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What is a Riddle?

Updated on August 23, 2010
Image by Chris Baker
Image by Chris Baker

A riddle a puzzling question or statement to which the solution is not immediately apparent. Riddles are usually intended to test the wit or ingenuity of the listener or reader. They provide amusement, but they can be used for more serious purposes, such as instruction. When the answer to a riddle involves a pun or a play on words, the riddle is called a conundrum. When the meaning of a riddle is obscure or allegorical, the riddle is called an enigma.

Riddles are common to the folklore of many nations and are of ancient origin. The earliest-known riddles are found in Babylonian school texts. A famous example of an ancient riddle appears in the story of Samson in the Old Testament. Samson once killed a lion and left the carcass. When he returned to it later, he found a swarm of bees and their honey inside the body. He ate the honey and posed this riddle about the incident to the guests at his marriage feast: "Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness." When the guests solved the riddle correctly, Samson knew that his wife had betrayed him by giving them the answer.

Riddles also figure prominently in the mythology of the ancient Greeks. One of the best known of these is the one asked by the Sphinx, a winged monster that came to the Greek city of Thebes and killed passersby who failed to answer her correctly. The Sphinx asked, "What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening?" The hero Oedipus was the only person able to solve the riddle. He answered: "Man, who crawls as an infant, walks in his prime, and leans on a staff when old."

In the Middle Ages, solving riddles was a popular form of amusement. A collection of medieval verse riddles written in Old English is contained in the Exeter Book of the 11th century. These riddles are unique for their vivid descriptions of early English life and customs. Riddles are still highly popular. A typical modern conundrum is the riddle, "When is a door not a door?" The answer is, "When it is ajar." Still well known is this version of an old Elizabethan riddle about teeth:

Thirty white horses upon a red hill, Now they champ, now they stamp, Now they stand still.

Cynical humor may also be reflected in riddles, as in the Latin American example, "In what month do women talk the least?" The answer is, "In February."

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