Breaking the Spell VI: The Reason for Riddles

I’ve hoped to build the case, piece by piece, for reinvigorating and revitalizing the practice of folk wisdom, folk reasoning, and the need for village philosophers, and I plan to continue to do so by delving into their place of strength: Riddles.

In order to solve (or create) a good riddle, the riddler must have developed the capacity for associative reasoning, aka metaphor, aka “layers of meaning”, aka insight. In this case, riddles don’t differ from Zen koans, interpreting dreams, understanding myths, using the tarot, or any sort of divinatory/interpretive practice. All run on the faculty of associative reasoning. All demand that you get to a place that you cannot arrive at by traveling in a straight line.

I first learned of concrete methods to develop this ability at a class run by the well-known tracker, survivalist, and earth philosopher Tom Brown, Jr., and I sincerely thank him for perservering in his teaching. He remains my greatest influence. Tom Brown, who calls himself “a coyote teacher”, likes to let his students figure out the layers and hidden meanings in his teachings, and so rarely tells you anything straight. And even when he does, he didn’t. He describes the associative phenomena as “dreams, visions, signs, symbols, emotions/feelings”, and classes them all as messages of your “inner vision”. But how to decode the messages? How to solve the riddles?

In the intervening years I’ve worked at cracking the nut of what Tom Brown passed on to me, which has evolved into a Theory of Riddles, and a practice of Riddle-Mastery. Whatever errors of method in my evolving sense of riddling belong solely to me, and whatever excellences to my mentor, as it has taken some substantive experimentation and exploration to come up with a way to convert a linear/literal/literate mind gracefully into an associative/metaphorical/layering one. As one of the greatest offenders of linearity and literalness, I have found myself an excellent test subject.

As I’ve mentioned before, Tracking can itself push one towards a riddling mindset, if you approach it with an open and native mind. Meaning, one can squeeze the life out of a line of tracks as easily out of any natural phenomena, and people often do. To master Tracking, however, one must learn to let go of linearity, literalness, and true/false thinking.

Discernment, naming, and classifying remain an honored part of indigenous traditions. How do they manage to classify nature, without compartmentalizing her? How do they name without pigeonholing? How do they discern, without cutting into flesh? I submit they do so using what I’ve come to call the Wise Compass.

Written by Willem