Ic eom mundbora minre heorde,
eodorwirum fæst, innan gefylled
dryhtgestreona. Dægtidum oft
spæte sperebrogan — sped biþ þy mare
fylle minre. Frea þæt bihealdeð,
hu me of hrife fleogað hyldepilas.
Hwilum ic sweartum swelgan onginne
brunum beadowæpnum, bitrum ordum,
eglum attorsperum. Is min innað til,
wombhord wlitig, wloncum deore;
men gemunan þæt me þurh muþ fareð.
Advocate for what’s mine—
fast in wired hedges,
replete within with regal treasures.
Often by day I spit
Profits are greater
when they fill me up.
A free man beholds that—
how from my belly
At times I gobble up
the inky darkness
of battle weaponry,
their bitter points,
painful poisoned spears.
My insides are sound,
my guts glorious,
beloved by the proud.
Men shall remember
what comes from my mouth.
Many of the Exeter Book Riddles have problematic or very provisional solutions (1) — no surprise given that solutions are usually not given for them (unlike Aldhelm’s Ænigmata, which provides the title as answer). Critics have ventured possibilities, sometimes stumbling, at times more confidently. Missteps abound in the history of the Riddles’ interpretation. Notable among these is the extremely brief example, given as numbers 75 and 76 in the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records:
Ic swiftne geseah on swaþe feran
ᛞ ᚾ ᛚ ᚻ
Ic ane geseah idese sittan.
I spied the swift one
going along the road
D N L H
I spotted a lady
sitting off by herself.
Though the scribe apparently believed them to be two separate entries, a designation followed by editors Krapp and Dobbie, the three lines actually read very well together, if enigmatically. Such mystery has doubtlessly fired the imaginations of scholars, eager to locate a solution that suited their notions of Old English poetry. One scholar even conjectured the runic letters designated (backwards and with vowels dropped out) spelled the word “HÆLEND” or “Savior” making these three tiny lines some sort of cryptic soteriological game. It was not until Craig Williamson suggested a much simpler answer (2), one that actually corresponds to the evidence of the riddle. Perhaps a bit uncomfortable to some, but the image of swiftness by the side of the road, and the woman sitting off by herself, suggests the elegantly simple solution of “hland” or “piss.”
In a similar vein, I wanted to propose a different solution to Riddle #17, commonly glossed as “fortified town” or “ballista.” These solutions respond to the runic letters accompanying the otherwise extremely uncertain, though strikingly imagined riddle. The runes of B and L have intrigued scholars, but led to faulty conclusions. The answer of “town” [burh] does not come anywhere near the fascinating imagery of pointed resistance of the riddle, and would not constitute much of the misdirection we all know and love about the riddles. “Ballista” is similarly unsatisfying, more because these sorts of siege engines were uncommon in medieval warfare, and were more associated with the military of the Roman Empire.
However, there is a much simpler, more satisfying solution: The imagery of the riddle dwells upon fortification and resistance by sharp instruments, figured as “painful pointed spears” (recalling the “Agob is min nama” riddle [#23]), but also the presence of treasure within: “My insides are sound, / my guts glorious, / beloved by the proud” (9–10). The solution does not have to be so complicated: what fortification contains a heavily defended commodity? The B-rune at the start must correspond to “beo” (bee) and the L-rune to the second element of an otherwise unattested kenning for “beehive” — perhaps “loca” or some derivation.
Given the dependency of early Northern European aristocracy upon the drinking of mead (the answer accepted for Riddle #27), it is not hard to conclude that honey was a very desirable and precious resource. Its production by beekeepers must have been of tribal importance, safeguarded and subsidized by the lords of the land. Apiaries must have been almost strategic in their centrality.
Patrick J. Murphy comes closest to seeing this elegant solution, in arguing its connection to Samson’s famous riddle from Judges 14:14 (3), of the fallen lion containing a hive of bees (a pretty unfair riddle if you ask me — kind of like the “one-eyed seller of garlic” of Riddle 86). However, in his eagerness to attach the Old English poem to a Biblical source, he does not light upon the more elegant solution of just plain beehive. (4)
There is no reason to seek elaborate or anachronistic solutions when more direct indirection ought to suffice. Poorly conceived riddles might just be bad, but any solution that seems literally true pretty much cannot be the intended answer in any situation. We also should keep in mind the essentiality of the riddle’s world — that these poems are most likely going to only include those things actually experienced in an early English cultural milieu.
1) The solutions as given in Paul F. Baum’s Anglo-Saxon Riddles of the Exeter Book (1963) can be found here. The order of the Riddles are different than they appear in the Exeter Book, but the ASPR numbers are given
2) Definitely in the notes to his Feast of Creatures (Philadelphia, Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1982), but possibly as well in Williamson’s monograph on the riddles (The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book [Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1977]).
3) “De comedente exivit cibus, et de forti est egressa dulcedo” [Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness] (Douay-Rheims translation).
4) In this he follows the example of the famous “Lot and his daughters” riddle (#46). Murphy’s book is Unriddling the Exeter Riddles (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011).