Whether it’s games of Twenty Questions, awkward conversation, or other reasons, now and then one will inevitably get asked: what’s the first thing you notice in a person? Well, for me it’s the voice.
I may as well confess I’m a little obsessed with voices: I remember them far more easily than faces (and indeed, voices sometimes save me when I’m floundering to remember someone I’ve met before and should know), I love them when they’re beautiful, and take utterly unreasonable dislikes to innocent people on the sole strength of their voices. Sometimes I even catch myself enjoying the colour and dynamics of a particular voice – and entirely missing what the voice’s owner is saying. Which is not irretrievably bad when it’s in a movie or even a talk, but can become awkward in conversations or meetings…
And this is why the Sphinx’s riddle in Oedipus never sat quite right with me.
What only has one voice, and yet walks on four legs, and then two, and then three?
Nothing to say about the legs part – but… only one voice?
Don’t we all start off wailing and gurgling, and then acquire one small voice, that changes into something quite different at one point, and then cracks and withers into something else entirely many ears later?
And that doesn’t even take into account actors – who can have as many voices as the characters they inhabit… But let’s say that the Sphinx didn’t have theatre in mind – she was, after all, an unpleasant and murderous creature, with one single riddle to her name, a sore loser, and an even worse winner.
But, even without ever treading a stage, how many of us have more than one voice? Say, a family voice, and a professional voice at least? My late uncle used to mumble and mutter to family and friends – but put him before professional associates, the competition, or a beautiful woman, and he suddenly changed to this warm, honey-coloured, seductive voice, and a perfect enunciation. He was able to do it in mid-sentence, and it was fascinating to hear.
And yes, they were arguably two ways of using the same voice, and the same could be said of stage voices, impersonations, and even the changes due to age: the hardware is the same, but the conditions change…
But then, o Sphinx, can’t the same be said of the number of legs? Barring deformities and amputations, we all come with the standard number of limbs – and what changes is the way we use them. And the “third leg” of old age is an added tool – much like a microphone or an effect.
Therefore, I rest my case: the Sphinx was cheating, and the Riddle doesn’t work. Not that it matters much… Well, perhaps all those who tried their luck and paid for it just out of Thebes might protest, maybe sue the Sphinx – although… is there a period of limitations for bad riddles? Not for murder by bad riddle, surely? And then again, would the murder have been justified, had the riddle been a good one? Did the guesser’s consent make it right to murder him in case he gave the wrong answer to a real riddle – but not if the Sphinx was cheating? Why am I asking these questions at all? Why do I even have these doubts? And, while we are here, what kind of voice did the Sphinx have…?
Ah well, never mind – but I’ll say it again: the Sphinx is a cheat.