Thursday, April 2, 2009

Old English Riddles - a thousand years of double entendre

“I am a wonderful help to women
The hope of something good to come
I harm only my slayer
I grow very tall, erect in a bed
I am shaggy down below
The lovely girl grabs my body, rubs my red skin
Holds me hard, claims my head.
That girl will feel our meeting!
I bring tears to her eyes!
What am I?”

(Answer at the foot of the post.)

This is Riddle 23 from the Exeter Book. The word ‘riddle’ derives from the same root as the Old English word ‘-raed’, meaning ‘counsel, explain, teach’. A riddle is typically a short poem describing a familiar object or activity in a cryptic way, and the listener (or reader, after they came to be written down) has to work out what is being described. They can be clever, witty, poetic, beautiful, almost mystical. As this one shows, they can also display a bawdy sense of humour. Seven of the Exeter Book Riddles are of the same form as Riddle 23.

English/British humour seems to be uncommonly fond of the risque double meaning. It’s a staple of seaside postcards, Carry On films, Frankie Howerd scripts, not to mention Shakespeare (“Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit, wilt thou not Juliet?”). In English, it seems, any entendre can be double’d. It’s rather nice to see proof that this hasn’t changed in a thousand years.

The Exeter Book is believed to be the “…one large book in English verse about various subjects” which was bequeathed to the Exeter Cathedral Library by Leofric, first Bishop of Exeter, in 1072. It survives in Exeter Cathedral Library to this day. The date of its composition is not known, though it’s usually ascribed to the second half of the tenth century, say around 960 or so. The Exeter Book contains a remarkable variety of Old English verse, religious and secular, including The Seafarer, The Wanderer, The Husband’s Message, The Wife’s Lament, Widsith and, of course, the Riddles.

To me, the Exeter Book Riddles show early English culture in an attractive light. Clearly these were people who liked jokes as well as elegies, who valued mundane tasks as well as heroes, and who enjoyed intelligent word games but weren’t above a vulgar belly laugh. It’s worth remembering that the Exeter Book was a gift from a bishop to his cathedral library, presumably expected to be read mainly by monks and other clerics. Evidently at least one senior churchman of the time was no prim killjoy.

Do you have a favourite riddle?

Answer: an onion. Whatever were you thinking?


  1. Some of those riddles are pretty obscure(to modern people), at least). The ones that are the "earthiest", like the oninon one above, are usually the "double entendre" ones. Interestingly, some African cultures like this kind of riddle,for many of the same reasons, I suppose, as the AS people did. They were also a teaching tool.
    Anne G

  2. I heard of a wonder, of words moth-eaten;
    That is a strange thing, I thought, weird
    That a man’s song be swallowed by a worm,
    His binded sentences, his bedside stand-by
    Rustled in the night – and the robber-guest
    Not a whit the wiser for the words he had mumbled

    Michael Alexander has translated almost all the Exeter book riddles and you can read them in "Old English Riddles from the Exeter book" (Anvil PRess 2007) whihc has a fine introduction. There's also good selections in his standard "The First poems in Old English".

  3. Anne - yes, I've never really got the one-eyed seller of garlic, although I daresay it had them rolling in the aisles at the Exeter Palladium in 960.

    Liam - the bookworm riddle is among my favourites too. I was reminded of it not so long ago when we discovered that mice had eaten some old university notes stored in the shed; well-educated mice, I thought :-) Many thanks for the Michael Alexander reference. I first came across the Riddles in Kevin Crossley-Holland's translation, and still have a soft spot for it.

  4. For reasons unknown I was asked to review three OE translations last year, The Riddles was one of the books.
    the review is here:

  5. its double meaning.. i m pretty sure what i taught in mind is the answer.. well its nice but.. like it a lot..