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Ant-lion riddle by Aldhelm [695 C.E.]

The English scholar and proto-naturalist Aldhelm (639-730), when Abbot of Malmesbury, composed in about 695 his famous "hundred riddles" in Latin verse (Aenigmata ex diversis Rerum Creaturis composita). The answer to one of the riddles was "Myrmicoleon" or Ant-lion—used in the (uncharacteristic for Aldhelm) mythical, symbolistic tradition of the Physiologus. It is clear that Aldhelm understood the creature to be an insect, presumably through his reading, for he was well versed in earlier literature (Kevan 1992).



Here is the original riddle in Latin and a 1925 English translation by James Hall Pitman:

Dudum compositis ego nomen gesto figuris :
Ut leo, sic formica vocor sermone Pelasgo
Tropica nominibus signans praesagia duplis,
Cum rostris avium nequeam resistere rostro.
Scrutetur sapiens, gemino cur nomine fingar !

I long have borne the name of hybrid form :
Both ant and lion I am called in Greek
A double metaphor, foreboding doom ;
My beak cannot ward off the beaks of birds.
Let wise men search out why my names are twain.

In 2015 poet A. M. Juster published a new translation of Aldhelm's riddles. Juster's version of the antlion riddle is significantly different from Pitman's:

My name's a hybrid since antiquity.
I'm called a "lion," then an "ant" in Greek,
A blended metaphor, a sign that's bleak;
I can't defend birds' beaks with my own beak.
May scholars probe my name's duplicity!

Juster says that his translations "are not 'literal' but instead 'faithful' to the original text, and that he attempts to capture the sense of each riddle but steers clear of 'injecting thought not reasonably present in the text'" (Messenger 2016).


References

Juster, A. M. 2015. Saint Aldhelm's Riddles. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Kevan, D. K. McE. 1992. Antlion ante Linné: [Myrmekoleon] to Myrmeleon (Insecta: Neuroptera: Myrmeleonidae [sic]). Pp. 203-232 in Current Research in Neuropterology. Proceedings of the Fourth International Symposium on Neuropterology [Symposium held in Bagnères-de-Luchon, France, 1991.] M. Canard, H. Aspöck, and M. W. Mansell, eds. Toulouse.

Messenger, Jenny. 2016. "Translators Be Warned." Review of A. M. Juster's book Saint Aldhelm's Riddles. The Oxonian Review, Issue 30.1, 1 February 2016. http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/translators-be-warned/ (accessed 16 Sept 2018).

Pitman, James Hall. 1925. The Riddles of Aldhelm. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Related topic in The Antlion Pit


Related website

  • Insects.org (Dexter Sear, USA). This elegantly-designed insect reference site is also home to the Cultural Entomology Digest, the definitive resource for studying the influence of insects on human culture as seen in myth, psychology and art.


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