Commentary for Riddle 40

I hope that you’ve all enjoyed reading the marathon of a poem that is Riddle 40. It reaches a grand total of 109 lines before a missing manuscript page deprives us of its no doubt beauteous ending. And, indeed, Riddle 40 is a work of beauty. Where else do you hear seamlessly poetic phrasing like: “I am fouler than this dark fen that stinks nastily here with its filth” (lines 31-2), or “I am more vile than this foul wood or this sea-weed that lies cast up here” (lines 48-9), or “the son of dung is speedier of step, that which we call in words ‘weevil’” (lines 72-3)? This is truly a poem after my own heart.

Admittedly, there are pretty images in here too. In fact, that’s kind of the point: the riddle puts forward a list of paradoxes as if to ask what can be both all the goods things and all the bad things. That’s why the poem reminds me of a combination of “All Things Bright and Beautiful” and the Monty Python spoof song “All Things Dull and Ugly.” Because, of course, this is a creation-riddle. What makes me so sure? Riddle 40 is one of those occasional Old English riddles with a known Latin original. In this case, the final text in Aldhelm’s riddle collection: Enigma 100, De creatura (on creation). And so we have, creatura, gesceaft (in Old English), creation, the world, nature – whatever you want to call it – depicted as the biggest riddle of all.

Now when it comes to the relationship between the Old English and its Latin source, you’re going to have to bear with me. As you might have guessed, like Riddle 40, the Latin original is also pretty frickin’ long. So, I’m not going to quote it in full. But I will say that the first 81 lines of the Old English poem stick fairly closely to the Latin source. After that, the poet (or perhaps another poet?) goes off book a bit (this starts, as you may have noticed, with the wholesale repetition of lines 50-1 at 82-3).

But even when the poem is fairly faithful to its source, there’s a fair bit of room for improvising. My favourites relate to strange creatures. Because, let’s face it, who doesn’t like a made-up bird, an old giant or a gender-bending piggy?

Let’s start with the bird. Lines 66-9 of the Old English riddle read: Ic mæg fromlicor fleogan þonne pernex / oþþe earn oþþe hafoc æfre meahte; nis zefferus, se swifta wind, / þæt swa fromlice mæg feran æghwær (I can fly faster than a pernex or an eagle or a hawk ever might; there is no zephyr, that swift wind, that can journey anywhere faster). Not familiar with the pernex? That’s because it doesn’t exist. The translator appears to have gotten a tad confused when translating the Latin lines 35-6: Plus pernix aquilis, Zephiri velocior alis, / Necnon accipiter properantior (Glorie, vol. 133, page 533) (faster than eagles, quicker than the wings of the Zephyr, nor [is] the hawk speedier). As Janie Steen notes (page 103), it’s possible that the poet confused pernix (swift) with perdix (partridge)…although the partridge is not the speediest of birds…


Photo (by Marek Szczepanek) from the Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

You want more strange creatures? How’s about that old, hungry þyrs (giant) in lines 62-3? This famished fella is a translation of the Cyclopes (plural of Cyclops!) that appear at line 33 of the Latin version. It’s a bit strange that the poet chose to paraphrase here, when other classical references are left in (Vulcan and Zephyrus, for example). Maybe there was no good substitute for them, while hungry, hungry giants have a nice, long tradition in the world of Germanic myth.


Arthur Rackham’s illustration of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen from the Wikimedia Commons.

Hmm…what else is odd about Riddle 40? I suppose my favourite change is made to the pig that comes right at the end of the Old English poem. In Riddle 40, we have a single amæsted swin, / bearg bellende, þe on bocwuda, / won wrotende wynnum lifde (lines 105b-8) (fattened swine, a swarthy boar, who lived joyfully bellowing in a beech-wood, rooting away). In other words, a male pig enjoying his freedom and wild lifestyle. The Latin version, on the other hand, shows us a very different critter:

Pinguior, en, multo scrofarum axungia glisco,

Glandiferis iterum referunt dum corpora fagis

Atque saginata laetantur carne subulci (Glorie, vol. 133, page 535, lines 48-50).

(See, I grow far fatter than the grease of sows, as they carry 
their bodies back again from the acorn-bearing beech trees, and the swineherds rejoice at the fattened flesh).

The Latin pig is female and fat because she’s a food animal. So, joyous, romping dude-pig on the one hand, and domesticated female who’s destined to be eaten on the other. Erin Sebo notes that the Old English translator adapts this image and removes the only other reference to food in the Latin poem, arguing that the Old English poet is more interested in awe-inspiring creation than tense hierarchies of creator/created (and in this case, human/nonhuman).

This isn’t the only time that the Old English poet intentionally changes the tone/meaning of the Latin source. We also end up with a fenyce (fen-frog) at line 71a, when the Latin has a testudo tarda palustris (line 37) (slow swamp-turtle). But more significant, perhaps, is the reference to bee-bread in lines 58-9: Ic eom on goman gena swetra / þonne þu beobread blende mid hunige (I am yet sweeter in the mouth than when you blend bee-bread with honey). In the Latin version, we have: Dulcior in palato quam lenti nectaris haustus (Glorie, vol. 133, page 533, line 31) (Sweeter on the palate than a draught of smooth nectar). As Patrick Murphy notes (pages 155-6), the wording of Riddle 40 implies that the translator was familiar with Psalm 18.11: Desiderabilia super aurum et lapidem pretiosum multum; et dulciora super mel et favum (More to be desired than gold and many precious stones: and sweeter than honey and the honeycomb) (from Douay-Rheims). “Bee-bread” is honeycomb, as Latin/Old English glosses tell us. But it’s also a pretty awesome compound in and of itself. Remember that next time you order yourself up a double-scoop of honeycomb ice cream.

Wait…did someone just say ice cream? Sorry to leave you there without a proper conclusion, but…uh…ice cream.

I’m off.


References and Suggested Reading:

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

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

O’Brien O’Keeffe, Katherine. “Exeter Riddle 40: The Art of an Old English Translator.” Proceedings of the Patristic, Medieval and Renaissance Conference, vol. 5 (1983 for 1980), pages 107-17.

O’Brien O’Keeffe, Katherine. “The Text of Aldhelm’s Enigma no. c in Oxford, Bodleian Library, Rawlinson C.697 and Exeter Riddle 40.” Anglo-Saxon England, vol. 14 (1985), pages 61-73.

Sebo, Erin. “The Creation Riddle and Anglo-Saxon Cosmology. In The Anglo-Saxons: The World Through Their Eyes. Edited by Gale R. Owen-Crocker and Brian W. Schneider. Oxford: Archeaopress, 2014, pages 149-56.

Steen, Janie. Verse and Virtuosity: The Adaptation of Latin Rhetoric in Old English Poetry. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.

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Riddle 40 (or 38)

This riddle is super-duper long! You’ll understand why when you get to the solution…


Ece is se scyppend,      se þas eorþan nu

wreðstuþum wealdeð      ond þas world healdeð.

Rice is se reccend     ond on ryht cyning

ealra anwalda,      eorþan ond heofones,

5     healdeð ond wealdeð,      swa he ymb þas utan hweorfeð.

He mec wrætlice      worhte æt frymþe,

þa he þisne ymbhwyrft     ærest sette,

heht mec wæccende     wunian longe,

þæt ic ne slepe      siþþan æfre,

10     ond mec semninga     slæp ofergongeþ,

beoð eagan min     ofestum betyned.

Þisne middangeard     meahtig dryhten

mid his onwalde     æghwær styreð;

swa ic mid waldendes      worde ealne

15     þisne ymbhwyrft      utan ymbclyppe.

Ic eom to þon bleað,     þæt mec bealdlice mæg

gearu gongende      grima abregan,

ond eofore eom     æghwær cenra,

þonne he gebolgen     bidsteal giefeð;

20     ne mæg mec oferswiþan     segnberendra

ænig ofer eorþan,      nymþe se ana god

se þisne hean heofon     healdeþ ond wealdeþ.

Ic eom on stence      strengre micle

þonne ricels      oþþe rose sy,

25     [a half-line is missing here] on eorþan tyrf

wynlic weaxeð;     ic eom wræstre þonne heo.

Þeah þe lilie sy     leof moncynne,

beorht on blostman,     ic eom betre þonne heo;

swylce ic nardes stenc     nyde oferswiþe

30     mid minre swetnesse      symle æghwær,

ond ic fulre eom     þonne þis fen swearte

þæt her yfle      adelan stinceð.

Eal ic under heofones      hwearfte recce,

swa me leof fæder     lærde æt frymþe,

35     þæt ic þa mid ryhte      reccan moste

þicce ond þynne;     þinga gehwylces

onlicnesse     æghwær healde.

Hyrre ic eom heofone,      hateþ mec heahcyning

his deagol þing     dyre bihealdan;

40     eac ic under eorþan      eal sceawige

wom wraðscrafu      wraþra gæsta.

Ic eom micle yldra     þonne ymbhwyrft þes

oþþe þes middangeard     meahte geweorþan,

ond ic giestron wæs     geong acenned

45     mære to monnum     þurh minre modor hrif.

Ic eom fægerre     frætwum goldes,

þeah hit mon awerge     wirum utan;

ic eom wyrslicre      þonne þes wudu fula

oððe þis waroð     þe her aworpen ligeð.

50     Ic eorþan eom     æghwær brædre,

ond widgielra      þonne þes wong grena;

folm mec mæg bifon      ond fingras þry

utan eaþe     ealle ymbclyppan.

Heardra ic eom ond caldra      þonne se hearda forst,

55     hrim heorugrimma,     þonne he to hrusan cymeð;

ic eom Ulcanus     up irnendan

leohtan leoman     lege hatra.

Ic eom on goman      gena swetra

þonne þu beobread      blende mid hunige;

60     swylce ic eom wraþre     þonne wermod sy,

þe her on hyrstum      heasewe stondeþ.

Ic mesan mæg     meahtelicor

ond efnetan      ealdum þyrse,

ond ic gesælig mæg     symle lifgan

65     þeah ic ætes ne sy     æfre to feore.

Ic mæg fromlicor     fleogan þonne pernex

oþþe earn oþþe hafoc     æfre meahte;

nis zefferus,     se swifta wind,

þæt swa fromlice mæg      feran æghwær;

70     me is snægl swiftra,      snelra regnwyrm

ond fenyce     fore hreþre;

is þæs gores sunu     gonge hrædra,

þone we wifel      wordum nemnað.

Hefigere ic eom micle      þonne se hara stan

75     oþþe unlytel     leades clympre,

leohtre ic eom micle      þonne þes lytla wyrm

þe her on flode gæð      fotum dryge.

Flinte ic eom heardre     þe þis fyr drifeþ

of þissum strongan      style heardan,

80     hnescre ic eom micle     halsrefeþre,

seo her on winde      wæweð on lyfte.

Ic eorþan eom      æghwær brædre

ond widgelra     þonne þes wong grena;

ic uttor eaþe      eal ymbwinde,

85     wrætlice gewefen     wundorcræfte.

Nis under me      ænig oþer

wiht waldendre     on worldlife;

ic eom ufor      ealra gesceafta,

þara þe worhte      waldend user,

90     se mec ana mæg      ecan meahtum,

geþeon þrymme,     þæt ic onþunian ne sceal.

Mara ic eom ond strengra      þonne se micla hwæl,

se þe garsecges      grund bihealdeð

sweartan syne;      ic eom swiþre þonne he,

95     swylce ic eom on mægene     minum læsse

þonne se hondwyrm,      se þe hæleþa bearn,

secgas searoþoncle,      seaxe delfað.

Nu hafu ic in heafde      hwite loccas

wræste gewundne,      ac ic eom wide calu;

100     ne ic breaga ne bruna     brucan moste,

ac mec bescyrede      scyppend eallum;

nu me wrætlice      weaxað on heafde

þæt me on gescyldrum     scinan motan

ful wrætlice      wundne loccas.

105   Mara ic eom ond fættra      þonne amæsted swin,

bearg bellende,     þe on bocwuda,

won wrotende      wynnum lifde

þæt he … [a page is missing in the manuscript here at the end]


The creator is eternal, he who now controls

and holds this earth to its foundations.

The ruler is powerful and king by right,

the lone wielder of all, he holds and controls

5     earth and heaven, just as he encompasses about these things.

He wondrously created me in the beginning,

when he first built this world,

commanded me to remain watching for a long time,

so that I should not sleep ever after,

10     and sleep comes upon me suddenly,

my eyes are quickly shut.

The mighty lord controls in every respect

this middle-earth with his power;

just as I by the word of my leader

15     entirely enclose this globe.

I am so timid that a spectre quickly

travelling can frighten me fully,

and I am everywhere bolder

than a boar when he, enraged, makes a stand;

20     no standard-bearer in the world

can overpower me, except the one God

who holds and controls this high heaven.

I am in scent much stronger

than incense or rose are,

25     [a half-line is missing here] in the turf of the earth

agreeably grows; I am more delicate than she.

Although the lily is beloved to humankind,

bright in blossom, I am better than she;

likewise I necessarily overpower the nard’s scent

30     with my sweetness everywhere at all times,

and I am fouler than this dark fen

that stinks nastily here with its filth.

I rule all under the circuit of heaven,

just as the beloved father taught me in the beginning,

35     so that I might rule by right

the thick and thin; I held the likeness

everywhere of everything.

Higher I am than heaven, the high-king calls commands me

secretly to behold his mysterious nature;

40     I also see all the impure, foul dens

of evil spirits under the earth.

I am much older than this world

or this middle-earth might become,

and I was born young yesterday

45     famous among humans through my mother’s womb.

I am fairer than treasure of gold,

though it be covered all over with wires;

I am more vile than this foul wood

or this sea-weed that lies cast up here.

50     I am broader everywhere than the earth,

and wider than this green plain;

a hand can seize me and three fingers

easily enclose me entirely.

I am harder and colder than the hard frost

55     the sword-grim rime, when it goes to the ground;

I am hotter than the fire of bright light

of Vulcan moving quickly on high.

I am yet sweeter in the mouth

than when you blend bee-bread with honey;

60     likewise I am harsher than wormwood is,

which stands here grey in the wood.

I can feast more mightily

and eat as much as an old giant,

and I can live happily forever

65     although I see no food ever again.

I can fly faster than a pernex

or an eagle or a hawk ever might;

there is no zephyr, that swift wind,

that can journey anywhere faster;

70     a snail is swifter than me, an earth-worm quicker

and the fen-frog journeys faster;

the son of dung is speedier of step,

that which we call in words ‘weevil’.

I am much heavier than the grey stone

75     or an not-little lump of lead,

I am much lighter than this little insect

that walks here on the water with dry feet.

I am harder than the flint that forces this fire

from this strong, hard steel,

80     I am much softer than the downy-feather,

that blows about here in the air on the breeze.

I am broader everywhere than the earth

and wider than this green plain;

I easily encircle everything,

85     miraculously woven with wondrous skill.

There is no other creature under me

more powerful in this worldly life;

I am above all created things,

those that our ruler wrought,

90     he alone can increase my might,

subdue my strength, so that I do not swell up.

I am bigger and stronger than the great whale,

that beholds the bottom of the sea

with its dark countenance; I am stronger than he,

95     likewise I am less in my strength

than the hand-worm, which the children of warriors,

clever-minded men, dig out with a knife.

I do not have light locks on my head,

delicately wound, but I am bare far and wide;

100     nor might I enjoy eyelids nor eyebrows,

but the creator deprived me of all;

now wondrously wound locks

grow on my head, so that they might shine

on my shoulders most wondrously,

105     I am bigger and fatter than a fattened swine,

a swarthy boar, who lived joyfully

bellowing in a beech-wood, rooting away,

so that he … [a page is missing in the manuscript here at the end]


Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the solution: Creation

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Response to Riddle 39

Didn’t I say at the end of my last post that Riddle 39 is one of the hardest to solve? Well, it’s because of the riddle’s tricksy-ness that The Riddle Ages can now offer you a special, extra post with another option for solving this bad boy.

Our response post comes to us from Bob DiNapoli, a medievalist who has lectured on Old and Middle English texts at universities in North America, England and Australia. He’s currently working on a translation/commentary of Beowulf and, as the founder/director of The Melbourne Literature Seminars, he offers courses for the public on all manner of medieval and literary things.

Righto, take it away, Bob!:


The opening lines of Riddle 39 make claims for its “creature” (wiht) that are both imposing and maddeningly vague:

Gewritu secgað    þæt seo wiht sy

mid moncynne     miclum tidum

sweotol ond gesyne.   Sundorcræft hafað

maram micle,   þonne hit men witen.

Heo wile gesecan   sundor æghwylcne

feorhberendra,     gewiteð eft feran on weg.

Ne bið hio næfre     niht þær oþre,

ac hio sceal wideferh   wreccan laste

hamleas hweorfan;   no þy heanre biþ. (lines 1-9)

(Writings say this creature is obvious, many times seen among the race of men. A peculiar power it wields, far greater than people comprehend. It will seek out each and every living thing, then departs on its way, never standing still from night to night, but without a home it must wander far and wide along the exile’s path, yet none the more wretched for that.)


Did I mention contradictory? This critter is an exile, but it’s not wretched – unlike every other exile in Old English literature (ask The Wanderer). Its power is uncanny, and it gets around, as we know from “writings” or “scripture” (gewritu). Much of the rest of the riddle seems to tell us what this being is not: it has no limbs and no face, no soul nor spirit. It resides nowhere: endlessly restless on earth, it touches neither heaven nor hell. In the Middle Ages that’s tantamount to saying it lives nowhere.

Once again the riddle references gewritu:

                                    gewritu secgað

            þæt seo sy earmost     ealra wihta,

            þara þe æfter gecyndum     cenned wære. (lines 13b-15)

(writings say that it is the most disadvantaged creature of all that were ever brought forth according to kind.)


Note how the idea of textual literacy seems to float somewhere above this wiht, characterizing it and assessing it for us with unquestioned authority, and with no little condescension: “most disadvantaged,” indeed! That will turn out to be part of the joke, by the time we get to the end.

“Yet,” the riddle continues from line 21,

ac hio sceal wideferh     wuldorcyninges

larum lifgan.   Long is to secganne

hu hyre ealdorgesceaft     æfter gongeð —

woh wyrda gesceapu;     þæt is wrætlic þing

to gesecganne. (lines 21-5a)

(in the teaching of the glory-King it lives forever. It would take long to tell how its life is appointed to go thereafter – the twisting courses of its appointed fate; that is a complex matter to relate.)


“The teaching of the glory-King” could refer only to the teachings of Christ in the gospels, where this creature “lives forever.” Remember that Christ taught his disciples and the crowds who followed him orally: like Plato’s Socrates, he left the scribbling of his words (gewritu again) to others. This is one of the riddle’s key tell-tales, for, along with Craig Williamson, I reckon its solution has got to be “the spoken word.” Greenfield’s objection to this solution is not supported by the poem’s reference to the wiht not speaking with mouth to men. “Spoken” words don’t speak. They are spoken. Humans actually “speak” them. It’s a bit of grammatico-syntactic jiggery-pokery, what I call “riddlic camouflage” in my article, but that’s what the riddles often traffic in, no?

Also, remember that the Old English poetry we know from its many manuscript survivals represents a textualised variant of an originally oral tradition. Most Anglo-Saxon poets seem consciously or subliminally aware of their native literature’s pre-textual history. Along comes Christianity in 597, with all its monks, monasteries and scriptoria in tow, and suddenly the scop’s oral authority finds itself trumped by the new culture’s textual authority.

This riddle celebrates the traditional spoken word’s deft evasion of the monolithic claims to authority staked by the textual culture administered by the monks. Look at its cheeky stashing of its solution in plain view where it says the creature’s later history would be long to gesecganne (“to say” or “to speak”). Does this hint that Christ’s spoken teachings made their way into the written record of the gospels by overly complex or devious routes? Might Christ’s sayings in the written gospels then somehow differ from what he actually said? Perhaps not literally, but the issue’s left dangling uneasily.

Much more jolly is this riddle’s conclusion, which assures us that

                                 Soð is æghwylc

þara þe ymb þas wiht     wordum becneð. (lines 25b-6)

(True is anything that signifies about this creature in words.)


In other words, anything we might say in response to this riddle, whose answer is “the spoken word,” constitutes a correct answer: “sword” or “Jane Austen” or “chicken tikka masala” would all constitute satisfactory answers. Bear in mind that the culture of textual authority that dominated the monastic Christianity of Anglo-Saxon times fostered a certain anxiety: in the reading and interpretation of scripture, there was a fairly restricted range of correct responses to authoritative text and a literal infinity of incorrect ones. And getting it right mattered. This riddle represents a kind of holiday from that anxious culture of textual authority.

Try it. You can’t go wrong!


[One last note from The Riddle Ages: Bob reckons the gendered portrayal of the Spoken Word stems from the grammatically feminine term wiht. This is possible, but some riddles do use masculine pronouns alongside wiht and I think we should at least entertain the possibility that the solution is supposed to be a grammatically feminine one. Williamson’s proposed solution in Old English – word – is neuter, but something like the equally common term spræc (speech) would do away with the issue of why the speaker is female, because it is in fact grammatically feminine.]


References and Suggested Reading

DiNapoli, Robert. “In the Kingdom of the Blind, the One-Eyed Man is a Seller of Garlic: Depth-Perception and the Poet’s Perspective in the Exeter Book Riddles.” English Studies, vol. 81 (2000), pages 422-55.

Greenfield, Stanley B. “Old English Riddle 39 Clear and Visible.” Anglia, vol. 98 (1980), pages 95-100.


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Commentary for Riddle 39

I can’t help it, guys, I keep thinking about Harry Potter. “But you’re a grown-up academic, Megan! Whatcha doin’ thinking about children’s books?” I hear you saying. To which, I reply, respectfully of course, that people from all walks of life can (and should) read Harry Potter, and it’s totally steeped in medieval references, and, anyway, who do you think you are questioning my life-choices and acting all hoity-toity?

But, imagined attacks based on what I keep my bookshelf aside, I keep thinking about Harry Potter because of one of the proposed solutions to this riddle: Death (see Erhardt-Siebold). In fairness, interpreting this riddle as Death also has me thinking about Chaucer, but that’s sort of encouraged in my line of work. Not familiar with either of those references? Allow me to expand.

Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale tells the story of three greedy, boastful chaps who set out to defeat Death, only to be tricked by an old man into killing each other. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows picks up on this personification of Death and the folktale motif of three brothers trying to outwit him, and includes it in a story within the story (meta, right?). And, yes, I know that Riddle 39 doesn’t have three dudes in it, but, according to some, it most certainly does have a personified Death character who – neither properly alive nor dead – wanders in exile and seeks out each and every mortal. I know what you’re thinking: grim reaper, much?

Riddle 39 Grim Reaper kosmolaut

Photo by kosmolaut, subject to a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.


But the Old English depiction is less scary, and more, well…wistful…I suppose. The figure is the earmost ealra wihta (saddest/poorest of all creatures) (line 14), but also a comfort (frofre) (line 19b) to people (the poem says bearnum, “children,” but this is a fairly common way of speaking about all human beings). Marie Nelson points out that the obsession with the lives of saints and martyrs in the medieval period may have meant that some viewed death in a fairly positive light (see page 430, footnote 22).

Of course, this Death figure is also depicted as female in Riddle 39. Notably, the Old English term deað is NOT grammatically feminine, which means – if we accept this solution – we’re dealing with a deliberate choice on the part of the poet. There are other words for “death” that are feminine, but these tend to be quite specific (like cwalu, meaning “violent death”) or fairly rare (like the various “travelling forth” terms, forþferednes / forþfering / forþgeleoredness / forþfor, which typically appear as translations or glosses of Latin terms).

But Death is not the only solution. In fact, if we push Death to one side (I HAVE DEFEATED DEATH! KNEEL BEFORE ME, MORTALS!), we find quite a few other contenders in our path. Suggested in the past, but not greatly taken up, are Day, Moon and Time. Despite those being unpopular, the closely related Cloud has attracted a following. The Old English term wolcen, notably, is a feminine one. And two separate chaps in the 1970s pointed out the appropriateness of the riddle-subject’s wandering, suspension between heaven and earth, lack of body, and visibility, in relation to this solution (see Kennedy and Meyvaert).

Riddle 39 Castle and CloudsPhoto of clouds courtesy of yours truly. The castle is an added bonus.


Paul Meyvaert also suggested that Riddle 39 derives from Aldhelm’s Anglo-Latin Enigma 3, De nube (on the cloud):

 Versicolor fugiens caelum terramque relinquo,

Non tellure locus mihi, non in parte polorum est:

Exilium nullus modo tam crudele ueretur;

Sed madidis mundum faciam frondescere guttis.

(Glorie, vol. 133, pages 384-5)

(With changing colours, I, fleeing, abandon sky and land, there is no place for me on the earth, nor in the region of the heavens: no one else fears so cruel an exile; but with wet drops I make the world flourish.)

Of course, as Stanley B. Greenfield points out, this Latin riddle has a few clues that the Old English one doesn’t, namely the reference to rain and the cloud’s changing of colour (see pages 97-8). The Old English riddle also has a number of clues that separate it from Enigma 3, including the fact that the riddle-subject seeks people out individually (lines 5-6) and doesn’t return a second night (line 7). This reference to niht is key – do clouds tend to be sweotol ond gesyne (plain and perceivable) (line 3a) at night?

Not only does Greenfield aim to do away with Cloud as a solution, he also deftly defeats Craig Williamson’s idea of Speech (page 259), pointing out that line 12’s reference to not having a mouth and not speaking with people (ne muð hafað, ne wiþ monnum spræc) roundly contradicts that particular solution (Greenfield, page 98).

Greenfield’s own suggestion is Dream, which is quite a tidy solution and fits most of the riddle’s clues. He has lots of clever things to say about dreams in biblical scripture, about Old English glosses of Latin hymns that have similar exilic imagery and about the cryptic image in line 24a, woh wyrda gesceapu (the twisted shapes of events), which he takes as a reference to how difficult it is to interpret dreams (see pages 99-100).

Riddle 39 Dreamcatcher WiderbergIt’s really hard to find a picture of a dream on the internet! Here, have a dreamcatcher instead. Modified photo by Lisa Widerberg, subject to a CC BY 2.0 license.


The solution Dream is backed by a number of critics who aim to refine Greenfield’s suggestion, including Eric G. Stanley and Antonina Harbus. Harbus in particular points out the visual emphasis of the poem, and says this riddle depicts a Revelatory Dream. This is important, given that the riddle-subject says she doesn’t speak to people in line 12. A dream vision, of course, doesn’t have to include speech – the images do the talking (metaphorically-speaking).

I know I spent a long time dwelling on Death at the beginning of this post, but between the two of them, Greenfield and Harbus make a pretty damn good case for Dream based on particular keywords – like recene (at once) (line 28b), near homophone of recenes (interpretation) – and references to other Old English accounts of “dreams as roaming, noisy bearers of information” (Harbus, page 144).

What’s the Old English word for “dream,” then? Well, swefn, of course…which is a neuter noun. So, now we’re back to wondering about grammatical versus natural gender. Should we be using a far less common Old English term that is feminine, like mæting (dream)? Or did the poet make the Dream figure female on purpose? Should we be looking to other texts that depict personified women bringing visions to individuals, like, say, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy (which we know was very popular, and which was translated into Old English prose and verse)? Is this Dream figure linked to Lady Wisdom, who would go on to lead a very full literary life in the later Middle Ages (see Schaus, page 840)?

So many questions…it’s not hard to see why this riddle has been considered “one of the finest of the Old English riddle collection” (Erhardt-Siebold, page 915). It’s also, I think, one of the hardest to solve. So, I’ll leave the final word on the matter up to you lot. I’ve got a sudden hankering to listen to the Everly Brothers.


References and Suggested Reading

Erhardt-Siebold, Erika von. “Old English Riddle No. 39: Creature Death.” Publications of the Modern Language Association, vol. 61 (1946), pages 910-15.

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

Greenfield, Stanley B. “Old English Riddle 39 Clear and Visible.” Anglia, vol. 98 (1980), pages 95-100.

Harbus, Antonina. “Exeter Book Riddle 39 Reconsidered.” Studia Neophilologica, vol. 70 (1998), pages 139-48.

Kennedy, Christopher B. “Old English Riddle No. 39.” English Language Notes, vol. 13 (1975), pages 81-85.

Meyvaert, Paul. “The Solution to Old English Riddle 39.” Speculum, vol. 51 (1976), pages 195-201.

Nelson, Marie. “The Rhetoric of the Exeter Book Riddles.” Speculum, vol. 49 (1974), pages 421-40.

Schaus, Margaret, ed. Women and Gender in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Stanley, Eric G. “Stanley B. Greenfield’s Solution of Riddle (ASPR) 39: ‘Dream’.” Notes and Queries, vol. 236 (1991), pages 148-9.

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


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Riddle 39 (or 37)

Gewritu secgað      þæt seo wiht sy

mid moncynne     miclum tidum

sweotol ond gesyne.      Sundorcræft hafað

maran micle,      þonne hit men witen.

5     Heo wile gesecan      sundor æghwylcne

feorhberendra,      gewiteð eft feran on weg.

Ne bið hio næfre      niht þær oþre,

ac hio sceal wideferh      wreccan laste

hamleas hweorfan;     no þy heanre biþ.

10     Ne hafað hio fot ne folme,      ne æfre foldan hran,

ne eagena     ægþer twega,

ne muð hafaþ,      ne wiþ monnum spræc,

ne gewit hafað,      ac gewritu secgað

þæt seo sy earmost      ealra wihta,

15     þara þe æfter gecyndum     cenned wære.

Ne hafað hio sawle ne feorh,     ac hio siþas sceal

geond þas wundorworuld     wide dreogan.

Ne hafaþ hio blod ne ban,      hwæþre bearnum wearð

geond þisne middangeard     mongum to frofre.

20     Næfre hio heofonum hran,     ne to helle mot,

ac hio sceal wideferh      wuldorcyninges

larum lifgan.      Long is to secganne

hu hyre ealdorgesceaft      æfter gongeð,

woh wyrda gesceapu;      þæt is wrætlic þing

25     to gesecganne.      Soð is æghwylc

þara þe ymb þas wiht      wordum becneð;

ne hafað heo ænig lim,      leofaþ efne seþeah.

Gif þu mæge reselan     recene gesecgan

soþum wordum,      saga hwæt hio hatte.


Writings say that the creature is

among humankind much of the time

plain and perceivable. She has a special skill

much greater, when people know it.

5     She will seek specially every one

of life-bearers, departs again to travel away.

She is never there a second night,

but she must roam the wretched path

homeless for a long time; she is not humbled by that.

10     She does not have a foot nor hand, she has not ever touched the earth,

nor does she have either of two eyes,

nor a mouth, nor speaks with humans,

nor has a mind, but writings say

that she is the saddest of all creatures,

15     of those who were born naturally.

She does not have a soul nor life, but she must endure

journeys widely throughout this wonder-world.

She does not have blood nor bone, but is a comfort

for many children throughout this middle-earth.

20     She has never touched heaven, nor may she [go] to hell,

but she must for a long time live in the teachings

of the glory-king. It is long to tell

how her life-condition goes afterwards,

the twisted shapes of events; that is a wondrous thing

25     to say. Everything is true

of that which is indicated with words about this creature;

she does not have any limbs, yet lives even so.

If you may say the solution straightaway

with true words, say what she is called.


Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Dream, Death, Cloud, Speech, Faith, Day, Moon, Time, Comet


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Commentary for Riddle 38

So, what am I gonna say about Riddle 38, eh? That’s the question, my friends. That is the question.

I suppose I could talk about how this riddle seems to depict a young ox or bullock, i.e. a castrated bull. This makes for a rather ironic use of the lovely Old English compound wæpned-cynn, which literally means “weaponed kind” and metaphorically means “dudes” (or maybe “the male sex”…depends on whether you’re translating for the internet or for an essay/exam/any-academic-enterprise-in-which-the-word-dude-is-unfortunately-a-no-go).

Riddle 38 isn’t the only Old English text to use the term wæpned-cynn or the related compounds wæpned-bearn/-cild (male child), wæpned-had (male sex), wæpned-hand/-healf (male side/line), wæpned-man (male person). In fact, these compounds are fairly common in prose and appear in several poetic texts, including Beowulf, Exodus and Genesis A. The last of these poems also includes the first element of the compound on its own in the formula wif and wæpned (women and men) (lines 195a and 2746a).

Distinguishing men by the weapons they carried seems to have roots in Germanic tradition. In fact, a Thuringian law-code that survives in a tenth-century manuscript refers to the male line as lancea (spear) and the female line as fusus (spindle) (von Schwerin, page 61, line 25). The ox of Riddle 38 is obviously not carrying a spear or sword (because hooves!), but horns and antlers are characterized as weapony in other riddles (highlight here to see which #spoilers: Riddles 14, 88 and 93). Of course, that’s not to say that there isn’t another sort of weapon in this riddle. The Old English term wæpen was a euphemism for a particular part of the male anatomy, if you know what I mean (penis…what I mean is obviously penis…you may all stop giggling now). This is where I read the irony in Riddle 38. The poem refers to an ox – although obviously still a male creature with a penis, the castrated beast of burden is lacking in other rather obvious features of the male body (testicles…now I’m referring to testicles…seriously, STOP laughing). Is this riddle making fun, perchance? Possibly. Although I should also note that the reference to ploughing in this poem is problematic, as I’ll discuss below. So, maybe we’re wrong to assume this fella is a castrated ox…maybe he’s just a run of the mill, fully intact young bull.

I hope I haven’t put you all to sleep by musing about cattle genitalia. If not, let’s move on to some other, slightly less physical compounds: geoguðmyrþe in line 2a and ferðfriþende in line 3a. Geoguðmyrþe means something like “youthful joy,” which goes quite nicely with the fantastic image in my head of a frolicking calf following his mum around a field. This is what the calf in my head looks like:


FLUFFY! Photo (by Aconcagua) from the Wikimedia Commons.

The manuscript actually reads geoguð myrwe, but most scholars accept the change to geoguðmyrþe, since myrwe presents all manner of linguistic problems, which I promise not to bore you with (if you want to know more, see Williamson, page 256). As for ferðfriþende, this compound means “life-saving,” and it’s a bit unclear what it refers to (i.e. the mother cow – which is how I read it – or the four springs). In fact, lines 2b-4 are quite tricksy in general and have been translated all sorts of different ways (see Williamson, pp. 256-7).

I should also mention the weird shift in grammatical gender (grammar, wonderful grammar!) that comes at the end of the riddle. Line 6 begins with what is clearly the feminine form of the third-person pronoun (i.e. Modern English “she/he/it”…here “she” = hio), while line 7 includes the masculine form of the third-person pronoun (he). The first, feminine instance may refer back to the grammatical gender of seo wiht (the creature) and the second, masculine instance may refer to the natural gender of the ox/bull. Why shift, though? Most scholars/translators just elide the shift entirely and translate with “he” or “it,” but I suppose it’s possible that the “she” is the mother cow, who will go on to become a beast of burden, while the “he” is the calf, who will go on to become leather. Debby Banham and Rosamond Faith have recently pointed out that female cattle may have also played a role in ploughing, particularly in small-scale agriculture (page 108). So, we can’t make the claim that only an ox would be appropriately placed to “break the hills.”

Still, this explanation may be reaching slightly when we take the clunkiness of the final lines into account. Because the real problem with Riddle 38 is that the beginning and the end kinda jar. We start off with a nice little pastoral poem, which seems poised to build into one of those riddles that contrasts the happy freedom of youth with the sad incarceration of age. There are unique compounds and careful metrics. And then, where we’d expect a turn in the poem, we get a quick formulaic ending in a verse style that’s full of strange metrical irregularities (Williamson, page 257). This has led some scholars to suggest that the end of the poem may have actually been prose, which was tacked on to the beginning of a poem for some reason (Williamson, pages 257-8).

In fact, you may remember the formulaic ending from Riddle 12 and its commentary. Lines 13b-15 of that riddle read:

                         Saga hwæt ic hatte,

þe ic lifgende      lond reafige

ond æfter deaþe     dryhtum þeowige.

(Say what I am called, I who living ravage the land and after death serve the masses.)

Similar sentiment, eh? Even closer to Riddle 38 is the Latin prose riddle of pseudo-Bede: Vidi filium inter quatuor fons nutritum: si uiuus fuit, disrupit montes; si mortuus fuit, alligauit uiuos (Bayless and Lapidge, page 144, no. 144) (I saw a son raised among four springs: if he was living, he shattered mountains; if he was dead, he fettered the living). Springs and shattering mountains and fetters! We know that these elements were travelling around in a bundle because we also have similar depictions of the living/dead bovine binary in Aldhelm’s Latin Enigma 83, De iuvenco and the Lorsch riddle, Enigma 11, De tauro.

But, actually, the closest Latin enigma to Riddle 38 is from the collection of the Anglo-Saxon Eusebius. His Enigma 37, De vitulo goes a little something like this:

Post genitrix me quam peperit mea saepe solesco

Inter ab uno fonte riuos bis bibere binos

Progredientes; et si uixero, rumpere colles

Incipiam; uiuos moriens aut alligo multos. (Glorie, vol. 133, page 247)

(After my mother bore me, I often used to go forth to drink among two by two [i.e. four] streams from one source; and if I live, I will begin to break the hills; or dying I bind many of the living.)

Scholars like to comment that these two poems are very closely related (Bitterli, pages 28-9), and they most certainly seem to be. But I’d also like to point out that Eusebius has two other bovine riddles in his collection: Enigma 12, De bove and 13, De vacca. The first of these is all about the toil of ploughing, while the second is about the nourishing nature of the cow. De vacca reads:

Sunt pecudes multae mihi, quas nutrire solebam;

Meque premente fame non lacteque carneue uescor,

Cumque cibis aliis et pascor aquis alienis;

Ex me multi uiuunt, ex me et flumina currunt. (Glorie, vol. 133, page 223)

(There are many creatures for me, which I used to nourish; but with hunger oppressing me I do not consume milk or meat, since I feed on other foods and different drinks; many live from me, and from me streams flow.)

I can’t help but wonder if the emphasis on the mother as life-saver in Riddle 38 draws not only on Eusebius’ calf poem, but also his cow riddle. Either way, I think it’s time for me to moo-ve on and stop milking this post for all it’s worth.

References and Suggested Reading:

Banham, Debby, and Rosamond Faith. Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farming. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Bayless, Martha, and Michael Lapidge, eds and trans. Collectanea Pseudo-Bedae. Scriptores Latini Hiberniae 14. Dublin: School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, 1998.

Bitterli, Dieter. Say What I am Called: The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book and the Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009.

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

von Schwerin, Claudius, ed. Leges Saxonum und Lex Thuringorum. Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Fontes Iuris Germanici Antiqui. Hanover: Hahnsche Buchhandlung, 1918.

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

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Riddle 38 (or 36)

Ic þa wiht geseah     wæpnedcynnes,

geoguðmyrþe grædig;     him on gafol forlet

ferðfriþende      feower wellan

scire sceotan,     on gesceap þeotan.

5     Mon maþelade,     se þe me gesægde:

“Seo wiht, gif hio gedygeð,     duna briceð;

gif he tobirsteð,      bindeð cwice.”


I saw a creature of the weaponed kind/male sex,

greedy with youthful joy; as tribute for him

the life-saving one let four springs

shoot forth brightly, murmur to his delight.

5     Someone spoke, the one who said to me:

“That creature, if she survives, breaks the hills;

if he dies, binds the living.”


Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: (Young) Ox, Bullock

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