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Riddle Me This

BY John Bucher December 5, 2021

From a series of six plates, etched by Hollar after drawings by Giulio Romano from the collection of Nicolas Lanier. Palazzo Te in Mantua. Wenceslaus Hollar (Bohemian, Prague 1607–1677 London). Public Domain.

Mythology is filled with riddles. These questions and turns of phrase were an important literary form in the Greek-speaking world. The most famous riddle is the Riddle of the Sphinx, a mysterious question about a multi-legged creature, uttered by a guardian at the entrance to the Greek city of Thebes. Oedipus solves the riddle, correctly guessing that it refers to the basic stages of human life, from birth to death. In explaining the riddle, he avoids the mortal fate of those that had been unable to correctly answer. While modern riddles are centered on fun and games, ancient riddles apparently had much higher stakes. However, the presence of riddles throughout mythic stories suggests that perhaps something beyond a clever literary device might be at work. 

Folklorist Elli-Kaija Köngäs-Maranda suggested that where myths work to encode and establish social norms, riddles make a point of playing with conceptual boundaries and crossing them for the intellectual pleasure of showing that things are not quite as stable as they seem. (Riddles and Riddling: An Introduction”, The Journal of American Folklore, 89, p. 131) 

We might say that riddles are tricksters in mythological literature. There is also an inherent framework within riddles meant to keep some out. In the subtext of a riddle lies a challenge—and a reward. Where myth expands the inflexible boundaries found in other disciplines like history, riddles further stretch the bounds of myth lest we become too rigid in our interpretations and succumb to the temptation to form dogma around the ideas within our myths.

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A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake coverJoseph Campbell was intrigued by riddles both in ancient mythology and in modern mythic literature. In A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, Campbell approaches the entirety of James Joyce’s masterwork as a riddle in and of itself. In addition to approaching the totality of the novel, he also deals with specific riddles found in the text – riddles that without Campbell’s assistance would likely soar right past the minds of the uninitiated (like myself). For example, at one point in Finnegans Wake, the character Yawn riddles another character with the question, “Are you Roman Patrick, 432?” Campbell offers possibilities on the peculiar phrasing of the query, suggesting that 432 also refers to the supposed date that St. Patrick arrived in Ireland and that Yawn is dropping hints about his family. (295) To be honest, without Campbell, this reader would have never even realized this was a riddle. However, now with the proper lighting, I can see the playful game in which Joyce was engaging. 

In Campbell’s unearthing of the treasures buried beneath Joyce’s prose, we see the ways in which riddles are a metaphor for mythology itself – and also the ways that they defy our mythological understandings. Like myths, riddles allow us to talk about an idea without dealing directly and explicitly with that idea. They allow our minds to explore possibilities around an idea without getting trapped in unyielding structures. However, where myths leave themselves open to multiple expressions and interpretations, riddles are different in that they often point toward a singular truth or interpretation. They can easily resemble other storytelling forms like fables or parables, acting as a “solution” to a posed “problem,” instead of the open-ended interpretations we find in myths. 

When The Riddler uses the phrase “Riddle Me This” while taunting Batman, the word “riddle” is a substitute for the word “answer.”  “Answer me this” is what we usually mean when posing a riddle to someone. In essence, riddles demand answers. Of course, myths can be similar—though often myths don’t all lead to the same answers, but more questions. Part of the brilliance found in A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake is that Campbell resists the urge to “answer” the meaning of the riddle but remains committed to shining light on the many mythic paths, allowing the reader to make their own discoveries in the light he shines. 

A character named Taff, in Joyce’s source text, requests of another character, Butt, the meaning of an H.C. Earwicker riddle. Butt’s response? “Bim-bam-bom-bumb.” (219-220) Somehow, I imagine Campbell offering a similar response when a curious student would ask him about the meaning behind the notoriously cryptic Finnegans Wake. Then, Campbell being Campbell, he would likely walk the student through the numerous possibilities around the individual riddles found throughout the text, leaving the student further along in their journey, but also with the responsibility of discovering their own revelation.

Like so many other mythic paths, riddles are about the journey toward their meaning for the individual traveler. The riddle of Finnegans Wake is not one to be solved. It is one to be worked through, to be explored, to be enjoyed. Campbell’s deep understanding of this is what allowed him to craft such a meaningful analysis with Henry Morton Robinson. He somehow knew that this exploration would offer a profound meaning for us as the reader, but that we might need a little help, a skeleton key. I, for one, am so glad he did. Whether we discover meaning for ourselves or not, we are left with something more than with what we began.



Discuss this MythBlast with the author and the rest of the JCF community in our forums, Conversations of a Higher Order.

Yours, John Bucher John BucherJohn Bucher is a renowned strategist, communicator, and cultural mythologist based out of Hollywood, California. Disruptor named him one of the top 25 influencers in Virtual Reality in 2018. He is the author of six books including the best-selling Storytelling for Virtual Reality, and has worked with companies including HBO, DC Comics, The History Channel, A24 Films, The John Maxwell Leadership Foundation and served as a consultant and writer for numerous film, television, and Virtual Reality projects. John has spoken on 5 continents about using the power of story to reframe how products, individuals, organizations, cultures, and nations are viewed. Learn more.

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The Way of Art

Our gift to you this month is eSingle. Access this download for free until the end of the month.

In this extraordinary conclusion to The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, Campbell explores art as a tool for “mythopoesis,” or the creation of new myths for a new world. The artist, he argues, is the new hero, and the creation of art—of what James Joyce called proper art—is the perilous adventure on which artists must journey in order to bring back the boon of myth and meaning.

News & Updates

Ḥanukkah ends on Monday, December 6, with all eight ceremonial candles glowing in the homes of the faithful.

December 8 marks Rōhatsu, also known as Bodhi Day, when the Buddha experienced complete liberation from all suffering while meditating beneath a peepal tree.

The 8th coincides with the Catholic Feast of the Immaculate Conception which most people—including Catholics—think is about the Virgin Birth. It refers to Mary’s sinless state at her own conception which was otherwise the result of normal sexual relations.

Masá’í, the fifteenth month of the Bahá’í calendar, begins December 11.

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Almost all non-literate mythology has a trickster-hero of some kind. … And there’s a very special property in the trickster: he always breaks in, just as the unconscious does, to trip up the rational situation. He’s both a fool and someone who’s beyond the system. And the trickster represents all those possibilities of life that your mind hasn’t decided it wants to deal with. The mind structures a lifestyle, and the fool or trickster represents another whole range of possibilities. He doesn’t respect the values that you’ve set up for yourself, and smashes them.

-- Joseph Campbell

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Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, A

Countless would-be readers of Finnegans Wake—James Joyce’s 1939 masterwork, on which he labored for a third of his life—have given up after a few pages and “dismissed the book as a perverse triumph of the unintelligible.” In 1944, a young professor of mythology and literature named Joseph Campbell, working with novelist and poet Henry Morton Robinson, wrote the first guide to understanding the fascinating world of Finnegans Wake.

Page by page, chapter by chapter, A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake outlines the basic action of Joyce’s book, simplifies and clarifies the complex web of images and allusions, and provides an understandable, continuous narrative from which the reader can venture out on his or her own. This current edition includes a foreword and updates by Joyce scholar Dr. Edmund L. Epstein that add the context of sixty subsequent years of scholarship.

Book Club

“As 2021 comes to a close, it seems fitting that we end this year by taking a step back and spending some time exploring the origin story of humankind. Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Graphic History is a beautifully constructed novel (one of two) that brings forth some of the most crucial—and often overlooked—aspects of how we got to where we are. When did we create our principle social constructs? How long have we had the capacity to change the ecological structure of Earth? And in the grand dance of the universe, how significant or insignificant are humans, really? Harari and a host of terrific characters take us on a tour of the world long ago, and in the process, bring us that much closer to home.”

Prabarna Ganguly
Editorial Advisory Group
Joseph Campbell Foundation

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