Paul Kelly
Riddle Poem One from the Kelly-Hoard

Riddles and riddle poems have been around a long, long time in human history. One of the most famous riddles, referred to in Oedipus Rex, written by Sophocles in the 5th century BCE, is posed by the Sphinx to Oedipus as he’s on his way to Thebes:

“What goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet in the evening?”

The answer, which Oedipus correctly guesses, is “man”.

As a baby we crawl on four legs, as an adult we walk on two and in old age we use a walking stick, our “third leg”.

Solving the riddle appeared to be a great boon at first. Oedipus’s prize was the kingship of Thebes and the hand in marriage of its queen, Jocasta. He was a good and just ruler and much loved. Alas, unbeknown to our hero and his new wife, Jocasta was his mother. Things did not end well. The truth of Oedipus’s lineage was a riddle he did not solve until it was too late.

The Anglo-Saxons, centuries later, showed a love for riddles, too. Riddle poems form a large part of their literature. There is a cache or “riddle hoard” that has come down to us in the Exeter Book from the 10th century, containing about 90 poems. Often, they simply list the qualities of the object or creature that the reader must guess.

There are riddles for a book, a ship, a sword, a plough, a cuckoo, fire, wine, even an iceberg! Some are abstract, with answers such as “nature” or “soul and body”. They are mysterious, playful, sorrowful, religious and occasionally ribald. There is sometimes more than one answer, much debated by scholars.

One begins:

“I am a wonderful help to women. I harm no citizen except my slayer…”

and ends:

“… The curly-haired woman who catches me fast will feel our meeting. Her eye will be wet.”

The answer is “an onion”.

I keep coming back to these poems and try to puzzle out their meanings. I imagine those sturdy, inventive, practical people in clan groups crowded around their fires 1200 years ago, telling stories, singing songs and having riddle contests. No TV, radio, phones. Sounds like fun.

Likewise, I’ve found it fun, recently, to try to write a few riddle poems of my own. Here’s one. There are more to come – once a month this year, with any luck. And good luck to you, too.


Fixed in one place I’m always on the move.

Sometimes I blush but not when I’m naked.

No mouth have I but many songs

And often moan at midnight.

Without my hidden life I would die.


Show answer:



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