What Is Enigma?

Enigma (etymologically from Greek “ainigma,” literally means “riddle” or “dark saying”) refers to an obscure meaning concealed within a riddle or by means of hidden resemblance of things that is difficult to understand unless broken into components and analytically explained.

Notable observations from scholars

Mathew of VendômeOpens in new window in the third book of his Ars versificatoria (c. 1175), at the end of his discourse on tropes in general and allegories in particular, the enigma, he defined as:

  • “an obscure meaning concealed in a wrapper of words.”

Vendôme’s concise definition is striking for its intensification of obscurity via the words “involucrum” (“wrapper”) and “occultare” (“to conceal”). St. AugustineOpens in new window in his treatise, “De trinitate (Trans. On The Trinity)Opens in new window,” observed enigma as: “a trope, a species of the genus allegoryOpens in new window (De trin. Xv.9.15).

Enigma often consists on the global meaning of a work, including the meanings of Scripture. So says Augustine. Paul himself used the names of rhetorical tropes — deliberately, Augustine assumed. Thus, the use of a form of the word aenigma in Paul’s text. (In fact, Paul’s home, TarsusOpens in new window was known as a center for rhetorical study, and scholars have recently become increasingly interested in Paul’s epistolary and other rhetoric.)
—(Enigmas and Riddles in LiteratureOpens in new window, by Eleanor Cook)

Examples of Enigma
    An enigma often takes the form of providing descriptive attributes but leaving to the audience to guess what it is that could have those attributes (which are sometimes apparently contradictory):
  • Rain is spent.
    Now colors bent
    Frame a clear, blue sky.
  • [answer: a rainbow]
    Enigma also occurs when tropes are used in series, each of which is fairly clear, but their combined effect teases with its obscurity. In this example, periphrasis (or antonomasia) is employed repeatedly to bring about enigma:
  • Elizabeth Taylor, twice Cleopatra to her Anthony, never quite reconciled her Marilyn Monroe with her Scarlett O'Hara.

All Examples courtesy of Silva Rhetoricae.

Further Readings:
Silver Rhetoricae: EnigmaOpens in new window
Mathew of Vendôme, Ars versificatoria, ed. and trans. A. E. Gaylon (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1980), 108;
The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, ed. S. A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach and O. Berghof (Cambridge University Press, 2006), 63;
Quintilian 8.6.52-53; Bede 616; Trebizond 61v (“aenigma”); Susenbrotus (1540) 14 (“aenigma”); Sherry (1550) 45 (“aenigma,” “sermo obscurus”); Peacham (1577) D2r; Putt. (1589) 198 (“enigma,” “the riddle”); Day 1599 80 (“aenigma”).