Commentary for Bern Riddle 45: De terra


Date: Mon 01 Mar 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 45: De terra

“Body and earth” might sound like the name of a yoga retreat or a shower-gel brand, but it is also the theme of this excellently bizarre riddle!

The opening two lines of the riddle depict common agricultural processes as violent and disgusting acts. Line one provides the image of an os… patens (“open mouth”) that is often tunditur ictu (“beaten, stabbed”)—this alludes to the furrow of a field, which is frequently cut up by the plough. This is, in a sense, the “other side” of Exeter Riddle 21, which describes the plough as an orþoncpil (“a skilful spear”). Line 2 then shifts abruptly to the main theme of the riddle—food! The idea of “returning” food that one has already eaten has been chosen to suggest vomiting or defecating. Moreover, the earth tells us sumpsero lambens (literally “I have licked up”) the food, which adds to the somewhat icky feeling of these two lines. However, this all refers to the crops that the earth “returns” from the seeds that it was “fed.”

Lines 3 and 4 set up the apparent paradox of a creature that is and is not hungry and thirsty at the same time. On the one hand, the riddle creature literally feels “neither hunger nor thirst” (nulla…fames… sitimque… nullam), nor indeed any other emotion. On the other, its praecordia (“belly, heart”) always remains ieiuna, an adjective that can mean “barren” or “dry,” as well as “hungry” or “thirsty.”

“A recently ploughed field, viewed from behind a hedge. Photograph by the author (Neville Mogford).

The riddle then shifts the focus from the earth’s hunger to ours. Keen gardeners will know that different soil types can give different tastes to crops. The riddler knew this too, and they tell us that the creature adds miros sapores (“amazing tastes”) to food. The riddle then closes with another apparent paradox that plays on two senses of “cold body” (gelidum… corpus)—a dead body that lives forever. Perhaps the writer also wants us to compare the human body, which the earth decomposes, to the earth’s enduring body. As we so often find with the Bern riddles, this also looks back to the previous riddle, No. 44, which describes an oyster that endures the cold waters of winter.

In my opinion, Riddle 45 is a very clever little riddle. It takes a loose and vague association between the soil and the human body, and then it runs off with it to all kinds of fantastic places. It certainly manages to cover a lot of ground in six lines!

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

Related Posts:
Exeter Riddle 21
Bern Riddle 44: De margarita