In Sophocles’ play Oedipus the King, a monster called the Sphinx was killing travelers on the road to Thebes who could not answer its riddle: “What creature walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the evening?” Finally, the hero of the play, Oedipus, came along and correctly solved the riddle: “Man.” In doing so, Oedipus gave us one of our earliest maps of the human life cycle. In the morning of life (childhood), the infant crawls on all fours. In the afternoon of life (adulthood), the human being walks upright on two legs. In the evening of life (elderhood), the senior citizen walks with help from a cane.
This riddle provides us with one of the most poignant images of the scope of human existence. Of course in modern times, this riddle might well be modified to: “What creature walks on ten legs in the morning (a high-tech infant walker), two legs in the afternoon, and six legs in the evening (a senior citizen’s walker). In any case, after Oedipus solved the riddle, the Sphinx was so upset that it jumped from a wall (or in some other versions, devoured itself), ridding the Thebean citizens of this tourist menace. It didn’t work out so well for Oedipus, however, since they made him king in honor of killing the monster, and he ended up sleeping with his mother the Queen (he’d killed his father unknowingly earlier in the play), thus providing us with another important human development concept: Freud’s oedipus complex.
For more information about the stages of life in different cultures and traditions, see Thomas Armstrong’s
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