Riddles are a form of proverbial wisdom, which is found in various, distinctive, forms in numerous cultures throughout the globe. The earliest examples of written proverbs come from ancient Sumer, and amongst them we find several riddles. Sumerian Proverbs were composed according to a number of different patterns, one of which was along the lines of what we might consider an adage or an “old saying.” For example, the English proverb “In the land of the bling, the one-eyed man is king.” That saying actually comes from a Talmudic saying, which translates roughly to “In the street of the blind, they call the one-eyed man great of sight.” The Talmudic version, in turn, has a precursor in an ancient Sumerian proverb, which is, roughly, “In the city of the lame, the halt is courier,” which basically means where everybody has two bad legs, the guy who is only lame in one leg is in the best shape… so, same idea.
Apparently, proverbs like this were very popular as writing exercises in ancient Sumer for students learning to become scribes. The writing of the time was a Cuneiform script, and students would practice writing short phrases on clay tablets, which have been found in some form or another at virtually every major excavated site in Mesopotamia. And so, for that reason, one of the short phrases used in these exercises has come to be known as the most famous Sumerian riddle. There are, naturally, many variations on it, but a common translation of the riddle is as follows:
“He whose eyes are not open enters it,
He whose eyes are wide open comes out of it;”
Give up? Ok, the answer there is a school… Put into a high stakes scenario, I don’t think I would have been able to figure that one out.
However, something that we actually do find throughout various world mythology is the idea of a high-stakes riddle. A situation where something big- life and death, even- depends on someone solving a riddle.
One of the most well-known examples of a high-stakes riddle is the riddle of the Sphinx, which a lot of people are probably at least somewhat familiar with. You’ve almost certainly seen images of the famous Giant Sphinx of Giza in Egypt, and indeed Sphinxes originated in Egypt, but spread to Greece through trade and cultural contact during the Bronze Age, well before Alexander the Great occupied Egypt.
The Sphinx responsible for the famous riddle is the Greek sphinx, and the story is found in the myth of Oedipus.
In Egypt, there were many Sphinxes- typically seen as guardians of temples, and generally considered benevolent figures. In Greek mythology, there was one specific Sphinx, who was sort of a demoness with the head of a woman, the body of a lioness, wings of an eagle, and a serpent-headed tail. Although not particularly benevolent, the Greek Sphinx did maintain the role of guardian. She guarded the entrance to the Greek city of Thebes, and in order to pass through into the city people would have to answer her famous riddle. If they couldn’t answer, she would eat them. So, she was understandably feared and loathed by the people of Thebes.
The riddle, of course, has been translated many ways, but the overall meaning remains fairly consistent. One common sort of version is:
“Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?”
The answer, of course, is man, who is born crawling on all-fours, then walks on two feet, and then, in old age, uses a cane as a sort of third leg. Oedipus comes to Thebes and wins the throne of the recently deceased king by answering the Sphinx’s riddle, upon which the Sphinx throws herself off a rock and dies. Or, alternately, devours herself. Either way, Oedipus becomes the King of Thebes and marries the dead king’s wife. Of course, the dead king is actually, unbeknownst to poor Oedipus, his own father and he ends up marrying his own mother, as per the cruel path of destiny in that particular myth.
I’m not going to get too into the full story of Oedipus today, both because it is a really widely known story and its also a pretty tragic, depressing story… not that I shy away from tragedy, but it doesn’t really fit in with today’s theme of riddles.
That being said, we’ll cut Oedipus a break today and leave him as the new King of Thebes, having just heroically dispatched the menacing Sphinx by solving her infamous riddle. Perhaps we’ll revisit him in a later episode and chronicle his most unfortunate demise, but not today.
Instead, we’re going to head North and take a look at a mythical match of wits between the Norse God Odin and the jotunn, or giant, Vathruftneer, who, in sharp contrast to most of the giants, was renowned for his wisdom. For a bit of background on the sort of pantheon of Norse gods and their relationship to the giants, you might want to listen to Episode 3 of the podcast on Loki if you haven’t already. I’m not going to go over that stuff in full today, but very basically Odin is sort of the king of the Norse gods, living in a mythical time before the age of man, and the jotunn or giants are another race who typically serve as antagonists to the gods with varying levels of drama between the two.
Before we get to the throw down between Odin and Vathruftneer (note: phonetic spelling), however, we need to look at the story of Balder.
Balder was the son of Odin and The Goddess Frigg. He had a twin brother, Hodur, who was blind. Balder is given a fair amount of attention in Norse Mythology, both in the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda, but really the primary focus is not so much on his character, but rather on his death.
One night, both Balder an his mother Frigg have the same dream of Balder dying. Dreams were considered highly prophetic, and so Frigg goes around to all of the realms of all the worlds and makes every object swear a sacred, binding, oath not to harm Balder. All objects swear this oath except for mistletoe. This is typically interpreted as implying that mistletoe was seemingly so harmless that it Frigg figured it was pointless to include it.
Regardless of the reasoning, mistletoe is left out. Loki catches wind of this. Again, if you’ve listened to episode 3 of the Podcast, then you’re already familiar with Loki. If not, then you might want to check that out for some background. Generally, Loki is sort of a trickster figure in Norse mythology. Sometimes good, sometimes not so much. And, in this story, he’s pretty devious.
Once Loki is tipped off to this sort of mass oath swearing instigated by Frigg, and the fact that mistletoe has been, for whatever reason, left out, he immediately gets to work carving a spear out of mistletoe. Meanwhile, all of the other gods are amusing themselves by hurling various objects at Balder, who of course remains unscathed because of the power of the oaths. This is all fun and games until Loki shows up with his new spear. Loki gives the spear to Balder’s brother, the blind Hodur, who hurls it his brother, assuming it will bounce off of him like everything else. The spear pierces Balder, who falls to the ground and lays dying.
Balder’s death is typically seen as an important event in the cycle of inevitable events leading up to Ragnarok- the apocalyptic end of the era of the gods. So, in a way, this story emphasizes Loki’s role as being sort of a catalyst for fate- bringing about predetermined event, even though on the surface he’s quite malicious here.
After Balder’s death, he was ceremonially cremated on his ship. As his body was being carried to the ship, Odin whispered something into his ear…
That’s the end of Balder, but the question of what, exactly, Odin whispered to him, became the subject of a riddle that appears twice in Norse mythology. Probably the older and more famous of the two accounts of the riddle takes place during the aforementioned match of wits between Odin and the giant, Vaft-hruth-neer, who is widely known to be the wisest of the giants, often using riddles as a way to test the knowledge of those who might attempt to converse with him. Sometimes his name is actually translated as “King of Riddles.”
Some time, after Balder’s death, Odin wishes to witness this giant’s knowledge firsthand, and so he disguises himself as a simple wanderer named Gangrad, and goes to see Vafthruthneer. In cognito, Odin challenges the giant to a match of wits. And of course, being a good Norse myth, the loser here would lose more than just his dignity- he would lose his head! So, the stakes were pretty high.
Vafthruthneer is, at first, reluctant to even consider this average-looking wayfarer as a worthy opponent, but Odin/Gangrad insists, and Vafthruthneer begins to quiz him on all sorts of celestial matters.
He asks Odin about the horses that pull Day and Night across the sky. Odin answers, correctly, of course, that Skinfaxi pulls Day across the world and Hrimfaxi pulls the Night. Vaftruthneer drills Odin about Ragnarok and other events, past, present, and future. Every time, Odin is able to produce the right answer. Finally, its Odin’s turn to question the giant.
First, Odin asks him about the origins of the world and the various realms, which Vaftruthneer answers. Odin asks him about the sun and the moon, and Vaftruthneer explains that the sun and moon are the offspring of the giant Mundilfari, placed in the sky so that men could measure the passing of time. Right again! Odin quizzes him further on an array of things until it is clear that both of them are, indeed, very intelligent and well-versed in all things mythological.
Finally, Odin says that, with all of his wisdom, the giant should be able to tell him what it was that Odin whispered into his son Balder’s ear before he was burned on the funeral pyre. At this point, Vaftruthneer realizes who his guest really is and admits that the question is unanswerable to anyone other than Odin himself, thus proclaiming Odin the wisest of the wise.
Its unclear whether Vaftruthneer actually loses his head or not at this point.
In that story, we see a situation where the riddle posed is effectively unanswerable – Its based on a private interaction between Odin and his son’s body, so only Odin could possibly know the answer. Seems kind of unfair, but actually that’s not the only mythological example of a seemingly unanswerable question being posed as a riddle.
Another famous one can found in the Biblical story of Samson, although there is a history of heated debate amongst scholars and theologians about the nature of the riddle in that story. A lot of people are probably familiar with the story of Samson, but its one of those stories that while a lot of people know of, the actual story can be a little elusive, and I think its worth looking at today since, after all, it contains one of the most famous riddles.
I’m not going to get in too deep with the historical context here, but very basically, according to the Biblical narrative, Samson was born to an Israelite couple through the help of divine intervention. The couple was unable to conceive, but an Angel appeared and told them they would have a son who would begin to deliver the Israelites from the Philistines. Samson is endowed with superhuman strength, which is connected to his hair. Without his hair, he loses this power.
As a young man, Samson leaves home and travels to the cities of the Philistines, where he falls in love with a Philistine woman. This is all part of God’s plan. On the way to ask for her hand in marriage, Samson encounters a lion. Because of his super strength, he rips the lion apart with his bare hands.
Some time later, he returns on his way to marry the girl and sees that bees have made a nest in the lion’s carcass and made honey. He eats some of it, but tells nobody about this experience.
At the wedding feast, Samson poses a riddle to 30 Philistine guests. If they can solve it, he will give them 30 pieces of fine linen; if they can’t, they will give him the linen. The famous riddle is this:
“Out of the eater, something to eat; out of the strong, something sweet”
The riddle is based on his encounter with the lion and the bees, an experience for which only he was present. Infuriated by the riddle, the Philistine guests threaten and harass Samson’s bride, provoking her to tearfully implore her husband to tell her the answer, which she in turn divulges to the Philistines.
“What is sweeter than honey. What is stronger than a lion?”
Upon hearing the Philistines answer the riddle correctly, Samson gets angry, and he says,
“If you had not plowed with my heifer,
you would not have solved my riddle.”
Then he kills them all and goes on a rampage, lighting the tails of foxes on fire and loosing them in Philistine villages and fields to burn them to the ground. There is some back and forth killing, and eventually Samson takes refuge in a cave. An army of Philistines come for him and demand that the men of Judah hand him over. With Samson’s consent, they tie him up and are about to hand him over to the Philistines. But, again, using his super strength, Samson breaks the ropes and kills the entire army of Philistines using the jawbone of a donkey.
Eventually, Samson falls in love with another woman named Delilah. The Philistines bribe Delilah with a hefty chunk of change to find out the secret to Samson’s super strength. After much coaxing, he divulges that his power lies in his hair. With that, she shaves his head while he’s sleeping. Since that breaks the oath made with God, God abandons him and he is captured by the Philistines who gouge his eyes out and put him to work turning a large millstone.
One day, the Philistines assemble in a temple to show off Samson and perform a sacrifice to one of their pagan gods in thanks for his capture. By this time, however, Samson’s hair has grown back, and he manages to lean against a pillar in the temple, push it down, and crush himself along with all the Philistines within it.
There has been, and continues to be, a good deal of scholarly debate surrounding the story of Samson, and in particular the riddle. Some more contemporary scholars have operated under the assumption that the story of Samson and the riddle grew out of a fusion of originally independent traditions, suggesting that originally the riddle had alternative answers or meanings. One theory suggests a relation between the bees in the lion’s carcass and the ancient ritual of bugonia, which was a bee-keeping method based on the belief that bees were created by spontaneous generation out of the carcasses of cows. This process was actually chronicled in some depth in a 10th century collection of agricultural lore called the Geoponica. I’ll read a short excerpt about bugonia:
Build a house, ten cubits high, with all the sides of equal dimensions, with one door, and four windows, one on each side; put an ox into it, thirty months old, very fat and fleshy; let a number of young men kill him by beating him violently with clubs, so as to mangle both flesh and bones, but taking care not to shed any blood; let all the orifices, mouth, eyes, nose etc. be stopped up with clean and fine linen, impregnated with pitch; let a quantity of thyme be strewed under the reclining animal, and then let windows and doors be closed and covered with a thick coating of clay, to prevent the access of air or wind. After three weeks have passed, let the house be opened, and let light and fresh air get access to it, except from the side from which the wind blows strongest. Eleven days afterwards, you will find the house full of bees, hanging together in clusters, and nothing left of the ox but horns, bones and hair.
There are plenty of other theories about Samson’s riddle, but ultimately nobody really knows for certain what symbology or alternate meanings may or may not apply to the lion and the bees, the strong and the sweet… In a way, it still remains a riddle.