Commentary for Exeter Riddle 64


Date: Fri 04 Aug 2017
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 64

Do you like runes? Well I hope the answer’s yes, because there’s rather a lot of them going on here. Runes crop up relatively often in the Exeter Book, mostly clustered in and around the riddles. But Riddle 64 really goes to town on the old script mixing. Did you know this poem has a higher ratio of runes-to-lines than any other in the Exeter Book? True story.

Not that the runes make this poem particularly…poetic. Of all the runic riddles, this one has received the least scholarly attention in its own right. That’s because there’s just so little of it, apart from the runes. And they don’t seem to offer much help. For the record, wi (ᚹᛁ) is not a meaningful word, and nor are any of the other pairs of runes in this poem. Craig Williamson points out Riddle 64’s “absurd difficulty” (page 327), and he isn’t wrong.


Searching for the word "Wi" only brings up lots of images of Madison, WI.
Which is… not much help.
Image (by Dori) from Wikimedia Commons (Licence: Dual GFDL CC).

To make any sort of headway with Riddle 64, we need to cast our minds all the way back to the first of the Exeter Book’s runic riddles: Riddle 19. In fact, it’s worth having another read of that poem and commentary before going further. You’ll quickly see these two riddles have a lot in common, beyond their fondness for runic puzzles. They both describe a siþ (journey) over a wong (plain), embarked upon by a collection of runic-ly encoded creatures, some of which carry others.

These similarities can be pushed further still. The first runic creature in Riddle 19 is hors (horse). Another word for “horse” in Old English is wicg, which might conceivably be an expansion of that first pair of runes on line 1 (ᚹᛁ / wi). Next, Riddle 19 gives us mon (man) and wiga (warrior) (?), synonyms for which include beorn (ᛒᛖ / be on line 2) and þegn (ᚦᛖ / þe on line 4). Finally, Riddle 19’s haofoc seems to be replicated in Riddle 64 as hafoc (ᚻᚪ / ha, line 3), and paralleled by fælca (ᚠᚫ / , line 5). I’ll come back to the final three runes, which are bit trickier, but you get the idea.

Metal figure on horseback

Like this, but more runey. Image from Metropolitan Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication).

It still feels like a bit of a cheat, though. I don’t think modern readers would’ve gotten very far with this riddle if we didn’t have Riddle 19 to crib from, and I do wonder whether our early medieval counterparts would’ve fared much better. On that note, Riddle 64 isn’t the only runic puzzle on this page of the Exeter Book. The manuscript’s upper margin boasts its own runic message, written in dry point (ie scratched with a sharp tool) some time after the manuscript was completed. As far as anyone can make out, the letters seem to read:

ᛒ ᚢ ᚷ ᚱ ᚦ (bugrþ)  or  ᛒ ᚢ ᚾ ᚱ ᚦ (bunrþ)

What does this mean, you ask? No one knows! Williamson comments – half jokingly – that the latter sequence could be expanded into Beo unreþe (“Don’t be cruel!”, page 327): the complaint of a frustrated reader. My feeling is that this frustrated reader could have left an intentionally nonsensical enigma to match the apparently unreadable runes in the riddle. But the meaning of this little message is still very much up for grabs, if you’ve got a better idea!

Coming back to the poem. Riddle 64 is similar enough to Riddle 19 that scholars generally agree the two share a common solution. Those solutions tend to fall into one of three groups: something to do with hunting (Trautmann; Tupper); something to do with writing (Eliason; Shook); something to do with boats (Williamson; Griffith). Megan’s already done an ace job of setting out the arguments for and against each, and incidentally I’d be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to re-post some of Megan’s A-grade artwork:

Writing hand

I’ve chosen this picture not only for its fine artistic qualities, but because it’s an excuse to talk a little more about the “writing” solution first put forward by Eliason. Although most recent scholarship on these two riddles has favoured a solution relating to boats, I actually think “writing” deserves at least equal consideration. There’s some interesting overlaps between Riddle 64 (and 19, for that matter), and several of the Exeter Book’s writing riddles.

Journeying as a metaphor for writing was a popular trope in early medieval literature. In his influential Etymologiae, Isidore of Seville claims that: litterae autem dictae quasi legiterae, quod iter legentibus praestent (letters [littera] are so called as if the term were legitera, because they provide a road [iter] for those who are reading [legere]) (I.iii.3, in Barney, page 39).

statue of Isidore of Seville

Isidore of Seville: never one to let actual etymology get in the way of good imagery. Photo (by Luis García) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic).

We see this metaphor employed in Riddle 26 (lines 7-11), and it’s the central image of Riddle 51. It’s also used in Riddle 95, which Willamson solves as “book” (pages 397-402), and Murphy as “pen” (page 88). Riddle 51, in particular, emphasises the unity of the travelling companions (Murphy, page 86), in a way that’s quite reminiscent of Riddle 64.

These writing riddles also feature quite a lot of birds (Bitterli, pages 35-46; Murphy, page 85), and for a good reason. Pens at the time were often quills made from feathers of larger water birds, such as geese or swans.

Painting of man with quill pen

Like so.
Image credit: Kijker Museum via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

If you’ve ever found a seagull feather on the beach and swished it about a bit (don’t do this – seagulls are pretty gross), you’ll know they offer up quite a bit of air resistance. You can imagine a scribe experiencing something similar when writing with a quill. And this overlap between pens, feathers and flight gives rise to some of the most imaginative imagery of the writing riddles, such as when Riddle 26 describes its pen as the “bird’s joy” (fugles wyn, line 7b), or when the pen in Riddle 51 moves through the air “faster than birds” (fulgum framra, line 4a). Riddle 95 refers to the “delight of plunders” (hiþendra hyht, line 5a), which has been taken as a kenning for a quill pen (Murphy, page 95), and gives us a nice parallel to the description in Riddle 64 of the falcon as the “keeper’s joy” (habbendes hyht, line 3a).

To recap: in this interpretation, the “warrior” is the hand of the scribe (contributing its “share of the power”), while the “horse” that carries him on this journey is the point of the pen, and the “falcon” joyously flying above them is the pen’s plume swishing through the air as the scribe writes. They’re all travelling in unison across the “plain” of the manuscript page, and having a jolly good time about it.

Which just leaves that tricky last set of runes: easp. Although it’s difficult to be sure what the poet had in mind for this one, Williamson argues convincingly that it’s a contraction of the compound ea-spor, meaning “water-track” (page 326). There could be a parallel to this in Riddle 19 if the runic group on line 6 is taken to be wega “wave” rather than wiga “warrior.”

This word gives some support for the “boat” interpretation, but I don’t think it rules out “writing” either. Riddle 51 is quite taken with the image of the pen as a bird soaring through the air and then diving under the waves (ie into an ink pot), and both it and Riddle 26 describe pens leaving inky lastas “tracks” (see also Riddle 95, line 11b). So, to keep with our writing solution, the “water-track” is the line of ink left in the wake of the warrior scribe. And this is as good a place as any to bring in my favourite sea-related writing metaphor, which is from a colophon (or notation) added by one Æthelberht at the end of an eighth-century book of Psalms:

Finit liber psalmorum. In Christo Iesu domino nostro; lege in pace. Sicut portus oportunus nauigantibus ita uorsus [sic] nouissimus scribentibus.

(Here finishes the book of the Psalms. In Christ Jesus our Lord; read in peace. Just as the port is welcome to sailors, so is the final verse to scribes.) (Gameson, page 35; see also this excellent blogpost by Thijs Porck)

Bayeux Tapestry ship

Image credit: Urban via Wikimedia Commons (licence: Dual GFDL CC).

So, that’s the case for solving this riddle as writing. I think there’s something quite appealing in the image of a pen in hand as a warrior and entourage, venturing forth across the page, leaving dark trails of watery ink in their wake. And this solution also helps to explain the inclusion of all those runes. What better place to show off your skill with not one but two alphabets, than in a poem that’s all about… writing!


References and Suggested Reading:

Barney, Stephen A., W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach and Oliver Berghof, eds and trans. The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Bitterli, Dieter. Say What I Am Called: The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book and the Anglo-Latin Tradition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009.

Dewa, Roberta. “The Runic Riddles of the Exeter Book: Language Games and Anglo-Saxon Scholarship.” Nottingham Medieval Studies, vol. 39 (1995), pages 26-36.

Eliason, Norman E. “Four Old English Cryptographic Riddles.” Studies in Philology, vol. 49 (1952), pages 553-65.

Gameson, Richard. The Scribe Speaks? Colophons in Early English Manuscripts. H M Chadwick Lectures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Griffith, Mark. “Riddle 19 of the Exeter Book: SNAC, an Old English Acronym.” Notes and Queries, new series, vol. 237 (1992), pages 15-16.

Murphy, Patrick J. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011.

Shook, Laurence K., and J. Reginald O’Donnell. “Riddles Relating to the Anglo-Saxon Scriptorium.” In Essays in Honour of Anton Charles Pegis. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieaval Studies, 1974, pages 215-36.

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

Related Posts:
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 19
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 26
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 51

Exeter Riddle 65


Date: Thu 10 Aug 2017
Matching Commentaries: Commentary for Exeter Riddle 65

Riddle 65’s translation comes to us from Judy Kendall, Reader in English and Creative Writing at Salford University.  She’s especially interested in poetic composition, visual text and translation, both in an academic context and from the standpoint of a creative practitioner. You can see her creative record of the process of translating an Old English riddle in ‘brief brief: a riddle’ in Amsterdam’s Versal Literary & Arts Journal, issue 12.

Original text:

Cwico wæs ic, ne cwæð ic wiht,      cwele ic efne seþeah.
Ær ic wæs, eft ic cwom.     Æghwa mec reafað,
hafað mec on headre,     ond min heafod scireþ,
biteð mec on bær lic,       briceð mine wisan.
Monnan ic ne bite,       nympþe he me bite;
sindan þara monige     þe mec bitað.


Quick to life I was, I did not quip at all, yet even so I’m quelled.
Before I was, renewed I came. I’m everybody’s quarry,
they hold me in fetters, and hack off my head,
bite my stripped body, snap my stalk.
I will not bite a man, unless he bites me;
many are they that bite me.

Click to show riddle solution?
Onion, Leek, Chives


This riddle appears on folio 125r of The Exeter Book.

The above Old English text is based on this edition: Elliott van Kirk Dobbie and George Philip Krapp, eds, The Exeter Book, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936), page 230.

Note that this edition numbers the text Riddle 63: Craig Williamson, ed., The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), page 105.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 65 

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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 65
Exeter Riddle 9
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Commentary for Exeter Riddle 65


Date: Thu 17 Aug 2017
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 65

Riddle 65’s commentary is once again by Judy Kendall, Reader in English and Creative Writing at Salford University. Take it away, Judy!


The generally accepted solution to this riddle is Onion, although Moritz Trautmann argued for Leek or Chives. We know that the early English knew their onions. One proof of this is the first Onion riddle in the Exeter Book, the rude lewd Riddle 25. Physical evidence of onion-growing is trickier to find, since onions are small and their tissues, once deteriorated, leave little trace. However, we do know that the Romans grew onions because of onion bulb-shaped holes left in Pompeii gardens and carbonized onions in Pompeii kitchens (there’s a picture of these in Meyer, page 412 – free to read online with a MYJSTOR account).

There is even an onion, white and ash-like, named the Pompeii onion:

Fig 2 Pompeii Onion
Photo (by ayngelina) from Flickr (license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

All this is relevant (to an extent) because we also know that the Romans took onions on journeys to the further reaches of their empire, including Britain, and doubtless grew them there.

Riddle 65 offers a much more polite take on this vegetable than Riddle 25. That said, the two riddles share marked similarities. Frederick Tupper noted how both refer to loss of head and confinement in a narrow place (page 124), and Patrick Murphy points out that both recall traditional riddles of torture in their use of rapid-fire enumerations of various kinds of suffering (pages 223-4). Such “series of tortures” lists surface elsewhere in the Exeter Book too, as in the heart-aching opening list of actions inflicted upon an animal – skinned, stretched and scraped – in order to produce the vellum of Riddle 26’s book.

Riddle 65 also evokes an onion in its use of artful alliteration. The riddle’s striking aural effects are spiky, piquant, biting, even “attractively staccato,” as Kevin Crossley-Holland has it (page 105). Such effects not only describe an onion’s taste and smell, but also replicate onion skins, circling in layers through and around the riddle. Echoing and interlocking, they repeat back to themselves – just like an onion does. This layering effect is also evident in the recurrence of selected words and phrasal structures, as in the unusual use of parallel antithetical clauses in the same half line (line 2a).

In short, if you know your onions, you soon realize Riddle 65 is much more of an onion than a leek or chive. Its features are oniony: distinctive “biting” taste and smell, layered rings of skin – a palimpsest of interconnecting elements, effects on digestion, bulbous bulbs and the opportunities that these afford for bunching in “fetters.”

Red onions hanging in shop

Photo (by Xemenendura) of bunching onions from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 4.0).

These all fit so much better with the riddle’s sounds, structure and allusions to head, body and bite, than the slimmer milder attributes of the bulbless leek that, for my money, there isn’t really a contest between the two. Apologies, leek…

Gentle Leek Poem
The author’s composition in Edible Poetry

In the Old English, these clues are embedded in the complex repeating onion-like patterns that extend aurally across the lines. The modern English translation proffered here attempts to keep something of these aural and structural onion clues. Thus, the hard-sounding bite of “cw” of line one is reciprocated in modern English with “qu.”

The repeated use of “cw,” or “qu,” constitute acts of artful alliteration, a term Andy Orchard defines as the use of sound cleverly combined with meaning for overall effect. The “cw” or “qu” marks life – cwico (quick/life), and death – cwele (quelled/death). These two states are thus both linked and contrasted. This is most striking in the Old English where “cw” heads each half-line in line 1, and where the alliteration is picked up again in line 2 with the use of cwom, which constitutes a second reference to life. In the modern English line 2, “came” provides a much weaker echo of the “qu” sound, so “qu” is also inserted in the last word of the second half of that line, as part of “quarry,” another possible allusion to death. This helps sustain the effect of the original doubly and interlinearly alliterative “cw,” bleeding across from one line to the next.

Initially, in line 1, the riddle suggests that death follows life. The advent of death does not seem very remarkable to us, so it is odd that the poet chooses þeah or seþeah (nevertheless/but/yet) to introduce it. However, the parallel antithetical clauses of the first half of line 2 help to explain this emphasis on oddity. Line 2 opens with an allusion to life followed, presumably, by death: Ær ic wæs, but this is then immediately followed by a similarly structured reference to life (eft ic cwom). Life, followed by death, followed once again by life. Peculiar, since, for humans anyway, death tends to be terminal.

Craig Williamson notes that such an arrangement of clauses within the same half line is very unusual in Old English verse – “highly, perhaps deliberately, eccentric” (page 331). He sees it as an indication of a poet who has “radical ideas about breaking the rules of Old English metre” (page 332). Such a deliberate act of rebellion is asking us to pay close attention to these lines. Here, it suggests, is an embedded clue. The half line indicates regular renewal, a life-death-life-death-life-death cycle. Recurring death constitutes a departure from normality in human experience, but not so for onions.

Thus, these unusually-placed antithetical clauses point us definitively away from reading the subject as human towards a focus on the plant world, on onions perhaps. Onions metamorphose from bulb to fully-grown onion and then back again to bulb. These references to the paralleling and continual sequencing of life and death are reinforced by the positioning, sounds and structural phrasings in both line 1 and 2: line 1’s opening life (Cwico waes ic) matches line 2’s opening death (Ær ic wæs); the phrases are knit even more closely together by the use of alliterated “w”s and repeated ic’s; the similar sounding ic efne/eft ic of lines 1 and 2 also serve this purpose. Everything seems to circle and repeat.

In lines 3 and 4, the riddle continues to tease us with apparent illogicalities of sequence. The somewhat bizarre list of abuses and torture places experiences of being bitten and broken after what for a human would surely be the worst fate of all – decapitation. Double alliteration continues to be employed within each line and parallel phrasing and repeated sounds and words across them, again artfully reminding us of the onion’s cyclical life and circular skin. Most notably, in lines 3 and 4, the words mec on/min/mec on/mine link back to the mec in line 2, as well as pushing forwards to the me/mec, in lines 5 and 6, and culminating in the use of “m” as the alliterative link in the last lines – more repetitious circular effect. In addition, the riddle’s initial cross-alliterative pattern is reprised and hyped up in lines 4-5-6, with repeated references to the “biter bitten” motif, a commonplace in early English riddles, and, as many have observed, constituting a strong echo of the mordeo mordentes of Symphosius’s Latin onion riddle (Enigma 44).

Riddle 65 colour coded sounds.png
Some of the repeated sounds, colour-coded – there are more!

Is the poet just showing off? Or is there something else to consider. Why the repetition of me? Does it suggest self-obsession? If so, it contrasts oddly with the apparent argument of the last lines, in which the violence of human consumers seems to be starkly compared to the reasonable restrain of the meek and gentle onion – a view that the fruitarians and raw foodies of today would find sympathetic perhaps. The onion only bites in self-defence, unlike the aggressive behaviour of its human attackers.

However, just as the skins of the onion are shed to reveal more onion skin, so this poem’s emphasis on “bite” digs deeper than might first appear. We seem to be reading about the bite of man, but the sounds and repetitions of the words in which this is articulated forcefully bring home the bite of the onion. It might not be the first to bite but this does not negate its ever-ready aggression which is communicated through the biting sound that runs throughout the riddle as well as through the repeated alliteration of “bite” at the riddle’s end. The onion may present itself as a meek mild victim but its spiky voice, and the repeated emphasis on me me me, suggest otherwise.

In this regard, it is pleasing to discover an Old English riddle keeping abreast of developments in modern science. In 2008, the New Scientist reported Annika Paukner and Stephen Suomi’s discovery that monkeys grow more solitary and aggressive after washing with onions (Kaplan)! The onion, as Riddle 65 declares in both sound and sense, is both assertive (me me) and aggressive: ready and ripe for a fight, whether full-on or more covertly, as in the sneakily indirect effect of the emphasis of the very last line. This appears to stress the many bites of the human consumer. However, since the previous line has just established that any human act of violence will engender an onion’s retaliation, it also sets up the onion with equally as many opportunities of biting.

Alternatively, just to put a further onion in the works, onions are also beneficial. Pliny the Elder catalogued, before succumbing to the volcanic eruption near Pompeii, the curative properties of onions in relation to vision, sleep, mouth sores, dog bites, toothaches, dysentery and lumbago (National Onion Association). Recent scientific research reveals that they have a proven efficacy in the case of asthma (Elmsley).

I could really splurge on onions now by noting how the spikey staccato effects created by alliteration, word order and phrasing give a good impression of difficulty in breathing, gradually evening out in later lines. But better not – wouldn’t want you to think I’ve completely lost my onions.


References and Suggested Reading:

Crossley-Holland, Kevin, trans. The Exeter Book Riddles. London: Enitharmon, 2008.

Emsley, John. “Onions Run Rings around Chemists.” New Scientist (30 September 1989)

Kaplan, Matt. “Onion Washing Gets Monkeys in a Lather.” New Scientist (21 July 2008).

Meyer, Frederick G. “Carbonized Food Plants of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the Villa at Torre Annunziata.” Economic Botany, vol. 34, issue 4 (1980), pages 401-37.

Murphy, Patrick J. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011.

National Onion Association. “History of Onions” (2011).

Orchard, Andy. “Artful Alliteration in Anglo-Saxon Song and Story.” Anglia, vol. 113, issue 1 (1995), pages 429-63.

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. Isidorean Perceptions of Order: The Exeter Book Riddles and Medieval Latin Enigmata. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2015.

Taylor, Archer. English Riddles from Oral Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951.

Tupper, Frederick Jr. The Riddles of the Exeter Book. Boston: Ginn, 1910.

Williamson, Craig. The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book. Chapel Hill: University of North Caroline Press, 1977.

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 65  judy kendall 

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