Old English Riddles

Stained glass window showing St Aldhelm, in Ma...
Stained glass window showing St Aldhelm, in Malmesbury Abbey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We visited a local thrift store in search of several pairs of shorts for my oldest son to wear this week while away at summer camp. After finding the items we came for, we decided to search for other treasures that I’ve heard can be found a’thrifting: scratched and dented furniture, mismatched china, vinyl records, and dog-eared reading material.

We found Baby-Sitters Club installments galore, Bible trivia books, and college textbooks. I settled on a couple of literature anthologies and a text on teaching algebra. Help me, Rhonda! I’ll have an 8th grader in the fall.

In The Longman Anthology of British Literature, Volume One, I found some Old English riddles. I thought it’d be fun to reprint them here and see if anyone would like to take a stab at solving them. The first three are Aldhelm’s and have answers, while the five that follow are from the Exeter Book with answers from modern editors. I’ll put the answers at the bottom, but try not to peek. 😉

Three Anglo-Latin Riddles by Aldhelm
We seventeen sisters, voiceless all, declare
Six others bastards are, and not of us.
Of iron we are born, and find our death
Again by iron; or at times we come
From pinion of a lofty-flying bird.
Three brothers got us of an unknown mother.
To him who thirsts for instant counsel, we
In silence quickly bring out hoarded words.



Of honey-laden bees I first was born,
But in the forest grew my outer coat;
My tough backs came from shoes. An iron point
In artful windings cuts a fair design,
And leaves long, twisted furrows, like a plow,
From heaven unto that field is borne the seed
Or nourishment, which brings forth generous sheaves
A thousandfold. Alas, that such a crop,
A holy harvest, falls before grim war.

The shining pelican, whose yawning throat
Gulps down the waters of the sea, long since
Produced me, white as he. Through snowy fields
I keep a straight road, leaving deep-blue tracks
Upon the gleaming way, and darkening
the fair champaign with black and tortuous paths;
Yet one way through the plain suffices not,
For with a thousand bypaths runs the road,
And them who stray not from it, leads to heaven.

Five Old English Riddles translated by Kevin Crossley-Holland

I’m a strange creature, for I satisfy women,
a service to the neighbors! No one suffers
at my hands except for my slayer.
I grow very tall, erect in a bed,
I’m hairy underneath. From time to time
a good-looking girl, the doughty daughter
of some churl dares to hold me,
grips my russet skin, robs me of my head
and puts me in the pantry. At once that girl
with plaited hair who has confined me
remembers our meeting. Her eye moistens.

An enemy ended my life, took away
of my bodily strength; then he dipped me
in water and drew me out again,
and put me in the sun where I soon shed
all my hair. The knife’s sharp edge
bit into me once my blemishes had been scraped away;
fingers folded me and the bird’s feather
often moved across my brown surface,
sprinkling useful drops; it swallowed the wood-dye
(part of the stream) and again traveled over me
leaving black tracks. Then a man bound me,
he stretched skin over me and adorned me
with gold; thus I am enriched by the wondrous work
of smiths, wound about with shining metal.
Now my clasp and my red dye
and these glorious adornments bring fame far and wide
to the Protector of Men, and not to the pains of hell.
If the sons of men would make use of me
they would be the safer and more sure of victory,
their hearts would be bolder, their minds more at ease,
their thoughts wiser, they would have more friends,
companions and kinsmen (true and honorable,
brave and kind) who would gladly increase
their honor and prosperity, and heap
benefits upon them, holding them fast
in love’s embraces. Ask what I am called,
of such use to men. My name is famous,
of service to men and sacred in itself.

A moth devoured words. When I heard
of that wonder it struck me as a strange event
that a worm should swallow the song of some man,
a thief gorge in the darkness on fine phrases
and their firm foundation. Thievish stranger
was not a whit the wiser for swallowing words.

I watched four curious creatures
traveling together; their tracks were swart,
each imprint very black. The birds’ support
moved swiftly; it flew in the air,
dived under the wave. The toiling warrior
worked without pause, pointing the paths
to all four over the beaten gold.

I sank roots first of all, stood
near the shore, close by the dyke
and dash of waves; few men
saw my home in that wilderness,
but each dawn, each dusk,
the tawny waves surged and swirled
around me. Little did I think
that I, mouthless, should ever sing
to men sitting at the mead-bench,
varying my pitch. It is rather puzzling,
a miracle to men ignorant of such arts,
how a knife’s point and a right hand
(mind and implement moving as one)
could cut and carve me — so that I
can send you a message without fear,
and no one else can overhear
or noise abroad the words we share.

Answers to Aldhelm’s riddles: 1. Alphabet; 2. Writing Tablets; 3. Pen

Answers to the five : 1. Onion; 2. Bible; 3. Book worm; 4. Pen and fingers; 5. Reed)

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