Puneet Varma (Editor)

Anglo Saxon riddles

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Author  F. H. Whitman
Copyright date  1982
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Similar  Exeter Book, Dream of the Rood, The Seafarer, Vercelli Book, The Battle of Maldon

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 riddles and found in the tenth-century Exeter Book, while the pre-eminent 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.

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'. Much past work on the Old English riddles has focused on finding and debating solutions, but a new wave of work has started using riddles as a way to study Anglo-Saxon world-views through the critical approaches of eco-criticism.

Anglo-Latin enigmata

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. 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.

Apparently inspired by the hundred Aenigmata of Symphosius, along with Byzantine literary riddling, the Anglo-Saxon aristocrat, scholar, abbot and bishop Aldhelm composed his own collection of a hundred (hexa)metrical enigmata. 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. 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. 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. 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'. Aldhelm may have known the passage through his teacher Hadrian.

    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).

    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. 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) 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. Many are based on the encyclopaedic writing of Isidore of Seville. 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.

    Example enigma

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

    The Exeter Book Riddles

    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.

    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. 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. 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, 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. 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. 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.

    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). 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. 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. 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. 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. Trans. by Craig Williamson, A Feast of Creatures: Anglo-Saxon Riddle-Songs (1982)

    Types of riddles in the Exeter Book

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

  • the true riddle
  • the neck-riddle
  • the arithmetical puzzle
  • the clever question
  • the conundrum (joke riddle)
  • Nigel F. Barley. distinguishes four types:

  • metaphorical riddle
  • joke-riddle
  • riddle of generalisation
  • riddle of negation
  • List of Exeter Book Riddles

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

    Editions and translations

    Major editions of the Exeter Book riddles are:

  • The Riddles of the Exeter Book, ed. by Frederick Tupper (Boston: Ginn, c1910), https://archive.org/details/riddlesofexeterb00tuppuoft
  • 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 http://ota.ox.ac.uk/desc/3009
  • 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), https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Anglo-Saxon_Riddles_of_the_Exeter_Book
  • 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 [1].


    Anglo-Saxon riddles Wikipedia

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