Anglo-Saxon Literature – Part II: Charms and Riddles

The transition from pagan thoughts to the dogma of Christianity was slow to go. Appeasing the populace to look upon a Christian society with acceptance was a difficult task.

Shelagh's Website | Miscellaneous Lord's Prayer in Anglo Saxon A Charm to Cure Warts

Shelagh’s Website | Miscellaneous
Lord’s Prayer in Anglo Saxon A Charm to Cure Warts

Charms reflect pagan superstition and folklore. Even so, it was not uncommon for the charm to include an invocation to the Christian God. The charm typically consists of three parts: (1) the naming or description of the means to be used in the implementation of the charm; (2) a short narrative telling how the evil arose or some former occasion on which the remedy worked; and (3) the incantation, wherein was mentioned the technique needed for the alleviation of the problem. This cross-compositions suggest a culture in honest transition from one belief system to another.

“Land Remedy” is a typical blending of the new and old. It is a charm meant to ensure fertile fields. In it, the old Earth goddess Ere is called the “mother of men.” Erce’s image “is described as becoming fruitful when it is in ‘God’s embrace.’ It is only the synergism of the two that assures the bountiful harvest. Other charms were composed to give remedy against sudden stitches, dwarves, swarms of bees, and cattle thieves.” [A Companion to Old and Middle English Literature, edited by Laura C. Lambdin and Robert T. Lambdin, page 10]

“Hail to thee, Earth (the old Earth Goddess), mother of men,/Be fruitful in God’s embrace, /Filled with food for the use of men.”

Charms established a connection between religious elements in the everyday lives of the early inhabitants. They also were a precursor to the riddles which appeared around the 8th Century. “Elton Smith (“Charms” 91) notes that Anglo-Saxon religion must have assumed that piety begets material return – a stark contrast to the usual biblical allusion that the only true treasure is Heaven.” [A Companion to Old and Middle English Literature, page 10]


Wuffing Education for Anglo-Saxon Day Schools at Sutton Oho ×  Old English Riddles

Wuffing Education for Anglo-Saxon Day Schools at Sutton Oho ×
Old English Riddles

Riddles, which are dated to the 8th Century, are descriptions of various phenomena and objects. They were composed anonymously and covered a variety of topics. Again, a reference from Elton Smith “Riddles” 439 implies that the riddles were translated from Latin. “These works tend to be more descriptive than literary and served to demonstrate facets of the ordinary life of England. Straight to the point, the riddles display little if any humor, thus demonstrating that these were meant to be intellectual activities. Of particular note is the idea that riddles usually are one of four distinct types. The first described some item in the natural world. A second type could be vehicles to present some elements of folklore or tales. The riddles were also used to describe typical life in England. Finally, there are the charms that are simply brilliant descriptive poetry presented in the form of a game wherein the poet employs description to make readers see and feel unnamed objects. Here the riddles are descriptions of various objects or phenomena.” [A Companion to Old and Middle English Literature, page 10]

Riddle 15 by Anglo-Saxon Riddles translated by Bertha Rogers | poetry translation

Riddle 15 by Anglo-Saxon Riddles translated by Bertha Rogers | poetry translation

The subject matter is a cross between natural and man-made items.

“Storm on Land” – “Sometimes I move with malice through the land, burn the people’s halls, spoil the houses; the smoke rises up…there is noise on earth, the death pangs of men.”

“Storm at Sea” – “The ocean is roused, the foam tossed, the whalemere roars, it rages loudly; the surges beat the shores…when I, struggling,…stir the vast depths of the sea.”

These two riddles present the same subject, but contain a degree of difference. The storm on land moves with malice, while the storm surge at sea rages loudly and beats the shores. The destruction of the first riddle affects man directly with the loss of homes and life, while the second speaks of the depths of the sea enveloping all that crosses it.

“Sun” – “Often I burn living creatures; close to the earth, I afflict countless races with distress….Sometimes I gladden the minds of many.”

“Fire” – “A woman often binds it in its great strength. It obeys them well. Cruelly it requites him who lets it grow proud.”

The “Sun” riddle displays a preoccupation with the power of heat upon man and crops. This riddle does offer a bit of “hope” in its gladdening of those which it touches with bright rays and warmth. The heat of the “fire” serves as warning to those who do not control its power. 

“Iceberg” – “The monster came sailing, wondrous along the wave,…loud was its din; its laughter was terrible…; its edges were sharp. It stove in the ship’s side, relentless and ravaging.”

The icebergs are wondrous to view, but they hold great destruction for ships in their paths. An oxymoron exists with the reference to the iceberg’s laughter.

“Shield” – “I am a solitary dweller wounded with a knife, stricken with a sword, weary of battle-deeds, tired of blades.”

“Sword” – “I am a wondrous creature, shaped in strife, loved by my lord, fairly adorned….”

We must recall that instruments of war held great value during this early times. In the “Shield” the shield is personified as if it were a person who suffered great harm. The shield has grown weary of battle and the abuse it must take. The riddle emphasizes the brutal lifestyle of the period. The sword receives great adulation, being loved by its holder and elaborately decorated.

“Swan” – “Silent is my garment when I tread the earth or inhabit the dwellings or stir the waters. Sometimes my trappings and this high air raise one above the abodes of men, and the power of clouds then bears me far and wide over the people.”

This one dwells on the natural elements of the animal world. It describes the beauty of the swan’s movement. The riddle centers on the swan’s ability to fly above the man below. 

“The riddles obviously showed a keen desire to manipulate and demonstrate a grasp of the vernacular. This may explain why so many riddles were copied and passed about. This knowledge would also be demonstrated in a vastly different way. As noted, the writings of this period were gradually Christianized for many reasons. Foremost is the fact that Christianity had become the most popular religion in Britain at this time. Further, since the monasteries were the centers of culture, it is only natural that literature that was Christian in tone grew and developed; few new ideas were created, for these were mostly the works of monks and were composed in Latin, the tongue of the church.” [A Companion to Old and Middle English Literature, page 12]

Note: The riddles were found in History of English Literature: Part I – Early Saxon Through Milton, Hymarx Outline Series, page 16.]


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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