Tuesday, January 21, 2014


Salvatore Monda (ed.), Ainigma e griphos: Gli antichi e l'oscurità della parola. ...et alia, 2. Pisa: Edizioni ETS, 2012. Pp. 227. ISBN 9788846733535. €26.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Jan Kwapisz, University of Warsaw (jan.kwapisz@uw.edu.pl)

Version at BMCR home site

Table of contents

There are several easily discernible corpora of ancient riddles. As for the collections of Greek riddles, we have Book 14 of the Palatine Anthology, which contains, besides proper riddles, a selection of oracles and mathematical problems (and therefore poses the question of the generic definition of a riddle), and the no less famous excursus in Book 10 of Athenaeus, which preserves substantial fragments of the treatise On Riddles, written by the Peripatetic Clearchus of Soli. As for the Latin tradition, Symp(h)osius' late ancient century of riddles is of singular importance. Among the minor corpora we have riddles on stone and papyri (such as the annotated oyster riddle; SH 983-4), and more elusive classes such as riddles embedded in dramatic texts, or the possibly riddling paignia composed, among others, by Philitas of Cos. If one attempts to categorize this rich material, further cross-divisions can be made. What stands out is the emphatically Hellenic class of riddles that mystify the objects of the symposium on the one hand and, on the other, the class of riddles that mystify phenomena of nature and find copious parallels in other Indo-European cultures (and in some cases in other cultures all around the world). What all of these classes and corpora have in common is that each of them deserves extensive, up-to-date treatment in separate monographs as well as in broader syntheses which, however, for the most part remain unwritten. Despite the importance of this material for our understanding of the ancients' way of thinking, and despite the immense influence it had on ancient literature (e.g., it is obvious now that the diction of Lycophron's Alexandra, virtually composed of riddles, is not as idiosyncratic a poetic creation as may have once been thought), ancient riddles remain obscure in other ways than they were intended to be. The products of Quellenforschung, such as K. Ohlert's Rätsel und Rätselspiele der alten Griechen (1912, 2nd ed.), are in many respects outdated. Ancient riddles ask for more interest, perhaps even for a scholar who would do for them what Ben Edwin Perry did for the fable, by cataloguing their occurrences, tracing their connections to material from outside the Graeco-Roman world, and by explaining their purpose. A comprehensive companion to the ancient riddle is missing; yet the intense Rätselforschung I postulate is already at the gates. This is evidenced by flourishing scholarship on obscure poets, such as Lycophron and Euphorion, as well as by recently appearing work on the narrowly defined subject of proper riddles coming from such scholars as Aurélien Berra, Simone Beta, Christine Luz, Erin Sebo, and now also Salvatore Monda, the editor of the volume under review. This volume collects papers that were presented at a conference held by the University of Molise on 24 and 25 November 2009. It offers a series of reflections on the presence of riddles – ainigmata, griphoi, zetemata, problemata and the like – in ancient and also post-ancient cultures. Not unlike other recent contributions to the field of the ancient riddle,1 this book brings before the reader a wide array of fascinating and relatively unexplored texts to ponder, but leaves him or her with the feeling that although the iceberg has been spotted, it has not been fully measured, not to mention getting to its bottom.

Despite the relatively small size of this volume, it manages at least to touch upon most of what I would identify as the main issues concerning the ancient riddle, and its value is primarily in bringing together a large amount of fundamental material from a variety of sources, both Greek and Latin – things not easy to achieve in a multi-authored collection as the one under review. In his elegantly erudite introductory essay, Monda underscores, inter alia, the role of Book 14 of the Palatine Anthology. Gualtiero Calboli's kaleidoscopic treatment of riddling miscellanea is important above all, I think, for collecting the references to αἴνιγμα/aenigma in Greek and Latin rhetorical treatises. Gabriele Costa throws in, side by side with illustrations taken from the Rigveda and the Upanishads, several Greek texts illustrating the role of the obscure as a vehicle for the transmission of wisdom in Indo-European cultures. Simone Beta discusses the all-important fragments of Clearchus, Plutarchian προβλήματα and the famous riddles of Cleobulina to retrieve from them information on sympotic riddles and on philosophical ones, so as to see whether the distinction between these two classes is valid. Occurrences of the word αἶνος have come under the scrutiny of Pietro Cobbetto Ghiggia due to its tantalizing etymological connection with αἴνιγμα. The editor of the volume himself turns to the use of riddles in ancient dramatic texts. The joint contribution by Gabriella Bevilacqua and Cecilia Ricci looks at several classes of riddling, obscure or playful epigraphic texts, and does not limit itself to antiquity (this would be nicely paired by a discussion on riddles from papyri, but one cannot have everything). Giovanni Paolo Maggioni also looks beyond antiquity in his overview of the mediaeval collections of riddles, which are, for the most part, the offspring of Symp(h)osius. This volume that otherwise focuses on proper riddles contains two discussions that seem to me to break its thematic unity (though I lack competence to assess them properly): Gilberto Marconi is concerned with the (often enigmatic, to be sure) biblical parable in the specific context of Mark 4:11-12, and Roberto Palla and Marta Marchetti offer a detailed study of the abecedarian Carm. 1.2.30 by Gregory of Nazianzus.

It should be clear from this synopsis that the range of texts discussed in the volume under review is impressive and that many fundamental problems are brought to the reader's attention. However, I would advise against attempting to use this collection of essays as a comprehensive introduction to studying the ancient riddle, as comprehensiveness is not what the authors of several individual contributions sought (yet Maggioni's piece on mediaeval aenigmata is a model of instructiveness). Some of the authors, e.g. Marconi, Palla – Marchetti and, also, in a way, Beta, address very specific problems. Costa is concerned with idiosyncratic theory rather than with providing an overview of Indo-European riddles (for which see the section on riddles in M. West's recent Indo-European Poetry and Myth). The title of Cobetto Ghiggia's contribution suggests that αἶνος and αἴνιγμα will receive a similar amount of attention, yet the discussion is unevenly balanced so as to focus on the former. As a matter of fact, "Premessa" in this paper is followed by a subsection entitled "Αἶνος," with which the paper ends. It is a pity that Monda's observations on riddles in dramatic texts are limited to tragedy and comedy, and that he has nothing to say on satyr plays, in which riddles and riddle-solving are known to have played a prominent role.2 Bevilacqua and Ricci, for one thing, importantly point out the scarcity of riddles preserved on stone, and are probably right when explaining this by emphasizing the oral nature of riddles (p. 126). Their catalogue of epigraphic riddles is not without its merits, but one can wonder why certain classes of quasi-riddling inscriptions are included in it, as, for instance, isopsephic messages, whereas other linguistic games, e.g. acrostics, are not. In other words, when is a riddle a riddle?

Although the publication date of the volume is 2012, we are reminded that its contents originated as papers presented at the end of the past decade by the fact that the bibliography has not been brought up to date. C. Luz's Technopaignia: Formspiele in der griechischen Dichtung (2010) is mentioned only once in a footnote on p. 78 (in Beta's piece), and I found no mention of such important discussions as A. Berra's PhD dissertation Théorie et pratique de l'énigme en Grèce ancienne (2008) – unpublished, but available online – or West's discussion of Indo-European riddles which I mentioned above (2007).

The volume is nicely produced and, to my eye, free of errors. It is difficult to believe, though, that a book whose strong point is collecting obscure material can lack an index (as for now, there is no Google preview).

If Ainigma e griphos is at the end somewhat disappointing, it is because this book is, I feel, just a few steps from being much more than a conference volume shaped by the "tell us what it is you are working on" factor and from becoming a much-needed companion to a hot topic. This is, however, not an unsuccessful collection, and it takes us in the right direction. To do it full justice let us observe that, first, no fewer than six of the eleven contributors to the volume under review are affiliated with the University of Molise and, secondly, that its editor announces that the book "costituisce un primo contributo alla realizzazione di uno studio sistematico sulle caratteristiche, le funzioni e il linguaggio degli enigmi greci e latini" (p. 19). If you are interested in the obscure of the Graeco-Roman world, make sure to turn your eyes toward Molise – the World's Capital of the Ancient Riddle.


1.   Cf. BMCR 2013.10.21 and also 2011.03.61.
2.   Cf., e.g., I. Torrance, Metapoetry in Euripides (Oxford, 2013) 276-7.

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