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Aldhelm and Anonymous: Anglo-Saxon Riddles

Vocabulary: alliteration, alliterative verse, Anglo-Saxon (or Old English), kenning, oral tradition, prosopopoeia, scribes, theme

Introduction: How widespread are riddles across various cultures in the world? In many Anglo-Saxon and Latin medieval manuscripts, riddles are arranged in groups. How many riddles typically appear in each group?

Reading Hints:

  • Riddle A: what sort of an object would prevent a warrior from suffering injuries by taking those injuries upon itself? Note that most armor is made of iron or chain-mail, so what bit would be made of willow-wood and smooth ox-skin?
  • Riddle B: What invisible force is noisy and intangible, but is capable of breaking trees, reaching the skies, or sweeping up matter from fields?
  • Riddle C: Hint: Anglo-Saxons had six vowel-symbols--not just five like in modern English.
  • Riddle D: This object cannot be an animal, though it originally came from a pelican. The bit about "snowy fields" is a metaphor for a white, smooth surface. Think about medieval writing technology to answer this riddle.
  • Riddle E: This one is a tough one because it involves false medieval legends about real-world animals. According to Anglo-Saxon belief, what sort of creature had the ability to live in fires unharmed?
  • Riddle F: This riddle is about a specific type of critter. What sort of creature would be the bane of a monastic library--destroying books?
  • Riddle G: Think about agricultural equipment here.
  • Riddle H: Think about what Anglo-Saxons consumed in their halls before battle. Where did this substance come from?
  • Riddle I: This riddle is so unfair! The answer is a trick! Just remember that the "twelve hundred heads" is metaphorical--or at least plays upon multiple meanings of the word "head." On the other hand, the rest of the description is quite literal.
  • Riddle J: Hint: Look at Genesis for the answer here.

Quotations for Identification: Be able to identify what work these riddles come from (either the Enigmae or from the Exeter Manuscript), who the author is (either St. Aldhelm or "Anonymous"), and briefly comment upon the quotations significance or importance in the work. Since the riddles have no separate titles, I will also accept the general answer "Anglo-Saxon riddle" for the work's source.

1: None can see me, none grab me with their hands;
My rushing voice shrieks swiftly through the earth.
I break oaks with hard and horrible might.
Truly, I strike the skies, and sweep the fields.

2. My insides overflow with holy words,
And sacred volumes lie in my vital parts,
But from them I can never learn a single fact--
Unhappy creature, through the grim Fates robbed
of such a gift, denied the light of books.

3. I am a treasure for men found far and wide
Brought from the cliff-sides and town-heights,
From dales and from downs. Daily, wings light me
Amid the air and happily waft me
Under sheltering roofs. After bathing in tubs,
I am now a binder and scourge of men, I throw down
Young men to the ground (and even the elderly)!


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