Thomas Clark

The Beast of Thebes

The riddle had come to it in a kind of dream (the Sphinx did not, strictly speaking, sleep); what walks on four legs at morning, two legs during the day, and three legs in the evening? This was the sort of idea which often occurred to the Sphinx in its sleep-like periods of lucid fancy – poems, stories, snatches of song. They were not usually original. Thoughts which seemed mysterious at dusk turned commonplace in the burning eye of dawn.

But the Sphinx, on this occasion, forgot to dream the riddle’s answer. For many hours in its cave it paced and racked its brains, muttering querulously to itself, Four legs, two legs, three legs, four legs, two legs, three. Yet nothing presented itself, and resolving to seek help, the beast nosed aside the boulder at its cavern’s entrance. The road to Thebes was on the hilltop’s other side, and even at that unprofitable hour there would be travellers afoot.

Its first victim had been a simple mishap. Years had passed since the Sphinx had last left home, and it had taken several attempts before the creature mustered courage to approach a stranger on the road. Assuming a jocundity it neither felt nor aspired to feel, it had posed its question – four legs, two legs, three? – and been so embarrassed by the traveller’s stark-eyed, stammering response that there had seemed no alternative but to devour him at once. Though the monster was basically fair-minded, it did have its prejudices, and the riddle seemed like a reasonable enough pretext to smash people. And so the Sphinx was established by the dusty road, high in the hills of Kithairon, and made something of a name for itself.

They liked their games in Thebes, or at least so it seemed to the Sphinx, to whom most of their relationships made little sense beyond the context of ritualised play. They especially loved to gamble, and would accept almost any odds, so long as they believed they had a chance. What particular odds the Thebans thought they had of solving the riddle was a mystery to the Sphinx, given that thousands of travellers had passed its way and none had ever survived; yet nevertheless the citizens of Thebes had little sympathy for those who failed the riddle, and regarded their deaths as being basically inconsequential, like chaff upon the wind. Whatever else one might think about the Thebans (and the Sphinx, in its many private moments, thought plenty) they were not what one might call a vengeful bunch.

Though it questioned everyone who passed, the Sphinx was very careful that the riddle should not become public knowledge. This was not for fear that someone might go and look the answer up somewhere, but for the simple and pragmatic reason that the Sphinx could not now dream another one, dream anything, in fact, except the same riddle, over and over again. Nowadays, whilst drowsily unoccupied, it saw itself through the eyes of an old man hobbling along a road, and it asked itself;

Four legs, two legs, three?

But without an answer, it could travel no further.

Over time, the people of Thebes came to desist from the Kithairon road, though the Sphinx could not help noticing they made little corresponding effort to discourage Athenians from using it. Indeed the Sphinx, in its more self-lacerating moods, strongly suspected the Thebans of using it as unpaid labour, an incognizant gatekeeper for tinkers and riff-raff. The quality of person issuing from the seven-gated city deteriorated rapidly – some were so dense they walked straight past the Sphinx while it was still talking – and it became apparent to the beast that these imbeciles were something in the manner of offerings, sacrifices to the great lion of the skies who kept out all the visitors and discouraged their children from moving away. The Sphinx, who actually had rather a poor opinion of itself, and tended to reason away its own legitimate grievances as products of an understimulated imagination, mulled over these misgivings in a perpetual cycle of bitterness and self-recrimination. That the Great Sphinx of Hera – who, on the basis of devising one answerless riddle was widely believed to be one of the foremost thinkers of the age – should feel this way was a constant, unacknowledged embarrassment.

On quiet days, when it was too hot or too wet for merchant-folk to travel, the Sphinx would peer longingly down the long road of dust, hoping that someone sensible would come along. When a man had appeared, one musty afternoon, leaning on a staff as he stumbled over the horizon, the Sphinx had shaken its head and sighed wearily; but as the traveller limped closer the creature detected in his bearing something of its own burden of feelings, and contemplated him with regard.

Tell me, traveller, what is your name?

I am the Corinthian, Oedipus,
the man replied, I have come to answer your riddle.

Very well. The Sphinx drew itself up to its full height. What…

Man. The answer is man.

The Sphinx paused.


The answer is man, Oedipus repeated, staring up at the tower of Thebes, Or that is what my riddle’s answer would be, were I to have lived as you. What crawls like a beast, talks like a beast, and thinks like a beast? The answer is man.

For the first time in many years, the Sphinx ungathered the span of its dismal wings and sharpened its claws on the rocks. The staring eyes in its human face fixed on Oedipus gravely.

Man, the better parts of me are beast.

The traveller bowed his head. Through each of his sandal-shod feet, a ghastly hollow the width of a spear’s shaft ran straight from the arch to the sole.

Beast, the better parts of me are nothing.

And with wonder the Sphinx watched as the wingless cripple Oedipus entered the city of Thebes, and pronounced himself its king.