Commentary for Bern Riddle 10: De scala


Date: Wed 13 Jan 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 10: De scala

Some riddles are more straightforward than others. But what about those riddles where it is not clear whether we are supposed to read them literally or figuratively? Well, this is one of them.

I have translated the title of this riddle as ‘On the ladder.’ However, it seems to be referring to a single rung or step, or perhaps the side-rail of a ladder. The riddle-creature explains that if she lived alone, then she could not go upon the directam viam (“straight path”). However, when joined with her twin sister—twin because they are identical—they allow everyone an iter velox (“speedy journey”) all the way to the top.

The riddle echoes several other Bern riddles. The opening line about “firm feet” (firma planta) recalls the “squishy places” of the extra-brilliant Riddle 4 and its eccentric horse-bench. Similarly, the closing two lines are reminiscent of the final line of Riddle 4, when the horse-bench explains that he dislikes being kicked. In this case, if the ladder is to be used, she must put up with having its feet stood on all the time. The “firm places” trope also turns up in the fish riddle, Riddle 30.


“Jacob and the ladder of angels, Cunradus Schlapperitzi, 1445. Image from the New York Public Library (© public domain).


I mentioned at the start of this commentary that I am not sure how straightforward this riddle is. The question is whether the ladder just represents a ladder, or whether it has a deeper and more spiritual significance. On the one hand, there is no overt religious message in the riddle. It could be all about a very ordinary, bog-standard ladder. The riddle tells us that people use the ladder to reach what they want—perhaps the fruit or honey mentioned in nearby riddles. On the other hand, it might suggest the occasion in the Book of Genesis when the patriarch Jacob dreamt of a ladder or stairway leading from earth to heaven, with angels travelling up and down it (Genesis 28:12). In medieval exegesis, the ladder was an allegory for the path to heaven that the faithful must take, with the steps representing the piety, virtues, or ascetic struggles that led there.


I will leave you with this question: is the ladder supposed to be understood literally or figuratively? Or perhaps both? Is it is the kind of ladder you’d find in a shed, or is it an allegorical stairway to heaven.


References and Suggested Reading:

Grypeou, Emmanouela and Spurling, Helen. The Book of Genesis in Late Antiquity: Encounters between Jewish and Christian Exegesis. Leiden: Brill, 2013. Pages 289-322.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

Related Posts:
Bern Riddle 4: De scamno
Bern Riddle 10: De scala
Bern Riddle 30: De pisce