Commentary for Lorsch Riddle 8


Date: Mon 21 Jun 2021
Matching Riddle: Lorsch Riddle 8

This teeny-weeny egg riddle really cracks me up.

Well, that is, assuming that it is about an egg at all! Dümmler (page 22) titled it as De ovo (“About an egg”) in his edition, but Glorie (page 354) calls it De fetu (“About an embryo”).

However, egg is definitely the more persuasive solution, and the clues sit well with a tradition of egg riddles. The late antique Latin riddler, Symphosius, wrote a riddle about a chick in an egg, possibly drawing on an earlier Greek egg riddle.

Mira tibi referam nostrae primordia vitae:
Nondum natus eram, nec eram iam matris in alvo;
Iam posito partu natum me nemo videbat.

[I will relate the wondrous beginnings of our life to you:
I was never born, nor was I already in the womb of a mother,
A birth already laid, no one ever saw me born.]

Symphosius, “Riddle 14: Pullus in ovo (“Chicken in an egg”)”

This riddle plays on the ancient “who was born first, the chicken or the egg?” paradox that still exists today. It also contrasts the egg with the womb, and oviparous birth (i.e., from an egg) with viviparous (i.e., live) birth. The anonymous 8th century English riddler, Eusebius (usually thought to be a pseudonym for Hwaetberht, abbot of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow), also wrote an egg riddle (No. 38) that plays on this difference.

Bern Riddle 8 does something similar but adds lots of characteristically wacky detail.

”A chicken egg hatching. Photo (by Linsenhejhej) from Wikimedia Commons (licence: CC BY-SA 3.0)”

However, Lorsch Riddle 8 isn’t interested in the egg as a womb, and closer analogues can be found in two early medieval prose riddles. The first appears in the Collectanea pseudo-Bedae, an early medieval collection of 388 short texts of various kinds, which probably dates from the 8th century.

Vidi filium cum matre manducantem, cuius pellis pendebat in pariete.

[I saw a son with a mother, eating, whose skin hung on the wall.]

Collectanea Pseudo-Bedae, No. 18.

A very similar riddle appears in a mid/late 9th century manuscript from the monastery of St Gall (St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 196), in a list of one-line enigmata interrogativa (“riddle-questions”).

Vidi hominem ambulantem cum matre sua et pellis eius pendebat in pariete.

[I saw a man walking with his mother, and his skin hanging on the wall.]

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 196. Page 389.

These three riddles have a lot in common, and they are clearly part of a single tradition. They are all written in the first person, and they all open with the verb videre (“to see”). They all include a mother and child, whom they describe using the formula cum matre (“with a mother”), which is followed by a present participle describing the child (mandicantem, ambulantem, morantem). And they all include the phrase pellis in pariente (“skin on the wall”). This “skin” is the membrane of the egg, a metaphor that also appears in a chicken riddle, Exeter Book Riddle 13, which describes how fell hongedon… on seles wæg (“skins hung on the walls of the hall”) There are some important differences between the three riddles, however. Lorsch—the only one written in verse—is written in the present tense, rather than the past tense. It also includes several nice additional touches, such as the idea that the chick is morantem (“waiting or lingering”), and the description of the egg as a mandra (“pen”), and example of riddling misdirection that makes the reader imagine that the “child” is a pig or horse. Oink, oink, cluck!

How can we sum up this riddle? Well, medieval riddles often take the formulaic aspects of the tradition and play with them in small but creative ways. I think this is Lorsch Riddle 8 in a nutshell (or should that be eggshell?)—it is formulaic, but it still manages to be a little bit eggspressive


References and Suggested Reading:

Collectanea Pseudo-Bedae. Edited by Martha Bayless and Michael Lapidge. Scriptes Latini Hiberniae Vol. XIV. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1998. Page 122.

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 196. Images are available at E-codices.

Dieter Bitterli. The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book and the Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009. Pages 117-8.

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

Fr. Glorie (ed.). Tatuini Opera Omnia. Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 133. Turnholt: Brepols, 1958.

Lendinara, Patrizia. “Gli “Aenigmata Laureshamensia.”” Pan, Studie dell’Istuto di Filogia Latina, Volume 7 (1981). Pages 73-90 (81-3).

Symphosius, “Aenigma 14: Pullus in ovo.” In Symphosius: The Aenigmata: An Introduction, Text and Commentary. Edited by T. J. Leary. London: Bloomsbury, 2014, Page 40.

Tags: latin 

Related Posts:
Bern Riddle 8: De ovo
Bern Riddle 13: De vite