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"Decifra-me ou te devoro"/"Decipher me or I'll devour you"

Just recently I remembered hearing this phrase when I was kid.. I'm brasilian and I was thinking how bad*ss it is and all and so I decided to research a bit more into it and, to my surprise, Google results for the translated phrase all seemed to be of brasilians repeating it translated, no relevant results at all that seemed to point to source, etc.

Google results:

"decifra-me ou te devoro" - "About 47,300 results"

"decifra-me ou devoro-te" - "About 29,500 results"

"decipher me or i will devour you" - "About 510 results"

"decipher me or I devour you" - "About 115 results"

So it seems really prevalent, this appears on scientific papers, books, it's cited by journalists, etc. Is this a borrowed phrase? Did it just slip into Brazil consciousness? Is there a different translation that'd actually point to a source? I'm spooked.

  • 2
    This sounds less like the actual riddle, and more like a warning the Sphinx gives before presenting the riddle (presumably to Oedipus). As such, it's probably from some (possibly ancient) literary retelling of the Oedipus myth. Since you've found way more results in Portuguese than in English, I'd start by looking for Portuguese-language versions. – Spencer Sep 22 at 15:37
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    For example, the first result in Italian containing "deciframi" and "divoro" led me to an 1881 novel by a Brazilian author, Memorias posthumas de Braz Cubras. – Spencer Sep 22 at 15:57
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    The oldest version I know that includes the riddle itself is the Bibliotheca of Apollodorus, and it doesn't seem to include anything like this. So I'm guessing it's a later interpolation. – Draconis Sep 23 at 16:51
  • @Spencer hmm yeah this making it through a writer would make sense indeed. Looking for the quote from the book, though, the phrase appears as more of a revelation, like an idea that came to his mind that really held him(of a sublime medicine that would alleviate humanity's melancholy or something)... Now how this got associated with the Sphinx firmly as it have would be nice to know – Breno Salgado Sep 24 at 1:38
  • But it would be a really good idea to search old Portuguese language mythology books, in case this was already associated with the Sphinx in the mind of the novel-reading Brazilian public when de Assis wrote it. – Spencer Sep 24 at 13:07
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"Decifra-me ou te devoro" uses wording that cannot be very old and also has a distinct literary ring.

"Decipher" originally meant being able to read/understand the arabic numerals, "cifres", which was enlarged into an ability to read unshapely hand-writig.The point it is that it relates to text which is not the case of the original story about solving a riddle. It is totally improbable that some older translation would have used 'decipher', so this form has been coined in more recent times.

The repeated syllab "de" and the (a)symmetry me/te might have a barely notable presence but they should be credited for the popularity of the formula.

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The oldest written source for a riddling sphinx is Sophocles' "Oedipus Rex":

Oedipus found Thebes plagued by the Sphinx, who put a riddle to all passersby and destroyed those who could not answer. Oedipus solved the riddle, and the Sphinx killed herself. There is no equivalent story in Ancient Egyptian mythology.

Greek text (excerpt):

ἐπεί, φέρ᾽ εἰπέ, ποῦ σὺ μάντις εἶ σαφής;
πῶς οὐκ, ὅθ᾽ ἡ ῥαψῳδὸς ἐνθάδ᾽ ἦν κύων,
ηὔδας τι τοῖσδ᾽ ἀστοῖσιν ἐκλυτήριον;
καίτοι τό γ᾽ αἴνιγμ᾽ οὐχὶ τοὐπιόντος ἦν
ἀνδρὸς διειπεῖν, ἀλλὰ μαντείας ἔδει:
ἣν οὔτ᾽ ἀπ᾽ οἰωνῶν σὺ προυφάνης ἔχων
οὔτ᾽ ἐκ θεῶν του γνωτόν: ἀλλ᾽ ἐγὼ μολών,
ὁ μηδὲν εἰδὼς Οἰδίπους, ἔπαυσά νιν,
γνώμῃ κυρήσας οὐδ᾽ ἀπ᾽, οἰωνῶν μαθών:
ὃν δὴ σὺ πειρᾷς ἐκβαλεῖν, δοκῶν θρόνοις
παραστατήσειν τοῖς Κρεοντείοις πέλας.

If you are looking for the original text translated into English, it's between lines 390 and 400

  • What does this passage have to do with the words or concept of "decipher me or I devour you"? – b a Sep 29 at 10:07
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    the fact that "decipher me or I devour you" do not appear in the oldest source. – Codosaur Oct 1 at 13:47
  • Maybe you should edit your answer to clarify. Your first sentence, that Sophocles is "the oldest written source for this," seems to imply the opposite, and your entire summary of the story in your second paragraph seems to be absent from the passage you quote – b a Oct 1 at 17:04

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