Commentary for Riddle 57

This commentary post is once again by Michael J. Warren from Royal Holloway. Take it away, Michael!


This has to be my favourite of all the Old English riddles, for two reasons. Firstly, the solution is probably a bird (my specialism), but even more intriguing is the fact that we just don’t know what the solution is. The Exeter Book riddles are renowned, of course, for their enigmatic absence of answers in the manuscript (unlike the various Anglo-Latin examples), but this is one of the few that still lacks a solution with general or near unanimous agreement. Anglo-Saxonists are still debating the possible solutions for this little critter; the only thing most scholars agree on is that the “subject is quite firmly assigned to the category bird” (Barley, page 169).

For John D. Niles, the “most likely self-naming black bird we are ever likely to snare” (page 129) is the crow, but a wide number of avian suspects have been recommended over the years, and various other “flying” answers as well (see the solutions following my translation of this riddle). For starters, then, what this pithy riddle does is demonstrate very nicely how this collection of conundrums is still playing out its effects over a thousand years after the poems were written down: they continue to tease us with a curious blend of obfuscation and illumination. As it turns out, this is something birds characteristically do as well. I like to think it’s no accident that birds are probably the answer to Riddle 57: a devious subject at the heart of a devious genre that continually escapes identification and finality.


Pretty much all European corvid species have been suggested as solutions to Riddle 57, but only jackdaws and rooks habitually gather in groups. Photo (by Bob Jones) of jackdaws from Wikipedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 2.0)

When we compare the mystery subjects of this Riddle 57 with the other bird riddles (Riddles 7, 8, 9, 10 and 24), there are enough similarities to make me think that some sort of bird must be the answer. These creatures hlude cirmað “cry loudly” (like the nightingale in Riddle 8, line 3b), the lyft byreð “the air bears” the birds in the same way it does the swan (Riddle 7, lines 4b-5a) and barnacle goose (Riddle 10, line 9b), and both the swan and the birds of Riddle 57 tredað “tread” when they alight, inhabiting opposing human and nonhuman territories. These nifty birds also inhabit what I call the “sometimes” motif – hwilum “sometimes” (line 5b) behaviours typify these creatures. As we’ll see below, birds are known for this sort of unpredictability (see Riddle 24’s jay for a whole load of hwilum!).

The final half line also seems like it really should be a clincher: Nemnað hy sylfe. The grammar of this line allows us to read it in two ways: either “Name them yourselves,” which fits the usual instruction from the riddles’ subjects (“Say what I am called”), or the now more popular reading, “They name themselves.” The latter might point us, then, to song as a clue. Certainly in other bird riddles, sound can be an important indicator, and many Old English bird names recorded in the glossaries onomatopoeically mimic song. On this basis, Dieter Bitterli has argued for an etymological tactic for solving the bird riddles: the diversity of the bird’s call in Riddle 8 leads us to nightingale (OE niht “night” + galan “to sing”) as evident in the poem’s synonym æfensceop “evening-singer” (line 5a). Similarly, Riddle 7 leads us to Old English swan (mute swan) through the use of paronomasia (word play on similar sounding words): the various /sw/ words direct us towards the name of the bird and its characteristic wing-music in flight.


Photo of swifts (by Keta) – a popular solution to Riddle 57 – from Wikipedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 3.0)


Bitterli’s theory is convincing. The problem is that while birds do conveniently sometimes spell out their names for us with their calls, they also have a tendency to transform, obscure and avoid identity. Take Riddle 24, for instance. We know what the answer is here, because it’s spelt out for us in runes which we must translate into Old English (higoræ “jay”), but the most distinctive sonic feature of this bird is that its tell-tale song keeps changing – it’s defined, apparently, according to the fact that it sounds like just about everything else. And birds generally in the Exeter Book riddles are characterised by their continual changing: the swan (Riddle 7) is paradoxically silent and loud, and travels afar. The cuckoo (Riddle 9), also a far-traveller, grows to be a huge bird that far outsizes the nest of its host and its usurped earlier identity, so moving from cuckoo to host-species to cuckoo again. The barnacle goose (Riddle 10) undergoes a remarkable metamorphosis, emerging and deriving from another creature entirely, and, like two other birds, does a disappearing act for half the year. The nightingale (Riddle 8) and jay (Riddle 24) change their voices as they please, also appropriating new identities.

Readers will undoubtedly continue to propose answers to Riddle 57. I’m for swift or swallow as it goes, but, actually, I think this might be beside the point. Perhaps we shouldn’t be in the business of seeking an answer at all. In fact, my point is rather to suggest that these secretive lytle wihte “little creatures” (line 1b) achieve their impact so well because they can’t be identified. This might seem counterintuitive on the face of it, but it’s borne out by other Anglo-Saxon writings on birds. Indeed, scholars across the medieval period stress that what is most birdy about birds is their transformative abilities. Or to put it another way, what most defines birds is their habit of avoiding definition – they’re intrinsically unknowable in some respects, escapologists.

The most popular encyclopaedist of the late Middle Ages, Bartholomew the Englishman, notes repeatedly that there’s an in between-ness apparent in their very substance, þat beþ bytwene þe tweye elementis þat beþ most heuy and most liȝt (that is between the two elements that are most heavy and most light) (Seymour, page 596). Bartholomew’s immediate source, though, is one of the most influential texts of the Anglo-Saxon age – Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies. In his introduction to birds, Isidore remarks how “They are called birds (avis) because they do not have set paths (via), but travel by means of pathless (avia) ways” (Barney, page 264). In his commentary on Riddle 51 on this site, Britt Mize makes a great case for the importance of paths or tracks (a motif that occurs in a number of the riddles). In Riddle 51, birds and (inky) paths are associable. As Britt suggests, “a reader, just like a hunter or tracker, must carefully observe and interpret the signs he or she finds, endeavouring to stay with them, going where they lead in pursuit of a goal.”


Page of from Isidore’s Etymologies (8th century), Brussels, Royal Library of Belgium, from Wikipedia Commons (public domain)


In Isidore’s statement, however, and in Riddle 57, this pursuit turns out to be rather more complicated. Birds outfly our pursuit, and overwhelm us with their great variety and multitude: “There is a single word for birds, but various kinds, for just as they differ among themselves in appearance, so do they differ also in the diversity of their natures” (Isidore, in Barney, page 263). Names and categories, it is implied, just aren’t sufficient to account for all the bird species that there are, even if we could know them all, which we can’t, because birds can disappear without signe neiþer tokene (sign nor token) (Bartholomew, in Seymour, page 596) – it’s impossible for mankind “to penetrate all the wildernesses of India and Ethiopia and Scythia, so as to know the kinds of birds and their differentiating characteristics” (Isidore, in Barney, page 263). These sentiments are echoed in a 10th century Latin poem on birdsong:

Quis volucrum species numeret, quis nomina discat?
Mille avium cantus, vocum discrimina mille.
Nec nostrum (fateor) tantas discernere voces.
(De cantibus avium, lines 1-3, in Buecheler and Riese, page 197)

(Whoever counts the types of birds, who learns their names? There are a thousand songs of birds, a thousand different voices. Nor do I, myself, claim to distinguish such voices.)

These sorts of issues seem to me to be at the heart of Riddle 57. The brief description identifies something which is very bird-like (particularly in comparison with the other bird riddles), and yet avoids offering us anything more precise. They force us to inhabit a space somewhere between knowledge and ignorance, just as the birds themselves sometimes dwell with niþþa bearna “the sons of men” (line 6a) and sometimes move beyond our boundaries to the bearonæssas “woody headlands” (lines 5a). Whatever its immediate sources or contexts may have been, Riddle 57 manifests the sorts of anxieties over naming birds and their characteristics evident in texts like Isidore’s – these are birds that apparently name themselves, but (still) can’t be named.

All of this avian mystery points up another potential, related concern of this poem. Birds remind us how frequently these poems cause us to go round in circles: the switchback evasions of the dark birds in Riddle 57 place them firmly in line with an important effect of the Exeter Book riddles’ strategies – they expose the limits of knowledge, even within texts that urge us to exceed limitations and certify uncertainties. In my reading of Riddle 57, then, two important aspects come together – birds and elusive answers – to emphasise the sophistication of these texts that are so often about testing the limits of knowledge. Birds, that is, might actually be employed purposefully in this riddle and in other bird riddles, because like the mysterious and evasive solutions that we’re required to guess at through complex linguistic play, they’re continuously seen to escape definition or certainties.

In her discussion of wonder in the Exeter Book riddles, Patricia Dailey observes that by “forcing us to think through the means of how we come to know the creature described in language,” these texts highlight “a link in epistemological knowing and a limit inscribed in naming” (page 464). In other words, even if we can correctly guess a solution, a name can only get us so far – there is still a gap between the mysterious thing itself and the name we choose to give it; mysteries still exist. Birds, I think, show us this particularly well. In Riddle 57, the grammatical ambiguity of line 6b demands, on the one hand, that we partake in the typical naming game, and on the other states that the birds, in fact, name themselves, neither requiring our intervention (as namers), nor, in fact, allowing us this privilege. Naming birds doesn’t satisfactorily encompass their ever-changing, diverse identities, and particularly not when we can’t saga “say” a name at all.


References and Suggested Reading:

Barley, Nigel F. “Structural Aspects of the Anglo-Saxon Riddle.” Semiotica, vol. 10 (1974), pages 143-75.

Barney, Stephen A., and others, trans. The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Bitterli, Dieter. Say What I Am Called: The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book and the Anglo-Latin Tradition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009.

Buecheler, Franciscus, and Alexander Riese, eds. Anthologia Latina, sive Poesis Latinae supplementum. 2 vols. Leipzig: B. G. Teubneri, 1869-1926. Translation from Latin by Virginia Warren.

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, 2013, pages 451-72.

Krapp, George Philip, and Elliott van Kirk Dobbie, eds. The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records. 6 vols. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1931-1953.

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

Seymour, M. C., and others, ed. On the Properties of Things: John Trevisa’s Translation of Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De proprietatibus rerum. 3 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.


One thought on “Commentary for Riddle 57

  1. Pingback: Enigmatic riddle birds | The Compleat Birder

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