Puzzle me this. . . .

Riddles' curious history

No one knows how the tradition of riddles started, but it's clear that people have been trying to stump each other with clever questions for ages.

The earliest recorded riddles come from the ancient Greeks and even the Bible. The Greeks believed priests and priestesses called "oracles" relayed divine messages. But when the gods had a message for someone, they'd send it through the oracles in the form of a hard-to-decipher riddle.

In the story of Samson in the Bible, Samson puts a riddle to guests at his wedding feast in Judges 14:12. (The answer is in verse 18.)

But the most famous ancient riddle comes from Greek mythology. It's the riddle posed to Oedipus by the Sphinx. (See riddle No. 1, below.)

During the Middle Ages, riddles evolved into a form of entertainment. Poets wrote riddles. The "Exeter Book," written probably in the 700s, is the most widely known riddle book from this period. Collections of riddles were among the first books printed for entertainment.

You'll find most riddles are in the form of verse. Here are a few from ancient times to nearly the present.

1. What goes on four legs in the morning light,

On two at noontide, and on three at night?

According to Greek myth, this is the riddle posed by the Sphinx to Oedipus, who guessed it correctly.

2. Four equal sisters equidistant run

As if they vied in strength and speed, but none

Gains on another, and their task is one.

Symphosius, who wrote a series of 100 Latin riddles in poetic form in the 4th or 5th century AD.

3. White bird featherless

Flew from Paradise,

Pitched on the castle wall;

Along came Lord Landless,

Took it up handless,

And rode away horseless to the king's white hall.

An old riddle; a Latin version of it was written on a 10th-century manuscript.

4. What is 10 men's length

And 10 men's strength,

And yet 10 men can never

Make it stand on its end?

From 'The Book of Merry Riddles,' by Michael Sparks, 1629.

5. Little Nanny Etticoat

In a white petticoat,

And a red nose;

The longer she stands

The shorter she grows.

Mother Goose, 18th century.

6. Thirty white horses upon a red hill,

Now they tramp, now they champ

Now they stand still.

Mother Goose.

7. A little wee man, in a red red coat!

A staff in his hand, and a stone in his throat;

If you'll tell me this riddle, I'll give you a groat.

Squirrel Nutkin in 'The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin,' by Beatrix Potter (1901).

8. Alive without breath,

As cold as death;

Never thirsty, ever drinking,

All in mail never clinking.

One of the riddles Gollum asks of Bilbo Baggins in J.R.R. Tolkien's 'The Hobbit' (1937).


These riddles have not one, but several solutions. The trick: The multiple answers to each riddle are homonyms - they all sound alike. For example, the answer to the first one here is 'weather, whether.' Can you guess the rest?

9. I'm the wind,

The rain, and the clime;

I'm the "if"

To make up your mind.

10. A way to whiff;

A word for "aware";

A call to negate

Or deny a dare.

11. To the sacred a path;

A land that floats still;

A way to say quickly -

"I will."

12. I'm one to go down,

I'm one to rise;

A gaze that is steady,

With unwavering eyes.

13. I'm where you sail;

I'm a consonant sound;

A word for "grab";

Or just looking around.

14. To "whoa" that horse;

What it may just pour;

A rule of few,

In the days of yore.

Nancy M. Kendall

ANSWERS: (1) man, who crawls as a baby, then walks upright, then walks with a cane; (2) the wheels of a cart; (3) the 'featherless bird' is snow, blown by the wind - 'Lord Landless'; (4) a rope; (5) a lit candle; (6) your teeth; (7) a cherry; (8) a fish;

(9) weather, whether; (10) nose, knows, noes; (11) aisle, isle, I'll; (12) stair, stare;

(13) seas, c's, seize, sees; (14) rein, rain, reign.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.