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Sphinx
Σφίγξ

Sphinx. 8802: Siddende Sfinx fra Aigina, graesk ca 470 f.Kr. Athen Nationalmuseet (Royal Cast Collection, Copenhagen).

The Sphinx is the monster with a riddle.

The Sphinx comes to Thebes

When King Laius 1 of Thebes was murdered, along with his herald, by an unknown in a Phocian road, the king's brother-in-law Creon 2 came to power. It is during this first regency of Creon 2 that the Sphinx came to Boeotia and Thebes, some say sent by Hera, others by Hades, and systematically started ravaging the fields and gobbling up people. The Sphinx (who some call Phix) had the face of a woman, the breast, feet and tail of a lion, and the wings of a bird. She had learned a riddle from the MUSES, which she chanted in inharmonious songs, and sitting on Mount Phicium, propounded it to any Theban willing to take the risk of solving it. As she declared that she would not depart unless anyone interpreted her riddle, Creon 2, in accordance with an oracle, issued a proclamation promising that he would give the kingdom of Thebes and his sister Jocasta in marriage to the person solving the riddle of the Sphinx.

The riddle

The chance to get both kingdom and queen tempted many. But the Sphinx had also declared that she would destroy whoever failed to give the correct answer. And while nobody was able to give the correct answer, she devoured the candidates one by one. This was the riddle of the Sphinx (very easy for those who already know it):

"What is that which has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?" (Apollodorus, Library 3.5.7).

When many had already perished, Oedipus, having heard the proclamation, came to Thebes, and meeting the Sphinx, gave the right answer, declaring that the riddle referred to man; for as a little child he is four-footed, as an adult two-footed, and as an old man he uses a staff as a third limb. The Sphinx kept her promise, for on hearing the solution to her riddle, she threw herself from the citadel and died. In this way Oedipus became king of Thebes, and by marrying his own mother Queen Jocasta, he unwittingly fulfilled the oracles that had declared that he would kill his father and lie with his mother.

Another story

Some are not satisfied with this account, which they find to be a product of wild imagination. For who has seen sphinxes ravishing citizens and eating them raw, destroying fields, and chanting childish riddles on the top of a mountain or from a citadel? So, believing the Sphinx can be easily explained, they, much like Oedipus, answer this riddle by making up their own mature stories, which they find so perfectly rational, that even a child could inmediately grasp it. So for example, some have affirmed that the Sphinx came with a fleet on a piratical expedition, and having put in at Anthedon, she seized a mountain, and used it for plundering raids. Oedipus then came with a Corinthian army, and put an end to this unconfortable guerrilla warfare. Others assert that the Sphinx was just a woman. According to them, she was the lovely daughter of King Laius 1. He was so fond of her that he told her the secret oracle—only known to kings—that Delphi had delivered to Cadmus, the founder of Thebes. Laius 1 had many sons by concubines, they say, but the oracle applied only to Jocasta and her sons. So when any of her brothers came in order to claim the throne, she would say that if they really were sons of Laius 1 they should be acquainted with the oracle. So they were asked, and when they could not answer she put them to death as potential usurpers on the ground that they had no valid claim to the kingdom, or to relationship. Oedipus, they affirm, was able to give the right answer because he had been told the oracle in a dream.


Family 

Parentage (three versions)

Typhon & Echidna

 

Laius 1 & unknown

 

Orthus & Echidna

 


For Typhon's attack against heaven see Zeus, and for Echidna see BESTIARY.
For Laius 1 see also Oedipus.
Orchus was a two-headed hound, watch-dog of the cattle of Geryon (see HERACLES 1'S LABOURS).


Related sections Creon 2, Oedipus, Thebes
Sphinx in GROUPS: BESTIARY
 
Sources
Abbreviations

Apd.3.5.7-8; Hes.The.326; Hyg.Fab.67, 151; Pau.9.26.3.

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