Myths of Greece and Rome Narrated with Special Reference to Literature and Art

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Œdipus, who, as Polybus’ heir, was accustomed to be treated with deference, resented the commanding tone, and refused to obey. Incensed at what seemed unparalleled impudence, the herald struck the youth, who, retaliating, stretched his assailant lifeless at his feet.

This affray attracted the attention of the master and other servants. They immediately attacked the murderer, who slew them all, thus unconsciously accomplishing the first part of the prophecy; for the aged man was Laius, his father, journeying incognito from Thebes to Delphi, where he wished to consult the oracle.

Œdipus then leisurely pursued his way until he came to the gates of Thebes, where he found the whole city in an uproar, “because the king had been found lifeless by the roadside, with all his attendants slain beside him, presumably the work of a band of highway robbers or assassins.”

[283] “He fell
By strangers, murdered, for so fame reports,
By robbers in the place where three ways meet.”
Sophocles (Francklin’s tr.).

Of course, Œdipus did not connect the murder of such a great personage as the King of Thebes by an unknown band of robbers, with the death he had dealt to an arrogant old man, and he therefore composedly inquired what the second calamity alluded to might be.

The Sphinx.

With lowered voices, as if afraid of being overheard, the Thebans described the woman’s head, bird’s wings and claws, and lion’s body, which were the outward presentment of a terrible monster called the Sphinx, which had taken up its station without the city gates beside the highway, and would allow none to pass in or out without propounding a difficult riddle. Then, if any hesitated to give the required answer, or failed to give it correctly, they were mercilessly devoured by the terrible Sphinx, which no one dared attack or could drive away.

While listening to these tidings, Œdipus saw a herald pass along the street, proclaiming that the throne and the queen’s hand would be the reward of any man who dared encounter the Sphinx, and was fortunate enough to free the country of its terrible presence.

The riddle.

As Œdipus attached no special value to the life made desolate by the oracle’s predictions, he resolved to slay the dreaded monster, and, with that purpose in view, advanced slowly, sword in hand, along the road where lurked the Sphinx. He soon found the monster, which from afar propounded the following enigma, warning him, at the same time, that he forfeited his life if he failed to give the right answer:—

“Tell me, what animal is that
Which has four feet at morning bright,
Has two at noon, and three at night?”


Refer to caption

ŒDIPUS AND THE SPHINX.—Ingres. (Louvre, Paris.)

[285] Œdipus was not devoid of intelligence, by any manner of means, and soon concluded that the animal could only be man, who in infancy, when too weak to stand, creeps along on hands and knees, in manhood walks erect, and in old age supports his tottering steps with a staff.

Œdipus marries his mother.

This reply, evidently as correct as unexpected, was received by the Sphinx with a hoarse cry of disappointment and rage as it turned to fly; but ere it could effect its purpose, it was stayed by Œdipus, who drove it at his sword’s point over the edge of a neighboring precipice, where it was killed. On his return to the city, Œdipus was received with cries of joy, placed on a chariot, crowned King of Thebes, and married to his own mother, Jocasta, unwittingly fulfilling the second fearful clause of the prophecy.

The plague.

A number of happy and moderately uneventful years now passed by, and Œdipus became the father of two manly sons, Eteocles and Polynices, and two beautiful daughters, Ismene and Antigone; but prosperity was not doomed to favor him long.

Just when he fancied himself most happy, and looked forward to a peaceful old age, a terrible scourge visited Thebes, causing the death of many faithful subjects, and filling the hearts of all with great terror. The people now turned to him, beseeching him to aid them, as he had done once before when threatened by the Sphinx; and Œdipus sent messengers to consult the Delphic oracle, who declared the plague would cease only when the former king’s murderers had been found and punished.

“The plague, he said, should cease,
When those who murder’d Laius were discover’d,
And paid the forfeit of their crime by death,
Or banishment.”
Sophocles (Francklin’s tr.).

Messengers were sent in every direction to collect all possible information about the murder committed so long ago, and after a short time they brought unmistakable proofs which convicted [286] Œdipus of the crime. At the same time the guilty servant confessed that he had not killed the child, but had exposed it on a mountain, whence it was carried to Corinth’s king.