Commentary for Bern Riddle 27: De papiro


Date: Tue 09 Feb 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 27: De papiro

This riddle about the papyrus plant begins with a charming story of a riverside childhood—all soft grasses and happy streams! This is quite different to some of the violent and bizarre birth stories that we have heard. That is, at least until the apparently macabre twist at the end!

“Papyrus plants. Photograph (by Jo Jan) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY 3.0)”

Papyrus was used since ancient times as a source of paper, but it was best known in early medieval Europe as a wick for lamps and candles. For example, Aldhelm of Malmesbury, writing in the seventh century, mentions papyrus wicks being used in an oil lamp (De virginitate, page 92). Its associations with fire were such that, in his early seventh century Etymologies, Isidore of Seville incorrectly explained the etymology of papyrus as derived from the Greek πυρ (“fire”) (Isidore, page 355).

As with many other plant riddles, it describes the riddle subject both in terms of its botany and its use to humans. The first three lines describe the fast-growing papyrus stem, which shoots up in the summer months. The long, spidery leaves are the “clothing” (vestes), which produce such shade that the rest of the plant cannot “see the sun” (cernere solem).

“More papyrus plants. Photograph (by Heike Hoffmann) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY SA 2.0)”

The twist in Line 4 and 5 is that the plant, which cannot see the light, also “gives out a light” (producere lumen) when covered by something else. The papyrus pith used for wick-making (and paper-making too) was sliced from the shady bottom of the plant. Once prepared as a wick, it “gives out a light” when covered in wax or enclosed in an oil lamp (see Riddles 2 and 14). Thus, it can be called both a filius profundi (“son of the depths”) and a lucis amicus (“friend of light”).

The final line introduces a further twist—the riddle-creature’s mother, who was responsible for his idyllic childhood, now “takes away the light” (lumina tollit), which sounds very much like she kills him. But, of course, the mother is water, which gives life to the plant and extinguishes the lighted wick. So, happily, it is not quite as sad an ending as it sounds!


References and Suggested Reading:

Aldhelm, The Prose De virginitate. In Michael Lapidge and Michael Herren (eds. and trans.), Aldhelm: The Prose Works. Ipswich: D.S. Brewer, 1979. Pages 59-135.

Isidore of Seville. The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Edited by Stephen A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach and Oliver Berghof. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

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