Commentary for Lorsch Riddle 2


Date: Mon 07 Jun 2021
Matching Riddle: Lorsch Riddle 2

Just like the Exeter Book riddles, the Lorsch riddles do not provide their solutions. But if you asked today’s riddle creature what it was, it might tell you “I’m a soul, man.”

On the other hand, it might implore you to “listen to your heart!”

This is because there are two slightly different solutions for this riddle. Fr Glorie (page 348) titles it De anima (“On the soul”) and Patrizia Lendinara (page 75) calls it mens vel animus (“mind or soul”). However, Ernst Dümmler (page 21) and Leslie Lockett (page 275) prefer De corde (“On the heart”), because the heart—rather than the brain—was thought to be responsible for thoughts and emotions. According to Lockett, although the riddle subject is rather like medieval depictions of the soul, it also “possesses characteristics that are antithetical to the nature of the immortal anima” (page 277). In this commentary, I assume that cor (“heart”) or mens (“mind”) is the more likely solution—but feel free to disagree!

”Hearts! Photo (by Eric Chan) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY 2.0)

The riddle begins by reversing the idea that people sleep in houses—it describes the heart-mind as “being awake” (vigilare) whilst the body, as a “house” (domus), sleeps. The image of the mind as eternally awake has several Biblical parallels. Several scholars have noticed the parallel with a line from the Song of Songs: Ego dormio, et cor meum vigilat (“I sleep, and my heart is awake”). Another analogue can be found in the Pauline Epistles, which contain several references to sleep and wakefulness. For example, in 1 Thessalonians, Paul compares the coming of Christianity to the morning’s first light and urges his readers, Non dormiamus sicut caeteri, sed vigilemus (“Let us not sleep as the others do but rather be awake”). This then leads to his famous command to those who are awake: sine intermissione orate! (“pray without ceasing!”). These ideas of constant wakefulness in prayer were extremely influential in the development of monasticism. They developed into the monastic concept of meditative prayer, where the active mind repeated biblical passages, even as the body appeared to be asleep. If the riddler was writing within a monastic context, which is quite likely, then the image of the wakeful heart-mind will have resonated in this way.

The second and third lines contrast an angustus carcer (“narrow or unpleasant jail”) with a “celestial palace” (aetherea aura), which sets up the apparent paradox that the heart-mind is simultaneously enclosed and free. This paradox is later repeated in line 10. #LatinGrammar fans will note that the riddler uses the subjunctive present in the first clause—I found it easier to translate it as a regular infinitive, rather than a potential subjunctive (“I should always be…”) or a wishful one (“I should always be…”).

”God and angels in Heaven, from the amazing, early 11th century manuscript, Bodleian Library MS. Junius 11, page 3. Photo from Digital Bodleian (licence: CC BY-NC 4.0)”

The riddle then devotes several lines to the wandering of the heart-mind across all places on earth and sea, as well as across heaven and earth. At first glance, lines like this seem to suggest that the riddle is about the soul, since the idea of the swift and far-ranging soul is a common one. Lendinara (pages 74-5) links this to a short treatise on the human soul by Alcuin of York, the ninth century Northumbrian scholar.

Nec etiam aliquis potest satis admirari, quod sensus ille vivus atque caelestis, qui mens vel animus nuncupatur, tantae mobilitatis est, ut ne tum quidem, cum sopitus est, conquiescat: tantae celeritatis, ut uno temporis puncto caelum collustret, et si velit, maria pervolet, terras et urbes peragret…

[And one cannot wonder enough that the living and divine faculty, which is called ‘mind’ or ‘soul,’ is so fast that it does not even rest when it sleeps. It is so quick that at one moment in time it might survey the sky, and if it wishes, it flies across the seas, and crosses lands and towns.]
—Alcuin, De ratione animae

To me at least, this description does seem very similar to the riddle! However, Leslie Lockett, who knows an awful lot about medieval concepts of mind and soul, has pointed out that the riddle contains an apparent paradox (page 278). On the one hand, the subject does not pass through horrifera… claustra Gehennae (“the terrible gates of Gehenna”). On the other, it enters ignea perpetuae…Tartara Ditis (“the fiery Tatarus of everlasting Dis). Note that both terms are synonyms for Hell. So, how can the soul not cross into Hell and yet still visit it? Well, the paradox can be resolved when we apply it to the heart-mind, which “travels” to Hell in its thoughts, but never physically “crosses over” into it. Clever, right?

”The entrance to Hell, also from Bodleian Library MS. Junius 11, page 3. Photo from Digital Bodleian (licence: CC BY-NC 4.0)”

With all this in mind, another possible analogue is the Old English poem, The Seafarer. It depicts the wandering heart-mind of a man who has undergone a life of hardship and eventually found inner peace at sea.

Forþon nu min hyge hweorfeð ofer hreþerlocan,
min modsefa mid mereflode
ofer hwæles eþel hweorfeð wide,
eorþan sceatas…

[And so, my mind—my inner heart—now wanders widely beyond the breast-locker, through the ocean, across the whale’s homeland and the corners of the earth…]
The Seafarer, lines 58-61a.

Something similar occurs in another Old English poem, The Wanderer.

Cearo bið geniwad
þam þe sendan sceal swiþe geneahhe
ofer waþema gebind werigne sefan.

[Cares return for he who must send a weary heart across the mix of waves very often.]
The Wanderer, lines 55b-27

These lines, and others like them in Old English verse, offer a plausible context for Lorsch Riddle 2. According to Lockett, the riddle “offers a rare example of Anglo-Latin descriptive discourse focused on the nature of the mind-in-the-heart” (page 279). Thus, she prefers to solve the riddle with the Old English word breostsefa (heart-mind). Another scholar, James Paz agrees, and argues that this riddle—and its Old English analogues—show how easily poets made the connection between mental activities and natural phenomena (pages 202-3). According to him, Lorsch Riddle 2 demonstrates that “the boundary that divided human interiority from the external nonhuman world was porous and permeable.”

The final lines of the riddle tell us that the heart-mind becomes pulpa putrescens (“rotting flesh”) at death. This strongly suggests that soul is not the correct solution, since, according to the Christian belief, the soul does not perish with the death of the body. The riddle then closes in a very similar way to the opening of Lorsch Riddle 1, by telling us that its subject has various “fates.”

Whatever the solution of this riddle, the problem of mind and body seems to be at the heart of the poem. In my opinion, the central paradox is between how we let our thoughts run away to all kinds of places, and how they always remain in one place. One can go on the most fantastic journeys in one’s own mind, and yet we can never escape the material body. Is it just me, or is there is something very modern about the riddle’s approach to the concept of mind…?


References and Suggested Reading:

“Aenigma Laureshamensia [Lorsch Riddle] 2” in Tatuini Opera Omnia. Edited by Fr. Glorie. Translated by Karl Minst. Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 133. Turnholt: Brepols, 1958. Page 348.

“The Seafarer” & “The Wanderer.” In George Philip Krapp, & Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie (eds.), The Exeter Book, The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records: A Collective Edition. Volume 3. New York: Columbia UP, 1936.

Alcuin of York. “De ratione animae.” In Alcuini Opera Omnia. Edited by Jacques Paul Migne. Volume 2. Paris: Migne, 1863. 639A-650D. Available here.

Dümmler, Ernst. Poetae latini aevi Carolini. Volume 1. MGH. Berlin: Weidmann, 1881.

Lendinara, Patrizia. “Gli “Aenigmata Laureshamensia.”” Pan, Studie dell’Istuto di Filogia Latina, Volume 7 (1981). Pages 73-90.

Lockett, Leslie. Anglo-Saxon Psychologies in the Vernacular and Latin Traditions. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011.

Paz, James. “Mind, Mood and Meteorology in Exeter Book Riddles 1-3.” In Megan Cavell & Jennifer Neville (eds.), Riddles at Work in the Anglo-Saxon Tradition: Words, Ideas, Interactions. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020. Pages 193-209.

Tags: latin