Commentary for Riddle 30a and b

Like last week’s translations, Riddle 30a and b’s commentary once again comes to us from Pirkko Koppinen:


Riddle 30 exists as two separate texts in the manuscript, Riddle 30a and Riddle 30b (Krapp and Dobbie’s numbering). Such a double text is rare in Old English poetry. The reason why the riddle was copied in the manuscript twice will never be known for sure. There are some minor differences, however, which suggest to A. N. Doane that the scribe was copying the texts also “sonically” rather than just visually (page 49). The differences affect the interpretation of the two poems in terms of nuance, but in terms of solution they are of no major consequence (unless you wish to contest the accepted solution, of course). Riddle 30a is intact, but Riddle 30b has been damaged with a hot poker, which curiously fits the content of the poem; that is, the poem makes several references to fire.

Translating the first four lines of Riddle 30a and Riddle 30b is translating “earth, wind, and fire.” No, I do not mean that wonderful, American band that brought us many a disco tune; I mean the elements. At the beginning of the poem (of both texts) we learn about the riddle creature’s various preoccupations first with fire (line 1a), then wind (line 1b) and storm (line 2b), then fire (line 3b) again, then earth (“grove”, line 4a), and then once more its dealings with fire (line 4b). It is not surprising then that these lines have suggested to the solvers that we are dealing with a “tree.” Solving the rest of the riddle means understanding how trees were metamorphosed into wooden objects and matching those with the clues of the riddle.

As a cup, the riddle creature – transformed from wood into a material object – is passed from hand to hand and kissed by proud men and women (lines 5-6 in both riddles). The image recalls the communal drinking rituals in Beowulf where the men drink from their lord’s – or lady’s – cup as a gesture of loyalty (see e.g. Beowulf, lines 491-95a, 615-24, 1014b-17a, 1024b-25a, 1170, 1192-93a and 1231). The word wlonce (proud) in Riddle 30a and Riddle 30b, which in Old English is often used to describe princes and queens, suggests that we are indeed dealing with the high-ranking people, such as those depicted in Beowulf. The cup in the riddles may be a wooden cup decorated with an interlace collar, such as that found in the Sutton Hoo boat burial – a worthy drinking vessel of the Anglo-Saxon royalty. It has been suggested that fus forweges (“eager for the journey,” line 3a) refers to a “ship” constructed of wood, but the phrase could also refer to the way a wooden log is quickly engulfed in flames once it ignites.

The last three lines of the poems explain how people show reverence to the riddle creature, and these lines have suggested to solvers that what we are dealing with is “a cross.” It was an important symbol for the newly converted Christian Anglo-Saxons, as is demonstrated through the wonderful poem The Dream of the Rood, which describes how the tree first grows free in the forest before it is cut down and transformed into gallows and then – washed with the Saviour’s blood – is transformed into a revered symbol of salvation. The cross, a narrator in The Rood, decorated with jewels is bewunden mid wuldre (“wound around with glory,” Riddle 30a, line 2a; Riddle 30b is damaged at this point). Just like the cross in The Rood, the riddle creature brings eadignesse (happiness/joy) to people when they bow to it; that is, when they pray to the cross for their salvation.

Wood as a material was of utmost importance for the Anglo-Saxons. They built houses from timber, domestic objects from wood, and woodland trees were part of their economic landscape. Wood and trees were used in their food and drink production as a fuel and produce. In other words, wood was an integral part of the Anglo-Saxons’ everyday life – not only in terms of their physical existence but also in terms of their religious beliefs (see Bintley and Shapland).

As a Finn, I understand this closeness to trees and wood as material of the everyday. I grew up in a house that was built in 1890 from wood and which was also heated solely with wood in the cold months. Wooden objects may not be as ubiquitous today as they were a hundred years ago, but, like the Anglo-Saxon economy at the time, Finnish economy has been always also partially reliant on its forests. So translating Riddle 30a and Riddle 30b was a nostalgic affair to me. It made me think of how fire consumed wood when we heated the sauna in our wooden summer cottage. I remembered how we heated the coffee pot and cooked our meals on top of the wood burning stove where the logs turned into burning embers and still do in many Finnish houses and summer and winter cottages.

Riddle 30 Fire

Photograph by Mira Suopelto

I remembered how we walked through the woods in a windy day and watched the trees bend and struggle in the wind and storm.

Riddle 30 Trees Koppinen

Photograph by P. Koppinen

Spoons, cups, jugs, and bowls would have been “kissed” by both men and women – of high status as well as others. Wooden objects are still crafted and used today, although not used as often as they were a hundred years ago.

Riddle 30 Wooden Objects Koppinen

Photograph by P. Koppinen

Our wooden churches were often built in the form of a cross and many a decorated altar piece is built from wood and “wound around with glory,” in front of which the congregation bow their heads in humility. This personal experience of trees, wood and woodlands of Finland created for me an intimate relationship with the riddle creature, which aided me in my attempt to translate the two riddles into Finnish. The Finnish translations are a little crude, literal translations, but they convey my nostalgia of Finnish forest, trees, and woodlands in my childhood so beautifully described in Riddle 30a and Riddle 30b. Of course, the riddle-texts may have led the solvers – along with me – astray and these riddles remain, as A. J. Wyatt has suggested, still unsolved. But that is the fun of riddles; there is always another way of reading the text, mystery to be solved and solution to be found. For now, I am happy to reminisce about the trees of my childhood.


References and Suggested Reading:

Bintley, Michael D. J., and Michael G. Shapland, eds. Trees and Timber in the Anglo-Saxon World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Doane, A. N. “Spacing, Placing and Effacing: Scribal Textuality and Exeter Riddle 30 a/b.” In New Approaches to Editing Old English Verse. Ed. by Sarah Larratt Keefer and Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe. Cambridge: Brewer, 1998, pages 45-65.

Koppinen, Pirkko Anneli. “Breaking the Mould: Solving Riddle 12 as Wudu “Wood”.” In Trees and Timber in the Anglo-Saxon World. Ed. by Bintley and Shapland (see above), pages 158-76.

Liuzza, R. M. “The Texts of the Old English Riddle 30.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. 87 (1988), pages 1-15.

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

Wyatt, A. J., ed. Old English Riddles. The Belles Lettres Series, vol. 1. Boston, MA: Heath, 1912.

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Riddle 30a and b (or Riddle 28a and b)

We have all sorts of treats for you today, so I hope you’re glued to your seats and screens. Not literally…that would be more than a little weird. First of all, we have a double riddle. That sounds amazing, I know, but it also requires explanation. Up until now, the riddles have all appeared one after another in the Exeter Book, but there are two versions of Riddle 30 — one here, and one later in the manuscript, following Homiletic Fragment II (absolutely scintillating name…). We’ve decided to do both versions of Riddle 30 at the same time, and for these we have a guest translator. Pirkko Koppinen completed her PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London, where she is currently a visiting lecturer. She  also brings to us an expertise in museum and heritage studies, as well as Finnish. Pirkko has generously offered us not only English translations of both Riddle 30a and b, but also Finnish ones. Surely this can be described as nothing short of a cornucopia of riddle-fun. Take it away, Pirkko!


Riddle 30a

[Note on the texts: The damaged words in Riddle 30b are marked with square brackets. I have highlighted the differences in the two texts in bold and translated accordingly. Line 7b in Riddle 30a reads on hin gað (which is a nonsensical form) in the manuscript and is emended to onhnigað by using the text of Riddle 30b (line 7b); see George Philip Krapp and Elliott van Kirk Dobbie, eds, The Exeter Book, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, vol. 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936), p. 338.


Ic eom legbysig,      lace mid winde,

bewunden mid wuldre,      wedre gesomnad,

fus forðweges,      fyre gebysgad,

bearu blowende,      byrnende gled.

5     Ful oft mec gesiþas      sendað æfter hondum,

þæt mec weras ond wif      wlonce cyssað.

Þonne ic mec onhæbbe,      ond hi onhnigaþ to me

monige mid miltse,      þær ic monnum sceal

ycan upcyme      eadignesse.


I am busy with fire, fight with the wind,

wound around with glory, united with storm,

eager for the journey, agitated by fire;

[I am] a blooming grove, a burning ember.

5     Very often companions send me from hand to hand

so that proud men and women kiss me.

When I exalt myself and they bow to me,

many with humility, there I shall

bring increasing happiness to humans.


A free rendering of Riddle 30a into Finnish:

Minä ahkeroin tulen kanssa, leikin tuulella. [Minä olen] kietoutunut kunniaan, yhdistetty myrskyyn. [Olen] innokas lähtemään, liekillä kiihotettu. [Olen] kukoistava lehto, hehkuva hiillos. Kumppanit kierrättävät minua usein kädestä käteen siellä, missä korskeat miehet ja naiset suutelevat minua. Kun ylistän itseäni ja he, monet, nöyränä kumartavat minua, siellä minä tuon karttuvaa riemua ihmisille.


Riddle 30b

Ic eom ligbysig,      lace mid winde,

w[.................]dre gesomnad,

fus forðweges,      fyre gemylted,

b[ . ] blowende,      byrnende gled.

5     Ful oft mec gesiþas      sendað æfter hondum,

þær mec weras ond wif      wlonce gecyssað.

Þonne ic mec onhæbbe,      hi onhnigað to me,

modge miltsum,      swa ic mongum sceal

ycan upcyme      eadignesse.


I am busy with fire, fight with the wind,

[…] united […],

eager for the journey, consumed by fire;

[I am] a blooming […], a burning ember.

5     Very often companions send me from hand to hand

where proud men and women kiss me.

When I exalt myself, high-spirited [ones]

bow to me with humility, in this way I shall

bring increasing happiness to many.


A free rendering of Riddle 30b into Finnish:

Minä ahkeroin tulen kanssa. Leikin tuulella. […] on kiedottu […]. [Olen] innokas lähtemään, tulessa tuhottu. [Olen] kukoistava […], hehkuva hiillos. Useasti kumppanit kierrättävät minua kädestä käteen siellä, missä korskeat miehet ja naiset suutelevat minua. Kun ylistän itseäni, ja he, ylväät, nöyränä kumartavat minua. Täten minä tuon karttuvaa riemua monille.


Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Beam, Cross, Wood, Tree, Snowflake

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Commentary for Riddle 29

Did you get this one without looking at the solution? It’s usually seen as one of the more obvious Riddles: the sun and the moon. And because it is so obvious, people haven’t really found very much else to say about it. But let’s run through it quickly: The “creature” carrying the booty “between its horns” is the waxing moon – the image below nicely shows the “horns” and the space “between” them that gets filled up with light as the moon grows fuller. Then the sun comes over the horizon (if that’s what we think “over the roof/top of the wall” means) and slowly “takes back” its light, until the waning moon disappears into the new moon – nobody knows where it went, as in the final two lines. That’s it, then – done, dusted, let’s head off to the pub, shall we (maybe not this one though)? (by Christine Matthews) from the Wikimedia Commons.

But I know you’ve got used to much more in-depth analysis here at The Riddle Ages, so let’s see what we can do, shall we? Sticking for the moment with the natural phenomena, what are we to make of the dew and dust in the final few lines of the poem? There was a medieval belief that the moon produced dew, so let’s run with that. But how can there be dew and dust at the same time? Wouldn’t you have to have some sort of muddy grit? Well, yes – nobody has really found a good explanation for this yet but maybe we shouldn’t take the riddle quite so literally here and just enjoy the nice balance between the rising dust and the falling dew.

However, as you may have come to expect by now, the riddle can also be read on an allegorical level: some scholars have argued that it also describes the Harrowing of Hell, where Christ overcomes Satan to rescue or liberate (ahreddan) condemned souls from hell and lead them into heaven. The sun is often a symbol for Christ in early medieval writings (and think back for example to Riddle 6). Occasionally we find the moon standing in for Satan (but not because of the horns!) and so the struggle described in the riddle can be seen as a battle between those two. The story of Satan’s uprising against God and his downfall was very popular in Anglo-Saxon England and the language used in the riddle may give us a further hint here: like the moon in the riddle, Satan tries to build a home for himself in heaven, with the help of ill-gotten gains, and is eventually driven out into exile by God. There’s a nice play on the ham here: the moon is trying to establish a ham (in line 4) but is driven out of there into a different ham (line 9): his real home, the exile outside of heaven.

So even in riddles where everyone agrees on the solution, there’s usually still a lot more to be said if you get into it. That’s why the riddles are brilliant!


References and Suggested Reading:

Joyce, John H. “Natural Process in Exeter Book Riddle #29.” Annuale Mediaevale, vol. 14 (1974), pages 5-13.

Murphy, Patrick J. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011, pages 123-39.

Whitman, Frank H. “The Christian Background to Two Riddle Motifs.” Studia Neophilologica, vol. 41 (1969), pages 93-8.


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Riddle 29 (or 27)

Ic wiht geseah      wundorlice

hornum bitweonum      huþe lædan,

lyftfæt leohtlic,      listum gegierwed,

huþe to þam ham      of þam heresiþe;

5     walde hyre on þære byrig      bur atimbran

searwum asettan,      gif hit swa meahte.

Ða cwom wundorlicu wiht      ofer wealles hrof,

seo is eallum cuð      eorðbuendum,

ahredde þa þa huþe      ond to ham bedraf

10     wreccan ofer willan,      gewat hyre west þonan

fæhþum feran,      forð onette.

Dust stonc to heofonum,      deaw feol on eorþan,

niht forð gewat.      Nænig siþþan

wera gewiste      þære wihte sið.

I saw a creature, wondrously

carrying spoils between the horns,

a bright air-vessel, adorned by crafts,

the spoils to its home from the war-journey,

5     it wanted to build for itself a dwelling in that stronghold,

skilfully set it, if it could.

There came a wondrous creature over the roof of the wall,

it is known to all earth-dwellers,

it liberated the spoils and drove the stranger

10     back to her home against her will, she departed west from there

going in strife, she hastened forth.

Dust rose to the heavens, dew fell on the earth,

the night departed. Afterwards none of men

knew the journey of that creature.

Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Sun and moon, swallow and sparrow, cloud and wind, bird and wind

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Commentary for Riddle 28

I know what you’re all thinking. You’re thinking: “Goodness gracious me! What a lot of past participles!” See – I’m psychic. But I’ll tell you what: not only does this riddle contain all the past participles in the world, it also has a ridiculous number of suggested solutions. Pretty much everyone who has a crack at it solves it differently. So we’re going to have to opt for a speedy run-through according to group. (I almost used the word “cluster” here, but then I decided not to because it sounds too much like “crusty” and that word can only legitimately be used of bread. True story.) Please note that I’m going to be skipping some solutions, specifically Barrow and Trial of Soul (suggested by Jember) because the poem’s direct reference to death makes these seem a bit too obvious (and because Jember suggests Trial of Soul for like a million riddles). If I were going to talk about barrows, I’d probably post a photo kind of like this one:

Riddle 28 Uley_Long_Barrow_-_End_chamberPhoto inside Uley Long Barrow (by Pasicles) from the Wikimedia Commons.


Group Number One: Alcohol

Forget picking up a quick bottle or two from a shop on your way to a party. And forget picturesque images of vineyards and stomping on grapes in giant barrels. And definitely forget every hipster-ish micro-brewery tour you’ve ever gone on. Because according to this poem, getting your hands on alcohol ain’t convenient and it certainly ain’t pleasant. One of the earliest suggested solutions for Riddle 28 was John Barleycorn, the barley-man known to us through folk literature and ballads (perhaps most famous from the Robbie Burns version). The harvesting of this much put-upon, personified cereal crop is depicted as torture and murder…hence the link to Riddle 28’s turning, cutting and binding. Of course, the speculative leaps required to trace John Barleycorn back to Anglo-Saxon England mean that some scholars prefer Beer/Ale/Mead (or Wine Cask, for that matter, since there’s no mashing, boiling or fermenting in this riddle) as the solution – that’s beor/ealu/medu in Old English (and I suppose “wine cask” would be something like win-tunne, although this compound isn’t attested). These solutions are certainly possible, especially when we take into account the fact that the preceding riddle very likely describes alcohol. Mightn’t Riddle 28 be a companion riddle? Indeed, it might…or perhaps the scribe/compiler of the manuscript understood it that way. The power dynamics are flipped, of course, since Riddle 27 focuses on alcohol’s ability to completely thrash people, while those in charge of crafting whatever Riddle 28 describes are very much in control. But what about lines 7b onward? That’s where the next solution seems a better fit. But first, beer:

Riddle 28 GravityTapThis is what beer looks like today. Photo (by SilkTork) from the Wikimedia Commons.


Group Number Two: Musical Instrument

If we’re completely honest with ourselves, we have to admit that the construction-y words at the beginning of the poem could really be applied to almost any object. They’re all vague enough that their meanings could be stretched to fit more than one solution, and some of them may well have been included simply because they rhyme. Old English poetry doesn’t often rhyme, by the way, so the poet is clearly interested in being a bit flashy. That means what we should be doing is focusing on the second half of the poem when we’re looking for a solution. Except that this is where things get confusing. Grammatically-speaking, these lines have a lot of people flummoxed. That’s right, flummoxed. Here are some of the reasons why: 1) we don’t really know what clengeð means (although we’ve got some good guesses based on similar words in Middle English), and 2) þara þe is plural, but the verbs in lines 9-10 are all singular. So the question is: does the relative phrase in lines 9-10 refer back to line 7b’s dream (joy) or line 8a’s cwicra wihta (of living beings)? Or should þara þe really read þær þær (there where) instead? (see Williamson, page 224) Your guess is as good as mine. What is clear from these lines is that there’s a living-dead, silent-vocal contrast going on: whatever object we have was made from a living thing that only gained a voice in death. It’s this suggestion that links the riddle to the earlier work of the Latin riddler, Symphosius. His Enigma 20, Testudo reads:

Tarda, gradu lento, specioso praedita dorso;

Docta quidem studio, sed saevo prodita fato,

Viva nihil dixi, quae sic modo mortua canto. (Glorie, vol. 133A, page 641)

(Slow, with sluggish step, furnished with a beautiful back; shrewd indeed through study, but betrayed by fierce fate, living I said nothing, but dead I sing in this way.)

See the link? Quiet in life and singing in death? To really drive this link home, we should note that Old English dream, which I’ve translated as “joy” also means “song.” This is one of many reasons that Laurence K. Shook (building on earlier suggestions of harp/stringed instrument) solves Riddle 28 as Latin testudo (tortoise/musical instrument).

Riddle 28 British Lib tortoise lyreIn case you wondered just what exactly a tortoise lyre was. Photo © Trustees of the British Museum and subject to the Standard Terms of Use.

 Craig Williamson isn’t so keen on this solution, but does agree with the musical instrument angle. And so, he raises the possibility of Yew-horn in his edition of the riddles (pages 218-24). Yew is a hard wood (hence, line 2a: heardestan (hardest)) and it’s poisonous (hence, lines 2b and 3a: scearpestan (sharpest) and grymmestan (fiercest)). He also points out that a yew-horn dating from between the eighth and tenth centuries was discovered in the River Erne in Northern Ireland. So make of that what you will.


Group Number Three: Other Crafted Object

Williamson’s suggestion was just barely in print by the time the next solution came ’round, so let’s pretend that Yew-horn hadn’t happened yet and jump back to tortoise-lyre briefly. We know that instruments made out of tortoise shells existed in other countries as far back as classical Greece, but the evidence for Anglo-Saxon England is thin on the ground. And by thin, I mean there is none…except for the fact that Symphosius’ works were known in England at this time. Arguing that this lack of evidence rules out the tortoise-lyre solution (what about other instruments?!), Heidi and Rüdiger Göbel solve Riddle 28 as a “pattern-welded sword.” A pattern-welded sword (sweord in OE) is, of course, a weapon made by twisting multiple strips of metal together for extra strength. The Göbels give quite an in-depth breakdown of the processes involved in sword-making, but slightly undermine their interpretation by basing it upon “the desire to take the superlatives heardestan, scearpestan and grymmestan literally” (page 187). Is it just me, or is taking anything in a riddle literally kind of missing the point? At any rate, they also argue for a change in perspective at the end of the poem, when the owner of the sword who was so full of joy to receive the object (lines 7-8) is killed by it. Hence, they translate æfter deaþe deman onginneð, meldan mislice as “after death he changes his opinion and talks differently” (page 191).

Speaking of things that speak without speaking…do you remember Riddle 26? Well, I know that books don’t actually talk for realzies (unless you’ve got an audio-book or one of those birthday cards with the little chip in it that makes it sing really annoyingly whenever you open it), but they do contain words, and the idea that letters speak from the page is an old one. This leads to the final solutions I’m going to discuss: Parchment and Biblical Codex (Boc-fell or Cristes boc in OE).

Riddle 28 Peterborough.Chronicle.firstpageHere’s some parchment. Specifically, the first page of the Peterborough Chronicle. Photo (by en:User:Geogre) from the Wikimedia Commons.

Waltraud Ziegler argued for the first of these after looking at several Latin riddles that cover similar ground. Cattle/parchment-y imagery can be found in the enigmatic collections of the Anglo-Saxons, Tatwine and Eusebius, as well as in other collections known to the Anglo-Saxons. For example, the Bern riddle, Enigma 24, De membrana, reads:

Lucrum uiua manens toto nam confero mundo

Et defuncta mirum praesto de corpore quaestum.

Vestibus exuta multoque uinculo tensa,

Gladio sic mihi desecta uiscera pendent.

Manibus me postquam reges et uisu mirantur,

Miliaque porto nullo sub pondere multa. (Glorie, vol. 133A, page 570)

(Remaining alive, I provide profit for the entire world, and dead I furnish remarkable gain from my body. Deprived of garments and pressed by many chains, cut by a sword my innards hang down. Afterward kings admire me with hands and sight, and I carry many thousands with no weight.)

Building on Ziegler, Dieter Bitterli suggests Biblical Codex is more apt than simply Parchment, since the object of Riddle 28 is bound and adorned (pages 178-89). You can look back at Riddle 26’s commentary for a discussion of book-making because many of the steps covered there could be applied to the past participle-y list at the beginning of this riddle (and I wouldn’t want to get repetitive, would I?). But for lines 7b onward, we now have a tidy little religious interpretation: the lasting nature of the living joy/song and the posthumous praising/declaring are down to the creature’s recruitment to a martyr’s higher purpose. Keep in mind that Anglo-Saxon manuscripts were penned and maintained by clerics. And keep in mind that they were obsessed with martyrdom and general affliction. So obsessed, in fact, that the Old English reading group my co-editor and I used to attend had one rule and only one rule: if you don’t know what a word means, translate it as “affliction” and move on. I think I’ll take that advice now.


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.

Göbel, Heidi, and Rüdiger Göbel. “The Solution of an Old English Riddle.” Studia Neophilologica, vol. 50 (1978), pages 185-91.

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

Shook, Laurence K. “Old-English Riddle 28—Testudo (Tortoise-Lyre).” Mediaeval Studies, vol. 20 (1958), pages 93-97.

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

Ziegler, Waltraud. “Ein neuer Losungsversuch fur das altenglische Ratsel Nr. 28.” Arbeiten aus Anglistik und Amerikanistik, vol. 7 (1982), pages 185-190.

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Riddle 28 (or 26)

Biþ foldan dæl      fægre gegierwed

mid þy heardestan      ond mid þy scearpestan

ond mid þy grymmestan      gumena gestreona,

corfen, sworfen,      cyrred, þyrred,

5     bunden, wunden,      blæced, wæced,

frætwed, geatwed,      feorran læded

to durum dryhta.      Dream bið in innan

cwicra wihta,      clengeð, lengeð,

þara þe ær lifgende      longe hwile

10     wilna bruceð      ond no wið spriceð,

ond þonne æfter deaþe      deman onginneð,

meldan mislice.      Micel is to hycganne

wisfæstum menn,      hwæt seo wiht sy.


A portion of the earth is garnished beautifully

with the hardest and sharpest

and fiercest of treasures of men,

cut, filed, turned, dried,

5     bound, wound, bleached, weakened,

adorned, equipped, led far

to the doors of men. The joy of living beings

is within it, it remains, it lasts,

that which, while alive, enjoys itself

10     for a long time and does not speak against their wishes,

and then, after death, it begins to praise,

to declare in various ways. Great is it to think,

for wisdom-fast men, [to say] what the creature is.


Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: John Barleycorn, Wine cask, Beer, Ale, Mead, Harp, Stringed instrument, Tortoise lyre, Yew horn, Barrow, Trial of soul, Pattern-welded sword, Parchment, Biblical codex

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Commentary for Riddle 27

Here’s Dr. Wendy Hennequin‘s follow-up to her translation:


The general consensus about Riddle 27 (Riddle 28 in some editions) is that the solution is “mead” (Tupper Jr., page 132; Rodrigues, page 131; Niles, page 135). Tupper and Rodrigues note that whip and sleep have also been proposed (pages 132; 131). Niles has recently proposed a double solution: “nectar (honey-dew) and mead” to account for both the first part of the poem regarding the origins of honey and the second part of the riddle, which describes mead’s effects (pages 135-36). Certainly, Niles is correct in identifying two parts of the riddle—a sort of “before and after.” At first, the mysterious object is found everywhere: mountains, valleys, woods, and cities. Then, afterwards, the object fells men. The transition between these two stages is the bath in a barrel (or bucket). The other proposed solutions, whip and sleep, do not account for that transition.

320px-Honey-Fruit-Mead-BrewingHere’s a picture of some home-brewed honey-fruit mead. Photo (by Evan-Amos) from the Wikimedia Commons.

Except for Niles’ very brief discussion of word play in Riddle 27 (pages 135-36), I have not found any critical discussion of Riddle 27. Only a few of the Exeter Book Riddles have been examined extensively beyond the search for their solutions and their relationships to other riddles, Latin or Old Norse. [editorial note: Elinor Teele's PhD thesis does devote a section to this riddle, but it is -- very unfortunately -- not widely available. If you are ever in Cambridge, a trip to the University Library to read it is highly recommended]

I am struck, however, by the image of the riddle’s object being a scourger, a hurler. This image is noteworthy not only for its vividness, but for its repetition: we are told twice that the riddle’s object can knock people flat on their backs. This wrestling imagery brings to mind the Snorri Sturluson’s Old Norse story of Thor’s journey to the house of Útgarða-Loki. While there, Thor wrestles an old woman named Elli in order to prove his strength and prowess. Elli forces him to kneel even though Thor is the god of strength (Sturluson, pages 44-45). Elli turns out to be Old Age. (Kevin Crossley-Holland retells this story as “Thor’s Journey to Utgard” in The Norse Myths; the story has also appeared frequently in children’s books). Elli, like the mead in the riddle, can fell anyone, “for there never has been anyone, and there never will be anyone, if they get so old that they experience old age, that old age will not bring them all down” (Sturluson, page 45).

In contrast, Riddle 27 emphasizes that overindulgence in mead is foolish (lines 12 and 17) and that it is a choice. We don’t have to wrestle with mead: we can stop seeking folly before it’s too late (line 12). Elli’s victory is inevitable. But mead wins only when we allow it. This emphasis on the imprudence of getting drunk—and that getting drunk is a choice—may indicate something of the Anglo-Saxon attitude towards alcohol and drunkenness. Certainly, poems like Beowulf and The Wanderer tell us that sharing mead was an integral part of the communal culture of the comitatus (war-band) and the mead hall. But Riddle 27’s portrayal of drunkenness as folly and defeat, and its invocation of an image of defeat by an old woman, tells us that Anglo-Saxon culture did not consider intoxication an inevitable part of mead sharing but rather as an unfortunate and foolish loss of self-control that leads to the defeat of one’s body and senses—if one is lucky. For some of Hrothgar’s thanes in Beowulf are not so lucky: their drunken boasts to defeat Grendel lead to their deaths (lines 480-87). Certainly, Riddle 27 emphasizes a metaphorical and temporary defeat: the loss of physical and mental control while intoxicated. But in a world of feuds and Viking incursions (let alone mythical monster attacks), a drunk warrior might well suffer a more permanent and lethal defeat if he chose to fall to the power of mead.


References and Suggested Reading:

Beowulf. Ed. Francis Klaeber. 3rd ed. Lexington, Massachusetts: D.C. Heath, 1950.

Crossley-Holland, Kevin. The Norse Myths. New York: Pantheon, 1980.

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

Rodrigues, Louis J. Sixty-five Anglo-Saxon Riddles. 2nd ed. Felinfach, Wales: Llanerch, 1998.

Sturluson, Snorri. Edda. Ed. and trans. Anthony Faulkes. London: Everyman / J.M. Dent, 2002.

Teele, Elinor. “The Heroic Tradition in the Old English Riddles.” Diss. University of Cambridge, 2004.

Tupper, Frederick, Jr., ed. and introduction. The Riddles of the Exeter Book. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1968.

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