FOR CENTURIES, riddles were serious business. Oedipus of Greek mythology guessed the riddle of the Sphinx, a monster terrorizing the people of Thebes, and saved himself and the city. Samson of the Bible's Old Testament bet 30 outfits of clothes that the Philistines couldn't guess his riddle. He was right. But they cheated, threatening Samson's bride-to-be with death unless she got the answer for them. (You can find the story in the book of Judges, Chapter 14.)
In Old England, the Anglo-Saxons and their descendants made up riddles to tease and test each other. Ninety-five Anglo-Saxon riddles have survived in a volume called the "Exeter Book."If you've read "The Hobbit," by J.R.R. Tolkien, you'll remember that Bilbo Baggins gets into a duel of riddles inside a mountain cave with the slimy creature, Gollum.
Although riddles are often tricky, they're usually about simple things. When we guess a riddle, we start to look at life differently. Sometimes we see the world around us in a whole new light.
See if you can guess the answers to a few riddles. Then you might want to write one yourself.
Since I mentioned the riddle of the Sphinx, let's start with that one. Before you begin, however, let me tell you that kids are usually good at riddles, often better than adults. Here it is:
What walks on four legs in the morning,
two legs in the middle of the day,
and three legs in the evening?
Have you guessed it? The answer is us. We crawl when we're babies, walk upright in the middle of our life, then sometimes use a cane when we get older. In this riddle, one day stands for a lifetime.
Riddles have their own mystery and logic, and you can't really say how to solve them. You just guess whatever comes into your head. Let's look at another riddle, this one from "The Hobbit":
What has roots as nobody sees,
is taller than trees,
up up it goes,
and yet never grows?
Trapped in a mountain, Bilbo Baggins quickly guessed a mountain. He was right.
Here's a riddle my daughter, Wendy, helped me write. See if you know the answer.
Curved like a snake
I go where I wish,
Sometimes fast, sometimes slow,
Belly full of fish.
If you guessed a river, you're right!
I have to confess, I was never very good at guessing riddles myself. That's why I started making them up. At least I would know the answer. To make a riddle, I choose something I find interesting, or anything that catches my eye. As I work on the riddle, I try to both hint at the answer and hide it.
Sometimes I make riddles that give themselves away if you know the original meaning of the word, like this one:
The night has a thousand eyes,
But we are the eyes of day.
Children pluck away our lashes
To know love's fickle way.
The original meaning of "daisy" is day's-eye, which is, of course, the answer.
Or sometimes I'm outside, say, at the beach. I'm sitting on rocks covered with barnacles and mussels. Mussels are those small, dark, clam-like shellfish that cling to the rocks. Thinking of them, I wrote this riddle:
Where three worlds meet
I plant my feet.
I am black, brown or blue.
I am strong, I hold on.
A riddle can be long or short. Here is a one-line riddle I wrote about a bird. See if you can guess which kind.
Flames flicker when I fly.
You'll know the answer if you've ever seen a red-winged blackbird fly.
Occasionally, my students write riddles. Here's one by Louise:
My colors are many,
My purposes are few.
You can knot me, tie me, twist me too.
I weave through holes, up, in, and through.
Once I'm on, you should know what to do.
If you haven't already guessed, her riddle is about a necktie. Riddles can be about anything. Can you guess this one:
Some smooth, some rough,
Some soft, some tough,
Tools without hammer,
Polished for glamour.
Is this one a bit harder? The answer is fingernails.
People in other countries like riddles, too. Many years ago I heard this riddle in German, which I translated:
Deep in forest stands
A man of tiny height.
Although no king, he wears
A coat of purple bright.
Who is this one, I beg?
He stands on just one leg.
Most Germans who hear this riddle guess it right away. It's a toadstool. The tiny purple variety may be more common in Europe.
Are you ready now to make up your own riddle? Remember, there are no rules. You can use rhyme, half-rhyme or no rhyme.
And if your riddle is too hard, or too easy, you can change it a bit. Be sure to write your riddle down. Then you can try it out on a friend, parent or teacher.
Take a good look at the world around you. Somewhere a riddle is hiding.