Commentary for Riddle 63

If Riddle 63 has anything to teach us, it’s that people with hot pokers SHOULD NOT BE ALLOWED NEAR MANUSCRIPTS! Sorry…got a bit shouty there. All those years of pent-up scholarly rage have to take their toll at some point. I’m fine now.


So, Riddle 63. This is the first of many very damaged riddles that we’re going to be working through from this point on. They’re damaged because – as you might have guessed – there’s a long, diagonal burn from where someone put a hot poker or fiery brand on the back of the Exeter Book.

20170606123017032 copy.jpg

A photo of the damage to this page of the manuscript (folio 125r). I am *very* grateful to the manuscripts and archives team for providing this Exeter Cathedral Library photo (reproduced by courtesy of the Dean and Chapter of Exeter)


Even with the damage, we can still have a conversation about Riddle 63 because – thankfully – several of its opening lines are intact, and intriguing hints survive further on in the poem. We have enough information, for example, to have a convincing stab at the solution, which seems to be a glass beaker or perhaps glæs-fæt in Old English (though early solvers also suggested “flute” and “flask”).

Glass beakers are a fairly common find in Anglo-Saxon graves, and there’s pretty good evidence for solving the riddle this way. Some of this evidence comes from within the poem: the references to a servant handling and kissing the object from line 4 onward suggest that it’s a drinking vessel. And the object’s statement Ne mæg ic þy miþan (Nor can I conceal that) in line 10a implies that it’s transparent.

Riddle 63 Claw beaker from Ringmere Farm British Museum.jpg

An early Anglo-Saxon claw beaker from Ringlemere Farm, Kent, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain). You can find out more about it here.


I suppose you could argue that the holes in flutes would make concealing anything difficult too, and of course kissing and pressing with fingers are entirely relevant for a musical instrument of that kind. But we also have evidence for reading Riddle 63 as glass beaker that comes from outside of the poem. There’s a really, really, really useful parallel in one of the Anglo-Latin riddles written by the 7th/8th-century abbot and bishop Aldhelm. His Enigma 80, Calix Vitreus (Glass Chalice) has a similar reference to grasping with fingers and kissing, you see:

Nempe uolunt plures collum constringere dextra
Et pulchre digitis lubricum comprendere corpus;
Sed mentes muto, dum labris oscula trado
Dulcia compressis impendens basia buccis,
Atque pedum gressus titubantes sterno ruina.
(Glorie, vol. 133, page 496, lines 5-9)
(Truly, many wish to squeeze my neck with their right hand and seize my beautifully sinuous body with their fingers; 
but I change their minds, while I deliver kisses to their lips,
 dispensing sweet kisses to puckered mouths, and yet I throw off the faltering steps of their feet in a fall.)

This is a deeply disturbing vision of a sexual encounter loaded with complicated and competing power dynamics. There’s a lot of kissing here, sure, but there’s also a hint of violence in that term constringere, which can mean “to embrace,” but also “to bind/constrict” (hence I’ve gone for “squeeze”). Fifty Shades of Græg, amirite?

And while it’s the drinkers who initially want to inflict this violence on the drinking vessel, the vessel ends up turning the tables, so to speak, when the drinkers become so intoxicated that they fall over. This leads Mercedes Salvador-Bello to discuss Aldhelm’s Latin riddle in the light of Anglo-Saxon views on prostitution: she argues convincingly that the riddle imagines a prostitute bringing about the downfall of a man through a combination of sexual charms and excessive wine (page 371). She also suggests the poem might be alluding to the apocalyptic Whore of Babylon from the biblical Book of Revelation (see also Magennis, page 519). Heavy stuff.

I also think there’s a possible pun here in the verb muto (I change), which could easily be confused for the terribly rude noun muto (penis). I mean, it doesn’t work grammatically, but it might have caused an embarrassed titter nonetheless.

And this leads us back again to Riddle 63, which is equally euphemistic but with a very different tone (at least as far as we can tell!). There are certainly similarities between the Latin and Old English riddles – both involve what my mum used to call “kissy face, pressy bod” (otherwise known as “sex”). Riddle 63’s reference to the human in the riddle who wyrceð his willa (works his will) in line 7a should look familiar from Riddle 54 (line 6a). And þyð (presses) also appears in sexual contexts in Riddle 12 (line 8b), Riddle 21 (line 5b) and Riddle 62 (5a).

But what I quite like about this riddle is that the sexual act is clearly a mutually enjoyable one: þa unc geryde wæs (when it was pleasant for us two) (line 15b). Look at that glorious dual pronoun! Unc! “Us two”! This glass beaker is properly into it.

Still, there are some issues with class that muddy the waters a bit. Patrick Murphy reminds us that this riddle – like so many others – confuses the matter of who is serving whom; this speaker is “habitually compelled to serve men but also itself attended at times by a tillic esne ‘useful servant’” (page 205). While the one handling the glass beaker is imagined as a person from a lower status background, the beaker itself is glæd mid golde (shining with gold). This level of bling makes me wonder if Riddle 63’s glass beaker is – rather than a prostitute, like in Aldhelm’s Latin riddle – imagined as a high-status person having a fling with a servant in a private chamber. On a literal level, this gold could be metal ornamentation around the glass beaker (Salvador-Bello, page 372), but figuratively it might point to all those wondrous arm- and neck-rings that bedeck elite lords, ladies and retainers in heroic poetry.

I want to point to one final comparison before I close up shop for the day. A few weeks ago at a fascinating lecture about fear, Alice Jorgensen from Trinity College Dublin reminded me about a funny little reference in Blickling Homily 10, Þisses Middangeardes Ende Neah Is. This late 10th-century homily says that the dead will be forced to reveal their sins on Judgement Day:

biþ þonne se flæschoma ascyred swa glæs, ne mæg ðæs unrihtes beon awiht bedigled (Morris, pages 109/11)
(then the flesh will be as clear as glass, nor may its wrongs be at all concealed).

Isn’t this too perfect? The glassy flesh of sinners will no longer be able to conceal sins when the end of the world comes! Just like the glass of a beaker reveals what’s in it. Those sins – whether consensual sex between people of different social ranks, or the prostitute and drunken patron’s power struggle – are all going to be on display. A sobering note to end on, I know. (get it?)


References and Suggested Reading:

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

Leahy, Kevin. Anglo-Saxon Crafts. Stroud: Tempus, 2003, esp. pages 106-7.

Magennis, Hugh. “The Cup as Symbol and Metaphor in Old English Literature.” Speculum, vol. 60 (1985), pages 517-36.

Morris, Richard, ed. The Blickling Homilies. Early English Text Society o.s. (original series) 58, 63, 73. London: Oxford University Press, 1874-80.

Murphy, Patrick J. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011, pages 204-6.

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. “The Sexual Riddle Type in Aldhelm’s Enigmata, the Exeter Book, and Early Medieval Latin.” Philological Quarterly, vol. 90 (2012), pages 357-85, esp. 371-2.

Stephens, Win. “The Bright Cup: Early Medieval Vessel Glass.” In The Material Culture of Daily Living in the Anglo-Saxon World. Edited by Maren Clegg Hyer and Gale R. Owen-Crocker. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2011 (repr. 2013 by Liverpool University Press), pages 275-92.

Riddle 63 (or 61)

FYI, the manuscript is pretty damaged here, so the last few lines are impossible to reconstruct. Try to enjoy nonetheless!

Oft ic secga      seledreame sceal
fægre onþeon,      þonne ic eom forð boren
glæd mid golde,      þær guman drincað.
Hwilum mec on cofan     cysseð muþe
5     tillic esne,     þær wit tu beoþ,
fæðme on folm[. . . . .]grum þyð,
wyrceð his willa[. . . . . .]ð l[. . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . .] fulre,     þonne ic forð cyme
[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .]
10     Ne mæg ic þy miþan,       [. . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .]an on leohte
[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .]
swylce eac bið sona
. .]r[.]te getacnad,     hwæt me to [. . . .
15     . . . .]leas rinc,     þa unc geryde wæs.

Often I must prosper fairly among the hall-joy
of men, when I am carried forth
shining with gold, where men drink.
Sometimes a capable servant kisses me on the mouth
5     in a chamber where we two are,
my bosom in his hand, presses me with fingers,
works his will . . .
. . . full, when I come forth
. . .
10     Nor can I conceal that . . .
. . . in the light
. . .
so too is it immediately . . .
indicated, what from me . . .
. . . less warrior, when it was pleasant for us two.

Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Glass beaker, Flask, Flute

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.