One of the best riddle-makers of the Middle Ages was Saint Aldhelm. Can you solve 10 of his riddles?
Known as ‘Britain’s first man of letters’, Aldhelm (c.639 – 709) served as the Abbot of Malmesbury and then Bishop of Sherborne, and at the same time had a lively career as a writer. One of his works is the Aenigmata, a collection of 100 riddles. In the original Latin, they are written out in verse and cover many themes and topics.
To solve these riddles, you must think of yourself as back in the seventh century, and imagine the world around you. Test yourself with these ten riddles (a clue – half the riddles deal with nature, while the other half are man-made). Answers at the end:
Where ocean pounds the craggy cliffs in sky
and surging surf is rising with the tide,
a scaffold built my mighty structure high
So I could point out sea-routes like a guide.
I do not roam calm oceans with an oar
nor plow the deep with rowers as they lurch,
Yet lead lost boats, pushed by huge waves, to shore
While signalling from my exalted perch
in lofty towers, setting inflagrations
as clouds of winter shroud bright constellations.
Spawned without seed, produced in ways of wonder,
I load my sweetened breast with floral plunder;
Kings’ honeyed fare grows gilded through my flair.
Sharp spears of fearsome war are what I bear,
and I beat – handless! – craftsmen’s metalware.
I’m born from dripping drops in soggy sky
and grow in swelling froth where rivers flow,
But no hand sways me while I’m swimming by
Or else my guts are spilled out everywhere
and fragile breath disperses in thin air.
I lead my team downstream with throngs in tow,
Since many friends have birthdates that we share.
From frozen bowels of dewy earth I’m bred;
From woolen fleece with bristles I’m not made.
They pull no yarn, no humming threads cascade,
no Chinese silkworms weave their yellow thread,
I am not plucked from wheels, no stiff combs beat,
and yet I’m labelled “clothing” on the street.
Long quivers’ arrows do not stir my dread.
First I was finely crafted from earth’s breast;
From brutal bulls he made up all the rest –
Or, rather, made from goats with their foul smell!
For many of the dead, I close their eyes
as he who guards my lord (though I’m undressed).
Yes, home is made of leather cut to size
and shaved-down wood from lumber that they fell.
I share now with the surf one destiny
in rolling cycles when each month repeats.
as beauty in my brilliant form retreats,
So too the surges fade in cresting sea.
Who is not stunned by my amazing fate
When with great strength I prop up countless trees?
Soon, though, a slender spike relieves great weight.
Birds in the sky and fish that swim in seas
Began their life from me in yesteryear;
my hold on one third of the world is clear.
No one can hold me in his palms or sight;
I scatter sudden clatter far and wide.
I want to hammer oaks with mournful might;
Yes, I strike sky and scour countryside.
From two materials, palms molded me.
My insides glow; these guts – for sure a looting
Of flax or some thin reed – shine brilliantly,
Though flesh produced from flowers yellows now.
They’re belching fire as flames and sparks are shooting,
and maudlin tears keep dripping down my brow,
So i still clear night’s shadows that i feared;
They leave ash smudges where my guts were seared.
I’m made, a willow-wood shaved-leather blend,
For taking battles to the bitter end.
A body’s safety is my body’s job
So Orcus will not have a life to rob.
What other soldier bears such hardship or
So many fatal injuries in war?
Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles, is translated and edited by A. M. Juster, who comments on how this work is filled with “wit, warmth, and wonder.” Aldhelm was carrying on a tradition from other ancient and medieval writers, who found creating riddles a way to challenge their own literary skills – and challenge those of their audience.