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An essay by Thomas De Quincey

The Sphinx's Riddle

Title:     The Sphinx's Riddle
Author: Thomas De Quincey [More Titles by De Quincey]

The most ancient

[Footnote: That is, amongst stories not wearing a _mythologic_ character, such as those of Prometheus, Hercules, &c.; The era of Troy and its siege is doubtless by some centuries older than its usual chronologic date of nine centuries before Christ. And considering the mature age of Eteocles and Polynices, the two sons of oedipus, at the period of the "_Seven against Thebes_," which seven were contemporary with the _fathers_ of the heroes engaged in the Trojan war, it becomes necessary to add sixty or seventy years to the Trojan date, in order to obtain that of oedipus and the Sphinx. Out of the Hebrew Scriptures, there is nothing purely historic so old as this.]

story in the Pagan records, older by two generations than the story of Troy, is that of oedipus and his mysterious fate, which wrapt in ruin both himself and all his kindred. No story whatever continued so long to impress the Greek sensibilities with religious awe, or was felt by the great tragic poets to be so supremely fitted for scenical representation. In one of its stages, this story is clothed with the majesty of darkness; in another stage, it is radiant with burning lights of female love, the most faithful and heroic, offering a beautiful relief to the preternatural malice dividing the two sons of oedipus. This malice was so intense, that when the corpses of both brothers were burned together on the same funeral pyre (as by one tradition they were), the flames from each parted asunder, and refused to mingle. This female love was so intense, that it survived the death of its object, cared not for human praise or blame, and laughed at the grave which waited in the rear for itself, yawning visibly for immediate retribution. There are four separate movements through which this impassioned tale devolves; all are of commanding interest; and all wear a character of portentous solemnity, which fits them for harmonizing with the dusky shadows of that deep antiquity into which they ascend.

One only feature there is in the story, and this belongs to its second stage (which is also its sublimest stage), where a pure taste is likely to pause, and to revolt as from something not perfectly reconciled with the general depth of the coloring. This lies in the Sphinx's riddle, which, as hitherto explained, seems to us deplorably below the grandeur of the occasion. Three thousand years, at the least, have passed away since that riddle was propounded; and it seems odd enough that the proper solution should not present itself till November of 1849. That is true; it seems odd, but still it is possible, that we, in _anno domini_ 1849, may see further through a mile-stone than oedipus, the king, in the year B. c. twelve or thirteen hundred. The long interval between the enigma and its answer may remind the reader of an old story in Joe Miller, where a traveller, apparently an inquisitive person, in passing-through a toll-bar, said to the keeper, "How do you like your eggs dressed?" Without waiting for the answer, he rode off; but twenty- five years later, riding through the same bar, kept by the same man, the traveller looked steadfastly at him, and received the monosyllabic answer, "_Poached_." A long parenthesis is twenty-five years; and we, gazing back over a far wider gulf of time, shall endeavor to look hard at the Sphinx, and to convince that mysterious young lady,--if our voice can reach her,--that she was too easily satisfied with the answer given; that the true answer is yet to come; and that, in fact, oedipus shouted before he was out of the wood.

But, first of all, let us rehearse the circumstances of this old Grecian story. For in a popular journal it is always a duty to assume that perhaps three readers out of four may have had no opportunity, by the course of their education, for making themselves acquainted with classical legends. And in this present case, besides the indispensableness of the story to the proper comprehension of our own improved answer to the Sphinx, the story has a separate and independent value of its own; for it illustrates a profound but obscure idea of Pagan ages, which is connected with the elementary glimpses of man into the abysses of his higher relations, and lurks mysteriously amongst what Milton so finely calls "the dark foundations" of our human nature. This notion it is hard to express in modern phrase, for we have no idea exactly corresponding to it; but in Latin it was called _piacularity_. The reader must understand upon our authority, _nostro periculo_, and in defiance of all the false translations spread through books, that the ancients (meaning the Greeks and Romans before the time of Christianity) had no idea, not by the faintest vestige, of what in the scriptural system is called _sin_. The Latin word _peccatum_, the Greek word _amartia_, are translated continually by the word _sin_; but neither one word nor the other has any such meaning in writers belonging to the pure classical period. When baptized into new meaning by the adoption of Christianity, these words, in common with many others, transmigrated into new and philosophic functions. But originally they tended towards no such acceptations, nor _could_ have done so; seeing that the ancients had no avenue opened to them through which the profound idea of _sin_ would have been even dimly intelligible. Plato, four hundred years before Christ, or Cicero, more than three hundred years later, was fully equal to the idea of _guilt_ through all its gamut; but no more equal to the idea of _sin_, than a sagacious hound to the idea of gravitation, or of central forces. It is the tremendous postulate upon which this idea reposes that constitutes the initial moment of that revelation which is common to Judaism and to Christianity. We have no intention of wandering into any discussion upon this question. It will suffice for the service of the occasion if we say that guilt, in all its modifications, implies only a defect or a wound in the individual. Sin, on the other hand, the most mysterious, and the most sorrowful of all ideas, implies a taint not in the individual but in the race--_that_ is the distinction; or a taint in the individual, not through any local disease of his own, but through a scrofula equally diffused through the infinite family of man. We are not speaking controversially, either as teachers of theology or of philosophy; and we are careless of the particular construction by which the reader interprets to himself this profound idea. What we affirm is, that this idea was utterly and exquisitely inappreciable by Pagan Greece and Rome; that various translations from Pindar,

[Footnote: And when we are speaking of this subject, it may be proper to mention (as the very extreme anachronism which the case admits of) that Mr. Archdeacon W. has absolutely introduced the idea of sin into the "Iliad;" and, in a regular octavo volume, has represented it as the key to the whole movement of the fable. It was once made a reproach to Southey that his Don Roderick spoke, in his penitential moods, a language too much resembling that of Methodism; yet, after all, that prince was a Christian, and a Christian amongst Mussulmans. But what are we to think of Achilles and Patroclus, when described as being (or _not_ being) "under convictions of sin"?]

from Aristophanes, and from the Greek tragedians, embodying at intervals this word _sin_, are more extravagant than would be the word _category_ introduced into the harangue of an Indian sachem amongst the Cherokees; and finally that the very nearest approach to the abysmal idea which we Christians attach to the word sin--(an approach, but to that which never can be touched--a writing as of palmistry upon each man's hand, but a writing which "no man can read")--lies in the Pagan idea of _piacularity_; which is an idea thus far like hereditary sin, that it expresses an evil to which the party affected has not consciously concurred; which is thus far _not_ like hereditary sin, that it expresses an evil personal to the individual, and not extending itself to the race.

This was the evil exemplified in oedipus. He was loaded with an insupportable burthen of pariah participation in pollution and misery, to which his will had never consented. He seemed to have committed the most atrocious crimes; he was a murderer, he was a parricide, he was doubly incestuous, and yet how? In the case where he might be thought a murderer, he had stood upon his self-defence, not benefiting by any superior resources, but, on the contrary, fighting as one man against three, and under the provocation of insufferable insolence. Had he been a parricide? What matter, as regarded the moral guilt, if his father (and by the fault of that father) were utterly unknown to him? Incestuous had he been? but how, if the very oracles of fate, as expounded by events and by mysterious creatures such as the Sphinx, had stranded him, like a ship left by the tide, upon this dark unknown shore of a criminality unsuspected by himself? All these treasons against the sanctities of nature had oedipus committed; and yet was this oedipus a thoroughly good man, no more dreaming of the horrors in which he was entangled, than the eye at noonday in midsummer is conscious of the stars that lie far behind the daylight. Let us review rapidly the incidents of his life.

Laius, King of Thebes, the descendant of Labdacus, and representing the illustrious house of the Labdacidae, about the time when his wife, Jocasta, promised to present him with a child, had learned from various prophetic voices that this unborn child was destined to be his murderer. It is singular that in all such cases, which are many, spread through classical literature, the parties menaced by fate believe the menace; else why do they seek to evade it? and yet believe it not; else why do they fancy themselves able to evade it? This fatal child, who was the oedipus of tragedy, being at length born, Laius committed the infant to a slave, with orders to expose it on Mount Citheron. This was done; the infant was suspended, by thongs running through the fleshy parts of his feet, to the branches of a tree, and he was supposed to have perished by wild beasts. But a shepherd, who found him in this perishing state, pitied his helplessness, and carried him to his master and mistress, King and Queen of Corinth, who adopted and educated him as their own child. That he was _not_ their own child, and that in fact he was a foundling of unknown parentage, oedipus was not slow of finding from the insults of his schoolfellows; and at length, with the determination of learning his origin and his fate, being now a full- grown young man, he strode off from Corinth to Delphi. The oracle at Delphi, being as usual in collusion with his evil destiny, sent him off to seek his parents at Thebes. On his journey thither, he met, in a narrow part of the road, a chariot proceeding in the counter direction from Thebes to Delphi. The charioteer, relying upon the grandeur of his master, insolently ordered the young stranger to clear the road; upon which, under the impulse of his youthful blood, oedipus slew him on the spot. The haughty grandee who occupied the chariot rose up in fury to avenge this outrage, fought with the young stranger, and was himself killed. One attendant upon the chariot remained; but he, warned by the fate of his master and his fellow-servant, withdrew quietly into the forest that skirted the road, revealing no word of what had happened, but reserved, by the dark destiny of oedipus, to that evil day on which _his_ evidence, concurring with other circumstantial exposures, should convict the young Corinthian emigrant of parricide. For the present, oedipus viewed himself as no criminal, but much rather as an injured man, who had simply used his natural powers of self-defence against an insolent aggressor. This aggressor, as the reader will suppose, was Laius. The throne therefore was empty, on the arrival of oedipus in Thebes; the king's death was known, but not the mode of it; and that oedipus was the murderer could not reasonably be suspected either by the people of Thebes, or by oedipus himself. The whole affair would have had no interest for the young stranger; but, through the accident of a public calamity then desolating the land, a mysterious monster, called the Sphinx, half woman and half lion, was at that time on the coast of Boeotia, and levying a daily tribute of human lives from the Boeotian territory. This tribute, it was understood, would continue to be levied from the territories attached to Thebes, until a riddle proposed by the monster should have been satisfactorily solved. By way of encouragement to all who might feel prompted to undertake so dangerous an adventure, the authorities of Thebes offered the throne and the hand of the widowed Jocasta as the prize of success; and oedipus, either on public or on selfish motives, entered the lists as a competitor.

The riddle proposed by the Sphinx ran in these terms: "What creature is that which moves on four feet in the morning, on two feet at noonday, and on three towards the going down of the sun?" oedipus, after some consideration, answered that the creature was MAN, who creeps on the ground with hands and feet when an infant, walks upright in the vigor of manhood, and leans upon a staff in old age. Immediately the dreadful Sphinx confessed the truth of his solution by throwing herself headlong from a point of rock into the sea; her power being overthrown as soon as her secret had been detected. Thus was the Sphinx destroyed; and, according to the promise of the proclamation, for this great service to the state oedipus was immediately recompensed. He was saluted King of Thebes, and married to the royal widow Jocasta. In this way it happened, but without suspicion either in himself or others, pointing to the truth, that oedipus had slain his father, had ascended his father's throne, and had married his own mother.

Through a course of years all these dreadful events lay hushed in darkness; but at length a pestilence arose, and an embassy was despatched to Delphi, in order to ascertain the cause of the heavenly wrath, and the proper means of propitiating that wrath. The embassy returned to Thebes armed with a knowledge of the fatal secrets connected with oedipus, but under some restraints of prudence in making a publication of what so dreadfully affected the most powerful personage in the state. Perhaps, in the whole history of human art as applied to the evolution of a poetic fable, there is nothing more exquisite than the management of this crisis by Sophocles. A natural discovery, first of all, connects oedipus with the death of Laius. That discovery comes upon him with some surprise, but with no shock of fear or remorse. That he had killed a man of rank in a sudden quarrel, he had always known; that this man was now discovered to be Laius, added nothing to the reasons for regret. The affair remained as it was. It was simply a case of personal strife on the high road, and one which had really grown out of aristocratic violence in the adverse party. oedipus had asserted his own rights and dignity only as all brave men would have done in an age that knew nothing of civic police.

It was true that this first discovery--the identification of himself as the slayer of Laius--drew after it two others, namely, that it was the throne of his victim on which he had seated himself, and that it was _his_ widow whom he had married. But these were no offences; and, on the contrary, they were distinctions won at great risk to himself, and by a great service to the country. Suddenly, however, the reappearance and disclosures of the shepherd who had saved his life during infancy in one moment threw a dazzling but funereal light upon the previous discoveries that else had seemed so trivial. In an instant everything was read in another sense. The death of Laius, the marriage with his widow, the appropriation of his throne, all towered into colossal crimes, illimitable, and opening no avenues to atonement. oedipus, in the agonies of his horror, inflicts blindness upon himself; Jocasta commits suicide; the two sons fall into fiery feuds for the assertion of their separate claims on the throne, but previously unite for the expulsion of oedipus, as one who had become a curse to Thebes. And thus the poor, heart-shattered king would have been turned out upon the public roads, aged, blind, and a helpless vagrant, but for the sublime piety of his two daughters, but especially of Antigone, the elder. They share with their unhappy father the hardships and perils of the road, and do not leave him until the moment of his mysterious summons to some ineffable death in the woods of Colonus. The expulsion of Polynices, the younger son, from Thebes; his return with a confederate band of princes for the recovery of his rights; the death of the two brothers in single combat; the public prohibition of funeral rights to Polynices, as one who had levied war against his native land; and the final reappearance of Antigone, who defies the law, and secures a grave to her brother at the certain price of a grave to herself-- these are the sequels and arrears of the family overthrow accomplished through the dark destiny of oedipus.

And now, having reviewed the incidents of the story, in what respect is it that we object to the solution of the Sphinx's riddle? We do not object to it as _a_ solution of the riddle, and the only one possible at the moment; but what we contend is, that it is not _the_ solution. All great prophecies, all great mysteries, are likely to involve double, triple, or even quadruple interpretations-- each rising in dignity, each cryptically involving another. Even amongst natural agencies, precisely as they rise in grandeur, they multiply their final purposes. Rivers and seas, for instance, are useful, not merely as means of separating nations from each other, but also as means of uniting them; not merely as baths and for all purposes of washing and cleansing, but also as reservoirs of fish, as high-roads for the conveyance of commodities, as permanent sources of agricultural fertility, &c.; In like manner, a mystery of any sort, having a public reference, may be presumed to couch within it a secondary and a profounder interpretation. The reader may think that the Sphinx ought to have understood her own riddle best; and that, if _she_ were satisfied with the answer of oedipus, it must be impertinent in us at this time of day to censure it. To censure, indeed, is more than we propose. The solution of oedipus was a true one; and it was all that he _could_ have given in that early period of his life. But, perhaps, at the moment of his death amongst the gloomy thickets of Attica, he might have been able to suggest another and a better. If not, then we have the satisfaction of thinking ourselves somewhat less dense than oedipus; for, in our opinion, the full and _final_ answer to the Sphinx's riddle lay in the word OEDIPUS. oedipus himself it was that fulfilled the conditions of the enigma. He it was, in the most pathetic sense, that went upon four feet when an infant; for the general condition of helplessness attached to all mankind in the period of infancy, and which is expressed symbolically by this image of creeping, applied to oedipus in a far more significant manner, as one abandoned by all his natural protectors, thrown upon the chances of a wilderness, and upon the mercies of a slave. The allusion to this general helplessness had, besides, a special propriety in the case of oedipus, who drew his very name (_Swollen-foot_) from the injury done to his infant feet. He, again, it was that, in a more emphatic sense than usual, asserted that majestic self-sufficientness and independence of all alien aid, which is typified by the act of walking upright at noonday upon his own natural basis. Throwing off all the power and splendor borrowed from his royal protectors at Corinth, trusting exclusively to his native powers as a man, he had fought his way through insult to the presence of the dreadful Sphinx; her he had confounded and vanquished; he had leaped into a throne,--the throne of him who had insulted him,--without other resources than such as he drew from himself, and he had, in the same way, obtained a royal bride. With good right, therefore, he was foreshadowed in the riddle as one who walked upright by his own masculine vigor, and relied upon no gifts but those of nature. Lastly, by a sad but a pitying image, oedipus is described as supporting himself at nightfall on three feet; for oedipus it was that by his cruel sons would have been rejected from Thebes, with no auxiliary means of motion or support beyond his own languishing powers: blind and broken-hearted, he must have wandered into snares and ruin; his own feet must have been supplanted immediately: but then came to his aid another foot, the holy Antigone. She it was that guided and cheered him, when all the world had forsaken him; she it was that already, in the vision of the cruel Sphinx, had been prefigured dimly as the staff upon which oedipus should lean, as the _third_ foot that should support his steps when the deep shadows of his sunset were gathering and settling about his grave.

In this way we obtain a solution of the Sphinx's riddle more commensurate and symmetrical with the other features of the story, which are all clothed with the grandeur of mystery. The Sphinx herself is a mystery. Whence came her monstrous nature, that so often renewed its remembrance amongst men of distant lands, in Egyptian or Ethiopian marble? Whence came her wrath against Thebes? This wrath, how durst it tower so high as to measure itself against the enmity of a nation? This wrath, how came it to sink so low as to collapse at the echo of a word from a friendless stranger? Mysterious again is the blind collusion of this unhappy stranger with the dark decrees of fate. The very misfortunes of his infancy had given into his hands one chance more for escape: these misfortunes had transferred him to Corinth, and staying _there_ he was safe. But the headstrong haughtiness of youthful blood causes him to recoil unknowingly upon the one sole spot of all the earth where the coefficients for ratifying his destruction are waiting and lying in ambush. Heaven and earth are silent for a generation; one might fancy that they are _treacherously_ silent, in order that oedipus may have time for building up to the clouds the pyramid of his mysterious offences. His four children, incestuously born, sons that are his brothers, daughters that are his sisters, have grown up to be men and women, before the first mutterings are becoming audible of that great tide slowly coming up from the sea, which is to sweep away himself and the foundations of his house. Heaven and earth must now bear joint witness against him. Heaven speaks first: the pestilence that walketh in darkness is made the earliest minister of the discovery,--the pestilence it is, scourging the seven-gated Thebes, as very soon the Sphinx will scourge her, that is appointed to usher in, like some great ceremonial herald, that sad drama of Nemesis,--that vast procession of revelation and retribution which the earth, and the graves of the earth, must finish. Mysterious also is the pomp of ruin with which this revelation of the past descends upon that ancient house of Thebes. Like a shell from modern artillery, it leaves no time for prayer or evasion, but shatters by the same explosion all that stand within its circle of fury. Every member of that devoted household, as if they had been sitting--not around a sacred domestic hearth, but around the crater of some surging volcano--all alike, father and mother, sons and daughters, are wrapt at once in fiery whirlwinds of ruin. And, amidst this general agony of destroying wrath, one central mystery, as a darkness within a darkness, withdraws itself into a secrecy unapproachable by eyesight, or by filial love, or by guesses of the brain--and _that_ is the death of oedipus. _Did_ he die? Even _that_ is more than we can say. How dreadful does the sound fall upon the heart of some poor, horror-stricken criminal, pirate or murderer, that has offended by a mere human offence, when, at nightfall, tempted by the sweet spectacle of a peaceful hearth, he creeps stealthily into some village inn, and hopes for one night's respite from his terror, but suddenly feels the touch, and hears the voice, of the stern officer, saying, "Sir, you are wanted." Yet that summons is but too intelligible; it shocks, but it bewilders not; and the utmost of its malice is bounded by the scaffold. "Deep," says the unhappy man, "is the downward path of anguish which I am called to tread; but it has been trodden by others." For oedipus there was no such comfort. What language of man or trumpet of angel could decipher the woe of that unfathomable call, when, from the depth of ancient woods, a voice that drew like gravitation, that sucked in like a vortex, far off yet near, in some distant world yet close at hand, cried, "Hark, oedipus! King oedipus! come hither! thou art wanted!" _Wanted!_ for what? Was it for death? was it for judgment? was it for some wilderness of pariah eternities? No man ever knew. Chasms opened in the earth; dark gigantic arms stretched out to receive the king; clouds and vapor settled over the penal abyss; and of him only, though the neighborhood of his disappearance was known, no trace or visible record survived-- neither bones, nor grave, nor dust, nor epitaph.

Did the Sphinx follow with her cruel eye this fatal tissue of calamity to its shadowy crisis at Colonus? As the billows closed over her head, did she perhaps attempt to sting with her dying words? Did she say, "I, the daughter of mystery, am _called_; I am _wanted_. But, amidst the uproar of the sea, and the clangor of sea-birds, high over all I hear another though a distant summons. I can hear that thou, oedipus, the son of mystery, art _called_ from afar: thou also wilt be _wanted_." Did the wicked Sphinx labor in vain, amidst her parting convulsions, to breathe this freezing whisper into the heart of him that had overthrown her?

Who can say? Both of these enemies were pariah mysteries, and may have faced each other again with blazing malice in some pariah world. But all things in this dreadful story ought to be harmonized. Already in itself it is an ennobling and an idealizing of the riddle, that it is made a double riddle; that it contains an exoteric sense obvious to all the world, but also an esoteric sense--now suggested conjecturally after thousands of years--_possibly_ unknown to the Sphinx, and _certainly_ unknown to oedipus; that this second riddle is hid within the first; that the one riddle is the secret commentary upon the other; and that the earliest is the hieroglyphic of the last. Thus far as regards the riddle itself; and, as regards oedipus in particular, it exalts the mystery around him, that in reading this riddle, and in tracing the vicissitudes from infancy to old age, attached to the general destiny of his race, unconsciously he was tracing the dreadful vicissitudes attached specially and separately to his own.

[The end]
Thomas De Quincey's essay: The Sphinx's Riddle