Riddles Wisely Expounded is a traditional English song, Child ballad 1, Roud 161. It exists in several variants.
In the earliest surviving version of the song, Inter diabolus et virgo
, "between the devil and the maiden" (mid-15th century), the "foul fiend" proposes to abduct a maiden unless she can answer a series of riddles. The woman prays to Jesus for wisdom, and answers the riddles correctly.
In later versions, a knight puts a woman to test before he marries her (sometimes after seducing her), or a devil disguised as a knight tries to carry her off. The woman knows the answers, and thus either wins the marriage or is free of the devil. In the latter case, the last riddle is often "what is worse than woman?" (the devil).
The riddles vary, but typical ones include
- What is longer than the way? -- love
- What is deeper than the sea? -- hell
- What is louder than the horn? -- thunder
- What is sharper than a thorn? -- hunger
- What is whiter than milk? -- snow
- What is softer than silk? -- down
The motif of riddling in folklore is very ancient, the stories of Oedipus
giving two early examples. The particular form used here matches the folktale Aarne-Thompson
type 875 The Clever Girl
where a woman wins a husband by her clever answers to riddles. Other tales of this type include What Is the Fastest Thing in the World?
and The Wise Little Girl
In this ballad, the words of each verse are interspersed with a chorus phrase "lay the bent to the bonny broom". A. L. Lloyd euphemistically describes this as a phrase of "physiological significance", explaining that the word "bent" means a horn.
There are many German variants of this ballad, and a Gaelic form was widespread among both Scots and Irish.
- Juniper, Gentian and Rosemary by Pamela Dean
- "A Diorama of the Infernal Regions, or the Devil's Ninth Question," by Andy Duncan
Songs that refer to
Television and Movie References
|| Notes |
|| The Demon Barbers
|| Noble Riddle Wisely Expounded
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Other songs with the same tune