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Aldhelm's Enigmata and Isidorian etymology

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 September 2008

Nicholas Howe
The University of Oklahoma


In failing to abide by the chief rule of their genre, the Enigmata of Aldhelm have themselves become something of a riddle: for why should their author give, in the form of a title word or phrase, the solution to each of the one hundred riddles? By violating from the start the essential quality of any riddle – a seeming impossibility of solution – Aldhelm would seem to neglect the point made in this Swedish riddle about riddles: ‘When one does not know what it is, then it is something; but when one does know what it is, then it is nothing.’ Certainly the work of Symphosius provided Aldhelm with a precedent for including solutions to his riddles; but this fact in itself does not explain very much about Aldhelm's practice, for it ignores the pleasure he took in exploring the possibilities of the riddle as a genre. Since his work as a whole demonstrates a taste for the difficult and esoteric, it is not surprising that his Enigmata should pose this riddle of their own. His practice in this regard is all the more intriguing because very few of the enigmata are difficult to solve, even without their titles. They differ quite markedly from the riddles of the Exeter Book, many of which are insoluble. In the paradoxical fashion so beloved of riddlers, the mystery of the enigma is also the important clue. That is, the title word or phrase offers in the obvious sense a solution; but in a more esoteric, linguistic sense it may also present a riddle of its own.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1985

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1 Taylor, Quoted Archer, The Literary Riddle Before 1600 (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1948), p. 4.Google Scholar

2 As remarks, W. F. Bolton, ‘Aldhelm could, in his poetry, as well as in his prose, invent more difficulties for himself and his reader than even his ingenuity could solve’ (A History of Anglo-Latin Literature, 597–740 1 (Princeton, NJ, 1967), 92)Google Scholar; see also Lapidge, Michael, ‘The Hermeneutic Style in Tenth-Century Anglo-Latin Literature’, ASE 4 (1975), 67111Google Scholar, esp. 73–5.

3 That the apparent solution of a riddle can complicate rather than ease its solution is true also for Old English; see Fred C. Robinson, ‘Artful Ambiguities in the Old English ‘Book-Moth’ Riddle’, Anglo-Saxon Poetry: Essays in Appreciation, ed. L. Nicholson and D. W. Frese (Notre Dame, Ind., 1975), pp. 355–62. For a valuable study of naming and etymology in Old English, see Fred Robinson, C., ‘The Significance of Names in Old English Literature’, Anglia 86 (1968), 1458.Google Scholar

4 All of Aldhelm's works are quoted from Aldhelmi Opera, ed. R. Ehwald, Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Auct. antiq. 15 (Berlin, 1919)Google Scholar; for ‘Vesper Sidus’, see p. 128. I have drawn considerably on Ehwald's documentation as well as on that in Collectiones Aenigmatum Merovingicae Aetatis, ed. F. Glorie, 2 vols., Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina 133–133A (Turnhout, 1968). For translations, see Pitman, J. H., The Riddles of Aldhelm (New Haven, Conn., 1925; repr. 1970)Google Scholar, and Aldhelm: the Poetic Works, trans. M. Lapidge and J. L. Rosier (Woodbridge, 1985), pp. 6194.Google Scholar

5 Aldhelm will at times conclude a riddle with such a challenge; see, for example, ‘Creatura’ (Enigma no. c): ‘Sciscitor inflatos, fungar quo nomine, sofos’ (line 83). This challenge is purely rhetorical; only the most dim-witted reader could fail to provide the proper answer after some eighty lines.

6 See Saxl, Fritz, ‘Illustrated Medieval Encyclopaedias’, in his Lectures, 2 vols. (London, 1957), pp. 228–54Google Scholar, esp. 230–3; Engels, Joseph, ‘La Portée de l'étymologique isidorienne’, SM 3rd ser. 3 (1962), 99128Google Scholar; and Poerck, Guy de, ‘Etymologia et Origo a travers la tradition latine’ in ANAMNHCIC: Gedenkboek Prof. Dr. E. A. Leemans (Bruges, 1970), pp. 191228.Google Scholar

7 In only two cases does Aldhelm use information from the Etymologiae without incorporating the etymologies: ‘Columba’ (Enigma no. lxiv), cf. Etym. xii. vii.61; and ‘Elefans’ (Enigma no. xcvi), cf. Etym. xii.ii. 14–15.

8 Saxl, ‘Illustrated Medieval Encyclopaedias’, p. 230.

9 See Aldhelmi Opera, ed. Ehwald, pp. 260, 264, 268 and 281, respectively. Other examples of this etymological technique include Chrysanthus (p. 276), Justina (p. 295), Melanthia (p. 297) and Victoria twice (pp. 308, 309). For a translation of the prose De Virginitate, see Aldhelm: the Prose Works, trans. M. Lapidge and M. Herren (Ipswich and Totowa, NJ, 1979), pp. 59132.Google Scholar

10 Since they are rather uninspired, I have excluded Aldhelm's orthographical riddles: ‘Elementum’ (Enigma no. xxx), ‘Corbus’ (Enigma no. lxiii) and ‘Aries’ (Enigma no. lxxxvi). Nonetheless, they provide additional evidence that Aldhelm set out to write linguistic riddles.

11 I include only those riddles which seem clearly derived from Isidore's etymologies. For other, less certain, examples, see ‘Apis’ (Enigma no. xx), cf. line 1 and Etym. xii. viii. 1; ‘Ciconia’ (Enigma no. xxxi), cf. line 3 and Etym. xii. vii. 16–17; ‘Mola’ (Enigma no. lxvi), cf. line 4 and Etym. xx.viii.6; ‘Clipeus’ (Enigma no. lxxxvii), cf. lines 3–4 and Etym. xviii. xii. 1; and ‘Elleborus’ (Enigma no. xcviii), cf. lines 6–7 and Etym. xvii. ix.24.

12 See Collections Aenigmatum, ed. Glorie, p. 665.

13 The text used throughout is Isidori Hispalensis Episcopi Etymologiarum Sive Originum Libri xx, ed. W. M. Lindsay (Oxford, 1911).Google Scholar

14 An additional, though more complex, example of this method appears in ‘Castor’ (Enigma no. lvi). Isidore explains that ‘Castores a castrando dicti sunt’ (Etym. xii.ii.21). Aldhelm leads the reader to this etymology by explaining that the beaver can be used as a remedy for illnesses of the entrails (vulnera fibrarum, line 7). Fibra is to fiber, a synonymous term for the beaver, as castrando is to castores. For fiber, see Etym. xix.xxvii.4.

15 Aldhelm: the Poetic Works, trans. Lapidge and Rosier, p. 90: ‘On lofty cliffs, where the sea pounds the rocks and surging salt-waves swell the flood, construction-work raised me aloft with mighty structure so that, (acting) as a guide, I might point out the shipping-lanes to (passing) ships. I do not ply with oar the bounding main [5] nor cleave the sea in a bending course with keels; and yet, giving signals from my lofty height, I lead wandering ships, driven by mighty waves, safely to shore: the fireman kindles firebrands in my lofty towers as wintry clouds conceal the twinkling stars [10].’

16 See Collectiones Aenigmatum, ed. Glorie, p. 513.

17 Pitman, , The Riddles of Aldhelm, p. 78Google Scholar, quotes Wildman's claim that there may have been a lighthouse at St Alban's Head. This possibility does not, however, make it more likely that readers would be able to solve this riddle. Moreover, it would be a very rare Anglo-Saxon reader who had seen at first hand a silk worm (Enigma no. xii), an ostrich (Enigma no. xlii), a unicorn (Enigma no. lx), an elephant (Enigma no. xcvi) or a camel (Enigma no. ic).

18 Aldhelm: the Poetic Works, trans. Lapidge and Rosier, p. 75: ‘I am two-shaped, being different with respect to my face and my limbs: I am armed with horns, but my other limbs constitute a terrifying man. I am known by report through the fields of Cnossos, having been born a bastard of an unknown father in Crete. My name is taken from that of man and beast together [5].’

19 The other derivation is from love: ‘vel quia apud gentiles Iovi semper ubique iuvencus inmolabatur, numquam taurus’.

20 All quotations of Pliny are from Pliny: Natural History, ed. H. Rackham et at., 10 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 19381962).Google Scholar

21 Aldhelm: the Poetic Works, trans. Lapidge and Rosier, p. 85: ‘The fates of things have made of me a bearer of pestilence [5], for when the poisonous branch spreads from my trunk, and ravenous gluttons consume it with gaping mouths, I straightway strike down dead the many corpses of those consuming me.’

22 In this regard, it is salutary to remember Cassiodorus's statement: ‘etymologia vero est aut vera aut verisimilis demonstratio, declarans ex qua origine verba descendant’ (Institutiones ii.i); see Cassiodori Senatoris Institutiones, ed. R. A. B. Mynors (Oxford, 1937), p. 96.Google Scholar

23 Aldhelm: the Poetic Works, trans. Lapidge and Rosier, p. 90: ‘The omnipotent Creator, who fashioned all things by His command, granted to me that I have the name “victorious” in this world. For the glory of kings flourishes in my name; and for martyrs as well, as they win the battles of this world they acquire the exalted rewards of celestial life [5]. The throng of warriors is covered with leafy crowns, and the soldier, the victor in the struggle, (is covered) with a green branch.’

24 For a parallel example, see ‘Hirundo’ (Enigma no. xlvii). As Aldhelm knew from Isidore, this could be the name of a swallow (Etym. xii.vii.70) or a medicinal plant (Etym. xvii.ix.36).

25 See his riddles on ‘Taurus’ (Enigma no. xxxii), ‘Tigris’ (Enigma no. xxxviii) and ‘Beta’ (Enigma no. xlii).

26 ‘Nox’ (Enigma no. xcvii) is an extreme example of this type; it ends (line 16) with a quotation from Vergil: ‘Nocte volat caeli medio terraeque per umbras’ (Aeneid iv. 184).

27 Aldhelm uses this technique again in ‘Dracontia’ (Enigma no. xxiv), where the draconis of line 1 follows from Isidore's etymology: ‘Dracontites ex cerebro draconis eruitur’ (Etym. xvi.xiv.7). In ‘Cupa Vinaria’ (Enigma no. lxxviii), the vinitor of line 2 points to the etymon, vinum; and in ‘Arca Libraria’ (Enigma no. lxxxix), the librorum of line 5 points to liber.

28 Aldhelm: the Poetic Works, trans. Lapidge and Rosier, p. 75: ‘Nature's force, or rather the creator of heaven, gave to me that which is lacking in all the miracles of the ancient world: for 1 am able to suspend cold masses of steel in the air. Thus, conquering by means of this particular strength, I surpass other metallic natures. (However), in the presence of Cyprian adamant, I am immediately deprived of my potency [5].’

29 See A Latin Dictionary, ed. C. T. Lewis and C. Short (Oxford, 1879)Google Scholar, s.v. cinifes.

30 See Winterbottom, M., ‘Aldhelm's Prose Style and its Origins’, ASE 6 (1977), 5976Google Scholar, and Marenbon, J., ‘Les Sources du vocabulaire d'aldhelm’, Bulletin du Cange 41 (1979), 7590Google Scholar, esp. 86–8.

31 The accuracy of these Greek etymologies is irrelevant; it matters only that Aldhelm wrote his riddles to teach them.

32 On Aldhelm's knowledge of Greek, see Aldhelm: the Prose Works, trans. Lapidge and Herren, pp. 8–9.

33 There is also a small group of riddles in which Aldhelm uses Greek etymologies without announcing that he is doing so. The fifth line of ‘Leo’ (Enigma no. xxxix) is a case in point: ‘Horridus haud vereor regali culmine fretus.’ Here the reference to the lion's regal nature derives from Isidore's statement that ‘leo autem Graece, Latine rex interpretatur, eo quod princeps sit omnium bestiarum’ (Etym. xii.ii.3). Since he does not signal the relation between leo and regali, it is hard to believe that he intended his Greekless readers to take ‘Leo’ as an etymological riddle. For parallel examples, see ‘Salamandra’ (Enigma no. xv), cf. lines 1–2 and Etym. xii.iv.36; ‘Salis’ (Enigma no. xix), cf. lines 3–4 and Etym. xvi.ii.3; and ‘Strutio’ (Enigma no. xlii), cf. lines 1–4 and Etym. xii.vii.20.

34 Aldhelm: the Poetic Works, trans. Lapidge and Rosier, pp. 73–4: ‘For a long time I have borne a name of two components, inasmuch as I'm called a ‘lion’ and an ‘ant’ in Greek, giving rise to metaphorical meanings in my two names, since I am unable to fend off the beaks of birds with my own beak. Let the wise man investigate why I have this two-fold name [5]!’

35 Aldhelm attempts to repeat this technique in ‘Scilla’ (Enigma no. xcv) but fails to explain why Scylla has a canine name in Greek. Thus his use of this etymology would be of little help to most of his readers.

36 Aldhelm: the Poetic Works, trans. Lapidge and Rosier, p. 80: ‘I am born from the fertile field, flourishing of my own accord; the shining crown grows golden with yellow bloom. With the sun in the west I close up, and open again at sunrise: whence the learned Greeks devised my name [4].’

37 For the Latin forms, see Collectiones Aenigmatum, ed. Glorie, pp. 419, 401, 457, 439 and 437 respectively.

38 In at least three instances, he uses vulgus in a sense parallel to these examples from the Enigmata. In his poem on the apostle Jude (Carmina Ecclesiastica iv.xii), he writes: ‘Dicitur hic etiam vulgato nomine Iudas; / Cuius praesenti laudes celebrantur in aula’; in the De Metris he glosses bombicinus by adding ‘quos Seres vulgo nuncupant’; and in the Carmen de Virginitate he writes ‘Urbes est, quam vulgo Bizanti nomine dicunt: / Constantinopolis post haec vocitetur in aevum!’ (lines 634–5); see Aldhelmi Opera, ed. Ehwald, pp. 30, 176 and 379.

39 Aldhelm: the Poetic Works, trans. Lapidge and Rosier, pp. 80–1: ‘At the summit of the universe I stand, hemmed in by starry throngs. 1 bear the name ‘esseda’ [‘war-chariot’] in common parlance. Revolving continually in a circle I never incline downwards, as do the other stars of the heavens (which) hasten to the sea. I am enriched by this endowment [5], since I am nearest to the pole, which stands out above the Rhipaean mountains of Scythia. I equal in number the Pleiades at the summit of the sky, the lower part of which is said to sink down in the Stygian or Lethean swamp among the black shades of hell.’

40 It should be noted that Aldhelm creates a certain astronomical confusion in this riddle by combining attributes of Boötes, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor under the name ‘Arcturus’.

41 See Collectiones Aenigmatum, ed. Glorie, p. 443.

42 Erhardt-Siebold, E. von, Die lateinischen Rätsel der Angelsachsen (Heidelberg, 1925), p. 247.Google Scholar

43 See An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, ed. J. Bosworth and T. N. Toller (Oxford, 1898)Google Scholar, s.v. wœgen.

44 Isidore de Séville: Traité de la Nature, ed. J. Fontaine (Bordeaux, 1960), p. 267Google Scholar, and Erhardt-Siebold, , Die lateinischen Rätsel, pp. 247–8.Google Scholar

45 For these solutions, see Fry, D. K., ‘Exeter Book Riddle Solutions’, OEN 15 (1981) 2233, at 23Google Scholar. For the text of the riddle, see The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book, ed. C. Williamson (Chapel Hill, NC, 1977), pp. 80–1.Google Scholar See also Erhardt-Siebold, , Die lateinischen Rätsel, pp. 87–8Google Scholar, and Anderson, G. K., ‘Aldhelm and the Leiden Riddle’, Old English Poetry: Fifteen Essays, ed. Creed, R. P. (Providence, RI, 1967), pp. 167–76.Google Scholar

46 Aldhelm: the Poetic Works, trans. Lapidge and Rosier, p. 76: ‘The dewy earth produced me from its frozen inwards. I am not made from the bristling fleece of (sheep's) wool; no yarn is drawn (tight on a loom), no humming threads leap about (the spindle); nor do Chinese silk-worms weave me from their yellow floss; I am not gathered from spinning wheels, nor am I beaten by the stiff carding comb [5]; and yet, nevertheless, note that I am described as ‘clothing’ in common parlance. I have no fear of arrows drawn from long quivers.’

47 The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book, ed. Williamson, p. 89.

48 That this should be true as well for the Leiden Riddle (where the phrase reads hyhtlic 3iuœde, line 12) argues against A. H. Smith's suggestion that Aldhelm was himself the translator; see his Three Northumbrian Poems (London, 1933; repr. New York, 1968), p. 18.Google Scholar

49 For the translation of vestis by reaf, see An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, ed. Bosworth and Toller, and Supplement, s.v. reaf 11. Reaf has the meaning of ‘armour’ in The Battle of Maldon, line 161: ‘he wolde þæs beornes beagas gefecgan, / reaf and hringas, and gerenod swurd’ (The Battle of Maldon, ed. D. G. Scragg (Manchester, 1981)).Google Scholar

50 This synonymy may be traced to Marcellus, Nonius, De Compendiosa Doctrina, ed. Lindsay, W. M. (Leipzig, 1903), pp. 211–12.Google Scholar

51 Aldhelm: the Poetic Works, trans. Lapidge and Rosier, p. 72: ‘The stupid ancients said that we were the offspring of Atlas. Our company is seven-fold, but one of us is scarcely to be seen. We walk at the summit of the sky and beneath the depths of the earth as well. We are visible in blackest darkness, but are hidden by daylight. We took our former name from that of spring [5].’

52 Servianorum In Vergilii Carmina Commentariorum, ed. E. K. Rand et al., 3 vols. (Lancaster, Pa, 19461965) 11, 306.Google Scholar

53 Etym. 111.lxxi.13, and De Natura Rerum xxvi.5 (Traité, ed. Fontaine, p. 268).

54 Aldhelm: the Poetic Works, trans. Lapidge and Rosier, p. 87: ‘The foul offspring of Saturn, namely Jupiter – whom the songs of poets picture as mighty – did not produce us, nor was Latona our mother on Delos; I am not called Cynthia and my brother is not Apollo. Rather, the ruler of high Olympus, Who now resides in His heavenly citadel on high, produced us [6].’

55 Much the same lesson is taught, though more briefly, in ‘Iris’ (Enigma no. v) and ‘Fatum’ (Enigma no. vii). In the first, Aldhelm discards the old name of Taumantis proles (line 1) and instead teaches that the rainbow is born from the sun and watery clouds (line 3). To correct the name is, in this riddle, to assert the valid scientific origin of the rainbow. In ‘Fatum’, Aldhelm denies the old and false name of domina which was used by the ancients before Christ came to rule (lines 3–4).

56 Some of the Enigmata may be read as exercises in synonymy; see, e.g., ‘Tortella’ (Enigma no. lxx) and ‘Ebulus’ (Enigma no. xciv).

57 Marenbon, ‘Les Sources du vocabulaire d'aldhelm’, p. 86, and Winterbottom, ‘Aldhelm's Prose Style’, pp. 45 and 60–4.

58 Aristotle: Rhetoric and Poetics, trans. W. Rhys Roberts and Ingram Bywater (New York, 1954), p. 253.Google Scholar

59 Welsh, Andrew, Roots of Lyric (Princeton, NJ, 1978), p. 32.Google Scholar

60 See, further, Marenbon, ‘Les Sources du vocabulaire d'aldhelm’, pp. 79–83.

61 Frye, Northrop, Spiritus Mundi: Essays on Literature, Society and Myth (Bloomington, Ind., 1976), p. 144.Google Scholar

62 Williamson, Craig, A Feast of Creatures: Anglo-Saxon Riddle-Songs (Philadelphia, Pa, 1982), p. 8.Google Scholar