Commentary for Bern Riddle 44: De margarita


Date: Mon 01 Mar 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 44: De margarita

Since today’s riddle is about diamonds and pearls, I’m going to begin my commentary with this classic song by Prince.

Our riddle continues the theme of valuable natural commodities from the previous riddle on silk. Although the named solution is “pearl” (margarita), the mollusc shell has a voice too. The Latin for pearl and oyster (ostrea) are both feminine, fitting the gender of the speaker, and the riddle often seems to treat the mollusc and its pearl as the same creature. Examples of dual speakers can be found in a few other riddles, such as Riddle 28, where the silkworm and silk take it in turns to speak.

Since the mid-20th century, humans have farmed pearls on an industrial scale, but before this, the considerable effort required to find a single pearl meant that they were far rarer and more valuable. During the Middle Ages, various myths were used to explain how they were produced, usually involving the collection of “celestial dew,” just as we saw with bees and honey. Pliny the Elder, writing in the 1st century, wrote in his influential Natural History that:

Origo atque genitura conchae sunt haut multum ostrearum conchis differentes. Has ubi genitalis anni stimulavit hora,pandentes se quadam oscitatione impleri roscido conceptu tradunt, gravidas postea eniti, partumque concharum esse margaritas, pro qualitate roris accepti…

[The source and breeding-ground of pearls are not much differing from oyster-shells. These, we are told, when stimulated by the generative season of the year gape open as it were and are filled with dewy pregnancy, and subsequently when heavy are delivered, and the offspring of the shells are pearls that correspond to the quality of the dew received…]
Pliny, Natural History, pages 234-5.

Facts such as these were commonplace in all kinds of encyclopaedias and bestiaries. However, our riddle does not mention these unusual origins–which might seem surprising, given how interested the Bern riddler is with extraordinary birth-stories and encyclopaedic knowledge.

“An oyster produces a pearl from celestial dew, in an early 13th century bestiary, Bodleian Library, MS. Bodley 602, folio 34r. Photograph from Digital Bodleian (licence: CC BY-NC 4.0)

The riddle begins with two very straightforward lines. The predominant speaker is the pearl, although the oyster manages to get in a single word at the start of line 2, telling us that it is “hollow” (cava). Interestingly, hollowness crops up in several other riddles, including another aquatic subject, Riddle 32’s sponge. The next line combines two well-loved Bern tropes—birth and secret places—to invert our expectations of both. Unlike in human society, where procreation is typically private, the pearl is conceived in public, yet it is born in secret.

The oyster speaks throughout line 4, playing upon the similarity between lucem (“light”) and lucrem (“wealth, profit”) to describe the shell when “full” (referta) and “empty” (vacua). It is easy to understand why a “full” oyster brings wealth. But why would an empty shell give light (lux)? The most obvious answer is that this refers to the oyster shell’s highly reflective inner palate, which we often refer to as “mother of pearl” today.

“Oyster and pearl. Photograph (by Manfred Heyde) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0)”

The final two lines explain that this creature, unlike others, is not damaged by cold waters or the changing seasons, although it can be “worn down” (fatigari) by a gentle warmth. They are spoken by the oyster, who is telling us how she it can be opened by boiling. Similar themes of warmth and cold also crop up in the final lines of another aquatic riddle, No. 30, which describes the life of a fish.

There are two things that I really like about this riddle. The first is the sense of symbiosis between the pearl and the oyster—the riddle considers them to be part of the same creature. The second is that the riddle is all about the everyday, rather than the mythical, aspects of the pearl, but it manages to disguise these pearls of wisdom in the most extraordinary ways.


References and Suggested Reading:

Pliny the Elder. Natural History, Volume III: Books 8-11. Translated by H. Rackham. Loeb Classics 353. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1940.

Winterfeld, Paul. “Observationes criticalae.” Philologus vol. 53 (1899). Pages 289-95.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

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Bern Riddle 20: De melle
Bern Riddle 28: De serico/bombyce
Bern Riddle 30: De pisce
Bern Riddle 32: De spongia