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Attempting to unveil the real Sphinx!

19/10/2014

Sphinx!

An ancient creature of legend and lore that still captivates our fantasy as it did enchanted the mind of our ancestors. It still preserves a fame of keeper of secretes who will be revealed only to those that can solve the riddles she offers. Even the origins of the creatures name are a mystery. Some claim it came from the Egyptian word for “man-beast” while others say it comes from the Greek word for constrictor or “crusher”.

Sphinx

Egyptian sphinx. Source: commons.wikimedia.org

The Egyptians depicted it with a man’s head on a lion body that for them represented the strength, the wisdom of the Pharaoh. Probably to them it was even a benevolent creature if we trust the number of the sphinxes leading the way to the gate of the Karnak temple. The notion of “keeper of secrets” comes strongly to mind when someone looks at an Egyptian sphinx.

The Greek Mythos has entire different approach altogether. In the Hellenic atavistic memory the sphinx was connected with deceit, death and destruction. It was wing monster with a female head and torso connected to a lion’s body that ended in a snake-like tail. The poet Hesiod in his work Theogony says it was daughters of Orthus and Chimera, but Apollodorus says it was the daughter of Echidna and Typhon, all of them hideous monsters of the Greek Mythos.

Sphinx

The riddling Sphinx, at the bottom of a Greek wine-cup in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Source: http://www.ancientworlds.net

The gods Hera and Ares sent Sphinx from her homeland Ethiopia (others say Lykia) to Thebes. She established herself on the road to the city, intercepting travelers and asking them the following riddle: «What living thing has one tong but then becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?» She was strangling and devouring those who failed to answer. Her reign of terror came to an end when Oedipus gave her the answer that it was the conditions human being from birth to death. According to Pseudo-Apollodorus the monster spoke a second riddle: «There are two sisters: one gives birth to the other and she, in turn, gives birth to the first. Who are the two sisters?» Oedipus answered «day and night» as the words have feminine form in Greek. Sphinx enraged run to a cliff at the Beotean coast and threw herself into the sea and drawn.

Oedipus and the sphinx

Probable Oedipus and the Sphinx. Seal-stone from Thisbe part of the controversial «treasure of seals dated around 1500 BC

Pausanias though in his work “Description of Greece” (IX. 26) writes that Sphinx was the illegitimate daughter of king Laius of Thebes. Her task was to weed out pretenders from the illegitimate sons of Laius who intended to inherit the throne. Through the surviving archaic legends we understand that Bronze Age Thebes was politically unstable and serves as a basis for this reconstruction. The kings were not up to the task of riding the tide of political intrigue. King Laius who established himself with Peloponnesian soldiers might have ruined it relations with his southern neighbors over a case of child molestation.

 

From the "House of Sphinxes", Mycenae

From the «House of Sphinxes», Mycenae, this heraldic sphinx dates to c.1300-1200 BC.The sphinx that arose in the Bronze Age Aegean was winged. Is easy to speculate that Laius bodyguards carried this emblem. Image source: plate 97, p. 114 The Mycenaeans, William Taylour.

He was also siring children with mistresses of aristocratic clans who had claims to the throne. His libertine attitude didn’t help the situation either. The rejected queen Jocasta had to make him drunk so she could have a child from him in order to secure her place. It was probably the queen who aligned herself with an illegitimate female child of Laius from a foreign mistress to protect her infant son that would incur the enmity of the king. The legend says that Sphinx was sent to Thebes by Hera (goddess of marriage) and Ares (god of war) thus implying she had martial arts training and connection with the queen. She probably carried the emblem of the twin sphinxes that probably gave origin to the later myth. Her name and mythical description suggests uncanny abilities in “hand to hand” combat and small blades. Her bad reputation owing to the ruthlessness with which she carried off her duties and the fact that Thebans most likely resented having someone of foreign origin lording it up over them. It’s not unlikely also that Sphinx tried to usurp the throne of Thebes and hence Pausanias reference to Oedipus who drove her out with the aid of Peloponnesian mercenaries. He probably chased her off to the coast where her men escaped by sea. Refuges and outcasts they were probably forced into piracy. It’s worth noting that the hoplites from Naxos Island carried the emblem of the Sphinx on their shields.

Ivory puxis from Thebes dating to 1300 BC. Compair the 2 beasts with the previous image fom Mycenae. Its intersting to speculate that this was the Theban royal emblem in the Bronze Age

Ivory pyxis from Thebes dating to 1300 BC. (Louvre) Compare the 2 beasts with the previous image from Mycenae. It’s interesting to speculate that this was the Theban royal emblem in the Bronze Age

 

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