Riddle 66 (or 64)

This translation is by Erin Sebo, lecturer in English at Flinders University in Australia. Erin is especially interested in wisdom literature, heroism and the history of emotions (so, all the good stuff!).

Ic eom mare      þonne þes middangeard
læsse þonne hondwyrm,      leohtre þonne mona,
swiftre þonne sunne.      Sæs me sind ealle
flodas on fæðmum      ond þes foldan bearm,
grene wongas.      Grundum ic hrine,
helle underhnige,      heofonas oferstige,
wuldres eþel,      wide ræce
ofer engla eard,      eorþan gefylle,
ealne middangeard      ond merestreamas
side mid me sylfum.      Saga hwæt ic hatte.

I am greater than this middle-earth,
less than a hand-worm, lighter than the moon,
swifter than the sun.  All the seas’ tides are
in my embraces and the earthen breast,
the green fields.  I touch the foundations,
I sink under hell, I soar over the heavens,
the home of glory; I reach wide
over the homeland of angels; I fill the earth abundantly,
the entire world and the streams of the oceans
with myself. Say what I am called.

Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Creation, God


Commentary for Riddle 65

Riddle 65’s commentary is once again by Judy Kendall, Reader in English and Creative Writing at Salford University. Take it away, Judy!


The generally accepted solution to this riddle is Onion, although Moritz Trautmann argued for Leek or Chives. We know that the Anglo-Saxons knew their onions. One proof of this is the first Onion riddle in the Exeter Book, the rude lewd Riddle 25. Physical evidence of onion-growing is trickier to find, since onions are small and their tissues, once deteriorated, leave little trace. However, we do know that the Romans grew onions because of onion bulb-shaped holes left in Pompeii gardens and carbonized onions in Pompeii kitchens (there’s a picture of these in Meyer, page 412 – free to read online with a MYJSTOR account).

There is even an onion, white and ash-like, named the Pompeii onion:

Fig 2 Pompeii Onion
Photo (by ayngelina) from Flickr (license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

All this is relevant (to an extent) because we also know that the Romans took onions on journeys to the further reaches of their empire, including Britain, and doubtless grew them there.

Riddle 65 offers a much more polite take on this vegetable than Riddle 25. That said, the two riddles share marked similarities. Frederick Tupper noted how both refer to loss of head and confinement in a narrow place (page 124), and Patrick Murphy points out that both recall traditional riddles of torture in their use of rapid-fire enumerations of various kinds of suffering (pages 223-4). Such “series of tortures” lists surface elsewhere in the Exeter Book too, as in the heart-aching opening list of actions inflicted upon an animal – skinned, stretched and scraped – in order to produce the vellum of Riddle 26’s book.

Riddle 65 also evokes an onion in its use of artful alliteration. The riddle’s striking aural effects are spiky, piquant, biting, even “attractively staccato,” as Kevin Crossley-Holland has it (page 105). Such effects not only describe an onion’s taste and smell, but also replicate onion skins, circling in layers through and around the riddle. Echoing and interlocking, they repeat back to themselves – just like an onion does. This layering effect is also evident in the recurrence of selected words and phrasal structures, as in the unusual use of parallel antithetical clauses in the same half line (line 2a).

In short, if you know your onions, you soon realize Riddle 65 is much more of an onion than a leek or chive. Its features are oniony: distinctive “biting” taste and smell, layered rings of skin – a palimpsest of interconnecting elements, effects on digestion, bulbous bulbs and the opportunities that these afford for bunching in “fetters.”

Fig 3 Cebollas_rojas.jpg
Photo (by Xemenendura) of bunching onions from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 4.0)

These all fit so much better with the riddle’s sounds, structure and allusions to head, body and bite, than the slimmer milder attributes of the bulbless leek that, for my money, there isn’t really a contest between the two. Apologies, leek…

Gentle Leek Poem
The author’s composition in Edible Poetry

In the Old English, these clues are embedded in the complex repeating onion-like patterns that extend aurally across the lines. The modern English translation proffered here attempts to keep something of these aural and structural onion clues. Thus, the hard-sounding bite of “cw” of line one is reciprocated in modern English with “qu.”

The repeated use of “cw,” or “qu,” constitute acts of artful alliteration, a term Andy Orchard defines as the use of sound cleverly combined with meaning for overall effect. The “cw” or “qu” marks life – cwico (quick/life), and death – cwele (quelled/death). These two states are thus both linked and contrasted. This is most striking in the Old English where “cw” heads each half-line in line 1, and where the alliteration is picked up again in line 2 with the use of cwom, which constitutes a second reference to life. In the modern English line 2, “came” provides a much weaker echo of the “qu” sound, so “qu” is also inserted in the last word of the second half of that line, as part of “quarry,” another possible allusion to death. This helps sustain the effect of the original doubly and interlinearly alliterative “cw,” bleeding across from one line to the next.

Initially, in line 1, the riddle suggests that death follows life. The advent of death does not seem very remarkable to us, so it is odd that the poet chooses þeah or seþeah (nevertheless/but/yet) to introduce it. However, the parallel antithetical clauses of the first half of line 2 help to explain this emphasis on oddity. Line 2 opens with an allusion to life followed, presumably, by death: Ær ic wæs, but this is then immediately followed by a similarly structured reference to life (eft ic cwom). Life, followed by death, followed once again by life. Peculiar, since for humans anyway death tends to be terminal.

Craig Williamson notes that such an arrangement of clauses within the same half line is very unusual in Old English verse – “highly, perhaps deliberately, eccentric” (page 331). He sees it as an indication of a poet who has “radical ideas about breaking the rules of Old English metre” (page 332). Such a deliberate act of rebellion is asking us to pay close attention to these lines. Here, it suggests, is an embedded clue. The half line indicates regular renewal, a life-death-life-death-life-death cycle. Recurring death constitutes a departure from normality in human experience, but not so for onions.

Thus, these unusually-placed antithetical clauses point us definitively away from reading the subject as human towards a focus on the plant world, on onions perhaps. Onions metamorphose from bulb to fully-grown onion and then back again to bulb. These references to the paralleling and continual sequencing of life and death are reinforced by the positioning, sounds and structural phrasings in both line 1 and 2: line 1’s opening life (Cwico waes ic) matches line 2’s opening death (Ær ic wæs); the phrases are knit even more closely together by the use of alliterated “w”s and repeated ic’s; the similar sounding ic efne/eft ic of lines 1 and 2 also serve this purpose. Everything seems to circle and repeat.

In lines 3 and 4, the riddle continues to tease us with apparent illogicalities of sequence. The somewhat bizarre list of abuses and torture places experiences of being bitten and broken after what for a human would surely be the worst fate of all – decapitation. Double alliteration continues to be employed within each line and parallel phrasing and repeated sounds and words across them, again artfully reminding us of the onion’s cyclical life and circular skin. Most notably, in lines 3 and 4, the words mec on/min/mec on/mine link back to the mec in line 2, as well as pushing forwards to the me/mec, in lines 5 and 6, and culminating in the use of “m” as the alliterative link in the last lines – more repetitious circular effect. In addition, the riddle’s initial cross-alliterative pattern is reprised and hyped up in lines 4-5-6, with repeated references to the “biter bitten” motif, a commonplace in early English riddles, and, as many have observed, constituting a strong echo of the mordeo mordentes of Symphosius’s Latin onion riddle (Enigma 44).

Riddle 65 colour coded sounds.png
Some of the repeated sounds, colour-coded – there are more!

Is the poet just showing off? Or is there something else to consider. Why the repetition of me? Does it suggest self-obsession? If so, it contrasts oddly with the apparent argument of the last lines, in which the violence of human consumers seems to be starkly compared to the reasonable restrain of the meek and gentle onion – a view that the fruitarians and raw foodies of today would find sympathetic perhaps. The onion only bites in self-defence, unlike the aggressive behaviour of its human attackers.

However, just as the skins of the onion are shed to reveal more onion skin, so this poem’s emphasis on “bite” digs deeper than might first appear. We seem to be reading about the bite of man, but the sounds and repetitions of the words in which this is articulated forcefully bring home the bite of the onion. It might not be the first to bite but this does not negate its ever-ready aggression which is communicated through the biting sound that runs throughout the riddle as well as through the repeated alliteration of “bite” at the riddle’s end. The onion may present itself as a meek mild victim but its spiky voice, and the repeated emphasis on me me me, suggest otherwise.

In this regard, it is pleasing to discover an Old English riddle keeping abreast of developments in modern science. In 2008, the New Scientist reported Annika Paukner and Stephen Suomi’s discovery that monkeys grow more solitary and aggressive after washing with onions (Kaplan)! The onion, as Riddle 65 declares in both sound and sense, is both assertive (me me) and aggressive: ready and ripe for a fight, whether full-on or more covertly, as in the sneakily indirect effect of the emphasis of the very last line. This appears to stress the many bites of the human consumer. However, since the previous line has just established that any human act of violence will engender an onion’s retaliation, it also sets up the onion with equally as many opportunities of biting.

Alternatively, just to put a further onion in the works, onions are also beneficial. Pliny the Elder catalogued, before succumbing to the volcanic eruption near Pompeii, the curative properties of onions in relation to vision, sleep, mouth sores, dog bites, toothaches, dysentery and lumbago (National Onion Association). Recent scientific research reveals that they have a proven efficacy in the case of asthma (Elmsley).

I could really splurge on onions now by noting how the spikey staccato effects created by alliteration, word order and phrasing give a good impression of difficulty in breathing, gradually evening out in later lines. But better not – wouldn’t want you to think I’ve completely lost my onions.


References and Suggested Reading:

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

Emsley, John. “Onions Run Rings around Chemists.” New Scientist (30 September 1989)

Kaplan, Matt. “Onion Washing Gets Monkeys in a Lather.” New Scientist (21 July 2008).

Meyer, Frederick G. “Carbonized Food Plants of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the Villa at Torre Annunziata.” Economic Botany, vol. 34, issue 4 (1980), pages 401-37.

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

National Onion Association. “History of Onions” (2011).

Orchard, Andy. “Artful Alliteration in Anglo-Saxon Song and Story.” Anglia, vol. 113, issue 1 (1995), pages 429-63.

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. Isidorean Perceptions of Order: The Exeter Book Riddles and Medieval Latin Enigmata. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2015.

Taylor, Archer. English Riddles from Oral Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951.

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

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

Riddle 65 (or 63)

Riddle 65’s translation comes to us from Judy Kendall, Reader in English and Creative Writing at Salford University.  She’s especially interested in poetic composition, visual text and translation, both in an academic context and from the standpoint of a creative practitioner. You can see her creative record of the process of translating an Old English riddle in ‘brief brief: a riddle’ in Amsterdam’s Versal Literary & Arts Journal, issue 12.


Cwico wæs ic, ne cwæð ic wiht,      cwele ic efne seþeah.
Ær ic wæs, eft ic cwom.     Æghwa mec reafað,
hafað mec on headre,     ond min heafod scireþ,
biteð mec on bær lic,       briceð mine wisan.
Monnan ic ne bite,       nympþe he me bite;
sindan þara monige     þe mec bitað.

Quick to life I was, I did not quip at all, yet even so I’m quelled.
Before I was, renewed I came. I’m everybody’s quarry,
they hold me in fetters, and hack off my head,
bite my stripped body, snap my stalk.
I will not bite a man, unless he bites me;
many are they that bite me.

Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Onion, Leek, Chives

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:

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 academia.edu page.

Laynesmith, J. L. “The Bayeux Tapestry: A Canterbury Tale.” History Today, vol. 62, issue 10 (Oct. 2012). http://www.historytoday.com/jl-laynesmith/bayeux-tapestry-canterbury-tale (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