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Oedipus and the Sphinx (by Francois Xavier Fabre)

The Sphinx, another daughter of Echidna, was a monster with a human head (and torso), a lion’s body, the wings of an eagle, and a serpent for a tail.  Although the Egyptians and the Cypriots had long mythological traditions incorporating many different sphinxes, to the Greeks the Sphinx was one individual monster sent by Hera (or possibly Ares) to torment the city of Thebes.  She sat on a bluff outside the city and accosted travelers with a question.  When they were unable to answer correctly, she sprang down and strangled them to death. The question she asked is probably the most famous riddle in existence, “What goes on four legs in the morning, on two in the afternoon, and on three in the evening?”

Long-suffering Oedipus may have been accursed by ghastly fate but he alone was able to see through the monster’s abstract symbolism and give the correct answer—man, who crawls on all four as a baby, walks upright as an adult, and leans on a cane in his dotage. The sphinx had really counted on the metaphoric “day” to throw people off.  In fury and despair she hurled herself to her death once her question was answered.

The riddle challenge is ancient and its roots wind down into the advent of literature (and probably long before).  There are riddles in the bible and in Sumerian epic poetry. The internet, however, has fundamentally changed the challenge.  Back in the eighties if someone asked you a riddle and you were stumped, that was it.  Either you had to beg them for the answer, or you were out of luck.  Now you can always scour the web until you find the answer.  Here are a few of my favorite riddles.  The first is a somewhat frustrating riddle from the bible [hint: imagine you are a long-haired killing machine].  The second was asked to me by my first lover (I could never solve it and she wouldn’t tell me the answer—I finally had to ask my friend Adam for a solution).  The third was by literary giant Jonathan Swift who famously loved riddles. The fourth is a Stephen King riddle and my personal favorite (quiet you highbrows!).  I made up the fifth and sixth myself–which explains why the meter is more important than the meaning.  The last riddle is of course from Lewis Carroll.  Good luck!  I’ll give you the answers on Sunday:

1. And they said unto him, Put forth thy riddle, that we may hear it. And he said unto them, Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness. And they could not in three days expound the riddle. And it came to pass on the seventh day, that they said unto Samson’s wife, Entice thy husband, that he may declare unto us the riddle, lest we burn thee and thy father’s house with fire: have ye called us to take that we have? is it not so?

2. What does God never see that a king sees seldom, that we see every day?

3. We are all very little creatures;
all of us have different features.
One of us in glass is set;
One of us you’ll find in jet.
Another you may see in tin,
And a fourth is boxed within.
If the fifth you should pursue,
It can never fly from you.
What are we?

4. With no wings, I fly. With no eyes, I see. With no arms, I climb. More frightening than any beast, stronger than any foe, I am cunning, ruthless and tall; in the end, I rule all.

5. It’s short on spring but long in fall.  It has a bluff that you can’t call.  It has a wall but lacks a roof.  It has a foot that’s not a hoof.

6. Devours muck but has sweet breath. Arrives with love and then with death.

7.  Why is a raven like a writing desk?

Um...can I have another hint?

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

October 2010