refers to the water and lime bath that help loosen the skin’s hairs and fat. After scraping these away, the skin would be stretched on a frame and smoothed. When ready, it would be cut and folded, ruled and written on. This is where we get the lovely image of the fugles wyn (bird’s joy) making tracks upon the speaker. This little riddle within the riddle points toward the quill pen used for writing. We also have references to tracks in other, related Anglo-Saxon riddles like Tatwine’s Latin Enigma 5, De membrano:

Efferus exuviis populator me spoliavit,

Vitalis pariter flatus spiramina dempsit;

In planum me iterum campum sed verterat auctor.

Frugiferos cultor sulcos mox irrigat undis;

Omnigenam nardi messem mea prata rependunt,

Qua sanis victum et lesis praestabo medelam. (Glorie, vol. 133, page 172)

(A savage ravager robbed me of my clothing, and likewise deprived my pores of the breath of life; but a craftsman turned me into a level plain again. A cultivator soon irrigates fertile furrows with waves; my meadows render a harvest of balsam of every kind, with which I will supply nourishment to the healthy and healing to the sick.)

But the Old English text pays much closer attention to the nitty-gritty of book-making. After the preparation of the manuscript and writing of the text, the riddle alludes to additional steps: the stitched up gatherings of folded manuscript pages (or leaves) would be bound to the front and back boards and covered in leather. The riddle’s manuscript is also blinged out beyond mere functionality. It’s covered in gold and intricate metalwork. This sort of fancy-pants decoration was generally reserved for biblical and liturgical books in early medieval England (see Bitterli, page 177). There are lots and lots of lovely images of ornamented books available online, but check out the 12th-century Eadwine Psalter on Trinity College, Cambridge’s website for a particularly user-friendly, scrollable one that includes the front and back covers: http://sites.trin.cam.ac.uk/manuscripts/r_17_1/manuscript.php?fullpage=1&startingpage=576

There’s lots more to say about this riddle’s style, diction, poetics, etc., but I think I’m going to leave it there. Mainly because I’m giving you homework! (I think you and I knew it would come to this eventually). Luckily for you, the homework is fun and optional! If you want to learn more about medieval book history, then I strongly suggest that you trot on over to the University of Nottingham’s website here and take advantage of the resources (videos! photos! links!) provided on the materials and processes involved in manuscripting. I’ve just coined that verb. Or verbed that noun, rather. Which seems to me a good place to say good-bye for now. Go do your homework.


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.

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

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

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Riddle 26 (or 24)

Mec feonda sum      feore besnyþede,

woruldstrenga binom,      wætte siþþan,

dyfde on wætre,      dyde eft þonan,

sette on sunnan,      þær ic swiþe beleas

5     herum þam þe ic hæfde.      Heard mec siþþan

snað seaxses ecg,      sindrum begrunden;

fingras feoldan,      ond mec fugles wyn

geond speddropum      spyrede geneahhe,

ofer brunne brerd,      beamtelge swealg,

10     streames dæle,      stop eft on mec,

siþade sweartlast.      Mec siþþan wrah

hæleð hleobordum,      hyde beþenede,

gierede mec mid golde;      forþon me gliwedon

wrætlic weorc smiþa,      wire bifongen.

15     Nu þa gereno      ond se reada telg

ond þa wuldorgesteald      wide mære

dryhtfolca helm,      nales dol wite.

Gif min bearn wera      brucan willað,

hy beoð þy gesundran      ond þy sigefæstran,

20     heortum þy hwætran      ond þy hygebliþran,

ferþe þy frodran,      habbaþ freonda þy ma,

swæsra ond gesibbra,      soþra ond godra,

tilra ond getreowra,      þa hyra tyr ond ead

estum ycað      ond hy arstafum

25     lissum bilecgað      ond hi lufan fæþmum

fæste clyppað.      Frige hwæt ic hatte,

niþum to nytte.      Nama min is mære,

hæleþum gifre      ond halig sylf.


A certain enemy robbed me of my life,

stole my world-strength; afterward he soaked me,

dunked me in water, dragged me out again,

set me in the sun, where I swiftly lost

5     the hairs that I had. Afterward the hard

edge of a knife, with all unevenness ground away, slashed me;

fingers folded, and the bird’s joy

[spread] over me with worthwhile drops, often made tracks,

over the bright border, swallowed tree-dye,

10     a portion of the stream, stepped again on me,

journeyed, leaving behind a dark track. Afterward a hero

encircled me with protective boards, covered me with hide,

garnished me with gold; therefore the wonderful

work of smiths glitters on me, surrounded by wire.

15     Now those ornaments and the red dye

and that wondrous dwelling widely worship

the protector of the people, not at all foolish in wisdom.

If the children of men wish to enjoy me,

they will be the more sound and the more victory-fast,

20     the bolder in heart and the more blithe in mind,

the wiser in spirit, they will have more friends,

dear and near, faithful and good,

upright and true; then their glory and prosperity

will increase with favour and lay down

25     goodwill and kindness and in the grasp of love

clasp firmly. Find what I am called,

useful to men. My name is famous,

handy to heroes and holy in itself.

Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Book, Bible, Gospel Book

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Contest Results

Thanks to everyone who took part in our Old English Riddles for the Modern World Contest (installment 1? maybe!). If you haven’t already guessed it (and quite a few of you have), the answer is “kettle” (OE cytel…although obv. the Anglo-Saxons didn’t have the electric kind that I had in mind when I was writing this riddle). Another great suggestion, “furnace,” just goes to show how riddles can often develop lives of their own and spawn multiple readings and interpretations.

Now, sometimes people say that it’s not about winning or losing, but about playing the game. Sometimes people say that we’re all winners in our own special way. Sometimes people say there are no winners if everyone’s having fun. And that’s just fine. But as far as this contest is concerned, there is an actual, non-touchy-feely winner: Cameron Laird. Unless my computer is lying to me, Cameron solved this riddle in under three minutes. Close runners-up include Linden Currie and Josh Smith. Since some of us are feeling generous today, we’ll be sending them some bookmarks too (but NO postcard, or Cameron may get jealous!).

Chances are we’ll run another contest like this in the autumn or winter, so start studying up. If you’re an instructor, think about encouraging your students to have a go. We’re not about shameless self-promotion here at The Riddle Ages.


UPDATE: here’s a photo of Cameron enjoying his prize. He tells me it was taken in the offices of the Dictionary of Old English project, which seems quite appropriate.

Riddle Ages

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Contest: Old English Riddles for the Modern World

Well, here it is folks: the riddle you’ve all been waiting for! Get reading, and then email me (mccavell@gmail.com), send The Riddle Ages facebook group a message or tweet @TheRiddleAges with your solution.


Ic eom wunderlicu wiht,      geworht in fyrwylme.

Hwilum ic eom hat     ond hwilum cald.

Stille ond swige     ic stande, hwonne cald,

heah on hylle,     hlifiende ofer minum londe.

5     Hwonne hat, ic acwece,     hrere ond sceace,

ic hwine ond geblawe,     gebolgen mid yrre.

Stundum ic stande      stille eft ond blinne.

Gif mid lafum beama     geblanden bið min wombhord,

ic bringe wynne werigum,     wreccum sib,

10     ic unbinde freorige bendas.     Frige hwæt ic hatte.


I am a wondrous creature, fashioned in fire.

Sometimes I am hot and sometimes I am cold.

When cold, I stand still and silent,

high on a hill, towering over my realm.

5     When hot, I move about, shiver and shake,

I hiss and spit, swollen with rage.

At times I stop and stand still again.

If my contents combine with the leavings of trees,

I bring joy to the weary, peace to the wretched,

10     I unbind icy bonds. Find out what I am called.

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Contest Announcement: Old English Riddles for the Modern World


Here at The Riddle Ages, we think summer is a time for fun. And since for some of us, FUN = CONTESTS, we have decided to do one of those. Spread the word!


This is how it works (see also conditions below): On Saturday, August 2nd at 5pm (British Summer Time), I will post a new riddle of my own creation. It will be in both Present-Day English and Old English. Although it will imitate Old English style as much as possible, its solution will be something familiar to us modern-types. The first person to correctly solve it by email, facebook message or tweet will be the winner. No sore losing will be permitted.

This is what you get: Not one, not two, but ten fabulous Riddle Ages bookmarks to share with your favourite friends, family members, instructors or students, as well as a personalized postcard from the lovely and suitably-steeped-in-Anglo-Saxon-history city of Durham.


Here are the bookmarks in all their glory.

As I see it, you, my readers, will likely have one of two reactions. Firstly (and correctly): “Ermahgerd, bookmeeeerrrrrrkkkkkssss! Bookmarks are the best! Who wouldn’t want to win two handfuls of those bad boys? And a postcard?! Sent to me anywhere in the world for free? Even better!” Secondly (and incorrectly): “What in the world am I supposed to do with ten rubbishy bookmarks and a postcard from some person I don’t even know? You’re clearly trying to fool us all into promoting your blog for you. You are bad people.” We welcome the former reaction and shan’t dignify the latter with a response.

So, be sure to prepare yourselves accordingly: brush up on your riddle-solving skills, make sure you have your computer/tablet/phone/Google glasses/neural link/etc. at hand on Saturday, and spread the word to anyone you’d particularly enjoying beating. But first, read the following conditions:

The winner of this contest agrees to The Riddle Ages posting her/his name on the blog, twitter and facebook. S/he also agrees to send us her/his postal address by private message (it will not be used for anything except mailing the prize). If the winner is an especially lovely person, s/he will obligingly send us a photo of her/him enjoying the prize, which we will post on the blog. This last one is voluntary, and subject to good taste.


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Report on Riddles at the Leeds International Medieval Congress

This post serves two primary purposes:

1) It is an apology of sorts for not having posted in a while, and at the same time a place-holder for the next post (which is coming soon)


2) It is a business-like update on the current state of riddle-scholarship, or — perhaps more accurately — a report on the riddle papers given at a recent conference.

If you’re neither interested in apologies nor conferences…if, in fact, you’re only following this blog for the witty pictures and commentary, please enjoy the following and then continue at your own risk.

Cartoon from xkcd: A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language (original post here: http://xkcd.com/794/)


Here beginneth the report.

The Riddle Ages may seem quiet at the minute, but we’re actually incredibly busy (really, I swears!)! The week before last Matthias and I attended the International Medieval Congress in Leeds where we hosted two sessions and heard from five great speakers. Here’s a quick report on the papers.

Session I boasted two speakers (unfortunately we caught Erin Sebo mid-international move, so we’ll have to hear from her later!).

First off was David Callander, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, who gave a talk called “Old English and Early Welsh Riddles on the Wind: A Juxtapositional Study.” You may remember David from his witty commentary on Riddle 22. In his paper, he discussed Exeter Book Riddles 1-3 and the early Welsh Book of Taliesin riddle, Kanu y Gwynt (The Song of the Wind). He pointed out both the usefulness of comparative analysis and the clear differences between the two traditions’ approach to similar subject matter. One example is the way Kanu y Gwynt places a greater emphasis on praising the Christian God, while Riddles 1-3 seem to address him more in passing.

Second was Jennifer Neville, who translated and provided commentary for Riddle 9. A Reader in Anglo-Saxon literature at Royal Holloway, University of London, her paper, “Two Don’t Make a Match: The Strange Game of Sex in the Exeter Book Riddles,” explored a variety of Old English riddles with sexual imagery (i.e. Riddles 12, 20, 25, 37, 42, 44, 45, 54, 61, 62, 63, 80 and 91). In discussing these poems’ approach to sex, she focused on their lack of reference to reproduction, sin and pleasure, concluding that they are all unified by an emphasis on work. She also posed the greater question: is this how Anglo-Saxons viewed sex? I guess the monk-scribes writing these poems down might be slightly more interested in be-labouring hanky-panky than those who were actually allowed to…well…do it…

Session II was headed off by Sharon Rhodes, a PhD student at the University of Rochester. She gave a talk called “Exeter Riddle 60 and Christian Typology.” Focusing on Riddle 60 (obv), she also addressed imagery in Riddles 20, 26, 51, 69, 86 and 88, as well as other Old English poetry and Latin riddles. She ultimately tied riddles that involve transformations, where the end (i.e. the solution) is predicted in the beginning, to the wider role of prefiguration in Christian typology (that is, how the Old Testament can be seen to predict events of the New Testament). The riddle-writers may have achieved this effect through the use of potentially ambiguous words which can evoke different associations, e.g. for Riddle 60, Sharon argued for such ambiguity in the word “sonde” – usually translated as “sand” or “shore,” but potentially also implying a word for “sender, messenger” (or “message”). For a more detailed explanation you’ll have to wait until the commentary for Riddle 60…

The next speaker in this session was Britt Mize, Associate Professor and Rothrock Research Fellow at Texas A&M University. His paper was called “‘Semantic Prosody’ and the Odd Use of ‘Gifre’ in the Exeter Book Riddles.” This talk explored a linguistic concept relating to words’ statistical tendencies to occur alongside specific other words. Britt argued that the poets of Riddles 49 and 26, in using the term gifre, borrowed the word-patterning associated with a similar term, gīfre (i.e. with a long “i”). He also gave other examples of poetic formulas and “close enough-ness,” a term that I most certainly intend to steal.

And finally we heard from Helen Price, a recent PhD graduate at the University of Leeds, who gave a talk called “Riddles Beyond the Exeter Book.” In addition to Old English, the comparative riddle traditions she discussed included Anglo-Latin, Old Norse-Icelandic, medieval Spanish Hebrew and Arabic riddles and later English poetry. These she thematically linked by focusing on cross-cultural/chronological descriptions of water, which she found tended to associate water with life and death, loss and deception. Her focus on a variety of traditions over time emphasizes the similarities and differences between the way people address the same subject matter, and the role that their environments play in determining those associations.

In addition to the sessions hosted by The Riddle Ages, we also heard the following papers about riddles:

  • Melissa Herman (PhD student, University of York): “Perplexing Patterns and Visual Riddles: Aesthetic Hegemony.”
  • Victoria Symons (recent PhD, University College London): “Seeing Puns: Riddling Letters and Visual Ambiguities in Old English Manuscripts.”
  • and Corinne Dale (PhD student, Royal Holloway, University of London): “Degolfulnes dom and dyran cræftes: Knowledge, Control, and the Relationship between Man and Nature in the Exeter Book Riddles.”

All in all, it was a good week for riddle-scholarship! Of course, we likely missed one or two riddley talks because of the sheer hugeness that is the IMC. If we missed you, feel free to update us on your work in the comments section below.

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