Commentary for Riddle 37

When it comes to over-the-top manly virility, the smith has got it going on (is a sentence I never thought I would write until this very moment). So it makes sense that the smith’s tools – in this case, the bellows – might be associated with a certain amount of naughtiness. If you didn’t realize that this riddle is a bit naughty (bless), then please allow me to direct you to line 2a’s swollenness, whatever is shooting out of an “eye” in line 5b, as well as all the servantile following and filling going on in between. Still don’t believe me that this poem is chock-a-block full of double entendre? Then mosey on down to the final line’s reference to the impossibly incestuous fathering of sons (not unlike Riddle 33’s mother-daughter imagery). This riddle is having fun with tools, in every sense of the word.

“Why a smith?,” you might wonder. To which I reply:


Image of Völundr (apparently) from the Wikimedia Commons.

Whoa there, put away those guns! I am joking, obviously. This particular blacksmith is far too grim for my tastes. But it does remind us that hyper-masculinity is associated with smithing, servitude and sexual acts elsewhere in the Old English corpus. I’m referring to the poem Deor (also in the Exeter Book), which mentions the nasty lengths to which Weland/Völundr the Smith will go to take revenge on the enemy who imprisoned him because of his skillful smithing: namely, the rape and impregnation of his daughter, Beadohild/Böðvildr.

The goings on of Riddle 37 may be more consensual, although with a servant involved there’s an element of power/hierarchy here too. Furthermore, violence lurks under the surface in lines 5-7’s reference to death. This death reference is quite clever, since it relates to the expiration of the bellows: it breathes out all of its air, but rather than dying it is revived again and again. It’s this particular clue that makes the solution “bellows” fairly certain (despite “wagon” also having been suggested). In fact, the same clue can be found in Symphosius’ Latin bellows-riddle, Enigma 73, Uter Follis:

Non ego continuo morior, dum spiritus exit;

Nam redit adsidue, quamvis et saepe recedit:

Et mihi nunc magna est animae, nunc nulla facultas. (Glorie, vol. 133A, page 694)

(I do not die continually, when breath leaves; for it returns regularly, although it often departs: sometimes my supply of spirit is large, sometimes not.)

The Anglo-Saxon Aldhelm also has a Latin bellows-riddle (Enigma 11, Poalum), but it doesn’t overlap nearly as nicely as Symphosius’ text does.

A further indication that we’re dealing with a bellows rather than a wagon comes in the form of line 7b’s verbal play. Blæd (breath/glory) is the first element of the compound blædbylig, which glosses the Latin follis in The Harley Latin-Old English Glossary (Oliphant F625). What does follis mean? Dun-dah-dah-dun: Bellows! I think we have a winner, folks:

Bellows_(PSF)Drawing of a fireplace hand-bellows (by Pearson Scott Foresman) from the Wikimedia Commons.

One final thing to mention before I run away to frolic with lambs and stuff vast quantities of hoarded chocolate into my face (I  wrote this post over Easter): this is not the only Old English bellows riddle. Oh no, folks, it most certainly is not. You’ll have to wait a while to hear about Riddle 87, but I assure you it is a clear relative of Riddle 37. “Children of the bellows”…now if that isn’t a good title for some Old English riddle-inspired erotic fan fic, then I don’t know what is.


References and Suggested Reading:

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

Murphy, Patrick J. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2011, esp. pages 215-19.

Oliphant, Robert T. The Harley Latin-Old English Glossary. The Hague: Mouton, 1966.


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