Oedipus was not daunted by these alarming accounts, but boldly advanced to the trial.
The Sphinx asked him, "What animal is that which in the morning goes on four feet, at noon on two, and in the evening upon three?"
Oedipus replied, "Man, who in childhood creeps on hands and knees, in manhood walks erect, and in old age with the aid of a staff."
The Sphinx was so mortified at the solving of her riddle that she cast herself down from the rock and perished.
When the storm abated, and they were about to depart, they determined to show their gratitude in the following way. They divided the life of man among them, and each endowed one part of it with the qualities which were peculiarly his own. The horse took youth, and hence young men are high mettled and impatient of restraint; the ox took middle age, and accordingly men in middle life are steady and hard working; while the dog took old age, which is the reason why old men are so often peevish and ill tempered, and, like dogs, attached chiefly to those who look to their comfort, while they are disposed to snap at those who are unfamiliar or distasteful to them.
"Thirty years," answered God. "Is that all right with you?"
"Oh, Lord," replied the donkey, "that is a long time. Think of my tiresome existence carrying heavy loads from morning until night, dragging bags of grain to the mill so that others might eat bread, only to be cheered along and refreshed with kicks and blows! Spare me part of this long time."
So God had mercy and gave him eighteen years. The donkey went away satisfied, and the dog made his appearance.
"How long do you want to live?" said God to him. "Thirty years was too much for the donkey, but you will be satisfied with that long."
"Lord," answered the dog. "Is that your will? Just think how much I have to run. My feet will not hold out so long. And what can I do but growl and run from one corner to another after I have lost my voice for barking and my teeth for biting?"
God saw that he was right, and he took away twelve years. Then came the monkey.
"Surely you would like to live thirty years," said the Lord to him. "You do not need to work like the donkey and the dog, and are always having fun."
"Oh, Lord," he answered, "so it appears, but it is different. When it rains porridge, I don't have a spoon. I am always supposed to be playing funny tricks and making faces so people will laugh, but when they give me an apple and I bite into it, it is always sour. How often is sorrow hidden behind a joke. I cannot put up with all that for thirty years!"
God had mercy and gave him ten years. Finally man made his appearance. Cheerful, healthy, and refreshed, he asked God to determine the duration of his life.
"You shall live thirty years," spoke the Lord. "Is that enough for you?"
"What a short time!" cried the man. "When I have built a house and a fire is burning on my own hearth, when I have planted trees that blossom and bear fruit, and am just beginning to enjoy life, then I am to die. Oh, Lord, extend my time."
"I will add the donkey's eighteen years," said God.
"That is not enough," replied the man.
"You shall also have the dog's twelve years."
"Still too little."
"Well, then," said God, "I will give you the monkey's ten years as well, but you shall receive no more."
The man went away, but he was not satisfied.
Thus man lives seventy years. The first thirty are his human years, and they quickly disappear. Here he is healthy and happy; he works with pleasure, and enjoys his existence. The donkey's eighteen years follow. Here one burden after the other is laid on him; he carries the grain that feeds others, and his faithful service is rewarded with kicks and blows. Then come the dog's twelve years, and he lies in the corner growling, no longer having teeth with which to bite. And when this time is past, the monkey's ten years conclude. Now man is weak headed and foolish; he does silly things and becomes a laughingstock for children.
The first to appear before God was man. And God said to him, "You, man, shall be king of the world, walking erect upon your feet and looking up to heaven. I give you a noble countenance. The power of thought and judgment shall be yours, and the capacity of disclosing your innermost thoughts by means of speech. All that lives and moves and goes about the earth shall be under your rule, the winged birds and the creeping things shall obey you. Yours shall be all the fruits of the tree and land, and your life shall be thirty years."
Then man turned away dissatisfied and grumbling. "What is the good of living in pleasure and in might, if all the years of my life are to be thirty only?" So did man speak and grumble, especially when he heard of the years granted to other animals.
The turn came to the donkey. He stepped forward to hear what God had decreed for him.
The Creator said, "You shall work hard; you shall carry heavy burdens and be constantly beaten. You shall always be scolded and have very little rest. Your food shall be a poor one of thistles and thorns, and your life shall be fifty years."
When the donkey heard what God had decreed for him he fell upon his knees and cried, "All merciful Creator, am I indeed to lead such a miserable life, and am I to have such poor food as thistles and thorns. Am I to work so hard and carry such heavy burdens and then live on for fifty years in such misery? Have pity on me and take off twenty years."
Then man, greedy of long life, stepped forward and begged for himself these twenty years which the donkey had rejected. And the Lord granted them to him.
Then came the dog. To him the Creator said, "You shall guard the house and the property of your master. You shall cling to them as if you were afraid of losing them. You shall bark even at the shadow of the moon, and for all your trouble you shall gnaw bones and eat raw meat, and your life shall be forty years."
"All merciful Creator," cried the dog, "if my life is to be of worry and trouble, and if I am to live on bones and raw stuff, take off, I pray, twenty years."
Again man, greedy of life, stepped forward and begged the Creator to give him the twenty years rejected by the dog. And the Creator again granted his request.
Now it was the turn of the monkey.
The creator said, "You shall only have the likeness of man, but not be man. You shall be stupid and childish. Your back shall be bent. You shall be an object of mockery to the children and a laughingstock of fools, and your life shall be sixty years."
When the monkey heard what was decreed for him, he fell upon his knees and said, "All merciful God, in your wisdom you have decided that I should be a man and not a man, that my back shall be bent, that I shall be a laughing stock for young and fools and I shall be stupid. Take, in mercy, thirty years off my life."
And God, the all merciful, granted his request. And again, man, whose greed can never be satisfied, stepped forward and asked also for these thirty years which the monkey had rejected. And again God gave them to him.
Then God dismissed all the animals and all his creatures, and each one went to his appointed station and to the life that has been granted to him.
And as man had asked, so has it come to pass.
Man lives as a king and ruler over all creatures for the thirty years which the Lord had given to him, in joy and in happiness, without care and without trouble.
Then come the years from thirty to fifty, which are the years of the donkey; they are full of hard work, heavy burdens, and little food, for man is anxious to gather and to lay up something for the years to come. It could not be otherwise, for were not these the years which he had taken over from the donkey?
Then come the years from fifty to seventy, when man sits at home and guards with great trembling and fear the little that he possesses, fearful of every shadow, eating little, always keeping others away lest they rob him of that which he has gathered, and barking at everyone whom he suspects of wanting to take away what belongs to him. And no wonder that he behaves like that, for these are the dog's years, which man had asked for himself.
And if a man lives beyond seventy, then his back gets bent, his face changes, his mind gets clouded, he becomes childish, a laughingstock for children, an amusement for the fool, and these are the years which man had taken over from the monkey.
Seven times in one verse did the author of Ecclesiastes make use of the word vanity, in allusion to the seven stages of human life.
The first commences in the first year of human existence, when the infant lies like a king on a soft couch, with numerous attendants about him, all ready to serve him, and eager to testify their love and attachment by kisses and embraces.
The second commences about the age of two or three years, when the darling child is permitted to crawl on the ground, and, like an unclean animal, delights in dirt and filth.
Then at the age of ten, the thoughtless boy, without reflecting on the past or caring for the future, jumps and skips about like a young kid on the enameled green, contented to enjoy the present moment.
The fourth stage begins about the age of twenty, when the young man, full of vanity and pride, begins to set off his person by dress; and, like a young unbroken horse, prances and gallops about in search of a wife.
Then comes the matrimonial state, when the poor man, like a patient ass, is obliged, however reluctantly, to toil and labor for a living.
Behold him now in the parental state, when surrounded by helpless children craving his support and looking to him for bread. He is as bold, as vigilant, and as fawning, too, as the faithful dog; guarding his little flock, and snatching at everything that comes in his way, in order to provide for his offspring.
At last comes the final stage, when the decrepit old man, like the unwieldy though most sagacious elephant, becomes grave, sedate, and distrustful. He then begins to hang down his head towards the ground, as if surveying the place where all his vast schemes must terminate, and where ambition and vanity are finally humbled to the dust.
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
Someone asked him, "How so?"
He answered, "In front of our door there is a stone so heavy that only a few people are able to lift it. In my youth I attempted to do so, but was unable to. Later, now that I am an old man, I remembered this, and attempted once again, but was still unable to lift it. This experience is why I say that there is no difference between youth and old age."
Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.
See also Aging and Death in Folklore. An essay by D. L. Ashliman, with supporting texts from proverbs, folktales, and myths from around the world.
Revised September 17, 2019.