Riddle 74 (or 72)

Riddle 74’s translation is by returning guest contributor James Paz, lecturer in early medieval literature at the University of Manchester. Welcome back, James!

Ic wæs fæmne geong,      feaxhar cwene,
ond ænlic rinc      on ane tid;
fleah mid fuglum      ond on flode swom,
deaf under yþe      dead mid fiscum,
ond on foldan stop,      hæfde ferþ cwicu.

I was a young girl, a grey-haired woman,
and a singular warrior at the same time;
I soared with the birds and swam in the water,
dove under the waves, dead among the fish,
and stepped on land. I held a living spirit.

Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Cuttlefish, Boat and oak, Quill pen, Ship’s figurehead, Siren, Water


Commentary for Riddle 72

Riddle 72’s commentary is by Robert Stanton from Boston College. Take it away, Robert!


Welcome to the third Exeter Book riddle featuring the hardworking ox or cow. Will it be the last we see of the bovines? No spoilers! This one is slightly more enigmatic than average, because the manuscript is damaged towards the end and there’s a huge hole where the start of the riddle should be. But we get a general idea of nostalgia for early childhood: the speaker remembers being little, having a sister, and feeding happily. But the youthful scene quickly becomes more riddle-y: this kid pulled four brothers who dispensed drinks through separate holes??? Luckily, constant readers of the Exeter Book will have a giant clue, because the creature narrating Riddle 38 also had four springs shooting forth brightly, which made them murmur with delight, and probably meant lunchtime. So yes, we’ve once again got a young bovine here, feeding off his mum’s four teats and enjoying it a lot.

But where the brief Riddle 38 jumps straight to the punchline poser (“That creature, if she survives, breaks the hills; if he dies, binds the living”), this critter’s life takes a dark and mournful turn. They must give up “that,” i.e. their mother’s milk, to a dark herder, a human who consumes the nourishment the calf once had. Meanwhile, the older ox or cow is forced to tread a lot of paths with a ring on their neck, bound under a beam. Life is hard, and you are constantly being poked by an iron goad.

Riddle 72 Bayeux Tapestry.JPG
A plough-team races across the bottom margin of the Bayeux Tapestry…though this one appears to pulled by a donkey…
Image (by Urban) from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 3.0)

That’s a pretty melancholy ending for any riddle, right? Of course, the formulaic ending about living and breaking, then dying and binding, shared by the other two cow/ox Exeter riddles and several Latin riddles, is also kind of depressing. Riddle 72 reshuffles the deck with the bovine riddle motifs: youthful delight from four teats, subsequent toil, ploughing when alive, leather when dead.

The themes of deprivation and consumption run broad and deep, across gender and generational boundaries. Eusebius’ Latin Enigma 12, De bove (“Bullock”) catalogues the animal’s work for humans, and the sad lack of reward for it:

Nunc aro, nunc operor, consumor in omnibus annis;
Multae sunt cereres, semper desunt mihi panes;
Et segetes colui, nec potus ebrius hausi.
(Glorie, vol. 133, page 220)
(Now I plough, now I toil, I am consumed through all the years;
Many are the harvests, but there is never bread for me;
I tilled the fields, but never drank strong drinks.)

Riddle 72 Ox Bede's World.JPG
A very fine Dexter ox from Bede’s World in Northumbria
Photo courtesy of C.J.W. Brown

In the following Eusebian riddle, Enigma 13, De vacca (“Cow”), a mother cow grieves that although she has fed many children, she herself consumes only cibis aliis (other food) and aquis alienis (someone else’s waters), because her own mother’s milk is long gone. The previous riddles, of course, have pointed out that the cow’s children are themselves consumed by a life of toil and deprived of their mother’s milk (just like in Riddle 72):

Sunt pecudes multae mihi, quas nutrire solebam;
Meque premente fame non lacteque carneue uescor,
Cumque cibis aliis et pascor aquis alienis;
Ex me multi uiuunt, ex me et flumina currunt.
(Glorie, vol. 133, page 223)
(My cattle are many, whom I used to feed;
And when hunger presses me I take no milk or meat,
Since I am fed with other food and someone else’s waters;
Many live off me, and rivers flow from me.)

The poetic tradition of lamenting the lives and fates of domesticated agricultural animals goes at least as far back as Virgil, whose Georgics famously catalogue the toil of cattle, the fact that they never get to enjoy themselves with booze like humans do, and the nasty diseases they can catch:

Ecce autem duro fumans sub vomere taurus
concidit et mixtum spumis vomit ore cruorem
extremosque ciet gemitus. it tristis arator,
maerentem abiungens fraterna morte iuvencum,
atque opere in medio defixa relinquit aratra.
(But lo, the bull, smoking under the ploughshare’s weight, falls; from his mouth he spurts blood, mingled with foam, and heaves his dying groans. Sadly goes the ploughman, unyokes the steer that sorrows for his brother’s death, and amid its half-done task leaves the share rooted fast.) (pages 212-13)

Bovines also featured heavily in the Old Testament, frequently signifying the wealth of an individual or a people, the transfer of wealth between people or groups, or the loss of property resulting from illness or death. A popular passage from Deuteronomy 25.4 about an ox threshing grain (“thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn”) was quoted twice by St Paul, to signify that everyone needs to be able to get on with his or her work or office, and in particular that priests and preachers should always be free to go about their business. In First Corinthians 9.9, however, Paul asks a provocative question: Numquid de bubus cura est Deo? Does God care about oxen? No; he insists on the allegorical force of the textual ox, explicitly rejecting any literal compassion for actual oxen (a number of other patristic writers also rejected the idea that humans should care about individual animals).

Riddle 72 Highland-cow.jpg
How could you not care about such a magnificent creature?!
Image (by Eirik Newth) from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY 2.0)

The riddlers’ sympathy for the animals’ toil and loss extends further, across boundaries between species, and even animate and inanimate objects. Jennifer Neville has written about riddles that use tools (sword, bellows, battering ram, bow, key, reed pen, etc.) to explore issues of servitude, binding, and exploitation. The narrator of Riddle 21 (“Plough”) laments its own hard labour, objectification, and even abuse at the hands of its lord, while transferring some sympathy to the ploughman, perhaps a slave, who steers it, and maybe even the ox who pulls it. In their deeply emotional identification with suffering, both the Exeter ox/cow riddles and the implement riddles have a lot in common with elegiac poems like The Wanderer and The Seafarer, which also feature emotional scenes of deprivation and loss. Most of the implement riddles share some of the ox/cow riddles’ traumatic deprivation of comfort in youth followed by violent handling and/or consumption in a human system of servitude; Jonathan Wilcox has eloquently summarized this as “the lament for a movement from natural innocence to manufactured suffering” (Wilcox, page 398).

In our current riddle, bovines who plough (and then get used for leather) are further associated with the Welsh, who often stand in for general foreigners or slaves in worrying ways (as in Riddle 12, with the drunken Welsh slave girl manipulating a leather object by the fire). Line 12, mearcpaþas Walas træd, moras pæðde (trod the paths of the Welsh marches [borderlands]) causes a problem because it has too many syllables, but the presence of Walas points implicitly to the theme of slavery, or at least captivity, perhaps along the English/Welsh border; Lindy Brady has recently raised the possibility that the ox in this riddle is part of a cattle drive in this part of the island (pages 94-96).

So what do we do with the emotion and sympathy evoked by this poem and its nearest relatives: the other cow/ox riddles, other animal riddles, and the implement riddles? The ambiguous nature of riddles, especially the first-person “say what I am” variety, both hinders and helps us here. The confusion caused by an apparently animate narrator who turns out to be an inanimate object is part of the humor, like when the plough says “my nose in downward,” but it’s really part of a broader project, the blurring between subject and object, that uses confusion to elicit pleasure. If a tool made of wood and iron can talk, that’s slightly unsettling and funny; if a working animal can talk, that’s even more confusing, still a bit funny, but maybe even a bit more emotional. A fictional ox narrator can carry all sorts of baggage from all the other works that influenced it (Bible verses, Virgil’s Georgics, other riddles), but can still jump off the page and demand your care and attention in ways that no poetic genres can fully contain.

Furthermore, both the writers and readers of the Exeter Book riddles would have been fully aware of just how much they depended on both the labour of bovines (ploughing and hauling goods) and the materials taken from their bodies. People have been talking a lot lately about the fundamental connection between animal slaughter and medieval manuscript production. In eighth- and ninth-century England (roughly the time period of the riddles), all major monasteries kept livestock, larger ones sold meat and dairy products for income, and establishments producing large calf-skin manuscripts produced higher dairy yields, since more calves producing manuscripts meant more lactating cows, and hence, more milk. Monastic economies, like those of manors, depended on the ploughing capability of oxen, the yield of meat from slaughtered animals, the production of milk, cream, cheese, and other dairy commodities, and the manufacture of useful objects from other parts of the animal’s body – especially hide, whether tanned into leather or not, but also including horn and bone.

While the people who wrote and read riddles about cows and oxen living lives of toil and despair had to be aware of the animals’ central place in their own human lives, the literary representations of those beasts could reach across species boundaries to forge emotional and sympathetic bonds. The battered plough, the shivering ploughman, and the exhausted ox share a life of servitude on the losing side of consumption, but in a few brief, painful lines of poetry, they can gain a voice.


References and Suggested Reading

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

Brady, Lindy. Writing the Welsh Borderlands in Anglo-Saxon England. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017.

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

Holsinger, Bruce. “Of Pigs and Parchment: Medieval Studies and the Coming of the Animal.” PMLA, vol. 124 (2009), pages 616-23.

Kay, Sarah. Animal Skins and the Reading Self in Medieval Latin and French Bestiaries. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.

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

Neville, Jennifer. “The Unexpected Treasure of the ‘Implement Trope’: Hierarchical Relationships in the Old English Riddles.” Review of English Studies new series, vol. 62 (2011), pages 505-19.

Virgil. Eclogues, Georgics, Aeneid Books I-VI. Loeb Classical Library, vol. 63. Trans. by H. Rushton Fairclough. Revised by G.P. Goold. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1935.

Wilcox, Jonathan. “New Solutions to Old English Riddles: Riddles 17 and 53.” Philological Quarterly, vol. 69 (1990), pages 393-408.

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

Riddle 72 (or 70)

Our translation of (the somewhat damaged) Riddle 72 comes to us from Robert Stanton, Associate Professor of English at Boston College. Robert works on medieval literature, animal studies and translation…so he’s pretty perfect for this riddle. Read on to find out why!

Ic wæs lytel …
fo …
… te geaf …
…pe         þe unc gemæne …
5   … sweostor min,
fedde mec …      oft ic feower teah
swæse broþor,         þara onsundran gehwylc
dægtidum me         drincan sealde
þurh þyrel þearle.         Ic þæh on lust,
10   oþþæt ic wæs yldra         ond þæt anforlet
sweartum hyrde;        siþade widdor,
mearcpaþas Walas træd,         moras pæðde,
bunden under beame,         beag hæfde on healse,
wean on laste         weorc þrowade,
15   earfoða dæl.         Oft mec isern scod
sare on sidan;         ic swigade,
næfre meldade         monna ængum
gif me ordstæpe         egle wæron.

I was little…

[was?] common to us two,
5   … my sister,
fed me … often I pulled four
favorite brothers; each of them separately
gave me a drink in the day-time
abundantly through a hole. I grew up in pleasure,
10   until I was older and gave that up
to a dark herder; I traveled more widely,
trod the paths of the Welsh marches, traveled the moors,
bound under a beam, had a ring on my neck,
on a path of woe endured toil,
15   a share of hardships. Often iron hurt me
sorely in the side; I was silent,
never accused any man
if goad-pricks were painful to me.

Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Ox, Heifer, Cow

Commentary for Riddle 71

This week’s commentary post is once again by Judy Kendall, Reader in English and Creative Writing at Salford University. Off we go!:


Yet again another riddle with a hole in it, or several holes. Immediately, you’d expect the riddle to become more of a riddle for us twenty-first century would-be riddle-solvers: distance of time, language, cultural context compounded by lack of text. However, the situation is complicated further by the riddleless nature of this particular riddle. For many, the solution seems quite obvious, easy, “un”-riddle-like – the majority plump for Sword or Sword-hilt. There is not much evidence of the “decoding process” of false leads or indirect clues that Mercedes Salvador-Bello has noted occurring in so many riddles (page 39). Not that there hasn’t been disagreement. Other suggested solutions, as listed by Craig Williamson, include Cupping-glass, Iron Helmet, Iron Shield, Bronze Shield, Dagger, or “iron, first in the ore, then made into a weapon” (page 340). We can also add Phyllis Portnoy’s reading of Retainer, or a warrior in service to a lord, although, as we shall see, this is by no means her only solution.

But are we missing something? Of course we are – several letters and words in the last few lines. And the temptation is to add them in, like icing.

Riddle 71 Piping_buttercream_onto_cake
Photo (by Michael Prudhomme) from Wikipedia Commons (license: CC-BY-SA-3.0)

In this context, it is well worth heeding Williamson’s stern warning: “The doctoring of legitimate Old English passages to bolster one’s solution is not a sound editorial practice” (page 342). He was referring to Moritz Trautmann’s amendment of yþan to ywan in line 7, so as to fit his solution of Shield. It has to be said, however, that Williamson himself goes as near as can be not to follow his own advice, making keen use of his typographical eye to inform us in his footnotes to Riddle 71 of what might be, or is, just visible in the illegible areas of the manuscript (page 107):

  • 69.7: Two spaces before fe the tip of an ascender is visible.
  • 69.8: After bi either þ or l.
  • 69.10: The last letter of word preceding wlite has a long descender.

If that is not an invitation to fill in the gaps, then what is?

Plenty of other scholars have joined in the fun, as Portnoy, in her excellent piece on this riddle, notes when she lists the various ways different editors have glossed lacunae in the riddle. She also registers the difficulties created by apparent simplicity in riddle solutions which then seem too easily solved and not therefore sufficiently “clever” for the riddle genre.

This tendency to try and add in the missing words, rather than dealing with what is left does not bode well for the riddle. If the lines are so predictable that we are able to supply what is missing ourselves, this suggests not only a riddleless riddle but a rather poor poem. Portnoy acknowledges this, and sees her task as that of rescuing this and similar riddles (5, 20, 56 and 91) from such a fate. She accomplishes it admirably.

Her argument in the case of Riddle 71 – and you would do well to look her piece up yourself rather than rely on this rather skimpy gloss – is that the role of the Old English laf and the animate-inanimate associations it can call up (“what is left,” “remnant,” “survivor,” “widow,” “treasure,” “heirloom”, “sword,” “relic”) lead in fact to impressively complex readings. It is in this complexity that the artistry of Riddle 71 lies, mirroring the metalwork of the object it describes, whether this be a sword, sword-hilt, or indeed something else. Portnoy draws an analogy with the effects of a kenning (a poetic device that involves a compressed, often compounded, metaphor): “while the referent may be obvious, the point may be not so much to mystify the reader, but to present the familiar in an unusual way” (page 557).

She also emphasises an inclusiveness in reading. Thus, the reade of line one can refer not only to a victim’s blood, but also to red-gold decoration and to garnets, all of which might cover a sword or a retainer. In addition, reade, with its association with fire, prepares for a possible reference in the next lines to forges and the act of forging, another favoured interpretation.

Indeed, just to indulge in a short aside, for Kevin Crossley-Holland, iron forged into a weapon is the interpretation. He does not include this riddle in the main body of his collection, in which he decided to avoid “very badly damaged or impossibly obscure” riddles, but does still give space in his notes both for a translation of the riddle and a short commentary upon it (page xv). In his translation, he begins line 2 as “Once I was a tough, steep place,” and informs us that A. J. Wyatt’s description of this riddle as “iron, first in the ore then made into a weapon” is unlikely to be bettered, with line 2 referring either to the blade or the precipitous site from which it was quarried (page 107).

Portnoy, however, keeps her options open. She draws on Williamson and Frederick Tupper, Jr. in her reading of line 2’s stið ond steapwong, which she sees as comprising a number of readings: the ground from which iron ore is mined, the homeland of the warrior, the metal sides or “cheeks” of the warrior’s helmet or sword “face,” and/or indeed the channel running down the centre of a sword blade.

Riddle 71 Gilling Sword
Photo of the 9th-century Gilling Sword (by York Museums Trust Staff) from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 4.0)

References to what is inanimate and animate continue through the riddle as the sword/retainer meets its match – another sword or a warrior bearing gold. Thus, says Portnoy, “the subject’s identity, while perhaps simple to discover, is indeed complex to contemplate: “a laf “heirloom” which is a laf “remnant” of a laf “sword” which is a laf “survivor” (of the forge) confronts his match—either a human laf “survivor” (of a battle), or another equally compounded inanimate laf” (page 560).

Read in-depth, Portnoy’s argument is coherent, detailed and convincing. It is certainly helpful when grappling with the riddle’s apparent simplicity, but I am not convinced her approach allows us to see the whole picture. How could it? Surely the riddle’s credentials as a riddle cannot depend upon Portnoy’s or anyone else’s intricate analysis, as long as we are not working from the full text. The question for me therefore, particularly as a translator, is how to approach such a text in a way that acknowledges and respects its lacunae – how to avoid that temptation to “add in”.

Patrick Murphy’s Unriddling the Exeter Riddles points the way, though he does not refer to Riddle 71 explicitly. His argument, which builds on work by A. J. Wyatt and Archer Taylor, rests on the claim that the Exeter riddles are descriptions of objects that are intended to be both accurate and misleading, suggesting as solutions something entirely different to the apparently obvious descriptions.

In other words, what we see as an obvious solution may be a metaphor or a pointer to something else. Constrained perhaps by the gaps in the text, perhaps by our lack of cultural and contextual knowledge, we might be completely missing the boat. We read the riddle in a literal way because a more allusive interpretation eludes us, an interpretation that might perhaps be closer to hand if we had those missing words. Suspecting this to be the case, I welcomed Williamson’s stern warning as a guide to my own process of translation of the poem. I had initially chosen this riddle to translate because I thought it would be fun to attempt to write the missing ending lines, but, in the event, I decided, for the reasons given above, not to hazard any guesses at reconstructing those lost words. In this I follow not only Williamson’s warning and Murphy’s argument but the creative practice of John Porter. Porter’s principle when translating fragments, as he took the trouble to note in the introduction to his Anglo-Saxon Riddles, was “to translate only words which are entire, and to omit unintelligible letters and groups” (page 8). He worked with the words he could see, not the ones he couldn’t.

So, without making a commitment to any of the potential solutions other scholars have proffered, I also focused on the words we have been left. As much as possible I tried to leave open whether the riddle refers to a sword, sword-hilt, iron, retainer, warrior, spear…or even perhaps a caterpillar (well probably not caterpillar).

Riddle 71 Caterpillar
Photo (by Vengolis) from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 4.0)

Rather than closing down the options, I looked for translation choices that would keep them open. I wanted to hold on to those ambiguities because I suspect that none of the solutions that have been suggested are exact. Portnoy would agree with this perhaps, but also I wanted to leave open the possibility that there is a solution out there, but one that no one has come across.

Such thoughts affected many of my word choices. So, “clothed” was arrived at because it can refer to both object and person; “a hard and high promontory” fits the description of a piece or land or quarry but can also act as a metaphor for a retainer or even a sword blade; “the leavings of fury” allows us to keep the ambiguities in laf that Portnoy has highlighted – a suggestion of both victim and victor. As my choice of “hard” might already indicate, I also suspected the riddle included some sexual innuendo. This led me to replace the more obvious “weeps” with “groans” in line 5. Murphy helped me to this line of thinking with his analysis of the double meaning of wæpen in Riddle 20 (sword/penis), and his reference to the sexually-charged image of “rings” in traditional riddling (page 61 and 74). This awareness informed a number of my other word choices as well. I’ll leave you to spot which ones.

When it came to the fragmented ending I allowed myself some indulgence:

  • (a) not to be bound by a desire to make complete sense – if the fragments make perfect sense there would be no need for the missing words;
  • (b) to work with alliteration across the fragments we have, instead of within the lines we do not have. Why? Just because I can, but also because it binds the riddle, gives it a sense of coherence, while still retaining, through the gaps in sense/content, our awareness of those missing parts.

The relationship between the speaker/object and master seems to run through the riddle. It is referred to in line 1, possibly implied again in the “held fast” of line 4, and comes up again with the dryhtne min of the penultimate line. Additionally, as Williamson points out, the reference to rings also alludes to this: “Anglo-Saxon swords were sometimes adorned with rings or ring-knobs to symbolise liege-lord relationship – ring-sword” (page 198). Such a relationship is reflected in my translation of dryhtne min as “master of mine,” rather than, say, to “my master.” Because “master of mine” separates the two words beginning with “m,” it gives that alliterated “m” a little bit more space on the line, on the page and in the ear. Additionally, this phrase allows us to see the two (the “master” and “me”) as separate entities, which indeed they are in the poem, as well as being closely bound, whether in opposition or in thrall. I like the way the preposition “of” that separates these two words also binds them, suggesting a complex interdependency.

Such a suggestion also fits with the other curious interaction referred to in lines 5 and 6 between “he who groans/bears gold” and the one who grips or embodies the grip. In line 6, I deliberated over the possible selection of “at my grip,” which is a more colloquial way of phrasing, but decided to stick with the dictionary-accurate “before my grip.” It may sound a little unfamiliar to us but this unfamiliarity reminds us, albeit subliminally, that we don’t have full access to the riddle. Limited access is of course the case with any Old English riddle given that they were set and formulated so long ago, but the limitations are all the more pronounced with fragmented works. The words “before my grip” also, pleasingly, allow for an alliterative connection with “bears,” thus emphasising the double meaning of “bears” – as in carrying, but also enduring or suffering. The twinning of “bears” with “before” hints at the sense in “bears” of “bearing down,” as would happen when succumbing “before” a grip or when attempting to vanquish a grip that appears “before” one. Once again, in either case, a complex interaction of relationships is indicated here.

I was very happy to come up with “make good the face” – a great example of lack of perfect sense. What does it mean? We have no real idea. This allows us to hear in the translation the gaps left by those missing words. It also binds with the alliterated “m”s in the vicinity of “make” and allows an evocation of the wlite (or fair-faced flowers) of line 3, as also happens in the original. In addition, “make good the face” suggests a reversal of values or of appearance, a theme that also seems to run through the riddle, and, possibly, a righting of wrongs, or appearance of righting at any rate.

Thus, the gaps and lacunae provide us with the riddle we have left, and in our attempts to be faithful to this, we too could consider being left content with a riddle solution that is both attacker and victim, inanimate and animate. We could recognise what we have – the fragment we work with now, but also what we do not have – the riddle as it stood with Old English riddlers. I am haunted by Murphy’s allusion to Savely Senderovich’s survey of folk riddle research, in which he “concludes that solutions are “to be known” rather than to be guessed or induced by adding up the clues” (Murphy, page 33; quoting Senderovich, pages 19-20). This echoes the ethnographer John Blacking’s observation in his notes on riddle-telling in the Northern Transvaal: “Whenever someone knew a riddle well he answered it pat, as if the answer was an integral part of the question” (Blacking, page 5; quoted in Heller-Roazen, page 66). In the case of Riddle 71, that “known” or “pat” element seems to be something in which we 21st-century riddle-solvers do not share. Perhaps we simply stand too far away – the riddle perpetrating and perpetuating riddling down the ages…..


References and Suggested Reading

Blacking, John. “The Social Value of Venda Riddles.” African Studies, vol. 20, issue 1 (1961), pages 1-32.

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

Heller-Roazen, Daniel. Dark Tongues: The Art of Rogues and Riddlers. New York: Zone Books, 2013.

Muir, Bernard J.  The Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry. 2 vols. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1994.

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

Porter, John, trans. Anglo-Saxon Riddles. Hockwold-cum-Wilton: Anglo-Saxon Books, 1995 and 2013.

Portnoy, Phyllis. “Laf-Craft in Five Old English Riddles (K-D 5, 20, 56, 71, 91).” Neophilologus, vol. 97 (2013), pages 555–79.

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. “Direct and Indirect Clues: Exeter Riddle No.74 Reconsidered.” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, vol. 99 (1998), pages 17-29.

Senderovich, Savely. Riddle of the Riddle: A Study of the Folk Riddle’s Figurative Nature. London: Kegan Paul, 2005.

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 Carolina Press, 1977.

Wyatt, A. J. Old English Riddles. Boston: D.C. Heath, 1912.

Riddle 71 (or 69)

Judy Kendall, Reader in English and Creative Writing at Salford University, returns with a translation of Riddle 71:

Ic eom rices æht,     reade bewæfed,
stið ond steapwong.     Staþol wæs iu þa
wyrta wlitetorhtra;     nu eom wraþra laf,
fyres ond feole,     fæste genearwad,
wire geweorþad.     Wepeð hwilum
for minum gripe     se þe gold wigeð,
þonne ic yþan sceal     …fe,
hringum gehyrsted.     Me …i…
…go…                     dryhtne min…
…wlite bete.

I am owned by a rich lord,     clothed in red,
a hard and high promontory.     Once the home
of fair-faced flowers;     now the leavings of fury,
of fire and file,     held fast,
gilded with wire.     At times he groans
before my grip     the one who bears gold,
then I shall destroy
decked with rings.     Me
master of mine
… make good the face.

Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Cupping-glass, Iron Helmet, Iron Shield, Bronze Shield, Sword or Dagger, Sword-hilt, Iron Ore, Retainer

Commentary on Riddle 70

Well hello there, folks! I am in a pretty gosh darn grumpy mood as I type this blog post…for the second time…since I somehow managed to DELETE IT ALL last week. Srsly can’t wait for the hols.

As for Riddle 70, perhaps it makes sense to have to write up the commentary twice, since what we have here isn’t one riddle, but two (this is me desperately trying to rationalise my mistake…is it working?). Once again, we have a problem with the numbering attributed to the Exeter Book riddles in Krapp and Dobbie’s edition for the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records. This time, though, the problem has nothing to do with the big holes in the manuscript caused by some fool with a hot poker. On the contrary, what we have here is a problem with pages. You see, lines 1-4 of Riddle 70 appear at the bottom of folio 125v, while lines 5-6 appear at the top of the next page – folio 126r. And they don’t seem to flow. At. All. Not only does line 4 trail off unfinished (forcing some editors to add in words after gesceapo), but the first part of the riddle also has lots of third-person verbs like singeð (it sings), which jar with line 5’s first-person verb stonde (I stand).

Back in 1974, John C. Pope explained the lack of flow (in his rather marvellously-titled article, “An Unexpected Lacuna in the Exeter Book: Divorce Proceedings for an Ill-matched Couple in the Old English Riddles”) by arguing that we’re missing a page here in the Exeter Book. The quire – a sort of booklet that would be stitched together with others to form the manuscript – which folio 125 belongs to is short, you see, with only 7 pieces of parchment instead of 8. Something has definitely gone awry.

So, Pope reckons we have a Riddle 70a and a Riddle 70b, which the ASPR edition hasn’t recognised as separate texts. Other editors re-number them accordingly. The main thing to keep in mind, is that we seem to have parts of two different riddles here, which means we need to come up with two different solutions. Thanks for doubling my workload, Exeter Book compiler!

Let’s start with lines 1-4. Most of the solutions proposed for this part of the riddle are musical instruments of some sort. So, we have Shepherd’s Pipe, Bell, Harp, etc. There’s also Shuttle and Nose, which take the concept of something “singing through its sides” rather metaphorically, but I’m not convinced, since the explanations of what the “shoulders” (mentioned in the riddle) are seems a bit forced. The best solutions, in my own humble opinion, are a bell in some sort of bell-tower or a development of one of the first solutions proposed of this riddle: Shepherd’s Pipe or Shawm (a double-reed woodwind instrument). If you haven’t seen one of these, they’re all over the place in manuscripts and stone carvings/sculptures of the medieval period. Here’s one in action:

Now a shawm or shepherd’s pipe would certainly account for the references to the object’s interesting form of singing and its skilful creation, but what do we do about those two shoulders? Well, Luisa Maria Moser (I know you read this blog, Luisa; everyone wave, please!) has recently given this question quite a lot of thought. She argues that the instrument depicted here isn’t your bog-standard pipe, but a double shawm. The double shawm consists of two pipes with curved mouthpieces which themselves would have double reeds protruding from them (page 3). The curved neck of the riddle creature could refer to the joining of these mouthpieces (page 3). Although examples of such a shawm don’t survive from tenth-century England (i.e. the time of the Exeter Book’s compilation), we do have an early medieval stone carving depicting a triple flute in Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly, Ireland. There are also later double-flute images in manuscripts and carvings from England, including in the 14th-century Luttrell Psalter (fol. 58r – side-ways in the middle!), and at Beverley Minster in Yorkshire (15th-century)

So, perhaps we have an instrument like this one wondrously singing through the opening lines of Riddle 70.

What about lines 5-6, then? Do these have anything to do with musical instruments? Well, the short answer to that question is: no. The second riddle is much more interested in depicting an object that’s tall and rather charmingly hleortorht (cheek-bright). Most people solve this one as Lighthouse because of the reference to the object towering be wege, which could mean either “by the water” or “by the way/path.” There’s an Anglo-Latin riddle about a lighthouse in the collection by Aldhelm, who lived in the seventh/eighth centuries: Enigma 92, Faros Editissima. And Isidore of Seville, whose Etymologies were famed throughout the Middle Ages, also described the lighthouses of the ancient world, including the Lighthouse or Pharos of Alexandria:

Riddle 70 Lighthouse of Alexandria coins
Photo (by Ginolerhino) of the Lighthouse or Pharos of Alexandria on coins minted there in the second century from Wikimedia Commons (license CC BY-SA 3.0)

Apparently, the Romans built lighthouses on either side of the English Channel, so the Anglo-Saxon riddlers may have been familiar with these too (Pope, page 619). Lighthouse is a possibility then.

Riddle 70 Dover Castle Lighthouse
Photo (by Chris McKenna/Thryduulf) of the Roman lighthouse at Dover from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 4.0)

Another option is Candle, which John D. Niles has recently made a case for. According to Niles, we ought to be reading be wege metaphorically: the path is actually the inky trail of writing on a page (page 93). There are, after all, other riddles that refer to tracks when they really mean ink, like Riddle 51. Niles goes on to say that “From his (or its) own perspective, the personified candle does indeed stand ‘tall’ and ‘bright-cheeked’ beside the ‘path’ that it illumines. The wit of this riddle resides largely in its subversion of the anthropocentric expectation that something that is ‘tall’ should be taller than a human being, when in fact that size of the item to be guessed must be reckoned in relation to its own surroundings” (page 94). Since candles were more commonplace than lighthouses, this – he says – is the better solution.

Personally, I can’t justify going to such lengths to definitively solve a riddle that is clearly missing an unidentifiable amount of text and information! For all we know, this riddle may well be playing with both objects/structures. Be wege is obviously a contentious phrase, and it could be intentional wordplay on the part of the poet. But we simply can’t know because we don’t have the rest of the riddle. No need to get all in a tizzy, then. Let’s have our cake and eat it too.

lighthouse candle
There are a surprising amount of lighthouse-themed candle-holders available for sale online


References and Suggested Reading

Moser, Luisa Maria. “A New Solution for the Exeter Book Riddle Number 70 – A Double Flute.” Notes and Queries, vol. 63 (2016), pages 2-4.

Niles, John D. Old English Enigmatic Poems and the Play of the Texts. Turnhout: Brepols, 2006., esp. pages 92-6.

Pope, John C. “An Unexpected Lacuna in the Exeter Book: Divorce Proceedings for an Ill-matched Couple in the Old English Riddles.” Speculum, vol. 49 (1974), pages 615-22.

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. Isidorean Perceptions of Order: The Exeter Book Riddles and Medieval Latin Enigmata. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2015, esp. pages 393-7.

Stévanovitch, Colette. “Exeter Book Riddle 70A: Nose?,” Notes and Queries, vol. 42, (1995), pages 8-10.

von Erhardt-Siebold, Erika. “The Old English Loom Riddles.” In Philologica: The Malone Anniversary Studies. Edited by Thomas A. Kirby and Henry Bosley Woolf (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1949), pages 9-17.

Riddle 70 (or 67 and 68)

The numbering is weird again, folks! What Krapp and Dobbie’s edition of the Exeter Book includes as Riddle 70, Williamson edits as Riddle 67 (lines 1-4) and 68 (lines 5-6). More on this in the commentary!


Wiht is wrætlic      þam þe hyre wisan ne conn.
Singeð þurh sidan.      Is se sweora woh,
orþoncum geworht;      hafaþ eaxle tua
scearp on gescyldrum.      His gesceapo dreogeð*
5     þe swa wrætlice      be wege stonde
heah ond hleortorht      hæleþum to nytte.

Wondrous is a creature to the one who does not know its ways.
It sings through its sides. The neck is curved,
skillfully wrought; it has two shoulders
sharp in its shoulders. It fulfils its destiny …
5     … stand by the way so wondrously
high and cheek-bright, useful to heroes.

Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: (Church) Bell, Shawm/Shepherd’s Pipe, (Double) Flute, Harp, Lyre, Organistrum, Shuttle; Lines 5-6 as a separate riddle: Lighthouse, Candle

* Note that this term doesn’t appear in the manuscript, but has been added in by many editors because the verb dreogan (to fulfill/endure) accompanies the noun gesceap (destiny/fate/nature) elsewhere in the Old English poetic corpus.