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.