The Riddle of Thebes

The temperature was high, and the landscape around the traveler seemed to blur away. Nevertheless, he kept walking forward. It had been days he was on the road, and yet, he could not cast his glance on the white contours of his destination. The road was rocky, but Mediterranean plants would, here and there, have got through the sandy, ocher-colored soil.

Indeed, as the road grew larger, the smell of nearby olive and fig trees hit his nostrils: the smell of the area carried something really familiar to him, he noticed, a memory rooted in his senses. The Greek traveler glanced down: in the sand, footprints and the outlines of chariots’ wheels multiplied. The trees around him seemed to spread their branches away, clearing the view forward: and he smiled at what he saw, since finally, the city of Thebes was in sight.

John Frederick Lewis, The Ramesseum at Thebes, circa. 1841-1851. (Source: Wikimedia)

All of a sudden, an enormous shadow was cast upon him. He realized in fright that a monster had been flying above him, and now its massive frame was landing on the ground, blocking the way. The frightened young man restrained a scream. Facing him, a gigantic monster, the body of a lion crowned with a female-like head, and wings spreading from each side of its back.

sphinx dunbar gb walter baxter
The body of a lion, a female head, wings and a snakelike tail: the figure of the Sphinx according to Greek mythology, here represented in Dunbar, GB (Credit: Walter Baxter via Geograph)

“The legend was true,” he thought, trying to remain calm. He had heard wayfarers mentioning that Thebes was guarded by some monster, some long-time-ago inherited curse that had been the cause for an increase in the number of deaths at the gates of the city, and subsequently for a decrease in visitors. The King of Thebes himself had promised to offer the throne to anyone who would dispose of the terrifying beast, called “the Sphinx”. But, as far as the man knew, it did not kill at first sight. It was supposed to ask a riddle to everybody willing to enter the city, and anyone who could not answer correctly turned out to be next on the Sphinx’s menu.

Despite his tiredness, his wobbling legs, the brave traveler stood still, and waited for the monster to speak. As the cloud of dust caused by the Sphinx’s landing was blown away, he could see the creature well, whose smile and eyes conveyed beauty and intelligence – the rest of the body indicating brute force and ferocious behavior. “Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?” the Sphinx asked calmly.

The Greek knew that would he not be up to the beast’s challenge, this vision would be his last: the gates of Thebes, some kilometers away in the distance, unreachable. He had been really unfortunate over the last few months, he thought; after he was told by the Oracle of Delphi that he would kill his father and marry his mother, he had left his parents, Polybus and Merope, respectively King and Queen of Corinth, and had headed north, to Thebes. Then, on his way, he had fought with somebody driving a chariot out of the city, escalating to a deadly struggle which eventually left the man, named Laius, dead in the sand. And now his mind was racing to solve the Sphinx’s riddle… “Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?” he recalled to himself.

Depiction of the riddle-time: Tondo of an Attic red-figure kylix, 480–470 BC, from Vulci. (Source: Vatican Museum, Museo Gregoriano Etrusco, room XIX)

And the solution finally appeared, like magic, in his mind: the Greek’s anxious face cleared as he answered confidently: “the man.” Every human being indeed starts his life four-footed, crawling to the ground before being able to walk on two legs; and when one’s end is getting near, one uses a cane as a support for walking. This was it!

The Sphinx bowed his head and indicated to the exhausted traveler that he had succeeded. The latter would know, sometime later, that the beast had killed itself following its success – paving the way for him becoming the next King of Thebes as he married Jocasta, queen of the city…

What he did not know, however, was that the familiar feelings he had with the city were well-founded: he later learned that he had been raised in Thebes, until being chased by his father as a baby. At the time, he was way too young to remember his own royal parents, namely King Laius and Queen Jocasta. From this point onward, Oedipus remembered. And lamented.



Author: Nicolas

Ingrédients : 33% d'anecdotes insolites, 19% de livres poussiéreux, le reste de curiosité névrosée. Auteur du Petit dictionnaire des sales boulots (Vendémiaire, 2022). Chroniqueur chez Slate et RetroNews.

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