What was the riddle that Oedipus had to solve for the Sphinx in Oedipus Rex?

The riddle that the Sphinx posed to Oedipus in Oedipus Rex is this: What creature walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening? The answer to the riddle is "a human being."

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In the opening scene of Oedipus Rex, written by Sophocles in about 429 BCE, the people of Thebes go to Oedipus, their king, to appeal to him to end the famine and plague afflicting the people of Thebes.

A Priest, as spokesperson for the people of Thebes, tells...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

In the opening scene of Oedipus Rex, written by Sophocles in about 429 BCE, the people of Thebes go to Oedipus, their king, to appeal to him to end the famine and plague afflicting the people of Thebes.

A Priest, as spokesperson for the people of Thebes, tells Oedipus about the plague and famine.

PRIEST. A blight is on our harvest in the ear,
A blight upon the grazing flocks and herds,
A blight on wives in travail; and withal
Armed with his blazing torch the God of Plague
Hath swooped upon our city emptying
The house of Cadmus, and the murky realm
Of Pluto is full fed with groans and tears.

In order to convince Oedipus to help the people of Thebes overcome the famine and plague, the Priest tells Oedipus what a great man he is, "the first of men," and then he reminds Oedipus of his past glory.

PRIEST. Art thou not he who coming to the town
of Cadmus freed us from the tax we paid
To the fell songstress [the monstrous Sphinx]? Nor hadst thou received
Prompting from us or been by others schooled;
No, by a god inspired (so all men deem,
And testify) didst thou renew our life.

Oedipus remembers the story well, as well he should, as does nearly every member of the audience, who first heard the myth of Oedipus when they were small children, and have heard the story repeated all of their lives.

The myth is retold in Sophocles's Oedipus Rex as well. The myth begins with Oedipus's birth, but that part of the story isn't directly relevant to the story of Oedipus and the Sphinx.

Moving ahead to when Oedipus was a full-grown man, while living in Corinth with his (unknown to Oedipus) adoptive parents, King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth, Oedipus heard a rumor that Polybus and Merope weren't his real parents. Oedipus went to the Oracle at Delphi to resolve the matter.

Oedipus didn't find out if Polybus and Merope were his real parents, but the Oracle told Oedipus that he would one day kill his father and marry his mother. Believing that Polybus and Merope were his real parents, and not wanting to kill his father and/or marry his mother, Oedipus fled Corinth to avoid fulfilling the prophecy.

On the way to Thebes, Oedipus met his real father, King Laius of Thebes, and the king's entourage. An argument ensued over the right-of-way on the narrow road, Oedipus was attacked by his own father and the others, and Oedipus killed Laius and all but one of the soldiers accompanying him, who ran back to Thebes and hid in the mountains herding sheep until his testimony was needed to help resolve parentage issues in Oedipus Rex.

Oedipus continued on his way to Thebes, but as he got nearer to the city, he was stopped in the road by the Sphinx, a ferocious beast with the head and bust of a woman, and the body of a lion. The Sphinx was guarding the entry to Thebes, and it refused to let anyone pass into the city until they answered her riddle.

Those travelers who failed to answer the riddle were killed, some of whom were thrown from a cliff conveniently located nearby, and others were eaten by the Sphinx. A frightening number of gnawed-on skulls scattered along the roadside attested to the many travelers who had failed to answer the riddle correctly.

In its simplest form, the riddle is this: What creature walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening?

Oedipus correctly guessed the answer: a human being. A baby crawls on all fours, a mature person walks on two legs, and an old person walks with a cane.

Overcome with rage at having been bested by a mere human being, the Sphinx threw itself from the same cliff from which it had thrown so many unfortunate travelers.

Oedipus entered the city of Thebes as a hero for having released the city from the scourge of the Sphinx. In appreciation, the good people of Thebes made Oedipus king of Thebes and awarded him with the hand of the former queen, Jocasta—unknown to Oedipus, his real mother—in marriage.

They had four lovely children together. The two sons, Polyneices and Eteocles, killed each other in a civil war over the throne of Thebes. One daughter, Antigone, was shut up in a cave and subsequently hanged herself for burying Polyneices after he was killed by Eteocles. Another daughter, Ismene, was involved with taking care of their aged, self-blinded father for a time, and then was never heard from again.

Looking back on his life, Oedipus might well have decided that solving the riddle of the Sphinx was the easiest thing he ever did.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team