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Riddle (13327 views - Game & Play & Gamification)

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 that "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. Many riddles and riddle-themes are internationally widespread. In the assessment of Elli Köngas Maranda (originally writing about Malaitian riddles, but with an insight that has been taken up more widely), whereas myths serve to encode and establish social norms, "riddles make a point of playing with conceptual boundaries and crossing them for the intellectual pleasure of showing that things are not quite as stable as they seem" – though the point of doing so may still ultimately be to "play with boundaries, but ultimately to affirm them".
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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.

Archer Taylor says that "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.[1] Many riddles and riddle-themes are internationally widespread.

In the assessment of Elli Köngas Maranda (originally writing about Malaitian riddles, but with an insight that has been taken up more widely), whereas myths serve to encode and establish social norms, "riddles make a point of playing with conceptual boundaries and crossing them for the intellectual pleasure of showing that things are not quite as stable as they seem" – though the point of doing so may still ultimately be to "play with boundaries, but ultimately to affirm them".[2]

Definitions and research


Defining riddles precisely is hard and has attracted a fair amount of scholarly debate. The first major modern attempt to define the riddle was by Robert Petsch in 1899,[3] with another seminal contribution, inspired by structuralism, by Robert A. Georges and Alan Dundes in 1963.[4] Georges and Dundes suggested that 'a riddle is a traditional verbal expression which contains one or more descriptive elements, a pair of which may be in opposition; the referent of the elements is to be guessed'.[4]

In some traditions and contexts, riddles may overlap with proverbs.[5][6][7] An example from a different language, 'Nothing hurts it, but it groans all the time' can be deployed as a proverb (when its referent is a hypocrite) or as a riddle (when its referent is a pig).[8]


Much academic research on riddles has focused on collecting, cataloguing, defining and typologising riddles, with much of the key recent work done in the 1960s and 1970s. Key work on cataloguing and typologising riddles was published by Antti Aarne in 1918–20,[9] and by Archer Taylor.[10] In the case of ancient riddles recorded without solutions, considerable scholarly energy also goes into proposing and debating solutions.[11]

Whereas previously researchers had tended to take riddles out of their social performance contexts, the rise of anthropology in the post-War period encouraged more researchers to study the social role of riddles and riddling.[12] However, wide-ranging studies of riddles have tended to be limited to Western countries, with Oriental and African riddles being relatively neglected.[13]

Riddles have also attracted linguists, often studying riddles from the point of view of semiotics.[14][15]

International riddles

Many riddles appear in similar form across many countries, and often continents. Key examples, with a focus on European tradition, follow.

The Writing-riddle, whose basic form is 'White field, black seeds', where the field is a page and the seeds are letters.[16] An example is the eighth- or ninth-century Veronese Riddle:

Se pareba boves
alba pratalia araba
albo versorio teneba
negro semen seminaba

In front of him (he) led oxen
White fields (he) ploughed
A white plough (he) held
A black seed (he) sowed.

Here, the oxen are the scribe's finger(s) and thumb, and the plough is the pen. Among literary riddles, riddles on the pen and other writing equipment are particularly widespread.[17][18]

The Year-riddle, found across Eurasia.[19] For example, a riddle in the Sanskrit Rig Veda describes a 'twelve-spoked wheel, upon which stand 720 sons of one birth' (i.e. the twelve months of the year, which together have 360 days and 360 nights).[20]

The Person-riddle, the most famous example of which is the Riddle of the Sphinx. This Estonian example shows the pattern:

Homikul käib nelja,
lõuna-ajal kahe
õhtul kolme jalaga

It goes in the morning on four feet,
at lunch-time on two,
at evening on three[21]

The riddle describes a crawling baby, a standing person, and an old person with a walking stick.

Two-legs, three-legs, and four-legs includes riddles along the lines of this German example:

Zweibein sass auf Dreibein und ass Einbein.
Da kam Vierbein und nahm Zweibein das Einbein.
Da nahm Zweibein Dreibein und schlug damit Vierbein,
dass Vierbein Einbein fallen liess.

Two-legs sat on Three-legs and cradled One-leg.
Then Four-legs came and took One-leg from Two-legs.
Then Two-legs took Three-legs and with it struck Four-legs,
so that Four-legs let One-leg go.[22]

The conceit here is that Two-legs is a person, Three-legs is a three-legged stool, Four-legs is a dog, and One-leg is a walking stick.

The Cow-riddle,[23] given here in thirteenth-century Icelandic form:

Fjórir hanga,
fjórir ganga,
tveir veg vísa,
tveir hundum varða,
einn eptir drallar
ok jafnan heldr saurugr.
Heiðrekr konungr,
hyggðu at gátu!

Four are hanging,
Four are walking,
Two point the way out,
Two ward the dogs off,
One ever dirty
Dangles behind it.
This riddle ponder
O prince Heidrek![24]

The cow has four udders, four legs, two horns, two back legs, and one tail.

The Rider-and-horse riddle, given here in a French version:

Six pieds,
quatre oreilles,
deux bouches,
deux fronts,
quelle bête est-ce donc?

Six feet,
four ears,
two mouths,
two foreheads:
what beast, then, is it?[25]

The Featherless bird-riddle, best known in Central Europe.[26] An English version is:

White bird featherless
Flew from Paradise,
Perched upon the castle wall;
Up came Lord John landless,
Took it up handless,
And rode away horseless to the King's white hall.[27]

Here, a snowflake falls from the sky, and is blown off by the wind.

Ancient and medieval riddles

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


According to Archer Taylor, "the oldest recorded riddles are Babylonian school texts which show no literary polish". The answers to the riddles are not preserved; they include "my knees hasten, my feet do not rest, a shepherd without pity drives me to pasture" (a river? A rowboat?); "you went and took the enemy's property; the enemy came and took your property" (a weaving shuttle?); "who becomes pregnant without conceiving, who becomes fat without eating?" (a raincloud?). "It is clear that we have here riddles from oral tradition that a teacher has put into a schoolbook."[28]

Sanskrit and later Indic languages

It is thought that the world's earliest surviving poetic riddles survive in the Sanskrit Rigveda.[29] "The Sanskrit term that most closely corresponds to the English 'riddle', and which is usually translated thereby, is prahelikā—a term that is not only of uncertain etymology but is also subject to widely differing interpretations and classifications."[30]

Hymn 164 of the first book of the Rigveda can be understood to comprise a series of riddles or enigmas[31] which are now obscure but may have been an enigmatic exposition of the pravargya ritual.[32] These riddles overlap in significant part with a collection of forty-seven in the Atharvaveda; riddles also appear elsewhere in Vedic texts.[33][34] According to Taylor,

The highly sophisticated quality of many Sanskrit riddles can perhaps be adequately illustrated by one rather simple example ... "Who moves in the air? Who makes a noise on seeing a thief? Who is the enemy of lotuses? Who is the climax of fury?" The answers to the first three questions, when combined in the manner of a charade, yield the answer to the fourth question. The first answer is bird (vi), the second dog (çva), the third sun (mitra), and the whole is Viçvamitra, Rama's first teacher and counselor and a man noted for his outbursts of rage.[35]

Accordingly, riddles are treated in early studies of Sanskrit poetry such as Daṇḍin's seventh- or eighth-century Kāvyādarśa, the Kāvyālaṃkāra of Bhāmaha (c. 700), or the fifteenth-century Sāhityadarpaṇa by Viśwanātha Kaviraja.[36] Thus, for example, Daṇḍin cites this as an example of a name-riddle (nāmaprahelikā): "A city, five letters, the middle one is a nasal, the ruling lineage of which is an eight-letter word" (the answer being Kāñcī, ruled by the Pallavāḥ dynasty).[37]

The Mahabharata also portrays riddle-contests and includes riddles accordingly.[38] For example, this portrays Yaksha Prashna, a series of riddles posed by a nature-spirit (yaksha) to Yudhishthira,[38] and, in the third book, the story of Ashtavakra. Ashtavakra is the son of one Kahoda, who loses a wisdom-contest to Bandin and is drowned in consequence. Though only a boy, Ashtavakra goes to the court of King Janaka to seek revenge on Bandin. On arrival, he is presented with a series of riddles by Janaka, starting with the widespread year-riddle: what has six naves, twelve axles, twenty-four joints, and three hundred and sixty spokes? (The year.) Janaka then asks a mythic riddle about thunder and lightning, and then a series of simpler, paradox-based riddles like 'what does not close its eye when asleep?' Having won Janaka's approval, Ashtavakra goes on to defeat Bandin in a further wisdom-contest, and has Bandin drowned.[39]

The first riddle collection in a medieval Indic language is traditionally thought to be by Amir Khusro (1253–1325), though it is debated whether he actually composed the collection.[40] If he did, he wrote his riddles in the Indic language he called Hindawi rather than his usual Persian. It contains 286 riddles, divided into six groups, "apparently on the basis of the structure of the riddle and the structure of the answer"; "these riddles are 'in the style of the common people', but most scholars believe they were composed by Khusro".[41] The riddles are in Mātrika metre; one example is:

Nar naari kehlaati ha',
aur bin warsha jal jati hai;
Purkh say aaway purkh mein jaai,
na di kisi nay boojh bataai.

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 emboldened text here indicates a clue woven into the text: it is a pun on nadi ("river").

Old Testament and Hebrew riddles

While riddles are not numerous in the Bible, they are present, most famously in Samson's riddle in Judges xiv.14, but also in I Kings 10:1–13 (where the Queen of Sheba tests Solomon's wisdom), and in the Talmud.[42] Sirach also mentions riddles as a popular dinner pastime.

The Aramaic Story of Ahikar contains a long section of proverbial wisdom that in some versions also contains riddles.[43]

However, under the influence of Arabic literature in medieval al-Andalus, there was a flourishing of literary Hebrew riddles in verse during the Middle Ages. Dunash ben Labrat (920–990), credited with transposing Arabic metres into Hebrew, composed a number of riddles, mostly apparently inspired by folk-riddles.[44] Exponents included Moses ibn Ezra, Yehuda Alharizi, and Judah Halevi.[42] Immanuel the Roman wrote riddles, as did Israel Onceneyra.[45]

Ancient Greece and Rome

Riddles are known to have been popular in Greece in Hellenistic times, and possibly before; they were prominent among the entertainments and challenges presented at symposia.[46] Oracles were also represented as speaking in often riddlic language.[47] However, the first significant corpus of Greek riddles survives in an anthology of earlier material known as the Greek Anthology, which contains about 50 verse riddles,[48] probably put into its present form by Constantine Cephalas, working in the tenth century CE.[49] Most surviving ancient Greek riddles are in verse.[50] In the second chapter of Book III of Aristotle's Rhetoric, the philosopher stated that "good riddles do, in general, provide us with satisfactory metaphors: for metaphors imply riddles, and therefore a good riddle can furnish a good metaphor."[51]

Literary riddles were also composed in Byzantium, from perhaps the tenth century with the work of John Geometres, into the fifteenth century, along with a neo-Byzantine revival in around the early eighteenth century. There was a particular peak around the long twelfth century.[52]

Two Latin riddles are preserved as graffiti in the Basilica at Pompeii.[53] 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.[54] They remained influential in medieval Castilian tradition, being the basis for the second set of riddles in the thirteenth-century Libro de Apolonio, posed by Apolonio's daughter Tarsiana to her father.[55] The perhaps eighth- or ninth-century Veronese Riddle is a key witness to the linguistic transition from Latin to Romance.

Arabic and Persian

In the medieval period, verse riddles, alongside other puzzles and conundra, became a significant literary form in the Arabic-speaking world,[56] and accordingly in Islamic Persian culture.[57] Since early Arabic and Persian poetry often features rich, metaphorical description, and ekphrasis, there is a natural overlap in style and approach between poetry generally and riddles specifically; literary riddles are therefore often a subset of the descriptive poetic form known in both traditions as wasf. Riddles are attested in anthologies of poetry and in prosimetrical portrayals of riddle-contests in Arabic maqāmāt and in Persian epics such as the Shahnameh. Several stories in One Thousand and One Nights involve riddles. In both Arabic and Persian, riddles seem to have become increasingly scholarly in style over time, increasingly emphasising riddles and puzzles in which the interpreter has resolve clues to letters and numbers to put together the word which is the riddle's solution.

In Al-Andalus, Arabic riddles had a significant influence on Hebrew poetry, inspiring similar riddling in that language.

Riddles have been collected by modern scholars throughout the Arabic-speaking world.[58]

The medieval Germanic-speaking world

Verse riddles were made a prominent literary form early in the period of literacy in the Germanic-speaking world by the Anglo-Saxon Aldhelm (c. 639–709), writing in Latin and inspired by the fourth- or fifth-century Latin poet Symphosius. He was followed by a number of other Anglo-Saxons writing riddles in Latin. This prestigious literary heritage contextualises the survival of nearly one hundred riddles in the tenth-century Exeter Book, one of the most important surviving collections of Old English verse. The riddles in this book vary in content from ribald innuendo to theological sophistication. Three, Exeter Book Riddle 35 and Riddles 40/66, are in origin translations of riddles by Aldhelm (and Riddle 35 the only Old English riddle to be attested in another manuscript besides the Exeter Book). Unlike the pithy three-line riddles of Symphosius, the Old English riddles tend to be discursive, often musing on complex processes of manufacture when describing artefacts such as mead (Exeter Book Riddle 27) or a reed-pen or -pipe (Exeter Book Riddle 60). They are noted for providing perspectives on the world which give voice to actors which tend not to appear in Old English poetry, ranging from female slaves to animals and plants, and they often subvert the conventions of Old English heroic and religious poetry.

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, in which the god Óðinn propounds around 37 riddles (depending on the manuscript),[59] though a riddle also appears in Þjalar-Jóns saga.[60][61] Unlike the Old English riddles, the riddles in Hervarar saga have a fairly tight stanzaic form, often with formulaic phrases like "hvat er þat undra, er ek úti sá | fyrir Dellings durum?" ("what wonder is that, which I saw outside, before the doors of Dellingr?"). Only one seems to reflect the stock of folk-riddles known from more widely in Europe, the famous cow-riddle (see 'International Riddles' above; though another, about a sow with an unborn litter, is paralleled as Aldhelm's enigma 'De scrofa pregnante').[62]

The riddles in Heiðreks saga provide insights into Norse mythology, medieval Scandinavian social norms, and rarely used poetic forms.[63] They were also the subject of a seventeenth-century commentary by Björn Jónsson á Skarðsá.[64] The influence of printed versions of the text also led the so-called "Óðinn riddle" to become a popular oral riddle. The original riddle is:

Hverir eru þeir tveir
er tíu hafa fœtr,
augu þrjú,
ok einn hala?
Heiðrekr konungr,
hyggðu at gátu!

Who are those twain
that on ten feet run,
three their eyes are
but only one tail?
This riddle ponder
O prince Heidrek![65]

A modern Swedish children's variant of the same runs "vad har tre ögon, tio ben och en svans?" ("what has three eyes, ten legs and a tail?").[66]

Norse mythology does, however, attest to a number of other wisdom-contests, usually involving the god Óðinn.

Riddles survive only fragmentarily in Old High German: three, very short, possible examples exist in manuscripts from the Monastery of St Gallen, but, while certainly cryptic,[67] they are not necessarily riddles in a strict sense.[68] About 150 survive in Middle High German, mostly quoted in other literary contexts.[69][70][71]

The Finnic-speaking world

The corpus of traditional riddles from the Finnic-speaking world (including the modern Finland, Estonia, and parts of Western Russia) is fairly unitary, though eastern Finnish-speaking regions show particular influence of Russian Orthodox Christianity and Slavonic riddle culture. The Finnish for "riddle" is arvoitus (pl. arvoitukset), related to the verb arvata ("guess").

Finnic riddles are noteworthy in relation to the rest of the world's oral riddle canon for its original imagery, their abundance of sexual riddles, and the interesting collision of influences from east and west;[72] along with the attestation in some regions of an elaborate riddle-game.[73] Riddles provide some of the first surviving evidence for Finnish-language literature.[74]

Early-modern to nineteenth-century riddles

With the advent of print in the West, collections of riddles and similar kinds of questions began to be published. A large number of riddle collections were printed in the German-speaking world and, partly under German influence, in Scandinavia.[75] Riddles were evidently hugely popular in Germany: a recent research project uncovered more than 100,000 early modern German riddles, with the most important collection being that Strassburger Rätselbuch, first published around 1500 and many times reprinted.[76] This is one of the most famous riddles of that time:

Es kam ein Vogel federlos,
saß auf dem Baume blattlos,
da kam die Jungfer mundlos
und fraß den Vogel federlos
von dem Baume blattlos.

There came a bird featherless
sat on the trees leafless
There came a maiden speechless
And ate the bird featherless
From off the tree birdless.

That is, 'the snow (featherless bird) lies on a bare tree in winter (leafless tree), and the sun (speechless maiden) causes the snow to melt (ate the featherless bird)'.[77]

Other major collections from this period 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;[78] 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.[79]

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).[80]


The term charade was borrowed into English from French in the second half of the eighteenth century, denoting a "kind of riddle in which each syllable of a word, or a complete word or phrase, is enigmatically described or dramatically represented". The term gradually became more popularly used to refer to acted charades, examples of which are described in William Thackeray's Vanity Fair and in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.[81]

Written forms 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] One charade composed by Jane Austen 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![82]

The answer is "hem-lock".

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".

Contemporary riddles


Few riddles are attested in ancient Chinese literature, possibly because Chinese scholarship viewed the form as inappropriate to highbrow literature. It is, however, known that riddles existed.[83] For example, the posing and solving of riddles has long been an important part of the Chinese Lantern Festival; 'the date of the origin of the lantern riddle is not definite, but according to Japanese writers it probably first became popular during the Northern Sung dynasty (960–1126), and became associated with the Feast of Lanterns during the 17th century'.[84]

However, in the twentieth century, thousands of riddles and similar enigmas have been collected. Chinese benefits from a large number of homophones. Examples of folk-riddles include:

  • There is a small vessel filled with sauce, one vessel holding two different kinds. (Egg)
  • Washing makes it more and more dirty; it is cleaner without washing. (Water)
  • There is a big rooster. When it sees someone, then it makes a bow. (Tea pot)
  • A certain family lived in two courts with many children in each, and, strange to say, the greater were less than the lesser and the less were more than the greater. (Abacus)
  • When I go out, I am thick and fat. When I come home, I am meager like a skeleton. Then I am put in a corner against the wall and my tears flow freely. (Umberella)
  • When you use it you throw it away, and when you do not use it you bring it back. (Anchor)[85]

Chinese riddles make much use of visual puns on Chinese characters.[86] One example is the riddle “千 里 会 千 金”; these characters respectively mean 'thousand kilometre meet thousand gold'.

  1. The first stage of solving the riddle is verbal:
    1. In Chinese culture, 'it is said that a good horse can run thousands of kilometers per day', so “千 里” (thousand kilometer) is resolved as “马” (horse).
    2. Meanwhile, because 'a daughter is very important in the family', in Chinese culture it is possible to resolve “千 金” (thousand gold) as “女” (daughter).
  2. The second stage of solving the riddle is visual: combining the radical “马” (horse) with the radical “女” (daughter) produces the character “妈” (mother).

Thus the answer to 'thousand kilometres meet thousand gold' is “妈” (mother).[87]

One modern, bilingual collection of Chinese riddles has been published by William Dobly.[88]

Britain and America

The seminal collection of Anglophone riddles from the early modern period through to the twentieth century is Archer Taylor's.[89]

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.

Since the early medieval period, the riddle has become rare as a literary form in English. Jonathan Swift composed at least eight verse riddles on these such as a pen, gold, and the privy, but this was seen as a lapse in taste by many of his contemporaries.[17] But although riddles are seldom used today as a literary form in their own right, they have arguably influenced the approach to poetry of a number of twentieth-century poets, such as Francis Ponge, Wallace Stevens, Richard Wilbur, Rainer M. Rilke, and Henrikas Radauskas.[90] The famed Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote "All is a riddle, and the key to a riddle...is another riddle".[91]

Sub-Saharan Africa

Anthropological research in Africa has produced extensive collections of riddles over the last century or so.[92] Riddles have been characterised as "one of the most important forms of oral art in Africa";[93] Hamnett analyzes African riddling from an anthropological viewpoint;[94] Yoruba riddles have enjoyed a recent monograph study.[95]

In the Philippines

Quite similar to its English counterpart, the riddle in the Philippines is called Bugtong.[96] 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:

Bugtong-bugtong, Hindi hari, hindi pari
ang suot ay sari-sari.

Riddle-riddle, not a king, nor a priest,
but dresses for a feast.

—Sampayan Clothes line

Similarly, a bit south, in Sulawesi, Indonesia, among the Pendau, riddles are also used at funeral gatherings.[97]

In Tamil

In Tamil, riddles are called Vidukathai. They circulate in both folk and literary forms.[98]

Riddles are of type[99]

  • 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.[99] A sample riddle is given below.[100]

Polutu ponaal poontottam;
vitintu parttal, veruntottam. atu enna?

If the sun sets, a flower-garden;
but if you look at it after dawn, an empty garden. What is it?

—Vaanam —The sky


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.

It is important to understand that in many cultures or contexts, people are not actually expected to guess the answers to riddles: they may be told by the riddler, or learn riddles and their answers together as they grow up.[101] Thus riddle-contests are not the only or even necessarily the main forum for the expression of riddles.

The unsolvable riddle with which literary characters often win a riddle-contest is sometimes referred to as neck-riddle.

In real life

It seems that in ancient Greece, riddle-competitions were popular as an intellectual entertainment at symposia.[102] A key source for this culture is Athenaeus.[103]

Elaborate and unusual riddle-games took place in the culture of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Finnish-language riddles.[73] For example, Elias Lönnrot observed customary riddle-contests in nineteenth-century Finland:

It took place without teams, but was a kind of a contest: a member of the group would be sent out of the room, the others agreed on the riddle to be posed; for three failures to divine the answer, the riddlee would have to drop out of the game, to step aside, and to "buy" with a token the right to participate again.[92]

In ancient, medieval, and folk literature

In older texts, riddle-contests frequently provide the frame stories whereby riddles have been preserved for posterity. Such contests are a subset of wisdom contests more generally. They tend to fall into two groups: testing the wisdom of a king or other aristocrat; and testing the suitability of a suitor.

The earliest example of a wisdom contest between kings is the Sumerian epic Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta, from the first half of the second millennium BC, closely followed by the Egyptian The Quarrel of Apophis and Seqenenre, fragmentarily attested in a thirteenth-century BC papyrus about the Pharaoh Apophis and Seqenenre Tao. The Quarrel of Apophis and Segenenre is echoed in the later Tale of Setne Khamwas and Si-Osire, attested on papyrus in the Roman period, showing that this type of story continued to circulate in Egypt (but this later text does not involve riddles as such).[104] These Egyptian stories, probably via lost Greek material, seem to have been an inspiration for the account of a wisdom-contest between Pharaoh Amasis II and the king of Ethiopia, in which the sage Bias of Priene helps the Pharaoh by solving the riddles, in Plutarch's first- or second-century CE Convivium Septem Sapientium. At least one of Plutarch's sources was probably shared by the Aesop Romance, which originated around the fourth century BCE (chs 102-8, 111-23). The Aesop Romance also drew on similar stories of wisdom contests in various versions of the Story of Ahikar.[105]

Other early examples from the same region include various Hebrew stories of how the Queen of Sheba tests Solomon with riddles (including I Kings 10.1-13 and II Chronicles 9.1-12), and stories in both Hebrew and Phoenician about a riddle contest between Solomon and Hiram of Tyre. Buzurjmihr faces a wisdom-contest in the tenth-century Persian Shahnameh, while in an Arabic story about a character called Shimas, known both independently and from the Arabian Nights, there is also such a contest.[106] Another early example comes in the Indian Mahabharata, which took its attested shape in the course of the first millennium BC. For example, this portrays Yaksha Prashna, a series of riddles posed by a nature-spirit (yaksha) to Yudhishthira,[38] and, in the third book, the story of Ashtavakra, who answers the riddles posed King Janaka and then defeats one Bandin in a further wisdom-contest.[107] We owe almost all our surviving riddles in Old Norse to a section in the probably thirteenth-century Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks, where the god Óðinn challenges King Heiðrekr to answer his riddles.[108] This was influential on later literature: disguised, the god plays one such game in Richard Wagner's Siegfried.

Riddles are prominent in many versions of the originally late-Antique Greek novel Apollonius of Tyre, and test Apollonius's suitability to marry.[109] Ferdowsi's late tenth-century Persian epic, the Shahnameh, features a riddle-contest between Zal and Manuchehr, the emperor of Iran. 'The emperor was frightened and planned to get Zal out of the way. After his counselors advised him that Zal would become an unparalleled hero with a boundless love for Iran, the emperor accepted Zal and tested him with riddles. The themes are cosmological.'[110] Winning the riddle-contest is one of a number of steps for Zal to win the hand of Rudabeh. Chinese folk-stories also include tales featuring 'contests in which a poor man wins a rich or noble wife by solving a particularly difficult problem'.[111][112] The story of Turandot in One Thousand and One Nights, which was the inspiration for several modern plays, involves a riddle-contest:[109] 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". In the Grimm tale "The Peasant's Wise Daughter", a peasant-girl wins the king in marriage by solving a riddle he poses.[113]

In modern literature

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.[114]

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 Patricia A. McKillip's The Riddle-Master trilogy, the ancient art of riddlery is taught at the College of Caithnard – the study based on books recovered from the ruins of the School of Wizards. The riddles in the series are composed of three parts – the question, the answer, and the stricture – and are both a way of recording history and a guide to living life. Riddles play a crucial role in the series, the main protagonist, Morgon of Hed, beginning his journey by winning the crown of the kings of Aum in a Riddle Game with the ancient ghost of Peven of Aum; Peven had a standing wager going that no one could win a riddle-game with him, and those who lost against him forfeited their lives. "Beware the unanswered riddle."

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.

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.

See also

This article uses material from the Wikipedia article "Riddle", which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0. There is a list of all authors in Wikipedia

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