Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Exeter riddles

Exeter Riddle, image by Tom Jolliffe, used under
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

Just dug from the archive: The Riddle of the new Exeter Statue. The Michael Fairfax Exeter Riddle sculpture marking the city centre redevelopments is now over three years old. An eight-sided bladed spike in polished stainless steel, it has on each segment a riddle from the 10th century Exeter Book (Codex Exoniensis). Here are a couple of lists of the riddles or enigmata: TechnoZEN ignores the fragmentary and uncertain ones; this Kenyon College compilation by the Kalamazoo Riddle Group goes into the subtleties. A number of the riddles such as (numbering scheme varies) Riddle 23 and 43 are double-entendres.
One of the riddles on the sculpture isn't exactly well-chosen for modern readers; the one with the section

The capital G suggests my name and Æ, R, and O assist it so do H and I. I am called what these six characters clearly spell out".

The answer - a magpie - makes no sense in modern English, but in Anglo-Saxon one name for a magpie is agu (hence "a G" suggests it) and in the original manuscript the six characters are embedded in a different script: the Futhark runic alphabet. As this page on Nordic Magic Healing mentions, these can be arranged into higoræ, the feminine of higora, another Anglo-Saxon word for a magpie or jay (see A Grammar of Iconism, page 149).

The reason I mention the Exeter Riddle is that I finally made the effort, during Christmas shopping, to find a little-noticed further riddle on the High Street. This one is embedded as a twisty trail of metallic script in the granite pavement outside the Guildhall (see Google Maps). Click on the image to enlarge; the composite was stitched with AutoStitch then, as it's not terribly easy to read on a photograph, the image run through colour deconvolution to increase the text contrast.

click to enlarge

Conjure with me: three letters
of the alphabet, or two and one, or one.
Run me backwards and I would seem to be unchanged,
but that would be an uphill task of course.
My name speaks of former times
while I am still current:
though what current can be still?

This riddle is by the poet Richard Skinner, and originally appeared in The New Exeter Book of Riddles (Enitharmon Press, May 2002, ISBN-10: 1900564319), a book of commissioned modern riddles commemorating those in the Exeter Book. Richard's riddle was selected by Exeter City Council to be incorporated into the pavement as part of its environmental enhancement programme. As the book blurb says, subjects range from the traditional to the modern such as DNA and a getaway car.

What can I tell you? Though your quarry
lies exhausted at the bottom of an exhausted quarry,

to follow that lure
will almost certainly end in failure.
While I did indeed sink

like a stone among bottles, cans, a fridge, a sink,

a slab of marble granite
or slate I'm not


Why would a hostage's hand hacked off with a hacksaw
weigh on me now like a blood-spattered ingot

from that 24-Hour Bank, I who once cut such a figure
in its drive-up window? Go figure.

- from Rune, Paul Muldoon


Through frost and snow and sunlight, through rain and night and day I go back to where I come from, I pass all things, yet stay.

- Brian Patten

Grab the beast by the horns. Wrestle it down the narrow streets till you break its will to skitter its own way. Subdue it. Burden its rib-cage. Let your children ride. And then let it stray. Who cares? They'll send a herdsman to round it up at the end of the day.

- Stuart Henson

Spoiler: solution to Richard Skinner's riddle here; Brian Patten's here; and Stuart Henson's here

- Ray


  1. Following that riddle in the pavement (sounds like a sequel to Erskine Childers' Riddle of the Sands!) has been one of my favourite diversions when in Exeter – trying to assemble it complete from glimpsed fragments amongst the day time crowds :-)

  2. I didn't know it existed until Richard, who also works at the shop, told me about it.

  3. What can you tell me abour blessed julian of norwich - and is she julian or julianne or just jules?