Humans seem to have a historic need for riddles. Think “The Hobbit.” That’s historical, right? Or D&D’s “White Plume Mountain.” Again, totally historical.
The oldest recorded riddle comes from the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus that dates to around 1650 BC.
There are seven houses; In each house there are seven cats; Each cat catches seven mice; Each mouse would have eaten seven ears of corn; If sown, each ear of corn would have produced seven hekat of grain. How many things are mentioned altogether?
(All answers are provided below for those who want to have a go at the riddles.)
The Exeter Book, or Codex Exoniensis, is a book of Anglo-Saxon poetry and more than 90 medieval riddles. The book is estimated to have been written sometime between 960 and 990 AD.
Here is one of the Exeter riddles:
I saw a thing in the dwellings of men that feeds the cattle; has many teeth. The beak is useful to it; it goes downwards, ravages faithfully; pulls homewards; hunts along walls; reaches for roots. Always it finds them, those which are not fast; lets them, the beautiful, when they are fast, stand in quiet in their proper places, brightly shining, growing, blooming.
For people who get annoyed that some historical novels don’t realistically capture the language of the time, here is the same riddle in its original Anglo-Saxon:
Ic wiht geseah in wera burgum
seo þæt feoh fedeð hafað fela toþa
nebb biþ hyre æt nytte niþerweard gongeð
hiþeð holdlice to ham tyhð
wæþeð geond weallas wyrte seceð
āa heo þa findeð þa þe fæst ne biþ
læteð hio þa wlitigan wyrtum fæste
stille stondan on staþolwonge
beorhte blican blowan growan
Several of the riddles are meant to jokingly hint at an obscene solution, although there is a less salacious answer, as well. For instance:
Often a goodly damsel, a lady, locked me close in a chest. Sometimes with her hands she took me out and gave me to her lord, a fine chieftain, as he commanded her. Then he thrust his head well inside me, up from below, into the narrow part. If the strength prevailed of him who received me, adorned as I was, something or other rough was due to fill me. Guess what I mean.
Some riddles in the Book of Exeter are easy and some would be impossible to solve for someone who hasn’t grown up in the culture. I imagine it’s like watching a Bangladeshi soap opera: get past the language and you’d probably still be flummoxed.
I love riddles, although I can’t say I’m any good at them. If you have a fun one to share, please do it in the comments section below!
Answers: 1) 19,607. Remember this is a papyrus of mathematics, so the answer requires multiplication: 7 houses x 7 cats x 7 mice x7 ears of corn x 7 hekat. 2) A rake. 3) A fine shirt (get your mind out of the gutter, perv!)