AppLit logo

question mark

Appalachian Riddles

Compiled by Tina L. Hanlon

question mark

FOR ANSWERS TO RIDDLES BELOW: Click on the question mark to get the answer, with a copy of each riddle (on the page Appalachian Riddles with Answers). The source is given above each riddle below. Use your back button to return to this page from the answer page.

Riddles in Archives  Books, Articles, and Recordings James Still Books The Riddle Song Riddles in Folktales General Resources

Riddles in Archives

Digital Library of Appalachia. Appalachian College Association. A collection of digital reproductions of print, visual, audio and video items from archives in colleges affiliated with ACA. Enter "riddle" into search box to access print or audio texts. One example is 4 pages of typewritten riddles from Edna Lucille Miller's 1938 collection from the mountains of Western North Carolina, including the following.

What is it that wears shoes and has no feet?  question mark

Why does the cow go over the mountain?  question mark

Within a marble dome confined,
Whose milk-white walls with silk are lined,
There doth a golden ball appear
Bathed in a stream of crystal clear
No doors or windows you behold
Yet thieves break in and steal the gold.  
question mark

Riddles in Books, Articles, and Recordings

Alvey, R. Gerald. "Riddles and Puzzles." Kentucky Folklore. Lexington: Univ. Press of KY, 1989. pp. 32-36. New Books for New Readers series. In a 60-page book that introduces the concept of culture, folk speech, and different kinds of folklore, such as songs, tales, riddles, proverbs, rhymes, and customs, brief examples of types of folklore are given. This chapter discusses riddles as both entertainment and "a form of teaching and mental exercise" (p. 32).

How's a hen on a fence like a penny? question mark

Burton, Thomas G, and Ambrose N. Manning. A Collection of Folklore by Undergraduate Students of East Tennessee State University. Johnson City: Research Advisory Council, East Tennessee State University, 1966. Includes "Riddles and Friendship Verses. A Collection of Riddles" by Patsy Buck (see Higgs, below).

Carter, Isabel Gordon. "Mountain White Riddles." Journal of American Folklore, vol. 47, No. 183 (Jan. - Mar. 1934): pp. 76-80. Available online through library services such as JSTOR. Contains examples of riddles from the southern Blue Ridge of eastern TN and western NC, many of which were from Jane Hicks Gentry in 1923. All but one of the riddles was rhymed. Gentry told Carter "that in her 'mother's day they used to tell riddles all night long, and the best riddle got a prize but in my day they sang all night long and the best song got a prize" (76). Most of her informants felt that the telling of riddles was declining. Carter provides several variants of some riddles, showing that different informants told the same riddles. She discusses beliefs that riddles had been used in courts of law and people had won their freedom by solving riddles. The article ends with two riddles whose answers have been lost. Two examples from the article that do have answers:

Humpy Bumpy on a wall
Humpy Bumpy got a fall
Ten men, ten more
Can't fix Humpy Bumpy
The way she was before.
question mark
(Compare James Still's Humpty Dumpty rhyme, which is no longer a riddle, in An Appalachian Mother Goose, and his riddle about this same object - see below)

Mr. Huddle sat in a puddle
With a green cap and yellow shoes.
question mark


Chase, Richard. American Folk Tales and Songs, and Other Examples of English-American Tradition as Preserved in the Appalachian Mountains and Elsewhere in the United States. Illus. Joshua Tolford. New York: New American Library of World Literature, 1956. Rpt. New York: Dover, 1971. Some riddles are included between selections. The following is one of two sent by Boyd Bolling of Flat Gap, Virginia, who ended them with "unriddle those / don't look on the other side" (p. 159).

one thing another i sent to my brother
all full of holes and no holes nother  
question mark

Davis, Judith A. Rhymes & Riddles of a Country Teacher. Parsons, WV: McClain Printing, 2003. N. Pag. "This title combines rhymes and riddles for children with inspirational poetry to create an impressive collection for all ages" (publisher's description). Paperback with b/w illustrations and clip art.

Dorson, Richard M. Buying the Wind: Regional Folklore in the United States. Chicago, 1964. The third section is devoted to "Southern Mountaineers," with Jack Tales, Jocular Tales, Murder Legends and Ballads, Cante Fables, Riddles, Folk Drama, and Carols. The introduction to this section summarizes the collection of ballads and tales in southern Appalachia.

Farr, Sidney Saylor. My Appalachia: A Memoir. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007. Farr, a writer from Stoney Fork, KY, includes 11 riddles heard in her childhood, in a section called "The Power of Riddles" (pp. 35-37), within a chapter on humor. Farr discusses riddles as "both an intellectual exercise and form of entertainment that goes back as far in history as we have any knowledge of man's intellectual doings" (p. 35). She observes that the best known riddle in Appalachia is still the legendary Riddle of the Sphinx that Oedipus answered in ancient Greece.

Hedrick, Helen Groves. Rattlesnake Riddle. Illus. Sara Miller. Parsons, WV: McClain Printing, 2002. 48 pp. "On the high plateau of the Allegheny Highlands in West Virginia lies a picturesque scenic spot called Dolly Sods. Historical importance and natural beauty are presented in this third book for children by Helen Hedrick. In their childhood, Boo and Eze found a breathtaking patch of spring wildflowers beneath a hemlock tree. To their surprise, a timber rattler nearby was enjoying the warmth of a bright spring day. While it lay very still on a big rock, the girls silently slipped away from the poisonous snake. Years later, Miss Eze became a teacher and inspired many children to look, listen and learn about all living things. The book presents adventurous danger in a unique manner that you will remember for a long time. The secretive riddle is revealed as you explore the story" (publisher's description).

Sarah Ann Harmon Hicks riddle. In Ebel, Julia Taylor. Orville Hicks: Mountain Stories, Mountain Roots. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 2006. "A biography for ages 8 to adult," based on extensive conversations with members of the Hicks family. On p. 13, Orville tells how he laughed at his mother's riddles, including the following.

It's between Heaven and Earth, not on a tree.
Now I've told you, and you tell me. What is it?
question mark

Hicks, Orville, and Julia Taylor Ebel. Jack Tales and Mountain Yarns, As Told By Orville Hicks. Illus. Sherry Jenkins Jensen. Boone, NC: Parkway Publishers, 2009. Afterword by Thomas McGowan. 189 pp. More than twenty tales transcribed by Ebel during her extensive association with Hicks, as well as tributes and biographical material on the popular Beech Mountain storyteller. Texts of folk songs and riddles also appear. Some of the tales are about people and folkways in his own family history. Hicks discusses Jack and inserts comments on his favorites and his family's responses to different tales. Contains a glossary with notes on Orville's words and grammar, a study guide section with discussion questions and activities, and bibliographic material. See also AppLit's list of Folktale Collections Indexed in AppLit.

A houseful, a yardful,
but you can't catch a spoonful.
What is it?

question mark

Higgs, Robert J., Ambrose N. Manning, and Jim Wayne Miller, eds. Appalachia Inside Out: A Sequel to Voices from the Hills. Vol. 2, Culture and Custom. Knoxville: U of TN Pr, 1995. Essays, stories, and poems on all aspects of Appalachian studies, including folklore, humor, and education. The examples below are from 5.5 pages of riddles "collected by Patsy Buck from English students at Elizabethton High School, Elizabethton, TN" in the 1960s.

What goes around the house and makes only one track? question mark

What has eighteen legs and catches flies? question mark

What has a bed, but does not sleep?
What has a mouth, but does not speak?
It always runs and never walks.
question mark

Jones, Loyal. "Leicester Luminist Lighted Local Language and Lore." Appalachian Heritage: A Literary Quarterly of the Appalachian South, vol. 30 (Winter 2002). Jones's remarks at the annual Jim Wayne Miller Lecture, Appalachian Writers Workshop, Hindman, Kentucky, July 2001. Jones discussed alliteration and Miller's use of humor and local language. "Jim probably knew this riddle told by Judge Felix Alley of western North Carolina, where Jim and I grew up."

"What's the difference among the Prince of Wales, a bald-headed man, a young monkey, and an orphan child? question mark

Jones, Loyal and Billy Edd Wheeler. Laughter in Appalachia: A Festival of Southern Mountain Humor. Little Rock: August House, 1987. The same riddle above appears in this book. A few of the jokes in this book are in question-and-answer form and some are like riddles put into story form. The following example is titled "Practical Way" (p. 110).

       A country fellow was going through town dragging a long chain. When he went by a store, the merchant called out, "Hey, mister, why are you pulling that chain?"
       The man replied, "Because it's easier than pushing it."

Jones, Loyal and Billy Edd Wheeler. More Laughter in Appalachia: Southern Mountain Humor. Little Rock: August House, 1995. The fourth collection by this pair includes "humorous jokes, anecdotes, poems, riddles, and songs, not to mention a nineteenth-century sermon, a backwoods political speech, and a comical arrest warrant" (back cover). They collected material from a variety of sources, including school children in Kentucky, and celebrities such as Chet Atkins and Minnie Pearl. Includes Introduction on rural humor and two 1993 essays: "The Laughing Snake" by Jim Wayne Miller and "Taking Laughter Seriously" by Howard R. Pollio. Most of the two pages of riddles "were collected by children in the White Hal Elementary School, Madison County, Kentucky" (pp. 162-64

 What's round as a biscuit
          And deep as a cup
The Cumberland River can't fill it up?
                                       Tyler Sanslow
question mark

 

          Purple, yellow, red and green,
The king cannot reach it, nor can the queen,
     Nor can Noll, whose power is so great.
     Tell me this riddle while I count eight.
                                          Mary Johnson
question mark

Justus, May. The Complete Peddler's Pack: Games, Songs, Rhymes, and Riddles from Mountain Folklore. Illus Jean Tamburine. Knoxville: Univ. of Tennessee Press, 1967. Justus wrote that the riddles and other rhymes and songs she "learned from my family, kinfolk, friends, and schoolmates....were part of the common knowledge in our community. They were picked up here and there, passed along from one person to another" (p. xi).The book contains four pages of riddles, all in rhymes of more than one line, including the following.

It never moves by day or night,
Yet keeps on going out of sight.

question mark

Although it never asked a thing
Of any mortal man,
Everybody answers it
As quickly as he can.

question mark

Red in the valley,
Red on the hill.
Feed it, live it will
Water it, it will die.
This is true, and not a lie.

question mark

Justus, May. Lucky Penny. Illus. Frederick T. Chapman. New York: Aladdin, 1951. In a chapter called "If We Had a Wagon," hauling gets harder as the wood gets stuck in rainy ground. Needing a wagon is "a riddle that has no answer, yet" (p. 44). Uncle Bildad Cooley has trouble with his two-mule wagon full of mail. The boys loan him their mules in exchange for using his wagon to haul the wood. On their first day, they fool the teacher by hiding under the mail sack when the load of wood arrives at the school. The boys are proud of the winter clothes they order out of the wish book with their earnings. The next chapter is "Jimmy's First Party": Tommy Tyler invites the boys to a bean-shelling party at his house, with games, songs, and riddles. The preparations, games ("Hull-gull"—guessing numbers of beans in one's hand), play-party games ("Go In and Out the Window," "Skip-to-My-Lou," "London Bridge") are described. Jimmy learns what candy apples are.

Justus, May. "The Riddle Party." Children of the Great Smoky Mountains. Illus. Robert Henneberger. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1952. When Jimmy and Davy Carr have to stay home from school on a rainy day, their grandparents on Little Twin Mountain decide to keep them occupied with a riddle party and popcorn. They hope to introduce riddle parties to their teacher who shares stories, songs, and new games on rainy days. Signs and sayings about rain are included as well as several riddles. About four riddles are included (which also appear in The Complete Peddler's Pack).

Justus, May. Susie. Illus. Christine Chisholm. Chicago: Albert Whitman, 1947. 48 pp. Includes the musical score and words for "Lazy Lady," a humorous song about having one's animals stolen, and lots of information on the healing uses of herbs. Susie Linders, age 10, helps her mother gather and prepare herbs on Little Twin Mountain. Mammy has wisdom but no schooling. Susie and her twin brothers dread the Spring Tea that she makes everyone take to prevent or cure ailments. Susie is not as beautiful as other girls but she would rather romp and run wild and free as the wind than roll her hair on cornstalks or wear a bonnet. When the peddler Step-Along spends the night, he and Pappy trade stories and they sing to Pappy's fiddle and tell riddles. Step-Along's cold turns into a more serious illness with rheumatism. In return for their care of him, he gives each person a gift that this poorest of families couldn't afford from his pack.

Justus, May. The Wonderful School. Illus. Hilde Hoffmann. New York: Golden, 1969. Rpt. 1972. This Little Golden Book contains a poem about a teacher who always has fun with her very small pupils. "There once was a very unusual school/That had for its teacher Miss Tillie O'Toole./She taught all her lessons in riddles and rhyme,/And those who learned quickest were given a dime." Short rhyming lessons are given through to the end: "I'm sure there was never a happier school/Than the one that was taught by Miss Tillie O'Toole."

Milnes, Gerald. Granny Will Your Dog Bite and Other Mountain Rhymes. Illus. Kimberly Bulcken Root. New York: Knopf, 1990. Rhymes, song, and riddles collected by the author in WV since 1975. Only illustrations give clues to the answer of the riddles scattered through the book. See also AppLit Lesson plan on Granny Will Your Dog Bite and Other Mountain Rhymes.

I went down to Grandfather's hall,
There I heard an old man call;
His beard was flesh, his mouth was horn,
And such a creature was never born.
question mark

Montgomery, Michael. "Speech Play." Encyclopedia of Appalachia. Ed. Rudy Abramson and Jean Haskell. Knoxville: Univ. of Tennessee Press, 2006. Includes several examples of riddles.

Roberts, Leonard, ed. I Bought Me a Dog: A Dozen Authentic Folktales from the Southern Mountains. Berea, KY: The Council of the Southern Mountains, 1954. Contains folk 13 riddles and song "The Bachelor Boy" as well as a dozen folktales. (Some of these tales are also in South From Hell-fer-Sartin', 1955.) Roberts observes that "riddles are probably as old as language itself. Samson offered one at festivities that took place at least 1200 B. C."

Crooked as a rainbow, teeth like a cat,
Guess all your lifetime and you can't guess that.
question mark
Once I knew a man of Adam's race,
And he had a certain dwelling place,
It wasn't in heaven nor it wasn't in hell,
Nor it wasn't on earth where the people dwell:
Who was this man and where did he dwell?
question mark

King met a king in a narrow lane,
King says to king, "What is your name?"
Silver is my saddle, gold is my bow,
I've told you my name three times in a row.
And yet you don't know.

question mark

Roberts, Leonard, ed. Nippy and the Yankee Doodle, and Other Authentic Folk Tales from the Southern Mountains. Berea, KY: The Council of the Southern Mountains, 1958. Includes 8 folk riddles between the tales.

Schores, Daniel. "Riddle Me a Riddle: The Southern Tradition of Riddles." Appalachian Heritage: A Magazine of Southern Appalachian Life & Culture, vol. 17:2 (Spring 1989): pp. 58-63.

Van Laan, Nancy. With a Whoop and a Holler: A Bushel of Lore from Way Down South. Illus. Scott Cook. New York: Atheneum, 1998. Tales, rhymes, riddles, and superstitions from the Bayou, the Deep South, and the Mountains, with a map. "Country Riddles" on pp. 40-41 are from Journal of American Folklore 1917-1922; they are from across the South—not necessarily from Appalachia but the same ones are found in Appalachian collections. The amusing illustrations depict quirky human and animal characters in earth tones. Source notes and bibliography included.

Riddles Collected by James Still

Still, James. An Appalachian Mother Goose. Illus. Paul Bret Johnson. KY:  Kentucky UP, 1998.

Still, James. Rusties and Riddles & Gee-Haw Whimmy-Diddles. Illus. Janet McCaffery. Lexington, KY: UP of Kentucky, 1989. N. pag. Reprint of combined volumes Way Down Yonder on Troublesome Creek (1974) and The Wolfpen Rusties (1975). The introduction explains that rusties were “turns of wit, tricks of words, or common pranks.” McCaffery's black and white woodcuts from the original editions, on every double-page spread, add to the fun of the rhymes with a variety of shapes and page designs.

  • Way Down Yonder includes over 80 riddles with the answers written upside down, one riddle in the shape of a snail, one mnemonic for learning to spell geography, several nonsense rhymes, two pieces that focus on place names of Kentucky, and a verse at the end guarding against loss of the book. The introduction describes folklife in the past on Troublesome Creek, observing that in addition to telling stories at home, people, "sprung riddles and pulled rusties."
  • One of the rhyming riddles on Kentucky place names appears as the poem "Post Offices" in From the Mountain, From the Valley (a book of poems by Still, 2001, p. 55).
  • Wolfpen Rusties contains over 40 riddles.

At three months of age it has a full set of teeth and golden hair. At six months it is snaggle-toothed and bald-headed. What is it? question mark

How many dead folk in the Bald Point Graveyard? question mark

Four legs in the morning, two at noon, three in the evening. question mark

Therein no window,
Wherein no door;
When inside comes out
Returns no more.
question mark
Compare riddle on the same subject from Carter, above.

Background on Still and Riddles:

Hanlon, Tina L. “‘Read my tales, spin my rhymes’: The Books for Children.” James Still, Appalachian Writer: Critical Essays on the Dean of Appalachian Literature. Ed. Ted Olson and Kathy H. Olson. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007. pp. 174-89.

Rebecca Briley observed that Still's most vivid riddles deal with cycles of nature and old age and death ("The River of Earth: Mystic Consciousness in the Works of James Still." Appalachian Heritage 9 (Spring-Summer-Fall 1981): 51-55; 64-80; 70-80. Includes discussion of Sporty Creek and the books of riddles. p. 78).

The Riddle Song

Sharp, Cecil J. American-English Folk-Songs from the Southern Appalachian Mountains. New York: Schirmer, 1918.

I gave my love a cherry that has no stones,
I gave my love a chicken that has no bones,
I gave my love a ring that has no end,
I gave my love a baby that's no cryen.

How can there be a cherry that has no stones?
How can there be a chicken that has no bones?
How can there be a ring that has no end?
How can there be a baby that's no cryen?

        question mark

Answers in 3rd verse

Chase, Richard. American Folk Tales and Songs, and Other Examples of English-American Tradition as Preserved in the Appalachian Mountains and Elsewhere in the United States. Illus. Joshua Tolford. New York: New American Library of World Literature, 1956. Rpt. New York: Dover, 1971. Also in LP recording American Folktales and Songs. New York: New American Library, Tradition Recordings, 1957. Includes "The Riddle Song" with words and music from several sources, and program notes by Richard Chase in the recording.

Krull, Kathleen, and Allen Garns. Gonna Sing My Head Off!: American Folk Songs for Children. New York: A. Knopf, 1995. 145 pp. Musical scores including "The Riddle Song," "Down in the Valley," and "On Top of Old Smokey" from Kentucky, and "John Henry" from WV. Other songs labeled Appalachian: "Barnyard Song (I Had a Cat)" and "Mockingbird Song (Hush Little Baby)." Some others are listed as Southern.

May Justus: The Carawan Recordings. Knoxville, TN: Jubilee Community Arts, 2011. Sound recording. "Children's author May Justus performs ballads and folk songs, stories, children's songs and games remembered from her childhood in Cocke County. From field recordings made by Guy Carawan in 1953 and 1961 with notes by Guy Carawan, May Justus and Bene Scanlon Cox." Contents and sample songs on the Jubilee web site.

Ritchie, Edna. Edna Ritchie Songs of Appalachia. 1962 audio recording. CD. Sharon, CT: Folk-Legacy Records, 2006. Includes "The Riddle Song."

Appalachian Riddle Song (Lesson Plan). TeacherVision web site. Family Education Network. This lesson focuses on “The Riddle Song” to show the pentatonic scale and Appalachian culture.

Toelken, J. Barre. "Riddles Wisely Expounded." Western Folklore, vol. 25, no. 1 (Jan. 1966): pp. 1-16. Western States Folklore Society. Available online through library services such as JSTOR. The article discusses the narrative technique of riddle ballads, including several American versions of older European ballads. The Kentucky "Riddle Song" is a descendant of "Captain Wedderburn's Courtship" (Child Ballad 46). As in other examples, the song's riddles have a suggestive series of images (cherry-egg-ring-baby in "The Riddle Song") masked by innocent and homely solutions that are stated explicitly. Comments by Cecil Sharp and references to versions he collected are included. The article argues that double-entendre, with "folk beliefs, colloquial metaphors and ambiguous figures of speech" creating dramatic episodes, is an ancient tradition in riddles, as Old English riddles from the Exeter book illustrate.

Toelken, Barre and D. K. Wilgus. "The Ballad in Context: Paradigms of Meaning." Western Folklore, vol. 45, no. 2, (Apr. 1986): pp. 128-142.

Riddles in Folktales

Ashpet: An American Cinderella. Dir. Tom Davenport, 1990. In this film with a realistic World War II setting, the role of the fairy godmother or wise witch-woman was rewritten and expanded for a wonderful African American storyteller, Ashpet and SallyLouise Anderson, who tells riddles and a short tale within the tale in the role of Dark Sally. She encourages Ashpet to remember her dead mother, use her real name Lily, stop letting people take advantage of her, and above all, to use her brain for her own benefit. Sally's magic comes from deep wisdom combined with good humor, matriarchal strength, and family and community history. She reinforces the heroine's direct links with a beneficent maternal influence, a theme emphasized in the German "Ashputtle" and other old tales, when she gives Ashpet beautiful clothes and jewelry that had belonged to her mother. This Ashpet is more independent than other Cinderellas because she decides to leave her foolish and selfish family herself, as well as planning to wait for the soldier she loves. See AppLit's bibliography of Davenport's From the Brothers Grimm Films.

Davenport, Tom, and Gary Carden. From the Brothers Grimm: A Contemporary Retelling of American Folktales and Classic Stories. Fort Atkinson, WI: Highsmith, 1992. In one scene in "Ashpet," the selfish sisters want love potions from Sally, who asks the following riddles (on pp. 3-4).

A white fence with no gate, and when it's closed, it's dark as night. A pink pig with no mate; it opens wide when filled with fright. question mark

Ashpet's stepsisters can't get this one and Sally tells them, "The answer is in your own mouth! You're not very good at riddles, I guess. Now listen girls. You don't get a charm until you answer a riddle. What's this?"

Two hookers, two lookers, four standabouts and one switchabout. What is it? question mark"We don't know," said Thelma and Sooky.

Six men riding six horses through the apple orchard. Each man picked an apple. How many apples did they get? question mark

Thelma answers "Six, of course!" but Sally explains the right answer. "You are so pitiful, I'll give you one more chance."

Goes all through the field, goes all down through the woods, goes right up to your steps, but won't go in. What is it? question mark

"It's your pathway home,' said Sally. 'You answered no riddles, so you get no love potions. No go on home before I turn you into bullfrogs.'"

Later Ashpet says her mother taught her the following riddle and Sally says that Ashpet's mother learned it from her:

question markGoes all over the pasture, all over the hill, comes way down the road, comes all the way up to the lot, and then, the next morning, it comes and gets up on your table? What is it?


Riddles in Other Folktales

Davis, Donald. "The Time Jack Solved the Hardest Riddle." Jack Always Seeks His Fortune: Authentic Appalachian Jack Tales. Little Rock: August House, 1992. pp. 163-77. The king's daughter says of her evil stepmother, who has thrown her and Jack in the dungeon, "A riddle, Jack. A riddle. My stepmother cannot resist a riddle. I think if you ask her some riddles that she couldn't get the answer to, she just wouldn't be able to kill you until she could find out." The queen agrees to a riddle contest, claiming she knows every riddle in the world (p. 169). They exchange a series of three riddles each (see Jack's first riddle below). Jack goes on a quest for a year to find the answer to this question: "If a woman should desire to spend all of her life with one man, what, above all else, would she desire about that man?" Davis notes that the tale about a man who has to answer riddles by and about women is similar to the one told by the Wife of Bath in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Davis puts a heart-warming spin on this tale with an emphasis on friendship,

You throw away the outside and cook the inside; then you eat the outside and throw away the inside. What is it?
question mark
The first riddle from James Still, above, has the same answer.

In "The Farmer's Daughter" and related tales listed at this link, a clever woman answers riddles to help her father and husband, and get what she wants. For example, in Marie Campbell's Tales from the Cloud Walking Country (1958. Rpt. Athens: U of Georgia Press, 2000, pp. 198-200), the king tells a farmer he will take his farm away if he doesn't "riddle out the answers" to these questions by the next day. The farmer's "smart daughter" gives her father the answers after "ponder[ing] a minute." The king then asks for the woman to come to him "not wearing her clothes and not going bare-naked; not a-walking and not a-riding, and with a present for me that won't be a present." She solves this dilemma by wrapping herself in a fish net, riding a nanny goat with her feet dragging on the ground, and taking a live pigeon that is a present but won't be a present, as it flies off from the king. After the king marries her because she is so smart, he sends her home for butting into his business, but he tells her to take whatever she loves best with her. While he sleeps, she takes him to her old home because she loves him best, thus saving her marriage. These motifs occur in many different folktales. Here are the first 3 riddles from the king.

What is the fastest thing in the world?
What is the richest thing in creation?
What is the thing that I love the dearest?
question mark

After Jack retells this tale, in a version influenced by Elizabeth Ellis, in their show of traditional music and stories for school children, in affiliation with Young Audiences-Arts for Learning-Virginia, beginning in November 2013. After Jack is a band created in 2011 by Emily Blankenship-Tucker, Rachel Blankenship-Tucker, and Mary Allison, former members of the Jack Tale Players of Ferrum College.

In "Like Meat Loves Salt," the heroine uses a kind of riddle to demonstrate her loyalty to her father. As in Shakespeare's King Lear, it is not until her father understands that meat is horrible without salt that the father realizes his daughter has enigmatically expressed her superior devotion.

Long, Maud. "Love: A Riddle Tale." In Lindahl, Carl, ed. American Folktales: From the Collections of the Library of Congress. Vol. 1. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2004. pp. 113-14. In the first chapter on "The Nation's Most Celebrated Storytelling Family: The Hickses and the Harmons." Lindahl notes that folklorists call this type a "neck riddle" because the only way a man who is condemned to death "can save his neck is to pose a riddle that his captors cannot solve." Long begins, "My mother knew a great many riddles and she could say them so fast that it would just make your head swim." Three different riddles are included here; the first one that Long liked is about lightning going "Through a rock, through a reel / Through an old spinning wheel," etc. The following is the neck riddle with a brief explanation about a man who would be hanged unless he told a riddle that the king's courtiers couldn't guess, so he put some of his beautiful collie's fur in his glove and shoes and pants, and the dog's name was Love.

Love I sit, Love I stand
Love I hold in my right hand.
I love Love, and Love loves me.
Guess this riddle and you may hang me.
question mark

"Mister Fox" and "Jack and His Master" contain riddles and women who outsmart murderers.

"Jack and His Master." In Leonard Roberts, South From Hell-fer-Sartin': Kentucky Mountain Folk Tales. Lexington: U Press of Kentucky, 1955. Rpt. Berea, KY: The Council of the Southern Mountains, 1964. pp. 105-6. "Told by Janis Morgan, age 12, Leslie County...heard from her grandmother" (p. 243). The villains, who kill people during cotton pickin', are Jack and his master. When Mary goes off alone to meet them, the rocks and twigs and trees tell her, "O fair maiden, don't be so bold, / Your own heart's blood will soon turn cold." Mary hides in a "blood-hole" when the murderers drag in an old woman, kill her, and throw her ring into the hole. Later Mary tells what she saw as if it were a dream, producing the ring as evidence, and "everybody took Jack and his master out and killed them." Roberts' detailed notes affirm the likelihood of an English source, and include a riddle which he suggests is "the detached cante fable verses of this story" (p. 243):

Riddle to my left, riddle to my right,
Where did I stay last Friday night?
The wind did blow, my heart did ache
To see the hole in the ground that Fox did make.

question mark

"The Poor Boy and Rich Girl" contains a riddle (full text at this link).

In "Rumpelstiltskin" Adaptations, the heroine has to solve a kind of riddle or guessing game by discovering the name of the devious magical helper in order to save her baby. See, for example, Becky Mushko's "Ferradiddledumday."

General Resources

Axelrod, Alan and Harry Oster. The Penguin Dictionary of American Folklore. New York: Penguin, 2000. A short entry on Riddles classifies them as description riddles, comparison riddles, contrast riddles, definition riddles, and visual riddles (e.g., using hand motions). This list does not seem to cover many of the riddles (common in Appalachian traditions) that are based on puns, tricks of spelling, and other word play.

Coffin, Tristram P., and Hennig Cohen. Folklore in America: Tales, Songs, Superstitions, Proverbs, Riddles, Games, Folk Drama and Folk Festivals. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966. Selected and edited from the Journal of American Folklore.

Dance, Daryl C. From My People: 400 Years of African American Folklore. New York: Norton, 2002. Includes a section on riddles and other verbal tests and contests, as well as traditional tales, recipes, proverbs, legends, folk songs, and folk art.

Dundas, Marjorie. Riddling Tales from Around the World. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2002. Chapter 1, "Clever Manka-type Riddling Tales," has six tales similar to "The Farmer's Daughter." The Introduction discusses the many different types of riddling in the 79 tales and songs. A brief tale from the Ozarks is a "neck riddle" (like Maud Long's "Love: A Riddle Tale," above) in which a mother saves her seven sons from hanging by asking a riddle the king can't answer. A section on ballads and songs includes the American "Riddle Song."

Early American Riddle Books for Children:

A Bag of Nuts Ready Cracked, or Instructive Fables, Ingenious Riddles, and Merry Conundrums by the Celebrated and Facetious Tom Thumb. 2nd Worcester ed. Worcester, MA: Thomas, 1798. 95 pp. Early American Imprints, Series 1, no. 34662 (filmed). Reproduction available as E-book. The riddle of the Sphinx, although not named as such, is first in the riddles of chapter II.

A Choice Collection of Riddles for the Improvement of Young Minds. Worcester, MA: Thomas, 1793. 31 pp. Early American Imprints, Series 1, no. 25194 (filmed). Reproduction available as E-book.

John, the Giantkiller, Esq. Food for the Mind; Or, a New Riddle-Book Compiled for the Use of the Great and the Little Good Boys and Girls in America. Worcester, MA: Thomas, 1794. Early American Imprints, Series 1, no. 26985 (filmed). Reproduction available as E-book.

The Puzzling Cap, A Choice Collection of Riddles, in Familiar Verse, with a Curious Cut to Each Riddle. Boston: Coverly, 1792. 32 pp. Early American Imprints, Series 1, no. 25195 (filmed). Reproduction available as E-book.

Tom Thumb's New Riddle Book, Containing a Variety of Entertaining Riddles. To Which is Added, The New A,B,C, Being a Complete Alphabet in Verse, to Entice Children to Learn Their Letters. Boston: John W. Folsom, 1798. 31 pp. Early American Imprints, Series 1, no. 48644 (filmed). Reproduction available as E-book.

Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Beliefs, Customs, Tales, Music, and Art. 3 vols. 2nd ed. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO, 2011. Includes a section on Riddles in vol. 3 and Appalachian folklore in vol. 1. In the latter, on p. 105, it observes that riddles were never as common as proverbs in southern Appalachia. "This encyclopedia covers all the major genres of both ancient and contemporary folklore. This second edition adds more than 100 entries that examine the folklore practices of major ethnic groups, folk heroes, creatures of myth and legend, and emerging areas of interest in folklore studies."

Good Riddles Now. Zablocki Bros., 2013. A web site by a student at Central Michigan University, hoping "to become the world's most comprehensive, engaging site for riddles, puzzles, and word play."

Haslem, Lori Schroeder. "Riddle." The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales. Vol. 3. Ed. Donald Haase. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2008. pp. 808-9. "A contest of wits and knowledge is at the heart of riddle-work, which is often tied to cultural initiation rites and can occur in either a playful setting (as with the joke-riddle or riddling sessions) or a serious one," such as tales in which a condemned man is freed through riddles.

Jones, Alison. "Riddles." Larousse Dictionary of World Folklore. New York: Larousse, 1995. pp. 368-69. "Solving riddles engages the mind with the external, puzzling world, rationalizing patterns of similarity and peculiarity, and bringing the environment within the compass of tribal comprehension.” And riddling “develops the capacity for sustained, imaginative application in the individual intellect of both children and adults." Jones discusses the "strong magical or religious significance" of riddles "in some societies," and observes that "one of the most widespread motifs in folklore is the riddle contest, in which the hero stakes his life, his reputation, or his claim to the glittering prize upon his ability to answer the riddles set him. Sometimes he may triumph through his own cleverness, more usually he benefits from helpful animals or supernatural aid." The Riddle of the Sphinx and Biblical riddles Samson asks Solomon are examples.

McDowell, John. Children's Riddling. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1979.

Opie, Iona A, and Peter Opie. I Saw Esau: The Schoolchild's Pocket Book. Illus. Maurice Sendak. Cambridge, Mass: Candlewick Press, 1992. Children's oral rhymes and riddles collected by the Opies.

Opie, Iona and Peter. The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. Oxford: Clarendon, 1952. Detailed notes on each traditional rhyme.

Peppicello, W. J., and Thomas A. Green. The Language of Riddling. Columbus: The Ohio State Univ. Press, 1984.

"The Princess Who Wanted to Solve Riddles." In Thompson, Stith. One Hundred Favorite Folktales. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968. pp. 345-47. Available as E-book. From Russian Fairy Tales. Ed. Norbert Guterman. Pantheon, 1945. Ivan the Simpleton insists on going to face the challenge of the Tsar's daughter, who wants to solve riddles and says she will marry the man who tells one she cannot solve; his head will be cut off if she can solve his riddle. Ivan acquires several objects along the way and asks a confusing riddle about those, which the princess can't find it in her book of riddles, so she puts off answering until the next day, and sends a servant to promise Ivan gold and silver if he'll solve her riddles. He says he has plenty of money and gets the princess to stand all night in his room without sleeping; he then tells her his answer so she knows it in front of the court. After a second similar night, Ivan devises another riddle that she can't answer because it would reveal to the court her failures and attempts to bribe him. She declares on the third day that she can't answer, so she has to marry him, and they live happily after a fine wedding. This book also contains "The Clever Peasant Girl," an Italian tale similar to "The Farmer's Daughter"

Scott, C. T. "On Defining the Riddle." Folklore Genres. Ed. Dan Ben-Amos. Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1976. Publications of the American Folklore Society. Bibliographical and special series, Vol. 26.

Schwartz, Alvin. Tomfoolery: Trickery and Foolery with Words. Illus. Glen Rounds. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1973. Riddles and other jokes for children, collected from American folklore by Schwartz.

Tucker, Elizabeth. Children's Folklore: A Handbook. Greenwood Folklore Handbooks. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2008. 164 pp. Includes examples of riddles and other folklore texts. Available as E-book.


This page created 7/5/10   |   Site Index   |   Top of Page   |   Last update 11/4/13

AppLit Logo
Home