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The Power of Riddles

Updated on June 15, 2014
Oedipus and the Sphinx
Oedipus and the Sphinx | Source

“What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs in the noon, and three legs in the evening?”

This was the riddle posed to the Greek hero Oedipus by the sphinx. Many before him had failed to answer it, and their failure had cost them their lives.

But Oedipus would answer correctly: a man, who crawls on all fours as a baby, learns to walk on two legs as he grows, and in his twilight years requires the aid of a third leg in the form of a walking stick. The sphinx promptly threw itself to the ground and shattered, unable to stand up to the power of Greek intellect, which had once again proven itself superior to that of the foreign invader.

This serves as a classic example of the power of riddle games throughout mythology, especially when they take the form of life or death struggles. Two opponents testing each other with riddles resembles the thrusts and counter-thrusts of a duel between swordsmen, except their intellects are the blades. Riddle games therefore provided the means for a culture to demonstrate the intellectual superiority of its champions over those of its enemy.

Oedipus Slaying the Sphinx
Oedipus Slaying the Sphinx | Source

The riddle of the sphinx is the oldest recorded riddle in Greek culture, and evidence of riddles thousands of years old – some of which may have inspired games like Chess - have been discovered on the walls of temples in Tibet, China and Japan.

In many African traditions, boys had to correctly answer riddles as part of their initiation trials; and in the Philippines it was customary to tell riddles at funerals in order to alleviate the mournful nature of the event. Bards travelling Medieval Europe were sure to include the art of telling riddles in their repertoire; and while the word ‘wit’ may be associated with comedic ability, in Anglo-Saxon old English it actually meant 'wisdom'.

The Question is the Answer

Riddles are divided into 'conundrums' and 'enigmas', the former relying on pun (example: How do you know that birds in their little nests agree? Because else they would fall out), while the latter involves a description delivered in an accurate but unconventional way (example: Each morning I appear to lie at your feet, all day I follow no matter how fast you run, yet I nearly perish in the midday sun. A shadow)

A Riddle in Quodlibets by Robert Hayman
A Riddle in Quodlibets by Robert Hayman | Source

Although many heroes of myth and legend used riddles to demonstrate the power of their intellect, Ancient Greek philosophers were more interested in the value of riddles as a learning tool. Aristotle said that “well-constructed riddles are attractive (because) a new idea is conveyed, ... the thought is startling, and ... does not fit in with the ideas you already have. ... the effect produced ... is a surprise."

Robert Temple discusses the educational value of riddles in relation to those given by the Delphic Oracle. In his view, they played an important role in promoting the kind of intellectual thought that helped Ancient Greece rise to become one of the dominant cultures of the time. By providing its answers in the form of riddles, the Delphic Oracle encouraged radical thought, but it did so without challenging the treasured traditions of what was a highly conservative culture.

Temple provides an example in the advice given by the oracle to the Spartans. As reported by Ancient Greek historian Herodotus, the Oracle told the Spartans that they could only defeat the Tegeans if they brought back the bones of Orestes, which could be found in the place where "two winds by hard compulsion blow, and stroke answers to stroke, and woe lies upon woe”.

Sibylla Delphica
Sibylla Delphica | Source

A Spartan named Lichas supposedly discovered the bones in a Tegean smithy, where he saw the two bellows (two winds), the hammer and anvil (stroke answering stroke), and the iron being forged (woe lies upon woe, as iron is used to make weapons of destruction).

But more important than the answer itself was the fact that the normally militarily-focused state of Sparta was forced to engage in intellectual pursuits, and that the Delphic Oracle had brought about this revolution without challenging any sacred structures. In fact, by invoking the names of Orestes and Agamemnon - two figures of immense religious significance - it had used such structures to its advantage.

In another example, the people of Delos were told that Greece would be at peace if they “could double the altar at Delos”. But every time they tried to do that, they ended up with an altar that was 8 times larger, rather than twice as large, as they were doubling it on each side. They consulted Plato, who informed them that the true message of the Delphic Oracle was that they should study geometry.

So it's clear that the answer itself is not so important as the thought process required to obtain it. By encouraging us to think outside the box, riddles teach us to look deeper in order to discern true meaning, rather than simply accepting things as they appear.


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