Old English Riddles: word games

As well as the double entendre humorous riddles, the Exeter Book contains riddles that have more of the character of a cryptic crossword. These word puzzles form the majority of the riddles in the collection. An everyday object or activity is described in a roundabout way and the listener (or reader) has to work out the intended meaning. Anyone who has read The Hobbit (which I suspect includes most readers of this website) will be familiar with the word-puzzle form of Old English riddles. Remember Bilbo playing Gollum at riddles for his life by the dark lake under the goblins' den in the Misty Mountains? They take it in turns to tell riddles, and the stakes are high; if Gollum fails to answer one of Bilbo's riddles he will show Bilbo the way out (and thus lose the prospect of a meal), and if Bilbo fails to answer Gollum will eat him. For example:

"A box without hinges, key or lid
Yet golden treasure inside is hid"

"It cannot be seen, cannot be felt
Cannot be heard, cannot be smelt
It lies behind stars and under hills
And empty holes it fills
It comes first and follows after
Ends life, kills laughter"
--The Hobbit, by JRR Tolkien

(Answers at the foot of the page).

The Exeter Book Riddles clearly belong to the same tradition, and Tolkien may well have consciously drawn on them for the scene. For example:

Riddle 34:
"In the town I saw a creature
that feeds the cattle. It has many teeth
its beak is useful as it points down,
gently plunders and turns for home;
it searches for plants along the slopes
and always finds those not rooted firmly;
it leaves the living ones held by their roots,
quietly standing where they spring from the soil
brightly gleaming, blowing and glowing."


Riddle 35:
"The dank earth, wondrously cold
first delivered me from her womb.
I know in my mind I wasn't made
From wool, skilfully fashioned with skeins.
Neither warp nor weft wind 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.
Worms that decorate the yellow web
never spun for me with the skills of the Fates.
Yet all over the earth one man will tell another
that I'm an excellent garment.
Wise man, say what I am called."

(Answers at the foot of the page)

These are two of the shorter riddles, and two for which a solution is fairly well agreed among scholars. The Exeter Book does not give solutions (perhaps, in true cryptic crossword fashion, they were to come in next week's edition?), and consequently it is not known what the intended solutions were, if indeed there were intended to be 'right' answers at all. Quite a few of the riddles are still the subject of fierce academic debate.

Many of the Exeter Book riddles are complex and multilayered, and require the listener to have either a considerable amount of background knowledge or a talent for lateral thinking or both. Often there is more to them than simply finding a solution. For example, Riddle 35 above refers to the three supernatural female powers who wove the fates of men and gods, "wyrda craeftum", translated as "…spun for me with the skills of the Fates." In Norse mythology these three supernatural women were the Norns, in Greek mythology the Fates. In Old English fate or destiny is 'wyrd', from which we get the modern English word "weird", and Shakespeare's three Weird Sisters in the Scottish Play must surely reflect the same three figures. You don't need this to solve the riddle, but it adds an extra layer to the image of weaving cloth, and the mail coat would be a garment whose wearer would especially like the Three Ladies of Fate to be on his side.

Riddles and riddling phrases such as these are closely related to a word form characteristic of Old English and Norse poetry, the kenning. 'Kenning' comes from the Old English 'cen' meaning 'to know' or 'to make known', now obsolete in English but still around as 'ken', 'to know', in Scots.

Norse kennings can be very complex, requiring knowledge of one or more myths to decipher them. For example, 'Sif's hair' as a kenning for gold, which refers to the story that Loki cut off the goddess Sif's beautiful fair hair and the dwarves made her a replacement in gold. English kennings tend to be simpler. For example, in Beowulf the sea is referred to as 'hron-rade' ('whale road'), 'ganotes baed' (gannet's bath), and 'swan-rade' ('swan's road'), icicles are 'wael-rapas' ('water ropes'), and the ribcage is 'banhus' ('bone house'). Kennings such as these are condensed riddles, describing a familiar object in elliptical terms. Or, saying the same thing another way, riddles are extended kennings.

Unlike the double entendre riddles, these word puzzles don't seem to be intended to have the audience rolling in the aisles. They display a delight in the flexibility of language and a recognition that even ordinary objects, such as a rake, can be described in poetic terms. Like a modern cryptic crossword, they also provide an intellectual challenge and an opportunity for both setter and solver to compete in knowledge and vocabulary. Riddle games like the one Bilbo plays with Gollum (though, one hopes, in less desperate circumstances) may well have been regular entertainments in halls and humbler houses alike.


Bilbo's riddle: an egg
Gollum's riddle: darkness
Riddle 34: a rake
Riddle 35: a mail coat