Commentary for Riddle 61

Do you find Anglo-Saxon men’s fashions particularly risqué? Well, whoever composed Riddle 61 sure seems to have done! That’s right, folks: it’s another riddle that’s chock-a-block full of double entendre.

The solution to Riddle 61 hasn’t proved as problematic as some of the other Exeter Book poems. Scholars have decided that it’s either a helmet (OE helm) or a shirt – though kirtle/tunic (OE cyrtel/tunece) are less anachronistic and more in line with Anglo-Saxon style. You can see this sort of get-up in the following snippet from the Bayeux Tapestry:

Riddle 61 Bayeux_Tapestry_scene1_Edward.jpg

Edward the Confessor and his messengers hold a meeting on the Bayeux Tapestry, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

And here’s a nice, Anglo-Saxon helmet for good measure:

Riddle 61 Coppergate_Helmet_YORCM_CA665-2.jpeg

The 8th-century Coppergate Helmet as photographed by York Museums Trust via Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 4.0)

It’s totally up to you whether you prefer a garment or helmet; I don’t have any strong opinions on this one. The long and the short of it is: whatever we’re talking about has to be an item with an opening that a man can put his head into or through. It has to come to rest on something hairy – could be his head, could be his chest. And it’s got to be small enough to store in a box, and not so heavy that the lady of the house couldn’t remove it by herself. I’m NOT saying that Anglo-Saxon women couldn’t be strong and/or badass (have you ever tried setting up a loom? that’s some strenuous labour right there), but some of that later medieval plate armour looks cumbersome at best. But this isn’t what we’re talking about – I seem to have gone off topic already!

Anywho, it also sounds like the object in question is a tad on the valuable side, since it’s kept locked away and it claims to be frætwedne (adorned). This very brief reference to adornment is what reminds us we’re dealing with a constructed object instead of a sexual encounter. This was before vajazzling, after all. Though Sarah Higley suggests the text may be hinting at contraceptive items (and reminds us that we don’t know an awful lot about such things in early medieval England (pages 48-50)), I think it’s safe to say that it would be pretty impractical to adorn whatever sorts of things were used.

But enough about ancient prophylactics! (is a sentence I never thought I’d write) “Are there any other references to domestic scenes of husbands and wives and handing out garments in Old English?,” I hear you asking. Good question. There are indeed. There are indeed. The obvious passage is from the wisdom poem Maxims I, which refers to a Frisian woman washing her husband’s clothes, giving him new ones and perhaps a little more than that (wink wink, nudge nudge). Why she has to be Frisian is beyond me (maybe just because it alliterates with flota (ship)?).

Here’s the passage I’m talking about:

                      leof wilcuma
Frysan wife,      þonne flota stondeð;
biþ his ceol cumen      ond hyre ceorl to ham,
agen ætgeofa,      ond heo hine in laðaþ,
wæsceð his warig hrægl     ond him syleþ wæde niwe,
liþ him on londe      þæs his lufu bædeð. (lines 94b-9b)

(the dear one [is] welcome to his Frisian wife, when the ship stands; his boat has come home and her man, her own food-giver, and she calls him in, washes his dirty clothing and gives him new garments, gives him on land what his love requires.)

All I can think about when I read this poem is that this guy must smell horrible if he’s just coming back from a sea-voyage with little-to-no spare clothing. No wonder his wife is keen to get him into clean kit before the marital reunion commences.

But notice the similarities between this poem and Riddle 61 too: the husband-wife relationship, sexual implications, garment-giving. I wonder if his clothes are kept in a box too?

Speaking of which, the chest that holds the garment or helmet in Riddle 61 is also interesting because, as Edith Whitehurst Williams reminds us, it’s pretty impossible to apply it in a literal way to the bawdy reading of the poem (page 141). She reckons it’s “a metaphoric statement for the lady’s great modesty which is set aside only in the proper circumstance – when her lord commands” (page 141).

At this point you, like me, may be a bit annoyed with the unequal gender relations of this riddle. What’s all this commanding and bidding nonsense? I mean, of course we don’t want to impose an anachronistic view of women’s agency onto this very-very-very old poem, but still. If you do happen to find this aspect problematic, then I would suggest taking a look-see at Melanie Heyworth’s fascinating and insightful interpretation of this riddle. Hers is a nice and balanced, and fully contextualised reading of the poem (pages 179-80). Importantly, she points out that the woman gives/entrusts (the verb is sellan) her sexuality to her partner only gif (if) his ellen (strength/courage) is dohte (suitable/worthy). Now, I had translated line 7 as a reference to sexual potency – a crass sort of “if he can get it up and keep it going” sort of thing – but I quite like Heyworth’s version, since it suggests that both partners in this Anglo-Saxon relationship are bringing something to the table. She’ll have sex with him only if he’s worthy, in other words. Admittedly, this comes across as a deeply conservative, heteronormative view of the world, but it was a very different world, so let’s try to keep our morals and theirs separate. Again, as Heyworth points out, Riddle 61 shows us an idealised, Anglo-Saxon marriage (page 180). In fact, she says its aim is to prescribe behaviour: “to urge its audience to similar conduct to that of the riddle-wife and her husband” (page 180).

Did everyone listen? Well, no, of course they didn’t. Would you need to prescribe behaviour if everyone was already on board?

We can find a great example of a woman who reputedly did NOT lock her sexuality away and entrust it only to her husband on the Bayeux Tapestry once again:


Panel depicting Ælfgyva and a cleric with naughty connotations, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

You may be confused about what’s going on in this picture. They’re fully clothed, so what’s all the bother about? Look closer. And look down and to the left. Behold the tiny naked man squatting at the bottom of this high-status textile! Most likely embroidered by English women during the transition from Anglo-Saxon to Norman rule, the Bayeux Tapestry depicts all manner of political and martial escapades relating to the famous conquest of 1066.

Now we don’t know the full story of this picture, partly because there’s no verb to tell us what’s going on: the Latin title just says Ubi unus clericus et Ælfgyva (Where a certain cleric and Ælfgifu). We also don’t know for certain who this panel depicts because the Old English name Ælfgifu, meaning “Elf-Gift,” was pretty common (for a good guess, check out J. L. Laynesmith’s article and podcast below). But even without that knowledge, we can say is that the picture seems to refer to some sort of scandal. That cleric probably shouldn’t be reaching through the archway to touch Ælfgifu’s face (is he caressing her? hitting her?). And the fact that the little naked man is mirroring the cleric, at least in his upper body and arms, strongly implies that the two are connected.

So, to tie this discussion up, I’d like to point out that it wasn’t just Anglo-Saxon riddlers and scribes who revelled in double entendre. Early medieval women – in this case embroiderers – were also known to author some rather saucy stories. Intriguing ones too.

Bet you’ll never look at the Bayeux Tapestry with a straight face again.


References and Suggested Reading:

Heyworth, Melanie. “Perceptions of Marriage in Exeter Book Riddles 20 and 61.” Studia Neophilologica, vol. 79 (2007), pages 171-84.

Higley, Sarah L. “The Wanton Hand: Reading and Reaching into Grammars and Bodies in Old English Riddle 12.” In Naked Before God: Uncovering the Body in Anglo-Saxon England. Edited by Benjamin C. Withers and Jonathan Wilcox. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2003, pages 29-59. Available online via Higley’s page.

Laynesmith, J. L. “The Bayeux Tapestry: A Canterbury Tale.” History Today, vol. 62, issue 10 (Oct. 2012). (podcast freely available here)

Whitehurst Williams, Edith. “What’s So New about the Sexual Revolution? Some Comments on Anglo-Saxon Attitudes toward Sexuality in Women Based on Four Exeter Book Riddles.” In New Readings on Women in Old English Literature. Edited by Helen Damico and Alexandra Hennessey Olsen. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990, pages 137-45.

Riddle 61 (or 59)

Oft mec fæste bileac      freolicu meowle,
ides on earce,     hwilum up ateah
folmum sinum      ond frean sealde,
holdum þeodne,     swa hio haten wæs.
5     Siðþan me on hreþre      heafod sticade,
nioþan upweardne,     on nearo fegde.
Gif þæs ondfengan     ellen dohte,
mec frætwedne      fyllan sceolde
ruwes nathwæt.      Ræd hwæt ic mæne.

Often a noble woman, a lady, locked me
fast in a chest, sometimes she drew me up
with her hands and gave me to her husband,
her loyal lord, as she was bid.
5     Then he stuck his head in the heart of me,
upward from beneath, fitted it in the tight space.
If the strength of the receiver was suitable,
something shaggy had to fill
me, the adorned one. Determine what I mean.

Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Shirt/Kirtle/Tunic, Garment, Helmet

Commentary for Riddle 60

Brett Roscoe from The King’s University, Alberta leads us through Riddle 60’s commentary:


You know the kinds of kids who always have to be different? They stand when others sit and lie down when others stand. They dye their hair purple, and when the rest of the class dyes their hair purple they shave their heads. Well, that’s the kind of riddle we’re looking at. Almost all the other riddles in the Exeter Book fall into two large groups, 1-59 and 61-95. But Riddles 30b and 60? They refuse to conform, appearing instead in the middle of a series of Old English elegies (such as The Wife’s Lament and The Ruin) and religious poems (such as The Descent into Hell and Pharaoh). So the first question we need to ask is whether or not Riddle 60 is successful in its quest for independence.

Here’s the problem: the riddle is on folio 122b of the Exeter Book, and on the very next page (123a) is a poem called The Husband’s Message. Because of the proximity of these two works and similarity in phrasing, some have suggested that they actually belong together and should be seen as a single poem. If Riddle 60 were a teenager, I’m sure s/he would have thrown something at me as I wrote that last sentence, but it’s true. And those who want to see Riddle 60 together with The Husband’s Message usually hold that the answer to the riddle is a “rune staff.”

Riddle 60 Olaus Magnus.jpg

Artwork (by Olaus Magnus) from Wikipedia Commons (public domain)

This is a woodcut from Olaus Magnus’ description of Nordic history, customs, and folklore in a book called Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (1555). It shows two wise men, each holding a rune-staff. And here is a picture of a rune-staff from 17th century Norway:

Riddle 60 Primstav_2

Photo (by Roede) from Wikimedia Commons (license CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Husband’s Message is, as the title suggests, a message from a husband to his wife. He was exiled, and so he has not seen his wife in years, but now he decides it’s safe to send her a messenger. The messenger finds the woman and tries to convince her to come to where her husband now lives. The messenger presumably shows her a rune-staff (or stick or stone) with the runes S, R, EA, W, M engraved on it, a cryptic record of earlier vows made by the husband and wife. In relation to Riddle 60, the most important figure is not the husband or wife, and not even the message. It’s the messenger. The Husband’s Message begins,

Nu ic onsundran þe   secgan wille
[. . . . . . . . ] treocyn   ic tudre aweox;
in mec æld[. . . . . . . . . .] sceal   ellor londes
settan [. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .]   sealte streamas
[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ]sse. (lines 1-4a)

(“Now will I tell to you who live apart
How I grew up in youth among the trees.
On me must sons of men write messages,
Send me from foreign lands across the waves.”)
(trans. by Hamer, page 79)

It may be just me, but these lines sound very much like a riddle. And if they are a riddle, the clear solution would be a rune-staff, which is made from wood and engraved with messages. Admittedly, the messenger could just be a human who carries a rune-staff, and The Husband’s Message may not be a riddle at all. Though scholarly consensus favours the latter, either reading is possible. Seen in the context of Riddle 60, the rune-staff solution does seem tempting. A rune-staff speaks or conveys a message even though it is muðleas (mouth-less; line 9); it is pressed (or carved) with a knife that is guided by human hands and intent (lines 12-14a); and it can also be used to convey secret messages (lines 14b-17). In fact, in the Old Norse-Icelandic Völsunga saga Guðrun uses runes for that very purpose—she sends a secret runic message to her brothers to warn them of a plot against their lives (ch. 35). (Unfortunately Guðrun’s messenger is not as trustworthy as the one in The Husband’s Message. If you want to find out what happens, feel free to read the story for yourself—you can download a text and translation here). It would seem that a rune-staff fits a lot of the details of the riddle.

But what, then, are we to do about lines 1-7? These lines tell us that the solution to the riddle lives near the shore, that it is so close to the sea it actually touches the waters. F. A. Blackburn suggests that the lines describe a swamp, and the rune-staff is made from the wood of a willow or a swamp cedar (page 7), but this seems like a stretch to me. And what are we to make of the fact that the riddle solution speaks ofer meodubence (across the meadbench; line 9a)? As we will see in Riddle 67, written texts were often read out loud in public settings in the Middle Ages, but the last lines of this riddle suggest the message is a secret. Who would read a secret message out loud in a meadhall? (unless the person were exceptionally bad at keeping secrets!)

In fact, the present consensus is not to read Riddle 60 as part of The Husband’s Message. In modern editions and translations, the two are printed as separate works. And most now agree that the answer to Riddle 60 is a reed or reed pen. A possible source or influence can be found in Symphosius’ Latin Enigma 2 (called Harundo or Reed):

Dulcis amica dei, semper vicina profundis,
Suave cano Musis, nigro perfusa colore
Nuntia sum linguae digitis signata ministris.

(Sweet mistress of a god, the steep bank’s neighbor, sweetly singing for the Muses; when drenched with black, I am the tongue’s messenger by guiding fingers pressed.) (text and trans. from Ohl, page 36)

The interesting thing about Symphosius’ riddle is that the reed takes on a number of forms: first it is the nymph Syrinx, who, according to Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Book 1, lines 689-721), is pursued by the god Pan and transformed into a reed; then it is just a plain old reed along the bank; then it starts to sing, probably in the form of a reed flute; and then, as a reed pen, it writes. We’re dealing with quite a multi-talented reed here.

Similarly, Riddle 60 also describes a reed near the bank (lines 1-7), and then it goes on to talk of the reed as a tool. A knife is used to carve the tip of a reed pen, which is then gripped by a hand and guided by human intent as it is pressed onto parchment (lines 12-14a). The ic (I) of lines 14b-17 is the reed pen, and the þe (you) could be the reader of the lines (the person to whom the pen, through its writing, “speaks”), or it could even be the writer, in whose presence the pen “declares” its message (i.e. puts the message on paper or parchment). The pen speaks ofer meodubence (across the mead-bench) by writing books that are subsequently read aloud or discussed at meals. This last point may seem odd, given that the end of the riddle focuses on secrecy. But we have to keep in mind that, like Symphosius’ riddle, Riddle 60 lists more than one use of the reed. In fact, lines 7b-10a may not even be about a reed pen, but about a reed flute, played during meals as entertainment. Capturing all of these reed forms in a single English word is difficult, which is why I’ve added the word “pen” in parentheses to the solution. John Niles suggests that instead of answering Riddle 60 with a Modern English word, we answer it with an Old English one, hreod, which is flexible enough to mean reed, reed pen, or reed flute (pages 131-2).

So please join me in congratulating Riddle 60! It seems that it has achieved its independence after all. But it must keep its guard up—the rune-staff solution still lurks in dark places, just waiting to latch on to this fascinating riddle.


References and Suggested Reading:

Blackburn, F. A. “The Husband’s Message and the Accompanying Riddles of the Exeter Book.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. 3 (1901), pages 1-13.

Hamer, Richard, trans. “The Husband’s Message.” A Choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse. London: Faber and Faber, 1970, pages 79-81.

Krapp, George Philip, and Elliott van Kirk Dobbie, eds. The Exeter Book. New York: Columbia University Press, 1936, pages 225, 361-62.

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

Ohl, Raymond. The Enigmas of Symphosius. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1928. (an online version of Ohl’s editions and translations can be found here)

Riddle 60 (or 58)

Riddle 60’s translation is once again by Brett Roscoe of The King’s University, Alberta. (thanks, Brett!)

Ic wæs be sonde,      sæwealle neah,
æt merefaroþe,*      minum gewunade
frumstaþole fæst;       fea ænig wæs
monna cynnes,      þæt minne þær
5    on anæde      eard beheolde,
ac mec uhtna gehwam     yð sio brune
lagufæðme beleolc.      Lyt ic wende
þæt ic ær oþþe sið      æfre sceolde
ofer meodubence       muðleas sprecan,
10     wordum wrixlan.       Þæt is wundres dæl,
on sefan searolic      þam þe swylc ne conn,
hu mec seaxes ord       ond seo swiþre hond,
eorles ingeþonc      on ord somod,
þingum geþydan,       þæt ic wiþ þe sceolde
15     for unc anum twam       ærendspræce
abeodan bealdlice,      swa hit beorna ma
uncre wordcwidas     widdor ne mænden.**

I was by the shore, near the sea-cliff,
with the surging of the waves.* I remained
fixed at my first place; there were few
of mankind who there,
5     in that solitude, could see my home,
but each morning the wave in its dark,
watery embrace enclosed me. Little did I know
that ever before or after,
I – mouth-less – across the mead-bench would have to speak,
10     exchange words. It is a kind of wonder
to one who does not know such things,
how, with a clever mind, the point of a knife,
the right hand and the thought of man together in a point,
press me for this purpose: that I with you should,
15     in the presence of us two alone,
boldly declare my message, so that no men
should spread our words more widely.**

Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Reed (pen), Rune staff


Translation Notes:

* Old English dictionaries do not agree on the meaning of merefaroþ, which has been defined variously as shore or bank, seawaves, or the surging of the waves.

**Lines 16b-17 literally read “so that [it] more men should not spread our words more widely” but since the double “more” sounds awkward in Modern English, I have omitted one of them.

Commentary for Riddle 59

This week’s commentary post is once again from Brett Roscoe of The King’s University, Alberta.


Imagine a hall where a lord and his warriors are drinking and laughing and generally just having a good time. The lord rewards a fighter with a ring, and the warrior proudly sends it around the table for all to admire (it is wylted ond wended wloncra folmum (rolled and turned in the hands of bold fighters)). This is the picture painted by Riddle 59, and at first it seems like a standard heroic scene. But there are some oddities that suggest there is more to this poem than meets the eye (cue eerie music). If the men are just looking at a ring, what makes them gleaw (prudent) and frod (wise) (lines 2b-3a)? And if the ring is a tacen (sign/emblem/symbol), what is it a sign of? Though in the foreground of this riddle we see warriors drinking in a hall, in the background we can hear the faint sounds of a priest’s sermon or a church choir.

The solution to Riddle 59 is “chalice,” which means the riddle is closely related to Riddle 48, whose possible solutions are “paten,” “chalice,” or “sacramental vessel” (though Megan thinks “paten” most likely). When Jesus instituted what we now know as the Lord’s Supper (or the Eucharist or Communion), he took a cup of wine and offered it to his disciples, and he said, “Drink ye all of this. For this is my blood of the new testament, which shall be shed for many unto remission of sins” (Bibite ex hoc omnes. Hic est enim sanguis meus novi testamenti, qui pro multis effundetur in remissionem peccatorum; Mat. 26:27-28 Douay-Rheims). So now we know why the ring (the chalice) is called a golden tacen (sign/symbol/emblem). To the church, this chalice is more than just a cup; it is a sign of Jesus’ death and of God’s gift of forgiveness. It is meant for all of Jesus’ disciples, and so it is wylted and wended (rolled and turned) from hand to hand, the riddler’s tricky way of saying the cup is passed from person to person.

Riddle 59 Hexham Abbey Chalice.JPG

Here’s a nice, little, Anglo-Saxon chalice from Hexham Abbey
(photo courtesy of C.J.W. Brown)

Now, the only time I stare at my mug is when I’m bored, and I don’t think that’s why the men gaze at this cup (lines 1-3a). So what is it about the cup that makes people stare? It probably helps that the cup is wounded (lines 11-12). I might not stare at any old cup, but I might look twice at a bleeding one. The riddle shows us a cup that is similar to Jesus, who was wounded on the cross. But how is a cup wounded? By chipping or denting it? By throwing it across the room and then stomping on it? Craig Williamson suggests that the wounds on the cup refer to engravings in the gold gilding (page 313). To help us see what he means, here is a picture of the Tassilo Chalice, a cup from the 8th century:


Photo (by Andreas Püttmann) from Wikipedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 2.0 de)

The chalice is engraved (or wounded) with pictures of Jesus and the four Evangelists, the Virgin Mary, and John the Baptist, and all the portraits are surrounded by a beautiful interlace pattern. If I had a cup like this, I’d probably stare at it too! The people gazing at the chalice, though, are doing more than admiring the artwork. They are called gleaw (prudent) and frod (wise) because by looking at the cup they are meditating on Christ’s death. Through its engravings, the cup brings a clear image of Christ into the gazers’ eyes and minds (lines 7b-9a), helping them contemplate the grace offered by God to those who take and drink.

If lines 12b-15a (“The prayer of any man…”) confuse you, you are in good company. Even Anglo-Saxonists don’t agree on what they mean. I’ve followed the translation suggested by Frederick Tupper Jr., which should clarify a bit, but the lines are still somewhat cryptic. Let’s start by looking at the phrase þære bene (the prayer). Though Tupper translates þære as “the,” it could also be translated “that,” and so we can assume the phrase þære bene refers to a specific prayer that has already been mentioned in the riddle. If we move backwards through the riddle looking for a prayer, it doesn’t take long before we find one. Two, actually. The first is in 3b-5a (“He who turned the ring asked for abundant peace…”), and the second in lines 5b-7a (when the ring speaks and names “the Healer”). The first prayer is from a Christian who drinks from the chalice, and the second prayer is from the chalice itself, possibly on behalf of the drinker. Since both are probably praying for grace for the drinker, we might say that they are both part of the same prayer, “that prayer” mentioned in line 12b. And if that prayer were to go ungefullodre (unfulfilled), if the person were not granted grace through the drinking of the wine, or, in other words, if the person did not have the gift of the eucharist and the sacrifice it represents, then he or she would never reach heaven.

So what’s in a cup? Wine, blood, and a lot of religious meaning. Looking up from writing this post, I suddenly find myself disappointed in my coffee mug.


References and Suggested Reading:

Allen, Michael J. B., and Daniel G. Calder, trans. Sources and Analogues of Old English Poetry: The Major Latin Texts in Translation. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1976.

Cosjin, P. J. “Anglosaxonica. IV.” Beitrage, vol. 23 (1898), pages 109-30.

Krapp, George Philip, and Elliott van Kirk Dobbie, eds. The Exeter Book. New York: Columbia University Press, 1936, pages 209-10, 351-52.

Tupper, Frederick Jr., ed. The Riddles of the Exeter Book. Boston: Ginn, 1910.

Williamson, Craig, ed. The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977, pages 102, 313-14.

Riddle 59 (or 57)

The following translation post is by Brett Roscoe, Assistant Professor at The King’s University in Alberta, and researcher of medieval wisdom literature. Take it away, Brett!

Ic seah in healle      hring gyldenne
men sceawian,       modum gleawe,
ferþþum frode.      Friþospede bæd
god nergende       gæste sinum
5     se þe wende wriþan;       word æfter cwæð
hring on hyrede,      hælend nemde
tillfremmendra.      Him torhte in gemynd
his dryhtnes naman      dumba brohte
ond in eagna gesihð,      gif þæs æþelan
10     goldes tacen       ongietan cuþe
ond dryhtnes dolg,      don swa þæs beages
benne cwædon.      Ne mæg þære bene
æniges monnes      ungefullodre
godes ealdorburg      gæst gesecan,
15     rodera ceastre.       Ræde, se þe wille,
hu ðæs wrætlican      wunda cwæden
hringes to hæleþum,       þa he in healle wæs
wylted ond wended       wloncra folmum.

I saw in the hall men behold
a golden ring, prudent in mind,
wise in spirit. He who turned the ring
asked for abundant peace for his spirit
5     from God the Saviour.* Then it spoke a word,
the ring in the gathering. It named the Healer
of those who do good. Clearly into memory
and into the sight of their eyes it brought, without words,
the Lord’s name, if one could perceive
10     the meaning of that noble, golden sign
and the wounds of the Lord, and do as the wounds
of the ring said. The prayer
of any man being unfulfilled,**
his soul cannot reach God’s royal city,
15     the fortress of the heavens. Let him who wishes explain
how the wounds of that curious ring
spoke to men, when, in the hall,
it was rolled and turned in the hands of the bold ones.

Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solution: Chalice

Translation Notes:

  • * Here I follow the Craig Williamson in translating god nergende as the object of the clause. Given the meaning of biddan (to pray, entreat, ask), I don’t think it likely that God is the subject. After all, who would God pray to?
  • **P.J. Cosijn suggests changing the manuscript ungefullodre to ungefullodra, translating it “of the unbaptized” (p. 130), the sense then being that the prayer of the unbaptized will not get them to heaven. The translation given here adopts the suggestion made by Frederick Tupper Jr. (p. 198).


  • Cosjin, P. J. “Anglosaxonica. IV.” Beitrage, vol. 23 (1898), pages 109-30.
  • Tupper, Frederick Jr., ed. The Riddles of the Exeter Book. Boston: Ginn, 1910.
  • Williamson, Craig, ed. The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977, pages 102, 313-14.

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.