Seven Against Thebes (15)


Gustave Moreau


Many mysteries surround this strange beast. First: where lay its origins? Does it come from distant peoples, or is he the product of the imagination of Greece and Crete? What kind of beliefs were associated with it? And what does the name “sphinx” mean? We can try to answer some of these questions already.

During the Mycenaean era many foreign sailors visited Egypt. After returning home they told about the wonders they have seen there, especially her great buildings and statues. Nothing like it existed at the time anywhere else on earth. They also reported:

“Near the pyramids there is a great rock, tall, long, reddish in color. The Egyptians expended great labor to carve it in the shape of a reclining lion with the head of a man. His expression is mysterious: he projects divine calm, but he also wears a gentle human smirk, part-sad, part-ironic. The priests say that this is one of the forms assumed by the god of the sun, Ra; it guards the great road west, along which both the sun and the dead depart for the land of mists. Egyptians are much enamored of this creature; and often place many statues of it in long rows on both sides of avenues heading up to important temples. They sometimes say it represents the pharaoh, who combines the power and courage of the lion, king of all animals, with the wisdom of man. These statues are placed at entrances to temples in order to prevent evil spirits from approaching the seats of gods.”

A modern scholar might also add:

The great sphinx near the pyramids was carved on the orders of Pharaoh Khafre, who ruled around the year 2600 B.C. Its dimensions are truly impressive: it is 57 meters long and 20 meters high. It was originally an effigy of the ruler himself, but later became associated with one of the deities of the sun. It was several times buried by the desert sand, even in the times of the pharaohs. There are papyri of two Egyptian kings who ruled around 1400 B.C. in which they report – speaking very poetically – how the sphinx appeared to them in their dreams and asked them to be dug up from the sand and promised them that if they do, they will become pharaohs (both were mere princes at the time of their dreams).

The Egyptian sphinx was nearly always represented with the face of a man; and with the face of a woman only when it represented the principal wife of a pharaoh. Sphinxes with heads of eagles or rams were also sometimes carved. All these sphinxes, regardless of their style, were always considered as good, protective spirits. They were called in Egyptian shespankh, which could be interpreted as “a living statue” and it would seem that the Greek word sphinx is a corrupt form of the Egyptian.

Yet, in Greek, sphinx is feminine. And indeed, on Mycenaean artifacts we see a very different representation of this creature. It is a lion, but with the head of a young woman, and it is – winged! Sphinxes, sometimes appearing in twos, are a frequent element of Mycenaean decoration on gems, seals, vases and tablets of ivory and gold. In the ruins of Mycenae a plaster head of a woman was found; it was of natural size and painted; there are indications that it was part of a larger statue – quite possibly a sphinx. This is all the more interesting because there survive no other examples of large free-standing statuary from those times.

Perhaps, because it was frequently represented as decoration on utilitarian objects, the sphinx did not represent special religious significance on Crete and in the Mycenaean world; and perhaps it was considered auspicious, just as it was in Egypt.

But why was the Mycenaean sphinx represented with a woman’s head and a pair of wings? Further, the Mycenaean sphinx usually wears a special kind of flat head-gear, perhaps a diadem, which is never seen on any Egyptian monuments. For these reasons, the figure of Mycenaean sphinx would seem to have been borrowed not from Egypt but from some other country with which the Mycenaeans might have had close contact. Syria is usually mentioned. It was there that the Egyptian sphinx was transformed and assumed the shape which was to rule forever in Greek art and imagination from Mycenaean times to the end of antiquity.

But this is not the end of the mysteries of the sphinx. We have seen that this creature usually represented good. Yet, we all know the somber myth which represents the sphinx as a bloodthirsty monster, a demon hostile to men. The myth is very ancient, Mycenaean in origin, perhaps even older.

This sphinx did not roam all of Greece. It was associated with only one location. Interestingly, it is not some distant, wild and mountainous land, but a land which in Mycenaean times was densely populated and belonged to the richest. The myth places the sphinx in the vicinity of Thebes! It tells that the monster has selected a rock along the narrow path which lead along the shore of lake Copais from Haliartus to Thebes. The name of this rock was Phicyon. So, some say, perhaps that’s the origin of the monster’s Greek name? Perhaps it was later transformed in the likeness of the verb sfingo, which means “I choke, kill”? But if so, then why does the myth ascribe this particular appearance to the monster associated elsewhere with auspicious forces? Perhaps this bloodthirsty demon was originally nothing but an image of death, which often is represented as a winged monster carrying off its victims’ souls?

Thus, whatever explanation one accepts, it only leads to new questions. The sphinx is a truly mysterious being, not only in legend.

The Theban sphinx attacked and kidnapped young men only (it was, after all, a female monster) but not only in the vicinity of the rock of Phicyon. Sometimes it appeared unexpectedly within the city, too, in broad daylight, in the midst of a crowd. It toyed with its victims, posing first simple riddles and promising:

“If you do not solve the riddle, you will die! But if you solve it, I will kill myself!”

But no one was able to answer even the simplest questions: fear paralyzed the victim’s minds. Within a few short years dozens, perhaps hundreds of young men, died.

Looking at the shield of Polyneices, Adrastus understood well why he’d chosen the sphinx for his emblem. The story of his father’s, Oedipus, famous exploit was famed across all Mycenaean lands. Traveling singers told it frequently by the megaron fireside on long autumn and winter evenings:

Oedipus was a young man, unknown to anyone in Beotia. He walked along the mountain path towards the seven-gated Thebes. He knew that the monstrous sphinx roamed in these parts and he hoped to meet it because Thebans had advertised it across all Mycenaean lands that whoever would kill the monster would receive a great reward: he will be raised to the royal throne, empty now following the tragic death of king Laius, and will marry the queen, his widow.

A lion with a girl’s head barred Oedipus’ path. It said:

“Guess what this is: it is an earthly being; it has four, two and three legs; it is weakest when it uses all four, but strongest when it uses only two!”

Fear did not dim the mind of Oedipus. He replied without hesitation:

“This is quite simple: man!”

And seizing his spear, he leapt at the monster. Others said later than the monster killed itself by jumping into the lake of its own volition.

Oedipus received the reward promised by Thebans. He became king on Cadmea and husband to the beautiful queen, Iocasta. But it was soon to prove that the young man defeated the sphinx to his own tragic detriment, his and his country’s. And this would seem to present another mystery: did Oedipus really defeat the sphinx, or was the monster defeated because it wanted to be defeated – defeated by Oedipus?


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