Sphinx and Oedipus Rex
by Janice Siegel
When we discuss OT
(Oedipus Tyrannus, also known as Oedipus Rex), we often focus on the
contemporary political crisis in Athens, the plague that has beset the people, the loss of
religious focus that some fear has brought the wrath of the gods upon them - all the ways
that we think the play might have affected the contemporary audience.
But what we often ignore is the
mythic dimension of the play, a dimension that allows us to understand some of the basic
tensions of the play. Oedipus comes onto the scene in Thebes after killing the sphinx, a
mythical creature with very specific and foreboding connotations from Greek mythology. The
sphinx, like many of the other fantastic hybrid creatures, stands as a pre-eminent threat
to Greek society and human culture. As a liminal (threshhold) creature, neither one thing
nor the other (as a centaur is neither horse nor man, an Amazon neither woman nor warrior,
a Siren neither woman nor bird), it threatens our conception of what belongs and what
doesn't, of what can be understood and what cannot, of what can be controlled and what
The sphinx has an additional
threatening feature in that it is its intellect that is so overwhelming. It is a typical
motif of Greek myths that mythic heroes fight such creatures, which represent metaphoric
threats against human culture and Greek society in particular. It is no coincidence that
monumental sculpture describing victories over such creatures is found on the temples of
archaic and classical Greece (e.g., Lapiths v Centaurs on the Parthenon, the Temple of
Zeus at Olympia; the Greeks v the Amazons on the Parthenon and others; Theseus v Minotaur
on the Hephaesteum...). All are the victory of man's culture over nature gone wild.
The sphinx, too, is such a liminal
creature. She has the haunches of a lion, the wings of a great bird, and horribly, the
face and breast of a woman. She is treacherous and merciless: those who cannot answer her
riddle suffer a fate typical in such mythological stories: they are gobbled up whole and
raw, eaten by this ravenous monster. What greater threat is there to a humanity desperate
to leave its mark upon history than to be completely consumed and obliterated? Odysseus
fights his man-eater (several, actually) and Heracles has his Cacus - mythic heroes often
defeat anthropophagy to ensure human and cultural survival (this is typical of mythic
heroes in general: many Japanese heroic tales depict heroes defeating man-eating monsters,
and even the dragon that St. George kills is so threatening because it is a man-eater). IH
students will naturally think of Soumaoro here, too, from the West African epic Sundiata.
This is what Oedipus saves the
people of Thebes from when he kills the sphinx, certainly a threat in the mythic sense.
Oedipus crows about his ability to save Thebes. He proves Protagoras' maxim that "man
is the measure of all things." Indeed, "Man" is the answer to the Sphinx's
riddle! But not just any man - Oedipus solves the riddle, Oedipus ends
the sphinx's reign of terror over the people of Thebes, Oedipus brings a new era
of harmony to the city of Thebes by besting this mythic and metaphorical threat to human
culture and society.
But ironically (and necessarily),
this man who overcomes the great threat to human culture posed by the sphinx is the same
man responsible for causing an even more serious pollution and rending of the social
fabric: this same man commits the cardinal sins of patricide/regicide and incest - the one
is disallowed by ancient and modern law because of its threat to society (see Aeschylus' Oresteia),
the other is a mythic taboo first - mythic heroes are supposed to eradicate such
threats, not cause them (I am reminded of Claude Levi-Strauss' conclusion that
cannibalism and incest are two sides of the same coin, being the most exaggerated forms of
sex and eating).
So the fact that in OT
Oedipus begins with a rep for killing a man-eater and ends with the discovery that he has
committed incest (mythically equivalent crimes) is the key, I think. Both the response and
the responder to the riddle of the Sphinx is Man and Man turns out to be both the
preserver and the polluter of the society. Perhaps this is Sophocles' message to his fifth
century audience after all - that man has the power to both preserve and destroy. In order
to make the right decision, he must go about his business with both eyes open.
Go to Dr. J's Illustrated Mythic Hero for
a fuller discussion.
Got to Andrew Wilson's discussion of the sphinx for different conclusions...
and then play The Interactive Oedipus
Game to see if you fully understand al the plot complications...