Commentary for Riddle 14

So, revealing that my childhood nickname was “Moo Moo” (thanks, Dad) is endearing, right? Well, maybe it’s because of that personal connection, but I really have a soft spot for the Old English cattle riddles. Hopefully you’ll all remember the potential “Ox and Ox-hide” of Riddle 12, and I’ll go ahead and hint that you haven’t seen the last of Anglo-Saxon oxen (say that twelve times fast) in this collection. Admittedly, this riddle is more interested in the horn itself, rather than the animal that provided it, but still.

Drinking Horn[Me with Corpus Christi College, Cambridge’s aurochs drinking horn at my matriculation ceremony in 2008. Photo courtesy of James Brown. But not THE James Brown.]

I guess the first order of business concerns the solution. But, unfortunately for the purposes of filling out a blog-post, there really hasn’t been a great deal of debate for this one. In fact, because the solution “Horn” – which is the same word in Old and Modern English – has received such wide support, the riddle hasn’t been hugely popular in Anglo-Saxon scholarship. But even if the solution is a bit…well…obvious, the poem still deserves to be read!

In fact, it’s a very stylish poem, as far as Old English poetics are concerned. Many of the lines employ double alliteration, which is when two words (or elements of a compound word) in the first half-line share the same initial sound as a word in the second half-line. Like “w” in line 1: Ic wæs wæpenwiga. Nu mec wlonc þeceð. In fact, there, we’ve got three “w”s in the first half-line! Calm down, poet! Sheesh! Old English poetry doesn’t require double alliteration by any stretch – the poem would still be nice and poetic-like if the half-lines were linked by only one alliterating word in each (like “g” in line 2: geong hagostealdmon golde ond sylfore). So 12+ lines of double alliteration is extra fancy. The reason I say “12+” is because it could be argued that lines 4 and 11 doubly alliterate too…it’s just that adverbs like hwilum (sometimes) don’t usually contribute to the alliteration.

But this is all getting terribly technical. Let’s pause over the use of hwilum for a moment. It certainly deserves attention because this word is used no fewer than 10 times in 19 lines! It’s as though the horn is saying: “Look at all the things I can do! I’m a multitasker!” In the very least, the poet is emphasizing the horn’s versatility through repetition. Also, I wonder if maybe all these “hw” sounds are meant to recall the shape of the mouth when blowing a horn and the actual sound that it would make. I don’t want to read too much into alliteration (sorry…back to that), but “w” and “h” alliterate A LOT in this poem. This is significant not only on an aural level, but also because Horn starts with an “h.” I get the sense that the poet wants us to solve this riddle a bit too much.

Bayeux Horn[Bayeux Tapestry scene. I don’t know what’s going on with the guy on the right’s hand.]

Okay, enough with the sounds now. I get it: you want themes and imagery. Well, this poem is not about to let you down. In it, we have all the trappings of the Anglo-Saxon, aristocratic warrior lifestyle: treasure, horses, ships (sea-steeds!), drinking, battle and chasing off enemies. And there appears to be a bit of kissing going on, but I’ll let you read into that what you will (check out Riddle 63 too…this seems to be a thing).

One aspect I like most about this riddle is the tension between the object-as-object and the object-as-agent. Of course, this is a theme we see throughout the riddles, but I think it’s especially interesting here with all the emphasis on actions, as opposed to just attributes. In only 19 lines, the horn characterizes itself as the passive object of the following actions: it’s covered with treasure, kissed, borne by horses and ships, filled up with drink, despoiled, carried and forced to hang on the wall. These are all things done to what used to be a wæpenwiga (armed warrior) but is now an object of heroic use. However, a shift takes place in the final lines after the horn is forced to swallow someone’s breath, which seems to draw on the idea that the Anglo-Saxons understood speech as coming from the chest (see Jager, full ref below). I find that image powerfully weird. It’s almost like it’s undergoing mouth-to-mouth, and, when it takes in the person’s breath, it gains a voice. In fact, after the ingesting of air, the horn begins to take action: it calls warriors to a feast, reclaims stolen goods and puts enemies to flight. This little theory is slightly marred by the early reference to the horn calling warriors to battle in lines 4-5, but perhaps we can assume that the calling to action is another mouth-to-mouth image…after all, it takes place just after the kissing. At any rate, all this object-agent tension is nicely summed up by the use of wlonc (proud) twice – once in line 1 and once in line 17. This is an envelope pattern that ties together the proud retainer who uses the horn and the horn itself, which proudly calls together the retainers for wine-sodden bonding. Good times.

Righto, before I let you go, there’s one final thing I want to draw your attention to. Riddle-objects that relate to drinking are not just a remnant of the past. Has anyone seen the San Miguel commercial? Watch it…I’m sure someone on the creative team was a student of Old English!:



Jager, Eric. “Speech and the Chest in Old English Poetry: Orality or Pectorality?” Speculum, vol. 65 (1990), pages 845-59.

I also published an academic version of this post recently: Cavell, Megan. “Sounding the Horn in Exeter Book Riddle 14.” The Explicator, vol. 72 (2014), pages 324-7.


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