Sphinx (Adapted from: Œdipus)                                        The happy day Was inauspicious at the start. (Often Good luck comes when we least expect!). So when, One morning, coming close toThebes– a guard Preventing him from going nearer – he Enquired the cause. It seems there was a vile Marauder, […]


(Adapted from: Œdipus)


                                     The happy day

Was inauspicious at the start. (Often

Good luck comes when we least expect!). So when,

One morning, coming close toThebes– a guard

Preventing him from going nearer – he

Enquired the cause. It seems there was a vile

Marauder, known as Sphinx, outside that gate;

It ambushed travellers and made them tell

The answer to a riddle, failing which

It killed and ate them. Nobody had yet

Resolved the puzzle which the fierce Sphinx set:

Not one had survived!. Œdipus, as was

His habit, would have turned aside to find

Another entry to the city, for

He never looked for trouble if he might

Attain his purpose otherwise. But Fate

Once more directed his life’s destiny!.

For, as he turned away, the sentry said

That Queen Jocasta – childless widow she,

Yet not uncomely – had declared the right

Of any man who killed the Sphinx to claim

Her hand in marriage and obtain, thereby,

The crown ofThebesitself!.

                                                Œdipus, poor

In wealth, but holding in his noble mind

The memory of that bright crown he’d lost

Through his firm loyalty to Merope

And Polybus, saw here a chance which well

Could reinstate his fortunes at a twitch

Of luck, if he but dared to risk his head.

Though peaceable by nature, full of kind

And gentle sentiments, he had no fear

Of man or beast. So he resolved to tame

The monster at the Theban gate and try

His wit and courage on it. If the cost

Outstripped his means then he would have to dare

The necessary to achieve his aim:

Failure would end his exile, while success

Would bring him heightened hopes of happiness!.

And if the widowed Queen were old and plain,

At least he’d earn a crown and, in her name,

Would rule atThebesas once his future was

Promised atCorinth. So the dowry’s gain

Seemed worth the hazard: it became his cause.

     He then informed the sentry of his plan

To challenge the Sphinx. The Captain was called

To verify the case; and he declared

That it was stupid for so young a man –

Œdipus was barely twenty then – to

Lose his life in such a confrontation:

But his orders were, to let those pass who,

Having been warned, stated themselves prepared

To rid the city of the Sphinx’s curse.

     Knowing now the creature’s reputation,

Œdipus rehearsed the riddles he’d heard

AtCorinth, and whilst travelling, in verse

And prose, prolix and terse, the lot!. He hauled

Them through his memory, and even framed

Some new ones of his own, in case the Sphinx

Should give him opportunity to take

Advantage of.


                         Soon he drew near the gate.

Around the area he saw the bones

Of many who had braved the Sphinx and failed.

Well-gnawed they were, those skeleton remains,

And scattered near and far amongst the stones

Crowding the awful site. He wondered where

The creature was that he had come to find.

The stench was overpowering. Vile stinks

Began to sting his eyes and throat. Perhaps

The air was poisoned and the cunning beast

Waited for challengers to first collapse

In semi-consciousness before it came

To pose a question which a fuddled mind

Could not devise an answer to; at least,

One which it would accept. The creature’s fame

Kept arbiters away, so none could learn

Its practices or otherwise discern

How to defeat its wiles. He understood

That he must keep his mind clear, muscles strong,

If he were to survive. Over his nose

And mouth he pulled his cloak, although his eyes

Were unprotectable. So, when he came

Almost to the locked gate itself, he stood

Uncertain what to do: except to close

His eyes and wait until he heard a sound

Which would inform him that his enemy

Had come to join him on this battleground

Of its own choosing, and thereon to pose

The fateful question. Time passed; so he sat

Down with his back against a rock, on soil

Hard-baked and sandy, strewn with bones and stones.

Pulling a hood over his head so that

The atmosphere’s malign effects might be

Reduced, he waited.

                                   Then, at last, he heard

The sound of beating wings. The Sphinx that brings

Death was coming to claim his life!. It flew

Close, hovering above his mantled head.

He felt the pulsing air throb like the beat

Of his own heart, but stronger yet than that!.

And felt the mighty down-draught from those wings,

Almost cyclonic in its energy,

Lashing his cloak-hood, (tossing in the roil

Small stones and sand into the troubled air),

And making rattle the disjointed bones

In his immediate vicinity.

  “This thing”, he reasoned, “must be enormous;

Yet I am safe until I’ve had the chance

To try its riddle!”. Motionless he stayed

Until the wing-wind tore away the hood

From his bowed head. The time had come to dare

The legendary creature!.


Opened his rested eyes that he might view

The figure of his foe. At first his glance

Met only vacant space.


                                         Then, like a bird

Of giant size, the monster from the sky

Landed before him, folding back her wings.

     Her body was a lion’s, ten feet long

From nape of neck to base of tail, whose tip

Lashed six feet further off. A look of hate

Glared from her amber eyes, as though there flamed

In them a pyre. Her shoulder was as high

As Œdipus himself, though on all fours

She went; and on each paw five fearsome claws.

     Her breast and face were human to the sight,

But grossly formed and brutishly defined,

Proportionately large to suit her size;

Whilst lion’s teeth gleamed from her hanging lip,

Drooling thick, yellow foam. And when she spake

Her voice was harshly gutteral, like stones

Grinding together. “Who are you who thinks

To enterThebesthis way?”.

                                               Œdipus said:

  “If that’s the riddle which you pose, I find

A ready answer. I have come to take

Away fromThebesthe terror that now reigns

Outside its walls.  I do not count the cost,

For I have nothing I can lose but life

And am inured to sufferings and pains.

My name is Œdipus. Since this reply

Suffices as a truthful answer  to

Your question, I have won and you must go!”.

     The Sphinx snarled angrily, tossing her head –

Spit splattering upon the bone-strewn ground –

A baleful glitter in her yellow eyes.

  “You think you’re clever, don’t you, little man?.

Do you suppose that your poor human mind

Could outwit my intelligence, which can

Number the stars and galaxies and hold

The secrets of the universe?. Gods quailed

When I had put them to the test those long

Millennia ago; for they soon found

Their powers were inferior. What brings

You here is no concern of mine. Your name

Has no significance, for deathless fame

Will not be yours despite your silly boast.

Your pride will be your fall; the only prize

Which you can win is death. Fate has decreed

It for you. There is no escape for those

Who cannot solve the riddle which I pose.

     You claim you’ve won already, yet you knew

My question was rhetorical, a mere

Irrelevance. Many men of your kind

Have met their mental match in me, right here,

Beside this Theban gate. They thought, like you

That they were clever; yet these bones have paled

For many months since those who owned them lost

The forfeit of their lives. Your own remains

Will soon be pickings for coarse crows. You dare

To challenge me, but you will quickly learn

That, like the rest, for you there’s no return

To home and family. It was not wise

To come, for you must pit your puny brains

Against my subtlety. What stupid things

You humans are, to come within the might

Of superhuman strength!. However strong

You think yourselves to be, your feeble force

Cannot prevail against my magic laws.”

  “Tell me”, said Œdipus, “since you’re inclined

To talk so much of my impending death,

As though the outcome of our meeting were

Foregone – like these dismembered heroes’ fates –

Beyond all argument before I test

Your potency – for you should know that I’m

Protected by a prophecy whose time

Is unfulfilled – would you elucidate

The situation should I answer right

Your lethal question?”.

                                     At his words the Sphinx

Bellowed with laughter and her fœtid breath

Sickened him with its stench. “That is the most

Ridiculous request I ever heard!

Your prophesied protection cannot save

You from my power if you cannot best

My wits; I am more potent than the gods,

As I’ve already said. They are dull clods

Compared to me!. You think that you are brave,

But you will quickly find that quality

Avails you nothing when opposed to me!.

     Nevertheless, to answer your request,

I’ll tell you this – not that you’ll benefit,

For nothing can be gained by you from it! –

I am immune until my riddle’s solved.

If you had wit enough to do the thing

Then all my magic powers were dissolved;

And for a little space of time – till dawn

In fact – I would no longer be immune

To human weapons. But my creature strength,

Within these mighty muscles, would remain;

And you’re no match for them if we should fight!.

You have your answer, now you must reply

To my conundrum; and then you shall die!”

  “Your strength may be more potent than the gods’,

But for your wisdom I must have a doubt”,

Said Œdipus. “The Delphic Sybil knew

My name before I said a word; but you

Must ask my family identity

To learn it from my mouth!. Nor do you seem

To know the substance of the Sybil’s dream

Which rules my destiny. Moreover she,

(Though wan from sitting in a darkened room

And breathing inspiration’s fœtid fume),

Seemed more attractive than yourself to me!”

     Trembling with rage, her glaring eyes aflame,

The Sphinx snarled: “You are insolent, and I

Can scarcely wait the moment when you die!.

All that preserves you, for the instant, is

That by my self-imposed conditions you

Must have the opportunity to find

The answer to the riddle I shall pose.

Else you had been already dead!. The odds

On your survival can’t be summed: your mind

Is quite unequal to fulfil the task

Your coming here entailed, because your thought

Is feeble. Now: it’s time you took the test

And, having failed, join your bones with the rest

That litter this delightful place whence none

Can get away, however fast they run”.

  “There is a certain time-span, I presume?”,

Asked Œdipus, “For it would be absurd

To have no scope for thought when my whole fate

Depends upon this thing”.

                                            “You waste your breath”,

The Sphinx responded. “Why prevaricate?.

Your quibbles bore me!”. Then she gave a yawn,

Bared her huge teeth and smiled a feline grin,

Malicious, calculating, fierce.

                                                 At length

She said: “The shadow of that tower lies

Upon the ground and moves as time goes past.

When it has reached this boulder, over here,

Your answer will be due; then, if your brain

Has got it wrong, or failed to make response,

It will be time for you to die the death!”.

  “I understand”, said Œdipus, “that once

The tower-shadow reaches to the rock

Beside you, I must make reply. Within

The intervening period I’m free

To cogitate without distraction. Now,

I’m ready for your riddle. Tell it!”.


Locked with eyes in confrontation. At last

The Sphinx lay down upon the ground and said:

     “Now tell me this: what living thing is that

     Which goes on four feet in the morning, then

     At midday moves on two alone, but in

     The evening-time travels along on three;

     But has least strength when with most is endowed?”.

Then she was silent, watching him.


                                                          His stock

Of puzzles he reviewed. None would compare

With what the Sphinx had asked. He put his head

Between his hands and thought it through again.

     He watched the shadow as it quickly passed

Towards the rock. The Sphinx, too – as a cat

Observes potential prey, without a stir:

Until it pounces, suddenly! – stared at

The shadow but, with sidelong glance

From time to time, kept watch on him!.


A vision came to Œdipus. (Therein,

Young parents with their infant child at play

Beside them whilst, nearby, there stood a grey

Haired grandsire smiling at the scene). He knew

The riddle’s answer!.

                                    Now he must devise

Some way to catch the ogress by surprise

And slay her. He must wait to launch his coup

Until the very latest chance. To win

The final mastery would need great care.

His strike must be both quick and accurate;

There only would be time to instigate

Just one attack, and that would have to be

The very model of efficiency:

If he should fail to kill the monster, fast,

He would be torn to pieces in her grasp!.


  He waited till the shadow almost touched

The rock, the better to surprise the beast

Whilst, underneath his travel-cloak, he clutched

The handle of his sword. And then he spoke:

     “Perhaps your riddle’s answer, Sphinx, is this:

     What go on four limbs in their morning ways

     When weakest, and at their strength’s noon-zenith

     Make progress using only two but, with

     Onset of evening, travel by the means

     Of odd, tri-pedal steps; is it not true

     That these adaptive beings are us Men?”.


  The Sphinx looked shocked: her eyes went blank, her jaw

Dropped to her breast; as stunned, her huge head bowed

To her paws. Heavily she sighed, but gave

No direct answer to him. His reply,

So unexpected, had upset her schemes

And caught her unawares.

                                           Œdipus saw

That he was right!. And also that she’d try

To kill him when she realised he’d won;

A victory for him was not allowed!.

There was no time to lose; he’d be undone

If she recovered sense; for she would crave

His blood to expiate defeat, whilst he

Himself could not resist her force, since she

Had in her massive body and huge limbs

The strength of many men!.

                                              The time to chance

His fortune has arrived. Quickly he leaped

Towards her, sword unsheathed and, with one stroke,

With all his strength severed her neck right through.

The curse ofThebeshad turned to stuff of dreams

And Œdipus had triumphed as she died!.

Author: J. A. Bosworth

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