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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 conundrums, which are questions relying for their effects on punning in either the question or the answer.


Riddles occur extensively in Old English poetry, and also in the Old Norse literature of the Ancient Edda and the skalds. 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 and maxims ca. 800 A.D and deposited in Exeter Cathedral in the eleventh century - the so-called Exeter Book, one of the most important collection of Old English manuscripts which has survived. The riddles in this book vary in significance from childish rhymes and ribald innuendo, to some particularly interesting insights into the pre-Christian thought world of our archaic 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. It seemed to me
a strange event when I heard of that wonder,
that a worm, a thief in darkness, should devour
the songs of men, glorious utterance
and a place of strong being. The thievish visitor
was no whit the wiser for swallowing the 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, his brilliant language
and its sturdy foundation. Not a whit the wiser
was he for having fattened himself on those words.

The answer called for by the poem is 'bookworm'. The meaning is metaphoric - the riddle expressing the skepticism of an oral culture in the face of a literacy revolution. 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 pre-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. The god Odin was a master of riddle lore, and sparred with several of his foes using contests of riddles. In the Vafthruthnismal, Odin defeats his foe by posing a question only he could possibly know the answer to.

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 (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."

The answer to this charade is "sea-man". Another, composed by Miranda Plowsworth herself, is this:

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.

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

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 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.

Poetic form

On the Indian subcontinent, Amir Khusro made the poetic riddles popular. 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".

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, particularly Scandinavian, as well as in popular literature.

In Norse mythology, the king of the gods, Odin, won such a contest by the questionable tactic of asking a question to which only he could know the answer. However, as his adversary accepts such a question, he is bound to honor the terms of the game. In his Wanderer guise, the god plays ons such game in Richard Wagner's Siegfried.

In J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, Gollum challenges Bilbo Baggins to a riddle competition; Bilbo wins the competition by asking the riddle, "What have I got in my pocket?" (though he notes that it was not exactly a riddle "according to the ancient rules") which Gollum cannot answer. The answer was the One Ring, which Gollum had lost and Bilbo had found. As happens in the Norse tale, although this is 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 the video game, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, the player character can become trapped inside of a Rakatan mind trap in which he or she must engage in a riddle game with the trap's prisoner to escape safely.

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'.

Modern television

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 the kind of simple riddles as described below, but modern treatments generally prefer to have the character use more sophisticated puzzles.

Contemporary riddles

Contemporary riddles typically use puns and double entendres for humorous effect, rather than to puzzle the butt of the joke, as in:

When is a door not a door?
:When it's ajar (a jar).

What's black and white and red (read) all over?
:A newspaper.

What's brown and sounds like a bell?
(Repeated in an episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus)

What's brown and sticky?
:A stick.

Why is six afraid of seven?
:Because seven ate (eight) nine.

What is yours but your friend uses more than you do?
:Your name.

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 pronouced similar to the English words "Cat"and "Sank", hence the pun being the cat sank while also counting to 5 in French.

In other cultures

Quite similar to its English counterpart, riddle in the Philippinesmarker 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

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


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

::-Clothes line

See also

External links

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