Thought you guys might enjoy this -- an unsolved riddle from the 1800s. Story and contents of puzzle have been copy pasted from here:

Bishop Samuel (“Soapy Sam”) Wilberforce, who once famously debated Charles Darwin’s protege Thomas Huxley — Darwin himself was slated to debate Wilberforce but got sick and sent Huxley in his stead — was, among other things, about the most forceful public speaker of his day.

The writer Benjamin Disraeli coined the unforgettable “Soapy Sam” sobriquet, because the Bishop’s manner was, according to Disraeli, “unctuous, oleaginous, saponaceous.”

In addition to being a brilliant speaker, Soapy Sam was also a man who enjoyed a good riddle.

He was born in September of 1805 and died in July of 1873. After his death, the following was found among his papers:

I’m the sweetest of sounds in Orchestra heard,

Yet in Orchestra never was seen.

I’m a bird of gay plumage, yet less like a bird,

Nothing ever in Nature was seen.

Touch the earth I expire, in water I die,

In air I lose breath, yet can swim and can fly;

Darkness destroys me, and light is my death,

And I only keep going by holding my breath.

If my name can’t be guessed by a boy or a man,

By a woman or girl it certainly can.

I have no idea what it might be. Any guesses?

  • $\begingroup$ "A bird of gay plumage", I'll have to remember that one. $\endgroup$ Apr 17, 2023 at 1:05

2 Answers 2


This link give a long and detailed account of this and related riddles:


The answer it gives is

TIME, which I don't feel like fits too well -- I can see why it is considered unsolved by many.

  • $\begingroup$ from the same source, some people seemed to think it was actually rot13(N JUNYR) which may be even more unlikely $\endgroup$
    – Graylocke
    Feb 20, 2021 at 6:12

The answer to this riddle is “Echo”

An echo is a sound that is heard in an orchestra, but it is not a physical object that can be seen. It is also referred to as a "bird of gay plumage" because it can mimic the sounds of other animals and birds, even though it is not a living thing. Echoes "die" when they touch the ground or the water, as they are reflected back and eventually dissipate. Echoes can also be "destroyed" by darkness, as sound cannot propagate in the absence of light. However, they can continue to exist by "holding their breath" or staying silent until another sound is made. the last clue suggests that the word "Echo" can be pronounced by a woman or girl because the Greek mythological character of Echo was a woman.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ "sound cannot propagate in the absence of light." - what? Do you have a reference for that? I can hear things perfectly fine in pitch black $\endgroup$
    – bobble
    Apr 17, 2023 at 14:09

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