Revealing Riddles

Last week, The Riddle Ages did a little interview with READ (Research in English at Durham). Check out the results here:


Unknown-artist-eadwine-the-scribe-at-work-eadwine-psalter-christ-church-canterbury-england-uk-circa-1160-70 Licenced under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.Eadwine the scribe at work (c. 1160-70) Licenced under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Old English riddles pose a puzzle in more ways than one. Not only do they invite readers to search for a solution, they also provide a teasing insight into the interests of their creators. Megan Cavell, who posts translations of Anglo-Saxon riddles over at her blog The Riddle Ages, explains the value and interest of this long-lasting form of literature.

Everyone loves a good riddle. Why do you think this is? What’s so satisfying about posing and solving a riddle?

Do you know, I’m actually really bad at solving riddles? I tend to get frustrated if I know there’s an answer that I don’t see right away. That’s why I like the Old English riddles…because no solutions are recorded, I can keep guessing forever and no one can tell me I’m wrong!

But in all seriousness…

View original post 1,036 more words


Report: The International Medieval Congress, Leeds

Well hello there, riddlers!

The Riddle Ages took a little foray into some exciting, cutting-edge, riddle research last week at the International Medieval Congress. Let the following report soothe the sadness of any readers who weren’t able to make it all the way to the exotic climes of Leeds, UK.

The blog sponsored three sessions (Riddling in Anglo-Saxon England and Beyond I-III), which Jennifer Neville and I co-organised.


Session I: Engaging with the Physical World

In “Encounters of the Third Kind: Materiality and Some Exeter Book Riddles,” Pirkko Koppinen explored the insights into Anglo-Saxon material objects gained by translating the riddles into Finnish. She focused particularly on fire imagery, and proposed that Riddles 30a and b be solved as “ore” with the aid of personal experience. Pirkko’s paper was an expansion of the post she wrote for this very blog! We also learned that it’s possible to taste fire…if you strike a flint too close to your face…

In “Shields and Other Animals: Riddling Approaches to the Natural World in Early Scandinavia,” Hannah Burrows both mined the Old Norse riddles for perceptions of the natural world, and used these perspectives to examine riddling practices in early Scandinavia. She demonstrated that the Norse riddles play with local and traditional conceptions of the natural environment while participating in a complex dialogue with wider European riddling traditions.

In “Models of Mutation and Mutilation in Anglo-Saxon Riddles,” Cameron Laird compared the Exeter Book’s riddles about the transformation of natural materials with Anglo-Latin sources and analogues. He took us through a wide range of texts, and argued for a connection between the enigmatic tradition and the descriptive passages of the Hisperica Famina.


Session II: Eco-criticism and Animal Studies

In “Be sonde, sæwealle neah: Place as Descriptor in the Exeter Book Riddles,” Corinne Dale looked at the ways in which some riddles resist the human-centred focus that characterises a great deal of Old English poetry. She argued for eco-centric depictions of places beyond the human world and a sense of nostalgia for an Edenic past.

In “A Poetics of Empathy?: Non-human Experience in Anglo-Saxon Riddles,” Megan Cavell (aka moi!) discussed the usefulness of elegiac riddles for gaining insights into the perceived experiences of non-humans animals in the early medieval world. The paper focused especially on the bovine riddles and the empathy of Riddle 72.

In “Monstrous Healing: Aldhelm’s Leech Riddle and the Nature of Appearance,” Peter Buchanan spoke about the abject leech of Aldhelm’s Latin enigmatic collection as a surprisingly active critter. He read the poem as depicting the leech in terms of its kiss of salvation, which redeems both the leech itself and those it feeds from.


Session III: Marvelous Metaphors

In “Wundor and Wrætlice: Seeing Anew Through Old English Riddles,” Sharon Rhodes explored some risqué riddles (45, 54, 44 and 37) and their defamiliarising techniques. She argued that the obscene solution to some riddles lead their audiences to appreciate the wondrous qualities of the common/not-obscene solutions.

In “Warriors and their Battle Gear: Conceptual Blending in Riddles 5 and 20 of the Exeter Book,” Karin Olsen examined two riddles with multiple solutions, one of which is related to warfare. She approached their metaphorical connections via the theory of cognition known as “conceptual blending” – according to which thought involves constantly combining words and ideas to form a complex network of meaning.

In “Enigmatic Tropes in Exeter Book Riddle 49 (and Another New Solution),” Jennifer Neville discussed the way Old English riddlers exploited their audience’s knowledge of the genre in order to trip them up. She looked at Riddle 49’s imagery of implements/users and benefit/use, which she argued were foils for the (new!) solution “beehive.”


In addition to the sessions hosted by The Riddle Ages, we also heard the following papers about riddles:

  • Harriet Soper, “Parental Feeling in the Exeter Book Riddles and Elsewhere in Old English Literature” (arguing that children are depicted as tenuously connected to the world around them in their early years, resulting in a difficult parent/child relationship that involves both closeness and separation)
  • Francesca Brooks, “The Crafting of Sound and the Shaping of Voice in the Riddles of the Exeter Book” (arguing that a range of riddles linking imagery of sound and craft – “acoustic craft riddles” – indicate a riddlic self-reflexivity and residual orality)

All in all, it was a great conference! Albeit lacking in epic riddle-battles between eminent academics. We’ll save that one for next year, shall we?

Riddles at the International Medieval Congress, Leeds

Well, folks, it’s that time of year again: CONFERENCE SEASON is upon us!

I’m packing my bags for the International Medieval Congress in Leeds, which starts tomorrow and runs all week. The Riddle Ages is sponsoring three sessions on Thursday, making a staggering NINE papers about medieval riddles for interested conference delegates. That’s not counting the papers that have ended up in other sessions (a quick scan of the programme tells me there are at least two more riddley presentations on Tuesday and Wednesday).

If you’re interested in following the conference’s events online, the Twitter hashtag #IMC2015 should steer you in the right direction. I’ll try to whip up a report when I get back!

Report on Riddles at the Leeds International Medieval Congress

This post serves two primary purposes:

1) It is an apology of sorts for not having posted in a while, and at the same time a place-holder for the next post (which is coming soon)


2) It is a business-like update on the current state of riddle-scholarship, or — perhaps more accurately — a report on the riddle papers given at a recent conference.

If you’re neither interested in apologies nor conferences…if, in fact, you’re only following this blog for the witty pictures and commentary, please enjoy the following and then continue at your own risk.

Cartoon from xkcd: A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language (original post here:


Here beginneth the report.

The Riddle Ages may seem quiet at the minute, but we’re actually incredibly busy (really, I swears!)! The week before last Matthias and I attended the International Medieval Congress in Leeds where we hosted two sessions and heard from five great speakers. Here’s a quick report on the papers.

Session I boasted two speakers (unfortunately we caught Erin Sebo mid-international move, so we’ll have to hear from her later!).

First off was David Callander, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, who gave a talk called “Old English and Early Welsh Riddles on the Wind: A Juxtapositional Study.” You may remember David from his witty commentary on Riddle 22. In his paper, he discussed Exeter Book Riddles 1-3 and the early Welsh Book of Taliesin riddle, Kanu y Gwynt (The Song of the Wind). He pointed out both the usefulness of comparative analysis and the clear differences between the two traditions’ approach to similar subject matter. One example is the way Kanu y Gwynt places a greater emphasis on praising the Christian God, while Riddles 1-3 seem to address him more in passing.

Second was Jennifer Neville, who translated and provided commentary for Riddle 9. A Reader in Anglo-Saxon literature at Royal Holloway, University of London, her paper, “Two Don’t Make a Match: The Strange Game of Sex in the Exeter Book Riddles,” explored a variety of Old English riddles with sexual imagery (i.e. Riddles 12, 20, 25, 37, 42, 44, 45, 54, 61, 62, 63, 80 and 91). In discussing these poems’ approach to sex, she focused on their lack of reference to reproduction, sin and pleasure, concluding that they are all unified by an emphasis on work. She also posed the greater question: is this how Anglo-Saxons viewed sex? I guess the monk-scribes writing these poems down might be slightly more interested in be-labouring hanky-panky than those who were actually allowed to…well…do it…

Session II was headed off by Sharon Rhodes, a PhD student at the University of Rochester. She gave a talk called “Exeter Riddle 60 and Christian Typology.” Focusing on Riddle 60 (obv), she also addressed imagery in Riddles 20, 26, 51, 69, 86 and 88, as well as other Old English poetry and Latin riddles. She ultimately tied riddles that involve transformations, where the end (i.e. the solution) is predicted in the beginning, to the wider role of prefiguration in Christian typology (that is, how the Old Testament can be seen to predict events of the New Testament). The riddle-writers may have achieved this effect through the use of potentially ambiguous words which can evoke different associations, e.g. for Riddle 60, Sharon argued for such ambiguity in the word “sonde” – usually translated as “sand” or “shore,” but potentially also implying a word for “sender, messenger” (or “message”). For a more detailed explanation you’ll have to wait until the commentary for Riddle 60…

The next speaker in this session was Britt Mize, Associate Professor and Rothrock Research Fellow at Texas A&M University. His paper was called “‘Semantic Prosody’ and the Odd Use of ‘Gifre’ in the Exeter Book Riddles.” This talk explored a linguistic concept relating to words’ statistical tendencies to occur alongside specific other words. Britt argued that the poets of Riddles 49 and 26, in using the term gifre, borrowed the word-patterning associated with a similar term, gīfre (i.e. with a long “i”). He also gave other examples of poetic formulas and “close enough-ness,” a term that I most certainly intend to steal.

And finally we heard from Helen Price, a recent PhD graduate at the University of Leeds, who gave a talk called “Riddles Beyond the Exeter Book.” In addition to Old English, the comparative riddle traditions she discussed included Anglo-Latin, Old Norse-Icelandic, medieval Spanish Hebrew and Arabic riddles and later English poetry. These she thematically linked by focusing on cross-cultural/chronological descriptions of water, which she found tended to associate water with life and death, loss and deception. Her focus on a variety of traditions over time emphasizes the similarities and differences between the way people address the same subject matter, and the role that their environments play in determining those associations.

In addition to the sessions hosted by The Riddle Ages, we also heard the following papers about riddles:

  • Melissa Herman (PhD student, University of York): “Perplexing Patterns and Visual Riddles: Aesthetic Hegemony.”
  • Victoria Symons (recent PhD, University College London): “Seeing Puns: Riddling Letters and Visual Ambiguities in Old English Manuscripts.”
  • and Corinne Dale (PhD student, Royal Holloway, University of London): “Degolfulnes dom and dyran cræftes: Knowledge, Control, and the Relationship between Man and Nature in the Exeter Book Riddles.”

All in all, it was a good week for riddle-scholarship! Of course, we likely missed one or two riddley talks because of the sheer hugeness that is the IMC. If we missed you, feel free to update us on your work in the comments section below.

Commentary for Riddle 7

This post once again comes to us from Jessica Lockhart. Enjoy!

I still remember how baffled I was the first time I came across this riddle in undergrad. A person who walks on earth, inhabits a home, riles up water, and has a singing garment that lifts them over houses? Could it be a saint? Some kind of spirit? A medieval Boba Fett with a jetpack and some jingle bells?

Although Riddle 7 may sound bizarre to our ears at first, it is actually one of those riddles about which Anglo-Saxon scholars feel confident in their solution. Franz Dietrich solved the riddle definitively as ‘swan’ (OE swon or swan) in 1859 – more specifically, as some scholars since have pointed out, the riddle refers to the mute swan, cygnus olor, a species which was resident year-round in Anglo-Saxon England and found widely throughout Europe.


(This photo is from wikimedia commons (user: Arpingstone) where it is available in the public domain.)

The pivotal clue is the singing of the creature’s clothing in the final lines:

                               Frætwe mine

swogað hlude         ond swinsiað,

torhte singað,         þonne ic getenge ne beom

flode ond foldan,   ferende gæst.

(My adornments sound out loud and entune sweetly, (1) sing clearly, when I am not touching flood and fold, a soul faring.)

This is a beautiful description of the sound the mute swan’s feathers make when the swan is beating its wings in flight. Once we know the solution, the riddle’s earlier clues make sense as well: ‘treading the land’ becomes the swan’s waddle, the dwelling it settles on becomes its nest, and ‘disturbing the waters’ becomes an apt description of the paddling of the swan’s oary feet. Only when the swan is travelling in its third element, the windy air, does the swan’s clothing demonstrate its twin marvellous potentials for flight and song.

But as Megan would say, the fun doesn’t stop there. As you’ve probably noticed, this riddle uses a set of four alliterating verbs to describe the swan’s clothes: first they swigað (keep silent), and then they swogað (make a sound), *swinsiað (make melody), and singað (sing). These similar-sounding words lend the riddle some nice unity (and anticipate the final ‘sw-’ word of ‘swan’), but as Dieter Bitterli has recently shown, they also work on another level. In the Middle Ages, common wisdom held that the Latin word for swan, cygnus, came from the verb canere, ‘to sing’. Isidore of Seville gives this origin in his Etymologies, and claimed this was because the swan actually sings beautifully with its long throat. (Our legend about the dying ‘swan-song’ actually goes all the way back to ancient Greece). By connecting the swan to singing, this riddle evokes this etymology. But interestingly, instead of going with Isidore’s explanation, the Exeter riddle poet has created a set of clues that explains the mute swan’s ‘song’ using the actual behaviour of the bird, and also implies that the Old English word ‘swan’, too, reveals the bird’s connection with these verbs, especially ‘swinsiað’. (2) Neat, eh?

So, what else is interesting about this riddle? Let’s look at how this riddle establishes a worldview. The first and last sentences of this riddle do a lot of work: they convey all the essential etymological and behavioural clues for ‘swan’ and set up the rhetorical antithesis (poetic contrast) between silence and sound that forms the riddle’s semantic core. These sentences do so much work that if you were to eliminate everything but these first and last sentences, arguably the riddle would still be perfectly complete. (Short pithy riddles like it were very much the style of the Latin riddler Symphosius and several of his Anglo-Saxon followers.) But what else the riddle does, is create for us a moving meditation on the place of this extraordinary bird in a human-inhabited world. The creature lives in a dwelling, wears adornments, and treads the ground like a human, (3) and when it is carried astonishingly through the air, the riddle emphasizes how close it remains to human civilization:

Hwilum mec ahebbað         ofer hæleþa byht

hyrste mine,         ond þeos hea lyft,

ond mec þonne wide         wolcna strengu

                                                                                            ofer folc byreð.

(Sometimes my dress and this lofty air lift me over the home of heroes; and widely, then, does the clouds’ strength bear me over mankind.)

This is a trick we should watch out for in later riddles: the speaker playfully offers a perspective down on those who (if looking up) would not see an amazing speaker with singing clothes, but the bird we’d know and recognize.

There’s a playful artistry involved in making a riddle very specific while at the same time very misleading, and a new bonus level of artistry when a riddle takes something we have always accepted as normal (a water-bird, a name, a genre, an idea) and uses that concept to crack open reality like an eggshell, to show us wonder and potential that we ignore. Riddles like Exeter 7 work to show us how much more curious we should be than we are.



(1) For translating ‘swinsiað’, last week I adapted the Middle English verb ‘entune’ to convey this idea of music, and added ‘sweetly’ to preserve the ‘sw’ alliteration – it’s also my own secret clue for those who know Chaucer’s description of birdsong in The Book of the Duchess l. 309 as ‘So mery a soun, so swete entewnes.’

(2) Even more impressively, he may have been right; etymologically, the word ‘swan’ does have to do with sound.

(3) Exeter 7 is the first of a series of riddles on birds and other animals in the Exeter Book, and later riddles often closely parallel its wording. Watch out for especially close similarities when we get to Riddle 10, which I won’t spoil here.


References and Further Reading:

Bitterli, Dieter. “Tell-Tale Birds: The Etymological Principle.” In 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, pages 35-46.

Kitson, Peter. “Swans and Geese in Old English Riddles.” Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History, vol. 7 (1994), pages 79-84.

Meaney, Audrey. “Birds on the Stream of Consciousness: Riddles 7 to 10 of the Exeter Book.” Archaeological Review from Cambridge, vol. 18 (2002), pages 120-52.

Commentary for Riddle 4

Riddle-solvers have had fun with this one, so brace yourselves. First off, Fry’s riddle-solution article lists the following suggestions: Bell, Millstone, Necromancy, Flail, Lock, Handmill, Pen and Phallus. How could someone possibly associate a bell and a phallus? I’ll leave that up to you.

But the fun doesn’t stop there. In the same year that Fry’s article was published, Ann Harleman Stewart writes an article (full ref details below) suggesting Bucket of Water, which A. N. Doane goes on to refine in another article. According to the Bucket-reading, the various rings that the riddle describes are either links on a chain, the straps surrounding the bucket (i.e. the ones that hold the pieces of wood in place) and/or a sheet of ice on the surface of the water. Certainly, the description of grumbling, chilly, early-rising servants would fit this interpretation, as does the reference to “bursting” the bound ring, if we’re talking about ice.

But the fun doesn’t stop there. In the very same year (1991), we have another two scholars who suggest a pretty fun solution: Dog or Watchdog. These are Wim Tigges and Ray Brown (the scholars…not the dogs). Now the ‘cry’ is a bark, the rings are a collar and leash and someone is really unhappy to be dragged out of bed by a frolicsome pup. I promise to feed and walk it every morning, mom, really!

But the fun doesn’t stop there. If you’re a cat person, you might agree with the next person to take a crack at solving Riddle 4. In 2007, Melanie Heyworth suggests that what we’re actually dealing with here is the Devil. She compares the use of words keywords in the poem to the language of penitentials (outlines of penance for sins) and homilies and finds a lot of overlap. Noting that most of the words in the poem have double meanings, she sees a lot of condemning with fetters and violation of religious worship (not to mention sex, reading the wearm lim as a ‘hot penis’). All of this is to say, if you’re a sleepy Anglo-Saxon, you had better get yourself out of bed and into the church…being tired means you’re not alert and that makes you vulnerable to temptation (see ‘Hrothgar’s Sermon’ in Beowulf (ll. 1700-74), if you don’t believe me).

But, you guessed it, the fun still doesn’t stop there. I’m a big fan of the next solution, Shannon Ferri Cochran’s 2009 suggestion that we’re actually dealing with a Plough Team. This reading takes the various rings as the neck-yoke on the oxen pulling the plough, as well as the wheels of the object itself. The nice, bursty sound now becomes wheels slopping through a muddy field, and the characters in the poem become the driver and his servant. Part of what I like about this interpretation is the way it maps onto a poem we haven’t yet gotten to: Riddle 21, a similarly fettered plough. But you’ll have to wait for that one.

And finally, oh finally, the fun stops (well…for now). Patrick J. Murphy’s 2011 book, Unriddling the Exeter Riddles, brings us full circle to Bell again. That’s right, the solution that had the most supporters in Fry’s 1981 article is back in the spotlight. Here, Murphy concentrates on the rings as puns on ‘to ring’ (you know, like you ring…well…a bell) and the binding as an allusion to the bell’s duty as a servant (it’s ‘bound’ to carry out it’s job…ba-dum ching). Murphy also looks to other texts where bells are governed by the verb hyran, which he points out can mean both ‘to obey’ and ‘to hear’.

So, what do I think? I simply do not know. To be honest with you, all these readings are pretty convincing. That’s why people keep publishing them. I suppose if push came to shove, I’d be inclined to support the Bucket (or OE wæter-stoppa, according to Niles) reading since it seems to cover all the bases. But if I’ve learned one thing from reading up on Riddle 4, it’s that there’s always room for more! Fancy keeping the fun alive? Feel free to comment with your own suggests solutions below.


[Editorial Note: Another solution has now been proposed!: Sword. Check out Corinne Dale’s, “A New Solution to Exeter Book Riddle 4” in Notes and Queries, vol. 64, issue 1 (2017), pages 1-3.]



Brown, Ray. “The Exeter Book’s Riddle 2: A Better Solution.” English Language Notes, vol. 29 (1991), pages 1-4.

Cochran, Shannon Ferri. “The Plough’s the Thing: A New Solution to Old English Riddle 4 of the Exeter Book.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. 108 (2009), pages 301-9.

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

Heyworth, Melanie. “The Devil’s in the Detail: A New Solution to Exeter Book Riddle 4.” Neophilologus, vol. 91 (2007), pages 175-96.

Murphy, Patrick J. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011, esp. pages 71-7.

Niles, John D. Old English Enigmatic Poems and the Play of the Texts. Turnhout: Brepols, 2006, esp. page 147.

Stewart, Ann Harleman. “The Solution to Old English Riddle 4.” Studia Philologica, vol. 78 (1981), pages 52-61.

Tigges, Wim. “Signs and Solutions: A Semiotic Approach to the Exeter Book Riddles.” In This Noble Craft: Proceedings of the Xth Research Symposium of the Dutch and Belgian University Teachers of Old and Middle English and Historical Linguistics, Utrecht, 19-20 January, 1989. Edited by Erik Kooper. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1991, pages 59-82.

Commentary for Riddles 1-3

Riddles 1 to 3 are quite clearly thematically linked, and it is because of this that they have also been read as one very long riddle (especially because Riddle 2 and the sections of Riddle 3 begin with the same word: Hwilum (sometimes)). This, of course, throws off the riddle numbering system (which you should note is an editorial practice and does not appear in the Exeter Book manuscript). For this blog’s purposes, we’re sticking to the old school riddle numbering (i.e. the one in Krapp and Dobbie’s edition – see our first post for more on this) because this is the system most online riddle resources use.

As for solutions (1), you may have noticed that the same ones crop up for each of the three related riddles. They are all commonly solved as Storm or Wind, but this doesn’t come close to covering all the potential solutions (Anglo-Saxonists like to disagree). Other suggestions include Atmosphere, Power of Nature, Sun (esp. for riddles 2 and 3) and all manner of different types of storms (including Apocalyptic Storm, Hurricane, Earthquake, Storm at Sea and Thunderstorm). Riddle 1 has also been solved as Fire and Raiding Party or Army, while Riddle 2 has been solved as Anchor and Riddle 3 as Revenant. In addition to the stormy weather solutions, another trend can be seen throughout the riddles and that relates to religion. This is unsurprising considering the Exeter Book was donated to a cathedral library by a bishop – in fact, most early English literature has a strong religious connection because of the structure of Anglo-Saxon society and scribal culture (think monasteries!). So, this religious trend has resulted in the following solutions: Riddle 1 as God, Riddle 2 as Christ and Riddle 3 as Cross, Spirit and Supernatural Force.

Having read a good chunk of Old English poetry, it seems pretty clear that each of the three riddles does possess religious connotations. All this talk of leaders controlling the destructive action of whatever þrymful þeow (powerful servant) is narrating definitely signals a divine entity. In fact, these poems echo in some ways the verse lines of the Old English translation of Boethius’ Consolatione philosophiae (Consolation of Philosophy). A section from Metre 20 (lines 63-74), which deals with the elements, reads:

Habbað þeah þa feower      frumstol hiora,

æghwilc hiora      agenne stede,

þeah anra hwilc      wið oðer sie

miclum gemenged      and mid mægne eac

fæder ælmihtiges      fæste gebunden,

gesiblice,      softe togædre

mid bebode þine,      bilewit fæder,

þætte heora ænig      oðres ne dorste

mearce ofergangan      for metodes ege,

ac [geþweorod] sint      ðegnas togædre,

cyninges cempan,      cele wið hæto,

wæt wið drygum,      winnað hwæðre. (2)

(Nevertheless each of the four have their proper station, their own place, although each of them may be greatly mixed with the other and also, by the might of the almighty father, bound fast, peaceably, gently together by your decree, merciful father, so that none of them dared to go over the other’s boundary because of fear of the lord, but the retainers are made to agree, the champions of the king, cold with heat, wet with dry, yet they compete.)

The rest of the poem goes on to discuss God’s control over the elements, which is again mentioned in relation to binding a hundred lines later:

Hafað fæder engla      fyr gebunden

efne to þon fæste      þæt hit fiolan ne mæg

eft æt his eðle      þær þæt oðer fyr

up ofer eall þis      eardfæst wunað. (153-56)

(The father of angels has bound fire precisely so fast that it may not return to its homeland where that other fire, up over all this, remains firmly fixed.)

Riddle 3’s focus on confinement in particular maps nicely onto this Boethian vision of the cosmos. It’s also noteworthy that Riddles 2 and 3 end with a similar challenge to the listener: the riddler not only asks what is narrating the poem, but also what is controlling the speaker:

                 Saga, þoncol mon,

hwa mec bregde      of brimes fæþmum,

þonne streamas eft      stille weorþað,

yþa geþwære,      þe mec ær wrugon. (12b-15)

(Say, thoughtful one, who draws me from the depths of the ocean, when the streams become still again, obedient the waves, which earlier concealed me.)


                  Saga hwæt ic hatte,

oþþe hwa mec rære,      þonne ic restan ne mot,

oþþe hwa mec stæðþe,      þonne ic stille beom. (72b-4)

(Say what I am called, or who raises me, when I may not rest, or who stays me, when I am still.)

Although Riddle 1 doesn’t end this way, it does include a reference to the powers that control it:

                  heahum meahtum

wrecen on waþe,      wide sended (10b-11).

(pressed into wandering / by the powers on high, sent afar).

This all seems to suggest that the solution calls for a master-servant duo. And so, perhaps God and the Elements (or in Old English: God ond þa Feower Gesceafta) would make a nice solution for all three of these poems. Of course, the poet seems to prefer the destructive aspect of each element…but without central heating, this isn’t particularly surprising!

That’s all for now – but maybe you have a better solution, a question or a concern. Why not email us or post a comment below?



(1) For a convenient list of solutions and solvers, see Donald K. Fry’s article, “Exeter Book Riddle Solutions,” Old English Newsletter 15.1 (1981), pp. 22-33, although unfortunately and for obvious reasons it does not take into account suggested solutions after 1981.

(2) These lines are quoted from the brilliant, new-ish edition by Malcolm Godden and Susan Irvine, The Old English Boethius: An Edition of the Old English Versions of Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiae, 2 volumes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). The translations, along with this post, are by Megan.