Oedipus and the Sphinx, Ingres

Oedipus and the Sphinx, Ingres

When Oedipus (yes, that Oedipus, the one who was so devoted to his mother) was a young man, he won a kingdom by answering a riddle. (Prizes on Jeopardy aren’t nearly so lavish.) The question was posed by the Sphinx, a creature out of Greek mythology, a female monster with the body of a lion, the breast and head of a woman, eagle’s wings and, according to some, a serpent-headed tail. (The Great Sphinx of Egypt also has the body of a lion, but the human half is a man.) When Oedipus answered her riddle correctly, the Sphinx threw herself in despair off the side of a mountain, and destroyed herself. Well, that’s one version.

The poet Muriel Rukeyser tells a very different tale about the Sphinx, who went on living despite that one temporary defeat, and even had another encounter with Oedipus. It was late in his life, after all the ensuing bloodshed and death for him and his family and indeed the kingdom of Thebes. This is how Rukeyser’s story goes:


Long afterward, Oedipus, old and blinded, walked the
roads. He smelled a familiar smell. It was
the Sphinx. Oedipus said, ‘I want to ask one question.
Why didn’t I recognize my mother?’ ‘You gave the
wrong answer,’ said the Sphinx. ‘But that was what
made everything possible,’ said Oedipus. ‘No,’ she said.
‘When I asked, What walks on four legs in the morning,
two at noon, and three in the evening, you answered,
Man. You didn’t say anything about woman.’
‘When you say Man,’ said Oedipus, ‘you include women
too. Everyone knows that.’ She said, ‘That’s what
you think.’

Oedipus and Antigone

I wonder why that part of the story is never told? Do you think we’re still blind, like old Oedipus?


This entry was posted in Challenge, Enlightenment, Paintings, Poetry, Wisdom, Writers and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Riddle-Me-This

  1. Many would say, ‘yes’ and I would be one of them.


  2. Would we not be blind and deaf…….what wonders would we be able to behold, but perhaps our feeble minds could not tolerate such delights and we are cursed to forever live in the shadows…


    • Touch2Touch says:

      Like Plato’s people in the parable of the cave —
      FDR was right, fear is what we have to fear. And look what fear (that’s at the bottom of all our disputes) has brought our country to —
      Your blog is a tonic for the spirits, though. And so are you —


  3. Patti Kuche says:

    Is this why we keep repeating certain mistakes . . . .


    • Touch2Touch says:

      It gets tiresome, doesn’t it? When it could be prevented.
      What we all need, maybe, is what the Wizard of Oz gave to the Cowardly Lion, a modicum of COURAGE.
      When I look at your street journalism, I think you’re actually qualified to lead the way, Patti —


  4. 2e0mca says:

    Perhaps Oedipus forgot the ‘kind’ part ? – then he would have been closer to wholly correct… But the riddle is false anyway as not all humans will use a stick in old age. And the Sphinx can’t have been all that wise… she forgot to include a reference to zimmerframes 😉


    • Touch2Touch says:

      How welcome your visit is, Martin. You really made me laugh! The local newspaper delivery was making me crazy with their vague bills, so that was quite a relief.
      You are at least as wise as the Sphinx.


  5. Madhu says:

    Or half blind perhaps? The reason why, even when we get things right, we can’t see them through? Awaiting the swearing in of our new prime minister in a few hours. Hoping he will have both eyes open through his tenure! :-).


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