My first exposure to this particular beastie came, unsurprisingly enough, from the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual. After that, it was Walter Wangerin Jr.’s The Book of the Dun Cow, which a friend of mine was reading. We were very excited to discover that the evil Wyrm in the book was in fact a cockatrice because were 11 years old and because it meant that our knowledge of one fantastical creature had links out into the world beyond the game we were playing. That was pretty cool.
Here’s what we knew then: cockatrices hatch out of an egg laid by a rooster and incubated by a toad. They look like that picture up there and their gaze, like Medusa’s, causes death. (Super-Category: Composite Creatures.)
Here’s What We Know Now
Actually, D&D had this one pretty well down, so there’s not so much a need for correction as there is one for expansion.
In the first place, with all due respect to first Dungeons & Dragons and second to J.K.Rowling and hordes of Potter fans, there is some considerable debate as to whether basilisks and cockatrices are simply different names for the same thing. Most people seem to think they’re the same thing, although basilisks occasionally get lumped into a generally more serpent-like category.
As to their birth, here’s a bit more information, quoted from Edward Topsell’s The Historie of Serpents (1608).
For they say that when a Cock groweth old, he layeth a certaine egge without any shell, in stead whereof it is covered with a very thicke skinne, which is able to withstand the greatest force of an easie blow or fall. They say moreover, that this Egge is layd onely in the Summer-time, about the beginning of Dogge-dayes, being not long as a Hens Egge, but round and orbiculer: Sometimes of a dusty, sometimes of a Boxie, sometimes of a yellowish muddy colour, which Egge is generated of the putrified seed of the Cocke, and afterward set upon by a Snake or a Toad, bringeth forth the Cockatrice, being halfe a foot in length, the hinder part like a Snake, the former part like a Cocke, because of a treble combe on his forehead.
Topsell (clearly in the tank for the “these are the same” crowd) goes on to note that their breath is foul and putrid if not pestilential (prolonged exposure will cause death), and recounts how in the ninth century a city suffered from one or another cockatrice, so boom, history is like science, y’all, and that proves that cockatrices exist (note: Pope Leo IV’s prayers killed it, too). On the plus side, no bird, spider, or snake will enter into a house with a cockatrice, so if you can put up with being killed by one, they’re an effective means of pest control. Alternately, you can kill yourself one and have it stuffed. That works, too. However, these things are so toxic that if you were to kill one with a spear and touch the spear point, you would die. Maybe even just the spear itself, hard to say.
You can kill one with a mirror (same as Medusa, subjecting it to its own gaze). It will die upon hearing a rooster’s crow. Or you could throw a weasel at it. Seriously. A weasel is, apparently guaranteed to kill a cockatrice and the cockatrice will flee upon seeing one. You wonder why Pope Leo IV didn’t just throw a weasel in the hole…
Alright, everybody, don your biohazard suits, we’re going in.
The first mention of a cockatrice, properly speaking, is from Pliny the Elder, who calls it a basilisk anyway (I’ll get back to this discrepancy, gimme a minute). In his Natural History, published around 77-79 CE, Book 8 (zoology), section 33, he writes:
XXXIII. The basilisk serpent also has the same power. It is a native of the province of Cyrenaica, not more than 12 inches long, and adorned with a bright white marking on the head like a sort of diadem. It routs all snakes with its hiss, and does not move its body forward in manifold coils like the other snakes but advancing with its middle raised high. It kills bushes not only by its touch but also by its breath, scorches up grass and bursts rocks. Its effect on other animals is disastrous: it is believed that once one was killed with a spear by a man on horseback and the infection rising through the spear killed not only the rider but also the horse. Yet to a creature so marvellous as this—indeed kings have often wished to see a specimen when safely dead—the venom of weasels is fatal: so fixed is the decree of nature that nothing shall be without its match. They throw the basilisks into weasels’ holes, which are easily known by the foulness of the ground, and the weasels kill them by their stench and die themselves at the same time, and nature’s battle is accomplished.
Interestingly, he notes that weasels are also venomous. Nor was he the only naturalist to make notes about the basilisk/cockatrice. Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605), reckoned to be the father of natural history by no less a figure than Carl Linneaus, had a number of nifty titles to which he attached his name. Relevant for us is his Monstrorum Historia (1642) (but I have to mention as well his Serpentum, et draconum (1640), because come on.) Where is Rick Yancey when you need him???
Cockatrice or Basilisk?
The problem of the cockatrice or the basilisk seems to originate with the Bible. For example, Isaiah 11:8 (King James Version): And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’s den. Further mentions of “cockatrice” appear at Isaiah 14:29, Isaiah 59:5, and Jeremiah 8:17. However, by the 1885 revision, the King James changed this to “basilisk,” then later again changed it to “adder,” and finally to “viper” (reference here). Alright, fair enough – this is clearly a translation issue.
Cockatrice (English) would seem to come from Old French circa the late 14th century, cocatriz (note that coq in French is rooster and that perhaps some of the visual imagery arrived at this point?). Cocatriz in turn is from the Latin calcatrix, a derived noun from the ver calcare, which is itself a translation of the Greek ichneumon, meaning tracer or tracker.
The thing is, the ichneumon is an actual creature. Ironically enough, it’s the mongoose, the killer of snakes (hello, Riki Tiki Tavi!), and something that looks a great deal like a weasel. Hold on, let’s not get sidetracked, there’s more translation issues going on here.
So some Bibles may have used the word “ichneumon” in Greek but apparently the Hebrew word tsepha’ (or tsiphoni’ – not sure if one is a plural of the other or if they’re not actually related?) also plays into this, and this word means “serpent.”
Now, getting back to Pliny the Elder, while he never mentions cockatrices, he does mention both basilisks and ichneumons. These latter animals to which the Bible refers are most likely Egyptian mongooses.
Not only were these animals noted for killing snakes, in ancient times they were believed to take on crocodiles, diving into their mouths and going to town from the inside out. At the very least, they predate on serpent and crocodile eggs.
What we have, then, is the historical fact that basilisks predate cockatrices by at least 1000 years, given that Pliny was writing at the turn of the common era and that the latter beasts don’t show up until the medieval era. Translation errors would seem to have made the mongoose, a snake-killer, slowly metamorphose in our understanding, probably with an overlapping understanding of basilisk, to become the perceived cockatrice, itself only vulnerable to the very thing that gave birth to it in the first place: a weasel or mongoose.
I don’t know much about alchemy, but closing the circle that way really floats my boat and I’d like to think that somebody out there could do something with this. Come to think of it, its entire history is rather reminiscent of a snake eating its tail. Which brings us back to the basilisk, it being more serpent-like. Are these, in fact, two separate creatures, examples of convergent evolution by which they both end up with nearly the exact same fatal qualities and only distinct appearances? Could one be a sub-species of the other? The cockatrice, perhaps, as a late-breaking cousin or step-child of the venerable basilisk?
At the very least, we have to grant that there is a great deal of overlap between basilisks and cockatrices. And we’re still not done, because while poor translations of “mongoose” may have given us “cockatrice,” once we had this monster, we weren’t about to let go of it.
Heraldric uses of the cockatrice are found in England, France, and Switzerland, where it is the mascot of the city of Basel and has been for about 500 years.
“Hi! No, don’t worry, he doesn’t bite. Ha ha. Get it? He doesn’t bite because he stares and… Oh, you’re dead already.” Oh, those Swiss.
Heraldry being all about both lineage, pride, and history, I guess it’s not very surprising that people start getting specific. On the one hand, there’s this guy, who figures that anyone using a cockatrice/basilisk would be positioning themselves as a stern and deadly warrior. This other guy has to point out the difference between cockatrices and wyverns, though, which sort of drags cockatrices (and basilisks) toward the dragon camp, where they have never really been before now (and this third person does the same thing). Now, I don’t know anything about heraldry, but I have to wonder exactly how well its visual vocabulary was laid out in an era long before Shakespeare came around, and even by his day there was no one way to spell his name right. I have to wonder about consistency, that’s all I’m saying.
I have to say, I did not expect to be doing a bunch of poking into Bible and translation-related sites, but for now I’ll return to the beginning, ouroboros-like. I feel like the folks who put that first edition Monster Manual together had the right idea.
They both kill in the same ways. They’re equally deadly, differently armored, and one has wings. It’s a big world. There’s room for all kinds of alchemical, chimerical monsters out there.
Sources, Cited or No:
Amphisien cockatrice at Heraldry on the History Road (website, accessed 4 March, 2013).
Ashton, John. 1890. Curious Creatures in Zoology.
Bible History (website, accessed 4 March, 2013).
Bible Study Tools (website, accessed 4 March, 2013).
Bulfinch, Thomas. 1913. Age of Fable: Vols. I & II: Stories of Gods and Heroes.
Cockatrice at Probet Encyclopedia (website, accessed 4 March, 2013).
Cockatrice at Wikipedia (website, accessed 4 March, 2013).
“Ichneumon (medieval zoology)” at Wikipedia (website, accessed 4 March, 2013).
Online Etymological Dictionary (website, accessed 4 March, 2013).
Sacred Texts (website, accessed 4 March, 2013).
“The Saga of Ichneumon” at Linear Thoughts (website, accessed 4 March, 2013).
Unknown Explorers (website, accessed 4 March, 2013).
The rukh (or roc) is a giant bird of prey. It looks like an eagle. That’s pretty common knowledge, right?
Rukhs appear in 1001 Arabian Nights (which may date as early as the 8th century) in the stories of Sindbad the Sailor, specifically his second and fifth voyages. While the picture above is very evocative of the size of the rukh – specifically, of one of its eggs – it is inadequate to the task. When Sindbad discovers an egg initially, all he sees is a white dome in the sand. He paces around it to determine its circumference and determines fifty paces. Shortly thereafter a cloud seems to pass over the sun, but instead it is the bird landing to keep watch over its egg. As large as the rukh is, however, the egg is disproportionate and the bird can only cover it with one wing. (more…)
Technically speaking, any critter that shifts its features is a shape changer. Consider the vampire, occasionally attributed the abilities to transform into a rat or a bat or a large dog or a mist. And that’s to say nothing of faeries, dragons, or spirits that can affect multiple shapes; the djinni of Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus series, Marvel Comics’ Mystique, or the Dungeons and Dragons version of doppelgangers. In general, though, we’re not speaking that broadly when we talk about shape changers.
Really what we’re on about are werewolves and their ilk, but the fact remains that our imaginations run wild at the thought of transformation. As with our romance of vampires, there is almost always some kind of price to pay – hunger or loss of control and giving in to the animalistic nature, primarily.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t all of those other things, though. Shape changers are another in the big super-category bunch.
A Taxonomy of Shape Changing
We could potentially break this into two groups initially, those who change willingly versus those who change unwillingly, but we could as easily make those groups those who change at will and those who have no control over what they do. No, it’s got to be more complicated than binary oppositions. How about a preliminary list that will, I hope, take into account a variety of factors and features that allow for shape changing in its various facets?
Shape Changing as Ability
Occasionally, people and creatures can simply do this. Maybe there are restrictions and maybe there aren’t. It might be easier to change from human to wolf at the full moon, perhaps, but there’s nothing to stop you from doing it whenever. Or as a vampire, you become that rat or bat. The mutant Mystique can adopt the shape of anyone that she touches. Jonathan Stroud’s djinn (and his fellow spirits) can change their shape because their essence comes from the Other Place and is very malleable here on earth.
In addition, there are always those stories of Greek or Norse deities wandering the earth incognito. It helps that the deities look human, but apparently their disguises are good enough to mask their god-ness. Japanese spirits such as kitsune (fox creatures) can take human form and the witch Maleficent in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty turns herself into a crone.
All of which is to say, shape changing doesn’t have to be from animal to human, it can also be from human to human.
Shape Changing as Inherent to a Species
Breed, species, I’m not too concerned about the difference here. Now sure, you’re going to say that there is overlap here with Ability and I’m going to agree with you. The reason I separate the two is because doing so raises nuances. Having the ability to shape change does not make one inherently a different kind of creature. I considered this in relation to Rhiannon Held’s werewolves in Silver. They change only between human and wolf (no halfway humanoid shape here) and they are their own species. They keep to themselves but they interact with the rest of the world. There are advantages and disadvantages to these creatures – their shape changing is more of a chronic condition than a disease and they never “lose themselves.” Instead, they are equally rough humans as they are animals.
Shape Changing as a Curse
Consider the Frog Prince, who is *truly* human but cursed to be a frog until freed by an unlikely condition being met, the kiss of a princess (although being thrown and splattered against a wall works in some versions – yay!). This is an unwilling change (similar to Disease below) and not one inherent to the Prince in the first place, the same as the fate of Queen Elinor in the 2012 film Brave (albeit bear, not frog).
Which raises the question: should we consider the thrower of said curses to be shape changers? If the witch who cast that spell on the unfortunate prince (or on the Beast (see: Beauty and the…)) cannot change her own shape, s/he can certainly inflict change on another. Though who’s to say s/he can’t. In Seanan McGuire’s Rosemary and Rue, the main character, a changeling private investigator named October Daye in contemporary San Francisco is turned into a fish (a koi?) for fourteen years.
When the curse is broken, you’d think there would be some psychological consequences. The Frog Prince doesn’t often seem to have these, while October Daye’s are limited to disliking being submerged (showers are okay, baths are right out). Do shape changers have to get used to their new bodies again, or is it a seamless shift, mid-leap, into a cinematic landing?
Shape Changing as the Result of a Device
Perhaps a person has a special token that allows them to change shape. These may be foreign objects or what I’ll call inherent objects.
Foreign Objects include such things as hexenwolf belts, greegrees, or other talismans. The first of these turns the wearer into a wolf, as found in Steve Jackson Games or in Jim Butcher’s Fool Moon, in which several baddies don the belts to become, essentially, werewolves-thanks-to-the-belts. Greegrees are tokens in the MMPORG Runescape – the ones with which I’m familiar (thanks, Google!) let the holder become a monkey. The children’s cartoon Jackie Chan Adventures contains a world of magic talismans and the Monkey lets the holder change other people into whatever animal s/he wants. In each of these cases, the Foreign Object is a magically charged thingamahooie that has some kind of specific effect.
Inherent Objects are proper to a creature, and in this regard “Device” and “Breed” overlap. Consider selkies (seal-human), swan or dove maidens, or in some African folklore, people who can transform between leopard or buffalo and human. These changers need their skins in order to effect a change, a seal skin or a robe of swan feathers, for example. Inherent Objects are connected to their owners (or species), though. Unlike Foreign Objects, which can be picked up by any and everyone, if any of us put on a selkie’s skin we wouldn’t turn into a seal. At least if we can there aren’t any stories about this (Anne Ursu tinkers with this in her novel Breadcrumbs, in which the main character Hazel dons a swan maiden’s robe, but because it’s not hers the transformation is incomplete and grotesque).
A third path here contains skinwalkers, humans who use pelt-devices to switch forms. These are trickier because their devices are not inherent to their person (as with a swan maiden or selkie) but nor are they machinistic as with the foreign objects that can be used by anyone who happens on them. Presumably there is a connection of some kind between the artifact (pelt) and the creator (skinwalker) that doesn’t transfer simply because another person is holding the object in question.
Shape Changing as a Disease
The classic case, naturally enough, is lycanthropy, the horrific affliction under which a human becomes a beast. Nearly always an angry and rabid-like one, too. No one ever becomes a cute were-bunny (except Wallace, sort of). Worth thinking about. In this instance, there’s nothing particularly good about what’s going on – as with disease in general. Typically under the full moon, the disease rears its ugly head and causes the transformation from human to beast.
The short form of lycanthropy is, often enough, “lycan,” which preserves the Greek portmanteau origins: lykos (wolf) and anthropos (human). For a more general term, use “therianthropy,” the shifting between human and wild beast.
Diseases are malevolent forces that act upon our bodies. The victims of therianthropy not only become a creature, but they lose themselves to the anger of said beast.
The Nature of the Change
None of these categories addresses a separate issue, which is, “What kind of change is happening?” Is what we are considering a cosmetic shift, as Mystique, who, if knocked out, reverts to her normal blue form? Is it a full change from human to animal with full loss of human intellect? Is it a third path that has human knowledge in an animal body?
Fundamentally, the question here is how deep or complete does the change go? The dragons in Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina adopt human form to interact with people, but it is a great deal like a costume into and out of which it is difficult to climb. Losing oneself may be a matter of deed (the more a person with a hexenwolf belt gives in to the bloodthirsty nature, the more enmeshed s/he becomes in Butcher’s Fool Moon) or it may be a matter of duration, the amount of time a person spends as that-other-thing.
Update: I’ve just started the book Rabid (Wasik and Murphy, 2012), and they mention the goddess Diana’s transformation of the hunter Actaeon into a stag as punishment for him seeing her bathing. Actaeon is completely aware of what has happened to him and names his favorite dogs as they tear him to pieces. So don’t forget to look at Ovid’s Metamorphosis (the source of said story) for more inspiration.
Humanity and Bestiality
Similar to the dangers presented by Composite Creatures, shape changers typically run the risk of giving in to their animal nature and becoming that thing. As I’ve noted, however, that “nature” is almost always one that is hostile to humans. Consider that, while all animals are invariably dangerous to one degree or another (carriers of disease or eaters of meat or simply aggressive), there is not one that I know of that seeks us out as prey. Werewolves don’t seem to hunt anything other than people, if the threatened denizens of fiction novels are to be believed.
Presumably this is less of a commentary upon the bestial nature of beasts than it is upon the bestial nature of humans and the lengths to which we allow ourselves to go, or to which we subject those around us. Whether therianthropes imagine themselves on the next highest rung on the food chain or whether they seek to impose their Nietzschean überwill on the rest of us is one of the things that makes shape changers so interesting. Are they our unleashed id, given raw strength and teeth? If so, why do they always kill and so rarely mate? I mean, I look at my cats having killed a bird or a mouse or a squirrel (I’ve got mean cats) and as soon as that critter is dead, they’ve lost interest. There’s no bloodlust there.
People, on the other hand, we’re known for enjoying killing.
Power and Affliction
No such thing as a free lunch, right? Werewolves are vulnerable to wolfsbane and silver and lose control at the full moon. What they gain in strength and savagery (is savagery really a net gain?) and large invulnerability, they lose in reaction to even small doses of silver. After all, it’s not a bullet through the brain that kills them, it’s simply a silver bullet. Apparently a shot in the leg is as good as a shot to the heart.
When shape changing is not intrinsic to the being in question (it is an ability), there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of cost associated with it. In most cultural references, vampires no longer have the ability to change shape. If kitsune have weaknesses, they are related to their fox-spirit-nature, not to their transformational agility. In this case, it’s simply this cool thing I can do – and don’t forget the occasional gender-bending transformation, when a man can become a woman or vice versa. Question: what is scarier to you – being eaten by a werewolf or having sex with a member of the opposite sex who is actually the same sex as you? I bet more people would freak out about the second. Death, and especially violent death, is too abstract. Sexuality is every freaking day. (See: The X-Files episode “Gender Bender” (1994)).
Similarly, curses and devices don’t necessarily play with costs per se. Curses may leave the afflicted with their intelligence (the Frog Prince, the Beast) or deprive it (Queen Elinor, October Daye). In the former case, the victim may have a hand in their own freedom. In the latter, less and less as time passes and they forget their human side. This is useful for dramatic tension, but doesn’t shed much light on our “better” natures.
The different species are another thing altogether. They are, in good hands, a separate culture entirely. Held’s Silver does a good job of stratifying society, not to mention addressing her werewolves’ particular religious beliefs. Why wouldn’t they have them? Any group this unique would be bound to consider themselves the chosen ones (most likely; it’s what we all do) or the cursed, and they act to try and right whatever cosmic wrong they see themselves as having committed. Mind you, writing new cultures is hard work. It’s not enough to say that they like different music. I’ve held off on mentioning Stephenie Meyers’ werewolves because I haven’t read New Moon and I don’t know much about her world, though from what I gather, her shape changers are more culturally bound/species than they are diseased.
The disease of therianthropy is curious because the shape changer in question (I’m going to go ahead and stick with werewolf for now) is both afflicted with lycanthropy and the vector for the rest of the population. Whether or not that werewolf infects other people with his (for now) disease, he kills the creature around him. One werewolf equals many dead civilians. He is, in effect, an incarnation of disease given animal form.
Which on its own is an interesting idea: the physicalization or instantiation of disease. What kind of animal shape would ebola take? AIDS? Cancer? Influenza?
Is there a cure for therianthropy? Or a vaccine?
My initial intention was to write about dryads, but the slightest research indicated that I was operating with a mistaken assumption. “Dryad” is not a neutral or abstract term of its own. In fact, a dryad is not the spirit of a tree per se, but the spirit of an oak tree in particular. The larger term is nymph – a female nature spirit perhaps of trees (for example, ash: meliai; walnut: caryatid), or of streams, rivers and springs (pegaeae), or of mountains, valleys, and ravines (oreads). Et cetera and so on. Furthermore, there are other spirits of trees beyond those of Greek mythology – which got me to thinking, what is it that these various incarnations of tree spirits have in common?
It’s been a long time since I’ve done a bestiary entry. My initial thought was to tackle something off my running list-of-creatures, but I settled on Dryad and realized that there’s a lot more to it than just spirit-of-the-tree. So here we go with another super-category. I’ll be updating the Bestiary Page this week and adding a couple of related tags that I can expand on more easily. That being said -
In the ancient Near East – bleeding historically over time into Europe and so on and so forth – there is a broad category of beasts conceptualized as “composite creatures.” Unsurprisingly given this name, the beings in question are a hodge-podge assembly of various animal parts. Without intending any kind of hierarchy, there are roughly three categories of composites: (more…)
When we consider composite creatures like the Sphinx, Chimera, Pegasus, or Centaur, more or less monstrous beasts assembled from arbitrary parts of animals here and there (WHERE’S THE DAMN FISH TAIL?), of course we’re likely – now – to think, “How inane. How could anyone possibly imagine anything like that? Ridiculous.”
But there are real life composite creatures. The Cameleopard, for example. It is variously described as being humpbacked (the camel) with the spots (the leopard) and horns. This, certainly, is a composite creature, and old name lives on it the Linnean descriptor of its species: Giraffa camelopardalis. AKA the giraffe.
It’s worth keeping in mind that composite creatures are less uncommon than we think if we consider them in a purely external (visual) capacity.
And thus it is that I get to today’s bestiary entry.
Conventional scientific wisdom (about as accurate as conventional historical wisdom) says that the spots on the peacock’s train serve as a mating display and that the more eyes are visible, the better we can predict the male’s success and wooing a lady – a similar but less vociferous example of avian courtship as otherwise exhibited by Birds of Paradise. As with much conventional wisdom, this is not necessarily so – click the picture for a link to a story describing something like “threshold success” with peacock eyes.
According to Greek mythology, Hera placed the hundred eyes of the giant Argus on a peacock’s train after he died. Technically, after Hermes killed him at the behest of Zeus, but what’s a little homicide between friends and adulterous, divine spouses? Given this story, by far the most prominent one I found in the online component of my research, you’d be forgiven for thinking that peafowl are native to Greece, or to the Mediterranean basin, perhaps. You’d be wrong, but forgiven. Nope, the two most prominent species come from South Asia (present day India, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar/Burma), and there’s a third, much less display-worthy subspecies, out of the Congo.
Does this mean that the Greek story isn’t worth repeating? Or that the Christian symbology of the peacock as having beatific or omniscient vision is invalid? Nope. The fact that peafowl had to be imported to the Ancient Near East doesn’t even mean that the Hindu stories about them are necessarily the oldest ones. Probably. Almost certainly. But not definitely on this evidence alone. There are Sufi legends about peacocks, Japanese legends, and, if some New Age websites are to be believed, Native American ones as well (though this is more likely a doubled appropriation, in my estimation).
It’s not simply the colors of the peacock’s feathers that are amazing, nor their iridescence alone. They are, quite simply, remarkable birds when considered as a whole.
Now that’s a composite creature.
Depending on the culture, it is a symbol of the sun (perhaps due to its brightness?) or of rain (because of its behavior before storms). Because of its testy disposition, it is seen by other cultures as a guard (of deities or of royalty). It represents pride, love, eternal life, or resurrection.
In other words, it is rather more interesting as a palimpsest – the blank slate on which we write and define our own symbology.
It is also interesting that the female, the peahen, doesn’t seem to merit discussion, symbol-wise.
Images of sphinxes are found throughout the Mediterranean. The most commonly known of course are the Egyptian Great Sphinx at Gizeh and literary one who provides some backstory to Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.
What sphinxes share in frequent imaginings and images are a leonine body and a human head. They may or may not have wings; they may or may not have hooves. Related to the sphinx are the Sumerian lammasu, which are winged oxen with human heads. I know, I know, we’re talking about sphinxes aren’t we? Yes, but you see…
What most sphinxes share in their widest framework are elements of humans, oxen, lions, and eagles. Over at Infidels.org, one author argues that this is because the lion was the king of (wild) beasts, the ox was the king of the domesticated, the eagle reigned over birds, and man over everything. Marian Horvat includes a number of explanations of the significance of these four, and hosts a lovely image from the Book of Kells, showing a winged man (angel: man plus eagle) for the Gospel of Matthew; winged lion (lion plus eagle) for Mark; winged bull for Luke; and the eagle for John (she’s got a detailed explanation for each). The four of them show up in the visions of Ezekiel (and are also combined in some sources as cherubim, which didn’t become fat little winged babies until the Renaissance) as well as in Revelations (the throne of God is a composite creature using these four beings).
In other words, sphinxes (and lammasu, yes) embody elements of the most powerful (or at least respectable) beings around. And some of them are nearly 250 feet long and just over 65 feet tall.
DO NOT MESS WITH A SPHINX.
I mean, sure, “arcane wisdom,” go ahead and seek enlightenment and chit-chat, but be very careful when they start joking around wanting to play games and all.
I will now tell you the saddest thing about sphinxes ever, sure to pull the rug out from under all four of their paws/hooves/feet. Their name, in Greek, means “to bind tight” – perhaps all of those disparate, random pieces needed something to hold them together. The sad part? Etymologically related to the word “sphincter.”
There’s some consensus that a sphinx embodies “arcane wisdom,” but I’m less inclined to go with the many folks who add on “treachery” or “deceitfulness.” After all, the sphinx that Oedipus defeats doesn’t go back on the game. In fact, she kills herself. The riddle was given to her by the Muses, so there’s the arcane connection, but I don’t see anything about going back on her rules. Capricious? You bet. Maybe a touch psychopathic? Absolutely. Could be the animal nature. Hard to say.
And here’s the thing – there aren’t many other literary examples that I’ve been able to find. Aeschylus wrote a satyr play (The Sphinx, go figure), also about Oedipus’ Theban nasty. One shows up as an example in the “Tablet of Cebes,” referring again to the Oedipus story (looks like Sophocles might have been dramatizing a well-known story?). Apparently Aristophanes compares them to courtesans in The Acharnians, which might account for that deceit? It’s all speculation.
Their placement at tombs and before royal palaces gives their statuary a guardian role, and along the northern coast of Africa and into the Fertile Crescent, they carried this more positive value than the one ascribed to them by the Greeks.
What if sphinxes aren’t native to Greece, and thus their strange foreign ways (eating people who couldn’t answer riddles) were seen by the Greeks in the most negative light possible? Because I’ll tell you, if the Theban Sphinx thought she was actually guarding the city, then until Oedipus came along and took out the giant watchdog, she was doing a bang-up job. Nobody got in. Then Oedipus – hardly a paragon of virtue (in sum: kills dad, marries mom; has kids who are his sibling/children – YUCK*) – comes along and screws the whole thing up. Mistaken identity? Culture clash? You’re the writer, you be the judge.**
The second big splitting point seems to be whether their composite nature is a plus (ancient understanding, so far as we understand it: brings in the best of all worlds) or a minus (modern understanding: human versus beast nature).
As with the sphinx’s riddle, their Mona Lisa-like smiles on statues, whether they’re good or bad or just plain dangerous, sphinxes themselves are a bit of a cipher. We’ll agree to agree on one thing: arcane wisdom. They’re smart and they know stuff that ordinary human beings have trouble grasping. Maybe they’ll even share it with you. For a price. How do you feel about barbecue sauce?
Further reading on provenance:
- Helium on Greek Mythology: Sphinxes
- Theoi on various legends; including two where the Chimera is the sphinx’s mother
Categories? Did I say something about clean categories?
My big ol’ important sounding theory about the four beings and their relative importance in the grand scheme of the ancient Near East? Well, as far as sphinxes go, it doesn’t hold all the water. There are at least two types of sphinxes common to Egypt that do not agree with my ox-man-lion-eagle arrangement:
- The Hieracosphinx – a falcon-headed sphinx (different from the eagle-headed griffin, which is also, otherwise, sphinx-like)
- The Criosphinx – a ram-headed sphinx
You know who wrote about these? Herodotus. And he was practically even around when those things were carved, so if anyone knows, it’s him.
But what if he’s wrong and they’re just cousins? Seriously, an eagle or a falcon head is all that separates a griffin from a hieracosphinx?
Sphinxes from Beyond
Besides the lammasu, sphinx-like composite creatures show up elsewhere in the world. Wikipedia has a small sub-section on sphinx-like beasts from south and south-east Asia. Not only do these have physical similarities to those we’ve already examined, both seem to have some kind of divine function. Elmer Suhr (see references below) argues for the sphinx being representative of the lunar eclipse, the necessary counterpart to the Pharaoh’s solar lineage; he dismisses the “guardian” notion, for why would the realm of the dead need a guardian? In southern India, though, their divine function at the borderlands just past life and into death is to remove the sins of the faithful. Maybe “guardian” simply isn’t exactly the right word.
- Sphinxes are composite creatures.
- The closest thing we have to a contemporary account, by Herodotus, is Greek – the folks who maligned and disparaged the sphinx’s character as “treacherous.” Is a griffin a kind of sphinx? Is a “hieracosphinx” in fact a kind of griffin?
- They are found historically closer to the equator (perhaps bounded by the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn?), as far west as the Mediterranean and as far east as the Philippines. More remote geographic references to them (throughout Europe) are based on the Renaissance more than original invention.
- They are, if not divine themselves, connected to the divine. They are arcane.
What do they mean? What do they do? That’s still a bit up in the air. According to lots of Internet sources (with no formal references behind them that I can immediately see: here’s one example), the “Celestial Sphinx” was an Egyptian constellation dating from 14000 BCE. Does that signify divine? Otherworldly? Are those even the same thing?
What do you want the sphinx to be?
Besides online links, there is also
Suhr, Elmer G. 1970. “The Sphinx,” in Folklore, pp 97-111. Taylor & Francis, Ltd. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1258941 .
* I know what you’re going to say. Oedipus didn’t know that the man he killed was his father. He didn’t know that he was marrying his mother. He acted in good faith. I, too, have made those arguments. He was merely a tool of the gods. You know who doesn’t care? The Furies, that’s who. And their opinion means a lot more than yours or mine.
**Several sources specifically identify the Theban Sphinx as having come from Ethiopia or other parts of Africa.
Everything concrete you can know about the ouroboros – and I mean everything – is contained in the creature’s name, roughly translating as that which eats the tail. Anything else is just speculation. And inspiration.