{598.} Riddles

The riddle (találós kérdés) is a roundabout description of unidentifiable objects, with the help of the features of another object that are either identical with or refer to the unidentified ones. Riddles therefore stand close to metaphors, which is to say that on the basis of similarity they transfer the identifying features of the identifiable object onto another object, or phenomenon, generally identified in the question.

We can suppose that the Hungarians liked riddles from the earliest of times. They called them tales (mese) or riddle tales (találós mese) even in the 17th century: “I’ll marry my daughter to the one who can solve my tale.” We differentiate two kinds in Hungarian folklore. One is the “riddle tale”, that, is a question shaped into some tale form and related to a story; however, the most frequent are the shorter, actual riddles, generally consisting of only one sentence. The Hungarian people prefer the latter type. However, only since the middle of the last century has attention been paid to collecting and recording them.

Among all nations, hence among the Hungarians as well, one of the prime opportunities for asking riddles is the time of communal work, e.g. at corn husking in the autumn and in the spinnery during long winter evenings. In many places asking riddles is customary when asking for the daughter’s hand in marriage. There are many roguish questions among these, worded with a double meaning that suits the occasion.

The time when riddles originated can be ascertained in only a few cases and even then only approximately. This much seems indisputable, that certain riddles could not have been born before the existence of the objects mentioned or to be identified by them. Thus, for example, the riddle “knaggy-knotty blackness, burns like a house on fire”, could have originated only after coal came into common use for heating in the Great Plain, that is in the middle of the 19th century.

The most ancient riddles are very likely those referring to the phenomena of nature: e.g. “The big hive swarms often”; “When the sun shines on it, it all melts” (snow); “It goes without stopping, lies down but never stands up, has branches and knots yet never grows leaves” (river); “A golden button is thrown over the mountain” (sun). Similarly, riddles related to parts of the body also represent old types.

With a knowledge of the life of the Hungarian peasantry, it is understandable that a significant part of their riddles reflect the world of agriculture and animal husbandry: “Ten pulls four” (milking the cow); “Butter on ladder climbs, sits on my leather chair, cuts iron with bone” (stirrup iron, saddle, bridle-bit and horse tooth); “Round like an apple, pleated like a skirt. If you can tell what it is, I’ll put a penny in your palm” (onion).

Riddles that carry direct social messages deserve special attention, but the folklore collections of the past published few of these. In the questions belonging here one hears expressed the condemnation of class society and the self-assertion of the working people: e.g., “I am dear to the lords, I commit much chicanery, but I am not responsible for any of it” (writing pen); “I pour out my poppy seeds and ask my crawfish to pick them up and not to wish me ill” (administration of justice).

The artistic form of riddles betrays unheard-of richness and testifies to {599.} the quick wit and inventiveness of the people. A significant part of Hungarian riddles have an etymological base. Belonging here are questions based on word analysis (”Which hog was never a piglet? The hedgehog”), and especially on change of meaning (”What does the wine do/make in the bottle? Moisture”).

Another large group of Hungarian riddles hinges on emphasizing a single word and precisely evaluating its real meaning (”How many stitches are needed for a well-sewn shirt? None, since it is well-sewn”). Related to these are the so-called “why” questions, where the question does not refer to the entire content of the sentence but only to one word (”Why do you look for the thing you have lost? Because you don’t know where it is”).

While speaking about the form taken by riddles, we must also mention that a large part of riddles, as in the case of idiomatic sayings and proverbs, are also characterized by rhythmic, proportioned structure, and there are even riddles with alliterative, final-rhyme structure. All of this bears witness that even in the case of riddles the people tried to express their message poetically.