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.

Riddle 62 (or 60)

Ic eom heard ond scearp,     [i]ngonges strong,
forðsiþes from,     frean unforcuð,
wade under wambe     ond me weg sylfa
ryhtne geryme.     Rinc bið on ofeste,
5     se mec on þyð     æftanweardne,
hæleð mid hrægle;     hwilum ut tyhð
of hole hatne,     hwilum eft fareð
on nearo nathwær,     nydeþ swiþe
suþerne secg.     Saga hwæt ic hatte.

I am hard and pointed, strong going in,
firm departing, not unfamiliar to a lord.
I go beneath the belly, and myself open
a fitting passage. The warrior is in haste,
5     who presses me from behind,
the hero in garments; sometimes he draws me out,
hot from the hole, sometimes again ventures
into the confines of… I know not where. He vigorously urges,
the man from the south. Say what I am called.

Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Poker, Boring tool, Phallus

Commentary for Riddle 58

Well, well, well. Here we go with Riddle 58.

Early critics had little trouble solving this riddle, because apparently early critics were far better versed in basic irrigation technology than I am. Have you ever seen one of these?

Photograph (by Rafał Klisowski) from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 3.0)

No, neither have I. It’s a well-sweep, also known as a shaduf or shadoof, a counterpoise lift, a well-pole, or a swep. Also the creature described in Riddle 58 (proposed long ago by Holthausen).

It’s actually a pretty snazzy piece of machinery. That tall vertical pole (the anfot of the riddle) creates a base on which the diagonal rod can pivot. The diagonal rod is weighted on the one end (the heavy tail), and the other (the small head) is attached to a long rope (the tongue), carrying a bucket. When you want water, you pull on the rope to lower the bucket; when it’s full (and heavy), you simply let go – the counterweight does the job of raising the water so you don’t have to. Genius.

Ok, so here’s my first question. Why isn’t this one of the obscene riddles? How is it that Anglo-Saxons found more suggestive imagery in an onion than this particular contraption? Maybe it was just too easy. Low-hanging fruit and all that. Moving on.

Any fan of the Exeter Book riddles knows how fond they are of playing positive and negative attributes against one another: things are in turn portrayed by what they are and what they’re not. But I can’t think of another riddle that manages the balance between the two quite as skilfully as this one. Starting at the start (where else?) we get a very important detail: our wiht is one-footed. But that’s left behind almost immediately, as we move onto a list of the things it doesn’t do. This creature doesn’t get around much on its lone foot: not by riding, nor flying, nor sailing on boats – and that’s pretty much all the travel options covered. But then we’re back to what it is, or at least what it has. Its body parts include a tail, a head, a tongue – but no teeth – and a measure of iron. It doesn’t drink, but it does carry water; it doesn’t boast of life but it does serve its master (nice iteration of the implement trope here; see Neville).

There’s a kind of rhythm that develops as we read through this flip-flopping description. The repeated use of ne gives a secondary alliteration on n-, particularly in lines 2-4, but it’s only in line 5 that we find n- carrying metrical alliteration, and that finishes by describing something that the creature is (a nyt “benefit”) rather than what it isn’t. We could compare these oscillations to the see-sawing motion of the well sweep in action. Or at least, I assume we could. I’ve only seen them in pictures.

A well-sweep in “action” from Wikimedia Commons (license: public domain)

These oscillations continue across the poem. The verb ferian (to carry) is used three times (lines 2, 4, 11). The first two are negative: this is a creature that neither moves itself nor is carried by ships. But then in line 11 we’re told that it fereð (carries) water – and it does it a lot. Water, too, is evoked both positively and negatively. This creature doesn’t drink (line 10a), but it does raise lagoflod (water: line 12a). It’s also a wiht (thing: line 2a), but it ne wiht iteþ (doesn’t eat a thing: line 10b). No nægledbord (nail-boarded) boat carries it (line 5a), but it does have its own share of isern (iron: line 9a), and we might think here of the visual and material affinities between a boat and a bucket. We’re told it doesn’t travel – either on the earth, in the air, or over water (lines 2-4). And yet later we find it traversing an earthen hole in order to lift water into the air (lines 9-12).

I said that critics have had little trouble solving Riddle 58 and that’s true. Sort of. The thing being described does seem to answer to all the attributes of a well-sweep. But what’s the Old English for well-sweep? Apparently it’s a three letter word with rad at the start. Unfortunately, no Anglo-Saxon ever bothered to write it down for us.

I ask because the riddle ends not by describing its subject, but by describing the name of its subject. Specifically, a name comprised of three ryhte runstafas (right rune-letters), and starting with rad (lines 14b-15). Runes aren’t all that common in the Exeter Book riddles, and when they are used they tend to be something of a showpiece: either introduced early (as in Riddles 19, 42 and 64), or discussed over several lines (as in Riddle 24, and also the other three I just mentioned). But Dieter Bitterli isn’t wrong when he describes these closing lines as rather abrupt (page 98). I guess if there’s anything better than runes, it’s surprise runes. The rune here is indicated using its name rather than its letter (a technique we’ve also seen in Riddle 42). In the manuscript there’s an accent over rad, perhaps as a hint at the word’s significance.

On its surface the runic conundrum that ends Riddle 58 is as straightforward as they come. Rad (riding) is the name of the rune ᚱ (‘r’). There’s only so many three-lettered words, and not even most of them start with r-. How hard can it be? Early critics settled on rod (rod). Job done.

Others, though, took the puzzle another way: they put the element rad– at the start of a three-letter word to make a compound, like radlim (riding-pole) or radpyt (riding-pit, well) (see Blakeley and Grein). Williamson notes, entirely in passing, that radrod (riding-rod, sweep?) may be a better fit, since “it is the pole and not the pit that is the subject” (page 312).

And yet, still not about sex.
Photograph (by Jan Stubenitzky) from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 3.0)

Hang on, though. Radrod? That works both ways! It’s a compound comprising rad– and a second element, with that second element being a three lettered word starting with r- (Murphy, page 65). It even captures tonally the poem’s see-sawing rhythm. Better yet, because runic letters can stand for their names as well as their phonemes, it’s possible to write rad-rod in runes as ᚱ-ᚱᚩᛞ. As Niles points out (page 92), this construction contains only three distinct letters (with ᚱ repeated), and it starts with rad. So much for a creature that ne fela rideð (doesn’t ride much: line 3a), and yes I do think that’s an intentional joke by the riddle’s author (see Bitterli, page 105). By the end of the poem there’s quite a lot riding on ᚱ.

I’ll stop now.

The runic conundrum at the end of this riddle is uniquely peripheral, but it raises an interesting question. When we solve riddles, do we do it with objects or with words?

I have to confess, the term “well-sweep” meant not a thing to me the first time I read it; my “aha!” moment only came when I saw the photo at the top of this post. Niles argues for the importance of answering the riddles in their own language (that is, Old English rather than modern English), but the riddles themselves tend to place much greater emphasis on their subjects’ physical attributes than on their names. Many of the riddles begin by describing the form of a thing (ic seah “I saw,” or ic eom “I am”). Then again, many also end by asking us to say or to name their subject (saga hwæt ic hatte “say what I am called”).

So, have we solved Riddle 58 when we’ve identified an object that fits all the clues in its first fourteen lines, or when we’ve found an Old English word that answers the letter game in its final two? Is this riddle asking us to think about a thing in the world, or about the word used to signify that thing?

Bonus question: does it matter that the word radrod is a modern invention not attested anywhere in the Old English corpus?
Photograph (by Andrzej Otrębsk) from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 3.0)

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.

Blakeley, L. “Riddles 22 and 58 of the Exeter Book.” Review of English Studies, vol. 9 (1958), pages 241-252.

Grein, Christian W. M. “Kleine Mittheilungen.” Germania, vol. 10 (1865), pages 305-310.

Holthausen, Ferdinand. “Beiträge zur Erklärung und Textkritik altenglischer Dichtungen.” Indogermanische Forschungen, vol. 4 (1894), pages 379-88.

Murphy, Patrick J. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park: 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, vol. 62 (2011), pages 505-519.

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

Symons, Victoria. Runes and Roman Letters in Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016.

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

Riddle 58 (or 56)

Ic wat anfete      ellen dreogan
wiht on wonge.      Wide ne fereð,
ne fela rideð,      ne fleogan mæg
þurh scirne dæg,      ne hie scip fereð,
5     naca nægledbord;      nyt bið hwæþre
hyre mondryhtne      monegum tidum.
Hafað hefigne steort,      heafod lytel,
tungan lange,      toð nænigne,
isernes dæl;      eorðgræf pæþeð.
10     Wætan ne swelgeþ      ne wiht iteþ,
foþres ne gitsað,      fereð oft swa þeah
lagoflod on lyfte;      life ne gielpeð,
hlafordes gifum,      hyreð swa þeana
þeodne sinum.      Þry sind in naman
15     ryhte runstafas,      þara is Rad foran.

I know a one-footed thing, working with strength,
a creature on the plain. It does not travel far,
nor rides much, nor can it fly
through the bright day, no ship ferries it,
5     no nail-planked boat; it is however a benefit
to its master at many times.
It has a heavy tail, a little head,
a long tongue, not any teeth,
a share of iron; it treads an earth-hole.
10     It swallows no water nor eats a thing,
nor desires food, often however it ferries
a flood into the air; it boasts not of life
of a lord’s gifts, nonetheless it obeys
its own ruler. In its name are three
15     right rune-letters, with ‘rad’ at the front.

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