Riddles: Origins of their Roots Remain a Mystery

Riddles are by themselves baffling, as up to now, there are no exact answers on how they originated. Studies of poems and riddles collected as manuscript of an ancient literature called the Exeter Book, suggested that a 7th century English churchman named Aldhelm of Malmesbury, may have been the originator. The attribution is in light of his legendary devotion to vernacular poetry.

Yet two of the poems found in the Exeter Book are said to have the runic signature of Cynewulf, whose works as an Old English poet flourished during the 9th century.

Even the legendary thousand-year old Exeter Book is a riddle by itself, to which Riddle 91 appears to be referring to the Exeter manuscripts:

Though the children of earth eagerly seek / To trace my trail, sometimes my tracks are dim.”


It is said that the existence of the Exeter Book is a miracle, as it survived the plundering and pillage of the Norsemen who found great use of manuscripts as fuel for their fire. Actually, the Vikings of Sweden may have brought the riddles home. One of the country’s greatest archaeological finds, is the 9th century “Rok Runestones,” containing inscriptions of riddles complete with answers right after the posed questions.

Still, queries as to when and how riddles originated remain unanswered. All answers provided so far by scholars, have not established how far back the origins of riddles can be traced.

About The Exeter Book

The Exeter Book is a collection of thousand-year old manuscripts donated to the Exeter Cathedral Library by Leofric, the first Bishop of Exeter. Although the scribal annotations on the book were established to have been made in the late 10th century, scholarly studies widely believed that the riddles were first written by as early as between 7th and 9th century.

The manuscripts were all written in Old English, while some pages are missing. The book itself, appears stained, scorched and overused not only as a book that religious scribes have copied for their respective monastery libraries. There are signs that its other uses were as chopping board, as a beer-mat, as a hot-plate and as storage for gold leaf.

It laid dormant in the Exeter Cathedral Library for a decade until 19th century, when scholars and translators came around to pore through the book. They were also translators, who spent time to interpret, transcribe, edit and anthologize the contents of the manuscript.

Still, questions as to when and who first wrote and chanted the riddles remain unsolved.