Four Old English riddles

Numbers 44, 47, 73, and 85 from The Exeter Book, in Michael Alexander’s translation from The Earliest English Poems (and following W.S. Mackie’s numbering). His introduction to this section is also worth repeating so it is given in part beneath the riddles. (Proposed) solutions are at the bottom.

Swings by his thigh a thing most magical!
Below the belt, beneath the folds
of his clothes it hangs, a hole in its front end,
stiff-set & stout, but swivels about.

Levelling the head of this hanging instrument,
its wielder hoists his hem above the knee:
it is his will to fill a well-known hole
that it fits fully when at full length.

He has often filled it before. Now he fills it again.

I heard of a wonder, of words moth-eaten;
that is a strange thing, I thought, weird
that a man’s song be swallowed by a worm,
his binded sentences, his bedside standy-by
rustled in the night – and the robber-guest
not one white the wiser for the words he had mumbled.

I was in one hour an ashen crone
a fair-faced man, a fresh girl,
floated on foam, flew with birds,
under the wave dived, dead among fish,
and walked upon land a living soul.

Many were met, men of discretion
wisdom and wit, when in there walked ….

Two ears it had, and one eye solo,
two feet and twelve hundred heads,
back, belly, a brace of hands
a pair of sides and shoulders and arms
and one neck. Name, please.

From Alexander’s introduction:

It will be remembered that in Genesis ‘ the Lord God, having formed out of the ground all the beasts of the earth and all the fowls of the air brought them to Adam to see what he would call them: for whatsoever Adam called any living creature the same is its name.’ This is literally true, for from this primordial Naming all modem nouns and hence the language we speak are descended. Language is the chief means o f human communication, and it is the gift of language that distinguishes us from the beasts. The novelty of the riddle is that by making a beast speak or depriving it of its name we render it unrecognizable. The subject of the riddle, animal, vegetable, or mineral, usurps the human prerogative of speech, and, naturally enough, takes a non-human point of view. The effect of this is a dislocation of perspective similar to that achieved in the modem theatre by the device known as alienation: a good riddle puzzles and can even be mildly frightening, simply because we do not know what it is that is speaking. The feeling o f bafflement grows when we are confronted by a riddle to which no solution has been found. The effect of being asked a riddle by someone who lived eleven hundred years ago is already disconcerting; but not to know the answer is frankly embarrassing. The riddle surprises by presenting the familiar through a non-anthropomorphic lens: the result is strange and beautiful, or delightful, or simply pathetic, but it almost always has the special, rather odd, intensity peculiar to the form.
People in Anglo-Saxon times, living uncomfortably close to the natural world, were well aware that though creation is inarticulate it is animate, and that every created thing, every wiht, had its own personality. Though the forces of earth, air, and water were not regularly propitiated or invoked, an awareness of the old methods of sympathetic identification seems to have lingered on, by habit and instinct, in the arts, and certainly in the art of poetry, as is clearly shown by the few charms that remain, corrupt though their texts may be.
The riddle is a sophisticated and harmless form of invocation by imitation : the essence of it is that the poet, by an act of imaginative identification to which Vernon Lee gave the name ‘empathy,’ assumes the personality o f some created thing – an animal, a plant, a natural force. Some element o f impersonation is involved in any creative act, but by performing this particular ventriloquism the poet extends and diversifies our understanding of – or at least our acquaintance with – the noumenous natural world , of whose life, or even existence, modern men arc becoming progressively more unaware. This operation is salutary, and may be said to have a religious value.

And solutions:
44. a key
47. a bookworm
73. unknown (Alexander proposes a Siren). Here’s commentary from Paull Franklin Baum’s Anglo-Saxon Riddles of the Exeter book:

One guess is Siren; another Water. If the latter, one would rather say Rain: a gentle shower, a heavy downpour, in the sea its natural form (its life) is lost; a little imagination can see it as hail walking on the ground. A third solution is offered by Mrs. von Erhardt-Siebold (Medium Ævum xv [1946], 48–54), comparing Frag. 117 of Empedocles:

Once I was a young man, maiden,
plant, bird, and mute fish cast ashore.

This, of course, is not a riddle, but an expression of cyclic metamorphosis. Just how an Anglo-Saxon came to know Empedocles is not clear.

85. a one-eyed garlic seller

2 thoughts on “Four Old English riddles

  1. That’s pretty good actually. I’d also sort of toyed with a light-based answer but my ‘reflection’ falls apart in the last couple of lines. This is what Craig Williamson does with it in his recent Complete Old English Poems.

    I was a young maiden, a gray-haired woman,
    And a singular warrior at the same time.
    I flew with birds and swam in the sea,
    Dove under waves, dead among fish,
    And stood on the shore—locking in a living spirit.

    And gives the following as commentary:
    Uncertain. This riddle has given the riddle-solvers fits. Among the proposed solutions are Ship, OE “Ac” (Oak, Ship), Ship’s Figurehead, Sun, Whooper Swan, Sea Eagle, Water Bird, Barnacle Goose, Siren, Soul, Cuttlefish, Rain, Water, Writing, and Reflection or Shadow. The quill, for example, might dip in and out of the sea of ink and fly through the air to the shore of the page; the water might soar as clouds, fly as rain, make war as ice, dive as a sea- stream, and run on the shore as a river. The ship (in many ways the most likely solution) would charge the waves like a great warrior, swoop through the air and dive through the spray, stand up on the shore as part of a beached boat.

    Williamson’s rendering of the final line seems – from my sadly fragmentary understanding of Old English – much closer to literal.

    ond on foldan stop, haefde ferth cwicu

    ‘stop’ he takes more directly as ‘stood’ over Alexander’s ‘walked’. And where Alexander leaves ‘haefde’ implied (‘walked upon land [having] a living soul) he gives it direct expression.

    Of course there might be some circularity in his translating to make it fit his preferred answer.


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