Read an Excerpt
Riddle Me This
A World Treasury of Word Puzzles, Folk Wisdom, and Literary Conundrums
By Phil Cousineau
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 1999 Phil Cousineau
All rights reserved.
What is it that walks with four legs in the morning, with two legs at midday, and with three legs when the sun has gone down?
Should you be wily enough to answer this curious question correctly, as Oedipus did when he was challenged by a strange creature on the road to ancient Thebes, you too will have solved one of the most confounding problems ever to face a wayward traveler. Dispatched by the gods to prevent travelers from reaching the city, the fabulous beast had perched herself on a cliff outside the city, and seized all who tried to pass by. Those who couldn't think quickly—or imaginatively—enough she hurled to their deaths, or devoured.
But Oedipus outwitted her.
"It is a human being," he answered calmly, "who crawls on all fours as a baby, walks upright on two legs in middle age, and in old age stumbles along with a cane."
The writers of old said the creature was so shamed by Oedipus' clever deduction that she hurled herself off the precipice. Who was this menacing creature, and what about her has haunted the world's imagination ever since? And what does her dramatic confrontation say about the enigmatic powers of the human imagination?
I am older than the pyramids.
I am the daughter of Titans.
I have the body of a lion, the wings of a bird, and the head and breasts of a woman.
I am more obscure than oracles, and more puzzling than gods.
I ask travelers questions that their lives depend on.
O wise one, weigh your words well and say what I am.
If you answered, the Sphinx, you have identified a character who has tantalized commentators for centuries, and you have begun to crack the mystery of the imagination. Many people have regarded the Sphinx's treatment of unfortunate wayfarers as merely the vengeance of the gods. But there is more than one way to read myths, which are sacred precisely because they reflect inexhaustible mysteries. Myth's power to stir the soul depends on each generation breathing new life into them, as the Egyptians did with the story of the Sphinx, which was already ancient when they immortalized her in stone along the banks of the Nile.
Forty centuries later, the monument still stares out at us over the desert sands, and her name is remembered for her challenges to travelers and for her time-devouring gaze that questions everything from here to eternity.
THE MOTHER WIT
I am as enchanting as a medieval spell, charming as a nursery rhyme, as challenging as a duel. I accompany you from cradle to grave, providing laughter for childhood, literary games for middle age, and wisdom tests for elders.
Guess my gnomic name, if you can.
Walk around these words I have cobbled together as you would walk around the sands that surround the Sphinx. Take a leap of imagination. Tease the answer out of its hiding place. Turn these words around like a whetstone in your mind, then turn to these, "When first I appear I seem mysterious, but when I am explained I am nothing serious." Sharpen your wit on these old English words; hone your sense of humor on them, and soon the playful subject of this book will be revealed to you as the noble riddle.
Described variously as enigmas, conundrums, puzzle poems, bafflers, charades, logogriphs, teasers, verbal jigsaws, queer words, and quiz questions, since olden times riddles have been posed to test people's wit and stretch their imaginations. Riddles reveal the prodigious imagination of our ancestors and throughout history have given a voice to those who were not commonly heard.
According to Webster's, a riddle is "a proposition put in obscure or ambiguous terms to puzzle or exercise the ingenuity in discovering its meaning; something to be solved by conjecture." The Dutch folklorist Jan Van Hunyard has written, "Folk riddles are traditional questions with unexpected answers, verbal puzzles that circulate, mostly by word of mouth, to demonstrate the cleverness of the questioner and challenge the wit of his audience." For French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, a riddle was "an overt question with a covert answer." My own favorite description is given by an old African American storyteller from the South, who drawled, "A riddle is what you guess up on."
In the spirit of conciseness, we can hazard a guess, so to speak, that riddles are simply ingenious questions in search of clever answers:
Guess a riddle now you must: Stone is fire, and fire is dust, Black is red, and red is white— Come and view the wondrous sight.
In other words, the genius of the Sphinx is in the way her question allows us to see the "lie that tells the truth," as Picasso once described the beauty of art, and as the traditional riddle from England just quoted tells us about coal. Consider also this old Turkish riddle: "It enters the forest and does not rustle" and its unexpected answer, the shadow. And this Spanish one: "A lazy old woman has a tooth in her crown, and with that tooth she gathers the people," with its clanging answer, a bell.
At first glance or hearing, a riddle may seem to be incomprehensible, but perhaps a more fruitful descriptor would be enigmatic (literally "a dark saying"); the solving of a riddle can bring light to the imagination. Part of the genius of riddles is the way they illustrate the perennial wisdom that things aren't always what they seem, and the manner in which they reveal the "genius," the vital life, in everything.
For at least six thousand years, the riddle was held in high esteem. But in modern times, it has unfortunately been relegated to the playgrounds of children and delegated to the research projects of folklorists. Unless disguised in the form of a detective story or mathematical mind-cruncher, for most modern adults riddles are, frankly, exasperating. The most honor the word riddle receives today is when it is used to express a respectably mysterious problem: "The Olmec Riddle," or "The Riddle of Time." However, a closer look reveals that riddles—true riddles—rank alongside myths, legends, fairy tales, maxims, and proverbs, as one of the earliest types of folk wisdom. From Borneo longhouses to Comanche tepees, from Anglo-Saxon mead halls to the huts of Laplander nomads, riddles have flourished as a way to pass the time—or question it. An even deeper look reveals that riddles were a favorite form of wordplay and brain teaser for many of the greatest minds in history, from Aristotle to Emily Dickinson, Leonardo da Vinci to James Joyce.
The source of riddles' charm remains similar from culture to culture, era to era. It begins at the beginning, with lullabies: "Twinkle, twinkle little star / How I wonder what you are...." My grandfather, Sydney England, my mother has long been fond of telling me, used to lull her to sleep each evening with a different set of riddles, ending with these lilting words: "Riddle, riddle, where are you? Riddle, riddle, I love you...."
Riddles thrive not only on wonder, but on sheer surprise. Imagine this one, if you will: "This girl, who has six legs and two arms, often prepares to go on a journey. She starts out with a bang, but still rocks ever pitching [like a ship] in the same place."
Our lives are literally riddled from the cradle (the answer to the Icelandic riddle quoted earlier), to the grave (the answer to this African one): "My house has no lamp." No wonder riddles have been called "the mother wit." They give birth to the child called "poetry," and the grandchild named "joy."
TO PROVE WITH HARD QUESTIONS
He happened to be the only child, But his father and mother are not known.
In this example from the Philippines, the riddle is the only child of unknown parents. She is a linguistic orphan, but her heritage can be discovered in the roots of her name. Riddle derives from the Old English word raedal, meaning "to give advice," and also shares the same root as the verb to read. Its secondary meaning, "a coarse-meshed sieve," has its origins in the Old English hriddel, "to sift," but is not unconnected. Uncannily, the riddle allows us to sift through false meanings looking for true ones. We also speak of being "riddled with doubt," suggesting we have "holes" in our convictions. In other words, we don't have all the answers.
In the proverbial nutshell, traditional folk riddles are quizzical questions with anonymous authors. The footprints of the oldest ones, such as the enigma of the Sphinx, have disappeared underneath the tides of time. We only know that they have been passed down for generations by word of mouth from the peasants and sages of every culture. Brahmen priests propounded riddles in the sacred pages of the Rig Veda, Mohammed posed them in the Koran. In the Old Testament, Josephus tells of the King of Tyre, Hiram, and wise Solomon, waging a riddle contest. In Kings I, when the Queen of Sheba "heard of the fame of Solomon ... she came to prove him with hard questions." In other words, to test his legendary wisdom. The Hebrew warrior Samson is chronicled in Judges 14 as staging a riddle party for the thirty Philistine guests, and posing this inscrutable riddle: "Out of eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness." The hero's opponents tricked the answer out of his bride: He ate honey out of a honeycomb in the carcass of a lion he had recently killed. The folklorist Charles Potter describes this challenge as a riddle strife, "one of those exciting tournaments of wit held in ancient times when men might bet their fortunes, wives, daughters, and even their lives on their cleverness in riddle guessing."
Eventually riddles were transcribed into many cultures' sacred texts, then into compilations for popular entertainment. The oldest collection is found in eighth-century Anglo-Saxon poetry. The Exeter Book, which contains ninety-five riddles, with poetry that still casts a spell, on subjects such as snow and swords. Later collections include a book of riddles called Amusing Questions, published in 1511 by a printer named Wynkyn de Worde. But listen closely: If his name is pronounced quickly—"winking of word"—you can hear a mellifluous metaphor for the riddle! Is the author telling us under an assumed name that riddles are a "winking of words"? Other collections include books with equally melodious titles such as Gnomologia and Aenigmata, which were among the first printed books. Riddles appear in the The Arabian Nights Entertainments, The Grimm Brothers Fairy Tales, The Mother Goose Rhymes, and in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Robert Graves described in The White Goddess how arcane religious secrets in ancient Britain were hidden in challenging riddles. Riddles appear in rituals, such as Druid initiations, African birth ceremonies, Filipino harvest festivals, and the Hawaiian hoopaapaa riddling contests designed to discover the worthiest of the chief's sons.
The riddlic tradition continued throughout the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci practiced drawing rebuses (pictorial riddles) and a series of "riddle songs," which were wordplays on the sounds of the names of musical notes. Shakespeare himself was fond of riddles. In A Midsummer's Night's Dream, Lysander "riddles very prettily," and Berowne describes love as "subtle as a riddle." Goethe, Swift, Cervantes, Coleridge, Austen, and Blake all practiced the perplexing art. The composers Puccini, Elgar, and Grieg wrote opera plots that hinged on riddles. In her poetry and letters, Emily Dickinson often used riddles to describe matters too subtle or forbidden during her time to be written any other way. Literary critics have described James Joyce's labyrinthine novel, Finnegans Wake, as one enormous riddle. The metaphor makes an appearance on the basketball court when Zen master-basketball coach Phil Jackson writes in Sacred Hoops, that "each game is a riddle that must be solved, and there are no textbook answers."
THE WHETSTONE OF WORDS
What goes round and round and round, but never gets anywhere?
"It is an excellent practice to rede riddles," reads an eleventh century Anglo-Saxon text. Illustrative of this belief is a nineteenth- century collection of riddles that was published under the title, "A Whetstone for Dull Wits," suggesting that riddles may sharpen our wits, as the above riddle for whetstone demonstrates.
To many cultures, the ritual of romantic courting entailed serious riddling contests. In 1783, Christfrid Ganander wrote of the tradition of the Old Goths, "Our ancestors in this kingdom tested with riddles the acuity, intelligence and skills of each other.... Also when a suitor or a young man came to ask for a girl, three or more riddles were posed to him, to test his mind with them, and if he could answer and interpret them, he received the girl, otherwise not, but was classified as stupid and good for nothing.... Lastly, one takes note that the young folks, boys and girls, test each other still at present with riddles in our province; it is shameful if the other cannot answer three riddles, and they then send [her] to the yard of shame...."
Until the nineteenth century, old men in Brittany were still ritualistically asking each other riddles in the cemetery after funeral banquets. "Riddling past the graveyard," you might say. As one commentator has written, during wakes in the Aru archipelago, while the corpse is being "uncoffined" or shown for mourning purposes, the deceased's survivors "propound riddles to each other." For tribes such as the Igorots of northern Luzon in the Philippines, the riddling that takes place during wakes is prearranged by the hosts, who partake in riddling, poetry, and cards "to get away from the drowsiness or sleepiness likely to overcome guests" and "kill the monotony of a night."
According to Charles Potter, cracking tough riddles at a ritual gathering may involve sympathetic magic thinking. For example, a wedding riddle may encourage a young couple to think they might similarly tackle and find the solution for many of the vexed problems of married life. "At any rate," writes Potter, "it would start them off in the atmosphere of accomplishment and the aura of success. For the hidden belief is that solving a riddle may help answer an enigma in one's life." True folk riddles possess quicksilver flashes of an ancient way of observing the world, and remind us of why riddles have long been "used by kings, judges, oracles, and others to test a person's wisdom or worthiness."
Potter recollects the childhood riddling sessions with his parents, which were, "mind-stretching, for the answer to each new riddle was not given to me until I had tried long and hard and turned the given situation every which way seeking the solution." Often, families cracked nuts while they tried to figure out the riddles, hence the origin of the term "cracking riddles." Catharine Ann McCollum writes in "Winter Evenings in Iowa" that pioneer families used to pose riddles to one another while carpet rags were being sewn and mended, and while the family did other work.
So much a part of life were riddles, according to Potter, that through the turn of the century most young children in the American South would have giggled at the obviousness of the following riddle:
I have an apple I can't cut, A blanket I can't fold, And so much money I can't count it.
The children would have been able to accomplish wonderful associative leaps to figure out the answer—Sun, sky, and stars (round apple, round sun; the blanketed sky; the richness of a sky full of stars)—because riddles had been passed down for generations, and it was customary to look and observe the ordinary world for correspondences and analogies, the "genius" of riddles.
Little Nancy Etticoat, in a white petticoat, and a red nose.
The longer she stands, the shorter she grows.
This traditional puzzler about a glowing candle demonstrates more than any theory how riddling combines beauty, mystery, and logic. Archer Taylor, the brilliant folklorist and world authority on riddles, believed that descriptive riddles such as this traditional English one, "describe objects in intentionally misleading terms—we can call it metaphor or group-language, if we like—and deal with externalities of the object. Humpty Dumpty tells of a man who rolls, falls, and is injured beyond being put together again. Little Nancy Etticoat describes a candle as a girl who becomes shorter the longer she lives. These descriptions are true enough but have nothing to do with the uses of an egg or candle. A child of ten or eleven years sees objects in this way and enjoys and remembers them. An adult no longer sees them in this way and no longer remembers riddles."
What is that which has never been felt,
Never been seen, never been heard,
And still has a name?
Excerpted from Riddle Me This by Phil Cousineau. Copyright © 1999 Phil Cousineau. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.