MYTH MAN'S HOMEWORK HELP CENTER
from Apollodorus Library
[3.5.8] Laius was buried by Damasistratus, king of Plataea, and Creon, son of Menoeceus, succeeded to the kingdom. In his reign a heavy calamity befell Thebes. 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 [p.1.349] 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.
from Andrew Wilson's
The Greek Sphinx
Homer refers briefly to the Oedipus story - he killed his father and married his mother, but carried on ruling in his beloved Thebes, suffering pangs of remorse. His mother/wife, Epicaste, was the one who paid with her life. But there's no mention of any sphinx. The first we hear about her is in Hesiod. He says nothing about what she looks like herself, although she is the daughter of a monster, either the Echidna or the Chimaera depending on how you interpret the Greek. Her father was the dog Orthos, and she was the Nemean Lion's sister - presumably she had something of the lion or dog about her, then. I prefer Chimaera, otherwise her mother conceived her by her son, which sounds unlikely as well as rude.
Her name is Phix, which is, according to the scholiast, in Hesiod's local Boeotian dialect: elsewhere it would be Sphix. Not Sphinx, which seems to come from a later Greek attempt to connect her with the Greek verb sphingo, I bind, constrict or throttle (as in sphincter). "The Strangler" sounded a plausible name for a monster - although she seems to have favoured eating her victims raw (according to Aeschylus) All Hesiod tells us about her myth is that she was "trouble to the Cadmeans" (ie Thebes).
So far, then, we have a name, but no real reason to connect the name of this monster with what we later think of as a sphinx, and no mention of Oedipus. But the story is connected to Hesiod's native Boeotia, and "Phix" was trouble!
The Sphinx in Archaic Greek Art
In the art of Mycenaean and Minoan times, the sphinx is a common motif: she is usually winged and crowned. Sphinxes continue to feature in Greek art through the Dark Age and on into the Archaic World. But the Minoan pattern, as expected, disintegrates. There's no longer any agreement as to what constitutes a sphinx - many are again male, often bearded, wingless, or with bodies or legs from other animals - there's even the occasional addition of a snake's tail. The female sphinx reappears around 750 BC, as communications reopen with the east, and by the 7th century the winged female sphinx predominates. The crouching sphinx, female and winged had evolved - mainly through the work of orientalising Corinthian painters - into a standard type, which, from the beginning of the 6th century influenced most subsequent painters as well as sculptors. These early sphinxes are never monumental, they are decorative, and found alone, in pairs, or among other animals (especially lions). But the classical form had stabilised: she was female, and winged. Herodotus calls the male sphinxes he saw in Egypt androsphinges, as if sphinx was naturally feminine (and the word is in fact aways feminine gender in Greek). The first time a representation of a winged girl-faced lion is called sphinx (actually sphix - see above) is on an Attic Black Figure band cup by the potters Archicles and Glaucetes, dated to about 550 BC. The sphinxes either side of the handle are clearly labelled . So we know that by mid 6th century - about 100 years after Hesiod - Greeks definitely knew a sphinx when they saw one.
Later additions to the myth after Hesiod
Apollodorus, using very probably the lost work on mythology by Pherecydes of Athens (5th century BC) adds more details. According to him her parents were Echidna (did he misread Hesiod?) and Typhon. Hera sent her to punish the Thebans (what for? - see below). She had the face of a woman, the chest, feet and tail of a lion, and the wings of a bird. She sat on Mount Phikion and asked the Thebans a riddle:
"What has one voice, and is four-footed, two-footed and three-footed?"
Each time the Thebans gave a wrong answer, she ate one of them. Many perished, including eventually Haemon, son of Creon - ruler since the death of Laius, the previous king. Creon then announced he'd give the kingship and Laius' widow (his sister Jocasta) to whoever solved the riddle. Oedipus, on his way from Delphi, gave the answer: "Man". The Sphinx threw herself off the acropolis and committed suicide (odd form of suicide for a creature with wings?).
Why was the Sphinx sent and who by? Possibly to punish Thebes for allowing Laius get a way with a crime. Laius (sometimes credited with the "invention" of homosexuality) had raped Chrysippus, son of Pelops, and carried on ruling.
So the important later additions, besides the now specific rather than implicit association with Oedipus, are the riddle, and the location, now named as Mount Phikion ("Sphinx Mountain"). Could the mountain have looked like a crouching sphinx (in the way that so many "Lion Mountains" resemble lions)? There are references to a war between the Thebans and the Minyans of Orchomenos which started on Mt. Phikion. It would not be too hard to imagine a tradition developing after a battle on Sphinx Mountain that a sphinx had somehow been defeated.
Corinna, the local poetess, believed Oedipus was a sort of poor man's Heracles or Theseus, killing local monsters - besides the sphinx, he also accounted for the Teumesian Fox. Thus he seems to have been an all-purpose hero in Boeotia, rather than a visitor who just happened to come and solve some riddle. Early vase paintings show him doing the deed with a sword or spear - there was no riddle, no suicide. So the sphinx, as local monster, could well have come about from the fancied resemblance of the mountain between Thebes and her old enemy Orchomenos to a sphinx. And Oedipus killed her. But where does the riddle come in?
The Theban story, which included Oedipus and the Sphinx, probably took shape around 600 BC, thanks to the Oidipodia, a lost epic poem, from which the various elements found in Sophocles and later writers ultimately derive. The parricide and the incest were already known to Homer. Hesiod introduces the Sphinx, without mentioning Oedipus. The Oidipodia must have included the local monster, and somehow improved her connection with Oedipus: no longer did he merely slay her like Heracles dealing with her brother the Lion of Nemea, but he destroyed her with his intellect, not his sword, forcing her to commit suicide. (Just as Jocasta does in the play.) And, it is tempting to assume, the riddle was the means by which he demonstrated his intelligence.
Obviously, Homer's version, where he gratuitously kills his father and marries his mother (but still carries on as king of Thebes) is unsatisfactory if you want to make Oedipus at all plausible. He'd have to be very stupid (as Boeotians proverbially were!) to get involved in two such idiotic actions. To paraphrase Lady Bracknell "to kill one's father is unfortunate; to marry one's mother looks like carelesness." So Oedipus must kill his father by accident (earlier versions probably had Oedipus kill him in battle - the word used by Homer, exenarixas, for the killing of Laius is most commonly used for killing in battle) and thus qualify to marry the widowed queen by performing some excellent deed: say killing a monster (a very frequent motif in folktales). The sphinx was by now a conveniently available local one. Then, taking his cue from Odysseus, Oedipus acquires a cunning intellect. If Oedipus is very clever, and not stupid at all, the whole story gets much more interesting. He proves his cleverness by solving a riddle (another folktale standby), and then, despite his cleverness, still manages to kill his father and marry his mother. Now we have a plot!
The Riddle 2
Where did the riddle come from? Discounting folk memories of the Egyptian Sphinx , the first mention of a riddle is on a vase made about 470-460 BC. It is in hexameter form, the meter of epic, which suggests that it indeed derives from the Oidipodia. The first record of the riddle is in two fragments from Euripides' lost Oedipus play - but the riddle is also quoted in hexameters, and in the scholiast on Euripides' Phoenissae. Later the entire riddle is extensively quoted, but, as I said above, there is no especial significance in this particular riddle, which is found in various parts of the world. It's not a particuarly hard one either (my Year 10 pupils usually manage to solve it unaided!).
Part is taken from
Laius, king of Thebes, was warned by an
oracle that there was danger to his throne and life if
his new-born son should be suffered to grow up. He
therefore committed the child to the care of a herdsman
with orders to destroy
Many years afterwards Laius being on his way to Delphi, accompanied only by one attendant, met in a narrow road a young man also driving in a chariot. On his refusal to leave the way at their command the attendant killed one of his horses, and the stranger, filled with rage, slew both Laius and his attendant. The young man was OEdipus who thus unknowingly became the slayer of his own father.
Shortly after this event the city of Thebes was afflicted with a monster which infested the highroad. It was called the Sphinx. It had the body of a lion and the upper part of a woman. It lay crouched on the top of a rock, and arrested all travellers who came that way, proposing to them a riddle, with the condition that those who could solve it should pass safe, but those who failed should be killed. Not one had yet succeeded in solving it, and all had been slain. OEdipus was not daunted by these alarming accounts, but boldly advanced to the trial. The Sphinx asked him, "What animal is that which in the morning goes on four feet, at noon on two, and in the evening upon three?" Oedipus replied, "Man, who in childhood creeps on hands and knees, in manhood walks erect, and in old age with the aid of a staff." The Sphinx was so mortified at the solving of her riddle that she cast herself down from the rock and perished.
The gratitude of the people for their deliverance was so great that they made OEdipus their king, giving him in marriage their queen Jocasta. OEdipus, ignorant of his parentage, had already become the slayer of his father; in marrying the queen he became the husband of his mother. These horrors remained undiscovered, till at length Thebes was afflicted with famine and pestilence, and the oracle being consulted, the double crime of Oedipus came to light. Jocasta put an end to her own life, and Oedipus, seized with madness, tore out his eyes and wandered away from Thebes, dreaded and abandoned by all except his daughters, who faithfully adhered to him, till after a tedious period of miserable wandering he found the termination of his wretched life.
Web, myth narration & graphics created & maintained by Nick Pontikis
Copyright © 1995 - 2010 Thanasi's Olympus Greek Restaurant
The Myth Man persona © 1988 Nick Pontikis
Copyright © 1999 mythman.com