Riddle 45 (or 43)

Ic on wincle gefrægn      weaxan nathwæt,

þindan ond þunian,      þecene hebban.

On þæt banlease      bryd grapode,

hygewlonc hondum.      Hrægle þeahte

þrindende þing      þeodnes dohtor.


I heard that something was growing in the corner,

swelling and sticking up, raising its roof.

A proud bride grasped that boneless thing,

with her hands. A lord’s daughter

covered with a garment that bulging thing.


Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solution: Dough

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Commentary for Riddle 44

So…this riddle is pretty unambiguously raunchy, am I right? Something stiff that hangs under a man’s clothing by his thigh? The filling of an equally long hole? All the basics of a nudge-nudge joke are there for even the most sheltered of individuals to catch.

With imagery as blatantly obvious as this, the question then becomes “what other object acts this way?”

The answer seems to be a key, although “dagger” has also been suggested in the past. But key makes a great deal of sense, especially when we look at other medieval and biblical references to a sexy sort of unlocking. The favourite, here, is #49 of The Cambridge Songs, sometimes referred to as Veni dilectissime (for its first line):

Veni, dilectissime

et a, et o,

gratam me invisere.

et a, et o, et a, et o!

In languore pereo,

et a, et o!

Venerem desidero,

et a, et o, et a, et o!


Si cum clave veneris,

et a, et o,

mox intrare poteris,

et a, et o, et a, et o!

(Come, dearest love, with ah! and oh! to visit me with pleasure, with ah! and oh! and ah! and oh! I am dying of faintness, (refrain)! I am longing for love, (refrain)! […] If you come with your key, (refrain) you will soon be able to enter (refrain)!)

Catchy, right? Well, maybe not to everyone…someone took offence to this eleventh-century ditty and tried to erase parts of it from the manuscript. So, the version I’ve posted above involved a great deal of reconstruction by Peter Dronke (vol. 1, page 274; see also Ziolkowski, pages 126-7).

LIN2013-1256Behold, an Anglo-Saxon slide key! Copyright: Lincolnshire County Council (Attribution-ShareAlike License)


Mercedes Salvador-Bello has written on the links between Riddle 44 and Veni dilectissime, and she argues that both verses should be read in the context of the Song of Songs/Solomon (Salvador, page 78). All the kissing and seeking out of lovers there can be read allegorically, with Christ as the lover of the church or of an individual’s soul. Here are just a few verses to give you a taster:

Dilectus meus misit manum suam per foramen, et venter meus intremuit ad tactum ejus. Surrexi ut aperirem dilecto meo; manus meae stillaverunt myrrham, et digiti mei pleni myrrha probatissima. Pessulum ostii mei aperui dilecto meo, at ille declinaverat, atque transierat. Anima mea liquefacta est, ut locutus est; quaesivi, et non inveni illum; vocavi, et non respondit mihi (Song of Solomon 5.4-6).

(My beloved put his hand through the key hole, and my bowels were moved at his touch. I arose up to open to my beloved: my hands dropped with myrrh, and my fingers were full of the choicest myrrh. I opened the bolt of my door to my beloved: but he had turned aside, and was gone. My soul melted when he spoke: I sought him, and found him not: I called, and he did not answer me).

[I’m going to go ahead and suggest that “bowels” is the worst possible translation decision for venter here, but I’ve left it in since it’s from the Douay-Rheims translation of the Latin Vulgate bible. Venter can also mean “belly” or “womb” (so, basically, an unspecific term for the lower part of the torso), either of which is far more appropriate in this case.]


Salvador-Bello goes on to map out the wider context of key imagery that involves Christ unlocking heaven’s doors and locking up demons in hell. Given all this, she concludes that unlocking is an especially Christ-like thing to do…which goes a long way to explaining the presence of Riddle 44 in a manuscript belonging to a cathedral. But, even so, the raunchiness is not to be denied.

Of this erotic imagery, D. K. Smith says: “the riddler’s success, and the resulting laughter, rests on the potential for shame and embarrassment – the chance to catch his victims with their imaginative pants down. Yet, if these riddles have the power to threaten their victims with the potential for humiliation, that is only half the equation. Even more important is their ability, through the humor they generate, to defuse that same implicit threat” (page 82). In other words, raunchy riddles allow people living in a shame culture to discuss taboo topics.

If you were a monk and the enjoyment of sex was off-limits (okay, maybe just “sex was off-limits,” since no one – monk or otherwise – was supposed to be enjoying it at that time), you could still make a veiled reference to it in a riddle and hide behind the innocent solution if someone called you out. In fact, in order to call out the riddler, the audience would have to admit that their minds were also veering down a dark and dirty path (Magennis, page 16-17). So, cue the uncomfortable giggle and the drawn-out pause as solvers attempted to read past the sexual veneer and determine a socially acceptable solution.

And I feel like not much has changed when it comes to the English-speaking world’s sense of humour. Sure, there’s a lot more open discussion about sex, and sexually explicit material is all over the place. But giggly, taboo-based, penis jokes remain quite firmly in the public’s consciousness. Yeah, I said “firmly.” What’s wrong with that? You pervs.


References and Suggested Reading:

Dronke, Peter. Medieval Latin and the Rise of European Love-Lyric. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1965-66.

Magennis, Hugh. “‘No Sex Please, We’re Anglo-Saxons!’ Attitudes to Sexuality in Old English Prose and Poetry.” Leeds Studies in English, vol. 26 (1995), pages 1-27 (esp. 16-18).

Salvador(-Bello), Mercedes. “The Key to the Body: Unlocking Riddles 42-46.” In Naked Before God: Uncovering the Body in Anglo-Saxon England. Edited by Benjamin C. Withers and Jonathan Wilcox. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2003, pages 60-96 (esp. 76-82).

Smith, D. K. “Humor in Hiding.” In Humour in Anglo-Saxon Literature. Edited by Jonathan Wilcox. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2000, pages 79-98 (esp. 88-94).

Ziolkowski, Jan M., ed. The Cambridge Songs (Carmina Cantabrigiensia). New York: Garland, 1994.

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Riddle 44 (or 42)

Wrætlic hongað      bi weres þeo,

frean under sceate.      Foran is þyrel.

Bið stiþ ond heard.      Stede hafað godne.

Þonne se esne     his agen hrægl

5     ofer cneo hefeð,      wile þæt cuþe hol

mid his hangellan      heafde gretan

þæt he efenlang ær      oft gefylde.


A wondrous thing hangs by a man’s thigh,

under its lord’s clothing. In front there is a hole.

It stands stiff and hard. It has a good home.

When the servant raises his own garment

5     up over his knee, he wants to greet

with his dangling head that well-known hole,

of equal length, which he has often filled before.


Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Key and lock, Phallus, Dagger sheath


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Commentary for Riddle 43

Riddle 43’s commentary is once again by the terribly clever James Paz, Lecturer in early medieval English literature at the University of Manchester.


I imagine that solving Riddle 43 would have been fairly easy for most Anglo-Saxon readers of the Exeter Book, especially if we’re to picture this riddling taking place in a monastic setting. It might not be as immediately obvious for a modern reader today, given the changes to our religious beliefs across time. Even so, literary scholars have arrived at an uncontroversial solution: “soul and body.”

As such, this is a riddle whose solution is not a single word but two, a pairing of some kind (others include “moon and sun” and “cock and hen”). The key to solving this riddle, then, lies in identifying not one wiht (creature/created thing) but two disguised figures: the noble guest and the servant. The closing lines (14b-16) of the riddle point us in this direction, instructing the would-be solver to make known in fitting words (OE cyþe cynewordum) what the guest (cuma) or the servant (esne) is called.

Social and cultural tropes (evocative of Beowulf as well as other heroic and elegiac poems) are referenced but also played with, in order to lead us to the right answer. The riddle asks us to puzzle over the proper relationship between host and guest, the hierarchy of lord and servant, to consider the threat of hunger and disease and old age, the joys of feasting and the mead hall. It also creates confusion over traditional familial roles (why should one brother fear, or be in awe of, the other? how can one woman be both mother and sister?) and privileges honourable conduct while raising the threat of its disruption (what happens when a servant obeys his master evilly?).

A basic explanation of the “soul and body” solution would be as follows. The noble guest is the soul, which, as the riddle explains, is not vulnerable to hunger pangs or burning thirst or even old age. Its servant is the body, whose proper role is to tend to this guest honourably (arlice) before it departs for a journey. Having some knowledge of Old English kennings for “body” such as ban-hus (i.e. bone-house) help us to reach this solution. These compressed metaphors (miniature riddles, if you like) suggest that human bodies are temporary dwellings, sheltering and safeguarding something dear that must nevertheless be on its way again before long.

Riddle 43 Franks_casket_03

Photo of the 8th-century whalebone Franks Casket (by Michel wal). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The woman referred to in lines 13-14 has proved a little trickier to identify, but most critics and translators think that she represents the earth. She is called a mother, because the body of Adam was made from dust (see Genesis 2:7), and a sister because she (the earth) was shaped by the same father, God.

The critic John D. Niles has recently encouraged us to answer the Exeter Book Riddles in their own (Old English, though sometimes Latin) tongue whenever possible. If we’re to do so with Riddle 43, one half of the answer should correspond to the masculine noun hlaford (i.e. “lord”) and the other half to the masculine noun esne (i.e. “servant”). For Niles and, before him, Moritz Trautmann, the spoken solution should be the Old English doublet gæst ond lic-hama.

But speaking the solution is not where this riddle ends; it is, perhaps, where it begins to reveal its meaning. I’ve said that this riddle is “easy” to solve but, actually, its solution encourages us to contemplate “soul and body” as a concept at a far deeper level.

Regular readers of this blog might have gained the sense that the Exeter Book Riddles are all about what we’d nowadays call the “nonhuman” world in its various forms: shields, swords, swans, leather, horns, mead, moon and sun, storms and earthquakes. But Riddle 43 examines medieval ideas about what it means to be a human being: embodied yet rational of mind or soul, of this world yet alienated from it, intellectually curious yet driven by carnal desire.

For a Christian Anglo-Saxon audience, humans are essentially embodied souls. So the owner of a body really ought to be its master. But that servile role is tested throughout these riddles. Recall Riddle 25 (onion?). As we read this riddle (and, tellingly, Riddles 44, 45, 46), genitalia and sex acts shift in and out of focus… and our body responds?

Even the act of reading a non-obscene riddle is not purely intellectual. Riddles are about body parts and they call on body parts: eyes, ears, mouths, even hands. Riddling asks for a reader who’ll engage with the words on the page in a sensuous way. Recurring phrases that run throughout the Exeter Riddles support this claim: ic seah, ic gefrægn, saga hwæt ic hatte (see, hear, say). And so the relationship that Riddle 43 sets up between our “higher” intellectual faculties and our “baser” or more servile bodily functions is particularly appropriate to this enigmatic collection.

Mastery of the body is central to Riddle 43. It’s all about how the body should respond to its hlaforde (lord) and frean (master). The body, described as an esne, must keep his noble guest honourably, serve him, and fear retaliation after death should he disobey the superior soul. Notice how Riddle 43 uses this term, esne, three times in sixteen lines to emphasise the role of the body.

Leslie Lockett has shown that in the Old English laws, esne is a term for a servant of indeterminate status, higher than the slave (ðeow or wealh) but subordinate to the free labourer (ceorl). Therefore, an esne performs a servile role yet has more autonomy than a slave. This is definitely worth remembering when thinking about the relationship between soul and body in Riddle 43.

When I teach Riddle 43 on my “Things that Talk” course at the University of Manchester, it starts to spark deeper discussion when compared with the other Soul and Body poems found in Old English literature. The issue of the soul’s control over the body was obviously very important to Anglo-Saxon readers, as a longer Soul and Body poem exists in two versions, which is unusual for an OE text. Those two versions appear in the Vercelli Book and in the same Exeter Book that contains the riddles.

What’s interesting here is that the two versions of the Soul and Body poem provide a different take on the master-servant relationship to that portrayed in Riddle 43. In this poem, the damned soul speaks to an offending body which, during their life-journey together, indulged its own desires, worked against the soul, starved it of spiritual sustenance, and imprisoned, even tortured, it. The soul’s apparent helplessness in the Old English Soul and Body poems has surprised some critics, who expect a deeply Christian text to depict a soul endowed with free will and reason, capable of disciplining the body. Yet the soul that emerges from these poems often seems to be an entity incapable of completely independent thought or action, an entity that struggles to bring about the fulfilment of its desires, as long as it’s enclosed in flesh.

The contrasting depictions of a servile body labouring for its noble guest on the one hand, and a damned soul addressing a domineering body, to which it was bound unwillingly, suggest that Anglo-Saxon poets had complex ways of comprehending the human condition. Of course, these issues remain fascinating (and maybe even disquieting) for us as modern readers of early medieval poetry…

… To what extent are we responsible for our own actions? Who or what is in control of our everyday thoughts, words and deeds during life? Do we know where our dreams and desires come from? Does our body always behave as we want it to? Are our bodies us, or are we our brains, or minds, or do we still believe our true identity to be spiritual in nature? The Exeter Riddles seem to be about speaking objects. Yet where do we locate the speaking and thinking and acting “I” within our own, human selves? In the body? In the mind? Or within that elusive concept of a soul?

That’s the real mystery at the heart of Riddle 43, and, over one thousand years on, we are not much closer to solving it.


References and Suggested Reading

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

Dailey, Patricia. “Riddles, Wonder and Responsiveness in Anglo-Saxon Literature.” In The Cambridge History of Early Medieval English Literature. Edited by Clare A. Lees. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, pages 451-72.

Lockett, Leslie. Anglo-Saxon Psychologies in the Vernacular and Latin Traditions. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011.

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

Niles, John D. Old English Enigmatic Poems and the Play of the Texts. Turnhout: Brepols, 2006.

Williamson, Craig, ed. and trans. A Feast of Creatures: Anglo-Saxon Riddle Songs. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.


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Riddle 43 (or 41)

This riddle comes to us from James Paz, Lecturer in early medieval English literature at the University of Manchester. He’s especially interested in ‘thing theory’ and medieval science. Take it away, James!


Ic wat indryhtne    æþelum deorne

giest in geardum,      þam se grimma ne mæg

hungor sceððan      ne se hata þurst,

yldo ne adle.      Gif him arlice

5     esne þenað,    se þe agan sceal

on þam siðfate,     hy gesunde æt ham

findað witode him    wiste ond blisse,

cnosles unrim,    care, gif se esne

his hlaforde      hyreð yfle,

10     frean on fore.      Ne wile forht wesan

broþor oþrum;    him þæt bam sceðeð,

þonne hy from bearme    begen hweorfað

anre magan    ellorfuse,

moddor ond sweostor.    Mon, se þe wille,

15     cyþe cynewordum      hu se cuma hatte,

eðþa se esne,      þe ic her ymb sprice.


I know a worthy one, treasured for nobility,

a guest in dwellings, whom grim hunger

cannot harm, nor hot thirst,

nor age, nor illness. If the servant

5     serves him honourably, he who must possess him

on the journey, they, safe at home,

will find afforded to them well-being and bliss;

an unspeakable progeny of sorrows shall be theirs,

if the servant obeys his lord and master

10     evilly on the way, if one brother will not fear

the other; that will harm them both,

when they turn away, eager to flee

from the breast of their only kinswoman,

mother and sister. Let he who holds the willpower

15     make known in fitting words what the guest is called,

or the servant I speak about here.


Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the solution: Soul and Body

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Commentary for Riddle 42

[This post is under construction]

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Riddle 42 (or 40)

This riddle translation comes to us from Jennifer Neville, Reader in Anglo-Saxon Literature at Royal Holloway University of London. She has published on several of the riddles and is currently working on a book about them. You may remember her from her brilliant translation and commentary of Riddle 9.


Ic seah wyhte      wrætlice twa

undearnunga      ute plegan

hæmedlaces;     hwitloc anfeng

wlanc under wædum,      gif þæs weorces speow,

5     fæmne fyllo.      Ic on flette mæg

þurh runstafas      rincum secgan,

þam þe bec witan,      bega ætsomne

naman þara wihta.     Þær sceal Nyd wesan

twega oþer      ond se torhta æsc

10     an an linan,     Acas twegen,

Hægelas swa some.      Hwylc þæs hordgates

cægan cræfte      þa clamme onleac

þe þa rædellan      wið rynemenn

hygefæste heold      heortan bewrigene

15     orþoncbendum?      Nu is undyrne

werum æt wine      hu þa wihte mid us,

heanmode twa,     hatne sindon.

(scroll down for a version of the following translation that’s lineated more in line with the Old English)


I saw two amazing creatures —

they were playing openly


in the sport of sex.


The woman,

proud and bright-haired,

received her fill under her garments,

if the work was successful.


Through rune-letters

I can say the names

of both creatures together

to those men in the hall

who know books.


There must be two needs

and the bright ash

one on the line —

two oaks

and as many hails.


Who can unlock

the bar of the hoard-gate

with the power of the key?


The heart of the riddle

was hidden by cunning bonds,

proof against the ingenuity

of men who know secrets.


But now for men at wine

it is obvious

how those two low-minded creatures

are named among us.


Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the solution: N N Æ A A H H = hana & hæn, or Cock and Hen


If you’re a student, you may find this translation’s lineation helpful:

I saw two amazing creatures —

they were playing openly outside

in the sport of sex. The woman,

proud and bright-haired, received her fill under her garments,

5     if the work was successful.  Through rune-letters

I can say the names of both creatures together

to those men in the hall

who know books. There must be two needs

and the bright ash

10     one on the line — two oaks

and as many hails. Who can unlock

the bar of the hoard-gate with the power of the key?

The heart of the riddle was hidden

by cunning bonds, proof against the ingenuity

15     of men who know secrets. But now

for men at wine it is obvious how those two

low-minded creatures are named among us.

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