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Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Riddle and the Sphinx

"Oedipus and the Sphinx" was painted by Gustav Moreau in 1864, about the time upper Egypt was explored by Burton, Speke, Stanley and Livingston. The Nile's source became a confounding mystery for Europeans, as if the river coveted precious clues regarding the birth of man.

Grappling with history, the empires of Europe competed to locate the Nile's source and complete a story for the the birth of civilization. The Nile myth symbolized by Moreau's sphinx, depicts a creature far older than the pyramids, with deep animal roots. The painting portrays Oedipus confronted by the half-lion, half woman with wings, guarding passage to Thebes.

She demands an answer:

      "What walks on four legs in the morning, 
        two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening?"

Gustav Moreau, Oedipus and the Sphinx, 1864
Known to schoolchildren everywhere, the famous conundrum was first quoted in Sophocles' play, 'Oedipus'. Over the years there have been many evolutions, and poetic evocations:

     "A thing there is whose voice is one;
      Whose feet are four and two and three.
      So mutable a thing is none
      That moves in earth or sky or sea.
      When on most feet this thing doth go,

      Its strength is weakest and its pace most slow."
               (Athenaeus' rendering of the Riddle of the Sphinx)

Even today it stops the breath.

Moreau's Symbolist and Orientalist Sphinx presents Oedipus as European consciousness, sexually conflicted, yet well behaved. His seduction by the Sphinx is an assault on Logos by the pagan imagination, portrayed as an unconscious sexual force.

Moreau didn't break artistic ground with this piece. His oeuvre was poetic and allegorical, akin to the pre-Raphaelite painters, or poets of an earlier era. He excavated metaphor, and ancient patterns of expression as an illustrator. Drawn to psychological subjects with Classical origins, as a romantic traveller he visited the roots of civilization within our Mediterranean crucible. For his fidelity to subject we can be grateful - Moreau's work remains as a powerful psychological portrait of the 19th Century mind, confronting an archaic past.

Riddles speak the language of visions, and dreams. At their most profound they are deeply formed metaphors, devices of the self for securing and guarding unconscious content, a vault, difficult or nigh impossible to break using logic. Those of us stumped by riddles are usually hyper-aware, and overtly conscious. Ruled by Logos, we think too hard, and are blinded by abstract forms of language.

Mariano Sigman, neurologist, spoke of this linguistic divide:

"Julian Jayne['s] . . . wild and radical hypothesis: that only 3,000 years ago, humans were what today we would call schizophrenics. And he made this claim based on the fact that the first humans . . .  behaved consistently, in different traditions and in different places of the world, as if they were hearing and obeying voices that they perceived as coming from the Gods, or from the muses ... what today we would call hallucinations." [TED Talk, Mariano Sigman, February 2016]

Schizophrenics, it so happens do not have the same problems solving riddles. The riddle, like a dream, or a poem, stride both sides of an abyss, using language devised by the mind, to access subconscious content. Riddles are the poetic equivalent of a lock. The solution or key, akin to a combination or computer password, contains information necessary to access contents that lie behind and below. Were we able to measure its tumblers, we'd be able to construct the key.

Thus riddles sit and wait for the one to solve it. They want to be solved. And yet when riddles are solved, inexorably, the poser of the conundrum becomes self-destructive, angry and vindictive. The demons that guard riddles are jealous of the one bringing a solution. The guard loses all meaning of purpose, once his riddle is solved. When the Berlin wall fell there was an increase in suicides by border agents of the East German Republic.

Solutions, prophesies, oracles, and prognostications were often administered in the Ancient world through structured verse. The Pythian Oracle at Delphi spoke in riddles, her answers never absolute, were forever open to interpretation:

Two Roman senators visited Delphi, and asked together, 'Which of us shall be the first to rule Rome?"

The oracle's answer:   "The first to kiss his Mother shall rule." 

Delphic Priestess  (1891) by John Collier
In response, the two senators raced each other home as fast as they could to kiss their mothers. But their young aid, Brutus, had understood when the Pythian Muse spoke her pronouncement. He fell to the ground and kissed the earth. Brutus became President of the First Republic.

Consider the painting "Delphic Priestess" (1891) by John Collier. Even in the late 19th Century there was an awareness of the psychedelic trances inspired by ethylene gasses that emanated from the cracked earth at Delphi. The Temple of Apollo was built over the largest of these fissures, and may explain how the Pythian virgins achieved their metaphoric state of mind, enabling them to access pagan consciousness with unerring brilliance.

Also note how she seems to be hovering in the air, on two feet, but really is sitting on a tall stool, which has the carved feet of a cat. Has she become the Sphinx? She towers above her supplicants, ready to pronounce fate upon whomever asks, and pays.

The subtlety and candor of Delphic oracular statements are famous:

When King Croesus paid a high fee to Delphi and then sent to the oracle asking "Will my monarchy last?" the Pythia answered:

"Whenever a mule shall become sovereign king of the Medians, then, Lydian Delicate-Foot, flee  . . and think not to stand fast, nor shame to be chicken-hearted."

Croesus thought it impossible that a mule should be king of the Medes, and thus believed that he . . . would never be out of power. He thus decided to [join] . . . with certain Greek city states and attack Persia. . . However, it was he, not the Persians, who was defeated, fulfilling the prophecy but not his interpretation of it. He apparently forgot that Cyrus, the victor, was half Mede (by his mother), half Persian (by his father) and therefore could be considered a mule.   [fr. Wikipedia]

Ancient oracular statements typically were composed in pentameter or hexameter. In later years, during the Roman Empire, the statements were delivered in prose.

The I Ching, employs a metaphoric riddle-like structure, though the I Ching derives power from an answer that is resident in our own hearts.  The purpose of the I Ching is to unlock that answer via a provocative but ambiguous reading, that uses synchronicity to depict the moment in time. To interpret the I Ching, the accomplished student must develop his or her own knowledge and familiarity with the text.

Here is one such passage from the I Ching:

     "Pushing Upward,
      Has supreme success.
      One must see the great man.
      Fear not.
      Departure toward the south
      Brings good fortune."
            ['I Ching', Richard Wilhelm translation, Princeton University Press]

Metaphor entered the context primarily from the small 'change-lines', used to generate a gigantic number of possible readings. An example of  a change-line reading:

    "Six in the third place means, the fox's tail becomes wet crossing the stream - no blame."

The Bible also references classic riddles such as the famous one by Sampson:

      "Out of the eater came something to eat. Out of the strong came something sweet."
            (Riddle of Sampson from Book of Judges 14:12-20)

I'd like to note here that the Bible is comparatively a modern work. It's not pagan in style of authorship or viewpoint, hence riddles, and anything pagan was left aside by its authors.

Nevertheless there are those that argue that the Bible is rife with codes, hidden paradoxes, and layered meaning. As a work of literature, the Bible is intensely metaphoric, particularly the Old Testament as well as the Gospel pronouncements of Jesus, which are constructed with a riddle-like simplicity.

      "Let he that is free of sin cast the first stone."

Not a riddle, but similar. It forces concentration, and stops the listener from acting.

From a mythological perspective, a riddle stands guard, preventing the impure of heart from passing deeper into the dangers of the subconscious. For if the mind and heart cannot be loosened enough to solve a riddle, then it is grasping at the effects of consciousness, rather than appreciating their source.

The Muse does not want her language worshipped. Rather, she wants her language used to worship her. This is the demand of all poetry, and the subtle difference between the pagan and the modern mind.

Grasping at light leads to darkness. One so motivated cannot be receptive to metaphor, or deeper understanding. Perhaps this explains why children are uniquely superior to adults when solving riddles. I speak of metaphor outside of its common modern use that means a poetic 'device'.

Metaphor is more than this. Robert Graves wrote, "Metaphor is poetry and poetry is metaphor'. Metaphor is the first language, (the Muse would argue the only language) both at birth and forever after, because it gives birth to all other languages.

A riddle's strength derives from metaphoric structure. Great poems are riddles in some sense, because they organize content metaphorically, not factually. Robert Graves implied that poetry was the code of the Goddess, recognizing that poesy was her language. The metaphors it spoke of were hers, not ours.

The riddle-demanding Sphinx voice seems to be associated with cultures that have enjoyed a massive and very quick rise to consciousness through the medium of written language.

In other writings I've explored how consciousness is really the gift of selectivity, of forgetting, more than a totality of knowing. Consciousness masks out material. Focusing-in is made possible by a commensurate loss of awareness. Most of us think this way at work, as we drive through the requirements of our day. Logos unleashed without any lifelines into the Pagan, or primitive, follows almost unwittingly, our darkest myths, and so leads to Fascism, and crimes against humanity. All the perpetrators of demonic acts throughout history were heavily armed by Logos. They were behaving, logically.

So most of us are perplexed but enchanted by riddles, dreams, and by poems, as well as the teachings of great teachers such as Jesus, the Buddha, whom, to a modern mind, also might seem to speak in 'riddles':

      What's logic to a heart that's making sense
      But tragic to the art of making amends?

Mythologies, fairy tales, and folklore, abound with beings that transform from one creature into another, sphinxes, griffons, unicorns, krakens, all represent 'still-frames' of a transformative energy.
1 of 64 Yoginis, Hirapur, Madya Pradesh, India

When modern authors speak of being 'stung', or 'bitten', we are metaphorically projecting energies borrowed from the animal kingdom onto human nature, while also acknowledging the power of the animal or pagan mind to draw us back into earlier modes of thought.

Graves traces an Irish mythic creature that flies as a bird into the water, becomes a fish, and then emerges as a horde of insects, changing form many times. This is indeed what all life does, in an endless transformation and exchange of form and energy. Some 'creatures' express that transformative power, as a sort of 'pagan-still-frame', much like the Yogini-cult sculptures of the Divine Feminine with alligator heads, donkey-heads, snake-heads, that stand to this day in central India.

Sphinx-like clearly means 'cat-like'.

Here's Ferdinand Knopff's painting "The Carresses" treating the same topic:

Ferdinand Knopff, 'The Caresses', Royal Museum Fine Arts, Belgium
The Pharaohs' massive architectural projects were concerned with afterlife, and restoration of their souls to galaxies in the heavens. Congress with the infinite and imponderable reaches of space and time were primary Egyptian concerns. While the mythic role of Egyptian Sphinxes are not known, the mysteries posed may mimic a return of the Pharaohs to the stars of Orion. The Sphinx may thus have been the gatekeeper to their celestial getaway.

What riddle would the Pharaohs have been asked?

      What dread riddle, what Tarot sign demanded,
      Puzzled what dead Pharaoh, from Orion first landed?

Knopff's sphinx is portrayed as a cheetah-woman. The cheetah, which only kills prey by asphyxiation, has claws that are too short and ineffective to do much except grasp. Chased down at blinding speed, the prey must be dispatched by clamping the jaws on the throat. Knowing this, Knopff puts his sphinx dangerously close to Oedipus' jugular.

The linguistic connection between sphinx and. asphyxiate, serves the metaphor of the Sphinx as 'one who stops the breath'.

To stop, or to die, means to stop breathing. This implies how the riddle may be solved. Keep breathing!

For if one continues to breathe, and relaxes, one may just solve the riddle. Tensing up is like asphyxiation. Logos, logic, intellectual concentration, are threats to the vital force.

Viewed by our Mythos, our collective subconscious, modern Logos appears as an interlocutor, a well-armed parasite, or aberrant growth. Indeed from an evolutionary perspective, there is much to mistrust in one who uses solely logic. Logic as a method of thinking must have for thousands of years been regarded the way biologists currently see invasive species, as a pervasive menace.

That distrust is the subject of many parodies, one of the most notable the performance by Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove in Kubrick's great film of the same name. His character, an eerie premonition of Dr. Henry Kissinger, employs Nazi-like logic during a time of atomic crisis. He's a caricature of a man ripped apart by battles with himself. His left hand, presumably ruled by the 'right' hemisphere of his brain, constantly tries to strangle him, while the other hand fights it down. These antics, a slapstick evocation of Thomas Jefferson's anguish, 'My Head and My Heart', amuses his followers, who view them as indicators of superior intelligence.

For the Ancient Greeks, all creation flowed from the Muse. The male-led pantheon of Gods and Goddesses, speak of the nine Muses who were the original Muse's nine granddaughters. Zeus also descends from the Muse, hence no miracle that 'Muse' and 'Zeus' sound alike.

MoSES, and JeSUS also.

Same sounds again. Greek myth is clear on this, in language that Zeus himself imitated when he puts Aires, God of War in his place saying "I dangle you as an imperceptibly small fish on a string and can do with you whatever I like."

So the fighting mind, Logos, which is so prone to becoming emotionally motivated, is dangled from a string by our subconscious. We live as pariahs to what we don't understand, and what most of us by what we have forgotten.

Greek Mythology is also very clear on the transition of power from Goddess worship to God worship,. The sexuality of the Sphinx also underwent a transformation. The typical Egyptian sphinx was male, an androsphinx, the later Greek sphinx was female.

When bronze developed as a fighting metal, and iron was being used to make cauldrons and tripods for cooking, the transition occurred. Men were better equipped to wage war, or to pound metals at the forge. Written language took the place of oral culture. Stories of heroes, are written, for the first time. Writing favors Logos.

Hera, Zeus's wife,, is virtually discounted by Greek Myth as a nasty wife getting in the great man's way. Parvati, wife of Shiva, in India, is more equally represented, and embodies qualities of the original Godess, Kali, and Shakti-ma.

Transition to male dominance also meant the driving of certain Goddesses and practices into the forest. Artemis, Apollo's sister, went in the forest where she delivered children, tended the sick and wounded. It would be the 16th Century before men would reclaim medicine from the feminine, when witch-hunts were conducted throughout Europe and America. Today the archetypal doctor is male, in ancient times healers were women.

A riddle is a safety bridge, it allows a return from explorations of the unconscious via the mysterious, then back again to the conscious, if you're lucky enough to have solved it. If unsolved, you remain stuck at the doorway, brain short-circuited, confused, either terrified or delighted, for that is the objective of most riddles, to create the phenomena of mystery, sans the desolation brought on by certainty.

One might go mad seeking a solution. One might proceed too hastily, with ego, once a solution is found. It is but one fork in the road.

So with poetry. A good riddle may rhyme, or weave mystery in verse. Rhyme is a metaphoric ally, in that what sounds alike may often mean alike.

The spoken riddle is the conscious end of a riddle or dream. It's the usable part. Yes a riddle per se has 'a' solution, but if you think clearly about the simpler version of the Oedipal riddle, you quickly realize that:

      The riddle's day calling takes a man,
      From a crawling babe, to a walking cane.

A single day as metaphor for a lifetime was the riddle, reflected by the full mythos - the Pharaoh's lifetime is metaphor for eternity. These are metaphors of time and space. Assuring the afterlife of the Pharaoh, gave assurance to the people of Egypt of eternal richness, fertility of the Nile, and continuance of the royal throne.

The mystery goes further than this. It is a mystery of numerals, and advanced mathematics. Great Greek geometers learned their basics in the Nile Valley.

      "Whose feet are 4, and 2, and 3."

4 legs, (crawling) 2 legs, (walking) 3 legs, (hobbling), in turn become the feet or dimensions of a scalene triangle, a recognized unit of Greek geometry, an indispensable tool to the pyramid architects.

The calculation of angles in the scalene triangle, of unequal sides, requires advanced trigonometry. This was developed in Egypt when mathematics fostered a mystical connection with the study of time and space. The mysterium may actually be the truest form of knowledge because it gives birth to all other concrete forms. The mystery is the source, that which is unknown is the parent of all that is known. The mysterium is the carrier, for without a mythos, knowledge cannot pass.

Comprehension is proceeded by an elegant mystery. By confusion, grounded in the eternal.

We're shown a glimpse of the mystery, which flees like wild game, as we fly over the consciousness. Were we to stay perplexed, and confounded . . . we might go mad.

The shuttering of the Western pagan mind was completed in 389 AD during the reign of Christian Emperor Theodosius I, the last emperor to rule over a united Rome. He ordered that all pagan temples be closed, and with them the Pythian Oracle at Delphi.

The last statement from the Oracle was no riddle:

      Tell the king; the fair wrought house has fallen.
      No shelter has Apollo, nor sacred laurel leaves;
      The fountains are now silent; the voice is stilled.
      It is finished.

Which is what our inner Sphinx may have wanted, since whatever fails, falls to her.


[I want to credit my good friend Natasha Rabin, for initiating a conversation between us about sphinxes and riddles, and calling my attention to the connection between the words 'sphinx' and 'asphyxiate'. Also thanks to our mutual good friend and my muse Niki Rubin, who shares many exceptional cat-like qualities.]

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