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.

Commentary for Riddle 61

Do you find Anglo-Saxon men’s fashions particularly risqué? Well, whoever composed Riddle 61 sure seems to have done! That’s right, folks: it’s another riddle that’s chock-a-block full of double entendre.

The solution to Riddle 61 hasn’t proved as problematic as some of the other Exeter Book poems. Scholars have decided that it’s either a helmet (OE helm) or a shirt – though kirtle/tunic (OE cyrtel/tunece) are less anachronistic and more in line with Anglo-Saxon style. You can see this sort of get-up in the following snippet from the Bayeux Tapestry:

Riddle 61 Bayeux_Tapestry_scene1_Edward.jpg

Edward the Confessor and his messengers hold a meeting on the Bayeux Tapestry, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

And here’s a nice, Anglo-Saxon helmet for good measure:

Riddle 61 Coppergate_Helmet_YORCM_CA665-2.jpeg

The 8th-century Coppergate Helmet as photographed by York Museums Trust via Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 4.0)

It’s totally up to you whether you prefer a garment or helmet; I don’t have any strong opinions on this one. The long and the short of it is: whatever we’re talking about has to be an item with an opening that a man can put his head into or through. It has to come to rest on something hairy – could be his head, could be his chest. And it’s got to be small enough to store in a box, and not so heavy that the lady of the house couldn’t remove it by herself. I’m NOT saying that Anglo-Saxon women couldn’t be strong and/or badass (have you ever tried setting up a loom? that’s some strenuous labour right there), but some of that later medieval plate armour looks cumbersome at best. But this isn’t what we’re talking about – I seem to have gone off topic already!

Anywho, it also sounds like the object in question is a tad on the valuable side, since it’s kept locked away and it claims to be frætwedne (adorned). This very brief reference to adornment is what reminds us we’re dealing with a constructed object instead of a sexual encounter. This was before vajazzling, after all. Though Sarah Higley suggests the text may be hinting at contraceptive items (and reminds us that we don’t know an awful lot about such things in early medieval England (pages 48-50)), I think it’s safe to say that it would be pretty impractical to adorn whatever sorts of things were used.

But enough about ancient prophylactics! (is a sentence I never thought I’d write) “Are there any other references to domestic scenes of husbands and wives and handing out garments in Old English?,” I hear you asking. Good question. There are indeed. There are indeed. The obvious passage is from the wisdom poem Maxims I, which refers to a Frisian woman washing her husband’s clothes, giving him new ones and perhaps a little more than that (wink wink, nudge nudge). Why she has to be Frisian is beyond me (maybe just because it alliterates with flota (ship)?).

Here’s the passage I’m talking about:

                      leof wilcuma
Frysan wife,      þonne flota stondeð;
biþ his ceol cumen      ond hyre ceorl to ham,
agen ætgeofa,      ond heo hine in laðaþ,
wæsceð his warig hrægl     ond him syleþ wæde niwe,
liþ him on londe      þæs his lufu bædeð. (lines 94b-9b)

(the dear one [is] welcome to his Frisian wife, when the ship stands; his boat has come home and her man, her own food-giver, and she calls him in, washes his dirty clothing and gives him new garments, gives him on land what his love requires.)

All I can think about when I read this poem is that this guy must smell horrible if he’s just coming back from a sea-voyage with little-to-no spare clothing. No wonder his wife is keen to get him into clean kit before the marital reunion commences.

But notice the similarities between this poem and Riddle 61 too: the husband-wife relationship, sexual implications, garment-giving. I wonder if his clothes are kept in a box too?

Speaking of which, the chest that holds the garment or helmet in Riddle 61 is also interesting because, as Edith Whitehurst Williams reminds us, it’s pretty impossible to apply it in a literal way to the bawdy reading of the poem (page 141). She reckons it’s “a metaphoric statement for the lady’s great modesty which is set aside only in the proper circumstance – when her lord commands” (page 141).

At this point you, like me, may be a bit annoyed with the unequal gender relations of this riddle. What’s all this commanding and bidding nonsense? I mean, of course we don’t want to impose an anachronistic view of women’s agency onto this very-very-very old poem, but still. If you do happen to find this aspect problematic, then I would suggest taking a look-see at Melanie Heyworth’s fascinating and insightful interpretation of this riddle. Hers is a nice and balanced, and fully contextualised reading of the poem (pages 179-80). Importantly, she points out that the woman gives/entrusts (the verb is sellan) her sexuality to her partner only gif (if) his ellen (strength/courage) is dohte (suitable/worthy). Now, I had translated line 7 as a reference to sexual potency – a crass sort of “if he can get it up and keep it going” sort of thing – but I quite like Heyworth’s version, since it suggests that both partners in this Anglo-Saxon relationship are bringing something to the table. She’ll have sex with him only if he’s worthy, in other words. Admittedly, this comes across as a deeply conservative, heteronormative view of the world, but it was a very different world, so let’s try to keep our morals and theirs separate. Again, as Heyworth points out, Riddle 61 shows us an idealised, Anglo-Saxon marriage (page 180). In fact, she says its aim is to prescribe behaviour: “to urge its audience to similar conduct to that of the riddle-wife and her husband” (page 180).

Did everyone listen? Well, no, of course they didn’t. Would you need to prescribe behaviour if everyone was already on board?

We can find a great example of a woman who reputedly did NOT lock her sexuality away and entrust it only to her husband on the Bayeux Tapestry once again:


Panel depicting Ælfgyva and a cleric with naughty connotations, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

You may be confused about what’s going on in this picture. They’re fully clothed, so what’s all the bother about? Look closer. And look down and to the left. Behold the tiny naked man squatting at the bottom of this high-status textile! Most likely embroidered by English women during the transition from Anglo-Saxon to Norman rule, the Bayeux Tapestry depicts all manner of political and martial escapades relating to the famous conquest of 1066.

Now we don’t know the full story of this picture, partly because there’s no verb to tell us what’s going on: the Latin title just says Ubi unus clericus et Ælfgyva (Where a certain cleric and Ælfgifu). We also don’t know for certain who this panel depicts because the Old English name Ælfgifu, meaning “Elf-Gift,” was pretty common (for a good guess, check out J. L. Laynesmith’s article and podcast below). But even without that knowledge, we can say is that the picture seems to refer to some sort of scandal. That cleric probably shouldn’t be reaching through the archway to touch Ælfgifu’s face (is he caressing her? hitting her?). And the fact that the little naked man is mirroring the cleric, at least in his upper body and arms, strongly implies that the two are connected.

So, to tie this discussion up, I’d like to point out that it wasn’t just Anglo-Saxon riddlers and scribes who revelled in double entendre. Early medieval women – in this case embroiderers – were also known to author some rather saucy stories. Intriguing ones too.

Bet you’ll never look at the Bayeux Tapestry with a straight face again.


References and Suggested Reading:

Heyworth, Melanie. “Perceptions of Marriage in Exeter Book Riddles 20 and 61.” Studia Neophilologica, vol. 79 (2007), pages 171-84.

Higley, Sarah L. “The Wanton Hand: Reading and Reaching into Grammars and Bodies in Old English Riddle 12.” In Naked Before God: Uncovering the Body in Anglo-Saxon England. Edited by Benjamin C. Withers and Jonathan Wilcox. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2003, pages 29-59. Available online via Higley’s page.

Laynesmith, J. L. “The Bayeux Tapestry: A Canterbury Tale.” History Today, vol. 62, issue 10 (Oct. 2012). (podcast freely available here)

Whitehurst Williams, Edith. “What’s So New about the Sexual Revolution? Some Comments on Anglo-Saxon Attitudes toward Sexuality in Women Based on Four Exeter Book Riddles.” In New Readings on Women in Old English Literature. Edited by Helen Damico and Alexandra Hennessey Olsen. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990, pages 137-45.

Commentary for Riddle 60

Brett Roscoe from The King’s University, Alberta leads us through Riddle 60’s commentary:


You know the kinds of kids who always have to be different? They stand when others sit and lie down when others stand. They dye their hair purple, and when the rest of the class dyes their hair purple they shave their heads. Well, that’s the kind of riddle we’re looking at. Almost all the other riddles in the Exeter Book fall into two large groups, 1-59 and 61-95. But Riddles 30b and 60? They refuse to conform, appearing instead in the middle of a series of Old English elegies (such as The Wife’s Lament and The Ruin) and religious poems (such as The Descent into Hell and Pharaoh). So the first question we need to ask is whether or not Riddle 60 is successful in its quest for independence.

Here’s the problem: the riddle is on folio 122b of the Exeter Book, and on the very next page (123a) is a poem called The Husband’s Message. Because of the proximity of these two works and similarity in phrasing, some have suggested that they actually belong together and should be seen as a single poem. If Riddle 60 were a teenager, I’m sure s/he would have thrown something at me as I wrote that last sentence, but it’s true. And those who want to see Riddle 60 together with The Husband’s Message usually hold that the answer to the riddle is a “rune staff.”

Riddle 60 Olaus Magnus.jpg

Artwork (by Olaus Magnus) from Wikipedia Commons (public domain)

This is a woodcut from Olaus Magnus’ description of Nordic history, customs, and folklore in a book called Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (1555). It shows two wise men, each holding a rune-staff. And here is a picture of a rune-staff from 17th century Norway:

Riddle 60 Primstav_2

Photo (by Roede) from Wikimedia Commons (license CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Husband’s Message is, as the title suggests, a message from a husband to his wife. He was exiled, and so he has not seen his wife in years, but now he decides it’s safe to send her a messenger. The messenger finds the woman and tries to convince her to come to where her husband now lives. The messenger presumably shows her a rune-staff (or stick or stone) with the runes S, R, EA, W, M engraved on it, a cryptic record of earlier vows made by the husband and wife. In relation to Riddle 60, the most important figure is not the husband or wife, and not even the message. It’s the messenger. The Husband’s Message begins,

Nu ic onsundran þe   secgan wille
[. . . . . . . . ] treocyn   ic tudre aweox;
in mec æld[. . . . . . . . . .] sceal   ellor londes
settan [. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .]   sealte streamas
[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ]sse. (lines 1-4a)

(“Now will I tell to you who live apart
How I grew up in youth among the trees.
On me must sons of men write messages,
Send me from foreign lands across the waves.”)
(trans. by Hamer, page 79)

It may be just me, but these lines sound very much like a riddle. And if they are a riddle, the clear solution would be a rune-staff, which is made from wood and engraved with messages. Admittedly, the messenger could just be a human who carries a rune-staff, and The Husband’s Message may not be a riddle at all. Though scholarly consensus favours the latter, either reading is possible. Seen in the context of Riddle 60, the rune-staff solution does seem tempting. A rune-staff speaks or conveys a message even though it is muðleas (mouth-less; line 9); it is pressed (or carved) with a knife that is guided by human hands and intent (lines 12-14a); and it can also be used to convey secret messages (lines 14b-17). In fact, in the Old Norse-Icelandic Völsunga saga Guðrun uses runes for that very purpose—she sends a secret runic message to her brothers to warn them of a plot against their lives (ch. 35). (Unfortunately Guðrun’s messenger is not as trustworthy as the one in The Husband’s Message. If you want to find out what happens, feel free to read the story for yourself—you can download a text and translation here). It would seem that a rune-staff fits a lot of the details of the riddle.

But what, then, are we to do about lines 1-7? These lines tell us that the solution to the riddle lives near the shore, that it is so close to the sea it actually touches the waters. F. A. Blackburn suggests that the lines describe a swamp, and the rune-staff is made from the wood of a willow or a swamp cedar (page 7), but this seems like a stretch to me. And what are we to make of the fact that the riddle solution speaks ofer meodubence (across the meadbench; line 9a)? As we will see in Riddle 67, written texts were often read out loud in public settings in the Middle Ages, but the last lines of this riddle suggest the message is a secret. Who would read a secret message out loud in a meadhall? (unless the person were exceptionally bad at keeping secrets!)

In fact, the present consensus is not to read Riddle 60 as part of The Husband’s Message. In modern editions and translations, the two are printed as separate works. And most now agree that the answer to Riddle 60 is a reed or reed pen. A possible source or influence can be found in Symphosius’ Latin Enigma 2 (called Harundo or Reed):

Dulcis amica dei, semper vicina profundis,
Suave cano Musis, nigro perfusa colore
Nuntia sum linguae digitis signata ministris.

(Sweet mistress of a god, the steep bank’s neighbor, sweetly singing for the Muses; when drenched with black, I am the tongue’s messenger by guiding fingers pressed.) (text and trans. from Ohl, page 36)

The interesting thing about Symphosius’ riddle is that the reed takes on a number of forms: first it is the nymph Syrinx, who, according to Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Book 1, lines 689-721), is pursued by the god Pan and transformed into a reed; then it is just a plain old reed along the bank; then it starts to sing, probably in the form of a reed flute; and then, as a reed pen, it writes. We’re dealing with quite a multi-talented reed here.

Similarly, Riddle 60 also describes a reed near the bank (lines 1-7), and then it goes on to talk of the reed as a tool. A knife is used to carve the tip of a reed pen, which is then gripped by a hand and guided by human intent as it is pressed onto parchment (lines 12-14a). The ic (I) of lines 14b-17 is the reed pen, and the þe (you) could be the reader of the lines (the person to whom the pen, through its writing, “speaks”), or it could even be the writer, in whose presence the pen “declares” its message (i.e. puts the message on paper or parchment). The pen speaks ofer meodubence (across the mead-bench) by writing books that are subsequently read aloud or discussed at meals. This last point may seem odd, given that the end of the riddle focuses on secrecy. But we have to keep in mind that, like Symphosius’ riddle, Riddle 60 lists more than one use of the reed. In fact, lines 7b-10a may not even be about a reed pen, but about a reed flute, played during meals as entertainment. Capturing all of these reed forms in a single English word is difficult, which is why I’ve added the word “pen” in parentheses to the solution. John Niles suggests that instead of answering Riddle 60 with a Modern English word, we answer it with an Old English one, hreod, which is flexible enough to mean reed, reed pen, or reed flute (pages 131-2).

So please join me in congratulating Riddle 60! It seems that it has achieved its independence after all. But it must keep its guard up—the rune-staff solution still lurks in dark places, just waiting to latch on to this fascinating riddle.


References and Suggested Reading:

Blackburn, F. A. “The Husband’s Message and the Accompanying Riddles of the Exeter Book.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. 3 (1901), pages 1-13.

Hamer, Richard, trans. “The Husband’s Message.” A Choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse. London: Faber and Faber, 1970, pages 79-81.

Krapp, George Philip, and Elliott van Kirk Dobbie, eds. The Exeter Book. New York: Columbia University Press, 1936, pages 225, 361-62.

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

Ohl, Raymond. The Enigmas of Symphosius. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1928. (an online version of Ohl’s editions and translations can be found here)

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?

Well_sweep._Żuraw_studzienny._-_panoramio.jpegPhotograph (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.

riddle-58-well-sweep2A 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).

riddle-58-well-sweep3And 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.

Commentary for Riddle 57

This commentary post is once again by Michael J. Warren from Royal Holloway. Take it away, Michael!


This has to be my favourite of all the Old English riddles, for two reasons. Firstly, the solution is probably a bird (my specialism), but even more intriguing is the fact that we just don’t know what the solution is. The Exeter Book riddles are renowned, of course, for their enigmatic absence of answers in the manuscript (unlike the various Anglo-Latin examples), but this is one of the few that still lacks a solution with general or near unanimous agreement. Anglo-Saxonists are still debating the possible solutions for this little critter; the only thing most scholars agree on is that the “subject is quite firmly assigned to the category bird” (Barley, page 169).

For John D. Niles, the “most likely self-naming black bird we are ever likely to snare” (page 129) is the crow, but a wide number of avian suspects have been recommended over the years, and various other “flying” answers as well (see the solutions following my translation of this riddle). For starters, then, what this pithy riddle does is demonstrate very nicely how this collection of conundrums is still playing out its effects over a thousand years after the poems were written down: they continue to tease us with a curious blend of obfuscation and illumination. As it turns out, this is something birds characteristically do as well. I like to think it’s no accident that birds are probably the answer to Riddle 57: a devious subject at the heart of a devious genre that continually escapes identification and finality.


Pretty much all European corvid species have been suggested as solutions to Riddle 57, but only jackdaws and rooks habitually gather in groups. Photo (by Bob Jones) of jackdaws from Wikipedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 2.0)

When we compare the mystery subjects of this Riddle 57 with the other bird riddles (Riddles 7, 8, 9, 10 and 24), there are enough similarities to make me think that some sort of bird must be the answer. These creatures hlude cirmað “cry loudly” (like the nightingale in Riddle 8, line 3b), the lyft byreð “the air bears” the birds in the same way it does the swan (Riddle 7, lines 4b-5a) and barnacle goose (Riddle 10, line 9b), and both the swan and the birds of Riddle 57 tredað “tread” when they alight, inhabiting opposing human and nonhuman territories. These nifty birds also inhabit what I call the “sometimes” motif – hwilum “sometimes” (line 5b) behaviours typify these creatures. As we’ll see below, birds are known for this sort of unpredictability (see Riddle 24’s jay for a whole load of hwilum!).

The final half line also seems like it really should be a clincher: Nemnað hy sylfe. The grammar of this line allows us to read it in two ways: either “Name them yourselves,” which fits the usual instruction from the riddles’ subjects (“Say what I am called”), or the now more popular reading, “They name themselves.” The latter might point us, then, to song as a clue. Certainly in other bird riddles, sound can be an important indicator, and many Old English bird names recorded in the glossaries onomatopoeically mimic song. On this basis, Dieter Bitterli has argued for an etymological tactic for solving the bird riddles: the diversity of the bird’s call in Riddle 8 leads us to nightingale (OE niht “night” + galan “to sing”) as evident in the poem’s synonym æfensceop “evening-singer” (line 5a). Similarly, Riddle 7 leads us to Old English swan (mute swan) through the use of paronomasia (word play on similar sounding words): the various /sw/ words direct us towards the name of the bird and its characteristic wing-music in flight.


Photo of swifts (by Keta) – a popular solution to Riddle 57 – from Wikipedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 3.0)


Bitterli’s theory is convincing. The problem is that while birds do conveniently sometimes spell out their names for us with their calls, they also have a tendency to transform, obscure and avoid identity. Take Riddle 24, for instance. We know what the answer is here, because it’s spelt out for us in runes which we must translate into Old English (higoræ “jay”), but the most distinctive sonic feature of this bird is that its tell-tale song keeps changing – it’s defined, apparently, according to the fact that it sounds like just about everything else. And birds generally in the Exeter Book riddles are characterised by their continual changing: the swan (Riddle 7) is paradoxically silent and loud, and travels afar. The cuckoo (Riddle 9), also a far-traveller, grows to be a huge bird that far outsizes the nest of its host and its usurped earlier identity, so moving from cuckoo to host-species to cuckoo again. The barnacle goose (Riddle 10) undergoes a remarkable metamorphosis, emerging and deriving from another creature entirely, and, like two other birds, does a disappearing act for half the year. The nightingale (Riddle 8) and jay (Riddle 24) change their voices as they please, also appropriating new identities.

Readers will undoubtedly continue to propose answers to Riddle 57. I’m for swift or swallow as it goes, but, actually, I think this might be beside the point. Perhaps we shouldn’t be in the business of seeking an answer at all. In fact, my point is rather to suggest that these secretive lytle wihte “little creatures” (line 1b) achieve their impact so well because they can’t be identified. This might seem counterintuitive on the face of it, but it’s borne out by other Anglo-Saxon writings on birds. Indeed, scholars across the medieval period stress that what is most birdy about birds is their transformative abilities. Or to put it another way, what most defines birds is their habit of avoiding definition – they’re intrinsically unknowable in some respects, escapologists.

The most popular encyclopaedist of the late Middle Ages, Bartholomew the Englishman, notes repeatedly that there’s an in between-ness apparent in their very substance, þat beþ bytwene þe tweye elementis þat beþ most heuy and most liȝt (that is between the two elements that are most heavy and most light) (Seymour, page 596). Bartholomew’s immediate source, though, is one of the most influential texts of the Anglo-Saxon age – Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies. In his introduction to birds, Isidore remarks how “They are called birds (avis) because they do not have set paths (via), but travel by means of pathless (avia) ways” (Barney, page 264). In his commentary on Riddle 51 on this site, Britt Mize makes a great case for the importance of paths or tracks (a motif that occurs in a number of the riddles). In Riddle 51, birds and (inky) paths are associable. As Britt suggests, “a reader, just like a hunter or tracker, must carefully observe and interpret the signs he or she finds, endeavouring to stay with them, going where they lead in pursuit of a goal.”


Page of from Isidore’s Etymologies (8th century), Brussels, Royal Library of Belgium, from Wikipedia Commons (public domain)


In Isidore’s statement, however, and in Riddle 57, this pursuit turns out to be rather more complicated. Birds outfly our pursuit, and overwhelm us with their great variety and multitude: “There is a single word for birds, but various kinds, for just as they differ among themselves in appearance, so do they differ also in the diversity of their natures” (Isidore, in Barney, page 263). Names and categories, it is implied, just aren’t sufficient to account for all the bird species that there are, even if we could know them all, which we can’t, because birds can disappear without signe neiþer tokene (sign nor token) (Bartholomew, in Seymour, page 596) – it’s impossible for mankind “to penetrate all the wildernesses of India and Ethiopia and Scythia, so as to know the kinds of birds and their differentiating characteristics” (Isidore, in Barney, page 263). These sentiments are echoed in a 10th century Latin poem on birdsong:

Quis volucrum species numeret, quis nomina discat?
Mille avium cantus, vocum discrimina mille.
Nec nostrum (fateor) tantas discernere voces.
(De cantibus avium, lines 1-3, in Buecheler and Riese, page 197)

(Whoever counts the types of birds, who learns their names? There are a thousand songs of birds, a thousand different voices. Nor do I, myself, claim to distinguish such voices.)

These sorts of issues seem to me to be at the heart of Riddle 57. The brief description identifies something which is very bird-like (particularly in comparison with the other bird riddles), and yet avoids offering us anything more precise. They force us to inhabit a space somewhere between knowledge and ignorance, just as the birds themselves sometimes dwell with niþþa bearna “the sons of men” (line 6a) and sometimes move beyond our boundaries to the bearonæssas “woody headlands” (lines 5a). Whatever its immediate sources or contexts may have been, Riddle 57 manifests the sorts of anxieties over naming birds and their characteristics evident in texts like Isidore’s – these are birds that apparently name themselves, but (still) can’t be named.

All of this avian mystery points up another potential, related concern of this poem. Birds remind us how frequently these poems cause us to go round in circles: the switchback evasions of the dark birds in Riddle 57 place them firmly in line with an important effect of the Exeter Book riddles’ strategies – they expose the limits of knowledge, even within texts that urge us to exceed limitations and certify uncertainties. In my reading of Riddle 57, then, two important aspects come together – birds and elusive answers – to emphasise the sophistication of these texts that are so often about testing the limits of knowledge. Birds, that is, might actually be employed purposefully in this riddle and in other bird riddles, because like the mysterious and evasive solutions that we’re required to guess at through complex linguistic play, they’re continuously seen to escape definition or certainties.

In her discussion of wonder in the Exeter Book riddles, Patricia Dailey observes that by “forcing us to think through the means of how we come to know the creature described in language,” these texts highlight “a link in epistemological knowing and a limit inscribed in naming” (page 464). In other words, even if we can correctly guess a solution, a name can only get us so far – there is still a gap between the mysterious thing itself and the name we choose to give it; mysteries still exist. Birds, I think, show us this particularly well. In Riddle 57, the grammatical ambiguity of line 6b demands, on the one hand, that we partake in the typical naming game, and on the other states that the birds, in fact, name themselves, neither requiring our intervention (as namers), nor, in fact, allowing us this privilege. Naming birds doesn’t satisfactorily encompass their ever-changing, diverse identities, and particularly not when we can’t saga “say” a name at all.


References and Suggested Reading:

Barley, Nigel F. “Structural Aspects of the Anglo-Saxon Riddle.” Semiotica, vol. 10 (1974), pages 143-75.

Barney, Stephen A., and others, trans. The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

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.

Buecheler, Franciscus, and Alexander Riese, eds. Anthologia Latina, sive Poesis Latinae supplementum. 2 vols. Leipzig: B. G. Teubneri, 1869-1926. Translation from Latin by Virginia Warren.

Dailey, Patricia. “Riddles, Wonder and Responsiveness in Anglo-Saxon Literature.” In The Cambridge History of Early Medieval English Literature. Edited by Clare A. Lees. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013, pages 451-72.

Krapp, George Philip, and Elliott van Kirk Dobbie, eds. The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records. 6 vols. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1931-1953.

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

Seymour, M. C., and others, ed. On the Properties of Things: John Trevisa’s Translation of Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De proprietatibus rerum. 3 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.

Commentary for Riddle 51

This post is once again by Britt Mize from Texas A&M University. Take it away, Britt!


Riddles, as a type of wisdom poetry, ask us to learn something by viewing ordinary things in extraordinary ways. When I teach about the Exeter Book riddles, sometimes I turn a chair upside-down on the floor. Then I ask the students to write one sentence describing its “chair-ness” in some way that is made possible only by looking at it from an unusual point of view.

Like this classroom exercise, Old English riddles are a game of perspective manipulation, and this manipulation of viewpoint is often a source of their obscurity. Readers must reverse-engineer the text, using the details that are provided and trying different ways of fitting them together, until they finally catch sight of what the writer has described in a defamiliarizing manner.

Riddle 51 is usually a stumper for people now when they first encounter it. This may have something to do with changes in writing technology (I am typing this on a laptop, not handwriting it with a pen, and even if I were, I wouldn’t be dipping mine in an inkwell). But I think it is mainly because this riddle’s manipulation of perspective involves the additional trick of violating scale. We’ve all seen the photographers’ gimmick of zooming in on something normal, and further and further in, until it becomes bizarre and unrecognizable. This riddle starts out “zoomed in” in exactly that way, and in order to solve it, we must “zoom out” with our mind’s eye and realize that the thing described is connected to the rest of a human body.

After my students make a few guesses, I ask them—the dwindling number of them who are taking notes on paper!—to look down at what they’re doing themselves, right at that very moment. At that point, someone always blurts out the solution: a pen and the three fingers guiding it. The creator of this riddle gives us an extreme close-up of a hand moving a quill tip across the writing surface, and back and forth from inkwell to page, as a scribe (the winnende wiga, “striving warrior”) writes out the text of what is probably imagined to be an expensively decorated or bound gospel manuscript, because such adornments would be most typically given to that kind of book.


Photo (by Urban) of some rather creepy, quill-wielding monk mannequins in the Museum of Bayeux from Wikimedia Commons (license CC BY-SA 3.0)

There are two metaphors I’d like to focus on in this riddle.

The more minor one is the “striving warrior” description near the end. This phrase usually provokes a few chuckles in a classroom setting because it seems overblown, if not self-aggrandizing, when used by a monkish writer to describe a person like himself. Similar remarks could be made about many language choices in the Exeter Book riddles, and maybe people a thousand years ago thought it was funny too. But the representation of writing as a kind of combat might also tell us something about how difficult the activity of manual text-copying is, not only in its bodily labor (which does become grueling after as little as a couple of hours: try it and see), but also in the concentration and perseverance that must be maintained to carry out the task with accuracy. Or it may be that a monk writing a holy text could quite seriously see himself as engaged in spiritual warfare against the powers of darkness and not find the martial language high-falutin at all.

The other, more interesting metaphorical pattern in this riddle imagines the act of writing as a journey or expedition—the verb siþian means to go on one of these—by something that leaves tracks behind. The way the fingers and pen are spoken of here defamiliarizes the writer’s hand by making it seem zoological, and the repeated insistence that the object described is somehow both singular and fourfold will probably encourage a reader to think of some sort of quadruped. The animal associations are continued, and the solution further estranged from ordinary viewpoints on a person’s hand, by the comparison with birds, and then by the surprise in the next line that this/these “wondrous creatures” can move deftly in liquid as well as upon the earth and through the air.

I have always loved the image of dark ink on a pale page as tracks across the ground (lastas and swaþu are words for the prints or trail that a person or animal leaves behind). The nuances of this metaphor say something about reading, too, not just about writing: unless somebody comes along later who can understand and follow these traces, they mean nothing. The implication is that a reader, just like a hunter or tracker, must carefully observe and interpret the signs he or she finds, endeavoring to stay with them, going where they lead in pursuit of a goal.


Photo (by David Castor) of rabbit tracks from Wikimedia Commons

The poet of Riddle 51 and I are not the only ones who have enjoyed contemplating this image, either. At least one 9th-century Anglo-Saxon prose writer liked it too, because the same metaphor lies behind a famous statement found in the preface to the Old English Pastoral Care. The preface is attributed to King Alfred of Wessex (r. 871–899), and here he, or whoever wrote on his behalf, contemplates the monastic libraries in his kingdom, full of Latin books that he says no one can read anymore. The writer grieves the present, illiterate generation’s terrible loss of earlier generations’ learning and intellectual labor:

Ure ieldran . . . lufodon wisdom, ond ðurh ðone hie begeaton welan ond us læfdon. Her mon mæg giet gesion hiora swæð, ac we him ne cunnon æfterspyrigean. Ond forðæm we habbað nu ægðer forlæten ge ðone welan ge ðone wisdom, forðæmðe we noldon to ðæm spore mid ure mode onlutan. (Sweet, vol. 1, page 5)

(Our predecessors . . . loved wisdom, and through it they gained prosperity and left it to us. One can still see their track here, but we do not know how to follow after them. And for that reason we have now lost both the prosperity and the wisdom: because we would not bend down to the track with our mind.)


King Alfred’s West Saxon Version of Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care in MS Hatton 20 (fol. 001r) from the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

A modern poet, the Welsh priest R. S. Thomas (1913–2000), also returned more than once to the image of writing on a page as a track or path that something left behind its movement. In his 1961 poem “The Maker,” Thomas describes a poet preparing to create. After taking “blank paper,” the poet

drilled his thoughts to the slow beat
Of the blood’s drum; and there it formed
On the white surface and went marching
Onward through time, while the spent cities
And dry hearts smoked in its wake.
(Thomas, page 42)

The path here is one of military destruction, and it’s all too legible. In a later poem, “The Word” (1975), Thomas comes back again to the metaphor of writing as a track, this time in a way somewhat more similar to Riddle 51:

A pen appeared, and the god said:
“Write what it is to be
man.” And my hand hovered
long over the bare page,

until there, like footprints
of the lost traveller, letters
took shape on the page’s
blankness, and I spelled out

the word “lonely.” And my hand moved
to erase it; but the voices
of all those waiting at life’s
window cried out loud: “It is true.”
(Thomas, page 86)

R. S. Thomas’s “footprints of the lost traveller” resonate sympathetically with the disorientation lamented by the writer of the Pastoral Care preface. But there is still an important difference, and it’s one of perspective, which brings us back to the game that the riddles so often play.

For Anglo-Saxons, the message of a text doesn’t just sit, as “content,” inside the block of writing that is present before the reader like a container, the way we tend to think of it. Instead, the message moves along the writing, or out in front of it (imagine a cursor on a computer screen that keeps going steadily forward), such that the inattentive or uncommitted reader is in danger of being left behind. This has to do with the fact that a thousand years ago writing was normally read aloud to listeners: receiving a text’s meaning was usually a time-bound, unidirectional event, like watching a movie is for us, that made it hard for audiences to go back and re-process the language as we can so easily do now when we privately read books or other textual media that we can freely manipulate. This condition of reception made for a different concept of “where” meaning is, in relation to its written manifestation, and what one must do to access it.

The important point here is that in an Anglo-Saxon cultural context, writing suggests a message, a target of pursuit, that is always receding from the reader, a follower who must search for its signs and grasp at it. It must be actively kept up with.

This sense of distance and active pursuit is inherent in following an organic track along the ground. It can be seen, too, in language like that used in Beowulf, when Grendel’s severed arm, torn off at Heorot, is said to last weardian “guard his trail” (line 971b). The phrase simply indicates, in poetic language, that the limb is left behind when Grendel flees; but it does so by invoking the trail extending forward from the arm, a sort of dotted line connecting that dismembered body part with the target of pursuit, Grendel himself. Such a trail may be followed successfully, or may get lost in the faintness or unintelligibility of its signs. The realistic difficulty of tracking one’s prey or one’s fore-goer is captured well by the image, and we need to apply this sense to the metaphor of written language as a track, too.

In his poems cited above, R. S. Thomas always assumes of written tracks that observers can read them, if they wish. In “The Word,” they represent knowledge based on common experience, available to all and lost only if the many voices that affirm it are stifled; in “The Maker,” the written “wake” signals only a poem’s continuing ability to threaten its present readers like an army on a scorched-earth campaign. In both of Thomas’s poems the meaning, the “where” of the message, moves toward readers who may or may not wish to know it.

In contrast, the written traces that interested Anglo-Saxon writers are signs left behind by a message, by wisdom, that elusively moves away from readers and must be followed with great effort. The writer of the Pastoral Care’s preface worries that the trail is cold, that the learned predecessors are too far out of range to follow anymore.

It seems likely to me that the same implicit danger underlies Riddle 51’s controlling metaphor. The holy book whose copying this little Old English poem describes is a materially precious object, adorned with gold leaf. But in order for its value to transcend its material splendor, it must be read—and reading isn’t easy, least of all in Latin in 9th- or 10th-century Britain. Does Riddle 51’s (mock-)heroic tone, its sense of the monk-copyist’s triumphant skill, constitute a challenge to its readers or hearers not to let the wisdom of books get away? That challenging posture would certainly be appropriate to the genre of the riddle. So would a hint that the wisdom of books, like the solutions to riddles, must be sought with diligence, alertness to all possibilities, and readiness to see things from a new, unfamiliar perspective.



Fulk, R. D., Robert E. Bjork, and John D. Niles, eds. Klaeber’s Beowulf and The Fight at Finnsburh. 4th edition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.

Sweet, Henry, ed. King Alfred’s West-Saxon Version of Gregory’s Pastoral Care. 2 vols, Early English Text Society, old series 45 and 50. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1871; reprint, Millwood, NY: Kraus, 1978.

Thomas, R. S. The Poems of R. S. Thomas. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1985.

Commentary for Riddle 42

We’re stepping back in time this week to revisit a riddle translation from last year! The fabulous Jennifer Neville (from Royal Holloway, University of London) shares some thoughts on chickens, sex and the Anglo-Saxon hall:


Riddle 42 is often classified as one of the double entendre riddles, but actually this is a single entendre riddle: when the text tells us, in its very first sentence, that it’s about sex (hæmedlac), it isn’t lying and it isn’t being metaphorical (although it does resort to metaphor a couple lines later).  Unlike any other Old English text, this one does not cloak its depiction of sex in either euphemism or double-meaning. Everything is up front and open (undearnunga), public and outside (ute): if the man is up to the job, the lady will get her fill. This openness would make Riddle 42 even less prudish than most modern media, if it were about people, but, of course, it’s not. It’s about chickens.


Photo of a cock and hen (by Andrei Niemimäki) from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 2.0)

Chickens are interesting, and there are some things we could note here about Anglo-Saxon husbandry. For example, the chickens are apparently running loose outside, not contained in a pen. The hen, at least, is not boring brown but proudly blonde (wlanc, hwitloc); perhaps some Anglo-Saxon farmer has been practising selective breeding for colour. But the text doesn’t invite us to linger on those things. Rather, it wants us to think about sex.

We are used to hearing how negative Anglo-Saxon writers were about sex, but here we see something different. Depending on how you look at them, the heanmode chickens are either ‘high-spirited’ (frisky?) or ‘low-minded’ (having their minds focused on worldly things?); regardless, their activity is not characterised as sinful. We are also familiar with the idea that sex should be only for the purposes of reproduction, but here there is no reference to offspring. Instead, the activity seems to take place purely for its own sake, and it is not a slothful leisure activity: the metaphor used to sum it up is weorc ‘work’. Interestingly enough, most of the other twelve Old English riddles with (apparently) sexual content (Riddles 12, 20, 25, 37, 44, 45, 54, 61, 62, 63, 80, and 91) also use the idea of work to indicate the sexual act. Is this how the Anglo-Saxons really felt about sex? Was it simply hard ‘work’? If so, they share the idea with us in the 21st century: the 2015 song by Fifth Harmony, ‘Work from Home’, for example, explores the metaphor in great detail.

But the always fascinating topic of sex takes us only as far as line 5. At this point, we have to change gears and move into the world of the hall: the social centre of Anglo-Saxon noble society, the place where kings presented gifts to their followers, where social drinking occurred, and where the speaker of this text offers to reveal the names of the sexy couple to the men drinking wine in the hall.[1] Again, this statement is tantalising: did the Anglo-Saxons exchange riddles with each other in the hall, just as Symphosius did, centuries earlier, at his Saturnalian feast?[2] Before it was written down in the Exeter Book, was Riddle 42 part of an evening’s entertainment, an alternative to playing board games, singing a song in turn (as Caedmon refused to do), or listening to a professional singer?

Riddle 42 Hall.JPG

The hall at the place formerly known as Bede’s World. Photo courtesy of C.J.W. Brown.


Perhaps. But the only people who could solve this riddle would be those who could assemble and unscramble the letters named in the text, and most Anglo-Saxon laymen were not literate. A normal gathering in the meadhall would have very few of those þe bec witan ‘who know books’ (line 7a). Literacy was a technology reserved—for the most part—for the clergy. Once again, then, we need to change gears and move into another world, the world of the monastery and the scriptorium.

In the world of the scriptorium, there were plenty of people who could read ordinary letters, but in this text even that education wouldn’t be enough. The successful solver of the riddle would have to recognise the names of the run-stafas ‘runic letters’ that have been woven into the metre and alliteration of this poem (Nyd, Æsc, Ac, and Hægl), assemble the collection of letters (some of which have to appear twice), and then rearrange them into not one but two words, hana ‘cock’ and hæn ‘hen’. The runic letters themselves don’t appear in the manuscript: a reader (or listener) would have to know that the words ‘need’, ‘ash’, ‘oak’, and ‘hail’ represent letters in order to understand what the text was asking him or her to do next.

riddle-42-runesThis is what the runes would’ve looked like if they had been included (and rearranged to spell hana and hæn)


It’s thus unsurprising that the text taunts us: who here is smart enough to unlock the orþonc-bendas [3] ‘cunning bonds’ that conceal the solution of this text? Not me: I’m very glad that Dietrich managed to work it out back in 1859. Otherwise, there would be no way to see the chickens. We could probably guess that they weren’t human beings having sex out in public, but, without the letters, their identity would most definitely not be undyrne ‘manifest, revealed, discovered’.

Another puzzle remains, however: why are well-educated monks talking about fornicating fowls? And how did they get away with writing it down? The fact that we can’t answer those questions tells us that we still don’t know as much about the Anglo-Saxons as we might have thought.



[1] Or on the floor: flet literally means ‘floor’, but it can be metonymy for the whole building.

[2] There’s a recent edition by T. J. Leary, or you can read Symphosius’ riddles (in Latin and in two published translations) on the LacusCurtius site.

[3] Tolkien uses this word, Orþonc, as the name of Saruman’s tower, which is unassailable by human or entish hands.


References and Suggested Reading:

Banham, Debbie, and Rosamond Faith. Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farming. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

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

Dietrich, F. “Die Rätsel des Exeterbuchs: Würdigung, Lösung und Herstellung.” Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum, vol. 11 (1859), pages 448-490.

Lerer, Seth. “The Riddle and the Book: Exeter Book Riddle 42 in its Contexts.” Papers on Language and Literature, vol. 25 (1989), pages 3-18.

Nolan, Barbara, and Morton W. Bloomfield. “Beotword, Gilpcwidas, and the Gilphlæden Scop of Beowulf.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. 79 (1980), pages 499-516.

O’Donnell, Daniel Paul. Cædmon’s Hymn: A Multi-media Study, Edition and Archive. SEENET 8. Cambridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2006.

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. “The Key to the Body: Unlocking Riddles 42-46.” In Naked Before God: Uncovering the Body in Anglo-Saxon England. Edited by Benjamin C. Withers and Jonathan Wilcox. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2003, pages 60-96.

Smith, D. K. “Humor in Hiding: Laughter Between the Sheets in the Exeter Book Riddles.” In Humour in Anglo-Saxon England. Edited by Jonathan Wilcox. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000, pages 79-98.

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