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Riddles, or enigmas or guessing games, is a universal genre, known by people from everywhere and in every age.


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Last update: 03/09/2013

By: Lúcia Gaspar - Librarian of the Fundação Joaquim Nabuco

Riddles, or enigmas or guessing games, is a universal genre, known by people from everywhere and in every age.

In antiquity, the enigmas were an expression of cults and religious magic, granting awards and divine reputation. The Sphinx asked enigmatic questions to Oedipus. The oracles challenged the interpreters. Deciphering enigmas is at the apex of testing intelligence.

Today, guessing games still retain some vestiges of the philosophical sense of that time, but, mainly, they are merely simple entertainment from the mouths of children and the public.

Brazilian riddles have their origins in Portugal and Spain. Those that come from the African people have a minimal presence or are totally diluted in Brazil.

Brazilian folklore is rich in riddles. They are common, especially in the semi-arid region and in small towns in the interior, where they form an interesting pastime. In the state capitals, where there are many concerns and a wide range of different types of entertainment, there’s no time left for riddles.

They are usually begun by the popular chant: O-que-é-o-que-é? (What-it-is-what-is-it?)

Shall we guess a little?


:: The more it grows, the less you see?
:: The more you take away, the more it grows?
:: What goes in the water and doesn’t get wet?
:: What falls standing up and runs lying down?
:: What runs in the woods and in the clear is blocked?
:: Tall it is, up high it lives: nobody sees it, but everyone loves it?
:: There are seven brothers; five have surnames and two don’t?
:: It doesn’t have feet and runs, it has a bed and doesn’t sleep, when it stops it dies?
:: What puts more quickly the poor in front?
:: A white house with a lagoon inside or a little white church with neither door nor lock?
:: He lives burning and she dies singing?
:: Painted like guinea, speaks without a mouth, walks without having feet?
:: Walks lying down and sleeps standing up?
:: Tall towers, beautiful windows, open and close with nobody touching them?

Recife, 17 July 2003.
(Updated on 20 August 2009).
Translated by Peter Leamy, February 2011.
Illustrated by Rosinha.


sources consulted

CÂMARA CASCUDO, Luís da. Dicionário do folclore brasileiro. Rio de Janeiro: Edições de Ouro, [19--?].

CARVALHO NETO, Paulo de. Folclore sergipano: primeira sistemática sintética e primeira antologia 1883 a1960. Aracaju: Sociedade Editorial Sergipana, 1994. p. 59-61.

MELO, Veríssimo de. Folclore infantil. Rio de Janeiro: Cátedra; Brasília: INL, 1981. p. 93-142.


how to quote this text

Source: GASPAR, Lúcia. Riddles. Pesquisa Escolar On-Line, Joaquim Nabuco Foundation, Recife. Available at: <>. Accessed: day month year. Exemple: 6 Aug. 2009.