Ian Hamnett

University of Edinburgh

Although questions of classification have been of perennial interest to anthropologists, we have recently witnessed the growth of a new and specific concern with this area of study. while Needham’s English edition of De quelques formes primitives de classification (Durkheim & Mauss 1963) recalled us to the fountainhead of the French tradition, Lévi-Strauss has devoted a major modern work to the same topic (1962; 1966). In England, Leach (e.g. 1964a; 1964b) and Mary Douglas (1966) have brought classification into the foreground of their attention and have aroused an awareness of related problems concerning the mechanisms where by conceptual categories are set up, preserved and mediated. Questions have been either explicitly or implicitly raised as to the role of ambiguous or interstitial items in classifactory schemes; at once menacing and inescapable, they can be seen as the objects of interdiction (taboo) and as indispensable means for the continued functioning of society. This article examines a relatively minor area of social behaviour - that of riddling - in the light of these structural studies, and calls in aid some ancient and modern contributions (literary, psychological and linguistic) in an attempt to suggest that riddles and riddling may illuminate some of the principles that underly classification in social action and cognition generally and can, in particular, indicate the role that ambiguities play in the classifactory process. Much though by no means all of the ethnographical material is drawn from southern and central Bantu sources, and I have made fairly liberal use of Sotho riddles, very few of which have, to my knowledge, been previously published in English. The theoretical questions raised, however, have a very much wider relevance.

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Much of the earlier material on Bantu riddling is largely or wholly descriptive. Such African publications are simply lists of riddles (Kota, n.d.), or incorporate such lists in volumes that also contain selections of proverbs, jokes and folk-tales (Segoete 1961; Sekese 1962). Articles in professional journals do not always rise very far above this level. Thus, Nakene (1943) does little more than list some Tlokwa riddles; it is true that he discusses the social and cultural implications of riddling, but the level of analysis is very low, and he regards the decline in the popularity of riddling as a cause of delinquency among young people, the devil finding work for idle hands to do. Riddles being part of traditional values, they help to uphold the ancient rectitude that modern life is undermining. Subsequent studies published in the same journal, however, have revealed a much more sophisticate approach. Though her interest is primarily linguistic, Cole-Beuchat in a survey of Bantu riddles makes valuable observations on the cultural significance of her material (1957). As a more strictly anthropological paper, however, Blacking’s account of Venda riddles and their social function outstrips in cogency and structural illumination all earlier ventures in this field (Blacking 1961). Certain aspects of this article are referred to in detail below. The latest contribution to the study of Bantu riddles at the time of writing is an essay on Lozi riddles by Gowlett, again a linguist (1966). Its focus of interest is determined by work done outside the African field, and except to linguistic specialists it is perhaps more interesting as source material than for any assistance that it gives to a general understanding of the social and cognitive value of riddling as a human activity.

Much more and more profounder work on riddles appears to be in progress in non-African contexts. William’s article on Tambunan Dusun riddling (Williams 1963) is discussed in more detail below. Considerable attention has been given by linguists and by folk-lorists to a paper by Georges & Dundes (1963) on the structural definition of riddles as a genre. Since some of their distinctions are employed later in the present article, a a brief outline here may be appropriate. They accept Taylor’s distinction (Taylor 1951) between ‘true’ riddles and other similar forms (‘neck’ riddles, arithmetical puzzles, clever questions and conundrums), but they are dissatisfied with his attempts at definition. The structural unit of analysis which they identify is a ‘descriptive element’, consisting of both a ‘topic’ - the apparent referent of the riddle - and a ‘comment’, or assertion about the topic. ‘A riddle’, they conclude, ‘is a traditional verbal expression which contains one or more descriptive elements, a pair of which may be in opposition; the referent of the elements is to be guessed’ (Georges & Dundes 1963: 113). Riddles are then classified into ‘non-oppositional’ and ‘oppositional’. The former are divided into literal and metaphorical ; the latter into antithetical, privative and casual. 1 An interesting and constructive comment on this paper has been published by Scott (1965), who draws attention to the inadequacy of existing accounts of the nature of the ‘semantic fit’ between ‘the items of meaning in the proposition and the item of meaning specified in the answer’. He also provides a useful short list of earlier attempts at a definition.

Gowlett’s article, already mentioned, takes Georges and Dundes (1963) as its starting-point for an elaborate classification of one hundred and nine Lozi riddles, which are ordered in no fewer than eleven separate structural categories (Gowlett 1966). The value of these operations is not immediately apparent, at least to the anthropologist, who is tempted to recall Leach’s remarks on ‘butterfly collecting’ (Leach 1961: 6-7). The material assembled, however, is of considerable interest, though it is set only rather superficially in any sociologically significant context.

It seems fair to conclude, even from this brief and selective survey, that on the whole linguists have made a more valuable theoretical contribution to the study of riddles than anthropologists. Blacking’s Venda study is certainly an exception to this generalisation (Blacking 1961), but the particular facts of Venda culture and society seem to provide too narrow a base for comparative inquiry. Riddling emerges as a competitive game for young people, in which what matters is the number of riddles a contestant knows. It has no importance as an intellectual or cognitive exercise, and no weight is given to understanding the meaning of riddles. They are mere formulae, and to know as many as possible off by heart is important because it enables a contestant to distinguish himself in a riddling contest. They have no other educational or conceptual value. I will suggest at a later stage that not all of Blacking’s conclusions seem to flow necessarily from the facts that he quotes as evidence, but even if his account can be accepted provisionally as it stands, it clearly cannot form the basis for any general theory of riddling. He has described a society in which riddles are apparently quite arbitrary elements in a social process peculiar to the Venda, and from this starting-point no path appears to lead forward to a general theory of riddles as a common item of human behaviour.

Williams presents an analysis of Dusun riddling that is in striking contrast to the Venda material (Williams 1963). Remarking that ‘Dusun riddling is a fundamental part of the structure and functioning of this society’ (1963:96), Williams claims that it performs seven important social functions; inter alia, it canalises social conflict into harmless channels, teaches rules of social conduct, interprets and explains natural phenomena, and permits the discussion of some feared and imminent crisis. A further function, which will be the major subject of the present article and which sets the Dusun in sharp contrast to the Venda, is that is serves as a ‘conceptualizing mechanism’ and thus as a directly educative process of considerable indigenous importance (Williams 1963: 105-6). The Dusun, like the Venda, will be considered again; at this point it is enough to observe that most societies appear to fall somewhere between the two (Cole-Beuchat 1957 (southern Bantu); Doke 1947 (Bantu); Gowlett 1966 (Lozi); Herskovits 1958 (Dahomey); Nakene 1943 (Tlokoa); Opie 1959 (Britain); Robe 1963 (Panama); White 1958 (Luvale)). Secondary and analytical material in a similar sense is also referred to in Scott (1965). Riddling in Lesotho appears to me to fall in this same middle range. It would be entirely fanciful to claim for Sotho riddling any of the importance that riddles evidently possess for the Dusun; and it is in any event primarily a sport for the very young and the very old (particularly old women). On the other hand, it is not as intellectually barren nor is the content of riddles so negated as appears to be the case among the Venda. Sotho riddles cannot be reduced to ritual formulae. Adults were mildly interested in and amused by riddles, and even although this involved a self-conscious recall of younger days, and was in part a friendly response to my questioning, riddling was not regarded as an entirely ritual activity, nor was the content of riddles negated or ignored.

It can therefore be suggested that even if Blacking’s deductions are justified, which as I hope to show is open to doubt, they are of limited ethnographical application. The attempt, therefore, to treat riddling as a widespread behavioural phenomenon, and to interpret it in theoretical terms, remains worthwhile. The appropriate conceptual framework, however, does not appear to exist within the ethnography of riddles itself, and must be sought elsewhere. With the exception of Blacking, theoretically oriented students of riddles have in general been linguists, and though their work has been sophisticated and adventurous, it has been marked by a formality quite proper to the discipline but which leaves scope for enquiries that embark from a less precisely defined methodological starting-point. The elements of a possible conceptual framework appear to be embedded in work which, at least until recently, has fallen outside the social sciences altogether, and is indeed anterior to them.

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Part of the thesis of this article will be that riddles are one form of ambiguity or ambivalence, and that they can be understood in the light of the social and cognitive function of ambiguous or ambivalent utterances, concepts and actions. An ambivalent word, concept or item of behaviour can be considered as belonging to any of two or more frames of reference, according to the interpretation brought to bear upon it, or indeed to several or all such frames at once. It can therefore operate as a point of transition between these different frames of reference or classifactory sets. It can, indeed, mediate between sets that are not only different, but in many aspects opposed, and in this way it can form the basis for a differing system of classification, or allow contrasting classifications and conceptual frameworks to co-exist at the same time. This venue of thought has, of course, been well explored in the literary and linguistic fields, and received systematic treatment in Empson’s well-known study (Empson 1930), where both verbal and conceptual ambiguities were analysed in some depth. It has more recently been applied, with varying degrees of explicitness and deliberation, to other areas of human behaviour, but before reference is made to this work it may be interesting to recall a distant precursor of these ideas who until a few years ago was largely unknown in the English-speaking world. This writer, Maciej Kazimierz Sarbiewski (1595-1640), was a Polish Jesuit latinist and poet, whose treatise, De acuto et arguto, is partly devoted to a study of the literary device of the ‘conceit’ (Sarbiewski 1958). He is much concerned with the way in which the acutum, or conceit, brings into conjunction two different and, when regarded in a certain light, opposed ideas. Using a mathematical or physical model of a needlepoint he remarks that ‘sicut mathematicum et materiale acumen consistit in unione duarum linearum diversarum, ex una tertia contra se procedentium, sic acutum rhetoricum consistit ... in unione et affinitate dissentanei et consentanei pullulantis ex ipsa materia, de qua est oratio’ (1958: II). As Smieja, commenting on this and similar passages, remarks, ‘it is necessary for concord and discord to meet and to become one, both stemming from the same basis’ (Smieja 1962: 88). Similarly, an ambivalence is the meeting point of two properties that otherwise would remain distinct or opposed: cf. the epigram on the plumeless cock, which is Plato’s man (Sarbiewski 1958: II, 489; Smieja 1962: 92).

Sarbiewski’s examples share something of the character of the pure intellectual conceit, something of the character of the witticism or joke. Much that can be said of jokes can be said of riddles too. This is not because riddles are necessarily jokes. In modern British culture, riddles tend to be jokes, but this congruence of the two genres is ethnographically the exception rather than the rule. It is not because riddles are a sub-class of jokes that some of the same concepts become relevant to both, but because both riddles and jokes frequently share the same tendency to depend upon some ambiguity or ambivalence, though the ways in which they exploit this differ. Freud refers to ‘the peculiar negative relation that holds between jokes and riddles, according to which the once conceals what the other exhibits’ (1960: 31). He explains how in a certain kind of riddle ‘the technique is given as a pre-condition and the wording has to be guessed; while in jokes the wording is given and the technique is disguised’ (1960: 3I n. 6). Elsewhere, he describes riddles as ‘the counterpart of jokes’ (1960: 215) and refers to ‘the ambiguity of words and the multiplicity of conceptual relations’ as crucial to the genre (1960: 172). He quotes Bergson (1900: 98) to the effect that ‘une situation est toujours comique quand elle appartient en même temps à deux séries d’évènements absolument indépendantes, et qu’elle peut s’interpréter à la fois dans deux sens tout différents (Freud 1960: 235 n. I). However, while it may be true that all ‘situations comiques’ have this ambivalent quality, Bergson is not correct in assuming that this ambivalence is ‘toujours comique’; riddles in non-Western cultures are perhaps seldom ‘comic’, yet they regularly depend on the possibility of interpreting a word, a concept or a situation in two quite different senses simultaneously. The fact is that ambivalence or ambiguity includes the category of ‘joke’ (and can therefore be invoked in an analysis of it) but extends over a very much wider area of human interaction.

Anthropologically, the fecundity of ambivalence has been most explicitly considered by Leach, and nowhere perhaps more clearly than in his study of the Kachin of Burma (Leach 1964b). Here, the institution of asymmetrical matrilateral cross-cousin marriage is revealed as generating ambiguities that make possible an oscillation between two structurally divergent political systems: the egalitarian gumlao and the stratified gumsa. The ‘democratic’ system of gumlao-type organisation is implied in the norms of kinship reciprocity that are inherent in marriage with the mother’s brother’s daughter; on the other hand, the undirectional flow of goods sand services from the wife-taking to the wife-giving lineage in asymmetric alliance furnishes a basis of gumsa hypogamy and stratification. The marriage-system thus mediates, by virtue of its ambiguity, between two apparently incompatible polities. Leach claims that in this he has ‘uncovered a basic mechanism of social change’ and goes so far as to assert that ‘inconsistencies in the logic of ritual expressions are always necessary for the continued functioning of any society.’

At this point it is useful to recall that inconsistency, ambiguity or ambivalence may be thought of either as simply ‘vague’ or, what is not quite the same, as indeterminate. It is the second aspect that is important here. A reference is ‘vague’ if it points to an insufficiently specified area of discourse; and this is perhaps a kind of ambiguity. But it can be ambiguous not only because it is vague for lack of specification but also because it fails to indicate which of two (or more) references is intended, though each possible reference may be fairly specific in itself. Thus, there is nothing particularly ‘vague’ about the Kachin marriage system. Its ambivalence arises from the fact that either of two, in themselves reasonably specific, patterns of interaction can be deduced from it. On a more limited scale, I found that it was possible to analyse chiefly succession in Basutoland on similar lines (Hamnett (1965). It was not so much that the law of succession was ‘vague’ as that either of two specific, though incompatible, rules could be deduced from Moshoeshoe’s ambivalent position as founder and ancestor of a ruling dynasty. Both the ‘circumspective’ and the ‘retrospective’ principles of succession can be validated by reference to one or other aspect of this ambivalence.

The ambivalence is, of course, the creature of the analyst. If the inconsistencies which Leach mentions were made explicit, the ambiguous events, rituals, institutions or utterances would no longer mediate effectively between different groups, classifications and structures. The Basotho themselves do not regard the law of succession as ‘ambiguous’. Each regards his own interpretation of, and deductions from, Moshoeshoe’s structural position as inevitable and logical, and sees rival doctrines as the product of historical accident, or self-interest on the part of others. But the continuing co-existence within one politically integrated society of two divergent legal principles is made possible by the fact that both ‘schools’ agree in respecting one (ambivalent) validation, although they interpret it differently.

On the level of cognition, riddles may be seen as one way of reconciling two divergent sets of concepts or rules of interpretation. One of the most venerable riddles in Western Judaeo-Christian culture is that of Samson and the Philistines which is worth some enlargement since it will throw light upon several characteristic features of the genre and is indeed paradigmatic of traditional riddles as a whole: ‘out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness’ (Judges 14). In fact, two riddles are here collapsed into one. Each contains two in some sense opposed ideas (Sarbiewski’s ‘parallel, almost alien, planes’), that are intended to meet at a point. In one, the ‘eating of meat’ and the ‘giving out of meat’ in the other ‘strength’ and ‘sweetness’, are at one level of apperception opposed ideas: they are cojoined in the solution to the riddle, which is ‘a swarm of bees in the carcass of a lion’. Here, the ‘referent’ (Georges & Dundes 1963) mediates between two apparently divergent sets of concepts, and it does so because it is capable of ambivalent interpretation. Samson’s riddle, however, illustrates other characteristics of the genre, which are relevant to the analysis of riddles in non-Western cultures. In the first place, it is not a ‘joke’. The problems it poses, and the solution it ultimately yields, are not ‘comic’. The aptness and satisfaction afforded by the answer belong more to the intellectual than to the purely affective level of appreciation. This is true of nearly all traditional and Bantu riddles generally. The solution may be greeted with a laugh, but it is more the laugh that greets the successful fulfilment of a task well done than one of response to the purely comic. Secondly, it was clearly not anticipated that the Philistines would be able to solve the riddle. Indeed, they were unable to do so and were obliged to obtain the solution from Delilah; Samson immediately realised that something of the kind had occurred when, on the seventh day, the Philistines gave him the answer (Judges 14, v. 18). This is quite characteristic of riddling generally. The clues provided in the descriptive element(s) seldom furnish enough evidence for the answer to be definitely gathered from them (App. 5, 7, 24). This is the principal reason why people seldom spend much time thinking about a riddle, and why, when they do think about it, they are more likely to be trying to recall a known but forgotten answer than to be genuinely attempting to tackle a new problem. Their difficulties are aggravated by the fact that riddles are often ‘objectively’ susceptible of more than one reasonable and appropriate solution, but in fact only one solution ‘counts’ as correct (App. 7, 10, 16). This is no doubt because the author of the riddle perceives the referent first and composes the riddle afterwards. Since he is, in the first place at least, the sole judge of his own riddle, he will disqualify any other answer than the one from which he started. Samson’s riddle is a good example of this procedure. Once the riddle has been thus set up, question and answer (descriptive element(s) and referent) are stabilised as a pair, and no alternative solution will be regarded as acceptable.

This perhaps casts some doubt on Blacking’s analysis of riddling among the Venda (Blacking 1961). The respondents’ failure to try to puzzle out the solution to a riddle does not necessarily mean that riddles have no intellectual content at all. A recent study by Arthur Koestler prompts some observations here (Koestler 1964). 2 The hearer of a joke, he points out, will not be amused if he is a purely passive listener, but only if he repeats intellectually the process whereby the joke is made. Similarly, the respondent to a riddle may be required to see the point of the answer when it is provided, and not merely to acknowledge that the answer supplied by the questioner is to be regarded as the correct solution in the future. To ‘see the point’ does not mean that no other answer could ‘objectively’ be regarded as appropriate to the question, nor that the clues contained in the comment are adequate evidence of the referent. It means only that the answer must be seen as one appropriate solution to the problem posed. If the appropriateness is not appreciated, the whole riddle may, of course, be repeated simply as a formula entirely lacking in subjective intellectual content; but neither this possibility, nor the failure of respondents to spend time in ratiocination, seem adequate grounds in themselves for reducing riddles to the level of ritual formulae pure and simple.

I found it to be the case in Lesotho that some riddles had lost their meaning for particular informants, even though the answer might be known by rote. But these were only special cases and did not mean that all riddles were mere formulae for all interlocutors. The fact that some traditional forms may outlive the understanding of some actors does not mean that all of them lose meaning for all actors, though the open-ended nature of riddles may make it seem that this was so. A comparison with proverbs may illuminate the argument here. Occasionally a proverb loses its meaning for all speakers; or different speakers interpret it differently; or while the general sense of the proverb is understood, particular words are not known; or some speakers know both the proverb as a whole and each word in it, whilst others are ignorant or one element or the other or of both. 3 Yet it can hardly be the case that proverbs are essentially empty of meaningful content. Even if Blacking is wholly right in his interpretation of Venda riddling, as it is practised today, he can hardly be offering an account of the former role of riddles in that or any other society. An inspection of the riddles that he cites itself suggests that they have an intellectual content, even although this may, as Blacking claims, be prescinded from today (Blacking 1961). In Lesotho, I found that importance was, in fact, attached to ‘seeing the point’ of riddles. The meaning of riddles was explained to me (as a foreigner) and some pains were taken to show why the answer supplied was in fact appropriate to the question asked. Where, in the case of indigenous respondents, the answer had to be provided by the questioner, the hearer did not simply record the solution in his mind without further response but expressed by a laugh or a his sense of its aptness, subtlety or logic.

The analogy between riddles and proverbs can be pressed further. Some Sotho riddles can easily be transposed into proverbs. Thus, ‘a tree on which all birds sit? - A chief’ (App. 17) could with complete conformity to both the form and the content of Sotho proverbs become ‘a chief is a tree on which all birds sit.’ Some proverbs could similarly be transposed into riddles: ‘the word of a chief builds a kraal’ 4; ‘a road is (like) a chief’ (it is always full of people, never deserted); a chief’s counsellor is ‘a star under the moon’. As the last of these three examples shows, it is a matter of doubt whether such locations are more suitably regarded as proverbs or as riddles. In all these cases, however, it is clear that the forms of words are neither jokes nor merely ritual formulae without serious intellectual content. This content may be relatively simple, but its manner of delivery is not direct. The message contained in the riddle (or the ‘riddling proverb’) is communicated by the resolution of two diverse and even opposed elements in terms of a third element that, by virtue of some ambivalence or ambiguity, mediates between them both. The ambivalent element can be classified, under one or another aspect, in either of two categories, and so make possible a transition between them. This is clearest among what are called by Georges & Dundes (1963) ‘oppositional’ riddles, in which the comment itself contains an opposition or apparent contradiction between two different or contrasting ideas, which are resolved in the referent or solution that mediates between them. Gowlett (1966) quotes a Lozi riddle of this kind: ‘He is not a strong little man, yet there is only one person who can choke him. - It is a fire.’ Fire is, or can be, weak and small but can be quenched only by water. The opposing ideas of weakness and near-vulnerability meet in fire. A Sotho example is: ‘Since you are a Bushman, where did you get that water from? - A water-melon.’ (App. 13). This is less straightforward. The quality of being a desert Bushman recalls dryness and conflicts with the possession of water; but the solution depends on the metonymy whereby a ‘Bushman’ and ‘redness’ are equated (the Sotho call Bushmen ‘red’). It is as though a secondary riddle (‘why is a Bushman like a water-melon? - They are both red’) underlay and was presupposed by the actual riddle under discussion.
‘Non-oppositional’ riddles are either literal or metaphorical (Georges & Dundes 1963). The ‘literal’ sub-class takes such a form as ‘Wha’ swim in de river? - Fish’, and since they hardly fall into the class of riddle at all they will not be further considered here (App. 28, 29). Metaphorical non-oppositional riddles, however, are genuine riddles and are very numerous: sixty-five of Gowlett’s 109 fall into this category, and twenty-four of the forty in the appendix to this article. Here, the comment does not juxtapose two contrasting ideas. For example, in ‘A tree on which all birds sit?’ (App. 17), the two ideas are completely congruent. Nevertheless there is always a direct or indirect opposition between the descriptive element(s) and the referent. This can be regarded as existing between ‘tree’ and ‘chief’ (or between ‘plant’ and ‘man’); or, at a higher level of abstraction but also more relevantly, between ‘exploitation’ and ‘loftiness’. Chiefs have - or had - the duty to protect and give hospitality to travellers, the poor the orphaned and the widows, so that it is their (social) loftiness that causes their exploitation. Such riddles embody a metaphor, just as any metaphor can be reconstructed as a riddle (cf. Aristotle, Rhetoric, 3, 2). The existence and primacy of this antithetical element in so-called ‘non-oppositional’ riddles is obscured by attempts to analyse riddles by reference to the descriptive element(s) alone, instead of to question and answer together. The antithesis need not, of course, be direct but can be the assertion of an identity or similarity between items that are neither identical nor (except under the aspect singled out by the riddle) similar. A chief, clearly, cannot be said to ‘be’ a tree; and he is only like a tree in that he is lofty and gives shelter to many. Other examples of Sotho riddles that contain no opposition in the descriptive elements yet involve a disjunction between question and answer (between topic and referent) are: ‘Lightning shines round about the village. - A young calf running’; ‘Sour porridge fills the house’ and ‘the sour porridge that belongs to the senior house’, to both of which the answer is moraha (cattle dung made liquid by rain) (App. 5, I, 30). These three last examples exemplify the fact already referred to that riddles frequently do not impose any single answer, and as much for this reason as any other do not prompt any serious enquiry in the respondent (App. 1, 5, 7, 10, 16, 24).

Some riddles are a great deal more complex. A good example from the Sotho is: ‘an ox from my mother’s bridewealth with a lump in its belly. - The grindstone and millstone’ (App. 3). This riddle, clearly ‘non-oppositional’ and metaphorical, calls for a rather more lengthy analysis. Grinding corn is women’s work. It is ground by hand, the corn being placed on a large flat stone and rubbed with a small grindstone which is rubbed backwards and forwards. The ‘lump in the belly’ is the small grindstone,t he ‘ox’ is the large flat millstone. Since the two stones are associated with women, the ‘ox’ in question is a bridewealth best. The riddle could thus be transformed into: ‘Why is a bridewealth-ox like a set of grinding-stones? - Because they are both associated with women’, though with a greatly impoverished result. The compression and ellipsis of the original make the riddle almost impossible to answer in the abstract, but when question and answer are taken together they yield an expression of great elegance and concision. The opposition is explicit only when the riddle is impoverished by reductive analysis, but it is inherent in the authentic version, where however it is more elliptically presented. The ‘point’ of the riddle does not depend upon the respondent’s ability to solve it - clearly almost impossible if the answer is not already known - but in the recognition of a subtle, even far-fetched, congruence between items that when ordinarily regarded might seem to be either antithetical or at least disjoined. Understanding riddles, in the sense of seeing their ‘point’, is thus an exercise in intellectual agility of a modest but nonetheless real kind.

Classification is a pre-requisite of the intelligible ordering of experience, but if conceptual categories are reified, they become obstacles rather than means to a proper understanding and control of both physical and social reality. The ability to construct categories and also to transcend them is central to adaptive learning, and riddles can be seen as a very simple paradigm of how this ability is attained. The ambivalent element in a riddle is the key to its solution, and this is precisely because through its ambiguity it can be seen to belong to two different conceptual categories at the same time. Moreover, in thus mediating between different categories, the ambivalence can set up a further category, in terms of a third criterion independent of both the original classifactory sets. ‘Grinding-stones’ and ‘cattle’ belong to different categories in terms of the inanimate/animate dichotomy, and in any case they clearly do not look alike. The riddle not only unites them by reference to their common association with women (in the one case through work, in the other through bridewealth) but also sets up a new category of female things, which can be added to at will. Thus, the riddles about ‘sour porridge’ (App. 1, 30) refer both to the female role of preparing food and to the woman’s task of collecting the soft cattle-dung from the kraal (which in most circumstances is subject to a taboo against female approach); and at the same time they effect in these terms a union of the two in a strong sense contrasting ideas of food and cattle-dung. A certain visual similarity between the two items also enters into the riddle here. It can be suggested that these ambivalences act as operators that permit the transformation of categories and also their construction. The importance of riddles in this process should not, of course, be exaggerated. The fact that they can perform this function does not mean that they do in fact perform it wherever they are found. Blacking, as has been seen, is clear that for the Venda they do not (1961); Williams, on the other hand, suggests that for the Dusun they do: ‘Dusun riddling functions as a conceptualising mechanism; through riddle forms, Dusun are carried beyond their grasp of the ideas that serve them regularly. The juxtaposition, in riddles, of elements of the known allows the limits of the unknown to be expanded’ (Williams 1963: 105-6). It has been suggested above that most societies fall somewhere between the Venda and the Dusun in the degree to which riddles play a significant part in the conceptualising and intellective process. Ethnographers of riddles have not usually paid much attention to the means by which riddles make a contribution to this process. Linguists, on the other hand, have studied the contrapositive or antithetical element in riddles but they have seen this as an item in the formal structure of riddles rather than as a significant feature in the process of conceptualisation.

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An example of how ambivalences can be used to mediate between categories, and form the basis of a new classification, is quoted in Lévi-Strauss, where they appear to have furnished the survivors of various australian tribes, haphazardly regrouped in a government settlement, with a logical system for the re-ordering of their shattered social structures (Lévi-Strauss 1962: 102; 1966: 157). Elsewhere, he refers to ‘the polyvalent nature of logics which appeal to several, formally distinct types of connection at the same time’ (1962: 83; 1966: 61), and cites Cunnison’s study of the Luapula (Cunnison 1959: 62-5) as an example of how this polyvalence rests on the fact that items (totemic species) can be classified into different categories by virtue of their multiple reference. This recalls Freud’s previously quoted mention of ‘the ambiguity of words and the multiplicity of conceptual relations’ as characteristic of the riddle as a genre, and suggests that riddles, in so far as they do in fact form part of an intellective process, do so by means and in virtue of this ambivalence; but of course it cannot be maintained that they in fact perform this function everywhere or to the same degree in every society. This is a matter entirely of fact, which can only be empirically determined, though it must be confessed that the difficulties in the way of any at all rigorous assessment are formidable.

Riddles that refer to processes of social change, or to contact with alien cultures, are interesting examples of how they can be used to mediate between different categories of concept, person or object. Gowlett lists several (Gowlett 1966: riddles 80, 81, 95, 96) and they are common in Lesotho and elsewhere (App. 14, 15, 19, 26, 27, 28, 31, 33, 35, 36, 38; Blacking 1961: nos. 292-311). New and alien ideas or institutions appear to be re-classified through a transformation that brings them into relationship with familiar experience or traditional knowledge. One riddle goes as follows: ‘A cow that comes out of the sea, people cut it up and it does not come to an end, and on Monday they cut it up again. - A shop.’ (App. 38; cf. 27). Here, the strange object, the shop, is compared to a cow: the new and foreign kind of wealth is related to the traditional kind of wealth, viz., cattle. (The reference to cutting it up again on Monday points to the fact that a shop’s supplies are continually replenished.) Another Sotho riddle with the same answer is ‘The horse’s head which the vultures never finished’ (App. 26). Guns are ‘naturalised’ in the riddle ‘When this horse farts, the foals run away’ (App. 31), which is very similar to two Lozi examples (Gowlett 1966: 153) and to a more powerful instance from Dahomey: ‘My father eats with his anus and defecates through his mouth’ (Herskovits 1958). One of the very few comic riddles that I came across related to European contact: ‘We Basotho just discard it, but the Europeans hoard it up. - Nose-mucus’ (which Europeans expel into their handkerchiefs) (App. 36). Here, an objectionable excretion creates a comic relationship between Basotho and Europeans impliedly to the latters’ discredit.

Not all riddles concerned with social change refer to bodily organs or functions, but several that do have been chosen since references of this kind are common in all types of riddle. The ethnographical studies and collections already cited contain many riddles of this sort (e.g. Gowlett 1966: nos. 67078; Blacking 1961: nos. 181-226). Sotho examples are:’A man hiding among sticks which do not hurt him. - The tongue’ (App. 34). ‘Young white men who look alike living in a cave. - The teeth’ (App. 23). These riddles equate, by metonymy, a whole person and a part of the body. Sometimes they confuse different bodily functions: ‘Hold me, mother, I must empty my bowels. - Blowing the nose’ (App. 4); or equate parts of the body with cultural or natural objects: ‘A Bushman’s house that is not closed - The nose’ (Bushmen are red and do not have doors) (App. 6); ‘A plateau with one flower. - Stomach and navel’ (App. 25). (Cf. App. 2, 8, 9, 12, 18, 20, 22, 24, 39.) These riddles seem to raise a special question.

It has been suggested by Leach (1964a) and Douglas (1966), among others, that taboos serve the function of demarcating the boundaries between the conceptual categories of a classifactory system. The line of thought is a familiar one in anthropology, more especially in connexion with religious beliefs (Durkheim 1912, book III ch. 1). Since classification is a cultural operation, and not (as it seems to be) a simple reflection of natural differences, some procedure is necessary to reinforce the barriers that keep the categories separate; taboo is such a procedure. Ambiguous and ambivalent items threaten the integrity of the system, and are therefore especially likely to be subject to taboo. Nowhere is the ‘danger’ inherent in classificatory confusion so intense, nor the prohibitions therefore so stringent, as in the separation of the thinking subject from his environment - of ‘ego’ from ‘not-ego’. It has been suggested that bodily excretions are objects of taboo at least partly because they are a potential threat to this primary discrimination, being ambiguous in so far as they are part of a person’s body and at the same time separate from him (both A and not-A) (Leach 1964a: 38). Riddles in general, therefore, and riddles concerning the body or its parts and functions in particular, can be said to threaten a breakdown in the cultural segregation of conceptual categories, and might be expected to fall under taboo. This, in varying degrees, they do. They frequently fall within a ritual context, or are qualified as to the time and place where they may be engaged in, or the persons who may ask and answer them (Cole-Beuchat 1957: 134; Williams 1963: 106; Gowlett 1966: 140). The practice of reversing the patterns of ordinary life and flouting taboos and prohibitions in special contexts is of course well known (Gennep 1960; cf. Leach 1961: 132-6; Banton 1965: 44; Goody 1966: 12; Douglas 1966: 94, etc.) but its possible application to riddles does not seem to have been suggested. Where riddles are not hedged about with taboos or rules regulating indulgence in them, it may be haphazard that this is either because, as in a scientifically sophisticated society, they pose no threat at all, or because the threat they pose is not really a serious one, but serves (as role-reversal does) rather to reinforce than to undermine the definitions and relations which they fictitiously call in question (cf. Gluckman 1954).


1. Sour porridge that fills the house? - Liquid manure in the kraal.
2. A lake surrounded by sedge? - The eye.
3. A beast from my mother’s bridewealth with a lump in its belly. - Millstone and grindstone.
4. Hold me, mother, while I empty my bowels. - The nose. (Blowing it.)
5. Lightning - a shining thing round the village. - A young calf running.
6. A Bushman’s house that is not closed. - The nose.
7. The tippet of the child of the chief. - A cattle-kraal.
8. A young man living in a cave? - The tongue.
9. Fields on a slope? - The eyebrows.
10. Men who do not put their sticks on the ground? - Dogs.
11. A man hunting animals who leaves those which he killed behind and comes back with the living ones. - Someone killing lice with his finger nails.
12. A bird’s nest hanging over an abyss, and its young will not escape. - The nose.
13. If you are a Bushman, where did you get that water from? - A water-melon.
14. A white field, and when it is ploughed its soil is black? - Writing paper.
15. Something that eats through its belly? - A wood-plane.
16. A pumpkin on a plateau? - The moon. The navel.
17. A tree on which all birds sit? - The chief.
18. Five white-faced birds going into one hole through one entrance? - The toes of the feet.
19. The white chief’s young men that stand in line. - Telegraph poles.
20. Reeds in the river? - The teeth.
21. A man who says he is full in the day time and hungry at night. - A blanket-rack.
22. They come and they go. - The eyelids.
23. Young white men who look alike living in a cave? - The teeth.
24. The beautiful flowers of the chief’s child? - The eyes.
25. The plateau with one flower? - The belly and the navel.
26. The horse’s head that the vultures never finished up? - A shop.
27. A beast that rises up there in the Cape, people can cut it up and it does not come to an end? - A shop.
28. The spring at Qoqolosing - the people there do not draw water from it, it is drawn by the people of Hlotse. - The water at Qoqolosing. (It is piped to Hlotse (Leribe) and drawn from taps by the residents.)
29. An animal that is not eaten. - A dog.
30. The sour porridge of the great house? - Liquid manure.
31. When this horse farts, the foals run away. - A gun.
32. I shut my father’s cattle into the kraal and I am puzzled how the god of my enemy could have got in? - My shadow.
33. A man who vomits all day long? - A train.
34. A man living among sticks that do not hurt him; if they do not hurt him, he grumbles. - The tongue.
35. My field which I plough with my hands and when the corn is ripe, I reap it with my eyes. - A letter.
36. We Basotho just throw it away, but the Europeans hoard it. - Snot, slime from the nose.
37. I eat the bag and throw away the corn. - Animal’s stomach.
38. A cow comes out of the sea, the people cut it up and it does not come to an end, and on Monday there is plenty more to cut up. - A shop.
39. I have two children, one is large and one is small, but they are never parted; and if they are frightened they are frightened both. - Stomach and navel.
40. I closed it up tightly and I wonder how the God of Rome could have found his way in? - A weevil eating the corn in the bag.

Updated Wednesday, December 3, 1997