Riddle 60 (or 58)

Riddle 60’s translation is once again by Brett Roscoe of The King’s University, Alberta. (thanks, Brett!)


Ic wæs be sonde,      sæwealle neah,
æt merefaroþe,*      minum gewunade
frumstaþole fæst;       fea ænig wæs
monna cynnes,      þæt minne þær
5    on anæde      eard beheolde,
ac mec uhtna gehwam     yð sio brune
lagufæðme beleolc.      Lyt ic wende
þæt ic ær oþþe sið      æfre sceolde
ofer meodubence       muðleas sprecan,
10     wordum wrixlan.       Þæt is wundres dæl,
on sefan searolic      þam þe swylc ne conn,
hu mec seaxes ord       ond seo swiþre hond,
eorles ingeþonc      on ord somod,
þingum geþydan,       þæt ic wiþ þe sceolde
15     for unc anum twam       ærendspræce
abeodan bealdlice,      swa hit beorna ma
uncre wordcwidas     widdor ne mænden.**

I was by the shore, near the sea-cliff,
with the surging of the waves.* I remained
fixed at my first place; there were few
of mankind who there,
5     in that solitude, could see my home,
but each morning the wave in its dark,
watery embrace enclosed me. Little did I know
that ever before or after,
I – mouth-less – across the mead-bench would have to speak,
10     exchange words. It is a kind of wonder
to one who does not know such things,
how, with a clever mind, the point of a knife,
the right hand and the thought of man together in a point,
press me for this purpose: that I with you should,
15     in the presence of us two alone,
boldly declare my message, so that no men
should spread our words more widely.**

Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Reed (pen), Rune staff


Translation Notes:

* Old English dictionaries do not agree on the meaning of merefaroþ, which has been defined variously as shore or bank, seawaves, or the surging of the waves.

**Lines 16b-17 literally read “so that [it] more men should not spread our words more widely” but since the double “more” sounds awkward in Modern English, I have omitted one of them.

Commentary for Riddle 59

This week’s commentary post is once again from Brett Roscoe of The King’s University, Alberta.


Imagine a hall where a lord and his warriors are drinking and laughing and generally just having a good time. The lord rewards a fighter with a ring, and the warrior proudly sends it around the table for all to admire (it is wylted ond wended wloncra folmum (rolled and turned in the hands of bold fighters)). This is the picture painted by Riddle 59, and at first it seems like a standard heroic scene. But there are some oddities that suggest there is more to this poem than meets the eye (cue eerie music). If the men are just looking at a ring, what makes them gleaw (prudent) and frod (wise) (lines 2b-3a)? And if the ring is a tacen (sign/emblem/symbol), what is it a sign of? Though in the foreground of this riddle we see warriors drinking in a hall, in the background we can hear the faint sounds of a priest’s sermon or a church choir.

The solution to Riddle 59 is “chalice,” which means the riddle is closely related to Riddle 48, whose possible solutions are “paten,” “chalice,” or “sacramental vessel” (though Megan thinks “paten” most likely). When Jesus instituted what we now know as the Lord’s Supper (or the Eucharist or Communion), he took a cup of wine and offered it to his disciples, and he said, “Drink ye all of this. For this is my blood of the new testament, which shall be shed for many unto remission of sins” (Bibite ex hoc omnes. Hic est enim sanguis meus novi testamenti, qui pro multis effundetur in remissionem peccatorum; Mat. 26:27-28 Douay-Rheims). So now we know why the ring (the chalice) is called a golden tacen (sign/symbol/emblem). To the church, this chalice is more than just a cup; it is a sign of Jesus’ death and of God’s gift of forgiveness. It is meant for all of Jesus’ disciples, and so it is wylted and wended (rolled and turned) from hand to hand, the riddler’s tricky way of saying the cup is passed from person to person.

Riddle 59 Hexham Abbey Chalice.JPG

Here’s a nice, little, Anglo-Saxon chalice from Hexham Abbey
(photo courtesy of C.J.W. Brown)

Now, the only time I stare at my mug is when I’m bored, and I don’t think that’s why the men gaze at this cup (lines 1-3a). So what is it about the cup that makes people stare? It probably helps that the cup is wounded (lines 11-12). I might not stare at any old cup, but I might look twice at a bleeding one. The riddle shows us a cup that is similar to Jesus, who was wounded on the cross. But how is a cup wounded? By chipping or denting it? By throwing it across the room and then stomping on it? Craig Williamson suggests that the wounds on the cup refer to engravings in the gold gilding (page 313). To help us see what he means, here is a picture of the Tassilo Chalice, a cup from the 8th century:


Photo (by Andreas Püttmann) from Wikipedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 2.0 de)

The chalice is engraved (or wounded) with pictures of Jesus and the four Evangelists, the Virgin Mary, and John the Baptist, and all the portraits are surrounded by a beautiful interlace pattern. If I had a cup like this, I’d probably stare at it too! The people gazing at the chalice, though, are doing more than admiring the artwork. They are called gleaw (prudent) and frod (wise) because by looking at the cup they are meditating on Christ’s death. Through its engravings, the cup brings a clear image of Christ into the gazers’ eyes and minds (lines 7b-9a), helping them contemplate the grace offered by God to those who take and drink.

If lines 12b-15a (“The prayer of any man…”) confuse you, you are in good company. Even Anglo-Saxonists don’t agree on what they mean. I’ve followed the translation suggested by Frederick Tupper Jr., which should clarify a bit, but the lines are still somewhat cryptic. Let’s start by looking at the phrase þære bene (the prayer). Though Tupper translates þære as “the,” it could also be translated “that,” and so we can assume the phrase þære bene refers to a specific prayer that has already been mentioned in the riddle. If we move backwards through the riddle looking for a prayer, it doesn’t take long before we find one. Two, actually. The first is in 3b-5a (“He who turned the ring asked for abundant peace…”), and the second in lines 5b-7a (when the ring speaks and names “the Healer”). The first prayer is from a Christian who drinks from the chalice, and the second prayer is from the chalice itself, possibly on behalf of the drinker. Since both are probably praying for grace for the drinker, we might say that they are both part of the same prayer, “that prayer” mentioned in line 12b. And if that prayer were to go ungefullodre (unfulfilled), if the person were not granted grace through the drinking of the wine, or, in other words, if the person did not have the gift of the eucharist and the sacrifice it represents, then he or she would never reach heaven.

So what’s in a cup? Wine, blood, and a lot of religious meaning. Looking up from writing this post, I suddenly find myself disappointed in my coffee mug.


References and Suggested Reading:

Allen, Michael J. B., and Daniel G. Calder, trans. Sources and Analogues of Old English Poetry: The Major Latin Texts in Translation. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1976.

Cosjin, P. J. “Anglosaxonica. IV.” Beitrage, vol. 23 (1898), pages 109-30.

Krapp, George Philip, and Elliott van Kirk Dobbie, eds. The Exeter Book. New York: Columbia University Press, 1936, pages 209-10, 351-52.

Tupper, Frederick Jr., ed. The Riddles of the Exeter Book. Boston: Ginn, 1910.

Williamson, Craig, ed. The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977, pages 102, 313-14.

Riddle 59 (or 57)

The following translation post is by Brett Roscoe, Assistant Professor at The King’s University in Alberta, and researcher of medieval wisdom literature. Take it away, Brett!


Ic seah in healle      hring gyldenne
men sceawian,       modum gleawe,
ferþþum frode.      Friþospede bæd
god nergende       gæste sinum
5     se þe wende wriþan;       word æfter cwæð
hring on hyrede,      hælend nemde
tillfremmendra.      Him torhte in gemynd
his dryhtnes naman      dumba brohte
ond in eagna gesihð,      gif þæs æþelan
10     goldes tacen       ongietan cuþe
ond dryhtnes dolg,      don swa þæs beages
benne cwædon.      Ne mæg þære bene
æniges monnes      ungefullodre
godes ealdorburg      gæst gesecan,
15     rodera ceastre.       Ræde, se þe wille,
hu ðæs wrætlican      wunda cwæden
hringes to hæleþum,       þa he in healle wæs
wylted ond wended       wloncra folmum.


I saw in the hall men behold
a golden ring, prudent in mind,
wise in spirit. He who turned the ring
asked for abundant peace for his spirit
5     from God the Saviour.* Then it spoke a word,
the ring in the gathering. It named the Healer
of those who do good. Clearly into memory
and into the sight of their eyes it brought, without words,
the Lord’s name, if one could perceive
10     the meaning of that noble, golden sign
and the wounds of the Lord, and do as the wounds
of the ring said. The prayer
of any man being unfulfilled,**
his soul cannot reach God’s royal city,
15     the fortress of the heavens. Let him who wishes explain
how the wounds of that curious ring
spoke to men, when, in the hall,
it was rolled and turned in the hands of the bold ones.


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

Translation Notes:

  • * Here I follow the Craig Williamson in translating god nergende as the object of the clause. Given the meaning of biddan (to pray, entreat, ask), I don’t think it likely that God is the subject. After all, who would God pray to?
  • **P.J. Cosijn suggests changing the manuscript ungefullodre to ungefullodra, translating it “of the unbaptized” (p. 130), the sense then being that the prayer of the unbaptized will not get them to heaven. The translation given here adopts the suggestion made by Frederick Tupper Jr. (p. 198).


  • Cosjin, P. J. “Anglosaxonica. IV.” Beitrage, vol. 23 (1898), pages 109-30.
  • Tupper, Frederick Jr., ed. The Riddles of the Exeter Book. Boston: Ginn, 1910.
  • Williamson, Craig, ed. The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977, pages 102, 313-14.

Commentary for Riddle 58

Well, well, well. Here we go with Riddle 58.

Early critics had little trouble solving this riddle, because apparently early critics were far better versed in basic irrigation technology than I am. Have you ever seen one of these?

Well_sweep._Żuraw_studzienny._-_panoramio.jpegPhotograph (by Rafał Klisowski) from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 3.0)

No, neither have I. It’s a well-sweep, also known as a shaduf or shadoof, a counterpoise lift, a well-pole, or a swep. Also the creature described in Riddle 58 (proposed long ago by Holthausen).

It’s actually a pretty snazzy piece of machinery. That tall vertical pole (the anfot of the riddle) creates a base on which the diagonal rod can pivot. The diagonal rod is weighted on the one end (the heavy tail), and the other (the small head) is attached to a long rope (the tongue), carrying a bucket. When you want water, you pull on the rope to lower the bucket; when it’s full (and heavy), you simply let go – the counterweight does the job of raising the water so you don’t have to. Genius.

Ok, so here’s my first question. Why isn’t this one of the obscene riddles? How is it that Anglo-Saxons found more suggestive imagery in an onion than this particular contraption? Maybe it was just too easy. Low-hanging fruit and all that. Moving on.

Any fan of the Exeter Book riddles knows how fond they are of playing positive and negative attributes against one another: things are in turn portrayed by what they are and what they’re not. But I can’t think of another riddle that manages the balance between the two quite as skilfully as this one. Starting at the start (where else?) we get a very important detail: our wiht is one-footed. But that’s left behind almost immediately, as we move onto a list of the things it doesn’t do. This creature doesn’t get around much on its lone foot: not by riding, nor flying, nor sailing on boats – and that’s pretty much all the travel options covered. But then we’re back to what it is, or at least what it has. Its body parts include a tail, a head, a tongue – but no teeth – and a measure of iron. It doesn’t drink, but it does carry water; it doesn’t boast of life but it does serve its master (nice iteration of the implement trope here; see Neville).

There’s a kind of rhythm that develops as we read through this flip-flopping description. The repeated use of ne gives a secondary alliteration on n-, particularly in lines 2-4, but it’s only in line 5 that we find n- carrying metrical alliteration, and that finishes by describing something that the creature is (a nyt “benefit”) rather than what it isn’t. We could compare these oscillations to the see-sawing motion of the well sweep in action. Or at least, I assume we could. I’ve only seen them in pictures.

riddle-58-well-sweep2A well-sweep in “action” from Wikimedia Commons (license: public domain)

These oscillations continue across the poem. The verb ferian (to carry) is used three times (lines 2, 4, 11). The first two are negative: this is a creature that neither moves itself nor is carried by ships. But then in line 11 we’re told that it fereð (carries) water – and it does it a lot. Water, too, is evoked both positively and negatively. This creature doesn’t drink (line 10a), but it does raise lagoflod (water: line 12a). It’s also a wiht (thing: line 2a), but it ne wiht iteþ (doesn’t eat a thing: line 10b). No nægledbord (nail-boarded) boat carries it (line 5a), but it does have its own share of isern (iron: line 9a), and we might think here of the visual and material affinities between a boat and a bucket. We’re told it doesn’t travel – either on the earth, in the air, or over water (lines 2-4). And yet later we find it traversing an earthen hole in order to lift water into the air (lines 9-12).

I said that critics have had little trouble solving Riddle 58 and that’s true. Sort of. The thing being described does seem to answer to all the attributes of a well-sweep. But what’s the Old English for well-sweep? Apparently it’s a three letter word with rad at the start. Unfortunately, no Anglo-Saxon ever bothered to write it down for us.

I ask because the riddle ends not by describing its subject, but by describing the name of its subject. Specifically, a name comprised of three ryhte runstafas (right rune-letters), and starting with rad (lines 14b-15). Runes aren’t all that common in the Exeter Book riddles, and when they are used they tend to be something of a showpiece: either introduced early (as in Riddles 19, 42 and 64), or discussed over several lines (as in Riddle 24, and also the other three I just mentioned). But Dieter Bitterli isn’t wrong when he describes these closing lines as rather abrupt (page 98). I guess if there’s anything better than runes, it’s surprise runes. The rune here is indicated using its name rather than its letter (a technique we’ve also seen in Riddle 42). In the manuscript there’s an accent over rad, perhaps as a hint at the word’s significance.

On its surface the runic conundrum that ends Riddle 58 is as straightforward as they come. Rad (riding) is the name of the rune ᚱ (‘r’). There’s only so many three-lettered words, and not even most of them start with r-. How hard can it be? Early critics settled on rod (rod). Job done.

Others, though, took the puzzle another way: they put the element rad– at the start of a three-letter word to make a compound, like radlim (riding-pole) or radpyt (riding-pit, well) (see Blakeley and Grein). Williamson notes, entirely in passing, that radrod (riding-rod, sweep?) may be a better fit, since “it is the pole and not the pit that is the subject” (page 312).

riddle-58-well-sweep3And yet, still not about sex.
Photograph (by Jan Stubenitzky) from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 3.0)

Hang on, though. Radrod? That works both ways! It’s a compound comprising rad– and a second element, with that second element being a three lettered word starting with r- (Murphy, page 65). It even captures tonally the poem’s see-sawing rhythm. Better yet, because runic letters can stand for their names as well as their phonemes, it’s possible to write rad-rod in runes as ᚱ-ᚱᚩᛞ. As Niles points out (page 92), this construction contains only three distinct letters (with ᚱ repeated), and it starts with rad. So much for a creature that ne fela rideð (doesn’t ride much: line 3a), and yes I do think that’s an intentional joke by the riddle’s author (see Bitterli, page 105). By the end of the poem there’s quite a lot riding on ᚱ.

I’ll stop now.

The runic conundrum at the end of this riddle is uniquely peripheral, but it raises an interesting question. When we solve riddles, do we do it with objects or with words?

I have to confess, the term “well-sweep” meant not a thing to me the first time I read it; my “aha!” moment only came when I saw the photo at the top of this post. Niles argues for the importance of answering the riddles in their own language (that is, Old English rather than modern English), but the riddles themselves tend to place much greater emphasis on their subjects’ physical attributes than on their names. Many of the riddles begin by describing the form of a thing (ic seah “I saw,” or ic eom “I am”). Then again, many also end by asking us to say or to name their subject (saga hwæt ic hatte “say what I am called”).

So, have we solved Riddle 58 when we’ve identified an object that fits all the clues in its first fourteen lines, or when we’ve found an Old English word that answers the letter game in its final two? Is this riddle asking us to think about a thing in the world, or about the word used to signify that thing?

Bonus question: does it matter that the word radrod is a modern invention not attested anywhere in the Old English corpus?
Photograph (by Andrzej Otrębsk) from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 3.0)


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.

Blakeley, L. “Riddles 22 and 58 of the Exeter Book.” Review of English Studies, vol. 9 (1958), pages 241-252.

Grein, Christian W. M. “Kleine Mittheilungen.” Germania, vol. 10 (1865), pages 305-310.

Holthausen, Ferdinand. “Beiträge zur Erklärung und Textkritik altenglischer Dichtungen.” Indogermanische Forschungen, vol. 4 (1894), pages 379-88.

Murphy, Patrick J. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park: 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, vol. 62 (2011), pages 505-519.

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

Symons, Victoria. Runes and Roman Letters in Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016.

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

Riddle 58 (or 56)

Ic wat anfete      ellen dreogan
wiht on wonge.      Wide ne fereð,
ne fela rideð,      ne fleogan mæg
þurh scirne dæg,      ne hie scip fereð,
5     naca nægledbord;      nyt bið hwæþre
hyre mondryhtne      monegum tidum.
Hafað hefigne steort,      heafod lytel,
tungan lange,      toð nænigne,
isernes dæl;      eorðgræf pæþeð.
10     Wætan ne swelgeþ      ne wiht iteþ,
foþres ne gitsað,      fereð oft swa þeah
lagoflod on lyfte;      life ne gielpeð,
hlafordes gifum,      hyreð swa þeana
þeodne sinum.      Þry sind in naman
15     ryhte runstafas,      þara is Rad foran.


I know a one-footed thing, working with strength,
a creature on the plain. It does not travel far,
nor rides much, nor can it fly
through the bright day, no ship ferries it,
5     no nail-planked boat; it is however a benefit
to its master at many times.
It has a heavy tail, a little head,
a long tongue, not any teeth,
a share of iron; it treads an earth-hole.
10     It swallows no water nor eats a thing,
nor desires food, often however it ferries
a flood into the air; it boasts not of life
of a lord’s gifts, nonetheless it obeys
its own ruler. In its name are three
15     right rune-letters, with ‘rad’ at the front.


Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Well-sweep

Commentary for Riddle 57

This commentary post is once again by Michael J. Warren from Royal Holloway. Take it away, Michael!


This has to be my favourite of all the Old English riddles, for two reasons. Firstly, the solution is probably a bird (my specialism), but even more intriguing is the fact that we just don’t know what the solution is. The Exeter Book riddles are renowned, of course, for their enigmatic absence of answers in the manuscript (unlike the various Anglo-Latin examples), but this is one of the few that still lacks a solution with general or near unanimous agreement. Anglo-Saxonists are still debating the possible solutions for this little critter; the only thing most scholars agree on is that the “subject is quite firmly assigned to the category bird” (Barley, page 169).

For John D. Niles, the “most likely self-naming black bird we are ever likely to snare” (page 129) is the crow, but a wide number of avian suspects have been recommended over the years, and various other “flying” answers as well (see the solutions following my translation of this riddle). For starters, then, what this pithy riddle does is demonstrate very nicely how this collection of conundrums is still playing out its effects over a thousand years after the poems were written down: they continue to tease us with a curious blend of obfuscation and illumination. As it turns out, this is something birds characteristically do as well. I like to think it’s no accident that birds are probably the answer to Riddle 57: a devious subject at the heart of a devious genre that continually escapes identification and finality.


Pretty much all European corvid species have been suggested as solutions to Riddle 57, but only jackdaws and rooks habitually gather in groups. Photo (by Bob Jones) of jackdaws from Wikipedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 2.0)

When we compare the mystery subjects of this Riddle 57 with the other bird riddles (Riddles 7, 8, 9, 10 and 24), there are enough similarities to make me think that some sort of bird must be the answer. These creatures hlude cirmað “cry loudly” (like the nightingale in Riddle 8, line 3b), the lyft byreð “the air bears” the birds in the same way it does the swan (Riddle 7, lines 4b-5a) and barnacle goose (Riddle 10, line 9b), and both the swan and the birds of Riddle 57 tredað “tread” when they alight, inhabiting opposing human and nonhuman territories. These nifty birds also inhabit what I call the “sometimes” motif – hwilum “sometimes” (line 5b) behaviours typify these creatures. As we’ll see below, birds are known for this sort of unpredictability (see Riddle 24’s jay for a whole load of hwilum!).

The final half line also seems like it really should be a clincher: Nemnað hy sylfe. The grammar of this line allows us to read it in two ways: either “Name them yourselves,” which fits the usual instruction from the riddles’ subjects (“Say what I am called”), or the now more popular reading, “They name themselves.” The latter might point us, then, to song as a clue. Certainly in other bird riddles, sound can be an important indicator, and many Old English bird names recorded in the glossaries onomatopoeically mimic song. On this basis, Dieter Bitterli has argued for an etymological tactic for solving the bird riddles: the diversity of the bird’s call in Riddle 8 leads us to nightingale (OE niht “night” + galan “to sing”) as evident in the poem’s synonym æfensceop “evening-singer” (line 5a). Similarly, Riddle 7 leads us to Old English swan (mute swan) through the use of paronomasia (word play on similar sounding words): the various /sw/ words direct us towards the name of the bird and its characteristic wing-music in flight.


Photo of swifts (by Keta) – a popular solution to Riddle 57 – from Wikipedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 3.0)


Bitterli’s theory is convincing. The problem is that while birds do conveniently sometimes spell out their names for us with their calls, they also have a tendency to transform, obscure and avoid identity. Take Riddle 24, for instance. We know what the answer is here, because it’s spelt out for us in runes which we must translate into Old English (higoræ “jay”), but the most distinctive sonic feature of this bird is that its tell-tale song keeps changing – it’s defined, apparently, according to the fact that it sounds like just about everything else. And birds generally in the Exeter Book riddles are characterised by their continual changing: the swan (Riddle 7) is paradoxically silent and loud, and travels afar. The cuckoo (Riddle 9), also a far-traveller, grows to be a huge bird that far outsizes the nest of its host and its usurped earlier identity, so moving from cuckoo to host-species to cuckoo again. The barnacle goose (Riddle 10) undergoes a remarkable metamorphosis, emerging and deriving from another creature entirely, and, like two other birds, does a disappearing act for half the year. The nightingale (Riddle 8) and jay (Riddle 24) change their voices as they please, also appropriating new identities.

Readers will undoubtedly continue to propose answers to Riddle 57. I’m for swift or swallow as it goes, but, actually, I think this might be beside the point. Perhaps we shouldn’t be in the business of seeking an answer at all. In fact, my point is rather to suggest that these secretive lytle wihte “little creatures” (line 1b) achieve their impact so well because they can’t be identified. This might seem counterintuitive on the face of it, but it’s borne out by other Anglo-Saxon writings on birds. Indeed, scholars across the medieval period stress that what is most birdy about birds is their transformative abilities. Or to put it another way, what most defines birds is their habit of avoiding definition – they’re intrinsically unknowable in some respects, escapologists.

The most popular encyclopaedist of the late Middle Ages, Bartholomew the Englishman, notes repeatedly that there’s an in between-ness apparent in their very substance, þat beþ bytwene þe tweye elementis þat beþ most heuy and most liȝt (that is between the two elements that are most heavy and most light) (Seymour, page 596). Bartholomew’s immediate source, though, is one of the most influential texts of the Anglo-Saxon age – Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies. In his introduction to birds, Isidore remarks how “They are called birds (avis) because they do not have set paths (via), but travel by means of pathless (avia) ways” (Barney, page 264). In his commentary on Riddle 51 on this site, Britt Mize makes a great case for the importance of paths or tracks (a motif that occurs in a number of the riddles). In Riddle 51, birds and (inky) paths are associable. As Britt suggests, “a reader, just like a hunter or tracker, must carefully observe and interpret the signs he or she finds, endeavouring to stay with them, going where they lead in pursuit of a goal.”


Page of from Isidore’s Etymologies (8th century), Brussels, Royal Library of Belgium, from Wikipedia Commons (public domain)


In Isidore’s statement, however, and in Riddle 57, this pursuit turns out to be rather more complicated. Birds outfly our pursuit, and overwhelm us with their great variety and multitude: “There is a single word for birds, but various kinds, for just as they differ among themselves in appearance, so do they differ also in the diversity of their natures” (Isidore, in Barney, page 263). Names and categories, it is implied, just aren’t sufficient to account for all the bird species that there are, even if we could know them all, which we can’t, because birds can disappear without signe neiþer tokene (sign nor token) (Bartholomew, in Seymour, page 596) – it’s impossible for mankind “to penetrate all the wildernesses of India and Ethiopia and Scythia, so as to know the kinds of birds and their differentiating characteristics” (Isidore, in Barney, page 263). These sentiments are echoed in a 10th century Latin poem on birdsong:

Quis volucrum species numeret, quis nomina discat?
Mille avium cantus, vocum discrimina mille.
Nec nostrum (fateor) tantas discernere voces.
(De cantibus avium, lines 1-3, in Buecheler and Riese, page 197)

(Whoever counts the types of birds, who learns their names? There are a thousand songs of birds, a thousand different voices. Nor do I, myself, claim to distinguish such voices.)

These sorts of issues seem to me to be at the heart of Riddle 57. The brief description identifies something which is very bird-like (particularly in comparison with the other bird riddles), and yet avoids offering us anything more precise. They force us to inhabit a space somewhere between knowledge and ignorance, just as the birds themselves sometimes dwell with niþþa bearna “the sons of men” (line 6a) and sometimes move beyond our boundaries to the bearonæssas “woody headlands” (lines 5a). Whatever its immediate sources or contexts may have been, Riddle 57 manifests the sorts of anxieties over naming birds and their characteristics evident in texts like Isidore’s – these are birds that apparently name themselves, but (still) can’t be named.

All of this avian mystery points up another potential, related concern of this poem. Birds remind us how frequently these poems cause us to go round in circles: the switchback evasions of the dark birds in Riddle 57 place them firmly in line with an important effect of the Exeter Book riddles’ strategies – they expose the limits of knowledge, even within texts that urge us to exceed limitations and certify uncertainties. In my reading of Riddle 57, then, two important aspects come together – birds and elusive answers – to emphasise the sophistication of these texts that are so often about testing the limits of knowledge. Birds, that is, might actually be employed purposefully in this riddle and in other bird riddles, because like the mysterious and evasive solutions that we’re required to guess at through complex linguistic play, they’re continuously seen to escape definition or certainties.

In her discussion of wonder in the Exeter Book riddles, Patricia Dailey observes that by “forcing us to think through the means of how we come to know the creature described in language,” these texts highlight “a link in epistemological knowing and a limit inscribed in naming” (page 464). In other words, even if we can correctly guess a solution, a name can only get us so far – there is still a gap between the mysterious thing itself and the name we choose to give it; mysteries still exist. Birds, I think, show us this particularly well. In Riddle 57, the grammatical ambiguity of line 6b demands, on the one hand, that we partake in the typical naming game, and on the other states that the birds, in fact, name themselves, neither requiring our intervention (as namers), nor, in fact, allowing us this privilege. Naming birds doesn’t satisfactorily encompass their ever-changing, diverse identities, and particularly not when we can’t saga “say” a name at all.


References and Suggested Reading:

Barley, Nigel F. “Structural Aspects of the Anglo-Saxon Riddle.” Semiotica, vol. 10 (1974), pages 143-75.

Barney, Stephen A., and others, trans. The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

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

Buecheler, Franciscus, and Alexander Riese, eds. Anthologia Latina, sive Poesis Latinae supplementum. 2 vols. Leipzig: B. G. Teubneri, 1869-1926. Translation from Latin by Virginia Warren.

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, 2013, pages 451-72.

Krapp, George Philip, and Elliott van Kirk Dobbie, eds. The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records. 6 vols. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1931-1953.

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

Seymour, M. C., and others, ed. On the Properties of Things: John Trevisa’s Translation of Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De proprietatibus rerum. 3 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.

Riddle 57 (or 55)

Today’s translation post is by Michael J. Warren. He has just completed his PhD on birds in medieval English poetry at Royal Holloway, where he is now a visiting lecturer. His new projects continue to focus on animal studies and ecocritical approaches to the natural world. Check out Michael’s blog, The Compleat Birder, here.

Ðeos lyft byreð      lytle wihte
ofer beorghleoþa.      Þa sind blace swiþe,
swearte salopade.      Sanges rope
heapum ferað,      hlude cirmað,
tredað bearonæssas,      hwilum burgsalo
niþþa bearna.      Nemnað hy sylfe.

The air bears little creatures
over the hillsides. They are very black,
swarthy, dark-coated. Bountiful of song
they journey in groups, cry loudly,
tread the woody headlands, sometimes the town-dwellings
of the sons of men. They name themselves.

Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Swifts, Swallows, Crows, Jackdaws, Starlings, House martins, Letters, Musical notes, Gnats, Stormclouds, Hailstones, Raindrops, Bees, Midges, Damned souls, or Demons