The device of riddling is common to most traditional cultures.
Maidens set riddles for their suitors: ‘What is sweeter than mead…?’ ‘What is whiter than snow…?’ ‘What is lighter than a spark…?’
Antagonists use riddles to settle their disputes: ‘Forty white horses on a red hill first they gnash then they champ then they stand still…?’ ‘What is blacker than the raven…?’ ‘What is swifter than the wind…?’
Divinities play hide and seek with their devotees within the miasmic form of riddles: ‘What dances on the surface of the water…?’ ‘What good did Man find on earth that God did not…?’ ‘What is sharper than the sword…?’
A riddle is one thing, or a collection of things, described as another thing, or a different collection of things.
It is an extended metaphor without its point of reference.
To solve a riddle is to gain clarity and rid one self of confusion.
‘Thunder before lightning…Lightning before cloud…land parching rain…give me a name.’
Solving a riddle allows one to recognise one thing in another and so transcend one or more of the polarities or categories that apparently govern the perceived world through language and thought.
A riddle then simultaneously highlights the rigidities of language and its potential flexibilities.
“A shepherd stands in a field with twenty sheep, how many feet?”
Riddles act like little bundles of experience to be untied by the uninitiated.
The riddler knows something you do not yet know…
Riddles straddle two or more different frames of reference.
Landscape features are given human attributes and provide ample food for the riddler.
‘I run never walk… my mouth never talks… my head never weeps… In my bed, I never sleep.’
The answers are rarely if ever immediately obvious… their solution requires contemplation.
Just like crossword clue solutions they are though obvious once you know them.
Unlike crossword clue solutions, there is more often than not a very practical purpose to their solution.
If a landscape can have human features then, why can’t a human have landscape features?
The Irish are particularly fond of the riddle and of the consciousness, which underpins its use.
When living in the village of Saughall on the border of Chester and Wales my brother-in-law and I were frequent visitors to the village pub which boasted two Stouts: Guinness and Murphy’s.
We prided ourselves on being able to tell the difference and would often buy one of each in order to discern which particular brew had been ‘kept best’.
Upon joining a couple of Irish chaps at their table one night they must have observed our traditional ritual with some amusement and challenged us to ascertain what they were drinking.
“You are both drinking Guinness,” we said after taking a sip of their drinks.
“I am drinking Guinness,” said one, “but that is Murphy’s” and then pointed at his friends drink.
“You are both drinking the same stout and it is Guinness,” we reiterated.
Then they swapped drinks and the one said again, “I am drinking Guinness but that is Murphy’s” and again pointed at his friends drink.
Still we did not ‘get it’ and our faces must have been a picture when Gerald Murphy took a sip of his stout and introduced himself.
A riddle is a trick played with words.