MYTH is an answer to a question we do not have, riddle a question to which we do not have the answer. This opposition of Jolles’ gives the key to the relationship between the large form of narrative or thought, myth, and the concise form of posed problem, riddle. In the myth there lurks an unresolvable unknown. A riddle takes an unknown to which there is usually a lexical answer and foregrounds the fact that it is an unknown by phrasing it in such a way that the answer must be deciphered. The answer, in other words, has been removed quite far from the reference of the scrambled lexical items, in the question: a hearer must attend to the sense of the individual words and from them piece together a reference, the answer.
The riddle presupposes linguistic interchange, an effort on the part of the hearer to run these integers of sense into a sum of reference. Once solved, it stands like a hurdle for the next hearer.1 Ordinary language, and the narration of a myth, do nothing like this. They are supposed to smooth a path, not offer hurdles. The solution-machine of the riddle is an implied metalinguistic instrument: it advertises its own temporary insolubility, thereby turning the hearer back to scrutinize its units instead of bringing him on ahead to more language.
The riddle is constructed as a dialogue either actually or in its rephrasable form. In this it is unlike the proverb, which is aimed at a hearer who will take it to heart for prudential application, and which needs no reply. The dialogue of the riddle is self-contained, without any necessary illocutionary force, and without conditions or context derivable from the form of the utterance itself—a freedom from context which itself constitutes a mode of relation to a context. Once a riddle has been solved, its work has been done, and the nature of the work sheds light on the reversal of the solution. The riddle, unlike the weather saw, characteristically does not school anyone in the properties of fire or wind or egg or needle or horse—to state some common riddle answers. It spends itself in concealing under diversionary language the known features of the entities that solve it. As a riddle whose solution is, metalinguistically, “riddle” says, “When first I appear I seem mysterious/But when I am explained I am nothing serious.” (Taylor, no. 100, p. 40). The riddle sets up a community of play, between two or among a few people, for gratuitous linguistic pleasure.
If a riddle has a point, it is then a proverb, like this one from Proverbs:
There be three things which are too wonderful for me,
Yea, four which I know not:
The way of an eagle in the air;
The way of a serpent upon a rock;
The way of a ship in the midst of the sea;
And the way of a man with a maid.
As a riddle this conforms to Taylor’s tripartite type (pp. 50-54). Actually this diverges rather widely from the riddle form by naming its difficulty (niphl’u= “are difficult,” “too wonderful for me”) when riddies usually leave their difficulties unstated, simply building them in. And the rest of it is not so much a finished riddle as materials for some alternate riddles on the invisibility of sexual sympathy in its progress. “The way of a man with a maid” would be the tenor-solution to a riddie whose vehicle could be the moving eagle or serpent or ship.
The riddle element in this utterance is exhausted with the solution. The element that constitutes a warning about sexual behavior, a recurrent subject for its immediate context, makes it also a proverb, and we can here neatly separate the proverb function from the riddle function, though the two forms can either coexist or alternate for the same tenor and vehicle (Maranda, p. 223).
The mythemes of a myth-story are independent of any particular linguistic formulation; their coordination, according to Lévi-Strauss, functions as what may be called a parallel language, a metalanguage. In proverbs the actual words and their order are essential; the proverb is a small, economical literary form. Now the riddle shares features of both myth and proverb. Like the myth, it accommodates a very wide variety of possibilities for its vehicle. The answer fire will serve as the tenor for a number of verbal vehicles:
What is it even though it’s locked in can get out? (Taylor, no. 112)
What is it that you can feed, but can’t give water? (235)
What eats everything? (260-65.7)
What is without bones yet walks? (264.11)
Little cow crummy,
She sits in her stall,
Give her little or much,
She’ll eat it up all.
Give her water, she’ll die,
Give her butter, she’ll fly. (399b)
The person one dresses in the evening and undresses in the morning (587)
What is it that shineth bright all day,
and at night is raked up in its own dirt? (786)
These are not variants of the same riddle, since the vehicle is important for the content. The drama of the riddle is as important as the answer. On the other hand, Look to the ant, thou sluggard and Many a mickle makes a muckle, convey the same message and have a comparable illo-cutionary force. But with a riddle one can get many vehicles for the same tenor, as in the fire riddles above; and it is also possible to have many different tenors for the same vehicle: “He eats with his belly and voids through his back,” or a similar phrasing, has many solutions in the examples Taylor collects (no. 240): a saw, a plane, an adze, a mill, a chaffcutter, a cotton-jenny, a sieve, a weir, a pot, a pump, a chimney, a bag, a lamp, and a gun.
The answer in the riddle dialogue is always short; it is usually a noun or noun-phrase. The question, however, admits of a range of rhetorical and poetic working, from the bare statement of some of the fire riddles quoted above through the antitheses of most of them to the six-line rhyming poem of one. Early riddles are often poems with the answers sometimes unstated, like the Anglo-Saxon riddle poems or the riddles of T’ien Wen, “The Heavenly Questions,” (Hawkes, pp. 45ff).
Between the answer and the question, then, is a formal divergence of stylistic range, as well as the necessary divergence between puzzling vehicles and solving tenor.
In the figure of a myth, or in a poetic symbol, such divergences are packed into the term, the “Apollo” of the Greeks or the “rose” of Blake. It is in this sense that Hegel can say “the genuine symbol is in itself a riddle” (Aesthetik I, 385, italics Hegel’s). In an actual riddle the question-and-answer form breaks up the complexity of the symbol into a divergence that is preserved as a dramatic interchange while it is lost as a significative unit. The fire in the fire riddles above is a simple lexical unit. It has none of the force of Pindar’s “gold is a blazing fire,” or T.S. Eliot’s “consumed by either fire or fire.” As Hegel goes on to say, in a riddle the significance is clear and complete for the solver. In Maranda’s analysis (p. 229 and passim) the divergence between the terms of the vehicle-question and the term of the tenor-answer may express a union of two sets, as in the “metaphor” riddle, or it may express the intersection of two sets, as in the “paradox” riddle.2 Either way, the divergence is maintained, and clues from the semantic field of the tenor are carefully excluded from the vehicle: “What can engulf a whole forest in its burning?” is a question about fire, but it could not be a riddle. The word burning would have first to be taken away.
The function of paradox in a riddle is often not to evoke a deep contradictoriness in existence, as can happen in other poetry, though stretches of poetry turned to riddle-use may possess such overtones, in Brian Caraher’s analysis of Anglo-Saxon riddles. Then we would be justified in separating off the “riddle element” from the “poetry element,” just as we did for the “riddle element” and the “proverb element” in “the way of a man with a maid” quoted above, or more complexly in the aphorisms of Heraclitus. Antitheses in riddles point up the seeming impossibility of solution. In the vehicle an antithesis is absolute. In the tenor it disappears.
“Big as a barn, light as a feather, and sixty horses can’t pull it” (Taylor, no. 1260). “Big” would seem to be the antithesis of “light,” and absolutely. There is no visible substance of which a barn-sized piece would weigh no more than a feather. And to reinforce that deduction we are told that “sixty horses can’t pull it,” which would seem to denote “very heavy.” But when the answer, “the shadow of a barn” tells us that we are dealing with shadow, not substance, the antitheses disappear. Checking back on the question of the vehicle, we see that our assumption of “substance,” which the reference to size and weight seemed to entail, was not justified. When a riddle is solved, the antitheses disappear; in a poem they remain and resonate hauntingly. “It goes all over the mountain on its head, and it sleeps on its head” (no. 187a) proposes activities that stand in antithesis to our assumptions of the uses of a head. To be on the head is to be inverted, and so unable either to walk or to sleep. Here a lexical trick gives the solution, “a horseshoe nail,” and we are at a listing in the lexicon for “head” which reads “—animate,” “the top of an object,” rather than “+ animate,” “the top of a person or an animal.’ The top has indeed been inverted, because usually the head of a nail faces out or up, not down, though a horseshoe nail is one of the less frequent cases where it does face down, like the nail in a boot (188c), also the subject of a few such riddles.
Knowing the answer includes the hearer in the speakers group. The dialogue structure of the riddle is that of an initiation, but an intellectual initiation. The answer to a riddle is usually a single noun, or a simple combination of nouns. And only rarely is the noun an abstraction. Usually it is an object, a pin or a bell or a clock, or a horse, snow or rain or the sun.
The answers fix and nominalize their objects, constituting an act of simplification upon the question. They not only solve the question, they reduce it to a simpler form. An egg is a favorite answer for riddles, but it rarely occurs in the question (Taylor, p. 5). “A head but no hair” becomes a pin or a bell or a clock (Taylor, p. 10). Riddles of motion also resolve to visible objects—fire (no. 112), shadow (113), river (114), tide (115), the sea. Heraclitus may turn the road antithesis (122a-122b) to philosophical usage; its riddle form simply turns “what goes up and down and never moves” into something you see outside your door and can name with a single noun.
By avoiding cyclic processes and hieratic entities—there are few riddies the answer to which is the name of a god or a mythological being—the riddle, though arising in a religious society and sometimes with the question steeped in religious feeling, as in some Anglo-Saxon riddles, performs an act of desacralization by transferring the complexity of the question to the simplicity of an answer lacking a myth-charge. Using analogy, it escapes the theological problems of analogy which condition a religious language (St. Thomas, Ross).
The very form of the riddle implies that fire is mythless and salt a simple item on the table. The scrambled question takes the awe surrounding Promethean fire or Biblical salt and intellectualizes it by coding it into a doubt that the answer then resolves. Instead of explaining Apollo, so to speak, the riddling process puts the speaker, or the hearer, in the position of Apollo, as Lucian (Vita Auct 14.554) says of Heraclitus and his riddling.3 Often the direction from question to answer and vehicle to tenor is from nature to culture, as though to domesticate the visible universe: a pig is a pipe (Taylor, no. 383) or a needle (386) or a grist mill (387); a bull is a pot (395) or a forge (401); and a cow is a mowing machine (400b and c). Even when the direction is from culture to nature, the two are on a simple par without the complex interaction that myth mediates between nature and culture in Lévi-Strauss’s analyses, as:
She washed her hands in water
Which neither fell nor run;
She dried her hands on a towel
Which was neither woven nor spun.
to which the answer is “dew and sun.” The same explanatory equality obtains when the direction is nature to nature, as “Down in the meadows there was a red heifer, Give her hay she would eat it, Give her water she would die” (399), to which the answer is “fire,” and the zoological puzzle about dietary habits is reassuringly resolved.
And the same holds true for the fourth possibility, a vehicle-tenor transfer from culture to culture:
I have a little house,
And it wouldn4 hold a mouse.
There’s as many windows in it
As in the king’s whole house. (1263b)
The answer, “a thimble,” in its particular form and cultural utility offers an answer already coded into the langue for the antithesis between a tiny house and its many apertures.
A kenning is a sort of one-word riddle.Hronrad, “whale-path,” is a kenning for sea; the Biblical wonder about whales is certainly not increased by the kenning, nor is the awe about these cold and treacher-ous northern seas, so different from the Mediterranean. The kenning, like the riddle, fixes in sub-formulaic stability an analysis that has the effect of desacralizing what is referred to, whereas we are used to reading back into kenning the contrary procedure, the sacralization of the charged poetic metaphor.4 To call the sea a whale -path is to say that a treacherous course upon it has as fixed a direction and as stable a ground as an already beaten track on land, while to call it a whale- path is to posit an analogy between man and whale with respect to movement rather than to stand in awe at the difference.
Taken synchronically, the riddle is not charged in its form and does not refer to a charged context. Taken diachronically, it is conceived of as arising in a charged context, the death-test. The fact that Oedipus saved his life by answering the Sphinx’s riddle occurs in the tradition much earlier than the quoted forms of the riddle,5 what the actual riddle was. In the earliest version (Robert, p. 56) the Sphinx was overcome by force, not by a riddle. And as riddles emerge in Greece, they tend to be associated with oracles, urgent but cryptic sayings, which if misapplied may lead to catastrophe. Taken this way, the riddle and the oracle both differ from the proverb by envisioning the future as a unique happening whose problematic relation to the past is unsolvable.
The relation between future and past in the oracle resembles the relation between answer and question in the riddle.
The riddle’s emergence as a death-test occurs in other cultures, too, notably in Germanic culture. In the Vafthruthnismol Odin and the Giant Vafthruthnir confront each other simply as a test of wisdom about mythological lore, though in the poem the tension is resolved simply by declaring Odin the wiser, and the death of the gods is mentioned in the questions rather than invoked as a penalty. In the Fafnismol Sigurth conquers and slays the dragon Fafnir after a contest of questions. The question-and-answer frame is there, ready to be detached for the specific form of the riddle, and then to be separated from its connection, become inessential through the very process of answering, with the domain of myth.
All these developments take place in societies that are sensitized to the appearance of literacy. Most of the Oedipus material can be traced, or is attributed, to the period between 750 and 450 B.C. when the alphabet was taking shape. In Norse culture the alphabet holds a magic charge of myth: it is in the form of runes, and runes are frequent in the Eddas, in the Sigrdrifumol, for example. Brynhild when waking speaks runes to Sigurth (Gripisspo 17). Probably contemporaneous with the AngloSaxon riddles, the Anglo-Saxon rune poem reverses the riddle, giving an amplified description of an object to be appended to each letter, replacing the magic of the rune with a known object at a time when the magic still clung to the runes. For each letter-rune we get two or three lines appended to a word that begins with the letter, as “ice” for “I”:
Is byp ofercealt, ungemettum slidor, glisnap glaeshluttur gimmum gelicust, flor florste geworuht, feager ansyne.
Ice is very cold, immeasurably slick, glistens glass-clear, most like to gems, a floor wrought by frost, fair to see.
According to Eberhard (p. 291), Conrady asserts that the I Ching originated as a dictionary of the Chou script. If so, it combines the rune, the oracle, and the puzzling lexical staples of the riddle, all in one.
The death-riddle may be said to condense and encapsulate the whole process of human survival into a single verbal exchange. It lingers on as the attribute of a distant or magical past in fairy-tales; only by a trick can Rumpelstiltskin’s name be known. The aura of such magic is imported for dramatic use into Pericles, with its death-riddle also involving a kinship short-circuited into incest, and into The Merchant of Venice, where the woman who is won by solving a series of choices with riddles like clues, herself then solves a legal dilemma by an antithesis between flesh and blood which it would be possible to rephrase as a riddle.
The whole of Finnegans Wake may be analyzed as a giant riddle, which has taken the scrambling of the questions in a riddle and applied it back to the answers, atomically. We do not even know if the scrambled words are answers or questions. The separable questions that it does ask, in the “Triv and Quad” chapter, are just intellectual, catechisms in a scholastic context, though they are framed as riddles. It also mentions runes (279, 19; 479, 34) and quotes some Tantric runes (571). In an advanced technological culture like our own the riddle, too, like the myth, becomes ironic, a self-trivializing mechanism for pure play, like the puzzles of Lewis Carroll and even the part of Scientific American edited by Martin Gardner, who has annotated Lewis Carroll, the pure play aspect of scientific calculation. A very far cry from myth indeed is the search for words letter by letter—in denatured runes, as it were—to conform to a given but arresting definition, the crossword puzzle.
Emerging from the charged context of a death test, the riddle as a form celebrating explanation easily accommodates to the pure play of a desacralized society—or to the resacralization of an inner quiet where resacralization and desacralization converge. In this sense the aphorisms of Kafka are not proverbs but post-riddle forms, like “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”—a post-riddle Zen question to which there is no answer but the silence of both hearer and answerer, the silence whose desacralization is felt, by hearing the question, to converge with a resacralized sound (sound in oral cultures is sacral); sound and silence become one.