The Riddle of the Sphinx
“As for us, with all the able-bodied men enlisted and gone, we are left here leaning our strength on a staff; for, just as in infancy, when the marrow is still unformed, the War-god is not at his post, so it is in extreme old age, as the leaves fall fast, we walk on three feet, like dreams in the daylight.”
—the chorus of old men in Aschylus’ Agamemnon, Corrigan translation
The riddle of the Sphinx may be most closely associated with Oedipus, whose solution to the riddle of the three ages of man transported him to glory as a ruler, however short-lived that glory might have been. But next in fame to the Oedipus Cycle by Sophocles, stands Aschylus’ Oresteia. Both cycles concern the downfall (and potential renewal) of a noble house. Both contain examples of hideous crime and noble self-sacrifice, of pain and redemption through suffering. It is interesting to note that just as Oedipus’ initial grandeur depended on the Sphinx, Aeschylus too gives a gentle nod to the Sphinx’s riddle prior to the continued destruction of the “noble” house of Atreus in his play, Agamemnon. Aeschylus creates a chorus of old men, those left behind when the “youth” sailed for Troy. Their words aptly portray themselves as those who “walk on three feet” — the famed last third of life as portrayed by the Sphinx. The approach of death for them is a poignant reminder of the approach of death for Agamemnon. For while he still walks on two feet, he will shortly be cut down by his vengeance-hording wife, Clytemnestra.
The chorus of old men hark back to the tragedy of Iphigenia as they retell the tragic story of Agamemnon’s thoughtless sacrifice of his daughter for fair winds. In as much as death breeds death, Agamemnon will pay for his slaughter, and the cycle of violence will continue until divine intervention in the final play, when redemption, renewal, and new life are mirrored in the change of the hound-like Furies to the beautiful Eumenides.
Aeschylus thus primes his audience for the approach of death from the very entrance of the chorus. And the fall motif (“as the leaves fall fast”) heralds the coming tribulation, the “death” of winter (represented by the second play, The Libation Bearers), before the “spring” of the third play, “The Eumenides.” The three phased cycle of the Sphinx’ riddle parallels the three major seasons, and the three main plays all of which provide hope after tragedy.
The photo above is of a sculpture on display at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 154. This object dates from ca 530 BC.