The Riddle of the Sphinx
‘What creature has four legs in the morning,
two legs in the afternoon and three legs in
This was almost certainly the first riddle
ever invented. It was told by a ghastly creature
that had arrived one day outside the city
of Thebes in Ancient Greece. The creature
was called the Sphinx and it had the head of
a woman, the body of a lion, the wings of an
eagle and the tail of a snake. There was only
one road to Thebes and you could not get
into the city without passing the creature.
And you could not pass the creature (which
was also very large and very fast) without
being asked the riddle.
One of the first people who came across
the Sphinx was a young man called Haemon.
He had been on his way to see his uncle,
who happened to be the King of Thebes,
when he found his way blocked. Many
other people would have run away from so
bizarre a mixture of bird, beast, snake and
woman, but Haemon, coming from royal
stock, was afraid of nothing.
‘Stand where you are!’ the Sphinx demanded
with the voice of an angry schoolteacher.
Its tail writhed in the dust and its wings beat
at the air.
‘What do you want?’ Haemon asked, his
hand falling to his sword.
‘I have a riddle for you,’ the Sphinx said.
‘A riddle?’ Haemon relaxed. ‘That sounds
fun. What is it?’
‘What creature has four legs in the morning,
two legs in the afternoon and three legs
in the evening?’
‘Well . . . let me see now. Four legs in the
morning? It’s not a dog or anything like that?
I did once see a goat with three legs, but it
wasn’t alive so I suppose that doesn’t count.
A frog perhaps? I don’t know. I give in . . .’
The words were no sooner out of his
mouth than the Sphinx pounced. Using its
wings, it leaped up in the air. Then its tail
slithered round Haemon’s neck and began
to tighten. And finally, while its woman’s
face laughed insanely, its claws tore him
into several pieces and in seconds the road
was slippery with blood – which is one of
the very earliest jokes, for ‘haimon’ is the
Greek word for ‘bloody’. But Haemon, who
was by this time being devoured, did not
find it very funny.
Nor did the people of Thebes. When
they discovered that it was impossible to
get anywhere near the city without being
confronted by a horrible monster, asked
an impossible riddle, and torn apart when
you failed to get it right, they almost had a
riot. But there was nothing they could do.
It was a bad year for business in Thebes.
The bottom fell out of the tourism industry.
Although King Laius and Queen Jocasta
– who ruled over the city – offered a huge
reward to anyone who could rid them of the
Sphinx, the prize was never claimed.
Of course, princes and warriors came
from far and wide to chance their arm
against the creature, but it could not be
destroyed by sword or arrow. Its hide was
as hard as iron. Its huge claws were razorsharp.
Its wings would carry it into the air
and its tail would tighten round your throat
before you could blink. Some people tried
to answer the riddle. As the months passed,
all manner of answers were tried: rats, bats,
cats, gnats and ocelots were just some of
the unsuccessful ones. Every day another
scream would split the air and fresh blood
would splatter on the road.
Eventually the situation became so bad
that the king decided he would have to do
something about it himself.
‘If only we knew why this horrible creature
was here,’ he said, ‘we might be able to
find a way to get rid of it.’
‘Why not ask the Oracle?’ Queen Jocasta
The Oracle was the name given to a
priestess who could not only tell the future
but also answer any question put to her. As
soon as the queen had mentioned it, Laius
wondered why he had never thought of the
‘An excellent idea, my dear,’ he said. ‘I’ll
set off at once.’
Now, had King Laius ever reached the
Oracle, he would have had a nasty shock.
For the truth of the matter was that it was
entirely his own fault that the Sphinx was
there – even if he didn’t know it.
A short while before, Laius had gone to
stay with a friend of his and had taken a
fancy to the friend’s son. In fact, he had gone
so far as to carry off the boy, Chrysippus,
and keep him locked up as a servant in his
palace at Thebes. Eventually Chrysippus
had killed himself, and that might have
been that, had not the entire episode been
witnessed by Hera, the queen of the gods. It
was to punish King Laius that she had sent
the Sphinx to Thebes.
But King Laius never reached the Oracle
and never found this out. For, driving along
the road in his chariot, he came across a
young man who was actually on his way
to Thebes to challenge the Sphinx. It was a
narrow road and there wasn’t enough room
for the two of them to pass. They exchanged
angry words. Then King Laius drove his
chariot over the young man’s foot. The
young man, who had a rather violent temper,
responded by hurling his spear through the
king’s stomach before continuing on his
The young man was called Oedipus. He
was quite a complex character. He was not
really a bad man, despite his temper. He
genuinely wanted to be a hero but didn’t
know how to go about it. Anyway, he now
turned up outside the city of Thebes and
confronted the Sphinx.
‘Stand where you are!’ the Sphinx cried.
‘And tell me – if you value your life – what
creature has four legs in the morning, two
legs in the afternoon and three legs in the
Oedipus thought about it while the Sphinx
licked its lips and practised curling and uncurling
its claws. But this time it was not to
be so lucky.
‘I have it,’ Oedipus said at last. ‘The answer
is man. For in the morning, when he is
a baby, he crawls on all fours. In the afternoon
of his life, he walks upright on two
legs. And when he is old, in the evening, he
walks with the aid of a stick.’
When the Sphinx heard that its riddle had
at last been guessed, it went red with anger.
Its woman’s head screamed, its lion’s body
writhed, the feathers fell out of its eagle’s
wings and its serpent’s tail shrivelled up.
Then it leaped into the air and exploded,
and that was the end of it.
As for Oedipus, he was given the crown
of Thebes as his reward and married Queen
Jocasta. He never suspected for a single
minute that she was in actual fact his longlost
mother and that it was his father whom
he had killed on the road . . .
But that is very definitely another story.