The Riddle of the Smart Monster

In Greek mythology the Sphinx had the body of a lion, the wings of a powerful bird and the face of a woman. Variations with a man’s head turned up in Egypt and Assyria. Other ancient civilizations all over South Asia and Southeast Asia have their own versions of this lion/human combination with or without wings. There have been many artistic revivals of the image and gorgeous, very feminine, sphinxes are found guarding palaces all over the world, including France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria and Portugal.

I’m most interested in the famous Greek Sphinx — the smartest of the smart monsters. The Sphinx guarded the entrance to the city of Thebes. If you answered the riddle correctly, you could pass through the entrance into the city, but if you missed it there were no second chance. You were dinner for the Sphinx.

A freaky, ancient Greek zero sum game? It reminds me of one of my favorite operas: Turandot. In order to marry the princess, her suitors must answer three riddles. If they fail they are executed. Talk about a girl with commitment issues! In her own way, she was one of those human monsters, renowned for her extraordinary brutality. But the music is beautiful.

Getting back to the Sphinx, Oedipus — yes, that Oedipus — arrived at the city gate and the Sphinx posed her riddle: ‘What creature walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon and three in the evening?’

Oedipus replied, ‘Man.’ Humans crawl as babies, walk as adults and lean on canes in old age.

Oedipus may have gotten that whole mother/wife mix up terribly wrong, but he was good with riddles. He outsmarted a truly clever monster. Horrified, that her game had ended, the Sphinx leapt from her high perch and killed herself.

Zero sum game — Oedipus 1/ Monster 0.


  1. Beth M.

    I love ancient mythology – can never get enough of it! Stories of gods and heroes that have stood the test of time and in many ways still play out in our modern world of today. Bernie Madoff comes to mind….

  2. Winston

    Isn’t a zero sum game what many monster stories are about? Frankenstein was brought to life, but life (society) wouldn’t accept him. Dracula can live for centuries but cannot survive in sunlight. No matter how powerful a monster is, there is always something that keeps them from being all-powerful. There is some fault that inevitably leads to their downfall. The Sphinx thought it was smarter than anyone which was its fault and when it was proved wrong by Oedipus, its failure was too much and it killed itself. As you said, a zero sum game.