Riddle of the Sphinx – Oedipus story – Ancient Greece

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Oedipus and the Sphinx on a red-figure vase - the Riddle of the Sphinx

The Riddle of the Sphinx: Oedipus, wearing a traveler’s hat, and the Sphinx asking her riddle

The Sphinx’s riddle:

So the riddle the Sphinx asked Oedipus is: What goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet in the evening?

Oedipus’ answer to the riddle of the Sphinx:

And the answer is: a man.

A man is a baby in the morning of his life and he crawls on four feet.

A man is an adult in the noon – the middle part – of his life and he walks on two feet.

But when a man is old, in the evening of his life, he walks with a cane, on three feet.

An older man leaning on a cane, and a younger one on his own two feet

An older man leaning on a cane, and a younger one on his own two feet

(This would be true of women, too, but the Greeks, being Greeks, told it about men only).

It’s an important riddle to Ancient Greek men, because they thought of men as the center of the universe, the measure of all things. So the answer is the most important possible thing: a man.

Did you find out what you wanted to know about the riddle of the Sphinx? Let us know in the comments!

More about Oedipus
Ancient Greece
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Bibliography and further reading about Oedipus and Sophocles:

Greek Theatre, by Stewart Ross (1999). Easy reading.

Greek and Roman Theater, by Don Nardo. For teenagers.

Ancient Greeks: Creating the Classical Tradition (Oxford Profiles) by Rosalie F. Baker and Charles F. Baker (reprinted 1997). Short biographies of many famous Greeks including Sophocles.

D’aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths by Edgar and Ingri D’Aulaire. Includes the story of Oedipus.

Greek Tragedy: A Literary Study, by H. D. F. Kitto (reprinted 2002). A classic discussion of the meaning of Greek tragic plays, by a specialist.

Oedipus at Colonus
More about Sophocles
Ancient Greece
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By |2018-01-11T22:59:01+00:00July 11th, 2017|Greeks, Literature|2 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Riddle of the Sphinx – Oedipus story – Ancient Greece. Quatr.us Study Guides, July 11, 2017. Web. January 22, 2019.

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.


  1. William Fleck January 20, 2018 at 9:43 pm - Reply

    Professor Carr, I was hoping to get your thoughts on an alternate solution to The Riddle of the Sphinx, posted academia.edu


    • Karen Carr January 21, 2018 at 12:54 pm

      It’s a nice idea, but the riddle of the Sphinx goes back long before the work of Eratosthenes. And in any case, the point of riddles is that the answer is hard to see but easy once you get it, which pretty much leaves out sciencey answers. You might be interested in this discussion, which does allow for some alternate answers: http://www.pitt.edu/~edfloyd/Class1130-04-1/sphinx.html

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