Kalamazoo May 1999

Thomas Klein
Idaho State University

"A New Solution to Riddle 74"

Good afternoon. Today I'm going to look at a very curious Old English riddle. Over the past 150 years, the five lines of thus riddle have generated many times their nurmber in commentary. But the riddle itself is a gem in its simple, clean movement.

Ic waes fæmne geong,    feaxhar cwene
and anlic rinc    on ane tide
Fleah mid fugulum     and on flode swom
deaf under yþe,     dead mid fiscum
and on flod stop.    
Haefde ferþe cwicu

"I was a young maiden,      a gray-haired woman
and singular man,    all at once.
I flew with the birds     and swan on the sea
dove under the waves,     dead with the fish
and walked on land.>    >I had a living spirit."

Before all, the riddle is a finely crafted poem. Even among that body of succinct riddles of four to eight lines long, it is especially rich and compact. Every half line brings a new revelation, and while other riddles also speak of flying and swimming, few can match the dramatic, swooping movement from sky to sea to land that we find here described. In its paradoxes, it is especially fine: the riddle object is both young and old, male and female, dead and alive and it is in the air, under the water, and on earth.

The riddle has generated at least ten different solutions. The terms of the riddle are such that it will probably never be definitively "solved," and I find this pleasing. Some solutions, however, are better than others. Now I must confess I have somewhat misleadingly titled thus paper "A New Solution to Riddle 74." Rather than offering a wholly new solution, I'm going to try to resurrect an old one. I believe that the solution to thus riddle is a common, mundane entity. However, I think it is meant to suggest, to stand as an analogy for, something that is altogether more spiritual and sublime. I will argue that there are in fact two solutions to this riddle: a common, everyday object, and the more subtle thing it resembles in the world of the riddle.

But first let's look at some of the other solutions that have been proposed. The multiple paradoxes of the riddle turn out to be very suggestive, but also notoriously difficult to satisfy.

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"Flying Fish".

Dietrich, in 1859, was the first scholar to propose a solution; he suggested "flying fish." He based this solution on the riddle's partial similarity to Aldhelm's Latin riddle on the same topic.


Cum grege piscoso scrutor maris aequora squamus,
Cum volucrum turma quoque scando per aethera pennis,
Et tamen aethereo non possum vivere flatu
. (2-4)

"Flying Fish" (lit. "Cuttlefish")

"With a fishy flock I explore the sea's spaces with my scales,
With a squadron of birds I also ascend through the air with     wings,
And yet I can't live by breath of air."
We note several parallels to the Old English in the Latin: "cum volucrum turma" matches "mid fuglum"and "cum grege piscoso" matches "mid fiscum." The remark about not being able to live with air is like the phrase, "dead mid fiscum." Since fish can't live by air, they might be seen as dead.

However, the solution is unsatisfactory. Generally, riddles avoid naming the object; since itmentions fish we can probably conclude that the thing is not a fish. More importantly, the solution fails to answer all the clues: it doesn't explain the walking on land, or satisfy the conditions set out in the first two lines. Walz suggests that there may well have been "a belief attributing double sex" to the flying fish, given medieval science's often fantastic nature. But we have no evidence of it.

Siren Tupper's 1906 solution of "Siren" is better because it attempts to explain both parts
of the riddle. In legend the siren is old but appears young, and in its upper half may be either a man or a woman. It has the feet of a falcon and the tail of a-fish, and may thus fly, swim, or walk it is both alive and dead, because it can change into rocks. Tupper cites a remarkably similar Latin riddle for "Siren":

Femina, piscis, avis sum nautas fallere docta,
Sum scopulus, non sum femina, piscis, avis.

Woman, lash, bird I am skilled at tricking sailers,
I am a rock, I am not woman, fish, bird.

The woman, fish, and bird certainly remind us of the Old English. Nevertheless, as one scholar has noted, Tupper's solution "satisfies only the empirical evidence" and not the spirit of the riddle. It ignores the phrase "on ane tid," "at one tune" or "all at once": no recorded siren was both male and female at the same time. Finally, Tupper's Latin riddle turns out to be a dead end It was written by a 16th century German riddle enthusiast, hardly a source for the Old Eglish.


1915, Holthausen suggested "Swan," an idea which he got from the opposition
of "fæmne geong" with "feaxhar cwene." The feathers of a young swan are grey like the hair of an old woman. The other swan riddle in the Exeter Book collection, number seven, describes something of the same movement on land, water, and in the air:

Hrægl min swigað þonne is hrusan trede,
oþþe þa wic buge, oþþe wado drefe.
Hwilum mec ahebbað ofer hæleþa byht
hyrste mine . . . .

My clothing is silent when I tread the ground,
or keep to my lodging, or stir up the waters.
Sometimes my dress lifts me up over people's dwellings.

This solution however does not take into account the mixed sex of the riddle object, nor does it explain the phrase '`dead with fish." And again we can object that the solution probably isn't a bird because birds are mentioned in the riddle.

In the end, the various animal solutions that have been given for Riddle ?4 largely fail to meet the difficult parameters setup by the riddle.

"Writing "

Several solutions center around phenomena in the human world. Whitman suggested that Riddle 74 might be a riddle about "writing." It has several parallels with Riddle 51, which describes fingers dipping a pen in ilk and leaving marks on a page.

"Pen and Four Fingers"

Ic seah wræctlice     wuhte feower
samod siþian;     swearte wæron lastas
swaþu swiþe blacu.     
Swift wæs on fore,
fugla framra;      fleag on lyfte,
deaf under ype.

I saw four creatures marvelously
traveling together; their footprints were dark,
their tracks very black. A swift one was in front,
bolder than birds; he flew in the air,
dove under waves.

In flying with birds and diving under waves, this riddle presents a strong parallel to ours. Leaving footprints may be matched with walking on land. However, the phrase "dead with fish" is hard to explain in reference to a pen dipping into an inkpot. Furthermore, Whitman's explanation of the first two lines is not convincing. He suggests that "feaxhar cwene" refers to the white feathery part of the quill, while "xnhc rinc" refers "to the point of the quill, with its intimations of its power as a pen." Surely here his solution falls short.

Craig Williamson, in his edition of the Exeter Book riddles, suggested another man made object: "ship's figurehead." The figurehead would be carved in the likeness of a maiden but be made grey by contact with saltwater. At the prow of a ship, it would charge forward as a warrior, and be both raised high in the air and sunk under water. To explain the walking on land, Williamson suggests that the figurehead could have been detachable, and thus carried ashore. While clever, Williamson's solution again seems to require too much explanation. It explains most of the details of the riddle, but, as Marcella McCarthy says, ultimately fails to satisfy them.

We come now to perhaps the best two solutions, not animals or man-made objects, but things from the natural world. The first I am slightly less inclined towards. Marcella McCarthy recently argued that the object described here is "the Sun." This solution does meet many of the riddle's requirements without straining. The sun does "fly with birds" during the day, and at sunset
it may "swim on the sea" and finally dive under the waves. It seems to be dead until it arises on the eastern horizon, walking on the land.

With regards to the first part, there are two ways in which the sun can be seen as multi-sexed. One is grammatical: the sun is both female and male because the Old English word for sun was either feminine or masculine in gender, either seo sunne, feminine, or se sunna., masculine. But we need not rely on grammar. At different stages in its course through the sky, McCarthy argues, the sun can be seen as taking on female and male attributes. At dawn, the sun is young and pure, like a maiden; at sunset, it is like an old woman, figuratively if not literally grey. At midday, however, the sun becomes a splendid warrior. McCarthy finds a parallel in Riddle 6, in which the sun is described as a warrior:

Mec gesette soð    sigora waldend
C rist to compe.     Oft ic cwice bærne,
unrimu cyn     eorpan getenge...
þonne mec min frea     feohtan hateþ

Christ, the true ruler of victories
assigned me to battle. I often burn the living,
assail countless people of earth
when my lord commands me to fight.

This solution has many merits. One objection to it however is that it's hard to seethe sun as a "greyhaired woman" even at sunset; another is that it requires an unusual interpretation of "on ane trd." Instead of "all at once" or simultaneously," we must read it as "at one time," that is "over one span of time." Finally, to my mind, the "feel" of this solution doesn't seem quite right: the sun is usually seen as an aggressive, influential figure, whereas this object has a passive, if pervasive, air.


We finally come to the solution that I most prefer. This solution was first proposed by Trautrnann in 1905. His suggestion is that the riddle describes "Water" in its various forms. There are several ways in which we can explain the details of the riddle; I will suggest one, but others may occur to you. In the form of a cloud, it flies with the birds. As snow, rain, or hail, it descends from the cloud onto the surface of the sea, where it floats briefly, perhaps in the form of ice. As the ice melts it sinks below the waves, where it is as good as dead. At the same time, however, the water flows upon the earth and thus maybe said to walk. As a stream, its babbling and liveliness give it a sort of life, a "ferp cwicu." The dramatic movement described in the riddle thus mirrors the movement of water through its natural cycle. The Anglo-Saxons seem to have been well aware of this cycle, as a passage from Bald's Leechbook illustrates:

Snaw cymþ of ðam þynnum wætan ðe byþ up atogen mid ðære lyfte, and byþ gefroren ær ðan he to dropum geurnan sy, and swa semtinges fylþ. (Ball's Leechbook 3, 278, 23)

Snow comes from the fine moisture which is drawn up through the air, and is frozen before it is turned to drops, and falls immediately in this state.

There are several ways of explaining the first two lines. One is grammatical: the word
burne for "spring" or "stream" is feminine and matches the fæmne geong, while snaw, "snow," is masculine, like the ænlicrinc.

Another way is to see the various forms of water as female and male on the basis of their attributes alone. Thus a fæmne geong might refer to water in some pure, fresh state, while the ænlic rinc would describe water in some traditionally masculine form.

But there is a better way to explain these lines: we may get a clue from two other riddles that have to do with frozen water, one Latin and the other Old English. In both of these riddles, water in one form is said to give birth to water in another form. We find this in the Latin riddle "Of Snow, Hail, and Ice" by the 8th century Anglo-Saxon bishop Tatwine:

"De Nive, Grandine, et Glacie"--Tatwine

Aethereus temas genitor nos iam peperit hoc
Sub misere fato legis de matre sorores. . . .
Una tame spes est tali sub lege r etentis,
Quodmox regalem matris remeamus in alum

"Of snow, Hail and Ice."

The celestial father once produced us three sisters
of mother under the wretched decree of nature's law.
There is one hope for those released under such a law:
That we will return to the royal womb or our mother.

We find here both the idea of the clouds giving birth to snow and hail and an awareness of the whole cycle: once melted and evaporated, the three sisters return to their mother. In the Old English riddle for the Iceberg, Riddle 33, water gives birth to itself in a different form:

Is min modor     mægð cynnes
þæs deorestan,     þæt is dohtor min
eacen up liden,    swa poet is wldum cup,
firum on floce,     þæt seo on foldan sceal
on ealre londa gehwam     lissom stondan.

My mother, who is the dearest kind
of woman,is my daughter
grown up pregnant; so it is known to men,
to people among the folk, that she must stand
on the ground with favor in every land.

As Craig Williamson explains, "Water is the mother of ice and also its daughter (pregnant again with potential ice)." The final line of this riddle presents an interesting parallel with our riddle: water is found standing in every land, just as in our riddle it claims to walk on land. The iceberg riddle is additionally illuminating because earlier it presents the iceberg as a heartless warrior. We might therefore say that in Riddle 74, water can be both mother and daughter, and in some forms, such as ice, also a warrior.

The qualities of the riddle object most celebrated in Riddle 74 are its pervasiveness andmutability. Water, which is miraculous in the way that it changes shape and goes everywhere, is aworthy entity to be so celebrated. The other proposed solutions either are too recherche or simply don't fulfill all the terms of the riddle. I believe, however, that the riddles wanted us to think of something else as we worked towards sla solution. The subjects of the riddles are usually dressed up to look like another sort of creature. What creature or entity does "water" as the solution to this riddle most resemble?


My sense is that the first-person presence in this riddle most resembles the Holy Spirit, which recalls its own participation in the creation of the world and at the birth of the Redeemer. In Proverbs, for instance, the Spirit describes its own ubiquity in terms that resemble those in the second part of the riddle:

Quando praeparabat caelos, aderam:
quando certa lege et gyro vallabat abyssos:
Quando aethera firmabat sursum
et librabat fontes aquarum:
Quando circumdabat mari terminum suum,
et legem ponebat aquis, ne transirent fines suos:
quando appendabat fundamenta terrae;
cum eo eram, cuncta componens.
(Pv. 8, 27-30)

When he established the heavens, I was there, . . .
when he made firm the sky above,
when he established the fountainsof the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit, . . .
when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him. . . . (RSV)

Thus at the world's beginning, the Holy Spirit was active in sky, sea, and on land, the three areas described in the riddle. The riddle also recalls other moments in the Spirit's history. "I flew with the birds," for instance, reminds us of how it appeared as a dove, while "I swam on the sea" suggests Genesis 1, 2: "The spirit (or breath) of God was borne upon the waters."

The first part of the riddle suggests another, crucial moment in the history of the Spirit. In terms of biblical allusions, the young maiden and old woman suggests Mary and her aged kinswoman Elizabeth. In the Annuciation, the angel explains to Mary how both she and Elizabeth will conceive:

Spiritus sanctus superveniet in te, et virtus Altissimi obumbrabit tibi. . . . Et ecce Elizabeth cognata tua, et ipsa concepit filium in senectute sua. (Lc. 1, 35, 36)

The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. . . . And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son .

Both women conceive through the Holy Spirit which comes upon or over them; in some ways, the Spirit is maiden and old woman. The idea that "fæmne geong" suggests Mary is supported by Joseph's use of the same words in the Advent lyrics:

Eala fæmne geong, maegð Maria! (Advent Lyrics, 175-6)

Now the absolute "fit" of this second solution is less perfect than the first. But the riddle does have the power to make us think of these various moments related to Spirit's history. In these terms, the "ænlic rinc" reminds us of Christ. Conceived in Mary's womb by the Spirit's power, he too at that instant could be said to be the Spirit. "Ænlic" supports this--it really means "one-ly,"that is "singular, unique, one of a kind."

Virtually all the elements of this riddle which I believe should be solved as "water" suggests, at least loosely, the Holy Spirit. One of the riddler's most familiar techniques is to make the riddle object look like something else. Usually this serves to distract the solver: sometimes, in the case of the "baudy" riddles, it tricks the solver into salacious thoughts about an innocent object like an onion or key. In Riddle 74, the author may be seen to use parallels between the nature of water and the history of the Spirit to make an instructive analogy. By looking at what is in fact quite miraculous about water, the author's riddlic imagination reminds the audience that they need not rely on abstractions to understand divine mysteries.

Thank you.