The Sphinx Riddle: The Story of Oedipus and the Sphinx in Greek Mythology

The Sphinx Riddle - The Story of Oedipus and the Sphinx in Greek Mythology

What is the Sphinx in Greek Mythology?

What is the Sphinx in Greek Mythology?

The Sphinx (creator of the Sphinx Riddle), according to Greek mythology, was the daughter of Echidna, either by Typhon or by Orthus. A monster with the face and breast of a woman, the body of a lion and the wing of a bird. She was sent as a curse on the city of Thebes by the goddess Hera.

The Greek Sphinx should not be confused with the Egyptian Sphinx. The Great Sphinx at Giza was the protector of the pyramids and scourge of the sun god Ra.

Who is Oedipus in Greek Mythology?

Oedipus was the unlucky son of King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes—the king of Thebes who unwittingly killed his father and married his mother.

The Sphinx is a mythological creature that is featured in Greek, Egyptian, and Persian Mythology, and today, it’s the Greek variation of the Sphinx that we are going to examine.

The actual physical appearance of the Sphinx differs drastically depending on region, but in Greek mythology, it was most often represented as a creature with the upper body of a woman, the lower body of a lioness, the wings of an eagle, and a serpent headed tail.

The Greek origin for the word Sphinx was believed to have derived from the word ‘sphingo’ meaning to squeeze or to tighten, which refer to the way a lioness would bite down on the throat of her prey using strangulation to eventually kill them.

Greek Origin of the Sphinx

If we go by the works of the Greek scholar Hesiod, he believed that only one Sphinx ever appeared in Greek mythology.

In some accounts, she was a daughter of the two-headed hound Orthrus, and the mother of monsters, Echidna; in others, she was the child of Echidna and Typhon.

The Sphinx Riddle: The Story of Oedipus and the Sphinx

The Sphinx Riddle in the city of Thebes

The Sphinx was indeed best known for asking riddles and being the bringer of bad luck and destruction.

The Greek Sphinx believed she resided in the ancient city of Thebes, and anyone who entered the city would be greeted at the entrance by the Sphinx where she would ask travellers a riddle which is known today as the Sphinx Riddle. If they answered correctly, she would grant them safe passage, but if they were wrong a passage will be denied and they would be extremely lucky to even survive the encounter.

The First Riddle

The riddle that became well-known with the Sphinx was: which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed, two-footed and three-footed?

(Answer: Man, who crawls on all fours as a baby, then walks on two feet as an adult, and using a stick in his old age)

Those who could not answer this riddle will almost always be strangled and devoured.

The Second Riddle

The second riddle that the Sphinx would ask was: there are two sisters, one gives birth to the other and she, in turn, gives birth to the first. Who are the two sisters?

(Answer: day and night)

The Death of the Sphinx

Eventually, the regent of Thebes King Creon became so distressed by the presence of the Sphinx that he offered anyone who destroyed her the throne to Thebes as well as his sister as a wife.

The Story of Oedipus and the Sphinx in Greek Mythology

So, up stepped Oedipus, the nephew of King Creon, accepting the challenge of his uncle bravely. When he stood before the Sphinx, he was asked the first riddle which was: which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?

After careful consideration, Oedipus answered: Man, who crawls on all fours as a baby, then walks on two feet as an adult and using a stick in his old age.

When the second riddle was asked, he once again answered correctly: day and night.

These things are so distraught that she had been bested twice that she jumped from the rock she stood on and died.

In some variations of the story when Oedipus answered the riddle correctly, she instead chose to devour herself.

When the French poet Jean Cocteau retold the story of Oedipus, his version did differ a fair amount. In his version, the Sphinx no longer wanted to kill and therefore told Oedipus the answer to the riddle, knowing that when he answered correctly, she would have to kill herself.

This version ends with Oedipus making love to the Sphinx, refusing to thank her for her assistance and then watching her die.

Now, if you thought the end to that version is a bit messed up and weird, the original story ends with Oedipus returning to Thebes, becoming the king, and marrying Queenie Jocasta, who turns out to be his mother, but that’s a story for another time.

Image Sources: Sora Kim, TaekwondoNJ.

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