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The Greek Sphinx – A Demon Of Death And Esoteric Wisdom
The sphinx is best described as a symbol of “hidden wisdom” (Olderr 126) and evil power in ancient Greece around 1200 BCE. Her disposition is described by the mythic story associated with her, particularly, her interactions with Oedipus. The sphinx had also existed much earlier with other meanings in cultures such as Egypt. Since that time, its symbolism has become so fascinating that its meaning is almost proverbial in the Western world today (Britannica 16).
The sphinx truly lives up to her title as a beast. In Greek legend, the Sphinx is a female symbol with the body and feet of a lion, the head and breast of a woman, and the wings of an eagle (Scafella 179). Although the sphinx depicted literally sounds terrifying, the visual portrayals of ancient Greece are nonetheless enticing. Such representations most often appeared on ivories, painted tiles and pottery (Britannica 16). Although there are many representations of the sphinx, for the purposes of this essay the example used is the Greek Sphinx seated on a short Ionic column in front of Oedipus. This representation is painted on an Athenian vase from the Archaic period in Greece, between 800 and 500 BCE (Boardman 246).
The name “Sphinx” is a Greek noun derived from the verb sphiggein, meaning “to draw close or bind together” (qtd. in Scafella 179). Her myth is well described by Albert E. Cowdrey in his fictional story The Name of the Sphinx: “Her function was to harass and hinder the tourist trade of Thebes by forcing visitors to answer a riddle. If they got it wrong , she was killing them”. 104). She asked this riddle, which the Muses taught her: “What is it that has a voice, and yet becomes four-footed, two-footed, and three-footed?” (Britannica) Although not clear in the ancient myth, the meaning of her name suggests that she may have killed those who answered incorrectly by drowning. Her role links her directly to another ancient myth, the tragically ironic story of Oedipus.
Oedipus was the prince of Thebes who was abandoned by his father when he was born because of a prophecy that his son would kill him. The father bound his feet and left him on a lonely mountain (Encarta). Oedipus eventually returned to Thebes, which was struck down by the Sphinx. However, after being asked her question, Oedipus answered correctly: “Man, who crawls on all fours in infancy, walks on two legs when he grows up and leans on a stick in old age” (Britannica 16). The sphinx was so distraught that she jumped from her position and killed herself. The story goes that the Thebans were so grateful to Oedipus that they offered him the kingdom, which he deserved anyway, and he unwittingly married his mother, the Queen (Encarta).
The Sphinx first appeared in Greece around 1600 BC, but it was only later, around 1200 BC, that the legend took on an identifiable meaning and developed into what is commonly known today. However, prior to Greek times, the Sphinx as a symbol had existed for over a thousand years in cultures such as Egypt, where it is most commonly accepted to have originated (Scafella 180). While many features have remained the same in the Sphinx, some of the central ones have changed. The most obvious difference is the Sphinx’s sex. While the Egyptian Sphinx was exclusively male, the Greek Sphinx was almost always female. The Greek sphinx was commonly used as a symbol of wisdom and malevolence, while the Egyptian sphinx, especially in its earliest forms, was often associated with deities and used as a symbol of protection. It was not mysterious or deceptive in nature. An example of this role is his presence “in front of the temples of the Nile Valley, outside the pyramid of Khafre” (Suhr 97). Furthermore, in Egypt, the Sphinx had no arms and was often reclining, in contrast to the Greek Sphinx, which was usually seated, especially in her tall position at Thebes (Scafella 180).
Looking at the deeper symbolism of the sphinx, it may be one of the most elusive symbols in human history. While many theories converge and creep like raging waves, they have only one similarity, that its meaning is, above all, enigmatic. A prominent idea, however, is the clear reference to the intelligence associated with animality: “…the hybridization of man and lion suggests the dominance of human intellect over raw animal power” (Hajjeri). This idea is further clarified by Friedrich Hegel, a German philosopher in the 1800s: “The human head bursting from the animal body represents the mind as it begins to rise above Nature… without, however, being able to free itself completely from the shackles of her” (qtd. in Scafella 185). These ideas fit well with the time period they are in, in that civilization and war were competing realities of everyday life.
Another interesting interpretation is that the sphinx is a purely psychological symbol, representing the complexity and duality of the human mind: “Unlike many mythical creatures, the sphinx was never believed to be more than a figment of the imagination” (Hajar). In today’s Freudian terms, the Sphinx would be considered an element of the unconscious, of whose presence we are only certain because of the tangible consequences of its existence (Cirlot 304).
Finally, in a very different perspective, one theory eloquently conjectures that “the mask of the sphinx belongs to the image of the mother and also to the symbolism of nature; but under the mask lie the implications of the myth of the multiplicity or enigmatic fragmentation of the cosmos” (Cirlot 304). Although, following the accepted theme of deception, this theory is unique in expressing a superficial maternal side of the Sphinx, clearly derived from her prominent breasts. It is worth noting that female symbols, which almost always refer exclusively to love and compassion, are used in the Sphinx, an opposite symbol of anger. It is possible, as Cirlot alludes, that such symbols are used to dramatize the underlying symbolism using a deceptive physical appearance.
From her slow rise to power from ancient Egyptian myth to Greek legend and today’s colloquial awareness, the Sphinx has become the visual embodiment of deception, anger, enigma and intelligence. Her death is a reminder of the triumph over animal fury. But that memory is a mistake that haunts the mind. Human triumph did not put an end to the symptoms of animality, nor to the malice of intelligence. Only the visual depiction of a reality to which humanity is eternally a victim, its collective mind, ended. The brilliance of the Sphinx is therefore to deceive more in false death than when she was alive.
Board of Directors, John. Athenian red-figure vase: Archaic period. London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd., 1975.
Britannica, Encyclopedia. “Sphinx”. Encyclopaedia Britannica: Bicentennial Edition. Vol. 21. USA: William Benton, 1969.
Encyclopedia Encarta. “Oedipus”. Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2005. http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761557812/Oedipus.html
Cowdrey, Albert E. “The Name of the Sphinx.” Fantasy and science fiction. Vol. 107, Issue 6 (December, 2004): 100-120.
Cirlot, JE A dictionary of symbols. Great Britain: Redwood Books, Towbridge, Wiltshire, 1971.
Hajar, Rachel. “Culture: The Folk Wisdom of the Sphinx”. World & I. Vol. 14, Issue 2 (February, 1999): 228.
Older, Steven. Symbolism: A Comprehensive Dictionary. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1986.
Soans, Catherine and Alan Spooner, eds. “Sphinx”. Oxford Dictionary Thesaurus. New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2001.
Scafella, Frank A. “The Sphinx.” Mythical and Fairytale Creatures: A Sourcebook and Research Guide. Ed. Malcolm South. New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1987.
Suhr, Elmer G. “The Sphinx.” Folklore. Vol. 81, no. 2 (Summer, 1970): 97-111.
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