Commentary for Bern Riddle 39: De hedera


Date: Fri 12 Feb 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 39: De hedera

After the obscurity of Bern Riddle 38, we now come to the very transparent Bern Riddle 39. When you compare the approaches of the two riddles, it is hard to imagine that they were written by the same person, Indeed, it is quite possible that they were not. If I really had to, I would bet that Riddles 38 and 39 were written by the same author—but I wouldn’t want to put my own money on it! There are some signs that the two riddles are linked, as they share some important vocabulary: both include the verbs vincere (“to defeat, destroy”) and vetari (“to be allowed”). The riddle also contains features found in other Bern Riddles, such as the parents and the seasons motifs, as well as the word plantae (“feet” or “roots”), which is also used in Bern Riddles 10, 11, 51, 52, and 54.

“Ivy and its “father” (or “mother”). Photograph (by Derek Ramsey) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: GNU FDL 1.2)”

Lines 1 and 2 are quite literal. Usually, the Bern Riddles expect us to guess the identity of the riddle-subject’s parents. But here the riddle does everything for us, explaining that the father is a tree (arbor mihi pater) and “the mother is rocky” (lapidea mater). Ivy will climb both tree and stone, and so the two are, in a sense, its parents. The only problem is that the father, arbor, is feminine and the mother, lapis, is masculine. Perhaps the riddler got the two words mixed up, or perhaps it is not as straightforward as I made it out to be! Regardless, this all fits very nicely with the motif of the child destroying its parents, which features in several Bern riddles. Line 2 explains that the ivy is “soft-bodied” and yet it can destroy its “hard” parents. This alludes to the damage that ivy can do to the bark of weakened trees or to the exposed cracks and joins of stonework.

“Ivy and its “mother” (or “father”). Photograph (by Storye Book) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 4.0)”

Lines 3 and 4 explain that ivy is perennial and evergreen. The ivy’s imperviousness to the heat of summer contrasts nicely with the parents of Riddle 38’s ice, who are “cooked” by the same heat. But the lines in our riddle do not feel as enigmatic as we would usually expect with the Bern riddles. The final two lines are a bit more cryptic, referring to the fact that ivy does not support itself with its own plantae (“feet” or “roots”), and imagining its clambering creepers as “twisted hands” (manus tortae).

This riddle takes us to the end of the series of plant riddles that began with the violet of Riddle 33. I don’t think that there’s much more to say about Riddle 39, except that it is a bit too literal for my tastes. Then again, maybe it’ll grow on me.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

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Bern Riddle 11: De nave
Bern Riddle 38: De glacie
Bern Riddle 51: De alio
Bern Riddle 52: De rosa
Bern Riddle 54: De insubulis