Wundor and wrætlic
The anatomy of wonder in the sex riddles
in Riddles at work in the early medieval tradition
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Riddles alter their audiences’ perceptions of familiar objects and phenomena through precisely true yet entirely foreign descriptions. Riddles can be accused of a topsy-turvy inversion of high and low subject matter or of falsely raising the low to the level of the high through so-called inappropriate diction. However, riddles can also be read as meditations, albeit often humorous ones. These short poems force readers to meditate on the wonders of the natural and constructed worlds. This chapter explores how the obfuscation inherent in the genre of the riddle and its poetic diction allows a shift in perspectives so that the wondrous nature of what appears quotidian becomes suddenly, if laughably, visible. Following a discussion of the cultural work of wonder, the chapter focuses on the ‘obscene’ riddles Womb wæs on Hindan (R.37), Wrætlic Hongað (R.44), Banleas (R.45), and In Wincsele (R.54), solved as ‘bellows’, ‘key’, ‘bread dough’, and ‘butter churn’. By insistently resisting the reader’s expectations of what merits poetic description, these riddles create space in which to appreciate the mundane and see past simple ubiquity to these things’, and their makers’, deep and foundational worth to society as a whole.

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