Blog Post #72: Solving the Riddle of the Sphinx with Thierry Petit

Our blogs posts this month explore the modern constructions of “East” and “West”: how these influenced the study of the ancient Mediterranean, and how the ancient Mediterranean was used in turn to further entrench these constructs. Authors take a range of approaches for evaluating how we deal with the persistence of “East” and “West”, interrogating the ways in which we study and understand the materials, motifs, and people who moved around this ancient world.

What topic do you study?

One area of my research concerns Mediterranean representations of the sphinx. It has less to do with the Egyptian variety (male and wingless), than with the Levantine, Cypriot and Greek sphinx (usually female and winged). I don’t study it morphologically, in terms of its form, but focus on the context of its emergence and dissemination, and especially its attendant meanings.

Owing to the Oedipus myth and the riddle it posed, generations of scholars (besides Sigmund Freud!) have been fascinated by the Greek figure of the Sphinx. But when we examine pictorial representations of sphinxes, we notice that they don’t fit the legendary narrative, and that most of them are not renderings of the myth. As a result, the meaning of the figure in the Greek and Roman worlds has largely eluded us.

So I went back to its oriental antecedents to solve the enigma. There is little doubt that the Greek sphinx originates from the East, for it is previously known to us from Levantine representations. If “sphinx” is the Greek name for this monster, what was it called in the Near East? The answer lies in Biblical texts: “cherub”. Its function can likewise be gleaned from a passage in the Book of Genesis. Having banished the disobedient couple from the garden of Eden, YHWH stations “cherubim” and “the flame of the whirling sword” (that is, lightning) to “guard the way to the tree of life”. In other words, to prohibit humans attaining immortality.

a black a white drawing of Levantine Cherubim guarding access to the tree of life, which is in the centre of them.
Fig. 1 Levantine “Cherubim” flanking (and guarding the access to) the tree of life (After Barnett R.D. 1975, A Catalogue of the Nimrud Ivories in the British Museum, London, p. XXXIV:S50).

I drew on this affinity in several papers and in a 2011 book, to suggest that the Greek sphinx served a similar function: cherubim (often depicted in pairs) are there to guard access to (eternal) life. Whereas they bar the way for the disobedient couple in the Genesis story, they could just as well, in different circumstances, grant the meritorious access. Detailed study of figural representations of the sphinx bears this out; the Levantine, Cypriot and Greek sphinx lacks the menacing aspect implicit in the role foisted on it in Biblical narrative or Greek myth.

Having researched the figure and its significance in the Eastern Mediterranean, I am currently looking at regions further west, studying it in the context of Etruscan, Roman, Carthaginian and Iberian civilisations. Preliminary findings are in line with what we know, that throughout the Mediterranean—and beyond, since the Roman Empire spread the figure as far north as Hadrian’s Wall—the sphinx represents a promise of life after death.

What sources or data do you use?

While there are a few passages in the Old Testament which refer to cherubim, and several Greek and Latin texts that talk about the Theban Sphinx, the figure is depicted visually, as I mentioned, in scenes that are not consistent with the role assigned it in literary texts. My sources are therefore essentially iconographic. Context, that is to say, the other figures with which the sphinx is associated, provides the key. To put it another way, the imagery—contrary to frequently accepted opinion—is not a straight forward representation of the myth or legend.

A red figure kylix showing Oedipus sitting down, gazing thoughtfully up at a Theban Sphinx sitting on a pillar.
Fig. 2 Oedipus and the Theban Sphinx (,Attic_red-figured_kylix,_by_the_Oedipus_Painter,_470-460_BC,_inv._16541Museo_Gregoriano_EtruscoVatican_Museums-_DSC01041.jpg)

The nature of the material support varies greatly, depending on the civilisation: bone or ivory carvings, seals, metal objects, painted vases, figurines, bas-reliefs, sculpture, murals, mosaics, etc. Rather than starting from texts and treating images as mere illustrations, our point of departure should be the far greater wealth of images that elucidate the literary narratives.

How does your research shed light on real people in the past?

Historiography has tended to underestimate the eschatological concerns of those in the ancient world. Based on a false dichotomy between pagan religions and late ancient Christianity, with its promise of a hereafter, it was long held that people in pagan antiquity pictured the hereafter pessimistically, as a sad and sombre place where roving shades pined for their earthly existence. And this interpretation was generalised to all ancient civilisations. Calling attention to the function of the sphinx-cherub in each of them, allows us to bring those preoccupations to light.

When such representations are properly contextualised, we find rather that they express a more radiant vision of the afterlife, where the worthy deceased can expect to join banquets of gods or heroes, on the Isles of the Blessed, in Elysium, or in the celestial spheres. We thereby rediscover long neglected articulations of those hopes.

Further Reading

In press, “Sur la route des étoiles : un nouveau sphinx dans la Domus Aurea”, in M. De Souza & P. Rodriguez (eds), Mélanges en l’honneur d’Yves Perrin. 

2020, “Les sphinx sur la statue de Prima Porta. L’apothéose d’Auguste”, Ktema, 45:237-258.

2017, “Monstres sauvages ou hybrides psychopompes ? À propos du livre de Lorenz Winckler-Horaček, Monster in der frühgriechischen Kunst: Die Überwindung des Unfassbaren, Berlin/Boston, 2015”, Dialogues d’Histoire ancienne, 43:13-32.

2016, “Sphinx et katabasis dans la peinture de vases”, Cahiers des Études anciennes, 53:113-150. 

2015, “Chevauchées d’Outre-tombe à travers la Méditerranée”, in St. et R. Nawracala (eds), ΠΟΛΥΜΑΘΕΙΑ. Festschrift für Hartmut Matthäus ähnlich seines 65. Geburtstages, Herzogenrath, 433-454.

2015, “Sphinx, chérubins et “gardiens” orphiques”, Museum Helveticum, 72:86-116. 

2013, “The Sphinx on the Roof. The Meaning of Greek Temple Acroteria”, Annual of the British School at Athens, 108:201-234.

2011, Œdipe et le Chérubin. Sphinx levantins, cypriotes et grecs comme symbole d’Immortalité (OBO 248), Fribourg – Göttingen. 

2006, “Un voyage d’Outre-Tombe : le décor de l’amphorisque T.251/8 d’Amathonte”, in N. Kreutz & B. Schweizer (eds), TEKMERIA. Beiträge für Werner Gauer, Münster, 269-289. 

2004, “Images de la royauté amathousienne : le sarcophage d’Amathonte”, in Y. Perrin & T. Petit (eds), Iconographie impériale, iconographie royale, iconographie des élites dans l’Antiquité, Saint-Etienne, 49-96.

Thierry Petit wears a long grey loose-fitting button up shirt, light grey pants, and a black belt. He has a headscarf on, black sunglasses, and has grey and black facial hair. The background is light blue, and he is presumably somewhere arid.
Thierry Petit

Thierry Petit, erstwhile Foreign Member of The French School at Athens and currently professor of Greek and Roman archaeology at the Université Laval (Quebec City – Canada), holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Liège (Belgium) and a postdoctoral degree (“Habilitation à diriger des recherches”) from the University of Paris IV – Sorbonne (France). Educated in ancient history, oriental languages and archaeology, he is an authority on Achaemenid history; archaeology of first millennium BCE Cyprus, the Aegean and the Levant; and relations between the classical world and the ancient Near East. Petit is also director of excavations at two sites: one in Cyprus, at the Amathus Palace, the other in northern Syria, in the north-west sector of Apamea, on the Orontes River. His most recent books are:

∙ Œdipe et le Chérubin. Sphinx levantins, cypriotes et grecs comme symbole d’Immortalité [Oedipus and the Cherub: The Levantine, Cypriot and Greek Sphinx as Symbol of Immortality] (Fribourg-Göttingen: 2011).

∙ La naissance des cités-royaumes cypriotes [The Birth of Cypriot City-Kingdoms] (Oxford: 2019).

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