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The Story of the Greeks by  H. A. Guerber

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THE SPHINX'S RIDDLE

WHEN Œdipus was grown up, he once went to a festival, where his proud manners so provoked one of his companions, that he taunted him with being only a foundling. Œdipus, seeing the frightened faces around him, now for the first time began to think that perhaps he had not been told the truth about his parentage. So he consulted an oracle.

Instead of giving him a plain answer,—a thing which the oracles were seldom known to do,—the voice said, "Œdipus, beware! You are doomed to kill your father, marry your mother, and bring destruction upon your native city!"

Horrified at this prophecy, and feeling sure that the King and Queen of Corinth were his parents, and that the oracle's predictions threatened misfortunes to them, Œdi- [31] pus made up his mind to leave home forever. He did not even dare to return to bid his family good-by, and he started out alone and on foot to seek his fortunes elsewhere.

As he walked, he thought of his misfortunes, and grew very bitter against the cruel goddess of fate, whom he had been taught to fear. He fancied that this goddess could rule things as she pleased, and that it was she who had said he would commit the dreadful crimes which he was trying to avoid.

After several days' aimless wandering, Œdipus came at last to some crossroads. There he met an old man riding in a chariot, and preceded by a herald, who haughtily bade Œdipus make way for his master.

As Œdipus had been brought up as a prince, he was in the habit of seeing everybody make way for him. He therefore proudly refused to stir; and when the herald raised his staff to strike, Œdipus drew his sword and killed him.

The old man, indignant at this deed of violence, stepped out of his chariot and attacked Œdipus. Now the young man did not know that it was his father Laius whom he thus met for the first time, so he fell upon and killed him also. The servants too were all slain when they in turn attacked him; and then Œdipus calmly continued his journey, little suspecting that the first part of the oracle's prediction had been fulfilled.

Soon after this fight, Œdipus came to the city of Thebes. The streets were filled with excited people, all talking at once; and the young prince, in listening to what they said, soon learned the cause of their excitement.

[33] It seems that a terrible monster called the Sphinx had taken up its station on one of the principal roads leading to the town, and would allow no one to pass who could not answer a riddle which it asked. This creature had the head of a woman, the body of a lion, and the wings of an eagle; and, as it ate up all those who could not guess its riddle, the people were very much frightened.

Many persons had already been slain; for, although the bravest men had gone out to kill it, they had lost their lives in the attempt, as no one could harm it unless he guessed the mysterious riddle.

Laius, the king, hoping to learn from the oracle at Delphi the answer to the riddle, had ridden off in his chariot; but the people grew more excited still, when a messenger came running into the town, and said that the king and all his servants had been killed by robbers, and that their dead bodies had been found in the middle of the road.

Œdipus paid no attention to this news; for he little suspected that the old man whom he had killed was the king, whom everybody loved, and for whom now they mourned with noisy grief.

He was, however, deeply interested in the story of the Sphinx; and he was so sure that he could guess the riddle, that he immediately set out to find the monster. He walked boldly along the road until stopped by the Sphinx, which told him to answer this riddle if he wished to live: "What creature walks upon four feet in the morning, upon two at noon, and upon three at night?"


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After a few moments' deep thought, Œdipus answered.

After a few moments' deep thought, Œdipus answered [34] that the creature was man. "For," said he, "in the morning of life, or in babyhood, man creeps on hands and knees; at noon, or in manhood, he walks erect; and at evening, or in old age, he supports his tottering steps with a staff."

The Sphinx's riddle was guessed; and the monster, knowing that its power was now at an end, tried to get away. But Œdipus would not allow it to do so; and, drawing his sword, he forced it back until it fell over a precipice, on the sharp stones below, and was dashed to pieces.


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