Definitions and research
EtymologyThe modern English word ''riddle'' shares its origin with the word ''read'', both stemming from the Proto-Germanic language, Common Germanic verb Linguistic reconstruction, *''rēdaną'', which meant 'to interpret, guess'. From this verb came the West Germanic languages, West Germanic noun *''rādislī'', literally meaning 'thing to be guessed, thing to be interpreted'. From this comes Dutch ''raadsel'', German ''Rätsel'', and Old English *''rǣdels'', the latter of which became modern English ''riddle''.
DefinitionsDefining riddles precisely is hard and has attracted a fair amount of scholarly debate. The first major modern attempt to define the riddle in modern Western scholarship was by Robert Petsch in 1899, with another seminal contribution, inspired by structuralism, by Robert A. Georges and Alan Dundes in 1963.Georges, Robert A.; Dundes, Alan. "Towards a Structural Definition of the Riddle", ''Journal of American Folklore'', 76(300) (1963), 111–18 , . Reprinted in Alan Dundes, ''Analytic Essays in Folklore'' (The Hague: Mouton, 1975), pp. 95–102. 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". There are many possible sub-sets of the riddle, including charades, droodles, and some Riddle joke, jokes. In some traditions and contexts, riddles may overlap with proverbs. For example, the Russian phrase "Nothing hurts it, but it groans all the time" can be deployed as a proverb (when its referent is a hypochondriac) or as a riddle (when its referent is a pig).
ResearchMuch academic research on riddles has focused on collecting, cataloguing, defining, and typologising riddles. Key work on cataloguing and typologising riddles was published by Antti Aarne in 1918–20,Antti Aarne, ''Vergleichende Rätselforschungen'', 3 vols, Folklore Fellows Communications, 26–28 (Helsinki/Hamina: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1918–20). and by Archer Taylor. In the case of ancient riddles recorded without solutions, considerable scholarly energy also goes into proposing and debating solutions. 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. However, wide-ranging studies of riddles have tended to be limited to Western countries, with Oriental and African riddles being relatively neglected. Riddles have also attracted linguists, often studying riddles from the point of view of semiotics; meanwhile, the twenty-first century has seen the rise of extensive work on medieval European riddles from the point of view of eco-criticism, exploring how riddles can inform us about people's conceptualisation and exploration of their environment.
International riddlesMany riddles appear in similar form across many countries, and often continents. Borrowing of riddles happens both on a local scale, and across great distances. Kofi Dorvlo gives an example of a riddle that has been borrowed from the Ewe language by speakers of the neighboring Logba language: "This woman has not been to the riverside for water, but there is water in her tank". The answer is "a coconut". On a much wider scale, the Riddle of the Sphinx has also been documented in the Marshall Islands, possibly carried there by Western contacts in the last two centuries. Key examples of internationally widespread riddles follow, based on the classic (European-focused) study by Antti Aarne.
Writing-riddleThe basic form of the writing-riddle is 'White field, black seeds', where the field is a page and the seeds are letters. An example is the eighth- or ninth-century Veronese Riddle: 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.Luke Powers, "Tests for True Wit: Jonathan Swift's Pen and Ink Riddles", ''South Central Review'', 7.4 (Winter 1990), 40–52; . .
Year-riddleThe year-riddle is found across Eurasia. 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).
Person-riddleThe most famous example of this type is the riddle of the Sphinx. This Estonian example shows the pattern: The riddle describes a crawling baby, a standing person, and an old person with a walking stick.
Two-legs, three-legs, and four-legsThis type includes riddles along the lines of this German example: 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 ham hock.
Cow-riddleAn example of the cow-riddle is given here in thirteenth-century Icelandic form: The cow has four teats, four legs, two horns, two back legs, and one tail.
Featherless bird-riddleThe featherless bird-riddle is best known in Central Europe. An English version is:
Riddle-traditions by regionThe 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. More recently, riddles have been collected from oral tradition by scholars in many parts of the world.
BabylonAccording 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.
South AsiaIt is thought that the world's earliest surviving poetic riddles survive in the Sanskrit ''Rigveda''. s:The Rig Veda/Mandala 1/Hymn 164, Hymn 164 of the Mandala 1, first book of the ''Rigveda'' can be understood to comprise a series of riddles or enigmas which are now obscure but may have been an enigmatic exposition of the Pravargya, pravargya ritual. These riddles overlap in significant part with a collection of forty-seven in the Atharvaveda; riddles also appear elsewhere in Vedas, Vedic texts. Taylor cited the following 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 (''śvā''), the third sun (''mitra''), and the whole is Vishvamitra, Rama's first teacher and counselor and a man noted for his outbursts of rage'. Accordingly, riddles are treated in early studies of Sanskrit poetry such as Daṇḍin's seventh- or eighth-century ''Kavyadarsha, Kāvyādarśa''. Early narrative literature also sometimes includes riddles, prominently the ''Mahabharata'', which for example contains the Yaksha Prashna, a series of riddles posed by a nature-spirit (''yaksha'') to Yudhishthira.Annikki Kaivola-Bregenhøj, ''Riddles: Perspectives on the Use, Function, and Change in a Folklore Genre'', Studia Fennica, Folkloristica, 10 (Helsinki: Finnish Literature Society, 2001), pp. 11–12; . The first riddle collection in a medieval Indic language is traditionally thought to be the riddles of Amir Khusrow (1253–1325), which are written in Hindustani language, Hindawi, in verse, in the mātrika metre. As of the 1970s, folklorists had not undertaken extensive collecting of riddles in India, but riddling was known to be thriving as a form of folk-literature, sometimes in verse. Riddles have also been collected in Tamil.
Hebrew, Arabic and PersianWhile 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.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. Sirach also mentions riddles as a popular dinner pastime, while the Aramaic ''Story of Ahikar'' contains a long section of proverbial wisdom that in some versions also contains riddles. Otherwise, riddles are sparse in ancient Semitic writing. In the medieval period, however, verse riddles, alongside other puzzles and conundra, became a significant literary form in the Arabic-speaking world, and accordingly in Islamic Persian culture and in Hebrew — particularly in Al-Andalus. 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''. Meanwhile, in Hebrew, Dunash ben Labrat (920–990), credited with transposing Arabic metres into Hebrew, composed a number of riddles, mostly apparently inspired by folk-riddles. Other Hebrew-writing exponents included Moses ibn Ezra, Yehuda Alharizi, Judah Halevi, Immanuel the Roman and Israel Onceneyra. 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 to resolve clues to letters and numbers to put together the word which is the riddle's solution. Riddles have been collected by modern scholars throughout the Arabic-speaking world.
GreekRiddles are known to have been popular in Greece in Hellenistic times, and possibly before; they were prominent among the entertainments and challenges presented at symposium, symposia.Frederick G. Naerebout and Kim Beerden, Gods Cannot Tell Lies': Riddling and Ancient Greek Divination", in ''The Muse at Play: Riddles and Wordplay in Greek and Latin Poetry'', ed. by Jan Kwapzt, David Petrain, and Mikolaj Szymanski (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2013), pp. 121–47 (p. 140). Oracles were also represented as speaking in often riddlic language. 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, probably put into its present form by Constantine Cephalas, working in the tenth century CE. Most surviving ancient Greek riddles are in verse. 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." 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.
Latin and romanceTwo Latin riddles are preserved as graffiti in the Basilica at Pompeii. The pre-eminent collection of ancient Latin riddles is a collection of 100 hexametrical riddles by Symphosius which were influential on later medieval Latin writers. The Berne Riddles, Bern Riddles, a collection of Latin riddles clearly modelled on Symphosius, were composed in the early seventh century by an unknown author, perhaps in northern Italy. Symphosius's collection also inspired a number of Anglo-Saxon riddles, Anglo-Saxon riddlers who wrote in Latin. 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. The perhaps eighth- or ninth-century Veronese Riddle is a key witness to the linguistic transition from Latin to Romance, but riddles are otherwise rare in medieval romance languages. However, in the early modern period, printed riddle collections were published in French, including the ''Adevineaux amoureux'' (printed in Bruges by Colard Mansion around 1479); and ''Demandes joyeuses en maniere de quolibets'', the basis for Wynkyn de Worde's 1511 ''Demaundes Joyous''.
The Germanic-speaking worldRiddles 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, they are not necessarily riddles in a strict sense. About 150 survive in Middle High German, mostly quoted in other literary contexts. Likewise, riddles are rare in Old Norse: almost all occur in one section of ''Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks'', in which the god Óðinn propounds around 37 riddles (depending on the manuscript). These riddles do, however, provide insights into Norse mythology, medieval Scandinavian social norms, and rarely attested poetic forms. By contrast, verse riddles were prominent in Anglo-Saxons, early medieval England, following the seminal composition of Riddles of Aldhelm, one hundred and one riddles by Aldhelm (c. 639–709), written in Latin and inspired by the fourth- or fifth-century Latin poet Symphosius. Aldhelm 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 main surviving collections of Old English verse. The riddles in this book vary in subject matter from ribald innuendo to theological sophistication. Three, Exeter Book Riddle 35 and De creatura, 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. While medieval records of Germanic-language riddles are patchy, 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. 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. This is one of the most famous riddles of that time: 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)". Likewise, early modern English-speakers published printed riddle collections, such as the 1598 ''Riddles of Heraclitus and Democritus'', which includes for example the following riddle:
The Celtic-speaking worldFew riddles are attested in medieval Celtic languages, though this depends on how narrowly a riddle is defined; some early medieval Welsh and Irish juridical texts have been read as being riddles. One undisputed riddle is attested in medieval Welsh language, Welsh, an elaborate text entitled 'Canu y Gwynt' ('song of the wind') in the fourteenth-century Book of Taliesin probably inspired by Latin riddles on the same theme. However, this record is supplemented by Latin material, apparently from a Brittonic languages, Brittonic cultural background in North Britain, about Lailoken: in a twelfth-century text, Lailoken poses three riddles to his captor King Meldred. The earliest riddles attested in Irish are generally held to be found in a short collection from the fifteenth-century Book of Fermoy. However, other forms of wisdom contest do occur in Irish literature, such as ''The Colloquy of the Two Sages'', first attested in twelfth-century manuscripts, and in one such contest, in ''Imthecht na Tromdaime'', first attested in the fifteenth century, at least one riddle is arguably posed. Even research on the post-medieval Celtic-speaking world has yielded a "comparatively meagre corpus".
The Finnic-speaking worldThe corpus of traditional riddles from the Finnic languages, 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; along with the attestation in some regions of an elaborate riddle-game.Leea Virtanen, "On the Function of Riddles", in ''Arvoitukset: Finnish Riddles'', ed. by Leea Virtanen, Annikki Kaivola-Bregenhøj and Aarre Nyman, Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, Toimituksia, 329 ([Helsinki]: Suomen Kirjallisuuden Seura, 1977), pp. 77–89 (at 80–82). Riddles provide some of the first surviving evidence for Finnish-language literature.
ChinaIn modern Chinese, the standard word for 'riddle' is ''mi'' (謎, literally "to bewilder"). Riddles are spoken of as having a ''mian'' (面, "surface", the question component of the riddle), and a ''di'' (底, "base", the answer component). Ancient Chinese terms for 'riddle' include ''yin'' (讔) and ''sou'' (廋), which both mean "hidden".Timothy Wai Keung Chan, 'A New Reading of an Early Medieval Riddle', ''T’oung Pao'', 99 (2013), 53–87 . Literary riddles in China first begin to be attested in significant numbers around the second century CE. The Chinese riddle-tradition makes much use of visual puns on Chinese characters. One example is the riddle "千 里 会 千 金"; these characters respectively mean 'thousand kilometre meet thousand gold'. #The first stage of solving the riddle is verbal: ##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). ##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). #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). The posing and solving of riddles has long been an important part of the Chinese Lantern Festival. China also contributed a distinctive kind of riddle known in English as the ''kōan'' (), developed as a teaching technique in Zen Buddhism in the Tang dynasty (618–907). In this tradition, the answer to the riddle is to be established through years of meditation, informed by Zen thought, as part of a process of seeking Enlightenment in Buddhism, enlightenment. In the twentieth century, thousands of riddles and similar enigmas have been collected, capitalising on the large number of homophones in Chinese. 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) * When you use it you throw it away, and when you do not use it you bring it back. (Anchor)
The PhilippinesQuite 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 language, 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. This is an example of a ''Tagalog language, Tagalog'' ''Bugtong'': Further south, in Sulawesi, Indonesia, among the Pendau language, Pendau, riddles are also used at funeral gatherings.
AfricaAnthropological research in Africa has produced extensive collections of riddles over the last century or so.Elli Köngäs Maranda, "Riddles and Riddling: An Introduction", ''The Journal of American Folklore'', 89 (1976), 127–37 (p. 128); ; . Riddles have been characterised as "one of the most important forms of oral art in Africa"; Hamnett analyzes African riddling from an anthropological viewpoint; Yoruba riddles have enjoyed a recent monograph study.
Native American traditionsRiddles in the Americas are of particular interest to scholarship because it was long thought that native American cultures had no autochthonous riddle traditions (as opposed to riddles inspired by European culture, as with the twenty-two Aztec riddles collected by Bernardino de Sahagún in the sixteenth century). If so, this would have suggested that riddles are not a universal art form. However, Hieronymus Lalemant gave a fairly detailed account of a riddle-contest among the Wyandot people, Huron around 1639 as part of a healing ritual.
Someone will say, "What I desire and what I am seeking is that which bears a lake within itself;" and by this is intended a pumpkin or calabash. Another will say, "What I ask for is seen in my eyes—it will be marked with various colors"; and because the same Huron word that signifies "eye" also signifies "glass bead", this is a clue to divine what he desires—namely, some kind of beads of this material, and of different colors.Accordingly, during the twentieth century, progressively more substantial collections of Native American riddles were made, including from the Alaskan Athabaskans (Ten'a) people in British Columbia; Amuzgo people in Central America; and Quechua people in South America. Thus, while data remains rather thin, it seems clear that riddling did exist in the Americas independently of European culture.
Colonial traditionsRiddles are found extensively in the settler-colonial cultures of the Americas. One form of riddle features in ''payada de contrapunto'' ("counterpoint payada"), a Rioplatense musical genre in which guitar players compete in a symbolic duel. Two guitar players challenge each other in song by asking a riddle-like question and/or answering the opponent's questions. This is performed through several successive rounds of witty exchanges which may include banter and even insults—typically with a humorous intent. The most famous literary example of counterpoint payada comes from Martín Fierro, Part 2, Song 30, verses 6233–6838.
Riddle-contestsThe 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. 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 lifeIt seems that in ancient Greece, riddle-competitions were popular as an intellectual entertainment at symposium, symposia. A key source for this culture is Athenaeus. Elaborate and unusual riddle-games took place in the culture of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Riddles (Finnic), Finnish-language riddles. 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.
In ancient, medieval, and folk literatureIn older texts, riddle-contests frequently provide the frame story, 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. Correspondingly, the Aarne–Thompson classification systems catalogue two main folktale-types including riddle-contests: AT 927, Outriddling the Judge, and AT 851, The Princess Who Can Not Solve the Riddle.
In modern literature* In J. R. R. Tolkien's novel ''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 One Ring, ring. Rather like in the Old Norse ''Heiðreks saga'', 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.Adam Roberts, ''The Riddles of the Hobbit'' (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). * 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*Droodles *Missing dollar riddle *Newspaper riddle *Oedipus_and_the_Sphinx#Subject_matter, Oedipus and the Sphinx *Rumpelstiltskin *Riddles (Anglo-Saxon) *Riddles (Arabic) *Riddles (Chinese) *Riddles (Finnic) *Riddles (Greek) *Riddles (Hebrew) *Riddles (Persian) *Riddle joke *Charades *Neck riddle *Dilemma story