Washington State University
Here’s a fun party game for the mead-hall that gives you a sense of Anglo-Saxon hilarity. The translations are mine, so that the clunky literalism is preserved. There is no list of upside-down answers at the end of the Exeter Book where these riddles are found; answers have been reached by scholarly consensus.
This may be the general character of Anglo-Saxon humor, but fortunately it’s not the height. (Note: the answers to the second and third below are purportedly not what you’re being led to think.)
For a full site on this dubious literary genre, a medieval organization called the Kalamazoo Riddle Group has the Exeter Book’s Anglo-Saxon Riddles. (Kalamazoo, Michigan, hosts the nation’s big medieval convention every year.)
Ic eom weorð werum, wide funden
brungen of bearwum ond of burghleoþum
of denum ond of durum. Dæges mec wægun
feþre on lifte feredon mid liste
under hrofes hleo. Hæleð mec siþþan
baþedan in bydene. Nu ic eom bindere
ond swingere sona weorpe
esne to eorþan hwilum ealdne ceorl.
Sona þæt onfindeð se þe mec fehð ongean
ond wið maegenþisan minre genæsteð
þæt he hrycge sceal hrusan secan
gif he unrædes ær ne geswiceð
strengo bistolen strong on spræce
mægene binumen; nah his modes geweald
fota ne folma. Frige hwæt ic hatte
ðe on eor an swa esnas binde
dole æfter dyntum be dæges leohte.
I am worthy to men, widely found
brought from groves and from mountainslopes,
from valleys and from hills. By day wings carried
me in the air, travelled with skill
under the roof’s cover. A man then bathed
me in a tub. Now I am a binder
and scourge, soon throw
a man to earth, sometimes an old churl.
Soon he will find, he who struggles against me,
and with violence contends with mine,
that he on his back shall seek the earth,
if he previously desists not from folly,
deprived of strength, powerful in speech,
deprived of might; he has not his mind’s power
in feet nor hands. Ask what I am called,
who on earth binds such men,
the foolish, from blows by day’s light.
Ic eom wunderlicu wiht wifum on hyhte
neahbuendum nyt; nægum sceþþe
burgsittendra nymthe bonan anum.
Staþol min is steapheah stonde ic on bedde
neoðan ruh nathwær. Neþeð hwilum
ful cyrtenu ceorles dohtor
modwlonc meowle þæt heo on mec gripe
ræseð mec on reodne reafath min heafod
fegeð mec on fæsten. Feleþ sona
mines gemotes seo þe mec nearwað
wif wundenlocc. Wæt bið þæt eage.
I am a wondrous creature, a joy to women,
useful to neighbors; not any citizens
do I injure, except my slayer.
Very high is my foundation. I stand in a bed,
hair underneath somewhere. Sometimes ventures
a fully beautiful churl’s daughter,
licentious maid, that she grabs onto me,
rushes me to the redness, ravages my head,
fixes me in confinement. She soon feels
my meeting, she who forced me in,
the curly-haired woman. Wet is her eye.
Ic on wincle gefrægn weaxan nathwæt
þindan ond þunian þecene hebban
on þæt banlease bryd grapode
hygewlonc hondum hrægle theahte
þrindende þing þeodnes dohtor.
I have learned that something grows in the corner,
swells and expands, has a covering;
on that boneless thing a woman grasps
around with hands, with a garment
the lord’s daughter covered the swollen thing.
Wilcox, Jonathan. “‘Tell me what I am’: The Old English Riddles.” Readings in Medieval Texts: Interpreting Old and Middle English Literature. Ed. David Johnson and Elaine Treharne. NY: Oxford University Press, 2005. 46-49.
Williamson, Craig, ed. The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977.