Riddled with Riddles

Another off-day, and that means another foray into Old English. We have written before about how much Anglo-Saxon writers and speakers loved to employ riddles, but we only focused on the kennings, or mini-riddles you need to quickly solve to understand much of their prose and poetry. Today, we have our favorite riddle for you to solve. Better yet, this riddle has a very close tie to Northumbria, where we are based. We’ll post the scholarly-accepted answer at the end of our Sunday post, but don’t be afraid to think outside the box! Give us your best guesses in the comments below, or on our Facebook or Twitter link to this post.

exeter book

The Exeter Book, 10th C home to over 90 riddles in Old English, MS 3501, Exeter Cathedral Library.

The following riddle has an interesting history, as it appears to be an Old English translation of an Old English translation of one of Aldhelm’s “enigmata.” The “enigmata” are Latin riddles the Wessex-born scholar, abbot, bishop, and poet produced in the late 7th-early 8th centuries. This riddle is known simply as the Lorica in its Latin form, which is also the solution. (Resist the urge to google translate, or, if you translated that in your head, whoops, we spoiled it.) The initial translation into Old English is known as the Leiden Riddle; it is paired with its Latin version in a manuscript presently held in Leiden, Netherlands. The Leiden manuscript uses the older Northumbrian dialect of Old English, as opposed to the later-period West Saxon that is often taught as the standard of Old English. The riddle appears again in the Exeter Book, a late 10th-century compendium of Anglo-Saxon poetry written by one scribe, this time in something close to the West Saxon you’d learn in your regular Old English survey course. In the Exeter compilation, the riddle is number 35 of just under 100 riddles; some of the riddles are about daily life, some about precious objects, and some are just QUITE cheeky.

The Latin and Northumbrian verses are mostly preserved in the West Saxon-ish version, save for the very last hint to the riddle’s answer: both Aldhelm and the Northumbrian translator conclude with a declaration that the object in question fears no arrows sent from their quivers.

Let’s take a look at the Northumbrian version, the Leiden Riddle. Rule number 1, DON’T PANIC. It looks weird if you’ve only seen West Saxon, that is okay; it looks extra bad if you’ve never seen any Old English, and that is also okay. Just scroll away and scream into the void for a minute, and hopefully it will pass.

1              Mec se uēta uong, uundrum frēorig,

ob his innaðae aerest cændæ.

Ni uaat ic mec biuorthæ uullan fliusum,

hērum ðerh hēhcraeft, hygiðonc….

5              Uundnae mē ni bīað ueflæ, ni ic uarp hafæ,

ni ðerih ðreatun giðraec ðrēt mē hlimmith,

ne mē hrūtendu hrīsil scelfath,

ni mec ōuana aam sceal cnyssa.

Uyrmas mec ni āuēfun uyrdi craeftum,

10           ðā ði geolu gōdueb geatum fraetuath.

Uil mec huethrae suae ðēh uīdæ ofaer eorðu

hātan mith hæliðum hyhtlic giuǣde;

ni anoegun ic mē aerigfaerae egsan brōgum,

ðēh ði n… …n sīæ nīudlicae ob cocrum.

MS Leiden, Vossius Lat. 4° 106, 25v, Bibliotheek der Rijksuniversiteit

Transcription from M. B. Parkes, ‘The Manuscript of the Leiden Riddle’, Anglo-Saxon England, 1 (1972), p. 208.


Now here’s the West Saxon version:

1              Mec se wǣta wong, wundrum frēorig,

of his innaþe ǣrist cende.

Ne wāt ic mec beworhtne wulle flȳsum,

hǣrum þurh hēahcræft, hygeþoncum mīn.

5              Wundene mē ne bēoð wefle, ne ic wearp hafu,

ne þurh þreata geþræcu þrǣd mē ne hlimmeð,

ne æt mē hrūtende hrīsil scrīþeð,

ne mec ōhwonan sceal ām cnyssan.

Wyrmas mec ne āwǣfan wyrda cræftum,

10           þā þe geolo gōdwebb geatwum frætwað.

Wile mec mon hwæþre seþēah wīde ofer eorþan

hātan for hæleþum hyhtlic gewǣde.

Saga sōðcwidum, searoþoncum glēaw,

wordum wīsfæst, hwæt þis gewǣde sȳ

MS 3501 (“Exeter Dean and Chapter Manuscript 3501”), Exeter Cathedral Library

Transcription from C. Williamson (ed.), The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill, 1977), pp. 88-89.


Many differences are immediately obvious in the texts. For example, “u” in Leiden is “w” in the Exeter Book, “ð” (a voiced version of “th” like in the word “then”) is “þ” (the voiceless th-sound in the word “thorn”) respectively, and many of the vowels are shifted; these represent temporal and dialectal changes from the Northumbrian used in the Leiden manuscript versus the West Saxon Exeter Book version. But you don’t even need to know what the words mean to notice things like repetition and alliteration.

Repetition is exactly was it sounds like: a word or phrase is repeated for emphasis or clarification, and in this case it’s anaphora, where a word is repeated at the beginning of a clause: “ni” in the Leiden manuscript, “ne” in the Exeter Book.

Alliteration is the repetition of a sound at the beginning of words throughout a clause. See line 6 in both versions. Both lines repeat the “thr” consonant cluster, but Leiden uses the voiced version, ð, while Exeter uses the voiceless version, þ. Voicing has to do with how you articulate a sound, so say “then” and “thorn” again aloud, with your fingers on your voice-box. You can do this with other related sounds like “b” and “p.” Alliteration is a type of consonance, which itself is when a consonant sound is repeated throughout a clause.

Finally let’s look at the riddle in modern English:

1              The dank earth, wondrously cold,

first delivered me from her womb.

I know in my mind I wasn’t made

from wool, skillfully fashioned with skeins.

5              Neither warp nor weft wing about me,

no thread thrums for me in the thrashing loom,

nor does a shuttle rattle for me,

nor does the weaver’s rod bang and beat me.

Silkworms didn’t spin with their strange craft for me,

10           those creatures that embroider cloth of gold.

Yet men will affirm all over this earth

that I’m an excellent garment.

O wise man, weigh your words

well, and say what this object is.

K. Crossley-Holland (trans.), The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology. (Oxford, 1999), pp.242-243


This riddle in translation has so many lovely poetic touches, so we do want to acknowledge the incredible skill of the translator of here, Crossley-Holland. The first thing we encounter is how some of the lines run into the next line, which is enjambment. There is repetition of the negatives, giving us this heartbeat of a rhythm of the common thing the solution is definitely not (a textile), just like the two Old English versions. The alliteration in lines 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, and 13 leaps off your lips when you read aloud, and oops we just did it right there. Line 6 contains onomatopoeia: the word “thrums” exists because it is a sound the author is trying to describe. The consonance turns line 7 into its own bit of onomatopoeia as well, like rickety taps of the loom’s movable parts criss-crossing an unfinished cloth.

If it wasn’t already clear, we adore this riddle in every form! One hint we have for you is that this garment would have been worn at Bamburgh. Do you think you’ve solved it? Comment below or on our Facebook or Twitter link to this post.

3 thoughts on “Riddled with Riddles

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