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The Exeter Book of Riddles

Riddles tend to be metaphorical (indeed, the trick is to discern what the metaphor signifies) and, in that sense, are somewhat like kennings, where a compound expression such as "sea horse" substitutes for "ship." Riddles either describe an object, challenging the reader to identify what it is, or describe themselves anthropomorphically. This notion of an inanimate object speaking in its own voice can be seen in the Alfred Jewel, the inscription of which reads "Alfred ordered me to be made" or, even more poignantly, in The Dream of the Rood, where the cross itself recounts the crucifixion of Christ.

At the end of the Exeter Book, there are almost a hundred riddles or enigmata, a dozen or so which are considered to be sexual in nature. Their charm is in the use of double-entendre, whereby one answer is suggested but another is meant, the reader teased by an innocuous object disingenuously described.

Riddle 44

A curiosity hangs by the thigh of a man, under its master's cloak. It is pierced through in the front; it is stiff and hard and it has a good standing-place. When the man pulls up his own robe above his knee, he means to poke with the head of his hanging thing that familiar hole of matching length which he has often filled before.

Riddle 25

I am a wondrous creature: to women a thing of joyful expectation, to close-lying companions serviceable. I harm no city-dweller excepting my slayer alone. My stem is erect and tall—I stand up in bed—and whiskery somewhere down below. Sometimes a countryman's quite comely daughter will venture, bumptious girl, to get a grip on me. She assaults my red self and seizes my head and clenches me in a cramped place. She will soon feel the effect of her encounter with me, this curl-locked woman who squeezes me. Her eye will be wet.

Riddle 45

I have heard of a something-or-other, growing in its nook, swelling and rising, pushing up its covering. Upon that boneless thing a cocky-minded young woman took a grip with her hands; with her apron a lord's daughter covered the tumescent thing.

Several other riddles are more ribald still. Their inclusion in the manuscript, which was bequeathed to Exeter Cathedral by Leofric (died 1072), its first bishop, is an indication of the popular respectability of the genre, although one is struck by the images the pious monks must have contemplated as they worked their way to a solution. The Exeter Book is damaged in places and leaves are missing, and it is not possible to know how many riddles it originally contained. There may have been one hundred, although Williamson lists only ninety-one (the numbering varies in different translations). The riddles have no titles or answers; nor is there a consensus as to what some of them describe. But it is this deliberate ambiguity that encourages the reader to see things in a new or different way and to appreciate the paradoxical nature of the world.

Answers: key, onion, dough


What more appropriate image to illustrate the sexual nature of some Anglo-Saxon riddles than this enigmatic scene from the Bayeux Tapestry. The inscription reads "Where a certain cleric and Ælfgyva." Though the event must have been obvious to a contemporary audience, it now is a complete mystery. Whatever happened, the explicitly naked figure in the border suggests a scandal, perhaps Harold's breach of promise to marry one of William's daughters, a betrothal that occurred while he was a guest of the duke.

Ælfgifu ("elf's gift") was the first wife of Æthelred II (the Unready), who later married Emma of Normandy, who assumed the Anglo-Saxon name Ælfgyfa (Ælfgifu) upon her marriage. (She also married Cnut, whose own first wife was named Ælfgifu.) A scandal attached to any of these women would insinuate that their children might be illegitimate and therefore not entitled to the English throne. (John of Worcester, in fact, relates that Ælfgifu of Northampton, the first wife of Cnut, unable to have a child herself, procured one from the concubine of a priest and passed it off as her own.)


References: Anglo-Saxon Poetry (1982) translated and edited by S. A. J. Bradley (Everyman); The Exeter Book Riddles (1993) translated by Kevin Crossley-Holland (Penguin Classics); The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (1977) edited by Craig Williamson.

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