A sphinx is a mythical creature with the body of a lion and the head of a human. According to the ancient Greeks, any traveler who wished to enter Thebes had to first solve “The Riddle of the Sphinx.” Those who failed to answer it correctly were strangled and eaten. What was the riddle? And who finally bested the Sphinx?
The Riddle of the Sphinx?
The origin of the sphinx is unknown. It appears in many ancient traditions, with the oldest surviving example coming from Turkey around 9,500 BC. Thanks to the Great Sphinx of Giza, the creature is most commonly associated with Egypt. It seems probable that this is the inspiration for the sphinx recorded in Greek mythology.
The Egyptians generally depicted the sphinx as male and multiple in number. It was considered a guardian. In Greek mythology, on the other hand, there’s just one Sphinx. She’s depicted as having the body of a lioness, the head of a woman, and the wings of an eagle. Her tail had a serpent head at the end of it. Oh, and she was definitely NOT a guardian.
According to Greek mythology, Hera sent the Sphinx from Ethiopia to Greece in order to punish the city of Thebes for King Laius’s kidnapping and raping of a boy. The Sphinx took up residence on a high wall outside Thebes. She watched over the only entrance to the city and any would-be visitor was required to answer the Riddle of the Sphinx in order to gain passage. Those who failed to give the correct answer were strangled and eaten! In the earliest texts, the Riddle of the Sphinx is not revealed. However, later texts give it as such:
“Which creature in the morning goes on four legs, at mid-day on two, and in the evening upon three, and the more legs it has, the weaker it be?”
Do you know the answer to the Riddle of the Sphinx?
Answering the Riddle of the Sphinx?
One day, Oedipus came along and finally solved the Riddle of the Sphinx. The correct answer was “man.”
“Man, who walks on all fours in infancy, walks upright on two legs in the midday of his life, and hobbles about with a staff in old age.” ~ Oedipus
Some accounts state that there was a second Riddle of the Sphinx.
“There are two sisters: one gives birth to the other and she, in turn, gives birth to the first.”
The answer to this Riddle of the Sphinx was “day and night.”
Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis
After Oedipus solved her riddle, the Sphinx threw herself off the wall and broke into pieces on the rocks below. Alternative versions state that she strangled herself or that she refused to acknowledge the answer and he was forced to kill her. Regardless, Oedipus’s victory is often recognized as a transition of sorts. With the death of the Sphinx came the end of ancient religious practices. In their wake would rise a new force…the ancient Olympian gods.