Riddles Wisely Expounded

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"Riddles Wisely Expounded"
Language English
Written 1450
Genre Traditional English song, Child Ballad

"Riddles Wisely Expounded" is a traditional English song, dating at least to 1450. It is Child Ballad 1 and Roud 161, and exists in several variants.[1] The first known tune was attached to it in 1719.


In the earliest surviving version of the song,[2] Inter diabolus et virgo, "between the devil and the maiden" (mid-15th century), the "foul fiend" proposes to abduct a maiden unless she can answer a series of riddles. The woman prays to Jesus for wisdom, and answers the riddles correctly.

In later versions, a knight puts a woman to test before he marries her (sometimes after seducing her), or a devil disguised as a knight tries to carry her off. The woman knows the answers, and thus either wins the marriage or is free of the devil. In the latter case, the last riddle is often "what is worse than woman?" (the devil).

The riddles vary, but typical ones include

  • What is longer than the way? -- love
  • What is deeper than the sea? -- hell
  • What is louder than the horn? -- thunder
  • What is sharper than a thorn? -- hunger
  • What is whiter than milk? -- snow
  • What is softer than silk? -- down


The motif of riddling in folklore is very ancient, the stories of Oedipus and Samson giving two early examples. The particular form used here matches the folktale Aarne-Thompson type 875 The Clever Girl where a woman wins a husband by her clever answers to riddles.[3] Other tales of this type include What Is the Fastest Thing in the World? and The Wise Little Girl.

In this ballad, the words of each verse are interspersed with a chorus phrase "lay the bent to the bonny broom". A. L. Lloyd euphemistically describes this as a phrase of "physiological significance", explaining that the word "bent" means a horn.[4] "Broom" most likely refers to the flowering shrub.

There are many German variants of this ballad,[5] and a Gaelic form was widespread among both Scots and Irish.[6]

Modern retellings[edit]



Album/Single Performer Year Variant
Lowlands Jean Redpath 1980 Riddles Wisely Expounded
Sails of Silver Steeleye Span 1980 Tell me why Listed as Steeleye Span / Traditional, but a rewrite from the Child ballad, that features the same riddles
Waxed The Demon Barbers 2005 Noble Riddle Wisely Expounded
Child Ballads Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer 2013 "Riddles Wisely Expounded"

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Francis James Child, "Riddles Wisely Expounded"
  2. ^ Child, Additions and corrections to Ballad #1, in the appendix to Volume 5 of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads
  3. ^ Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 1, p 1, Dover Publications, New York 1965
  4. ^ A. L. Lloyd, Folk Song in England, Paladin, 1975. p.154
  5. ^ Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 1, p 1-2, Dover Publications, New York 1965
  6. ^ Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 1, p 3, Dover Publications, New York 1965

External links[edit]