Commentary for Riddle 38

So, what am I gonna say about Riddle 38, eh? That’s the question, my friends. That is the question.

I suppose I could talk about how this riddle seems to depict a young ox or bullock, i.e. a castrated bull. This makes for a rather ironic use of the lovely Old English compound wæpned-cynn, which literally means “weaponed kind” and metaphorically means “dudes” (or maybe “the male sex”…depends on whether you’re translating for the internet or for an essay/exam/any-academic-enterprise-in-which-the-word-dude-is-unfortunately-a-no-go).

Riddle 38 isn’t the only Old English text to use the term wæpned-cynn or the related compounds wæpned-bearn/-cild (male child), wæpned-had (male sex), wæpned-hand/-healf (male side/line), wæpned-man (male person). In fact, these compounds are fairly common in prose and appear in several poetic texts, including Beowulf, Exodus and Genesis A. The last of these poems also includes the first element of the compound on its own in the formula wif and wæpned (women and men) (lines 195a and 2746a).

Distinguishing men by the weapons they carried seems to have roots in Germanic tradition. In fact, a Thuringian law-code that survives in a tenth-century manuscript refers to the male line as lancea (spear) and the female line as fusus (spindle) (von Schwerin, page 61, line 25). The ox of Riddle 38 is obviously not carrying a spear or sword (because hooves!), but horns and antlers are characterized as weapony in other riddles (highlight here to see which #spoilers: Riddles 14, 88 and 93). Of course, that’s not to say that there isn’t another sort of weapon in this riddle. The Old English term wæpen was a euphemism for a particular part of the male anatomy, if you know what I mean (penis…what I mean is obviously penis…you may all stop giggling now). This is where I read the irony in Riddle 38. The poem refers to an ox – although obviously still a male creature with a penis, the castrated beast of burden is lacking in other rather obvious features of the male body (testicles…now I’m referring to testicles…seriously, STOP laughing). Is this riddle making fun, perchance? Possibly. Although I should also note that the reference to ploughing in this poem is problematic, as I’ll discuss below. So, maybe we’re wrong to assume this fella is a castrated ox…maybe he’s just a run of the mill, fully intact young bull.

I hope I haven’t put you all to sleep by musing about cattle genitalia. If not, let’s move on to some other, slightly less physical compounds: geoguðmyrþe in line 2a and ferðfriþende in line 3a. Geoguðmyrþe means something like “youthful joy,” which goes quite nicely with the fantastic image in my head of a frolicking calf following his mum around a field. This is what the calf in my head looks like:


FLUFFY! Photo (by Aconcagua) from the Wikimedia Commons.

The manuscript actually reads geoguð myrwe, but most scholars accept the change to geoguðmyrþe, since myrwe presents all manner of linguistic problems, which I promise not to bore you with (if you want to know more, see Williamson, page 256). As for ferðfriþende, this compound means “life-saving,” and it’s a bit unclear what it refers to (i.e. the mother cow – which is how I read it – or the four springs). In fact, lines 2b-4 are quite tricksy in general and have been translated all sorts of different ways (see Williamson, pp. 256-7).

I should also mention the weird shift in grammatical gender (grammar, wonderful grammar!) that comes at the end of the riddle. Line 6 begins with what is clearly the feminine form of the third-person pronoun (i.e. Modern English “she/he/it”…here “she” = hio), while line 7 includes the masculine form of the third-person pronoun (he). The first, feminine instance may refer back to the grammatical gender of seo wiht (the creature) and the second, masculine instance may refer to the natural gender of the ox/bull. Why shift, though? Most scholars/translators just elide the shift entirely and translate with “he” or “it,” but I suppose it’s possible that the “she” is the mother cow, who will go on to become a beast of burden, while the “he” is the calf, who will go on to become leather. Debby Banham and Rosamond Faith have recently pointed out that female cattle may have also played a role in ploughing, particularly in small-scale agriculture (page 108). So, we can’t make the claim that only an ox would be appropriately placed to “break the hills.”

Still, this explanation may be reaching slightly when we take the clunkiness of the final lines into account. Because the real problem with Riddle 38 is that the beginning and the end kinda jar. We start off with a nice little pastoral poem, which seems poised to build into one of those riddles that contrasts the happy freedom of youth with the sad incarceration of age. There are unique compounds and careful metrics. And then, where we’d expect a turn in the poem, we get a quick formulaic ending in a verse style that’s full of strange metrical irregularities (Williamson, page 257). This has led some scholars to suggest that the end of the poem may have actually been prose, which was tacked on to the beginning of a poem for some reason (Williamson, pages 257-8).

In fact, you may remember the formulaic ending from Riddle 12 and its commentary. Lines 13b-15 of that riddle read:

                         Saga hwæt ic hatte,

þe ic lifgende      lond reafige

ond æfter deaþe     dryhtum þeowige.

(Say what I am called, I who living ravage the land and after death serve the masses.)

Similar sentiment, eh? Even closer to Riddle 38 is the Latin prose riddle of pseudo-Bede: Vidi filium inter quatuor fons nutritum: si uiuus fuit, disrupit montes; si mortuus fuit, alligauit uiuos (Bayless and Lapidge, page 144, no. 144) (I saw a son raised among four springs: if he was living, he shattered mountains; if he was dead, he fettered the living). Springs and shattering mountains and fetters! We know that these elements were travelling around in a bundle because we also have similar depictions of the living/dead bovine binary in Aldhelm’s Latin Enigma 83, De iuvenco and the Lorsch riddle, Enigma 11, De tauro.

But, actually, the closest Latin enigma to Riddle 38 is from the collection of the Anglo-Saxon Eusebius. His Enigma 37, De vitulo goes a little something like this:

Post genitrix me quam peperit mea saepe solesco

Inter ab uno fonte riuos bis bibere binos

Progredientes; et si uixero, rumpere colles

Incipiam; uiuos moriens aut alligo multos. (Glorie, vol. 133, page 247)

(After my mother bore me, I often used to go forth to drink among two by two [i.e. four] streams from one source; and if I live, I will begin to break the hills; or dying I bind many of the living.)

Scholars like to comment that these two poems are very closely related (Bitterli, pages 28-9), and they most certainly seem to be. But I’d also like to point out that Eusebius has two other bovine riddles in his collection: Enigma 12, De bove and 13, De vacca. The first of these is all about the toil of ploughing, while the second is about the nourishing nature of the cow. De vacca reads:

Sunt pecudes multae mihi, quas nutrire solebam;

Meque premente fame non lacteque carneue uescor,

Cumque cibis aliis et pascor aquis alienis;

Ex me multi uiuunt, ex me et flumina currunt. (Glorie, vol. 133, page 223)

(There are many creatures for me, which I used to nourish; but with hunger oppressing me I do not consume milk or meat, since I feed on other foods and different drinks; many live from me, and from me streams flow.)

I can’t help but wonder if the emphasis on the mother as life-saver in Riddle 38 draws not only on Eusebius’ calf poem, but also his cow riddle. Either way, I think it’s time for me to moo-ve on and stop milking this post for all it’s worth.

References and Suggested Reading:

Banham, Debby, and Rosamond Faith. Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farming. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Bayless, Martha, and Michael Lapidge, eds and trans. Collectanea Pseudo-Bedae. Scriptores Latini Hiberniae 14. Dublin: School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, 1998.

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.

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

von Schwerin, Claudius, ed. Leges Saxonum und Lex Thuringorum. Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Fontes Iuris Germanici Antiqui. Hanover: Hahnsche Buchhandlung, 1918.

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


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