Friday, January 9, 2015

The Sex Life of the Sphink

This post was published for the first time in 2005 and it is reproduced here with some minor modifications. I must admit that I had some fun in writing it!


As monsters go, the Sphinx is a rather nasty one due to her habit of devouring those unfortunates who can't solve her riddles. However, she also seems to have a sexuality of her own, shown by her prominent female breasts that we can see in most modern images. In our times, the sex life of the Sphinx remains a mystery but, as for what song the Sirens sang, “not beyond all conjecture” It may turn out that the breasts of the Sphinx, far from being an iconographic accident, are the key to the entire myth. (Image courtesy of Ray D. Pounds II ) 

There are two versions of the Sphinx: male and female, most commonly found in ancient Egypt and Greece. The male (Egyptian) sphinx is stately and solemn, not very sexy. The female (Greek) one, instead, has a sex appeal that you can't ignore. Which other half-human creature in mythology is so often associated with naked breasts? Mermaids, harpies, medusas, chimeras, sirens-- they are all females and, occasionally, they are shown sporting human breasts (and, in the case of Hollywood mermaids, bras as well). But the image that we normally have in mind of the Sphinx is clear and consistent: she has these prominent female breasts and, almost always, no bra. 

Where does this busty image of the Sphinx come from? For an answer, we must examine the origins of a myth that has been with us for a long time; millennia. Ancient images of winged lions are common all over the Mediterranean and, sometimes, the lion is associated with a Goddess riding it. When the lion’s head is human, we call the creature a sphinx. Sometimes we can recognize the creature as a male sphinx, and sometimes as a female one. But, even in the latter case, we don’t normally see human breasts in these very ancient images. 

From Minoan times, back to the 2nd Millennium BC, all the way to classical Greece, we have plenty of paintings or sculptures of sphinxes of all shapes and sizes. Breasts, however, just aren’t there. As an example, on the right we see a Greek sphinx from the Delphi museum (6th Century BC). The same we can say for ancient text sources; we have several mentions of the Sphinx, from Hesiod, (probably 9th Century BC) to Sophocles (5th Century BC) and onwards. It is often said that the creature is female but breasts are never mentioned.

Apparently, however, the image of the Sphinx evolved in time. During the classical Greek, and later Roman, period, breasts started to appear, associated with sphinxes. In some images, we see rows of breasts under the belly, as proper for a lioness, as we see in the image on the left - found on the web (unfortunately without a source attribution), is an example. It is a curious image, almost a comic book one. As befits a Sphinx, this one is literate, she is reading something. She has several breasts a row, but they go all the way to the front of the chest, in a position where no four-legged creature has breasts. And these breasts are plump and nearly spherical, not like animal breasts; more like human female breasts

In time, it seems that the Classical image of the sphinx evolved in a form that showed just a couple of human-sized breasts. Here, we see a Sphinx (ca. 400 BC) said to have belonged to the private collection of Sigmund Freud himself.

With the decline of the classical world, the Sphinx theme declined from the visual arts, although it never disappeared. Medieval artists loved fantastic beasts, but they didn't seem to be especially interested in sphinxes. However, with the late Renaissance, the classical world burst out again on the art scene and, with it, breasted sphinxes came back with a vengeance. This image on the left, by the Italian mannerist painter Perino del Vaga (ca. 1500-1547) gives us some idea of how things had changed. This sphinx is almost aerodynamic; it almost looks like one of those Detroit cars of the 1960s, (maybe those prominent car bumpers of the time had a sexual meaning!) And, considering the frontal weight, one wonders whether this creature would be able to walk without falling on her… er… face. 

With the late Renaissance and early post-Renaissance, there also came a wave of erotic interest in female breasts that had been unknown before. In the 17th Century, women started wearing corsets, to sport deep d├ęcolletages, and to flaunt their cleavages to men. Nobody seem to know for sure what caused this change in fashion and in attitudes, but sphinxes seem to have been affected by this evolution, too. From then on, no artist would think to draw or paint a breastless Sphinx. 

During the “Neoclassical period”, from late 17th Century onward, female sphinxes became a commonplace decorative element in gardens all over Europe and were referred to as the “French Sphinx”. Sometimes, these creatures don’t look very sensual, at least to our modern eyes. Their body is heavy, more like that of a cow than that of a beast of prey. Their posture is solemn, and their hairdo often a funny mix of what may have been the fashion of the time and what the artist thought it should have been in ancient Greece or in Egypt. But their breasts carry a message: no more the virginal breasts of later Greek art, but full breasts of a mature woman.

Garden Sphinxes. From left: Tivoli Gardens, Roma. Belvedere Gardens, Vienna, Chickwick gardens, London.

The eroticism of the Sphinx in art went up of a couple of notches with the 1800's. The first to start pushing things in this direction was the French painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867). Ingres painted three images of Oedipus and the Sphinx, the last one in 1864. The one on the left was painted in 1825. In all these images, the Sphinx is half-hidden in shadows, but her human breasts are in full light. Note Oedipus’s posture, the height of his face, the position of his hand and finger. All these elements  emphasize the Sphinx’s breasts as the central theme of the whole painting. 

In the 19th century, the Sphinx, became a favorite theme of the Symbolist school. The Symbolists tended to eroticize everything classical, and the sensual side of the Sphinx – her breasts – was something that they didn’t miss. Their attitude may have had something to do with the moral attitudes of the time. Many Symbolists were English and they lived in Victorian England. So, they tended to react as they could to the official prudery of their times: they couldn't paint naked women, but they could explore the anatomical features of a non-human creature and eroticize them at will. Gustave Moreau (1826-1898) was one of the Symbolists who explored the Sphinx theme in detail. His sphinxes are always shown as human-breasted and strongly sensual.

Some of Moreau’s Sphinxes

In time, the sensuality of the Sphinx literally exploded on the canvas of the artists. On the right, you an see an interpretation by the Belgian symbolist Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921) in a 1896 painting that he entitled “Caresses”. Here, we see how sensual a Sphinx can be, even without prominent human breasts. She is a leopardess, tenderly embracing an ephebic Oedipus. Their expression, their posture, are all details that convey the impression of a seductress, happy with her conquest.

But it was Franz Von Stuck (1863-1928) who best captured the Sphinx's sensuality with this 1895 painting. No trace of lions or leopards, here, no wings and no serpent’s tail. Yet, Von Stuck had no need to write “Sphinx” on the top of his painting to tell us what he was showing. It is perfectly clear that we are looking at the Sphinx, divine seductress. She has gone full cycle, from lioness to woman. She has large eyes, a sensual mouth, well rounded buttocks and, of course, well formed breasts. She is relaxed, dominant, self-assured, and in full flower. Under the Sphinx, we see the parable of human life. In this composition, the Sphinx takes on her proper role of Goddess, dominating the creatures of the Earth.

The fascination of the symbolists with the Sphinx’s myth lasted for about a century and gave us many splendid images. In time, the theme was explored and re-interpreted over and over. In our times, the number of images of the Sphinx is prodigious and the number of variations is beyond all possible attempts of classification. One thing that didn't change, however, was the idea of the “lioness with human breasts.” Sometimes breasts are shown in full, sometimes just hinted at, but they are always there. Here are some examples.

From left: Mark Ellis, Salvador Dali, Selina Fenech, Darren Davy. 

At this point, we may ask ourselves what is the whole idea about. Why is the Sphinx always endowed with these prominent frontal objects? Surely, they are not to be intended as overdeveloped flying muscles (as Roy D. Pounds suggested). Several generations of artists couldn’t just have been involved with a mere decorative element, a detail of no significance. These breasts must mean something and the artists who have shown them so often seem to have been able to catch an aspect of the myth that may difficult or impossible to express in words. 

From the early studies of Desmond Morris (“the naked ape”, 1967), anthropologists have noted that the shape of human breasts is much different from that of four-legged animals. The idea that has been proposed is that human breasts carry a visual meaning immediate for creatures like us, who interact with each other by standing in front of one another. It may be that prominent breasts signify the health of a woman, her sexual status, her ability of raising children, or something else. In any case, they may be a sexual message aimed at males. 

This attitude has genetic origins, but it is surely mediated by cultural factors. We know that the modern Western erotic interest in female breasts is not necessarily shared by other cultures, ancient of contemporary. But our attitude is not unique in human history. For instance, in the sophisticated and complex Minoan art of the second millennium BC, women are shown with exposed, pear-shaped breasts. These Minoan ladies wouldn’t be out of place on the pages of the modern “Playboy” magazine. (Image on the right, from J. Campbell’s “The Masks of God”). 

However, the attitude of the Classical world toward female breasts was completely different. In Greek, and in later Roman art, naked female breasts are not uncommon, but they don’t seem to carry a strong sexual message. Breasts appear mainly when there was a logical reason for a woman to be shown naked. That was the case of amazons and athletes, for instance. In other cases, a woman could be caught fully undressed while bathing, but these images were not centered on breasts as an erotic element. Or, an exposed breast could be a sign of distress. This seems to be the case of the piece of statuary known as the “Barberini Suppliant,” that may represent the rape of Cassandra after the fall of Troy. There are other examples of this kind.

A literary glimpse of ancient attitudes towards breasts comes from Pseudo-Lucian’s “Amores” (probably 2nd Century AD). Here, two friends discuss the relative merits of straight and gay love as they pause to admire the statue of Venus in Cnidos. Many facets of human sexuality are explored in considerable detail in this ancient text, but women’s breasts are never mentioned as an object of erotic interest. Even the one of the two characters who expounds straight sex doesn’t seem to find the naked breasts of the goddess particularly exciting. When breasts are mentioned, the sense is much different. So, we are told (41) that women would wear,

“.. thin veils that pass for clothes so as to excuse their apparent nakedness. But everything inside these can be distinguished more clearly than their faces except for their hideously prominent breasts, which they always carry about bound like prisoners.” 

Yet, we can say that the ancient Greeks were not indifferent to female breasts, they just saw them differently. We may find a hint of what was their attitude in one of the few surviving fragments of the “Little Iliad” (written a couple of centuries after Homer’s Iliad). Here we read that, after the fall of Troy, Menelaus was ready to kill his wife, Helen, out of revenge. But he cast away his sword when he caught "a glimpse of her breasts, unclad". In our modern view, we would see a woman unveiling herself as passing a sexual message. But we saw that breasts didn’t have a strong erotic meaning for ancient Greeks. So, in showing to Menelaus her breasts, Helen was sending him a quite different message; a message of intimacy. In Euripides (5th Century BC), we hear Helen, captive in Egypt, fondly remembering Menelaus “caressing her breasts”. Breasts that a Greek woman would normally keep “bound like prisoners, ” but that she couldn’t keep hiding while in bed with her husband. So, what Helen was saying to Menelaus with her gesture was, “know who I am: I am your wife.”

In the Iliad, Menelaus was arriving in front of Helen with his sword still dirty of the blood of Deiphobos, Helen’s second Trojan husband. In the myth of the Sphinx, Oedipus was arriving in front of the Sphinx with his sword still dirty of the blood of his father, Laius. These two scenes are eerily similar and, by showing her breasts, the Sphinx was passing to Oedipus the same message that Helen was passing to Menelaus, “know who I am”. When a woman unveils her breasts, she is revealing an intimate part of herself; she is showing herself for what she is.

The Sphinx was opening herself to Oedipus, showing him her intimate essence. What this essence was, can be understood from the riddle she asked him, “what is it that walks on four legs in the morning, on two legs during the day, and on three legs in the evening?” We all know that the standard answer is “man”. But this is a silly answer to a riddle which is not a silly one. Think of a different answer: why not “woman”? 

This is not just a question of political correctness: think how the life of a woman is naturally divided into three periods: virgin, mother, and crone. It is a much sharper subdivision than anything that we can relate to a man. And this simple reversal of roles opens up a whole universe. If the riddle hints at the ages of a woman, what the Sphinx was showing to Oedipus was a vision of the triple essence of the Moon Goddess. The moon can be waxing, full, and waning. The Sphinx herself, being of divine nature, had a triple shape: woman, bird, and lioness. These three shapes are the three elements of the female essence: the lion (the strength of a virgin), breasts (motherhood of a mature woman) and wings (the link with the sky: the wisdom of an old woman). (Image on the right, front cover of R. Graves’s “The White Goddess”)

So, Oedipus was presented with a vision of the Female Deity. The Sphinx was offering him nothing less than a sacred initiation to the Goddess’s mystery. As a characteristic of initiations, he would be symbolically “devoured” by the Sphinx, and he would experience death and rebirth. But Oedipus couldn’t understand what was being offered to him. He gave a silly answer, refusing the Sphinx’s offer. Later in the story, Oedipus’s curse was to become blind, but he had started out blind. Blind to the beauty and the power of the triple goddess. Some say that Oedipus actually killed the Sphinx, some that he didn’t touch her, she killed herself. It doesn’t matter; Oedipus’s blindness gave him the power of destroying everything and everyone he came in contact with. When meeting the Sphinx, he had already killed his father and, later on, he would cause the death of Jocasta, his mother and bride. Later still, the death of his daughter Antigone and of his sons was, again indirectly, caused by Oedipus’s actions.

Men are cursed with the power of giving death. Women, instead, have the power of giving life. This is the ultimate meaning of the Sphinx’s breasts. It doesn’t matter if breasts are seen as erotic objects (as they are to us) or as tokens of intimacy between husband and wife (as they were for ancients Greeks). Breasts remain the source of life’s nourishment, the awesome power of the Goddess: Inanna the moon goddess, Tiamat the dragoness, Eurynome, who created the whole universe with her dance. 

In our times, the myth of the Sphinx is emerging from the depth of the past millennia to confront us again with Oedipus’s dilemma. The Sphinx is bringing to us a message that goes to the heart of what means to be human, to our relation with everything which is alive around us on this planet. As a Goddess, she is carrying with herself the power of creation and of destruction at the same time. Creation and destruction are the laws of the universe, which will eventually devour us all, no matter what silly answers, in our blindness, we think we can give to its riddles.

Franz Von Stuck (1863-1928) 1895

The author is grateful to ms. Alison Frank for her comments on this manuscript. All the images on this page are believed by the author to be in the public domain or to be usable according to the “fair use” clause of current copyright laws. If you own one of these images, write me  to have it removed or to receive proper credit. This text may be freely cited and reproduced, mentioning the source is appreciated! Thanks.

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