Once the Sphinx grew weary of it all. Who wouldn’t, the Sphinx wanted to know? Waiting here on the approach to Thebes for years to quiz the occasional wanderer who might shamble by (most often lost and in no mood for riddles) was tedious beyond belief. To say nothing of the flies that circled one in this heat, some days so thick they blotted out the sun and so fierce in their assault that the welts they left on the Sphinx at day’s end still itched the following morning. But the wait and the welts could have been ignored if only those who did come along measured up to the Sphinx’s wish for the diversion that an engaging test of wits might offer. None ever did. The way they scratched their noggins (or other parts of their anatomy) and sighed over its riddle for hours on end, missing every opportunity to rework it or expand it or even to ask a few questions in return, and then brought on their doom in an instant with some foolish reply—who should be expected to sit through that? It was an embarrassment. Spending any time at all with somebody so clueless as to insult one’s own intelligence could make the Sphinx want to tear itself to pieces for even having posed its question in the first place. But then to suffer the remorse of dispatching yet another unfortunate clearly not in one’s league mentally was worse. Enough of these encounters, and how was one to bear the shame of having undone so many of the intellectually defenseless? On the other hand, should the Sphinx have dumbed down the riddle so that someone in this puzzled lot might have hit upon the answer? But what would be gained, really, by such a move? Wouldn’t it cast both the Sphinx and the lucky one in a worse light? The answerer might not have cared, happy just to forestall his or her eventual end, but what of the Sphinx? To have lowered the mental bar and cheapened, right at the start, all that was to follow in a long tradition of confidence in the power of the human mind—who would be willing to face the scathing contempt such a lapse in judgment was bound to bring over the centuries? No, better to hold out hope through it all that someone would eventually come along who was up to the riddle. Someone who would bring both of them renown by solving it. Like this young man Oedipus here, so full of himself and so sure he knew everything. Was there a chance now at last for a true contest of minds, one deserving to become myth? And yet what did Oedipus really know of life’s conundrums that could rival the Sphinx’s own awareness? How much didn’t he have left to learn about what it ultimately meant to crawl and then stride and then limp through the day? Poor fellow. A greater riddle in himself than any the Sphinx could pose. And yet here they were, trapped by destiny face to face in a swarm of flies: Oedipus the Sphinx’s best hope for humanity to live up to its potential for wisdom and the Sphinx all that stood between Oedipus and a recognition no one should have to endure. Ought it simply spare him that ordeal, make the riddle one without an answer this time and put a stop to the youth’s blind rush towards a far worse fate than death? Or cry out, “Wait! Give it a little more thought. You have no idea what any of this really means.” Or would it be better to stay silent and let Oedipus discover for himself the terrible limits of his understanding? What an agonizing dilemma it posed for the Sphinx. At last a wanderer comes along who just might be worth having waited all this while and suffered all these disappointments for, only to put the Sphinx in the position of having to choose between exacting his death if he failed to solve the riddle and its own if he succeeded. But there was really nothing either of them could do now to escape their plight. The years of the Sphinx’s standing vigil here and all of the efforts by Oedipus to flee a dread prophecy had come down to this single moment that held them both in its tight grip. As Oedipus finally cleared his throat and began to open his mouth, the Sphinx looked deep into the eyes of the young man, and a tear rolled out of its own at the knowledge of what the future held.
Copyright © 2020 by Geoffrey Grosshans