Commentary for Exeter Riddle 15


Date: Tue 12 Nov 2013
Matching Riddle: Exeter Riddle 15

Well, at least we can agree on one thing: the subject of Riddle 15 is an animal of some sort. But just which animal has been the cause of much discussion and a fair amount of scholarly squabbling. The options include: Badger, Fox, Porcupine, Hedgehog, Weasel, etc.

Badger (OE brocc) is one of the earliest suggestions. Badgers burrow, which fits nicely with this poem’s description of the besieged creature’s situation. While the badger’s colouring also seems to tally with the poem’s description of the white neck and fealo head, I’d like to mention (as I’ve done before) that colour terms in Old English are very difficult to define. For this particular one, the Dictionary of Old English notes that its “varied meaning” encompasses a sort of pale or dull yellow with shades of red, brown and/or grey. I reckon this term applies to most of the animal options discussed here, so I’m not sure it’s particularly handy in sorting out a solution.


Photo (by BadgerHero) from the Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0).

Badger-wise, the weapon imagery (beadowæpen bere (I bear a battle-weapon); Ordum ic steppe (On spears I step); ond þurh hest hrino hildepilum (and ferociously strike with battle-spears)) refers to the creatures’ teeth and claws. The enemy itself, the so-called wælhwelp (slaughter-whelp) could be any one of a number of predators if we take hwelp metaphorically, or the dogs used by hunters if we’re going for a more literal reading. Also note that dogs and wolves are associated with violent men elsewhere in Old English: The Battle of Maldon describes Vikings as wælwulfas (slaughter-wolves) in line 96b; Judith refers to the heroine’s nasty opponent Holofernes as þone hæðenan hund (that heathen hound) in line 110a; and Wulf and Eadwacer revolves around the relationships between a woman, a figure identified as “Wulf” and an earmne hwelp (miserable whelp) who is borne away in lines 16-17. So the canine enemy shouldn’t come as a shock.

At any rate, Badger has seemed like a decent option to many scholars in the past, although Dieter Bitterli isn’t too keen on it for the following reasons: the poem doesn’t mention the animal’s most striking feature (stripey head!), badgers aren’t particularly fast-moving, which contradicts line 2’s statement: Swift ic eom on feþe (I am fast on my feet), and they don’t get a lot of attention in early works of zoology (pp. 472-5). I don’t think these strike a death-blow to the Badger-reading, although Bitterli’s argument for his preferred solution (discussed below) is convincing. His article is also very thorough, by the way, so if you’re interested in this riddle, I suggest you read it. There’s a link at the bottom of this commentary.

The next animal on the list is the fox.


Photo (by Rob Lee (Evergreen, CO, USA)) from the Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY 2.0).

This is the solution that John D. Niles includes in his list of Old English riddle solutions: OE fox ond hund (fox and hound) (at p. 141). Fox is quite widely accepted as a solution to this riddle, especially by recent editors of the riddles and the Exeter Book, including Williamson and Muir. However, again Bitterli notes that foxes, which aren’t burrowers or diggers – they tend to use other animals’ dens or natural features of the landscape – are more known for their wisdom in medieval literature, an attribute that doesn’t appear in this list (p. 476). One part of the poem that seems to describe the fox particularly well is the ears that tower over the creature’s eyes (Hlifiað tu / earan ofer eagum), although Bitterli argues that these may be attributed to any animal in contrast to human ears. I like to think of them as the ears of a Monty Python-esque battle-rabbit, personally. You can beg to differ.

Weasel standing up

Photo (by Steve Hillebrand, USFWS) from the Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Making our way speedily along, Weasel (OE wesle) has been pretty soundly rejected. This one was suggested in the 1940s by Jean I. Young, who notes that weasels walk almost entirely on their toes. The implication is that line 5b’s statement, Ordum ic steppe, should be translated as “I step on points.” Yes, ord means “point,” but more specifically the point of a blade, so I read this as more weapon imagery referring to claws. Young further argues that the enemy attacking the weasel is a snake because of the reference to the creature crawling (hine berað breost) – a similar characteristic to Satan-in-snake-form in lines 906-7 of Genesis A. Unfortunately for Young, weasels are the ones that eat snakes. Of course, we could still accept Weasel as the solution without accepting Snake as the predator. But Bitterli points out that weasels don’t burrow, and that medieval Latin weasel-riddles and classical lore make a big deal out of the weasel’s apparent conception in the ear (say wha?) (p. 477). At any rate, there’s a better solution awaiting you!

It’s not Hedgehog (OE igil), although that’s getting closer.

European hedgehog sniffing a leaf

Photo (by Lars Karlsson) from the Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 2.5).

A spiny creature like this involves re-reading some of the weapon imagery – as spikes rather than teeth (having recently put a cactus through my hand at a party, I totally get this association). The problem with the hedgehog for Bitterli is that it doesn’t burrow or shoot its spines (p. 487). His preferred solution is therefore Porcupine, which is referred to as se mara igil (the larger hedgehog) in an Old English gloss of the Latin word for porcupine: hystrix (p. 478).

Porcupine resting

Photo (by Eloquence) from the Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

You may have gathered that this is Bitterli’s solution from the title of his article. It’s a very good title with both puns AND alliteration. So you know the article is going to be good. Content-wise, Bitterli lists several medieval analogues (pp. 479-81), and notes that porcupines – though not native to England – were known from widely-circulated works of natural history (p. 485). Where Bitterli’s argument is strongest is in his discussion of the porcupine’s quills, which can easily lodge into other animals (p. 482-3). He also notes that porcupines are diggers and that their burrows tend to have multiple entrances and holes for escaping (p. 484). Porcupine meets all the criteria and does it well. Still, it’s probably only a matter of time before someone writes another article arguing for Badger or Fox. So keep your eyes peeled.

Phew, right…those are the options for you to pick and choose from (or suggest more!). But I personally think the solution isn’t as significant as the fact that THIS POEM FREAKING ROCKS! So much action. So much heart-break. A rousing battle and a change of fortunes. It’s an exciting, elegiac beauty of a poem. Do we really want to spend all our time squabbling about which animal this is, or should be maybe focus on the fact that the poem makes us identify so strongly with her?

That reminds me…other things I should mention: gender! Did you realize that this animal is a female one? I’m not just saying that because there are chilluns involved, and female animals tend to spend more time with their young than males. In addition to this, line 7a includes a dead giveaway in the form of grammar (wonderful, wonderful grammar!). In case we aren’t all obsessed with grammar, a quick lesson: Old English nouns have grammatical genders. They are either masculine, feminine or neuter. This does not have to relate to “natural” gender – the classic example is that wif, which means woman, is neuter. Sorry, ladies. Anywho, adjectives change their endings based on whether they’re referring to a masculine, feminine or neuter word. So when line 7a includes the feminine form of the adjective onhæle (hidden), this is kinda important. Given that all of the proposed solutions to this riddle are likely masculine nouns except for the weasel, it’s likely that the adjective is referring to the animal’s natural, rather than grammatical, gender. Which means we have a badass lady-warrior going to town on the enemy trying to break into her house. Eat your heart out, Eowyn.

Okay, I should stop writing now. I have lots more I could say…heck, I haven’t even mentioned style (rhyme! envelope patterns! weird compounds!). But in the interests of rewarding those of you who’ve gotten to the end of this – admittedly rather long – commentary, here’s a little quote from Edward B. Irving, Jr.’s discussion of the heroic world of the riddles: “Of course this riddle is not about an animal – how could it be? – but about people driven to act like animals and about how that would feel: women (and men) attacked mercilessly in their houses, hiding in forests or bogs, dragging children, their hands clapped over screaming mouths, out of the way of some marauder. It may not be action at the high and significant heroic level, but the riddler knows it is important action, to be viewed with empathy and respect. It is fighting any way we can for the survival of those we love” (p. 204). I’m inclined to read the poem’s human/animal balancing act in a slightly more nuanced way…but I still think this quotation is a poignant one.


[Editorial update: I recently published a note on this riddle, which hopefully doesn’t disagree with this post too, too much (like all academics, I do like to change my mind from time to time)! Email me if you’d like an electronic copy, but don’t have access to the journal: Cavell, Megan. “The Igil and Exeter Book Riddle 15.” Notes and Queries, vol. 64, issue 2 (2017): 206-10]


References and Suggested Reading

Bitterli, Dieter. “Exeter Book Riddle 15: Some Points for the Porcupine.” Anglia, vol. 120 (2002), pages 461-87. (postprint available on the University of Zurich’s Open Repository and Archive)

Irving, Edward B. “Heroic Experience in the Old English Riddles.” In Old English Shorter Poems: Basic Readings. Edited by Katherine O’Brian O’Keeffe. New York: Garland, 1994, pages 199-212.

Muir, Bernard J., ed. The Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry. 2 vols. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1994.

Niles, John D. Old English Enigmatic Poems and the Play of the Texts. Studies in the Early Middle Ages, vol. 13. Turnhout: Brepols, 2006.

Young, Jean I. “Riddle 15 of the Exeter Book.” Review of English Studies, vol. 20 (1944), pages 304-6.

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 15 

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