Commentary for Bern Riddle 33: De viola


Date: Tue 09 Feb 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 33: De viola

Sometimes, riddles can tell the story of an entire lifetime in just a few lines—I call them tiny epics in several of my commentaries (for Riddles 12, 13, 24). Well, this riddle on the violet is another example of a tiny epic. It is also the first of four riddles on flowers.

The opening line explains that the plant grows smaller as it grows old. This seems to be referring to the wilting of the flower, although it may also reflect some other botanical detail, such as their low-growing nature. Sadly, it does not have anything to do with the phrase “shrinking violet,” which was not coined until the turn of the 20th century.

“Violets. Photograph (by Remont) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 4.0)”

Line 2 explains that the violet comes before “all the better-dressed sisters” (cunctas… maiori veste sorores), and this theme is continued into lines 3 and 4. On the one hand, the riddle reflects botanical reality— violets typically flower in late winter and early spring, which is much earlier than most plants. On the other, it also borrows from an established literary tradition that presents the growth and flowering of the humble violet as a story of modest, and often chaste, beauty. Perhaps the best example, roughly contemporary with the Bern Riddles, is from a poem about violets written by the sixth century Frankish poet, Venantius Fortunatus, in one of his letters to Radegund, a former Frankish queen who became abbess of Sainte-Croix in Poitiers. In the poem, the violet arises early in spring, and its beauty is not as great as the larger rose or lily, but its nobility and regal purple sets it apart from the others.

If the season bore me the customary white lilies, or the rose were brilliant with dazzling scarlet, I would… send them gladly as a humble gift to the great…
Dyed with regal purple, they exhale a regal scent, and with their leaves pervade all with their scent and with their beauty. May you both have equally both of the things which they bear…
—Venantius Fortunatus, “Poem 8.6” (translated by Judith George)

Similarly, our riddle emphasises the violet’s smallness twice (lines 1 and 5), the conventional beauty of its sister-flowers (line 2), and its early flowering (line 3). It seems likely that the two texts are drawing on the same tradition, even if they are not directly linked.

“Early dog-violets. Photograph (by H. Zell) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0)”

The reference in Line 5-6 to the flower’s “soul” or “energy” (“spiritus”) fits nicely with the idea of modest beauty. However, it also recalls a line from an earlier riddle written by Symphosius, an enigmatic riddler who wrote 100 influential riddles, probably at some point between the third and fifth centuries: Spiritus et magnus, quamvis sim corpore parvo (“My soul is great, although I might have a small body”). Spiritus, which can mean soul, can also mean air or breath too—thus referring to the violet’s fragrance. And this can “show the way” to those who seek the plant, despite being “seen by no one.”

One of the things that I like about this riddle is how carefully the metaphors and double-meanings are crafted—botanical reality is carefully intertwined with ideas about aging, modesty, and the body and soul. It is the kind of riddle that really grows on you!


References and Suggested Reading:

Venantius Fortunatus, “Poem 8.6: To Lady Radegund about violets.” In Judith George (ed. and trans.), Venantius Fortunatus: Personal and Political Poems. Translated Texts for Historians, Volume 23. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1995. Page 70.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

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