Riddles 68 and 69 (or 66)

A quick note about this post: You may be wondering why I’m doing two riddles at once, and I’ll certainly explain more in my commentary. But for now, be aware that the division of this particular riddle or pair of riddles is very controversial! Krapp and Dobbie’s edition of the Exeter Book numbered the first two lines as Riddle 68 and the final as Riddle 69, but many editions now squash them together as one. More to follow! For now, enjoy:


Ic þa wiht geseah      on weg feran;
heo wæs wrætlice      wundrum gegierwed.
[Riddle 69] Wundor wearð on wege;      wæter wearð to bane.

I saw a creature travel on the way;
it was miraculously adorned with wonders.
[Riddle 69] There was a wonder on the wave; water turned to bone.


Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Ice, Frozen Pond


Commentary for Riddle 67

Riddle 67‘s commentary is once again by Brett Roscoe of The King’s University, Alberta. Go, Brett, go!

Let me start by assuring you that this is not a connect-the-dot puzzle, though it looks like one. The rows of periods show where we cannot read the riddle because the manuscript has been damaged. In the Middle Ages, manuscripts weren’t used just used for writing. The manuscript in which most of the Old English riddles are found, the Exeter Book, was used as a coaster, a chopping-board, and later even as kindling for fire! (though to be fair, I should say that this last use was accidental). When you add to that dirt, dust and mould, and natural wear and tear over time, it actually isn’t surprising that the manuscript is damaged. It’s more surprising that it survived, and that we’re fortunate enough to read it today.

That said, though, we’re still faced with the problem of reading this riddle. It may not be a connect-the-dot, but what if it were a fill-in-the-blank exercise? Here is the poem after filling in some of the blanks with suggestions made by various scholars (these are summarized in Krapp and Dobbie, pages 368-9):

Ic on þinge gefrægn    þeodcyninges
wrætlice wiht,    wordgaldra [sum
secgan mid] snytt[ro,    swa] hio symle deð
fira gehw[am. . . . . . . . . . . . . .]
. . . .] wisdome.    Wundor me þæt [þuhte
þæt hio mihte swa]    nænne muð hafað.
fet ne [folme. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . .]    welan oft sacað,
cwiþeð cy[mlice . . . . . . . . .] wearð
leoda lareow.    Forþon nu longe m[æ]g
[awa to] ealdre    ece lifgan
missenlice,    þenden men bugað
eorþan sceatas.    Ic þæt oft geseah
golde gegierwed,    þær guman druncon,
since ond seolfre.    Secge se þe cunne,
wisfæstra hwylc,    hwæt seo wiht sy.

O.k., so it’s still not perfect, but we could at least say it’s a bit better. And it can help us flesh out our translation:

I have heard of a wondrous creature
in the king’s council, speaking magical words
with wisdom, as it always does
men[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . .] wisdom. It seemed a wonder to me that
it could speak as it has no mouth.
No feet or hands[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . .] often contend for wealth,
says fittingly [. . .] “(I) have become
a teacher of peoples. Therefore now for a long time,
always unto life, I can eternally live,
in various places, while people inhabit
the expanses of the earth.” I have often seen it,
adorned with gold, treasure and silver,
where men drank. Let him who knows,
each one who is wise, say what that creature is.

Now the riddle is – though still unclear – legible enough to point to a solution. Most agree that its solution is “Bible,” or some sort of gilded religious book. Lines 5-6 express amazement that this speaker, whoever or whatever it is, is mouth-less. And a mouth-less speaker in Latin and Old English riddles often suggests a kind of writing or writing utensil, since a written text conveys its message to the eyes of the reader without making a sound (see Riddle 60, Riddle 95, and Eusebius’ Latin Enigma 7, De Littera and 33, De Membrano). Besides having no mouth, this strange speaker also has fet ne (no feet), and possibly no hands (if we accept the reconstruction of folme), and it speaks wordgaldra (magical words). Magical words suggest that the book has power outside of its covers; it has authority in the “real” world. It is, after all, a leoda lareow (teacher of peoples). What kind of book would have this kind of authority and power? The Bible, with its message of salvation and world transformation, would seem to fit the bill.

The strongest hint at the religious nature of this book is the fact that it is gilded with gold and silver (lines 13b-15a). Gold and silver were often used to decorate Bible manuscripts. We’ve already seen this kind of decoration in Riddle 26, but just to refresh our memories, here is an example from the Lindisfarne Gospels showing the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew:

Photo from Wikipedia Commons (public domain)

This kind of attention was usually reserved for religious texts such as Bibles, psalters, lectionaries, and books of hours. The elaborate decorations reflected the value placed on the content of the manuscript.

So if the answer is a Bible, why are we told that it is often seen þær guman druncon (“where men drank,” line 14b)? If you’re like me, you probably think of reading as a quiet, solitary activity. When I read I make myself a cup of tea, go to a quiet room, and maybe turn on some mellow music. I don’t invite friends over for a party and then pull out a book. Though we may not often think of reading as a public event, it is an activity that provides an opportunity for social bonding. Have you ever been to a public poetry or book reading? Or have you ever read a children’s book to your son or daughter at bedtime? Have you heard the Bible read out loud during a Sunday church service? If so, you’ll have a sense of what this riddle is talking about. In fact, in medieval monasteries it was a common practice to listen to the Bible read out loud during meals. We might say, then, that Riddle 67 uses the kingly hall to represent the monastery. I’m not sure who this comparison would flatter more, the monks or the warriors, but it is not an uncommon comparison in the Exeter Book riddles.

If you’re interested in reading more about Anglo-Saxon Bibles, you might want to compare this riddle to Riddles 26, 59, and perhaps 95 (coming soon to theatres near you).


References and Suggested Reading:

Clemens, Raymond, and Timothy Graham. Introduction to Manuscript Studies. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007.

Krapp, George Philip, and Elliott van Kirk Dobbie, eds. The Exeter Book. New York: Columbia University Press, 1936.

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


Riddle 67 (or 65)

Riddle 67’s translation is by Brett Roscoe of The King’s University, Alberta. Thanks for taking on such a tough riddle, Brett!


Ic on þinge gefrægn      þeodcyninges
wrætlice wiht,      wordgaldra [. . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .] snytt[. . . . .] hio symle deð
fira gehw[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
5     . . . .] wisdome.      Wundor me þæt [. . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .] nænne muð hafað.
fet ne [. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . .]      welan oft sacað,
cwiþeð cy[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .] wearð
10     leoda lareow.      Forþon nu longe m[.]g
[. . . . . . . . . ] ealdre      ece lifgan
missenlice,      þenden menn bugað
eorþan sceatas.      Ic þæt oft geseah
golde gegierwed,      þær guman druncon,
15     since ond seolfre.      Secge se þe cunne,
wisfæstra hwylc,      hwæt seo wiht sy.

I have heard of a wondrous creature
in the king’s council,* magical words [. . .
[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .] it always does
of men[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
5     . . . . . . .] wisdom. A wonder to me that [. . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .] has no mouth.
No feet [ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . .] often contend for wealth,
says [. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .] “(I) have become
10     a teacher of peoples. Therefore now a long time
[. . . . . . . . .]life eternally live,
in various places, while people inhabit
the expanses of the earth.” I have often seen it,
adorned with gold, treasure and silver,
15     where men drank. Let him who knows,
each one who is wise, say what that creature is.

Possible Solutions: Bible, Religious Book


Translation Notes:
* “in the king’s council” can describe either the hearing or the wondrous creature.

Commentary for Riddle 66

This commentary post is once again by Erin Sebo at Flinders University in Australia. Take it away, Erin!


Riddle 66 is the second of the three “Creation Riddles” in the Exeter Book (Riddles 40, 66 and 94). Although it’s common to find several riddles with the same answer – or which seem to have the same answer – the creation riddles are unusual because they are all versions of the same riddle, just “edited” a bit. (Or in the case of Riddle 94, a lot.)

All riddles have a trick at their heart: a paradox, an ambiguity, a misdirection; the thing that makes the riddle hard to solve. It’s the thing that makes a riddle a riddle.

Riddles 40, 66, and 94 and their parent, Aldhelm’s epic Latin De Creatura (the last riddle in his riddle sequence), all have the same trick and the same solution. They’re same riddle, even though the words are different.

If the number of surviving versions is anything to go on (and maybe it’s not), it was the most popular riddle in early England. Or, if not the most popular, perhaps the most important? The best known? Whatever it was, the complier(s) of the Exeter Book thought it was worth the vellum to write out different versions of it.

But it’s not how Riddles 40, 66, and 94 are the same that’s the most interesting bit; what’s really interesting is how they’re different. Each version of this riddle gives us a slightly different insight into how the world was imagined. In the case of Riddle 66, it gives us an insight into how ordinary people, or at least some ordinary people, imagined the world. That’s rare in early medieval texts.

De Creatura was written by a theologian (Aldhelm), and Riddle 40 was translated by someone who was at least educated enough to read Latin, but from the way Riddle 66 has been adapted, made shorter, more focused, more memorable, it may well have spent time in the oral tradition, being told and retold. For example, the litany of oppositions, often illustrated by obscure or exotic animals or materials and underpinned by allusions to scripture, of Riddle 40, is replaced by simple, broad elemental images. On the other hand, the memorable and unusual word hondwyrm is preserved. (Often something that’s characteristic will stick in people’s minds so these elements tend to survive.) Otherwise, very few of the same details survive, just the overall idea, which is typical of the way oral texts change. So while most of the Exeter Riddles are composed and meant to be read this one was probably told – and given the lack of details which reveal specialist knowledge, not to mention the highly unorthodox (potentially heretical) view of the world, it may well have been told by ordinary people.

So, how did the ordinary medieval person of this riddle imagine the world? The most striking thing is that the riddle doesn’t mention God. Riddle 40 imagines Creation more or less like this:

Riddle 66 Psalter World Map.jpg
13th-century Psalter World Map from a manuscript called British Library Add. MS 28681, via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

God on the outside, who healdeð ond wealdeð (holds and controls) (Riddle 40, line 5a), is keeping an eye on things. But in Riddle 66, Creation is imagined not as a collection of all the things that make up the physical and/or metaphysical worlds, but rather as a force, racing around the world, diving under the seas. Unlike Riddle 40 which has a series of dichotomies, with a positive and a negative side, Creation in Riddle 66 is made up of excellent qualities only: it’s fast and bright and can reach the angels. It’s expansive. Although creation says it’s laesse, most of the riddle is about how it fills the oceans and extends through the fields. By the same token, it dives under hell but there’s no mention of devils, only of soaring as high as angels. It’s an optimistic force. And it’s not clear what its relationship to God is because this is never quite articulated. It is described more like an irresistible force, racing freely around the space it inhabits, than an expression of God. It does not describe itself as enacting God’s plan or acting on his orders. And the fact it only reaches angels, not God himself seems to suggest that they are not connected.

It’s an unusual idea of the world.

And it’s as surprising in its details as it is in its overall conception and I want to end with one of its strangest, tiniest details; tiny hondwyrm. It seems to be a parasitic insect but we’re not sure what kind exactly. And it’s also the only animal mentioned. There are no birds or fish or mammals – including humans. So, I’ll finish the commentary on this riddle with a question – why is this tiny insect more important than all other creatures?


References and Suggested Reading:

Michelet, Fabienne. Creation, Migration and Conquest: Imaginary Geography and Sense of Space in Old English Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Neville, Jennifer. Representations of the Natural World in Old English Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Sebo, Erin. In Enigmate: The History of a Riddle from 400-1500. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2017. (coming out in October!)

Wehlau, Ruth. The Riddle of Creation: Metaphor Structures in Old English Poetry. New York: Peter Lang, 1997.

Riddle 66 (or 64)

This translation is by Erin Sebo, lecturer in English at Flinders University in Australia. Erin is especially interested in wisdom literature, heroism and the history of emotions (so, all the good stuff!).

Ic eom mare      þonne þes middangeard
læsse þonne hondwyrm,      leohtre þonne mona,
swiftre þonne sunne.      Sæs me sind ealle
flodas on fæðmum      ond þes foldan bearm,
grene wongas.      Grundum ic hrine,
helle underhnige,      heofonas oferstige,
wuldres eþel,      wide ræce
ofer engla eard,      eorþan gefylle,
ealne middangeard      ond merestreamas
side mid me sylfum.      Saga hwæt ic hatte.

I am greater than this middle-earth,
less than a hand-worm, lighter than the moon,
swifter than the sun.  All the seas’ tides are
in my embraces and the earthen breast,
the green fields.  I touch the foundations,
I sink under hell, I soar over the heavens,
the home of glory; I reach wide
over the homeland of angels; I fill the earth abundantly,
the entire world and the streams of the oceans
with myself. Say what I am called.

Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Creation, God

Commentary for Riddle 65

Riddle 65’s commentary is once again by Judy Kendall, Reader in English and Creative Writing at Salford University. Take it away, Judy!


The generally accepted solution to this riddle is Onion, although Moritz Trautmann argued for Leek or Chives. We know that the Anglo-Saxons knew their onions. One proof of this is the first Onion riddle in the Exeter Book, the rude lewd Riddle 25. Physical evidence of onion-growing is trickier to find, since onions are small and their tissues, once deteriorated, leave little trace. However, we do know that the Romans grew onions because of onion bulb-shaped holes left in Pompeii gardens and carbonized onions in Pompeii kitchens (there’s a picture of these in Meyer, page 412 – free to read online with a MYJSTOR account).

There is even an onion, white and ash-like, named the Pompeii onion:

Fig 2 Pompeii Onion
Photo (by ayngelina) from Flickr (license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

All this is relevant (to an extent) because we also know that the Romans took onions on journeys to the further reaches of their empire, including Britain, and doubtless grew them there.

Riddle 65 offers a much more polite take on this vegetable than Riddle 25. That said, the two riddles share marked similarities. Frederick Tupper noted how both refer to loss of head and confinement in a narrow place (page 124), and Patrick Murphy points out that both recall traditional riddles of torture in their use of rapid-fire enumerations of various kinds of suffering (pages 223-4). Such “series of tortures” lists surface elsewhere in the Exeter Book too, as in the heart-aching opening list of actions inflicted upon an animal – skinned, stretched and scraped – in order to produce the vellum of Riddle 26’s book.

Riddle 65 also evokes an onion in its use of artful alliteration. The riddle’s striking aural effects are spiky, piquant, biting, even “attractively staccato,” as Kevin Crossley-Holland has it (page 105). Such effects not only describe an onion’s taste and smell, but also replicate onion skins, circling in layers through and around the riddle. Echoing and interlocking, they repeat back to themselves – just like an onion does. This layering effect is also evident in the recurrence of selected words and phrasal structures, as in the unusual use of parallel antithetical clauses in the same half line (line 2a).

In short, if you know your onions, you soon realize Riddle 65 is much more of an onion than a leek or chive. Its features are oniony: distinctive “biting” taste and smell, layered rings of skin – a palimpsest of interconnecting elements, effects on digestion, bulbous bulbs and the opportunities that these afford for bunching in “fetters.”

Fig 3 Cebollas_rojas.jpg
Photo (by Xemenendura) of bunching onions from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 4.0)

These all fit so much better with the riddle’s sounds, structure and allusions to head, body and bite, than the slimmer milder attributes of the bulbless leek that, for my money, there isn’t really a contest between the two. Apologies, leek…

Gentle Leek Poem
The author’s composition in Edible Poetry

In the Old English, these clues are embedded in the complex repeating onion-like patterns that extend aurally across the lines. The modern English translation proffered here attempts to keep something of these aural and structural onion clues. Thus, the hard-sounding bite of “cw” of line one is reciprocated in modern English with “qu.”

The repeated use of “cw,” or “qu,” constitute acts of artful alliteration, a term Andy Orchard defines as the use of sound cleverly combined with meaning for overall effect. The “cw” or “qu” marks life – cwico (quick/life), and death – cwele (quelled/death). These two states are thus both linked and contrasted. This is most striking in the Old English where “cw” heads each half-line in line 1, and where the alliteration is picked up again in line 2 with the use of cwom, which constitutes a second reference to life. In the modern English line 2, “came” provides a much weaker echo of the “qu” sound, so “qu” is also inserted in the last word of the second half of that line, as part of “quarry,” another possible allusion to death. This helps sustain the effect of the original doubly and interlinearly alliterative “cw,” bleeding across from one line to the next.

Initially, in line 1, the riddle suggests that death follows life. The advent of death does not seem very remarkable to us, so it is odd that the poet chooses þeah or seþeah (nevertheless/but/yet) to introduce it. However, the parallel antithetical clauses of the first half of line 2 help to explain this emphasis on oddity. Line 2 opens with an allusion to life followed, presumably, by death: Ær ic wæs, but this is then immediately followed by a similarly structured reference to life (eft ic cwom). Life, followed by death, followed once again by life. Peculiar, since for humans anyway death tends to be terminal.

Craig Williamson notes that such an arrangement of clauses within the same half line is very unusual in Old English verse – “highly, perhaps deliberately, eccentric” (page 331). He sees it as an indication of a poet who has “radical ideas about breaking the rules of Old English metre” (page 332). Such a deliberate act of rebellion is asking us to pay close attention to these lines. Here, it suggests, is an embedded clue. The half line indicates regular renewal, a life-death-life-death-life-death cycle. Recurring death constitutes a departure from normality in human experience, but not so for onions.

Thus, these unusually-placed antithetical clauses point us definitively away from reading the subject as human towards a focus on the plant world, on onions perhaps. Onions metamorphose from bulb to fully-grown onion and then back again to bulb. These references to the paralleling and continual sequencing of life and death are reinforced by the positioning, sounds and structural phrasings in both line 1 and 2: line 1’s opening life (Cwico waes ic) matches line 2’s opening death (Ær ic wæs); the phrases are knit even more closely together by the use of alliterated “w”s and repeated ic’s; the similar sounding ic efne/eft ic of lines 1 and 2 also serve this purpose. Everything seems to circle and repeat.

In lines 3 and 4, the riddle continues to tease us with apparent illogicalities of sequence. The somewhat bizarre list of abuses and torture places experiences of being bitten and broken after what for a human would surely be the worst fate of all – decapitation. Double alliteration continues to be employed within each line and parallel phrasing and repeated sounds and words across them, again artfully reminding us of the onion’s cyclical life and circular skin. Most notably, in lines 3 and 4, the words mec on/min/mec on/mine link back to the mec in line 2, as well as pushing forwards to the me/mec, in lines 5 and 6, and culminating in the use of “m” as the alliterative link in the last lines – more repetitious circular effect. In addition, the riddle’s initial cross-alliterative pattern is reprised and hyped up in lines 4-5-6, with repeated references to the “biter bitten” motif, a commonplace in early English riddles, and, as many have observed, constituting a strong echo of the mordeo mordentes of Symphosius’s Latin onion riddle (Enigma 44).

Riddle 65 colour coded sounds.png
Some of the repeated sounds, colour-coded – there are more!

Is the poet just showing off? Or is there something else to consider. Why the repetition of me? Does it suggest self-obsession? If so, it contrasts oddly with the apparent argument of the last lines, in which the violence of human consumers seems to be starkly compared to the reasonable restrain of the meek and gentle onion – a view that the fruitarians and raw foodies of today would find sympathetic perhaps. The onion only bites in self-defence, unlike the aggressive behaviour of its human attackers.

However, just as the skins of the onion are shed to reveal more onion skin, so this poem’s emphasis on “bite” digs deeper than might first appear. We seem to be reading about the bite of man, but the sounds and repetitions of the words in which this is articulated forcefully bring home the bite of the onion. It might not be the first to bite but this does not negate its ever-ready aggression which is communicated through the biting sound that runs throughout the riddle as well as through the repeated alliteration of “bite” at the riddle’s end. The onion may present itself as a meek mild victim but its spiky voice, and the repeated emphasis on me me me, suggest otherwise.

In this regard, it is pleasing to discover an Old English riddle keeping abreast of developments in modern science. In 2008, the New Scientist reported Annika Paukner and Stephen Suomi’s discovery that monkeys grow more solitary and aggressive after washing with onions (Kaplan)! The onion, as Riddle 65 declares in both sound and sense, is both assertive (me me) and aggressive: ready and ripe for a fight, whether full-on or more covertly, as in the sneakily indirect effect of the emphasis of the very last line. This appears to stress the many bites of the human consumer. However, since the previous line has just established that any human act of violence will engender an onion’s retaliation, it also sets up the onion with equally as many opportunities of biting.

Alternatively, just to put a further onion in the works, onions are also beneficial. Pliny the Elder catalogued, before succumbing to the volcanic eruption near Pompeii, the curative properties of onions in relation to vision, sleep, mouth sores, dog bites, toothaches, dysentery and lumbago (National Onion Association). Recent scientific research reveals that they have a proven efficacy in the case of asthma (Elmsley).

I could really splurge on onions now by noting how the spikey staccato effects created by alliteration, word order and phrasing give a good impression of difficulty in breathing, gradually evening out in later lines. But better not – wouldn’t want you to think I’ve completely lost my onions.


References and Suggested Reading:

Crossley-Holland, Kevin, trans. The Exeter Book Riddles. London: Enitharmon, 2008.

Emsley, John. “Onions Run Rings around Chemists.” New Scientist (30 September 1989)

Kaplan, Matt. “Onion Washing Gets Monkeys in a Lather.” New Scientist (21 July 2008).

Meyer, Frederick G. “Carbonized Food Plants of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the Villa at Torre Annunziata.” Economic Botany, vol. 34, issue 4 (1980), pages 401-37.

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

National Onion Association. “History of Onions” (2011).

Orchard, Andy. “Artful Alliteration in Anglo-Saxon Song and Story.” Anglia, vol. 113, issue 1 (1995), pages 429-63.

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

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

Tupper, Frederick Jr. The Riddles of the Exeter Book. Boston: Ginn, 1910.

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

Riddle 65 (or 63)

Riddle 65’s translation comes to us from Judy Kendall, Reader in English and Creative Writing at Salford University.  She’s especially interested in poetic composition, visual text and translation, both in an academic context and from the standpoint of a creative practitioner. You can see her creative record of the process of translating an Old English riddle in ‘brief brief: a riddle’ in Amsterdam’s Versal Literary & Arts Journal, issue 12.


Cwico wæs ic, ne cwæð ic wiht,      cwele ic efne seþeah.
Ær ic wæs, eft ic cwom.     Æghwa mec reafað,
hafað mec on headre,     ond min heafod scireþ,
biteð mec on bær lic,       briceð mine wisan.
Monnan ic ne bite,       nympþe he me bite;
sindan þara monige     þe mec bitað.

Quick to life I was, I did not quip at all, yet even so I’m quelled.
Before I was, renewed I came. I’m everybody’s quarry,
they hold me in fetters, and hack off my head,
bite my stripped body, snap my stalk.
I will not bite a man, unless he bites me;
many are they that bite me.

Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Onion, Leek, Chives