Commentary for Bern Riddle 4: De scamno


Date: Fri 18 Dec 2020
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 4: De scamno

Imagine you are a lovely horse. You happily grow old in your stable, and you like to carry people on your back. But you don’t like being kicked, wearing bridles, or walking on soft ground. Then, one fateful day, you catch a glimpse of yourself in a mirror and—to your horror!—you discover that you aren’t a horse at all. You are… a wooden bench!

“A real-life horse-bench by the artist Lucy Casson.” Photo (by Neville Mogford) from Geograph (licence: CC BY-SA 2.0)

This is one of my all-time favourite riddles. It describes a stool or bench that thinks it is a horse. It begins by talking about soft or squishy places (mollibus locis), which makes one think of the difficulties that horses can have in marshy ground. The verb consistere (“to stand”) can also mean to harden or solidify, which seems to be the link with the previous riddle on salt.

So far, so horsey.

But then lines 3 and 4 complicate things, by describing a special kind of ‘horse’ who goes out riding without a human rider, and yet loves to carry people in the stable. Line 5 explains that the bench is tame, since it will never buck its rider, and yet obstinate, in that it does not accept a harness. The final line uses the idea of kicking a mature horse (it is unclear whether this refers to the use of the spurs of a form of animal abuse) to describe the damage that can be incurred on furniture from swinging heels.

Riddles like this one are all about seeing one thing as if it were another. Like all metaphors, they are based around common features. One can find this technique in all kinds of riddles from all kinds of places and periods. Among the most innovative examples I have come across recently are a modern Yorùbá riddle from western Africa that describes a road as a coffin and travellers as corpses (Akinyemi, page 37), an ancient Greek riddle that describes a flute as a ship and the fingers as sailors (The Greek Anthology, page 35, number 14), and a medieval Persian riddle that depicts a jar of beer as a beautiful woman (Seyed-Gohrab, page 30).

In the case of Bern Riddle 4, several common features are mentioned: horses and benches are both sat upon, they both have a ‘home’ inside etc. The most obvious similarity between the two—that horses and benches have four feet—is not mentioned. The riddle also mentions dissimilar features. These are used to reveal that the eccentric horse is actually a bench. In this way, the riddle is a little bit like an optical illusion such as the famous “duck-rabbit” image.

“Duck Rabbit. Image (by unknown) from Wikipedia Original from the 23rd October 1892 issue of Fliegende Blätter.”


References and Suggested Reading:

The Greek Anthology, Books 13-16. Edited and translated by W. R. Paton, Vol. 5, Loeb Classical Library 86. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1918, pages 25-108.

Akínyẹmí, Akíntúndé. Orature and Yorùbá Riddles. London: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2015.

Seyed-Gohrab, A. A. Courtly Riddles: Enigmatic Embellishments in Early Persian Poetry. Leiden: Leiden University Press, 2010.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

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Bern Riddle 4: De scamno