ONCE there was a certain wonderful creature called the sphinx, which had been a terror to Thebes for many days. In form half woman and half lion, she crouched always by a precipice near the highway, and put the same mysterious question to every passer-by. None had ever been able to answer, and none had ever lived to warn men of the riddle; for the Sphinx fell on every one as he failed, and hurled him down the abyss, to be dashed in pieces.
This way came Oedipus towards the city Thebes, and the Sphinx crouched, face to face with him, and spoke the riddle that none had been able to guess.
"What animal is that which in the morning goes on four feet, at noon on two, and in the evening on three?"
Oedipus, hiding his dread of the terrible creature, took thought, and answered, "Man. In childhood he creeps on hands and knees, in manhood he walks erect, but in old age he has need of a staff."
At this reply the sphinx uttered a cry, sprang headlong from the rock into the valley below, and perished. Oedipus had guessed the answer. When he came to the city and told the Thebans that their torment was gone, they hailed him as a deliverer. Not long after, they married him with great honour to their widowed queen, Jocasta. not knowing that she was his blood mother. [More]
Now let us focus on the riddle. A dictionary says that a riddle is a mystifying, misleading, or puzzling question that is put as a problem to be solved or guessed - so it is something that can be difficult to understand until you know the answer. Most of the things we know too little of, may seem difficult. But as soon as we know the best answers, or "know how to do it", much tends to become easy.
Historically, the riddle is a form of guessing plot that has been a part of the folklore of most cultures. There are two sorts of riddle: the descriptive one and the shrewd or witty question.
The descriptive riddle describes someone or something enigmatically. For example, "What is black as coal, round as the sun and with a black tail"? The Moering answer was "The frying-pan", because the heavy iron pans in use were black before new materials like teflon got into them.
If you know the answer or can figure it out, the riddle - based on figurative descriptions - is solved.
Descriptive riddles deal with how things or others look, not how they work or are put to use. Thus, an egg is "A little white house without door or window."
Shrewd questions and catch questions may call for divergent thinking first of all, and some for a measure of frivolous folly. Thus:
"Why is six afraid of seven?" "Because seven ate nine". (Say it).
"What European capital used to lie in the middle of another country?" "OSLO in the middle of CzechOSLOvakia."
"What is in the middle of Paris?" (Not Hilton) "R".
"How can we know the elephant was in the refrigerator last night?" "By the footprints in the paté."
Some puzzles are a bit elaborate. A few examples follow. - TK
I am a merry creature,
I view the world in little space,
There's not a kingdom on the earth,
In Spring I look gay,
My body is light,
Through all my days, I've been trampled under feet;
Four wings I have, which swiftly mount on high,
Though it be cold, I wear no clothes,
I fly to any foreign parts,
The riddles in the second chapter are from The Riddle Book (1828) Wendell, MA: J. Metcalf, 1828; and The Riddle Book for the Entertainment of Boys and Girls (1826) J. Babcock & Son, in New Haven, Connecticut, and S. Babcock, in Charleston, South Carolina.
EB: Encyclopaedia Britannica Online.
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