Commentary for Exeter Riddle 65


Date: Thu 17 Aug 2017
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 65

Riddle 65’s commentary is once again by Judy Kendall, Reader in English and Creative Writing at Salford University. Take it away, Judy!


The generally accepted solution to this riddle is Onion, although Moritz Trautmann argued for Leek or Chives. We know that the early English knew their onions. One proof of this is the first Onion riddle in the Exeter Book, the rude lewd Riddle 25. Physical evidence of onion-growing is trickier to find, since onions are small and their tissues, once deteriorated, leave little trace. However, we do know that the Romans grew onions because of onion bulb-shaped holes left in Pompeii gardens and carbonized onions in Pompeii kitchens (there’s a picture of these in Meyer, page 412 – free to read online with a MYJSTOR account).

There is even an onion, white and ash-like, named the Pompeii onion:

Fig 2 Pompeii Onion
Photo (by ayngelina) from Flickr (license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

All this is relevant (to an extent) because we also know that the Romans took onions on journeys to the further reaches of their empire, including Britain, and doubtless grew them there.

Riddle 65 offers a much more polite take on this vegetable than Riddle 25. That said, the two riddles share marked similarities. Frederick Tupper noted how both refer to loss of head and confinement in a narrow place (page 124), and Patrick Murphy points out that both recall traditional riddles of torture in their use of rapid-fire enumerations of various kinds of suffering (pages 223-4). Such “series of tortures” lists surface elsewhere in the Exeter Book too, as in the heart-aching opening list of actions inflicted upon an animal – skinned, stretched and scraped – in order to produce the vellum of Riddle 26’s book.

Riddle 65 also evokes an onion in its use of artful alliteration. The riddle’s striking aural effects are spiky, piquant, biting, even “attractively staccato,” as Kevin Crossley-Holland has it (page 105). Such effects not only describe an onion’s taste and smell, but also replicate onion skins, circling in layers through and around the riddle. Echoing and interlocking, they repeat back to themselves – just like an onion does. This layering effect is also evident in the recurrence of selected words and phrasal structures, as in the unusual use of parallel antithetical clauses in the same half line (line 2a).

In short, if you know your onions, you soon realize Riddle 65 is much more of an onion than a leek or chive. Its features are oniony: distinctive “biting” taste and smell, layered rings of skin – a palimpsest of interconnecting elements, effects on digestion, bulbous bulbs and the opportunities that these afford for bunching in “fetters.”

Red onions hanging in shop

Photo (by Xemenendura) of bunching onions from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 4.0).

These all fit so much better with the riddle’s sounds, structure and allusions to head, body and bite, than the slimmer milder attributes of the bulbless leek that, for my money, there isn’t really a contest between the two. Apologies, leek…

Gentle Leek Poem
The author’s composition in Edible Poetry

In the Old English, these clues are embedded in the complex repeating onion-like patterns that extend aurally across the lines. The modern English translation proffered here attempts to keep something of these aural and structural onion clues. Thus, the hard-sounding bite of “cw” of line one is reciprocated in modern English with “qu.”

The repeated use of “cw,” or “qu,” constitute acts of artful alliteration, a term Andy Orchard defines as the use of sound cleverly combined with meaning for overall effect. The “cw” or “qu” marks life – cwico (quick/life), and death – cwele (quelled/death). These two states are thus both linked and contrasted. This is most striking in the Old English where “cw” heads each half-line in line 1, and where the alliteration is picked up again in line 2 with the use of cwom, which constitutes a second reference to life. In the modern English line 2, “came” provides a much weaker echo of the “qu” sound, so “qu” is also inserted in the last word of the second half of that line, as part of “quarry,” another possible allusion to death. This helps sustain the effect of the original doubly and interlinearly alliterative “cw,” bleeding across from one line to the next.

Initially, in line 1, the riddle suggests that death follows life. The advent of death does not seem very remarkable to us, so it is odd that the poet chooses þeah or seþeah (nevertheless/but/yet) to introduce it. However, the parallel antithetical clauses of the first half of line 2 help to explain this emphasis on oddity. Line 2 opens with an allusion to life followed, presumably, by death: Ær ic wæs, but this is then immediately followed by a similarly structured reference to life (eft ic cwom). Life, followed by death, followed once again by life. Peculiar, since, for humans anyway, death tends to be terminal.

Craig Williamson notes that such an arrangement of clauses within the same half line is very unusual in Old English verse – “highly, perhaps deliberately, eccentric” (page 331). He sees it as an indication of a poet who has “radical ideas about breaking the rules of Old English metre” (page 332). Such a deliberate act of rebellion is asking us to pay close attention to these lines. Here, it suggests, is an embedded clue. The half line indicates regular renewal, a life-death-life-death-life-death cycle. Recurring death constitutes a departure from normality in human experience, but not so for onions.

Thus, these unusually-placed antithetical clauses point us definitively away from reading the subject as human towards a focus on the plant world, on onions perhaps. Onions metamorphose from bulb to fully-grown onion and then back again to bulb. These references to the paralleling and continual sequencing of life and death are reinforced by the positioning, sounds and structural phrasings in both line 1 and 2: line 1’s opening life (Cwico waes ic) matches line 2’s opening death (Ær ic wæs); the phrases are knit even more closely together by the use of alliterated “w”s and repeated ic’s; the similar sounding ic efne/eft ic of lines 1 and 2 also serve this purpose. Everything seems to circle and repeat.

In lines 3 and 4, the riddle continues to tease us with apparent illogicalities of sequence. The somewhat bizarre list of abuses and torture places experiences of being bitten and broken after what for a human would surely be the worst fate of all – decapitation. Double alliteration continues to be employed within each line and parallel phrasing and repeated sounds and words across them, again artfully reminding us of the onion’s cyclical life and circular skin. Most notably, in lines 3 and 4, the words mec on/min/mec on/mine link back to the mec in line 2, as well as pushing forwards to the me/mec, in lines 5 and 6, and culminating in the use of “m” as the alliterative link in the last lines – more repetitious circular effect. In addition, the riddle’s initial cross-alliterative pattern is reprised and hyped up in lines 4-5-6, with repeated references to the “biter bitten” motif, a commonplace in early English riddles, and, as many have observed, constituting a strong echo of the mordeo mordentes of Symphosius’s Latin onion riddle (Enigma 44).

Riddle 65 colour coded sounds.png
Some of the repeated sounds, colour-coded – there are more!

Is the poet just showing off? Or is there something else to consider. Why the repetition of me? Does it suggest self-obsession? If so, it contrasts oddly with the apparent argument of the last lines, in which the violence of human consumers seems to be starkly compared to the reasonable restrain of the meek and gentle onion – a view that the fruitarians and raw foodies of today would find sympathetic perhaps. The onion only bites in self-defence, unlike the aggressive behaviour of its human attackers.

However, just as the skins of the onion are shed to reveal more onion skin, so this poem’s emphasis on “bite” digs deeper than might first appear. We seem to be reading about the bite of man, but the sounds and repetitions of the words in which this is articulated forcefully bring home the bite of the onion. It might not be the first to bite but this does not negate its ever-ready aggression which is communicated through the biting sound that runs throughout the riddle as well as through the repeated alliteration of “bite” at the riddle’s end. The onion may present itself as a meek mild victim but its spiky voice, and the repeated emphasis on me me me, suggest otherwise.

In this regard, it is pleasing to discover an Old English riddle keeping abreast of developments in modern science. In 2008, the New Scientist reported Annika Paukner and Stephen Suomi’s discovery that monkeys grow more solitary and aggressive after washing with onions (Kaplan)! The onion, as Riddle 65 declares in both sound and sense, is both assertive (me me) and aggressive: ready and ripe for a fight, whether full-on or more covertly, as in the sneakily indirect effect of the emphasis of the very last line. This appears to stress the many bites of the human consumer. However, since the previous line has just established that any human act of violence will engender an onion’s retaliation, it also sets up the onion with equally as many opportunities of biting.

Alternatively, just to put a further onion in the works, onions are also beneficial. Pliny the Elder catalogued, before succumbing to the volcanic eruption near Pompeii, the curative properties of onions in relation to vision, sleep, mouth sores, dog bites, toothaches, dysentery and lumbago (National Onion Association). Recent scientific research reveals that they have a proven efficacy in the case of asthma (Elmsley).

I could really splurge on onions now by noting how the spikey staccato effects created by alliteration, word order and phrasing give a good impression of difficulty in breathing, gradually evening out in later lines. But better not – wouldn’t want you to think I’ve completely lost my onions.


References and Suggested Reading:

Crossley-Holland, Kevin, trans. The Exeter Book Riddles. London: Enitharmon, 2008.

Emsley, John. “Onions Run Rings around Chemists.” New Scientist (30 September 1989)

Kaplan, Matt. “Onion Washing Gets Monkeys in a Lather.” New Scientist (21 July 2008).

Meyer, Frederick G. “Carbonized Food Plants of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the Villa at Torre Annunziata.” Economic Botany, vol. 34, issue 4 (1980), pages 401-37.

Murphy, Patrick J. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011.

National Onion Association. “History of Onions” (2011).

Orchard, Andy. “Artful Alliteration in Anglo-Saxon Song and Story.” Anglia, vol. 113, issue 1 (1995), pages 429-63.

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. Isidorean Perceptions of Order: The Exeter Book Riddles and Medieval Latin Enigmata. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2015.

Taylor, Archer. English Riddles from Oral Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951.

Tupper, Frederick Jr. The Riddles of the Exeter Book. Boston: Ginn, 1910.

Williamson, Craig. The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book. Chapel Hill: University of North Caroline Press, 1977.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 65  judy kendall 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 71


Date: Mon 11 Dec 2017
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 71

This week’s commentary post is once again by Judy Kendall, Reader in English and Creative Writing at Salford University. Off we go!:


Yet again another riddle with a hole in it, or several holes. Immediately, you’d expect the riddle to become more of a riddle for us twenty-first century would-be riddle-solvers: distance of time, language, cultural context compounded by lack of text. However, the situation is complicated further by the riddleless nature of this particular riddle. For many, the solution seems quite obvious, easy, “un”-riddle-like – the majority plump for Sword or Sword-hilt. There is not much evidence of the “decoding process” of false leads or indirect clues that Mercedes Salvador-Bello has noted occurring in so many riddles (page 39). Not that there hasn’t been disagreement. Other suggested solutions, as listed by Craig Williamson, include Cupping-glass, Iron Helmet, Iron Shield, Bronze Shield, Dagger, or “iron, first in the ore, then made into a weapon” (page 340). We can also add Phyllis Portnoy’s reading of Retainer, or a warrior in service to a lord, although, as we shall see, this is by no means her only solution.

But are we missing something? Of course we are – several letters and words in the last few lines. And the temptation is to add them in, like icing.

Riddle 71 Piping_buttercream_onto_cake

Photo (by Michael Prudhomme) from Wikipedia Commons (license: CC-BY-SA-3.0).

In this context, it is well worth heeding Williamson’s stern warning: “The doctoring of legitimate Old English passages to bolster one’s solution is not a sound editorial practice” (page 342). He was referring to Moritz Trautmann’s amendment of yþan to ywan in line 7, so as to fit his solution of Shield. It has to be said, however, that Williamson himself goes as near as can be not to follow his own advice, making keen use of his typographical eye to inform us in his footnotes to Riddle 71 of what might be, or is, just visible in the illegible areas of the manuscript (page 107):

  • 69.7: Two spaces before fe the tip of an ascender is visible.
  • 69.8: After bi either þ or l.
  • 69.10: The last letter of word preceding wlite has a long descender.

If that is not an invitation to fill in the gaps, then what is?

Plenty of other scholars have joined in the fun, as Portnoy, in her excellent piece on this riddle, notes when she lists the various ways different editors have glossed lacunae in the riddle. She also registers the difficulties created by apparent simplicity in riddle solutions which then seem too easily solved and not therefore sufficiently “clever” for the riddle genre.

This tendency to try and add in the missing words, rather than dealing with what is left does not bode well for the riddle. If the lines are so predictable that we are able to supply what is missing ourselves, this suggests not only a riddleless riddle but a rather poor poem. Portnoy acknowledges this, and sees her task as that of rescuing this and similar riddles (5, 20, 56 and 91) from such a fate. She accomplishes it admirably.

Her argument in the case of Riddle 71 – and you would do well to look her piece up yourself rather than rely on this rather skimpy gloss – is that the role of the Old English laf and the animate-inanimate associations it can call up (“what is left,” “remnant,” “survivor,” “widow,” “treasure,” “heirloom”, “sword,” “relic”) lead in fact to impressively complex readings. It is in this complexity that the artistry of Riddle 71 lies, mirroring the metalwork of the object it describes, whether this be a sword, sword-hilt, or indeed something else. Portnoy draws an analogy with the effects of a kenning (a poetic device that involves a compressed, often compounded, metaphor): “while the referent may be obvious, the point may be not so much to mystify the reader, but to present the familiar in an unusual way” (page 557).

She also emphasises an inclusiveness in reading. Thus, the reade of line one can refer not only to a victim’s blood, but also to red-gold decoration and to garnets, all of which might cover a sword or a retainer. In addition, reade, with its association with fire, prepares for a possible reference in the next lines to forges and the act of forging, another favoured interpretation.

Indeed, just to indulge in a short aside, for Kevin Crossley-Holland, iron forged into a weapon is the interpretation. He does not include this riddle in the main body of his collection, in which he decided to avoid “very badly damaged or impossibly obscure” riddles, but does still give space in his notes both for a translation of the riddle and a short commentary upon it (page xv). In his translation, he begins line 2 as “Once I was a tough, steep place,” and informs us that A. J. Wyatt’s description of this riddle as “iron, first in the ore then made into a weapon” is unlikely to be bettered, with line 2 referring either to the blade or the precipitous site from which it was quarried (page 107).

Portnoy, however, keeps her options open. She draws on Williamson and Frederick Tupper, Jr. in her reading of line 2’s stið ond steapwong, which she sees as comprising a number of readings: the ground from which iron ore is mined, the homeland of the warrior, the metal sides or “cheeks” of the warrior’s helmet or sword “face,” and/or indeed the channel running down the centre of a sword blade.

Riddle 71 Gilling Sword
Photo of the 9th-century Gilling Sword (by York Museums Trust Staff) from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 4.0)

References to what is inanimate and animate continue through the riddle as the sword/retainer meets its match – another sword or a warrior bearing gold. Thus, says Portnoy, “the subject’s identity, while perhaps simple to discover, is indeed complex to contemplate: “a laf “heirloom” which is a laf “remnant” of a laf “sword” which is a laf “survivor” (of the forge) confronts his match—either a human laf “survivor” (of a battle), or another equally compounded inanimate laf” (page 560).

Read in-depth, Portnoy’s argument is coherent, detailed and convincing. It is certainly helpful when grappling with the riddle’s apparent simplicity, but I am not convinced her approach allows us to see the whole picture. How could it? Surely the riddle’s credentials as a riddle cannot depend upon Portnoy’s or anyone else’s intricate analysis, as long as we are not working from the full text. The question for me therefore, particularly as a translator, is how to approach such a text in a way that acknowledges and respects its lacunae – how to avoid that temptation to “add in”.

Patrick Murphy’s Unriddling the Exeter Riddles points the way, though he does not refer to Riddle 71 explicitly. His argument, which builds on work by A. J. Wyatt and Archer Taylor, rests on the claim that the Exeter riddles are descriptions of objects that are intended to be both accurate and misleading, suggesting as solutions something entirely different to the apparently obvious descriptions.

In other words, what we see as an obvious solution may be a metaphor or a pointer to something else. Constrained perhaps by the gaps in the text, perhaps by our lack of cultural and contextual knowledge, we might be completely missing the boat. We read the riddle in a literal way because a more allusive interpretation eludes us, an interpretation that might perhaps be closer to hand if we had those missing words. Suspecting this to be the case, I welcomed Williamson’s stern warning as a guide to my own process of translation of the poem. I had initially chosen this riddle to translate because I thought it would be fun to attempt to write the missing ending lines, but, in the event, I decided, for the reasons given above, not to hazard any guesses at reconstructing those lost words. In this I follow not only Williamson’s warning and Murphy’s argument but the creative practice of John Porter. Porter’s principle when translating fragments, as he took the trouble to note in the introduction to his Anglo-Saxon Riddles, was “to translate only words which are entire, and to omit unintelligible letters and groups” (page 8). He worked with the words he could see, not the ones he couldn’t.

So, without making a commitment to any of the potential solutions other scholars have proffered, I also focused on the words we have been left. As much as possible I tried to leave open whether the riddle refers to a sword, sword-hilt, iron, retainer, warrior, spear…or even perhaps a caterpillar (well probably not caterpillar).

Riddle 71 Caterpillar
Photo (by Vengolis) from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 4.0)

Rather than closing down the options, I looked for translation choices that would keep them open. I wanted to hold on to those ambiguities because I suspect that none of the solutions that have been suggested are exact. Portnoy would agree with this perhaps, but also I wanted to leave open the possibility that there is a solution out there, but one that no one has come across.

Such thoughts affected many of my word choices. So, “clothed” was arrived at because it can refer to both object and person; “a hard and high promontory” fits the description of a piece or land or quarry but can also act as a metaphor for a retainer or even a sword blade; “the leavings of fury” allows us to keep the ambiguities in laf that Portnoy has highlighted – a suggestion of both victim and victor. As my choice of “hard” might already indicate, I also suspected the riddle included some sexual innuendo. This led me to replace the more obvious “weeps” with “groans” in line 5. Murphy helped me to this line of thinking with his analysis of the double meaning of wæpen in Riddle 20 (sword/penis), and his reference to the sexually-charged image of “rings” in traditional riddling (page 61 and 74). This awareness informed a number of my other word choices as well. I’ll leave you to spot which ones.

When it came to the fragmented ending I allowed myself some indulgence:

  • (a) not to be bound by a desire to make complete sense – if the fragments make perfect sense there would be no need for the missing words;
  • (b) to work with alliteration across the fragments we have, instead of within the lines we do not have. Why? Just because I can, but also because it binds the riddle, gives it a sense of coherence, while still retaining, through the gaps in sense/content, our awareness of those missing parts.

The relationship between the speaker/object and master seems to run through the riddle. It is referred to in line 1, possibly implied again in the “held fast” of line 4, and comes up again with the dryhtne min of the penultimate line. Additionally, as Williamson points out, the reference to rings also alludes to this: “Anglo-Saxon swords were sometimes adorned with rings or ring-knobs to symbolise liege-lord relationship – ring-sword” (page 198). Such a relationship is reflected in my translation of dryhtne min as “master of mine,” rather than, say, to “my master.” Because “master of mine” separates the two words beginning with “m,” it gives that alliterated “m” a little bit more space on the line, on the page and in the ear. Additionally, this phrase allows us to see the two (the “master” and “me”) as separate entities, which indeed they are in the poem, as well as being closely bound, whether in opposition or in thrall. I like the way the preposition “of” that separates these two words also binds them, suggesting a complex interdependency.

Such a suggestion also fits with the other curious interaction referred to in lines 5 and 6 between “he who groans/bears gold” and the one who grips or embodies the grip. In line 6, I deliberated over the possible selection of “at my grip,” which is a more colloquial way of phrasing, but decided to stick with the dictionary-accurate “before my grip.” It may sound a little unfamiliar to us but this unfamiliarity reminds us, albeit subliminally, that we don’t have full access to the riddle. Limited access is of course the case with any Old English riddle given that they were set and formulated so long ago, but the limitations are all the more pronounced with fragmented works. The words “before my grip” also, pleasingly, allow for an alliterative connection with “bears,” thus emphasising the double meaning of “bears” – as in carrying, but also enduring or suffering. The twinning of “bears” with “before” hints at the sense in “bears” of “bearing down,” as would happen when succumbing “before” a grip or when attempting to vanquish a grip that appears “before” one. Once again, in either case, a complex interaction of relationships is indicated here.

I was very happy to come up with “make good the face” – a great example of lack of perfect sense. What does it mean? We have no real idea. This allows us to hear in the translation the gaps left by those missing words. It also binds with the alliterated “m”s in the vicinity of “make” and allows an evocation of the wlite (or fair-faced flowers) of line 3, as also happens in the original. In addition, “make good the face” suggests a reversal of values or of appearance, a theme that also seems to run through the riddle, and, possibly, a righting of wrongs, or appearance of righting at any rate.

Thus, the gaps and lacunae provide us with the riddle we have left, and in our attempts to be faithful to this, we too could consider being left content with a riddle solution that is both attacker and victim, inanimate and animate. We could recognise what we have – the fragment we work with now, but also what we do not have – the riddle as it stood with Old English riddlers. I am haunted by Murphy’s allusion to Savely Senderovich’s survey of folk riddle research, in which he “concludes that solutions are “to be known” rather than to be guessed or induced by adding up the clues” (Murphy, page 33; quoting Senderovich, pages 19-20). This echoes the ethnographer John Blacking’s observation in his notes on riddle-telling in the Northern Transvaal: “Whenever someone knew a riddle well he answered it pat, as if the answer was an integral part of the question” (Blacking, page 5; quoted in Heller-Roazen, page 66). In the case of Riddle 71, that “known” or “pat” element seems to be something which we 21st-century riddle-solvers do not share. Perhaps we simply stand too far away – the riddle perpetrating and perpetuating riddling down the ages…..


References and Suggested Reading

Blacking, John. “The Social Value of Venda Riddles.” African Studies, vol. 20, issue 1 (1961), pages 1-32.

Crossley-Holland, Kevin, trans. The Exeter Book Riddles. London: Enitharmon, 2008.

Heller-Roazen, Daniel. Dark Tongues: The Art of Rogues and Riddlers. New York: Zone Books, 2013.

Muir, Bernard J.  The Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry. 2 vols. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1994.

Murphy, Patrick J. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011.

Porter, John, trans. Anglo-Saxon Riddles. Hockwold-cum-Wilton: Anglo-Saxon Books, 1995 and 2013.

Portnoy, Phyllis. “Laf-Craft in Five Old English Riddles (K-D 5, 20, 56, 71, 91).” Neophilologus, vol. 97 (2013), pages 555–79.

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. “Direct and Indirect Clues: Exeter Riddle No.74 Reconsidered.” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, vol. 99 (1998), pages 17-29.

Senderovich, Savely. Riddle of the Riddle: A Study of the Folk Riddle’s Figurative Nature. London: Kegan Paul, 2005.

Taylor, Archer. English Riddles from Oral Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951.

Tupper, Frederick, Jr. The Riddles of the Exeter Book. Boston: Ginn, 1910.

Williamson, Craig. The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977.

Wyatt, A. J. Old English Riddles. Boston: D.C. Heath, 1912.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 71  judy kendall 

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Exeter Riddle 81


Date: Thu 27 Sep 2018
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 81

Judy Kendall, Reader in English and Creative Writing at Salford University, returns with a translation of Riddle 81.

Original text:

Ic eom byledbreost,      belcedsweora,
heafod hæbbe      ond heane steort,
eagan ond earan      ond ænne foot,
hrycg ond heardnebb,      hneccan steapne
ond sidan twa,      sag[ol]* on middum,
eard ofer ældum.      Aglac dreoge,
þær mec wegeð      se þe wudu hrereð,
ond mec stondende      streamas beatað,
hægl se hearda,      ond hrim þeceð,
[.]orst […..]eoseð,      ond fealleð snaw
on þyrelwombne,      ond ic þæt [.]ol[………..
………..] mæ[.]      wonsceaft mine.


I am bulging-breasted, big-throated;
I have a head and my tail is elevated,
eyes and ears and a single leg,
a spine and stiff beak, a stretched-out neck
and two sides, with a stake up the middle,
my place set high above the people. I put up with the strain
when that which shakes the wood strikes me,
and streaming rain sluices over me standing,
harsh hail and rime hood me
frost grips, and snow falls
on my hollow stomach; and I so …
….… measured my misfortune

Click to show riddle solution?
Weathercock, Ship, Visored helmet


This riddle appears on folio 127v of The Exeter Book.

The above Old English text is based on this edition: Elliott van Kirk Dobbie and George Philip Krapp, eds, The Exeter Book, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936), page 235.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 77: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), page 111.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 81  judy kendall 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 81


Date: Mon 01 Oct 2018
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 81

This week’s commentary post is once again by Judy Kendall, Reader in English and Creative Writing at Salford University:

“Weathercock” is the generally accepted solution to this riddle, although alternatives include “ship” and “visored helmet.”

Sutton Hoo Helmet

A photo of the reconstructed Sutton Hoo Helmet taken by Judy Kendall.

We know weathervanes existed long before this riddle was in circulation. Indeed, references have been made to weathervanes mounted on buildings centuries earlier, in the 1st-century De Architectura, by the Roman author and architect Vitruvius. However, the idea of a weathercock is more recent. The oldest surviving weathercock is the early 9th-century Gallo di Ramperto in the Museo di Santa Giulia, Brescia, Italy:


Photo (by RobyBS89) from Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

And the 9th century is when Pope Nicholas decreed that all church towers bear a “tower-cock” as a symbol of vigilance, and perhaps a reminder of Peter’s three times denial of Jesus before the cock crew.

This relatively recent arrival of the weathercock is also suggested by its etymology. Craig Williamson reports the earliest Germanic word for “weathercock” as 12th-century, no known Latin word before the 13th century, and the first English occurrence in the 13th century (1977, pages 361-2). So, while weathervanes are more ancient, this riddle refers to a new “weathercock” technology. Hence, the opening emphasis on the cock’s physical attributes and construction.

In a number of ways, this riddle falls into two halves. The tone and content of the second half of the riddle contrasts markedly with that of the first. It is as if the weathercock itself has turned in the wind, with a distinctive shift in rhythm and sounds. The first half reads jerkily and is almost clumsy or awkward, like the uncomfortable circumstances of the riddle’s subject – unable to move of its own volition, with swollen breast and throat and stretched tail and neck all building towards a picture of unpleasant prison-like constraint.

Photo (by Stanzilla) of a weathercock on the church Saint-André in Appeville-Annebault from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 4.0).

John Porter translates the first line’s byledbreost, belcedsweora as the wonderful and very earthy “bulge-breasted, belch-throated” (page 111). I adapt this to “bulging-breasted, big-throated,” so as to emphasise that sense of discomfort more. For similar reasons I select “spine” not “back” as a translation of line 4’s hyrcg, evoking a hard, bony length rather than the broader, flatter attributes of a “back.”

The “sacrum” of a young fowl in the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica from Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

I also opt for a “stretched-out” neck rather than one that is “protruding,” “prominent,” “long,” or, in Porter’s case, the unusual but perhaps slightly too beautiful “sheer.”

Such emphasis on discomfort contrasts with Patricia McCarthy and Kevin Crossley-Holland’s translations. In The Word Exchange, McCarthy uses line 2 and 4 to express exuberance: “I’m blessed with a noble head, swaying tail” and “I’ve a grand long neck” (page 503). In Crossley-Holland’s collection, his weathercock takes time to boast of his “fine head,” a double entendre possibly hovering here (page 75). But a sense of discomfort is more in tune with earlier conventions, as Patrick Murphy notes:

“A rapid-fire listing off of sufferings [is] strongly reminiscent of patterns we see elsewhere in oral traditional riddles … [I]t shows up again and again in the Exeter Book, where innumerable suffering riddle creatures endure the process of manufacture from raw material to useful product” (page 224).

In the first half of the riddle, the cock’s suffering, “stretched-out” and “elevated,” is passive. External forces have placed it where it is.

Riddle 81 1911_Britannica_-_Bayeux_Tapestry_-_Funeral_of_Edward1
A cock being installed on the new Westminster Abbey as depicted in the 11th-century Bayeux Tapestry (on the right hand side of the image) from Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

This strong sense of containment and confinement informed my decision to make use of the doubly-binding effect of alliteration and end-rhyme in the riddle’s first half. However, the demands of these end-rhymes have resulted in the somewhat compromised translation of “foot” as “leg,” so any improvements gratefully received….

There is an inescapable innuendo in sag[ol] on middum, whether it be seen as a “rod,” “pole,” “shaft,” “stake” or a “stick” (poor cock). I went for “stake” since this evokes both impalement and punishment at the stakes, and allows it to provide a somewhat hidden link to the last line’s “misfortune” (i.e. “stakes of fortune”). This fits, in reverse, with the incipient wordplay of the last line’s wonsceaft (misery or misfortune), which holds within its bounds the word sceaft (pole). So is that uncomfortable stick up the cock’s middle connected to its misery, becoming unstuck in the last line ( – thanks to Phyllis Wick of the Old English Companions for the “stick”/“unstuck” wordplay)? It certainly brings the attention back to sag[ol], surely a key indication of the weathercock’s identity.

Photo (by Stanzilla) from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 4.0).

The poem’s hinge at line 6 is not only marked with significant changes in rhythm, sound patterns and tone, but with changes in syntax and sentence parts, and an increase in direct action. The preponderance of nouns in the first half of the riddle transform into a series of active, aggressive verbs. The cock remains passive but, as if turning on its stake, is actively attacked with very physical misfortunes. The staccato list of body parts is replaced by a mellifluous syntactical flow through lines that articulate an apparently continuous stream of troubles. This is particularly evident in line 7. Hence my choice in modern English of internal rhymes, “strain” both prefiguring and looping into the streaming rain of line 8. Together they evoke both that inflexible pole up the cock’s middle, and the fluid non-stop battering of heavy rain.


Further actions perpetrated upon the bird are listed in lines 8-10, with the role of the weather definitively established in the references to haegl, hrim, [f]orst and snaw in lines 9 and 10.

While the lines become both smoother and more active, they also visibly recede in time for the modern reader. The gaps in the manuscript mean we are uncertain if the frost is freezing or falling – [fr]eoseð or, as Frederick Tupper suggested, [hr]eoseð (page 220)? It is true that “hreoseð” does not appear near frost in the Old English corpus. However I prefer it, because it avoids the tautological “freezing frost” (albeit a tautology attested elsewhere in the OE poetic corpus; see Maxims I, line 71a: Forst scealfreosan “Frost must freeze”) (full translation here).

McCarthy, Crossley-Holland and Porter all avoid that tautology too, although none of them opt for “fall,” presumably for the same reasons as me – that it is hard for the modern mind to accept frost as falling. McCarthy goes for “coats,” and Crossley-Holland for “attacks,” but Porter’s choice, “settles,” is the neatest. It not only works as an ornamental alliteration with “snow,” but manages to retain the downward motion of “falls,” while avoiding the conflict with current scientific understanding of how frost is formed. However, because “settles” normally applies to snow, and snow is the next item described, I go for “grips.” This does not indicate downward motion but does evoke well the riddle’s opening emphasis on hard, difficult conditions.

Photo (by Michelepenner) of rime crystals on a fence after freezing fog from Wikimedia Commons (license: CC BY-SA 3.0).

The many missing parts of the last two lines of the riddle leave the translator and reader’s options open. Porter’s principle was “to translate only words which are entire and to omit unintelligible letters and groups” (page 8):

and frost settles, and snow falls
on me with my pierced belly, and I
my misery.

McCarthy and Crossley-Holland guess. Crossley-Holland, as if in response to the active and aggressive weathering the cock endures, refers to it as deliberately withholding action, the action being a reciprocal pouring out of misery:

        snow half-hides me,
I must endure all this, not pour out my misery. (page 75)

McCarthy makes a much stronger allusion to song. Perhaps mimicking the trajectory of Riddle 7, her translation here ends with a reference to the bird’s call. The cockadoodledo-ing might also suggest betrayal, as in Peter’s denial of Jesus. This possible analogy with Peter or indeed with Christ’s passion has been noted by Williamson (2011, page 201):

    snow buries me. I must hold up,
refrain from cockadoodledo-ing my misery. (McCarthy, page 503)

However, reference to the sound or crowing of the weathercock could also be an allusion to a peculiar feature of its construction. The 1340 weathercock on the spire of the Devonshire parish church of Ottery St Mary was designed to make use of sound in its measurement of the wind. Its hollow copper tubes are intended to whistle as air passes through them, although they are now blocked off for the sanity of the nearby residents.

My translation assumes that the missing parts of the riddle contain some reference to the weathercock’s function, namely its role as a device to measure the force and direction of the wind and weather that it confronts. To achieve this, I read the fragmented , which Williamson notes is possibly followed by the letter “g” or “t,” as mæt (meted, appraised or measured). Such a reference acts as a final definitive clue, and it also fits the poem’s trajectory, since the bird’s function can only be carried out once it has been affected by the weather.

The bird’s passivity still remains. McCarthy’s bird “refrains,” Porter’s does “not” pour, and, while my cock’s movement allows measurement to take place, this movement is instigated not by the cock but by the wind. However, perhaps the cock can be seen as a more active figure. In the 10th century, Wulfstan of Winchester refers to the way a rooster on top of Old Minster at Winchester actively turns itself in wind,

Imperat et cunctis euectus in aera gallis
et regit occiduum nobilis imperium.
Impiger imbriferos qui suscipit undique uentos
seque rotando suam prebet eis faciem
(page 388, lines 199-202)

(Thus raised aloft this noble fowl commands all other birds and rules the western domain. It is eager to receive the rainy winds from all directions and, turning itself, it offers its face to them) (page 389).

Does the distinctive turn in the middle of the riddle suggest something of this, the lines, the syntax, and the bird itself, only becoming alive and sonorous in that interaction, however painful, with the wind? Or is it the case that, even if the cock can be considered as turning itself, the emphasis on action still lies elsewhere, with measurement of that turn taken not by the cock but by us, as observers, listeners, readers, riddle-solvers, whether we are aiming to assess the wind, a range of riddle solutions, or indeed the extent of turbulence and misery the bird in question suffers. The bird thus becomes a landmark, a wind-mark, and indeed a riddle mark, as Wulfstan also describes:

A longe adueniens oculo uicinus adheret,
figit et aspectum dissociante loco.
(page 389, lines 207-8)

(Someone coming from afar off fastens on it, once in its vicinity, with his eye and, though still far off, fixes his sights in that direction.) (page 389)

Now of course that someone is us – far distant into the riddle’s future. The new technology of the weathercock is now old, and the written riddle so worn that we can no longer make out all the words. We can’t really travel back there, weathercock or no. However, if we fix our sights upon that weathercock, fragmented though it is through the mists (or streaming rain) of time, we are able to guess at some of its features as we stare.


References and Suggested Reading:

Crossley-Holland, Kevin, trans. The Exeter Book Riddles. London: Enitharmon, 2008.

Harris, Alexandra. Weatherland: Writers and Artists under English skies. London: Thames & Hudson, 2016.

Maitland, Karen. “The Cockerel That Whistled.” The History-Girls Blogspot. 8 October, 2004.

McCarthy, Patricia. “Look at My Puffed-Up Breast.” The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation. Edited by Greg Delaney and Michael Matto. London: W. W. Norton, 2012.

Murphy, Patrick J. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2011.

Needham, A. English Weathervanes: Their Stories and Legends from Medieval to Modern Times. London: Pryor, 1953.

Porter, John. Anglo-Saxon Riddles. Hockwold-cum-Wilton: Anglo-Saxon Books, 1995 and 2013.

Tupper, Frederick, Jr. Riddles of the Exeter Book. Boston: Ginn, 1910.

Vitruvius. On Architecture [De Architectura]. Edited and translated by Frank Grainger. 2 vols. Loeb Library Series. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1931-34.

Williamson, Craig, ed. and trans. Feast of Creatures: Anglo-Saxon Riddle-Songs. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2011.

Williamson, Craig. The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977.

Wulfstan of Winchester. Preface to his “Life of St Swithun.” Translated by Michael Lapidge, in The Cult of St Swithun. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.


Featured image at top of page (by Bill Nicholls) from Wikimedia Commons (license CC BY-SA 2.0)

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 81  judy kendall 

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Exeter Riddle 92


Date: Wed 02 Dec 2020
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 92
Judy Kendall, Reader in English and Creative Writing at Salford University, returns with a translation of Riddle 92.

Original text:
Ic wæs brunra beot,       beam on holte,
freolic feorhbora       ond foldan wæstm,
weres wynnstaþol       ond wifes sond,
gold on geardum.       Nu eom guðwigan
hyhtlic hildewæpen,       hringe beg...
...e...       byreð,
I was the boast of red-brown things, a bough in a forest
flourishing life-giver and fruit of the soil
stock of man’s merry-making and woman’s love missive
gold at the hearth. Now I am a hero’s
exultant battle-arm, with a ring
    to another.
Click to show riddle solution?
Beech, Beech-wood Shield, Beech Battering Ram, Ash, Book, Oak


This riddle appears on folio 130r of The Exeter Book.

The above Old English text is based on this edition: Elliott van Kirk Dobbie and George Philip Krapp, eds, The Exeter Book, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936), page 241.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 88: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), page 118.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  judy kendall  riddle 92 

Commentary for Exeter Riddle 92


Date: Thu 03 Dec 2020
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 92

Judy Kendall, Reader in English and Creative Writing at Salford University, has provided Riddle 92’s commentary, including a new solution to the riddle. Take it away, Judy!

There have been various solutions to this riddle. While a number keep to the theme of beech (“beech,” “beech-wood shield,” “beech battering ram”), we also have “book,” and Ferdinand Holthausen’s initial suggestion of “ash.” Craig Williamson records that A. J. Wyatt read it as the Old English bōc, “beech with its several uses, and book,” and the tendency since then has been for riddle solvers to select “beech” rather than another kind of tree, linking it to “book” as Wyatt does (page 391). This is largely because of the record of pigs enjoying beechmast in line 107 of Riddle 40 where a boar is observed “rooting away” in a beech-wood. So, the argument goes, in line 1 of Riddle 92, “brown” or “red-brown” must indicate pig while “boast” clearly alludes to the beechmast that it is snuffling up.

However, there are other brown or red animals that also feast on forest tree produce. Red squirrels come to mind. Here’s a really nice picture of one:


Photo (by 4028mdk09) from Wikimedia Commons (licence CC BY-SA-3.0).

Squirrels also eat hazelnuts and acorns. In fact the Old English for squirrel is ācweorna, not that dissimilar to áccærn or áccorn, the word for nuts or “mast” of both beech and oak (ac), so there could perhaps be an intentional allusion to a squirrel gorging on a feast of nuts. After all ácweorran means "to guzzle or glut," and here is a red squirrel about to guzzle an acorn (not that we need proof that they love nuts!).

Squirrel on ground

Photo (by Klearchos Kapoutsis) from Wikimedia Commons (licence CC BY 2.0).

Still, we shouldn’t forget the pigs. So here is an 1894 painting of pigs rooting for beechmast:

Pigs rooting for beechmast

From William Sharp’s Fair Women in Painting and Poetry (1894, page 181), via Wikimedia Commons (no known copyright restrictions).

And an excellent little film of a whole row of pigs cracking and eating hazelnuts – spot the red-brown ones:

So boast or beot could refer to the red coat of a squirrel or the brown skin of a pig. However, it could also allude to a red-brown carpet of beechnuts, or indeed, acorns. See the glorious russet colours they create here:

Wet beech bark

Wet beech bark: Trees alongside the Gloucestershire Way in the Forest of Dean. Photo (by Jonathan Billinger) from Wikimedia Commons (licence CC BY-SA 2.0).

Who wouldn’t want to boast of that? Here’s an acorn carpet too:

Acorn carpet

White oak (Quercus alba) acorns - one prolific tree can nearly cover the ground in a good year. Duke Forest Korstian Division, Durham North Carolina. Photo (by Dcrjsr) from Wikimedia Commons (licence CC BY 3.0). (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

When Williamson dissects Wyatt’s argument for "beech," he stresses the way the riddle seems to turn on the homonymic uses of the word bōc – that is, as referring to both “book” and “beech” (page 391). Strictly speaking, the etymological connection between the two may be in doubt, but it is feasible that Old English speakers would have seen and heard them as linked, and, as Williamson argues, beech is also connected to books in the form of writing on beech-bark.

However, should we be content with beech? We have already mentioned the nuts of both the hazel and the oak, and certainly, the oak’s magnificent broad crown and reddish-brown or golden autumn leaves fit the celebratory description of many of the lines, while the hazel, too, similarly glorious in autumn, would also provide a possible match. So I would like to suggest "oak" as a new solution to this riddle, as well as urging you to consider the possibility of "hazel" too.

To this end, I will now work through the riddle as if the answer was “beech” and then recast it with an oak in tow, plus a few references to hazel thrown in along the way. Let's see where we get to.

One strong impression I had when approaching this riddle as a poet-translator is its continuous untiring celebration of a tree’s transformative journey in every line. Right from the word “go,” even down in the mud as pig or squirrel fodder, we have beot or “boast.” We have already noted how this could fit the description of an oak or hazel in autumn, and indeed it does also fit the image of a large handsome beech, resplendent in glorious gleaming yellow or orange autumn foliage, surrounded by a carpet of rich russet-coloured beechnuts. Perhaps this riddle is less of a beech teaser and more of a beech feaster:

Burnham Beeches

Watercolour painting by Myles Birket Foster from Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

More celebratory references occur in the next line which describes other, wider forms of fine or noble nourishment. A sense of exultation gleams through line 3’s focus on forms of pleasure, possibly in book, or beech-bark, form, and we can see why such a bark might be chosen and celebrated in this picture of beautiful grey smooth beech:

Beech bark

Photo of beech bark (by Jonathan Billinger) from Wikimedia Commons (licence CC BY-SA 2.0).

Note, however, that the tree’s transformation into book occurs halfway through the riddle. It is therefore just a stage on the tree’s journey, not its final destination. This throws doubt on the suggestion that “book” constitutes the answer to the riddle. Instead, it would seem that “book” is just a part of the process, as the tree, and riddle, works towards its solution.

Indeed, does an assessment of which tree is intended really help us solve the riddle? My first thought when looking at this riddle was that it is far too obviously about a tree to be actually referring, in a riddle-like way, to a tree. We riddle, surely, to confuse. If the solution is a kind of the tree, then the usual translation of the second half of line 1 as “tree in the forest” seems a bit much. Surely that kind of obvious hint should be saved till later – till the last line perhaps (a line of course to which we no longer have much access).

Observations like these are partly why I have allowed myself to translate beam as “a bough” rather than “tree,” making it more riddle-like, as well of course as facilitating alliteration.

Frederick Tupper, Jr. describes this riddle a series of kennings, compound descriptions that transform into each other on the way to a final manifestation of the original tree, whatever kind of tree that may be (page xciv).

However, for the moment, on with the beech! For me, the reference to gold in line 4 could evoke a chest of treasure, or the warming gold of flames of a beech-log fire. It could be the gilded decorations on a book, perhaps a book valued like gold. I even see the glinting gold of the beech leaves in the last chilly days of autumn:

Golden beech leaves

Photo of golden beech leaves (by Jonathan Billinger) from Wikimedia Commons (licence CC BY-SA 2.0).

But let us place such imaginings against the reference Tupper picks out in line 8 of Riddle 20, with its very similar gold ofer geardas referring to the making of a sword. Perhaps, in our current riddle, the tree is at this point being turned into the exultant battle-weapon that, after the hiatus of the middle of this line, both closes the end of this line and opens the next. In that next line, we have moved on to a heightened moment, as we are presented with the heroic warrior’s joyful battle-weapon. This, whether it be battering ram or shield, could be the final transformation of the tree and therefore the solution to the riddle, particularly since byreð (bears) and oþrum (to another) – the words still visible in the largely obliterated last lines – could be references to carrying, defending or attacking in battle.

But is it a beech battering ram, a beechwood shield, or another kind of wood? Let’s consider oak. As noted earlier, like the beech, the oak too can be glorious:

Oak tree

Photo of oak tree near the Teign (by Derek Harper) from Wikimedia Commons (licence CC BY-SA 2.0).

So of course can the hazel tree, and both oak and hazel produce catkins and nuts - sources of protein for squirrels and birds – “flourishing life-givers” indeed. And here I am going to give the hazel tree a little look-in as I think this photograph really suggests that life-giving element well:

Common Hazel

Photo of Common Hazel fruits (by H. Zell) from Wikimedia Commons (licence CC BY-SA 3.0).

However, oak is more prized for its strength and density, and therefore stands up better in terms of the references to nourishment, stability and power in lines 2 and 3. As for the wifes sond (woman’s love missive), here oak for me also trumps beech: oak galls were used as the main ingredient in writing ink at this time and oak bark was also used by tanners to tan the leather that formed the vellum of manuscripts. I more easily imagine “gold at the hearth” as an allusion to a strong oaken chest of treasure than a chest made of beech. It could of course also allude to the decoration of a manuscript; oak, like beech, makes great gold flaming firewood; and oak, perhaps more than beech, could at this point be in the process of being fashioned into a weapon. Battering rams were typically made of oak, ash or fir, although I am not sure if they would have included gold, as perhaps a shield might. However, while a shield is used in defence, what more celebratory, joyful or “exultant” weapon can there be than the thrusting battering ram?

Well, in the end, there’s no clear answer – because of course we have, to this riddle, no end. Whether it refers to beech, oak, hazel or book, what seems clear is that this riddle is tracking, and celebrating, a tree’s metamorphosis through a series of kenning-like phrases – and that perhaps (given the last lines, which presumably hold the essential clue, are practically obliterated), it is only appropriate that we do not know for sure what the tree’s final transformation is. Indeed, if this is a good riddle, such an uncertainty in our knowledge and our guessing would seem fitting. Otherwise those last invisible words become redundant...and no poet worth the name wants redundancy.


References and Suggested Reading:

Crossley-Holland, Kevin, trans. The Exeter Book Riddles. London: Enitharmon, 2008.

Porter, John. Anglo-Saxon Riddles. Hockwold-cum-Wilton: Anglo-Saxon Books, 1995 and 2013.

Tupper, Frederick, Jr. Riddles of the Exeter Book. Boston, Ginn, 1910.

Williamson, Craig, trans. The Complete Old English Poems. Penn State University Press, 2017.

Williamson, Craig. The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book. Chapel Hill: University of North Caroline Press, 1977.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  judy kendall  riddle 92 

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