6 Exeter Book Riddles

“Phallus tree in the Fertility Fresco” at Massa Marittima, circa 1265. Wikimedia Commons.


Anglo-Saxon riddles are part of Anglo-Saxon literature. The riddle was a major, prestigious literary genre in Anglo-Saxon England, and riddles were written both in Latin and Old English verse. The most famous Anglo-Saxon riddles are in Old English and found in the tenth-century Exeter Book, while the pre-eminent Anglo-Saxon composer of Latin riddles was the seventh- to eighth-century scholar Aldhelm.

Surviving riddles range from theological and scholarly to comical and obscene and attempt to provide new perspectives and viewpoints in describing the world. Some at least were probably meant to be performed rather than merely read to oneself and give us a glimpse into the life and culture of the era (Black).

The Old English riddles have been much more studied than the Latin ones, but recent work has argued that the two groups need to be understood together as ‘a vigorous, common tradition of Old English and Anglo-Latin enigmatography’ (Bitterli). Much past work on the Old English riddles has focused on finding and debating solutions, but a new wave of work has started using riddles as a way to study Anglo-Saxon world-views through the critical approaches of eco-criticism.

In the riddles, we find particulars of Anglo-Saxon life that we cannot find elsewhere. The Cambridge History of English Literature sums their effect up in the following sentence: “…the author or authors of the Old English riddles borrow themes from native folk-songs and saga; in their hands inanimate objects become endowed with life and personality; the powers of nature become objects of worship such as they were in olden times; they describe the scenery of their own country, the fen, the river, and the sea, the horror of the untrodden forest, sun and moon engaged in perpetual pursuit of each other, the nightingale and the swan, the plow guided by the ‘gray-haired enemy of the wood,’ the bull breaking up clods left unturned by the plow, the falcon, the arm-companion of æthelings—scenes, events, characters familiar in the England of that day” (qtd. in Faust).

Works Cited

Black, Joseph, et al., eds. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: Volume 1: The Medieval Period. 2nd ed. Ontario, Canada: Broadview Press, 2009.

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

Faust, Cosette and Stith Thompson. Old English Poems. Scott, Foresman and Company, 1918.

Discussion Questions

  1. What was the purpose of these riddles, in your opinion?
  2. In what ways do these riddles compare to the “Cotton Maxims” or “Metrical Charms”?
  3. How can these riddles shed light on Anglo-Saxon society?
  4. Which of the following riddles are most resonant to today’s society?
  5. In what ways are these riddles expressions of a coherent worldview

Further Resources

Reading: Exeter Book Riddles


I. A Storm

What man is so clever, so crafty of mind,

As to say for a truth who sends me a-traveling?

When I rise in my wrath, raging at times,

Savage is my sound. Sometimes I travel,

Go forth among the folk, set fire to their homes

And ravage and rob them; then rolls the smoke

Gray over the gables; great is the noise,

The death-struggle of the stricken. Then I stir up the woods

And the fruitful forests; I fell the trees,

roofed over with rain, on my reckless journey,

Wandering widely at the will of heaven.

I bear on my back the bodily raiment,

The fortunes of folk, their flesh and their spirits,

Together to sea. Say who may cover me,

Or what I am called, who carry this burden?

[Translator note: Some scholars feel that the first three riddles, all of which describe storms, are in reality one, with three divisions. There is little to indicate whether the scribe thought of them as separate or not.]

II. A Storm

At times I travel in tracks undreamed of,

In vasty wave-depths to visit the earth,

The floor of the ocean. Fierce is the sea

.   .   .   .   .   .   . the foam rolls high;

The whale-pool roars and rages loudly;

The streams beat the shores, and they sling at times

Great stones and sand on the steep cliffs,

With weeds and waves, while wildly striving

Under the burden of billows on the bottom of ocean

The sea-ground I shake. My shield of waters

I leave not ere he lets me who leads me always

In all my travels. Tell me, wise man,

Who was it that drew me from the depth of the ocean

When the streams again became still and quiet,

Who before had forced me in fury to rage?


III. A Storm

At times I am fast confined by my Master,

Who sendeth forth under the fertile plain

My broad bosom, but bridles me in.

He drives in the dark a dangerous power

To a narrow cave, where crushing my back

Sits the weight of the world. No way of escape

Can I find from the torment; so I tumble about

The homes of heroes. The halls with their gables,

The tribe-dwellings tremble; the trusty walls shake,

Steep over the head. Still seems the air

Over all the country and calm the waters,

Till I press in my fury from my prison below,

Obeying His bidding who bound me fast

In fetters at first when he fashioned the world,

In bonds and in chains, with no chance of escape

From his power who points out the paths I must follow.

Downward at times I drive the waves,

Stir up the streams; to the strand I press

The flint-gray flood: the foamy wave

Lashes the wall. A lurid mountain

Rises on the deep; dark in its trail

Stirred up with the sea a second one comes,

And close to the coast it clashes and strikes

On the lofty hills. Loud soundeth the boat,

The shouting of shipmen. Unshaken abide

The stone cliffs steep through the strife of the waters,

The dashing of waves, when the deadly tumult

Crowds to the coast. Of cruel strife

The sailors are certain if the sea drive their craft

With its terrified guests on the grim rolling tide;

They are sure that the ship will be shorn of its power,

Be deprived of its rule, and will ride foam-covered

On the ridge of the waves. Then ariseth a panic,

Fear among folk of the force that commands me,

Strong on my storm-track. Who shall still that power?

At times I drive through the dark wave-vessels

That ride on my back, and wrench them asunder

And lash them with sea-streams; or I let them again

Glide back together. It is the greatest of noises,

Of clamoring crowds, of crashes the loudest,

When clouds as they strive in their courses shall strike

Edge against edge; inky of hue

In flight o’er the folk bright fire they sweat,

A stream of flame; destruction they carry

Dark over men with a mighty din.

Fighting they fare. They let fall from their bosom

A deafening rain of rattling liquid,

Of storm from their bellies. In battle they strive,

The awful army; anguish arises,

Terror of mind to the tribes of men,

Distress in the strongholds, when the stalking goblins,

The pale ghosts shoot with their sharp weapons.

The fool alone fears not their fatal spears;

But he perishes too if the true God send

Straight from above in streams of rain,

Whizzing and whistling the whirlwind’s arrows,

The flying death. Few shall survive

Whom that violent guest in his grimness shall visit.

I always stir up that strife and commotion;

Then I bear my course to the battle of clouds,

Powerfully strive and press through the tumult,

Over the bosom of the billows; bursteth loudly

The gathering of elements. Then again I descend

In my helmet of air and hover near the land, And lift on my back the load I must bear,

Minding the mandates of the mighty Lord.

So I, a tried servant, sometimes contend:

Now under the earth; now from over the waves

I drive to the depths; now dropping from heaven,

I stir up the streams, or strive to the skies,

Where I war with the welkin. Wide do I travel,

Swift and noisily. Say now my name,

Or who raises me up when rest is denied me,

Or who stays my course when stillness comes to me?



V. A Shield

A lonely warrior, I am wounded with iron,

Scarred with sword-points, sated with battle-play,

Weary of weapons. I have witnessed much fighting,

Much stubborn strife. From the strokes of war

I have no hope for help or release

Ere I pass from the world with the proud warrior band.

With brands and billies they beat upon me;

The hard edges hack me; the handwork of smiths

In crowds I encounter; with courage I endure

Ever bitterer battles. No balm may I find,

And no doctor to heal me in the whole field of battle,

To bind me with ointments and bring me to health,

But my grievous gashes grow ever sorer

Through death-dealing strokes by day and night.



VII. A Swan

My robe is noiseless when I roam the earth,

Or stay in my home, or stir up the water.

At times I am lifted o’er the lodgings of men

By the aid of my trappings and the air above.

The strength of the clouds then carries me far,

Bears me on its bosom. My beautiful ornament,

My raiment rustles and raises a song,

Sings without tiring. I touch not the earth

But wander a stranger over stream and wood.



VIII. A Nightingale

With my mouth I am master of many a language;

Cunningly I carol; I discourse full oft

In melodious lays; loud do I call,

Ever mindful of melody, undiminished in voice.

An old evening-scop, to earls I bring

Solace in cities; when, skillful in music,

My voice I raise, restful at home

They sit in silence. Say what is my name,

That call so clearly and cleverly imitate

The song of the scop, and sing unto men

Words full welcome with my wonderful voice.



XIV. A Horn

I was once an armed warrior. Now the worthy youth

Gorgeously gears me with gold and silver,

Curiously twisted. At times men kiss me.

Sometimes I sound and summon to battle

The stalwart company. A steed now carries me

Across the border. The courser of the sea

Now bears me o’er the billows, bright in my trappings.

Now a comely maiden covered with jewels

Fills my bosom with beer. On the board now I lie

Lidless and lonely and lacking my trappings.

Now fair in my fretwork at the feast I hang

In my place on the wall while warriors drink.

Now brightened for battle, on the back of a steed

A war-chief shall bear me. Then the wind I shall breathe,

Shall swell with sound from someone’s bosom.

At times with my voice I invite the heroes,

The warriors to wine; or I watch for my master,

And sound an alarm and save his goods,

Put the robber to flight. Now find out my name.


XV. A Badger

My throat is like snow, and my sides and my head

Are a swarthy brown; I am swift in flight.

Battle-weapons I bear; on my back stand hairs,

And also on my cheeks. O’er my eyes on high

Two ears tower; with my toes I step

On the green grass. Grief comes upon me

If the slaughter-grim hunter shall see me in hiding,

Shall find me alone where I fashion my dwelling,

Bold with my brood. I abide in this place

10With my strong young children till a stranger shall come

And bring dread to my door. Death then is certain.

Hence, trembling I carry my terrified children

Far from their home and flee unto safety.

If he crowds me close as he comes behind,

I bare my breast. In my burrow I dare not

Meet my furious foe (it were foolish to do so),

But, wildly rushing, I work a road

Through the high hill with my hands and feet.

I fail not in defending my family’s lives;

If I lead the little ones below to safety,

Through a secret hole inside the hill,

My beloved brood, no longer need I

Fear the offense of the fierce-battling dogs.

25Whenever the hostile one hunts on my trail,

Follows me close, he will fail not of conflict,

Of a warm encounter, when he comes on my war-path,

If I reach, in my rage, through the roof of my hill

And deal my deadly darts of battle

On the foe I have feared and fled from long.

[Translator note: The “deadly darts of battle” have caused “porcupine” to be proposed as a solution to this riddle, though when all the details are considered “badger” seems on the whole the more reasonable.]


My name is spelled AGOB with the order reversed.

I am marvelously fashioned and made for fighting.

When I am bent and my bosom sends forth

Its poisoned stings, I straightway prepare

My deadly darts to deal afar.

As soon as my master, who made me for torment,

Loosens my limbs, my length is increased

Till I vomit the venom with violent motions,

The swift-killing poison I swallowed before.

Not any man shall make his escape,

Not one that I spoke of shall speed from the fight,

If there falls on him first what flies from my belly.

He pays with his strength for the poisonous drink,

For the fatal cup which forfeits his life.

Except when fettered fast, I am useless.

Unbound I shall fail. Now find out my name.



XXVI. A Bible

A stern destroyer struck out my life,

Deprived me of power; he put me to soak,

Dipped me in water, dried me again,

And set me in the sun, where I straightway lost

The hairs that I had. Then the hard edge

Of the keen knife cut me and cleansed me of soil;

Then fingers folded me. The fleet quill of the bird

With speedy drops spread tracks often

Over the brown surface, swallowed the tree-dye,

A deal of the stream, stepped again on me,

Traveled a black track. With protecting boards

Then a crafty one covered me, enclosed me with hide,

Made me gorgeous with gold. Hence I am glad and rejoice

At the smith’s fair work with its wondrous adornments.

Now may these rich trappings, and the red dye’s tracings,

And all works of wisdom spread wide the fame

Of the Sovereign of nations! Read me not as a penance!

If the children of men will cherish and use me,

They shall be safer and sounder and surer of victory,

More heroic of heart and happier in spirit,

More unfailing in wisdom. More friends shall they have,

Dear and trusty, and true and good,

And faithful always, whose honors and riches

Shall increase with their love, and who cover their friends

With kindness and favors and clasp them fast

With loving arms. I ask how men call me

Who aid them in need. My name is far famed.

I am helpful to men, and am holy myself.

[Translator’s note: Here, of course, a “codex,” or manuscript of a Bible is in the writer’s mind. He describes first the killing of the animal and the preparation of the skin for writing. Then the writing and binding of the book is described. Last of all, the writer considers the use the book will be to men.]

XLV. Dough

In a corner I heard a curious weak thing

Swelling and sounding and stirring its cover.

On that boneless body a beautiful woman

Laid hold with her hands; the high-swelled thing

She covered with a cloth, the clever lord’s daughter.


XLVII. A Bookworm

A moth ate a word. To me that seemed

A curious happening when I heard of that wonder,

That a worm should swallow the word of a man,

A thief in the dark eat a thoughtful discourse

And the strong base it stood on. He stole, but he was not

A whit the wiser when the word had been swallowed.


LX. A Reed

I stood on the strand to the sea-cliffs near,

Hard by the billows. To the home of my birth

Fast was I fixed. Few indeed are there

Of men who have ever at any time

Beheld my home in the hard waste-land.

In the brown embrace of the billows and waves

I was locked each dawn. Little I dreamed

That early or late I ever should

With men at the mead-feast mouthless speak forth

Words of wisdom. It is a wondrous thing,

And strange to the sight when one sees it first

That the edge of a knife and the active hand

And wit of the earl who wields the blade

Should bring it about that I bear unto thee

A secret message, meant for thee only,

Boldly announce it, so that no other man

May speak our secrets or spread them abroad.


[Translator’s note: This riddle occurs in the manuscript just before The Husband’s Message, and some editors think that in the riddle we have a proper beginning for the poem. First is the account of the growth of the reed, or block of wood, then the account of its voyages, and last the message conveyed. There is really no way of telling whether the poems were meant to go together.]

Source Text:

Faust, Cosette and Stith Thompson. Old English Poems. Scott, Foresman and Company, 1918, licensed under No Known Copyright.



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An Open Companion to Early British Literature Copyright © 2019 by Allegra Villarreal is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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