True stories, fables and anecdotes from the Middle Ages
Can you solve these medieval riddles?
Oft I must strive with wind and wave, Battle them both when under the sea
I feel out the bottom, a foreign land. In lying still I am strong in the strife;
If I fail in that they are stronger than I, And wrenching me loose, soon put me to rout.
They wish to capture what I must keep. I can master them both if my grip holds out,
If the rocks bring succor and lend support, Strength in the struggle. Ask me my name!
A moth ate a word. To me it seemed, A marvelous thing when I learned the wonder
That a worm had swallowed, in darkness stolen, The song of man, his glorious sayings,
A great man's strength; and the thieving guest, Was no whit the wiser for the words it ate.
In former days my father and mother, Abandoned me dead, lacking breath
Or life or being. Then one began, A kinswoman kind, to care for and love me;
Covered me with her clothing, wrapped me in her raiment, With the same affection she felt for her own;
Until by the law of my life's shaping, Under alien bosom I quickened with breath.
My foster mother fed me thereafter, Until I grew sturdy and strengthened for flight.
Then of her dear ones, of daughters and sons, She had the fewer for what she did.
My house is not quiet, I am not loud; But for us God fashioned our fate together.
I am the swifter, at times the stronger, My house more enduring, longer to last.
A times I rest; my dwelling still runs; Within it I lodge as long as I live.
Should we two be severed, my death is sure.
I am valued by men, fetched from afar, Gleaned on the hill-slopes, gathered in groves,
In dale and on down. All day through the air, Wings bore me aloft, and brought me with cunning
Safe under roof. Men steeped me in vats. Now I have power to pummel and bind,
To cast to the earth, old man and young. Soon he shall find who reaches to seize me,
Pits force against force, that he's flat on the ground, Stripped of his strength if he cease not his folly,
Loud in his speech, but of power despoiled To manage his mind, his hands or his feet.
Now ask me my name, who can bind men on earth, And lay fools low in the light of day.
Time was when I was weapon and warrior; Now the young hero hoods me with gold,
and twisted silver. At times men kiss me. At times I speak and summon to battle
Loyal companions. At times a courser, Bears me o'er marchland. At times a ship
Bears me o'er the billows, brightly adorned. At times a fair maiden fills me with breath;
At times hard and headless I lie on the board, Bereft of beauty. At times I hang
Winsome on wall, richly embellished, Where revelers drink. At times a warrior
Bears me on a horse, a battle adornment, And I swallow, bright-shining, the breath from his bosom.
At times with my strains I summon the heroes, Proudly to wine. At times I win back
Spoil from the spoiler, with sounding voice, Put foemen to flight. Now ask what I'm called.
My beak is bent downward, I burrow below; I grub in the ground and go as he guides,
My gray, old master, foe of the forest. Stoop-shouldered my warder walks at my back,
Fares through the field, urges and drives me, Sows in my track as I sniff along.
Fetched from the wood, cunningly fitted, Brought in a wagon, I have wondrous skill.
As I go my way on one side is green; On the other side plain is my dark path.
Set through my back hangs a cunning spike; Another fixed forward is fast to my head.
What I tear with my teeth falls to one side, If he handles me right who is my ruler.
A lonely wanderer, wounded with iron, I am smitten with war-blades, sated with strife,
Worn with the sword-edge; I have seen many battles, Much hazardous fighting, oft without hope
Of comforts or help in the carnage of war Ere I perish and fall in the fighting of men.
The leavings of hammers, the handiwork of smiths, Batter and bite me, hard-eged and sharp;
The brunt of the battle I am doomed to endure. In all the folk-stead no leech could I find
With wort or simple to heal my wounds; But day and night with the deadly blows
The marks of the war-blades double and deepen.
My attire is noiseless when I tread the earth, Rest in its dwellings or ride its waters.
At times my pinions and the lofty air, Lift me high o'er the homes of men,
And the strength of the clouds carries me far High over the folk. My feathers gay
Sound and make music, singing shrill, When no longer I linger by field or flood,
But soar in the air, a wandering spirit.
Excerpts from: Riddles from the Exeter Book. An Anthology of Old English Poetry. Charles W. Kennedy, translator. New York: Oxford University Press, 1960.
RIDDLES continues with RIDDLES PAGE TWO
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