Commentary for Bern Riddle 49: De pluvia


Date: Wed 31 Mar 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 49: De pluvia

Like many people living in the U.K., I have a complex emotional relationship with the rain. When the weather is wet and dreary, I moan about how miserable it is; when the plants in the garden are scorched and hosepipes are banned, I pray for rain. This riddle is all about our contradictory human feelings about rain.

Rain 2
“Rain falling on twigs. Video (by Shishma) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC0 1.0)”

Medieval writers had a reasonably good understanding of the water cycle, although they often mistook the process of rainfall (i.e., the sun warms the air, the water vapour rises and cools, and thus condenses into rain) with the cause (i.e., the sun’s heat). For example, Isidore of Seville, writing at the beginning of the seventh century, told his readers that:

…aquae maris per tenuissimos vapores in aere suspensae paulatim concrescunt ibique igne solis decoctae in dulcem pluviarum saporem vertuntur.

[…the waters of the sea, hanging in the air as the thinnest mists, gradually condense; boiled there by the sun’s fire, they are turned into the sweet nectar of the rains.]
–Isidore, De natura rerum (ed. Becker), chapter 33, page 59.

The rain cycle was also the topic of a riddle (No. 9) by the late antique riddler, Symphosius, which explains: De caelo cecidi… sed sinus excepit qui me simul ipse remittit (“From the heavens I plunge… but the same bosom receives me which sends me back at the same time”). Today’s riddle, Bern 49, is rather different. It does touch upon some of the natural features of rain, but its primary focus is on how it makes humans feel.

It begins by asking us to consider how a natural process that is so inherently wonderous and spectacular can also be a source of unhappiness, explaining that the rain “forces complaints” (infligit querelas) from the very same people who are "marvelling” (mirans) at it. Clearly, we should spend less time grumbling and more time singing in the rain!

The Bern Riddles often challenge us to explain a riddle-creature’s parentage. In line 2, we are told that the creature is maior (“greater, older”) than her father as soon as she is born. The parent cannot be the feminine nubes (“cloud”) or the neuter nouns mare (“sea”) and caelum (“sky”). Possible candidates include aether (“sky”) and sol (“sun”), but I prefer vapor (“mist, vapour”)—this allows us to explain the “greater form” as the physical difference between water as gas and as liquid.

“Two people in a rainstorm in Leon, Guanajuato, Mexico. Photo (by Tomas Castelazo) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0)”

Lines 3 and 4 continue the theme of contrasting human emotions, comparing those unhappy occasions when the rain is “level with the earth” (coaequatur terra) with those happy ones when the rain takes “high roads” (superas vias). The obvious explanation is that the former refers to lowland flooding and the latter to rainfall on higher ground, where flooding is less likely. The riddle then closes with the depiction of rainfall as an inproba* (“violent, wicked, immoral”) force that pours “bitter cups” (amara pocula) over everyone, but who is nevertheless welcomed by many. I would not suggest that you try this trick in your local pub or café!

I have to say that I really like the message of this clever little riddle. Next time the raindrops start falling on my head, I will try to remember that rain might bring the blues, but it also keeps us alive. I hope that you enjoyed this riddle, weather you like the rain or not!

*Most manuscript copies of this riddle give the masculine form of this adjective (inprobus), but this does not agree with the grammatical gender of the riddle subject (pluvia).


References and Suggested Reading:

Isidore of Seville. De natura rerum. Edited by Gustav Becker. Berlin: Weidmann, 1857. Available here. [Note: There are several different editions of Isidore’s De natura rerum. Most scholars use the Latin edition by Fontaine, but, because of the library closures during the Coronavirus pandemic in 2020-1, all page numbers in this commentary are for the older edition by Becker instead.]

——Isidore de Seville: Traité de la Nature. Edited by Jacques Fontaine. Bordeaux: Férét, 1960.

——On the Nature of Time. Edited and translated by Calvin B. Kendall & Faith Wallis. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2016.

Symphosius, “Riddle 9” in The Aenigmata: An introduction, Text, and Commentary. Edited by T. J. Leary (London: Bloomsbury, 2014). Pages 40 and 79-81.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles