Commentary for Bern Riddle 32: De spongia


Date: Tue 09 Feb 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 32: De spongia

It is time to absorb the wisdom of this great riddle, which is all about a talking sponge and her strange, strange existence. The riddle continues the theme of watery things from the previous riddles on the fish and the siphon. It owes much to an earlier riddle by Symphosius (No. 63), an unknown writer who wrote 100 influential riddles, probably at some point between the third and fifth centuries, and likely in Roman North Africa—but it also adds a typically unconventional Bern riddle take on family relations (see Klein, page 406-7).

“A sponge. Photograph (by Johan) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0)”

The first line immediately draws our interest: who is the mother whose face is so unlike her daughter? A few lines later, the mother is swallowed and then born by her child. In case you didn’t get it already, the mother is the grammatically feminine aqua (“water”), who is soaked up and then squeezed out. Water is also described as a mother in several other riddles, which means that the sponge is the sister of salt (Riddle 4), papyrus (Riddle 27), and ice (Riddle 38). Don’t you just love the strange family relations of the Bern Riddles!

Line 2 describes the sponge’s fleshless viscera (“insides,” “entrails”). Riddles are often interested in the hidden interior world of things. Usually when this word is used in the Bern Riddles, it refers to a hidden thing of some kind, for example, a ship’s cargo (Riddle 11), or a fire-striker’s potential for fire (Riddle 23). Here, rather than describing a thing, it describes a nothing, i.e. the pores, or “hollow insides” (cava viscera), that the sponge uses to circulate water through its body when living. Symphosius includes a similar idea in his riddle—the sponge is patulis diffusa cavernis (“spread out with gaping caverns”) and intus lympha latet (“water hides within”).

Line 5 takes the idea of theft or capture and turns it on its head, as the sponge is “light” (levis) when it is “seized” (manu capta), but it is “heavy” (gravis) when “released” (manu dismissa). Again, this owes something to Symphosius’ riddle, which reads Ipsa gravis non sum, sed aquae mihi pondus inhaeret (“I am not heavy myself, but the weight of water sticks inside me.”). But the addition of the upturned capture/theft element is the Bern riddler’s own invention. The final line then subverts this second time, when the poor sponge is compelled to return its takings. What a brilliant twist to end the riddle on!

“A reminder that talking sponges are not unique to the Middle Ages.”


References and Suggested Reading:

Symphosius, “Aenigma 63: Spongia” In Symphosius: The Aenigmata: An Introduction, Text and Commentary. Edited by T. J. Leary. London: Bloomsbury, 2014. Page 47.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

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