Just under a hundred Anglo-Saxon riddles have come down to us. We can't
say with any certainty who composed them, or when, or how, or for what
purpose. They may have been oral compositions: short pieces the bards used
while their audiences were getting settled, or as fill between sets during
performances of epics such as Beowulf. Minstrels might also have sung them in
less formal situations, where audience attention span was short or a higher
degree of audience participation was desirable. However, we also have a large
number of riddles written in Latin and some of the riddles are translations
or adaptations of Latin poems. This has suggested to some scholars that
riddling was a purely literate genre, without an oral base. This leads into
confusions and assumptions from later periods. We tend to assume that
knowledge of Latin must have included literacy. It did not. The clergy
of the period included members who could speak Latin but could not read
or write it. Some of the aristocracy included fluent Latin speakers.
My own feeling is that there was an oral tradition of riddling in
Anglo-Saxon England (the riddle is an almost universal form, found in most
cultures) and that oral and literate riddling practices interacted with each
other from the mid seventh century up to the Norman conquest. It seems
likely enough that those riddles which survive were produced largely by
clergymen with a knowledge of Latin, but that nattive traditions of
riddling found their way into their riddles. Nearly all the
riddles that have survived are preserved in the Exeter Book, a tenth century
miscelaney including such Old English masterpieces as "The Seafarer" and "The
Wanderer." I imagine the compiler of this collection transcribed or copied
both oral and written riddles, perhaps adding some of his own in the process.
But this is only a hunch on my part: we have no solid evidence to come to any
definite conclusions as to method of original composition for these riddles.
Some of the riddles, however, do include runes, and these imply readers,
hearers, and writers who had some familiarity with or interest in the runic
alphabet, or futhorc. The use of runes seems to have come to England from
Germany and/or Scandinavia by the fifth century a.d.; runes were seldom used,
except as a sort of shorthand, after the ninth century a.d. It is hard to say
how extensively they were employed during that period, but we may assume that
in the earlier part of it they were closely associated with magic, ritual, and
mysticism. Probably some of the magic power associated with runes persisted in
folk belief long after they passed out of use by clerics who used the Roman
alphabet. The word "rune" itself implies a sense of mystery: in "The Wanderer"
we find the half-line "geseat him sundor aet rune," which could be translated
"he sat by himself, meditating" or "he sat by himself in mysterious thought."
The use of runes in these riddles shows little of the potent magic that
released Odin from the gallows and gave him powers in the Elder Edda, though
it should be noted that they seem to be used more seriously in "The Husband's
Message," also preserved in the Exeter Book. They seem to be used playfully in
the riddles and it may be hard to see any magic left in them. Since runes were
used as a sort of shorthand or code late into the Anglo-Saxon period, these
riddles may have been used as a means of teaching the code or shorthand to
novices. Then again, they may present a test of the reader's or hearer's
knowledge, asking if he has the erudition to interpret them. If they were used
as a test this would suggest that they still carried some authority. Compare
this sort of testing with the interrogation sections of the Mayan Chilam Balam
of Chumayel, in which aspirants to prestigious positions are asked to
interpret coded phrases, which may have been based on ideographic forms of
writing. Of course, some of the riddles that don't use runes may have involved
some sort of testing -- in the case of those based on Latin models, for
instance, the Latin source for the riddle may have been part of the riddle's
solution. Some of the riddles would require a great deal of concentration on
the part of the hearer or reader, some suggest ambiguous or deceptive answers,
and some seem to be excuses for religious or descriptive lyrics.
Through many of them we catch glimpses of Anglo-Saxon life and beliefs
that we do not find elsewhere in Old English literature or archaeology. They
share with other Anglo-Saxon poems, however, the notion that virtually
everything in the world is part of a living continuum, any segment of which
can speak with its own particular voice. It is important to note that many
things described in the riddles are not seen as fixed and static entities but
as living creatures with biographies. A cross or a spear begins as a tree. A
goose begins as a barnacle. The creatures of the riddles often have to go
through a period of suffering to become what they are and often experience a
good deal of pain in their present state. A striking feature of the riddles is
that the speaker, whether it be the creature of the riddle or an observer,
accepts this pain and struggle as part of the order of things -- sometimes
with an almost cheerful stoicism, sometimes with what may be Christian
patience. Often a creature's biography suggests that its pattern of growth
gave it some of the powers it now has. Parchment had to suffer to become a
holy (and magical) Bible. A sword had to endure trials in order to become
strong and honored -- not unlike its user.
Many riddles open with a formula like "I saw a wonderful thing" or "I am
a marvel." This sort of formula probably helped the riddler get started, and
alerted the hearer or reader to the fact that this was the beginning of a
riddle. But formulas of this sort are not hollow or meaningless. The riddlers
seem to have seen the world around them full of wonders. It is hard to read
these riddles without imagining their authors awestruck with the world --
delighting equally in the growth and nature of a simple implement such as a
rake, in the marvels of writing and speech, and in the grand sweep of Creation
at large. The world of the riddles lives, breathes, and speaks to man and to
The basic unit of Old English prosody is the half-line. In my
translations I have maintained the integrity of the original half-line units,
even though this has sometimes resulted in awkward syntax. I've worked this
way on the assumption that the Anglo-Saxon poet wished to measure out his
clues in a definite order at a definite rate, an order and rate that would be
disturbed if I started moving words from one half-line to another or
rearranging half-lines. Of course, to some extent, the order of phrases is a
result of Old Germanic forms that are no longer current or the result of
superimposition of Latin rhetorical forms. But the order of clues, beyond
normal syntax and rhetoric, to my ears at least, creates the dominant rhythm
of the poems, one more forceful than the four major stresses of each line that
governs the meter of the original poems. In making my translations I have kept
the four stress line in the back of my mind, following it or diverging from it
as the individual line seemed to require. Alliteration is a major feature of
Old English verse which I have not followed extensively in my workings.
The survival of the riddles, and of the Exeter Book itself, is something
of a marvel. The manuscript was probably written or transcribed late in the
tenth century -- though many of the riddles were probably composed or first
written down in the late seventh or eighth century. The book seems to have
been given to Exeter Cathedral in the eleventh century by Bishop Leofric. The
manuscript has seen adversity in its time, and could tell us a curious
autobiography, if we could hear its own personal voice. Round stains on its
cover suggest that it was used as a coaster for beer mugs; gouges show that it
was used as a cutting board. It has been through at least one fire, and
several thorough soakings. Many passages are illegible, some pages are
missing, and some pages have been rearranged. Given the conventions of
medieval writing and the damage done to the book, it is sometimes hard to tell
where one riddle ends and another begins. The scribe who wrote out the book
did not include solutions to the riddles. Those given in my notes are based on
the conjectures of scholars and on my own study of the riddles. I have tried
to keep my notes at a minimum so readers will not be too much distracted from
the texts, and so that they will feel free to work out answers of their own.
Many of the proposed solutions rest on over a century's painstaking efforts
and wild guesses by professors, poets, and cranks. Readers interested in more
detailed commentary should see the generous annotations in Williamson's
edition of the riddles. Of course, all answers are tentative -- the authors of
the riddles had quick wits and open senses of humor: no doubt they would have
gotten a few chuckles out of the proposed answers.
The letters and numbers at the head of each riddle refer to the two
editions of the Old English texts that I used: K.-D. = George Philip Krapp and
Elliot Van Kirk Dobbie, The Exeter Book, Columbia U. Press, New York, 1936; W.
= Craig Williamson, The Old English Riddles of "The Exeter Book," U. of North
Carolina Press, Chapell Hill, 1977.
W. 89; K.-D. 93.
. . . wise in years [he crossed] dee[p stream]s,
the steep crags he could ascend
to his home above; he could return
into sheer valleys seeking the herd,
boldly prancing, pawing the stones
lodged in ice, shaking silver frost
off of his fur. I came eagerly
until the throne my younger brother
claimed for his own and drove me to exile.
Then forged iron cut deeply
a gleeming wound; I shed no blood,
no gore from my heart, though the iron bit hard,
the cunning steel. I didn't lament
nor cry for the wound couldn't take vengance
on the warrior's life. My misery,
my wretchedness I constantly endure,
nailed to a board. Now I must swallow
black, wet gall -- I must contain
what falls from above here where I stand --
the dark water. I have one foot.
Now my treasure the enemy plunders
who once ran as the wolf's companion.
What was in my guts escapes and travels
makes tracks on the board . . .
Probable answer: ink horn. the opening and closing lines of this riddle are
defective. I have not transcribed or translated the surviving letters, except
in the case of the second half of the first line presented here -- brackets
indicate the reconstruction. The "younger brother" may be another stag or new
horn pushing out the old. The "enemy" is a quill pen: the feathered raven,
source of the quill, was the wolf's companion in battle.
W. 49; K.-D. 51.
I saw four creatures, wondrous beings,
travelling together. Their tracks were dark,
their path deep and black. They coursed swiftly:
faster than birds they flew through the air,
dove under a wave. He strove without rest,
the battling Prince, pointing the way
across plated gold to the four creatures.
Probable answer: the four creatures are the thumb and first two fingers of a
hand, and a pen (probably a quill pen, given the allusion to birds) in the act
of writing. The "battling Prince" is the right arm of the writer.
W. 24; K.-D. 26
An enemy came and took my life
and all my strength. He soaked me,
submerged me in water, then took me out
and placed me in the sun -- there I lost
all of my hair. The sharp steel
of a knife's edge scraped me clean.
Fingers folded me. A bird's pride
bore the juice, covered me with tracks;
all over my brown skin I took in the dye of wisdom.
Some more of the liquor crossed me again
with dark prints. Then I was covered
with protecting boards, bound in hyde,
brightened by gold; then I shone
gracefully crafted, banded in metal.
Now may my ornaments, my red dye,
my splendid illumination spread the praise
of the lord of peoples. Not a thing of sorrow:
if the sons of men seek my wisdom
they will be safer, more sure of success,
stronger in heart, sounder of mind,
wiser in spirit; their friends will grow
dearer and closer, truer and stronger,
more useful and faithful-- their glory will spread,
their gladness increase, their prosperity multiply:
kindness will flourish, love will deepen,
friends will embrace. Do you know my name,
so useful to men? My name is glorious,
an aid to heros, a holy thing.
Probable answer: Bible. In the Anglo-Saxon context, the Bible is a magical
object, not simply a neutral record. Some of its strength comes from the
materials and processes that created the specific copy in hand. This poem
tells us a great deal about the magic powers of the Bible as a ritual
instrument, but, significantly, tells us nothing of its contents.
W. 58; K.-D. 60
I lived by the shore, near the sea-wall,
at the water's edge-- there I stood,
fixed to my birthplace. Few came
of human kind to where I stood
in that solitary place to see my home.
Every morning dark waves embraced me
in fluid play. I didn't expect
far in the future that I should ever
over benches of lords speak without mouth,
convey many words. It is a mystery,
strange to the mind of those not schooled,
how a knife's point and a right hand
and a lord's thoughts join together,
unite in purpose, so that I to another,
someone far distant, should carry a message,
proclaim it boldly, so no one else
could know the speech of those separated people.
Probable answer: reed pen.
W. 45; K.-D. 47.
The creature ate its words-- it seemed to me
strangely weird when I heard this wonder:
that it had devoured human speech.
A thief in the darkness gloriously mouthed
the source of knowledge-- but thee thief was not
the least bit wiser for the words in his mouth.
Probable answer: bookworm or moth.