The Sphinx

Greek Myths
A curriculum for upper elementary grades
Compiled and edited by by Dan Harper and Tessa Swartz
Copyright (c) 2014 Dan Harper and Tessa Swartz

Back to the Table of Contents | On to Session Eight


Laius, king of Thebes, was warned by an oracle that there was danger to his throne and life if his new-born son should be suffered to grow up. He therefore committed the child to the care of a herdsman with orders to destroy him; but the herdsman, moved with pity, yet not daring entirely to disobey, tied up the child by the feet and left him hanging to the branch of a tree. In this condition the infant was found by a peasant, who carried him to his master and mistress, by whom he was adopted and called Oedipus, or Swollen-foot.

Many years afterwards, Laius, who was on his way to Delphi, accompanied only by one attendant, met in a narrow road a young man also driving in a chariot. On his refusal to leave the road at their command, the attendant killed one of his horses, and the stranger, filled with rage, slew both Laius and his attendant. The young man was Oedipus, who thus unknowingly became the slayer of his own father.

Shortly after this event, the city of Thebes was afflicted with a monster which infested the highroad. She was called the Sphinx. She was the daughter of the monsters Ekhidna and Typhon. She had the body of a lion and the upper part of a woman. She lay crouched on the top of a rock, and stopped all travelers who came that way proposing to them a riddle, with the condition that those who could solve it should pass safe, but those who failed should be killed. Not one had yet succeeded in solving it, and all had been slain.

Oedipus was not daunted by these alarming accounts, but boldly advanced to the trial.


Above: The Sphinx asks Oedipus the riddle, as imagined by an ancient Greek artist, and reinterpreted by Charles Mills Gayley, from The Classic Myths in English Literature and in Art (Boston, 1893)


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, “A human being, who in childhood creeps on hands and knees, in adulthood walks erect, and in old age goes about with the aid of a cane.”

The Sphinx was so mortified at the solving of her riddle that she cast herself down from the rock and perished.

The gratitude of the people for their deliverance was so great that they made Oedipus their king, giving him in marriage their queen Jocasta. Oedipus, ignorant of his parentage, had already become the slayer of his father; in marrying the queen he became the husband of his mother. These horrors remained undiscovered, till at length Thebes was afflicted with famine and pestilence, and the oracle being consulted, the double crime of Oedipus came to light. Jocasta put an end to her own life, and Oedipus, seized with madness, tore out his eyes and wandered away from Thebes, dreaded and abandoned by all except his daughters, who faithfully adhered to him, till after a tedious period of miserable wandering he found the termination of his wretched life.


Pronunciation guide:

Laius — LAY us
Thebes — THEEBS
Oedipus — ED i puss
Sphinx — SFINX
Ekhidna — eh KID nah
Typhon — TIE fon



We adapted this story from Bulfinch’s mythology: The age of fable, The age of chivalry, Legends of Charlemagne, rev. ed., by Thomas Bulfinch (New York: T. Y. Crowell Co., 1913), chapter XVI, “Monsters: Giants — Sphinx — Pegasus and Chimaera — Centaurs — Griffin — Pygmies.”



Session Seven: The Sphinx

Optional: Pages of sphinx shapes for cutting out (see below)
Optional: Scissors

I/ Opening

Take attendance.

Light chalice with these words and the associated hand motions: “We light this chalice to celebrate Unitarian Universalism: the church of the open mind, the helping hands, and the loving heart.”

Check-in: Go around circle. Each child and adult says his or her name, and then may say one good thing and one bad thing that has happened in the past week (anyone may pass).

II/ Read the story “The Sphinx.”

Read the story above.

III/ Act out the story.

There are only a few major characters (Oedipus and the Sphinx and Laius), but with lots of minor characters this is another great story to act out!

Ask the children who are the characters in the story, and perhaps have someone (you or one of the children) write them down. Ask who wants to act out the different parts (and note that you don’t have to be the same gender as the part you’d like to act out).

Get ready to act out the story. Determine where the stage area will be. If there are any children who really don’t want to act, they can be part of the audience with you; you will sit facing the stage.

IV/ More riddles and puzzles

(Riddles and puzzles have been an important part of many religions, over many centuries. Riddles are common in many religious traditions. The Bible contains at least one riddle [see Leader’s Resource #3], and though it does not appear that this riddle has a any purpose aside from helping move the plot of the story forward, that is probably true of many riddles in religious stories — sometimes a good riddle is just a good riddle, and we want to be careful of assigning too much meaning to such things.

(On the other hand, some riddles do have a clear religious purpose, such as the ko’ans of Zen Buddhism — these are riddles which are supposed to force us to take on a new way of understanding the world. The Sphinx’s riddles probably lie somewhere between these two extremes: they don’t have the importance of a Zen ko’an, but they are not utterly without purpose because they are designed to get us to think about our perceptions of the world. With that in mind, you can say something like this to the children:”

Today we tend to think that riddles are supposed to be funny, but riddles can also be a kind of puzzle that makes you think, like the riddle of the Sphinx. The riddle of the Sphinx is both a pretty good puzzle, and it is something that tries to make you see the world in a new way.

The Sphinx had a second riddle, which goes like this: “There are two sisters: one gives birth to the other and she, in turn, gives birth to the first. Who are the two sisters?” Can you answer this riddle? [The answer, according to the Sphinx, is below.]

Some people like to make poems for their riddles, such as this riddle by Lewis Carroll (answer below):

A stick I found that weighed two pound;
I sawed it up one day
In pieces eight of equal weight!
How much did each piece weigh?
(Everybody says “a quarter of a pound”, which is wrong.)

See if you and the children can come up your own riddle (or riddles) — something that is a puzzle that maybe makes people see the world in a new way.

Or, of you don’t want to do riddles:

Another example of a puzzle that is common in Western religion is the labyrinth. The ancient Greeks had a myth, the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, in which a labyrinth plays a key part (see Leader Resource #2). The medieval Christians included labyrinths in their great cathedrals, most famously in the cathedral building at Chartres; for these Christians, the twisting and turning of the labyrinth represented the spiritual challenges of the journey of life. And today neo-pagans, Christians, and nonbelievers find walking a labyrinth, such as this labyrinth at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, to be a useful form of meditation:

Screen Shot 2015-08-14 at 1.45.25 PM

So if you don’t want to do riddles, you could go and walk a labyrinth, with the understanding that walking a labyrinth can both be fun, and a way of forcing yourself to see the world in a different way.

V/ Optional Sphinx puzzle

This is a fun puzzle that you can use instead of free play, or to extend the session. The “sphinx” of this puzzle is a five-sided figure, made up of six equilateral triangles. This five-sided shape is called a “sphinx” because it looks a little like the giant Egyptian Sphinx at Giza. Here’s the sphinx shape superimposed on a photo of the Sphinx at Giza:


(Here’s an interesting factoid: the ancient Greeks traced the origins of their Sphinx back to Egyptian Sphinxes. However, as you can see above, Egyptian Sphinxes did not have wings — unlike Greek Sphinxes, which did have wings.)

Before we get to the puzzle, you’ll need some sphinx shapes for your children to work with. Click here for a PDF of sphinx shapes for cutting out. Print 1 sheet of sphinx shapes for every child in your group.


(1) Split the children into pairs, and give each pair at least two sheets of sphinx shapes for cutting out (the PDF above). Have them cut out four of the sphinx shapes. Now, using 4 sphinx shapes, make 1 large sphinx shape. This is called a Size 2 Sphinx.

Some pairs will solve this problem quickly. If they do, rather than let them tell other children how to solve the problem, give the the next puzzle:

(2) Cut out a total of 16 sphinx shapes. Now make Size 4 Sphinx. (If you think about it for a moment, you should see an easy way to do this.)

(3) If some members of your group handle the first two puzzles quickly, you can challenge them to make a Size 3 Sphinx.

Ten minutes will be plenty of time to spend on this activity. To wrap up the activity, you could ask the children to imagine what would have happened if the Sphinx had challenged Oedipus with the sphinx shapes. Would he have been smart enough to solve one of these puzzles? Is this challenge more difficult than the riddle of the Sphinx? Why or why not? (Note that different people will have different answers to these questions.)

(Some children may want to keep working with sphinx shapes. You can find more sphinx shapes puzzles at the Mathematics Centre of Australia.)

VI/ Free play

If you need to fill more time, you could play a game of some kind, or some other fun activity. Just make sure you have everyone come together for a closing circle before you’re done.

VI/ Closing circle

Before leaving, have the children stand in a circle. Rather than hold hands, try having the children gently touch toes with their neighbors on either side.

When the children are in a circle, ask them what they did today, and prompt them with questions and answers, e.g.: “What happened in the story we heard today? What did Demeter do, and why? etc.” You’re not trying to put any one child on the spot, but rather drawing on the wisdom of the group as a whole. If any parents have come to pick up their children, invite them to join the circle (so they can know what it is their children learned about this week).

End by saying together some closing words. At the UU Church of Palo Alto, we like to say the same closing words each week (we post these words in the classroom so everyone can see them):

Go out into the world in peace
Be of good courage
Hold fast to what is good
Return no one evil for evil
Strengthen the fainthearted
Support the weak
Help the suffering
Rejoice in beauty
Speak love with word and deed
Honor all beings.

Then before you all go, tell the children how you enjoyed seeing them (assuming that’s true), and that you look forward to seeing them again next week.



1. The story of the Minotaur

Here’s the story of the Minotaur, taken from Bulfinch’s Mythology:

“The Athenians were at that time in deep affliction, on account of the tribute which they were forced to pay to Minos, king of Crete. This tribute consisted of seven youths and seven maidens, who were sent every year to be devoured by the Minotaur, a monster with a bull’s body and a human head. It was exceedingly strong and fierce, and was kept in a labyrinth constructed by Daedalus, so artfully contrived that whoever was enclosed in it could by no means find his way out unassisted. Here the Minotaur roamed, and was fed with human victims.

“Theseus resolved to deliver his countrymen from this calamity, or to die in attempt. Accordingly, when the time of sending off the tribute came, and the youths and maidens were, according to custom, drawn by lot to be sent, he offered himself as one of the victims, in spite of the entreaties of his father. The ship departed under black sails, as usual, which Theseus promised his father to change for white, in case of his returning victorious. When they arrived in Crete, the youths and maidens were exhibited before Minos, and Ariadne, the daughter of the king, being present, became deeply enamored of Theseus, by whom her love was readily returned. She furnished him with a sword, with which to encounter the Minotaur, and with a clew of thread by which he might find his way out of the labyrinth. He was successful, slew the Minotaur, escaped from the labyrinth, and taking Ariadne as the companion of his way, with his rescued companions sailed for Athens. On their way they stopped at the island of Naxos, where Theseus abandoned Ariadne, leaving her asleep. His excuse for this ungrateful treatment of his benefactress was that Minerva appeared to him in a dream and commanded him to do so.

“On approaching the coast of Attica, Theseus forgot the signal appointed by his father, and neglected to raise the white sails, and the old king, thinking his son had perished, put an end to his own life. Theseus thus became king of Athens.”


2. The source of the Sphinx story

The version of the Sphinx story used above comes from the classic retelling of myths by the 19th century American author Thomas Bulfinch. We don’t have any ancient Greek sources that tell this story exactly like this; Bulfinch pieced together his story from various Greek and Latin sources.

One of the sources Bulfinch drew on for his tale was a 2nd century BCE collection of myths known as Apollodorus, the Library. In that collection, the story of the Sphinx goes like this:

“Laius was buried by Damasistratus, king of Plataea, and Creon, son of Menoeceus, succeeded to the kingdom. In his reign a heavy calamity befell Thebes. For Hera sent the Sphinx, whose mother was Echidna and her father Typhon; and she had the face of a woman, the breast and feet and tail of a lion, and the wings of a bird. And having learned a riddle from the Muses, she sat on Mount Phicium, and propounded it to the Thebans. And the riddle was this: ‘What is that which has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?’

“Now the Thebans were in possession of an oracle which declared that they should be rid of the Sphinx whenever they had read her riddle; so they often met and discussed the answer, and when they could not find it the Sphinx used to snatch away one of them and gobble him up. When many had perished, and last of all Creon’s son Haemon, Creon made proclamation that to him who should read the riddle he would give both the kingdom and the wife of Laius.

“On hearing that, Oedipus found the solution, declaring that the riddle of the Sphinx referred to man; for as a babe he is four-footed, going on four limbs, as an adult he is two-footed, and as an old man he gets besides a third support in a staff. So the Sphinx threw herself from the citadel, and Oedipus both succeeded to the kingdom and unwittingly married his mother, and begat sons by her, Polynices and Eteocles, and daughters, Ismene and Antigone. But some say the children were borne to him by Eurygania, daughter of Hyperphas.”

[from Apollodorus, The Library, with an English Translation, by Sir James George Frazer (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1921); book 3, chapter 5, section 8]

To this basic story, Bulfinch added a back story, and he also summarized the tragic ending of Oedpius’s life.


3. The riddle posed by Samson

From the King James Version of the Bible, Judges 12.1-14:

Samson went down to Timnath, and saw a woman in Timnath of the daughters of the Philistines. And he came up, and told his father and his mother, and said, “I have seen a woman in Timnath of the daughters of the Philistines: now therefore get her for me to wife.”

Then his father and his mother said unto him, “Is there never a woman among the daughters of thy brethren, or among all my people, that thou goest to take a wife of the uncircumcised Philistines?”

And Samson said unto his father, “Get her for me; for she pleaseth me well.”

But his father and his mother knew not that it was of the Lord, that he sought an occasion against the Philistines: for at that time the Philistines had dominion over Israel.

Then went Samson down, and his father and his mother, to Timnath, and came to the vineyards of Timnath: and, behold, a young lion roared against him. And the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him, and he rent [the lion] as he would have rent a kid, and he had nothing in his hand: but he told not his father or his mother what he had done.

And [Samson] went down, and talked with the woman; and she pleased him well. And after a time he returned to take her, and he turned aside to see the carcass of the lion: and, behold, there was a swarm of bees and honey in the carcass of the lion. And he took thereof in his hands, and went on eating, and came to his father and mother, and he gave them, and they did eat: but he told not them that he had taken the honey out of the carcass of the lion.

So his father went down unto the woman: and Samson made there a feast; for so used the young men to do. And it came to pass, when they saw him, that they brought thirty companions to be with him.

And Samson said unto them, “I will now put forth a riddle unto you: if ye can certainly declare it me within the seven days of the feast, and find it out, then I will give you thirty sheets and thirty change of garments: But if ye cannot declare it me, then shall ye give me thirty sheets and thirty change of garments.”

And they said unto him, “Put forth thy riddle, that we may hear it.”

And [Samson] said unto them, “Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness.”

And they could not in three days expound the riddle. And it came to pass on the seventh day, that they said unto Samson’s wife, “Entice thy husband, that he may declare unto us the riddle, lest we burn thee and thy father’s house with fire: have ye called us to take that we have? is it not so?”

And Samson’s wife wept before [Samson], and said, “Thou dost but hate me, and lovest me not: thou hast put forth a riddle unto the children of my people, and hast not told it me.”

And he said unto her, “Behold, I have not told it my father nor my mother, and shall I tell it thee?”

And she wept before him the seven days, while their feast lasted: and it came to pass on the seventh day, that he told her, because she lay sore upon him: and she told the riddle to the children of her people. And the men of the city said unto him on the seventh day before the sun went down, “What is sweeter than honey? and what is stronger than a lion?

And [Samson] said unto them, “If ye had not plowed with my heifer [i.e., either slept with her, or influenced her?], ye had not found out my riddle.”

And the Spirit of the Lord came upon him, and he went down to Ashkelon, and slew thirty men of them, and took their spoil, and gave change of garments unto them which expounded the riddle.



Day and night.

When the stick was sawed in eight,
The sawdust lost diminished the weight.

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