Anglo-Saxon Riddles

I hope you’re enjoying the summer (or winter)!  I’m spending it adapting my doctoral thesis into a book, which is taking up a lot of my writing time at the moment, and I don’t have much left in which to write this blog.  Still, I’d hate to miss a fortnightly post date.

A couple of months ago, I mentioned that I had translated some riddles from the Anglo-Saxon Exeter Book in order to publicise the Anglian strand of the York Festival of Ideas.  Although we ended up selecting three riddles for the festival, I translated ten in total, and produced five finished translations, which are below.  Why not have a guess at the answers?

The Anglo-Saxon text is quoted from Murray McGillivray’s Online Corpus of Old English Poetry, University of Calgary,


Riddle 11

Hrægl is min hasofag,         hyrste beorhte,

reade ond scire         on reafe minum.

Ic dysge dwelle         ond dole hwette

unrædsiþas,         oþrum styre

nyttre fore.         Ic þæs nowiht wat

þæt heo swa gemædde,         mode bestolene,

dæde gedwolene,         deoraþ mine

won wisan gehwam.         Wa him þæs þeawes,

siþþan heah bringað         horda deorast,

gif hi unrædes         ær ne geswicaþ.


My garment is grey-stained, my decoration bright,

red and shining on my clothing.

I lead the foolish astray and urge the stupid down unwise roads,

and guide others from more useful ways.

I know nothing of why, so maddened, with mind stolen

and erring actions, they praise my empty ways to everyone.

Woe be to them for that behaviour

when afterwards they bring high the dearest of treasures,

if they do not first turn away from foolishness.


Riddle 16

Oft ic sceal wiþ wæge winnan         ond wiþ winde feohtan,

somod wið þam sæcce,         þonne ic secan gewite

eorþan yþum þeaht;         me biþ se eþel fremde.

Ic beom strong þæs gewinnes,         gif ic stille weorþe;

gif me þæs tosæleð,         hi beoð swiþran þonne ic,

ond mec slitende         sona flymað,

willað oþfergan         þæt ic friþian sceal.

Ic him þæt forstonde,         gif min steort þolað

ond mec stiþne wiþ         stanas moton

fæste gehabban.         Frige hwæt ic hatte.


Often I must struggle against the waters and fight the winds,

strive against them together, then I set out to seek

the earth covered by waves: land is strange to me.

I am strong in the struggle if I become still.

If that goes wrong, they will be stronger than me,

tearing, straight away banish me:

they want to carry away what I must protect.

I will defend it from them, if my tail holds out,

and if the stones might hold fast against firm me.

Ask what my name is!


Riddle 47

Moððe word fræt.    Me þæt þuhte

wrætlicu wyrd,    þa ic þæt wundor gefrægn,

þæt se wyrm forswealg    wera gied sumes,

þeof in þystro,    þrymfæstne cwide

ond þæs strangan staþol.    Stælgiest ne wæs

wihte þy gleawra,    þe he þam wordum swealg.


A moth ate words.

To me that seemed a strange fate,

when I heard about that wonder:

that the worm swallowed up a certain man’s sayings,

a thief in the darkness, his glorious speech

and its strong foundation.

The stealing guest was not a bit the wiser for swallowing those words.


Riddle 51

Ic seah wrætlice         wuhte feower

samed siþian;         swearte wæran lastas,

swaþu swiþe blacu.         Swift wæs on fore,

fuglum framra;         fleag on lyfte,

deaf under yþe.         Dreag unstille

winnende wiga         se him wegas tæcneþ

ofer fæted gold         feower eallum.


I saw four strange beings travel together:

black were their tracks, very dark traces.

Fast on its journey, bolder than birds,

it flew in the air, dived beneath the waves.

The labouring fighter suffered restlessly,

he who shows all four of them the paths over ornamented gold.


Riddle 85

Nis min sele swige,         ne ic sylfa hlud

ymb ……*         unc dryhten scop

siþ ætsomne.         Ic eom swiftre þonne he,

þragum strengra,         he þreohtigra.

Hwilum ic me reste;         he sceal yrnan forð.

Ic him in wunige         a þenden ic lifge;

gif wit unc gedælað,         me bið deað witod.

* here there is damage to the manuscript


My hall is not silent, nor am I myself loud.

The Lord created a journey together for us two.

I am faster than him, sometimes stronger; he is more powerful.

Sometimes I rest; he must run onwards.

I will dwell in him for as long as I live:

if we two part, death will be fated to me.



11 – wine

16 – anchor

47 – bookworm

51 – pen and three fingers

85 – fish and river


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