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For other uses, see Riddle (disambiguation).

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.

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].

Ancient and medieval riddles[edit]

The riddle was at times a prominent literary form in the ancient and medieval world, and so riddles are at times extensively attested in our written records from these periods.

Old Testament and Hebrew riddles[edit]

The only riddle in the Bible is Samson's riddle in Judges xiv.14: 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). [1] However, 'it would appear that some of the proverbs in which sets of three and of four objects are mentioned (e.g. xxx.15 et seq.) were originally in the form of riddles', while Ezekiel xvii.1-10 is also a riddle of sorts.[2]

Sirach mentions riddles as a popular dinner pastime, and the Talmud contains several, such as this one from the end of Kinnim: 'What animal has one voice living and seven voices dead?' ('The ibis, from whose carcass seven different musical instruments are made').[3]

Under the influence of Arabic literature in medieval al-Andalus, there was a flourishing of literary Hebrew riddles in verse during the Middle Ages. Exponents included Moses ibn Ezra, Yehuda Alharizi, and Judah Halevi. For example, Moses ibn Ezra asked 'What is the sister of the sun, though made for the night? The first causes her tears to fall, and when she is near dying they cut off her head'. (The answer is 'a candle'.)[4] Judah Halevi asked:

Evincing the infinite--
the size of your palm--
what it holds is beyond you,
curious, at hand.[5]

(The answer is 'hand-mirror'.) There is also 'a curious riddle' at the end of the Haggadah.[6]

Ancient Greece and Rome[edit]

The most famous Classical riddle is the Riddle of the Sphinx: Oedipus killed the Sphinx by grasping the answer to the riddle it posed (Oedipus Tyrannus, lines 380 onward). 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).

Athenaeus of Naucratis (fl. C. 200 AD) compiled a copious anthology of ancient Greek riddles citing some 1,250 authors under the title Epitome. The principal collection of ancient Latin riddles is a collection of 100 hexametrical riddles by Symphosius, which were influential on later medieval Latin writers: a further 63 were composed around the seventh century in Italy in a collection known now as the Berne Riddles, and Symphosius's collection inspired a number of Anglo-Saxon riddlers.[7]

The Islamic world[edit]

Scott analyzes Persian and Arabic riddles in “On Defining the Problem of a Structural Unit” [Genre 2(1969)pp. 129–142].

On the Indian subcontinent, Amir Khusro made the poetic riddles popular.[citation needed] An example:

(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.

Anglo-Saxon England and medieval Scandinavia[edit]

Tree of the year -- a Faroese stamp depicting a traditional Faroese riddle.

There is a corpus of nearly 100 riddles 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 ribald innuendo to theological sophistication, and include 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):

Original Formal equivalence Translation
Moððe word fræt. Me þæt þuhte
wrætlicu wyrd, þa ic þæt wundor gefrægn,
þæt se wyrm forswealg wera gied sumes,
þeof in þystro, þrymfæstne cwide
ond þæs strangan staþol. Stælgiest ne wæs
wihte þy gleawra, þe he þam wordum swealg.
A moth ate words. To me that seemed
a fantastical event, when I found that wonder out,
that a worm swallowed certain of men’s word,
a thief in darkness, a glorious statement
and strong its foundation. The thieving stranger was not
a whit more wise that he swallowed those words.
A moth ate words. I thought that was a marvelous fate,
that the worm, a thief in the dark, should eat
a man's words - a brilliant statement
and its foundation is strong. Not a whit the wiser
was he for having fattened himself on those words.

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.[8] However, Norse mythology attests to a number of wisdom-contests, usually involving the god Odin.

Early modern to nineteenth-century riddles[edit]

With the advent of print, collections of riddles and similar kinds of questions began to be published. Major collections include the French Adevineaux amoureux (printed in Bruges by Colard Mansion around 1479); Demandes joyeuses en maniere de quolibets, the basis for Wynkyn de Worde's 1511 Demaundes Joyous;[9] and the 1598 Riddles of Heraclitus and Democritus, which includes for example the following riddle:

First I was small, and round like a pearl;
Then long and slender, as brave as an earl;
Since, like an hermit, I lived in a cell,
And now, like a rogue, in the wide world I dwell.[10]

Riddles are prominent in some early-modern ballads. Some of those included in the Child Ballads are 'Riddles Wisely Expounded' (Child 1), 'The Elfin Knight' (Child 2), 'King John and the Bishop' (Child 45), 'Captain Wedderburn's Courtship' (Child 46), and 'Proud Lady Margaret' (Child 47).[11]

One riddle composed by Jane Austen[12] goes as follows:

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.[citation needed]

Later examples omitted direct references to individual syllables, such as the following, said to be a favorite of Theodore Roosevelt:[citation needed]

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.[citation needed] Examples of the acted charades are described in William Thackeray's Vanity Fair and in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.[citation needed]

Contemporary riddles[edit]

Contemporary riddles typically use puns and double entendres for humorous effect,[citation needed] 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 the Philippines[edit]

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.[13]

In Tamil language[edit]

In Tamil language, riddles are called Vidukathai. They circulate in both folk and literary forms.[14]

Riddles are of type[15]

  • Descriptive
  • Question
  • Rhyming
  • Fun

Riddles are mostly found in oral form. The structure resembles folk songs. Most of the riddles are based on the living things and objects around our day-to-day life.[15] A sample riddle is given below.[16]


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 The Grey King, the third book of Susan Cooper's fantasy sequence The Dark is Rising, Will and Bran must win a riddle game in order for Bran to claim his heritage as the Pendragon.

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'.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Margalith, Othniel, "Samson's Riddle and Samson's Magic Locks", Vetus Testamentum 36 (1986), pp. 225-234 (http://www.jstor.org/stable/1518382) (p. 226).
  2. ^ Joseph Jacobs, 'Riddle', in The Jewish Encyclopedia: A Descriptive Record of the History, Religion, Literature, and Customs of the Jewish People from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, ed. by Isidore Singer (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1901-1907), s.v.
  3. ^ Joseph Jacobs, 'Riddle', in The Jewish Encyclopedia: A Descriptive Record of the History, Religion, Literature, and Customs of the Jewish People from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, ed. by Isidore Singer (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1901-1907), s.v.
  4. ^ Joseph Jacobs, 'Riddle', in The Jewish Encyclopedia: A Descriptive Record of the History, Religion, Literature, and Customs of the Jewish People from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, ed. by Isidore Singer (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1901-1907), s.v.
  5. ^ The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950–1492, ed. and trans. by Peter Cole (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), p. 150.
  6. ^ Joseph Jacobs, 'Riddle', in The Jewish Encyclopedia: A Descriptive Record of the History, Religion, Literature, and Customs of the Jewish People from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, ed. by Isidore Singer (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1901-1907), s.v.
  7. ^ Andrew Welsh, 'Riddle' in Medieval Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs, ed. by Carl Lindahl, John McNamara and John Lindow, 2 vols (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2000), II 824-32 (pp. 826-27).
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ Andrew Welsh, 'Riddle' in Medieval Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs, ed. by Carl Lindahl, John McNamara and John Lindow, 2 vols (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2000), II 824-32 (p. 830).
  10. ^ Archer Taylor, The Literary Riddle before 1600 (Berkeley: University of California Pres, 1948), p. 2.
  11. ^ Andrew Welsh, 'Riddle' in Medieval Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs, ed. by Carl Lindahl, John McNamara and John Lindow, 2 vols (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2000), II 824-32 (p. 829).
  12. ^ 'Charades &c Written a Hundred Years Ago by Jane Austen and her family.' Spottiswoode & Co., [1895]
  13. ^ [1]
  14. ^ "Folklore - An Introduction". Tamil Virtual University. Retrieved 4 December 2014. 
  15. ^ a b Shanthi (December 1993). "Tamil riddles". International Institute of Tamil Studies. Retrieved 4 December 2014. 
  16. ^ Dieter B. Kapp (1994). "A Collection of Jaffna Tamil Riddles from Oral Tradition". Asian Folklore Studies. Nanzan Institute for Religion & Culture. Retrieved 4 December 2014. 

External links[edit]