Riddles are nothing new. In fact, they’ve been around for thousands of years, and perhaps even longer!
After all, the written works that have survived to this day aren’t necessarily the oldest. These ancient riddles are simply some of the oldest recorded of which humankind is aware!
So, let’s find out what they are! I’ve also included the answers at the bottom of this post. So, you don’t end up like Homer (more on that later)!
Ancient Riddles That Have Stood the Test of Time
Many a riddle has come and gone, but these ancient riddles have been here the longest!
The Most Ancient of all Riddles!
This ancient Sumerian riddle has stood the test of time, putting noggins to the test for thousands of years! It’s also one of the oldest written riddles known to humankind.
The Sumerians lived in the land of Sumer, now present-day Iraq. Other than writing riddles, they also created one of the oldest known writing systems.
Can you guess this most ancient of riddles?
“A house based on a foundation like the skies. A house one has covered with a veil like a secret box. A house set on a base like a goose. One enters it blind but leaves it seeing.”
What is it?
The Allfather’s Riddles
This ancient riddle hails from the legends of Norse mythology. It is said that Odin made this riddle up, amongst other ancient riddles, to fool King Heidrek.
King Heidrek demanded that Gestumblini make up riddles he couldn’t guess to avoid being locked up. So, Odin came disguised as Gestumblini, who prayed to the Allfather to help him.
“Four hang, four sprang, two point the way, two to ward off dogs, one dangles after, always rather dirty.”
What am I?
Odin Outsmarts the King
Here is another of the ancient riddles with which Odin challenged King Heidrek.
“Mankind it mars, speech it hinders, yet speech it will inspire.”
What is it?
Lord of the Mysteries
J.R.R Tolkien is known for his literary prowess. Among creating whole fictional languages, writing poetry, and various novels, he was also adept at creating riddles.
Though not technically ancient, this riddle is still one of the fictional ancient riddles of Middle Earth. It is one Bilbo gets asked during his encounter with Gollum in the Misty Mountains.
In this chapter of The Hobbit, he needs to defeat Gollum in a riddle competition in order to escape him. Do you know the correct answer to this riddle?
“Thirty white horses on a red hill: first they champ, then they stamp, then they stand still. What are they?”
Odin asked many riddles of the King in an attempt to save Gestumblini from his fate. Here is another ancient riddle presented to King Heidrek by Odin.
“From home, I went. From home, I made my way. I saw a road of roads, and a road under them, and a road over them, and a road on all sides. What are we?”
Homer’s Fatal Plight
Ancient riddles come from many sources in antiquity, including the story of Homer, the Greek poet. It is said that he visited the island of Ios and came upon a few fishermen there.
He asked them, “how is your day?” – to which they replied with this riddle. In his quest to find the solution, it is said that Homer stayed on the island until he died.
He never figured out the answer. Can you make it out?
“What we caught, we threw away; what we didn’t catch, we kept. What did we keep?”
Samson’s Cunning Trickery
This ancient riddle hails from the seventh book of the Old Testament – the Book of Judges. In this recount, Samson asked his thirty dinner guests this riddle.
His rules were that they must give him expensive garments if they guessed wrong. Or vice versa if they got it right.
Samson was a very cunning man, as only those nearest to him would know the answer to this impossible riddle!
“Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came sweetness.”
An Ancient Egyptian Enigma
This ancient riddle comes from the famous Oedipus the King, written in the 5th Century B.C.
In this story, Oedipus needs to answer the Sphinx’s riddle. He had to do this in order to travel through the gate of Thebes, which the Sphinx guarded.
If he got it wrong, she would have made a meal of him. Luckily, he got it right. Can you?
“What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the evening?”
An Old Shakespearean Puzzle
Shakespeare is a famous playwright and poet. So, it’s only natural that he’s also penned a riddle or two in his literary works!
In one such comedy, The Merchant of Venice, the father of Portia concocts a riddle to test her prospective suitors. The suitors need to choose between one of three caskets.
Every casket – gold, silver, and lead, has an inscription upon it. But, only one has a photo of Portia in it.
The suitor needs to pick this specific casket (based on the inscription) to win her hand. Here are the words:
Gold casket – “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.”
Silver casket – “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.”
Lead casket – “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.”
Many a riddle were exchanged in Bilbo and Gollum’s encounter. If Bilbo answered incorrectly, Gollum would eat him, if not; he could escape! Here is another riddle from their fateful meeting.
“This thing all things devours. Birds, beasts, trees, flowers; gnaws iron, bites steel; grinds hard stones to meal; slays kings, ruins town, and beats mountains down.”
An Old English Brain-Teazer
This tricky old riddle hails from 18th Century England. Can you figure it out?
“As I was going to St. Ives, I met a man with seven wives. Each wife had seven sacks; each sack had seven cats. Each cat had seven kits: Kits, cats, sacks, and wives; how many were going to St. Ives?”
A Wise Man’s Quandry
This ancient riddle hails from one of the seven wise men of Greece in 570 B.C. Can you make light of it?
“Who is this father who has twice six sons? These sons have thirty daughters apiece, particolored, having one cheek white and the other black. They never see each other’s face nor live more than twenty-four hours each.”
The Allfather’s Ancient Riddles
Here is another tricky riddle from the Allfather himself.
“What is that wonder which whines on high, the arm-lathe howls, they’re hard, chief. Heidrek King, think on that.”
The ancient Persians are famed for their art, music, and poetry, but also for their intricate riddles.
This anonymous one from around the 9th to 11th Century was cited in the Shams-i Qeys Kitāb al-mu’jam.
“What is it that tears into small pieces, whatever falls in its toothless mouth? If you put your fingers in its eyes, it will instantly prick up its ears.”
Confounding Chinese Character Riddles
The Chinese language and its alphabet, or characters, are a world unto their own. This language doesn’t go by the rules of Germanic, Romance, or Italic languages, of course.
As such, Chinese character riddles require a bit more knowledge and thought to solve. This is particularly true if you don’t speak or read the language!
Character riddles involve figuring out the meaning of the combined characters, not simply the meaning of a string of them. Here is one of the most famous ancient Chinese character riddles!
黃絹幼婦外孫臼, which characters literally read as “yellow silk, young maiden, grandson, mortar.”
Chinese characters can get combined into new ones that mean something different.
The aim of character riddles is to work out an alternate meaning of the combination of the provided characters.
Solutions to These Ancient Riddles
Are you itching to find out the answers to these ancient riddles? Or, did you get them almost immediately? Either way, find out the right solutions below!
- The answer to this Sumerian ancient riddle is a school or place of learning.
- The answer to Odin’s riddle is a cow.
- Ale is the correct answer to this ancient riddle from the Allfather!
- The answer to J.R.R’s riddle is teeth.
- Rivers is the correct answer to this ancient riddle!
- Lice are what the fisherman kept. Of course, Homer didn’t get it – crafty fishermen!
- Bees making a honeycomb inside the carcass of a lion is the correct answer. This is something Samson witnesses himself, and quite a unique and obscure occurrence!
- The answer is a human or a person. The riddle references us as we age from a crawling baby into an upright adult. And then into a geriatric with a walking stick.
- The lead casket is the one that contains the photo of Portia, of course. The man who chose the gold casket is a gold-digger who knows not that all that glitters isn’t always! And, the one who chose the silver is a fool for thinking he automatically deserved Portia’s hand! Well done, Dad!
- The answer to this tricksy riddle is time, of course!
- None, except for the man who met the man with seven wives, was going to St. Ives, of course! This ancient riddle is a trick question. The man met them going to St, Ives. So, the man and his seven wives must be traveling in the opposite direction!
- The answer to this riddle is time as there are twelve months (sons). Each month has thirty days (daughters) – half night and day. And, they live only one day, never meeting.
- The answer to Odin’s riddle is arrows.
- The answer to this Persian riddle is scissors. Pretty clever, hey?
- The answer to this riddle lies in the combination of various relevant Chinese characters. I’ll break down how to get the answer for you!
The correct answer is 絕妙好辭, which translates to “utterly wonderful, lovely words.”
This answer is created by first combining the characters 色絲, which means color silk, separately to get 絕, which means utterly.
Then, combining the characters 少女, which means young maiden separately, to get 妙, which means wonderful.
Then, combining the characters 女子, which translates to woman’s son separately, into 好, which means lovely or good.
Finally, combining 受辛 which mean suffer hardship separately, into 辭, which means words. Then, putting all together to get the answer.
Don’t worry about not getting the answer to this one! Chinese character riddles are unique, and therefore something only those who read and speak the language will get!
Solving riddles has been a favorite pastime since the first time they were uttered. Hopefully, these famous ancient riddles have posed a worthy challenge!