Commentary for Riddle 43

Riddle 43’s commentary is once again by the terribly clever James Paz, Lecturer in early medieval English literature at the University of Manchester.


I imagine that solving Riddle 43 would have been fairly easy for most Anglo-Saxon readers of the Exeter Book, especially if we’re to picture this riddling taking place in a monastic setting. It might not be as immediately obvious for a modern reader today, given the changes to our religious beliefs across time. Even so, literary scholars have arrived at an uncontroversial solution: “soul and body.”

As such, this is a riddle whose solution is not a single word but two, a pairing of some kind (others include “moon and sun” and “cock and hen”). The key to solving this riddle, then, lies in identifying not one wiht (creature/created thing) but two disguised figures: the noble guest and the servant. The closing lines (14b-16) of the riddle point us in this direction, instructing the would-be solver to make known in fitting words (OE cyþe cynewordum) what the guest (cuma) or the servant (esne) is called.

Social and cultural tropes (evocative of Beowulf as well as other heroic and elegiac poems) are referenced but also played with, in order to lead us to the right answer. The riddle asks us to puzzle over the proper relationship between host and guest, the hierarchy of lord and servant, to consider the threat of hunger and disease and old age, the joys of feasting and the mead hall. It also creates confusion over traditional familial roles (why should one brother fear, or be in awe of, the other? how can one woman be both mother and sister?) and privileges honourable conduct while raising the threat of its disruption (what happens when a servant obeys his master evilly?).

A basic explanation of the “soul and body” solution would be as follows. The noble guest is the soul, which, as the riddle explains, is not vulnerable to hunger pangs or burning thirst or even old age. Its servant is the body, whose proper role is to tend to this guest honourably (arlice) before it departs for a journey. Having some knowledge of Old English kennings for “body” such as ban-hus (i.e. bone-house) help us to reach this solution. These compressed metaphors (miniature riddles, if you like) suggest that human bodies are temporary dwellings, sheltering and safeguarding something dear that must nevertheless be on its way again before long.

Riddle 43 Franks_casket_03

Photo of the 8th-century whalebone Franks Casket (by Michel wal). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The woman referred to in lines 13-14 has proved a little trickier to identify, but most critics and translators think that she represents the earth. She is called a mother, because the body of Adam was made from dust (see Genesis 2:7), and a sister because she (the earth) was shaped by the same father, God.

The critic John D. Niles has recently encouraged us to answer the Exeter Book Riddles in their own (Old English, though sometimes Latin) tongue whenever possible. If we’re to do so with Riddle 43, one half of the answer should correspond to the masculine noun hlaford (i.e. “lord”) and the other half to the masculine noun esne (i.e. “servant”). For Niles and, before him, Moritz Trautmann, the spoken solution should be the Old English doublet gæst ond lic-hama.

But speaking the solution is not where this riddle ends; it is, perhaps, where it begins to reveal its meaning. I’ve said that this riddle is “easy” to solve but, actually, its solution encourages us to contemplate “soul and body” as a concept at a far deeper level.

Regular readers of this blog might have gained the sense that the Exeter Book Riddles are all about what we’d nowadays call the “nonhuman” world in its various forms: shields, swords, swans, leather, horns, mead, moon and sun, storms and earthquakes. But Riddle 43 examines medieval ideas about what it means to be a human being: embodied yet rational of mind or soul, of this world yet alienated from it, intellectually curious yet driven by carnal desire.

For a Christian Anglo-Saxon audience, humans are essentially embodied souls. So the owner of a body really ought to be its master. But that servile role is tested throughout these riddles. Recall Riddle 25 (onion?). As we read this riddle (and, tellingly, Riddles 44, 45, 46), genitalia and sex acts shift in and out of focus… and our body responds?

Even the act of reading a non-obscene riddle is not purely intellectual. Riddles are about body parts and they call on body parts: eyes, ears, mouths, even hands. Riddling asks for a reader who’ll engage with the words on the page in a sensuous way. Recurring phrases that run throughout the Exeter Riddles support this claim: ic seah, ic gefrægn, saga hwæt ic hatte (see, hear, say). And so the relationship that Riddle 43 sets up between our “higher” intellectual faculties and our “baser” or more servile bodily functions is particularly appropriate to this enigmatic collection.

Mastery of the body is central to Riddle 43. It’s all about how the body should respond to its hlaforde (lord) and frean (master). The body, described as an esne, must keep his noble guest honourably, serve him, and fear retaliation after death should he disobey the superior soul. Notice how Riddle 43 uses this term, esne, three times in sixteen lines to emphasise the role of the body.

Leslie Lockett has shown that in the Old English laws, esne is a term for a servant of indeterminate status, higher than the slave (ðeow or wealh) but subordinate to the free labourer (ceorl). Therefore, an esne performs a servile role yet has more autonomy than a slave. This is definitely worth remembering when thinking about the relationship between soul and body in Riddle 43.

When I teach Riddle 43 on my “Things that Talk” course at the University of Manchester, it starts to spark deeper discussion when compared with the other Soul and Body poems found in Old English literature. The issue of the soul’s control over the body was obviously very important to Anglo-Saxon readers, as a longer Soul and Body poem exists in two versions, which is unusual for an OE text. Those two versions appear in the Vercelli Book and in the same Exeter Book that contains the riddles.

What’s interesting here is that the two versions of the Soul and Body poem provide a different take on the master-servant relationship to that portrayed in Riddle 43. In this poem, the damned soul speaks to an offending body which, during their life-journey together, indulged its own desires, worked against the soul, starved it of spiritual sustenance, and imprisoned, even tortured, it. The soul’s apparent helplessness in the Old English Soul and Body poems has surprised some critics, who expect a deeply Christian text to depict a soul endowed with free will and reason, capable of disciplining the body. Yet the soul that emerges from these poems often seems to be an entity incapable of completely independent thought or action, an entity that struggles to bring about the fulfilment of its desires, as long as it’s enclosed in flesh.

The contrasting depictions of a servile body labouring for its noble guest on the one hand, and a damned soul addressing a domineering body, to which it was bound unwillingly, suggest that Anglo-Saxon poets had complex ways of comprehending the human condition. Of course, these issues remain fascinating (and maybe even disquieting) for us as modern readers of early medieval poetry…

… To what extent are we responsible for our own actions? Who or what is in control of our everyday thoughts, words and deeds during life? Do we know where our dreams and desires come from? Does our body always behave as we want it to? Are our bodies us, or are we our brains, or minds, or do we still believe our true identity to be spiritual in nature? The Exeter Riddles seem to be about speaking objects. Yet where do we locate the speaking and thinking and acting “I” within our own, human selves? In the body? In the mind? Or within that elusive concept of a soul?

That’s the real mystery at the heart of Riddle 43, and, over one thousand years on, we are not much closer to solving it.


References and Suggested Reading

Crossley-Holland, Kevin, trans. The Exeter Book Riddles. London: Enitharmon, 2008.

Dailey, Patricia. “Riddles, Wonder and Responsiveness in Anglo-Saxon Literature.” In The Cambridge History of Early Medieval English Literature. Edited by Clare A. Lees. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, pages 451-72.

Lockett, Leslie. Anglo-Saxon Psychologies in the Vernacular and Latin Traditions. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011.

Murphy, Patrick J. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2011.

Niles, John D. Old English Enigmatic Poems and the Play of the Texts. Turnhout: Brepols, 2006.

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


4 thoughts on “Commentary for Riddle 43

  1. L. Maria Moser

    Dear friends,
    Riddling really is a quite exciting business. Concerning riddle 43 I would like to suggest a new approach to the problem of the mother, brothers and sister mentioned in lines 10 – 14.

    In 1859 Dietrich considered the mother as representing the earth, since the earth gives birth to every living being. He saw her as the sister of the soul and body at the same time, “zugleich”, since all are created by the same father. And thus we are all brothers as well.

    This is certainly a possible line of thought. But the relationships among the others remain slightly confusing. To see the earth as the mother of the soul seems problematic. Therefore I would like to introduce a new interpretation.

    While seeking for an answer, Prudentius came to my mind and I took a few hours on the internet reading about him. He lived from 348 A.D. to approximately 409. His most famous book is the Psychomachia. The book was probably known among the studied monks at the time of the writing of the Exeter book. Prudentius often prefers the triple set of body, heart and soul to the more common duality of body and soul. The heart here is seen as the mediator and the real fighting place between the spirit and the body, between good and evil. In her book K. Philipowski describes in detail, in the chapter about the Psychomachia, how not just two levels, the body and the soul, but three different ones are considered important in the text, namely the body, the soul and the heart.

    I really like the idea of seeing the heart as the meeting point of the always pure soul and the so often problematic body, in their permanent strife. The riddle contains useful advice, too: good health and peace require a positive balance between both. When one of them disappears from the heart, imbalance and disaster follows.

    Accordingly the kinswoman mentioned in riddle 43 would be heorte (a female noun meaning heart). The heart can be interpreted as a mother of the body and as the sister of the soul. The two brothers would be bansele (a masculine noun meaning body) and giest (a masculine noun meaning guest) as well as soul, the two main participants of the riddle, the servant and the master.

    In the hope to be given a “milde heortan” as mentioned in line 108 in “The Gifts of Men” from my readers

    Greetings to everybody

    Student at Heinrich-Heine-Universität
    Düsseldorf, 25. August 2015

    L. Maria Moser

  2. JPaz

    Thanks for this fascinating response. I agree that the identity of the kinswoman is problematic and your theory about the ‘heorte’ sounds convincing!

    1. L. Maria Moser

      Hello James Paz,
      Thanks´ a lot for your kind answer. It gives hope to continue! At the moment I work at a new attitude towards the riddles. By now I found two new possible solutions for two of them, besides the lines of riddle 43. One I submitted a few months ago for publishing. The other one I am working on. I think you will like both of them!

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