Last updated: June 18, 2003

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Classics at BGSU
Romance Languages
Bowling Green State University

Aenigmata / Griphoi / Scirpi / Riddles

The riddling Sphinx, on a Greek red-figure vase;
in the collection of the Museum of Fine Art, Boston (Boston 10.198),
from the library of images on-line at the Perseus Project.

A text of Symphosius' riddles, with a few textual notes, can be found here:
A no-frills Latin e-text of Aldhelm's riddles can be found here:
For more information on the authors, the sources of the texts etc., see below.

The Authors:

Symphosius is a late antique writer about whom nothing is known, not even the century in which he wrote: dates as early as the second century AD and as late as the 6th have been proposed.

Aldhelm (639[?]-709) was an English monk who rose to be Abbot of Malmesbury and Bishop of Sherborne (and was canonized after his death; his feast day, for the curious, was May 25th). His other extant works include De Virginitate, and De Virginitatis Laudibus. (Those looking for more work by Aldhelm should consult the on-line database Fontes Anglo-Saxonici at the URL below.)

The Books:

Symphosius' riddles survive in the collection known as the Latin Anthology. Each of the hundred riddles is a triplet of dactylic hexameters; Symphosius claims he made them up from the riddles he heard at a drinking party during the Saturnalia. Evaluations of his poetic merit differ. A Vergil he's not, but I enjoy his nifty way of putting things. Ohl's edition includes a few imitations of Symphosius, which I tack on the end of the e-text

Aldhelm's Aenigmata (one hundred verse riddles in Latin) show the influence of Symphosius. But Aldhelm's riddles tend to be longer than Symphosius', and his subjects are often different. His work reflects and foreshadows the popularity of the riddle in Old English. The introductory poem is both an acrostic and a telestich; in other words, the first and last letters of each line spell out a message. (No secret decoder ring required.) Aldhelm's style shows the monastic (or "Hisperic") tendency towards rare, even bizarre words-- most readers, no matter how experienced as Latinists, will be brought up short from time to time by Aldhelm's vocabulary. Apart from that he's not a difficult read, and is often a rewarding one.

For vocabulary help, see Lewis and Short, A Latin Dictionary, and (because of the frequency with which Aldhelm uses Greek words) the Greek-English Lexicon of Liddell and Scott, both on-line at the Perseus Project:

The E-Texts:

The text of Symphosius is based on Ohl's edition, although I have made considerable changes in punctuation and capitalization. I have also made a couple of conjectures at questionable points in the text; see the notes ad loc.

The text of Aldhelm is based on Ehwald's edition (Aldhelmi Opera, in Monumenta Germaniae Historica: Auctorum Antiquissimorum, Tomus XV) as printed by Pitman (see reference in Further Reading, below). I've made some changes, though-- restoring the manuscript order of lines where the editor had altered it (e.g., in riddle 67 "Cribellus").

Corrections or comments can be sent to me at:

Further Reading:

Evelyn-White, H. G. Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns and Homerica (Harvard, 1914)

Among the Homerica is the "Contest of Homer and Hesiod," a weird sort of riddle contest from the classical world. This volume, one of the best of the older generation of Loeb Classics, gives the Greek text, an English translation and some commentary. Ohl (see below) has full references on this genre (his p. 9f), which was pretty popular in the ancient and medieval world, it would seem. The OE Solomon and Saturn (see On-Line Riddles) is another example.
Gulick, C.B. The Deipnosophists of Athenaeus (Harvard, 1927-1941)
Another volume of the Loeb Classical Library (with Greek text, English translation and notes). Athenaeus has a section on riddles in his book 10 (in vol. 4 of the Loeb edition).
Ohl, Raymond T.  The Enigmas of Symphosius (Philadelphia, 1928)
Text, translation and commentary of the riddle book from late antiquity. The introduction contains a concise, richly informative history of the riddle in the ancient world, with some discussion of the Middle Ages and afterward.
Orchard, Andy The Poetic Art of Aldhelm (Cambridge, 1994)

Pitman, James H. The Riddles of Aldhelm: Text, Verse Translation and Notes (Yale, 1925)

Stork, Nancy P. Through a Gloss Darkly: Aldhelm's Riddles in British Library MS Royal 12.C.xxiii (Pontifical Institue of Medieval Studies, 1990)

Though enigmatically titled, a wonderful book, providing not only Aldhelm's text, an English translation and notes, but a full edition of the glosses on the manuscript. (It's comforting to see how many of these words were problematic even for the medieval monastic readers of this book.)

On-Line Riddles:

The most famous riddle in antiquity was, of course, the riddle that Oedipus solved (or was). See a very strange version of the Oedipus/Sphinx story at Pausanius 9.26.2-4, from which it appears that the Sphinx and Oedipus may have been half-siblings, putting another twist in this already twisty family drama. The standard version is at Apollodorus, Library 3.5.7-8. Both Pausanius and Apollodorus are on-line (Greek text, English translation, and notes) at the Perseus Project, which also has an extremely rich library of images.
Aenigmatophiles may want to have a look at the Exeter Book riddles, on-line in the original Old English at the Labyrinth:
Also in Old English at the Labyrinth, see the riddle-contest poem Solomon and Saturn:
A riddle-riddled novel which survives from the ancient world, in a Latin version and an OE translation, is the story of Apollonius, King of Tyre.
The Latin can be found on-line at the Latin Library:

The OE can be found at Catherine Ball's Old English Pages:

Vergil's Third Eclogue contains a famous pair of riddles (lines 104-107), at least one of which has never been satisfactorily solved:
The Latin text can be found at the Latin Library:

The Latin text with an available translation and hyperlinked commentary can be found at the Perseus Project:

Ovid has a few riddles, at Fasti 3.339-342, 4.663-672
There is a brief discussion of the riddle at Aulus Gellius, Atticae Noctes 12.6.1-3, on-line at David Camden's Forum Romanum
Go to Aldhelm's Riddles
Go to Symphosius' Riddles
Go to Seneca Page
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