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Lidz, T. (1988). The Riddle of the Riddle of the Sphinx. Psychoanal. Rev., 75(1):35-49.

(1988). Psychoanalytic Review, 75(1):35-49

The Riddle of the Riddle of the Sphinx

Theodore Lidz, M.D.

The riddle of the Sphinx has for millennia remained one of the best known and significant riddles of the Western world. Though its importance is itself something of a riddle, other riddles are also involved: Why was it necessary for Oedipus to solve the riddle before he could enter Thebes and inadvertently marry his mother? Why could no one but Oedipus solve the riddle? What does the Sphinx symbolize? Why was the riddle so difficult to solve for it does not seem especially perplexing in either of the forms in which it has been handed down to us (though, of course, most riddles do not seem difficult after we have been provided the answer)?

The riddle gained and retained its importance largely because of the power of Sophocles's play Oedipus the King; and because of Freud's use of the Oedipus myth, as recounted in the play, to symbolize what he considered to be a universal, though usually unconscious, wish of all men to kill their fathers and marry their mothers. The Oedipus complex has virtually been at the core of classical psychoanalysis, and its consequences and variations have been central to psychoanalytic practice. Nevertheless, the actual riddle that Oedipus solved to vanquish the Sphinx is not given by Sophocles, and when Freud (1900) cited the myth to introduce his theory in The Interpretation of Dreams he simply wrote that Oedipus “solved the riddle set him by the Sphinx who barred his way” (p. 261). Both Sophocles and Freud left the riddle unstated though mythologists and psychologists have subsequently suggested that the riddle is critical to the understanding of what the myth implies.

What were the circumstances that led Oedipus to the Sphinx? Oedipus had been raised by the rulers of Corinth, Polybus and Periboa (or Merope, according to Sophocles), as the heir to the throne.

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