A Selection of Riddles
Three Exeter Book riddles are printed in Introduction to Old English as Minitexts I and L; the six offered below, like the Minitexts, are especially suitable for those beginning to read poetry.
Riddles were popular in both Anglo-Saxon England and Viking-age Scandinavia. An extensive collection of them is embedded in the Norse Saga of Heiðrek the Wise, and wisdom poems in both Old English and Norse sometimes present their lore in riddle form. The seventh- and eighth-century Anglo-Saxon churchmen Aldhelm, Boniface, Hwætberht and Tatwine all wrote sequences of Latin riddles (those by Aldhelm are especially fine), and an extensive collection of riddles in Old English verse is preserved in the Exeter Book, some of these translated from riddles by Aldhelm and others.
Several conventions of the riddle are on display here and in the Minitexts printed in Introduction to Old English. In A, B, D and E (and Minitext I) the objects themselves speak, challenging the listener to identify them. Misleading metaphors and baffling paradoxes are routine: the speaker in A appears to be a warrior, but if he gets wounded no one bothers to heal him; battle imagery also dominates C, and yet the answer is “Moon and Sun”; F presents a long list of people present at a feast, yet ends with a statement that there are really only five. Minitext L presents two “double entendre” riddles, in which a naughty, wrong-yet-right answer (in both cases “penis”) conceals a right-yet-dull answer (“key” and “dough”). E is presented almost entirely in negatives, ending in a paradox: it was not made as a garment is made, yet it is a garment. While most Latin riddles of the period are preserved with their answers, no answers accompany the Exeter Book riddles, and many scholars have found it a pleasurable occupation to puzzle out the solutions to the more obscure ones.
It should be noted that E (Mail-coat) is a translation of Aldhelm’s Riddle 33 (see Lapidge and Rosier 1985, p. 76). A ninth-century Northumbrian version of this riddle, similar to the Exeter Book version but with several substantive differences, also exists; the text printed here agrees substantively with the earlier version (see Textual Notes for further details).
These texts have been silently normalized, eccentric spellings removed. For a good scholarly edition, see Williamson 1977, nos. 3, 6, 27, 28, 33, 44.
bille ġebennod, beadoweorca sæd,
ecgum wēriġ. Oft iċ wīġ sēo
frēcne feohtan. Frōfre ne wēne,
5 þæt mē ġēoc cyme gūðġewinnes,
ǣr iċ mid yldum eal forweorðe,
ac mec hnossiað homera lāfa,
heardecg heoroscearp hondweorc smiþa
bītað in burgum; iċ ābīdan sceal
10 lāþran ġemōtes. Nǣfre lǣċecynn
on folcstede findan meahte,
þāra þe mid wyrtum wunde ġehǣlde,
ac mē ecga dolg ēacen weorðað
þurh dēaðsleġe dagum ond nihtum.
wrenċum singe, wrixle ġeneahhe
hēafodwōþe, hlūde ċirme,
healde mīne wīsan, hlēoþre ne mīþe,
5 eald ǣfensceop, eorlum bringe
blisse in burgum. Þonne iċ būgendre
stefne styrme, stille on wīcum
sittað swīgende. Saga hwæt iċ hātte,
þe swā scireniġe scēawendwīsan
10 hlūde onhyrġe, hæleþum bodie
wilcumena fela wōþe mīnre.
C. Moon and Sun
hornum betwēonan hūþe lǣdan
lyftfæt lēohtliċ listum ġeġierwed
hūþe tō þām hām of þām heresīþe:
5 wolde hire on þǣre byriġ būr ātimbran,
searwum āsettan, ġif hit swā meahte.
Ðā cwōm wundorlicu wiht ofer wealles hrōf
(sēo is eallum cūð eorðbūendum);
āhredde þā þā hūþe ond tō hām bedrāf
10 wreċċan ofer willan; ġewāt hire west þonan
fǣhþum fēran, forð ōnette.
Dūst stonc tō heofonum; dēaw fēol on eorþan;
niht forð ġewāt. Nǣniġ siþþan
wera ġewiste þǣre wihte sīð.
bewunden mid wuldre, wedre ġesomnad,
fūs forðweġes, fȳre ġemelted,
bearu blōwende, byrnende glēd.
5 Ful oft mec ġesīþas sendað æfter hondum,
þæt mec weras ond wīf wlonce cyssað.
Þonne iċ mec onhebbe, ond hī onhnīgaþ tō mē
moniġe mid miltse, þǣr iċ monnum sceal
īċan upcyme ēadiġnesse.
of his innoþe ǣrest cende.
Ne wāt iċ mec beworhte wulle flȳsum,
hǣrum þurh hēahcræft hyġeþoncum mīn.
5 Wundene mē ne bēoð wefle, ne iċ wearp hafu,
ne þurh þrēata ġeþræcu þrǣd mē ne hlimmeð,
ne mē hrūtende hrīsil scelfeð,
ne mec ōhwonan ām sceal cnyssan.
Wyrmas mec ne āwǣfon wyrda cræftum,
10 þā þe ġeolo godwebb ġeatwum frætwað.
Wile mec mon hwǣþre swā þēah wīde ofer eorþan
hātan mid hæleþum hyhtliċ ġewǣde.
Ne onēġe iċ mē earhfare eġsan brōgum
þēah þe numen sīe nēodlīċe of cocrum.
F. Lot and his family
ond his twēġen suna ond his twā dohtor,
swǣse ġesweostor, ond hyra suna twēġen,
frēolicu frumbearn. Fæder wæs þǣrinne
5 þāra æþelinga ǣġhwæðres mid,
ēam ond nefa. Ealra wǣron fīfe
eorla ond idesa in sittendra.