Riddle (zahadka). A mystifying or puzzling question that is posed as a game and answered by guessing. Most folk riddles are aphoristic expressions in which the subject to be identified is depicted by a mere metaphor. Some are nonmetaphorical; they consist of a partial description of the subject that is to be identified. Riddles are the simplest form of folk oral literature.
In the past, when most of the Ukrainian population was illiterate, riddles played an important role in the life of the peasants. A person's knowledge of riddles and ability to solve them was accepted as an indication of his or her intelligence. A candidate to a bachelors' group was often required to answer publicly a series of riddles before he was accepted. At a wedding the best man or the master of ceremonies answered riddles for the groom. Riddles were among the games played by young people at evening gatherings and at collectively undertaken tasks. In the Middle Ages a correct answer to a riddle sometimes saved a condemned man from death. In ancient times riddles were believed to have magical powers. During courtship, for example, a suitor would address the family of the courted girl in riddles to deceive the evil spirits. Riddles are an important component of spells, carols, rusalka songs, wedding songs, funeral rituals, tales, legends, and anecdotes. In some folk works riddles play the dominant role. In their aphoristic character some riddles come close to being sayings or proverbs. Riddles appear throughout Ukrainian literature, from the works of Hryhorii Skovoroda, Ivan Kotliarevsky, and Taras Shevchenko to those of current authors.
Riddles began to be studied as a separate folklore genre only in the 19th century. Collections of varying size were published by Mykhailo Luchkai (1830), Hryhorii Ilkevych (1841), Ivan Holovatsky (1847), Mykola Zakrevsky (1861), Matvii Nomys (1864), and Pavlo Chubynsky (1877). The first collection devoted only to riddles was Malorosiiskie ta galitskie zagadki (Little Russian and Galician Riddles, 1851), which was compiled and edited by Oleksander Sementovsky and contained 380 items. The most comprehensive collection, consisting of 3,805 riddles, was compiled by I. Berezovsky (1962), who also wrote the best study of riddles. Oleksa Voropai's collection came out in London in 1955 and N. Varkhol's collection of riddles recorded by Ukrainians in eastern Slovakia appeared in Prešov in 1985. The riddle genre continues to develop. New riddles about various features of modern life are being invented constantly.
[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 4 (1993).]