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The Sphinx’s Riddle
by [?]

The most ancient

[Footnote: That is, amongst stories not wearing a mythologic character, such as those of Prometheus, Hercules, etc. The era of Troy and its siege is doubtless by some centuries older than its usual chronologic date of nine centuries before Christ. And considering the mature age of Eteocles and Polynices, the two sons of oedipus, at the period of the “Seven against Thebes,” which seven were contemporary with the fathers of the heroes engaged in the Trojan war, it becomes necessary to add sixty or seventy years to the Trojan date, in order to obtain that of oedipus and the Sphinx. Out of the Hebrew Scriptures, there is nothing purely historic so old as this. ]

story in the Pagan records, older by two generations than the story of Troy, is that of oedipus and his mysterious fate, which wrapt in ruin both himself and all his kindred. No story whatever continued so long to impress the Greek sensibilities with religious awe, or was felt by the great tragic poets to be so supremely fitted for scenical representation. In one of its stages, this story is clothed with the majesty of darkness; in another stage, it is radiant with burning lights of female love, the most faithful and heroic, offering a beautiful relief to the preternatural malice dividing the two sons of oedipus. This malice was so intense, that when the corpses of both brothers were burned together on the same funeral pyre (as by one tradition they were), the flames from each parted asunder, and refused to mingle. This female love was so intense, that it survived the death of its object, cared not for human praise or blame, and laughed at the grave which waited in the rear for itself, yawning visibly for immediate retribution. There are four separate movements through which this impassioned tale devolves; all are of commanding interest; and all wear a character of portentous solemnity, which fits them for harmonizing with the dusky shadows of that deep antiquity into which they ascend.

One only feature there is in the story, and this belongs to its second stage (which is also its sublimest stage), where a pure taste is likely to pause, and to revolt as from something not perfectly reconciled with the general depth of the coloring. This lies in the Sphinx’s riddle, which, as hitherto explained, seems to us deplorably below the grandeur of the occasion. Three thousand years, at the least, have passed away since that riddle was propounded; and it seems odd enough that the proper solution should not present itself till November of 1849. That is true; it seems odd, but still it is possible, that we, in anno domini 1849, may see further through a mile-stone than oedipus, the king, in the year B. c. twelve or thirteen hundred. The long interval between the enigma and its answer may remind the reader of an old story in Joe Miller, where a traveller, apparently an inquisitive person, in passing-through a toll-bar, said to the keeper, “How do you like your eggs dressed?” Without waiting for the answer, he rode off; but twenty- five years later, riding through the same bar, kept by the same man, the traveller looked steadfastly at him, and received the monosyllabic answer, “Poached.” A long parenthesis is twenty-five years; and we, gazing back over a far wider gulf of time, shall endeavor to look hard at the Sphinx, and to convince that mysterious young lady,–if our voice can reach her,–that she was too easily satisfied with the answer given; that the true answer is yet to come; and that, in fact, oedipus shouted before he was out of the wood.

But, first of all, let us rehearse the circumstances of this old Grecian story. For in a popular journal it is always a duty to assume that perhaps three readers out of four may have had no opportunity, by the course of their education, for making themselves acquainted with classical legends. And in this present case, besides the indispensableness of the story to the proper comprehension of our own improved answer to the Sphinx, the story has a separate and independent value of its own; for it illustrates a profound but obscure idea of Pagan ages, which is connected with the elementary glimpses of man into the abysses of his higher relations, and lurks mysteriously amongst what Milton so finely calls “the dark foundations” of our human nature. This notion it is hard to express in modern phrase, for we have no idea exactly corresponding to it; but in Latin it was called piacularity. The reader must understand upon our authority, nostro periculo, and in defiance of all the false translations spread through books, that the ancients (meaning the Greeks and Romans before the time of Christianity) had no idea, not by the faintest vestige, of what in the scriptural system is called sin. The Latin word peccatum, the Greek word amartia, are translated continually by the word sin; but neither one word nor the other has any such meaning in writers belonging to the pure classical period. When baptized into new meaning by the adoption of Christianity, these words, in common with many others, transmigrated into new and philosophic functions. But originally they tended towards no such acceptations, nor could have done so; seeing that the ancients had no avenue opened to them through which the profound idea of sin would have been even dimly intelligible. Plato, four hundred years before Christ, or Cicero, more than three hundred years later, was fully equal to the idea of guilt through all its gamut; but no more equal to the idea of sin, than a sagacious hound to the idea of gravitation, or of central forces. It is the tremendous postulate upon which this idea reposes that constitutes the initial moment of that revelation which is common to Judaism and to Christianity. We have no intention of wandering into any discussion upon this question. It will suffice for the service of the occasion if we say that guilt, in all its modifications, implies only a defect or a wound in the individual. Sin, on the other hand, the most mysterious, and the most sorrowful of all ideas, implies a taint not in the individual but in the race–that is the distinction; or a taint in the individual, not through any local disease of his own, but through a scrofula equally diffused through the infinite family of man. We are not speaking controversially, either as teachers of theology or of philosophy; and we are careless of the particular construction by which the reader interprets to himself this profound idea. What we affirm is, that this idea was utterly and exquisitely inappreciable by Pagan Greece and Rome; that various translations from Pindar,