Commentary for Bern Riddle 30: De pisce


Date: Tue 09 Feb 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 30: De pisce

Fish are not only a favourite food of grizzly bears and ravenous crocodiles, but a favourite “food” of cunning riddlers too.

Long-time followers of The Riddle Ages will know all about Exeter Riddle 81 (“Fish and River”), which is based on a similar riddle, Symphosius’ Riddle 12.’ Another English writer, Alcuin of York also borrowed Symphosius’ fish riddle for his eclectic “wisdom” work, Peppin’s Disputation, at the turn of the 9th century. Fish also feature in Aldhelm’s Riddle 81 and Eusebius’ Riddle 40, as well as several ancient Greek riddles. It is not exactly relevant to today’s riddle, but I feel obliged to share my all-time favourite fish-riddle, an ancient Greek one attributed to Clearchus of Soli. It asks, “Which fish or variety of fish is the most delicious or the most precisely in season, and then which one is particularly good eating after Arcturus rises, or the Pleiades, or the Dog-Star?” There is no answer, except perhaps laughter. The joke is that the catching of fish, unlike crops, are not linked to the seasons, but the wealthy, urbane riddler does not understand this. Anyway, as we will see, the Bern fish riddle is a very intertextual one—it contains a lot of tropes and references to other Bern riddles. See how many you can find!

“Fish from an early 13th century bestiary from Peterborough, Bodleian Library, MS. Ashmole 1511, Folio 86r. Photograph from Digital Bodleian (licence: CC BY-NC 4.0)

The opening line takes the ‘creature who likes firm places’ trope from Riddle 4’s horse-bench and Riddle 10’s ladder. In this case, the fish subject cannot live in a ‘firm place’ (firmo loco). I have translated manens consistere simply as “dwell” for simplicity’s sake, but the sense is perhaps closer to the more prolix “remaining in firm places, I cannot endure.”

Many of the Bern riddles are about life or death, and several of them describe situations those where water can be a source of life. For example, water is the mother of salt (Riddle 4), papyrus (Riddle 27), sponge (Riddle 32) and ice (Riddle 38). ‘In Riddle 27, water is also the destroyer of fire. And in Riddle 23, water is both “life for all” (vitam cunctis) and death for fire. Here, the idea is rearranged, so that air is life and water is death for everyone except our aquatic friends.

The part of this riddle I struggle to make sense of are the references to the “warm bed” (lectus tepens) and “life bed within the cold” (vitalis torus sub frigora). After all, fish do not lie on beds or couches! Are these lines meant literally or figuratively, or both? Perhaps the “life bed” refers to the sea itself, or maybe the sandy floor where bottom-dwelling fish dwell. Or perhaps the idea is to depict the fish as if it were a long-suffering seafarer, who has rejected the comforts of warm beds on land? Answers on a postcard please!


References and Suggested Reading:

Alcuin of York, Disputatio regalis et nobilissimi juvenis Pippini cum Albino scholastico. In Altercatio Hadriani Augusti et Epicteti Philosophi. Edited by L. W. Daly & W. Suchier. Champaign: The University of Illinois Press, 1939. Page 98.

Athenaeus of Naucratis, The Learned Banqueter, Volume V. Loeb Classical Library 274. Edited and translated by S. Douglas Olson. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009. Page 575. (The riddle is attributed to Clearchus of Soli.)

Symphosius, “Aenigma 12: Flumen et piscis” In Symphosius: The Aenigmata: An Introduction, Text and Commentary. Edited by T. J. Leary. London: Bloomsbury, 2014, Page 41.

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Bern Riddle 30: De pisce