February 07, 2022

#08-184: The Riddle of the Sphinx

Reconstitution of the Sphinx of the Naxians at Delphi, from 560 BCE

Note: You may know of the magnificent statue of the Sphinx in Egypt. But do you know about the Sphinx in Greece?

Get Ready: Do you know any good riddles? For example,

You'll find me in Mercury, Earth, Mars and Jupiter, but not in Venus or Neptune. What am I?
(Answer below)

Few realize that the ancient Greeks borrowed the figure of the Sphinx from the Egyptians. They say it was a monster with a human head and face, and the body of a lion. Some Greek descriptions made the Sphinx female, with a woman's face and breasts. Unlike the Egyptian one, some stories say the Greek Sphinx also had the wings of an eagle and the tail of a serpent.

In the most famous version of her story, King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes are going to have a son, but the Oracle of Delphi warns them that the boy will grow up to kill his father and marry his mother. To prevent this, Laius has his son's ankles pierced and tethered together so that he can't crawl. Thus they name him "Oedipus," meaning "swollen foot" (because of the injuries).

Queen Jocasta gives the boy to a servant be left out on a nearby mountain to die. But the kind-hearted man can't do it. Instead, he leaves the boy with a shepherd. At last he is adopted by the king and queen of Corinth.

One day Oedipus hears that he is not the true son of the Corinthian royals. They deny this rumor, of course, but when he, too, goes to the Oracle of Delphi, he also hears that he is to kill his father and marry his mother (whom he assumes to be the Corinthians who raised him).

To avoid doing such a terrible thing, he goes to Thebes (actually, his real hometown) instead of returning to Corinth, avoiding the couple he he believes to be his real parents. On his way he ends up killing a man who (as a much larger story tells us) is indeed his father, unbeknownst to him.

Approaching Thebes, he meets the Sphinx, who guards its gate. She requires travelers to answer her riddle or she will kill and eat them. Her famous riddle is this:

"What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three at night?"

Oedipus, of course, answers easily: "Man: as an infant, he crawls on all fours; as an adult, he walks on two legs; and in old age, he uses a walking stick." Upset, the Sphinx faints (some say she kills herself), and Oedipus is able to continue, where he learns that someone had killed the King!

But that leads into the "much larger story" I mentioned before!


The answer to the riddle in "Get Ready" above is: the letter "r."

Read more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sphinx#Riddle_of_the_Sphinx

Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. crawl
  2. faints
  3. infant
  4. on all fours
  5. pierced
  6. riddle
  7. rumor; idle talk
  8. shepherd
  9. swollen
  10. tethered

  1. on one's hands and knees
  2. grown larger, usually because of extra water
  3. punctured; stuck with something sharp
  4. gossip
  5. a new-born baby
  6. tied
  7. move on the ground like a baby
  8. passes out; loses consciousness
  9. a question that asks for a clever answer
  10. a person who cares for sheep

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for February 7, 2022

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. g; 2. h; 3. e; 4. a; 5. c; 6. i; 7. d; 8. j; 9. b; 10. f