Commentary for Bern Riddle 17: De cribro


Date: Fri 22 Jan 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 17: De cribro

Sometimes riddle-reading can be very inten-sieve! Today’s riddle is about a sieve—not a kitchen sieve, but an agricultural one.

The opening two lines of this riddle are a great example of riddling disguise and misdirection, describing the sieve as if it were a loquacious Mr Ed. Line 1 explains that the riddle creature’s mouth that is always open and the lips that are never sealed—a quality of both sieves and talkative people. Line 2 goes on to describe how the creature is urged on its cursus (“course”) by frequenti verbere (“a well-used whip” or “a frequent blow”). It describes the act of shaking the sieve as if it were the whipping of a horse, which recalls the eccentric horse-bench of Riddle 4. The material that is being sieved is probably flour—made with Riddle 12’s grain and Riddle 9’s millstone—which is being separated from any bran or other impurities and made finer for baking.

“Talking horses aren’t just in riddles.”

The sieve begins to come into focus in line 3, which tells us that the object has no exta (“insides, bowels”) unless they are placed in there by hand, referring to its concave nature. The riddle then describes sieving as a violent act—the minutum vulnus (“tiny wound[s]”) represents the sieve’s holes, and the moving is the act of sieving.

The last two lines were not the easiest to translate, but the general idea is of separating good (i.e. the flour) from bad (i.e. the bran). This idea has distinctly a biblical feel, and I suspect that the author had Jesus’ remark to Simon Peter that Satan would sift the disciples like wheat (Luke 22.31). Whether he did or not, the central motif in this part of the riddle is that the sieve, who is left with only the detritus, gets the worst of the deal. Even worse, he is then abandoned, having served his purpose. What a sad ending for the poor sieve!

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

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