Jack’s Naughty Bits: Riddles

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Jack's Naughty Bits

say that Typho, terrible and proud . . .

Conceived . . . the deadly Sphinx, a curse on the men of Thebes.

                                                                — Hesiod

To the Egyptians we owe the wingless sphinx, the sphinx of the desert, the tomb, the sphinx of death; to the Greeks we owe the winged female sphinx, the carnivorous sphinx, the sphinx of the famous riddle. Both are primal, basic symbolic entities, appearing again and again in world literature. Both are mysterious, but the Greek even more so. Her riddle, What walks on four legs, on three and on two? was the bane of the Thebans — for she devoured all who answered incorrectly — till Oedipus was able to name the answer: man. Four legs in infancy, two in maturity and three in old age. In a certain sense, then, the riddle of the sphinx is the riddle of all riddles, for all our mysteries point back to ourselves, and we, ultimately, are the end of all our questioning.


Another riddle, then: What is it that humans want, seek, think and talk about, but pretend does not exist? Sex, of course. But if you put the question differently, the answer is not so clear: Why is there repression? Many theories abound — none more persuasive than Freud’s — yet no answer can quite account for the barbarous tyranny of the “superego.” What keeps us from sexual freedom? What prevents us from understanding the links between our outer bodies and inner selves? Why, though the forms have varied significantly from culture to culture, century to century, are virtually all human societies founded in and upon some regulation and repression of sexuality, some form of censorship and censoring of desire, some form of denial? The question is so huge it is difficult even to speculate.


And yet. Necessity is the mother of invention, they say; so is privation (the principle behind Raymond Queneau’s Oulipo group). In any repressive regime expressions of freedom will find ways of making themselves known. Thus the various outcroppings of sexual literature during the glory days of Christianity (the Roman de la Rose, Margery Kempe, penitentials, et cetera). The key to all these forms, of course, is a superficial layer of orthodoxy, subtended by a racy second meaning. This exoteric/esoteric dynamic (outside/inside layers) is the structure of much of the history of writing on sexuality. Amidst prohibition and repression, the poetic capacity to veil meaning finds no greater application than in the writing of sex.


And thus these riddles, composed in Anglo-Saxon in a still somewhat barbarous England (mid-eleventh century), have two answers each. The church-safe interpretations are given at the end; the other possibilities are left to you. Just don’t tell the Pope.

* * *  

From The Exeter Book translated by Andrew Cole

Riddle #44

A peculiar thing hangs by a man’s thigh,

Free beneath the folds. The front is pierced.

It is stiff and hard, quite well-placed.

When a young man raises his cloak

Over his knee, he greets with the head

A familiar hole

That he has frequently filled before

Of the same length

As what dangles there.

Riddle #37

I saw a thing. The belly was behind,

Greatly swollen. Its master, a mighty man, attended to it,

And it had accomplished much

When that which filled it flew through its eye.

It does not continuously die when it has to give

What’s within to another, for the treasure returns

To its belly, and the prize is raised.

It produces a son. It is the father of itself.

Riddle #80

I am a man’s comrade, a warrior’s companion,

Friend to my beloved, a king’s retainer.

His blonde woman, an earl’s daughter, though she be noble,

Sometimes lays her hand on me.

At times, I have in my stomach what grew in the grove.

Often I ride on a stately steed, at the edge of the grove.

Firm is my tongue. Often I give the poet a reward

When he has sung. Good is my thing

And I myself am sallow. Say what I am called.

Answers: A key, a bellows, a horn

© Andrew Cole