Commentary for Riddles 75 and 76

Here’s a riddle for you: what do a dog, Jesus, and someone taking a pee all have in common? Answer: they’re all possible solutions for this week’s riddle. Or riddles. Yes, there’s quite a bit of mystery about Riddle 75 and/or Riddle 76, and the mystery starts with how many poems it or they actually is. Or are.

For reasons that will become clear below, I’m going to set the runes aside for a moment and focus on the two longer lines of poetry. The way they’re written in the manuscript strongly suggests that they’re two separate texts – each begins with capitalisation and on a new line, and closes with the kind of punctuation flourish normally reserved for endings. This is how a lot of editors, including Krapp and Dobbie, treat them. The problem is… there isn’t much there. These might be the opening lines of two longer riddles, but if so the scribe forgot to include the rest. Other editors have preferred to combine these two lines into a single text. This has the advantage of providing a little more bulk to work with, and nods to the structural similarities between the lines. In fact, there’s a sort of chiasmus – a balancing of two parallel clauses – in the contrast between the subject of the first line moving swiftly and the subject of the second line sitting alone. My feeling is that these two riddles are, in fact, a single text even if that’s not how they’re presented in the manuscript.

However we choose to edit the poem/s, one thing we can be confident about is that the runes are later additions. You see, when we find runes in the Exeter Book riddles they’re usually integrated into the metre, meaning that they (or rather, the words they signify) carry alliteration. The first rune in Riddle 19, for example, is ᛋ (line 1b), whose name sigel picks up the s- alliteration from the preceding half line.

But that’s not what happens here. These runes are just hanging out on the end of the first line, with not the slightest regard for alliteration or metrical stress or any of the things that make Old English poetry poetic. So what are they doing there?

The answer is that these runes have been interpolated – i.e. moved – from the margins into the text proper. This happens when a scribe is copying from one manuscript to another and mistakes a note in the margin for a continuation of the line. We see another of this kind of mistake in Riddle 36, and Andy Orchard argues it’s also the source of Riddle 23’s opening line (page 290). In both cases, these stray words were originally written into the margins of earlier copies of the poems, to provide cryptic clues for the riddles’ solutions.

Now, if you’re the sort of person who gets excited by manuscript-y stuff (aren’t we all?), this is actually pretty cool. Today, all but one of the Old English riddles comes to us from the Exeter Book. Everything we think we know about these riddles – that they were written without solutions, for example – is based on this one manuscript. But what we get here is a glimpse of the earlier manuscript from which th Exeter Book itself was copied. Preserved in this odd mish-mash of a poem is the relic of what that lost manuscript looked like. It’s the manuscript equivalent of finding dino DNA preserved in amber.

riddle 75 dino
Sort of.
Photo credit: Brocken Inaglory, via Wikimedia Commons (licence: GNU Free Documentation Licence)

Once we’ve finished geeking out about palaeography, though, it’s time to get down to the real business: solving this thing. As you can see, there isn’t a great deal to go on. Taking only the poetic lines, we have either two riddles describing one thing moving quickly, and one thing sitting alone. Or we have one riddle describing both those things in tandem. No wonder someone thought it might be a good idea to include a little runic hint to help us along. What wise clue did our medieval runester grace us with?


No, that’s not an Old English sneeze. That’s what the runes say. Dnlh.

It may come as no surprise that “dnlh” isn’t a word, not in Old English nor in modern. But there are a couple of ways it might become a word, with some creative thinking and a loose approach to spelling. Reverse the letter order and add in some much-needed vowels and we might get hælend (lord). This solution was originally proposed by W. S. Mackie, who argued that the first line is a standalone riddle depicting Christ “as a hunter in pursuit of sin” (page 77). Playing around with letter order and vowels are two fairly common gambits in medieval cryptography – they’re used in Riddle 19 and Riddle 23 (reversed letters), or Riddle 36 (changed vowels). That’s solution one.

Solution one. 
Image credit: Google Cultural Institute via Wikimedia Commons (licence: Public Domain)

But there’s actually a way of finding some vowels without adding anything to the runes at all. When written in manuscripts, runic ᛚ (l) often ends up looking similar to runic ᚢ (u). And if there’s one thing we can say for sure about the Exeter Book scribe, it’s that he or she isn’t particularly good at writing runes consistently. Changing the “l” for a “u” and reversing the letter order gives us hund (hound). So the riddle may be as simple as that: a poem about a dog running really fast, to which someone’s helpfully added the word dog so that we know it’s definitely about a dog. This is solution two, and it’s a popular one (Bitterli, pages 105-10).

Riddle 75 dog.jpg
Solution two.
Image credit: Sheila Sund via Wikimedia Commons (licence: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic)

Solution three comes courtesy of Craig Williamson, who opines that “the pursuit of sin has no place in this riddle” (page 353), and that the word signified by our runic quartet is actually hland (urine). Williamson’s reading supports combining the two lines into one poem; the contrast between them speaks to the contrast between male and female peeing… postures.

riddle 75 tulips.jpg
Solution three: not pictured. I’ll leave it to your imagination.
Image credit: Tuxyso via Wikimedia Commons (licence: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0)

Which one is the correct solution? It’s honestly impossible to know. We don’t even know for sure that the runes have anything to do with conveying a solution. But that ambiguity is pretty fun. In fact, I’d argue one of the best things about this poem (or these poems) is how evocative it is. These two little lines may represent the shortest of the Exeter Book riddles, but they’ve provoked page upon page of critical commentary encompassing a truly eclectic range of solutions and creative readings. And thus we get from Jesus Christ to peeing postures, via one happy hound!


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.

Mackie, W. S. “Notes on the Text of the Exeter Book.” Modern Language Review, vol. 28 (1933), pages 75-78.

Orchard, Andy. “Enigma Variations: The Anglo-Saxon Riddle-tradition.” In Latin Learning and English Lore: Studies in Anglo-Saxon Literature for Michael Lapidge. Edited by Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe and Andy Orchard (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), pages 284-304.

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


Riddle 75 and 76 (or 73)

It’s another two-for-one this week! Most editors treat the first two lines as one riddle, and the third as a seperate riddle. Krapp and Dobbie are among them. Others, including Craig Williamson, edit this as a single poem. Also there are runes! Enjoy…

Ic swiftne geseah     on swaþe feran
.ᛞ ᚾ ᛚ ᚻ.
[Riddle 76] Ic ane geseah idese sittan.

I saw a swift one travel on the way
.d n l h.
[Riddle 76] I saw a woman sit alone.

Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Hound, Piss, Hound and Hind, Christ

Screen shot in case of rune malfunction:
Riddle 75 runes

Commentary for Riddle 73

If you read Riddle 73 and didn’t immediately think of The Dream of the Rood, well then you clearly haven’t read The Dream of the Rood as recently as is good for you, and should probably go and do that now. Are you back? Then on with the commentary!

Even with substantial damage to the riddle’s central lines, its parallels with The Dream of the Rood aren’t exactly hard to spot. Both feature monologues spoken by trees, for a start. In both, the trees begin by describing their place in the land. Both trees are old – in The Dream of the Rood, we’re told it was geara iu (“years ago”, line 28a) that the tree lived on the edge of a forest, while the speaker in Riddle 73 is gearum frodne (“wise in years”, line 3a). Eventually people arrive, fell these ancient trees, and transform them into… something else. In The Dream of the Rood, that something is a cross, soon to become the Cross. In Riddle 73, it’s some manner of weapon.

Exactly what weapon our speaker becomes is up for grabs, to a point. There’s been a modicum of support for Moritz Trautmann’s solution “battering ram”, mainly because of similarities with Riddle 53. There are a few obstacles to this reading, however. As Craig Williamson points out (page 354), our speaker is held in its wielder’s hand (line 8), is slender (line 18), and it moves about quietly (line 23). I don’t know about you, but when I picture something small, hand-held, and quiet, the first thing that springs to mind isn’t this:

Riddle 73 battering ram
Photo of battering ram (by Clarinetlover) from Wikimedia Commons (licence CC BY-SA 3.0)

The riddle’s more popular solutions are either spear (Old English gar) or bow (OE boga). According to Williamson, spears were perhaps the most common offensive weapon in the Anglo-Saxon arsenal, and they’re certainly abundant in Old English poetry. One verse of the Old English Rune Poem may be describing a tree-turned-spear, in a way that’s somewhat suggestive of Riddle 73:

Æsc biþ oferheah,     eldum dyre,
stiþ on staþule,     stede rihte hylt,
ðeah him feohtan on     firas monige. (Rune Poem, lines 81-83)

(The ash is very high,     dear to men,
strong in its stead; it holds its right place,
though many men fight against it.)

Yes, there’s always a way of shoehorning runes into a riddle commentary. And while we’re shoehorning, we can’t really talk about Anglo-Saxons and spears without some mention of The Battle of Maldon (a.k.a. “the poem with all the spears”). Maldon’s most famous line is almost certainly Byrhtnoth’s rejoinder to the Vikings’ offer of a truce in return for tribute:

Gehyrst þu, sælida,     hwæt þis folc segeð?
Hi willað eow to gafole     garas syllan,
ættrynne ord and ealde swurd. (The Battle of Maldon, lines 45-47)

(Do you hear, seafarer, what this people says?
They wish to give you spears for tribute,
the poisoned point, and old swords.)

More reminiscent of Riddle 73, though, are lines much later in the poem when, in the thick of the battle, we’re told that gar oft þurhwod / fæges feorhus (“the spear often pierced the life-house of the fated”, lines 296b-97a). When the speaker of Riddle 73 describes itself entering into strongholds, it might be speaking literally, of besieged towns. But it could just as easily be speaking figuratively of the human body (Williamson, page 348).

The Battle of Maldon is also a useful reminder that spears were projectiles as well as close-combat weapons. The speaker’s description of itself going alone with the craft of a thief (line 23) certainly puts me in mind of something being thrown across a distance. In fact, it mostly reminds me of this scene from the lid of the Franks Casket:

Riddle 73 Franks Casket 1
Yes, these particular arrows are coming out from, rather than going into, the stronghold. But you get the idea.
Photo (by FinnWikiNo) from Wikimedia Commons (licence CC BY-SA 3.0)

This brings us to the second popular solution: bow (and/or arrow). Those who know about Anglo-Saxon woodworking point out that while spears aren’t made from the wood of old trees, bows are (Doane, page 254). There’s also that reference to the speaker being compelled to bugan (“bend”, line 7b) in the hand of its wielder. I’m no expert, but that certainly sounds more like a bow than a spear.

Riddle 73 Franks Casket 2
For comparison, here are some spears from the back of the Franks Casket (top left). Notice: very straight. Notice also: more runes. There’s always room for more runes.
Photo (by Michel wal) from Wikimedia Commons (licence CC BY-SA 3.0)

So Riddle 73, like Riddle 53 and The Dream of the Rood, is one of several Old English poems in which “a tree is taken from a state of innocence and treated savagely to create an instrument of destruction” (Wilcox, page 398). Whether the specific instrument is a spear or a bow, the suffering that the speaker experiences through the course of its transformation is, as Wilcox points out, all the more ironic “when the manufactured object is one which brings suffering on men” (page 399).

That irony is certainly not lost on our poet. At the start of the riddle, the speaker is living in what Corinne Dale calls almost “Paradisal” peace (page 110), until hostile humans onwendan mine wisan (“changed my nature”, line 5a). This change is emphatically manufactured, in the sense that it’s brought about by human hands, and it forces the speaker to go wiþ onsceape (“against [my] creation”, line 6b). It’s through this human-wrought change that our speaker becomes, in turn, hostile to humans: sneaking into strongholds, and dispatching warriors through its newly bestowed wisan (“nature”, line 29a).

This is where the parallels with The Dream of the Rood become particularly poignant. In The Dream of the Rood, the speaker is likewise transformed into an instrument of death. But it also finds redemption in spite of – or rather, through – this transformation. As it towers above those who made it into a gallows, the tree-speaker contemplates how easily it could bugan to eorðan (“bend to earth”, line 42b) and wipe them out. But it ne dorste… bugan (“does not dare… bend”, lines 35a-36a), and instead obeys divine will by standing tall. The speaker of Riddle 73, on the other hand, has no such noble role to play. It simply on bonan willan bugan (“bends to a killer’s will”, line 7), and brings violence to places that ær frið hæfde (“previously had peace”, line 26b).

My favourite part in this riddle about transformation is actually the transformation that takes place in the very final half line. Here, the speaker takes what is probably the most conventional phrase in the Exeter Book riddles, saga hwæt ic hatte (line 29b) and turns it into something altogether more sinister. Call me paranoid, but it seems to me there’s a sort of implied threat in these closing lines: “Humans gave me this nature, and now my nature kills any human who knows it,” the speaker seems to say, before turning to its human audience and adding “So… do you know what I am?”


References and Suggested Reading

Dale, Corinne. The Natural World in the Exeter Book Riddles. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2017.

Doane, A. N. “Three Old English Implement Riddles: Reconsiderations of Numbers 4, 49, and 73.” Modern Philology, vol. 84, issue 3 (1987), pages 243-57.

Halsall, Maureen, ed. The Old English Rune Poem: A Critical Edition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981.

Wilcox, Jonathan. “New Solutions to Old English Riddles: Riddles 17 and 52.” Philological Quarterly, vol. 69, issue 4 (1990), pages 393-408.

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

Riddle 73 (or 71)

Ic on wonge aweox,     wunode þær mec feddon
hruse ond heofonwolcn,     oþþæt me onhwyrfdon
gearum frodne,     þa me grome wurdon,
of þære gecynde     þe ic ær cwic beheold,
5     onwendan mine wisan,     wegedon mec of earde,
gedydon þæt ic sceolde     wiþ gesceape minum
on bonan willan     bugan hwilum.
Nu eom mines frean     folme bysigo[.
…..]dlan dæl,     gif his ellen deag,
10     oþþe æfter dome     [.]ri[………
…………]an     mæ[.]þa fremman,
wyrcan w[………………..
……]ec on þeode     utan we[……
15     ond to wrohtstæp[……………….
…………]eorp,     eaxle gegyrde,
ond swiora smæl,     sidan fealwe
[………………..]     þonne mec heaþosigel
20     scir bescineð     ond mec [……..]
fægre feormað     ond on fyrd wigeð
cræfte on hæfte.     Cuð is wide
þæt ic þrista sum     þeofes cræfte
under hrægnlocan  […]
25     hwilum eawunga     eþelfæsten
forðweard brece,     þæt ær frið hæfde.
Feringe from,     he fus þonan
wendeð of þam wicum,     wiga se þe mine
wisan cunne.     Saga hwæt ic hatte.

I grew on a plain, lived where the earth
and the clouds of heaven fed me, until the ones who were hostile to me
took me, wise in years,
from the native place which I previously held when alive,
5     changed my ways, shook me from the earth,
made it so that I must – against my nature –
sometimes bow in a killer’s service.
Now I am busy in my lord’s hand[.
…..] share, if his valour avails,
10     until after judgement […………
……………….] to advance,
to work [.………………..
……..] to the people let us [……
15     and to strife-stepping(?)[……………….
………….…], girded shoulders,
and a small neck, dark sides
[………………..] when the bright battle-sun
20     shines on me and me […….]
nourishes well, and wields in war
with skill by the haft. It is widely known
that with a thief’s skill, I (go) alone among the bold,
into the brain-pan […]
25     at times I break forth openly
in a familiar fortress, that previously had peace.
Then eagerly he turns from that place,
bold for the journey, the warrior who
knows my nature. Say what I am called.

Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Spear, bow, cross

Commentary for Riddle 64

Do you like runes? Well I hope the answer’s yes, because there’s rather a lot of them going on here. Runes crop up relatively often in the Exeter Book, mostly clustered in and around the riddles. But Riddle 64 really goes to town on the old script mixing. Did you know this poem has a higher ratio of runes-to-lines than any other in the Exeter Book? True story.

Not that the runes make this poem particularly…poetic. Of all the runic riddles, this one has received the least scholarly attention in its own right. That’s because there’s just so little of it, apart from the runes. And they don’t seem to offer much help. For the record, wi (ᚹᛁ) is not a meaningful word, and nor are any of the other pairs of runes in this poem. Craig Williamson points out Riddle 64’s “absurd difficulty” (page 327), and he isn’t wrong.

Riddle 64 Wisconsin
Searching for the word ‘Wi’ only brings up lots of images of Madison, WI.
Which is… not much help.
Credit: Dori via Wikimedia Commons (Licence: Dual GFDL CC)

To make any sort of headway with Riddle 64, we need to cast our minds all the way back to the first of the Exeter Book’s runic riddles: Riddle 19. In fact, it’s worth having another read of that poem and commentary before going further. You’ll quickly see these two riddles have a lot in common, beyond their fondness for runic puzzles. They both describe a siþ (journey) over a wong (plain), embarked upon by a collection of runic-ly encoded creatures, some of which carry others.

These similarities can be pushed further still. The first runic creature in Riddle 19 is hors (horse). Another word for “horse” in Old English is wicg, which might conceivably be an expansion of that first pair of runes on line 1 (ᚹᛁ / wi). Next, Riddle 19 gives us mon (man) and wiga (warrior) (?), synonyms for which include beorn (ᛒᛖ / be on line 2) and þegn (ᚦᛖ / þe on line 4). Finally, Riddle 19’s haofoc seems to be replicated in Riddle 64 as hafoc (ᚻᚪ / ha, line 3), and paralleled by fælca (ᚠᚫ / , line 5). I’ll come back to the final three runes, which are bit trickier, but you get the idea.

Riddle 64 Horse.jpg
Like this, but more runey.
Image credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication)

It still feels like a bit of a cheat, though. I don’t think modern readers would’ve gotten very far with this riddle if we didn’t have Riddle 19 to crib from, and I do wonder whether our Anglo-Saxon counterparts would’ve fared much better. On that note, Riddle 64 isn’t the only runic puzzle on this page of the Exeter Book. The manuscript’s upper margin boasts its own runic message, written in dry point (ie scratched with a sharp tool) some time after the manuscript was completed. As far as anyone can make out, the letters seem to read:

ᛒ ᚢ ᚷ ᚱ ᚦ (bugrþ)  or  ᛒ ᚢ ᚾ ᚱ ᚦ (bunrþ)

What does this mean, you ask? No one knows! Williamson comments – half jokingly – that the latter sequence could be expanded into Beo unreþe (“Don’t be cruel!”, page 327): the complaint of a frustrated reader. My feeling is that this frustrated reader could have left an intentionally nonsensical enigma to match the apparently unreadable runes in the riddle. But the meaning of this little message is still very much up for grabs, if you’ve got a better idea!

Coming back to the poem. Riddle 64 is similar enough to Riddle 19 that scholars generally agree the two share a common solution. Those solutions tend to fall into one of three groups: something to do with hunting (Trautmann; Tupper); something to do with writing (Eliason; Shook); something to do with boats (Williamson; Griffith). Megan’s already done an ace job of setting out the arguments for and against each, and incidentally I’d be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to re-post some of Megan’s A-grade artwork:

Riddle 10 Writing

I’ve chosen this picture not only for its fine artistic qualities, but because it’s an excuse to talk a little more about the “writing” solution first put forward by Eliason. Although most recent scholarship on these two riddles has favoured a solution relating to boats, I actually think “writing” deserves at least equal consideration. There’s some interesting overlaps between Riddle 64 (and 19, for that matter), and several of the Exeter Book’s writing riddles.

Journeying as a metaphor for writing was a popular trope in early medieval literature. In his influential Etymologiae, Isidore of Seville claims that: litterae autem dictae quasi legiterae, quod iter legentibus praestent (letters [littera] are so called as if the term were legitera, because they provide a road [iter] for those who are reading [legere]) (I.iii.3, in Barney, page 39).

Riddle 64 Isidore.jpg
Isidore of Seville: never one to let actual etymology get in the way of good imagery.
Image credit: Luis García via Wikimedia Commons (licence: Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic)

We see this metaphor employed in Riddle 26 (lines 7-11), and it’s the central image of Riddle 51. It’s also used in Riddle 95, which Willamson solves as “book” (pages 397-402), and Murphy as “pen” (page 88). Riddle 51, in particular, emphasises the unity of the travelling companions (Murphy, page 86), in a way that’s quite reminiscent of Riddle 64.

These writing riddles also feature quite a lot of birds (Bitterli, pages 35-46; Murphy, page 85), and for a good reason. Pens at the time were often quills made from feathers of larger water birds, such as geese or swans.

Riddle 64 Quill Pen.jpg
Like so.
Image credit: Kijker Museum via Wikimedia Commons (licence: Public Domain)

If you’ve ever found a seagull feather on the beach and swished it about a bit (don’t do this – seagulls are pretty gross), you’ll know they offer up quite a bit of air resistance. You can imagine a scribe experiencing something similar when writing with a quill. And this overlap between pens, feathers and flight gives rise to some of the most imaginative imagery of the writing riddles, such as when Riddle 26 describes its pen as the “bird’s joy” (fugles wyn, line 7b), or when the pen in Riddle 51 moves through the air “faster than birds” (fulgum framra, line 4a). Riddle 95 refers to the “delight of plunders” (hiþendra hyht, line 5a), which has been taken as a kenning for a quill pen (Murphy, page 95), and gives us a nice parallel to the description in Riddle 64 of the falcon as the “keeper’s joy” (habbendes hyht, line 3a).

To recap: in this interpretation, the “warrior” is the hand of the scribe (contributing its “share of the power”), while the “horse” that carries him on this journey is the point of the pen, and the “falcon” joyously flying above them is the pen’s plume swishing through the air as the scribe writes. They’re all travelling in unison across the “plain” of the manuscript page, and having a jolly good time about it.

Which just leaves that tricky last set of runes: easp. Although it’s difficult to be sure what the poet had in mind for this one, Williamson argues convincingly that it’s a contraction of the compound ea-spor, meaning “water-track” (page 326). There could be a parallel to this in Riddle 19 if the runic group on line 6 is taken to be wega “wave” rather than wiga “warrior.”

This word gives some support for the “boat” interpretation, but I don’t think it rules out “writing” either. Riddle 51 is quite taken with the image of the pen as a bird soaring through the air and then diving under the waves (ie into an ink pot), and both it and Riddle 26 describe pens leaving inky lastas “tracks” (see also Riddle 95, line 11b). So, to keep with our writing solution, the “water-track” is the line of ink left in the wake of the warrior scribe. And this is as good a place as any to bring in my favourite sea-related writing metaphor, which is from a colophon (or notation) added by one Æthelberht at the end of an eighth-century book of Psalms:

Finit liber psalmorum. In Christo Iesu domino nostro; lege in pace. Sicut portus oportunus nauigantibus ita uorsus [sic] nouissimus scribentibus.

(Here finishes the book of the Psalms. In Christ Jesus our Lord; read in peace. Just as the port is welcome to sailors, so is the final verse to scribes.) (Gameson, page 35; see also this excellent blogpost by Thijs Porck)

Riddle 64 Ship
Image credit: Urban via Wikimedia Commons (licence: Dual GFDL CC)

So, that’s the case for solving this riddle as writing. I think there’s something quite appealing in the image of a pen in hand as a warrior and entourage, venturing forth across the page, leaving dark trails of watery ink in their wake. And this solution also helps to explain the inclusion of all those runes. What better place to show off your skill with not one but two alphabets, than in a poem that’s all about… writing!


References and Suggested Reading:

Barney, Stephen A., W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach and Oliver Berghof, eds and trans. The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

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

Dewa, Roberta. “The Runic Riddles of the Exeter Book: Language Games and Anglo-Saxon Scholarship.” Nottingham Medieval Studies, vol. 39 (1995), pages 26-36.

Eliason, Norman E. “Four Old English Cryptographic Riddles.” Studies in Philology, vol. 49 (1952), pages 553-65.

Gameson, Richard. The Scribe Speaks? Colophons in Early English Manuscripts. H M Chadwick Lectures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Griffith, Mark. “Riddle 19 of the Exeter Book: SNAC, an Old English Acronym.” Notes and Queries, new series, vol. 237 (1992), pages 15-16.

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

Shook, Laurence K., and J. Reginald O’Donnell. “Riddles Relating to the Anglo-Saxon Scriptorium.” In Essays in Honour of Anton Charles Pegis. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieaval Studies, 1974, pages 215-36.

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

Riddle 64 (or 62)

Ic seah · ᚹ · ond · ᛁ ·     ofer wong faran,
beran · ᛒ · ᛖ ·     Bæm wæs on siþþe
hæbbendes hyht     · ᚻ · ond · ᚪ ·
swylce þryþa dæl     · ᚦ · ond · ᛖ ·
5     Gefeah · ᚠ · ond · ᚫ ·     fleah ofer · ᛠ
ᛋ · ond · ᛈ ·     sylfes þæs folces.

I saw w and i travel over the plain,
carrying b . e . With both on that journey there was
the keeper’s joy: and a,
also a share of the power: þ and e.
5     F and æ rejoiced, flew over the ea
s and p of the same people.

w and i = wicg (horse)
b and e = beorn (man)
h and a = hafoc (hawk)
þ and e = þegn (man)
f and æ = fælca (falcon)
ea and s and p = easpor? (water-track)

Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: man on horseback; falconry; ship; scribe; writing

Screen shot for the runes:
Riddle 64 screenshot.png

Commentary for Riddle 62

Before we start, there’s something we need to clear up about Riddle 62. This is one of those riddles with two solutions. First, it’s a description of an implement of some sort – probably a poker or a wood-working tool. But, and bear with me here, there’s actually another solution at play. If you think about it really carefully you can maybe see how this riddle might also be describing a penis. I just wanted to get that out the way, in case anyone failed to pick up on the incredibly subtle imagery.

Now, you might not have seen this straight away. You might have read this riddle through and thought: “Ah yes. A poker. That is certainly what is being described here. That and nothing else.”

Riddle 62 Cards.jpg
Not this kind of poker. The kind that goes in a fire.
Photo: Graeme Main/MOD via Wikimedia Commons (Open Government Licence)

In which case, well done. It might be that. It might also be a borer or some other woodworking tool. Picture something like this:

Riddle 62 Borer
Source: Cassell’s Carpentry and Joinery via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

There’s really not much in it: both are hard, and pointed, and get pushed into things. The former gets hot from the fire. The latter gets hot from friction. It’s a little tricky to account for the womb that our speaker goes beneath if we’re picturing a borer. This is why I think poker makes the better fit. The womb would be an oven, or furnace, or fireplace. Winfried Rudolf has discussed the sexual imagery of ovens in relation to Riddle 45 (pages 511-13; see also Salvador-Bello page 360), and here are some fun images of medieval ovens being suggestively… poked. And with that, let us segue smoothly into our riddle’s less salubrious meanings. Because, believe it or not, a hard and pointy instrument that gets poked repeatedly into someplace warm and inviting lends itself to a different sort of solution entirely.

Riddle 62 Cards.jpg
Still not this.
Photo: Graeme Main/MOD via Wikimedia Commons (Open Government Licence)

Yes, we’re continuing the double-entendres from Riddle 61 (and there’s more to come in Riddle 63). The combination of everyday object with sexy subtext is one we’ve seen more than a few times in the Exeter Book, and this riddle pulls no punches with the suggestive imagery. In fact, almost every line includes vocabulary repeated in those other euphemistic riddles.  Our speaker is heard ond scearp and strong; the speaker of Riddle 44 is stiþ ond heard (line 3a), and strong appears in Riddle 54 (line 9b) and 87 (line 3a). The hrægl worn by our speaker’s wielder finds a number of parallels (44.4, 45.4, 54.4), as does the womb (37.1, 87.1) that our mystery subject goes beneath, and the nearo (25.10, 61.6) hol (44.5) it occupies. But just in case we missed all that, the poet drops the word nathwær into the closing lines. This – and the related term nathwæt – is a solid staple of the double-entendre genre, making an appearance in Riddles 25, 45, 54 and 61.

So not only is this riddle suggestive, it’s laden with language used suggestively in other riddles as well. “Keep some mystery in the bedroom” is an idea our poet apparently failed to internalise when composing this little vignette.

Riddle 62 Manuscript
“Hey guys! Guys! Have you heard the one about the poker?”
Image from Wikimedia Commons (photographic reproduction of work in public domain)

In fact, the poet comes perilously close to giving the game away in lines 6b-8a. The subject of the two hwilum clauses must be understood as the hæleð mid hrægle from line 6a. That’s fine for the first clause, as the man pulls his “poker” out from the “fire.” But then in the second clause it isn’t the poker that eft fareð but the man himself. Hang on, why would the man be putting himself back into the fire? As noted by Murphy (page 203), and Williamson before him (page 323), this makes no sense. Unless the tool this man is wielding isn’t really a poker at all, but a part of his own body, and he isn’t really venturing into a fire but into a… nathwær. Just as we think we’ve caught the poet – and the man – in the act, the curtain comes and we’re back in the realm of the implied. “I couldn’t possibly say where,” demurs the speaker, “and no I don’t know what you’re smirking about.”

So even in a riddle as on-the-nose as this, there’s room for ambiguity. My favourite is forðsiþ in line 2a. It means “departure,” but forðsiþ can also refer to “death.” In renaissance literature, “death” is a familiar euphemism for orgasm (the “little death,” or “petite mort”), and it’s likely the metaphor was established at least by Chaucer’s day (Quinn, page 220). Think of Troilus “fainting” in Criseyde’s bed. Is this reference to the speaker’s forðsiþ an earlier iteration of the same euphemism? It might be. That’s the problem with suggestive language – it needs both the riddler and the riddlee to be on the same page, culturally speaking.

Speaking of which, what should we make of the speaker describing itself as scearp? It’s not the most obvious adjective to associate with a penis, right? It’s also not one we might expect based on other riddles of this nature (Riddle 44, for example, pairs heard with stiþ). As well as the modern sense “sharp”, scearp can also mean “keen” (think of something being “sharp sighted”). That sense does fit well enough with the rest of the riddle, which emphasises haste (line 4b) and urgency (line 8b). But scearp is also used to describe weapons – particularly swords – often enough that the suggestion of violence inevitably rears its head here (see Riddle 20). What’s really striking about scearp is that it introduces a perspective that’s otherwise very notably absent from this poem. It’s the person receiving the penis – rather than the penis itself or the man it’s attached to – who would experience its “sharpness”. Throughout the whole poem, scearp is the only insight we get into that other perspective, and (for modern readers at least) it gives a discomforting glimpse into a very different experience of an encounter otherwise dominated by the man’s pride in his own sexual performance.

Which leads us to the biggest scholarly sticking point of Riddle 62: the suþerne secg (line 9a). All the way through the poem, the speaker refers to its wielder in lofty and heroic terms, as frea, rinc, and hæleð. What, then, are we supposed to make of the man’s southern origins? Tupper takes it to mean that our “hero” is actually  a slave, akin to the “dark Welsh” who populate various other euphemistic riddles (page 203). On the other hand, Baum thinks the reference implies a skilled craftsman, as opposed to a “cruder man from northern districts” (page 59). Williamson argues that the line is euphemistic (probably a safe bet, all things considered), providing an oblique reference to “the direction of the thrust” (page 323).

Murphy proposes something a bit different (page 203). Rather than taking the suþerne secg as the subject – parallel to the hæleð mid hrægle – he instead argues that it’s the object: “He [the man] earnestly urges on his southern fellow [by which is understood the penis]”. It’s a fun interpretation, and it makes the riddle’s closing half-line especially bold. Having just referred to itself with a euphemistic epithet, the speaker then demands that we be the one to “say what I’m called.” A “tool,” an “implement,” a “southern fellow”? Don’t know what you’re talking about. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some “fires” to “poke.”

Riddle 62 Oven.jpg
Wellcome Images via Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons licence 4.0)


References and further reading

Condren, Edward I. Chaucer from Prentice to Poet: The Metaphor of Love in Dream Visions and Troilus and Criseyde. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2008.

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

Rudolf, Winfried. “Riddling and Reading: Iconicity and Logogriphs in Exeter Book Riddles 23 and 45.” Anglia-Zeitschrift für englische Philologie, vol. 130, issue 4 (2012), pages 499-525.

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. “The Sexual Riddle Type in Aldhelm’s Enigmata, the Exeter Book, and Early Medieval Latin”. Philological Quarterly, vol. 90, issue 4 (2011), pages 357-85.

Tanke, John W. “Wonfeax wale: Ideology and Figuration in the Sexual Riddles of the Exeter Book.” In Class and Gender in Early English Literature. Edited by Britton J. Harwood and Gillian R. Overing. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994, pages 21-42.