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Riddles

RIDDLES (A.S. raedan, to interpret), probably the oldest extant form of humour. They spring from man's earliest perception that there are such things as analogies in nature. Man observes an example of analogy, puts his observations in the form of a question, and there is the riddle ready made. Some Boeotian humorist, for example, detected the analogy between the life of humanity the child on all fours, the man erect on two legs, old age with its staff on one side, and on the other the conception of an animal with a varying number of limbs. Put this in a question and it is the riddle of the Sphinx. Another instance is the question, " What we caught we threw away, what we could not catch we kept." Homer is said to have died of vexation at not being able to discover the answer to this riddle, still current on the coast of Brittany, in Germany and in Gascony. After inventing the riddle, men began to use it in a kind of game; bets were staked on the answer and sides were made, each side backing its champion. These sports in Marriner's time were common in Tonga; they are no less popular among the African Woloffs. Samson's riddle set to the Philistines is an instance of the sport in a Semitic country. In marchen and ballads, the hero's chance of winning his beloved, or of escaping threatened punishment, is often made to turn on his power of answering riddles. It follows from the artless and primitive character of the riddle that regular popular riddles (Devinettes) are widely distributed, like popular tales, popular songs and popular customs. The Woloffs ask, " What flies for ever and rests never ? " Answer, The wind. The Basutos put this riddle, " What is wingless and legless, yet flies fast and cannot be imprisoned? " Answer, The voice. The German riddle runs, " What can go in face of the Sun yet leave no shadow ? " Answer, The wind. In riddles may perhaps be noticed the animistic or personalizing tendency of early human thought, just beginning to be conscious of itself. The person who asked these riddles had the old sense of wind, for example, as a person, yet probably, unlike the bushmen, he would never expect to see the personal wind. He knew the distinction between the personal and impersonal well enough to be sure that his enigma would present some difficulty. The riddle, to be brief, is an interrogatory form of the fable, and like the fable originates among rude people, and is perpetuated in the folklore of peasantry.

Probably the best book on the riddle (a subject less frequently studied than the marchen or the myth) is Eugene Rolland, Devinettes ou tnigmes populaires, with a preface by M. Gaston Paris. The power of answering riddles among the people who invented the legend of Solomon and the queen of Sheba seems to have been regarded as a proof of great sagacity. The riddle proper is all but extinct outside folklore and savage life, and has been replaced by the conundrum, which is a pun in the interrogative form.

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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