home authors books contributors books for sale links
The Library of Renaissance Symbolism
The Symbolic Literature of the Renaissance

Support the Library!
Buy your books here.

Find On Worldcat
Find On This Site


Greek: Enigmata, Griphoi
Latin: Scirpi

Authorities:   Addison, Estienne, Menestrier, Tesauro

(What is this?)

The etymology of enigma is from the Greek ainos meaning story or tale. In English, riddle comes from the same root as the word read thus illustrating its ancient origins.

     It is not to understate the nature of the enigma to translate it as riddle. The enigma was one of the most ancient of the symbolic literary expressions but from the beginning it was viewed as ‘a small conundrum which had little to do with large concerns’ (Cook 350). The obsession with the enigma reflected the enduring preoccupation throughout classical times and later that knowledge should be shrouded in secrecy so as to conceal it from the uninitiated (Raybould Chapter 7). The utterances of the oracles and the Grecian Sphinx of Sophocles were thus couched in enigmas. Aeschylus and Pindar also refer to them. According to the earliest grammarians, the enigma was one of five (subsequently seven) types of allegory and was synonymous with gryphe which according to Estienne, quoting Gellius, came from the Greek Gryphos, a net, since the underlying meaning or what is signified is caught in a net. According to Menestrier, quoting Clearchus, there were seven types of gryphes of which the last was the anagram. Gryphe became redundant and in Latin the word was translated as scirpus or scirpos, a reed, from the proverbial impossibility of tieing a knot in a reed. Aristotle defines the enigma as a trope ‘by which one may attach impossibilities to a description of real things.’

     The most celebrated use of enigma in the Bible is in Corinthians I, 13, 12, with St Paul’s injunction to look through a glass darkly, darkly in the King James version being a translation of in enigmate. This passage is an allegory of the difficulty of understanding the nature of God and the extensive and brilliant commentary given by St. Augustine shows that the enigma was capable of the highest interpretation and he finally defined the enigma as an obscure allegory. The 4th- 5th century Latin writer Symphosius became the model or inspiration for the medieval riddle with his one hundred riddles of three lines each and the approximately 90 Old English riddles in the Exeter book from the 9th century are possibly the earliest examples of true English poetry with some examples up to 100 lines long.

     During the late Middle Ages the enigma became synonymous with symbolon and in the Renaissance was popular as a literary riddle expressed in a quatrain or other brief poem although the species included figurative tropes and wordplays such as anagrams. Menestrier gives a general definition of the enigma as ‘an ingenious mystery which affects to veil another sense than that which is presented by the words and figures.’ The enigma was popular enough that it became the touchstone against which other literary species were judged to the extent that Minos in his commentary on Alciato’s Emblemata felt the need to assure his audience that the emblem was not an enigma. Nicholas Caussin also included a number of enigmas in his De Symbolica Aegyptiorum On the Wisdom of the Egyptians, of 1618, as well as a version of Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica.

See also: Allegories, Symbols