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Life Cycle

The Sphinx, according to an ancient Greek tale, was a monster with the face of a woman, the body of a lion, and gigantic wings. Sent by the goddess Hera to punish the city of Thebes, she sat on a hilltop and stopped passersby, posing them a riddle: "What has one voice, and is four-footed, two-footed, and three-footed?" Every time the Thebans gave a wrong answer, she devoured one of them—including Haemon, the king's son. Only Oedipus, a stranger traveling through town, was able to give the correct answer: "Man."

The riddle makes allusion to the life-cycle: man travels "four-footed" (i.e., on hands and knees) as an infant, on two feet as an adult, and "three-footed" (with the aid of a cane) in old age. To solve it, it is necessary to think of a man both as a singular individual—with "one voice"—and as a being who changes form over time. Apparently the puzzle was widely known in the ancient Mediterranean, a bit of folk wisdom that gradually made its way into Oedipus's tale. (It is not to be found in written versions before 600 B.C.E., including that of Hesiod [fl. c. 700 B.C.E.]) Its depiction of a normative life course casts an oblique shadow over Oedipus's own, for by solving the puzzle and reclaiming the king's prize—his own mother as a bride—he twists the normal sequence of the generations into grotesque and tragic form.

The notion of the life cycle, then—that there are stages in life through which every individual must pass—is old and widespread. And, as in this tale, it is both descriptive and prescriptive: It describes inevitable physiological changes that are readily observable in humans as in all living things, but it also suggests that one ought to move through life in a certain prescribed manner. This dual meaning can be found in examples far removed in time and space from Oedipus, as for example in two of the greatest examples of early American literature: Primeros Memoriales, written in Nahuatl in Mexico by Bernardino de Sahagún (1499–1590) between 1558 and 1561, and Nueva corónica y buen gobierno, completed by Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala (1538?–1620?) in Peru in 1615 and likewise primarily written in a Native American language, Quechua. Each of these books is an act of cultural translation that presents an imperial society of the Americas—Aztec and Inca, respectively—as their authors wish Spanish readers to see them. In each of them, we find detailed, carefully illustrated presentations of the stages of human life. Guaman Poma depicts first ten stages of a man's life, then ten stages of a woman's; curiously, he begins each with the adult in his or her prime, which he calls the "first road"; he then progresses through to old age, then lists in reverse order the four stages of youth, ending with infancy. Sahagún likewise depicts women and men in separate but equivalent sequences; and his Nahuatl informants, like Guaman Poma, emphasize productive labor more than simple physiological change. At each point except for the very beginning and the very end, women and men are shown performing the work appropriate to their time of life. For women in both empires, these stages are defined in terms of textile production, with adult women weaving at looms, while youngsters and the elderly spin. This emphasis upon work—possibly intended to show the contributions that citizens were expected to make to the state—underlines the normative quality of the concept of the life cycle; Sahagún's artists and writers also passed judgment on leisure activities, indicating that while drunkenness and idleness were acceptable in the old, they were to be condemned in the young. In European art, the moralizing version of the life cycle can be seen in the series of engravings by William Hogarth (1697–1764), "The Harlot's Progress" (1732) and "The Rake's Progress" (1735)—humorous visions of the life sequence gone awry.

But of course, the life cycle can also be seen not as a set of expectations, but as an inevitable and even a tragic fate. This vision of the life course often emphasizes the notion of the life course as a cycle: that is, as occurring within a circular, natural form of time rather than the linear historical time invented by humans. As such, it often calls upon metaphors from nature, such as the seasons of the year; and in turn, it becomes a metaphor for the life of a society or an empire, which like the human body may be born, grow, mature, sicken, and die. Although it employs few metaphors from nature, a classic evocation of the life cycle as a circle is to be found in As You Like It by William Shakespeare (1564–1616), first performed in 1599 and first published in 1623. The famous soliloquy spoken by Jaques that begins "All the world's a stage" presents seven stages in the life of man, with the end marking a return to the beginning:

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
And then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like a snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like a furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. (2.7.139)

In art, literature, and mythology, then, the life cycle is a powerful theme, played both for comedy and tragedy. With the modern emergence of the social sciences, this concept has continued to fascinate and trouble scholars because of its dual grounding in nature and culture. On the one hand, childhood, maturity, and old age are physiological processes that most humans will experience; on the other hand, cultural norms and expectations about what these phases mean and how they should be lived—and even whether the stages of childhood and adolescence are distinct from adulthood—vary tremendously across time and space. Each of these periods, childhood, adolescence, and old age, has given rise to its own social science literature. Within each, debates about what, if anything, is transhistorical and what must be seen only within its own cultural context have provided lively and stimulating conversations, as exemplified by the tremendous public attention accorded to Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) and Philippe Ariès' Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life (1962), two of the best-known examples of works that challenged prevailing conceptions about our experience of the life cycle.


Ariès, Philippe. Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life. Translated by Robert Baldick. New York: Knopf, 1962.

Guaman Poma de Ayala, Felipe. Nueva corónica y buen gobierno. Caracas, Venezuela: Biblioteca Ayacucho, 1980.

Mead, Margaret. Coming of Age in Samoa. New York: Morrow, 1928.

Sahagún, Bernardino de. Primeros Memoriales. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993.

Mary J. Weismantel

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