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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Commentary for Riddle 37

When it comes to over-the-top manly virility, the smith has got it going on (is a sentence I never thought I would write until this very moment). So it makes sense that the smith’s tools – in this case, the bellows – might be associated with a certain amount of naughtiness. If you didn’t realize that this riddle is a bit naughty (bless), then please allow me to direct you to line 2a’s swollenness, whatever is shooting out of an “eye” in line 5b, as well as all the servantile following and filling going on in between. Still don’t believe me that this poem is chock-a-block full of double entendre? Then mosey on down to the final line’s reference to the impossibly incestuous fathering of sons (not unlike Riddle 33’s mother-daughter imagery). This riddle is having fun with tools, in every sense of the word.

“Why a smith?,” you might wonder. To which I reply:


Image of Völundr (apparently) from the Wikimedia Commons.

Whoa there, put away those guns! I am joking, obviously. This particular blacksmith is far too grim for my tastes. But it does remind us that hyper-masculinity is associated with smithing, servitude and sexual acts elsewhere in the Old English corpus. I’m referring to the poem Deor (also in the Exeter Book), which mentions the nasty lengths to which Weland/Völundr the Smith will go to take revenge on the enemy who imprisoned him because of his skillful smithing: namely, the rape and impregnation of his daughter, Beadohild/Böðvildr.

The goings on of Riddle 37 may be more consensual, although with a servant involved there’s an element of power/hierarchy here too. Furthermore, violence lurks under the surface in lines 5-7’s reference to death. This death reference is quite clever, since it relates to the expiration of the bellows: it breathes out all of its air, but rather than dying it is revived again and again. It’s this particular clue that makes the solution “bellows” fairly certain (despite “wagon” also having been suggested). In fact, the same clue can be found in Symphosius’ Latin bellows-riddle, Enigma 73, Uter Follis:

Non ego continuo morior, dum spiritus exit;

Nam redit adsidue, quamvis et saepe recedit:

Et mihi nunc magna est animae, nunc nulla facultas. (Glorie, vol. 133A, page 694)

(I do not die continually, when breath leaves; for it returns regularly, although it often departs: sometimes my supply of spirit is large, sometimes not.)

The Anglo-Saxon Aldhelm also has a Latin bellows-riddle (Enigma 11, Poalum), but it doesn’t overlap nearly as nicely as Symphosius’ text does.

A further indication that we’re dealing with a bellows rather than a wagon comes in the form of line 7b’s verbal play. Blæd (breath/glory) is the first element of the compound blædbylig, which glosses the Latin follis in The Harley Latin-Old English Glossary (Oliphant F625). What does follis mean? Dun-dah-dah-dun: Bellows! I think we have a winner, folks:

Bellows_(PSF)Drawing of a fireplace hand-bellows (by Pearson Scott Foresman) from the Wikimedia Commons.

One final thing to mention before I run away to frolic with lambs and stuff vast quantities of hoarded chocolate into my face (I  wrote this post over Easter): this is not the only Old English bellows riddle. Oh no, folks, it most certainly is not. You’ll have to wait a while to hear about Riddle 87, but I assure you it is a clear relative of Riddle 37. “Children of the bellows”…now if that isn’t a good title for some Old English riddle-inspired erotic fan fic, then I don’t know what is.


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: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011, esp. pages 215-19.

Oliphant, Robert T. The Harley Latin-Old English Glossary. The Hague: Mouton, 1966.

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Riddle 37 (or 35)

Ic þa wihte geseah;     womb wæs on hindan

þriþum aþrunten.     Þegn folgade,

mægenrofa man,     ond micel hæfde

gefered þæt hit felde,     fleah þurh his eage.

5     Ne swylteð he symle,     þonne syllan sceal

innað þam oþrum,     ac him eft cymeð

bot in bosme,     blæd biþ aræred;

he sunu wyrceð,     bið him sylfa fæder.


I saw that being; its belly was in the back

greatly swollen. A servant followed it,

a mighty, strong man, and the great one had

brought forth what filled it; it flew through its eye.

5     He does not die continually, when he has to give

his insides to the other, but there comes again from him

a remedy in the breast, breath is raised up;

he makes sons, he is his own father.


Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Bellows, Wagon

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Commentary for Riddle 36

I gotta confess: I’ve never been a puzzler. This might come as a thoroughly shocking announcement from someone who spends her time wading through scholarship on Old English riddles, but it’s not the solving that I like…it’s all the other bits. So, you’ll understand when I say that writing up Riddle 36 has been tough. I mean, have you read Riddle 36? It’s a nightmare to solve. But I have learned things, and I intend to share them with you because I’m generous like that.

Soooooooooo, I’m guessing the first thing on your minds is: what, what, what is with line 5? (a reminder of what it looks like: monn h w M wiif m x l kf wf hors qxxs) Is this jumble intentional? Or did the scribe just have some sort of random hand spasm and reckon that no one would notice? A combination of the two? Maybe!

Scholarly opinion has it that line 5 was copied down by mistake. It seems to be a code for the solution that was scribbled between the lines, and some scribe or other managed to merge with the riddle itself. The code places the Old English words monn (man), wiif (woman) and hors (horse) next to a series of letter forms that conceal their Latin equivalents: homo (man), mulier (woman) and equus (horse). In order to get to these forms, we need to swap the consonants b, f, k, p and x with the vowels that precede them in the alphabet (a, e, i, o and u). We also need to account for copying errors, dropped letters and the replacing of “p” with the runic letter “wynn” (google it; they look similar). All this to say that line 5 really ought not to be in this riddle at all.

This particular cryptographic code seems to have been well known to early medieval folks. If you’re curious about puzzles like this, check out Dieter Bitterli’s book in the references below. Should you be at all like me, you may well guffaw loudly at Bitterli’s statement that “the boundaries between recreational mathematics on the one side and literary riddling on the other must have been fluid” at the time (page 68). What a shame that we don’t hear more about “recreational mathematics” these days.

Now back to the riddle in question. I say “riddle,” but of course some scholars think this is actually two separate riddles. Given that line 5 has actually been plunked down in the middle of a verse (the alliteration of lines 4 and 6 indicates that they’re meant to be one line), it’s not such a stretch to imagine that other mistakes have occurred. And the two parts of the riddle do read quite differently.

First we have a numerical, “add’em up”-style riddle, which is rounded off by a challenge to name the solution in line 8. And then we have a descriptive, “it’s sorta like this but not that”-style section with another challenge. Norman E. Eliason has argued that the adding-of-body-parts-section is reminiscent of both riddles that refer to a horse and rider and riddles that refer to a pregnant animal. This leads him to propose that lines 1-8 comprise a riddle that can be solved as “a pregnant horse with two pregnant women on its back,” while lines 9-14 make up a ship-riddle. He actually goes so far to claim “attempts to solve it as a single riddle are unsatisfactory, for the solutions proposed are so fanciful and complicated that the riddle is made to seem absurd” (pages 563-4). Because a pregnant horse carrying two pregnant women isn’t absurd at all. In fact, this poem has attracted sarcasm like no tomorrow. Craig Williamson, commenting on Eliason’s interpretation, writes: “This is a burden too heavy to bear.” HA! Get it? Too much of a burden for the horse AND too much of a burden for the interpretation. You’re terribly droll, Williamson.

I feel like that little debate deserves a picture:

Riddle 36 Pregnant Horse and Women

 Now that you’re all done appreciating my mad artist’s skillz, it’s time to accept that, even if we don’t solve the first section as a pregnancy party, it is very possible that the two sections are separate poems. Or that the second section is an elaboration on the first in a different style. Will we ever know? (prolly not…soz)

But what do we know? Well, we know that we’re dealing with the sort of imagery that crops up in other ship riddles (see Riddle 19 and Riddle 64). In these riddles, the man = the sailor, the horse = the ship and the bird = the sails. That’s why most scholars take Riddle 36 to point to a ship too. Williamson certainly agrees, and he argues that the likenesses of a hound and woman in lines 11-12 indicate figureheads on both the fore and aft. He points out that the Bayeux Tapestry includes an image of such a ship, although I couldn’t find an open access one. Here, have this single figure-headed ship pic instead:

Bayeux_horses_boatsPhoto from the Wikimedia Commons.

Incidentally, Williamson also thinks that this riddle can stand as one text, maintaining that the array of body parts in the first section refer thusly:

  • the four feet below = oars
  • the eight feet above = those of the oarsmen/travelers
  • the two wings = sails
  • the six heads and twelve eyes = those of the oarsmen/travelers and the figureheads

As you know, I’m not that into puzzles. So, as the simplest explanation of a very complicated poem (or poems), I’m inclined to agree with this interpretation. But if you don’t, feel free to rage and rail against me. Just do it in the comments section below…


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, esp. pages 68-74.

Eliason, Norman E. “Four Old English Cryptographic Riddles.” Studies in Philology, vol. 49 (1952), pages 553-65.

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

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Riddle 36 (or 34)

Ic wiht geseah     on wege feran,

seo was wrætlice     wundrum gegierwed.

Hæfde feowere     fet under wombe

ond ehtuwe

5     monn h w M wiif m x l kf wf hors qxxs

ufon on hrycge;

hæfde tu fiþru     ond twelf eagan

ond siex heafdu.     Saga hwæt hio wære.

For flodwegas;     ne wæs þæt na fugul ana,

10     ac þær wæs æghwylces     anra gelicnes

horses ond monnes,     hundes ond fugles,

ond eac wifes wlite.     Þu wast, gif þu const,

to gesecganne,     þæt we soð witan,

hu þære wihte     wise gonge.


I saw a creature travel on the way,

she was curiously adorned with wonders.

She had four feet under her belly

and eight

5     monn h w M wiif m x l kf wf hors qxxs

up on her back;

she had two wings and twelve eyes

and six heads. Say what she was.

It travelled the water-ways; nor was it only a bird,

10     but there was the likeness of every one of these:

of horse and of man, of hound and of bird,

and also the appearance of a woman. You know, if you understand

speaking, what we know [to be] the truth,

how the nature of that creature goes.


Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Ship; Man woman horse; Two men, woman, horses, dog, bird on ship; Waterfowl hunt; Pregnant horse, two pregnant women; Hunting; Sow and five piglets

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Commentary for Riddle 35 and the Leiden Riddle

Ding ding ding! It’s official, folks, we’ve reached the most popular Anglo-Saxon riddle in the world. I’m not just saying that because I’ve done research on early medieval textiles and this riddle includes pretty much ALL the Old English textile terms (k, slight exaggeration). And I’m not just saying that because scholars have been squabbling over the meaning of ONE of its half-lines for years (line 6a: “through the pressure of weights”?; “through the crowded many”?; “through the violence of blows”?; what does it mean?!). I’m saying that because this riddle exists in not one, not even two, but THREE versions!

“But wait, Megan,” I hear you saying. “You’ve been holding out on us. I distinctly remember the term BOGOFF being used in your translation post, and that means two.” And you’re not wrong. But there’s also a sneaky little Latin version – Enigma 33, De lorica (on the mail-coat) – that I neglected to mention. Let’s rectify that now:

Roscida me genuit gelido de uiscere tellus;

Non sum setigero lanarum uellere facta,

Licia nulla trahunt nec garrula fila resultant

Nec crocea seres taxunt lanugine uermes

Nec radiis carpor duro nec pectine pulsor;

Et tamen en ‘uestis’ uulgi sermone uocabor.

Spicula non uereor longis exempta faretris. (Glorie, vol. 133, page 417)

(The dewy earth brought me forth from its icy innards; I am not made from the bristly fleece of wool; no loom-leashes pull me nor do noisy threads rebound, nor do Chinese worms weave me from their yellow floss; I am not tortured by beams nor beaten by the cruel comb; yet, lo, I am called a coat in common speech. I do not fear arrows drawn from long quivers.)

This lurvely little gem appears in a late seventh-century metrical treatise, known as the Epistola ad Acircium, which the Anglo-Saxon poet Aldhelm sent to King Aldfrith of Northumbria. What’s that? Northumbria? Isn’t there a Northumbrian Old English riddle bouncing around too? OH YES THERE IS! Sorry, I’m getting carried away with the caps lock. I’ll try to calm myself down.

Dating the Northumbrian version has presented a few problems (dating always does, my dears; it always does), but it has recently been assigned to the eighth century. That would be the poem, not the manuscript in which the Leiden Riddle is copied at a later date. This manuscript also includes Latin enigmata by Symphosius and Aldhelm, so the Old English riddle isn’t terribly out of place.

The biggest differences between the poems (aside from language/dialect) are the differing final lines of Exeter Book Riddle 35, as well as the shifting of clues in both Old English versions (so the torturey image occurs after the fate-filled silkworms, rather than before, as in the Latin poem). There are also minor differences here and there, like the very fact that the silkworms are associated with wyrda (“fates,” plural) in the Exeter Book version and only uyrdi (“fate,” singular) in the Leiden Riddle. Any talk of fate in relation to textiles and scholars start to get antsy (think Greek Fates spinning/measuring/snipping your life-thread), so I feel like I should point out that there doesn’t seem to be anything fate-ish in the Latin enigma. There, the worms are associated with the silk-producing region of their origin.

An image should’ve gone here. But you trying googling “silkworms.” EURGH!

Of course, the textiley imagery in these poems has been quite popular in and of itself. The riddles are some of the only poetic texts to preserve information about daily life, so this poem often gets read alongside the list of textile implements found in Gerefa, an eleventh/twelfth-century guide for an estate manager or reeve. From this list, we learn all sorts of interesting terms, like gearnwindan (yarn-winder), amb (beater?) and sceaðele (shuttle).

Riddle 35 textiles

Here are some textiley bits from the Viking Craft Fair in York, February 2010.

But these riddles don’t actually show us a textile, do they? That’s, well, sort of the whole point. For a long time, scholars focused on the poetic paradox of a shirt that vocally negates any relationship to weaving. “I’m not woven!” it seemed to say. “Not even a little bit!” Then along came the very sensible Benjamin Weber to remind us that this shirt most definitely IS woven, just not with the materials that are used to weave textiles. He reminded us that the interlocking of metal rings to make mail-coats is referred to as “weaving” all over the place in early medieval literature.

Riddle 35 mail

Photo (by MatthiasKabel) of 2nd-century Roman replica mail armour from the Wikimedia Commons.

This is a common way of describing the making of mail in Beowulf, Elene and even Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies: Lorica vocata eo quod loris careat; solis enim circulis ferreis contexta est (The lorica is called thus because it lacks leather ties; for it is woven from entirely iron hoops) (2: XVIII.xiii.1). So, the paradox of this poem isn’t: “I’m not a woven shirt; what am I?” It’s: “I’m a shirt that’s woven, but not out of what you might think.” Does that make sense? I feel like it’s an important distinction, but then again I do like me a good bit o’ textilin’.

But you know what I like more? Sleep. So no more writey tonighty.


References and Suggested Readings:

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

Isidore of Seville, Etymologiarum sive Originum libri XX. Edited by W. M. Lindsay. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911.

Weber, Benjamin. “The Isidorian Context of Aldhelm’s “Lorica” and Exeter Riddle 35.” Neophilologus, vol. 96 (2012), pages 457-66.

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Riddle 35 (or 33) and the Leiden Riddle

It’s BOGOFF day at The Riddle Ages! For the low, low (free) price of one riddle, you get two related poems! First, take a look at Riddle 35 from the (West Saxon) Exeter Book. Then scroll down to see the Leiden Riddle, a very similar version in another Old English dialect (Northumbrian). Notice any interesting differences?


Riddle 35

Mec se wæta wong,    wundrum freorig,

of his innaþe     ærist cende.

Ne wat ic mec beworhtne    wulle flysum,

hærum þurh heahcræft,     hygeþoncum min.

5     Wundene me ne beoð wefle,   ne ic wearp hafu,

ne þurh þreata geþræcu    þræd me ne hlimmeð,

ne æt me hrutende     hrisil scriþeð,

ne mec ohwonan   sceal am cnyssan.

Wyrmas mec ne awæfan   wyrda cræftum,

10     þa þe geolo godwebb   geatwum frætwað.

Wile mec mon hwæþre seþeah   wide ofer eorþan

hatan for hæleþum   hyhtlic gewæde.

Saga soðcwidum,   searoþoncum gleaw,

wordum wisfæst,   hwæt þis gewæde sy.


The wet plain, wonderfully cold,

first bore me out of its womb.

I know in my mind I was not wrought

of wool from fleeces, with hair through great skill.

5    Wefts are not wound for me, nor do I have a warp,

nor does thread resound in me through the force of blows,

nor does a whirring shuttle glide upon me,

nor must the beater strike me anywhere.

The worms who adorn fine yellow cloth with trappings

10     did not weave me together with the skills of the fates.

Nevertheless widely over the earth

someone calls me a garment joyful for warriors.

Say with true words, clever with skillful-thoughts,

with very wise words, what this garment might be.



The Leiden Riddle

Mec se ueta uong,     uundrum freorig,

ob his innaðae     aerest cæn[.]æ.

Ni uaat ic mec biuorthæ   uullan fliusum,

herum ðerh hehcraeft,     hygiðonc[…..].

Uundnae me ni biað ueflæ,   ni ic uarp hafæ,

5     ni ðerih ðreatun giðraec    ðret me hlimmith,

ne me hrutendu     hrisil scelfath,

ni mec ouana     aam sceal cnyssa.

Uyrmas mec ni auefun    uyrdi craeftum,

ða ði geolu godueb     geatum fraetuath.

10     Uil mec huethrae suae ðeh    uidæ ofaer eorðu

hatan mith heliðum   hyhtlic giuæde;

ni anoegun ic me aerigfaerae   egsan brogum,

ðeh ði n[…]n siæ     niudlicae ob cocrum.

[Old English text from Smith, A. H., ed., Three Northumbrian Poems. London: Methuen, 1933.]


The wet plain, wonderfully cold,

first bore me out of its womb.

I know in my mind I was not wrought

of wool from fleeces, with hair through great skill.

5     Wefts are not wound for me, nor do I have a warp,

nor does thread resound in me through the force of blows,

nor does a whirring shuttle shake upon me,

nor must the beater strike me anywhere.

The worms who adorn fine yellow cloth with trappings

10     did not weave me together with the skills of fate.

Nevertheless widely over the earth

one calls me a garment joyful for warriors;

nor do I fear terror from the peril of a flight of arrows,

though they be eagerly pulled from the quiver.


Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the solution: Mail-coat (i.e. armour)


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