Riddle 52 (or 50)

Riddle 52’s translation is by Dr. Lindy Brady, from the University of Mississippi. Lindy works on all manner of medieval languages (Old and Middle English, medieval Irish and Welsh, Old Norse, Anglo-Latin!), and is especially interested multilingualism, landscape and identity.


Ic seah ræpingas      in ræced fergan
under hrof sales      hearde twegen,
þa wæron genumne,*      nearwum bendum
gefeterade      fæste togædre;
5     þara oþrum wæs      an getenge
wonfah Wale,      seo weold hyra
bega siþe      bendum fæstra.


I saw captives brought into the house
under the roof of the hall – a hard pair –
who were seized, fettered fast together
by narrow bonds.
5     Near to one was
a dark-coloured Welsh woman, she controlled them
both on their journey, fixed by bonds.


Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Buckets, Broom, Flail, Yoked oxen

*Note that the manuscript and ASPR edition read genamne; this emendation is from Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of The Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), pages 99 and 296.

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Commentary for Riddle 51

[This post is under construction]

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Riddle 51 (or 49)

Riddle 51’s translation is once again by Dr. Britt Mize (who translated and provided commentary for Riddle 33). Britt is Associate Professor and Interim Associate Head of English at Texas A&M University where he works on Old and Middle English language and literature, with special interests in linguistics, poetics and drama.


Ic seah wrætlice      wuhte feower
samed siþian;     swearte wæran lastas,
swaþu swiþe blacu.      Swift wæs on fore,
fuglum framra      fleag on lyfte;
5     deaf under yþe.     Dreag unstille
winnende wiga,      se him wegas tæcneþ
ofer fæted gold      feower eallum.

[note that the punctuation of the above Old English text differs from Krapp and Dobbie’s ASPR edition at lines 4 and 6]


I saw four wondrous creatures
travel together. Black were the tracks,
very dark footprints. It was swift in its going;
fleet in the sky, faster than birds;
5     it dove under wave. Vigorously he labored,
the striving warrior who showed it —all four—
the paths across ornamental gold.


Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solution: Pen and fingers

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Commentary for Riddle 50

When I was little, bonfires were all the rage. My siblings and I used to run around our backyard gathering up heaps of fallen twigs and then we’d BURN THEM ALL! I am not an arsonist. Proper permits were observed. But there was still something exciting about huddling around a warm outdoor fire on a chilly Canadian evening and slowly feeding the flames until they ate everything up. That’s why Riddle 50 is one of my favourites (I know…I say this about every riddle).


A massive bonfire! Photo (by Fir0002) from the Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 3.0).


So, obviously, “fire” is the solution I’m going for, and it’s the one that most scholars accept. I’ll give a brief nod to an alternative that was suggested in the early days of riddle scholarship: dog. The problem with the “dog” reading is that dogs aren’t typically torht (“bright”…as in light, not intelligence), and they’re no more wundrum acenned (wondrously brought forth/born) than humans or other animals (Williamson, page 292). Because of this, “dog” has fallen out of fashion and most people go with “fire.”

Why is “fire” a good solution? All sorts of reasons. First of all, we have the clue that the solution is something that’s bright and potentially violent, and also a treasure for people (smithy connotations here?). Think of life in a dark, wooden hut in rainy ol’ England with no heating and that treasure part will make perfect sense. In fact, I’m now having flashbacks to my days of student accommodation (turn on the heat, you sadists!).

Anywho, the fire in this riddle is also the result of a miraculous birth from dumbum twam (two speechless ones). The speechlessness implies inanimate (or at least non-human) parents, which most scholars read as flint and metal. As for that miraculous birth, well Riddle 50 isn’t the only Anglo-Saxon riddle to associate this sort of thing with fire. There are a whole slew of Latin riddles by Aldhelm and Tatwine (as well as in an anonymous collection from the continent) that deal with fire or sparks in this way. I won’t include them all here, but in case you want to follow up, here’s a list:

  • Aldhelm: Enigmata 44, De Igne (On fire) and 93, De scintilla (On a spark)
  • Tatwine: Enigma 31, De scintilla (On a spark)
  • Bern collection: Enigma 23, De scintilla (On a spark)

These riddles also all deal with the immense power of a small thing that grows up quickly, which kind of goes with the Old English riddle’s reference to feeding and to the fire as a wiga (warrior).


Here’s some more fire. Photo (by Awesomoman) from the Wikimedia Commons.


There’s also another riddle by Tatwine, which focuses on the varying gifts fire can give. Enigma 33, De Igne (On fire) reads:

Testatur simplex triplicem natura figuram
Esse meam, haut mortales qua sine uiuere possunt;
Multiplici quibus en bona munere grata ministro,
Tristia non numquam; tamen haut sum exorsus ab illis.
(Glorie, vol. 133, page 200)

(My single nature gives evidence of my existing triple form, without which mortals can by no means live; I supply to them pleasing profits through variable tribute, sometimes sorrowful ones too; but I am not derived from them.)


I can think of a number of sorrowful gifts that fire can give, but let’s focus on the pleasant ones, since Riddle 50 talks about this too. The most obvious gift is cooking (yum! I love food!), which Riddle 50’s description of a woman binding fire seems to referring to. The Old English verb form is wrið, which has been read in a number of ways. It’s usually assumed that this form comes from the verb wriðan (to bind, tie, wrap around), but it could also be a form of wreon (to cover) (Williamson, page 292). Both of these interpretations work just fine: a fire is covered by cooking pots, but it’s also imprisoned or bound by any good cook who wants to ensure she (in the highly gendered Anglo-Saxon world) doesn’t burn the village down.

I like the idea of a woman binding a warrior, since this would be massively subversive in an Anglo-Saxon context. This is precisely the sort of topsy-turvy hierarchical play that Jennifer Neville talks about when she reads this riddle as a safely contained discussion of the dangers of a ruling class becoming too proud (see the riddle’s final line). She says, “Just as a fire raging out of control can destroy all in its path, so a warrior-class can destroy society if it is not restrained by the prosaic requirements of daily life and obligations to those whom they rule” (page 519). Neville is, of course, careful to note that this riddle is not a call to arms for the labourer class, since the poem accepts its hierarchies without question. But it’s still the role of riddles to subvert power relationships in all sorts of ways.

These power relationships are emphasized in the second half of the riddle when we have all those references to obeying and ministering to and feeding the flames. The feeding imagery also links this riddle to the one that comes before it (Salvador-Bello, page 365). Remember all that swallowing and servitude in Riddle 49? And, of course, both Riddles 48 and 49 depict speechless creatures, so these riddles do seem to be a thematic bundle (Salvador-Bello, page 365).

Speaking of bundles, the last shout out I want to give is to the suggestion that this riddle could be solved with a double solution. Marie Nelson reads the poem on two levels, arguing that it’s about both fire and anger. According to Nelson, “Anger is good if it helps you stay alive, but, uncontrolled, anger becomes a destroyer” (page 448). I quite like this association, especially since so much of Anglo-Saxon psychology is focused on the idea that powerful emotions swell up and boil over inside your body. Ever feel all hot and bothered when someone insults you? Well, the mental and bodily worlds haven’t always been considered as separately as they often are today, and the physical heat of anger was once linked to a hydraulic model of the mind (which, coincidentally, was thought to be located in the chest). If you’re interested in this idea, then I can’t recommend highly enough Leslie Lockett’s phenomenal Anglo-Saxon Psychologies in the Vernacular and Latin Traditions. It’s terribly clever. Go read it now.

But, anyway, the link between fire and anger is clearly there in Anglo-Saxon psychology, and it may well be this link that the poet’s gesturing toward with that final reference to fire grimly repaying those who let it become proud. A kind of disturbing image to end on…so, here, have some Pixar-related comic relief:


References and Suggested Reading:

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

Lockett, Leslie. Anglo-Saxon Psychologies in the Vernacular and Latin Traditions. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011.

Nelson, Marie. “Four Social Functions of the Exeter Book Riddles.” Neophilologus, vol. 75 (1991), pages 445-50.

Neville, Jennifer. “The Unexpected Treasure of the ‘Implement Trope’: Hierarchical Relationships in the Old English Riddles.” Review of English Studies, vol. 62, issue 256 (2011), pages 505-19.

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. Isidorean Perceptions of Order: the Exeter Book Riddles and Medieval Latin Enigmata. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2015, esp. pages 359-60.

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

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Riddle 50 (or 48)

Wiga is on eorþan      wundrum acenned
dryhtum to nytte,      of dumbum twam
torht atyhted,      þone on teon wigeð
feond his feonde.      Forstrangne oft
5     wif hine wrið;      he him wel hereð,
þeowaþ him geþwære,      gif him þegniað
mægeð ond mæcgas      mid gemete ryhte,
fedað hine fægre;      he him fremum stepeð
life on lissum.      Leanað grimme
10     þam þe hine wloncne      weorþan læteð.


A warrior is wondrously brought forth on earth
for the profit of people, a bright thing produced
from two speechless ones, which one marshals in anger
foe against his foe. A woman often binds him,
5     the very strong one; he obeys them well,
peaceably serves them, if women and men
minister to him in a fitting manner,
feed him fairly; he furnishes them with benefits,
with the delights of life. Grimly he repays
10     those who let him become proud.


Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Fire, Anger, Dog

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Commentary for Riddle 49

What do we do with Riddle 49, eh? It’s, like, so complex. And I don’t mean that in a sarky way…it really is very difficult to solve.

Some of this difficulty stems from debates about what particular words mean. The main one is gop in line 3a, which most editors and translators reckon might mean a servant or slave of some kind. It’s not clear whether the term is related to Old English geap (crafty) or geopan (to take in/swallow), or perhaps to Old Icelandic hergopa (bondwoman) (see DOE and Bosworth/Toller). Andrew Breeze has suggested that the word derives from Old Irish gop (snout), which has a fairly pejorative sense to it. Since Old English riddles are often quite nasty to slaves and those perceived as lower class, this sense still seems like the best we can do.

There are other phrases in Riddle 49 that’ve been foiling riddlers for many a year because we can’t pin down which particular words they’re using. The key one is gifrum lacum in line 3b, where the first term could be gifre (useful) or gifre with a long “i” (greedy), and the second could be lac (gift) or lacu (stream/pool). This half-line could be read as “with useful gifts” or “with useful streams/pools” or “with greedy gifts” or “with greedy streams/pools.” TOO MANY OPTIONS! Many of Riddle 49’s proposed solutions hinge on how we read this phrase.

But what are the proposed solutions?, I hear you asking.

And so, I list:

  • Oven
  • Beehive
  • Falcon cage
  • (Book)case
  • Pen and ink
  • Barrow
  • Sacrificial altar
  • Millpond and sluice

I’m not going to address “falcon cage,” “barrow” or “sacrificial altar” because these were suggested without elaboration (the first in 1859 by Franz E. Dietrich, the second two in 1976 by Gregory K. Jember). Dietrich later suggested “bookcase” (page 236), which Laurence K. Shook expands upon when solving the riddle as “pen and ink” (pages 224-5) and Craig Williamson gives some credit to when discussing “book” as a possible solution (pages 289-90). Everyone who writes on this sort of solution notes Aldhelm’s Enigma 89, De arca libraria (On a book-chest):

Nunc mea diuinis complentur uiscera uerbis
Totaque sacratos gestant praecordia biblos;
At tamen ex isdem nequeo cognoscere quicquam:
Infelix fato fraudabor munere tali,
Dum tollunt dirae librorum lumina Parcae.
(Glorie, vol. 133, pages 508-9)

(Now my insides are filled up with divine words and all my insides bear sacred volumes; and yet I am unable to learn anything from those: unlucky, I shall be cheated of such tribute by destiny, while the cruel Fates steal the illuminations of books.)


There’s defo a similarity, and all of Riddle 49’s talk about silence and lack of voice would make a scriptorium solution pretty ironically appropriate. But as Williamson notes, whether a book or bookcase, it would be weird for such a repository of knowledge to be marked by references to servants, slaves and dirtiness. Knowledge and literacy are nothing to be sneered at in Anglo-Saxon contexts.

Shook’s “pen and ink” solution stems from his reading of gifrum lacum as “useful pools,” gop as “craftsman” and the dirty-nosed servant as a pen at work (pages 224-5).

A reconstruction of an early modern reed pen. Photo from the University of Cambridge’s Scriptorium: Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts Online project.


While this may get around some of the potential class issues (i.e. dirtiness), if the item in question is a pen swallowing ink then it doesn’t entirely make sense for it to be standing eardfæstne (earth-fast), as Williamson comments (page 290). All this makes the various scriptorium solutions a bit suspect.

Good thing there are millions of other solutions to consider…

Let’s move on to “oven” or OE ofen. This solution, proposed in 1905 by Moritz Trautmann (page 183), seems to be the most widely accepted option today. In fact, most scholars arguing for alternative solutions simply brush past “oven” with little comment. For example, A. N. Doane suggests that “oven” may be right, but it “does not bring the details into sharp focus as a proper solution usually does” (page 250). That seems to me sort of like saying “sure, it could be an oven, but I don’t want it to be.”

Here’s a bread oven under construction at Edcott, the Anglo-Saxon village project in Escot Park, Devon.


Maybe the scholars who’ve written on this riddle before just don’t love bread as much as I do. But let’s give this solution its proper credit. The thinking behind “oven” is that such an object would most certainly be earth-fast, involve darkness/dirtiness (i.e. smoke), and require the labour of servants. An oven also creates something dear to all (especially if covered with garlic…but that’s just my opinion). You may remember from Riddle 45’s commentary that the words hlaford (lord) and hlafdige (lady) are rooted in loafiness…that is the first stems from a term meaning “loaf-protector” and the second from “loaf-kneader.” However, these aren’t the words used here in Riddle 49’s description of noble folk desiring the riddle’s solution (lines 6-7a). Instead, we have æþeling (noble), cyning (king) and cwen (queen)…surely if this is an oven riddle than the riddler has missed a trick.

But there are other aspects to the riddle that seem to imply we’re dealing with something people might want to consume: there are repeated references to swallowing (lines 2b and 11b) and the object in question is depicted as having a mouth (line 6a). Certainly bread is a useful and necessary thing that brings joy, and its use in religious rituals makes it a good candidate for an object that’s golde dyrran (dearer than gold). So “oven” is a contender.

Another option proposed by A. N. Doane is “millpond and sluice” (i.e. water channel with gate). A decent case is made for water being universally needed (page 251), and for it working no matter how we translate gifrum lacum (greedy/useful gifts/streams/pools) (page 252). This solution also works nicely given all the references to swallowing and to its earth-fast-ed-ness. Class issues are similarly put to rest, since Doane imagines the operator of the gate to be a servant (page 253).

But what, oh what, do we do with þæt cyn in line 8a? There, the riddler refuses to name þæt cyn (race/kind), which is rendering for the use of people whatever is shoved into the object’s mouth. Some people translate this term as “kind of thing,” which I suppose works. But really cynn carries connotations of race or nation or generations of a family or species (see DOE). And this, I think, is part of what makes Jennifer Neville’s alternative solution “beehive” so strong.

bee skep.jpg

Here’s a much later bee skep from the Historical Society of Montgomery County. But you get the picture…


Now, Jennifer hasn’t published this solution yet (it’s going to appear in her book on riddles), so I can’t give you many details. But, she did give a brilliant conference paper on this topic at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds in 2015. While you’re waiting to read more about this solution when it comes to print, I’ll leave you with one final question: what’s dearer than gold, precious to royalty, and has every Anglo-Saxon in the poetic record a’hankering to swallow it? HONEY? MEAD? BOTH ARE DELICIOUS! Nuff said.


References and Suggested Reading:

Bosworth, Joseph, and T. Northcote Toller. An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1898; Digital edition. Prague: Faculty of Arts, Charles University, 2010.

Breeze, Andrew. “Old English Gop ‘Servant’ in Riddle 49: Old Irish Gop ‘Snout’.” Neophilologus, vol. 79 (1995), pages 671-3.

Dietrich, Franz E. “Die Räthsel des Exeterbuchs: Verfasser, weitere Lösungen.” Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur, vol. 12 (1865), pages 232-52.

Dietrich, Franz E. “Die Räthsel des Exeterbuchs: Würdigung, Lösung und Herstellung.” Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur, vol. 11 (1859), pages 448-90.

Doane, A. N. “Three Old English Implement Riddles: Reconsiderations of Numbers 4, 49, and 73.” Modern Philology, vol. 84, issue 3 (Feb. 1987), pages 243-57.

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.

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

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

Shook, Laurence K. “Riddles Relating to the Anglo-Saxon Scriptorium.” In Essays in Honour of Anton Charles Pegis. Edited by J. Reginald O’Donnell. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1974, pages 215-36.

Trautmann, Moritz. “Alte und newe Antworten auf altenglische Rätsel.” Bonner Beiträge zur Anglistik, vol. 19 (1905), pages 167-215.

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

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Riddle 49 (or 47)

Ic wat eardfæstne      anne standan,
deafne, dumban,      se oft dæges swilgeð
þurh gopes hond      gifrum lacum.
Hwilum on þam wicum      se wonna þegn,
5     sweart ond saloneb,      sendeð oþre
under goman him      golde dyrran,
þa æþelingas      oft wilniað,
cyningas ond cwene.      Ic þæt cyn nu gen
nemnan ne wille,      þe him to nytte swa
10     ond to dugþum doþ      þæt se dumba her,
eorp unwita,      ær forswilgeð.


I know a lone thing standing earth-fast,
deaf, dumb, which often by day swallows
from a slave’s hand useful gifts.
Sometimes in those dwellings the swarthy servant,
5     dark and sallow-nosed, sends others
from his mouth, dearer than gold,
which nobles often desire,
kings and queens. I will not yet
name that race/kind, who thus renders for their use
10     and advantage what the dumb one here,
the dusky fool, swallows before.


Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Oven, Beehive, Falcon Cage, (Book)case, Pen and ink, Barrow, Sacrificial altar, Millpond and sluice

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