Skip to main content

Riddle Me, Riddle Me, What Is That?

June 2024
9min read

In the year 1629 there appeared on the streets of London a pamphlet “printed for Michael Sparke, dwelling in Greene-Arbor, at the sign of the Blue Bible.” The pamphlet, in the English of the day, bore the title: The Booke of Meery Riddles, together with proper Questions and witty Prouerbs to make pleasant pastime, no lesse usefull than behoouefull for any yong man or child to know if he be quick-witted, or no.

To test that quick-wittedness, or no, the book opens with the first merry riddle: “Two legs sat upon three legs, and had one leg in her hand; then in came foure legs, and bare away one leg; then up start two legs, and threw three legs at foure legs, and brought againe one leg.” The solution follows: “That is a woman with two legs sate on a stoole with three legs, and had a leg of mutton in her hand; then came a dog that hath foure legs and bare away the leg of mutton; then up start the woman, and threw the stoole with three legs at the dog with foure legs, and brought againe the leg of mutton.”

This same riddle is found today from Maine to Oregon and Kentucky to Texas, and is a good example of the hardy survival in American folk tradition of materials originating across the water. Although no earlier copy of the pamphlet exists, scholars have proved that the Meery Booke goes back to the year 1575 and that it was known to Shakespeare.

The riddle itself as a form of folk literature lies, of course, well back of that date. The earliest riddle of our Western world is the riddle of the Sphinx posed in Greek literature to Oedipus who correctly guessed it: What is that which walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening? The answer is—Man, who crawls as a baby in the morning of his life, walks upright at noon, and dodders on a cane in the evening of old age. Receiving the correct answer, the Sphinx, which had plagued Thebes by killing all who could not answer the riddle, plunged to her death from a cliff overlooking the city.

Professor Archer Taylor of the University of California, whose book, The English Riddle in Oral Tradition, is the great work in the field, had grouped riddles into several broad subdivisions: 1) the true riddle, 2) the puzzle or problem question, and 3) the conundrum and trick question. The divisions make good sense, and an understanding of them also makes for appreciation of this fireside pastime.

The true riddle deals chiefly with associations and comparisons, where one object or action is described in terms of another in order to suggest something quite different. A cherry, for example, is described as a man:

Come riddle, come riddle my roe-tee-tee-tote,

A little red man in a little red coat,

A stone in his belly, a stick in his throat, Come tell me this riddle, and I’ll give you a goat.

Another riddle compares a burning candle, which is the correct answer, to a young girl:

Little Nanny Etticoat

In a white petticoat

And a red nose; 

The longer she stands

The shorter she grows.

In like manner, action is suggested where no action exists, or where the action is of a totally different type than that seemingly described. There is the old English riddle: It runs up the hill and runs down the hill, but in spite of all it still stands still. This same riddle is localized in Maine: What is it that goes from Windham to Raymond without moving? The answer to both is: the road. Like these also is another: What runs all around the yard without moving? The answer is: the fence.

Somewhat more complicated is this one: It goes through the house and through the barn, through the woods and around the farm, and never touches a thing. (Your voice, or any other sound.) And quite delightful is a riddle which any farm youngster can guess easily: What is it that walks over the fields and hills all day long, and sits in the icebox at night? (Milk.)

The puzzle, unlike the true riddle, is stated clearly. All the facts are given, and it is up to the listener to figure them out. Essentially this type of question demands the solution of a problem, and the classic example is the problem of transporting a fox, a goose, and a basket of corn across a stream one at a time, and so arranging the transportation that the fox and goose, or the goose and corn, are never left together on either bank where the fox can eat the goose or the goose gobble the corn. This poser goes back a thousand years to the Latin of the Middle Ages, and is found also in the Meery Booke where the animals to be transported are a wolf and a lamb, and a bundle of hay instead of the corn. The solution, of course, is to take the goose over first; return for the corn; bring the goose back; carry the fox over; and return again for the goose.

The last type which flourishes in our country includes both the conundrum and trick question. These involve a play on words, puns—some of them quite terrible—and the combination of farfetched and unrelated ideas. Most of the conundrums and trick questions are modern, within the last century at least, and include incredible items such as: When is a Scotchman like a donkey? (When he walks by the banks and braes.) What is the difference between a pretty girl and a mouse? (One charms he’s, and the other harms cheese.) If a horse and wagon come to $500, what will a load of wood come to? (Ashes.) Why do Pennsylvania farmers build their pigsties between the house and the barn? (For the pigs.) If a man is born in Turkey, grows up in Italy, comes to America, and dies in Chicago, what is he? (Dead.) If you were standing beside a donkey, what kind of fruit would you represent? (A pear.) Why is there no danger of starving in a desert? (Because of the sand which is under your feet.) What do people call little gray cats in Tennessee? (Kittens.) How many hard-boiled eggs could the giant Goliath eat on an empty stomach? (One. After that his stomach would not be empty.)

While some of these conundrums and trick questions may be amusing, they are all in the long run much less absorbing than the riddles and puzzles. In the case of the true riddle, the person questioned has an excellent opportunity of solving it if he devotes himself to working out the comparison or suggested action. In the riddle “A house full, a yard full, can’t catch a bowl full,” for example, the riddler is obviously describing something which exists in great quantity but which cannot be contained in a bowl. By trying not to fill his bowl with that something, even a youngster will eventually arrive at either smoke, fog or mist, or air. With the puzzle also the problem can be worked out in time, even if it becomes necessary to use pencil and paper. With the conundrum or trick question, however, the person questioned is likely to give up quickly, since he is aware from the start that he is being unfairly tricked and that his native wit is not being questioned. From the word go, he knows that he is stooge for the trickster.

The riddle game was fun, yes. But beyond that a child was led willy-nilly into the world of analogy, the world of “this is like that,” the realm of symbolism and poetry. It is a sure bet that Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost and comparable other Americans were brought up on riddles—even as you and I.

As a starter, these objects are found in most homes. All of them are likened to the human body, yet none of the answers are to be found there: What has hands and has no fingers? What has a face, but cannot see? (For both, the answer is a clock.) What has an eye, but cannot see? (A needle.) What has teeth, but cannot eat? (A comb.) What has a head, but has no hair? (A pin, or nail.) What has legs, but cannot walk? (A chair, bed, or table.) Four fingers and a thumb, yet flesh and bones have I none. (A glove.) As long as I eat, I live, but when I drink I die. (The fire on the hearth, or any fire.)

In the world of nature, where every child once was as much at home as in his own room, there is a wide selection. From them, these: It runs as smooth as any rhyme, loves to fall, but cannot climb. (A stream or river.) It lives in winter, dies in summer, and grows with its root upwards. (An icicle.) It stands on one leg with its heart in its head. (Lettuce, or cabbage.) First you see me in the grass dressed in yellow gay, next I am in dainty white, then I fly away. (A dandelion.) Green head, yellow toes, if you don’t tell me this riddle, I’ll ring your nose. (A duck.)


What city children would make of some of these I have no idea, and certainly this quite beautiful one from Illinois would stump all but the farm youngster: I washed my hands in water that never rained or run, I wiped my hands on silk that neither was woven nor spun. (I washed my hands in dew and wiped them on corn silk.) This sharp and humorous portrait would also have them puzzled: Two lookers, two crookers, four slanders, four down-hangers, and one switch-about. (A cow.)

The body supplies a goodly batch of answers for another group: A flock of sheep on a red hill, here they go, there they go, now they stand still. (Teeth and gums.) Riddle me, riddle me, what is that, over the head and under the hat? (Hair.) You don’t have it, you don’t want it, but if you did have it, you wouldn’t take a million dollars for it. (A bald head.) You feel it, but you have never seen it, and never will. (Your heart.) What is that which you cannot hold for five minutes, yet it is as light as a feather. (Your breath.)

Wherever possible the folk have always enjoyed comparing objects to houses and castles. Two good examples are the following, the first purely American, and the second English in origin:

On the hill sits a green house, In the green house sits a white house, In the white house sits a red house, In the red house are a lot of little black and white men. (A watermelon.) In marble halls as white as milk, Lined with skin as soft as silk, Within a fountain crystal clear A golden apple doth appear. No doors are there to this stronghold, Yet thieves break in and steal the gold. (An egg.)

A other type which has been a favorite for generations contains the answer within the words of the riddle itself. Reading the text of the riddle and studying the spelling makes the solution quite simple; when the riddle is recited, however, it becomes more difficult. Here the answer to the first is the letter R, and I leave the second for you:

It’s in the church, but not in the steeple, It’s in the parson, but not in the people. I am not found on the ground, but always in the air, Through each cloud with thunder loud, you cannot find me there; Now if from France you choose to dance your way just into Spain, I there am seen, and near the queen in hail, and mist, and rain.

Not unrelated, since one must study the text carefully, is a very difficult riddle which first appeared in print in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1881:

A Headless man had a letter to write, It was read by one who had lost his sight, The Dumb repeated it word for word, And he was Deaf who listened and heard.

The clue to the answer lies in the words “had a letter to write.” The riddle does not say that a letter was actually written. Secondly, while the word “letter” is generally understood by the listener to mean a letter of several paragraphs, it stands instead for a letter of the alphabet. That letter must be the letter O, which is the symbol also for zero, or nothing. Unraveled then, the riddle reads: A Headless man had nothing to write, nothing was read by one who had lost his sight, the Dumb repeated nothing word for word, and he was Deaf who listened and heard nothing.

Another difficult riddle, but one for which any barefoot youngster will find the answer sometime during the summer, is:

I went to the woods and caught it, I sat me down and sought it, The more I looked, the less I liked it, And brought it home because I couldn’t find it. (A thorn, nettle, or splinter.)

Rounding out the true riddles is this handful of very hardy favorites, most of them from the British Isles, but all thoroughly at home now in America: It has a head like a cat, feet like a cat, a tail like a cat, but it isn’t a cat. (A kitten.) Name me and you destroy me. (Silence.) What is that which is often brought to the table, often cut, but never eaten? (A pack of cards.) Tie it up and it walks, unfasten it and it stops. (A shoe.) White as snow and snow it isn’t, green as grass and grass it isn’t, red as blood and blood it isn’t, black as tar and tar it isn’t. (A blackberry. First the white blossom, then the green berry which turns red, and when ripe is black.) A riddle, a riddle as I suppose, a hundred eyes and never a nose. (Potatoes.) Round as a biscuit, busy as a bee, prettiest little thing I ever did see. (A watch.) Black within and red without, four corners round about. (A chimney.) What has a bed yet never sleeps, and has a mouth yet never speaks or eats. (A river.)

Like the puzzle of the fox, the goose, and the corn, there is another also involving the crossing of a stream. A man, a woman, and their two sons must cross the stream in a boat which will not hold more than 100 pounds. The man and the woman each weigh 100 pounds, and each of the two boys weighs 50 pounds. How will they get across?

The two boys go over first. One of the boys returns with the boat, and the woman goes over alone. The second boy returns with the boat, gets his brother, and they go over again. One of them returns with the boat, and waits while the man goes over alone. The second boy returns for the last time with the boat, gets his brother, and they go over to join the man and woman.

These riddles and puzzles which have amused and entertained the Western world for centuries show no sign of disappearing. Each new generation takes to them like a duck to water. In our oral tradition, for example, a riddle which appears in the Sixteenth Century turns up in present-day California: What has eight legs, two arms, three heads, and wings? Of various possible answers, the Sixteenth-Century one is a man on horseback carrying a hawk on his arm. From California the riddle is the same, but the feudal hawk has become a canary held in the hand.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.