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