Krapp and Dobbie’s edition treats the first line as Riddle 79 and the remainder of the poem as Riddle 80. Williamson’s edition and most scholars tackle them together as one poem. I’m going with that!
Ic eom æþelinges æht ond willa.
Ic eom æþelinges eaxlgestealla,
fyrdrinces gefara, frean minum leof,
cyninges geselda. Cwen mec hwilum
hwitloccedu hond on legeð,
eorles dohtor, þeah hio æþelu sy.
Hæbbe me on bosme þæt on bearwe geweox.
Hwilum ic on wloncum wicge ride
herges on ende; heard is min tunge.
Oft ic woðboran wordleana sum
agyfe æfter giedde. Good is min wise
ond ic sylfa salo. Saga hwæt ic hatte.
I am a prince’s property and desire.
I am a prince’s shoulder-companion,
a warrior’s follower, beloved by my lord,
a king’s comrade. Sometimes a fair-haired
lady lays her hand on me,
a nobleman’s daughter, although she is dignified.
I have in my bosom what waxed in a wood.
Sometimes I ride on a bold steed
on the border of a host; my tongue is hard.
Often I give a speech-bearer after a song
a certain reward for words. My manner is good,
and I am dusky of self. Say what I am called.
Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Horn, Falcon, Hawk, Spear, Sword, Scabbard
How do you solve a problem like a GIANT HOLE IN A MANUSCRIPT?
The damage to the Exeter Book is so extensive when it comes to Riddle 78 that nearly the entire riddle is wiped out. We have a handful of words at the beginning of the first few lines, and then just nothing at all until nearly the end of the text block. I suppose this means there are lots of exciting opportunities to fill in the gaps? That’s me trying to be an optimist (not my usual thing, so not sure whether it worked!).
Right, well I suppose what we can do is approach this problem from the zero point, and start with a list of things we do know about what’s going on in this riddle. Here we are:
1) There’s a first-person speaker.
2) The speaker can be found under the water, concealed by the waves.
3) The speaker has family or kin.
4) The speaker eats another creature.
5) Either the speaker or its victim travels through the water rather than staying at home.
6) The speaker’s hunting methods are particularly clever.
As in the previous riddle – usually solved as Oyster – there’s an overall focus on water and the concealment that comes from living in such an element, including some rather specific verbal overlap (flod, yþ, (be-)wreon). Even so, this concealment doesn’t protect the speaker’s victim.
But what sort of animal is the speaker? Reacting to previous scholarship’s lack of interest in this mangled little poem – most folks just wrote it off as yet another Oyster riddle – Craig Williamson argues for Lamprey (pages 357-9). He interprets the clues (well…the ones we can actually read) as referring to a migratory creature with an interesting hunting adaptation. This leads him to suggest the fearsome sea lamprey: jawless, parasitic fish who feed by attaching their suctiony mouths to other fish and then chewing through the scales and flesh with their sharp teeth in circular rows until they can suck their blood.
Wow. You’re not going to sleep tonight, are you?
Williamson’s solution is, however, more than a tad speculative, considering how little of this riddle survives. Much tidier is Mercedes Salvador(-Bello)’s suggestion that the aquatic predator of Riddle 78 may well be preying on an oyster not unlike the one being devoured by a human right before this poem in the manuscript (page 410). The predator and subject of Riddle 78, then, is likely a crab – because crabs were known as the fierce enemies of oysters.
Strangely enough, crabs were reputed to have a particularly clever hunting behaviour: a number of sources from St Ambrose to Isidore of Seville (and beyond!) suggest that they waited for oysters to open their shells and then stuck stones inside to prevent them from closing properly. This enabled them to feast to their little hearts’ delight.
Of course, crabs don’t need to use stones in this way…their pinchers are actually super-efficient:
But this still got me thinking about animal tool use, and I went down the rabbit hole of the internetz to find out more. Interestingly, some types of crab have been observed using tools, even if not – as far as I can tell – in the manner described above (other aquatic animals do use rocks for bashing shells though!). A number of species of crab actually carry plants/algae, shells and rocks, or even deck themselves out with anemones for camouflage and protection (Mann and Patterson). Don’t say I never teach you cool facts.
Crab tool use isn’t just pretty amazing – it also kind of makes you think that late antique and medieval stories about crabs pummeling oysters with stones aren’t really that far-fetched. Unfortunately, we don’t have any of these in Old English, but this may well be what the 7th-century Aldhelm of Malmesbury was getting at in his Latin Enigma 37, Cancer (Crab):
‘Nepa’ mihi nomen ueteres dixere Latini: Humida spumiferi spatior per litora ponti; Passibus oceanum retrograda transeo uersis: Et tamen aethereus per me decoratur Olimpus, Dum ruber in caelo bisseno sidera scando; Ostrea quem metuit duris perterrita saxis.
(Glorie, vol. 133, page 421)
(Ancient Romans called my name ‘Nepa’: I stroll along the sodden shores of the foaming sea; I cross the ocean in reverse with turned steps, and yet celestial heaven is embellished by me, when I, rosy, ascend into the sky with twelve stars: the oyster dreads me, frightened by hard stones.)
Could this intimidating use of stones be the clever hunting method that the heavily damaged Riddle 78 was referring to? That’s certainly what Salvador(-Bello) reckons! She suggests that the audience of the Exeter Book riddles would likely have known about the oyster and crab’s association, and that they may have even interpreted the two allegorically. They clearly did so for oysters (see Riddle 77’s commentary), and we have early theological texts that suggest crabs were up for grabs, allegorically-speaking, as well. Here’s an excerpt from St Ambrose’s fourth-century Hexameron:
Sunt ergo homines, qui cancri usu in alienae usum circumscriptionis irrepant, et infirmitatem propriae virtutis astu quodam suffulciant, fratri dolum nectant, et alterius pascantur aerumna. Tu autem propriis esto contentus, et aliena te damna non pascant. Bonus cibus est simplicitas innocentiae. (book 5, chapter 8, number 22; Patrologia Latina sections 216A–216B)
(Now, there are people who, like crabs, skillfully creep into the trust of other people, and bolster the weakness of their own virtue by a certain cunning; they bind deceit to their brother, and feed on another’s hardship. Conversely, be content with what is your own, and do not feed on others’ misfortunes. An honest meal is the simplicity of innocence.)
This truly fabulous allegory leads Salvador(-Bello) to suggest that Riddles 77 and 78 make a very tidy thematic and moralistic pairing: innocent and defenseless oyster vs voracious crab.
We all know who wins in real life.
References and Suggested Reading
St Ambrose. Hexaemeron. Patrologia Latina Database. Vol. 14.
Glorie, F., ed. Variae Collectiones Aenigmatum Merovingicae Aetatis. Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, vol. 133-133A. Turnhout: Brepols, 1968.
GOODness gracious me. I’m clearly very out of practice, since this post took a veritable age and a half to write up. This is strange, in a way, since Riddle 77 is one of the least controversial riddles when it comes to solution-hunting: scholars are pretty much agreed that this watery tale of violent captivity, death and consumption concerns an oyster. But, even with this uncharacteristic scholarly agreement, there’s still lots to say about this and other Anglo-Saxon oysters. Settle in and let us begin.
I should start by saying that – as with all the riddles toward the end of the Exeter Book – there’s some damage from the infamous hot poker here (not a metaphor…apparently, some very bad person put a literal hot poker on this fabulous manuscript, and s/he shall be forever damned in the eyes of medievalists). It’s strangely and gruesomely appropriate that the riddle ends with a reference to the solution’s uncooked-ness, just as the book itself heats up (sorry). But more on the riddle’s reference to cooking in a moment.
First, let’s think a little bit about the importance of environment. I’m thinking especially of the emphasis on sea and waves, which are represented here as a sundhelm (water-helm) (line 1b). This brilliant compound, when taken together with the reference to the ocean having concealed (wrugon) the oyster, reminds me of another truly fab word: heoloþhelm (helmet of invisibility). That’s right: the Anglo-Saxons had a term for this…and not just them, since it exists in continental Old Saxon as well! Too. Good.
Anywho, a heoloþhelm is a particularly diabolic object. The devil sports this particular head-gear in Genesis B (line 444a) and in The Whale:
he him feorgbona þurh sliþen searo siþþan weorþeð, wloncum ond heanum, þe his willan her firenum fremmað, mid þam he færinga, heoloþhelme biþeaht, helle seceð, goda geasne, grundleasne wylm under mistglome, swa se micla hwæl, se þe bisenceð sæliþende eorlas ond yðmearas. (lines 41b-9a)
(he then becomes a murderer to them, through savage cunning, to the proud and to the lowly, those who sinfully perform his will here; with those, surrounded by a helmet of invisibility, deprived of virtues, he suddenly seeks out hell, the bottomless surge under the mist-gloom, just like the great whale, which sinks sea-travellers, men and their wave-horses.)
Okay so, there’s a link between helmets and the ocean and concealment and the devil in Old English poetry. Got it. But that’s not really what we’re dealing with here. This sundhelm (water-helm) is a protective and sustaining force for a creature with seemingly little agency when removed from the right environment. I like to imagine this poem being read out by David Attenborough on Blue Planet or similar. “The oyster, cleverly concealed below the depths, thinks it’s safe…until…” Alas, I couldn’t find any relevant clips from a nature doc online, but you may enjoy this somewhat-cheesily-narrated time-lapse video of oysters feeding:
The opening and closing of all those oysters’ shells is what we see in this riddle: Oft ic flode ongean / muð ontynde (Often I, facing the flood, opened my mouth) (lines 3b-4a). Karl Steel says these lines form a loop with the opening half-line: “Then, almost halfway through, with the “muð ontynde,” the opened mouth, it is as if the riddle reaches back to its first line, “sae mec feede,” the sea fed me, closing the loop on the opening to circulate the sea again and again through the oyster’s cavernous body. In the loop we have distinction without antagonism, difference disentangled from the struggle for recognition.” Nicely put, Karl.
The riddler sets up the oyster’s open mouth in opposition to human mouths…or, rather, the riddler shows how the oyster goes from having an open mouth into the mouth of another: Nu wile monna sum / min flæsc fretan (Now a certain person wishes to devour my flesh) (lines 4b-5a). This desire to devour is realised at the end of the (fragmentary) poem when the person iteð unsodene (eats [the oyster] uncooked) (line 8a). Several scholars have commented on the differences between the verbs fretan and etan (iteð is a form of this verb): the first is generally used of animals, and suggests a voracious sort of eating when it’s applied to humans, while etan is generally reserved for human use (Magennis, pages 74-76). Mercedes Salvador-Bello also chimes in here, emphasizing that fretan is often used “in literary passages that, regardless of animal or human context, explicitly or implicitly disapprove of the action that is being described” (pages 402-3). This is the sort of eating we should be judgey about, in other words.
Eating is, of course, one of many activities that invited judgement in the highly religious context of this riddle’s production. Most of the folks who write about this poem link it to another, called The Seasons for Fasting:
sona hie on mergan mæssan syngað and forþegide, þurste gebæded, æfter tæppere teoþ geond stræta. Hwæt! Hi leaslice leogan ongynnað and þone tæppere tyhtaþ gelome, secgaþ þæt he synleas syllan mote ostran to æte and æþele wyn emb morgentyd, þæs þe me þingeð þæt hund and wulf healdað þa ilcan wisan on worulde and ne wigliað hwæne hie to mose fon, mæða bedæled.
(Dobbie, page 104, lines 213-23)
(immediately in the morning they sing their masses and, consumed, compelled by thirst, go through the streets looking for a tavern-keeper. Behold! They begin to lie deceptively and pressure the tavern-keeper frequently, say that he can give them oysters to eat and good wine without sin at that time of the morning, so it seems to me that the hound and wolf have the same manner in the world and do not know when they may seize food, lacking moderation.)
This poem is especially incensed by the idea that a fasting priest might get away with gluttony because oysters weren’t prohibited during fasts (Salvador-Bello, page 405). Like fish, they could be eaten, but in moderation only. And they certainly shouldn’t be wolfed down, raw or otherwise.
We know that oysters were eaten in large quantities in Anglo-Saxon England, and not just in coastal areas (Hagen, pages 169-70). They were so common, in fact, that monastic sign language (yes, monks had sign language…is this the coolest thing you’ve ever heard?) included a sign for oysters. The 11th-century Old English version of Monasteriales Indicia includes the following description:
Gif þu ostran habban wylle þonne clæm þu þine wynstran hand ðam gemete þe þu ostran on handa hæbbe and do mid sexe oððe mid fingre swylce þu ostran scenan wyll.
(If you want an oyster, then close your left hand, as if you had an oyster in your hand, and make with a knife or with your fingers as if you were going to open the oyster.) (Banham, pages 36-7, no. 72)
Here’s what it looks like in the manuscript:
Rules in monastic communities were particularly firm after the late tenth-century Benedictine reform, and sign language was an important way of keeping things running at times when monks weren’t allowed to speak. Debby Banham notes that the Old English version of Monasteriales Indicia in particular has very few signs for sea creatures: just one for fish in general, and one each for eels and oysters (Food and Drink, page 65). This suggests oysters were very common in the monastic refectory.
But despite their commonness, the oyster in this particular riddle is unique. Did you notice the violence of the oyster-shucking scene? This doesn’t seem to be driven by your run-of-the-mill “don’t be a glutton” rhetoric. And, in fact, the poem’s imagery is really quite strange: Riddle 77’s creature speaks of its fell (skin) and hyd (hide), using terms that are more familiarly associated with mammals. In fact, this riddle is the only case where either term refers to a shell. And there’s another link to a mammal when the oyster describes the seaxes orde (point of a knife) tearing the shell of sidan (from [its] side) (line 6). This reminds me of the end of Riddle 72, when the ox describes his stoic resignation in the face of the ploughman’s goad:
Oft mec isern scod sare on sidan; ic swigade, næfre meldade monna ængum gif me ordstæpe egle wæron. (lines 15b-18)
(Often iron hurt me sorely in the side; I was silent, never accused any man if goad-pricks were painful to me.)
Heide Estes argues that the “foregrounding of violence to the animal as a prelude to human consumption in Riddle 77 […] suggests that the Anglo-Saxons had some sense that avoiding meat consumption was spiritually superior, though from the point of view of human asceticism rather than out of any concern for the animal” (page 122). In other words, monks ate meat rarely, not for ethical reasons, but because discipline and moderation brought them closer to their God. Given that the ox in Riddle 72 receives similarly violent treatment but is removed from the context of eating, I think we can push Heide’s argument further. The riddles show an understanding of and queasy discomfort with the pain that humans inflict upon other animals.
Bit of a depressing way to end a post, I know. Here, enjoy this bizarre infantilization of oysters from Alice and Wonderland by way of compensation:
References and Suggested Reading
Banham, Debby. Food and Drink in Anglo-Saxon England. Stroud: Tempus, 2004.
Banham, Debby, ed. and trans. Monasteriales Indicia: The Anglo-Saxon Sign Language. Middlesex: Anglo-Saxon Books, 1991.
Dobbie, Elliott van Kirk Dobbie, ed. The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems. New York: Columbia University Press, 1942.
Estes, Heide. Anglo-Saxon Literary Landscapes: Ecotheory and the Environmental Imagination. Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam Press, 2017).
Hagen, Ann. Anglo-Saxon Food and Drink: Production, Processing, Distribution and Consumption. Hockwold cum Wilton: Anglo-Saxon Books, 2006.
Magennis, Hugh. Anglo-Saxon Appetites: Food and Drink and their Consumption in Old English and Related Literature. Dublin: Four Courts, 1999.
Salvador(-Bello), Mercedes. “The Oyster and the Crab: A Riddle Duo (nos. 77 and 78) in the Exeter Book.” Modern Philology, vol. 101, issue 3 (Feb. 2004), pages 400-19.
Once again, there’s a bit of burn damage toward the end of this particular riddle indicated by “…”
Sæ mec fedde, sundhelm þeahte,
ond mec yþa wrugon eorþan getenge
feþelease. Oft ic flode ongean
muð ontynde. Nu wile monna sum
min flæsc fretan, felles ne recceð,
siþþan he me of sidan seaxes orde
hyd arypeð, …ec hr… …þe siþþan
iteð unsodene ea… …d.
The sea sustained me, the water-helm covered me,
and the waves concealed me lying on the ground,
foot-less. Often I, facing the flood,
opened my mouth. Now a certain person wishes
to devour my flesh, he does not care for my skin,
when he rips my hide from my side
with the point of a knife, … then
eats me uncooked …
Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solution: Oyster
Here’s a riddle for you: what do a dog, Jesus, and someone taking a pee all have in common? Answer: they’re all possible solutions for this week’s riddle. Or riddles. Yes, there’s quite a bit of mystery about Riddle 75 and/or Riddle 76, and the mystery starts with how many poems it or they actually is. Or are.
For reasons that will become clear below, I’m going to set the runes aside for a moment and focus on the two longer lines of poetry. The way they’re written in the manuscript strongly suggests that they’re two separate texts – each begins with capitalisation and on a new line, and closes with the kind of punctuation flourish normally reserved for endings. This is how a lot of editors, including Krapp and Dobbie, treat them. The problem is… there isn’t much there. These might be the opening lines of two longer riddles, but if so the scribe forgot to include the rest. Other editors have preferred to combine these two lines into a single text. This has the advantage of providing a little more bulk to work with, and nods to the structural similarities between the lines. In fact, there’s a sort of chiasmus – a balancing of two parallel clauses – in the contrast between the subject of the first line moving swiftly and the subject of the second line sitting alone. My feeling is that these two riddles are, in fact, a single text even if that’s not how they’re presented in the manuscript.
However we choose to edit the poem/s, one thing we can be confident about is that the runes are later additions. You see, when we find runes in the Exeter Book riddles they’re usually integrated into the metre, meaning that they (or rather, the words they signify) carry alliteration. The first rune in Riddle 19, for example, is ᛋ (line 1b), whose name sigel picks up the s- alliteration from the preceding half line.
But that’s not what happens here. These runes are just hanging out on the end of the first line, with not the slightest regard for alliteration or metrical stress or any of the things that make Old English poetry poetic. So what are they doing there?
The answer is that these runes have been interpolated – i.e. moved – from the margins into the text proper. This happens when a scribe is copying from one manuscript to another and mistakes a note in the margin for a continuation of the line. We see another of this kind of mistake in Riddle 36, and Andy Orchard argues it’s also the source of Riddle 23’s opening line (page 290). In both cases, these stray words were originally written into the margins of earlier copies of the poems, to provide cryptic clues for the riddles’ solutions.
Now, if you’re the sort of person who gets excited by manuscript-y stuff (aren’t we all?), this is actually pretty cool. Today, all but one of the Old English riddles comes to us from the Exeter Book. Everything we think we know about these riddles – that they were written without solutions, for example – is based on this one manuscript. But what we get here is a glimpse of the earlier manuscript from which th Exeter Book itself was copied. Preserved in this odd mish-mash of a poem is the relic of what that lost manuscript looked like. It’s the manuscript equivalent of finding dino DNA preserved in amber.
Once we’ve finished geeking out about palaeography, though, it’s time to get down to the real business: solving this thing. As you can see, there isn’t a great deal to go on. Taking only the poetic lines, we have either two riddles describing one thing moving quickly, and one thing sitting alone. Or we have one riddle describing both those things in tandem. No wonder someone thought it might be a good idea to include a little runic hint to help us along. What wise clue did our medieval runester grace us with?
No, that’s not an Old English sneeze. That’s what the runes say. Dnlh.
It may come as no surprise that “dnlh” isn’t a word, not in Old English nor in modern. But there are a couple of ways it might become a word, with some creative thinking and a loose approach to spelling. Reverse the letter order and add in some much-needed vowels and we might get hælend (lord). This solution was originally proposed by W. S. Mackie, who argued that the first line is a standalone riddle depicting Christ “as a hunter in pursuit of sin” (page 77). Playing around with letter order and vowels are two fairly common gambits in medieval cryptography – they’re used in Riddle 19 and Riddle 23 (reversed letters), or Riddle 36 (changed vowels). That’s solution one.
But there’s actually a way of finding some vowels without adding anything to the runes at all. When written in manuscripts, runic ᛚ (l) often ends up looking similar to runic ᚢ (u). And if there’s one thing we can say for sure about the Exeter Book scribe, it’s that he or she isn’t particularly good at writing runes consistently. Changing the “l” for a “u” and reversing the letter order gives us hund (hound). So the riddle may be as simple as that: a poem about a dog running really fast, to which someone’s helpfully added the word dog so that we know it’s definitely about a dog. This is solution two, and it’s a popular one (Bitterli, pages 105-10).
Solution three comes courtesy of Craig Williamson, who opines that “the pursuit of sin has no place in this riddle” (page 353), and that the word signified by our runic quartet is actually hland (urine). Williamson’s reading supports combining the two lines into one poem; the contrast between them speaks to the contrast between male and female peeing… postures.
Which one is the correct solution? It’s honestly impossible to know. We don’t even know for sure that the runes have anything to do with conveying a solution. But that ambiguity is pretty fun. In fact, I’d argue one of the best things about this poem (or these poems) is how evocative it is. These two little lines may represent the shortest of the Exeter Book riddles, but they’ve provoked page upon page of critical commentary encompassing a truly eclectic range of solutions and creative readings. And thus we get from Jesus Christ to peeing postures, via one happy hound!
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.
Mackie, W. S. “Notes on the Text of the Exeter Book.” Modern Language Review, vol. 28 (1933), pages 75-78.
Orchard, Andy. “Enigma Variations: The Anglo-Saxon Riddle-tradition.” In Latin Learning and English Lore: Studies in Anglo-Saxon Literature for Michael Lapidge. Edited by Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe and Andy Orchard (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), pages 284-304.
Williamson, Craig, ed. The Old English Riddles of The Exeter Book. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977.
It’s another two-for-one this week! Most editors treat the first two lines as one riddle, and the third as a seperate riddle. Krapp and Dobbie are among them. Others, including Craig Williamson, edit this as a single poem. Also there are runes! Enjoy…
Ic swiftne geseah on swaþe feran
.ᛞ ᚾ ᛚ ᚻ.
[Riddle 76] Ic ane geseah idese sittan.
I saw a swift one travel on the way
.d n l h.
[Riddle 76] I saw a woman sit alone.
Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Hound, Piss, Hound and Hind, Christ