Friday, December 5, 2014

The Other side of the Sphinx

Some ancient myths come to us all the way from the twilight zone of mythopoiesis. These are stories that seem to come from the "dreamtime" of Australian natives, an age before written words, an age of which we have only hints that tell us of a different world. A world, however, that we find almost impossible to understand. One of these stories is that of Oedipus and the Sphinx, a baffling story; so far away from anything that corresponds to our experience. But it is a story that remains part of our consciousness, a story that we cannot forget. 

There follows a text on the myth of the Sphinx that I wrote some years ago, slightly edited in the present version

By Ugo Bardi, May 2005

"So that is what is hidden on the other side of the Sphinx!", AndrĂ© Gide  

The female sphinx of Greek lore, is monster, woman and divinity at the same time. Coupled with the dark story of Oedipus and of the Theban dynasty with their murders, incests, and struggles, it is a myth so rich and complex that unraveling it is a challenge that many have tried with various degrees of success. This text does not pretend to be the last word on the subject, and not even to be especially original. It is the mirror of a personal search, one in which the reader may – perhaps – see his or her own reflection.

It is said that, once, an anthropologist asked to native Africans if they could explain why lions kill so many wildebeest. The answer was that it was because, perhaps, lions like the taste of wildebeest meat. The natives's interpretation may not be as sophisticated as the modern, scientific one (whatever it may be) but, after all, nobody can say what lions think when they are killing wildebeest. What we can say is that we tend to find inner motives for what people (or lions) do. It is an intellectually dangerous kind of game, but one that we all enjoy playing.

If giving motives to lions is intellectually dangerous, what to say about the great lioness that is the Greek Sphinx? What are her inner motives? Why does she ask riddles? Why does she eat people? Probably, not just because she likes the taste of human meat. 

And the fascination doesn't stop with the Sphinx; we would also like to know what is inside the heads of the other characters of myth. Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx, freeing the Thebans of her curse. He marries his mother, queen Jocasta, and becomes king of Thebes. Before, he had killed Laius, his father. Then, when the whole story is discovered he blinds himself and runs away in the woods, while Jocasta kills herself. What to make of this dark story of sex and murder?

As it is told, the story looks absurd, baffling, even stupid. Just think of a detail: the Sphinx is said to have committed suicide by throwing herself down from the top of a mountain. Come on, a winged creature does that? And then, think of how Oedipus, amply warned by Apollus' oracle that he was going to kill his father and marry his own mother – and fully believing that – kills a man old enough to be his father and goes on to marry a woman old enough to be his mother. Is he supposed to be a moron or what? And how about Jocasta? What would you think of a queen who decides to marry a wanderer just appeared in town after someone had murdered her husband, the king, in the woods? As for the riddle asked by the Sphinx to Oedipus, it is so simple that even a moron could solve it.

Some people seem to have taken the story just for what it seems to be; a silly story for children. Already in the 4th Century BC, Palaephatus, in his Peoria Apiston, wonders why the Thebans didn't just get rid of that weird monster, the Sphinx, by showering it with arrows. In more recent times, Andrew Wilson sees the Sphinx as a sort of Godzilla in the wrong movie, a mere prop in the play, placed there in order to highlight Oedipus's intelligence (something badly needed, it seems). In her book "Unholy Hungers", Barbara E. Hort criticizes Freud's interpretation of the “Oedipal complex” and says that Oedipus can't be accused of any fault in having married Jocasta, since he couldn't know that he was her son.

Yet, Sophocles could not have written one of the greatest pieces of literature of all times if he had told us the story of a bunch of morons. Nor Freud could have based a large part of his psychoanalytic theory on the behavior of a moron who was also a sexual pervert. No matter how much some people attempt to explain the myth away, the fascination in it remains. It is fascinating because we understand that the characters of the story are neither morons nor perverts. We feel that they behave the way they behave because they can't avoid that, but, all along, they perfectly know what they are doing even though they can't admit that, not even to themselves. That makes them – mythical characters of a Thebes that  never existed – close to us, who don't lack things we all know, but that we can't admit to know; sometimes not even to ourselves. 

Don't you think that Oedipus knew, at least deep inside himself, what he was doing? And about the Sphinx having killed herself, you wouldn't doubt that, would you? Because if you doubt that, it means that you believe that the mighty king of Thebes killed the Sphinx himself, rather than shaming her by solving her riddle. Then, modern males, it seems, can’t remember to have been sexually attracted by their mothers or, in general, by older women. And modern females, it seems, can't admit to having been sexually attracted to younger men. Still, in Jocasta we see something that our society lets only occasionally surface: the dominant sexuality of older women. We recognize Jocasta in movies and novels: she is the Norma Desmond of "Sunset Boulevard", the Mrs. Robinson of "The Graduate". No doubt she exists in countless cases of real people. And Oedipus is one of us, too. We can see in him the aging hero of our times, of all times, the brave man who still tries to do his best only to be overwhelmed by old age approaching; the former hero who discovers that his heroic feats in youth were, after all, not so heroic.

But the Sphinx? Her mix of sexuality, power and darkness is so far away from our everyday life, so remote from our culture that we seem to be totally baffled by it. A Godzilla in the wrong movie, maybe. Still, we perceive that she has motives hidden in another, deeper side. We can understand this other side only if we go in depth into the myth. 

Robert Graves was, perhaps, the first to see the relation of the Oedipus story with the ritual sacrifice of kings in early human history. It was something that had been described in detail by the generation of anthropologists that had included Frazer and Frobenius. Neither of them mentioned Oedipus, nor did, later on, Joseph Campbell in his monumental "The masks of God". But the relation is clear: in these archaic times, kings were supposed to be sacrificed and replaced after some time, when their magical power was spent. In this light, Oedipus actions become suddenly clear, he is one of these sacrificial kings. He replaces his predecessor (his “father”) in blood and is, in turn, replaced, when the plague in Thebes indicates that his magical power is gone.

But, if kings are seasonal, queens are there to stay. And if the queen of Thebes is Jocasta, she and the Sphinx are two faces of the same coin, two ruling queens. We know of ancient times and places where a couple of queens ruled: that's what Herodotus tells us about the Amazons. The Amazons were mythical, but the ancient Cretans were not and, it seems, they did have two queens. In his "Masks of God," Campbell shows us the image of a Mycenaean statuette of two female figures (two queens?) and a child between them. Jocasta, the Sphinx and Oedipus, one is tempted to say. In ancient times, often goddesses seemed to come in pairs; from Inanna and Ereshkigal of Sumerian times to Demeter and Proserpina of classical antiquity. And with Inanna and Ereshkigal, there was a male spouse, Dummuzi, whose destiny, to be shredded to bits by the Galla demons, wasn't much better than that of Oedipus. 

So, the Sphinx is a queen, just as Jocasta. We may imagine that one of the two queens ruling Thebes, Jocasta, was more concerned with the temporal and material side of her rule, whereas the other, the Sphinx, more with the spiritual side, with the keeping of knowledge. And not just keeping, but also distributing it; she was a teacher. The Sphinx was referred to as a "singer" (a "chanting fury" by Sophocles). As for the song the Sirens sang to Ulysses, we can only conjecture about what the Sphinx sang to Oedipus, but we can say that she sang words of wisdom. We know that wisdom can be dangerous and it can't be freely given to anybody. As with many teachers of old times, would-be pupils had to pass tests, sometimes harsh tests. If they failed, there was a punishment. In the case of the Sphinx, being eaten was a harsh punishment, but the idea is there. 

So, the Sphinx is a teacher of wisdom. And, we may ask ourselves, when is that in our world that women are teachers of wisdom? The answer is never, or very rarely. Our teachers, our leaders, our philosophers, our role models, are all males and the few females who appear in dominant positions are cast in unnatural male roles, just as the mythical Amazons. And, yet, the figure of a woman as a teacher is not so remote from us that we can't get at least a glimpse of it. Just think of when Socrates, in Plato's "Symposium", turns to a female figure, Diotima of Mantineia, when it is a question to get to to the most important and most basic feature of all teaching: love, and not only carnal love but specifically love for everything which is beautiful and noble. Plato was living close to when and where the myth of the Sphinx was created and some hints of the old myth may have passed to the figure of Diotima as he describes her. 

There are many more examples. Think of that Brigid of Kildare, who was, it seems, consecrated bishop in Ireland. Think of that Roman “Alma Mater” goddess which we still use to define our universities. And think of how Dante Gabriel Rossetti, in his painting, caught exactly this aspect of the Sphinx. She doesn't just ask questions, she has answers. Answers to the deep problems of life and death, just as, in the painting, Oedipus/Rossetti questions the Sphinx about the fate of his dead friend. This is the other side of the Sphinx, the one where she is a teacher, not a monster; a source of wisdom, not of stupid riddles.

But this other side of the Sphinx is something that Oedipus missed completely. The question that the Sphinx asked to him, as it came to us, is trivial: what is that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs during the day and three legs in the evening? Easy; but it wasn't just a silly riddle, it was part of the teaching and it had a hidden meaning, just as a Zen “koan” asked by a Zen master. The question that the Sphinx asked was not dumb, it was subtle. The answer that Oedipus gave was not subtle, it was dumb. A subtle question such as this one has many possible answers, some wrong, some right. The answer that Oedipus gave was “man” and it was one of the wrong ones. One of the right ones was “Oedipus”. The Sphinx was asking to Oedipus to look into himself and Oedipus refused. He had reasons for refusing: it doesn't matter whether he had already killed Laius, his father; he knew – but he refused to admit - that the road he had taken was leading him to his destruction. So, rather to admit the truth to himself, Oedipus killed the Sphinx. Later on, the official truth became that the Sphinx had killed herself. It is all the same. People kill what they can't understand, what they don't want to understand. 

In our times, the Sphinx is no more a goddess, no more a queen. We can't even perceive that she has something to teach us. Still, she is the other side of ourselves, the side we choose to ignore, the side which has to do with the natural world and the way we poison, cut, pave and destroy it. The side which is leading us, eventually, to our destruction. That nature – and eventually ourselves – to which we show "maximum of commotion and minimum of kindness", as Keith Sagar wrote. We too, it seems, have killed our Sphinx, and Oedipus's blindness is, or will be, our curse. 


1 comment:

  1. This is a very good reading of the myth and the one that contains its true meaning. Every myth is like that - they contain ancient archaic spirituality masked by the images and situations which are scary to us, modern readers.