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The Best Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings

This page is a collection of some of the very best Anglo-Saxon riddles and kennings. I became a translator of Anglo-Saxon riddles and kennings after falling in love with "Wulf and Eadwacer," a stunning poem from the Exeter Book. (There is a link to my translations of the poem at the bottom of this page.) One thing led to another, and I began to translate other poems from the same same collection. There are around 100 riddles and kennings in the Exeter Book, the oldest surviving poetry anthology in the English language. However, the exact number is unknown because some of the pages are illegible or missing. Unfortunately, from the gouges and round stains on the cover, it appears this precious book was used as a cutting board and coaster for beer mugs! The poems of the Exeter Book were written in Anglo-Saxon English, also known as Old English, and thus bear a heavy Germanic influence. While these poems are often grouped together and called "riddles," some of them are actually kennings, or extended metaphors. Anglo-Saxon scops frequently employed two-word kennings: alliterative metaphors like "whale-way" for the sea, "sea-steeds" for ships, "tickle-tools" for feathers, and "mead-making" for drunken, rambling speech. When the scops constructed poems, they sometimes "extended" such kennings into larger, more elaborate constructions such as grár nagr hræva ("the grey bird of corpses") and þjóð mána stiettar ("the people of the moon's path"). In some cases, as you will see demonstrated on this page, metaphors were extended into poems of considerable length and complexity, anticipating the work of metaphysical poets to come hundreds of years later, such as John Donne, Andrew Marvell, George Herbert and Henry Vaughan. Modern examples of extended metaphors include Donne's holy sonnets, Marvell's famous carpe diem poem "To His Coy Mistress," and Herbert's "The Collar" and "The Pulley." The ancient Anglo-Saxon scops tended to be less polished and sophisticated; rather, they were coarse, lewd and wickedly funny. The scops were to the metaphysical poets as Andrew Dice Clay is to Jerry Seinfeld, or Meatloaf to the Three Tenors.

Riddles have been around forever. The oldest extant epic poem, Gilgamesh, contains a riddle: the "Riddle of the Springs of Dilmun." Perhaps the famous ancient riddle is the "Riddle of the Sphinx" in the ancient Greek play Oedipus. In the Hebrew Bible, the Queen of Sheba asked King Solomon a riddle, which the wisest of men was able to solve, and the strongman Samson perplexed his less-wise friends with a riddle. In J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins and Gollum engaged in a riddle contest, which allowed Baggins to escape with his life and the One Ring (although one might suggest that Bilbo cheated when he asked Gollum what he had in his pocket!). One of the most famous super-villains is Batman's nemesis, the Riddler: "Riddle me this / Riddle me that / Who's afraid of the big, black Bat?" The Anglo-Saxon scops were accomplished riddlers and kenners. For my purposes here, a riddle asks the question: Who or what am I? A kenning, on the other hand, is an extended metaphor that helps us better understand something named or known. But sometimes the lines blur, because when we finish a riddle, if we are able to solve it, we may well understand the subject better!

modern English translations by Michael R. Burch

Here is one of the shorter Anglo-Saxon riddles:

Riddle: Water Become Bone
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Wonder-wrought waves: water become bone!

(Solution: Ice on a frozen lake or seashore.)

I call my translations "loose translations" because rather than trying to reproduce each ancient word literally, losing much of the poetry in the process, I try to "ken" what the original poet was thinking and feeling, then turn those feelings and thoughts into modern English poetry. Whether I have succeeded or not is mostly up to you, the reader, since no one can inquire with the original authors. But I think my translation above does capture something of the spirit of the original poem: the magic of translucent liquid water somehow becoming solid and white, like bone.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, our word "kenning" derives from the Old Norse cognate verb kenna: "to know, to recognize, to feel or perceive; to call, to name (in a formal poetic metaphor)." So a kenning helps us know something more fully by the way it is named: whale-way, sea-steed, tickle-tool, mead-making, etc. According to the Bible, the first act of the first man, Adam, was to name things. And if we want to avoid the fate of the people who built the Tower of Babel, we need to heed the advice of the wisest of the ancient Greeks, Socrates, and agree on the meanings of the words we use. Poetic kennings are one way of grasping such meanings more intimately and profoundly. I am reminded of the word "grok" used by the Mars-born visitor to earth in Robert Heinlein's novel A Stranger in a Strange Land. I think to "grok" and to "ken" are essentially the same: to know and understand something as fully as possible.

Kennings were so popular in Anglo-Saxon poetry that around a third of Beowulf, the best-known Anglo-Saxon poem, is comprised of kennings. And "Beowulf" is itself a kenning, meaning "bee-wolf," or bear (bears are famous for robbing bees of their honey). Why did the scops use primarily alliterative kennings? Because the primary sound-device of Anglo-Saxon poetry was alliteration, the repetition of letter sounds. For example, the short poem above contains four "w" sounds and two "b" sounds. Also the words "wonder" and "water" sound very similar, as do "become" and "bone." So there can be a lot going on, sonically, in a line of Anglo-Saxon poetry, even though such poetry rarely employs rhyme.

The Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Vikings, Icelanders and Teutons had a rich riddle-poem tradition, known as enigmata (think "enigma"). During the Dark Ages, people of these cultures frequently played riddle games around hearth-fires, while drinking beer, ale, mead and other inebriating beverages. So the fun was often quite boisterous, and sometimes obscene. For instance, some of the riddles and kennings compare things that are hard and swell to men's penises. (The word "thing" itself can refer to a penis.) Thanks to the Exeter Book, a good number of these poems have survived. However, the compounding of kennings sometimes resulted in cumbersome confusion, so not all such poems are successful. On this page, I have selected some of the better short poems that in my opinion still "hit on all cylinders."

By way of example, here is a wonderfully humorous and ironic kenning, in which the identity of the protagonist is revealed immediately, meaning that the poem is not really a riddle in the modern sense of the word:

Kenning: A Moth Devoured Words
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

A moth devoured words!
When I heard about this horrific theft,
I thought it passing strange
that an insect can feast on a man's finest song,
gorge on his grandiloquence,
riddle his most righteous rhetoric.
But then I realized: the wee bookworm
wandered away not one whit the wiser!

(Kenning: A moth is not fooled or impressed by man's rhetoric. Nor is there anything to be learned in foppish nonsense, even by the smallest of bookworms.)

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the Old English word scop is related to our modern word "scoff" through the Old High German scoph ("poetry, sport, jest") and the Old Norse skop ("railing, mockery"). Were the scops scoffers? The clever satire above suggests so. The ancient Celtic bards were such accomplished satirists that it was said that even kings feared their mockeries!

The Exeter Book was a handwritten manuscript bequeathed to the Exeter Cathedral Library by a bishop named Leofric who died in 1072 A.D., so the book is ancient. Experts have dated the book itself it to around 970 to 990 A.D., but some of the poems could be much older, having been passed down orally before they were written down.

Leofric must have been somewhat tolerant, because some of the poems are slyly lewd and fall into the category of double entendre. Here's one with an interesting twist:

Riddle: The Curious Creature
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

I'm a curious creature;
I satisfy women, and sometimes their neighbors!
(After a brief period of anticipation,
in which I offer them hope of pleasures to come.)
No one suffers because of me, except my slayer.
I grow erect in bed.
I'm hairy underneath.
Sometimes a beautiful girl,
the brave daughter of some commoner
who's not above my low station
grabs me eagerly,
manipulates my russet skin,
holds me hard,
cleanses my head,
then keeps me handy, nearby.
But the girl who keeps me confined
will soon feel the effects:
I make her wet.

The poem above is obviously about an onion, but it makes a series of comparisons to a man's penis. An onion makes a cook's eyes water, so the scop drew a clever, provocative parallel in the closing lines.

Here's a similar riddle:

Riddle: A Curious Thing Hangs
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

A curious thing hangs,
dangles by a man's thigh,
covered by his clothes.
It has an eye in its head;
it's stiff and hard;
and because it's borne firmly it yields a reward.
The man pulls his clothes above his knee,
in order to poke the head of his hanging thing
into that old familiar hole it fits so well,
and has filled so many times before.

(Solution: A key worn secretly inside a man's clothes, perhaps a priest's robe. If so, the poem could "poke" fun at the clergy, who were supposed to be celibate but often had mistresses.)

Here's another poem in a similar vein:

Riddle: The Swollen Thing
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

I heard there's something growing in its nook,
swelling, rising, and expanding,
pushing against its covering.
I heard a cocky-minded young woman took that boneless thing in her hands,
covered its tumescence with a soft cloth.

(Solution: Dough rising.)

Riddle: I Watched Two Wondrous Creatures
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

I watched a wondrous creature, a bright unicorn,
bearing away treasure between her white horns,
fetching it home from some distant adventure.
I'm sure she intended to hide her loot in some lofty stronghold
constructed with incredible cunning, her craft.
But then climbing the sky-cliffs a far greater creature arose,
her fiery face familiar to all earth's inhabitants.
She seized all the spoils, driving the albescent creature
with her wrecked dreams far to the west,
spewing wild insults as she scurried home.
Dust rose heavenward. Dew descended.
Night fled, and afterward
No man knew where the white creature went.

(Solution: The sun and the moon.)

Kenning: The Whale
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Now, I will sing about this strange fishes' kin,
finned like no flounder, and no friend to men:
The mighty Leviathan.

He floats in the ocean like a regal rock;
men mistake him for an island; some try to dock,
seldom with any luck.

But if they "make land," securing their ship
with great, heavy ropes from which green seaweed drips,
he soon dives to the bottom, taking them for a dip!

The whale is a demon, the siren of the seas;
he lures men and fish with his fragrant ambergris
into his dark gullet, ignoring their pleas!

His father, the Devil, does the same thing as well:
offers "comfort" and "haven" when wild tempests swell,
then drags dull men down to the darkest depths of hell.

(Kenning: The Whale is like his father, the Devil, in tactics, and many unwitting men are their victims.)

Although the Anglo-Saxon language was Germanic in its origins, around a third of its words are preserved in modern English, so the two languages remain closely related. In the poem below, words like "suck" and "suckle" and "sea" come to us from our Anglo-Saxon ancestors, while "slurp" is closely related, deriving from the Middle Dutch slurpen.

Riddle: The Sea Suckled Me
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The sea suckled me; the wild waves washed me;
I was rocked by breakers in my restless cradle.
Footless but fixed, I opened my wordless mouth to the life-giving floods.
But soon some man will come to consume me,
slip the point of his knife savagely into my side,
slide it down, ripping the flesh from my bones,
then slurp me in raw, smiling as he sucks me down.

(Solution: An Oyster.)

Riddle: A Female Brooding
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

I saw a female, solitary, brooding.

(Solution: A hen, and perhaps a human woman left to bear and raise her children alone, because some cocky rooster refused to accept his responsibility as their father.)

I hope you have enjoyed my translations from the dawn of the English language. Although our Anglo-Saxon ancestors lived in very difficult times, experiencing plagues, the wild injustices of church and state, and being attacked by fearsome Norsemen and other invaders, they managed to keep their wits about themselves, and their sense of humor, however dark at times. And I think we can still see that dark humor in ourselves: in the humorous writings of Mark Twain, in the comedy of George Carlin, in political cartoons, and in sitcoms like Married With Children.

The following are links to other translations by Michael R. Burch. "Wulf and Eadwacer" may be the oldest extant poem in the English language written by a female poet. "Sweet Rose of Virtue" is a modern translation of a truly great poem by the early Scottish master William Dunbar. "How Long the Night" is one of the very best Anglo Saxon lyric poems. "Caedmon's Hymn" may be the oldest poem in the English language.

Wulf and Eadwacer
Sweet Rose of Virtue
How Long the Night
Caedmon's Hymn
Bede's Death Song
The Wife's Lament
Deor's Lament
Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings
Whoso List to Hunt
Tegner's Drapa
Lament for the Makaris
Robert Burns
Ancient Greek Epigrams and Epitaphs
Oriental Masters/Haiku
Miklós Radnóti
Rainer Maria Rilke
Marina Tsvetaeva
Renée Vivien
Ono no Komachi
Allama Iqbal
Bertolt Brecht
Ber Horvitz
Paul Celan
Primo Levi
Ahmad Faraz
Sandor Marai
Wladyslaw Szlengel
Saul Tchernichovsky

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