10 Wise Anglo-Saxon Riddles A Medieval Enthusiast Should Know

The Anglo-Saxons, just as the Norsemen, Goths, and other ancient Germanic peoples, were very fond of riddles and poetry. The Old English gnomic poetry passed the test of time through, most notably, the Exeter Book. This early medieval English manuscript constitutes the most voluminous body of work of Old English poetry ever written down. Subsequently, this 10th century volume was listed by UNESCO as part of ‘world’s principal cultural artefacts’.

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Aside from other poetic texts found throughout the book, there are also more than 90 riddles, conceived in the style of Anglo-Saxon poetry and dealing with both ecclesiastical and worldly matters. Below is a fine selection of 10 wise Anglo-Saxon riddles every medieval enthusiast should know (only modern English translations given; for Anglo-Saxon original text please see each linked text):

1. Riddle 6 from Exeter Book

A thing came marvelously moving over the waves,
comely from the keel up. It called out to the land,
loudly resounding. Its laughter was horrible,
awful in its place. Its edges were sharp;
hateful it was, and sluggish to battle,
bitter in its hostile deeds. It dug into shield-walls,
hard, ravaging. It spread mischievous spells.
It spoke with cunning craft about its creation:
“Dearest of women is indeed my mother;
she is my daughter grown big and strong.
It is known to men of old, among all people,
that she shall stand up beautifully everywhere in the world.

The answer is ice or iceberg.

2. Riddle 18 from Exeter Book

My garment is darkish. Bright decorations,
red and radiant, I have on my raiment.
I mislead the stupid and stimulate the foolish
toward unwise ways. Others I restrain
from profitable paths. But I know not at all
that they, maddened, robbed of their senses,
astray in their actions —that they praise to all men
my wicked ways. Woe to them then
when the Most High holds out his dearest of gifts
if they do not desist first from their folly.

The answer is wine.

3. Riddle 30 from Exeter Book

The sea fed me; the water-helm was over me,
and waves covered me, close to the ground.
I was footless. Often toward the water
I opened my mouth. Now people will
eat my meat. They want not my skin.
When they rip my hide with the point of a knife
. . . . . . . . .
Then they eat me uncooked. . . .

The answer is oyster.

4. Riddle 49 from Exeter Book

I am a lonely thing, wounded with iron,
switten by sword, sated with battle-work,
weary of blades. Often I see battle,
fierce combat. I foresee no comfort,
no help will come for me from the heat of battle,
until among men I perish utterly;
but the hammered swords will beat me and bite me,
hard-edged and sharp, the handiwork of smiths,
in towns among men. Abide I must always
the meeting of foes. Never could I find
among the leeches, where people foregather,
any who with herbs would heal my wounds;
but the sores from the swords are always greater
with mortal blows day and night.

The answer is shield.

5. Riddle 57 from Exeter Book

I war oft against wave and fight against wind,
do battle with both, when I reach to the ground,
covered by the waters. The land is strange to me.
I am strong in the strife if I stay at rest.
If I fail at that, they are stronger than I
and forthwith they wrench me and put me to rout.
They would carry away what I ought to defend.
I withstand them then if my tail endures
and the stones hold me fast. Ask what my name is.

The answer is anchor.

6. Riddle 58 from Exeter Book

Beautifully made in many ways
is this our world, cunningly adorned.
Marvelous is its motion, I saw this device
grind against the gravel, crying out as it went.
This marvelous thing had no sight nor feeling,
neither shoulders nor arms. One foot only
had this curious device to journey along on,
to move over the fields. It had many ribs,
its mouth was midway. Useful to mortals,
it bears abundance of food to the people,
brings them plenty and pays to men
annual tribute which all enjoy,
the high and the lowly. Explain if you can,
who are wise in words, what this thing may be.

The answer is ship.

7. Riddle 59 from Exeter Book

I am honored among men both near and far;
brought from the groves and inhabited hills,
from vales and from downs. By day I was borne
on wings through the air and happily wafted
to the shelter of roofs. Then they bathed me in butts.
Now I bind and I scourge and I overthrow
the young to the ground and the elders sometimes,
and this he soon finds who takes me on
and attacks me with violence; he falls on his back
unless he flees from his folly. Robbed of his strength,
though strong in speech, he is deprived of his powers,
and control of his mind, of his feet and his hands.
Ask what my name is who bind men to the ground,
the foolish after fighting, in broad daylight.

The answer is mead.

8. Riddle 62 from Exeter Book

Not silent is my hall, nor I myself am loud
. . . for us two the Lord ordained
our ways together. I am swifter than he
and at times stronger; he is more enduring.
Often I rest; he must run on.
With him is my home all my life long.
If we two are parted my death is destined.

The answers are fish and river.

9. Riddle 67 from Exeter Book

I am a lordly, thing known to nobles,
and often I rest, famous among peoples,
the mighty and the lowly; I travel widely
and to me first a stranger remains to my friends
the delight of plunderers, if I am to have
success in the cities or bright reward.
Now wise men exceedingly love
my presence. To many I shall
declare wisdom. There they speak not,
none the world over. Though now the sons of men
who live on the earth eagerly seek
the tracks that I make. I sometimes conceal
those paths of mine from all mankind.

The answer could be either moon or minstrel.

10. Riddle 90 from Exeter Book

I was the boast of brown [things], a tree in the forest,
a fine living thing and a fruit of the field,
a foundation of joy, a woman’s message,
gold in the homes. Now I am a warrior’s
happy weapon with a ring …

The answer is most likely beech tree.

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