Commentary for Bern Riddle 23: De igne


Date: Fri 29 Jan 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 23: De igne

This riddle is all about starting fires and then putting them out. Regular readers will know that I take every opportunity to quote songs that I like. So, “let me light your fire” with this great riddle.

The riddle opens with the kind of polysemic play that typifies many riddles of the Bern collection. If you were unaware that this was a riddle about fire, you would probably read lines 1-2 as a disturbingly violent story of two “severe” (durus) parents who conceive the child after a “great beating” (verbere… multo). However, since we already know the solution, we recognise that the “hard” (durus) parents that are probably an iron firestriker, i.e. the iron or steel and flint device that was used as a firelighter in many pre-modern societies. The fire is born from the union of steel and flint only after “a great bashing” or “striking” (verbere… multo). Note that the term for “to birth” is fundere (literally “to pour out”), a word that will crop up again and again in these riddles—it appears, sometimes with prefix of pro- or dis-, in seven other riddles (Nos. 8, 19, 20, 27, 28, 29 and 49).

“Reproduction Roman and medieval firetools. Photograph (by Gaius Cornelius) from Wiki Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0)”

In the immortal words of Bruce Springsteen, “You can't start a fire without a spark.” And similarly, our fire begins its life “in tiny form” (a ventre figura) as a spark. From line 4 onwards, the child’s relationship with his parents is reversed, as he grows up to become a mighty fire who will eventually “soften” its parents. Presumably, this refers to the blistering fire of a smith’s forge —iron melts once it reaches 1538°C. The final line explains that water—which is “life to all” (vitam cunctis)—nevertheless brings about the fire’s death.

I have mentioned the term “tiny epics” in some of my commentaries before. Well, this riddle is certainly worthy of that name. It manages to tell the story of life-cycle of fire in six short, clever lines—from the birth of young spark to the death of an old flame.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

Related Posts:
Bern Riddle 8: De ovo
Bern Riddle 19: De cera/De pice
Bern Riddle 20: De melle
Bern Riddle 27: De papiro
Bern Riddle 28: De serico/bombyce
Bern Riddle 29: De speculo
Bern Riddle 49: De pluvia