Frige hwæt ic hatte

Find out what I’m called… A challenge and a taunt to bookend a riddle on a winter’s night by the fire while the wind howls, or resting for a moment in a bit of shade during harvest. The time for riddles is anytime—if their primary purpose is to entertain.

Riddle 53 of the Exeter Riddles  (or 47, according to Wikipedia, using a 1967 translation by Paull Franklin Baum) is most usually solved as “battering ram.” This has never quite sat right with me. Then I read Jennifer Neville’s piece, “The Exeter Book Riddles” in Trees and Timber in Anglo-Saxon England, edited by Michael D. J. Bintley and Michael G. Shapland (Oxford University Press, 2013) and found we are of the same mind: battering ram just doesn’t work.

Neville’s main argument is that the Exeter Riddles are questions without answers, designed to force their audience to consider how information is passed on. (Media-studies in miniature?) I am not yet wholly convinced of that. I think they were designed to amuse and entertain—though no doubt they were also used as thought experiments and teaching tools. But in either case it makes sense that they have more than one answer.

Neville runs through a variety of solutions, including bow, arrow, and lathe. Of these I think arrow comes closest—but would like to offer my own solution, with caveats.

What works for me is scaling ladder, the kind of thing used in a siege. My caveats? The Exeter Riddles were compiled and written sometime in the tenth century but I frankly have no clue when they were composed. When did scaling ladders become necessary? Fire would generally do the trick on wood-framed parapets. Penda certainly thought so during his siege of Bebbanburg—though perhaps he had siege ladders handy as a backup. How about Osric at the ‘fortified town’ where Cadwallon over-wintered in 633?

So much depends on the era. I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on this.

11 thoughts on “Frige hwæt ic hatte

  1. I would hazard an alternate answer, with the caveat that I am reading this Riddle for the first time, in translation by James Harpur (THE WORD EXCHANGE). I see a ship. The tree is ‘riven deep’, not just felled. A dark sheath (sail?) adorns it’s forehead. This ship, with it’s strong skull – perhaps clad in iron, as some were, rams into the enemy ship so that the ships following can attack. The first ship may need to be freed if it gets boxed in.

  2. Thanks for your confidence in me, Patricia, but I’m totally rubbish at riddles, Anglo-Saxon or otherwise. I just about got the naughty ones when I first looked at the riddles several years ago as an undergraduate student, but as for the rest… What I would say is that so much depends on how one decides to translate certain words. Just take ‘wonnum hyrstum foran gefrætwed’: is it ‘adorned in front with dark trappings’, as Bosworth and Toller give? Or is ‘decorations’, ‘armour’, or even ‘jewels’ a better choice for ‘hyrstum’. The word ‘hyrst’ is, like so many OE words, rather multi-purpose, which is probably why the riddler chose it in the first place!!! I must say, I like Megan’s imagery of a battling loom. I bet Christina Petty, the loom expert, would have something to say on that!

  3. I can see how Megan Cavell thinks a warp weighted loom would be a good solution to the riddle. These loom types are quite noisy because the weights crash together when you change the shed to put in another thread in order to weave. Weaving also occurs from the top down, connecting to the forehead reference.

    The primary contemporary written source for using the warp weighted loom is the poem from Njal’s Saga, the Darraðarljóð, which describes strange women using a loom of this type to work out the doom of the battle of Clontarf in 1014 with warfare references. That makes it easier to connect battle symbolism to the act of weaving, using switched gender roles/references to further hide the meaning of the riddle.

    I would consider weaving or a warp weighted loom to be a reasonable answer to the riddle. That being said, I think battering ram a more likely solution, or at least a primary one. The warp weighted loom would be another, which, if brought up during the game by contemporary people would have been lauded as a good answer, even if not what was originally intended.

  4. Well, I know you don’t want to cross a weaver when things aren’t going well, or she has to remember the sequence of a particularly difficult pattern. This is a woman (usually, though there were a few men) who routinely and repeated lifted 70 pounds or so for days at a time.

    Baum does mention that the last lines don’t exactly fit, so it may be a defective copy, a conflated riddle from a sleepy or lazy (or one that didn’t read AS) medieval scribe, or maybe it was just one of those riddles where everybody throws things at the person because it makes little sense to everybody else, even when it is explained.

  5. I’m in my fourth year of research into my book about my mother and her family and their lives in the northern Dutch province of Groningen (circa 1880-1948). I am spending this summer translating texts and stories from this time and find I must consult various dictionaries to find suitable English expressions, as the stories were told and are written in a combination of Dutch, Frisian and Old Low German (Saxon). Here’s what I’ve come up with as possible translations for “Find out what I’m called”
    Frisian: Freegje wat ik hite.
    Dutch: Vragen wat ik heet.
    English: Ask what I’m called.
    You might also consider the Frisian influence on Old English, as well as on other aspects of the era you are exploring. I found many Frisian connections when I read Hild.

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