A Feast of Creature: Anglo Saxon Riddle-Songs
Translated, with Introduction, Notes and Commentary

by Craig Williamson





Across time the ox's skin and the dart
Of once-wing from horn to page preserve
The song-smith's hammer, fire, din--
Who were the Anglo-Saxon riddlers
Who locked in the dark mirror of metaphor
A cultural eye, an ageless game?
Children do this and dying men--
Creation sings in the cow's dead skin:
Bound in another, all things begin.

The Old English riddles are a metaphoric and metamorphic celebration of life in the eye of the Anglo-Saxon. Metaphoric because each riddlic creature takes on the guise of another: the nightingale is an evening poet, mead is a wrestler, the sword a celibate thane, the silver wine-cup a seductress. Metamorphic because in the natural flow all creatures shift shapes: the horn turns from twinned head-warrior of the wild aurochs to battle-singer or mead-belly--sometimes it swallows the blood of hawthorn and gives to quill and vellum page the gift of words. The book too has its own beginnings --it sings in Riddle 24:

A life-thief stole my world-strength,
Ripped off flesh and left me skin,
Dipped me in water and drew me out,
The hard blade, clean steel, cut,
Scraped-fingers folded, shaped me.
Now the bird's once wind-stiff joy
Darts often to the horn's dark rim,
Sucks wood-stain, steps back again
With a quick scratch of power, tracks
Black on my body, points trails.


But the flow, the form and movement, remains. As the mind shifts, it shapes meaning. When is an iceberg a witch-warrior? When it curses and slaughters ships. When is it a great mother? When transformed and lifted, it rains down. There is a primitive participation and poetic synchronicity in this. Man charts the world and the world sings in images his uncharted spirit. The Riddles are primitive flower and lyric seed. To us they offer a world in which there is an eye (I) in every other, a charged world where as Walt Whitman says, there is "God in every object." 2

If we no longer see the tree in the table or sense the sinuous vine in the wine's work
or quicken in the bow of the nightingale's song,
this may be a world we need.

The "Introduction" to A Feast of Creatures occupies pages 3 to 52 of the book. Williamson organized it by dividing it into eight topical divisions. In order to facilitate web access, the list below provides links to the printable text.

1. Origins (The Exeter Book and the texts of the Riddles.) 2. Sources and Analogues: (The Latin tradition and the device of "riddling.") 3. The Variety of Riddles (Solution as subject, Forms and Motives, Voice.
4. Metaphor and Riddle (Tenor and vehicle, Kenning, Gnomic verse) 5. Riddle, Charm, Lyric Dream 5. Riddle and Quest (Narrative Form and Process)
6. Riddle and Rood ("The Dream of the Rood" as cosmic riddle) 7.The Riddlic Function (Riddle in the primitive poetic) 8. Texts and Translations (Problems and Purposes, Comparative translations)