How does Oedipus' answer to the Sphinx's riddle foreshadow Oedipus' own life?

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The Sphinx is a mythical being said to have the head of a woman, the body of a lioness, the wings of an eagle, and the tail of a serpent. She guards the city of Thebes and poses a riddle to travelers who intended to enter it. The riddle is,...

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The Sphinx is a mythical being said to have the head of a woman, the body of a lioness, the wings of an eagle, and the tail of a serpent. She guards the city of Thebes and poses a riddle to travelers who intended to enter it. The riddle is, "What goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet in the evening?" If the traveler is unable to answer the riddle, the Sphinx devours them.

Oedipus solves the riddle when he arrives in Thebes after leaving Corinth to escape the Oracle's prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother. The answer to the riddle: a man. In the morning of his life, a man is a baby who walks on four feet—crawling on its hands and knees. At noon of his life, the man is an adult, walking on two feet. When the man is old, in the evening of his life, he walks with a cane.

The answer to the riddle is particularly well-suited to Oedipus.

The name "Oedipus" means "swollen feet." When Oedipus is a baby, his father, Laius, pins his ankles together.

JOCASTA: As for the child, it was but three days old,
When Laius, its ankles pierced and pinned
Together, gave it to be cast away
By others on the trackless mountain side. [Oedipus Rex]

This forces Oedipus to crawl on all fours in the morning of his life until he overcomes the injury to his feet, when he can "stand on his own two feet" at noon in his life as the respected and renowned King of Thebes who solves the riddle of the Sphinx.

CHORUS: Look ye, countrymen and Thebans, this is Oedipus the great,
He who knew the Sphinx's riddle and was mightiest in our state. [Oedipus Rex]

At the end of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, Oedipus learned that he did indeed kill his father and marry his own mother. Grief-stricken at Jocasta's suicide when she discoveres the truth of the prophecy, Oedipus blindes himself.

SECOND MESSENGER: He tore the golden brooches that upheld
Her queenly robes, upraised them high and smote
Full on his eye-balls, uttering words like these:
"No more shall ye behold such sights of woe,
Deeds I have suffered and myself have wrought;
Henceforward quenched in darkness shall ye see
Those ye should ne'er have seen; now blind to those
Whom, when I saw, I vainly yearned to know." [Oedipus Rex]

A broken man, blind and feeble, Oedipus walks with a cane to find his way in the evening of his life.

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When Oedipus arrives in Thebes, the town is being persecuted by the Sphinx.  She will not leave until someone solves her riddle:

"What goes on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening?"

Oedipus answers the riddle--a child crawling, a young man walking, and an old man using a cane--and the Sphinx slinks away to die.  Of course, this is where the future king's trouble begins; and the riddle is actually a bit of a metaphor for the major events which mark Oedipus' life.

His first months of life were quite traumatic.  He is prophecied over before he's even born to his royal parents, then he is spiked through his feet and supposedly left for dead.  Instead, of course, he is rescued by a couple of shepherds and becomes the son of another king. This is the early phase of his life--and it is the foundation for everything which is to come.  I know that's true for all of us, but his is a truly unique set of circumstances.

The middle years of his life are a mixture of good and bad.  He tries to escape the destiny predicted for him by the Oracle at Delphi, then he ends up unknowingly doing exactly what was predicted.  He lives a seemingly wonderful life--married to a queen, father of four, king to a people who love him.   Then it all changes.

Like the old man leaning heavily on his cane in the riddle, Oedipus is figuratively crippled later in his life by the revelation and realization of his sins. 

The riddle is not an exact picture of Oedipus' life journey, but the metaphor does have some application.

 

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