In the blog post about sayings which can be traced back to ancient Hellas or Hellenic mythology, I make mention of Oedipus. The saying he is connected to--the Freudian Oedipus complex--introduced Oedipus and explains the saying:

"Oedipus was born to King Laius and Queen Jocasta. King Laius was fortold his son would kill him and marry his mother, and so he left him to die on a mountainside. The child was found, however, and raised by King Polybus and Queen Merope. Oedipus eventually heard of the prophecy about him and fled, not wanting to hurt his adoptive parents, who he believed to be his biological ones. Fate would have him end up on the same road as King Laius, and in an argument over whom would step out of the way, Oedipus killed his father. He then traveled on and eventually met and married his mother. The myth continues on, but this is the part where the figure of speech comes from."

Today, I want to go a little deeper into this myth, to a milestone in the life of Oedipus. I quite recently acquired a little vase with a depiction of Oedipus solving the riddle of the Sphinx. It's a replica of a kylix motif. This seems like a perfect opportunity to tackle this story.


The story of Oedipus (Οἰδίπους, Oidípous) was written by playwright Sophocles. The playwright wrote three plays about him: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone. Together, these are called the Theban plays. Sophocles was not the only one to write about him, though: fragments of his story exist in the works of Hómēros, Hesiod, Pindar, Aeschylus and Euripides. Sophocles was simple one of the latest authors to write about him, and the version that was preserved best was his. He has Oedipus wander to Thebes after killing his father. Here, he finds the Sphinx at the gates to the city--a city that is starving and slowly emptying out, as the Sphinx will not allow anyone to pass without answering her riddle. Those who answer the riddle incorrectly, get killed or eaten (depending on the author).

The Sphinx is not mentioned by every author. Some, like Hómēros, only mention the oracle that Oedipus' father got, and Oedipus' murder of his father, and marriage to his mother. Hesiod mentions the Sphinx, but does not mention Oedipus. The Sphinx in Sophocles' Oedipus the King never speaks, and the words of the riddle are never conveyed. The sole mention of the riddle is as follows:

"See, for this crown the State conferred on me.
A gift, a thing I sought not, for this crown
The trusty Creon, my familiar friend,
Hath lain in wait to oust me and suborned
This mountebank, this juggling charlatan,
This tricksy beggar-priest, for gain alone
Keen-eyed, but in his proper art stone-blind.
Say, sirrah, hast thou ever proved thyself
A prophet? When the riddling Sphinx was here
Why hadst thou no deliverance for this folk?
And yet the riddle was not to be solved
By guess-work but required the prophet's art;
Wherein thou wast found lacking; neither birds
Nor sign from heaven helped thee, but I came,
The simple Oedipus; I stopped her mouth
By mother wit, untaught of auguries."

Apollodorus is one of the first to mention the very words of the riddle and has them as follows, including the tale of Oedipus' involvement:

"For Hera sent the Sphinx, whose mother was Echidna and her father Typhon; and she had the face of a woman, the breast and feet and tail of a lion, and the wings of a bird. And having learned a riddle from the Muses, she sat on Mount Phicium, and propounded it to the Thebans. And the riddle was this:— What is that which has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed? Now the Thebans were in possession of an oracle which declared that they should be rid of the Sphinx whenever they had read her riddle; so they often met and discussed the answer, and when they could not find it the Sphinx used to snatch away one of them and gobble him up. When many had perished, and last of all Creon's son Haemon, Creon made proclamation that to him who should read the riddle he would give both the kingdom and the wife of Laius. On hearing that, Oedipus found the solution, declaring that the riddle of the Sphinx referred to man; for as a babe he is four-footed, going on four limbs, as an adult he is two-footed, and as an old man he gets besides a third support in a staff. So the Sphinx threw herself from the citadel, and Oedipus both succeeded to the kingdom and unwittingly married his mother, and begat sons by her, Polynices and Eteocles, and daughters, Ismene and Antigone. But some say the children were borne to him by Eurygania, daughter of Hyperphas."

There are other versions of the riddle, but this is the one best known. Note that in older versions of the tale, Oedipus was not such a smart man at all. In fact, he was more of a warrior-hero like Hēraklēs. With the popularity of Odysseus, it was convenient to transform Oedipus into a cunning man, instead of a brawler. In the older art depicting the encounter between Oedipus and the Sphinx, he outright kills her. There is no riddle, and no suicide. She is a monster, who is vanquished by the hero, who collects his reward in the form of a wife.

Personally, I like the inclusion of the Riddle of the Sphinx. In general, I prefer the clever heroes over the brawling ones. I'm also a big fan of these types of riddles, although I'm terrible at solving them. For now, I'm just going to enjoy my latest addition to the collection, and leave you with a question of my own: would you have known the answer to the Sphinx' riddle, if it had been asked of you?