A riddle is a statement
Statement may refer to:* A kind of expression in language *Statement , declarative sentence that is either true or false*Statement , the smallest standalone element of an imperative programming language...

 or question
A question may be either a linguistic expression used to make a request for information, or else the request itself made by such an expression. This information may be provided with an answer....

 or phrase
In everyday speech, a phrase may refer to any group of words. In linguistics, a phrase is a group of words which form a constituent and so function as a single unit in the syntax of a sentence. A phrase is lower on the grammatical hierarchy than a clause....

 having a double or veiled meaning, put forth as a puzzle
A puzzle is a problem or enigma that tests the ingenuity of the solver. In a basic puzzle, one is intended to put together pieces in a logical way in order to come up with the desired solution...

 to be solved. Riddles are of two types: enigmas, which are problems generally expressed in metaphor
A metaphor is a literary figure of speech that uses an image, story or tangible thing to represent a less tangible thing or some intangible quality or idea; e.g., "Her eyes were glistening jewels." Metaphor may also be used for any rhetorical figures of speech that achieve their effects via...

ical or allegorical
Allegory is a demonstrative form of representation explaining meaning other than the words that are spoken. Allegory communicates its message by means of symbolic figures, actions or symbolic representation...

 language that require ingenuity and careful thinking for their solution, and conundrums, which are questions relying for their effects on punning in either the question or the answer.


Riddles occur extensively in Old English poetry, drawing partly on an Anglo-Latin literary tradition whose principle exponent was Aldhelm (c. 639-709), himself inspired by the fourth- or fifth-century Latin poet Symphosius
Symphosius was the author of the Aenigmata, a collection of 100 Latin riddles of uncertain date...

. Riddles thus have a distinguished literary ancestry, although the contemporary sort of conundrum that passes under the name of "riddle" may not make this obvious. In the Anglo-Saxon
Anglosphere is a neologism which refers to those nations with English as the most common language. The term can be used more specifically to refer to those nations which share certain characteristics within their cultures based on a linguistic heritage, through being former British colonies...

 world, the wis had wisdom due to their wit – their ability to conciliate and mediate by maintaining multiple perspectives, which has degenerated into a species of comedy, but was not always a mere laughing matter. This wit was taught with a form of oral tradition called the riddle, a collection of which were bound, along with various other gnomic verses, poems and maxims in the tenth century and deposited in Exeter Cathedral in the eleventh century - the so-called Exeter Book
Exeter Book
The Exeter Book, Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501, also known as the Codex Exoniensis, is a tenth-century book or codex which is an anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry. It is one of the four major Anglo-Saxon literature codices. The book was donated to the library of Exeter Cathedral by Leofric, the...

, one of the most important surviving collections of Old English manuscripts. The riddles in this book vary in significance from childish rhymes and ribald innuendo, to some particularly interesting insights into the thought world of our archaic linguistic ancestors, such as the following (Riddle 47 from the Exeter Book):
Original Formal equivalence
Dynamic and formal equivalence
In Bible translation dynamic equivalence and formal equivalence are two approaches to translation. The terms are not found in general linguistics or translation theory but were coined by Eugene Nida...

Moððe word fræt. Me þæt þuhte
wrætlicu wyrd, þa ic þæt wundor gefrægn,
þæt se wyrm forswealg wera gied sumes,
þeof in þystro, þrymfæstne cwide
ond þæs strangan staþol. Stælgiest ne wæs
wihte þy gleawra, þe he þam wordum swealg.
A moth ate words. To me that seemed
a fantastical event, when I found that wonder out,
that a worm swallowed certain of men’s word,
a thief in darkness, a glorious statement
and strong its foundation. The thieving stranger was not
a whit more wise that he swallowed those words.
A moth ate words. I thought that was a marvelous fate,
that the worm, a thief in the dark, should eat
a man's words - a brilliant statement
and its foundation is strong. Not a whit the wiser
was he for having fattened himself on those words.

An answer, however, is not implied by the poem, though it is in this sense unlike most of its era; the riddle is instead an elaborate pun, and philosophizes on the subject of language and its virtues. The general technique of the riddle form is to refer obliquely to the subject by kenning
A kenning is a type of literary trope, specifically circumlocution, in the form of a compound that employs figurative language in place of a more concrete single-word noun. Kennings are strongly associated with Old Norse and later Icelandic and Anglo-Saxon poetry...

 and other sorts of figurative language; since kennings formed such an important element of alliterative verse
Alliterative verse
In prosody, alliterative verse is a form of verse that uses alliteration as the principal structuring device to unify lines of poetry, as opposed to other devices such as rhyme. The most commonly studied traditions of alliterative verse are those found in the oldest literature of many Germanic...

 forms in the Germanic languages
Germanic languages
The Germanic languages constitute a sub-branch of the Indo-European language family. The common ancestor of all of the languages in this branch is called Proto-Germanic , which was spoken in approximately the mid-1st millennium BC in Iron Age northern Europe...

, the riddles served the dual empirical purpose of puzzling the poet's audience and teaching the lore needed to successfully use or understand the poetic language. But riddles also served a more abstract role in Anglo-Saxon education, for they taught their listeners how to track two (or more) meanings at once in a single semantic situation, and a fortiori their very existence demonstrates that the Christian Anglo-Saxons were not inhabiting a thought-world lacking in subtlety and complexity. There are at least eighteen distinct Anglo-Saxon words describing aspects of cognitive skill [frod, ferð, onhæle, degol, cunnan, dyrne, hyge, hygecraft, hylest, heort, þencan, gleaw, sceolon, giedd, mod, sawol, heofodgimme, wis, snot(t)or, wat, swican - the list could be extended], a fact which attests to a culture valuing cognitive skills, albeit in an oral and not literate context.

Old Norse literature, though closely connected with Anglo-Saxon literature, attests to few riddles: almost all occur in one section of Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks. However, Norse mythology
Norse mythology
Norse mythology, a subset of Germanic mythology, is the overall term for the myths, legends and beliefs about supernatural beings of Norse pagans. It flourished prior to the Christianization of Scandinavia, during the Early Middle Ages, and passed into Nordic folklore, with some aspects surviving...

 attests to a number of wisdom-contests, usually involving the god
God is the English name given to a singular being in theistic and deistic religions who is either the sole deity in monotheism, or a single deity in polytheism....

Odin is a major god in Norse mythology and the ruler of Asgard. Homologous with the Anglo-Saxon "Wōden" and the Old High German "Wotan", the name is descended from Proto-Germanic "*Wodanaz" or "*Wōđanaz"....


But riddles were not exclusive to the Anglo-Saxons and Old Norse; they are an ancient and ubiquitous cultural phenomenon. Oedipus
Oedipus was a mythical Greek king of Thebes. He fulfilled a prophecy that said he would kill his father and marry his mother, and thus brought disaster on his city and family...

 killed the Sphinx
A sphinx is a mythical creature with a lion's body and a human head or a cat head.The sphinx, in Greek tradition, has the haunches of a lion, the wings of a great bird, and the face of a woman. She is mythicised as treacherous and merciless...

 by grasping the answer to the riddle it posed (Oedipus Tyrannus, lines 380 onward); Samson
Samson, Shimshon ; Shamshoun or Sampson is the third to last of the Judges of the ancient Israelites mentioned in the Tanakh ....

 outwitted the Philistines
Philistines , Pleshet or Peleset, were a people who occupied the southern coast of Canaan at the beginning of the Iron Age . According to the Bible, they ruled the five city-states of Gaza, Askelon, Ashdod, Ekron and Gath, from the Wadi Gaza in the south to the Yarqon River in the north, but with...

 by posing a riddle about the lion and the beehive (Judges 14:5-18). In both cases, riddles, far from being mere child’s play, are made to decide matters of life and death. Although Plato
Plato , was a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, student of Socrates, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with his mentor, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle, Plato helped to lay the...

 reports that ancient Greek children did indeed engage in riddle play (Republic 479c), he also recognized the important function that riddles can play in showing what cannot literally be said about ultimate truths (Letters, book 2, 312d), as does the Hebraic Book of Proverbs
Book of Proverbs
The Book of Proverbs , commonly referred to simply as Proverbs, is a book of the Hebrew Bible.The original Hebrew title of the book of Proverbs is "Míshlê Shlomoh" . When translated into Greek and Latin, the title took on different forms. In the Greek Septuagint the title became "paroimai paroimiae"...

 which shows "how to understand a proverb and a figure, the words of the wise and their riddles" (Proverbs 1:5-6). Aristotle
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology...

 considered riddles important enough to include discussion of their use in his Rhetoric. He describes the close relationship between riddles and metaphors: “Good riddles do, in general, provide us with satisfactory metaphors; for metaphors imply riddles, and therefore a good riddle can furnish a good metaphor” (1405b4-6). Archer Taylor says in his book English Riddles from Oral Tradition “we can probably say that riddling is a universal art” and cites riddles from hundreds of different cultures including Finnish, Hungarian, American Indian, Chinese, Russian, Dutch and Filipino sources amongst many others. Hamnett analyzes African riddling from an anthropological viewpoint in his article “Ambiguity Classification and Change: the Function of Riddles” [Man 2(1967)pp. 379–391]. Scott analyzes Persian and Arabic riddles in “On Defining the Problem of a Structural Unit” [Genre 2(1969)pp. 129–142]. Athenaeus of Naucratis (fl. C. 200 AD) compiled a copious anthology of ancient Greek riddles citing some 1,250 authors under the title Epitome.


"My first, tho’ water, cures no thirst,
My next alone has soul,
And when he lives upon my first,
He then is called my whole."

The answer to this charade is "sea-man". Another, composed by Miranda Plowsworth, is this:
When my first is a task to a young girl of spirit,
And my second confines her to finish the piece,
How hard is her fate! but how great is her merit
If by taking my whole she effects her release!

The answer is "hem-lock".

This form of charade appeared in magazines, books, and on the folding fans of the Regency. The answers were sometimes printed on the reverse of the fan, suggesting that they were a flirting device, used by a young woman to tease her beau.

Later examples omitted direct references to individual syllables, such as the following, said to be a favorite of Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt was the 26th President of the United States . He is noted for his exuberant personality, range of interests and achievements, and his leadership of the Progressive Movement, as well as his "cowboy" persona and robust masculinity...

I talk, but I do not speak my mind
I hear words, but I do not listen to thoughts
When I wake, all see me
When I sleep, all hear me
Many heads are on my shoulders
Many hands are at my feet
The strongest steel cannot break my visage
But the softest whisper can destroy me

The answer is "an actor".

The name "charades" gradually became more popularly used to refer to acted charades
Charades or charade is a word guessing game. In the form most played today, it is an acting game in which one player acts out a word or phrase, often by pantomiming similar-sounding words, and the other players guess the word or phrase. The idea is to use physical rather than verbal language to...

. Examples of the acted charades are described in William Thackeray's Vanity Fair and in Charlotte Brontë
Charlotte Brontë
Charlotte Brontë was an English novelist and poet, the eldest of the three Brontë sisters who survived into adulthood, whose novels are English literature standards...

's Jane Eyre
Jane Eyre
Jane Eyre is a novel by English writer Charlotte Brontë. It was published in London, England, in 1847 by Smith, Elder & Co. with the title Jane Eyre. An Autobiography under the pen name "Currer Bell." The first American edition was released the following year by Harper & Brothers of New York...


Poetic form

On the Indian subcontinent
Indian subcontinent
The Indian subcontinent, also Indian Subcontinent, Indo-Pak Subcontinent or South Asian Subcontinent is a region of the Asian continent on the Indian tectonic plate from the Hindu Kush or Hindu Koh, Himalayas and including the Kuen Lun and Karakoram ranges, forming a land mass which extends...

, Amir Khusro
Amir Khusro
Ab'ul Hasan Yamīn ud-Dīn Khusrow , better known as Amīr Khusrow Dehlawī , was an Indian musician, scholar and poet. He was an iconic figure in the cultural history of the Indian subcontinent...

 made the poetic riddles popular. An example:
(In Hindi
Standard Hindi, or more precisely Modern Standard Hindi, also known as Manak Hindi , High Hindi, Nagari Hindi, and Literary Hindi, is a standardized and sanskritized register of the Hindustani language derived from the Khariboli dialect of Delhi...

Nar naari kehlaati hai,
aur bin warsha jal jati hai;
Purkh say aaway purkh mein jaai,
na di kisi nay boojh bataai.

English translation
Is known by both masculine and feminine names,
And burns up without rain;
Originates from a man and goes into a man,
But no one has been able to guess what it is.

The highlight here is nadi, or "river".

Riddles as a game

The Riddle Game is a formalized guessing game
Guessing game
A guessing game is a game in which the object is to guess some kind of information, such as a word, a phrase, a title, or the location of an object.Many of the games are played co-operatively...

, a contest of wit and skill in which players take turns asking riddles. The player that cannot answer loses. Riddle games occur frequently in mythology
The term mythology can refer either to the study of myths, or to a body or collection of myths. As examples, comparative mythology is the study of connections between myths from different cultures, whereas Greek mythology is the body of myths from ancient Greece...

 and folklore
Folklore consists of legends, music, oral history, proverbs, jokes, popular beliefs, fairy tales and customs that are the traditions of a culture, subculture, or group. It is also the set of practices through which those expressive genres are shared. The study of folklore is sometimes called...

 as well as in popular literature. One prominent literary account of a riddle-game, drawing on a wider literary tradition of mythological wisdom-contests, occurs in the Old Norse
Old Norse
Old Norse is a North Germanic language that was spoken by inhabitants of Scandinavia and inhabitants of their overseas settlements during the Viking Age, until about 1300....

 Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks, where the god Odin
Odin is a major god in Norse mythology and the ruler of Asgard. Homologous with the Anglo-Saxon "Wōden" and the Old High German "Wotan", the name is descended from Proto-Germanic "*Wodanaz" or "*Wōđanaz"....

 challenges King Heidrek to answer his riddles. This was influential on later literature: disguised, the god plays one such game in Richard Wagner
Richard Wagner
Wilhelm Richard Wagner was a German composer, conductor, theatre director, philosopher, music theorist, poet, essayist and writer primarily known for his operas...

's Siegfried
Siegfried (opera)
Siegfried is the third of the four operas that constitute Der Ring des Nibelungen , by Richard Wagner. It received its premiere at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus on 16 August 1876, as part of the first complete performance of The Ring...

. In J. R. R. Tolkien
J. R. R. Tolkien
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, CBE was an English writer, poet, philologist, and university professor, best known as the author of the classic high fantasy works The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion.Tolkien was Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College,...

's The Hobbit
The Hobbit
The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, better known by its abbreviated title The Hobbit, is a fantasy novel and children's book by J. R. R. Tolkien. It was published on 21 September 1937 to wide critical acclaim, being nominated for the Carnegie Medal and awarded a prize from the New York Herald...

Gollum is a fictional character from J. R. R. Tolkien's legendarium. He was introduced in the author's fantasy novel The Hobbit, and became an important supporting character in its sequel, The Lord of the Rings....

 challenges Bilbo Baggins
Bilbo Baggins
Bilbo Baggins is the protagonist and titular character of The Hobbit and a supporting character in The Lord of the Rings, two of the most well-known of J. R. R...

 to a riddle competition for his life. Bilbo breaks "the ancient rules" of the game but is able to escape with Gollum's magic ring
One Ring
The One Ring is a fictional artifact that appears as the central plot element in J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth fantasy novels. It is described in an earlier story, The Hobbit , as a magic ring of invisibility. The sequel The Lord of the Rings describes its powers as being more encompassing than...

. As happens in the Norse tale, although this is more of a simple question than a riddle, by attempting to answer it rather than challenging it Gollum accepted it as a riddle; by accepting it, his loss was binding.

In The Grey King
The Grey King
The Grey King is a children's fantasy novel by British author Susan Cooper, which was awarded the Newbery Medal for excellence in U.S. children's literature in 1976. It is the fourth of five stories in her young adult Arthurian fantasy cycle, The Dark Is Rising...

, the third book of Susan Cooper
Susan Cooper
Susan Mary Cooper is an English author best known for The Dark Is Rising, an award-winning five-volume saga set in and around England and Wales. The books incorporate traditional British mythology, such as Arthurian and other Welsh elements with original material ; these books were adapted into a...

's fantasy sequence The Dark is Rising, Will and Bran must win a riddle game in order for Bran to claim his heritage as the Pendragon.

In Stephen King
Stephen King
Stephen Edwin King is an American author of contemporary horror, suspense, science fiction and fantasy fiction. His books have sold more than 350 million copies and have been adapted into a number of feature films, television movies and comic books...

's The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands and The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass, the ka-tet must riddle against Blaine the Mono in order to save their lives. At first Blaine can answer all riddles posed to him by the ka-tet easily, but then Eddie Dean, one of the ka-tet, gains the upper hand when he starts to ask "joke riddles", effectively frustrating Blaine's highly logical mind.

A Riddle Game plays a key role in various versions of Turandot
Turandot is an opera in three acts by Giacomo Puccini, set to a libretto in Italian by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni.Though Puccini's first interest in the subject was based on his reading of Friedrich Schiller's adaptation of the play, his work is most nearly based on the earlier text Turandot...

. The suitors need to answer all three questions to gain the Princess's hand, or else they are beheaded - In Puccini's opera Turandot grimly warns Calaf 'The riddles are three, but Death is one'.

Modern television

In the Batman
Batman is a fictional character created by the artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger. A comic book superhero, Batman first appeared in Detective Comics #27 , and since then has appeared primarily in publications by DC Comics...

 comic book
Comic book
A comic book or comicbook is a magazine made up of comics, narrative artwork in the form of separate panels that represent individual scenes, often accompanied by dialog as well as including...

s, one of the hero's best known enemies is The Riddler who is personally compelled to supply clues about his upcoming crimes to his enemies in the form of riddles and puzzles. Stereotypically, they are the kind of simple riddles as described below, but modern treatments generally prefer to have the character use more sophisticated puzzles.

Contemporary riddles

Contemporary riddles typically use pun
The pun, also called paronomasia, is a form of word play which suggests two or more meanings, by exploiting multiple meanings of words, or of similar-sounding words, for an intended humorous or rhetorical effect. These ambiguities can arise from the intentional use and abuse of homophonic,...

s and double entendre
Double entendre
A double entendre or adianoeta is a figure of speech in which a spoken phrase is devised to be understood in either of two ways. Often the first meaning is straightforward, while the second meaning is less so: often risqué or ironic....

s for humorous effect, rather than to puzzle the butt of the joke
A joke is a phrase or a paragraph with a humorous twist. It can be in many different forms, such as a question or short story. To achieve this end, jokes may employ irony, sarcasm, word play and other devices...

, as in:
When is a door not a door?
When it's ajar (a jar).

What's black and white and red (read) all over?
A newspaper.

What's brown and sounds like a bell?

(Repeated in an episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus
Monty Python's Flying Circus
Monty Python’s Flying Circus is a BBC TV sketch comedy series. The shows were composed of surreality, risqué or innuendo-laden humour, sight gags and observational sketches without punchlines...

Why is six afraid of seven?
Because seven eight (ate) nine.

What is yours but your friend uses more than you do?
Your name.

These riddles are now mostly children's humour
Humour or humor is the tendency of particular cognitive experiences to provoke laughter and provide amusement...

 and game
A game is structured playing, usually undertaken for enjoyment and sometimes used as an educational tool. Games are distinct from work, which is usually carried out for remuneration, and from art, which is more often an expression of aesthetic or ideological elements...

s rather than literary compositions.

Some riddles are composed of foreign words and play on similar sounds, as in:
There were two cats, 1 2 3 cat and un deux trois cat, they had a swimming race from England to France. Who won?
1 2 3 Cat because Un deux trois quatre cinq (un deux trois cat sank)

The previous plays on the fact that the French words for 4 and 5 are pronounced similar to the English words "Cat"and "Sank", hence the pun being the cat sank while also counting to 5 in French.

In other cultures

Quite similar to its English counterpart, the riddle in the Philippines
The Philippines , officially known as the Republic of the Philippines , is a country in Southeast Asia in the western Pacific Ocean. To its north across the Luzon Strait lies Taiwan. West across the South China Sea sits Vietnam...

 is called Bugtong. It is traditionally used during a funeral wake together with other games such as tong-its
Tong-its is a three-player rummy type of game that gained popularity in the 1990s in Luzon, the largest island of the Philippines.This game is played using the standard 52 deck of cards. Its origin remains unknown but the game rules and the very name can be associated with the American card game,...

or the more popular sakla, later generations use Bugtong as a form of past time or as an activity. One peculiarity of the Filipino
Filipino language
This move has drawn much criticism from other regional groups.In 1987, a new constitution introduced many provisions for the language.Article XIV, Section 6, omits any mention of Tagalog as the basis for Filipino, and states that:...

 version is the way they start with the phrase
In everyday speech, a phrase may refer to any group of words. In linguistics, a phrase is a group of words which form a constituent and so function as a single unit in the syntax of a sentence. A phrase is lower on the grammatical hierarchy than a clause....

 Bugtong-bugtong before saying the riddle, usually it is common to create riddles that rhyme
A rhyme is a repetition of similar sounds in two or more words and is most often used in poetry and songs. The word "rhyme" may also refer to a short poem, such as a rhyming couplet or other brief rhyming poem such as nursery rhymes.-Etymology:...


An example of a Tagalog
Tagalog language
Tagalog is an Austronesian language spoken as a first language by a third of the population of the Philippines and as a second language by most of the rest. It is the first language of the Philippine region IV and of Metro Manila...

Tagalog tl
Tagalog language
Tagalog is an Austronesian language spoken as a first language by a third of the population of the Philippines and as a second language by most of the rest. It is the first language of the Philippine region IV and of Metro Manila...

Bugtong-bugtong, Hindi hari, hindi pari
ang suot ay sari-sari.


English en
English language
English is a West Germanic language that arose in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England and spread into what was to become south-east Scotland under the influence of the Anglian medieval kingdom of Northumbria...

Riddle-riddle, not a king, nor a priest,
but dresses for a feast.

-Clothes line
Clothes line
A clothes line or washing line is any type of rope, cord, or twine that has been stretched between two points , outside or indoors, above the level of the ground. Clothing that has recently been washed is hung along the line to dry, using clothes pegs or clothes pins...

Similarly, a bit south, in Sulawesi, Indonesia, among the Pendau, riddles are also used at funeral gatherings,.

  • Missing dollar riddle
  • Newspaper riddle
  • Oedipus
    Oedipus was a mythical Greek king of Thebes. He fulfilled a prophecy that said he would kill his father and marry his mother, and thus brought disaster on his city and family...

     and the Sphinx
    A sphinx is a mythical creature with a lion's body and a human head or a cat head.The sphinx, in Greek tradition, has the haunches of a lion, the wings of a great bird, and the face of a woman. She is mythicised as treacherous and merciless...

  • Rumpelstiltskin
    Rumpelstiltskin is the eponymous character and protagonist of a fairy tale which originated in Germany . The tale was collected by the Brothers Grimm, who first published it in the 1812 edition of Children's and Household Tales...

  • The Da Vinci Game
    The Da Vinci Game
    The Da Vinci Game is a board game inspired by Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code. Players solve puzzles, riddles, logic problems, and conundrums in a race against the clock, and the other players. It can be played with three to six players or teams. The game was created by Martin Woods and Allison...

  • Why did the chicken cross the road?
    Why did the chicken cross the road?
    "Why did the chicken cross the road?" is a common riddle or joke in several languages. The answer or punchline is: "To get to the other side". The riddle is an example of anti-humor, in that the curious setup of the joke leads the listener to expect a traditional punchline, but they are instead...

External links

– An active listing of riddle links.
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