Riddle-Poems, or Enigmata
Further Reading: Anglo-Saxon Prosody
[Note: much of the following is a synopsis and paraphrasing of information on the short bibliography of websites listed at the end of this discussion.]
Historically, many cultures have riddle-poem traditions. One of the best known is the riddle-poem tradition of the Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, and Teutons. These are also referred to as enigmata. These cultures of the Dark Ages played riddle-poem games around their hearth-fires for over five hundred years. Some of their riddles were written down and have survived to this day.
Here as an example is a modern English translation of a simple riddle-poem, over a thousand years old. It's from the Red Book of Exeter, which contains many Anglo-Saxon riddles and is one of four surviving Anglo-Saxon prosody manuscripts.
Riddle: A wonder on the wave / water became bone.
Answer: Ice on a lake or seashore.
This simple, one-line poem is a good example of Anglo-Saxon prosody and the riddle-poem style. Good riddle-poems are concise, pithy, visual, and have a beat. Like haiku and other short forms, they revolve around a compelling image, but in presentation they are likely more akin to poetry slam performances.
To feel the power of this poem fully, speak it aloud, paying attention to the caesura, or pause. In the beginning, and certainly in the Dark Ages, poetry after all was a spoken art. Poems were written only as a convenience, and were not actually poems until they were chanted or sung or shouted--that is, until they were spoken in some affecting fashion. Anglo-Saxon, the parent language of English, was a rolling, sonorous, cadenced language well suited to poetry and effective oration. Some of this quality survives even in translation to modern English.
Spoken rhythm is all-important to this form. In writing riddle-poems in this tradition, remember that writing is only half of the poem. They've got to exhibit sound as a central working stylistic tactic. Today, rhyme often assumes that role, but not so in these early poems. In Anglo-Saxon prosody, sound is made evident and vital by clear alliteration. Imagining yourself chanting it to a hall-full of drunken Vikings might test the success of one of these riddle-poems. Do they pound the tables and roar with meaty-mouthed delight? Do they laugh? Or do they just plain not quite get it?--In which case, run.
Often the right effect is made possible by sticking to muscular one-and two-syllable words in your poem, which is the basis of Anglo-Saxon language. Latin later added longer, multi-syllabic structures to the language. Focusing on concrete objects is also a good idea, since you've only got a line or so to make the poem.
Another common feature in Anglo-Saxon prosody is the use of "kennings." These were words before there were words--that is, these were extant words used in combination when no other word for something yet existed. These were often poetic descriptions of some simple thing or event--and had the effect of sometimes being a riddle within the riddle-poem. Some Viking kennings were used so conventionally that they became poetic clichés, even then. For example, the ocean was called the "whale-road," the sun was referred to as the "world-candle, battle was known as "a feast of eagles," warriors became "spear-trees," and generous chieftains were known as "ring-givers." This last kenning was in reference to the practice of a Viking warrior to receive a ring or bracelet from the chieftain's own arm as a special favor, and bestowing such a gift also confirmed the power of the chieftain.
Other kennings were purposefully riddles in themselves, or ways of suggesting that something could be viewed in more than one way. Personification--that is, giving the subject of the riddle the qualities of a person and then having it describe itself is also a common style of riddle. Finally, another common trait is to make poetic assertions about the subject that lead to an apparently obvious image, which is then flatly denied in the answer, creating an air of paradox, or delightful--often ribald--surprise.
These are some more ancient riddles from the Red Book of Exeter. The translations are based on Michael Alexander's The Earliest English Poems (Penguin 1977; ISBN 0-14-044-172-7); E.S. Raymond has tinkered with the first one a bit to improve its scansion.
Riddle: I am fire-fretted / and I flirt with Wind;
my limbs are light-freighted / I am lapped in flame.
I am storm-stacked / and I strain to fly;
I'm a grove leaf-bearing / and a glowing coal.
Answer: A beam of wood.
Alexander gives a second verse for this one, which Raymond believes was originally a separate riddle. The style is quite different.
Riddle: From hand to hand / about the hall I go,
Much do lords and ladies / love to kiss me;
When I hold myself high / and the whole throng
bows before me / their blessedness
shall flourish skyward / beneath my fostering shade.
Answer: A wooden god-image or crucifix.
Note that in the Book of Exeter no answers for the riddles are given, and they are crowded onto the manuscript page without any particular line breaks at all, as was the practice in all early writing. In some cases, even the boundaries between riddles themselves are not clear.
Riddle: Swings by his thigh / a thing most magical!
Below the belt / beneath the folds
Of his clothes it hangs / a hole in its front end,
stiff-set and stout / it swivels about.
Levelling the head / of this hanging tool,
its wielder hoists his hem / above his knee;
it is his will to fill / a well-known hole
that it fits fully / when at full length
He's oft filled it before. / Now he fills it again.
Answer: A key.
This clever and suggestive little riddle distracts the reader with a sexual analogy, but the key phrase "it swivels about" is a clue that the obvious answer is not the right one. Or so the scholars say.
One last example. Enjoy.
A foe came and felled me, and fiercely he took
My worldly strength with him then wetted me through,
Dipped me deep in water and then drew me forth,
Set me in the sun where soon I lost all of
The hairs that I had. Then harshly my skin
He cut with keen edge, cleaned me and scraped.
His fingers then folded me and the fowl's finery,
Dripping swift drops, drew so deftly across
My brown burnished skin, broke for more wood dye
Straight from the stream, stole further across me
Trailing black tracks. A true man came then
To bind me with boards and bedeck me with hide,
To grace me with gold, to grandly array me
With smith's wondrous work and to wind me with wire.
Now this royal richness, the red of the dye
And all the fine features bring fame everywhere
To the world's mighty watchman who wards us from hell.
If masters and men took me in their hands,
They would fare well and be first in the fight,
Hailer of heart and more happy of mind,
Wider in wisdom and wealthy in friends
Who, loving and loyal long-lasting and true,
Noble and knightly their name would enhance,
Granting great glory with gladness of mind
And welcoming warmly when homeward they wend
So ask what I am, now all has been said
Well-known is my name most needful to men
Of help to all humans and holy itself.
For more reading on all of this, try the following websites:
Eric Steven Raymond's page: Riddle-Poems and How to Make Them.
Devon Library: discussion of Exeter Book, with manuscript page and riddle examples.
Exeter Book site. History and current status of the Exeter Book.
Enigmata (riddle-poem) examples from the Exeter Book site.