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Can you solve this medieval saint’s puzzling riddles?


Florilegius/Leemage/AFP | Saint Aldhelm/University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division

Zelda Caldwell - published on 12/30/21

St. Aldhelm wrote a collection of 100 riddles called “Aeinigmata.”

St. Aldhelm, a 7th-century Anglo-Saxon monk known for his scholarship, is considered “Britain’s first man of letters.” 

Born in Wessex, England in 639, Aldhem was sent as a young boy to Canterbury for his education, and was said to have impressed his teachers with his skills in Latin and Greek literature.

Adept at music and poetry, Aldhelm composed ballads that remained popular as late as the 12th century, and played the harp, fiddle and pipes. 

As Abbot of Malmesbury, Aldhelm noticed that the local people spent their time at Mass gossiping instead of listening to the monks preach. So one day he stood on a bridge and began to sing his ballads. Once a crowd had gathered, he began to preach the Gospel.

Among Aldhelm’s best known works are “Carmen rhythmicum,” a 200-line poem about a trip during a strong storm that blew the roof off a church, and a treatise on “De Virginitate” (“About Virginity”), which he wrote for an abbey of nuns. 

He also lent his talents to the art of riddles. One hundred riddles make up his “Aenigmata,” which has been translated by the poet A.M. Juster, in the book Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles. See if you can solve them!

1. “I share with the surf one destiny

In rolling cycles when each month repeats.

As beauty in my brilliant form retreats,

So too the surges fade in cresting sea.”

2. “When times of year for weaving threads resume,

My hairy threads fill sallow flesh with weight,

And soon I climb the leafy tips of broom

To craft small balls, then rest with twists of fate.”

3. “My name’s a hybrid since antiquity.

I’m called a “lion,” then an “ant” in Greek,

A blended metaphor, a sign that’s bleak;

I can’t defend birds’ beaks with my own beak.

May scholars probe my name’s duplicity!”

4. “My nature rightly copies my twin name

Since birds and shadows each retain a claim.

I’m rarely seen by people in clear light

For I will hide in star-borne nests at night.”

5. “No one can hold me in his palms or sight;

I scatter sudden clatter far and wide.

I want to hammer oaks with mournful might;

Yes, I strike sky and scour the countryside.”


1) Moon

2) Silkworm

3) Myrmicoleon or Ant-Lion, an inside joke referring to a mistranslation of the Old Testament. The Hebrew word “lajisch” meaning lion, was mistakenly translated into “ant-lion.”

4) Night-raven

5) Wind

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