Oedipus answered that it was man,
who crawled on four legs as a baby, walked on two
as an adult, and used a stick during old age.
(Oedipus with the
from an Attic red-figure cylix from the Vatican Museum, ca. 470
Oedipus was one of the most
unfortunate heroes of the Greek Myths. After his birth Laius and
Jocasta, king and queen of Thebes, took their son Oedipus to an
oracle, which gave them disastrous news. It said that he would
marry his mother, kill his father, and ruin his family.
Laius was horrified and decided on a plan of
action. He drilled holes into Oedipus' ankles and threaded a
strap through, in order to tie them together. He then had the
child abandoned on a mountain. Oedipus was found by shepherds
who brought him to Polybus, the king of Corinth. The king had no
children of his own, so he adopted the boy and gave him his
name, meaning 'swollen foot'.
Oedipus grew up happy, believing that he was the
son of Polybus. When he was full-grown he visited the Oracle at
Delphi, which repeated the disastrous prophecy that had been
made when he was born. Oedipus was horrified and left Corinth
immediately, to get as far as possible away from the man he
believed to be his father. He decided to travel to Thebes, but
on the narrow road he met with King Lauis, who demanded that he
be let past. The king insulted Oedipus and killed one of his
horses, causing a fight, during which Lauis was killed, just as
the oracle had predicted.
When Oedipus reached Thebes he found the city
troubled by a monster named the Sphinx. She was half lion, half
woman, and crouched on a rock which people needed to pass.
Whenever someone went by she asked them questions, and if they
could not answer correctly she would swallow them. When Oedipus
arrived at Thebes no one had so far answered any of her riddles,
but he needed to pass. The sphinx asked him a riddle:
What being walks on
four legs in the morning,
two at noon and three at sunset,
and is weakest when it walks on four?
Oedipus answered that it was man, who crawled on
four legs as a baby, walked on two as an adult, and used a stick
during old age. The sphinx was so horrified that someone had
answered her correctly that she threw herself off the rock to
her death. Thebes was free of the sphinx, and Oedipus was
declared a hero. The Thebans made him their king, and he married
the queen - Jocasta, his own mother.
After many happy years of marriage, a message
came from Corinth that Polybus was dead. Since Oedipus had not
killed him, he believed that half the prophecy had failed to
come true. He still worried about the other half, and confided
in the messenger, who he had known when he lived in the palace
at Corinth. The messenger revealed that he was adopted, meaning
to comfort him. Oedipus, however, realised that he had married
Jocasta and killed her husband, and that they, therefore, were
his mother and father. He despaired, and put his eyes out with
needles, while Jocasta killed herself upon being told the truth.
Oedipus renounced the throne and was banished, wandering the
earth with his daughter from the marriage, Anitgone, until he
died at Colonis.