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The Greek Sphinx – A Demon Of Death And Esoteric Wisdom

The Sphinx is best described as a symbol of “occult wisdom” (Olderr 126) and evil power in ancient Greece around 1200 BC. Her disposition is illustrated by the mythic story associated with her, specifically her interactions with Oedipus. The Sphinx had also existed much earlier in other meanings in cultures such as Egypt. Since then, its symbolism has become so captivating that its meaning is almost proverbial in the Western World today (Britannica 16).

The Sphinx truly lives up to its title as a beast. In Greek myth, 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 literally described sounds gruesome, the visual depictions of ancient Greece are nonetheless enticing. Such representations commonly appear on ivories, painted plaques and vases (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 small Ionic column before Oedipus. This representation is painted on an Athenian vase from the Archaic period in Greece, between 800 and 500 BC. (Boardman 246).

The name “Sphinx” is a Greek name derived from the verb sphiggein, meaning “to fasten or bind together” (eg 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, killed them” (104). She asked this riddle, taught to her by the Muses: “What is that which has a voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?” (Britannica) Although not explicit in the ancient legend, the meaning of her name suggests that she may have killed those who answered incorrectly by strangling them. Her role directly connects her to another ancient myth, the tragically ironic story of Oedipus.

Oedipus was the prince of Thebes, abandoned by his father at birth because of a prophecy that his son would kill him. His father tied his feet and left him on a lonely mountain (Encarta). Oedipus eventually wandered to Thebes, which was plagued by the Sphinx. When asked her question, however, Oedipus answered correctly: “The man who crawls on all fours in infancy walks on two legs when grown up and leans on a staff in old age” (Britannica 16). The sphinx was so upset, it jumped off its perch and killed itself. The story goes that the Thebans were so grateful to Oedipus for offering him the kingship, which he rightfully was anyway, and he unwittingly married his mother, the Queen (Encarta).

The Sphinx first appeared in Greece around 1600 BC, but later, around 1200 BC, the legend acquired a recognizable meaning and evolved into what is commonly known today. Before the Greek era, however, the Sphinx as a symbol existed for over a thousand years in cultures such as Egypt, where it is usually agreed that it originated (Scafella 180). While many features have remained the same in the Sphinx, some central ones have changed. The most obvious distinction is the gender of the Sphinx. While the Egyptian Sphinx was exclusively male, the Greek Sphinx was almost always female. The Greek Sphinx was typically 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 devious in nature. This role is exemplified by his presence “before the temples of the Nile valley, outside the pyramid of Khafre” (Suhr 97). Furthermore, in Egypt, the Sphinx had no wings and was often reclining, unlike the Greek Sphinx, who was usually seated, especially on her high perch in Thebes (Scafella 180).

Looking at the deeper symbolism of the sphinx, it may well be one of the most elusive symbols in human history. While many theories converge and diverge like rippling waves, they have only one similarity, that its meaning is, above all, enigmatic. A prominent idea, however, is the apparent reference to intelligence combined with animality: “…the hybridization of man and lion suggests the dominance of human intellect over brute animal power” (Hajar). This idea is further elaborated by Friedrich Hegel, a German philosopher of the 1800s: “The human head erupting from the animal body represents Mind as it begins to rise above Nature… without, however, being able to fully liberate itself from her bonds” (p. in Scafella 185). These ideas fit well with the time period they are in, as 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 thought to be more than a thing 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, on a very divergent note, one theory eloquently speculates that “the mask of the sphinx is related to the image of the mother and also to the symbolism of nature; but beneath the mask lie the implications of the myth of multiplicity or the 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, apparently derived from her protruding breasts. It is noteworthy that in the Sphinx, an opposite symbol of wrath, female symbols are used, which almost always refer exclusively to affection and compassion. It is possible, as Cirlot states, that such symbols are used to dramatize the underlying symbolism by using a deceptive physical appearance.

From her slow rise to power from ancient Egyptian myth to Greek legend and today’s colloquialism, the Sphinx has become the visual embodiment of deception, rage, enigma and intelligence. Her death is a memory of triumph over animal rage. But this memory is a delusion that haunts the mind. Human triumph did not end the symptom of animality, nor the malignancy of intelligence. It only ended the visual depiction of a reality of which humanity is forever a victim, its own collective mind. The brilliance of the Sphinx is therefore, to deceive more in false death than when alive.

The tasks listed

Boardman, John. Athenian red-figure vases: The archaic period. London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd., 1975.

Britannica, Encyclopedia. “Sphinx.” Encyclopaedia Britannica: 200th Anniversary Edition. Vol. 21. USA: William Benton, 1969.

Encarta Encyclopedia. “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: Folk Wisdom of the Sphinx”. World & I. Vol. 14, Issue 2 (February 1999): 228.

Elder, Stephen. 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.” Myths and Mythical 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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