“The tale is one of the tales from Akbar and Birbal. Akbar was a mogul emperor; one of the biggest and most well-known mogul emperors of India. Birbal was a Hindu who was the minister in Akbar’s court and he was very well known for his wisdom and for being very wise. Akbar was often impressed by that and the other court ministers were often jealous of him, so one day, Akbar came into the court and he gave a puzzle to all his ministers by drawing a line. He said to make this line shorter without erasing any of it, and Birbal came forth when none of the other ministers could answer the riddle, and he drew another line, which was longer than the one Akbar drew. He was like, ‘now this line is shorter.’”
This story was told by my roommate. She is from India and she shared how this might seem like a “kind of silly tale” that presents “just a trick or just a puzzle” but a lot of messages that are conveyed within the culture can be seen in this tale. This story is very well known in India and it kind of just celebrates the history of India and the wisdom that a lot of the ministers had. It overall shows how important being wise is in solving problems. She heard this tale when she used to go to elementary school in India. Her parents bought her this book of Akbar and Birbal tales and this was one of the tales in that book.
In Indian culture wisdom and problem-solving is strongly valued. This story emphasizes thinking outside of the box and coming up with solutions that might not be obvious. This story shows that it is a very common fairy tale told to young children. This tale was more popular than ones like Cinderella as the lessons within this tale better represent the values of India. This tale also connects to one of the most powerful empires in India. It also consists of one of the most powerful kings and one of the smartest people. This story also gives people a touch of emotions.
“¿Qué cosa es redonda como una pelota, pero pesa más que un elefante?” “El Planeta Tierra!” (“What is round like a ball, but weights more than an elephant?” “Planet Earth!”)
MD is my roommate’s friend here at USC. She is originally from Miami Beach, Florida and has lived there her whole life. She was raised by Argentinian parents who immigrated to Florida when they were in their teenage years. She describes her parents as both free spirited and herself in the same fashion.
MD: My dad would always tell me riddles growing up while he drove me to school in the morning. Sometimes if we were taking my friends to school with us after a sleepover he would tell them to both of us. I remember trying to figure them out and getting upset if my friend got it first.
DO (Interviewer): Can you remember one that was hard for you to get?
MD: Yeah. He would turn around in his seat at the red light and make hand motions with it. So like he would start off asking “Qué cosa es redonda como una pelota?” Which translates to “What is round like a ball?” And he would make a circle with his hands. And then he’d follow it up with “pero pesa más que un elefante?” And would make this funny elephant sound. Then we would guess. After a few times he finally would tell us. The answer to this one is “El planeta Tierra” which means planet Earth. I remember I was so upset after and thinking how stupid it was. But now I laugh at it.
DO: What did these riddles mean to you growing up?
MD: Well they were pretty fun to do every morning. Looking back, I don’t know how my dad didn’t run out of ones to say. Riddles were part of our little routine that we had going on. I also loved when I got them right, it made me feel like the smartest kid ever. But it was also just a way for me to chill with my dad and bond with him so I guess there’s a little bit of nostalgia in them now.
This riddle was part of children’s lore for this family. It was a way for her dad to bond with the kids and continues to be an important part of their childhood memories. This was one of the earliest and most impactful introductions to folklore for her. After this specific riddle, I was told a few more that stood out from this time. The riddles being simple and silly allow the kids to have enough knowledge about the topic to understand it but were still challenging enough to have them think hard about the answers. It also served as a confidence booster for the children if they solved the riddle and allowed them to think about things differently since the answer is not obvious.
D is 19 years old, she’s a college student. She moved to California for high school, and has a large history with camping and hiking. She shared this trail game riddle she learned at summer camp in North Carolina when she was 11 or 12, though she’s also heard it multiple times while hiking.
“You could call them detective riddles, but they’re all in the same genre of: someone presents a scenario and then the one who’s trying to figure it out is asking questions about the scenario until they get more and more details and they figure out the answer to the scenario. This one is known as the scuba diver riddle. The scenario is “a man is found in the middle of a burned down forest head to toe in scuba gear. There’s no trace of anyone else around him, no trace of how he got there, what happened?” From there people ask questions like “Is he wet? Yes or no. Is he alive?” Sometimes it takes 20 minutes, I’ve seen up to three days, it’s a great thing to play when you’re in the backcountry and really bored. The eventual answer is that the man is someone who was scuba diving, there was a forest fire miles and miles away from sea, and helicopter crews trying to stop the wild fire were collecting water in huge nets to carry over to the forest from the ocean. They picked up this scuba diver, dropped him on the forest fire, he died on impact.”
This was a new brand of riddle that I hadn’t heard because it seems to be specific to those who go hiking or are out in nature for a long time. It seems like an excellent way to pass a lot of time. It’s really interesting how groups that spend a lot of time doing something repetitive like walking up a trail or camping will get creative to engage their minds over that long period of time. I wonder how far back games like these go. I imagine games like this have existed for a long time, because before cars people often had to walk very far to get to their destination if they were traveling somewhere new, like soldiers marching or people going on the Oregon Trial. I imagine humans have been creating these games for a long time, and they’ve morphed to suit modern audiences, as this riddle is terminus post quem helicopters and scuba gear existing. The informant also said that this riddle was used by adults to frustrate and keep kids busy, because kids like to ask a lot of questions. It seems like a good way to quench kid’s curiosity, because kids are endlessly curious.
D is 19 years old, she’s a college student. She heard a lot of trail games and riddles, and shared one that she learned on a camping trip in high school in California. She says that only people from California have ever recognized it.
“There’s a riddle called trains. The riddle has one person who’s the teller, usually the teller knows the riddle and no one else knows it. Someone says “I’m going to tell you guys about a bunch of trains going to different places, and you have to figure out the pattern.” You have the guess the answer. If I were to say this riddle, I’d say “There’s uhh one train in Los Angeles, zero in San Francisco, there’s like uhh… uhh you could say there’s two trains in Utah. There’s uhh one train in Florida” and it keeps going like that. The answer to the riddle is that every time you say “uhh” in your leadup to the state, that’s how many trains there are.”
I recognized a familiar riddle that I had learned as a child in California, another one that leads you on a long confusing journey while people try to keep up with a pattern, but the answer ends up being something stupid. The informant said that people tried to think about letters or vowels, but the real answer is “just so stupid.” When it comes to riddles, some people want to solve them to see smart, especially once you get a bit older. You want to seem smarter than the kids who normally hear this riddle, so people think of really complex potential answers. In the end though, the answer is just something silly. People sometimes take themselves too seriously when playing silly games and riddles, trying to prove that they are smart and capable of figuring it out easily. Often it’s little kids who are able to get the answer because they’re not overthinking it. Riddles like this encourage people to get back to their childish roots.
“Two men are in a desert and they both have backpacks on. One of the two is dead. The guy who is still alive has his backpack open and the guy who is dead has his backpack closed. What is in the man’s backpack who is dead?”
HW is a 20 year old who was born and raised in Southern California. She now works at a restaurant in the Southern California area. She originally heard this riddle from her grandfather when she was a kid. He used to give her riddles and would give her a dollar if she could come up with the right answer. My informant said “he wasn’t usually out all that much money. I usually only got them when I had heard it before.” I had met her for coffee where she told me this riddle.
This riddle has a typical structure. It asks a question after granting information, but not enough to totally understand where the riddle is going. Often, riddles even provide too much information to throw people off the right answer. In this riddle, you might think the desert is an important clue, but it really could be set almost anywhere. This riddle has a little bit of humor in it as well. Everyone may not find it funny because of its use of death as a comedic technique. The barrier to understand this riddle is relatively low because anyone who understands English and how parachutes work can understand it. However, the younger the audience is, the less likely it will be an appropriate riddle or one that could be understood. My informant cannot remember how old she was when she heard it, but she does know that she understood it once she heard the answer. Riddles are often given to children and told by children for fun and to test how clever someone is based on how good they are at solving them. Often though, people who have heard the riddle before are likely to get the answer, whereas if someone hears a riddle for the first time, it is much harder to get the answer right away.