A Brief Introduction to Riddles

A bit about Old English riddles (just for context): Most of these poems come down to us in one manuscript, the Exeter Book. This manuscript (housed in Exeter Cathedral Library) is over a thousand years old and contains only poetic texts, from all sorts of genres. The manuscript has been edited in its entirety by Krapp and Dobbie, as well as Muir, and the riddles have also received special treatment by Williamson (see below for full bibliographic details). We’re also looking forward to Andy Orchard’s forthcoming edition, translation and commentary of the Anglo-Saxon riddle tradition (i.e. both Old English and Latin).

Because the poems have no titles (or solutions!), they are usually known by the numbers their editors have assigned to them. These can be different depending on the edition. To make things easy, we’ll use Krapp and Dobbie’s numbers and note Williamson’s in brackets.

We also provide solutions, but you should keep in mind that these are often scholarly guesses. In fact, riddle scholarship has had a lot of fun over the years coming up with competing theories for the solutions of each riddle. In some cases, the riddles are translations of Latin poems that do have solutions as titles. In other cases, debates have raged for years with little or no consensus. Where there is a lot of disagreement, we’ll note as many solutions as we can and explain why a few are particularly good contenders.

Of course, solving the riddles in some ways misses the point. Why these poems were recorded unsolved is not clear, but what is clear is that they are wonderful works of art just as they are. So enjoy reading them! And feel free to get in touch with questions, comments and alternate solutions.


But maybe you want to know more right now! If you’re interested in learning more about riddles, there are lots of useful resources out there.

Editions of the texts appear online (UCalgary), as well as in the following printed books (mentioned above):

  • Elliott van Kirk Dobbie and George Philip Krapp (eds), The Exeter Book, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936)
  • Bernard J. Muir (ed), The Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry: an Edition of Exeter Dean and Chapter MS 3501, 2 volumes (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1994)
  • Craig Williamson (ed), The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977)

Translations into Modern English appear in these books:

  • Kevin Crossley-Holland (trans), The Exeter Book Riddles, revised edition (London: Enitharmon Press, 2008)
  • Greg Delanty, Seamus Heaney and Michael Matto, The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation (New York: Norton, 2010)
  • F. H. Whitman (ed and trans), Old English Riddles (Ottawa: Canadian Federation for the Humanities, 1982)
  • Craig Williamson (trans), A Feast of Creatures: Anglo-Saxon Riddle-Songs (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982)

General information about the Old English riddle tradition can be found online, as well as in the following encyclopedias and companions:

  • The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England, eds Michael Lapidge, et al (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999) – see both Jonathan Wilcox’s entry on “Riddles, Old English” and Andy Orchard’s entry on “Enigmata”
  • The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature, eds Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991)
  • Medieval England: An Encyclopedia, eds Paul E. Szarmach, M. Teresa Tavormina and Joel T. Rosenthal (New York: Garland, 1998) – see David F. Johnson’s entry on “Riddles, Old English”

Another useful introduction is Jonathan Wilcox’s article, ““Tell Me What I Am”: the Old English Riddles,” in Readings in Medieval Texts: Interpreting Old and Middle English Literature, eds David Johnson and Elaine Treharne (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 46-59.

You can find more specific information in the following recent articles and books:

  • Dieter Bitterli, 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)
  • Patrick J. Murphy, Unriddling the Exeter Riddles (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011)
  • John D. Niles, Old English Enigmatic Poems and the Play of the Texts, Studies in the Early Middle Ages 13 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2006)
  • Andy Orchard, “Enigma Variations: The Anglo-Saxon Riddle-Tradition,” in Latin Learning and English Lore: Studies in Anglo-Saxon Literature for Michael Lapidge, eds Andy Orchard and Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe, 2 volumes (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), v. 1, pp. 284-304.

You can also find out more about Jennifer Neville’s Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project on the Old English Riddles at Royal Holloway University of London here.

Finally, bibliographies of riddle scholarship appear on the Kalamazoo Riddle Group’s website, as well as in Russell G. Poole’s book, Old English Wisdom Poetry, Annotated Bibliographies of Old and Middle English Literature 5 (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1998).


4 thoughts on “A Brief Introduction to Riddles

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  2. Pingback: A Riddle for You | linalaukaR

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