Oedipus & the Riddle of the Sphinx

Oedipus found Thebes in turmoil. As part of the gods’ punishment, the land was being ravaged by the Sphinx (‘Strangler’) – a monster with a lion’s body, eagle’s wings and the breasts and head of a beautiful woman. Seated on a high cliff on Mount Phaga (or, in some versions, on a column) the Sphinx posed passers-by a riddle. If they failed to answer correctly – as they always did – she swooped down, strangled them and ate them raw.

As Oedipus approached, the Sphinx asked: ‘What walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon and three in the evening?’ Without hesitation the resourceful Oedipus replied correctly, ‘Man’, who as a baby in the morning of his life crawls on hands and knees, as a healthy adult walks upright and in old age uses a walking stick. Petulant, the Sphinx jumped to her death.

Pausanias recounts another local version of the myth in which the Sphinx was the (human) daughter of Laius. Only she and the true heir to Thebes’ throne knew secrets the oracle had once shared with Cadmus about the moon-flanked cow. If anyone claimed the kingship, this Sphinx asked him to prove his legitimacy by revealing what these secrets were, killing all who failed. Oedipus succeeded only because he had been told them in a dream

Thebes’ citizens hailed Oedipus as their saviour, and – their old king having died – awarded him the throne and Laius’ widow, Jocasta, as his wife. Together they had four children: two sons, Eteocles and Polyneices; and two daughters, Antigone and Ismene. Thebes prospered. Then a plague struck. In Oedipus the King, a priest reports:

The land is sterile. The corn rots in the husk, and in the pasture-lands our flocks, our herds are dying of hunger. Our womenfolk – in pain, with spasms and contractions – are giving birth to still-born foetuses. And now the god of fever, of all plagues the most pestilent, has swooped down hard on us to scourge our city. So Thebes lies empty, while the black house, Hades’ house of death, is rich with groans and lamentation.

Oedipus & the Riddle of the Sphinx Photo Gallery

Oedipus sent to Delphi for a remedy. The answer came: ‘seek out the killer of Laius’. Ignorant that he was himself the killer, Oedipus launched a murder investigation, summoning the one survivor of the attack to give evidence. Sophocles shows the search interrupted by a messenger from Corinth, bearing the sad news that King Polybus has died. For a brief moment, Oedipus experiences intense relief -Polybus (he still believes) was his father; the oracle told Oedipus that he would kill his father; Polybus has died of natural causes; surely, then, oracles cannot be trusted!

However, the messenger turns out to be the very man who, as a shepherd, rescued the baby Oedipus and took him to Corinth; the sole survivor of the attack on Laius’ entourage turns out to be the servant once charged with exposing the baby. Together, their evidence reveals the awful truth. Horrified at discovering that between them she and Oedipus have broken almost every taboo known to mankind, Jocasta hangs herself. Finding her, Oedipus: ripped the golden brooch-pins from her dress, and arched them high, and punched them hard into his eyeballs. Not once but many times he strafed his eyes with blows. And at each blow, the eyeballs, bursting blood, kept drenching down his cheeks, not trickling blood-flecks, dripping, slow – no! But explosive, uncontrolled, a deluge of black blood burst, beating down as thick as hail.

In Oedipus at Colonus, Sophocles recounts how Oedipus wandered in exile until he came to a grove of the Furies just outside Athens. Here he was received kindly by Theseus, and met a mystical death, apparently absorbed into the earth at Colonus, where in antiquity he was worshipped as a hero.

Famous though this account of Oedipus’ self-punishment is, it may have been invented by Sophocles. Homer knew another version. In the Odyssey ‘the fair Epicasta’ (as Homer called Jocasta) marries her son in ignorance, only to hang herself when the gods ‘immediately revealed the situation to mankind’; in the Iliad, rather than blind himself and go into exile Oedipus ruled on and, when he fell in battle bravely defending Thebes from attack, lavish funeral games were celebrated in his honour. One of Sophocles’ reasons for altering the myth is to compare the physically sighted hero’s blindness to the truth with his subsequent clear-sightedness when blind. In this respect Oedipus mirrors another of Thebes’ most memorable mythological figures, the prophet Teiresias.

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