Commentary for Riddle 74

Riddle 74’s commentary is once again by guest contributor James Paz at the University of Manchester. Take it away, James!


Riddle 74 is a shapeshifter. The speaker has been identified as everything from a made artefact to a living creature, a wonder of nature to a mythological being. Even the first two lines of the riddle are mind-bending. The riddling voice tells us that it was a fæmne geong. I’ve translated this neutrally as a “young girl” but the Old English noun fæmne could be rendered more specifically as “virgin” or “maiden.” In the next half-line, the speaker says that it was also a feaxhar cwene, that is, a grey-haired, older woman. The speaker has aged before our eyes in the first line, and in the second line it suddenly shifts gender, as well. A rinc is a man, perhaps a warrior, and an ænlic rinc is a singular warrior who is “unlike” anything or anyone else, surpassingly noble, beautiful or elegant. The speaker claims that this changing of identity all occurred on ane tid. Since the Old English tid is a vague term for an indefinite period of time (an hour? a year? several years? a season? an age or era?), this phrase could be translated in a number of different ways: “at the same time” or “in a single hour” or “all at once” or even “once upon a time.”

As if this weren’t perplexing enough, the riddle then presents us with a further puzzle: the speaker is capable of flight (fleah mid fuglum) and it can swim (ond on flode swom) and walk on dry land (ond on foldan stop). This amphibious creature says that it was “dead” among the fish and yet, in the last half-line of the poem, it states that it hæfde ferþ cwicu. The most obvious rendering would be “I had a living spirit” but “I held” or even “I contained” a living spirit are equally plausible translations and, as the verb hæfde can be read in the pluperfect sense and the noun ferþ could also be grammatically plural, “I had held living spirits” is another possible interpretation. Is the speaker a living animal, then? Or an artefact that was formerly alive? Or maybe a container or vessel of some kind, something dead bearing something living?

Riddle 74 plays with the tension between transformation and continuity: transformation, because the speaker takes on multiple forms and roles; continuity, because it possesses a single voice and memory, and perhaps a single quickening spirit, depending on how we read the final half-line. The riddle either expands or contracts our perception of time, again depending on how we read the term tid: the metamorphoses from a young girl to a grey-haired woman might seem wondrous if it occurs overnight, but what if the riddle has condensed an entire season or age into a few lines of verse? As a poem, therefore, this riddle raises complex questions about identity. Is it possible to change age, gender and environment so many times and yet still be a nameable, classifiable creature? Can language capture such a multifaceted life experience with a single solution? Or do words ultimately fail to fix this amorphous, slippery speaker in its proper place?

This riddle has sent scholars of Old English away shaking their heads in confusion. Many have ventured an answer, but those answers differ wildly from one another. Over the years, solutions have included: barnacle goose, cuttlefish, ship’s figurehead, oak and boat, quill pen, sea eagle, shadows, siren, soul, sun, swan and water. It would take a good deal of time (and patience!) to cover every solution in detail, so I’ll only discuss some of the highlights (for a more comprehensive survey, see the Niles article under Suggested Reading below).

Riddle 74 Cuttlefish
Photo of a cuttlefish (by João Carvalho) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 2.5)

Squid or cuttlefish was one solution offered by earlier scholars such as Franz Dietrich in 1859. The Roman author, Pliny, had reported in his Natural History that squid could “fly” above the sea and the Anglo-Latin author, Aldhelm, penned an enigma about the luligo (squid or cuttlefish) which parallels some aspects of Riddle 74. In A. M. Juster’s recent translation of Aldhelm’s Latin Enigma 16 (pages 10-11), we read:

Nunc cernenda placent nostrae spectacula vitae;
Cum grege piscoso scrutor maris aequora squamis.
Cum volucrum turma quoque scando per aethera pennis,
Et tamen aethereo non possum vivere flatu.

(Seeing life’s spectacles now entertains;
With fishy, scaly flocks, I search sea plains.
With mobs of birds I also rise through sky,
And yet I can’t survive in breeze that’s high.)

Here, the luligo searches the waters of the deep with fish and ascends through the air with birds, but an ability to change age and sex, and to walk on land as well as swim and fly, is not accounted for by Aldhelm’s enigma. So this answer can’t be deemed completely satisfactory.

Could it be a siren? This was the answer proposed by Frederick Tupper in 1903. The mythological siren is both aged and young, centuries old and yet with the face of a girl. It is not only a woman but sometimes a man.

Riddle 74 Siren from Bestiary (1230-1240), f.47v_-_BL_Harley_MS_4751
An image of a siren in a 13th-century bestiary from British Library Harley MS 4751 (folio 47v), via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Tupper claimed that at an early period of the Middle Ages, the Teutonic conception of a fish-woman met and mingled with the Graeco-Roman idea of a bird-maiden. The combined bird and fish aspects of this partly classical, partly medieval creature explain line 3 of the riddle (“I soared with the birds and swam in the water”). As for line 4 (“dove under the waves, dead among the fish”) Tupper draws our attention to what “every student of myths” apparently knows: the sirens threw themselves into the sea and were transformed into rocks when Ulysses or the Argonauts had passed by in safety. Sceptics of this solution point to the peripheral place of the siren in Anglo-Saxon lore, which makes this interpretation a little farfetched.

Quill pen was the solution of F. H. Whitman in 1968. This was the answer that first leapt into my mind when I read the riddle, due to some similarities with Riddle 51, which links the penna (feather) of the bird with the penna (quill pen) of the scribe. Feathers literally fly through air (and sometimes dive in water and walk the land) when attached to a living bird. The voyage is repeated in the scriptorium, where the writing pen “flies” as the scribe lifts the quill, dips it into the watery inkwell, and then the pen “steps” on the dry land of the parchment, leaving tracks on the page. However, a couple of phrases are harder to account for with the quill pen solution: why would a pen be described as a “singular warrior” and in what sense is it dead among the fish?

Riddle 74 Quills
Photo of feathers being turned into quill pens (by Jonathunder) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0)

Ship’s figurehead was suggested by Craig Williamson (pages 349-52). The speaker is to be imagined as carved in the form of young girl who gradually turns ashen and visibly “ages” as the wood becomes weathered over time, through exposure to the salty waves. As an artefact, the figurehead is “dead” but was made from once living wood. It charges the waves like a warrior. Critics of this solution cite a lack of archaeological evidence for figureheads in the shape of a girl: only those in the form of dragons and other beasts survive from the Anglo-Saxon and Viking periods.

Water or, more precisely, water in its various forms is an attractive solution, first proposed by Moritz Trautmann in 1894 and then refined in 1905 and 1915. Snow flies through the air, ice floats on water as an iceberg and, when it melts away and mingles with the sea, could be said to “die” among the fish, while streams and rivers flow across the land. The young girl is a stream, the grey-haired woman is an iceberg and the singular warrior is snow. Trautmann uses grammatical gender as a clue to solving the riddle. For instance, the Old English word for stream is burne, a feminine noun, while snaw is a masculine noun. Water itself doesn’t have a living spirit but it might be said to “hold” or contain living sea creatures.

Another ingenious solution which relies, in part, on grammatical gender is the one offered by John D. Niles in 1998. For Niles, the speaker is an ac (oak tree) which has been cut down and made into a bat (boat). The tree changes from sapling to a hoary, old oak before it is turned into a warrior-like ship. This answer relies on us taking the oak tree as feminine and the boat as masculine, based on the fact that in Old English ac is a feminine noun, whereas bat is masculine. Niles argues that this reading is consistent with gender biases that were firmly entrenched in Anglo-Saxon society, whereby trees are rooted to one spot in the same way that “women are traditionally associated with hearth and home” whereas ships are “daring rovers, as men have been known to be” (page 190). And yet, by having one speaker embody both of these gendered roles, the riddle could be said to question, rather than reinforce, the categories that have traditionally divided men from women, perhaps inviting the audience to rethink such biases.

Niles’s reading is unsettled somewhat if the speaker is understood as having been a sapling (young girl) and old tree (grey-haired woman) and ship (warrior) all at the same time: on ane tid. One way out is to punctuate the riddle differently from modern convention, so that it reads along the lines of: “at a single time, / I soared with the birds and swam in the water, / dove under the waves, dead among the fish, /and stepped on land.” Another way to resolve this problem is to take the term tid as indicating a long stretch of time. The first two lines of the riddle then become a bit like a wildlife documentary using time-lapse photography to compress the rhythms of nature into a few seconds.

There’s still no consensus on the correct solution. As you can see, each proposal has potential flaws. If I had to choose one, then I’d probably opt for water. I find this one appealing because it expresses both endurance across time and a continuous shifting in form. It’s also a pleasingly “fluid” solution. What I mean by this is that the solution is not simply “water.” It is “water” and then “ice” and then “snow” and then “water” again. Just as we attempt to freeze the shapeshifting speaker with a spoken word, the warmth of our breath causes it to crack and melt once more, changing its form and function as the hydrologic cycle goes ever on and on.

Riddle 74 is therefore a perfect illustration of how things always exceed our names for them – and of how riddles always exceed their solutions.

Riddle 74 Feathery Snow Crystals
A photo of some very fine snowflakes (by Jason Hollinger) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY 2.0)


References and Suggested Reading

Dietrich, Franz Eduard. “Die Räthsel des Exeterbuchs: Würdigung, Lösung und Herstellung.” ZfdA, vol. 11 (1859), pages 448-90.

Erhardt-Siebold, Erika von. “The Anglo-Saxon Riddle 74 and Empedokles’ Fragment 117.” Medium Ævum, vol. 15 (1946), pages 48-54.

Juster, A. M., trans. Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015.

Klein, Thomas. “Of Water and the Spirit: Metaphorical Focus in Exeter Book Riddle 74.” Review of English Studies, vol. 66, issue 273 (2014), pages 1-19.

Niles, John D. “Exeter Book Riddle 74 and the Play of the Text.” Anglo-Saxon England, vol. 27 (1998), pages 169-207.

Paz, James. Nonhuman Voices in Anglo-Saxon Literature and Material Culture. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017, pages 78-83.

Salvador Bello, Mercedes. “Direct and Indirect Clues: Exeter Riddle no. 74 Reconsidered.” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, vol. 99 (1998), pages 17-29.

Trautmann, Moritz. “Die Auflösungen der altenglischen Rätsel.” Beiblatt zur Anglia, vol. 5 (1894), pages 46-51.

Tupper, Frederick. “Originals and Analogues of the Exeter Book Riddles.” Modern Language Notes, vol. 18 (1903), pages 97-106.

Whitman, F. H. “OE Riddle 74.” English Language Notes, vol. 6 (1968), pages 1-5.

Williamson, Craig, ed. and trans. The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977, pages 349-52.


Riddle 74 (or 72)

Riddle 74’s translation is by returning guest contributor James Paz, lecturer in early medieval literature at the University of Manchester. Welcome back, James!

Ic wæs fæmne geong,      feaxhar cwene,
ond ænlic rinc      on ane tid;
fleah mid fuglum      ond on flode swom,
deaf under yþe      dead mid fiscum,
ond on foldan stop,      hæfde ferþ cwicu.

I was a young girl, a grey-haired woman,
and a singular warrior at the same time;
I soared with the birds and swam in the water,
dove under the waves, dead among the fish,
and stepped on land. I held a living spirit.

Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Cuttlefish, Boat and oak, Quill pen, Ship’s figurehead, Siren, Water

Commentary for Riddle 73

If you read Riddle 73 and didn’t immediately think of The Dream of the Rood, well then you clearly haven’t read The Dream of the Rood as recently as is good for you, and should probably go and do that now. Are you back? Then on with the commentary!

Even with substantial damage to the riddle’s central lines, its parallels with The Dream of the Rood aren’t exactly hard to spot. Both feature monologues spoken by trees, for a start. In both, the trees begin by describing their place in the land. Both trees are old – in The Dream of the Rood, we’re told it was geara iu (“years ago”, line 28a) that the tree lived on the edge of a forest, while the speaker in Riddle 73 is gearum frodne (“wise in years”, line 3a). Eventually people arrive, fell these ancient trees, and transform them into… something else. In The Dream of the Rood, that something is a cross, soon to become the Cross. In Riddle 73, it’s some manner of weapon.

Exactly what weapon our speaker becomes is up for grabs, to a point. There’s been a modicum of support for Moritz Trautmann’s solution “battering ram”, mainly because of similarities with Riddle 53. There are a few obstacles to this reading, however. As Craig Williamson points out (page 354), our speaker is held in its wielder’s hand (line 8), is slender (line 18), and it moves about quietly (line 23). I don’t know about you, but when I picture something small, hand-held, and quiet, the first thing that springs to mind isn’t this:

Riddle 73 battering ram
Photo of battering ram (by Clarinetlover) from Wikimedia Commons (licence CC BY-SA 3.0)

The riddle’s more popular solutions are either spear (Old English gar) or bow (OE boga). According to Williamson, spears were perhaps the most common offensive weapon in the Anglo-Saxon arsenal, and they’re certainly abundant in Old English poetry. One verse of the Old English Rune Poem may be describing a tree-turned-spear, in a way that’s somewhat suggestive of Riddle 73:

Æsc biþ oferheah,     eldum dyre,
stiþ on staþule,     stede rihte hylt,
ðeah him feohtan on     firas monige. (Rune Poem, lines 81-83)

(The ash is very high,     dear to men,
strong in its stead; it holds its right place,
though many men fight against it.)

Yes, there’s always a way of shoehorning runes into a riddle commentary. And while we’re shoehorning, we can’t really talk about Anglo-Saxons and spears without some mention of The Battle of Maldon (a.k.a. “the poem with all the spears”). Maldon’s most famous line is almost certainly Byrhtnoth’s rejoinder to the Vikings’ offer of a truce in return for tribute:

Gehyrst þu, sælida,     hwæt þis folc segeð?
Hi willað eow to gafole     garas syllan,
ættrynne ord and ealde swurd. (The Battle of Maldon, lines 45-47)

(Do you hear, seafarer, what this people says?
They wish to give you spears for tribute,
the poisoned point, and old swords.)

More reminiscent of Riddle 73, though, are lines much later in the poem when, in the thick of the battle, we’re told that gar oft þurhwod / fæges feorhus (“the spear often pierced the life-house of the fated”, lines 296b-97a). When the speaker of Riddle 73 describes itself entering into strongholds, it might be speaking literally, of besieged towns. But it could just as easily be speaking figuratively of the human body (Williamson, page 348).

The Battle of Maldon is also a useful reminder that spears were projectiles as well as close-combat weapons. The speaker’s description of itself going alone with the craft of a thief (line 23) certainly puts me in mind of something being thrown across a distance. In fact, it mostly reminds me of this scene from the lid of the Franks Casket:

Riddle 73 Franks Casket 1
Yes, these particular arrows are coming out from, rather than going into, the stronghold. But you get the idea.
Photo (by FinnWikiNo) from Wikimedia Commons (licence CC BY-SA 3.0)

This brings us to the second popular solution: bow (and/or arrow). Those who know about Anglo-Saxon woodworking point out that while spears aren’t made from the wood of old trees, bows are (Doane, page 254). There’s also that reference to the speaker being compelled to bugan (“bend”, line 7b) in the hand of its wielder. I’m no expert, but that certainly sounds more like a bow than a spear.

Riddle 73 Franks Casket 2
For comparison, here are some spears from the back of the Franks Casket (top left). Notice: very straight. Notice also: more runes. There’s always room for more runes.
Photo (by Michel wal) from Wikimedia Commons (licence CC BY-SA 3.0)

So Riddle 73, like Riddle 53 and The Dream of the Rood, is one of several Old English poems in which “a tree is taken from a state of innocence and treated savagely to create an instrument of destruction” (Wilcox, page 398). Whether the specific instrument is a spear or a bow, the suffering that the speaker experiences through the course of its transformation is, as Wilcox points out, all the more ironic “when the manufactured object is one which brings suffering on men” (page 399).

That irony is certainly not lost on our poet. At the start of the riddle, the speaker is living in what Corinne Dale calls almost “Paradisal” peace (page 110), until hostile humans onwendan mine wisan (“changed my nature”, line 5a). This change is emphatically manufactured, in the sense that it’s brought about by human hands, and it forces the speaker to go wiþ onsceape (“against [my] creation”, line 6b). It’s through this human-wrought change that our speaker becomes, in turn, hostile to humans: sneaking into strongholds, and dispatching warriors through its newly bestowed wisan (“nature”, line 29a).

This is where the parallels with The Dream of the Rood become particularly poignant. In The Dream of the Rood, the speaker is likewise transformed into an instrument of death. But it also finds redemption in spite of – or rather, through – this transformation. As it towers above those who made it into a gallows, the tree-speaker contemplates how easily it could bugan to eorðan (“bend to earth”, line 42b) and wipe them out. But it ne dorste… bugan (“does not dare… bend”, lines 35a-36a), and instead obeys divine will by standing tall. The speaker of Riddle 73, on the other hand, has no such noble role to play. It simply on bonan willan bugan (“bends to a killer’s will”, line 7), and brings violence to places that ær frið hæfde (“previously had peace”, line 26b).

My favourite part in this riddle about transformation is actually the transformation that takes place in the very final half line. Here, the speaker takes what is probably the most conventional phrase in the Exeter Book riddles, saga hwæt ic hatte (line 29b) and turns it into something altogether more sinister. Call me paranoid, but it seems to me there’s a sort of implied threat in these closing lines: “Humans gave me this nature, and now my nature kills any human who knows it,” the speaker seems to say, before turning to its human audience and adding “So… do you know what I am?”


References and Suggested Reading

Dale, Corinne. The Natural World in the Exeter Book Riddles. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2017.

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

Halsall, Maureen, ed. The Old English Rune Poem: A Critical Edition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981.

Wilcox, Jonathan. “New Solutions to Old English Riddles: Riddles 17 and 52.” Philological Quarterly, vol. 69, issue 4 (1990), pages 393-408.

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

Riddle 73 (or 71)

Ic on wonge aweox,     wunode þær mec feddon
hruse ond heofonwolcn,     oþþæt me onhwyrfdon
gearum frodne,     þa me grome wurdon,
of þære gecynde     þe ic ær cwic beheold,
5     onwendan mine wisan,     wegedon mec of earde,
gedydon þæt ic sceolde     wiþ gesceape minum
on bonan willan     bugan hwilum.
Nu eom mines frean     folme bysigo[.
…..]dlan dæl,     gif his ellen deag,
10     oþþe æfter dome     [.]ri[………
…………]an     mæ[.]þa fremman,
wyrcan w[………………..
……]ec on þeode     utan we[……
15     ond to wrohtstæp[……………….
…………]eorp,     eaxle gegyrde,
ond swiora smæl,     sidan fealwe
[………………..]     þonne mec heaþosigel
20     scir bescineð     ond mec [……..]
fægre feormað     ond on fyrd wigeð
cræfte on hæfte.     Cuð is wide
þæt ic þrista sum     þeofes cræfte
under hrægnlocan  […]
25     hwilum eawunga     eþelfæsten
forðweard brece,     þæt ær frið hæfde.
Feringe from,     he fus þonan
wendeð of þam wicum,     wiga se þe mine
wisan cunne.     Saga hwæt ic hatte.

I grew on a plain, lived where the earth
and the clouds of heaven fed me, until the ones who were hostile to me
took me, wise in years,
from the native place which I previously held when alive,
5     changed my ways, shook me from the earth,
made it so that I must – against my nature –
sometimes bow in a killer’s service.
Now I am busy in my lord’s hand[.
…..] share, if his valour avails,
10     until after judgement […………
……………….] to advance,
to work [.………………..
……..] to the people let us [……
15     and to strife-stepping(?)[……………….
………….…], girded shoulders,
and a small neck, dark sides
[………………..] when the bright battle-sun
20     shines on me and me […….]
nourishes well, and wields in war
with skill by the haft. It is widely known
that with a thief’s skill, I (go) alone among the bold,
into the brain-pan […]
25     at times I break forth openly
in a familiar fortress, that previously had peace.
Then eagerly he turns from that place,
bold for the journey, the warrior who
knows my nature. Say what I am called.

Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Spear, bow, cross

Commentary for Riddle 72

Riddle 72’s commentary is by Robert Stanton from Boston College. Take it away, Robert!


Welcome to the third Exeter Book riddle featuring the hardworking ox or cow. Will it be the last we see of the bovines? No spoilers! This one is slightly more enigmatic than average, because the manuscript is damaged towards the end and there’s a huge hole where the start of the riddle should be. But we get a general idea of nostalgia for early childhood: the speaker remembers being little, having a sister, and feeding happily. But the youthful scene quickly becomes more riddle-y: this kid pulled four brothers who dispensed drinks through separate holes??? Luckily, constant readers of the Exeter Book will have a giant clue, because the creature narrating Riddle 38 also had four springs shooting forth brightly, which made them murmur with delight, and probably meant lunchtime. So yes, we’ve once again got a young bovine here, feeding off his mum’s four teats and enjoying it a lot.

But where the brief Riddle 38 jumps straight to the punchline poser (“That creature, if she survives, breaks the hills; if he dies, binds the living”), this critter’s life takes a dark and mournful turn. They must give up “that,” i.e. their mother’s milk, to a dark herder, a human who consumes the nourishment the calf once had. Meanwhile, the older ox or cow is forced to tread a lot of paths with a ring on their neck, bound under a beam. Life is hard, and you are constantly being poked by an iron goad.

Riddle 72 Bayeux Tapestry.JPG
A plough-team races across the bottom margin of the Bayeux Tapestry…though this one appears to pulled by a donkey…
Image (by Urban) from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 3.0)

That’s a pretty melancholy ending for any riddle, right? Of course, the formulaic ending about living and breaking, then dying and binding, shared by the other two cow/ox Exeter riddles and several Latin riddles, is also kind of depressing. Riddle 72 reshuffles the deck with the bovine riddle motifs: youthful delight from four teats, subsequent toil, ploughing when alive, leather when dead.

The themes of deprivation and consumption run broad and deep, across gender and generational boundaries. Eusebius’ Latin Enigma 12, De bove (“Bullock”) catalogues the animal’s work for humans, and the sad lack of reward for it:

Nunc aro, nunc operor, consumor in omnibus annis;
Multae sunt cereres, semper desunt mihi panes;
Et segetes colui, nec potus ebrius hausi.
(Glorie, vol. 133, page 220)
(Now I plough, now I toil, I am consumed through all the years;
Many are the harvests, but there is never bread for me;
I tilled the fields, but never drank strong drinks.)

Riddle 72 Ox Bede's World.JPG
A very fine Dexter ox from Bede’s World in Northumbria
Photo courtesy of C.J.W. Brown

In the following Eusebian riddle, Enigma 13, De vacca (“Cow”), a mother cow grieves that although she has fed many children, she herself consumes only cibis aliis (other food) and aquis alienis (someone else’s waters), because her own mother’s milk is long gone. The previous riddles, of course, have pointed out that the cow’s children are themselves consumed by a life of toil and deprived of their mother’s milk (just like in Riddle 72):

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)
(My cattle are many, whom I used to feed;
And when hunger presses me I take no milk or meat,
Since I am fed with other food and someone else’s waters;
Many live off me, and rivers flow from me.)

The poetic tradition of lamenting the lives and fates of domesticated agricultural animals goes at least as far back as Virgil, whose Georgics famously catalogue the toil of cattle, the fact that they never get to enjoy themselves with booze like humans do, and the nasty diseases they can catch:

Ecce autem duro fumans sub vomere taurus
concidit et mixtum spumis vomit ore cruorem
extremosque ciet gemitus. it tristis arator,
maerentem abiungens fraterna morte iuvencum,
atque opere in medio defixa relinquit aratra.
(But lo, the bull, smoking under the ploughshare’s weight, falls; from his mouth he spurts blood, mingled with foam, and heaves his dying groans. Sadly goes the ploughman, unyokes the steer that sorrows for his brother’s death, and amid its half-done task leaves the share rooted fast.) (pages 212-13)

Bovines also featured heavily in the Old Testament, frequently signifying the wealth of an individual or a people, the transfer of wealth between people or groups, or the loss of property resulting from illness or death. A popular passage from Deuteronomy 25.4 about an ox threshing grain (“thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn”) was quoted twice by St Paul, to signify that everyone needs to be able to get on with his or her work or office, and in particular that priests and preachers should always be free to go about their business. In First Corinthians 9.9, however, Paul asks a provocative question: Numquid de bubus cura est Deo? Does God care about oxen? No; he insists on the allegorical force of the textual ox, explicitly rejecting any literal compassion for actual oxen (a number of other patristic writers also rejected the idea that humans should care about individual animals).

Riddle 72 Highland-cow.jpg
How could you not care about such a magnificent creature?!
Image (by Eirik Newth) from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY 2.0)

The riddlers’ sympathy for the animals’ toil and loss extends further, across boundaries between species, and even animate and inanimate objects. Jennifer Neville has written about riddles that use tools (sword, bellows, battering ram, bow, key, reed pen, etc.) to explore issues of servitude, binding, and exploitation. The narrator of Riddle 21 (“Plough”) laments its own hard labour, objectification, and even abuse at the hands of its lord, while transferring some sympathy to the ploughman, perhaps a slave, who steers it, and maybe even the ox who pulls it. In their deeply emotional identification with suffering, both the Exeter ox/cow riddles and the implement riddles have a lot in common with elegiac poems like The Wanderer and The Seafarer, which also feature emotional scenes of deprivation and loss. Most of the implement riddles share some of the ox/cow riddles’ traumatic deprivation of comfort in youth followed by violent handling and/or consumption in a human system of servitude; Jonathan Wilcox has eloquently summarized this as “the lament for a movement from natural innocence to manufactured suffering” (Wilcox, page 398).

In our current riddle, bovines who plough (and then get used for leather) are further associated with the Welsh, who often stand in for general foreigners or slaves in worrying ways (as in Riddle 12, with the drunken Welsh slave girl manipulating a leather object by the fire). Line 12, mearcpaþas Walas træd, moras pæðde (trod the paths of the Welsh marches [borderlands]) causes a problem because it has too many syllables, but the presence of Walas points implicitly to the theme of slavery, or at least captivity, perhaps along the English/Welsh border; Lindy Brady has recently raised the possibility that the ox in this riddle is part of a cattle drive in this part of the island (pages 94-96).

So what do we do with the emotion and sympathy evoked by this poem and its nearest relatives: the other cow/ox riddles, other animal riddles, and the implement riddles? The ambiguous nature of riddles, especially the first-person “say what I am” variety, both hinders and helps us here. The confusion caused by an apparently animate narrator who turns out to be an inanimate object is part of the humor, like when the plough says “my nose in downward,” but it’s really part of a broader project, the blurring between subject and object, that uses confusion to elicit pleasure. If a tool made of wood and iron can talk, that’s slightly unsettling and funny; if a working animal can talk, that’s even more confusing, still a bit funny, but maybe even a bit more emotional. A fictional ox narrator can carry all sorts of baggage from all the other works that influenced it (Bible verses, Virgil’s Georgics, other riddles), but can still jump off the page and demand your care and attention in ways that no poetic genres can fully contain.

Furthermore, both the writers and readers of the Exeter Book riddles would have been fully aware of just how much they depended on both the labour of bovines (ploughing and hauling goods) and the materials taken from their bodies. People have been talking a lot lately about the fundamental connection between animal slaughter and medieval manuscript production. In eighth- and ninth-century England (roughly the time period of the riddles), all major monasteries kept livestock, larger ones sold meat and dairy products for income, and establishments producing large calf-skin manuscripts produced higher dairy yields, since more calves producing manuscripts meant more lactating cows, and hence, more milk. Monastic economies, like those of manors, depended on the ploughing capability of oxen, the yield of meat from slaughtered animals, the production of milk, cream, cheese, and other dairy commodities, and the manufacture of useful objects from other parts of the animal’s body – especially hide, whether tanned into leather or not, but also including horn and bone.

While the people who wrote and read riddles about cows and oxen living lives of toil and despair had to be aware of the animals’ central place in their own human lives, the literary representations of those beasts could reach across species boundaries to forge emotional and sympathetic bonds. The battered plough, the shivering ploughman, and the exhausted ox share a life of servitude on the losing side of consumption, but in a few brief, painful lines of poetry, they can gain a voice.


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.

Brady, Lindy. Writing the Welsh Borderlands in Anglo-Saxon England. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017.

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

Holsinger, Bruce. “Of Pigs and Parchment: Medieval Studies and the Coming of the Animal.” PMLA, vol. 124 (2009), pages 616-23.

Kay, Sarah. Animal Skins and the Reading Self in Medieval Latin and French Bestiaries. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.

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

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

Virgil. Eclogues, Georgics, Aeneid Books I-VI. Loeb Classical Library, vol. 63. Trans. by H. Rushton Fairclough. Revised by G.P. Goold. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1935.

Wilcox, Jonathan. “New Solutions to Old English Riddles: Riddles 17 and 53.” Philological Quarterly, vol. 69 (1990), pages 393-408.

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

Riddle 72 (or 70)

Our translation of (the somewhat damaged) Riddle 72 comes to us from Robert Stanton, Associate Professor of English at Boston College. Robert works on medieval literature, animal studies and translation…so he’s pretty perfect for this riddle. Read on to find out why!

Ic wæs lytel …
fo …
… te geaf …
…pe         þe unc gemæne …
5   … sweostor min,
fedde mec …      oft ic feower teah
swæse broþor,         þara onsundran gehwylc
dægtidum me         drincan sealde
þurh þyrel þearle.         Ic þæh on lust,
10   oþþæt ic wæs yldra         ond þæt anforlet
sweartum hyrde;        siþade widdor,
mearcpaþas Walas træd,         moras pæðde,
bunden under beame,         beag hæfde on healse,
wean on laste         weorc þrowade,
15   earfoða dæl.         Oft mec isern scod
sare on sidan;         ic swigade,
næfre meldade         monna ængum
gif me ordstæpe         egle wæron.

I was little…

[was?] common to us two,
5   … my sister,
fed me … often I pulled four
favorite brothers; each of them separately
gave me a drink in the day-time
abundantly through a hole. I grew up in pleasure,
10   until I was older and gave that up
to a dark herder; I traveled more widely,
trod the paths of the Welsh marches, traveled the moors,
bound under a beam, had a ring on my neck,
on a path of woe endured toil,
15   a share of hardships. Often iron hurt me
sorely in the side; I was silent,
never accused any man
if goad-pricks were painful to me.

Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Ox, Heifer, Cow

Commentary for Riddle 71

This week’s commentary post is once again by Judy Kendall, Reader in English and Creative Writing at Salford University. Off we go!:


Yet again another riddle with a hole in it, or several holes. Immediately, you’d expect the riddle to become more of a riddle for us twenty-first century would-be riddle-solvers: distance of time, language, cultural context compounded by lack of text. However, the situation is complicated further by the riddleless nature of this particular riddle. For many, the solution seems quite obvious, easy, “un”-riddle-like – the majority plump for Sword or Sword-hilt. There is not much evidence of the “decoding process” of false leads or indirect clues that Mercedes Salvador-Bello has noted occurring in so many riddles (page 39). Not that there hasn’t been disagreement. Other suggested solutions, as listed by Craig Williamson, include Cupping-glass, Iron Helmet, Iron Shield, Bronze Shield, Dagger, or “iron, first in the ore, then made into a weapon” (page 340). We can also add Phyllis Portnoy’s reading of Retainer, or a warrior in service to a lord, although, as we shall see, this is by no means her only solution.

But are we missing something? Of course we are – several letters and words in the last few lines. And the temptation is to add them in, like icing.

Riddle 71 Piping_buttercream_onto_cake
Photo (by Michael Prudhomme) from Wikipedia Commons (license: CC-BY-SA-3.0)

In this context, it is well worth heeding Williamson’s stern warning: “The doctoring of legitimate Old English passages to bolster one’s solution is not a sound editorial practice” (page 342). He was referring to Moritz Trautmann’s amendment of yþan to ywan in line 7, so as to fit his solution of Shield. It has to be said, however, that Williamson himself goes as near as can be not to follow his own advice, making keen use of his typographical eye to inform us in his footnotes to Riddle 71 of what might be, or is, just visible in the illegible areas of the manuscript (page 107):

  • 69.7: Two spaces before fe the tip of an ascender is visible.
  • 69.8: After bi either þ or l.
  • 69.10: The last letter of word preceding wlite has a long descender.

If that is not an invitation to fill in the gaps, then what is?

Plenty of other scholars have joined in the fun, as Portnoy, in her excellent piece on this riddle, notes when she lists the various ways different editors have glossed lacunae in the riddle. She also registers the difficulties created by apparent simplicity in riddle solutions which then seem too easily solved and not therefore sufficiently “clever” for the riddle genre.

This tendency to try and add in the missing words, rather than dealing with what is left does not bode well for the riddle. If the lines are so predictable that we are able to supply what is missing ourselves, this suggests not only a riddleless riddle but a rather poor poem. Portnoy acknowledges this, and sees her task as that of rescuing this and similar riddles (5, 20, 56 and 91) from such a fate. She accomplishes it admirably.

Her argument in the case of Riddle 71 – and you would do well to look her piece up yourself rather than rely on this rather skimpy gloss – is that the role of the Old English laf and the animate-inanimate associations it can call up (“what is left,” “remnant,” “survivor,” “widow,” “treasure,” “heirloom”, “sword,” “relic”) lead in fact to impressively complex readings. It is in this complexity that the artistry of Riddle 71 lies, mirroring the metalwork of the object it describes, whether this be a sword, sword-hilt, or indeed something else. Portnoy draws an analogy with the effects of a kenning (a poetic device that involves a compressed, often compounded, metaphor): “while the referent may be obvious, the point may be not so much to mystify the reader, but to present the familiar in an unusual way” (page 557).

She also emphasises an inclusiveness in reading. Thus, the reade of line one can refer not only to a victim’s blood, but also to red-gold decoration and to garnets, all of which might cover a sword or a retainer. In addition, reade, with its association with fire, prepares for a possible reference in the next lines to forges and the act of forging, another favoured interpretation.

Indeed, just to indulge in a short aside, for Kevin Crossley-Holland, iron forged into a weapon is the interpretation. He does not include this riddle in the main body of his collection, in which he decided to avoid “very badly damaged or impossibly obscure” riddles, but does still give space in his notes both for a translation of the riddle and a short commentary upon it (page xv). In his translation, he begins line 2 as “Once I was a tough, steep place,” and informs us that A. J. Wyatt’s description of this riddle as “iron, first in the ore then made into a weapon” is unlikely to be bettered, with line 2 referring either to the blade or the precipitous site from which it was quarried (page 107).

Portnoy, however, keeps her options open. She draws on Williamson and Frederick Tupper, Jr. in her reading of line 2’s stið ond steapwong, which she sees as comprising a number of readings: the ground from which iron ore is mined, the homeland of the warrior, the metal sides or “cheeks” of the warrior’s helmet or sword “face,” and/or indeed the channel running down the centre of a sword blade.

Riddle 71 Gilling Sword
Photo of the 9th-century Gilling Sword (by York Museums Trust Staff) from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 4.0)

References to what is inanimate and animate continue through the riddle as the sword/retainer meets its match – another sword or a warrior bearing gold. Thus, says Portnoy, “the subject’s identity, while perhaps simple to discover, is indeed complex to contemplate: “a laf “heirloom” which is a laf “remnant” of a laf “sword” which is a laf “survivor” (of the forge) confronts his match—either a human laf “survivor” (of a battle), or another equally compounded inanimate laf” (page 560).

Read in-depth, Portnoy’s argument is coherent, detailed and convincing. It is certainly helpful when grappling with the riddle’s apparent simplicity, but I am not convinced her approach allows us to see the whole picture. How could it? Surely the riddle’s credentials as a riddle cannot depend upon Portnoy’s or anyone else’s intricate analysis, as long as we are not working from the full text. The question for me therefore, particularly as a translator, is how to approach such a text in a way that acknowledges and respects its lacunae – how to avoid that temptation to “add in”.

Patrick Murphy’s Unriddling the Exeter Riddles points the way, though he does not refer to Riddle 71 explicitly. His argument, which builds on work by A. J. Wyatt and Archer Taylor, rests on the claim that the Exeter riddles are descriptions of objects that are intended to be both accurate and misleading, suggesting as solutions something entirely different to the apparently obvious descriptions.

In other words, what we see as an obvious solution may be a metaphor or a pointer to something else. Constrained perhaps by the gaps in the text, perhaps by our lack of cultural and contextual knowledge, we might be completely missing the boat. We read the riddle in a literal way because a more allusive interpretation eludes us, an interpretation that might perhaps be closer to hand if we had those missing words. Suspecting this to be the case, I welcomed Williamson’s stern warning as a guide to my own process of translation of the poem. I had initially chosen this riddle to translate because I thought it would be fun to attempt to write the missing ending lines, but, in the event, I decided, for the reasons given above, not to hazard any guesses at reconstructing those lost words. In this I follow not only Williamson’s warning and Murphy’s argument but the creative practice of John Porter. Porter’s principle when translating fragments, as he took the trouble to note in the introduction to his Anglo-Saxon Riddles, was “to translate only words which are entire, and to omit unintelligible letters and groups” (page 8). He worked with the words he could see, not the ones he couldn’t.

So, without making a commitment to any of the potential solutions other scholars have proffered, I also focused on the words we have been left. As much as possible I tried to leave open whether the riddle refers to a sword, sword-hilt, iron, retainer, warrior, spear…or even perhaps a caterpillar (well probably not caterpillar).

Riddle 71 Caterpillar
Photo (by Vengolis) from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 4.0)

Rather than closing down the options, I looked for translation choices that would keep them open. I wanted to hold on to those ambiguities because I suspect that none of the solutions that have been suggested are exact. Portnoy would agree with this perhaps, but also I wanted to leave open the possibility that there is a solution out there, but one that no one has come across.

Such thoughts affected many of my word choices. So, “clothed” was arrived at because it can refer to both object and person; “a hard and high promontory” fits the description of a piece or land or quarry but can also act as a metaphor for a retainer or even a sword blade; “the leavings of fury” allows us to keep the ambiguities in laf that Portnoy has highlighted – a suggestion of both victim and victor. As my choice of “hard” might already indicate, I also suspected the riddle included some sexual innuendo. This led me to replace the more obvious “weeps” with “groans” in line 5. Murphy helped me to this line of thinking with his analysis of the double meaning of wæpen in Riddle 20 (sword/penis), and his reference to the sexually-charged image of “rings” in traditional riddling (page 61 and 74). This awareness informed a number of my other word choices as well. I’ll leave you to spot which ones.

When it came to the fragmented ending I allowed myself some indulgence:

  • (a) not to be bound by a desire to make complete sense – if the fragments make perfect sense there would be no need for the missing words;
  • (b) to work with alliteration across the fragments we have, instead of within the lines we do not have. Why? Just because I can, but also because it binds the riddle, gives it a sense of coherence, while still retaining, through the gaps in sense/content, our awareness of those missing parts.

The relationship between the speaker/object and master seems to run through the riddle. It is referred to in line 1, possibly implied again in the “held fast” of line 4, and comes up again with the dryhtne min of the penultimate line. Additionally, as Williamson points out, the reference to rings also alludes to this: “Anglo-Saxon swords were sometimes adorned with rings or ring-knobs to symbolise liege-lord relationship – ring-sword” (page 198). Such a relationship is reflected in my translation of dryhtne min as “master of mine,” rather than, say, to “my master.” Because “master of mine” separates the two words beginning with “m,” it gives that alliterated “m” a little bit more space on the line, on the page and in the ear. Additionally, this phrase allows us to see the two (the “master” and “me”) as separate entities, which indeed they are in the poem, as well as being closely bound, whether in opposition or in thrall. I like the way the preposition “of” that separates these two words also binds them, suggesting a complex interdependency.

Such a suggestion also fits with the other curious interaction referred to in lines 5 and 6 between “he who groans/bears gold” and the one who grips or embodies the grip. In line 6, I deliberated over the possible selection of “at my grip,” which is a more colloquial way of phrasing, but decided to stick with the dictionary-accurate “before my grip.” It may sound a little unfamiliar to us but this unfamiliarity reminds us, albeit subliminally, that we don’t have full access to the riddle. Limited access is of course the case with any Old English riddle given that they were set and formulated so long ago, but the limitations are all the more pronounced with fragmented works. The words “before my grip” also, pleasingly, allow for an alliterative connection with “bears,” thus emphasising the double meaning of “bears” – as in carrying, but also enduring or suffering. The twinning of “bears” with “before” hints at the sense in “bears” of “bearing down,” as would happen when succumbing “before” a grip or when attempting to vanquish a grip that appears “before” one. Once again, in either case, a complex interaction of relationships is indicated here.

I was very happy to come up with “make good the face” – a great example of lack of perfect sense. What does it mean? We have no real idea. This allows us to hear in the translation the gaps left by those missing words. It also binds with the alliterated “m”s in the vicinity of “make” and allows an evocation of the wlite (or fair-faced flowers) of line 3, as also happens in the original. In addition, “make good the face” suggests a reversal of values or of appearance, a theme that also seems to run through the riddle, and, possibly, a righting of wrongs, or appearance of righting at any rate.

Thus, the gaps and lacunae provide us with the riddle we have left, and in our attempts to be faithful to this, we too could consider being left content with a riddle solution that is both attacker and victim, inanimate and animate. We could recognise what we have – the fragment we work with now, but also what we do not have – the riddle as it stood with Old English riddlers. I am haunted by Murphy’s allusion to Savely Senderovich’s survey of folk riddle research, in which he “concludes that solutions are “to be known” rather than to be guessed or induced by adding up the clues” (Murphy, page 33; quoting Senderovich, pages 19-20). This echoes the ethnographer John Blacking’s observation in his notes on riddle-telling in the Northern Transvaal: “Whenever someone knew a riddle well he answered it pat, as if the answer was an integral part of the question” (Blacking, page 5; quoted in Heller-Roazen, page 66). In the case of Riddle 71, that “known” or “pat” element seems to be something in which we 21st-century riddle-solvers do not share. Perhaps we simply stand too far away – the riddle perpetrating and perpetuating riddling down the ages…..


References and Suggested Reading

Blacking, John. “The Social Value of Venda Riddles.” African Studies, vol. 20, issue 1 (1961), pages 1-32.

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

Heller-Roazen, Daniel. Dark Tongues: The Art of Rogues and Riddlers. New York: Zone Books, 2013.

Muir, Bernard J.  The Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry. 2 vols. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1994.

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

Porter, John, trans. Anglo-Saxon Riddles. Hockwold-cum-Wilton: Anglo-Saxon Books, 1995 and 2013.

Portnoy, Phyllis. “Laf-Craft in Five Old English Riddles (K-D 5, 20, 56, 71, 91).” Neophilologus, vol. 97 (2013), pages 555–79.

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. “Direct and Indirect Clues: Exeter Riddle No.74 Reconsidered.” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, vol. 99 (1998), pages 17-29.

Senderovich, Savely. Riddle of the Riddle: A Study of the Folk Riddle’s Figurative Nature. London: Kegan Paul, 2005.

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 Carolina Press, 1977.

Wyatt, A. J. Old English Riddles. Boston: D.C. Heath, 1912.