Commentary on Riddle 70

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


References and Suggested Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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


Riddle 70 (or 67 and 68)

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


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

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

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

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

Commentary for Riddle 68 and 69

From previous blog posts, you may now be getting the sense that the final run of riddles in the Exeter Book is where everything has gone to pot. You’re not wrong. As I explained in my commentary for Riddle 63, there’s a rather large and irritating hole that has damaged multiple works toward the end of the manuscript.

That’s not, however, the problem we have here. The problem with Riddles 68 and 69 and deciding whether they’re one poem or two is totally the scribe’s fault! Because, you see, there’s punctuation in the manuscript that suggests Riddle 68 ends at gegierwed, and an enlarged initial W on Wundor that implies Riddle 69 is the start of a new poem. I don’t have a copyright-free photo to share with you, so here’s my finest attempt at an artistic rendering:

Riddle 68 and 69 transcription.jpg
#notapalaeographer #noracalligrapher #sozlol

What, what, WHAT do we do with this information? Well, let’s remember that this isn’t the first time we’ve been in this sort of situation. Riddles 47 and 48 present us with the complete opposite problem. In that part of the manuscript, we have no punctuation to separate out what – from their content – seem to be two different poems. But they’re run together on the manuscript page, and, where we’d expect a punctuation mark like the one at the end of Riddle 68 (and most riddles), we have nothing.

There’s also the matter of Riddles 1-3, which are set out on the page like separate poems, but all deal with similar subjects. Some editors think they’re one big riddle in three movements. Some think they’re three separate poems that have been placed near each other on purpose.

And the list of problem riddles goes on.

The long and the short of it is…the layout of the riddles (and other poems in the Exeter Book) can be a bit messy! In fact, Mercedes Salvador-Bello argues that the assembling of these particular riddles and the ones around them “was done in a rather careless way” and “the compilers increasingly resorted to opportunistic improvisation in place of planned arrangement” (page 398). Whether there’s any sort of method to this mess is a matter for the manuscript specialists, and not little ol’ me.

But I’ll allow myself to have opinions about the poetic content…because the only thing I love more than poetry is having opinions.

When it comes to Riddles 68 and 69, I’m going to side with the editors who read the poems as one. The sense of wonder and the travelling on ways/waves go quite nicely together – so nicely, that Craig Williamson suggests this variation of on weg (line 1b: on the way) and on wege (line 3a: on the wave) is the “trick” of the riddle (page 335). And that beautiful final half-line, wæter wearð to bane (water turned to bone), explains the whole wondrous situation very tidily. Ice! (Old English Is!)

Riddle 68 and 69 Iceberg.jpg
Photo (by yours truly) of an iceberg at Jökulsárlón in Iceland

The specific form of ice is up for grabs. The riddle is often solved as Iceberg, hence the dramatic shot above. There is, after all, another iceberg riddle in the Exeter Book: do you remember the monstrous creature of Riddle 33? They’re quite different poems on the whole, but there is some verbal overlap, as we can see in Riddle 33’s first line:

Wiht cwom æfter wege      wrætlicu liþan
(Something wondrous came moving over wave)


Leaving Iceberg to one side, John D. Niles has also suggested Frozen Pond (Old English Is-mere) (page 143), and Patrick J. Murphy recently made quite a good case for Icicle (Old English Gicel) (page 8). Murphy pointed out the riddle tradition’s “penchant for defamiliarizing common objects,” and noted that icicles and bones are associated in folk riddles (page 8). This makes sense, of course, since they have a similar shape! Or as Murphy puts it (rather nicely, I think): “the elongated, rodlike forms of ice […] would most readily activate the image of ossification” (page 8). If we’re worried about the travelling of those elongated ossificatory icicles (say that three times fast!), we needn’t be. Icicles are still made of water, after all, and the travelling could refer to the way they extend and grow longer over time.

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

Anywho, back to the issue of one vs two riddles: it’s also worth pointing out that – if we don’t solve Riddles 68 and 69 together – the solution to Riddle 68 is a lot harder to come by. A creature travelling on a path who’s miraculously adorned could be…a lot of things. We definitely need more to go on than that! Not to mention the fact that nearly the exact same lines that make up the whole of Riddle 68 are found earlier in the Exeter Book as the start of Riddle 36:

Ic wiht geseah     on wege feran,
seo was wrætlice     wundrum gegierwed.
(I saw a creature travel on the way/wave,
she/it was miraculously adorned with wonders.)

This particular riddle is pretty messy too, and may represent the smooshing together (that’s the technical term, I believe) of two separate riddles. The best solution seems to be Ship – so there’s definitely a thematic connection between water, ice and sea travel.

Riddle 68 seems to be drawing on formulaic language about this sort of thing. It’s possible, of course, that the scribe copying out the riddle simply didn’t finish it, and went straight on to the next one. When I’m tired, my eyes skip across the page all the time. These things happen.

Either way, though, Riddle 69 can certainly function on its own:

Wundor wearð on wege;       wæter wearð to bane.
(There was a wonder on the wave; water turned to bone.)

In fact, it’s a very nice example of the riddle form in brief. This riddle describes something that should be recognizable, but from a strange perspective. Like metaphors, which represent one thing in terms of another, riddles ask us to think outside the box. Here, the riddle asks how water can become bone. It doesn’t say ‘ice is bony’ (not the most eloquent of metaphors!), but instead demands that we make the logical leap from water-turned-bone to ice. What a nice little example of riddling.

And look at all that alliteration! We have no fewer than FIVE ‘w’ words in one line! In fact, apart from the prepositions, bane (bone) is the only word in the line to start with a different letter. The sounds of these letters almost resemble the wobbly flowy-ness of water solidifying into a sharp bursting ‘b’. That’s not the most articulate sentence I’ve ever written, but hopefully you get a sense of what I mean. If not, try reading the line out loud to yourself!

Please do this in public. Or in your workplace. Or maybe in a silent reading room in a library. Are people looking at you funny yet? Then my work here is done.


References and Suggested Reading

Murphy, Patrick J. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011, esp. pages 8-9.

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

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. Isidorean Perceptions of Order: the Exeter Book Riddles and Medieval Latin Enigmata. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2015, esp. pages 398-9.

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

Riddle 68 and 69 (or 66)

A quick note about this post: You may be wondering why I’m doing two riddles at once, and I’ll certainly explain more in my commentary. But for now, be aware that the division of this particular riddle or pair of riddles is very controversial! Krapp and Dobbie’s edition of the Exeter Book numbered the first two lines as Riddle 68 and the final as Riddle 69, but many editions now squash them together as one. More to follow! For now, enjoy:

Ic þa wiht geseah      on weg feran;
heo wæs wrætlice      wundrum gegierwed.
[Riddle 69] Wundor wearð on wege;      wæter wearð to bane.

I saw a creature travel on the way;
it was miraculously adorned with wonders.
[Riddle 69] There was a wonder on the wave; water turned to bone.

Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Ice, Iceberg, Icicle, Frozen Pond

Commentary for Riddle 67

Riddle 67‘s commentary is once again by Brett Roscoe of The King’s University, Alberta. Go, Brett, go!

Let me start by assuring you that this is not a connect-the-dot puzzle, though it looks like one. The rows of periods show where we cannot read the riddle because the manuscript has been damaged. In the Middle Ages, manuscripts weren’t used just used for writing. The manuscript in which most of the Old English riddles are found, the Exeter Book, was used as a coaster, a chopping-board, and later even as kindling for fire! (though to be fair, I should say that this last use was accidental). When you add to that dirt, dust and mould, and natural wear and tear over time, it actually isn’t surprising that the manuscript is damaged. It’s more surprising that it survived, and that we’re fortunate enough to read it today.

That said, though, we’re still faced with the problem of reading this riddle. It may not be a connect-the-dot, but what if it were a fill-in-the-blank exercise? Here is the poem after filling in some of the blanks with suggestions made by various scholars (these are summarized in Krapp and Dobbie, pages 368-9):

Ic on þinge gefrægn    þeodcyninges
wrætlice wiht,    wordgaldra [sum
secgan mid] snytt[ro,    swa] hio symle deð
fira gehw[am. . . . . . . . . . . . . .]
. . . .] wisdome.    Wundor me þæt [þuhte
þæt hio mihte swa]    nænne muð hafað.
fet ne [folme. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . .]    welan oft sacað,
cwiþeð cy[mlice . . . . . . . . .] wearð
leoda lareow.    Forþon nu longe m[æ]g
[awa to] ealdre    ece lifgan
missenlice,    þenden men bugað
eorþan sceatas.    Ic þæt oft geseah
golde gegierwed,    þær guman druncon,
since ond seolfre.    Secge se þe cunne,
wisfæstra hwylc,    hwæt seo wiht sy.

O.k., so it’s still not perfect, but we could at least say it’s a bit better. And it can help us flesh out our translation:

I have heard of a wondrous creature
in the king’s council, speaking magical words
with wisdom, as it always does
men[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . .] wisdom. It seemed a wonder to me that
it could speak as it has no mouth.
No feet or hands[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . .] often contend for wealth,
says fittingly [. . .] “(I) have become
a teacher of peoples. Therefore now for a long time,
always unto life, I can eternally live,
in various places, while people inhabit
the expanses of the earth.” I have often seen it,
adorned with gold, treasure and silver,
where men drank. Let him who knows,
each one who is wise, say what that creature is.

Now the riddle is – though still unclear – legible enough to point to a solution. Most agree that its solution is “Bible,” or some sort of gilded religious book. Lines 5-6 express amazement that this speaker, whoever or whatever it is, is mouth-less. And a mouth-less speaker in Latin and Old English riddles often suggests a kind of writing or writing utensil, since a written text conveys its message to the eyes of the reader without making a sound (see Riddle 60, Riddle 95, and Eusebius’ Latin Enigma 7, De Littera and 33, De Membrano). Besides having no mouth, this strange speaker also has fet ne (no feet), and possibly no hands (if we accept the reconstruction of folme), and it speaks wordgaldra (magical words). Magical words suggest that the book has power outside of its covers; it has authority in the “real” world. It is, after all, a leoda lareow (teacher of peoples). What kind of book would have this kind of authority and power? The Bible, with its message of salvation and world transformation, would seem to fit the bill.

The strongest hint at the religious nature of this book is the fact that it is gilded with gold and silver (lines 13b-15a). Gold and silver were often used to decorate Bible manuscripts. We’ve already seen this kind of decoration in Riddle 26, but just to refresh our memories, here is an example from the Lindisfarne Gospels showing the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew:

Photo from Wikipedia Commons (public domain)

This kind of attention was usually reserved for religious texts such as Bibles, psalters, lectionaries, and books of hours. The elaborate decorations reflected the value placed on the content of the manuscript.

So if the answer is a Bible, why are we told that it is often seen þær guman druncon (“where men drank,” line 14b)? If you’re like me, you probably think of reading as a quiet, solitary activity. When I read I make myself a cup of tea, go to a quiet room, and maybe turn on some mellow music. I don’t invite friends over for a party and then pull out a book. Though we may not often think of reading as a public event, it is an activity that provides an opportunity for social bonding. Have you ever been to a public poetry or book reading? Or have you ever read a children’s book to your son or daughter at bedtime? Have you heard the Bible read out loud during a Sunday church service? If so, you’ll have a sense of what this riddle is talking about. In fact, in medieval monasteries it was a common practice to listen to the Bible read out loud during meals. We might say, then, that Riddle 67 uses the kingly hall to represent the monastery. I’m not sure who this comparison would flatter more, the monks or the warriors, but it is not an uncommon comparison in the Exeter Book riddles.

If you’re interested in reading more about Anglo-Saxon Bibles, you might want to compare this riddle to Riddles 26, 59, and perhaps 95 (coming soon to theatres near you).


References and Suggested Reading:

Clemens, Raymond, and Timothy Graham. Introduction to Manuscript Studies. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007.

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

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


Riddle 67 (or 65)

Riddle 67’s translation is by Brett Roscoe of The King’s University, Alberta. Thanks for taking on such a tough riddle, Brett!


Ic on þinge gefrægn      þeodcyninges
wrætlice wiht,      wordgaldra [. . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .] snytt[. . . . .] hio symle deð
fira gehw[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
5     . . . .] wisdome.      Wundor me þæt [. . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .] nænne muð hafað.
fet ne [. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . .]      welan oft sacað,
cwiþeð cy[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .] wearð
10     leoda lareow.      Forþon nu longe m[.]g
[. . . . . . . . . ] ealdre      ece lifgan
missenlice,      þenden menn bugað
eorþan sceatas.      Ic þæt oft geseah
golde gegierwed,      þær guman druncon,
15     since ond seolfre.      Secge se þe cunne,
wisfæstra hwylc,      hwæt seo wiht sy.

I have heard of a wondrous creature
in the king’s council,* magical words [. . .
[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .] it always does
of men[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
5     . . . . . . .] wisdom. A wonder to me that [. . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .] has no mouth.
No feet [ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . .] often contend for wealth,
says [. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .] “(I) have become
10     a teacher of peoples. Therefore now a long time
[. . . . . . . . .]life eternally live,
in various places, while people inhabit
the expanses of the earth.” I have often seen it,
adorned with gold, treasure and silver,
15     where men drank. Let him who knows,
each one who is wise, say what that creature is.

Possible Solutions: Bible, Religious Book


Translation Notes:
* “in the king’s council” can describe either the hearing or the wondrous creature.

Commentary for Riddle 66

This commentary post is once again by Erin Sebo at Flinders University in Australia. Take it away, Erin!


Riddle 66 is the second of the three “Creation Riddles” in the Exeter Book (Riddles 40, 66 and 94). Although it’s common to find several riddles with the same answer – or which seem to have the same answer – the creation riddles are unusual because they are all versions of the same riddle, just “edited” a bit. (Or in the case of Riddle 94, a lot.)

All riddles have a trick at their heart: a paradox, an ambiguity, a misdirection; the thing that makes the riddle hard to solve. It’s the thing that makes a riddle a riddle.

Riddles 40, 66, and 94 and their parent, Aldhelm’s epic Latin De Creatura (the last riddle in his riddle sequence), all have the same trick and the same solution. They’re same riddle, even though the words are different.

If the number of surviving versions is anything to go on (and maybe it’s not), it was the most popular riddle in early England. Or, if not the most popular, perhaps the most important? The best known? Whatever it was, the complier(s) of the Exeter Book thought it was worth the vellum to write out different versions of it.

But it’s not how Riddles 40, 66, and 94 are the same that’s the most interesting bit; what’s really interesting is how they’re different. Each version of this riddle gives us a slightly different insight into how the world was imagined. In the case of Riddle 66, it gives us an insight into how ordinary people, or at least some ordinary people, imagined the world. That’s rare in early medieval texts.

De Creatura was written by a theologian (Aldhelm), and Riddle 40 was translated by someone who was at least educated enough to read Latin, but from the way Riddle 66 has been adapted, made shorter, more focused, more memorable, it may well have spent time in the oral tradition, being told and retold. For example, the litany of oppositions, often illustrated by obscure or exotic animals or materials and underpinned by allusions to scripture, of Riddle 40, is replaced by simple, broad elemental images. On the other hand, the memorable and unusual word hondwyrm is preserved. (Often something that’s characteristic will stick in people’s minds so these elements tend to survive.) Otherwise, very few of the same details survive, just the overall idea, which is typical of the way oral texts change. So while most of the Exeter Riddles are composed and meant to be read this one was probably told – and given the lack of details which reveal specialist knowledge, not to mention the highly unorthodox (potentially heretical) view of the world, it may well have been told by ordinary people.

So, how did the ordinary medieval person of this riddle imagine the world? The most striking thing is that the riddle doesn’t mention God. Riddle 40 imagines Creation more or less like this:

Riddle 66 Psalter World Map.jpg
13th-century Psalter World Map from a manuscript called British Library Add. MS 28681, via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

God on the outside, who healdeð ond wealdeð (holds and controls) (Riddle 40, line 5a), is keeping an eye on things. But in Riddle 66, Creation is imagined not as a collection of all the things that make up the physical and/or metaphysical worlds, but rather as a force, racing around the world, diving under the seas. Unlike Riddle 40 which has a series of dichotomies, with a positive and a negative side, Creation in Riddle 66 is made up of excellent qualities only: it’s fast and bright and can reach the angels. It’s expansive. Although creation says it’s laesse, most of the riddle is about how it fills the oceans and extends through the fields. By the same token, it dives under hell but there’s no mention of devils, only of soaring as high as angels. It’s an optimistic force. And it’s not clear what its relationship to God is because this is never quite articulated. It is described more like an irresistible force, racing freely around the space it inhabits, than an expression of God. It does not describe itself as enacting God’s plan or acting on his orders. And the fact it only reaches angels, not God himself seems to suggest that they are not connected.

It’s an unusual idea of the world.

And it’s as surprising in its details as it is in its overall conception and I want to end with one of its strangest, tiniest details; tiny hondwyrm. It seems to be a parasitic insect but we’re not sure what kind exactly. And it’s also the only animal mentioned. There are no birds or fish or mammals – including humans. So, I’ll finish the commentary on this riddle with a question – why is this tiny insect more important than all other creatures?


References and Suggested Reading:

Michelet, Fabienne. Creation, Migration and Conquest: Imaginary Geography and Sense of Space in Old English Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Neville, Jennifer. Representations of the Natural World in Old English Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Sebo, Erin. In Enigmate: The History of a Riddle from 400-1500. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2017. (coming out in October!)

Wehlau, Ruth. The Riddle of Creation: Metaphor Structures in Old English Poetry. New York: Peter Lang, 1997.