Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

1.14: Anglo-Saxon Riddles

  • Page ID
    8172
  • Dates unknown (probably seventh to eighth century)

    Collections of riddles in Latin date back to the fourth century. Most of the authors are unknown, although the names of a few Anglo-Saxon authors survive: Aldhelm, Tatwine, and Eusebius. The first two were born in the seventh century and died in the eighth century, and the third may have been eighth century. The riddles written in Latin usually had the answer as the title, and they were considered enigmas: logic games that could be quite sophisticated and detailed. The most famous collection of riddles written in Anglo-Saxon are found in the Exeter Book; these riddles, in contrast to the Latin ones, often ask the reader to guess the answer, and no answer is provided. While the topics of the riddles range from animals and natural phenomena to weapons and writing, there are some riddles that contain double meanings (one of them obscene) that demonstrate an earthy sense of humor. Riddles appear to have occupied an important place in Anglo-Saxon culture and beyond. The concept of riddles as a standard game can be found in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (which has numerous Anglo-Saxon borrowings), with the riddle competition between Bilbo Baggins and Gollum.

    1.10.1 Selections from Old English Poems

    I. A Storm

    What man is so clever, so crafty of mind,

    As to say for a truth who sends me a-traveling?

    When I rise in my wrath, raging at times,

    Savage is my sound. Sometimes I travel,

    Go forth among the folk, set fire to their homes

    And ravage and rob them; then rolls the smoke

    Gray over the gables; great is the noise,

    The death-struggle of the stricken. Then I stir up the woods

    And the fruitful forests; I fell the trees,

    I, roofed over with rain, on my reckless journey,

    Wandering widely at the will of heaven.

    I bear on my back the bodily raiment,

    The fortunes of folk, their flesh and their spirits,

    Together to sea. Say who may cover me,

    Or what I am called, who carry this burden?

    II. A Storm

    At times I travel in tracks undreamed of,

    In vasty wave-depths to visit the earth,

    The floor of the ocean. Fierce is the sea

    . . . . . . . the foam rolls high;

    The whale-pool roars and rages loudly;

    The streams beat the shores, and they sling at times

    Great stones and sand on the steep cliffs,

    With weeds and waves, while wildly striving

    Under the burden of billows on the bottom of ocean

    The sea-ground I shake. My shield of waters

    I leave not ere he lets me who leads me always

    In all my travels. Tell me, wise man,

    Who was it that drew me from the depth of the ocean

    When the streams again became still and quiet,

    Who before had forced me in fury to rage?

    III. A Storm

    At times I am fast confined by my Master,

    Who sendeth forth under the fertile plain

    My broad bosom, but bridles me in.

    He drives in the dark a dangerous power

    To a narrow cave, where crushing my back

    Sits the weight of the world. No way of escape

    Can I find from the torment; so I tumble about

    The homes of heroes. The halls with their gables,

    The tribe-dwellings tremble; the trusty walls shake,

    Steep over the head. Still seems the air

    Over all the country and calm the waters,

    Till I press in my fury from my prison below,

    Obeying His bidding who bound me fast

    In fetters at first when he fashioned the world,

    In bonds and in chains, with no chance of escape

    From his power who points out the paths I must follow.

    Downward at times I drive the waves,

    Stir up the streams; to the strand I press

    The flint-gray flood: the foamy wave Lashes the wall. A lurid mountain

    Rises on the deep; dark in its trail

    Stirred up with the sea a second one comes,

    And close to the coast it clashes and strikes

    On the lofty hills. Loud soundeth the boat,

    The shouting of shipmen. Unshaken abide

    The stone cliffs steep through the strife of the waters,

    The dashing of waves, when the deadly tumult

    Crowds to the coast. Of cruel strife

    The sailors are certain if the sea drive their craft

    With its terrified guests on the grim rolling tide;

    They are sure that the ship will be shorn of its power,

    Be deprived of its rule, and will ride foam-covered

    On the ridge of the waves. Then ariseth a panic,

    Fear among folk of the force that commands me,

    Strong on my storm-track. Who shall still that power?

    At times I drive through the dark wave-vessels

    That ride on my back, and wrench them asunder

    And lash them with sea-streams; or I let them again

    Glide back together. It is the greatest of noises,

    Of clamoring crowds, of crashes the loudest,

    When clouds as they strive in their courses shall strike

    Edge against edge; inky of hue

    In flight o’er the folk bright fire they sweat,

    A stream of flame; destruction they carry

    Dark over men with a mighty din.

    Fighting they fare. They let fall from their bosom

    A deafening rain of rattling liquid,

    Of storm from their bellies. In battle they strive,

    The awful army; anguish arises,

    Terror of mind to the tribes of men,

    Distress in the strongholds, when the stalking goblins,

    The pale ghosts shoot with their sharp weapons.

    The fool alone fears not their fatal spears;

    But he perishes too if the true God send

    Straight from above in streams of rain,

    Whizzing and whistling the whirlwind’s arrows,

    The flying death. Few shall survive

    Whom that violent guest in his grimness shall visit.

    I always stir up that strife and commotion;

    Then I bear my course to the battle of clouds,

    Powerfully strive and press through the tumult,

    Over the bosom of the billows; bursteth loudly

    The gathering of elements. Then again I descend

    In my helmet of air and hover near the land,

    And lift on my back the load I must bear,

    Minding the mandates of the mighty Lord.

    So I, a tried servant, sometimes contend:

    Now under the earth; now from over the waves

    I drive to the depths; now dropping from heaven,

    I stir up the streams, or strive to the skies,

    Where I war with the welkin. Wide do I travel,

    Swift and noisily. Say now my name,

    Or who raises me up when rest is denied me,

    Or who stays my course when stillness comes to me?

    V. A Shield

    A lonely warrior, I am wounded with iron,

    Scarred with sword-points, sated with battle-play,

    Weary of weapons. I have witnessed much fighting,

    Much stubborn strife. From the strokes of war

    I have no hope for help or release

    Ere I pass from the world with the proud warrior band.

    With brands and billies they beat upon me;

    The hard edges hack me; the handwork of smiths

    In crowds I encounter; with courage I endure

    Ever bitterer battles. No balm may I find,

    And no doctor to heal me in the whole field of battle,

    To bind me with ointments and bring me to health,

    But my grievous gashes grow ever sorer

    Through death-dealing strokes by day and night.

    VII. A Swan

    My robe is noiseless when I roam the earth,

    Or stay in my home, or stir up the water.

    At times I am lifted o’er the lodgings of men

    By the aid of my trappings and the air above.

    The strength of the clouds then carries me far,

    Bears me on its bosom. My beautiful ornament,

    My raiment rustles and raises a song,

    Sings without tiring. I touch not the earth

    But wander a stranger over stream and wood.

    VIII. A Nightingale

    With my mouth I am master of many a language;

    Cunningly I carol; I discourse full oft

    In melodious lays; loud do I call,

    Ever mindful of melody, undiminished in voice.

    An old evening-scop, to earls I bring

    Solace in cities; when, skillful in music,

    My voice I raise, restful at home

    They sit in silence. Say what is my name,

    That call so clearly and cleverly imitate

    The song of the scop, and sing unto men

    Words full welcome with my wonderful voice.

    XIV. A Horn

    I was once an armed warrior. Now the worthy youth

    Gorgeously gears me with gold and silver,

    Curiously twisted. At times men kiss me.

    Sometimes I sound and summon to battle

    The stalwart company. A steed now carries me

    Across the border. The courser of the sea

    Now bears me o’er the billows, bright in my trappings.

    Now a comely maiden covered with jewels

    Fills my bosom with beer. On the board now I lie

    Lidless and lonely and lacking my trappings.

    Now fair in my fretwork at the feast I hang

    In my place on the wall while warriors drink.

    Now brightened for battle, on the back of a steed

    A war-chief shall bear me. Then the wind I shall breathe,

    Shall swell with sound from someone’s bosom.

    At times with my voice I invite the heroes,

    The warriors to wine; or I watch for my master,

    And sound an alarm and save his goods,

    Put the robber to flight. Now find out my name.

    XV. A Badger

    My throat is like snow, and my sides and my head

    Are a swarthy brown; I am swift in flight.

    Battle-weapons I bear; on my back stand hairs,

    And also on my cheeks. O’er my eyes on high

    Two ears tower; with my toes I step

    On the green grass. Grief comes upon me

    If the slaughter-grim hunter shall see me in hiding,

    Shall find me alone where I fashion my dwelling,

    Bold with my brood. I abide in this place

    With my strong young children till a stranger shall come

    And bring dread to my door. Death then is certain.

    Hence, trembling I carry my terrified children

    Far from their home and flee unto safety.

    If he crowds me close as he comes behind,

    I bare my breast. In my burrow I dare not

    Meet my furious foe (it were foolish to do so),

    But, wildly rushing, I work a road

    Through the high hill with my hands and feet.

    I fail not in defending my family’s lives;

    If I lead the little ones below to safety,

    Through a secret hole inside the hill,

    My beloved brood, no longer need I

    Fear the offense of the fierce-battling dogs.

    Whenever the hostile one hunts on my trail,

    Follows me close, he will fail not of conflict,

    Of a warm encounter, when he comes on my war-path,

    If I reach, in my rage, through the roof of my hill

    And deal my deadly darts of battle

    On the foe I have feared and fled from long.

    XXIII. A Bow

    My name is spelled AGOB with the order reversed.

    I am marvelously fashioned and made for fighting.

    When I am bent and my bosom sends forth

    Its poisoned stings, I straightway prepare

    My deadly darts to deal afar.

    As soon as my master, who made me for torment,

    Loosens my limbs, my length is increased

    Till I vomit the venom with violent motions,

    The swift-killing poison I swallowed before.

    Not any man shall make his escape,

    Not one that I spoke of shall speed from the fight,

    If there falls on him first what flies from my belly.

    He pays with his strength for the poisonous drink,

    For the fatal cup which forfeits his life.

    Except when fettered fast, I am useless.

    Unbound I shall fail. Now find out my name.

    XXVI. A Bible

    A stern destroyer struck out my life,

    Deprived me of power; he put me to soak,

    Dipped me in water, dried me again,

    And set me in the sun, where I straightway lost

    The hairs that I had. Then the hard edge

    Of the keen knife cut me and cleansed me of soil;

    Then fingers folded me. The fleet quill of the bird

    With speedy drops spread tracks often

    Over the brown surface, swallowed the tree-dye,

    A deal of the stream, stepped again on me,

    Traveled a black track. With protecting boards

    Then a crafty one covered me, enclosed me with hide,

    Made me gorgeous with gold. Hence I am glad and rejoice

    At the smith’s fair work with its wondrous adornments.

    Now may these rich trappings, and the red dye’s tracings,

    And all works of wisdom spread wide the fame

    Of the Sovereign of nations! Read me not as a penance!

    If the children of men will cherish and use me,

    They shall be safer and sounder and surer of victory,

    More heroic of heart and happier in spirit,

    More unfailing in wisdom. More friends shall they have,

    Dear and trusty, and true and good,

    And faithful always, whose honors and riches

    Shall increase with their love, and who cover their friends

    With kindness and favors and clasp them fast

    With loving arms. I ask how men call me

    Who aid them in need. My name is far famed.

    I am helpful to men, and am holy myself.

    XLV. Dough

    In a corner I heard a curious weak thing

    Swelling and sounding and stirring its cover.

    On that boneless body a beautiful woman

    Laid hold with her hands; the high-swelled thing

    She covered with a cloth, the clever lord’s daughter.

    XLVII. A Bookworm

    A moth ate a word. To me that seemed

    A curious happening when I heard of that wonder,

    That a worm should swallow the word of a man,

    A thief in the dark eat a thoughtful discourse

    And the strong base it stood on. He stole, but he was not

    A whit the wiser when the word had been swallowed.

    LX. A Reed

    I stood on the strand to the sea-cliffs near,

    Hard by the billows. To the home of my birth

    Fast was I fixed. Few indeed are there

    Of men who have ever at any time

    Beheld my home in the hard waste-land.

    In the brown embrace of the billows and waves

    I was locked each dawn. Little I dreamed

    That early or late I ever should

    With men at the mead-feast mouthless speak forth

    Words of wisdom. It is a wondrous thing,

    And strange to the sight when one sees it first

    That the edge of a knife and the active hand

    And wit of the earl who wields the blade

    Should bring it about that I bear unto thee

    A secret message, meant for thee only,

    Boldly announce it, so that no other man

    May speak our secrets or spread them abroad.

    1.10.2 Reading and Review Questions

    • If there were no answers in the titles, which riddles would be the most difficult to guess, and why?
    • What do we learn about Anglo-Saxon culture from the riddles? What details and ideas do the riddles expect the audience to know?
    • Why do you think that the answers for the Anglo-Latin riddles are in the titles? What does that tell us about the intended audience?
    • Which of the riddles has a double meaning? Compare it to another of the “obscene” Anglo-Saxon riddles (easily found online). What seems to be to most common theme?
    • Look at the riddles used during the riddle game in Tolkien’s The Hobbit. How do they compare to the riddles found here?
    • Was this article helpful?