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:


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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Commentary for Riddle 25

Just a little content warning to begin with. If you’ve already read Riddle 25’s translation, you’re probably aware that there’s some pretty obvious body humour going on in this poem. So prepare yourself to read the word “phallus” more times in one post than perhaps you would prefer.


(I did warn you)

So, Riddle 25, eh? What might the solution be? According to Donald K. Fry’s list of riddle solutions, this poem has been interpreted as: Hemp, Leek, Onion, Rosehip, Mustard and Phallus (p. 23). Onion, the Old English for which is cipe or cipeleac, has the most supporters.

Riddle 25 Red OnionThis is what an onion looks like, for those of you who don’t know. Photo (author: Stephen Ausmus) from the Wikimedia Commons.

The onion plant’s shape explains the riddle’s reference to a steapheah (literally, “steep-high”) staþol (foundation/base). I’m not entirely certain how you can have a “steep” foundation, although I’ve gone with the editors of the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records here. This line would perhaps make a little more sense if we emend to stapol (pillar/shaft), as suggested by Andy Orchard (among others) in his forthcoming riddle edition for the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. He notes that line 927a of Beowulf similarly reads staþole in the manuscript, where stapole would make more sense. So, yeah: a really steep…erect, even…shaft would make this poem’s clear phallic undertones (overtones?) even more pronounced. The verses immediately following this possible emendation refer to standing in a bed (bed of hair? bed of veggies? bed of sexcapades? or all of the above?) and to a lower roughness or shagginess that similarly signifies both the onion’s roots and hair in the nether regions. “Nether regions”: a term that is simultaneously hilarious and kind of gross. Alright, poet, we get it: vegetables are a bit rude (Blackadder, much?). So rude, in fact, that years ago one of my housemates taped a print-out of suggestively-shaped vegetables to her bedroom door in order to irritate her next-door neighbour. It worked.

Of course, all of the above descriptions could equally refer to other veggies. The leek is also a contender:

Riddle 25 LeekLeeks look a bit like green onions or shallots, but don’t taste as delicious. Fact. Photo (author: Björn König) from the Wikimedia Commons.

But do leeks make you cry? (this is an honest question…I don’t really cook…ever…so I don’t know) Because the final half-line’s Wæt bið þæt eage (Wet will be that eye) seems to be playing with similarities between sex-related and non-sex-related wetness. According to the onion-reading, we’re dealing with actual eyes tearing up whilst chopping particularly aggressive vegetables (this is where the eye-wateringly strong mustard-interpretation comes in too). According to the phallus-reading…well (how to put this delicately?), we’re dealing with semen. I hope you can figure out precisely how that works for yourself.

This riddle also offers us a great deal to talk about beyond all the double entendre. For example, anyone who’s interested in gender and sexuality has a lot to sort through here. Yes, the suggestive, phallic solution relates to man parts, but the poem also hands us a pretty interesting picture of a sexually assertive woman. LOTS of people have written on this topic (see Davis, Hermann, Kim, Shaw and Whitehurst Williams, for example), so of course there’s disagreement about whether or not the poem judges the woman’s assertiveness – perhaps even aggressiveness, given how grabby those hands seem to be. It has been noted that she’s a ceorles dohtor (daughter of a churl/freeman), and so her aggressive approach may be linked to class prejudices (see Tanke).

I’ve also already spent some time thinking about the interesting hair-compound wundenlocc that the poem uses to describe the woman in the final line. I have a note on this, which you can access here (scroll down to my name). To sum that essay up: past scholarship can’t seem to agree on whether or not wundenlocc means “curly” or “braided” hair. A minor point, perhaps, but contentious enough to cause all sorts of divergent readings. However, given that Riddle 40 translates a Latin poem that describes the use of a curling iron with references to (ge)wundne loccas, I think “curly” hair is a better reading. I do note in that essay (p. 124, fn. 15) that Patrick Murphy (pp. 230-3) points out interesting parallels in the much later oral riddles collected by Archer Taylor (p. 196). Some of these riddles involve veggies with braided hair. Because of this and because of the grammatical ambiguity of these lines, Murphy argues that the wif wundenlocc is not just the grabby-handed woman, but also the onion itself. Now there’s some food for thought.

But who cares about hair? I’m sure some of you are thinking that. I mean, does it really matter? Well, yes, I think. Hair is culturally significant. In fact, Philip Shaw’s discussion of verbal parallels between Riddle 25 and Judith (a versification of the famous apocryphal story about a woman who decapitated the leader of an invading army) is concerned with precisely this. According to Shaw, hair is situated “within a rich intertextual matrix of ideas about Christianity versus heathenism” (p. 350). And such issues of religious identity are, of course, one of the big concerns of Old English literature. This puts hair (and onions, I guess) at the forefront of the entire field of study. Okay, that might be a slight exaggeration, but I do hope that it makes you think twice next time you see the smirking face of an actor whipping her/his hair about in a Pantene commercial. Cultural significance, people.


References and Suggested Reading:

If you want to know more about Anglo-Saxon approaches to sex, you should check out Christopher Monk’s work here.

Cavell, Megan. “Old English ‘Wundenlocc’ Hair in Context.” Medium Ævum, vol. 82 (2013), pages 119-25.

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

Fry, Donald K. “Exeter Book Riddle Solutions.” Old English Newsletter, vol. 15, issue 1 (1981), pages 22-33.

Hermann, John P. Allegories of War: Language and Violence in Old English Poetry. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1989 (page 191 onward).

Kim, Susan. “Bloody Signs: Circumcision and Pregnancy in the Old English Judith.” Exemplaria, vol. 11, issue 2 (Fall 1999), pages 285-307.

Murphy, Patrick J. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011, pages 203, 222, and 230-3.

Shaw, Philip. “Hair and Heathens: Picturing Pagans and the Carolingian Connection in the Exeter Book and Beowulf-Manuscript.” In Texts and Identities in the Early Middle Ages. Edited by Richard Corradini, Rob Meens, Christina Pössel and Philip Shaw. Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters, vol. 12 (Vienna: Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2006), pages 345-57.

Tanke, John W. “Wonfeax wale: Ideology and Figuration in the Sexual Riddles of the Exeter Book.” In Class and Gender in Early English Literature: Intersections. Edited by Britton J. Harwood and Gillian R. Overing. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994, pages 21-42.

Taylor, Archer. English Riddles from Oral Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951.

Whitehurst Williams, Edith. “What’s so New about the Sexual Revolution? Some Comments on Anglo-Saxon Attitudes toward Sexuality in Women based on Four Exeter Book Riddles.” Texas Quarterly, vol. 18, issue 2 (1975), pages 46–55 (reprinted in New Readings on Women in Old English Literature, edited by Helen Damico and Alexandra Hennessey Olsen. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990, pages 137-45).


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Riddle 25 (or 23)

Ic eom wunderlicu wiht,     wifum on hyhte,

neahbuendum nyt;     nængum sceþþe

burgsittendra,     nymþe bonan anum.

Staþol min is steapheah,     stonde ic on bedde,

5     neoþan ruh nathwær.     Neþeð hwilum

ful cyrtenu     ceorles dohtor,

modwlonc meowle,     þæt heo on mec gripeð,

ræseð mec on reodne,     reafað min heafod,

fegeð mec on fæsten.     Feleþ sona

10     mines gemotes, seo þe mec nearwað,

wif wundenlocc.     Wæt bið þæt eage.


I am a wondrous creature, a joy to women,

a help to neighbours; I harm none

of the city-dwellers, except for my killer.

My base is steep and high, I stand in a bed,

5     shaggy somewhere beneath. Sometimes ventures

the very beautiful daughter of a churl,

a maid proud in mind, so that she grabs hold of me,

rubs me to redness, ravages my head,

forces me into a fastness. Immediately she feels

10     my meeting, the one who confines me,

the curly-locked woman. Wet will be that eye.


Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Onion, leek, mustard, phallus, etc.

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Commentary for Riddle 24

People who know me will be aware that barely concealed beneath my ruthlessly sharp academic persona is a crazy cat lady begging to come out and play. Not just a cat lady, in fact: an all-the-cute-animals-all-the-time lady. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this in past posts, but it’s about to become very apparent indeed. That’s because Riddle 24 – my new favourite – has references to not one fluffy creature, not even two fluffy creatures, but SEVEN FLUFFY CREATURES!!! Yes, I’m including all the birds in this category, because baby birds are basically the best things ever.

Branta_canadensis_-Calgary,_Alberta,_Canada-8A goose and a million goslings. Did you know when you google “gosling” all you get is a whole lot of Ryan? Photo (author: Dhinakaran Gajavarathan) from the Wikimedia Commons.


Aside from its compendium of animal noises, other special features of this week’s riddle include: a runic cypher and a narrative structure to rival that of the children’s classic, See Spot Run (just kidding).

But I’m sure you’re all dying to know the solution first. Well it turns out it isn’t so very hard to figure out if you know your runes and your Old English (and who doesn’t these days?). When we translate all the runes into the alphabet that you and I are more familiar with, we get: G, Æ, R, O, H and I. I should say that rather than a runic ᚷ (G), the manuscript actually contains the letter “x,” but editors like Craig Williamson (p. 207-9) reckon that can be marked down to a bit of scribal confusion (considering the poem lumps it in with þa siex stafas (those six characters)). So, what’s a GÆROHI? Sounds cool! But in fact it means absolutely nothing. However, if you switch the letters around enough times, you’ll end up with “higoræ” and that is most certainly a something. The specific something that it is: is a “jay” (probably).

A spelling variant of the Old English nouns higera (boy birdies) and higere (girl birdies), what we’re dealing with here is a winged creature famous for being able to mimic the sounds that other animals (and things) make. Of course, as a close relation to the (also mimicky) magpie, there has been a bit of confusion and disagreement amongst scholars. The ever-so-clever Dieter Bitterli points out that an Anglo-Saxon glossary can clear this up for us (pp. 91-7). Old English for “magpie” seems to be agu. Of course, there’s always the possibility of having more than one word for a concept, a position that’s strengthened by the fact that Latin pica can mean either “jay” or “magpie.” How about we make things more complicated? The similarity of the Latin word picus (woodpecker) has at least once confused an Anglo-Saxon translator who glossed it with higera instead of the more usual Old English fina. But it seems unlikely that the bird in this riddle is a woodpecker because woodpeckers don’t mimic…they peck. SO: we’re probably looking at a jay. Or maybe a magpie. And it’s the fault of the Old English gloss of Latin picus that woodpecker’s also in the mix.

There was also at least one kinda cray cray suggestion made well over a hundred years ago now. Emma Sonke suggested (in German, so some of you won’t be able to check up on me!) that the poem refers to an actor who mimics animal and bird sounds. Sort of like a medieval Michael Winslow (i.e. the guy from Police Academy who made all the fun noises: here have a NINE MINUTE video of him).

But in general, the fact that the runes spell out a word in Old English means solution-squabbling is not so common for this riddle. “If not solutions, then what else can you tell us, Megan?” I hear you cry. Well…I could fill up the rest of this post with pictures of the animals it names. There’s a barky dog:


I have no idea what Anglo-Saxon dogs looked like. I’m guessing like this. Photo (author: Dux) from the Wikimedia Commons.


There’s a bleaty goat:

Goat and Kids

Mommy and baby goats! Photo (author: Jason Pratt) from the Wikimedia Commons.


There’s a bellowy goose, but I already showed you tons of those.

There’s a yelly hawk:


Red-tailed hawks. Photo (author: Thomas O’Neil) from the Wikimedia Commons.


There’s an ashy eagle:


The most golden of eagles. Photo (author: Tony Hisgett) from the Wikimedia Commons.


There’s a vocal kite:


Kite in flight. Photo (no author listed) from the Wikimedia Commons.


And there’s a singy gull:


Snow-gull! Photo (author: jomilo75) from the Wikimedia Commons.


“You’re just being lazy, Megan!” I hear the particularly annoying ones among you yelling. “You can’t fill up a whole blog post with pictures of (modern) animals!” (just watch me…just you watch me). Well, I suppose you might be right. I suppose I ought to say things like “boy, isn’t there an awful lot of hwilum-anaphora going on here!” But you wouldn’t like that, would you? (P.S. “anaphora” means repeating the same word at the start of successive clauses).

But I’ve had a card hidden up my sleeve the whole time. I know what you prolly will like. Beasts of battle! I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned these in a previous post, but Old English (and other early Germanic) poets love gross, gory birds and wolves that swoop down on battles and clean up the mess (by eating people). These are pretty horrid, really, but they’re an important part of the poetics of the time. So when you see an eagle, raven or wolf in the poetry, it’s generally quite a bad sign. This poem makes the link very clear by calling the ashy eagle (a lot of eagles are described by the indistinctive colour-term hasu in OE poetry) a guðfugol (war-bird). No folks, this isn’t a military plane we’ve got here, but a literal bird-of-war. We can compare the compound to guðhafoc (war-hawk) at line 64a of The Battle of Brunanburh and herefugol at line 162b of Exodus. So next time you’re out at the park, enjoying a bit of sun, taking the air, maybe having a little walk, remember that eagles want to eat you. Maybe you can stave them off by reciting this poem to them.

Good luck with that.

Over and out.


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.

Sonke, Emma. “Zu dem 25. Rätsel des Exeterbuches.” Englische Studien, vol. 37 (1907), pages 313-18.

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


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Riddle 24 (or 22)

Righto, folks…we’ve got runes again this week. So, as with Riddle 19, you might have trouble viewing the text on your computer. If so, your options are: 1) download the Junicode font or 2) scroll to the bottom of the post so see an image of the poem from a word-processing program. Enjoy!


Ic eom wunderlicu wiht,      wræsne mine stefne,

hwilum beorce swa hund,     hwilum blæte swa gat,

hwilum græde swa gos,    hwilum gielle swa hafoc,

hwilum ic onhyrge     þone haswan earn,

5     guðfugles hleoþor,     hwilum glidan reorde

muþe gemæne,     hwilum mæwes song,

þær ic glado sitte.     . ᚷ. mec nemnað,

swylce . ᚫ. ond . ᚱ.      . ᚩ. fullesteð,

. ᚻ. ond . ᛁ .     Nu ic haten eom

10     swa þa siex stafas      sweotule becnaþ.


I am a wondrous creature, I vary my voice,

sometimes I bark like a dog, sometimes I bleat like a goat,

sometimes I bellow like a goose, sometimes I yell like a hawk,

sometimes I echo the ashy eagle,

5     the noise of the war-bird, sometimes the voice of the kite

I convey from my mouth, sometimes the gull’s song,

where I sit gladly. G they call me,

likewise Æ and R. O helps,

H and I. Now I am named

10     as those six characters clearly connote.


Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Jay, Magpie, Woodpecker


Image for those without Junicode:

Riddle 24 runes screen shot

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Commentary for Riddle 23

Erm…is anyone else a bit scared of whatever Riddle 23 is packing? I mean, I like heroic battling as much as the next person, but this poem is a tad intense. It’s also fairly easy to solve. In fact, the consensus that it refers to a bow (OE boga) is pretty strong.

Riddle 23 Bayeux TapestryCan you spot the archer in this scene from the Bayeux Tapestry? Photo (by Gabriel Seah) from the Wikimedia Commons.

According to Donald K. Fry, “Crossbow” and “Phallus” also get a shout out (p. 23), but since the first is a type of bow and the second is pretty horrific in this context, I won’t take an extended go at solutions. I will say, however, that the first line gives the game away. At least it does if you think really hard about it. Taking up the speaker’s recommendation to turn back the name Agof, we get Foga, which then needs to be corrected to Boga. This change requires us to speculate that a scribe copying out this poem was used to replacing “b”s with “f”s to suit her/his own pronunciation and spelling conventions (Williamson, pp. 204-5). Oh, Anglo-Saxons. You’re so complex.

More straightforward are all the references to poison in the poem. The venomous association of arrows is pretty strongly signaled, with references to an ætren onga (poisonous dart) at line 4a and ealfelo attor (terrible poison) at line 9a. In line 8b, the bow also refers to itself as spilde geblonden (debased by destruction), and we know from looking at (ge)blandan’s Dictionary of Old English (DOE) entries that we’re dealing with a liquid-y sort of blending or mixing that can also denote infection or taint. This liquidity (SUCH a good word!) is carried out in the poetic metaphor of the bow delivering a mandrinc (evil drink) at line 13a.

There’s also some debate about lines 13-14 in general and the term fullwer (compensation, i.e. “full wergild“) in specific. Noting that this word might not actually be a compound at all, the DOE offers a few options for translating this passage: “‘so that he pays for that evil drink with his strength, [pays] full compensation at once with his life,’ or, if the subject is wer (man) and full (cup) is the object of geceapaþ:‘the man pays for that evil drink with his strength, [for] the cup at once with his life.’” The “cup” reading works nicely with the poison, of course, but the rest of the poem’s connotations of crime and punishment make room for the “compensation” version.

So now you’re probably wondering: did the Anglo-Saxons actually poison the tips of their weapons? That’s a really good question. I don’t know about the archaeological record off the top of my head (homework!), but certainly there are other poetic references to poisoned points in The Battle of Maldon (see lines 46-7 and 145b-6a) and potentially Beowulf (see lines 1457-60a). Of course, the poison/bow motif might also relate to the fact that the yew used to make bows was poisonous. Here, we’ve got a nice little Anglo-Latin riddle in the way of Aldhelm of Malmesbury’s Enigma 69, De taxo (about the yew-tree) for a comparison. Lines 5-8 read:

Sed me pestiferam fecerunt fata reorum,

Cumque venenatus glescit de corpore stipes,

Lurcones rabidi quem carpunt rictibus oris,

Occido mandentum mox plura cadavera leto. (in Glorie)

(but the fates have made me deadly to the guilty.

A poisonous branch grows from my body,

and when pillagers, mad of mouth, seize it with open jaws,

I soon wipe out many corpses of the chewers with death.)

This 7th/8th-century abbot, bishop and writer extraordinaire is a font of riddley knowledge on all sorts of topics. And his poem is proof that some Anglo-Saxons knew that yew was a tad on the massively dangerous side (although there’s also an article by Lenore Abraham suggesting that yew wasn’t all that accessible in Anglo-Saxon England). But that doesn’t seem to have stopped the figure on the right side of the 8th-century Franks Casket’s lid from shooting up the place:

Riddle 23 Franks Casket LidPhoto (by FinnWikiNo) from the Wikimedia Commons.

Since we’re doing a bit of Latin show-and-tell, let’s also take a look at another related riddle. Tatwine, the 8th-century Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote a pretty gosh-darn similar poem, called Enigma 34, De faretra (about the quiver). It goes a little something like this:

Omnes enim diris complent mea uiscera flammae

Nam me flamma ferox stimulis deuastat acerius

Vt pacis pia mox truculenter foedera frangam

Non tamen oblectat me sponte subire duellum. (in Glorie)

(Flames, terrible indeed, fill all my insides,

for a bold fire lays waste to me with sharp spurs

so that, wildly, I soon break faithful agreements of peace;

nevertheless it does not delight me in myself to go to war.)

Well hello there, fiery flames! Aren’t you frequently linked to poison in Old English lit? (the answer is yes…yes they are). Of course, this quiver full of arrows isn’t creepily eager to get involved in the whole warfare thing. But I guess bows and quivers can be attributed with different personalities. I’m so tempted to draw you a picture of this. So tempted.

But I suppose I’ll stick to proper commentary this week.

What else should we notice about this poem? Well, did anyone catch that opening formula? Line 2b’s reference to being on gewin sceapen (shaped in conflict) is – quite importantly – the same phrase that describes the sword in line 1b of Riddle 20. Weapons of the world, unite! Other linguistic cleverness can be seen at the very end of Riddle 23 in that little binding-pun. The tongue-in-cheek final flourish – Nelle ic unbunden ænigum hyran / nymþe searosæled (Unbound, I will not obey anyone unless skillfully tied) – is clearly a reference to both 1) the controlling sort of binding that one could inflict upon a living creature and 2) the stringing of a bow. Such a clever riddler.

I’m going to stop now, although I could go on. I could list the references to archery that come up in other brilliant Anglo-Saxon texts. I could talk about that rather optimistic compound feorhbealu (deadly evil) and how it only occurs here and in Beowulf. I could remark that this bow’s ruler is clearly not a very nice fellow, with all his designing of distress (line 6b) and what-not. But I’m quite tired. And I need to go buy milk.


References and Suggested Reading:

Abraham, Lenore. “The Devil, the Yew Bow, and the Saxon Archer.” Proceedings of the PMR Conference, vol. 16-17 (1992-3), pages 1-12.

Dictionary of Old English: A-G Online. Ed. by Antonette diPaolo Healey, Dorothy Haines, Joan Holland, David McDougall, and Ian McDougall, with Pauline Thompson and Nancy Speirs. Web interface by Peter Mielke and Xin Xiang. Toronto: Dictionary of Old English Project, 2007. [with the next roll-out, you’ll be able to access the DOE a set amount of times for free!]

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

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

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

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Riddle 23 (or 21)

Agof is min noma      eft onhwyrfed;

ic eom wrætlic wiht      on gewin sceapen.

Þonne ic onbuge,      ond me of bosme fareð

ætren onga,     ic beom eallgearo

5     þæt ic me þæt feorhbealo     feor aswape.

Siþþan me se waldend,     se me þæt wite gescop,

leoþo forlæteð,     ic beo lengre þonne ær,

oþþæt ic spæte,      spilde geblonden,

ealfelo attor     þæt ic ær geap.

10     Ne togongeð þæs     gumena hwylcum,

ænigum eaþe      þæt ic þær ymb sprice,

gif hine hrineð     þæt me of hrife fleogeð,

þæt þone mandrinc      mægne geceapaþ,

fullwered fæste      feore sine.

15     Nelle ic unbunden      ænigum hyran

nymþe searosæled.     Saga hwæt ic hatte.


Wob is my name turned back;

I am a wondrous being, shaped in battle.

When I bend, and from my bosom travels

a poisonous dart, I am very ready

5     so that I sweep that deadly evil far away from me.

When my ruler, he who designed that distress,

looses my limbs, I am longer than before,

until I spit, debased by destruction,

the terrible poison that I took in before.

10     What I speak about here does not

easily pass away from anyone,

if that which flies from my belly strikes him,

so that he buys that evil drink with his strength,

[pays] full compensation with his very life.

15     Unbound, I will not obey anyone

unless skillfully tied. Say what I am called.


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