“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).
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.
- What was the purpose of these riddles, in your opinion?
- In what ways do these riddles compare to the “Cotton Maxims” or “Metrical Charms”?
- How can these riddles shed light on Anglo-Saxon society?
- Which of the following riddles are most resonant to today’s society?
- In what ways are these riddles expressions of a coherent worldview
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?
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.
XXIII. A Bow
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.
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.
Faust, Cosette and Stith Thompson. Old English Poems. Scott, Foresman and Company, 1918, licensed under No Known Copyright.