During the past few thousand years, artists and poets alike have discovered the powerful symbol of the sphinx. They have portrayed the sphinx in many shapes and forms, touching upon the many aspects of its charm. This ancient symbol can at once be the solitary, enduring remains of a lost civilization, representing an idol for divine worship and a means for revealing the mystery of human existence. This is the original Egyptian sphinx, a giant monument that has stood for over 4500 years, gazing to the east in its silent pose. Its ancient origins have long since been blown around by the desert wind, eroded by the desert sand, and modulated by the many human encounters long after its builders' time. Although modern scholarship has revealed a great deal about ancient Egypt, the sphinx's intrigue lies just as much in the course of its 4500-year-old lifetime as it does in the original ancient purpose of building the monument.
However, the sphinx can also be a terrible, beautiful, devouring monster that preys on the feast of human weakness. This is the Greek sphinx that stood atop the mountain overlooking Thebes, sent down by the gods to wreak a plague upon man and his corruption. She is a monster: part lion, eagle, serpent, and most fatal of all, the human female. She riddles those who dare approach her, and strangles those too weak to answer correctly.
Seated Female Sphinx from Eygpt during the Roman period, 2nd century A. D. [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]
These two opposing images of the sphinx converge with the emergence of Decadence. The Decadents found that the sphinx, in all aspects, fit into their movement: the exoticism of distant sand-swept lands, the mysticism evoked by the rituals of a lost civilization, the eroticism of a devouring female monster, the mystery of existence, mortal suffering, and the passing of mortal time. A number of Decadent artists explored the various aspects of the sphinx, stripping it down to representations that captured the essence of their beliefs. Each artist's depiction focused on a specific idea. Pulling them all together, we can construct the magnificent Decadent sphinx. But first, we must revisit the early history of the sphinx.
The sphinx has existed since the early Egyptian Dynasties, if not before. The most notable is the Great Sphinx of Giza — one of, if not the oldest sphinx image — which resides among the Great Pyramids of Giza. Though its ancient origins are still unclear, the Egyptologists generally agree that the Sphinx was built in resemblance to Khafre, who built the second pyramid and ruled during the Old Kingdom, around 2500 BCE. During this time, the Egyptian kings were at the same level as the gods: each king embodied the sky-god Horemakhet, Horus in the Horizon (Pinch 143). However, in Egyptian mythology the gods took many forms and were often merged to create new representations. This increased multiplicity adds to the power the image evokes. Khafre was one of the first to incorporate the sun-god Re into his name, resulting in the divine manifestation Re-Horakhty, Re-Horus of the Horizon (Jordan 180). The creator-god of the Old Kingdom Atum, the All, also merges with the king-god deity to form Re-Horakhty-Atum — the sun-god, the sky-god, and the first creator in one representation (Jordan 182).
The Great Sphinx of Giza pays tribute to both the kings and the gods. The Egyptian word for the sphinx, transliterated as shesepankh, means "living image of." The Sphinx is the living image of the gods, taken from the iconography of Atum with a lion's body and a human head that resembles the king of the time, Khafre (Jordan 181). It sits facing due east, towards the rising sun, as a tribute to Horus in the Horizon.
Since the fall of the Old Kingdom around 2200 BCE, the Sphinx has endured reburial, erosion by the sand and desert winds, repair and restoration, introduction to the western world, and excavation. Napoleon's military expedition into Egypt at the end of the eighteenth century paved the way for the discipline of Egyptology. Prior to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone and his crew's thorough descriptions of Egyptian monuments, the ancient civilization had remained shrouded in mystery (Jordan 21). After J. F. Champollion deciphered the hieroglyphs in the early 1820s, Egyptologists could use the writing and artifact remains to put together a history of ancient Egypt.
Among such discoveries was a Stela at the base of the Sphinx between its forepaws as the sand was cleared. It dates back to the reign of Tuthmosis IV in the New Kingdom, around 1400 BCE, and relates the circumstances in which he became pharaoh. At this time, the Sphinx was falling into ruin. It was known as Horemakhet, Horus in the Horizon, and an evolved representation from Egyptian mythology: Kheperi-Re-Atum, the sun of the dawn, of midday, and of the sunset, a direct descendent of Khafre's idol. Falling asleep in the shadow of the disheveled Sphinx, now over 1100 years old, Tuthmosis said that the god Horus spoke to him. Horus said that if Tuthmosis repaired the "ailing limbs" of the Sphinx, he would become king of Egypt. Tuthmosis followed through with the god's bidding. The Sphinx was cleared of sand and repaired.
During the early stages of modern Egyptology following the deciphering of the hieroglyphs, this discovery only reinforced the mystery of the Sphinx. The "Dream Stela" reveals a portion of the Sphinx's timeline, but its origins remain unclear. It appears that the powerful symbol of the Sphinx was lost after the fall of the Old Kingdom, and reemerged over 1000 years later as the divine idol of a new era. After the New Kingdom, the Sphinx again was lost, buried up to its neck in the desert sand.
Egyptologists can slowly piece together the history, but with such a vast expanse of time that separate the creation of the Sphinx from its modern-day excavations, only so much about its origins can be determined for certain. The artifacts and wondrous monuments of ancient Egypt that prevail are the products of thousands of years of desert weather and human confrontation. Much is lost or changed in the progression of a 4000-year-old process. Through the years, these remains are recreated by passing civilizations, as Tuthmosis did, or worn down and buried by the blowing desert wind, lost in the sands of time.
With each century that passed, new waves of people discovered the mysterious, gigantic head erected in the sand by the civilization long passed. In the first century AD, Plutarch observed that the sphinxes represent an enigmatical sort of wisdom (Regier 23). For the first millennium AD the Sphinx represented just this — a distant and forgotten past.
It was only after the early developments of Egyptology that the complete nineteenth century representation of the sphinx was formed. The western society recognized the power such a long-lasting monument holds, as well as the mystery it represents. As Egyptology made further advancements toward understanding the ancient times, the power of the sphinx as a divine idol became clearer, though still not wholly certain.
This is the enigmatic Sphinx that the nineteenth century artists beheld. It, along with the Great Pyramids, is the remaining idol of a lost civilization of four-thousand years. It represents the mystery of the civilization. As more of its past was discovered during this period of rapid development in Egyptology, the question of its origins was narrowed. Its mystery became divine, a representation of ancient religious beliefs with unknowable powers.
Elihu Vedder depicted the artistic appeal of the Egyptian sphinx's enigma in The Questioner of the Sphinx (1863). Amidst ruins in the desert sand, a lone pilgrim kneels before the head of the Great Sphinx, his ear to its stone lips — but his questions will not be answered. The ruins that surround him and the skull half-buried in the sand emphasize the transience of human civilization, while the Sphinx endures the passing of time. As Marjorie Rich notes, Vedder explains that he is not interested in unveiling the mystery of the sphinx, but rather, he seeks to capture the feeling of its grandeur (40). Vedder has taken the archeological image of the Sphinx and given it reign to his imagination. He uses the Sphinx's mystery to create an enigmatic picture of human existence. In his commentary, he states "my idea in the sphinx was the hopelessness of man before the immutable laws of nature" (Rich 40).
The Decadents picked up on the same intrigue of the Sphinx that Vedder touched upon. They too saw the sphinx as a symbol of mystery, and related it to the questions of human existence.
In Greek mythology, the sphinx is famous for her part in the tale of Oedipus. She is a monster, the offspring of Echidna, the mother of monsters (Pinch 115). The earliest recording of the tale was by Homer in the first millennium BCE. However, Homer did not mention meeting a sphinx at all. Later, around 700 BCE, Hesiod wrote about a sphinx in Thebes, but without relation to Oedipus. It wasn't until the fifth century BCE that Sophocles recorded the most famous version of Oedipus and the sphinx, and this is the version that has succeeded.
Oedipus, well on his way to fulfilling the fatal prophecy, confronts the riddling sphinx on a mountaintop overlooking Thebes. The oracle of Apollo at Delphi has declared that he will kill his father and couple with his father. He has fled Corinth, believing that the king is the father he is destined to kill. At a crossroads, he comes head to head with another party and refuses to move out of the way. They fight and Oedipus slays them all. He continues on his way. Little does he know that he has just slain his father Laius, king of Thebes. Laius also was seeking the same oracle at Delphi, but in order to heal to the plague that had descended upon Thebes.
Oedipus arrives in Thebes, and finds that the city is dying. The gods have called down the female sphinx to punish Thebes for its corruption. Laius knew of his son's prophecy, and took the necessary measures to ensure he would not impregnate Jocasta. However, one night he was drunk and Oedipus was accidently conceived. He sent the baby away to be killed, and satisfied his sexual lust by kidnapping a young boy Chrysippus for sex. Hera, the god of marriage, sends the sphinx to punish Laius' pederasty (Regier 200). The sphinx ravages the countryside and preys on the young men of Thebes. She plays with them first, giving them a chance to answer a riddle that, upon answering correctly, would make her go away. "Which creature in the morning goes on four feet, at noon on two, and in the evening upon three?" None who confronted the sphinx could answer her riddle, and upon guessing wrong, they were strangled by her fatal embrace.
At the mountaintop, Oedipus beholds the sphinx. She has the head of a woman, the body of a lioness, the wings of an eagle, and the tail of a serpent. Oedipus confronts the sphinx and her riddle, and it is clear to him. He replies: "Man, who as an infant crawls on all fours, as an adult stands on two legs and in old age relies upon a cane." In agony, the sphinx leaps to her death and Oedipus unknowingly fulfills the second part of his prophecy. As the victor of the sphinx, he becomes the King of Thebes and takes Jocasta, his mother, for his wife.
Depictions of this Greek sphinx appeared between 600-500 BCE, when the Greeks and Egyptians were trading (Jordan 208). In conjunction with the legend of Oedipus, the sphinx took on its powerful representation as a female beast of punishment. The Greek word for sphinx is sphingein, derived from a transliteration of Egyptian's word for sphinx, shesepankh. While shesepankh means "living image of," the Greek sphinx has an entirely different meaning: sphingein means "to strangle" (Jordan XVIII). Though the transliterations may have sounded similar, the meaning of the benevolent Egyptian sphinx was lost in translation, and a fatal Greek sphinx emerged.
The sphinx's power lies in her figure — a deadly combination of woman and beast. With her wings spread high in victory, she is majestic as an eagle. She is a predator: the rippling muscle of her leonine form and her solid paws are ready to throttle her prey. The serpent on her tail is a sinuous reminder of her serpentine charm, as well as the original sin. Her charm is even more prevalent when a man beholds her front on: she bears the breasts and head of a beautiful, seductive, and tantalizing woman.
The riddle she presents also makes her power as a Greek monster clear, compared with the lowly mortals who dare confront her. To the gods, man's life is as transient as the rising and falling sun of a single day. From infancy to adulthood to old age, the sun rises to noon and then sets. Though the cycles of mortal existence have occurred for thousands of years, and will continue just as the sun continues to rise and fall during the day, the fate of the individual being is depressingly evident. And it doesn't help that those who do not see the reality of mankind clearly enough to answer the sphinx's riddle are promptly strangled and devoured, unable to finish their own cycle.
Left: Oedipus and the Sphinx by J. D. Ingres.
Right: Oedipus and the Sphinx by Gustave Moreau
To the nineteenth century artists, this representation of the Greek sphinx was as certain as the texts of Sophocles' plays. The story of Oedipus and the sphinx had been recited for over 2000 years and was well known. The Victorians knew the famous riddle of the sphinx well and how Oedipus solved it. J. D. Ingres depicted the straightforward mythology with Oedipus and the Sphinx (1808-1827). Oedipus stands posed before the sphinx, gesturing as he tosses around possible answers to the riddle and proceeds to explain its meaning. Later, Gustav Moreau depicted a slightly less-traditional narrative with his version of Oedipus and the Sphinx (1864). The sphinx climbs half-way up Oedipus' body as his robes threaten to fall away. They are engaged in an intense stare, one of increased sexuality and eroticism of the female sphinx that Ingres does focus much upon. Aside from Oedipus' calm, it isn't immediately clear that he will be the victor. The scene hints at the psychological power in the sphinx's destruction that Oedipus must overcome.
It was this kind of a transformation, though to a much greater extent, that the Decadents brought to the Greek sphinx. They saw that its representation stretched beyond the limits of an ancient myth and fit well into the Decadent movement.
The Decadents found in the sphinx a number of appealing themes drawn from its vast history. As Urban quotes from Frantiek mejkal's "Symbolika sfingy v umen’ prelomu stolet’" in his decadents catalogue In Morbid Colours, "The sphinx summed up the whole spectrum of motifs and symbols" (286).
The Egyptian sphinx was first and foremost an enigma, a symbol of mysterious origins and happenings during its many-thousand year lifetime. It also served as an outlet for the themes of human suffering, exoticism, mysticism, and spirituality. Frantiek Kupka's pieces painted at the fin de si¸cle emphasize the enigma of the Sphinx and ancient Egypt after the emergence of Egyptology. In Defiance (Black Idol) (1900-1903), he depicts a colossal statue dominating the dark desert. It is a seated idol upon a gigantic throne, as large as the pyramids to the viewer standing on the desert sands. In the foreground, ancient remains protrude from the dredged, moonlit sands and unsettling water that lead to the idol. Though the sky is dark, the black idol is darker and gives the sky an eerie light. Its head looks to the heavens and its arms rest on its throne. Kupka does not try to elucidate the mystery of this idol. He gives no hint at its origins or purpose beyond the power of its enormous presence. The Black Idol defies a precise understanding and is surrounded by mystery. By placing the viewer below, a fair distance away and looking up at it, Kupka puts its power into human perspective: the viewer is mortal and far separated, both in knowledge and in spatial terms, from the mystery of the Black Idol.
Left to right: Defiance and Path of Silence both by Františec Kupka. How Time Etches Our Wrinkles by Františec Bilek.
Kupka's Path of Silence (1902) depicts an avenue of sphinxes during the night, similar to the avenues of Karnak and Luxor. However, these sphinxes rise several body heights and continue down the lane for an immeasurable distance. According to Urban, "every step forward means another question" for the pilgrim who walks down the avenue (286). The stars above dot the night sky, signifying the means of a greater understanding, but the pilgrim does not look up; instead he looks down toward the ground, lost in thought and pondering the questions of life. The idols of this painting are lit by the moon and appear almost benevolent, a sharp contrast to Defiance (Black Idol). This painting captures the separation between mortal and understanding in a different way. Though the idols appear to hold the meaning of human existence that the pilgrim seeks, such a quest only leads to more questions — right on down the line. Kupka has depicted a spiritual journey without an end, guided by the mystical power of the sphinx.
Františec Bilek's How Time Etches Our Wrinkles (1902) brings the human aspect even further into Sphinx's representation. His charcoal sketch is contained within a circle, a fitting border for the art nouveau design of humans flowing to their death as the heavy, chiseled sphinx watches them. Indication of the passing of time is clear: at the top is a couple grasping hands, and at the bottom a dead form is carried around by the waves. The couple at the top looks sidelong at the sphinx, which stares right back. As they travel the course of time and end up like the dead form below, the Sphinx remains looking — the passing of time merely etches its wrinkles. Gazing at the sphinx, the couple sees the wrinkles of themselves, of the modern humanity that the Sphinx has overseen for thousands of years. The Sphinx has been around to witness it all, but it does not reveal the answers — only the wrinkles — of time.
These three paintings show the Decadent fixation on representations of the Egyptian sphinx. Each presents the Sphinx as a symbol for the enigma of human existence, emphasizing the vast distance between humans and the ancient Egyptian idols we behold.
Meanwhile, an entirely different aspect of the sphinx was being pursued by Decadent artists. The Greek sphinx held a number of alluring themes surrounding mankind's downfall. It was explored as an image of destruction, eroticism, pain, mortal suffering, and death, with an emphasis on the female aspect of man's weakness — the femme fatale.
Left to right: The Sphinx by Františec Drtikols. The Kiss of the Sphinx by Franz von Stuck. Sphinx by Valère Bernard. [Click on thumbnails for larger images.]
Compared to other Decadent images of the sphinx, Valere B¸rnard's Sphinx (1896) and Franz von Stuck's The Kiss of the Sphinx (1895) line up very well with its traditional representations as the beast on the mountaintop overlooking Thebes. B¸rnard depicts the victorious sphinx after a kill. Her powerful claws rest upon the dead man, her wings are spread high, her enormous tail lies heavily on the rock ledge, and her female beauty opens out to the sky. Mortal pain, suffering, and destruction are all at her command. The dead man below her is thin compared to her voluptuous majesty. His lifeless arm remains pinned to his chest by her claw, and blood trickles down toward his neck. His head limply hangs back, and his eyes have sunk into dark holes. This sphinx holds no weakness. There is no indication of a riddle that, upon a correct answer, spells out her doom. She is in charge and man clearly does not stand a chance.
In Stuck's The Kiss of the Sphinx, a man and the sphinx are engaged in his fatal embrace. Though von Stuck and B¸rnard are both showing the sphinx's power, this depiction enhances a lesser portrayed, though most certainly noticed, aspect of the Greek sphinx: her sexuality. Her powerful claws draw the naked man to her breasts, which bulge against his chest, strangling him. He is helpless, one arm grasping onto the sphinx's back while the other flails, fingers outstretched in agony. His pain is most certainly two-sided: that of pleasure and that of suffering. B¸rnard's work also hints at the sphinx's sexual power. Her prey's legs are wide open and she is plopped right on top, completely cool and moving on from the transient excitement after devouring him.
The Greek sphinx's sexual power becomes even more prevalent in other Decadent paintings. Von Stuck painted The Sphinx (1895) around the same time as he painted The Kiss of the Sphinx. This sphinx is a nude female posed on a red velvet blanket, staring straight ahead. Von Stuck completely neglects her animal parts, indicating that the entirety of this sphinx's power lies in her female sexuality. He essentially reduces the sphinx to a femme fatale. Frantiek Drtikol also makes this depiction in his print The Sphinx (Cleopatra) (1913). Here, a nude female sits posed atop a naked, lifeless man, and faces the sky in victory. They are making a statement about the Decadent man's weakness: woman's sexuality is far more dangerous than any mythical monster. As Bowness notes of D.G. Rossetti, a man of great influence to the Decadents, in the introduction of the Tate Gallery's Pre-Raphaelites, "His [Rossetti's] deepest belief was that woman enshrines the mystery of existence." Indeed, after Rossetti's works of Lady Lilith (1864-68), Proserpine (1877), and Circe Invidiosa (1892), among others, the Decadents continued to explore the intrigue of the femme fatale.
Von Stuck and Drtikol also add another element to the Decadent sphinx: a more decadent environment. The Greek sphinx destroyed the countryside of Thebes, leaving it dreary and aweary, a desolate eyesore. At her mountaintop, the sphinx was surrounded by the remains of her prey and dull rock faces. More in custom with the Egyptian sphinx, the von Stuck and Drtikol gave an artificial environment more suited to a Decadent who tires of nature's monotony. Along with the red velvet blanket, von Stuck's sphinx has a small waterfall pouring into a dark pool by her side. She is framed by an ornate gold and marble design, with her title precisely carved into the marble with the decadent mimicry of an arcane font. Drtikol's sphinx is placed on a carved stone base, and her title is engraved on its side in shimmering letters.
Khnopff's Caresses (1896) explores the sphinx's charm in ways the previous Decadent artists have not. The female sexual power is not overt in this sphinx, nor is the male weakness. Both of the faces are androgynous, the male is not particularly muscular, and the sphinx, though she does have her leonine body, does not show her breasts. However, this does not detract from the sphinx's power. The male appears in a trance as he looks to the distance. The sphinx's eyes have narrowed as she makes a preliminary caress across her prey's abdomen. She is still a powerful seductress — she has drawn ion her prey and is that much closer to having her feast.
In order to construct the Decadent sphinx, one must look at both the Egyptian and the Greek sphinxes and how the Decadents represent each. The Egyptian sphinx represents the enigma of human existence, from the presence of the idol from an ancient time. Its symbol gives the Decadents a comparison to the very finite span of a human lifetime. The Egyptian sphinx is a point for the questioning soul that represents a lifetime, an existence, and a meaning bigger than one's own. Meanwhile, the Greek sphinx takes on an entirely different power, one of brute strength, majesty, and sexuality. The Decadents find an intriguing subject in the danger, destruction, death, and suffering it represents — a raw force that puts puny mortal existence into perspective.
From such diverse meanings, the sphinxes of two great ancient civilizations converge at Decadence. Combined, these two form the Decadent sphinx: the ultimate symbol of physical and existential power.
Jordan, Paul. Riddles of the Sphinx. New York: New York University Press, 1998.
Lenardon, Robert J. and Mark P. O. Morford. Classical Mythology 5th ed. White Plains: Longman, 1971.
Pinch, Geraldine. Handbook of Egyptian Mythology. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2002.
Regier, William Goth. Book of the Sphinx. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.
Rich, Marjorie. "The imagination of Elihu Vedder--as revealed in his book illustrations. American Art Journal. 6.1 (May 1974): 39-41. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1593964?seq=2
The Pre-Raphaelites. London: Tate Gallery/Allen Tate, 1984.
Urban, Otto M. In Morbid Colours: Art and the Idea of Decadence in the Bohemian Lands, 1880-1914. Prague: Municipal House and Arbor Vitae Press, 2006.
Last modified 16 May 2008