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A riddle is a statement or question or phrase having a double or veiled meaning, put forth as a puzzle to be solved. Riddles are of two types: enigmas, which are problems generally expressed in metaphorical or allegorical language that require ingenuity and careful thinking for their solution, and conundra, which are questions relying for their effects on punning in either the question or the answer.
Riddles occur extensively in Old English poetry, drawing partly on an Anglo-Latin literary tradition whose principal exponent was Aldhelm (c. 639-709), himself inspired by the fourth- or fifth-century Latin poet Symphosius. Riddles thus have a distinguished literary ancestry, although the contemporary sort of conundrum that passes under the name of "riddle" may not make this obvious. In the Anglo-Saxon world, the wis had wisdom due to their wit – their ability to conciliate and mediate by maintaining multiple perspectives, which has degenerated into a species of comedy, but was not always a mere laughing matter. This wit was taught with a form of oral tradition called the riddle, a collection of which were bound, along with various other gnomic verses, poems and maxims in the tenth century and deposited in Exeter Cathedral in the eleventh century - the so-called Exeter Book, one of the most important surviving collections of Old English manuscripts. The riddles in this book vary in significance from childish rhymes and ribald innuendo, to some particularly interesting insights into the thought world of the archaic Anglo-Saxon linguistic ancestors, such as the following (Riddle 47 from the Exeter Book):
An answer, however, is not implied by the poem, though it is in this sense unlike most of its era; the riddle is instead an elaborate pun, and philosophises on the subject of language and its virtues. The general technique of the riddle form is to refer obliquely to the subject by kenning and other sorts of figurative language; since kennings formed such an important element of alliterative verse forms in the Germanic languages, the riddles served the dual empirical purpose of puzzling the poet's audience and teaching the lore needed to successfully use or understand the poetic language. But riddles also served a more abstract role in Anglo-Saxon education, for they taught their listeners how to track two (or more) meanings at once in a single semantic situation, and a fortiori their very existence demonstrates that the Christian Anglo-Saxons were not inhabiting a thought-world lacking in subtlety and complexity. There are at least eighteen distinct Anglo-Saxon words describing aspects of cognitive skill [frod, ferð, onhæle, degol, cunnan, dyrne, hyge, hygecraft, hylest, heort, þencan, gleaw, sceolon, giedd, mod, sawol, heofodgimme, wis, snot(t)or, wat, swican - the list could be extended], a fact which attests to a culture valuing cognitive skills, albeit in an oral and not literate context.
Old Norse literature, though closely connected with Anglo-Saxon literature, attests to few riddles: almost all occur in one section of Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks. However, Norse mythology attests to a number of wisdom-contests, usually involving the god Odin.
But riddles were not exclusive to the Anglo-Saxons and Old Norse; they are an ancient and ubiquitous cultural phenomenon. Oedipus killed the Sphinx by grasping the answer to the riddle it posed (Oedipus Tyrannus, lines 380 onward); Samson outwitted the Philistines by posing a riddle about the lion and the beehive until they learned the answer from his Philistine bride, costing Samson 30 suits of clothes (Judges 14:5-18). In both cases, riddles, far from being mere child’s play, are made to decide matters of life and death. Although Plato reports that ancient Greek children did indeed engage in riddle play (Republic 479c), he also recognized the important function that riddles can play in showing what cannot literally be said about ultimate truths (Letters, book 2, 312d), as does the Hebraic Book of Proverbs which shows "how to understand a proverb and a figure, the words of the wise and their riddles" (Proverbs 1:5-6). Aristotle considered riddles important enough to include discussion of their use in his Rhetoric. He describes the close relationship between riddles and metaphors: “Good riddles do, in general, provide us with satisfactory metaphors; for metaphors imply riddles, and therefore a good riddle can furnish a good metaphor” (1405b4-6). Archer Taylor says in his book English Riddles from Oral Tradition “we can probably say that riddling is a universal art” and cites riddles from hundreds of different cultures including Finnish, Hungarian, American Indian, Chinese, Russian, Dutch and Filipino sources amongst many others. Hamnett analyzes African riddling from an anthropological viewpoint in his article “Ambiguity Classification and Change: the Function of Riddles” [Man 2(1967)pp. 379–391]. Scott analyzes Persian and Arabic riddles in “On Defining the Problem of a Structural Unit” [Genre 2(1969)pp. 129–142]. Athenaeus of Naucratis (fl. C. 200 AD) compiled a copious anthology of ancient Greek riddles citing some 1,250 authors under the title Epitome.
- "My first, tho’ water, cures no thirst,
- My next alone has soul,
- And when he lives upon my first,
- He then is called my whole."
- When my first is a task to a young girl of spirit,
- And my second confines her to finish the piece,
- How hard is her fate! but how great is her merit
- If by taking my whole she effects her release!
The answer is "hem-lock".
This form of charade appeared in magazines, books, and on the folding fans of the Regency. The answers were sometimes printed on the reverse of the fan, suggesting that they were a flirting device, used by a young woman to tease her beau.
- I talk, but I do not speak my mind
- I hear words, but I do not listen to thoughts
- When I wake, all see me
- When I sleep, all hear me
- Many heads are on my shoulders
- Many hands are at my feet
- The strongest steel cannot break my visage
- But the softest whisper can destroy me
- The quietest whimper can be heard.
The answer is "an actor".
The name "charades" gradually became more popularly used to refer to acted charades. Examples of the acted charades are described in William Thackeray's Vanity Fair and in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.
- (In Hindi)
- Nar naari kehlaati hai,
- aur bin warsha jal jati hai;
- Purkh say aaway purkh mein jaai,
- na di kisi nay boojh bataai.
- English translation
- Is known by both masculine and feminine names,
- And burns up without rain;
- Originates from a man and goes into a man,
- But no one has been able to guess what it is.
The highlight here is nadi, or "river".
And in the form of a contemporary, English language example:
- Cyanide sibilance.
- Satan’s equivalence.
- Folly to trust a swiller of dust.
- Stripéd ambivalence.
Here, the riddle is merely implied while certain formal structures of poetry are maintained. The riddle above is one of a series of riddle poems following the same poetic rules.
Riddles as a game
The Riddle Game is a formalized guessing game, a contest of wit and skill in which players take turns asking riddles. The player that cannot answer loses. Riddle games occur frequently in mythology and folklore as well as in popular literature. One prominent literary account of a riddle-game, drawing on a wider literary tradition of mythological wisdom-contests, occurs in the Old Norse Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks, where the god Odin challenges King Heidrek to answer his riddles. This was influential on later literature: disguised, the god plays one such game in Richard Wagner's Siegfried. In J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit Gollum challenges Bilbo Baggins to a riddle competition for his life. Bilbo breaks "the ancient rules" of the game but is able to escape with Gollum's magic ring. As happens in the Norse tale, although Bilbo asked more of a simple question than a riddle, by attempting to answer it rather than challenging it Gollum accepted it as a riddle; by accepting it, his loss was binding.
In Stephen King's The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands and The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass, the ka-tet must riddle against Blaine the Mono in order to save their lives. At first Blaine can answer all riddles posed to him by the ka-tet easily, but then Eddie Dean, one of the ka-tet, gains the upper hand when he starts to ask "joke riddles", effectively frustrating Blaine's highly logical mind.
A Riddle Game plays a key role in various versions of Turandot. The suitors need to answer all three questions to gain the Princess's hand, or else they are beheaded - In Puccini's opera Turandot grimly warns Calaf 'The riddles are three, but Death is one'.
Contemporary riddles typically use puns and double entendres for humorous effect, rather than to puzzle the butt of the joke, as in "Why is six afraid of seven?" "Because seven eight nine (eight can be replaced with ate)." These riddles are now mostly children's humour and games rather than literary compositions.
Some riddles are composed of foreign words and play on similar sounds, as in:
- There were two cats, 1 2 3 cat and un deux trois cat, they had a swimming race from England to France. Who won?
- 1 2 3 Cat because Un deux trois quatre cinq (un deux trois cat sank)
The previous plays on the fact that the French words for 4 and 5 are pronounced similar to the English words "Cat" and "Sank", hence the pun being the cat sank while also counting to 5 in French.
In the Batman comic books, one of the hero's best known enemies is The Riddler who is personally compelled to supply clues about his upcoming crimes to his enemies in the form of riddles and puzzles. Stereotypically, they are these kinds of simple children's riddles, but modern treatments generally prefer to have the character use more sophisticated puzzles.
In other cultures
Quite similar to its English counterpart, the riddle in the Philippines is called Bugtong. It is traditionally used during a funeral wake together with other games such as tong-its or the more popular sakla, later generations use Bugtong as a form of past time or as an activity. One peculiarity of the Filipino version is the way they start with the phrase Bugtong-bugtong before saying the riddle, usually it is common to create riddles that rhyme.
An example of a Tagalog Bugtong:
Similarly, a bit south, in Sulawesi, Indonesia, among the Pendau, riddles are also used at funeral gatherings.
- Alaric Hall, 'Changing Style and Changing Meaning: Icelandic Historiography and the Medieval Redactions of Heiðreks saga', Scandinavian Studies, 77 (2005), 1-30, at pp. 9-10.
- 'Charades &c Written a Hundred Years Ago by Jane Austen and her family.' Spottiswoode & Co., 
|Wikisource has the text of the 1920 Encyclopedia Americana article Riddle.|
|Look up riddle in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
- Riddles at DMOZ – An active listing of riddle links.
- Isbell, Billy Jean. "Riddle Games among Quechua Speakers." Journal of Latin American Lore 3:1 (1977), 19-49. (pdf)