Yael Cameron Klangwisan is a senior lecturer in education at the Auckland University of Technology. Her research interests are interdisciplinary, spanning education, poetics, and religious studies, and connected by a focus on critical theory. She has published widely in these areas.
Oedipus and the Sphinx
The original epic of Oedipus and the Sphinx is a lost poem. This is itself a fascinating feature of the legend. We do not even have the entire telling of it. We only have what amounts to little pieces of a greater mosaic. In this telling, our scene takes place in the desert near Thebes, in Ancient Greece. There are two characters here, protagonist and antagonist, and at the moment of meeting the desert peels away until we are left with only these two, face to face.
In the first of the two figures, we have Oedipus. Raven-haired Oedipus is a young man of mysterious origins. He does not know where he comes from or who he is. This question of identity hangs over his head and troubles him. He is a young man, a handsome one, and a hero. He is a man who yearns to prove himself. He is desperate to become someone. Thus, he has come into the desert to confront the Theban Sphinx and win or die in the attempt.
The other figure in the tale is the Sphinx, a monstrous creature with a woman’s face. It is with some irony that we know, according to Apollodorus exactly, where she comes from and who she is. Sphinx is the daughter of two unnatural, serpentine creatures: Echidna and Typhon (or, according to Hesiod, Orthus, the three-headed dog). Sphinx has the face of a woman, but the body of a lion and the wings of an eagle. In this tale she is alone and dangerous in the desert, having wreaked havoc on Thebes, slaughtering its young men.
On the Attic Kylix above, we see the moment of meeting captured by the Painter of Oedipus. Oedipus sits below, with the Sphinx on the pedestal above him. They are frozen in time. Face to face, their gazes lock onto each other. Oedipus’s gaze is on this creature. He is recognisably human, a man, one of us. The lonely Sphinx is Other. She is the product of a ghastly union between horrors. She is a terrifying amalgamation of human and animal parts. She is altogether strange. Oedipus becomes more man than ever before in this moment of locking gazes with the Sphinx. Oedipus finally becomes a subject in the mirror of the Sphinx’s gaze.
The Sphinx has a riddle that she learned from the muses. She sings to Oedipus, “What is that which has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?” This is a pertinent riddle for canny Oedipus, and he works it out immediately. “A man,” he replies, because the riddle is the sum of his own life story. He is the one that has one voice, he once crawled on all fours, he now stands on two feet, and one day he will have to lean on his staff as an old man. This is who he is.
The Sphinx, defeated, dies on the spot. In one retelling she hurls herself from the citadel, and in another retelling, it is Oedipus who runs her through with his weapon. This tale is one way to explore the concept of Alterity. Alterity is, at its core, a relationship between Self and Other, where difference plays a defining role. What is understood as the Self crystallises in this moment.
- Imagine you are Oedipus in this pair? What or who do you see?
- If you were Oedipus, how might this meeting with a radically different Other make you feel more human, more a subject?
- Imagine you are the Sphinx in this pair? What might it feel like to be seen as so radically Other?
- How does gender operate in this vignette? How might this vignette play out between pairs of different cultures, genders, sexualities, religions, or class?
Watch the scene, “The Council of Elrond” from the film, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. How do the author J.R.R. Tolkien and the filmmaker Peter Jackson present alterity in the encounters between races and peoples of Middle Earth? How does alterity figure as a feature of the Fellowship?
Apollodorus. (1998). The library of Athens. Oxford World Classics.
Levinas, E. (1999). Alterity and transcendence. Columbia University Press.
Renger, A. (2013). Oedipus and the Sphinx. University of Chicago Press.
Sophocles. (1991). Sophocles: The complete Greek tragedies. University of Chicago Press.
Vaccaro, C., & Kisor, Y. (2017). Tolkien and alterity. Palgrave McMillan.