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Riddles (Part One)


By Jessie

I’ve been thinking lately about why we do puzzles, why do we put ourselves through the (sometimes slightly masochistic if we’re talking cryptics) process at all?

To relieve boredom? To demonstrate our mental prowess? The author David Thoreau believed that humans require mystery as a component of life. Aristotle thought that we become addicted to the mental catharsis - or relief - we derive from de-coding a tricky brainteaser.

After a bit of reading and Googling it fast became apparent that puzzles – and specifically riddles – have played an important role in history, both real and mythological. And the stories are epic!

As legend has it, the very first ‘intelligence test’ was a riddle – the Riddle of the Sphinx.

In ancient mythology, the Sphinx was a monster with the head and breasts of a woman, the body of a lion and the wings of a bird. Lying crouched beside the gates of the Greek city of Thebes, the formidable Sphinx would order all those who dared enter the city to answer the following riddle:

Which creature in the morning goes on four legs, at mid-day on two, and in the evening upon three, and the more legs it has, the weaker it be?

The Sphinx would mercilessly kill and devour any traveler who failed to give the correct answer.

Oedipus eventually came along to solve this riddle, answering: Man, who crawls on four limbs as a baby, walks upright on two as an adult, and uses a walking stick in old age.

Defeated, the Sphinx jumped from its perch at the gates of Thebes to a rock outside the city, transforming into a lifeless statue.

In the biblical story of Samson, a riddle becomes an instrument of carnage and doom.

Against the wishes of his Israelite family Samson fell in love with a Philistine woman from Tinmah. During their wedding feast, Samson posed the following riddle to his thirty groomsmen, with the proviso that he would give them thirty pieces of fine linen and garments if they could solve it:

Out of the eater, something to eat; out of the strong, something sweet.

The Philistines had seven days to come up with the answer: a swarm of bees making honey in the carcass of a lion. (Samson had witnessed this on the way to his marriage, and even eaten some of the honey.)

The Philistines – however intellectually incapable Samson thought them to be – used this time productively to threaten his new bride, eventually extracting the solution from her.

On the seventh day the thirty groomsmen delivered their answer: What is sweeter than honey? And what is stronger than a lion? Samson was stunned and replied “If you had not plowed my heifer you would not have solved my riddle”, then – enraged – killed thirty random Philistines who were unfortunately loitering nearby for their garments which he gave to the groomsmen.

Much drama, war and violence then ensues which eventually culminates in Samson’s own destruction.

Because of a riddle!

It is said that the venerable author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, the ancient Greek poet Homer also became a victim of wordplay.

While visiting the Cycladic island of Ios, the following riddle was put to him by a group of fishermen’s children:

What we caught, we threw away. What we could not catch, we kept.

The answer (FLEAS) so eluded Homer that he is said to have died of vexation not long after.

The tenth century Book of Exeter is a relic of astonishing importance – containing as it does virtually the entire collection of Old English poetry we know today. More interestingly, it also includes an impressive collection of riddles. Often eyebrow-raisingly ribald in nature, featuring explicit double entendres, the answers to the 95 Riddles have been debated by scholars for centuries, but the final entry in the book, Riddle 91, has never been solved:

I am noble, known to rest in the quiet
Keeping of many men, humble and high born.
The plunderers’ joy, hauled far from friends,
Rides richly on me, shines signifying power,
Whether I proclaim the grandeur of halls,
The wealth of cities, or the glory of God.
Now wise men love most my strange way
Of offering wisdom to many without voice.
Though the children of earth eagerly seek
To trace my trail, sometimes my tracks are dim.

The great minds can’t solve it – can you?

Jessie x

NEXT TIME: We look at 19th Century charades and the riddles of Lewis Carroll

13 Responses to

Riddles (Part One)

kragzy said:
July 13, 2011 at 10:17 AM

Well, with foolish temerity, I will offer an idea. No doubt the "great minds" have thought of it before and dismissed it, but perhaps it may get some other suggestions going. THE OCEAN seems to fit at least some parts of the riddle. I'm looking forward to contributions from others.

July 13, 2011 at 10:22 AM

Great suggestion kragzy. My thought was maybe the FULL MOON? What do others think?

nanny24 said:
July 13, 2011 at 11:07 AM

My thought is that it may be a RAINBOW.

July 13, 2011 at 6:48 PM

The Christian cross?

no1llama said:
July 13, 2011 at 11:51 PM

I thought of things like Budda or Jesus, but then decided I liked the idea of the answer being HISTORY or THE PAST, whichever you prefer. We might wish we had a time machine, but I think most of us look to our past and the lives of our forefathers for knowledge. We also carry our memories of our friends where ever we go, our pasts make us who we are, but then, is our past always noble? So maybe, it's common sense? Or respect? Hmm, this might keep me awake for a while now. Thankyou!

forterox said:
July 14, 2011 at 9:48 AM

KRAGZY, it fits. But I'm not offering my answer to the Sphinx just yet...

EileenD said:
July 14, 2011 at 5:13 PM

We think it might be something like a thought or an idea, or, our favourite, imagination.

barneyb said:
July 14, 2011 at 9:05 PM

*Whoosh* straight over my head lol. But its really interesting to see what sort of answers people come up with. Admittedly, riddles are not my strong point and when I see the answers, Im like "oh yeah, I get it, that makes sense". Thanks for a great read Jessie. :)

July 14, 2011 at 10:29 PM

I wonder if they considered the possibility of something like stained glass? It adorns the right places, creates wonder, imparts wisdom and has been subject to plunderers after the lead. I'm sure children would love to trace the reflections it casts. It is bound to be something more ethereal but we'll never know....all the more of a puzzle.

relle said:
July 14, 2011 at 10:31 PM

Could it be the stars?

July 15, 2011 at 1:06 AM

stagefright since its criptic for the sag as one of the wise men and since iit was dark and dim and got a fright.......

isabelita said:
July 17, 2011 at 9:40 PM

could be the earth?

b0ad1cea said:
July 19, 2011 at 10:42 PM

Intelligence? education? democracy? I think it is something that is politically involved. It's whole being is people-centred. The biggest clues is surely the lines about the love of wise men and people without voice. Nice to know that everybody can count themselve right!