BMCR 2016.11.03

Il labirinto della parola: enigmi, oracoli e sogni nella cultura antica. Saggi, 956

, Il labirinto della parola: enigmi, oracoli e sogni nella cultura antica. Saggi, 956. Torino: Giulio Einaudi editore, 2016. xii, 347. ISBN 9788806227524. €32.00.

Table of Contents

“Labyrinth of words” is an excellent kenning for the concept of the riddle. Borges would find this circumlocution fascinating, even though it does not occur in skaldic poetry, and would include it in his list of kenningar.1 Although the subtitle of Simone Beta’s book lists oracles and dreams alongside enigmas, the main emphasis falls on riddles and kindred intellectual puzzles, on their tortuous poetics, linguistic mechanisms, and artifices of obfuscation. Oracles, symbolic dreams, and also, to a more limited degree, omens and fables are examined in close connection with riddles, to the extent that all these forms exploit analogous techniques for hiding true meaning under enigmatic discourse. Time and again, the author diverges from the discussion of a divine prophecy or a dream vision, to adduce parallels from poetic conundrums or sympotic quizzes that use the same intricate imagery and semantic traps. This is a leitmotiv that runs through the book: the genres of the enigmatic are essentially interchangeable. A riddle may be enunciated by the divinity as an oracle, or dreamed as a vision of the night, or narrated in the form of a fable.

There was a strong need for an accessible book of this kind. The past few years have seen the publication of fascinating studies on particular aspects of the history and stylistics of ancient riddles.2 However, the only comprehensive survey of the entire field, K. Ohlert’s Rätsel und Rätselspiele der alten Griechen (Berlin 1912), is outdated and rather erratic in the arrangement of its material. As for P. Pucci’s more recent monograph that covers much the same topic ( Enigma segreto oracolo, Pisa – Roma 1996), it is so laden with theoretical ruminations and jargon as to daunt even scholars that are familiar with poststructuralist hermeneutics. Beta has designed his book for educated general readers and students interested in the spirit and culture of the Graeco-Roman world. But the expert scholar will also find fruitful insights, especially in the comparative investigations and the intertextual connections traced between individual examples.

The first part of the book is dedicated to riddles, in the wider sense of the term. The Greeks used two semantically different words in this connection; ainigma was the narrower designation for what may be called the “proper” conundrum; griphos, on the other hand, was a broader category that also comprised a variety of other intellectual games, such as charades, rebuses, mnemonic and arithmetical problems, games with letters of the alphabet, quizzes of mythological, geographical, or literary knowledge, ‘superlative questions’ (see below), enigmatic precepts etc. Beta does not expressly address this ancient lexical distinction, although he analyzes the specific words involved. In practice, nevertheless, he takes care to separate proper conundrums from the other types of enigmatic problem, while examining all of them as closely related genres.

Following a well-wrought sequence of thematic headings (death, the wise man, the banquet, marriage, birth, games, and literature), Beta reviews all the famous myths and legends that involve the propounding of riddles as a dominant narrative motif: from Oedipus and the Sphinx to the wisdom contests between Homer and Hesiod or Mopsus and Calchas, from the fishermen’s conundrum in the biographies of Homer to the enigmas set to the suitors of Turandot. He presents characteristic specimens from the compilations of riddles that survive from Graeco-Roman antiquity, namely, the fourteenth book of the Palatine Anthology, part of the tenth book of Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistai, and the Latin collection known as “Symphosius”. There are also interesting forays into the rich medieval tradition of literary riddles, from the miniature Latin poems of St. Aldhelm to the Byzantine versifications of Michael Psellos and Basileios Megalomytes. In every case, Beta painstakingly explores the subtle linguistic mechanisms that make up the peculiar poetics of the riddling text, the mixture of metaphors and contradictions, metonymy and homonymy, synecdoche and paradox that simultaneously conceal the solution and afford the clues for its discovery. Valuable information is offered on the cultural contexts in which riddles were enjoyed by the Greeks and Romans, principally the symposium.

One of the most precious and original contributions of Beta’s study consists in highlighting how riddles “converse” with each other. The same solution may lie behind different textual versions, which progressively expand the enigmatic description with more complex metaphors and paradoxes. Furthermore, later compositions may allude to famous classical enigmas and artfully rework the old wordplays into new verbal knots. The comic poets’ jokes on the paradox of the trapeza (the “four-legged” one) that is yet called a tripous (“three-legged”) recast the fatal riddle of the Sphinx in a comic and convivial vein (Epicharmus fr. 147; Aristophanes fr. 545). The fishermen’s conundrum about the lice ( Certamen 18 West, cf. Vitae Homeri 2.35, 3.4, 5.5, 7.6 West) is echoed in the sympotic word-play proposed in a comedy of Antiphanes (fr. 122) and in the youthful company of Gellius ( Noctes Atticae 18.2.9). The riddling epigram on the clyster syringe ( Palatine Anthology 14.55) looks back with self-conscious affectation to Cleobulina’s traditional conundrum about another medical instrument, the cupping glass (1 West). As aptly emphasized in the book, riddles are literature, and as such they are bound by the literary laws of intertextuality, influence, and the anxiety of influence. Beta perspicaciously detects the effects of arte allusiva in the products of a humble but elegant craft.

In a few cases one might wish for a more precise categorization of the specimens examined. Questions of the type “What is the strongest?” belong to a special category, the so-called “riddles of the superlative”,3 attested across a wide variety of ancient texts. This kind of riddle is innately open to more than one solution, and hence ideal for competitions between several players that try to outdo each other, such as those found in Diphilus’ Theseus and Plutarch’s Banquet of the Seven Sages. To think of these questions as admitting of only one right answer is to miss their distinctive peculiarity. The conundrums associated with marriage, apart from other similarities, also have in common a keen self-referentiality; their solution is the solver himself (Oedipus), or the very person propounding the riddle (Turandot, Antiochus in the Historia Apollonii), or at least it is based on the propounder’s secret personal experiences (Samson).

The second part concerns enigmatic oracles and expounds how oracular ambiguity is produced by means of the same linguistic artifices that operate in common riddles: contradictions and apparent impossibilities, homonymy and kennings, synecdoche and animal imagery, or games with the arithmetical values of letters. Ultimately, the oracle is a weighty conundrum propounded by the divinity to mortals, with grave consequences for those who fail to find the solution. The seriousness is all in the perspective of the humans. The oracular texts themselves, like the riddles, employ techniques of wordplay and equivocation that are also recurrent in jokes and witticisms. Apollo and the other Greek gods have a sense of humour, even though this humour proves to be black from the mortals’ point of view.

Many thrilling stories about double-edged oracles are retold here with brio, both famous (Croesus, Birnam Wood, the Delphic prophecies about the battle of Salamis) and lesser-known ones. Inevitably, Herodotus receives the lion’s share; there is also a rich collection of oracles regarding the foundation of new cities and colonies. The archetypical myth of Oedipus is repeatedly touched upon, but one feels that its divine ironies are not fully explored. It is not entirely correct to say that the Pythia did not answer Oedipus’ query about the identity of his parents. The Delphic response does address, in the peculiarly indirect way of Apollo Loxias, the hero’s essential question; even though Oedipus might kill his “father” Polybus in an accident, he could not possibly marry his mother if he knew her identity — ergo, Merope at least, whom the hero believes to be his mother, is not his true parent. It is Oedipus’ fault that he does not correlate the god’s answer to his own question and cannot perceive this latent syllogism.

The third part is not generally about dreams in the ancient world (a vast subject that would supply material for several monographs) but again focuses specifically on those aspects of dreams that approximate to the mechanisms of the riddle, such as allegorical imagery, homonymy, metonymy, and etymological puns. There is a useful discussion of the ancient writings on dream interpretation, especially Artemidorus (deservedly a favourite of Freud’s) but also Macrobius, Aelius Aristides, and Philo of Alexandria. Beta examines a series of characteristic symbolical dreams, keeping the balance between Greek and Roman literary sources: the Odyssey, Greek tragedy and comedy, Herodotus, Heliodorus’ novel, the Alexander Romance, but also Plautus, Cicero’s On Divination, and Ovid’s Fasti.

It would have been worthwhile to explain in more detail the metaphorical imagery of Hippias’ dream before the battle of Marathon (Herodotus 6.107). Hippias’ falling tooth is lost inside the Attic soil, an event symbolized in the dream as Hippias having sex with his own mother (viz. his motherland). Beta leaves us rather perplexed as to the analogy between teeth and sex. Presumably the tooth is perceived as an equivalent of semen, due to its colour, shape, and mythical associations (the race of the Spartoi sprang up from the dragon’s teeth sown by Cadmus). Regarding the confrontation of Juppiter and Numa ( Fasti 3.327-346), the latter’s function as a trickster could have been emphasized more. The god desires a human sacrifice, but Numa tricks him with his punning answers into accepting a bloodless and infinitely humbler substitute. Their verbal repartee recalls the game of the amphiboloi gnomai in the Contest of Homer and Hesiod (9 West). Homer must suitably supplement Hesiod’s half-finished nonsensical verses, so as to furnish them with acceptable meaning. Analogously, Numa intercepts Juppiter’s bloodthirsty enunciations and diverts them towards a painless closure.

The notes at the end of each chapter provide a selective multilingual bibliography as a helpful guide to further reading. There are a few notable omissions of specialized works that concentrate precisely on topics that are given prominence in the book.4 I spotted only a couple of slight factual errors. In p. 225 the author of the manual on dreams should be “Artemidoro”, not “Apollodoro”. In the slave’s dream in Aristophanes’ Wasps (31-33), the Athenian people are represented as sheep not because of their cowardice (“vigliaccheria”, p. 261) but because of their stupidity and credulity; compare the metaphorical value of the same animal in Tarquinius’ prophetic dream in Accius’ Brutus (discussed in pp. 274-276).

This study fills a real gap and illuminates important facets of ancient mentality and civilization. It may well prove of interest to a wider international audience, if someone undertakes to translate it into English. In a way, the book itself is an example of an alphabet riddle: the author is Beta, but the work deserves an alpha.


1. Jorge Luis Borges, “Las kenningar”, in Obras completas 1923-1972, Buenos Aires 1974, 368-381.

2. See the collections of S. Monda (ed.), Ainigma e griphos: gli antichi e l’oscurità della parola, Pisa 2012; J. Kwapisz, D. Petrain, M. Szymański (ed.), The Muse at Play: Riddles and Wordplay in Greek and Latin Poetry, Berlin; Boston, 2013.

3. S. Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, vol. 3, Bloomington 1956, motifs H630-H659.

4. Regarding “betrothal riddles”, as found in the tale of Turandot or the Historia Apollonii (chapter 4), there is a good folkloristic account in U. Moennig, Die Erzählung von Alexander und Semiramis, Berlin; New York, 2004. On Aesop’s competence in propounding and solving enigmas (chapters 2.5, 2.6), see my own contributions: “Aesop and Riddles”, Lexis 28 (2010) 257-290; “A Passage to Egypt: Aesop, the Priests of Heliopolis and the Riddle of the Year”, Trends in Classics 3 (2011) 83-112. On dreams in Greek comedy (chapter 13.4), see K.J. Reckford, Aristophanes’ Old-and-New Comedy. Six Essays in Perspective, Chapel Hill; London, 1987, 219-232; on dreams in Herodotus (chapter 13.3), see R. Bichler, “Die ‘Reichsträume’ bei Herodot”, Chiron 15 (1985) 125-147. The most comprehensive survey of “visual riddles” (chapter 15) is by T. Karadagli, Fabel und Ainos. Studien zur griechischen Fabel, Königstein 1981, 72-96.