History

This Ancient Sumerian Logic Puzzle Is Believed to Be One of the First Riddles Ever Written

People love trying to outwit each other with riddles. You know, those tricky questions that frustrate you to the point of anger when the answer is revealed to be annoyingly simple? We've been writing and reciting these head-scratchers since the beginning of humanity. Seriously, some of the earliest known riddles date back to the 18th century B.C.E.

In 1960, E.I. Gordon published 25 translated riddles that came from ancient Sumerian cuneiform tablets. Sumer, for reference, was the southernmost region of ancient Mesopotamia (Iraq and Kuwait, today) and is generally considered the cradle of civilization. And cuneiform, the script they invented, is the world's oldest surviving writing system. So yeah, we're not kidding when we said riddles have been around since the dawn of recorded time.

Below is one of the ancient riddles, as translated by Gordon.

Here's the Riddle

The original wording of the ancient riddle goes like this:

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,

Leaves it seeing.

This is a shortened version:

There is a house. One enters it blind and comes out seeing. What is it?

Scroll down to read the answer.

Here's the Answer

The resolution involves a beautiful way of thinking; the answer is a school. Sumer scholar Miguel Civil describes some of the riddles in his 1987 work "Sumerian Riddles: a Corpus." In his interpretations of the riddles, Civil notes that we were first able to recognize these writings as riddles because the cuneiform word "ki-búr-bi" means solution. The cuneiform word for riddle, however, is unknown.

Understanding these riddles can teach us about the ancient civilization. For example, the riddle above lets us infer that Sumerians valued learning and the acquisition of knowledge as essential in making sense of the world.

Did you enjoy trying to solve the riddle? If so, check out "Of Course!: The Greatest Collection of Riddles & Brain Teasers For Expanding Your Mind" by Zack Guido. Any purchases you make via that link will help support Curiosity.

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Written by Joanie Faletto November 16, 2017