Commentary for Riddle 19

Warning: a LOT of ink has been spilled on this bad boy. I’ll try to sum it up as best I can, but if you’re interested in this riddle in particular, you really ought to follow up with the suggested reading below, which should provide you with a fuller scholarly back-story. Why so popular, you might ask? Well…that’s easy…RUNES! And horses and hawks and all the other lovely things that spring to mind when we think of Anglo-Saxons. Here, have a picture of a horse. Because I can.


Well, that’s a very nice horse, you might say, but where, oh where, is the horse in this poem? Of course, it’s the runes that hold the key. The four groups of runes spell out words in reverse. If you flip the first, ᛋ ᚱ ᚩ ᚻ (SROH), you get hors (horse). Similarly, the second, ᚾ ᚩ ᛗ (NOM) spells mon (man) and the fourth, ᚳ ᚩ ᚠ ᚩ ᚪ ᚻ (C O F O A H), haofoc (hawk). These largely equate with the closely-related Riddle 64’s runic horse/man/hawk. You may be wondering why I’ve skipped the third, ᚪ ᚷ ᛖ ᚹ (A G E W), and that is of course because people fight about it a lot. We’re talking mega scholarly bloodbath when it comes to interpreting wega. Okay, maybe it’s not quite that dramatic, but there are certainly a few options to pick from. One is that it is a variant spelling of wiga (warrior), which would mean we have two people in the runes (or perhaps poetic variation). Another option is a form of wægn (wagon), but that’s a bit of a stretch. Better options include a plural form of weg (way/path) or weg with a long e (wave). What we have, then, is a man with a hawk travelling on a horse over some paths or waves. Sounds like a nice little holiday.

Of course, when it comes to solutions, some people stop right there. Donald K. Fry’s list of proposed riddle solutions (at p. 23) points to quite a few scholars who feel that decoding the runes leads directly to the solution, which they take to be Falconry, Hunting or even just a Horseman and Hawk (sometimes wega is interpreted as another person leading to a warrior/servant reading and sometimes these creatures are assumed to be accompanied by a wagon, as mentioned above). Here, have a drawing of what this group might look like. Because I can.

Riddle 19 Horse Man HawkBut this all seems a little obvious. And we know that Anglo-Saxon riddlers are really quite clever, which is why some people push this poem a little further. Metaphorical interpretations of the riddle include Norman E. Eliason’s: Writing. According to Eliason, the swiftly travelling group represents the fingers and pen tip, as well as the hand (with a pun on nægledne (nailed) pointing to finger-nails) and the pen’s plume, which together leave tracks of ink on the page. I get the plume/hawk equation, but I must admit I’m a bit stumped as to how the fingers, pen tip and hand represent a horse and man. I guess it would look something like this:

Riddle 10 WritingNow you understand why I’ve gotten into cartooning…you try finding a ready-made picture of this craziness!

But there’s another metaphorical reading available to us, and it works better for many reasons. This is of course: Ship. Craig Williamson suggested this solution in his edition of the riddles and developed it in his later translation (pp. 186-92 and 173, respectively). The key, he claims, lies in the common Old English kenning that associates the ship with a sea-horse. This explains why it is nailed and works nicely with the reading of wega as “ways” or “waves” (although Williamson takes it as a “man” word). If the horse is a ship, then the hawk is its sail and the man its sailor. Not convinced yet? You soon will be. Indeed, Mark Griffith developed this solution by pointing out a nifty linguistic feature. Questioning why the runes are written in reverse, Griffith demonstrates that the first rune of each cluster (or final letter of each word) together spells SNAC. Rather than a tasty treat, an Old English snac(c) refers to a swiftly sailing war-ship. Oh snap. This is why it is so, so, so, so, so, so important to solve the riddles in their original language and not just using Modern English words/concepts.

Riddle 19 Oseberg ShipThe Oseberg ship in Oslo, Norway (not technically Anglo-Saxon, but close enough). Photo (by Grzegorz Wysocki) from the Wikimedia Commons.

So, those are our solutions. But of course we’re not done yet. We still have to talk quickly about emendations (or changes made to the manuscript reading by its editors). First of all, you should note that on siþe (on a journey) doesn’t actually appear in the manuscript. Editors have added it in to lengthen out the first half-line and preserve the poem’s metrics. A less major change is to the beginning of line 3, which actually reads swist ne, not swiftne. But even scribes make mistakes, so modern editors occasionally have to reinterpret bits like this to make sense of them. We run into trouble, though, when editors read errors where there are none and emend in ways that change the poem’s interpretation. This is what Jonathan Wilcox argues Craig Williamson has done in his edition. Williamson changes the final half-line from Saga hwæt ic hatte (Say what I am called) to Saga hwæt hit hatte (Say what it is called). This is an attempt to make the final question more logical – the poem isn’t written in the first person, so why would it ask a who-am-I question at the end? Surely, it should ask what all this hullabaloo the riddler has just described indicates instead. Well, Wilcox argues that the complexity of the riddle, the concatenation of descriptive details and the use of runes are all intended to trick the solver and distract him or her from answering the simple question at the end: Who am I? To which we should respond: “You are the riddler! And who cares about all that other stuff!” This, Wilcox takes as a mock-riddle that parodies normal riddling conventions (at pp. 186-7). That’s “conventions” as in “practices” rather than “gatherings”…although a Comic-Con-style riddle convention would be worth seeing. Costume ideas, anyone?

Right, this post is already quite long, so I think I should start to wrap it up. But before I do, I feel I ought to at least allude to the wider discussion of runes and how they functioned in Old English. The question of runic pronunciation came up in the previous post’s comments, although unfortunately whether runes in Old English poetry were read out as letters, read out by their runic name or merely a written device that was never intended to be spoken is open for debate. What is clear is that – whatever their origins – they were often written or copied in a Christian context. To quote Robert DiNapoli’s rather eloquent conclusions about runic use in Old English: “The runes, for Anglo-Saxon poets at least, are ambiguity incarnate. However much assimilated to scribal and authorial practice in a monastic setting, their angular forms continue to point to their origins outside the cloister and outside the grand edifice of Christian literacy erected in Anglo-Saxon England by the Church. With only vague and scant knowledge of what the runes may have meant to their pagan forebears in the poetic craft, the poets who use them in surviving texts make them very much their own, emblems of an ancient and venerable verbal art whose authority they continued to honour alongside that of the institutional authorities of Scripture and the Church Fathers” (p. 161). How wonderfully syncretistic.

I’ll leave you on that note. I need to go pursue my newfound (and promising, no doubt) career in obscure cartooning.

Riddle 19 Runic Sign Off

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, esp. pages 86-91.

DiNapoli, Robert. “Odd Characters: Runes in Old English Poetry.” In Verbal Encounters: Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse Studies for Roberta Frank. Edited by Antonina Harbus and Russell Poole. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005, pages 145-61.

Eliason, Norman E. “Four Old English Cryptographic Riddles.” Studies in Philology, vol. 49 (1952), pages 553-65.

Fry, Donald K. “Exeter Book Riddle Solutions.” Old English Newsletter, vol. 15 (1981), pages 22-33.

Griffith, Mark. “Riddle 19 of the Exeter Book: SNAC, an Old English Acronym.” Notes and Queries, new series, vol. 237 (1992), pages 15-16.

Wilcox, Jonathan. “Mock-riddles in Old English: Exeter Riddles 86 and 19.” Studies in Philology, vol. 93 (1996), pages 180-7.

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

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


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