USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Riddle’
Folk speech

Sumer Riddle

The ancient civilization Sumer is home to one of the earliest riddles known in existence.  The following is the first riddle recited by my old high school english teacher:

“There is a house. One enters it blind and comes out seeing. What is it?

Answer: A school.

That’s why it’s my favorite”

Analysis: My old teacher said he first heard this riddle from another teacher at a school he used to teach at and has been teaching it to his students ever since.  I think riddles are extremely significant pieces of folklore because they make people think but are still lighthearted.  Riddles have had more cultural significance earlier in history when heroes would commonly be asked them in order to enter or pass through an area of some sort such as a temple.  Nowadays, people do not get asked or tell riddles as commonly, but it is not uncommon for people to still have to answer riddles to gain entry somewhere, like a password to a secret party.  For example, there is a riddle each member of my sorority must solve to gain entrance to our weekly chapter meetings.  Riddles are especially prevalent in schools where instructors are constantly trying to help their students gain knowledge by challenging them academically with something like a riddle.  I find this piece of folklore intriguing because the riddle by itself often accompanies a larger story involving key players such as who is asking the riddle and who is answering the riddle.  One can either choose to look at the whole story or simply analyze the riddle.

Folk speech

Russian Riddles

The 26-year-old informant was born in Russia, but moved to the U.S. at a young age. During his undergraduate studies at Dartmouth College, he was a teaching assistant for a Russian folklore class and found these pieces of folklore to be particularly interesting or representative of Russian culture.

“Another sort of interesting thing that occurs in all sort of Russian folklore is riddles. Like, in fairytales you’ll often have heroes having to solve riddles. So one riddle is:

In the morning it’s seven feet long,

At midday it’s seven inches long,

And in the evening, it reaches across the field.

So the answer to that is a shadow.

Another one is:

Can’t be measured,

Can’t be weighed,

But everyone’s got one.

And the answer to that is the mind.”

Folk speech

Riddle – Name three consecutive days

Informant is my mother who loves riddles. She is known to challenge entire dinner parties with this one riddle, often with nobody able to solve it. She presented this one at a family dinner because there was a guest present who hadn’t heard it before. She says she didn’t make it up but doesn’t remember where she heard it. She thinks she probably learned it from her father when she was younger, living in Cherry Hill, NJ.


Here’s the riddle:

Q: Name three consecutive days without using these words: Monday…….Tuesday…….Wednesday…….Thursday……Friday.

A: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow!


I think what makes this riddle memorable is the misdirection in the instructions. Of course, the trick is the use of the word “days.” Because of the nature of the trick, when you know the riddle it’s painfully obvious, but without knowing it can be hopeless. Before one has heard the riddle (like any riddle), the right answer is unclear. But after hearing the solution, it seems so obvious. I think it’s like an initiation to her, a rite of passage at the communal dinner table.

Tales /märchen

Sphinx Riddle

“Okay… so I don’t remember where I heard this riddle I must have been extremely young. But I remember it very vividly because I thought it was so cool and I don’t know what it’s called but I remember how it goes. So a Sphinx… when you’re walking down a path and you’re just trying to keep walking but a Sphinx is in your way and so…in order to get past the Sphinx the Sphinx will never let you pass and I think it kills you if you don’t answer the riddle correctly… but the only way to pass is to answer a riddle correctly and this is the riddle the Sphinx asks, ‘what walks on four legs in the morning, two legs during the day, and three legs in the evening’ and nobody ever gets it right so the Sphinx always kills them or doesn’t let them pass, I don’t remember if they kill them or don’t let them pass but the correct answer is a person like a human being because when you’re a baby you crawl on four legs and when you are an adult, you walk on two, and when you’re an old man, you walk on two and your third is a cane and that’s how the Sphinx gets ya”

This is a fairly common folktale if one had studied greek legends. what I enjoy about this folklore is that it’s both a story. A folktale about a Sphinx that kills people, but it’s also a riddle as well. There is a riddle within the story. It’s very Shakespearean in that sense.


O Que É, O Que É?

Informant was a 45 year old female who was born in Brazil and currently lives in Brazil. I talked to her over Skype.

Informant: So this is a game of riddle. It’s like a riddle, but it’s also a game. It’s called “O que é o que é,” which is “What is it What is it.” You come up with the riddles at school with friends. It’s something that you need to make people think and have fun. It’s our popular culture. It’s very used with kids, kids play with that a lot. You give clues to what a thing is by describing it, and then the other people have to guess what it is.

Collector: Can you maybe give me an example?

Informant: Ok, for example

O que é o que é

It is deaf and mute but tells everything?

Collector: I don’t know.

Informant: A book. (Laughs)

O que é o que é

That is always broken when it’s spoken?

Collector: Promises?

Informant: Secrets, but close. Last one,

O que é o que é

Is extremely thin, has teeth, but never eats, and even without having money gives food to whoever is hungry?

Collector: What?

Informant: The fork. These are just some examples. I remember a lot of them because they were a really big part of my childhood.

Collector: Why do you like this particular piece of folklore?

Informant: I like it because we used to have a lot of fun we used to play with it all the time, everyone used to have one of these riddles and we used to play all the time, it makes you think and it’s funny. Everytime we were with friends and we were talking or even with family we used to play, but mainly with friends, we used to read books about this to tell friends. It’s just a happy time, we used to play a lot and it was funny.

I remember hearing these riddles when I was a kid. Every time I would go on a road trip, my parents would say these riddles to me about things that would pass by our windows, and it was a fun way to pass the time. It’s really cool to learn that this was also a part of my mother’s childhood, and that she would often play this riddle game with her friends – something I never did. Although it’s mostly a children’s thing, any Brazilian will recognize the famous phrase “o que é o que é” as a riddle. A lot of the riddles are actually quite silly, such as the ones that my mother told me, but it is because they are so silly that they make people laugh.

Folk speech

Three Lightbulbs, Two Rooms, One Answer…

Folk Piece

Question: There are two rooms, one room has nothing but three switches. The other room has nothing but three light bulbs. You can only enter each room once. How do you determine which switch corresponds to which light bulb? Also: the walls aren’t transparent.

Answer: Flip one on, wait a couple minutes, repeat. Feel the heat of the bulbs in the other room.


Background information

The participant likes this riddle because it’s a bit longer than most of the ones he tells. I talked a little about his story in my post ‘A Dog Walks into a Forest…’ But essentially, he likes these riddles because they remind him of him and his dad growing up telling them to one another. He also said “Usually I’d ask riddles that have more to do with word play, I don’t know. But this one is just like a fun variation on that and makes the person think a little bit harder.



I actually guessed this one right, and he was pretty impressed. He asked, “You hadn’t heard that one before?” It was originally being told in a battle of wits between him and a friend of mine, who were asking riddles to one another trying to out-riddle the other. He usually will tell it if someone else will tell one first, or he might do it just to break the ice between he and someone he knows.



Just like the other riddles, this one was told as a back-and-forth exchange between two informants. What I find to be most interesting is the competitive aspect of this folk telling. The informant actually seemed to be legitimately surprised, and even almost a bit annoyed, that I had known the answer. As with traditional riddles, like this one is, there are traditional answers. Typically, those answers are not supposed to be easy to think of; they wouldn’t be considered good riddles if they were. Riddles almost give the person telling them the power to drive the conversation; only they know the answer, or other people who may have heard it.


Also intriguing is the competitive aspect between the two participants. I asked for different riddles, or jokes, but it seemed that just as one ended, another began. I didn’t say that the best one won some sort of prize, or that the most clever would be included. However, it seemed that they were more interested in telling one another these riddles than to me. Why might this be?

I would argue that these participants had learned these riddles throughout their childhood and early adulthood; to them, they own their histories and the memories of them. These riddles, actionable to recall at any time, act as a way to show the history of their wits. Whoever is able to stump the other repeatedly, or has more clever riddles, is the one that has had superior intellectual exposure to riddles. It’s common after someone tells a riddle to say “Ooooh, that’s a good one!” This qualification of which riddles are the most clever can act as an actual social agent in determining the wits of an individual.

Folk speech

Where’s that Polar Bear Going?

Folk Piece

Question: You’re standing in a room which is centered perfectly on the south pole. You see a polar bear walk by the window. In what cardinal direction is the polar bear?

Answer: North. It can be northeast or northwest.


Background information

“I don’t even know where I heard this. Probably when I was in middle school? I don’t know, I definitely remember telling it to people in high school – it’s one of my favorite riddles. It’s just like, simple, but sort of like fucks with your mind a bit? You can almost, like, feel your head spinning as you think about it”



“I usually tell this story only when other people bring riddles up. I don’t, like, just casually whip out some riddles because I want to. But they are fun and entertaining, I guess.”



This, along with “A Dog Walks into a Forest” and “Three Light Bulbs, Two Rooms, and One Answer…” were part of an exchange between two informants that went back and forth with riddles they knew. While the first informant had familial connections to the riddles he was telling, this informant seemed to have less attachment to his riddles. Still, however, it was a point of pride for him when no one could answer. For more analysis on what this competitive aspect of riddling might mean, reference my post “Three Light Bulbs, Two Rooms, and One Answer…”

As for the piece itself, I think it’s interesting that this riddle would probably have been easier in years past. As we become more removed from our transportation and travel around our world, so too does our sense of direction become lost. I know many people who do not know the difference between East and West. While that is certainly not standard, and not a good thing in any way, it was still interesting for me to have to mentally orient myself on a map on the South Pole, spinning my head around trying to make sense of it all.


Folk speech

A Dog Walks into a Forest…

Folk Piece:

Who far could a dog walk into a forest?

Halfway because after that he’s walking out.

Background information

“Well, this is the first riddle my dad ever gave me. Uh, you know, I enjoy word play and I think it’s just a light switch that makes people’s heads really turn a bit. Riddles are just a fun way to get a conversation started sometimes, and yeah, I don’t know, it’s just fun seeing people try and figure it out”


“Well, uh, like I said it’s the first riddle my dad ever gave me. We’d often toss riddles at each other back and forth – well, like, once I was older. And uh, yeah, I’m not sure where this one came from before my Dad, but I know my Grandfather also enjoyed word play, so if I had to guess it would be from him. Now I have a bunch of them I ask people if they ever come up. ” Sure enough, this riddle came up when exactly that was happening. I’d asked a group of friends if they had any good riddles or jokes, and two of my friends went back and forth with them. This was the first one that was mentioned.


When I first heard the informant tell this riddle in the group, I had no idea it was an actually important riddle to him. At the time, I was just jotting the riddles down as they were told back and forth between this participant and another. I guess it would make sense, though, that his favorite riddle would come first.

This would be an example of a true riddle as are most of the riddles the informant would be talking about. Those that have a traditional question and answer, that can be guess based on clues hidden in the riddle itself. I believe this participant does it, however, to test an acquaintances intelligence. Not that he expects the other person to guess it correctly, but I think he expects them to enjoy it because of how clever it is. This participant definitely values his intellect and the intellect of his friends, so that would make sense.



“That Man’s Father Is My Father’s Son” Riddle

The informant in a 26-year old man, born and raised in Long Island, New York.


BF: My uncle used to tell us all riddles. He’d tell us the riddle, but he wouldn’t tell us the answer until we were thirteen. And the cruel thing was that he’d tell us when we were–me and my cousins–were all like ten years old, so we’d have to wait years. We should’ve just googled them, if we’d known.

What was one of those riddles?

BF: This one, it’s the only one I still remember. So, a guy is visiting another guy in jail. The guard asks Guy A if he knows Guy B, and A says “Brothers and sisters, I have none. But that man’s father is my father’s son”.

So who is the prisoner?

BF: My uncle never even told me the answer, I forgot until I was seventeen! So, “that man’s father is my father’s son”. “My father’s son” just means “myself”, so “that man’s father is myself”.. so he is the guy’s father–the prisoner is the son. The father refers to himself, which is why it’s tricky. 


The riddle is told in many different ways with other setups, but the main question usually remains the same.

Folk speech

Cuban Riddle

Original Script: “Un muchacho le pregunta a una muchacha, ‘Cómo te llamas?’ Ella le contesta, ‘Si el enamorado es entendido, ahí va mi nombre y el color de mi vestido. La respuesta correcta es, ‘Su nombre es Elena y su vestido es morado.”

Transliteration: “A boy asks a girl, ‘How do you call yourself?’ She to him responds, ‘If the lover is understood, there goes my name and the color of my dress.’ The answer correct is, ‘Her name is Elena and her dress is purple.'”

Translation: “A boy asks a girl, ‘What’s your name?’ She responds, ‘If the lover is understood, there goes my name and the color of my dress.’ The correct answer is, “Her name is Elena and her dress is purple.'”


This riddle only makes sense in Spanish because the Spanish word for lover, enamorado, is a combination of the last three letter’s of the girl’s name, Elena, as well as the color of her dress, morado. ena+morado=enamorado. Furthermore, the word enamorado is preceded by the word el in the joke. El translates into “the” in this context. The woman in the riddle is testing the man to see if he’s clever enough to figure out  her name using only the clue, rather than just asking for it.

The source said she heard it at a bridal shower. They were telling wedding riddles, and this one came up. It’s a coy riddle, with the woman sounding very flirtatious. It seems she’s interested in this man, but only if he’s smart enough to beat her game. It seems odd that her dress would be purple rather than white, though. Perhaps in some earlier version of the riddle, the man was a prince? Because purple is known to indicate royalty.


For another form of this riddle:

Ortiz Y Pino De Dinkel, Reynalda, and Dora Gonzales De Martínez. Una Colección De Adivinanzas Y Diseños De Colcha = A Collection of Riddles and Colcha Designs. Santa Fe, NM: Sunstone, 1988. Google Books. Web. 23 Apr. 2016.