Anglo-Saxon Riddles of the Exeter Book/Introduction

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RIDDLES are, so to say, universal. Some are so widespread as to deserve the name of world-riddles. The same theme will appear in different places, at different times, with different treatment, either from a common origin scattered by oral or written transmission, or of spontaneous origin based on similar observation or similar mental processes.[1] Riddles appear in the Vedas and in the Koran. The Sphinx riddle is famous, and Homer is said to have died of vexation because he could not solve this one: “What we caught we threw away; what we could not catch we kept.”[2] Samson propounded one to the Philistines on a wager: “Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness” (Judg. 14:12–14). The Philistines lost, and no wonder. One of the best-known riddles involving a gamble occurs in the incest story of Apollonius of Tyre, related by Gower (Confessio Amantis viii, 271 ff.) and deplored by Chaucer.[3] (Our Riddle 46 is based on incest.)

Thus riddles exist on two levels, popular (oral) and literary (learned), often passing from one group to the other. For a folk riddle may be taken over by the learned and dressed accordingly, or vice versa, a learned riddle may pass to the folk and suffer modification to fit popular taste. Our Anglo-Saxon riddles illustrate both movements. No positive distinctions can be made, but in general the longer and more poetic may safely be called learned, notably the Storm riddles, but also for a different reason those containing runes; and the shorter (and metrically inferior ones) must be regarded as popular, notably those on simple domestic themes and the so-called obscene riddles. Riddle 5 (k-d 84) may serve as an example of the crossing. “It is to be feared,” says A. J. Wyatt, “that, after a secular youth, the riddle passed some time in a monastery.”

Riddles belong to that large family of expressions in which something is represented as something else, as in simile and metaphor. A resemblance is stated or implied and its significance is assumed to be more or less easily recognized—as when the camel is called the ship of the desert. But in the riddle there is introduced an element of calculated deception; the resemblance is submerged in deliberate ambiguity or obscurity. As in a detective story the clues are given but not made obvious. This ambiguity may take two forms. In one the riddler says, “I was not really trying to deceive you but only to test your agility and to share the satisfaction of deducing the answer.” Such are the Ænigmata of Aldhelm. In the other, the riddler means to trick the hearer maliciously; he may force an ambiguity beyond the limits of fair play or he may possess special knowledge which others cannot be expected to have—as in Samson’s riddle to the Philistines. The one is a good-natured exercise of intelligence; the other is a trial of wits, the riddler holding cards and spades and hoping to exhibit his superiority. The one is an epigram, the other a game. Then there may be a middle ground, when the honors are “easy” and the victim can retort that he was not honestly used and anyway by the stated terms there could be more than one legitimate answer. This leads to lively expostulation and reply. Sometimes the answer is concealed in words, as in 28 (k-d 13), Ten Chickens, or in signs, as in the runes. Sometimes there is word play: weax 76 (k-d 45, 1), hafte 48 (k-d 73, 22), blæce 56 (k-d 93, 24), and elsewhere. When the riddle is put into verse there is the increment of poetical language to heighten the ambiguity, or, on the other hand, the language may be strained to satisfy metrical requirements.

In quite another fashion the Anglo-Saxon riddler has an advantage over us, in that he knows the language better than we do and is familiar with many things which we are obliged to get up—as in the description of a primitive plow or weaver’s loom. And finally, he had better texts.

The founder of riddling in England was Aldhelm (ca. 640–709), abbot of Malmesbury and later bishop of Sherborne, one of the most distinguished pupils of the great school of Canterbury. Under Irish influence (the abbey of Malmesbury was founded by the Irish scholar Maildubh) he cultivated an elaborate Latin style, which tends to obscure his great learning. In his prose work Epistola ad Acircium (685) he included one hundred Ænigmata in hexameters, ranging in length from four to eighty-three lines, on a great variety of subjects meant to glorify God’s creation. They begin with Earth, Wind, Cloud, and other natural phenomena, and end fittingly with the longest Creatura, or Creation. They are unlike riddles in that they do not pose a problem and ask for an answer, but are each headed by self-explanatory titles. Aldhelm acknowledges as his model the one hundred Ænigmata of one Symphosius (of uncertain date) about which nothing is known beyond his work.[4] Aldhelm was followed in England by Tatwine, archbishop of Canterbury (d. 734), and Eusebius, generally identified with Hwætberht, abbot of Wearmouth and a friend of Bede. Between them Tatwine and Eusebius produced another one hundred Ænigmata. Aldhelm is known to have composed poems in the vernacular, admired by King Alfred; and there is a story reported by William of Malmesbury (who had it from a lost work of King Alfred’s) of how Aldhelm would stand at a bridge and by reciting like a minstrel hope to entice passersby into the church. Thus it would not be surprising if he had composed riddles in the vernacular, but none in the Exeter Book can be reasonably attributed to him—unless possibly the Storm riddles (see pp. 3–7 below). Riddles 11 (k-d 40) and 50 (k-d 35) are translations of Aldhelm.

The editors of the Exeter riddles have sedulously traced the parallels with these four Latin collections, but relatively few are close enough to show direct influence. Numbers 41 (k-d 60) and 42 (k-d 47) are from Symphosius and 62 (k-d 85) resembles one of his (Fish and River). In some dozen and a half others there are fainter connections with the Latin riddles, different editors holding different views. But the point is that these two hundred Latin enigmas must have suggested the composition of vernacular riddles, most of them probably by clerics, in that transitional middle-world between pagan and Christian, when those men who were sufficiently trained to write English verse could look both ways and feel no hesitation in mingling the sacred and profane. The same is true of the man who compiled the Exeter book.


Leofric, bishop of Exeter (d. 1072), gave to his cathedral library “one large book in English verse on various subjects.” This, the Exeter Book, is a manuscript of 130 folios written in one hand, probably late in the tenth century. These various subjects are mostly religious, that is, either Christian or of markedly Christian coloring. Among them are three poems—Wanderer, Seafarer, Riming Poem—which are pagan elegies lamenting the degenerate times, but with homiletic passages which are perhaps interpolations; and also half a dozen pieces, running to more than 350 lines all together, which are clearly Germanic pagan in origin. These are (to give them their modern titles) Widsith, Deor, Wulf and Eadwacer (called sometimes the Quondam First Riddle because the earliest editors mistook it for a riddle), The Wife’s Lament, The Lover’s Message, and The Ruin.

The Riddles came toward the end of the manuscript in three places: beginning on fol. 101a, the first fifty-nine riddles; these are followed by The Wife’s Lament and seven other pieces; then a second text of k-d 30 and k-d 60; then after The Lover’s Message and The Ruin, the remaining riddles, k-d 61–95. The last several folios of the manuscript were at some time damaged, probably by fire, leaving the text badly mutilated. It would seem therefore that the scribe had before him first a group of fifty-nine riddles. Later he came upon, or was given, another text of 30, which he copied without recognizing or regardless of repetition, and then followed it by 60, if that is really a riddle (see pp. 33 f. below). Next he added two poems which are not riddles. Finally he received a set of thirty-five riddles and added them. That the scribe simply copied down what came to him without thought of unity or coherence is apparent from the separation of the two monologues, The Wife’s Lament and The Lover’s Message, which are of the same type and possibly parts of the same story. It is apparent also that the riddles copied by the Exeter scribe were not a single collection of one hundred (matching the count of the Latin Ænigmata of Aldheim and Tatwine–Eusebius); and this fact, along with the uncertainty in the editorial numbering of several and the inclusion of a Latin riddle, makes it hazardous to assume that there were originally one hundred Anglo-Saxon riddles.


The difficulties of translating Anglo-Saxon poetry are well known; the attempt to translate the Anglo-Saxon riddles faces several peculiar difficulties. The text is in many places corrupt, and while excellent scholars have worked it over they are often at variance even as to the literal meaning and they have sometimes emended in the interest of a favored solution. The words themselves can be deceptive. Such a simple word as “plow,” for example, represents an object different from the modern reader’s picture. Since it is the nature of a riddle to deal in ambiguities, a translator must somehow hold the line between revealing too much and preserving a necessary obscurity. And when there is no generally accepted solution, one must guard against slanting the translation toward one’s own guess. Moreover, the riddles vary in merit. For the best of them one does one’s best; for the others one tries not to make them appear better than the original. The result is, therefore, a series of compromises in the hope of achieving “the best possible failure.” Finally, there is the question of metrical form. Modern imitations of the Anglo-Saxon long line of four main stresses, with two, often three, alliterating syllables to the line, have usually been unsatisfactory. Hence in the following versions I have settled for a loose line, generally of four stresses, with as much alliteration as comes without forcing—a middle ground between strict meter and rhythmic prose, avoiding, or at least diminishing, the iambic movement which has dominated English verse for so long, which our ear has lately learned to do without and which the Anglo-Saxon ear never knew.

Although there are several translations of selected riddles,[5] there has hitherto been no English translation of all the Exeter Book riddles except that of Professor W. S. Mackie in the E.E.T.S. edition (London, 1934), a line-by-line rendering aimed primarily at accuracy and clearness.

A close look at two specimens will best illustrate the problems and the present method.

First, riddle 26 (k-d 38), Bull Calf, is comparatively simple. It consists of seven lines which correspond roughly to the six hexameters of Aldhelm’s De Bovo, sive Juvenco: “Slaking the dryness of my mouth with foaming throat I thirstily drew in my drink from twice two throats. While living I break up the fertile clods of soil along with the stubble by the effort of my stout strength; but when the breath leaves my chill frame, I can bind men fast in terrible bonds” (Wyatt’s translation). The Anglo-Saxon expands the first two hexameters into four lines and compresses the remaining four hexameters into three epigrammatic lines. It is bare where the Latin is flowery, but it has its own kind of indirection at the beginning. It runs: “I saw the creature [wiht is a feminine noun and thus misleading about the gender of the solution; so it adds at once] of the weaponed-kind [i.e., a male creature, one which fights with weapons, to be later recognized as the animal’s horns], eager for the joys of youth [suggesting the sexual urge, but this is at once corrected]. It lets for its use [literally, for tribute] four life-giving fountains brightly shoot, gush forth, to its delight [on gesceap is uncertain; it may mean ‘as fate wills’]. [With a different punctuation the sense would be: ‘the life-sustainer (mother, cow) lets four fountains….’] A man spake [maðelode, a word from the epic style] who said to me: ‘This creature if it survives will break up downs; if it is rent asunder will bind the living’ [i.e., if the suckling lives to grow up it will draw the plow; if it dies its hide will make thongs.]”

Number 22 (k-d 8), one of the best, is a more difficult example. First, a literal, line-by-line version:

I through my mouth speak    in many tongues
with skills I sing    change enough [often]
in head-tone [or mourning tone]    loud chirm [cry out]
hold my tunes [or customs]    voice restrain not.
Old evening-scop    to earls [princes] bring
bliss in burgs [towns].    Then I bending [varying]
with voice storm [cry out]    still in dwellings
[they] sit bowing.    Say what I am called
who so clearly call    players’ songs
loudly imitate    to heroes bode
many welcomes    with my voice.

There are several uncertainties here which must be canvassed at the outset. First, the textual. In l. 3 heafodwoþ(e) means ‘mournful sound,’ and this would support the solution Wood-dove, Anglo-Saxon cuscote, which fits the text in other ways and was strongly urged by Dietrich. In the manuscript the rune for C stands above the text. In l. 4 wisan may mean ‘tunes’ (as in German Volksweise) or ‘manner,’ i.e., ‘I hold (prolong) my song and do not sing out of tune,’ or ‘I sing according to my nature.’ In l. 4 hleoþre, ‘sound,’ may be for hleahtor, ‘laughter,’ an emendation which receives some support from l. 9. In l. 5 Eald may mean ‘old in years,’ or ‘of old,’ in the sense of long familiar. In l. 8 the manuscript has siteð nigende, ‘sits bending forward’; siteþ, third person singular, is difficult and is changed to sitteð, plural, by the editors: ‘they [the earls of l. 5] sit.’ For nigende (which Wyatt translated ‘listening’ in a footnote, but ‘bending forward’ in his Glossary) most editors read hnigende, ‘bowing,’ to avoid the repetition, nige, in the next line. In l. 9 the manuscript has þa swa scire nige. If scire nige are two words the meaning must be ‘I listen brightly’; but most editors make it one word, scirenige (for sciernicge), ‘ female jester.’ In the latter half of the line sceawendwisan means ‘player’s songs’ or ‘jesting songs.’ Tupper cites sceawendspræc, scarilitas (for scurrilitas). Mackie translates: “who, like a woman jester, loudly mimic / the habits of a buffoon.”

Thus l. 9 offers the greatest difficulty: the bird must be regarded as in some sort a joker. ‘Player’s song’ may mean only something professional, but if ‘female’ is implied, together with the notion of scurrility, we have at least a vivid picture of popular entertainment. Mackie’s “buffoon” may be a bit too strong.

Now, putting the pieces together, we have for the solution a bird which sings in the evening with great skill and various tunes, and also impresses the noble listeners with its serious music yet at the same time with something which is comic if not quite naughty. The welcome things of the last line may signify not pleasant tidings but merely singing which they enjoy. What bird meets all the requirements? The probabilities are about equally divided, among the commentators, between Nightingale and some kind of Jay or Jackdaw, and neither is wholly satisfactory. Hence this seems to be one of those riddles which are intended to provoke argument or indecisive discussion. The uncertainties are part of the fun.

It goes without saying that this has been a trial to the translators, for a translation must be slanted to match the chosen solution. Some specimens follow. The first is in prose by R. K. Gordon, in the Everyman Library, and is headed “Nightingale or Jay”:

I speak with many voices through my mouth, sing with modulated notes: often I change my voice, I cry aloud, I hold my melody, nor do I refrain from laughter. Aged bard of the evening, I bring to men joy in cities when I cry with varying voice; they sit in silence, quiet in the dwellings. Say what my name is who, like a female jester, loudly mimic a player’s song, announce to men many welcome things with my voice.

The next is from Faust and Thompson, Old English Poems:

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 of welcome    with my wonderful voice.

The next by Charles W. Kennedy, from The Earliest English Poetry;

I carol my song    in many a cadence,
With modulation    and change of note.
Clearly I call,    keeping the melody,
An old evening-singer    unceasing in song,
To earls in their houses    I bring great bliss;
When I chant my carols    in varying strains,
Men sit in their dwellings    silent and still.
Say what I’m called    who mimic so clearly
The songs of a jester,    and sing to the world
Many a melody    welcome to men.

(Professor Kennedy accepts the solution of Jean Young (R.E.S., July, 1942), Song-thrush (Turdus Philomelos Clarkei).

Now an alternative rendering to that on p. 22 below:

Through my mouth I speak    with many voices.
I sing with cunning,    alternate often
high head-tones    and loud deep shouts.
I keep on the key    but with restraint.
Of old a nighttime    singer I bring
joy to the gentles    who dwell in towns.
When I raise my voice    with many modulations
they listen reverently.    What am I called
who cry out so clearly    with bright imitation

of professional entertainers    and bring with my singing
notes of welcome    to mortal man?

Or if less literal versions are wanted:

I speak a various language.
Loud I sing with notes ever changing
with professional skill always at evening
long familiar to all good men.
They welcome my song. I bring them bliss
as they sit listening
at home with heads bowed in reverence.
Can you guess what my name is?


I speak very many languages well
And hold all good men under my spell
I sing like a diva with coloratura
Loud and long with bright bravura.
They listen with joy and welcome my song
As they sit at home the evening long.
My notes are never twice the same.
You know me, and now you may say my name.


My tongue is tuned to many changing songs
With ever alternating shorts and longs;
With loud and low my old accustomed note
In cunning music issues from my throat.
I sing at eventide, and all who hear
Listen with eagerly attentive ear;
In reverent silence bowed they sit at home
Learning of many welcome things to come.
Attend and answer; try if you can tell
My name who mimic others’ songs so well.


And lastly an adaptation by a poet, Lascelles Abercrombie (Poems, London, 1930):

The Nightingale
(From the Old English Riddle)

I through my throat    the thronging melodies
Delicately devising    in divers moods,
Let my little breath    lavishly chime,
Still the bestower    of unstinted song.
Of old to all men    my evening enchantment
Brings blissful ease;    they, when I bind them
With my thrilling sweet troubles    enthralled in their houses
Lean forward, listening.    Learn now my name
Who cry so keenly,    such quivering glee
Pealing merrily,    and pour such musical
Ringing welcome    to returning warriors.

It is unnecessary to comment in detail on these renderings. Some of them strain to imitate the original meter, others are frankly rather free and avoid the textual difficulties. Professor Kennedy’s is a careful compromise with the strict alliterative formulas, but ends by being almost too smooth, with concession to modern iambicism; and the choice of “carol” seems unfortunate because of the word’s other associations. At least they point up the hazards and invite forbearance for the attempts which follow.


Orderly arrangement is not to be expected in a collection of riddles. Quite the contrary, insofar as they are meant to tease or test the reader, to group them according to the answers would offer too much help. Even the Latin Ænigmata, where the answers are provided as titles, are not placed in any definite order. In the first fifty-nine of the Exeter Book a few signs may be recognized. The Storm riddles have pride of place due to their merit; they are easily the showpiece of the collection. Then 7, 8, 9, 10 are about birds; 27 and 28, mead and malt liquor, come together but are well separated from 11, wine. No. 59, chalice, might have been regarded as a fitting Christian conclusion, but 40, creation, which Aldhelm placed at the end of his hundred is among unrelated subjects. The most markedly Christian riddles fall in the first fifty-nine but not side by side.

The six containing runes, 8, 19, 24, 42, 64, 74, are scattered. Of the seven “obscene” riddles five (25, 37, 44, 45, 54) are among the first fifty-nine; the other two, 61, 62, form a pair, like 44, 45.

For the present purpose of a non-scholarly edition, I have ventured, though with some misgiving, to bring together those of the riddles which are related by theme or subject, leaving a number which can only be classed as miscellaneous. To attempt a division according to merit would be risky, and by the distinction of learned and popular equally so. Even a grouping by subject is fraught with difficulties, partly because there is bound to be much overlapping and partly because of the variety of answers proposed by various scholars; and there are some which are still unsolved or sub judice.

The translations thus have each two numbers: the editorial number in parentheses and in the usual position, preceded by the new number. For convenience in cross-reference a comparative table will be found on p. 67.

  1. For a rich collection illustrating comparative riddle lore, see Archer Taylor, English Riddles from Oral Transmission, Berkeley, 1951.
  2. The story is told in the Herodotean Life of Homer. The poet questioned some boys who had returned from fishing and was answered by the riddle. The answer is given in Symphosius 30, Pedunculus, ‘louse.’
  3. Apollonius asks for the hand of the daughter of the King of Antioch and is told that he must answer a riddle correctly or suffer death: “I have eaten my mother’s flesh and now I seek my father, her husband who is also my wife’s son.” This has had a long history before and since Gower and is familiar from Shakespeare’s Pericles (I, i, ll. 64–71). Another story in which a bride is won by answering a riddle is the ballad of Captain Wedderburn's Courtship (Child 46), which appears in literary form in Gozzi’s La Turandot, translated by Schiller, and set to music by Puccini. In Child 1 the devil threatens to carry off a maiden if she cannot answer his seven riddles.
  4. Aldhelm also remembered the passage in II Chron. 25:18 which tells cryptically how a king of Israel sent to a king of Judah saying, “The thistle that was in Lebanon sent to the cedar that was in Lebanon, saying Give thy daughter to my son to wife; and there passed by a wild beast that was in Lebanon, and trod down the thistle.”
  5. By Albert S. Cook and C. B. Tinker, 1902, 1926; Cosette Faust and Stith Thompson, 1918; J. Duncan Spaeth, 1920; Robert K. Gordon, 1926; Charles W. Kennedy, 1943. Also by Stopford Brooke in his History of Early English Literature to the Accession of King Alfred, 1892, and in English Literature from the Beginning to the Norman Conquest, 1898.