Commentary for Bern Riddle 55: De sole


Date: Wed 31 Mar 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 55: De sole

Who loves the sun? Riddlers do, of course! Riddle 55 is the first of eight astronomical riddles, and the first of three riddles about the sun.

Except that it might not be about the sun at all. Sol (“sun”) is grammatically masculine, whereas the subject of this riddle is described using unmistakably feminine participles. One alternative possibility is nubes (“cloud”), a feminine noun that fits the description almost as well as sun (Gavilán, page 403). However, the riddle does appear as De sole (“About the sun”) in manuscripts. See what you think!

The riddle begins with the idea of rebirth—we have seen this motif before in Riddles 6, 12, 13, 20, and 51, and on these occasions I have suggested that this was done with the Resurrection of Christ in mind. The author may also have been thinking of the Virgin Birth, since the creature was not produced semine nex ullo patris (“from a father’s seed”). If the solution is sun, then this is an apt description for the diurnal cycle, in which the sun is “born again” each morning. If the solution is “cloud,” then it describes the way that water is “reborn” in the water cycle.

“The sun rises over the Pieniny mountains, Poland. Photograph (by Marcin Szala) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: BY-SA 4.0)”

Line 2 tells us that the creature was not sucked on a “mother’s teat” (ubera matris). Although the literal meaning could imply a wetnurse, the phrase has been chosen because it links nicely with the punning repetition on ubera in the next line. The creature tells us that it feeds many with “my breasts” (uberibus… meis), a phrase that alludes not to literal breasts but to figurative nutrients. Clearly, this could apply to either the sun or the cloud—if the latter is the case, then the implication is that the creature’s breastmilk is the rainwater, which nourishes all kinds of earthly life.

“Altocumulus clouds at sunset near Kamloops, Canada. Photograph (by Murray Foubister) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: BY-SA 2.0)”

Lines 4-6 play with the idea that the riddle creature has no solid body and leaves no traces. The “I leave no footprints” trope in line 4 is also used to describe a ship in Riddle 11 and the moon’s traceless path in Riddle 59. Despite its non-corporeality, the creature still manages to “give shadows wings,” or perhaps “make shadows fly” (aligeras reddere umbras). If the solution is “cloud” then the adverbial temporibus (“at times”) can be understood as referring to those occasions when a cloud covers up the sun. However, if the solution is “sun” then the shadows could be those cast on sundials, and so temporibus (“at [certain] times”) might have a more definite sense.

Although I have retained the riddle’s original title in my translation, I do wonder whether “About a cloud” might be a better name for it. One thing is for sure: whatever the solution might be, it is way, way over our heads.


References and Suggested Reading:

Socas Gavilán, Francisco. Anthologia latina, 389 39, Barcelona: Gredos Editorial S.A., 2011.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

Related Posts:
Bern Riddle 6: De calice
Bern Riddle 11: De nave
Bern Riddle 12: De grano
Bern Riddle 13: De vite
Bern Riddle 20: De melle
Bern Riddle 51: De alio
Bern Riddle 56: De sole
Bern Riddle 57: De sole
Bern Riddle 59: De luna