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Anglo-Saxon riddles

The modern sculpture 'The Riddle' on Exeter High Street by Michael Fairfax, which is inscribed with texts of Old English riddles and evokes how they reflect the material world.

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.[1]

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'.[2] Much past work on the Old English riddles has focused on finding and debating solutions,[3] 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.[4]

Anglo-Latin enigmataEdit

The earliest attested riddles in Anglo-Saxon England are in Latin, where they are known as enigmata ('enigmas') and formed a thriving literary genre which is likely to have inspired the later collection of vernacular riddles in the Exeter Book.[5] Unlike the Exeter Book riddles, the Anglo-Saxon enigmata are presented in manuscripts with their solutions as their title, and seldom close with a challenge to the reader to guess their solution.[6]

Apparently inspired by the hundred Aenigmata of Symphosius, another collection of metrical Latin riddles called Bern Riddles, along with Byzantine literary riddling, the Anglo-Saxon aristocrat, scholar, abbot and bishop Aldhelm composed his own collection of a hundred (hexa)metrical enigmata.[7] He included it in his Epistola ad Acircium, a study of poetry dedicated to one Acircius, understood to be King Aldfrith of Northumbria, and therefore presumably written during his reign (685-704/5); Aldhelm records that his riddles were composed early in his career 'as scholarly illustrations of the principles of Latin versification', and may have been the work where he established his poetic skill in Latin.[6] The letter consists of three treatises:

  • De septenario, treatise on the number seven in arithmology.
  • De metris, treatise on metre, including the Enigmata.
  • De pedum regulis, didactive treatise on metrical feet, such as iambs and spondees.

Many were directly inspired by Symphosius's, but overall, Aldhelm's collection is quite different in tone and purpose: as well as being an exposition of Latin poetic metres, diction, and techniques, it seems to be intended as an exploration of the wonders of God's creation.[8] The riddles generally become more metrically and linguistically complex as the collection proceeds. The first eight riddles deal with cosmology. Riddles 9-82 are more heterogeneous, covering a wide variety of animals, plants, artefacts, materials and phenomena, but can be seen to establish purposeful contrasts (for example between the light of a candle in Enigma 52 and that of the Great Bear in 53) or sequences (for example the animals of Enigmata 34-39: locust, screech-owl, midge, crab, pond-skater, lion). Riddles 81-99 seem all to concern monsters and wonders. Finally, the long hundredth riddle is "Creatura", the whole of Creation.[9] His most prominent themes were 'the natural world, daily life, church furniture, and the classroom. A bookish quality is evident in many of the other topics addressed, which would certainly have been outside the daily experience of Anglo-Saxon England'.[6] Aldhelm may have known the passage through his teacher Hadrian.[10]

Perhaps because of its use in Anglo-Saxon education, Aldhelm's collection inspired several more Anglo-Latin riddle collections: not long after Aldhelm composed his enigmata, Saint Boniface composed his own, in the form of 'a series of ten poems on the Vices and ten on the Virtues produced for the moral instruction of an unnamed female correspondent', influenced greatly by Aldhelm and containing many references to works of Vergil (the Aeneid, the Georgics, and the Eclogues).[6]

Around the same period, Tatwine composed forty acrostic riddles in a carefully structured sequence: 1-3 and 21-26 on theology (e.g. 2, faith, hope, and charity), 4-14 on objects associated with ecclesiastical life (e.g. 7, a bell), 15-20 on wonders and monsters (e.g. 16, prepositions with two cases), 27-39 on tools and related natural phenomena (e.g. 28, an anvil, and 33, fire), with a final piece on the sun's rays.[11][12][13] Tatwine's collection was then expanded to 100 by someone writing under the name Eusebius (traditionally but not securely identified with the Abbot of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Priory Hwætberht)[14] through the prefacing of a further sixty enigmata, of which 1-4 are on the chain of being, from God to Man, 5-11 mostly on cosmological phenomena, 12-29 a miscellaneous collection mostly of objects, 30-36 mostly on writing, and 37-60 on animals.[15] Many are based on the encyclopaedic writing of Isidore of Seville.[6] Tatwine and Eusebius's riddles survive in the same two manuscripts, London, British Library, Royal 12.C.xxiii (early C11) and Cambridge, University Library, Gg.5.35 (mid-C11).

The Lorsch riddles are also thought to have been composed in Anglo-Saxon England.[16]

Example enigmaEdit

An example of an enigma by Aldhelm is his Elleborus, by which word Aldhelm understood not the hellebore, but woody nightshade.[17] It is number 98 in his collection:

Latin original Literal translation Literary translation

Ostriger en arvo vernabam frondibus hirtis Conquilio similis: sic cocci murice rubro Purpureus stillat sanguis de palmite guttis. Exuvias vitae mandenti tollere nolo Mitia nec penitus spoliabunt mente venena; Sed tamen insanum vexat dementia cordis Dum rotat in giro vecors vertigine membra.[18]

Purple-bearing, lo!, I was growing in a field/the countryside, with shaggy/rough/hairy foliage/stalks/branches
similar to a shellfish/purple-fish/purple dye/purple cloth; thus with red murex/purple dye of my berry/red dye
purple blood drips/trickles from the vine-shoots in drops.
I do not wish to take away from the chewer the trappings of life,
nor will my gentle juices/poisons/potions utterly rob him of his mind;
but nevertheless a madness of the heart shakes/agitates/torments him, mad,
while, deranged by giddiness, he whirls his limbs in a circle.[19]
A purple flower, I grow in the fields with shaggy foliage.
I am very similar to an oyster: thus with reddened dye of scarlet
a purplish blood oozes by drops from my branches.
I do not wish to snatch away the spoils of life from him who eats me,
nor do my gentle poisons deprive him utterly of reason.
Nevertheless a certain touch of insanity torments him
as, mad with dizziness, he whirls his limbs in a circle.[20]

The Exeter Book RiddlesEdit

The Exeter Book contains secular and religious poems and other writings, along with a collection of around 94 riddles (scholars debate precisely how many there are because divisions between poems are not always clear). There is speculation that there may once have been, or have been intended to be, 100 riddles in the book, since this would match the Latin collections discussed above. The riddles are all written in alliterative verse, and frequently end with an injunction to 'say what I am called', suggesting that they were indeed recited as verbal entertainment; yet they clearly have diverse origins.[1][21] The Exeter Book riddles can be situated within a wider tradition of 'speaking objects' in Anglo-Saxon culture and have much in common with poems such as The Dream of the Rood and The Husband's Message and with artefacts such as the Alfred Jewel or the Brussels Cross, which endow inanimate things with first-person voices.[22]

The Exeter Book riddles are varied in theme, but they are all used to engage and challenge the readers mentally. By representing the familiar, material world from an oblique angle, many not only draw on but also complicate or challenge social norms such as martial masculinity, patriarchal attitudes to women, lords' dominance over their servants, and humans' over animals.[23] Thirteen, for example, have as their solution an implement, which speaks of itself through the riddle as a servant to its lord; but these sometimes also suggest the power of the servant to define the master.[24] Unlike the Latin Anglo-Saxon riddles, the Old English ones tend not to rely on intellectual obscurity to make the riddle more difficult for the reader,[1] rather focusing on describing processes of manufacture and transformation. The reader must be observant to any double meanings or "hinge words" in order to discover the answer to the riddle.[21][25] The search for answers to the riddles has been addressed at length by Patrick J. Murphy, focusing on thought patterns of the period, but there is still no unanimous agreement on some of them.[26] Some of the riddles are translated from Latin, such as the Leiden Riddle (which is preserved both outside and within the Exeter Book); others seem to have come directly from vernacular tradition.

The Anglo Saxon riddles are notable for their use of compound nouns and adjectives. These word combinations became what could be considered riddles within the riddle itself. They offered a new perspective and would poetically personify their subject.[27]

The majority of the riddles have religious themes and answers. Some of the religious contexts within the riddles are "manuscript book (or Bible)," "soul and body," "fish and river" (fish are often used to symbolize Christ).[1] The riddles also were written about common objects, and even animals were used as inspiration for some of the riddles. One example of a typical, religious riddle is Riddle 41, which describes the soul and body:

A noble guest of great lineage dwells
In the house of man. Grim hunger
Cannot harm him, nor feverish thirst,
Nor age, nor illness. If the servant
Of the guest who rules, serves well
On the journey, they will find together
Bliss and well-being, a feast of fate;
If the slave will not as a brother be ruled
By a lord he should fear and follow
Then both will suffer and sire a family
Of sorrows when, springing from the world,
They leave the bright bosom of one kinswoman,
Mother and sister, who nourished them.
Let the man who knows noble words
Say what the guest and servant are called.[1]
Trans. by Craig Williamson, A Feast of Creatures: Anglo-Saxon Riddle-Songs (1982)

While the Exeter Book was found in a cathedral library, and while it is clear that religious scribes worked on the riddles, not all of the riddles in the book are religiously themed. Many of the answers to the riddles are everyday, common objects. There are also many double entendres, which can lead to an answer that is obscene. One example of this is Riddle 23:

I am wonderful help to women,
The hope of something to come. I harm
No citizen except my slayer.
Rooted I stand on a high bed.
I am shaggy below. Sometimes the beautiful
Peasant's daughter, an eager-armed,
Proud woman grabs my body,
Rushes my red skin, holds me hard,
Claims my head. The curly-haired
Woman who catches me fast will feel
Our meeting. Her eye will be wet.[1]
Trans. by Craig Williamson, A Feast of Creatures: Anglo-Saxon Riddle-Songs (1982)

One of the first answers that readers might think of would be an onion. If the reader pays close attention to the wording in the latter half of the riddle, however, he or she may be led to believe that the answer is a man's penis. Both of these answers are perfectly legitimate answers to this riddle, but one is very innocent where the other is very obscene. Even though some of the riddles contained obscene meanings, that is not to say that the majority of riddles in the Exeter Book were obscene. There were more religious and animalistic riddles than obscene riddles.

Since the riddles were crammed into the pages of the manuscript with hardly any organization, many of the riddles vary in structure. The boundaries between riddles were often unclear and translations are relatively rough.[27] The object of the riddles is generally preserved despite these possible errors. Notably, not a single one of the riddles found in the Exeter book were accompanied with answers. In fact, some remain unanswered to this day, such as Riddle 91:

I am noble, known to rest in the quiet
Keeping of many men, humble and high born.
The plunderers’ joy, hauled far from friends,
Rides richly on me, shines signifying power,
Whether I proclaim the grandeur of halls,
The wealth of cities, or the glory of God.
Now wise men love most my strange way
Of offering wisdom to many without voice.
Though the children of earth eagerly seek
To trace my trail, sometimes my tracks are dim.[1]
Trans. by Craig Williamson, A Feast of Creatures: Anglo-Saxon Riddle-Songs (1982)

Types of riddles in the Exeter BookEdit

According to Archer Taylor,[21] most riddles from the Exeter Book are 'true riddles' and can be placed into five categories:

Nigel F. Barley distinguishes four types:[28]

  • metaphorical riddle
  • joke-riddle
  • riddle of generalisation
  • riddle of negation

List of Exeter Book RiddlesEdit

The Exeter Book Riddles have the following solutions (according to Paull F. Baum), and numbered according to the edition by Krapp and Dobbie.[29]

Solutions (Baum 1963) Numbering (Baum) Numbering (Krapp and Dobbie)
Storm 1 1
Storm 2 2, 3
Bell 35 4
Shield 49 5
Sun 17 6
Swan 21 7
Jay, Jackdaw? Nightingale? 22 8
Cuckoo 20 9
Barnacle Goose 23 10
Wine 18 11
Leather 24 12
Ten Chickens 28 13
Horn 53 14
Badger 29 15
Anchor 57 16
Ballista. Town? 52 17
? 18
Hunting 71 19
Sword 51 20
Plow 32 21
New Year, The 63 22
Bow 46 23
Cock and Hen 69 24
Key 75 25
Book, Bible 43 26
Mead 59 27
Malt Liquor 60 28
Sun and Moon 3 29
Cross 14 30
Bagpipe 44 31
Ship 58 32
Iceberg 6 33
Rake 31 34
Coat of Mail 50 35
Dog 73 36
Bellows 81 37
Bull Calf 26 38
Moon and Day. Hypostasized Death? 4 39
Creation 11 40
? 41
Hunting 70 42
Soul and Body 10 43
Dough 76 44
Churn 77 45
Lot and his Daughters 64 46
Book-moth 42 47
Chalice 15 48
Bake-oven 38 49
Fire 8 50
Quill-pen 40 51
Rain? Siren? Water? 66 52
Battering Ram 47 53
Shirt 78 54
Cross? Scabbard? 13 55
Loom 37 56
Jackdaws, Swallows. Gnats? 19 57
Riding Well 34 58
Chalice 16 59
Reed-pen, Reed-staff 41 60
Gimlet? Poker? 79 61
Bellows 80 62
Beaker? 84 63
Hunting 72 64
Onion 39 65
Creation 12 66
? 67
Running Water 7 68, 69
Shepherd’s Pipe 45 70
? 71
Young Ox 25 72
Lance, Spear 48 73
Moon? Minstrel? Quill-pen? Riddle? 67 74
Onion 74 75
Hen? 27 76
Oyster 30 77
? 78
Horn 54 79, 80
Weathercock 36 81
? 82
Metal 9 83
Water 5 84
Fish and River 62 85
Garlic Seller 61 86
? 87
Antler, Horn, Inkhorn 55 88
? 89
Key 33 91
? 92
Inkhorn 56 93
Creation 94
Jay. Magpie? 68 95

Editions and translationsEdit

Major editions of the Exeter Book riddles are:

  • The Riddles of the Exeter Book, ed. by Frederick Tupper (Boston: Ginn, c1910),
  • Elliott van Kirk Dobbie and George Philip Krapp (eds), The Exeter Book, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936), digitised at
  • Craig Williamson (ed), The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977)
  • Bernard J. Muir (ed), The Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry: An Edition of Exeter Dean and Chapter MS 3501, 2nd edn, 2 vols (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2000)

Major collections of translations are:

  • Paull F. Baum, Anglo-Saxon Riddles of the Exeter Book (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1963),
  • Kevin Crossley-Holland (trans), The Exeter Book Riddles, revised edition (London: Enitharmon Press, 2008)
  • Greg Delanty, Seamus Heaney and Michael Matto, The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation (New York: Norton, 2010)
  • F. H. Whitman (ed and trans), Old English Riddles (Ottawa: Canadian Federation for the Humanities, 1982)
  • Craig Williamson (trans), A Feast of Creatures: Anglo-Saxon Riddle-Songs (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982)

A new collection of scholarly translations of the Exeter Book riddles is being produced in blog form at

Other Old English RiddlesEdit

There are also two Old English prose riddles, surviving of folio 16v in the mid-eleventh-century psalter British Library, Cotton Vitellius E.xviii, made in Winchester, within a short text on secret codes, found among a collection of notes, charms, prayers, and computistical tables.[30]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Black, Joseph, et al., eds. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: Volume 1: The Medieval Period. 2nd ed. Ontario, Canada: Broadview Press,2009. Print.
  2. ^ Dieter Bitterli, Say what I am Called: The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book and the Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition, Toronto Anglo-Saxon Series, 2 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009).
  3. ^ E.g. Patrick J. Murphy, Unriddling the Exteter Riddles (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011), p. 16, citing Glorie and Sorrell.
  4. ^ E.g. Helen Price, 'Human and NonHuman in Anglo-Saxon and British Postwar Poetry: Reshaping Literary Ecology' (unpublished PhD thesis, University of Leeds, 2013),
  5. ^ Andy Orchard, "Enigma Variations: The Anglo-Saxon Riddle-Tradition," in Latin Learning and English Lore: Studies in Anglo-Saxon Literature for Michael Lapidge, ed. by Andy Orchard and Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe, 2 vols (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), I 284-304.
  6. ^ a b c d e Andy Orchard, 'Enigmata', in The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England, ed. by Michael Lapidge, John Blair, Simon Keynes, and Donald Scragg, 2nd edn (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2013), s.v.
  7. ^ Milovanović-Barham, Čelica, 'Aldhelm's Enigmata and Byzantine Riddles', Anglo-Saxon England, 22 (1993), 51-64, doi:10.1017/S0263675100004300.
  8. ^ Whitman, F. H. ‘Medieval Riddling: Factors Underlying Its Development’, Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, 71 (1970), 177–85.
  9. ^ Mercedes Salvador-Bello, 'Patterns of Compilation in Anglo-Latin Enigmata and the Evidence of A Source-Collection in Riddles 1-40 of the Exeter Book, Viator, 43 (2012), 339–374 (pp. 341-46). 10.1484/J.VIATOR.1.102554.
  10. ^ Andy Orchard, The Poetic Art of Aldhelm, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994 does not mention the Corpus Hermeticum.
  11. ^ Mercedes Salvador-Bello, 'Patterns of Compilation in Anglo-Latin Enigmata and the Evidence of A Source-Collection in Riddles 1-40 of the Exeter Book, Viator, 43 (2012), 339–374 (pp. 346-49, 373). 10.1484/J.VIATOR.1.102554.
  12. ^ Lapidge "Tatwine" Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  13. ^ Lapidge "Tatwine" Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England
  14. ^ Mercedes Salvador-Bello, 'Patterns of Compilation in Anglo-Latin Enigmata and the Evidence of A Source-Collection in Riddles 1-40 of the Exeter Book, Viator, 43 (2012), 339–374 (p. 340 n. 3). 10.1484/J.VIATOR.1.102554.
  15. ^ Mercedes Salvador-Bello, 'Patterns of Compilation in Anglo-Latin Enigmata and the Evidence of A Source-Collection in Riddles 1-40 of the Exeter Book, Viator, 43 (2012), 339–374 (p. 373-74). 10.1484/J.VIATOR.1.102554.
  16. ^ Archer Taylor, The Literary Riddle before 1600 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1948), p. 64.
  17. ^ Cameron, M. L. 1985. ‘Aldhelm as naturalist: a re-examination of some of his Enigmata’, Peritia 4: 117–33 (pp. 131–33).
  18. ^ Ehwald, Rvdolfvs (ed.), Aldhelmi Opera, Monumenta Germanicae Historica, Auctorum Antiquissorum, 15, 3 vols (Berlin, 1919), i 144. Accessed from
  19. ^ Alaric Hall, 'Madness, Medication — and Self-Induced Hallucination? Elleborus (and Woody Nightshade) in Anglo-Saxon England, 700–900', Leeds Studies in English, n.s. 44 (2013), 43-69 (pp. 45-46).
  20. ^ Lapidge, Michael and James L. Rosier (trans.), Aldhelm: The Poetic Works (Cambridge, 1985), p. 93.
  21. ^ a b c Lind, Carol. Riddling the voices of others: The Old English Exeter Book riddles and a pedagogy of the anonymous. Diss. Illinois State University, 2007.
  22. ^ James Paz, Nonhuman Voices in Anglo-Saxon Literature and Material Culture (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017), pp. 17-26;
  23. ^ Helen Price, 'Human and NonHuman in Anglo-Saxon and British Postwar Poetry: Reshaping Literary Ecology' (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Leeds, 2014), esp. ch. 2;;
  24. ^ Jennifer Neville, 'The Unexpected Treasure of the "Implement Trope": Hierarchical Relationships in the Old English Riddles', Review of English Studies, 62 [256] (2011), 505-519. doi: 10.1093/res/hgq131.
  25. ^ John D. Niles, Old English Enigmatic Poems and the Play of the Texts, Studies in the early Middle Ages, 13 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2006).
  26. ^ Patrick J. Murphy. 2011. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park: Penn State University Press.
  27. ^ a b Rios, Alberto. Anglo-Saxon Prosody, "Forms of Verse". Fall, 2000.
  28. ^ Nigel F. Barley, "Structural Aspects of the Anglo-Saxon Riddle", Semiotica 10 (2) (1974)
  29. ^ Anglo-Saxon Riddles of the Exeter Book, trans. by Paull F. Baum (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1963),; George Philip Krapp and Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie (eds), The Exeter Book, The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936).
  30. ^ Dieter Bitterli, 'Two Old English Prose Riddles of the Eleventh Century', in Words, Words, Words: Philology and Beyond: Festschrift for Andreas Fischer on the Occasion of his 65th Birthday, edited by Sarah Chevalier and Thomas Honegger (Tübingen: Franke, 2012), pp. 1-11.