Puzzles and Games With a Sacred Touch?

In recent times, religion and the world of puzzles and games have crossed paths with sometimes surprising results.

The film adaptation of The Da Vinci Code, a fairly puzzle-centric thriller, was widely denounced by members of the Catholic Church, and there was similar resistance, though less vocal, against the sequel film, Angels & Demons.

And, of course, in the 1980s, the roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons was condemned as Satanic and dangerous to young minds.

I say that the above is strange because, for the most part, these seem to be anomalies or isolated incidents. There are numerous instances throughout history where puzzles and games were embraced by religion, even used as tools to teach aspects of religious beliefs.

For instance, in ancient Egypt, we’ve seen evidence of puzzly techniques used not just to secure the tomb of Tutankhamun, but also to disguise the language and rituals employed by elite members of their society. Puzzles were entrusted to keep their secrets well beyond the grave.

the seal on king tut's tomb

Plus one of the most ancient games in the historical record, Senet, seems to have evolved from being an enjoyable pastime into a spiritual tool.

You see, some Senet boards have religious iconography on them, believed to symbolize the journey into the afterlife. So gameplay — or the inclusion of the gameboard itself among the belongings of the deceased — represented that journey and the quest to learn more about it.

Some online articles have taken to referring to Senet as “the Rosicrucian board game of death,” which is a harsh misinterpretation.

There was also an afterlife connection with games for the Vikings.

According to Mark Hall, a curator at Perth Museum and Art Gallery, there have been 36 burials where board games of some description have been found in the graves around Northern Europe.

These grave sites grant intriguing insight into how the Vikings viewed board games as a learning tool. It’s believed that including a board game among the effects of the deceased signaled not only their skill and status as a warrior, but their preparedness for the afterlife itself. Heck, their win-loss records were even recorded for posterity!

Palindromes were believed to work as magical shields that protected those wearing the talismans bearing such clever wordplay.

Heck, even the shape of dice were influenced by changing religious views. Early dice games gave very little consideration to the shape or evenness of dice, because rolls were believed to be guided by Fate or some greater outside force, so the shape didn’t matter.

As religious beliefs evolved away from gods and greater forces intervening in such things, the general spirit of fairness in dice began to prevail, and the shape, balance, and pip distribution of dice became much more standardized.

And as for the Catholic Church, I certainly didn’t mean to make it look like I was picking on them in the introduction, because there are positive associations between the church and the world of puzzles and games as well.

And no, I’m not just talking about lighthearted products like BibleOpoly or the cottage industry of family-friendly games like Bible editions of Outburst, Scattergories, Apples to Apples, Scrabble, and Taboo.

Chess boards and other game boards have been found in houses formerly used by the Knights Templar, for instance.

There’s also the puzzly art of carmina figurata, poems wherein either the entire body of the poem or select parts form a shape or pattern. These works originated as religious tributes, poems where letters were colored red to stand out from the regular black lettering in order to draw attention to or highlight a certain religious figure.

tumblr_m6a31vnnxo1qggdq1

[“De laudibus sanctae Crucis” by Oliverus.
Image courtesy of WTF Art History.]

There would be hidden words or messages concealed in the text, some speaking of the religious icons at the center of the piece in glowing terms.

Do you have any favorite puzzles and games that have an element of religion to them, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!


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Does the History of Cryptography Begin in Ancient Egypt?

Puzzles in various forms have been with us for thousands of years.

We can look back at examples like riddles from ancient Greece and Sumeria, the Smyrna word square from 79 AD, or inscriptions from New Kingdom-era Egypt between the 16th and 11th centuries BC, which can be read both across the rows and down the columns. (These are informally referred to as “Egyptian crossword puzzles.”)

As it turns out, if we turn our attention to ancient Egypt, we may just find the earliest known example of an encrypted message as well.

If you go hunting on the Internet for the earliest examples of cryptography or encryption, you pretty much get one of three results:

  • The ancient Greek scytale
  • The Caesar cipher
  • The Tomb of Khnumhotep II

Naturally, as someone who fancies himself a puzzle historian, I’ve heard of the first two entries on that list.

The scytale is an encryption method where a piece of leather, hide, or parchment (let’s say leather for this example) is wound around a wooden cylinder of a certain width and length. A message is then written on the wound piece of leather. When removed from the cylinder, the message disappears, leaving only a strip of leather with what looks like a jumble of letters on it. Only someone with an identical cylinder can wrap the piece of leather around it and read the intended message. Our earliest verifiable reference to the scytale is from the Greek poet Archilochus in the 7th century BC.

The Caesar cipher is the most famous example of a letter-shifting substitution code where numbers or other letters represent the letters in your message. For example, if B is K in your cipher, then C is L and D is M, as if the alphabet has shifted. See? Simple. Your average cryptogram puzzle is more complex because you’re not simply shifting your letter choices, you’re randomizing them. The Roman historian Suetonius references Caesar’s use of the cipher in his writings during the rule of Hadrian in the second century AD.

But what about this Egyptian tomb?

The tomb in question was built for Khnumhotep II, a nobleman who lived in the twentieth century BC. He carried many impressive titles, including Great Chief of the Oryx nome, hereditary prince and count, foremost of actions, royal sealer, and overseer of the Eastern Desert. (Seriously, with titles like this around, modern companies can clearly do better than manager, CEO, or senior editor. But I digress.)

The main chamber of his tomb features an inscription carved around 1900 BC. This inscription features some strange hieroglyphics. What makes them strange is that they’re in places where you would expect more common hieroglyphs, and it’s believed by some Egyptologists that these substitutions are no accident.

Some do pass it off as an intentional effort to describe the life of Khnumhotep II in more glowing or dignified terms, utilizing loftier verbiage that would be uncommon to any commonfolk readers, similar to how legalese is used today to impress others or intimidate readers.

But others believe it to be the earliest known example of a substitution cipher, utilizing hieroglyphs rather than letters or numbers. For what reason, you ask? To preserve the sacred nature of their religious rituals from the common people.

Unfortunately, this disagreement among scholars makes it hard to point definitively at the tomb of Khnumhotep II as the first written evidence of cryptography.

I guess this falls into the same black hole as the first bit of wordplay, the first anagram, the first pun, or the first riddle. We’ll never know, because the first examples of all of these would most likely be spoken, not written. It’s not until someone decides to record it — in pictograph form, in a carving, in a bit of ancient graffiti to be discovered centuries later — that it becomes evidence to be discovered centuries later.

And who’s to say that the linguists and cryptography believers aren’t both correct? A substitution cipher is, at heart, simply an agreed-upon way to say one thing represents or means another thing. A euphemism, an idiom, a common slang word… heck, a word you say in front of your kids instead of a swear. These are all very simple substitution ciphers.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

What we do know is that there was some wordplay afoot in the tomb of Khnumhotep II, even if we can’t be sure if the history of ciphers and codes started there.


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The Strange Mystery of Florida’s Coral Castle

coral castle entrance

[Image courtesy of Bitter Southerner.]

At the center of every great mystery, there is a puzzle. When people look at the pyramids of Egypt or the Moai statues of Easter Island, the puzzle at heart is obvious: how? How were these incredible objects created?

A similar, and no less puzzling mystery, can be found much closer to home for most Americans: the Coral Castle of Florida.

The-Coral-Castle-14

[Image courtesy of The Bohemian Blog.]

Less a castle and more a varied arrangement of stones into walls, shapes, doorways, and more, the Coral Castle is composed not of coral, but of oolite limestone blocks weighing literal tons. More than 1,000 tons of rock are part of the Coral Castle’s elaborate layout, which was assembled and expanded from 1923 to 1951.

Some of those monstrous stones are seamlessly joined into different structures. Others are so perfectly balanced that they can open like a revolving door with the gentlest push.

There is a sundial, a telescope, and even stone rocking chairs carved from single pieces of rock.

coral castle moon

[Image courtesy of Bitter Southerner,]

It’s an engineering marvel, to be sure, but what separates the Coral Castle from some of those other creations we mentioned above is the fact that we know who built the Coral Castle.

One man. Ed Leedskalnin.

coral castle tools

[Image courtesy of LiveScience.]

Using basic tools like picks, winches, ropes, and pulleys, Leedskalnin created the Coral Castle in secret, allowing visitors to ponder just how he was accomplishing this remarkable feat.

It’s particularly remarkable when you consider that Leedskalnin only had a fourth-grade education, having gone to work at a young age.

The-Coral-Castle-3

[Image courtesy of The Bohemian Blog.]

Of course, it’s also worth noting that Leedskalnin was a bit of a kook, claiming he had learned the secrets of the architects of King Solomon’s temples by studying books about the pyramids at the local library.

And yet, he created something amazing. So amazing, in fact, many people attribute the Coral Castle to supernatural efforts, not merely the engineering prowess, cleverness, and determination of a hardworking man.

coral castle stairs

[Image courtesy of LiveScience.]

Over the years, many peculiar theories have circulated surrounding the Coral Castle and Ed Leedskalnin. Unreliable eyewitnesses claimed to see coral blocks floating in the air like balloons while Leedskalnin worked at night.

Some believe Leedskalnin levitated the blocks with telekinesis or psychic powers, or by singing the stones into place. Others attribute the Castle to some sort of strange manipulation of gravity, antigravity, magnetism, ley lines, or earth energies. And, of course, alien technology has been floated as a possibility as well.

(Some people even believe there’s a hidden cipher lurking in several tracts written by Leedskalnin, just waiting to be found to reveal his secrets.)

coral castle chairs

[Image courtesy of Bitter Southerner.]

A friend of Leedskalnin’s wrote a book about the physics and engineering of the Coral Castle, entitled Mr. Can’t Is Dead. It’s one of many books that claims to explain how the Coral Castle came to be.

To me, the Coral Castle seems like one giant mechanical brain teaser, a math problem more about leverage and patience than the paranormal.

And yet, I can’t help but stare at some of these creations with awe. Maybe this one of those puzzles that’s better left unsolved.

The-Coral-Castle-1

[Image courtesy of The Bohemian Blog.]


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Crossword History: An Updated Timeline

Back in 2013, we created a timeline of events from crossword history as part of our celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the crossword.

Although 105 isn’t as prestigious as 100, and the anniversary is technically tomorrow, we thought we’d honor the day this year by updating our comprehensive look at the long (yet surprisingly short) road it took to get to that marvelous centennial!

So, without further ado or folderol, we proudly present:

A Brief History of the Crossword (Updated)

16th – 11th century BC

Inscriptions from New Kingdom-era Egypt (Eighteenth to Twentieth Dynasties) of horizontal and vertical lines of text divided into equal squares, that can be read both across the rows and down the columns, are made. These inscriptions are later referred to by Egyptologists as “Egyptian crossword puzzles.”

19th century AD

Rudimentary crosswords, similar to word squares, begin appearing in England, and later elsewhere in Europe.

June 22, 1871

Future inventor of the crossword, Arthur Wynne, is born.

March 23, 1897

Future New York Times crossword editor Margaret Farrar is born.

February 25, 1907

Future New York Times crossword editor Will Weng is born.

December 21, 1913

The New York World publishes the first crossword, invented by Liverpool journalist Arthur Wynne. (The puzzle is originally known as a word-cross.)

January 6, 1916

Future New York Times crossword editor Eugene T. Maleska is born.

1920

Margaret Farrar is hired by The New York World as a secretary, but soon finds herself assisting Arthur Wynne with proofreading puzzles. Her puzzles soon exceed Wynne’s in popularity.

Colonel H.W. Hill publishes the first Crossword Dictionary.

1923

Margaret Farrar revises the cluing system for crosswords, sorting them into “Horizontal” and “Vertical” clues by number. (It wouldn’t be until the 1940s that the more familiar “Across” and “Down” terminology became the norm.)

1924

Margaret Farrar publishes the first book of crossword puzzles under contract for Richard L. Simon and Max Schuster, “The Cross-Word Puzzle Book.” It was an instant bestseller, launching Simon & Schuster as a major publisher. (Additional information available below the timeline.)

The Daily Express, founded in 1900, becomes the first newspaper in the United Kingdom to carry crosswords.

Crossword-themed novelty songs hit the airwaves as the puzzle craze intensifies, most notably “Crossword Mama, You Puzzle Me (But Papa’s Gonna Figure You Out).”

The Amateur Crossword Puzzle League of America, a self-appointed group of puzzle enthusiasts, lobbies for rotational symmetry in crosswords, which becomes the standard.

Solver Ruth Franc von Phul becomes a minor celebrity after winning The New York Herald-Tribune’s National All Comers Cross Word Puzzle Tournament at the age of 20. (She would win again 2 years later.)

January 15, 1925

“Felix All Puzzled,” the first animated short to feature a crossword, is released.

February 2, 1925

The crossword-fueled musical revue “Puzzles of 1925” opens on Broadway. It runs until May of 1925.

February 15, 1925

Disney releases a crossword-themed animated short, “Alice Solves the Puzzle.”

1926

The cryptic crossword is invented by Edward Powys Mathers, who publishes under the pseudonym Torquemada. He devises them for The Observer newspaper.

First reported instances of Braille crosswords, as newspapers mention Helen Keller solving Braille crosswords and recommending them to the blind.

1931

Dell Puzzle Magazines begins publishing.
(Dell Publishing itself was founded in 1921.)

1941

Dell Pocket Crossword Puzzles first published.
(The magazine continues to this day.)

February 15, 1942

The New York Times runs its first Sunday edition crossword. (Additional information available below the timeline.)

June 2, 1944

Physics teacher and crossword constructor Leonard Dawe is questioned by authorities after several words coinciding with D-Day invasion plans appear in London’s Daily Telegraph(Additional information available below the timeline.)

1950

The crossword becomes a daily feature in The New York Times.

August 26, 1952

Future New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz is born.

1968

Lyricist Stephen Sondheim begins creating cryptic crosswords for New York Magazine, helping introduce Americans to British-style crosswords.

1969

Will Weng succeeds Margaret Farrar as the second crossword editor for The New York Times.

1973

Penny Press is founded.

1977

Eugene T. Maleska succeeds Will Weng as the third crossword editor for The New York Times.

1978

First year of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, later featured in the documentary Wordplay. 149 contestants compete for the title in the first national crossword tournament since the 1930s.

1979

Howard Garns creates the modern Sudoku puzzle for Dell Magazines (under the name Number Place), the first pen-and-paper puzzle to rival the crossword in popularity (though this spike in popularity would occur decades later under the name Sudoku).

June 11, 1984

Margaret Farrar, while working on the 134th volume in Simon & Schuster’s crossword puzzle book series, passes away.

1993

Will Shortz succeeds Eugene T. Maleska as the fourth crossword editor for The New York Times.

November 5, 1996

One of the most clever and famous crosswords of all time is published, the election-preceding crossword where either BOB DOLE ELECTED or CLINTON ELECTED could read out, depending on the solver’s answers.

1998

The Wall Street Journal adds a crossword to its newspaper, and Mike Shenk is appointed editor.

June 23, 2006

Wordplay documentary hits theaters, featuring celebrity solvers of crosswords as well as the participants and organizers of the 2005 edition of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.

February 29 – March 2, 2008

Thanks in part to the Wordplay documentary, the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament outgrows its previous setting and moves to Brooklyn.

June 6, 2008

Matt Gaffney launches his Weekly Crossword Contest (MGWCC).

August 2008

Lollapuzzoola, a crossword-solving tournament with a more tongue-in-cheek, freeform style, launches in Jackson Heights, New York.

October 6, 2008

Patrick Blindauer’s famous dollar bill-inspired crossword puzzle is published.

2009

The city of Lvov, Ukraine, creates a crossword that spans an entire side of a 100-foot-tall residential building, with clues scattered around the city’s major landmarks and attractions. It’s awesome.

October 11, 2011

PuzzleNation.com goes live.

June 2012

David Steinberg launches the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, designed to compile a complete database of every New York Times crossword.

August 13, 2012

PuzzleNation Blog is launched.

June 14, 2013

Matt Gaffney celebrates five years of MGWCC,
stating that MGWCC will run for 1000 weeks
(which puts the final edition around August 6th, 2027).

December 21, 2013

The Crossword officially turns one hundred years old.


Additional information:

1924: The publishing house Simon & Schuster, agreed to a small (3,600-copy) run of a crossword puzzle book, prompted by founder Richard L. Simon’s aunt, who wanted to give such a book to a friend. It became “a runaway bestseller.”

In no time the publisher had to put the book back on press; through repeated printings, it sold more than 100,000 copies. Soon a second collection followed, and then a third and a fourth. In 1924 and 1925 the crossword books were among the top 10 nonfiction bestsellers for the year, besting, among others, The Autobiography of Mark Twain and George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan.

February 15, 1942: The New York Times initially regarded crosswords as frivolous, calling them “a primitive form of mental exercise”; the motivating impulse for the Times to finally run the puzzle (which took over 20 years even though its publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, was a longtime crossword fan) appears to have been the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

In a memo dated December 18, 1941, an editor conceded that the puzzle deserved space in the paper, considering what was happening elsewhere in the world and that readers might need something to occupy themselves during blackouts. The puzzle proved popular, and Sulzberger himself would author a Times puzzle before the year was out.

June 2, 1944: The words Omaha (codename for one of Normandy’s beaches), Utah (another Normandy beach codename), Overlord (the name for the plan to land at Normandy on June 6th), mulberry (nickname for a portable harbor built for D-Day), and Neptune (name for the naval portion of the invasion) all appeared in Daily Telegraph crosswords during the month preceding the D-Day landing.

This has been attributed to either an incredible coincidence or Dawe somehow overhearing these words (possibly slipped by soldiers involved) and incorporating them into puzzles unwittingly.


Do you have any suggestions for additions for our Crossword Timeline? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you!

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The (Increasingly Lengthy) History of Games

Being a student of history means constantly discovering amazing new things about our world, our culture, and ourselves. There are so many unexpected twists and turns, synchronicities, coincidences, and flat-out mind-blowing facts waiting to be uncovered.

And when you’re a student of history with an interest in puzzles and games, it means you get to discover just how long humans have been dabbling in baffling brain teasers and friendly competition.

Board games, for instance, have been around a long time, longer than most people realize. There is evidence that Go has been played in China for more than 5,500 years!

And many other games also have shockingly long lineages. Chess can be traced back to the seventh century in India. Game boards have been found in king’s courts, university halls, and even former houses used by the Knights Templar, as pictured above.

We’ve previously explored that Viking gravesites from the ninth century reveal that board games were not just a pastime for the Vikings, but that their win-loss records were important enough to be recorded for posterity!

Check this out. It’s an ancient Greek painting on a vase, dating back to 530 BCE. This piece is an example of the black figure technique where images painted on clay turned black when the clay was fired. It depicts the two mightiest warriors of the Trojan War, Achilles and Ajax, playing a board game to keep themselves busy during the siege of Troy.

It’s unclear what game they’re playing, though many historians believe the warriors are rolling dice in the image. That would make sense, since astragali (the knuckle-bones of goats and sheep) were used in ancient Greek gambling games.

Dice have an equally ancient history. The Egyptian game of Senet, which was played with dice, dates back over 5,000 years.

Dice games have been uncovered in Mesopotamian tombs (some as far back as the twenty-fourth century BC), and a Vedic Sanskrit text known as the Rigveda, which dates back to India in 1500 BC, also mentions dice.

Tile games have a similarly deep history.

Chinese Dominoes can be traced back to writings of the Song Dynasty, nearly a thousand years ago. Dominoes as we know them first appeared in Italy during the 1800s, and some historians theorize they were brought to Europe from China by traveling missionaries.

Another tile game, Mahjong, has been around for centuries, but there are several different origin stories for the game, one tracing back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), another to the days of Confucius (500 BC).

Perhaps at some point, I’ll try to put together a historical timeline of gaming (similar to the crossword timeline I created around the 100th anniversary of the crossword).

In the meantime, I’ll settle for being utterly fascinated with just how long humans have been socializing, relaxing, and competing through the medium of games.


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The Labyrinth? Why, you must be mythtaken!

Oh yes, it’s that time again! It’s to unleash our puzzly and punny imaginations and engage in a bit of sparkling wordplay!

You may be familiar with the board game Schmovie, hashtag games on Twitter, or @midnight’s Hashtag Wars segment on Comedy Central.

For years now, we’ve been collaborating on puzzle-themed hashtag games with our pals at Penny Dell Puzzles, and this month’s hook was #PennyDellPuzzleMyth, mashing up Penny Dell puzzles with anything and everything mythological! Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Celtic, Norse, whatever!

Examples include: Helen of Troy-Angles, Odin and Around, and Heads and Heads and Heads and Heads and Heads and Heads and Heads and Heads and Heads and Tails (because it’s a hydra).

So, without further ado, check out what the puzzlers at PuzzleNation and Penny Dell Puzzles came up with!


Greek Puzzle Myths!

Homer Runs

Odyssey It Again

Odysseycret Word

Letter Illiaddition / Iliadd One

Midas Touch Tank

Crostyx

Dionysuspended sentence / Pegasuspended Centaurence

Dionysus Fill-In

Places, Pleiades

Hera and Theras / Hera & Thor

Roll of the Diana

Kraken-jacks

Krak-uro

Animal Krakens

Seven-Up Against Thebes

Roll of the Eurydice

Psycheword

Minotaur-Crosswords

Muse Calling

Nemean Lion ‘Em Up

Pandora’s Boxes

Janus Face to Face

Square Nine Muses

Cerberus in the Square

Face to Face to Stone

Math Maze/Labyrinth: Plus and Minotaurus

Apollo to Zeus Maze

Minotaur’s-Eye Spiral

Hecuba Match


Norse Puzzle Myths!

Bricks and Thor-tor

Thor ‘n’ Aft

Freya Know the Odds

Frigg-erits!

Frigg-zag

Frigg-saw Squares

Mimir Mimir

Mimir Image

Annar-gram Magic Square

Tyr-Angles

Tyr-amid Words

Buri Treasure

Loki Score

Loki Star

Lokiword

Loki Double Cross

Exchange Borr

Quo-Dagr-ams

Fulla Circle


Egyptian Puzzle Myths!

Sphinx’s Riddle Me This

Picking up Osiris Piece by Piece

Horus and There

Shu-doku

Khepri It Moving

Pyramiddle of the Road

Hierocryptics


Crypto Puzzle Myths!

Mega Sudoku

Nessie Solitaire

Mathsquatch

Anagram Mongolian Death Word

Chupacommon Combos


There were a few submissions that deserve their own section, as several of our intrepid puzzlers went above and beyond.

Grand Minotaur (obviously in the Labyrinth, son of the Cretan Bull’s-eye Spiral and killed by Theseus Three)

Siren Says “Come down from that Mast-to-hear-our-words” You know the Odysseus… facing yet another Dilemma. Sailors have him Family Tied and only bind him tighter. I’m sure he has A Few Choice Words for them. 😉

Roll the Dionysus before he Looses his Tiles! He had Two at a Time all night!

Riddle Me This in the Middle of the Road: “Which creature walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening?” asks the Sphinx guarding the route to the city of Thebe.

Spell and Score: In retribution for Minos the King of Crete’s failure to sacrifice a white bull Poseidon sent him, Poseidon ordered Aphrodite to cast a spell on Minos’ wife, Pasiphae, to fall in love with the Cretan bull; they mated, and their offspring was Minotaur.


Have you come up with any Penny Dell Puzzle Myths entries of your own? Let us know! We’d love to see them!

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