Commentary for Exeter Riddles 79 and 80


Date: Fri 31 Aug 2018
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddles 79 and 80

Riddle 79/80 is an unpopular little fella. You’d think that being a relatively unproblematic text in the middle of a fire-damaged collection of riddles would throw some scholarly love in this poem’s direction! But, alas, Riddle 79/80 remains unpopular. I couldn’t find many articles on it at all, which means I’ve had to do some work myself (*shakes fist at riddlers-of-the-past).

First things first: I guess I’d better address the opening lines. I said this was a relatively unproblematic text, after all, but the opening lines aren’t as smooth sailing as we might like. The first line ends with clear punctuation in the manuscript, and the next begins with a capitalized “IC,” which is what led Krapp and Dobbie to edit line 1 as “Riddle 79” and the rest as “Riddle 80.” But line 1 makes no sense as a complete riddle! It’s much more likely that this opening repetition is a false start, scribal error, or suggests that the scribe was copying from a defective text (Williamson, page 360).

Mercedes Salvador-Bello has recently argued that “this phase of the [manuscript’s] compilation was carried out in a rather awkward and rushed way. It seems to me that the scribe of the Exeter exemplar was probably rewriting and improvising as (s)he copied the riddles from the sources at hand” (pages 399-400). I like the idea of an improvising scribe meddling with an earlier version of this riddle. I also like that Salvador-Bello doesn’t jump to any conclusions about the gender identity of the scribe. Take THAT, patriarchy!


But what, I hear you asking, is this riddle actually about? What’s the solution, Queen of Riddlers? Impart upon us thy wisdom, Mighty and Great One! (okay, I’m willing to admit that the audience in my mind may not be quite the same as the *actual* audience of this post, but please leave me to my illusions)

Drinking Horn from British Museum

Here are some early medieval drinking horns (or part of them) at the British Museum. Pardon my terrible photography skillz.

Well, most people reckon this is a horn riddle, though several birds of prey and various weapons have also had a look in. All that companion-y stuff, not to mention the queenly handling of the object in question, pretty clearly signals a solution of heroic importance. The reason Horn has gained momentum is because of the multiple uses such an object could be put to: it can be used for sounding in battle – so it’s a prince’s or king’s companion, rides with an army and has a harsh tongue (i.e. it’s loud). Think Boromir and the horn of Gondor.

The riddle object leads a double life, since it can also be used as a drinking horn – fill that horn up with mead, and you’re all set for a nice little ritual or raucous celebration. Coincidentally, if it’s mead that’s being referred to in line 7’s Hæbbe me on bosme þæt on bearwe geweox (I have in my bosom what waxed in a wood), then we have a pretty good parallel in Riddle 27’s reference to a solution that’s brungen of bearwum (brought from forests). Riddle 27 is, after all, usually solved as Mead.

But back to Riddle 79/80. Line 3’s talk of the object being frean (beloved) to its lord may speak not only to its value, but also to the intimate nature of a horn’s use – drinking from it or sounding it means kissing it, in a way. And we’ve seen that sort of thing elsewhere. Do you remember all the way back to Riddle 14? That riddle described a horn in very similar terms, and had men kissing it in line 3b. And then there’s Riddle 63’s glass beaker. Well, that object was configured as a high-status woman being kissed and pressed by a tillic esne (capable servant). In Riddle 79/80 we have a swapping of gender roles, so this riddle object becomes a heroic and masculine figure being handled by a high-status lady. And this leads me to a second point: riddles related to drinking vessels are often more than a little eroticized.

Riddle 63 Claw beaker from Ringmere Farm British Museum
Have you ever seen a drinking vessel quite as erotic as this claw beaker from Ringlemere Farm, Kent? via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

These sorts of riddles also frequently describe an interplay between different sexes in the hall, which makes me think of the (far less titillating) exchange in Beowulf:

                                   Eode Wealhþeow forð,
cwen Hroðgares,         cynna gemyndig,
grette goldhroden         guman on healle,
ond þa freolic wif         ful gesealde
ærest Eastdena         eþelwearde (612b-16)
(Wealhtheow went forth, Hrothgar’s queen, mindful of customs, the gold-adorned one greeted men in the hall, and the noble woman gave a cup first to the protector of the lands of the East-Danes)

No hanky panky whatsoever. How disappointing. But it does serve to demonstrate that ritualistic drinking in the hall was an important trope in the world of Old English poetry. Perhaps one that riddlers liked to poke fun at…

And speaking of fun: I reckon there’s a fairly meta view of poetic performances going on toward the end of Riddle 79/80. These lines describe the object giving a reward to a woðboran (speech-bearer) for words and a song, suggesting that the object itself gives the reward (as opposed to it being given *as* the reward, which seems to rule out any weapon-based solutions). I take this as the mead-horn being passed to a poet as a reward for a good recitation. I can’t help but wonder if the riddler was calling for a little treat too!

Come to think of it…it’s Friday and I would also like a treat…


References and Suggested Reading:

Davis, Adam. “Agon and Gnomon: Forms and Functions of the Anglo-Saxon Riddles.” In De Gustibus: Essays for Alain Renoir. Edited by John Miles Foley. New York: Garland, 1992, pages 110-50, esp. 140-2.

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

Swaen, A.E.H. “The Anglo-Saxon Horn Riddles.” Neophilologus, vol. 26, issue 4 (1941), pages 298-302.

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

Tags: anglo saxon  exeter book  riddles  old english  solutions  riddle 79  riddle 80 

Related Posts:
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 14
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 27
Commentary for Exeter Riddle 63