Myth on a Big News Day: Oedipus and the Sphinx Revisted

If this blog and this post do not slip into oblivion, some may find it hard to forgive that I have chosen to blog about a Greek myth on this particular day — May 27, 2020. There is plenty to discuss, Not least of which is the Pandemic that has a thousand worthy stories demanding attention each day. For that reason alone it seems odd to blog about a Greek myth.  But there are other reasons not to write about a myth today…

Today many Americans are dealing with the video of George Floyd passing out as he lay under the knee of an impassive police officer and was calling out the at he could not breathe. Supposedly, he survived the incident long enough to reach the hospital.  Four of five of the cops beside the police car labeled “Minneapolis” in the video are said to have been fired. Another video shows a white woman yelling that she will call the police and complain about being threatened by a black man — which she does.  The avid birdwatcher filmed the incident and she has lost her job. He seems relieved that nothing horrible happened to him.  The truth is that most of my work last year was in a predominantly African American school and I definitely believe that Black lives matter , We have issues we must deal with much better than we do in America,

It is also the day when Spacex is to launch the first astronauts into space from American soil in over a decade. The weather may stop them but that is big new in this space friendly blog. But I am blogging about something else in the limited time and with the limited data available to me.

Most people alive to read this post know of Oedipus in terms of the Oedipal complex of psychology. He is the cursed hero who lost touch with his roots and on his return to Thebes ended up killing his father and marrying his mother only finding out about it much later. He represents an undue attachment and sexual connection with one’s mother and a rejection of one’s father which is repressed and denied but comes to the fore and explains one’s life. That is not the Oedipal connection on which this post will focus. Oedipus is centrally featured in his myth for solving a riddle. This is the riddle, “What is that which in the morning goeth upon four feet; upon two feet in the afternoon; and in the Evening upon three?” The riddle is about feet. Feet are rarely discussed in connection with Oedipus but that is what this post is about.  Oedipus in ancient Greek is generally understood to mean Swollen Foot. Thus the man named Swollen Foot saves his hometown by answering a riddle about feet.  That does not seem to allow for the idea that feet are not worth examining in the story . This has been touched upon in this blog here.

The answer Oedipus gives is not included in the earliest versions of the myth, But generally it is believed to be:Oedipus answered: “Man: as an infant, he crawls on all fours; as an adult, he walks on two legs and; in old age, he uses a walking stick” The man with the swollen foot has had much reason to ponder how people get around and he can answer the riddle. Remember that the Greeks kept their calendar by Olympiads. For a long time it was a series of sacred games that marked the passage of years and these were most notably foot races although other events were included. So if Oedipus was a cripple with a swollen foot it made him highly unusual before anything else in simply becoming a famous Greek hero in that he struggled with his feet. Franklin Delano Roosevelt led America to a transformative victory in World War II from a wheelchair and huge stiff braces that only stiffened his useless legs, the peg leg is seen as a symbol of the pirate, Tamurlane one of the greatest warriors of central Asian history   is thought to derive his better known English name from a confusion   about his more accurate English name “Timur the Lame”. Kaiser Wilhelm seemed to inspire a lot of fitness conscious German soldier in the First World War and indirectly in the Second while using his shriveled arm in various innovative ways as he reviewed his troops. It is way back at the earliest part of our record of leaders that we have Oedipus the swollen-footed King to be solving the foot riddle of the Sphinx, What does this mean and why does it matter?

Let us examine the sphinx a bit.  The sphinx is an important mythological creature of the ancient world  which has only the briefest mention in  the Harry Potter books and none at all in The Chronicles of Narnia or The Lord of the Rings. Because of these omissions it has not been restored to the understanding of  many in the way other mythical  creatures have been by these popular series. Soit does not have much more currency than Oedipus itself. In educated common language to be sphinx-like is to be expressionless. We are going to try to examine other aspects of the sphinx as a symbol.


An ancient Greek story may well be an odd thing to write about on Memorial Day.  I usually find plenty of Memorial Day themed things to write about on this holiday.  It may be posted later and even finished later but it was begun and planned out on Memorial Day, The perspective seems to change and the Sphix which is winged, as not all sphinxes are, seems bigger before Oedipus arrives. the creature is smaller than the largest African  male lions when it actually meets  Oedipus.   

In the 1880s Gustave Moreau did a series of paintings which may be counted among the greatest of their type. He painted Oedipus, the Wayfarer, Oedipus and the Sphinx and The Sphinx Undone. He may have painted others as well. But these depict the key elements of the mythical encounter of Oedipus and the Sphinx.  Oedi[us solves a riddle and by doing so he slays a Sphinx, saves a city and becomes a king — all in pretty short order.  It is not the norm in Greek mythology for having the right answer in an of itself to be a central heroic deed in a a mythical adventure.

The sphinx is an important mythological creature of the ancient world. It is depicted in a monumental way in one of the most important continuous sites of human civilization since the ancient world.  In Giza of the Great Pyramid and the Great City of the Dead there stand in  ancient and worn condition The Great Sphinx of Giza. This massive object is commonly referred to as the Sphinx of Giza or just the Sphinx. The monumental object was originally carved from the bedrock, today even the restoration we see is old. The restored original shape of the Sphinx has been effected with layers of blocks. Two hundred and forty feet long from paw to tail, sixty-six feet high from the base to the top of the head and  over sixty feet wide at its rear haunches it is piece of some great significance in linking us tothe  ancient Egyptians of the Old Kingdom during the reign of the pharaoh who ruled from 2558–2532 BC.

This Great Sphinx which is nearing 4,600 years of age is a limestone statue of a reclining sphinx, with the body of a lion and the head of a human. It faces directly from West to East, it stands on the Giza Plateau on the west bank of the Nile in Giza, Egypt. It may have born the face of the reigning Pharaoh — known as Kafre in our language. This creature looks in a way at Asia with Africa and Europe  behind it although not in any absolute since is any of this geographical description true.

Sphinx is indeed reported to have had many Riddles, but this offered to Oedipus was the chief, “What is that which in the morning goeth upon four feet; upon two feet in the afternoon; and in the Evening upon three?”

The painting of Moreau which depicts Oedipus meeting the Sphinx at the crossroads on his journey between Thebes and Delphi shows a Sphinx not so great in size as even a large lion much less the collossal image of Egypt.. Oedipus must answer the Sphinx’s riddle correctly in order to pass. Failure means his own death and that of the besieged Thebans. The riddle was: “What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon and three at night?”. Oedipus answered: “Man: as an infant, he crawls on all fours; as an adult, he walks on two legs and; in old age, he uses a walking stick”. Oedipus was the first to answer the riddle correctly and, having heard Oedipus’ answer, the Sphinx  is not at all the imperturbable creature we have come to associate with the name of Sphinx in this instance. The creature is fatally shocked and  killed herself by throwing herself into the sea . She has wings to fly through the air and four paws to go upon the land. She has the mouth and brain to enter into the world of humans but nothing to survive the sea.  Oedipus in slaying her secures the freedom of the Thebans, the  rights of kingship in the kingdom of that city, and a wife Jocasta, who was later revealed to be his mother. There are some tales in which he was the legitimate king of Thebes all along. In Moreau’s painting The Sphinx Undone. Oedipus’s feet feature prominently but neither is swollen. There are those who see the answer to the riddle in terms of sacred Geometry. But none who dispute that the riddle is about feet.

My life story appears in this blog in bits and pieces and in segments titled as autobiographical. But one part of my life story is my struggle with my feet. This struggle has shaped much of my view of the world, my fellow humans and every phase of my life’s adventure. The years I spent working on leg press machines were to try to find a sport activity in which I could achieve something close to great excellence and I think I did although there is no official record. But the press also helped me overcome the tendency of my left foot to curl onto a dysfunctional fist. My love of the water and beaches was due in part because both in their own way offered some comfort to my feet. I have suffered from the lack of access to those three remedies in recent years. 

Friendships, love affairs, business dealings and offices held have been compromised by seeming sudden attacks of pain, swelling and twisting in my feet. The list alone of real consequences has enough volume to fill many a blog post without comment or evaluation.  

But my foot condition has also been a teacher as have the painful times spent in braces, stretching, ice baths and more. Right now at this very moment my feet shape my responses to various challenges. I see each technology, policy and law through the lens of someone struggling to stay on my feet and keep walking. Now that I am much nearer the end than the start of my life long race I know clearly that I  have perspective of that kind . Honestly it does seem to me that I have sometimes solved the riddles of man’s condition when others could not because of the perspective of this lifelong struggle. But I am not likely to reap Oedipus’ great rewards nor suffer his strange curse. But I do think that in these trying times, although I may suffer great disgrace in months and years to come I have the balance of effort to reward in my favor when others see the opposite in my record. Here I simply remind all of my readers that we each must find  the answers to our great challenges not only in our strengths but in the uneven costs we have paid for such strength as we have. From the suffering unique to each of us and not only from our success in fitting in (which is valuable and costly according to my personal education by pain) we can learn the means to meet challenges which the common experience of all men will not answer. From our own private agonies we can upend and destroy the invincible power by casting it into the place where it is crippled and not equipped. We can do this because we know so well the cost of inadequacy and the monstrous forces we oppose do not have such experience. I am on my way to the future without great confidence but I am sure enough of the choices that I have made. I am sure enough of the choices I will make. I am not sure of empathy or understanding, I am not sure of getting what I would call a fir hearing, nor of of a final good result. But I am sure I have worked out in the crucible of my private affliction a sense of right that is not inferior to whatever standard I may be forced to account for or to in what remains of my time hobbling along life’s race.  

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