Commentary for Riddle 23

Erm…is anyone else a bit scared of whatever Riddle 23 is packing? I mean, I like heroic battling as much as the next person, but this poem is a tad intense. It’s also fairly easy to solve. In fact, the consensus that it refers to a bow (OE boga) is pretty strong.

Riddle 23 Bayeux TapestryCan you spot the archer in this scene from the Bayeux Tapestry? Photo (by Gabriel Seah) from the Wikimedia Commons.

According to Donald K. Fry, “Crossbow” and “Phallus” also get a shout out (p. 23), but since the first is a type of bow and the second is pretty horrific in this context, I won’t take an extended go at solutions. I will say, however, that the first line gives the game away. At least it does if you think really hard about it. Taking up the speaker’s recommendation to turn back the name Agof, we get Foga, which then needs to be corrected to Boga. This change requires us to speculate that a scribe copying out this poem was used to replacing “b”s with “f”s to suit her/his own pronunciation and spelling conventions (Williamson, pp. 204-5). Oh, Anglo-Saxons. You’re so complex.

More straightforward are all the references to poison in the poem. The venomous association of arrows is pretty strongly signaled, with references to an ætren onga (poisonous dart) at line 4a and ealfelo attor (terrible poison) at line 9a. In line 8b, the bow also refers to itself as spilde geblonden (debased by destruction), and we know from looking at (ge)blandan’s Dictionary of Old English (DOE) entries that we’re dealing with a liquid-y sort of blending or mixing that can also denote infection or taint. This liquidity (SUCH a good word!) is carried out in the poetic metaphor of the bow delivering a mandrinc (evil drink) at line 13a.

There’s also some debate about lines 13-14 in general and the term fullwer (compensation, i.e. “full wergild“) in specific. Noting that this word might not actually be a compound at all, the DOE offers a few options for translating this passage: “‘so that he pays for that evil drink with his strength, [pays] full compensation at once with his life,’ or, if the subject is wer (man) and full (cup) is the object of geceapaþ:‘the man pays for that evil drink with his strength, [for] the cup at once with his life.'” The “cup” reading works nicely with the poison, of course, but the rest of the poem’s connotations of crime and punishment make room for the “compensation” version.

So now you’re probably wondering: did the Anglo-Saxons actually poison the tips of their weapons? That’s a really good question. I don’t know about the archaeological record off the top of my head (homework!), but certainly there are other poetic references to poisoned points in The Battle of Maldon (see lines 46-7 and 145b-6a) and potentially Beowulf (see lines 1457-60a). Of course, the poison/bow motif might also relate to the fact that the yew used to make bows was poisonous. Here, we’ve got a nice little Anglo-Latin riddle in the way of Aldhelm of Malmesbury’s Enigma 69, De taxo (about the yew-tree) for a comparison. Lines 5-8 read:

Sed me pestiferam fecerunt fata reorum,
Cumque venenatus glescit de corpore stipes,
Lurcones rabidi quem carpunt rictibus oris,
Occido mandentum mox plura cadavera leto. (in Glorie)

(but the fates have made me deadly to the guilty. A poisonous branch grows from my body, and when pillagers, mad of mouth, seize it with open jaws, I soon wipe out many corpses of the chewers with death.)

This 7th/8th-century abbot, bishop and writer extraordinaire is a font of riddley knowledge on all sorts of topics. And his poem is proof that some Anglo-Saxons knew that yew was a tad on the massively dangerous side (although there’s also an article by Lenore Abraham suggesting that yew wasn’t all that accessible in Anglo-Saxon England). But that doesn’t seem to have stopped the figure on the right side of the 8th-century Franks Casket’s lid from shooting up the place:

Riddle 23 Franks Casket LidPhoto (by FinnWikiNo) from the Wikimedia Commons.

Since we’re doing a bit of Latin show-and-tell, let’s also take a look at another related riddle. Tatwine, the 8th-century Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote a pretty gosh-darn similar poem, called Enigma 34, De faretra (about the quiver). It goes a little something like this:

Omnes enim diris complent mea uiscera flammae
Nam me flamma ferox stimulis deuastat acerius
Vt pacis pia mox truculenter foedera frangam
Non tamen oblectat me sponte subire duellum. (in Glorie)

(Flames, terrible indeed, fill all my insides, for a bold fire lays waste to me with sharp spurs so that, wildly, I soon break faithful agreements of peace; nevertheless it does not delight me in myself to go to war.)

Well hello there, fiery flames! Aren’t you frequently linked to poison in Old English lit? (the answer is yes…yes they are). Of course, this quiver full of arrows isn’t creepily eager to get involved in the whole warfare thing. But I guess bows and quivers can be attributed with different personalities. I’m so tempted to draw you a picture of this. So tempted.

But I suppose I’ll stick to proper commentary this week.

What else should we notice about this poem? Well, did anyone catch that opening formula? Line 2b’s reference to being on gewin sceapen (shaped for battle) is – quite importantly – the same phrase that describes the sword in line 1b of Riddle 20. Weapons of the world, unite! Other linguistic cleverness can be seen at the very end of Riddle 23 in that little binding-pun. The tongue-in-cheek final flourish – Nelle ic unbunden ænigum hyran / nymþe searosæled (Unbound, I will not obey anyone unless skillfully tied) – is clearly a reference to both 1) the controlling sort of binding that one could inflict upon a living creature and 2) the stringing of a bow. Such a clever riddler.

I’m going to stop now, although I could go on. I could list the references to archery that come up in other brilliant Anglo-Saxon texts. I could talk about that rather optimistic compound feorhbealu (deadly evil) and how it only occurs here and in Beowulf. I could remark that this bow’s ruler is clearly not a very nice fellow, with all his designing of distress (line 6b) and what-not. But I’m quite tired. And I need to go buy milk.

References and Suggested Reading:

Abraham, Lenore. “The Devil, the Yew Bow, and the Saxon Archer.” Proceedings of the PMR Conference, vol. 16-17 (1992-3), pages 1-12.

Dictionary of Old English: A-G Online. Ed. by Antonette diPaolo Healey, Dorothy Haines, Joan Holland, David McDougall, and Ian McDougall, with Pauline Thompson and Nancy Speirs. Web interface by Peter Mielke and Xin Xiang. Toronto: Dictionary of Old English Project, 2007. [with the next roll-out, you’ll be able to access the DOE a set amount of times for free!]

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

Glorie, F., ed. Variae Collectiones Aenigmatum Merovingicae Aetatis. Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, vol. 133-133A. Turnhout: Brepols, 1968.

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


One thought on “Commentary for Riddle 23

  1. Constantine

    “I could list the references to archery that come up in other brilliant Anglo-Saxon texts. … But I’m quite tired.”

    Collecting and translating literary evidence pertaining to archery is a hobby of mine. So, to call this a huge tease would be an understatement. 🙂

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