The riddle of the Sphinx

An important element in Sophocles, Oedipus Rex is the Sphinx and her riddle. To be sure, the content of the riddle is never specified in the play. There are, however, a number of specific references or allusions to the Sphinx in the play, viz., H&P, p. 650, line 37; p. 653, line 131; p. 661, line 382 ("weave-songed bitch" = Sphinx); p. 663, line 485 ("winged maiden" = Sphinx).
Quite a few versions of the riddle are available, but most of these probably represent some distortion of the form in which it was familiar to Sophocles' audience. The version which is most familiar today runs something like this, available on the web at History For Kids:

"What goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet in the evening?" (H&P give essentially the same version, p. 637, but with "legs" in place of "feet".)

Ancient Greek sources, such as Athenaeus, on the other hand, give a different emphasis to the riddle. For the full form of the riddle, as given by Athenaeus, see Grant, p. 196:

"A thing there is whose voice is one;
Whose feet are four and two and three.
So mutable a thing is none
That moves in earth or sky or sea.
When on most feet this thing doth go,
Its strength is weakest and its pace most slow."

Besides this relatively comprehensive version, there is also evidence for a shorter version, consisting of just one dactylic hexameter line, as follows:

"A thing there is whose voice is one;
Whose feet are four and two."

One possible answer to this form of the riddle is "a pastoral society" (i.e., one in which humans and their animals live in close association with one another). Such a formulation of the riddle is important at various points in Oedipus Rex. For example, the plague is described near the beginning of the play (H&P, p. 650, lines 24-25) as affecting both the flocks and women of Thebes. Also, it is eventually the two shepherds (from Corinth and Thebes respectively), who have lived in close association with their flocks (H&P, p. 685, lines 1082-1090) who eventually provide the key evidence for explicating Oedipus' background.

More generally, evidence for the importance of a variety of different forms of the riddle emerges in the confrontation between Oedipus and Teiresias (H&P, pp. 657-663, lines 289-453). This can be viewed in terms of Teiresias' having seen that the riddle did not admit of any simple solution, whereas Oedipus, brilliantly, but with ultimately disastrous consequences, picked out just the answer "man".

Particularly striking evidence of the importance of a multiplicity of riddles in the play comes in the concluding lines, in which, finally, there is a reference to riddles in the plural rather than a single riddle. This point is, however, obscured in many translations (including Cook's translation, in H&P, p. 697), in which the Greek plural ainigmat(a), which Sophocles uses in place of the singular ainigma, is translated just as "riddle". For the original form of the text, though, see the following sources (emphasis added in each instance):

Translation by David Grene, available near the end of an on-line essay:

Translation at bookrags

Overall, it is probably the case that the translation of Sophocles' word ainigmat(a) as an actual plural "riddles" is more often found in treatments of Freud and his theory of the "Oedipus complex" than in more strictly "literary" approaches.

One such site provides the translation by Jean Grosjean (about a third of the way down the webpage):

Also, a good deal of interesting material is available at the homepage for a course "Freud and/as Fiction" at the University of Washington. This includes (1) at the top of the webpage, an illustration of Freud's own bookplate, with Oedipus and a fairly strange looking Sphinx, along with a quotation in Greek, and (2) at the bottom of the webpage, the following translation of the Greek:

In the Freud bookplate, the Greek word ΑΙΝΙΓΜΑΤ constitutes the second line of the Greek text.