The classic riddle presented to Oedipus Rex by the Sphinx in Greek Mythology. He was the first one to solve it—all the others who failed were eaten by the Sphinx—after which she threw herself down a chasm. This is one of the oldest Stock Puzzles out there, going back to the Greek writer Apollodorus in the second century AD.
The answer? "A man." As a baby, a human goes about on all fours ("four legs in the morning"; morning = childhood), until he learns to walk, which he does so well into adulthood ("two legs in the afternoon"; afternoon = adulthood), until old age requires him to use a cane to support himself ("three legs in the evening", evening = old age), finally he dies ("no legs at night", night = death).
Versions of the story itself was told by oral tradition long before Apollodorus, and in the earliest versions, the exact riddle asked by the Sphinx was not specified by early tellers of the stories, and was not standardized as the one given in Apollodorus' version. (An additional part of the riddle, "The more legs it has the weaker it is", is usually omitted now.)
This trope is about the riddle; it may or may not be delivered by a sphinx. The more general trope for sphinxes that ask riddles is Riddling Sphinx.
- Used by a riddle-based time-shifter in Flint the Time Detective. The Quirky Miniboss Squad, stumped, tries to guess a chimpanzee.
- Sakon from Karakurizoushi Ayatsuri Sakon corrects a man who tells him about the Egyptian riddle of the sphinx.
- Ulysses 31: "The Secret Of The Sphynx" had this. Strangely, most mythology used in the show was based on Greek mythology, and the Riddle is also Greek, but it was all done in an Egyptian setting.
- Parodied in Final Fantasy: Unlimited episode 16, where the "correct" answer is the Hemoran bacterium. The person who answers "a human" gets it wrong. The riddle giver in that episode is cheating, so the person answering is always wrong. The only "true" correct answer was to point out that the riddler is cheating.
- Nine and Twelve present the riddle in Terror in Resonance as part of a bomb threat. The myth is directly referenced, being tied in with the group's name, Sphinx.
- Nero: In De IJzeren Kolonel ("The Iron Colonel") Nero and a British colonel are stuck in an Egyptian tomb where the sphinx tells them they are not allowed to leave unless they solve his riddle, which is the famous one from Greek mythology. Nero finally solves it and they are allowed to leave.
- Spoofed, along with many other stock riddles, in Sovisa when Alexi is confronted by a riddle-telling old man (a further spoof, in that the man states it's one of the few jobs a man of his age can hold down), Alexi antagonizes him by answering his riddles before he's finished telling them. A section of the text is as follows:
Man: Listen well to your first fiendish riddle, foolish boy! "What walks on four legs in—"
Man: What? What do you mean "man"?
Alexi: It's the answer, I've heard that riddle around a hojillion times.
Man: Well then get ready for round two! "As I was going to St. Ives, I—"
Alexi: One. One was going to St. Ives.
Man: OK, wise-ass, no more Mr. Nice Granddad. "I'm the beginning of Eterni—"
Alexi: The letter "E". You know, you could try to put some effort into this.
Man: Do I come to you at work and tell you how to do your job? No. Startin' to piss me off, boy. Right, "I occur once in a minute, tw—"
Alexi: The letter "M", I see we're stuck on letters now.
Man: All right. I see I'll have to pull out all the stops. "You come to two doors, guarded by a pair of men, one tells only the truth, wh—"
Alexi: The truth or lies guys riddle? Seriously? You know, I don't think you eve— Ow! You kicked me!
- Subverted in What's New? with Phil and Dixie, in which a sphinx insists that everybody knows the "four legs, two legs, three legs" riddle, so instead asks: "How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck would chuck wood?"
- Curtis tries to make a bet with his dad with this riddle in one Sunday strip; either he doesn't know how old it is or discredits his dad's intelligence - or both - but he loses the bet.
- Played with in MirrorMask. Helena, when asked this riddle, answers with the name of the performing dog from the circus in which she grew up. The sphinx tells her that the answer is man, and she responds...
Helena: Nuh-uh. I saw him. He was walking on four legs in the morning, two legs during the afternoon show, and he was limping on three in the evening because he hurt his paw! He can skateboard, too.
- Subverted in Percy Jackson and the Olympians during The Battle of the Labyrinth, Percy and the gang meet the Sphinx who, like everything else in Greek mythology in this series, gets modernized. She now uses an SAT style automatic grader and asks random trivia questions. Annabeth, who was taking the quiz expecting to hear the original questions, takes this as an insult to her intelligence and refuses to take the quiz. Guess who has to fight a Sphinx.
- Spoofed in the Discworld novel Pyramids. Pteppic encounters a Sphinx who asks him this riddle. He's unable to answer, but protests that the metaphor is overly simplistic, forcing it to give a more accurate version covering all possibilities. Pteppic answers this and walks off before the Sphinx remembers that it had already told him the answer.
- Parodied by John Sladek, in a story parodying Cordwainer Smith. "The answer is a coffee table. I fixed four legs to it in the morning but two legs fell off in the afternoon, and by the evening I'd only gotten around to replacing one of them."
- In Gene Wolfe's Soldier of the Mist, Latro meets up with the same sphinx. He answers that it is a man going a journey: in the morning, he rides a horse, but when the horse is stolen, he walks, and then in the evening, he cuts himself a walking stick. This answer was also approved by the sphinx.
- In John Barnes's One for the Morning Glory, the Riddling Beast at the edge of the goblin kingdom asks, "What goes on four legs in the morning, shaves the barber at noon, and crosses the road in the evening, and what does it have in its pockets?" Prince Amatus correctly answers "Myself and the things that are mine" because the answer to such riddles is always "myself" — though the pockets nearly threw him. Later, they turn about the Riddling Beast so it guards the way out of the goblin kingdom — which is good, because a goblin can not easily answer a riddle whose answer is "myself and the things that are mine."
- In the book Pyramid Scheme the Sphinx can only eat someone who fails to answer her riddle. The heroes, of course, know the answer (although there's a certain amount of tension because while the guy being asked knows the answer, he doesn't know Ancient Greek....) After hearing the Sphinx complain about how hungry she is they offer to teach her a new riddle in exchange for her help. After they escape the myth world, the Sphinx gets a job as a greeter / tourist attraction at the Luxor hotel in Las Vegas. She asks guests riddles in exchange for all the food she can eat.
- In The Stress of Her Regard, it's revealed that Oedipus only answered correctly by accident: its intended answer is "sentient life on Earth", and the "legs" are the atomic bonds in the skeletal structures of Earth's primordial silicon-boned, present calcium-boned, and future aluminum-boned inhabitants. (The former are the novel's vampires, and the latter are presumably robots.) It's implied that Oedipus actually said "people", and the sphinx didn't grade his answer too harshly.
- In the Amber book Trumps of Doom Merlin briefly encounters a sphinx that asks him a riddle. He gives an answer which, while not the one the sphinx wanted, did meet the conditions of the riddle. Eventually after giving the sphinx a ridiculous onenote he just threatens the sphinx until it agrees to let him go.
- Esther Friesner's works:
- The riddle is the reason that the members of the Club in "The Wedding of Wylda Serene" accepted the sphinx that one of their members brought, figuring that everyone knew the answer, so no one would get eaten. Then she learned some new ones...
- In Sphynxes Wild, the sphinx—currently operating as a Greek heiress in Atlantic City—is the villain, and not until the hero finally answers her new riddle can she be defeated.
- Gollum tells a version of this riddle in The Hobbit. Bilbo answers correctly.
- In a variant from Myth-Fortunes, Tweety the Sphinx asks Skeeve: "What is it that is dark in the morning, pale at noon, and gone by sunset?" It's hair.
- In Pact, Blake Thorburn encounters a Sphinx that specializes in asking questions (if you answer wrong, she gets to eat you) and manages to evade several of her questions by having answers that are true but nonspecific, admitting to her later that a prospective answer to the question of "who are you?" had been "A man." As she's the daughter of the original, mythological Riddling Sphinx, she informs him that if he had answered that she would have ripped him apart for "being a smartass."
- In the Sabrina The Teenage Witch novelisation "Witch Way Did She Go", Sabrina and Salem get asked this question in an Other Realm maze. Sabrina is about to answer that it's a human - but Salem answers 'a Purple Spotted Nivek'. He also reminds Sabrina that she's not in the Mortal Realm any more.
- In Peter Dickinson's work of imaginary natural history Flight of Dragons, he proposes that the sphinx was actually a dragon, and the "riddle" was the confusion caused by the dragon's hypnotic abilities (he also explains why he believes dragons had hypnotic abilities). "Solving" the riddle meant Oedipus snapping out of the trance and remembering who he was and what he was doing there; hence, the answer is "man".
- The Riddler includes this with several other riddles in his first appearance in the campy 60's version of Batman. While this one is easy, finding out the villain's true plan requires combining the answer with many other riddles, which form a larger riddle.
- Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger has this as one of the questions asked by Dora Sphinx- his victim, who'd answered every riddle correctly until then, didn't get this one.
- GLOW's Little Egypt brags in her rap "Even though I may be little/I'm the answer to the Sphinx's riddle". Technically she's right since she is a human after all.
- The comedian Richard Herring says the answer shouldn't be a man because a stick isn't really a leg. The real answer should be Paul McCartney and his wives.
- An Emo Philips routine postulates that the answer is a donkey, "who has four legs in the morning, then in the afternoon you chop two of them off, then in the evening you glue one back on again."
- The classic sphinx riddle is the Flavor Text of Petra Sphinx in Magic: The Gathering. Sphinx Sovereign quotes one of the riddles from The Hobbit.
- Dungeons & Dragons Module I3 Pharaoh. Inside the tomb of Amun-re the PCs can encounter an androshpinx who offers to play a Riddle Me This game with them. If they can answer one of his riddles, he will answer a question from them about the tomb. One of the riddles he can ask is this standard riddle.
- Mentioned in P.D.Q. Bach's Oedipus Tex (of course), where a "Bigfoot" plays the Sphinx's role and Oedipus plays that of his brother Rex.
- In Car Talk: The Musical, the riddle posed by the Wizard of Cahs is: "What goes on four wheels in the morning, two wheels in the afternoon, and four completely different wheels in the evening?" A scholar recognizes the riddle, and is the first to attempt an answer: a human first riding in a baby carriage, then on a bicycle, and finally in an automobile. The Wizard shows the scholar the Trap Door. The protagonist offers a more original answer: his Alleged Car driving on its own wheels, then being dragged on its rear wheels by a tow truck, and finally loaded onto a flatbed truck to be scrapped. This isn't the answer the Wizard wanted either, but at least it's passable.
- Peer Gynt encounters the Egyptian Sphinx at Gizeh, and asks him the question "who are you". This is the same question he asked the boyg two acts prior. Before he sees the sphinx, the statue of Memnon has advised him to "die, or solve the riddle of the song".
- Black Mirror has four books with one riddle each to hide the coffin of Marcus Gordon. Interestingly, the actual riddle doesn't appear, though the riddles were obviously inspired by it in the way they are formulated. note
- Used in Devil May Cry 3, where you were supposed to walk through the doorway with the right number of glowing eyes. Picking the wrong doorway led to a fight against several monsters and a Puzzle Reset.
- The third-level boss of Wario: Master of Disguise for the Nintendo DS has the player answering a sphinx's riddles, the answers being objects you saw during the level (including the "man" riddle). Miss a question and you die instantly.
- At the end of the Tombs of Amenti in Valkyrie Profile, you are asked this riddle. The choices are "Humans", "Man", and "Homo Sapiens", so it's impossible to get it wrong.
- Referenced in gruesome fashion by the Riddler in Batman: Arkham Asylum: he claims the answer is "a baby", because it walks around on four limbs, but it walks on only two if you cut off its legs and three if you give it a crutch. When asked how he could make such a sick joke, the Riddler calmly responds "It's not my baby."
- The Riddler also poses this riddle to Booster Gold in the cold open of an episode of Batman: The Brave and the Bold and gives Batman an electric shock when Booster can't answer it.
- In Batman: Gotham Adventures #11, the Riddler robs two men (i.e., four legs) in the morning, one man in the afternoon, and a man with a cane in the evening. Batman realizes that this means the Riddler is hiding out in a building with a giant sphinx statue on the roof. When Batman explains how he tracked him down, a shocked Riddler reveals that he had been making a conscious effort to commit a crime without leaving clues, and that the pattern of his crimes was entirely subconscious. The shaken villain surrenders and asks to be taken to Arkham, realizing for the first time that he might really need help.
- Averted in the Riddle Of The Sphinx video game, which has nothing to do with this old trope except the name.
- Shows up in the Unexpected Text Adventure section of NieR.
- Played with in Monster Girl Quest. As part of a trial to be eligible to marry a dragon, a Sphinx gives this question, and it is lampshaded by Luka how almost everyone knows the answer to this question and that it's anticlimactic. The riddle's true purpose is to illustrate that any monster and human romance will be a Mayfly–December Romance and to make the trial taker aware of this fact and its implications.
- In Heroes of Might and Magic II, there is a sphnix on the map "Sudden Siege" that asks this riddle.
- Once scenario for the Facebook flash game Ghost Tales features a direct equivalent to this riddle: "At dawn, it creeps. At midday, it sleeps. At night, it flies." The answer is expressed by clicking three statues so they transform into a caterpillar, a cocoon, and a butterfly.
- In Scribblenauts Unlimited, one of the Starite Shard quest in the Abjad Dunes is based on this riddle.
- In Shadowrun Returns: Hong Kong, the memory fragments of a character are guarded by passwords which reference this riddle. However, the "night" in the game refers to old age and not death, while "dusk" refers to middle age instead. To revive said character, the memory fragments must be arranged in chronological order.
- One of the very first puzzles in Virtues Last Reward flirts with this, with rows of buttons next to pictures of an old man and a baby. Answering three and four respectively is wrong. You're actually supposed to count the numbers of old people and babies on a poster and enter those numbers.
- Nerf NOW!!: If this question ever comes up in Jeopardy!, Dracula's got it covered.
- Parodied on these two pages of GastroPhobia, where everyone knows the Sphinx's riddle. But they don't have to be so rude about it. It's to the point where she's now trying to think up a new riddle.
- She's briefly excited when someone incorrectly answers "Goblin"...but then she realizes the speaker is a goblin, and is forced to admit that it counts.
- Same riddle, same characters, different outcome.
- Subverted in this Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic.
- Paranatural subverts this here. Two characters are asked the riddle in question by a sphinx-like creature. They both immediately respond, "Man," having heard the riddle before, but are instead told, "Wrong! The answer is that guy."
- In Dinosaur Comics, T-Rex tries this riddle on his friends, who answer it easily and point out that it's the most well-known riddle of all time. It predates PAPER. At least Patrick Stewart liked it; it apparently spoke to him on a personal level.
- Parodied in an extra strip in the book edition of the fifth The Order of the Stick arc, "Blood Runs in the Family". Not only does the sphinx speak in riddles, but to ask it a question, one needs to phrase it as a riddle as well, even a prosaic question like "which way is the restroom?". Elan, being a bard, is adept at it, but when Vaarsuvius tries it, his/her Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness ends up confusing the sphinx... resulting in a shower of confetti and a reward of a free ice cream cone for managing such a feat.
- Welcome to Night Vale gives this variation at the end of one episode.
What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs at evening? I don't know, but I have it trapped in my closet, send help.
- In Hello From the Magic Tavern, this is a common riddle for bridge trolls; when a guest asks it of Arnie, he naturally answers that it's a human, which is wrong, though Chunt and Usidore are impressed when Arnie explains his answer. The correct answer, as it happens, is a Garfunt, a creature native to Food which actually is born with four legs, sheds two of them in the afternoon, and grows a third at dusk.
- Used particularly badly in one episode of Extreme Ghostbusters, where a ghost modeled on the Sphinx asks this of its victims and renders those who answer incorrectly into helpless, mindless beings. This includes an entire chapter of Mensa, the one group of people who you would expect to know the answer.
- Similarly, the opening of an episode of The Mummy: The Animated Series had the O'Connells, a family of Adventurer Archaeologists/Egyptologists, oblivious of the answer to the riddle. You'd think at least Evie would know...
- Also parodied in Sabrina: The Animated Series: The sphinx gives the riddle, and Chloe answers, "Man." However, the answer is the nine-legged... some creature that exists only in that world.
- Used in the My Little Pony cartoon, in the episode "The Golden Horseshoes."
- Subverted in The Critic episode Sherman of Arabia. Jay, lost in the desert with some soldiers during the Gulf War, comes across a muscular man who refuses to let them pass unless they answer the Riddle of the Sphinx. Except the 'riddles' are laughably easy ones you can read off of a popsicle stick (Or in this case, the bottom of a cup), and after every answer the guard insists Best Out of Infinity.
Jay: Oh, what is the point of all this?!
Riddler: I'm just so lonely...
- Used in the Teen Titans Go! episode "Crazy Day", where Raven is sucked into her own mind and faces Starfire as the Sphinx. Due to Starfire's less-than-tenuous grip on human culture and speech, Hilarity Ensues. Raven is able to outwit Starfire by claiming that she doesn't even know what the answer is, causing her to blurt it out.
Sphinx Starfire: What is running and walks with a mouth, and talks, and has a head, and also, the bed?
- In The Adventures of Puss in Boots, this is the first of five riddles the Sphinx asks of Puss. His answer of "Yellow" is remarked upon to be the most incorrect answer she's ever heard.
- Batman: The Brave and the Bold: One episode's Cold Open has the Riddler asking Booster Gold this question. Booster Gold somehow concludes the answer is "a nine legged unicorn". Note that the Riddler was playing a deadly game show, and every time Booster got an answer wrong, Batman gets zapped with electricity.
- Parodied hilariously in an episode of Kaeloo where Mr. Cat dresses as a sphinx and decides to ask Quack Quack riddles:
Mr. Cat: I have two arms in the morning, four ears in the afternoon and seven tentacles in the evening. Who am I?