Riddle 78 (or 75)

Riddle 78 is a bit of a super-damaged mess…wish me luck writing the commentary!

Oft ic flodas
…s         cynn… minum
…yde me to mos…
swa ic him
ne æt ham gesæt
flote cwealde
þurh orþonc ……         yþum bewrigene.

Often I … floods
… to my kin
and …
… had as food for me
… so I … to it/him/them
… nor sat at home
… killed floating
with cunning … concealed by the waves.

Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Crab, Oyster, Fish


Commentary for Riddle 77

GOODness gracious me. I’m clearly very out of practice, since this post took a veritable age and a half to write up. This is strange, in a way, since Riddle 77 is one of the least controversial riddles when it comes to solution-hunting: scholars are pretty much agreed that this watery tale of violent captivity, death and consumption concerns an oyster. But, even with this uncharacteristic scholarly agreement, there’s still lots to say about this and other Anglo-Saxon oysters. Settle in and let us begin.

Riddle 77 Olympia oyster cluster
Photo (by Matthew Gray) of an Olympia oyster cluster from Wikimedia commons (licence: CC BY-SA 2.0). These little guys aren’t native to England, but they’re pretty, so…

I should start by saying that – as with all the riddles toward the end of the Exeter Book – there’s some damage from the infamous hot poker here (not a metaphor…apparently, some very bad person put a literal hot poker on this fabulous manuscript, and s/he shall be forever damned in the eyes of medievalists). It’s strangely and gruesomely appropriate that the riddle ends with a reference to the solution’s uncooked-ness, just as the book itself heats up (sorry). But more on the riddle’s reference to cooking in a moment.

First, let’s think a little bit about the importance of environment. I’m thinking especially of the emphasis on sea and waves, which are represented here as a sundhelm (water-helm) (line 1b). This brilliant compound, when taken together with the reference to the ocean having concealed (wrugon) the oyster, reminds me of another truly fab word: heoloþhelm (helmet of invisibility). That’s right: the Anglo-Saxons had a term for this…and not just them, since it exists in continental Old Saxon as well! Too. Good.

Anywho, a heoloþhelm is a particularly diabolic object. The devil sports this particular head-gear in Genesis B (line 444a) and in The Whale:

                he him feorgbona
þurh sliþen searo    siþþan weorþeð,
wloncum ond heanum,    þe his willan her
firenum fremmað,    mid þam he færinga,
heoloþhelme biþeaht,    helle seceð,
goda geasne,    grundleasne wylm
under mistglome,    swa se micla hwæl,
se þe bisenceð    sæliþende
eorlas ond yðmearas. (lines 41b-9a)
(he then becomes a murderer to them, through savage cunning, to the proud and to the lowly, those who sinfully perform his will here; with those, surrounded by a helmet of invisibility, deprived of virtues, he suddenly seeks out hell, the bottomless surge under the mist-gloom, just like the great whale, which sinks sea-travellers, men and their wave-horses.)

Okay so, there’s a link between helmets and the ocean and concealment and the devil in Old English poetry. Got it. But that’s not really what we’re dealing with here. This sundhelm (water-helm) is a protective and sustaining force for a creature with seemingly little agency when removed from the right environment. I like to imagine this poem being read out by David Attenborough on Blue Planet or similar. “The oyster, cleverly concealed below the depths, thinks it’s safe…until…” Alas, I couldn’t find any relevant clips from a nature doc online, but you may enjoy this somewhat-cheesily-narrated time-lapse video of oysters feeding:

The opening and closing of all those oysters’ shells is what we see in this riddle: Oft ic flode ongean / muð ontynde (Often I, facing the flood, opened my mouth) (lines 3b-4a). Karl Steel says these lines form a loop with the opening half-line: “Then, almost halfway through, with the “muð ontynde,” the opened mouth, it is as if the riddle reaches back to its first line, “sae mec feede,” the sea fed me, closing the loop on the opening to circulate the sea again and again through the oyster’s cavernous body. In the loop we have distinction without antagonism, difference disentangled from the struggle for recognition.” Nicely put, Karl.

The riddler sets up the oyster’s open mouth in opposition to human mouths…or, rather, the riddler shows how the oyster goes from having an open mouth into the mouth of another: Nu wile monna sum / min flæsc fretan (Now a certain person wishes to devour my flesh) (lines 4b-5a). This desire to devour is realised at the end of the (fragmentary) poem when the person iteð unsodene (eats [the oyster] uncooked) (line 8a). Several scholars have commented on the differences between the verbs fretan and etan (iteð is a form of this verb): the first is generally used of animals, and suggests a voracious sort of eating when it’s applied to humans, while etan is generally reserved for human use (Magennis, pages 74-76). Mercedes Salvador-Bello also chimes in here, emphasizing that fretan is often used “in literary passages that, regardless of animal or human context, explicitly or implicitly disapprove of the action that is being described” (pages 402-3). This is the sort of eating we should be judgey about, in other words.

Riddle 77 European flat oyster
Photo (by H. Zell) of a European flat oyster’s shell from Wikimedia commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0)

Eating is, of course, one of many activities that invited judgement in the highly religious context of this riddle’s production. Most of the folks who write about this poem link it to another, called The Seasons for Fasting:

sona hie on mergan         mæssan syngað
and forþegide,         þurste gebæded,
æfter tæppere         teoþ geond stræta.
Hwæt! Hi leaslice         leogan ongynnað
and þone tæppere         tyhtaþ gelome,
secgaþ þæt he synleas         syllan mote
ostran to æte         and æþele wyn
emb morgentyd,         þæs þe me þingeð
þæt hund and wulf         healdað þa ilcan
wisan on worulde         and ne wigliað
hwæne hie to mose fon,         mæða bedæled.
(Dobbie, page 104, lines 213-23)
(immediately in the morning they sing their masses and, consumed, compelled by thirst, go through the streets looking for a tavern-keeper. Behold! They begin to lie deceptively and pressure the tavern-keeper frequently, say that he can give them oysters to eat and good wine without sin at that time of the morning, so it seems to me that the hound and wolf have the same manner in the world and do not know when they may seize food, lacking moderation.)

This poem is especially incensed by the idea that a fasting priest might get away with gluttony because oysters weren’t prohibited during fasts (Salvador-Bello, page 405). Like fish, they could be eaten, but in moderation only. And they certainly shouldn’t be wolfed down, raw or otherwise.

Riddle 77 Bodleian Laud Misc 247 fol. 166v
An oyster from the early 12th-century English bestiary in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Laud Misc. 247, fol. 166v. Photo: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, 2018.

We know that oysters were eaten in large quantities in Anglo-Saxon England, and not just in coastal areas (Hagen, pages 169-70). They were so common, in fact, that monastic sign language (yes, monks had sign language…is this the coolest thing you’ve ever heard?) included a sign for oysters. The 11th-century Old English version of Monasteriales Indicia includes the following description:

Gif þu ostran habban wylle þonne clæm þu þine wynstran hand ðam gemete þe þu ostran on handa hæbbe and do mid sexe oððe mid fingre swylce þu ostran scenan wyll.
(If you want an oyster, then close your left hand, as if you had an oyster in your hand, and make with a knife or with your fingers as if you were going to open the oyster.) (Banham, pages 36-7, no. 72)

Here’s what it looks like in the manuscript:

Monasteriales Indicia oysters.png
A passage from Monasteriales Indicia in London, British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius A III, fol. 99v.

Rules in monastic communities were particularly firm after the late tenth-century Benedictine reform, and sign language was an important way of keeping things running at times when monks weren’t allowed to speak. Debby Banham notes that the Old English version of Monasteriales Indicia in particular has very few signs for sea creatures: just one for fish in general, and one each for eels and oysters (Food and Drink, page 65). This suggests oysters were very common in the monastic refectory.

But despite their commonness, the oyster in this particular riddle is unique. Did you notice the violence of the oyster-shucking scene? This doesn’t seem to be driven by your run-of-the-mill “don’t be a glutton” rhetoric. And, in fact, the poem’s imagery is really quite strange: Riddle 77’s creature speaks of its fell (skin) and hyd (hide), using terms that are more familiarly associated with mammals. In fact, this riddle is the only case where either term refers to a shell. And there’s another link to a mammal when the oyster describes the seaxes orde (point of a knife) tearing the shell of sidan (from [its] side) (line 6). This reminds me of the end of Riddle 72, when the ox describes his stoic resignation in the face of the ploughman’s goad:

                  Oft mec isern scod
sare on sidan;         ic swigade,
næfre meldade         monna ængum
gif me ordstæpe         egle wæron. (lines 15b-18)
(Often iron hurt me sorely in the side; I was silent, never accused any man if goad-pricks were painful to me.)

Heide Estes argues that the “foregrounding of violence to the animal as a prelude to human consumption in Riddle 77 […] suggests that the Anglo-Saxons had some sense that avoiding meat consumption was spiritually superior, though from the point of view of human asceticism rather than out of any concern for the animal” (page 122). In other words, monks ate meat rarely, not for ethical reasons, but because discipline and moderation brought them closer to their God. Given that the ox in Riddle 72 receives similarly violent treatment but is removed from the context of eating, I think we can push Heide’s argument further. The riddles show an understanding of and queasy discomfort with the pain that humans inflict upon other animals.

Bit of a depressing way to end a post, I know. Here, enjoy this bizarre infantilization of oysters from Alice and Wonderland by way of compensation:

References and Suggested Reading

Banham, Debby. Food and Drink in Anglo-Saxon England. Stroud: Tempus, 2004.

Banham, Debby, ed. and trans. Monasteriales Indicia: The Anglo-Saxon Sign Language. Middlesex: Anglo-Saxon Books, 1991.

Dobbie, Elliott van Kirk Dobbie, ed. The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems. New York: Columbia University Press, 1942.

Estes, Heide. Anglo-Saxon Literary Landscapes: Ecotheory and the Environmental Imagination. Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam Press, 2017).

Hagen, Ann. Anglo-Saxon Food and Drink: Production, Processing, Distribution and Consumption. Hockwold cum Wilton: Anglo-Saxon Books, 2006.

Magennis, Hugh. Anglo-Saxon Appetites: Food and Drink and their Consumption in Old English and Related Literature. Dublin: Four Courts, 1999.

Salvador(-Bello), Mercedes. “The Oyster and the Crab: A Riddle Duo (nos. 77 and 78) in the Exeter Book.” Modern Philology, vol. 101, issue 3 (Feb. 2004), pages 400-19.

Steel, Karl. “Exeter Riddle 77: The Oyster.” Medieval Karl, 30 January 2017 https://medievalkarl.com/2017/01/30/exeter-riddle-77-the-oyster/

Riddle 77 (or 74)

Once again, there’s a bit of burn damage toward the end of this particular riddle indicated by “…”

Sæ mec fedde,         sundhelm þeahte,
ond mec yþa wrugon         eorþan getenge
feþelease.         Oft ic flode ongean
muð ontynde.         Nu wile monna sum
min flæsc fretan,         felles ne recceð,
siþþan he me of sidan         seaxes orde
hyd arypeð,         …ec hr… …þe siþþan
iteð unsodene         ea… …d.

The sea sustained me, the water-helm covered me,
and the waves concealed me lying on the ground,
foot-less. Often I, facing the flood,
opened my mouth. Now a certain person wishes
to devour my flesh, he does not care for my skin,
when he rips my hide from my side
with the point of a knife, … then
eats me uncooked …

Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solution: Oyster

Commentary for Riddles 75 and 76

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


References and Suggested Reading

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

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

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

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

Riddle 75 and 76 (or 73)

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

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

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

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

Screen shot in case of rune malfunction:
Riddle 75 runes

Commentary for Riddle 74

Riddle 74’s commentary is once again by guest contributor James Paz at the University of Manchester. Take it away, James!


Riddle 74 is a shapeshifter. The speaker has been identified as everything from a made artefact to a living creature, a wonder of nature to a mythological being. Even the first two lines of the riddle are mind-bending. The riddling voice tells us that it was a fæmne geong. I’ve translated this neutrally as a “young girl” but the Old English noun fæmne could be rendered more specifically as “virgin” or “maiden.” In the next half-line, the speaker says that it was also a feaxhar cwene, that is, a grey-haired, older woman. The speaker has aged before our eyes in the first line, and in the second line it suddenly shifts gender, as well. A rinc is a man, perhaps a warrior, and an ænlic rinc is a singular warrior who is “unlike” anything or anyone else, surpassingly noble, beautiful or elegant. The speaker claims that this changing of identity all occurred on ane tid. Since the Old English tid is a vague term for an indefinite period of time (an hour? a year? several years? a season? an age or era?), this phrase could be translated in a number of different ways: “at the same time” or “in a single hour” or “all at once” or even “once upon a time.”

As if this weren’t perplexing enough, the riddle then presents us with a further puzzle: the speaker is capable of flight (fleah mid fuglum) and it can swim (ond on flode swom) and walk on dry land (ond on foldan stop). This amphibious creature says that it was “dead” among the fish and yet, in the last half-line of the poem, it states that it hæfde ferþ cwicu. The most obvious rendering would be “I had a living spirit” but “I held” or even “I contained” a living spirit are equally plausible translations and, as the verb hæfde can be read in the pluperfect sense and the noun ferþ could also be grammatically plural, “I had held living spirits” is another possible interpretation. Is the speaker a living animal, then? Or an artefact that was formerly alive? Or maybe a container or vessel of some kind, something dead bearing something living?

Riddle 74 plays with the tension between transformation and continuity: transformation, because the speaker takes on multiple forms and roles; continuity, because it possesses a single voice and memory, and perhaps a single quickening spirit, depending on how we read the final half-line. The riddle either expands or contracts our perception of time, again depending on how we read the term tid: the metamorphoses from a young girl to a grey-haired woman might seem wondrous if it occurs overnight, but what if the riddle has condensed an entire season or age into a few lines of verse? As a poem, therefore, this riddle raises complex questions about identity. Is it possible to change age, gender and environment so many times and yet still be a nameable, classifiable creature? Can language capture such a multifaceted life experience with a single solution? Or do words ultimately fail to fix this amorphous, slippery speaker in its proper place?

This riddle has sent scholars of Old English away shaking their heads in confusion. Many have ventured an answer, but those answers differ wildly from one another. Over the years, solutions have included: barnacle goose, cuttlefish, ship’s figurehead, oak and boat, quill pen, sea eagle, shadows, siren, soul, sun, swan and water. It would take a good deal of time (and patience!) to cover every solution in detail, so I’ll only discuss some of the highlights (for a more comprehensive survey, see the Niles article under Suggested Reading below).

Riddle 74 Cuttlefish
Photo of a cuttlefish (by João Carvalho) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 2.5)

Squid or cuttlefish was one solution offered by earlier scholars such as Franz Dietrich in 1859. The Roman author, Pliny, had reported in his Natural History that squid could “fly” above the sea and the Anglo-Latin author, Aldhelm, penned an enigma about the luligo (squid or cuttlefish) which parallels some aspects of Riddle 74. In A. M. Juster’s recent translation of Aldhelm’s Latin Enigma 16 (pages 10-11), we read:

Nunc cernenda placent nostrae spectacula vitae;
Cum grege piscoso scrutor maris aequora squamis.
Cum volucrum turma quoque scando per aethera pennis,
Et tamen aethereo non possum vivere flatu.

(Seeing life’s spectacles now entertains;
With fishy, scaly flocks, I search sea plains.
With mobs of birds I also rise through sky,
And yet I can’t survive in breeze that’s high.)

Here, the luligo searches the waters of the deep with fish and ascends through the air with birds, but an ability to change age and sex, and to walk on land as well as swim and fly, is not accounted for by Aldhelm’s enigma. So this answer can’t be deemed completely satisfactory.

Could it be a siren? This was the answer proposed by Frederick Tupper in 1903. The mythological siren is both aged and young, centuries old and yet with the face of a girl. It is not only a woman but sometimes a man.

Riddle 74 Siren from Bestiary (1230-1240), f.47v_-_BL_Harley_MS_4751
An image of a siren in a 13th-century bestiary from British Library Harley MS 4751 (folio 47v), via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Tupper claimed that at an early period of the Middle Ages, the Teutonic conception of a fish-woman met and mingled with the Graeco-Roman idea of a bird-maiden. The combined bird and fish aspects of this partly classical, partly medieval creature explain line 3 of the riddle (“I soared with the birds and swam in the water”). As for line 4 (“dove under the waves, dead among the fish”) Tupper draws our attention to what “every student of myths” apparently knows: the sirens threw themselves into the sea and were transformed into rocks when Ulysses or the Argonauts had passed by in safety. Sceptics of this solution point to the peripheral place of the siren in Anglo-Saxon lore, which makes this interpretation a little farfetched.

Quill pen was the solution of F. H. Whitman in 1968. This was the answer that first leapt into my mind when I read the riddle, due to some similarities with Riddle 51, which links the penna (feather) of the bird with the penna (quill pen) of the scribe. Feathers literally fly through air (and sometimes dive in water and walk the land) when attached to a living bird. The voyage is repeated in the scriptorium, where the writing pen “flies” as the scribe lifts the quill, dips it into the watery inkwell, and then the pen “steps” on the dry land of the parchment, leaving tracks on the page. However, a couple of phrases are harder to account for with the quill pen solution: why would a pen be described as a “singular warrior” and in what sense is it dead among the fish?

Riddle 74 Quills
Photo of feathers being turned into quill pens (by Jonathunder) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0)

Ship’s figurehead was suggested by Craig Williamson (pages 349-52). The speaker is to be imagined as carved in the form of young girl who gradually turns ashen and visibly “ages” as the wood becomes weathered over time, through exposure to the salty waves. As an artefact, the figurehead is “dead” but was made from once living wood. It charges the waves like a warrior. Critics of this solution cite a lack of archaeological evidence for figureheads in the shape of a girl: only those in the form of dragons and other beasts survive from the Anglo-Saxon and Viking periods.

Water or, more precisely, water in its various forms is an attractive solution, first proposed by Moritz Trautmann in 1894 and then refined in 1905 and 1915. Snow flies through the air, ice floats on water as an iceberg and, when it melts away and mingles with the sea, could be said to “die” among the fish, while streams and rivers flow across the land. The young girl is a stream, the grey-haired woman is an iceberg and the singular warrior is snow. Trautmann uses grammatical gender as a clue to solving the riddle. For instance, the Old English word for stream is burne, a feminine noun, while snaw is a masculine noun. Water itself doesn’t have a living spirit but it might be said to “hold” or contain living sea creatures.

Another ingenious solution which relies, in part, on grammatical gender is the one offered by John D. Niles in 1998. For Niles, the speaker is an ac (oak tree) which has been cut down and made into a bat (boat). The tree changes from sapling to a hoary, old oak before it is turned into a warrior-like ship. This answer relies on us taking the oak tree as feminine and the boat as masculine, based on the fact that in Old English ac is a feminine noun, whereas bat is masculine. Niles argues that this reading is consistent with gender biases that were firmly entrenched in Anglo-Saxon society, whereby trees are rooted to one spot in the same way that “women are traditionally associated with hearth and home” whereas ships are “daring rovers, as men have been known to be” (page 190). And yet, by having one speaker embody both of these gendered roles, the riddle could be said to question, rather than reinforce, the categories that have traditionally divided men from women, perhaps inviting the audience to rethink such biases.

Niles’s reading is unsettled somewhat if the speaker is understood as having been a sapling (young girl) and old tree (grey-haired woman) and ship (warrior) all at the same time: on ane tid. One way out is to punctuate the riddle differently from modern convention, so that it reads along the lines of: “at a single time, / I soared with the birds and swam in the water, / dove under the waves, dead among the fish, /and stepped on land.” Another way to resolve this problem is to take the term tid as indicating a long stretch of time. The first two lines of the riddle then become a bit like a wildlife documentary using time-lapse photography to compress the rhythms of nature into a few seconds.

There’s still no consensus on the correct solution. As you can see, each proposal has potential flaws. If I had to choose one, then I’d probably opt for water. I find this one appealing because it expresses both endurance across time and a continuous shifting in form. It’s also a pleasingly “fluid” solution. What I mean by this is that the solution is not simply “water.” It is “water” and then “ice” and then “snow” and then “water” again. Just as we attempt to freeze the shapeshifting speaker with a spoken word, the warmth of our breath causes it to crack and melt once more, changing its form and function as the hydrologic cycle goes ever on and on.

Riddle 74 is therefore a perfect illustration of how things always exceed our names for them – and of how riddles always exceed their solutions.

Riddle 74 Feathery Snow Crystals
A photo of some very fine snowflakes (by Jason Hollinger) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY 2.0)


References and Suggested Reading

Dietrich, Franz Eduard. “Die Räthsel des Exeterbuchs: Würdigung, Lösung und Herstellung.” ZfdA, vol. 11 (1859), pages 448-90.

Erhardt-Siebold, Erika von. “The Anglo-Saxon Riddle 74 and Empedokles’ Fragment 117.” Medium Ævum, vol. 15 (1946), pages 48-54.

Juster, A. M., trans. Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015.

Klein, Thomas. “Of Water and the Spirit: Metaphorical Focus in Exeter Book Riddle 74.” Review of English Studies, vol. 66, issue 273 (2014), pages 1-19.

Niles, John D. “Exeter Book Riddle 74 and the Play of the Text.” Anglo-Saxon England, vol. 27 (1998), pages 169-207.

Paz, James. Nonhuman Voices in Anglo-Saxon Literature and Material Culture. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017, pages 78-83.

Salvador Bello, Mercedes. “Direct and Indirect Clues: Exeter Riddle no. 74 Reconsidered.” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, vol. 99 (1998), pages 17-29.

Trautmann, Moritz. “Die Auflösungen der altenglischen Rätsel.” Beiblatt zur Anglia, vol. 5 (1894), pages 46-51.

Tupper, Frederick. “Originals and Analogues of the Exeter Book Riddles.” Modern Language Notes, vol. 18 (1903), pages 97-106.

Whitman, F. H. “OE Riddle 74.” English Language Notes, vol. 6 (1968), pages 1-5.

Williamson, Craig, ed. and trans. The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977, pages 349-52.

Riddle 74 (or 72)

Riddle 74’s translation is by returning guest contributor James Paz, lecturer in early medieval literature at the University of Manchester. Welcome back, James!

Ic wæs fæmne geong,      feaxhar cwene,
ond ænlic rinc      on ane tid;
fleah mid fuglum      ond on flode swom,
deaf under yþe      dead mid fiscum,
ond on foldan stop,      hæfde ferþ cwicu.

I was a young girl, a grey-haired woman,
and a singular warrior at the same time;
I soared with the birds and swam in the water,
dove under the waves, dead among the fish,
and stepped on land. I held a living spirit.

Highlight the box with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions: Cuttlefish, Boat and oak, Quill pen, Ship’s figurehead, Siren, Water