Five Old English Riddles

Manuscript: The Exeter Book. Edition: Krapp, George Philip, and Elliot Van Kirk Dobbie, eds. The Exeter Book. ASPR 3. New York: Columbia UP, 1936. Several other separate editions and several translations of the riddles are available. Note: The Exeter Book contains in all ninety-five riddles or fragments of riddles in two groups (10-59, 60-95). The riddles vary considerably in cleverness and interest. Some are bawdy, some pious. Some use runic characters to reveal (to the initiate) the solution. Some personify the solution, some do not. The five riddles translated here are chosen for variety’s sake, though they by no means cover the field. My translations are fairly close; I have worked out obscure passages silently. Solutions: 14, Horn; 16, Anchor; 26, Vellum book, probably a rich gospel codex; 47, Book-Moth; 60, Reed, used for a reed pen.


I was weaponed warrior. Now proud, young,
a warrior covers me with silver and gold,
with curved wire-bows. Sometimes men kiss me;
sometimes I summon pleasant companions
to war with my voice. Sometimes steed bears me5
over the marchland; sometimes a mere-steed
bears over oceans me brightly adorned.
Sometimes a maiden fills ring-adorned bosom;
sometimes on tables, on hard boards,
headless I lie, despoiled by the warriors.10
Sometimes I hang with jewels adorned
where men drink, fair on the wall,
noble war-trapping: sometimes folk-warriors
on steed carry me – then must I wind
swallow, wealth-marked, from somebody’s bosom.15
Sometimes with calls I warriors invite,
proud ones to wine; sometimes from cruel ones
with voice I restore booty, from raiders,
make fiend-scathers flee. Guess me!


Oft must I with wave strive and with wind fight,
together against them contend, when I depart seeking
wave-covered earth; foreign is land to me,
I am strong for that strife if I become still;
if I fail of that, they are stronger than I,5
wish to carry away the thing I protect.
I withstand that if my tail holds out
and stout stones can hold me
fast against them. Guess what I’m called.


Some fiend deprived me of life,
took away world-strength, wet me afterward,
dipped me in water, did so again,
set me in sun, where I soon lost
hairs that I had. Hard edge of knife5
afterward cut me, scraped me clean.
Fingers folded me, and me fowl’s joy
throughout with good drops made tracks enough,
over bright border, swallowed the beam-dye,
travelled swart-tracked. One clothed me after10
with boards for protection, covered with hide,
decked me with gold; then on me glistened
rare smith’s work, surrounded with wire.

Now those ornaments and that red dye
and those glories widely proclaim15
helm of multitudes, not foolish pains.
If sons of men wish to enjoy me,
they are the safer, by that more victorious,
in heart the braver, and blither of thought;
wiser in spirit, they have friends the more,20
dearer and nearer, more honest and good,
better and truer. Then their fame and happiness
increase they with favors, and cover themselves
with kindness and grace, and with love’s embrace
they clasp themselves fast. Learn what I’m called,25
advantage to men. My name is great,
useful to men, and myself holy.


Moth ate words. It seemed to me
a curious chance, when that wonder I learned,
that the worm forswallowed some man’s song,
thief in darkness the glorious speech
and its foundation. Thievish guest was 5
no whit the wiser for swallowing words.


I was by sound, near seawall
at seashore; securely I dwelt
in my first place. Few of mankind
beheld there my dwelling alone,
but each dawn the dark wave5
in sea’s embrace closed me. Little I thought
that I, ere or since, ever should
over mead-bench mouthless speak,
weave words. A wondrous lot,
in mind amazing to uncunning one,10
how knife’s point and right hand,
man’s thought together with point,
purposely cut me, so that I with thee
for us two alone errand-speech
should boldly announce, so that no more of men15
the words of us two more widely might tell.

Translation copyright © 1982, Jonathan A. Glenn. All rights reserved.