Hazel Brewer

copyright 2000

Old English riddles are generally short, puzzle-like poems in which the reader is invited to identify an object, animal, natural phenomenon or process which is described in a mysterious and sometimes playful way. Those riddles that survive are found in the Exeter Book, one of the four Poetic Codices written between 975 and 1025. The exact number of riddles is a matter of scholarly opinion, with some editors claiming there are 90 (e.g. Williamson) and others as many as 96 (Crossley-Holland 10), depending on how they choose to separate the text. The riddles cover a fairly broad range of subjects which reflect some of the concerns of life in Anglo-Saxon England. Some depict weaponry and warlike matters; others, items and processes (such as bookmaking) related to life in the monasteries. Several riddles describe aspects of the natural world: natural phenomena, personified animals, and plants; yet others describe household objects, farming implements and other trappings of everyday life in a primarily agricultural society (Crossley-Holland 12-14).

The riddles, like all puzzles that encourage people to see things in a new or different way, could no doubt play a role in training the mind, and those riddles dealing with scholarly or religious matters must, by the nature of their content, have served a certain educational role. Indeed, that riddles can perform a reputable intellectual function can be seen in the riddlelike qualities found in many examples of Old English Wisdom Literature, such as the Maxims I and II and Solomon and Saturn II (Johnson 642). Nevertheless, the primary purpose of the Old English riddles appears to be to entertain the reader, who is challenged (explicitly or otherwise) to identify the speaker or, if the mysterious subject is not the speaker, the "creature" described (Orchard 171). Sometimes the solution is obvious, in which case the pleasure might arise from the simple charm of seeing a familiar object presented in an unusual, clever or metaphorical way. Other times, two possible solutions are built parallel to each other -- in about a dozen cases the secondary solution is "obscene" -- and it is up to the reader to decide which solution is the "right" one (Wilcox 393). Some of the riddles’ solutions are lost in obscurity, and it is important to note that for several of the poems even the commonly accepted solution is by no means certain: the Exeter Book does not provide an answer key!

The majority of the riddles vary in length from about eight lines to over a hundred; some are considerably shorter, and there are even a few that are only one line long. They are constructed of four-stress lines with at least two of the stresses alliterated. The language tends to the formal, featuring many compound words and kennings, a kind of metaphorical description (e.g. the sea might be "the swan’s riding-place" or "the ship’s road" ) (Crossley-Holland 8, 15). Within these poetic parameters, however, the riddles vary considerably in literary sophistication and style, from the simple catchword-type riddle which relies on wordplay, through riddles made of straightforward descriptions of the subject’s attributes, to more sophisticated riddles which go beyond simply challenging the reader and portray the object within a framework that leads the reader to consider grander themes or issues. For example, the battle-scarred shield of riddle 5 draws the mind to the plight of the wounded, hopeless, and battle-weary (Whitman 47)-- the riddle leads the reader from thoughts of the inanimate subject to a consideration of a very human experience.

The Old English riddles are often compared with the Anglo-Latin enigmata poems of Aldhelm, Tatwine and Eusebius, and to a certain extent to their Late Latin predecessor, Symphosius. While the two genres are comparable in that they are both made up of riddles, which often share the same subject matter, the Latin poems differ in tone, focus (more to educate than to entertain) and in the fact that they are presented as coherent collections by known authors (Orchard 171). There is no doubt that the enigmata influenced some of the vernacular riddles (numbers 35 and 40, specifically, are direct translations of two of Aldhelm’s poems) (Orchard 171; Whitman 122), but the general extent of this influence is debatable. The similarities that many of the Old English riddles are said to bear to the enigmata might indicate a conscious imitation of these sources, or they might just as easily bespeak the use by writers of both genres of a similar traditional or popular source (Whitman 110).

The authorship and dating of the riddles is also largely a matter of scholarly contention. For a period in the nineteenth century, many academics believed that all of the Exeter Book riddles were the work of one eighth-century poet, Cynewulf; this theory has since been almost unanimously discredited, although linguistic clues suggest that some of the riddles do date to the eighth century (Crossley-Holland 10). The sheer variety of styles, poetic sophistication and subject matter suggest multiple authorship; nevertheless, textual, linguistic and stylistic arguments aside, given the nature of the manuscript evidence -- passed to us through the medium of a scribe -- it seems unlikely that most specific questions of authorship or dating will ever be answered beyond a doubt.

Uncertain authorship, uncertain dates, uncertain numbers and uncertain solutions -- the Old English riddles are riddles in more ways than one. As they challenge us with their "What am I?", we might honestly reply, "What, indeed?"


There are several editions of the Exeter Book riddles available; many editions come with a useful introduction and notes, the riddles translated into Modern English, and solutions (!) to the riddles. Some suggestions:

Crossley-Holland, Kevin (trans. and ed.). The Exeter Riddle Book. London: The Folio Society, 1978.

This illustrated edition is a translation of most of the riddles -- those that the editor deems too badly corrupted to include in his main text, he has reprinted, in translation, in his notes.

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

Note that in this edition the poems are not translated for us; however, the editor does provide an Old English glossary for our benefit.

Secondary Sources

Godden, Malcolm and Michael Lapidge, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Hacikyan, Agop. A Linguistic and Literary Analysis of Old English Riddles. Montreal: Mario Casalini Ltd, 1966.

Johnson, David F. "Riddles, Old English." Medieval England: And Encyclopedia. Eds. Paul E. Szarmach, M. Teresa Tavormina and Joel T. Rosenthal. New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1998.

Orchard, Andy. "Enigmata." The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England. Eds. Michael Lapidge et al. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1999.

Whitman, F. H. Old English Riddles. Ottawa: Canadian Federation for the Humanities, 1982.

Wilcox, Jonathan. "Riddles, Old English." The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England.