Taken from
The Cornhill Magazine
July, 1891.
VOL. XVII.--NO. 101, N.S.
Pages 512 - 522
Original Author - Anon.

A RIDDLE is a general term for any puzzling question. Asking riddles has been from time immemorial a favourite source of social entertainment, and more especially so in the ages before the spread of literary tastes and habits. Every language has probably a word of its own domestic growth for this kind of inquiry, just as 'riddle' is a pure and native English word. But for the varieties of fiddling questions, we do not find that languages have generally provided themselves with any corresponding variety of expiession. The terms enigma, rebus, charade, conundrum, are words of Greek and Latin derivation, and these have become the common property of all literary languages; and there is another term, 'logogriph,' which is used by Ben Jonson, a word made by the French from Greek materials, and signifying word- fishing.

The early riddle exhibits in its composition some of the chief elements of literature. Prominent among these is the anthropo- morphic or personalising tendency of early thought, which makes the riddle appear (in one of its aspects)as akin to the fable. This is well seen in the riddle or apologue of Jotham: 'The trees went to anoint a king over them, and they said unto the Olive tree: Be thou our king ! But the Olive tree answered them: Shall I go and leave my fatness (which God and man honour in me) and go to be puff up above the trees ? Then said the trees unto the Fig tree: Come thou and be king over us ! But the Fig tree said unto them: Shall I leave my sweetness and my good fruit, and go to be puff up above the trees ? Then said the trees unto the Vine: Come thou and be our king! But the Vine said unto them: Shall I leave my wine, which cheereth God and man, and go to be puft up above the trees ? Then said all the trees unto the Thorn bush: Come thou and be king over us ! And the Thorn bush said unto the trees: If it be true that ye anoint me to be king over you, then come and put your trust under my shadow; and else let fire go out of the Thorn bush and consume the Cedars of Lebanon.'

At the bottom of this is a perception of analogies in nature; the fruitful source not only of fable, but also of such contiguous varieties as allegory, parable, and poetical similitude. If the analogies perceptible in nature, both animate and inanimate, produced fables, and those riddles that savour of the fable; so also did the same analogies which had been unconsciously reflected and stored up in metaphorical speech afford material for making cunning descriptions of things which should be scrupulously true and yet very hard to divine.

The best established form of riddle is probably the oldest; it is that which we still regard as the most legitimate and the most dignified kind, namely, the enigma. An enigma has been defined as a description which is perfectly true, but couched in metaphorical and recondite language which makes it hard to divine the subject. The following is a true enigma, though a homely example: 'Long legs, crooked thighs, little head, and no eyes.'

For a good enigma we must have a perfectly true description of a thing: every term used must be as scrupulously appropriate as in a logical definition; but it must be so ingeniously phrased and worded that the sense is not obvious, and the interpreter is baffled. There is vast room for the development of skill in this art, to make an enigma such that it shall be not merely obscure, but at the same time stimulating to the curiosity. A further step is to give it the charm of poetic beauty. This is quite germane to the nature of the enigma, which has a natural affinity with the epigrammatic form of poetry.

Samson's riddle was an enigma; so was that of the Sphinx. The two chief elements in the pristine enigma were metaphor and an appearance of incongruity, sometimes amounting to contradiction. The famous riddle of the Sphinx, which was solved by OEdipus, is entirely rooted in metaphor. 'What is that animal which in the morning goes on four feet, at noon goes on two, and in the evening goes on three feet ?' Answer: Man. Here morning, noon, and evening are metaphors of infancy, manhood, and age; also, there is a metaphorical use of the word 'feet,' which is applied in one place to hands used for support, and in another place to a staff used as if it were a third foot. The puzzle in Samson's riddle is the result of incongruity joined with abstract terms:

Out of the eater came forth meat,
And out of the strong came forth sweetness.

In the following ancient Greek riddle there is something of both, but it rests chiefly on metaphor. 'A father had twelve children, and each child had thirty sons and daughters, the sons being white and the daughters black, and one of these died every day, and yet became immortal.'

Planudes, a Greek monk at Constantinople in the fourteenth century, tells wonderful tales in his 'Life of AEsop' about the war of riddles that passed between Lycerus, king of Babylon, and Nectanebo, king of Egypt. The king of Babylon was always winner, because he had AEsop at his court, who was more than a match for the wit of the adversary.

Once, Nectanebo thought he was sure to puzzle the Babylonian, and his question was as follows: 'There is a grand temple which rests upon a single column, which column is encircled by twelve cities; every city has against its walls thirty flying buttresses, and each buttress has two women, one white and one black, that go round about it in turns. Say what that temple is called.' AEsop was equal to the occasion, and he explained it thus: The temple is the world, the column is the year, the twelve cities are the months, the thirty buttresses are the days, the two women are light and darkness.

An enigma of a homely nature, and which is probably of high antiquity, to judge not only by what tradition tells about it, but also by the fact that it is still found in some of the detached and less central parts of Europe, is this: 'What we caught we threw away, what we could not catch we kept.' There is an apocryphal legend that Homer died of vexation because he could not solve this riddle.

Here is a modern setting of the same idea. 'He loves her; she has a repugnance to him, and yet she tries to catch him; and if she succeeds, she will be the death of him.'

There have been epochs at which riddle-making has been more especially in vogue, and such epochs would appear to occur at seasons of fresh intellectual awakening. Such an epoch there was at the first glimmering of new intellectual light in the second half of the seventh century. This was the age of Aldhelm, bishop of Sherborne, the first in the roll of Anglo-Latin poets. He left a considerable number of enigmas in Latin hexameters, and they have been repeatedly printed. Aldhelm died in 709. Before his time there was a collection of Latin riddles that bore the name of Symphosius. Of this work the date is unknown; we only know that Aidhelm used it, and we may infer that it was then a recent product, The riddles of Symphosius were uniform in shape, consisting each of three hexameter lines. The subject of the sixteenth in that collection is the book-moth :--

Litera me pavit, nec quid sit litera novi;
In libris vixi, nec sum studiosior inde;
Exedi Musas, nee adhuc tamen ipse profeci.

Translation: I have fed upon literature, yet know not a letter; I have lived among books, and I am none the more studious for it; I have devoured the Muses. yet up to the present time I have made no progress.

Here is one of Aldhelm's upon the Alphabet :--

Nos denae et septem genitae sine voce sorores,
Sex alias nothas non dicimus adnumerandas,
Nascimur ex ferro rursus ferro rnoribundae,
Necnon et volucris penna volitantis ad aethram;
Terni nos fratres incerta matre crearunt;
Qui cupit instanter sitiens audire, docemus,
Tum cite prompta damus rogitanti verba silenter.

Translation: We are seventeen sisters voiceless born; six others, half-sisters, we exclude from our set; children of iron, by iron we die, but children too of the bird's wing that flies so high; three brethren our sires, be our mother as may; if anyone is very eager to hear, we tell him, and quickly give answer without any sound.

That is to say, seventeen consonants and six vowels; made with lion stile and erased with the same, or else made with a bird's quill; whatever the instrument, three fingers are the agents; and we can convey answer without delay even in situations where it would be inconvenient to speak.

A younger contemporary of Aldhelm's was Tatwine, who was educated at St. Augustine's in Canterbury, and who for the last three years of his life (731-734) was Archbishop of Canterbury. He also left riddles in Latin, but they still remain in manuscript among the curiosities and treasures of the Cotton Library, except a few that have been selected for print as specimens. Dean Hook gave three in his 'Archbishops of Canterbury,' and of these three we will select one :--

Angelicas populis epulas dispono frequenter,
Grandisonis aures verbis cava guttufa complent,
Succedit vox sed mihi nulla out lingua loquendi,
Et bino alarum fulci gestamine cernor,
Queis sed abest penitus virtus jam tota volandi,
Dum solus subter constat mihi pes sine passu.

of which the translation, nearly verbal, is as follows :-

Angelic food to folk I oft dispense,
While sounds majestic fill attentive ears,
Yet neither voice have I nor tongue for speech.
In brave equipment of two wings I shine,
But wings withouten any skill to fly:
One foot I have to stand, but not a foot to go.

The answer is, in Latin, 'Recitabulum'; in English, ' An eagle- lectern.'

The fiddling propensities of the seventh and eighth centuries propagated themselves throughout the remainder of the Anglo- Saxon period, and we have a collection of rather more than eighty riddles in English of the period before the Norman Conquest. These are mostly of the enigma type, and nearly all of them are in a poetical form.

The seventeenth century was a great era of riddle-making in France, and there are some considerable publications in French during that century, especially by Abbe Cotin, who is distinguished from the general company of riddle-makers by the fact that he owned the authorship of his enigmas, and, unless he has been maligned, did not spurn the credit of some that were not his. Generally the riddles of this period are without any author's name. The taste spread to England, and Jonathan Swift made some enigmas. Here are two of them :--

I with borrowed silver shine,
What you see is none of mine.
First I show you but a quarter,
Like the bow that guards the Tartar;
Then the half, an.d then the whole,
Ever dancing round the pole;
And true it is, I chiefly owe
My beauty to the shades below.

Answer: The Moon.

I'm up and down and round about,
Yet all the world can't find me out;
Though hundreds have employed their leisure,
They never yet could find my measure.
I'm found in almost every garden,
Nay, in the compass of a farden.
There's neither chariot, coach, nor mill
Can move one inch except I will.

Answer: A Circle.

These are so easy and transparent that their problematical element falls into the shade, and we are not puzzled at all; but we are moved to admire very ingenious descriptions in graceful versification. This is the attribute of the epigram, and if the subjects of these were put at the head instead at the foot, they would pass excellently well in a collection of epigrams.

The same may be said of the following, which is by the poet Cowper, and which calls for no unriddllng :--

I am just two and two, I am warm, I am cold,
And the parent of numbers that cannot be told:
I am lawful, unlawful---a duty, a fault,
I am often sold dear, good for nothing when bought,
An extraordinary boon, and a matter of course,
And yielded with pleasure when taken by force.

Yery different is the following about a bed, which is by C. J. Fox. It exhibits the principle of contradiction and paradox, and is good as an enigma and as an epigram also :-

Formed long ago, yet made to-day,
And most employed when others sleep;
What few would wish to give away,
And none would wish to keep,

I will add two of the paradoxical sort in plain prose :-- The enigma is as capable as the epigram of being made into a beautiful little poem. There are good examples in German by Schfiler, and in English by Praed. The following is one of Praed's, which, not being by any means insoluble, is left to the divination of the reader:

In other days, when hope was bright,
Ye spake to me of love and light,
Of endless Spring and cloudless weather,
And hearts that doted linked together !

But now ye tell another tale:
That life is brief, and beauty frail,
That joy is dead, and fondness blighted,
And hearts that doted disunited.

Away ! Ye grieve and ye rejoice
In one unfelt, unfeeling voice;
And ye, like every friend below,
Are hollow in your joy and woe:

After the enigma we must consider the rebus. This term is simply the ablative plural of the Latin res, and signifies 'by things,' and its first application was to the putting of pictures for words or syllables. This first kind of rebus was known to the ancients, as may be seen in a paper by Addison in 'The Spectator" No. 59. In rebuses alphabetic writing and picture-writing are often combined, as in an example quoted by Addison in the same paper, and as in the following from Fuller, which I quote after Webster :--

' He [John Moreton] had a fair library rebused with More in text and a Tun under it.'

When the Scythians were invaded by Cyrus, they sent him a messenger bearing arrows and a rat and a frog, which was a way of saying by lesson-objects that unless he could hide in a hole of the earth like a rat, or in water like a frog, he would not escape their arrows.

In its secondary sense the rebus is a sort o[ riddle in which the subject, or rather its name, is indicated by reference to objects either of experience or of history. Here follows a rebus by Vanessa (Miss Vanomrigh) on the name 'Jonathan Swift,' in which indications are given to guide the inquirer to the first syllable of Jo-seph, and then to the name of the prophet Nathan, and thirdly to the adjective 'swift' :-

Cut the name of the man who his mistress denied,
And let the first of it be only applied
To join with the prophet who David did chide;
Then say what a horse is that runs very fast,
And that which deserves to be first put the last;
Spell all then, and put them together, to find
The name and the virtues of him I designed.
Like the patriarch in Egypt, he's versed in the state;
Like the prophet in Jewry, he's free with the great;
Like a racer he flies, to succour with speed,
When his friends want his aid or desert is in need.

The next form of riddle is the charade, which has a character that contrasts with the enigma; for while the enigma has its roots in the first primeval efforts of poetry and rhetoric, the charade is a product of the age of literary education, and it sayours of the three R's. The subject is no longer a work of nature, but some element of grammar. The charade turns upon the letters or syllables composing a word; less often, but some- times, on the words composing a phrase. The charade on the cod (to be quoted presently) turns on the three letters C, O, D.

There is a weekly contemporary which not only furnishes its readers with a periodical supply of charades, but also offers them subsfantial prizes for the solution. The following is a specimen of its craft in riddllng, and for the solution we must refer our readers to the oracle itself, namely, 'The Magazine of Short Stories,' No. 130.

My First is made by City men--how very reprehensible I
Self-interest is the only plea that renders it defensible;
'Tis sometimes in the meadows seen--phenomenon botanical,
Not caused by feet of little folk, but growth that's cryptogamical.
My Second is remarkable, his character's so various,
He may be good, or bad, or weak, or timid, temerarious;
The crowning glory of a tree--mechanical or musical,
Or literary, legal--but undoubtedly political.
My Whole--supposed to be the first--pre-eminence detestable--
More often in the background lurks--that fact is incontestable:
In insurrections, mutinies, and mischief he's conspicuous,
Yet oftentimes, we know, contrives to make himself ridiculous.

There is a more elevated kind of charade, a cross between the charade and the enigma, which deals with grammatical elements like the charade, but describes with the seriousness of the enigma. Among charades of this secondary type we may group Canning's famous riddle on Cares :--

A noun there is of plural number,
Foe to peace and tranquil slumber;
Now any other noun you take,
By adding s you plural make,
But if you add an s to this
Strange is the metamorphosis:
Plural is plural now no more,
And sweet what bitter was before.

And even a punning one like the following: 'What is that which sweetens the cup of life, but which, if it loses one lefter, embitters it ?' Answer :--Hope and Hop.

The most eminent example of this species (or sub-species)is the beautiful riddle on the letter H, which was long attributed to Lord Byron, but is now known to have been written by Miss Catherine Fanshawe :--

'Twas whispered in heaven, 'twas mutter'd in hell
And echo caught faintly the sound as it fell;
On the confines of earth 'twas permitted to rest,
And the depths of the ocean its presence confest;
'Twill be found in the sphere when 'tis riven asunder,
Be seen in the lightning and heard in the thunder.
'Twas allotted to man with his earliest breath,
It assists at his birth and attends him in death,
Presides o'er his happiness, honour, and health,
Is the prop of his house and the end of his wealth;
In the heaps of the miser is hoarded with care,
But is sure to be lost in his prodigal heir.
It begins every hope, every wish it must bound,
It prays with the hermit, with monarchs is crowned;
Without it the soldier, the sailor may roam,
But woe to the wretch who dispels it from home.
In the whisper of conscience 'tis sure to be found,
Nor e'er in the whirlwind of passion is drown'd;
'Twill soften the heart, but, though deaf to the ear,
It will make it acutely and instantly hear;
But in short, let it rest like a delicate flower.
Oh ! breathe on it softly, it dies in an hour.

With these must be clanned the charade on the Cod, wrongly attributed to Macaulay, of which mention has been made above.

Cut off my head, and singular I act,
Cut off my tail, and plural I appear;
Cut off my head and tail, and, wondrous fact,
Although my middle's left, there's nothing there.
What is my head ? A sounding sea;
Brhat is my tail ? A flowing river;
'Mid ocean's depths I fearless stray,
Parent of softest sounds, yet mute for ever.

Here follows a charade which is fitted to serve for transition to the next species of riddle :-

My first denotes company;
My second shuns company;
My third summons company;
My whole amuses company.

The conundrum is the sort of riddle which is at present most in favour with young wits. It is a verbal puzzle, and the answer turns upon a pun, and, as Charles Lamb has said of puns in general, its excellence is in proportion to its absurdity.

A prevalent form of the conundrum is that which demands a resemblance or dissimilarity between two things that are incapable of comparison; the answer must therefore be based upon a play of words. But the conundrum is very miscellaneous.


  1. 'Why is a naughty boy like a postage stamp ?'
    Answer: 'Because you lick him and stick him in a corner.' (This provoked a counterpart.)

  2. 'What is the difference between a naughty boy and a postage stamp ?'
    Answer: 'The one you lick with a stick and the other you stick with a lick.'

  3. 'How do you know that birds in their little nests agree ?'
    Answer: 'Because else they would fall out.'

  4. 'Who gains most at a coronation, the king or his people ?'
    Answer: 'The king gains a crown, the people a sovereign.'

  5. 'What is the difference between a lady and her mirror ?'
    Answer: 'One speaks without reflecting, the other reflects with- out speaking.'

  6. 'When is it right to take any one in ?'
    Answer: 'When it rains.'

  7. 'Why is the figure nine like a peacock ?'
    Answer: 'Be- cause it is nothing without its tail.'

The origin of the name conundrum is obscure, but it seems to have been a slang word of the bogus Latin sort; and Skeat thinks that it may have been suggested by the Latin gerund conandum, to try.

This comprehensive term covers a variety of absurd questions and answers. There is a funny old book, printed in 1511, by Wynkyn de Worde, with the title, 'Demands Joyous,' that is to say, Merry Questions. Many of them are not calculated to be found out. Thus:

As the riddle usually turns upon metaphorical expression, and every kind of rhetorical figure, we naturally come to it with minds prepared to thread the labyrinth of verbal intricacies and subtle analogies. And out of this rises a new opportunity for the cunning questioner.

A secondary type of riddle is generated by taking advantage of the general impression, that the terms of the question will be ingenious and recondite and far-fetched. If every term of the question is plain, literal, and used in the properest sense, the guesser will be thrown off the scent, and will be hunting far afield while the game crouches at his door. Of this artless kind of artifice there are examples both enigmatic and charadish; here is one of the enigma type, which has before now mystified a whole circle of attentive riddle-lovers :-

Made in London, sold in York,
Put in a bottle, and called a cork.

The next is of the charade type, and it has a pecullar interest for me, because a friend of mine, with whom I discoursed of riddles, propounded it to me, with a little bit of his own personal experience which took my fancy. This riddle (he said) was long ago proposed to him by a friend who could say the riddle but did not know the answer, and perhaps this condition made it take the deeper root in my friend's unsatisfied mind; and some years after- wards he recalled it to mind, and at the same time the answer flashed across him. The riddle is as follows :-

In my first my second sate;
My third and fourth I ate.

The result is often so different from what is expected, that although it may be true, and even very true, yet it produces the effect of a sheer 'sell.' 'Maria said to John, My father is your father, and my mother is your mother, and yet we are not brother and sister. What was Maria ?' Answer: 'Ma-ri-a[r] was a liar.'

Among the literal sort are these:

This riddle was a novelty about the year 1845, and it soon provoked this counterpart, by no means equal in quality: It is not an accident that times of literary revival have been prolific in riddles. For it may be said generally that the powers of language which are exercised in riddle-making are the selfsame powers that are exercised in the art of literature, only that in making riddles those powers are drawn upon more continuously which in general literature are exercised with less intensity and effort. Metaphors, secondary meanings, adroit groupings which alter significations, all the powers that make words elastic, these are the faculties by which language is rendered plastic for the writer, and these are they that are brought into action by the riddle-maker with a more laboured accumulation of efteels. With the progressive development of speech these powers increase, and there probably never was time or place in which the materials for riddles were so abundant as at the present time in the area that is covered by the English language.

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