“You have not the Book of Riddles about you, have you?” So Slender asks Simple in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Riddles have been around since ancient times, and are present in many cultures: from Babylonian and Sanksrit texts, to Norse and Anglo-Saxon kennings, to Yoruba and Bantu oral traditions. As early as the sixteenth century, riddles were included in published anthologies, and they appeared in print steadily. During the nineteenth century, an “extraordinary explosion”1 of books devoted to riddles and puzzles were published. The book shown below is The New ‘Sphinx’: an elegant collection of enigmas puzzles charades transpositions rebusses anagrams logogriphs conundrums &c. &c.
It’s a collection of riddles, logographs (picture puzzles), and word puzzles such as rebuses (where the reader must combine syllables from a set of words to produce an entirely new word) and charades (where the reader must guess a historical or literary figure from a clue or verse). The title refers to the mythological creature who questioned travelers entering the ancient Greek city of Thebes with a seemingly unsolvable riddle.
The New ‘Sphinx’ was actually a follow-up to another book entitled The Sphinx; or, agreeable companion for a winter’s evening: being an elegant selection of enigmas, etc., and it went through at least seven printings. Why so popular? During the 19th century, the middle class in particular benefited from increases in both literacy rates and leisure time, while the publishing industry was able to produce and distribute books at lower costs. The Sphinx and the New ‘Sphinx’ cost only one shilling each, making them affordable for a wide range of 19th-century readers who could sharpen their wits while feeling in touch with literature and culture. For instance, the set of rebuses below about “London performers” requires knowledge of current actors and also of literature – note the Hamlet reference in number 8.
A special feature of the New ‘Sphinx’ is the “enigmatical frontispiece” which folds out from inside the front cover and, fortunately, has its own page of solutions at the back of the book. Visual puns and puzzles also have a long history, and sometimes feature in unexpected places – consider the spear on Shakespeare’s coat of arms!
Can you figure out the names of the London performers in the puzzle above? Take a stab at it in the comments.