Puzzle Me This. . . . Riddles' Curious History

By Kristina Lanier and Nancy M. Kendall, writers of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, December 8, 1998 | Go to article overview

Puzzle Me This. . . . Riddles' Curious History


Kristina Lanier and Nancy M. Kendall, writers of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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