The Sphinx’s Riddle in Epic Meter: Scholia and Athenaeus

An ancient scholar records an interesting fragment with the famous riddle of the Sphinx from the story of Oedipus (Scholia to Euripides Phoenician Women 46):

“It is two-footed, three-footed, and four-footed on land,
But has one voice. It alone changes its form of all the creatures
Who creep over the earth, through the sky and the sea.
But whenever it walks leaning on multiple feet,
Then its strength remains the weakest in its limbs.”

ἔστι δίπουν ἐπὶ γῆς καὶ τετράπον, οὗ μία φωνή,
καὶ τρίπον• ἀλλάσσει δὲ φυὴν μόνον ὅσσ’ ἐπὶ γαῖαν
ἑρπετὰ γίνονται ἀνά τ’ αἰθέρα καὶ κατὰ πόντον.
ἀλλ’ ὁπόταν πλεόνεσσιν ἐρειδόμενον ποσὶ βαίνῃ,
ἔνθα μένος γυίοισιν ἀφαυρότατον πέλει αὐτοῦ:

A version of this also appears in Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists (10.83) with some slight changes (he says that the fragment comes from the Greek historian Asclepiades.

ἔστι δίπουν ἐπὶ γῆς καὶ τετράπον, οὗ μία φωνή,
καὶ τρίπον, ἀλλάσσει δὲ φύσιν μόνον ὅσσ’ ἐπὶ γαῖαν
ἑρπετὰ γίνονται καὶ ἀν’ αἰθέρα καὶ κατὰ πόντον•
ἀλλ’ ὁπόταν πλείστοισιν ἐρειδόμενον ποσὶ βαίνῃ,
ἔνθα τάχος γυίοισιν ἀφαυρότατον πέλει αὑτοῦ.

Phusis for phuê is a typical post-classical rendering; the superlative πλείστοισιν (“most”) instead of the comparative πλεόνεσσιν (“more, many”) doesn’t make much sense to me; and without the noun μένος (“strength,energy, fury”) in the first version, I have trouble understanding the genitive αὐτοῦ (“his”), unless “speed” (τάχος) is the subject…

This may be the oldest version of the Sphinx’s riddle available. Since it is in dactylic hexameter, some have argued that it originally comes from an epic about Oedipus (e.g. Oedipodeia). The earliness of the fragment is dubious: not only does it seem to be lacking formulae and language clear from other extant epics, but some words are clearly later (e.g. ἀλλάσσει).  And, to my taste, these are particularly poor lines of hexameter. The only universally accepted fragment from the lost Oedipodeia, has better rhythm and more traditional language:

“and then [the Sphinx killed] the most beautiful and desire-inducing of all men,
the dear child of blameless Creon, shining Haemon.”

ἀλλ’ ἔτι κάλλιστόν τε καὶ ἱμεροέστατον ἄλλων
παῖδα φίλον Κρείοντος ἀμύμονος, Αἵμονα δῖον


Those of you who know Sophocles might be surprised to find Haemon dead here, but the tragedians need not agree with epic!

The riddle was also a popular motif, versions of it appeared in a lost play by Aeschylus, and plays by Sophocles and Euripides. The following is my favorite picture of Oedipus and the Sphinx, by Gustave Moreau (1864):

A Little Death?
A Little Death?

One thought on “The Sphinx’s Riddle in Epic Meter: Scholia and Athenaeus

  1. I suppose that the version which Athenaeus quotes could come from an imitation or lesser version of the original Oedipodeia, if the objection is primarily aesthetic. I am thinking about this primarily because Ludwich’s introduction to the Batrachomyomachia hints that the reason the poem so widely attributed to Homer is because there was, originally, a thoroughly Homeric Batrachomyomachia. However, the original is lost, and the poem which we have is simply a “remake” of a great original.

    Of course, you know that my own feeble mind and indolent disposition inclines me to the explanatio simplicior, and I would suggest that the lines are in hexameter, not because they are extracted from a lost epic, but because the hexameter was simultaneously the metrical vehicle most appropriate to oracular pronouncement, as well as the simplest/most straightforward meters for amateur composition.

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