Exeter Book

Exeter Book Summary and Analysis of Riddles 1, 2, 3, 25, 44, 45, 47, 72


Riddle 1:

How many men are clever enough to identify who sends me on my journey? I go, brave and roaring across the earth, burning buildings and houses in my wake. Smoke rises from the fires as I leave in a trail of disruption and death. I have the power to shake tall trees until their leaves fall down, covered in water, and scatter exiles far from their lands. I carry the bodies and souls of human beings on my back. Where do I retreat to, and what is my name?

Riddle 2:

I often travel under the waves where no one can see me. The sea screams and heaves above, and water crashes on the shore, stirring up sand, seaweed, and stones. I cannot escape from the ocean because my guide does not allow me to do so. Tell me, clever reader, who brings me up from the ocean, when the waters covering me were once calm and still?

Riddle 3:

Sometimes my master chains me down in a dark hole. There is no relief for my suffering, but I can shake houses and cities until their walls teeter and fall. When the sea seems calm I can burst out of the ground. I follow the directions of he who first created the world, and I cannot disobey him. Sometimes, I attack from above, sending forth my force to create floods on the shore. Waves crash against the cliffs and the mountains as night falls. On the shore, merrymakers scream in fear and ships are filled with sailors' cries. The ships are locked in battle with the sea, where they will either capsize or stay safely afloat. I hear some of the men wail with terror as I continue my rampage. Who will calm me?

Sometimes I push the wind and the ocean moves behind it, causing streams to flood. Sometimes I force the wind and ocean together, and they make the loudest, crashing noise that man has ever heard. The resulting force spits flames into the sky, sending people running for their lives. Then, I let water fall from my bosom and my belly, creating further dread and misery amongst men. Their towns will fall as glittering arrows strike down upon them. The foolish men may not fear these weapons, but they should, because if God aims for a man, there is no escaping death. Once I have started this battle, I sink back into the clouds, over the oceans, and down below the earth, taking with me whatever my master has requested. Therefore, I am a servant. Sometimes I do my work from underground, sometimes I dive under the waves, and sometimes I must strike from above. What am I called, who commands me, and who watches me when I am still?

Riddle 25:

I'm a fellow whom women love, and I provide a service for my neighbors. I hurt nobody but he who is trying to kill me. I stand straight up in bed and am hairy down below. Sometimes, the pretty daughter of a peasant grabs me, attacks my red head, strangles me, and has an immediate reaction to the encounter; she cries.

Riddle 44:

This mysterious thing hangs on a man's thigh, under his coat. His shirt has a hole in the front, creating a good position for this mysterious object, which is hard and erect. When the man starts to disrobe, he puts the mysterious hanging object back into the hole where he has kept it before.

Riddle 45:

I know something that grows on its own, becoming thicker and fatter until a girl takes that boneless thing and covers it with her dress/apron.

Riddle 47:

A moth ate words, which I thought wonderful and strange because a crawling insect, a thief in darkness, was able to swallow famous writings. However, the thief was still foolish even after its belly was full of thoughts.

Riddle 72:

I was a young woman and an old woman and a solitary warrior at the same time. I flew with birds, swam in the water, went below the waves and was dead with the fish. I stepped on land and had a living soul.


There are about 95 riddles included in Exeter Book (the number sometimes changes when translators group multiple riddles into one). The riddles are presented in three groups: 1-59 are grouped together; 60 and a second version of 30 appear as a pair; and 61-95 come at the end of the manuscript. The riddles address many different subjects, such as nature, sex, the battlefield, the kitchen, and animals. Some riddles are written in the third person while others are in the first person. Many of the riddles are double entendres, meaning that they could be interpreted as sexual in nature. Although the riddles were probably intended for a learned audience, they convey popular folk wisdom. The riddles in the Exeter Book were probably authored by multiple people and are difficult to date. It seems likely they were composed in the 700s when riddles were popular in English monasteries. There may have been an attempt to assemble 100 riddles in the Exeter Book like in some Latin collections. Three of the riddles allude to influence from Sympthosius and Aldhem, but the rest of them are original works.

As Kevin Crossley-Holland writes, "Old English literature is packed with mini-riddles; they are known as kennings and are in fact condensed metaphors." While the riddles are extremely varied in subject matter and tone, "what the riddles reflect above all, though, are not aspects either of the Germanic heroic world or of the Christian faith but simply the everyday life of the working man, far more concerned with crops than concepts. Many describe household objects, artefacts such as plough and anchor, and constituents of the natural world..." The riddles are not didactic, but rather, would have created amusement and intellectual stimulation amongst Anglo-Saxon readers. Also, the riddles do not specify their answers in their titles or anywhere else, and have thus puzzled casual readers and literary scholars for centuries.

Riddles 1-3 are commonly referred to as the "storm riddles" because they have, as Erika von Erhardt-Siebold writes in her article, "unusually vigorous and beautiful descriptions of disasters on sea and land as caused by the uproar of the elements." Riddle 1 is commonly believed to depict a thunderstorm. Riddles 2 and 3 have lines that are "readily interpretable in the light of Greek, especially Platonic, physical and cosmological thought, which considers that three of the four elements –namely fire, air, and water –are in a state of permanent transmutation into one another." Some of the lines also allude to the Biblical flood.

Riddles 44 and 45 are perfect examples of the double entendre, where the reader is intended to believe that the answer is something obscene, but the riddle actually alludes to something much more innocuous. Riddle 44 cleverly appears to refer to a man's genitals, but it is actually a description of a key. Riddle 45 also sounds like it is referring to a man's genitals, but it is actually a description of bread dough. Riddle 26 is quite inscrutable to modern readers as well, but the answer is equally surprising. It is an onion! Riddle 47, meanwhile, seems to have a simple answer (a book-moth) but is actually quite complex and notoriously undecipherable. Scholars see it as an elaborate pun with themes of the value of language.

Renowned scholar Marcella McCarthy has extensively studied Riddle 72. This riddle has long been lauded as a scholarly delight and has yielded multiple "solutions," such as: ship figurehead, cuttlefish, swan, siren, writing, etc. McCarthy entertains the theory that the answer is a figurehead but concludes that this conclusion is not ultimately satisfying. She examines the paradoxes of age and movement that the riddle suggests and posits that "it is the totality of this completed cycle which is to provide the answer; the riddler itself stands outside as it speaks." Subsequently, McCarthy revisits a much older solution: the sun. In Anglo-Saxon English, the Sun can be referred to as masculine or feminine. It is young at dawn and old at sunset, and a "warrior" because of its majesty and heat. The riddle has similar elements to another poem, "The Phoenix," like the themes of cycles and rebirth. The sun thus rises, blazes, and sets into the sea where it is "dead," but then reveals its immortality when it rises again the next day.