Episode 32: Trick or Treat! The Halloween Special
Happy Halloween, Samhain, and All Hallows Eve! In our second annual Halloween episode, we’re going to go “trick or treating” with some Old English riddles! These are sure to surprise and thrill, and are fantastic fun to pull out in tabletop games, or sneak into a novel like Tolkien did.
In case you missed it, check out episode five for last year’s Halloween episode. We discuss the medieval roots of Halloween traditions, like the Jack O’Lantern and trick or treating, as well as a dive into two fascinating versions of a werewolf tale.
Before jumping into our hoard of riddles, let’s take a look at some riddle-lore.
Riddles are a human constant. Every culture has a mythos steeped in riddles, especially those offered by gods and other supernatural beings. The ancient Egyptians and Greeks had the sphinx, for instance, and Norse mythology has a rich history of riddles, including many found in the Poetic and Prose Eddae. Many Roman riddles were so popular they were translated into common vernacular.
Further, Old English, Old Norse and/or Old Icelandic all had “kennings,” which we include as mini-riddles. Kennings are metaphoric language used to describe commonplace things. The “whale-road,” for instance, is the ocean, or your “heart-locker” is your ribcage. These sort of kennings were very common and could be stacked upon themselves in poetry so that the poem itself was almost indecipherable. A good poet would be able to stump his audience for several days while they figured out what all the kennings were.
While some riddles are universal, a lot of older riddles require cultural context to understand — what is common for one group might not even come to mind for another, so some riddles might seem “unsolvable” or “unfair” if you’re not familiar with that context. Keep that in mind as we go through our riddles today.
Old English riddles in particular come from a combination of altered Roman riddles and cultural Northern European riddles that were common at that time. Bishop Adhelm wrote a treatise on poetry in Latin in the early 8th century, in which he included one hundred Latin riddles which were inspired by the Roman riddles of Symohosius. This collection inspired the creation of more original riddles written in the vernacular, which led, of course, to the creation of the Exeter book.
The Exeter Book was compiled in the late tenth century, and is primarily a book of poetry. Though it was gifted to Exeter Cathedral by Bishop Leofric, the manuscript itself probably originated elsewhere. Regardless, the book itself contains a massive chunk of our surviving Old English poetry.
Riddles are only a portion of the work found in the manuscript, and those of you familiar with the Old English corpus might be familiar with the other works contained within, such as the Christ poems, the Wanderer, the Seafarer (both of which Tolkien took inspiration from), Deor, the Wife’s Lament, and The Ruin.For a book of largely religious poetry and heady themes of elegy, mourning, and death, the collection of riddles are quite odd since some are vulgar at best and sacrilegious at worst.
The Exeter book contains about 94 riddles, though there is some debate as to where to divide the poems because the manuscript has little punctuation pr spacing, as was common for the time. Further, the riddle solutions are not listed in the text itself, so the “answers” we have are the general consensus of scholars. If you can solve the riddles with a different solution than we come up with, let us know!
The riddles double as alliterative poetry, but don’t necessarily rhyme like a lot of our modern English riddles do. Of course, since these have been translated, some of the art in the poetry itself is lost, so please remember that these are works of art and poetry as well as games.
Our translations of these riddles are from The Riddle Ages, which features the research and translations of Megan Cavell, Neville Mogford, and Jennifer Neville, all of whom are academics. Please check out their translations and commentary in the links!
Note: we will list the riddle solutions at the bottom in white text so you can highlight them with your mouse to read them! We will also be using The Riddle Ages’ numbering system, which in turn uses Craig Williamson’s numbering of the riddles.
I am a lone-dweller, wounded by iron,
savaged by a sword, worn out by war-deeds,
battered by blades. Often I see battle,
fraught fighting. I do not expect succour,
that relief from war might come to me,
before I perish utterly among men,
but the leavings of hammers lash me,
hard-edged and sword-sharp, handiwork of smiths,
they bite me in strongholds; I must wait for
the more hateful encounter. Never am I able
to find medic-kin in the dwelling-place,
those who might heal my wound with herbs,
but the scars of swords become wider on me
through a death-blow by day and by night.
Solution: shield<-- highlight me!
My clothing keeps quiet, when I step on earth
or settle down on dwellings or disturb the waters.
Sometimes my dress and this lofty air
lift me over the home of heroes;
and widely, then, does the clouds’ strength
bear me over mankind. My adornments
sound out loud and entune sweetly,
sing clearly, when I am not touching
flood and fold, a soul faring.
I am a wondrous creature, a joy to women,
a help to neighbours; I harm none
of the city-dwellers, except for my killer.
My base is steep and high, I stand in a bed,
shaggy somewhere beneath. Sometimes ventures
the very beautiful daughter of a churl,
a maid proud in mind, so that she grabs hold of me,
rubs me to redness, ravages my head,
forces me into a fastness. Immediately she feels
my meeting, the one who confines me,
the curly-locked woman. Wet will be that eye.
I saw a creature in men’s dwellings,
the one who feeds the herds. It has many teeth;
its nose is at use; downward it goes,
plunders faithfully and proceeds towards home,
hunts through walls, seeks plants.
It always finds the ones that are not firmly rooted;
it lets the beautiful ones, firm in their roots,
stand still in their foundations,
shine brightly, bloom and grow.
A wondrous thing hangs by a man’s thigh,
under its lord’s clothing. In front there is a hole.
It stands stiff and hard. It has a good home.
When the servant raises his own garment
up over his knee, he wants to greet
with his dangling head that well-known hole,
of equal length, which he has often filled before.
Solution: key & lock
I heard that something was growing in the corner,
swelling and sticking up, raising its roof.
A proud bride grasped that boneless thing,
with her hands. A lord’s daughter
covered with a garment that bulging thing.
A moth ate words. That seemed to me
a curious happening, when I heard about that wonder,
that the worm, a thief in the darkness, swallowed
a certain man’s song, a glory-fast speech
and its strong foundation. The stealing guest was not
at all the wiser for that, for those words which he swallowed.
A certain enemy robbed me of my life,
stole my world-strength; afterward he soaked me,
dunked me in water, dragged me out again,
set me in the sun, where I swiftly lost
the hairs that I had. Afterward the hard
edge of a knife, with all unevenness ground away, slashed me;
fingers folded, and the bird’s joy
[spread] over me with worthwhile drops, often made tracks,
over the bright border, swallowed tree-dye,
a portion of the stream, stepped again on me,
journeyed, leaving behind a dark track. Afterward a hero
encircled me with protective boards, covered me with hide,
garnished me with gold; therefore the wonderful
work of smiths glitters on me, surrounded by wire.
Now those ornaments and the red dye
and that wondrous dwelling widely worship
the protector of the people, not at all foolish in wisdom.
If the children of men wish to enjoy me,
they will be the more sound and the more victory-fast,
the bolder in heart and the more blithe in mind,
the wiser in spirit, they will have more friends,
dear and near, faithful and good,
upright and true; then their glory and prosperity
will increase with favour and lay down
goodwill and kindness and in the grasp of love
clasp firmly. Find what I am called,
useful to men. My name is famous,
handy to heroes and holy in itself.
Solution: a Bible
The sea sustained me, the water-helm covered me,
and the waves concealed me lying on the ground,
foot-less. Often I, facing the flood,
opened my mouth. Now a certain person wishes
to devour my flesh, he does not care for my skin,
when he rips my hide from my side
with the point of a knife, … then
eats me uncooked …
Solution: oyster (or other shellfish)
There came walking a young man, to where he knew
she was standing in a corner. From afar he went,
the resolute young man, heaving his own clothing
with his hands, pushing something stiff
under her girdle while she was standing there,
worked his will; the two of them shook.
A retainer hastened, his capable servant
was useful sometimes; still, at times, he grew tired
though stronger than her at first,
weary due to work. Under the girdle,
there began to grow what good men often
love in their hearts and buy with money.
Solution: butter churn
While many of these riddles talk about the ordinary, the every-day, or even the taboo, they do so in a high style elevating them to their place alongside the elegies and religious poems on either page beside them. Still, the humorous edge also reminds readers not to take life so seriously, and enjoy a trick and a treat every now and then.
Final Rating: 9.0
Thanks for joining us in this week's episode of The Maniculum Podcast. Looking for more? Check out our Master List series for the full collection of segments at the end of our show, and for more gaming and world building ideas, check out The Gaming Table section of our blog, Marginalia!
Searching for our sources? Read the Exeter Book riddles here, and check out our Library for more!
Additional references for interested scholars:
Baker, Peter S. Old English Aerobics. Link
Bitterli, Dieter, Say What I Am Called: The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book and the Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2009)
The Riddle Ages: Early Medieval Riddles, Translations and Commentaries, ed. by Megan Cavell, with Matthias Ammon, Neville Mogford and Victoria Symons (2013; redeveloped 2020). Link
The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book, ed. Craig Williamson (Chapel Hill, 1977)
Miller, Nina Rulon, ‘Sexual Humor and Fettered Desire in Exeter Book Riddle 12’, in Humour in Anglo-Saxon Literature, ed. Jonathan Wilcox (Cambridge: D. S .Brewer, 2000), pp. 99-126.
Orchard, Andy, ‘Enigma Variations: The Anglo-Saxon Riddle-Tradition’, in Latin Learning and English Lore: Studies in Anglo-Saxon Literature for Michael Lapidge, ed. Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe and Andy Orchard, 2 vols (Toronto: Toronto U.P., 2005), I, 284-304.
We do our best to accurately research, source, and cite the works we use, and make them available to you, too! Each episode has a corresponding blog post which includes further breakdowns of the big ideas in each text as well as cites our sources and references. We also have the Maniculum Library, which actively collects resources and recommendations for writers, scholars, and geeks alike! We update our collection of Master Lists after each new episode, so be sure subscribe and stay updated!
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