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How to Kill a Sphinx.

Sophocles' play Oedipus Tyrannus concludes with the chorus commenting on the fate of the protagonist. This is Oedipus, "who knew the famous riddle and was a most powerful man": (1) "[phrase omitted] [phrase omitted]" (hos ta klein' ainigmat' eidei kai kratistos en aner, Soph. OT 1525). (2) This essay examines whether Oedipus' knowledge of the riddle fully exhausts the meanings of the Sphinx. It is difficult to read any ancient tragedy in a fresh manner without preconceptions molded by centuries of accepted ideas and commentary, scholarly and polemical. Focusing on the Greek text of Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus, we can elicit further questions and enigmas concerning the Sphinx and Oedipus. Some of us might be somewhat surprised to realize that the Greek text of Sophocles' play:

* does not cite the words of the riddle of the Sphinx;

* does not give the words of Oedipus' answer to the riddle;

* does not make explicit how the Sphinx dies; and

* reports that an oracle had predicted that Oedipus would kill his parents (in the plural).

In addition to a close reading of the play, we will attempt to address the above puzzles by a cross-disciplinary method. Psychoanalysts have examined and clarified several aspects of the Sphinx, but have not satisfactorily explained the above inconsistencies or surprises. Investigation of literary texts, linguistic etymology, and examples of ancient art will supplement the textual and psychological analyses. We hope to conclude with an answer to the title of this paper: "How to Kill a Sphinx."

Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus occurs during a single day many years after Oedipus had solved the riddle of the Sphinx. Although the exact date of the tragedy's production is not known, Sophocles was active c. 469-406 BCE, and scholars often use 430s-420s BCE as the probable range of the date. Although only using the name "Sphinx" once, the play contains multiple references to her and to the events that occurred many years previously. Oedipus had solved the riddle of the Sphinx, although the precise words of the riddle or of the answer are not explicitly given. The chorus states that Oedipus destroyed the monster, but there is no explanation of how he did so: "you destroyed the virgin with crooked talons and chanting oracles," "[phrase omitted] [phrase omitted]" (kata men phihisas tan gampsonucha parthenon chresmoidon; OT 1198-1200). Most English translations, however, extrapolate, deviating from Sophocles at this point not only by naming the Sphinx but also by describing her manner of death. Fagles, for example, translates these lines as: "and the Sphinx came crashing down, / the virgin, claws hooked." (3) Neither the name "Sphinx" nor the action "crashing down" occur in the original passage.

The traditional account of the Sphinx's manner of death dates from the century after Sophocles. Palaiphatos, a fourth-century BCE mythographer, describes the Sphinx as throwing herself down from a mountain. (4) Hundreds of years later Apollodorus (Bibl. III. v. 8) (5) repeats this narrative, with this story of how the Sphinx died then becoming canonical. While Aeschylus refers to the fate of the Sphinx in his Seven Against Thebes (467 BCE), he says only that Oedipus "took away/removed that man-snatching demon from the country": "[phrase omitted]" (tan harpaxandran ker' aphelonta choras; Aesch. Sept. 776-77). Aeschylus does not say how the Sphinx died, or even if she died, just that she was "removed."

In a play that emphasizes the importance of names (the many instances of the Greek verb, otSa, oida, "to know," for example, are reflected in the name Oidipous), only once does Sophocles call the Sphinx by name. On the other occasions, Sophocles refers to the Sphinx as a "cruel singer" ([phrase omitted] skleras aoidou, OT 36), as a "versifying dog" ([phrase omitted], he rhapsoidas... kuon, 391) as well as "the maiden, with hooked talons and chanting oracles." Yet he names her only one time, when Creon answers Oedipus' query as to why no investigation was launched into Laius' death, by saying that "the Sphinx of puzzling song ([phrase omitted], he poikiloidos Sphinx) forced us to let go what was unseen and to examine what was before our feet" (OT 130-31). The phrase "what was before our feet" ([phrase omitted] to pros posin) is itself significant, since Oidipous can mean "swollen foot," "inflated, puffed-up foot," and "I know the foot." (6) "Swollen-foot" would refer to the lasting effects of the ankle piercing during his exposure as an infant, and "I know the foot" may be a prolepsis for Oedipus' finally learning what was before his feet, that is, what should have concerned him about the man he kills and the woman he marries.

The complex meaning of words is crucial in Oedipus Tyrannus, which makes it all the more significant that Sophocles does not provide the words to the riddle or to its successful answer, inspiring us to examine what textual details of the riddle have survived from antiquity. In his magisterial study of early Greek myths Timothy Gantz writes, "That the Sphinx did ask riddles of the Thebans is not absolutely certain until the Tyrannos (OT 130-131, 391-94), and not before Asklepiades do we learn what the riddle (quoted in dactylic hexameters) was" (7) He further argues that conclusions from art works depicting the Sphinx and young men "might also suggest a tradition in which there is no riddle, for youths rather than grown men will scarcely have been sent out to try to solve it" (8)

While the work of Asklepiades (fourth-century BCE, that is, the century after Sophocles) has not survived except for fragments, his formula for the riddle is given by Athenaeus, around 190 CE. (9) According to Athenaeus, Asklepiades had given the riddle of the Sphinx in hexameters, the standard meter used for riddles in Greek plays:
Two-footed [phrase omitted] and four-footed [phrase omitted] and
three-footed [phrase omitted] upon the earth, it has a single voice,
and alone of all those on land or in the air or sea it changes form.
And when it goes supported on its most feet, then the speed of its
limbs is weakest. (10)


Apollodorus (first or second century CE, thus probably before Athenaeus but well after Asklepiades), provides a slightly different version of the terms of the riddle in the Bibliotheca [Library]:
And having learned a riddle from the Muses, she sat on Mount Phicium
and propounded it to the Thebans. And the riddle was this:--What is
that which has one voice and yet becomes four-footed [phrase omitted]
and two-footed [phrase omitted] and three-footed [phrase omitted]? (11)


Euripides wrote an Oidipous approximately twenty years after Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus, but only fragments survive. One of these fragments appears to have given the text of the riddle. While several words are similar to those in other ancient accounts, the fragments that survive are too scattered to allow a definitive judgment as to Euripides' version of the riddle:
we left... they were placing themselves... hissing... the murderous...
pronouncing her riddle... hexameter... it has intelligence... a thing
... --footed... three-footed... three... male... and... again... song
... You... say... (12)


Several possibilities, not necessarily mutually exclusive or even exhaustive, exist to explain why Sophocles does not specify the words to the riddle:

1. Sophocles gave the words to the riddle in other plays, now lost.

2. Sophocles did not have to specify the words, because they were common knowledge among the Athenians. As mentioned above, however, from his study of all the textual and artistic evidence that remains, Gantz argues that it is not absolutely certain that the Sphinx was believed to have asked riddles prior to the production of Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannos. (13)

3. Sophocles deliberately withheld the words of the riddle for a dramatic purpose.

4. While not explicitly stating the terms of the riddle, Sophocles hints at it, so that the audience has to interpret the hints.

In reference to Hypothesis One, that Sophocles provided the words to the riddle in the other plays of the trilogy that contained Oedipus Tyrannus, no ancient commentator cites such a passage. While Hypothesis Two, that Sophocles did not have to give the words because these words were common knowledge among the Athenians, may be likely, one characteristic of Athenian tragedies is that frequently a new play presented a significant variation on a known myth. Even if the words to the riddle were common knowledge, the audience would be eager to see if Sophocles presented a different version, and what that departure would be. For example, Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus is the first account to link the tragedy of Oedipus to a plague infesting Thebes. (14 )The two ancient writers who give the wording of the riddle, Apollodorus and Athenaeus, provide slightly different versions; each, however, preserves a phrase that begins with kai-tri: "[phrase omitted]" and "[phrase omitted]" (both mean "three-footed"). Hypothesis Three, that Sophocles deliberately withheld the words of the riddle for a dramatic purpose, is consistent with the audience expecting some variation, and then having to reflect on why there was no mention at all of the content of the riddle.

Concerning Hypothesis Four--that Sophocles hinted at the words of the riddle of the Sphinx--let us look at the first speech addressed to Oedipus in the play, that of the priest, in the midst of an assembly, asking for Oedipus' wisdom in saving Thebes from the plague. (15) The priest first calls attention to the ages of all those present:
Well, Oedipus, ruler of my land,
You see at what ages we are seated
At your altars: some not yet having strength
To fly afar, others weighed down with old age,
I, the priest of Zeus, and these here--
Chosen from the unmarried youth.


In his address, the priest sets before Oedipus and the audience various ages of humanity, from young children to youths to those in old age. Without explicitly stating it, the priest hints at the answer to the riddle. (16) A hint, however, is not a definitive statement. The audience has to realize that a clue has been presented, must interpret it, and then apply the interpretation to the current situation. Both Hypotheses Three and Four seem likely, calling for active contemplation--thinking for the purpose of gaining insights and knowledge--on the part of the original audience and of later readers.

The effect corresponds to what Aristotle in his discussion of tragedy in the Poetics calls anagnorisis, the recognition that results in a change from ignorance to knowledge (Poet. 1452a). While recognition may be triggered by objects or memories, Aristotle values that which is achieved by a process of reasoning, based on clues that are not explicitly stated (Poet. 1455a). While Aristotle's examples concern dramatic personae achieving recognition, the same process would seem to apply to members of the audience gaining insights from clues and hints. This tragic mandate can be seen in the nineteenth-century German idealist critics, such as Friedrich von Schelling (1775-1854), who argued that the role of the chorus in Sophocles "is to raise the spectators to a level of profound reflection." (17) Whether or not this is always accurate in the case of the chorus, Sophocles' structuring of details and omissions constitutes a call to reflection and the search for knowledge on the part of the audience and readers. Oedipus Tyrannus is unique in Greek tragedy as emphasizing a process of gradually obtaining self-knowledge. The audience's and readers' reflections on the drama, at least among some individuals, would also be likely to include a focus on self-knowledge.

The Sphinx in Greek Literature and Art

The concept of a sphinx occurs in multiple forms in ancient Greece and in other Indo-European contexts. Homer does not mention the Sphinx, although he does refer briefly to Oedipus in both the Iliad and the Odyssey (Iliad 23.679-80; Odyssey 11.271). The first extant reference to the Sphinx in Greek literature occurs in the Theogony of the Boiotian poet Hesiod (c. 700 BCE), who writes about the deadly Phix [phrase omitted], who destroyed the Thebans (Theog. 326). The standard Greek name is "Sphinx," [phrase omitted], genitive [phrase omitted], Sphingos, related to the verb, [phrase omitted], sphingo, "to strangle"; indeed, the Sphinx is sometimes called "the strangler" in ancient Greek texts. (18) Joshua Katz has also traced the term sphinx to an Indo-European linguistic root, sp(h)ij-, related to words for anus or buttocks in several Indo-European languages, including Greek and Sanskrit. (19) An English example would be the word "sphincter."

The epic poem Oedipodeia (probably sixth century BCE) appears to have dealt with both the Sphinx and Oedipus, but is not extant, except for fragments stating that the Sphinx was preying on the youth of Thebes and had destroyed Haemon, the son of Creon. (20) Aeschylus wrote a trilogy about the Theban royal house, of which only the Seven against Thebes survives. Euripides composed Phoenician Women (c. 410-409 BCE), dealing with the attack of Polyneices and his allies against his brother Eteocles and Thebes, but also commenting on the background story of Oedipus and the Sphinx. Jocasta, his mother-wife, not having committed suicide as in Oedipus Tyrannus, but still living in this version, says, in the translation by Kovacs:
Now when the Sphinx was plundering and vexing the city and my husband
[Laius] was dead, my brother Creon proclaimed that he would give me in
marriage to whoever solved the wise maiden's riddle. My son somehow or
other managed to learn her song's meaning, took the scepter of this
country as his prize, and thus, poor man, unwittingly married his
mother. (21)


A scholiast (ancient commentator) to this play states that Hera had sent the Sphinx to Thebes as a punishment for the crime of Laius in raping a youth, Chrysippus. (22)

Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood has argued that Greek vase painting and other Greek art is a largely untapped source for evidence about Greek mythology. Although scholars have never overlooked this subject, their use of Greek vase painting has been somewhat limited in its application to mythology. The evidence from art may be especially important in explicating the ways in which the contemporary Greeks understood the myth. (23) Sphinxes occur in archaic Greek art well before any literary reference, often having an association with death, such as a sphinx depicted on a larnax, a type of coffin, in thirteenth-century BCE Boiotia. Several lekythoi c. 500 BCE depict the Sphinx in flight, either leaping against a young man or abducting a living youth. Other vases show the Sphinx crouched over a young man in triumph. In almost all such examples, the victim is young and naked. (24)

The first illustrations of the Sphinx with Oedipus predate the Athenian tragedians. On an Attic red-figure painted bowl or cup (kylix), c. 480-70 BCE, now at the Vatican Museum, the Sphinx crouches on a column, facing Oedipus who has a club and wears a traveler's cap (Figure 1). Moret has published a detail of this painting showing the word [phrase omitted] (Oidipodes, "of Oedipus"), between Oedipus's cap and the Sphinx, written left to right, and the letters KAI TPI (kai tri), written right to left as IPT IAK, between Oedipus' beard and the chest of the Sphinx (Figure 2). (25)

Although stating that we cannot be absolutely certain that a legend of the riddle predated the time of Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrranus, Gantz does find art historical evidence that suggests the existence of the riddle of the Sphinx prior to Sophocles. He argues:
the words kai tri [...] appearing as they do between Oidipous and the
Sphinx on the Vatican cup, would seem with their allusion to something
three-footed to guarantee that Oidipous' thoughtful pose is a response
to a riddle. With this much granted we must surely take that riddle
back at least to the Stuttgart hydria of c. 530 B.C. where we found
the same pose. (26)


While kai is the word "and," the letters tri do not constitute a full word by itself but only a prefix, "three-." Although KAI TPI could certainly represent [phrase omitted], kai tripous or tripoun (in the accusative case), "and three-footed," the word tripous might refer instead to another aspect of the Oedipus legend, since the word also means "tripod," the three-legged stool on which the priestess at Delphi sat while delivering the oracle of Apollo. (27) Tripod has further associations since the phrase ek tripodos legein, means "to speak the truth," literally, "to speak from the tripod" (28) In addition, tri- could represent other compounds with "three," such as [phrase omitted], triodos ("and the intersection of three roads") or [phrase omitted], triplais ("and triple," as in the phrase "and by the triple roads," OT 730), descriptions of the locale where Oedipus killed Laius, his real father.

An Attic red-figure amphora at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, c. 450-40 BCE, attributed to an artist called the "Achilles Painter," depicts the Sphinx to the left, seated on a short Doric column, gazing at Oedipus who stands facing her. He is carrying a spear, and his cap hangs at his back. (29) I will return to the discussion of this depiction, which is representative of several works by the Achilles Painter, though details often vary.

Psychoanalysis and Oedipus

Since the turn of the twentieth century, Oedipus and the Sphinx have been inextricably associated with Sigmund Freud. Although much of the psychoanalytic writings on this topic now seem dated, excessively dogmatic, and reductive, psychoanalytic theories may still offer help in understanding two of the puzzles I enunciated at the beginning of this paper: why an oracle predicted that Oedipus would kill his parents (in the plural), and why Sophocles mentions the Sphinx by name only once. More broadly, it can help us feel the importance of irrational fears and conflicts in explaining the lasting power of the legend. Freud's first known reference to Oedipus occurs in a letter he wrote at age 16, dated March 17, 1873, stating that he plans to read this Sophoclean tragedy in the original Greek. Several months later, he reports to the same friend that he has taken his university oral entrance examination, which required him to translate a long passage from Oedipus Tyrannus. (30) His assignment was the speech of the priest to Oedipus (lines 14-57), which includes a reference to Oedipus as having released the city from paying the tribute of the "cruel singer." (31) The Oedipus legend eventually became the source for a major insight, the Oedipus complex as a central phase of childhood development, classically stated in The Interpretation of Dreams? (2) Freud did not name his findings the "Oedipus Complex" until more than 10 years later, in 1910, under the influence of C. G. Jung's idea of a "psychological complex." (33 )Freud's comments on the Oedipus plays are almost all confined to Oedipus

Tyrannus, with little written about Sophocles' tragedy Antigone and nothing about his Oedipus at Colonus. (34)

Other psychoanalysts, however, have investigated the Sphinx, with a wide range of emphases and interpretations. Since the psychoanalytic literature is massive, the following are representative, but not exhaustive, samples. The-odor Reik interpreted the Sphinx as the belated representation of the totemic animal, often male; later, the original male Sphinx, according to Reik, took on female characteristics. (35) Geza Roheim saw the Sphinx as a manifestation of the child's horror at witnessing the primal scene, that is, observing the parents having intercourse. (36) Carlisky interpreted the Sphinx as an allusion to the danger of suffocation during birth, (37) while Otto Rank feared the Sphinx as a phallic mother. (38)

Contemporary psychoanalysts are often more nuanced than the pioneers. The Belgian psychoanalyst Rudi Vermote, for example, states that the myth of the Sphinx is prior to the myth of Oedipus, not only in terms of individual psychosexual development, but also in respect to primitivity of emotions, and as a historical occurrence. According to Vermote, "The Oedipal myth contains in itself another one: the myth of the Sphinx. Between these two myths an entire dynamic plays out, and there was a time when the myth of the Sphinx carried the Oedipal myth in its breast." (39) Vermote concludes that the Sphinx represents the pre-Oedipal mother, that is, the mother as experienced especially during the oral stage of psychosexual development; this mother is all-powerful, and all-nourishing, and is not directly associated with Oedipal conflicts.

Psychoanalytic concepts may help us understand why Sophocles mentions the Sphinx by name only once. In addition to the name of Oedipus, the names of the other characters have significant or multiple meanings. Creon, for example, means "ruler." Oedipus' son's name, Polyneices, suggests both "many quarrels" (neikos) and "many corpses" (nekus), while his other son, Eteocles, means "genuine glory" (kleos) as well as "genuine weeping" (klaio). (40) With all the resonances of names in the play, why is the Sphinx mentioned by name only once?

A clue may be found in the psychoanalytic concept of repression. Although Freud often used the term "repression" loosely, sometimes synonymously with "defense," strictly speaking repression is a psychological operation whereby a person attempts to repel, or unconsciously to hide from full awareness, thoughts, images, or memories that are conflictual. (41) If matters are too emotionally painful or too primitive, they tend to be repressed, but can be mentioned in circumlocutions or euphemisms, and tend to return in symptoms, dreams, and slips of the tongue. In addition, when emotional issues derive from the early oral period of psychosexual development, the mind may not be able to articulate the words to express them. These emotional contents are pre-verbal, inchoate, confused. Vermote's view that the Sphinx represents a pre-Oedipal mother might have as a corollary the conclusion that the words to express the emotions connected to the Sphinx are confused and imprecise, and expression may have to rely on metaphor and circumlocution.

Also relevant to the myth is the psychoanalytic concept described by Melanie Klein as the "splitting of an internal object" (an inner mental or emotional image of an external figure) into two separate images, a good and a bad one, with little or no integration between the good and bad objects. (42) As applied to Oedipus' mental image of his mother, such a psychological mechanism of splitting or decomposition would result in a good mother, Jocasta, and a bad mother, the Sphinx. Splitting explains the otherwise puzzling line in Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus where the Theban attendant, the person who was ordered to expose the baby but instead had saved Oedipus, reports that prophecies had foretold that the child "will kill his parents" ([phrase omitted] [phrase omitted], ktenein nin tous tekontas, OT 1176). The play contains several oracles and prophecies, not mutually exclusive, but complementary. A different oracle, for example, informed Oedipus that he was destined to have sexual relations with his mother and be the murderer of his father (OT 787-93). The attendant's account may relate to the report of the oracle Jocasta gives in indirect discourse: an oracle had come to Laius from the servants of Apollo stating that Laius would die at the hands of his son (07 711-14). The Theban attendant, however, uses the Greek noun tekontas (1176), which is clearly plural: Oedipus will kill his parents, not just his father.

The oracle's words that Oedipus will kill both parents might mean that Oedipus is indirectly responsible for the suicide of Jocasta. Oedipus' mother commits suicide in Sophocles' version and in many, but not all, accounts. Homer has Oedipus' mother, named Epicaste in the Odyssey, commit suicide by hanging (Od. 11.271-280). In Euripides' Phoenician Women, however, Jocasta remains alive many years after learning the truth about Oedipus' identity. I propose that the words of the oracle that Oedipus will kill both parents also refer to Oedipus' destroying the Sphinx, a theme that is constant in all versions of the myth of the Sphinx. Otto Rank, in The Myth of the Birth of the Hero, notes that the hero is often represented as having two mothers: a biological mother who gave him birth, and a lowly mother who finds and rears him; in many cases, this lowly mother is replaced by an animal. (43) The figures of a lowly mother, an animal mother, and the bad mother are all combined in the image of the Sphinx, part-animal, part-human, and deadly. The Sphinx represents the bad mother, those aspects of Oedipus' internal image of his mother that are frightening, malevolent, and confusing. Such a formulation supports Melanie Klein's insight that an inner conflicted mental image of a person can be split into separate mental images, a good mother and a bad mother, and further reinforces the psychological ramifications of the story of the Sphinx and Oedipus. By causing the monster's destruction, Oedipus fulfills the prophecy, killing both his father and his bad mother, the Sphinx.

Psychoanalysis thus clarifies the importance of the myth of Oedipus and the Sphinx for the inner life of irrational fears and wishes. While Freud developed the Oedipal Complex theory concerning the genital stage of psycho-sexual development, other psychoanalysts have viewed the same myth as stressing oral, anal, or primal scene conflicts. What seems important, however, is not the validity or sway of any one individual theory or stage of psychological development, but the insight that the power of the Oedipus legend may be overdetermined, reflecting multiple irrational fears and conflicts, including different issues for different individuals and cultures. The evolution of the story, which we have just touched on, reflects the changes in perception of the central narrative. By omitting or leaving open so many details about the hero's encounter with the Sphinx, Sophocles produces a particularly powerful and inclusive drama.

Thus, if the Sphinx represents irrational fears and conflicts, there may be more than one apposite fear and conflict, depending on the individual and the culture, and more than one way to kill a Sphinx. By keeping unstated the answer that Oedipus gives to the riddle, Sophocles, I would like to suggest, might be deliberately creating in the audience a sense of mystery, a need for continuous investigation and reflection, and a greater likelihood that each member of the audience might conceive the answer in ways that are pertinent to that person's own psychology and belief. As in Oedipus' gradual journey into self-knowledge, the audience and the reader, through reflection and confrontation of irrational fears and conflicts, would move towards increased self-knowledge. Reflection, reason, psychotherapy, and similar avenues to self-knowledge can change external irrational fears into internal objects that can then be faced and addressed. The destruction of the Sphinx is not made explicit in the play because each person has to supply the method that works for herself or for himself.

How to Kill a Sphinx

Calvert Watkins, in How to Kill a Dragon, has delineated a fundamental formula of Indo-European poetics:
The "signature" formula for the myth of the divine hero who slays the
serpent recurs in the same linguistic form... in texts from the Rig
Veda... ("he slew the serpent") through Old and Middle Iranian holy
books, Hittite myth, Greek epic and lyric, Celtic and Germanic epic
and saga down to Armenian oral folk epic of the last century. This
formula shapes the narration of "heroic" killing or overcoming of
adversaries over the Indo-European world for millennia. (44)


An important aspect of this formula is that the hero, by killing the serpent or dragon, or performing an analogous feat, acquires imperishable fame. Linguistically cognate words are used in both Sanskrit (dksiti srdvah) and Homeric Greek ([phrase omitted], kleos aphthiton, Iliad 9.413) for this undying fame. (45) Indeed, as Gregory Nagy has shown, for the Greek hero imperishable fame is the fundamental basis for heroic actions and for the poetic vision of immortality (46)

This undying fame is exactly what Oedipus achieves by his conquest of the Sphinx. The priest, addressing Oedipus at the beginning of Oedipus Tyrannus, judges him "the first of men," because he has defeated the "cruel singer" (Soph. 0733-36). The last words of the chorus also refer to the fame of Oedipus, "who knew the famous riddle and was a most powerful man" (Soph. OT 1525). We note that Oedipus Tyrannus does not show how the Sphinx dies. In contrast to the traditional heroes who defeat the serpent or perform analogous feats through physical strength and military prowess, Oedipus is almost never portrayed as using force or weapons to defeat the Sphinx. In reference to the Attic red-figure amphora, c. 450-440 BCE, in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (see footnote 29 above), Caskey and Beazley state that the image represents Oedipus pondering the riddle, and that "the tenseness of the situation is expressed by the wide-open eyes of both figures, [and] the furrowed brow of the sphinx " (47) The confrontation between Oedipus and the Sphinx is purely mental. In the words of Jean-Jacques Goux, "Weak-footed Oedipus is strong-minded" (48)

Oedipus' intelligence and knowledge are emphasized by the frequent use within the play of words relating to knowing, learning, discovery, and revealing. Oedipus signals that individual words and phrases are crucial by stating to the chorus: "[phrase omitted]" (panta gar skopo logon, OT 291). The Greek word logos, accusative logon, can mean "speech, discourse, account," but its first meaning is "word." Thus, while this phrase is often translated as "I am examining the whole statement/account," it also means "I am examining every word." In this play terms for "know" (oida), "discover" (heurekd), "reveal" (phaino), and "make evident" (deloo) abound. (49) The word pattern reveals to us the importance of knowledge and intelligence, and the search for discovery. It is through this knowledge that Oedipus succeeds in overcoming the Sphinx by himself, without the help of the Thebans. He does not use force, but reasons, reflects, uses his mind. As Oedipus replies to the seer Teiresias, "I, Oedipus, knowing nothing [of prophetic skills], stopped her [the Sphinx], having attained the answer through intelligence, and not learning it from birds": "[phrase omitted] [phrase omitted]" (ho meden eidos Oidipous epausa nin, / gnomei kuresas oud' ap' oionon mathon; 07397-98). As the chorus affirms, in overcoming the sphinx Oedipus was seen to be wise ([phrase omitted], sophos ophthe, OT 509).

Apollodorus writes that Oedipus found the solution to the riddle by answering "anthropon," that is, the accusative case of anthropos, one of those difficult terms meaning "man" but also "Man." While the Greek

noun [phrase omitted] anthropos, can mean "man, a male," it primarily refers to humanity in the sense of any human person, regardless of sex. (50) The solution to the riddle is thus "humanity," not the gender-specific "man." "Strong-minded" Oedipus overcomes the Sphinx through thinking. As Goux further writes:
to suppress the Sphinx with the reflective and anthropocentric response
is not to destroy her forever, it is to internalize her. [This
process]... does not destroy the affects and images that have been
projected; it brings them back within the soul.... Oedipus's posture
creates the site of the unconscious.... [T]he heroic age of fear comes
to an end, and the rationalist era of anguish begins.... Tragedy can
thus be seen as an essential moment for reconstructing the genealogy of
the unconscious. (51)


The psychoanalyst and student of ancient philosophy Patrick Lee Miller compared Oedipus to Socrates. (52) Socrates, who had also received a puzzling response from the shrine at Delphi, tries to find out the meaning of the oracle in order that he may discharge his duty to Apollo. By a quest for self-knowledge similar to that of Oedipus, he comes to know himself. Both go to places they consider their proper home: Socrates to the afterlife, Oedipus as dramatized in Sophocles' last play, Oedipus at Colonus, to Colonus at the outskirts of Athens. With his reconciliation with the gods, Oedipus, like Socrates, also goes to the afterlife.

Although Oedipus' wisdom allowed him to overcome the Sphinx, that wisdom is tragically limited. Oedipus solves the riddle of the sphinx, but cannot, until it is too late, solve the riddle of his own identity. He behaves arrogantly, firmly believing that his knowledge is vastly superior to that of Teiresias the prophet and that of Creon, his brother-in-law and (unrecognized) uncle, both of whom he accuses of plotting against him. Oedipus calls down a curse on the murderer of Laius, unknowingly condemning himself. He refuses the queen's request to listen privately to what turns out to be damning information. As Knox argues, Oedipus acts as if his knowledge is equal to that of the gods. Oedipus' actions, not a predetermination by the gods, lead to Oedipus' self-blinding. (53) Apollo's prophecy can be seen as a prediction, not an absolute predestination. Oedipus' intelligence and knowledge, which served him well in confronting the Sphinx, did not allow him to escape the prophecy. Although he has consulted the temple of Apollo at Delphi, Oedipus deliberately disregards an inscription the temple bears: "Nothing in excess," [phrase omitted], meden agan. By believing that his knowledge is equal to that of the gods, Oedipus, despite his superior intellect and knowledge, contributes to his own downfall. Through his arrogance, he acts without the sense of human limits, ignoring examples of practical wisdom in the words of Teirisias, Creon, and Jocasta. Oedipus' accomplishment in destroying the Sphinx, however, still stands, serving as a model for human aspirations; his arrogance and hubris similarly provide a warning to humans of the dangers of excess.

This is how to kill the Sphinx. With the creation of Greek tragedy, epic battles of physical strength have given way to reason. Oedipus uses knowledge and thought: as the Chorus says, Oedipus "knew the famous riddle." Oedipus confronts the Sphinx, as images on the antique Greek vases depict, not in a struggle of physical force, but with thinking. To kill the Sphinx, a person uses reflection, reason, avenues to self-knowledge, and at times what might in the modern age be called therapeutic activities, meditation, or psychotherapy, to change external irrational fears into internal objects, mental components, that can then be confronted, still heroically, but with humility and a sense of human limits.

(1) All translations are mine, unless otherwise specified. I will also refer to texts translated and commented on in the companion article in this issue of Delos.

(2) Passages from ancient authors are cited by the abbreviations used in The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd ed., ed. Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

(3) The Three Theban Plays, trans. Robert Fagles (New York: Viking Press, 1982), 214.

(4) Timothy Gantz, Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 499-500.

(5) See note 11, below.

(6) Valdis Leinieks, "The Foot of Oidipous," Classical World 69 (1975): 35-44.

(7) Gantz, Early Greek Myth, 496.

(8) Ibid., 494.

(9) The same wording is also used in the Hypothesis (a summary provided in a manuscript placed immediately before the text of the drama) to Oedipus Tyrannus attributed to Aristophanes of Byzantium (second century BCE).

(10) Ath. 10.456b. Athenaeus, The Learned Banqueters, Vol. 5. Ed. and trans. S. Douglas Olson (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 186-87.

(11) Apollodorus, The Library, trans. James George Frazer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1956), 347-49. Some manuscripts have morphen, "form," rather than phonen, "voice."

(12) Euripides, Oedipus, in Euripides VIII: Oedipus-Chrysippus and Other Fragments, trans. Christopher Collard and Martin Cropp (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), Fragment 540A at 12-13.

(13) Gantz, Early Greek Myth, 494.

(14) Frederick Ahl, Sophocles' Oedipus: Evidence and Self-Conviction (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991), 35.

(15) For the original text of this passage (OT 14-19), see the companion article.

(16) I am indebted to Gregory Staley, Professor of Classics, University of Maryland, College Park, for calling my attention to this interpretation of the passage.

(17) Simon Goldhill, Sophocles and the Language of Tragedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 182.

(18) Pierre Chantraine, Dictionnaire etymologique de la langue grecque: Histoire des mots (Paris: Klincksieck, 1968), 1077.

(19) Joshua T. Katz, "The Riddle of the Sp(h)ij-: The Greek Sphinx and her Indic and Indo-European background," in La Langue poetique indo-europeenne, ed. Georges-Jean Pinault and Daniel Petit (Leuven: Peeters, 2006), 157-94.

(20) Gantz, Early Greek Myth, 495-96.

(21) Eur. Phoen. 116-11, in Euripides V, trans. David Kovacs (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 201-397, at 217

(22) Lowell Edmunds, Oedipus: The Ancient Legend and Its Later Analogues (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), 13.

(23) Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood, "Myths in Images: Theseus and Medea as a Case Study," in Approaches to Greek Myth, ed. Lowell Edmunds (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), 395-445, at 395-96.

(24) Gantz, Early Greek Myth, 497-98.

(25) The alternation of a line left to right to left followed by a line right to left is an archaic form of writing called "boustrophedon," literally, "the turning of an ox" while plowing. Jean-Marc Moret, Oedipe, la Sphinx et les Thebains: Essai de mythologie iconographique (Geneve: Institut Suisse de Rome, 1984), I, 55 and 175, Cat. No. 89; II, Plates 50 and 51/1. Note that Figure 2 here is a detail of Figure 1, not based on Moret's plates.

(26) Gantz, Early Greek Myth, 496.

(27) Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, and Henry Stuart Jones, A Greek-English Lexicon, 9th ed. rev. (Oxford, Clarendon, 1996), s.v. [phrase omitted].

(28) Ath 2.37f. Athenaeus, The Learned Banqueters, Vol. 1, ed. Olson (2006), 267-82.

(29) A photo of this jar is online at http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/two-handled-jar-amphora-depicting-oedipus-and-the-sphinx-of-thebes-153615.

(30) Peter L. Rudnytsky, Freud and Oedipus (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987). 11-12.

(31) See the accompanying text and translation.

(32) Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volumes 4-5, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1953-1974), 263.

(33) Rudnytsky, Freud and Oedipus, 14.

(34) Heinz Polizer, "Odipus auf Kolonus: Versuch iiber eine Gemeinsamkeit von Psychoanalyse und Literaturkritik" ["Oedipus at Colonus: Essay on a Common Ground of Psychoanalysis and Literary Criticism"], Psyche 26 (1972): 489-518.

(35) Theodor Reik, Dogma and Compulsion: Psychoanalytic Studies of Religion and Myths, trans. Bernard Miall (New York: International University Press, 1951), 299-305.

(36) Geza Roheim, "The Dragon and the Hero: Part 1," American Imago 1 (1940): 61-94.

(37) M. Carlisky, "The Oedipus Legend and 'Oedipus Rex,'" American Imago 15 (1958): 91-95.

(38) Otto Rank, The Myth of the Birth of the Hero and Other Writings, trans. F. Robbins and Smith Ely Jelliffe (New York: Vintage Books, 1964), 270-92; Otto Rank, The Incest Theme in Literature and Legend, trans. Gregory Richter (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 215-26.

(39) Rudi Vermote, "Le mythe d'Oedipe a la lumiere du mythe du Sphinx" ["The myth of Oedipus in the light of the myth of the Sphinx"], Revue beige de psychanalyse 24 (1994): 29-42. Translation mine.

(40) Charles Segal, Tragedy and Civilization: An Interpretation of Sophocles (Cambridge. MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), 180.

(41) Jean Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis, The Language of Psycho-Analysis, trans. Donald Nicholson Smith (New York, Norton, 1974), 390-94.

(42) Melanie Klein, "Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms," in Writings, Vol. 3, Envy and Gratitude and Other Works: 1946-1963, ed. Roger Ernie Money-Kyrle (London, Karnac Books, 1993), 6.

(43) Rank, Myth of the Birth of the Hero, 90-91.

(44) Calvin Watkins, How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), viii.

(45) Ibid., 12-13.

(46) Gregory Nagy, The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), 174-210.

(47) Lacey D. Caskey and J. D. Beazley, Attic Vase Paintings in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1931), 45; Plate XXII.

(48) Jean-Joseph Goux, Oedipus, Philosopher, trans. Catherine Porter (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), 57

(49) Bernard Knox, Oedipus at Thebes (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1957). 127-35.

(50) Liddell, Scott, andJones, Lexicon, 141-42.

(51) Goux, Oedipus, 194-97

(52) Patrick L. Miller, "Oedipus Revisited,"Modern Psychoanalysis 31 (2006): 230-51, at 244-45.

(53) Knox, Oedipus at Thebes, 37-52.

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