Craft Fair: Riddles

In class, many of us were struck by the surprising amount of phallic jokes penned by monks. Of course, we were also struck by the very clever imagery and metaphors used in the riddles, and these riddles offered us a surprisingly large amount of insight into the material lives of those who wrote them.

For our class, we used The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation with foreword by Seamus Heaney (2011, paperback, ISBN: 978-0-393-07901.) All these poems were translations from the original language, but in our general opinion, the poets did an amazing job working with such difficult material. How do you translate something from a dead language, where little other material culture can confirm your suspicions, concepts are highly abstracted and metaphorical, and the answers to most of the riddles have not been preserved?

A warm thank you and congratulations to all the poets involved.

Riddle Visible on Bench. Puddles from Torrential Rain during Craft Fair also Visible.


The riddles did not have an “active” table at the Early Medieval Craft Fair we put on. Rather, we taped mini riddle posters (using the free Norse font and free paper textures from Bittbox) onto the tables and on the benches near the food. Riddles were themed according to the activity with which they were associated.


Armed and deadly, those were my early days,

Now a young captain coats me with silver and gold,

Twisting and turning the wires tightly round me.

Men often kiss me, yet I can move the whole crowd

With my war sons. Sometimes a horse will carry me

Into the borderlands, or a buoyant stallion bears me

Sparkling over salty surging seas. Sometimes those

Fine jeweled fingers of a young girl can fill me

Right to the brim. Other times I’m abandoned

Empty and hard, headless on the table. Sometimes

You’ll find me set up here in my finery

High on the wall, with drunk men below me.

Riding to fight, I’m the finest equipment

A soldier can get. Gleaming and glittering

I suck out the breath from the broadest man’s chest.

My voice is a clarion call: “More win for the captains!”

The very same voice sends you deep into battle

To ride to the rescue and rout out a brutalized foe.

What is my name? Do you not know?


Answer: Drinking Horn

(Delanty, Greg, and Michael Matto, editors. The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation. W. W. Norton & Co, 2011, Riddle 14, p. 88)


“Armed and Deadly” went to our boneworking table, as the harvest, decoration, and use of the horn was a main theme of the poem.

Riddle Visible at Lower Right Corner of Table, Cleverly Placed into the Workspace to Trick People into Engaging with it

Our next poem:


I saw four beings

Traveling strangely as one.

That creature took dark steps,

Left tracks of surprising blackness.

It moved more quickly when as a bird flock

It climbed now in clear air,

Plunged now beneath black waves.

It seemed a ceaseless laboring

When a noble warrior drove those four

To mark one road across the painted gold.

Answer: A pen/quill and fingers

(Delanty, Greg, and Michael Matto, editors. The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation. W. W. Norton & Co, 2011, Riddle 51, p. 406)


This poem went to our calligraphy table, since it described the tools of writing, their origin, and a metaphor for writing itself.


There was a struggle to find a fun and short poem for our metalworking table that was not so heavily bogged down in abstract imagery that it would be difficult for new readers to come up with an answer. In this case, I was happy to pick one of the more humorous phallic poems that described a common metal object:


A curious thing dangles by man’s thigh,

Peeking out from under his mantle,

A hole in its tip. Stiff and hard,

It stands up well to use.

Man lifts his mantle above his knee

To slide its hovering head into a hole

That it has filled so often: A perfect fit.


Answer: A Key, of course 😉

(Delanty, Greg, and Michael Matto, editors. The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation. W. W. Norton & Co, 2011, Riddle 44, p. 320)


Keys were metal objects that would have been easily recognizable, so although they had less “star power” than spears or swords, it seemed appropriate to showcase this riddle at the metalworking table. On the nature of the riddle itself, the sexual humor of ye olde dick joke was obviously just as amusing to early medieval peoples as it is to college students. Remember, these were recorded by monks.


Our food table was lucky enough to also be the recipient of a humorous phallic poem.


I saw in a corner something swelling,

Rearing, Rising, and raising its cover.

A lovely lady, a lord’s daughter,

Buried her hands in that boneless body,

Then covered with a cloth the puffed-up creature.


Answer: Dough

(Delanty, Greg, and Michael Matto, editors. The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation. W. W. Norton & Co, 2011, Riddle 45, p. 320)


Again, we have a poem that uses hilarious double meanings to obscure the nature of an object; doubtless the sexual nature of both of these poems was of great amusement to their audiences, along with the puzzle of the riddle itself. Although baking bread is no longer a common daily activity, most of our modern audience was at least knowledgeable enough about the subject (and the hearth cakes cooking on the fire) to guess the answer to this one correctly (after some well-deserved giggles.)


Near the food station we placed another riddle although it was less directly tied to food, that once again showed how the authors saw natural resources.


I watched this big well-hung young laddie

As he grabbed the four bright fountains

His mother had set gushing for him.

An onlooker said: “Living, he’ll turn

The furrows to loam, and dead,

He’ll catch us with belts and whips too.

And all this is well –

For both use and joy

Meet in this boy.”


Answer: A bullock (male calf)

(Delanty, Greg, and Michael Matto, editors. The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation. W. W. Norton & Co, 2011, Riddle 38, p. 276)

Although just a young calf, the speaker in this poem points out the ways in which that animal will grow to provide them with labor and later goods, and the joy this brings them. They saw the ways in which everything was potential, and clearly visualized the items they would be producing later, even with an animal as young as a calf.


Of all the poems placed at the craft fair, this one placed at the textiles table was likely the most abstract and metaphorical, and because of that, the most challenging for a modern audience to decipher.


I was in there where I saw a turning

Wood-beam injure

A striving creature enduring battle-wounds,

Deep wounds. Darts

Were a woe to that creature, and with craft?

Was the wood bound fast. One foot

Was fixed securely, the other worked busily,

Jumping into the air, close at times

To the ground. Nearby was a tree, brightly

Standing there, draped all around

With leaves. I saw the unleavings, the work

Of those darts, carried off

To my lord, into a hall of warriors drinking.


Answer: A Web and Loom

(Delanty, Greg, and Michael Matto, editors. The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation. W. W. Norton & Co, 2011, Riddle 56, p. 412)


It was a wise decision to thematically place the riddles around the craft fair near the objects they were related to. Without a mini loom on hand and an audience already primed to imagine textiles, it would have been nearly impossible for a modern audience to guess this one. Looms aren’t exactly a part of modern textile culture, nor are they present in the home, nor are they an object heavily featured in medieval fantasy movies or books like swords or shields.


Last but certainly not least, it was difficult to find a poem for our ceramics table, as no riddles in our class text seemed to directly mention clay or pottery or dish making in any way, shape, or form. Onions came up multiple times, a one-eyed garlic seller, peeing, and oxen, but no pots. So instead, this riddle was chosen:


Old was my race, steady and gaining.

I lived in towns, since fire’s protector

Spun fast for me, told of men wound in flame,

Purified by fire.  Now a hostile slice

Of mankind holds me, those men who first became

My misfortune. I remember it all,

Those who, from the beginning, ravaged my kin

From the homeland; I may not treat them with evil

But I am the reason the enslaved are captured and kept

Around the world. I have pierced and dazzled

with great strength beneath smooth surfaces

But I must conceal from all the secret power

Of my precious craft, my journey.

Tell me what I am.

Answer: Gold

(Delanty, Greg, and Michael Matto, editors. The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation. W. W. Norton & Co, 2011, Riddle 83, p. 504)


Gold is not clay. However, both are substances that come from the earth and must be harvested and processed before they are of use to humans. Both involve the use of fire to make them workable as objects. This poem could have just as easily gone to the metal working table, but because the poem is extremely conscious of the gold’s origin as an underground, old substance not made by mankind, but shaped by it, it thematically fit the ceramics table better.


Unfortunately, the biggest complication to our riddles at the craft fair was the rain, which got the posters quite wet and drove away our audience. These things were obviously beyond our control, but for our audience that did brave the torrential rain (period accurate to rain that medieval peoples also would have experienced) the riddles stayed legible and amusing.



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