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Thursday 13 May 2021

The pleasure of the senses Oedipus and the Sphinx

Oedipus and the Sphinx

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"Which animal has four legs in the morning, two at noon and three in the evening?" Is the enigma that, on the road to Thebes, the Sphinx proposes to Oedipus, on pain of death. The solution, however, is immediately given and the monster has nothing to do but seek the end by falling from the cliff on which it lay.

The animal, of course, is man, who learns to walk on all fours, as an adult proceeds on two and as an old man he has to resort to a cane. It is a trivial riddle, but the episode, inserted as it is in the classic story of Oedipus, has led its protagonists to become a symbol of reference for those who compose and solve puzzles.

Today's enigma is anything but: it is always built in the sign of double reading, through expedients all linked to the wise and shrewd use of language.

This successful four-handed work of two Genoese Ser Berto e Gigi of Armenia resolves with the game of poker and, although the solution is immediate and easy, a careful rereading certainly surprises the reader who is not entirely shrewd and not accustomed to grasping every detail.


Someone opens it, mysteriously,
as soon as the usual couple
timidly appears.
Chip, chip
and how the anxious invitation throbs in the air
and a slight rustle of wings passes around,
the play of colors
priceless dreams in the heart of one.
Small paintings stand out among the flowers.
Who cries, who gets sad
in the trembling expectation of a woman
which perhaps will not come
to cheer with his figure
the ladder hidden among the palm trees.
Who longs for a lucky encounter
or lingering at the lawn
in playful skirmishes he juggles.
Who finally passes, and in passing does not see ...
Meanwhile, Cupid eagerly looks.
Words; and in the intense
of suffered intimate silence,
the malicious deception
of a lie like that, made of nothing.
And many, many hands
that intertwine on each other,
It is now time to close.
In the dark moments of abandonment.
One more ride,
a few statements and then nothing more.
From the plain green
a white pigeon gets up lightly.

The enigma certainly has the recognition of the highest enigmatic composition. It is certainly present in all the literatures of every time and of every people; in Italy, before acquiring a formal as well as substantial dignity, such as that of the nineteenth century and even more so of the twentieth century, it still remains in nuce, in formulations that know only of bizarre questions.

Even the famous enigmas of Turandot do not depart from this scheme: the fable has as its protagonist this oriental girl hostile to men to whom she shows to indulge only if they are able to penetrate the enigmas she proposes. The Oedipus in turn is the Prince of Calaf who declares himself ready to bear the test which, if not, will lead to death. These are the three fatal riddles (it would be better to say "enigmatic questions"):

"What is the creature that belongs to every land, is a friend of the whole world and could not tolerate an equal?".
"What is that mother who, after giving birth to her children, devours them one after the other?"
"What is the tree whose leaves are all white on one side and black on the other?"

The Prince of Calaf does not hesitate to provide solutions: the sun, the sea (whose water gives life to rivers by reabsorbing them at the end of their course) and finally the year (the leaves represent the days, half illuminated by the sun and half shrouded in darkness).

The puzzles of Stelio, an enigmist of the last century, are already quite another thing: what follows (1947) has long been considered a "highlight" of modern enigmatic poetry.


You approach (it's the ancient day of the Ashes)
to the pile in the shadows, where it trembles
the lustral water: it still calls you back
a human desire for purity
and perhaps the hour weighs on your fate
of the head whitening. Of a slow one
mercenary day remains for you
an unclean memory of things,
the pitiful misery of the flesh.
Now bend your knees, you confide:
"I'm tired of the world ..." and in lament
you bow your head and let it flow
the last cry on cold hands.
But already in the wind it is a candid turn
of spring.

The two enigmas reprinted are explained respectively by: the game of poker e the washerwoman.

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