The Sphinx

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


Hail to him who at the dawn of time was Atmu, the prince of light and splendour; who having made himself, made all men live; who saileth over the celestial regions and faileth not . . . who though an aged being showeth in the form of one that is young; who leadeth the uttermost parts of eternity . . . the terrible one of the double Divine Face . . . the lion-god with the awesome eye.

The Book of the Dead

 As everything on earth lives by the sun's light, so watchers of eternity bask in the eye of Ra. The world in its formations writes upon the horizon the unfolding story of its evolution. The traces of the beings we were and did become have disappeared within the earth's strata, while forms of sand and mountainous crags draw our minds back through time to primordial experiences. We have forgotten and yet we suspect. The sun rises and sets upon our lives but where is the watcher of eternity, where the witness of all, who forgets not? The ancient Egyptians and many who followed them believed the sphinx to be this witness, embodying all the elements of evolution in its granite pose. The awesome visage of the great sphinx facing the rising sun seems to mark the record of ages.

 At Karnak where resides the great temple of Amon-Ra, ram-headed sphinxes form a symbol of fertility which was sacred to Amon. The Hyksos sphinx at Tanis was believed to embody the principle of protective wisdom and power. Many of the other Asian sphinxes were winged, such as the Assyrian and Phoenician, and were often depicted with beards and in pairs facing a tree of life.

 In Persia the sphinx was only carved on jewelry, whereas the Hittites sculpted it in the style of the Assyrians, though not in a recumbent position. The sphinx is often interpreted as a symbol of power, many having the faces of rulers, and are sometimes shown in an attitude of domination. Female as well as male faces and breasts are combined with wings and lion bodies throughout the Near East and are reflected in ancient Greek forms like the monstrous sphinx at Thebes. Greek sphinxes were found on seals and tombs from Minoan times, and have often been associated with death. The Romans and the ancient Mayans both depicted male and female sphinxes whereas in India and Tibet the man-lion form was Nara-Simha, Avatar of Vishnu. The widespread distribution of the sphinx is striking, and one suspects that other part-human, part-bird or lion forms may be offshoots of it. The American Indian thunderbird with a human head on its breast is suggestive.

 The Great Sphinx at Giza is undoubtedly the most famous and has elicited myriad interpretations over the centuries. It is believed to have been built by Khephren in the fourth millenium B.C., the face being in his own likeness. In addition to seeing it as a guardian of the pyramids, many have sought unsuccessfully to discover a subterranean passageway between it and the great pyramid of Cheops which is 1200 feet to the northwest of the sphinx, while Khephren's pyramid is behind it. The sphinx itself occupies a vast rocky amphitheatre at the eastern edge of a plateau which was a great quarry. It was carved from the living rock without masonry and is 240 feet long, 66 feet high and 14 feet wide. It wears a nemes headdress with a cobra extended upon its forehead. El Makrizi, the Arab historian, recorded that it was a religious fanatic who disfigured the face of the sphinx, and it is held that from the time of this disfigurement, sand has invaded the cultivated lands of Giza. Throughout the centuries the sphinx has often been buried in sand with only its head visible. An ancient legend tells of the young prince Thuthmosis who rested during the heat of the day in the shadow beneath the protruding head of the great sphinx. As he slept, he had a dream wherein the sphinx appeared and spoke to him thus: "Behold me, my son Thuthmosis. I am thy father Harmakhis-Atum-Khepri, Thou shalt assume the white and red crown upon the throne of Geb. . . if thou removest the sand covering my body." This the young prince did and subsequently became pharoah, under the protection of Ra-Harmakhis rather than Amon-Ra. Thus began the political-religious movement that culminated in Atenism.

 One of the important interpretations of the sphinx involves astronomic and geodetic cycles. To some scholars, sphinxes are sculpted registers of time. On the royal avenue from Karnak to Luxor, great chimerical figures rise up to right and left, bearing heads of the virgin, the lion, the ram, and so forth, signifying the passage through all the constellations. In this manner, the ancient Egyptians registered several revolutions of the equinoctial points.

 With these perspectives the mystery of the sphinx only deepens. It may, therefore, be helpful to examine the etymology of the names used to describe this awesome symbol. The sphinx is most commonly known as HOR-EM-AKHET or 'Horus-in-the-horizon.' The Greek name Harmakhis or Harmachus derives from this and also indicates Horus, a form of Ra the Sun-god - esoterically, the Risen God. The Great Sphinx is a symbol of Harmachus, as was each Egyptian pharoah who bore the name of 'the living form of the Solar Sphinx upon the earth.' This certainly sheds light upon the issue concerning the builder of the great sphinx whose name, Khephren, is one of the titles of Ra the Divine Sun-god. The Hebrew stem 'ish' meaning woman, added to 'phan' meaning mask or disguise, produced the name 'sh-phan' or 'sphang,' a name describing female sphinxes. The Persian name 'Simorgh' indicated a half-bird, half-lion creature similar to the winged 'Singh' of the Hindus. The name sphinx comes from the Greek sphingo, which indicates the she-monster of Thebes also known as 'The Throttler' and means 'to bind fast,' 'to encircle' or 'to throttle.' It is closely related to the word sphincter, which is the name for a contractile muscular ring by which an orifice of the body is kept closed. The Hindu name 'Singh' or 'Simha' refers to the solar lion and Garuda, the vahan of Vishnu. 'Nara' refers to man or the spirit of God. 'Nara-Simha' is Vishnu's Avatar as the Man-lion. There is suggestive reference here to the sun, to cycles of time and incarnations of deity, all of which, linked up with the Egyptian and Greek meanings, provide a wealth of symbolical clues.

 As a geodetic marker, the sphinx had an obelisk between its paws in ancient times whose shadow could be used to compute the correct circumference of the earth and any variance in degree of latitude. As an astronomical symbol, the very idea of the sphinx may be seen to arise from a motion of the earth which carries its polar points around the polar points of the ecliptic in 25,000 years. The stars of Virgo observed in the neighborhood of the sun at the spring equinox were related by the ancients to the Leo constellation which assumed the same position at a later point in the sidereal cycle, the two being joined to reflect the annual cycle extending from spring planting to late summer harvest time. Similarly, the half-lion, half-virgin aspect of the sphinx is related to the junction of the constellations of Leo and Virgo which occurred at the summer solstice in the fifth millenium B.C. The virgin and the lion symbolize the divine hermaphrodite and witness the evolution of the human races from the divine, and especially from the androgynous.

 In all the various forms the sphinx assumes, the male and female are blended in an expression of the duality manifested in evolution, culminating in man. In the Egyptian Circular Zodiac, the lion is shown standing on a serpent. Three virgins appear between the lion and the scales and represent the first three 'divine or astronomical dynasties who taught the Third Root Race.' These three divine dynasties preceded the human dynasties and provide an important clue to understanding the nature of the early builders of symbolical structures in Egypt. In the Hindu zodiac, the virgin 'Kanya-Durg' is placed upon a lion which drags a solar car. This virgin is a most ancient divinity and her return was a sign of universal renovation, as was the return of the monstrous lion-bird 'Simorgh' who marked the destruction and reproduction of worlds. Garuda, who is Nara-Simha in another form, hut who is equally a vehicle of Vishnu, also symbolizes Kala, or time, and marks the ending and beginning of cycles. In the symbol of Harmakhis one sees clearly the cycles of death and rebirth, of the passage of the sun from the West, through the underworld toward the East where it will rise - just as Horus, the child of the Aged One, travelled through the netherworld to emerge as the Rising God. Thus the dual forces of death and life are symbolically combined.

 Nara-Simha, the Man-lion Avatar of Vishnu, killed Hiranyakasipu of the Daityas. Then born as Rama, he slew Ravana. Born again as Krishna, he slew Sisupala. These manifestations of Vishnu mark a cycle of incarnations which is parallel to the incarnations of lunar deities. This linking of the solar and the lunar encompasses a deep psychological mystery, and relates to the great battle between white and black magic for the supremacy of the divine forces. This, like the cycles of death and birth and the dual forces in evolution, is also embodied in the symbol of the sphinx, whose face turned eastward is the radiant sun, and whose body in the form of a lion is emblematic of the divine struggle.

 The lion is the initiatory animal par excellence. Masters of initiations from ancient times were often dressed as divinities in animal forms. As solar symbols lions guarded both the dead and sleeping and in ancient Egypt their carved forms were moved about as game pieces upon a board shaped like a coiled serpent. More philosophically, the Egyptians thought that 'Toum' or Fohat issues from the great deep through the 'two lions' which represent the "dual force or power of the two solar eyes or the electro-positive and the electro-negative forces." The Secret Doctrine teaches that the highest group of creative powers composed of the Divine Flames are the Fiery Lions or Lions of Life, their real meaning being hidden in the sign of Leo.

 Carl Jung suggests that humans depicted as lions are like royal couples and the lions together symbolize the veiled urge toward individuation which is hidden in the passion each one feels for the other. This passion aims at the mystery of whole being. When the lion and lioness turn into king and queen, the urge to individuate has reached the conscious level. This subtle transformation from animal to man, involving the development of conscious individuation, is at once suggested in the animal-human nature of the sphinx. Jung further suggests that "the animal being may become dangerous if it is not recognized and integrated in life." It is of no use to deny the primordial forces of animal life but, according to Jung, "Primitive man must tame the animal in himself and make it his helpful companion; civilized man must heal the animal in himself and make it his friend." The eternal exists within the encrustations of physical life. As H. P. Blavatsky put it, "the solitary light in man, which burns forever, can never be darkness in its intrinsic nature, though the animal outside us remain blind to it." Of all the sphinxes in the ancient world who bear witness to this attempted transformation, it is interesting to note that there is an early variant dating back to the Old Kingdom which is more squat and recumbent, with human faces encircled by lion manes. There appears something lion-like about the faces, perhaps connoting some process of animalization. The opposite effect is a transmutation or alchemization of baser metals, the animal mass, into silver and gold or the philosopher's stone - all of which symbolize the development and manifestation of man's higher self. To fail to achieve this is to fail to solve the riddle contained within the sphinx and will lead eventually to sure death. "The sphinx of life devoured the unintentional, who would live only in their 'animal.' "

 The riddle of the sphinx has seven keys to it. They are the keys to problems of psychology, physiology and 'missing links.' The keys are in the keeping of those who know how to commune with the invisible Presence. To understand the seven, one must first consider the three. Man is basically triune: he is spirit, soul and body, marking a decided distinction between spirit and soul. Soul or psyche combines bios, the physical; thumos, the passional; phren, the mind; and animus. It is derived from the soul of the world, the Anima Mundi or Svabhavat. "By its complex nature, the soul may descend and ally itself with the corporeal nature and exclude a higher life from exerting a moral influence on it." Or, it may closely align itself with the nous or spirit and share in its potency. If this latter is achieved, the physical man will appear as a vehicle of God. If this union does not take place, the individual psyche, not being immortal, will sooner or later disintegrate.

 According to Kapila, the animal soul or perisprit is an agglomeration of gross particles, human emanations teeming with passions and weaknesses and tendencies - called samskaras or skandhas. Plutarch taught that at death Proserpine separates the body from the perisprit which then becomes a daimon, free and independent. Then Demeter separates the perisprit from the spirit. The first resolves into ethereal particles; the second ascends, assimilates with divine powers and gradually becomes divine spirit. "The semi-material [particles] of the perisprit are appropriate to the evolution of lower astral forms and unite with them according to their degree of refinement." The Buddhists teach that so long as a disincarnate man contains a single particle of these skandhas, some parts of his perisprit will have to enter the bodies of plants and animals. If the astral of a man is composed solely of the bios or animal aspect, the individual is eventually dissolved in 'the crucible of evolution.'

 The limitations of three-dimensional space represent merely the product of our understanding and perception which encourages us to contrast spirit and matter. However, "Nature never draws too harsh lines of demarcation, never builds impassable walls, and her unbridged 'chasms' exist merely in the tame conception of certain naturalists." The planes of being are interblended to allow communication between those of their respective inhabitants who are capable of perceiving both a higher and lower plane. There may be amphibious beings intellectually as there are terrestrially. The philosophical conception of spirit and matter must rest on one basis of phenomena. Spirit and matter (force and matter) manifest in time as opposites (force and substance) but in essence are one. Is this the meaning of the sphinx as it timelessly combines the two in one, marking eternity in the cycles of time?

 After the three comes the seven - the seven keys of the riddle. The sphinx as a symbol of Ra, Temu, Khephera, Heru, Kuti, etc., represents the One God manifesting through 'The Seven Glorious Ones' whose names are those of the Great Spirit under different dynasties of the Stellar and Solar Myth Cycles. Heru represents Horus, while Kuti represents the Seven Glorious Ones, The Shining Ones, or light. Heru-Kuti signifies The Light of the World, the sign of which is |/ , Chat, Anch, Ka, Ab Hati, Bai, Cheybi and Chu are the Egyptian names of the seven principles of man. They correspond to the Theosophical septenary divisions and stress the same dual aspect of manas. The moon is the deity of manas on the lower plane, the sun on the higher. The great battle between white and black magic for the supremacy of divine forces is symbolized in the calm solemnity of the sphinx even while it rages in the breast of man. The initiating lion destroys the novice but the novice himself, dressed in lion skin, has assimilated the divine essence of the initiating animal. In order to fathom the allegory of the sphinx one must study the initiations of the ancient Egyptians and Hindus. At the supreme moment the initiator, having divulged the last mysterious word, must die. After initiation the father becomes the son and the son succeeds the father to become father and son at the same time. In the Anugita there is a discussion of a forest of sevens where seven females (Mahat, Ahankara, plus five Tanmatras) have their faces turned downward. They are obstacles in the way of spiritual ascension, the lunar deities to be fought by the solar gods, the sphincter traps at the seven gates of the sphinx which stands like a mute sentinel on the threshold of that unseen world.

 Behind the mask of the sphinx lie the mysteries of multiplicity, the enigmatic fragmentation of the cosmos. In the esoteric tradition, the cosmos in all its heterogeneity can be synthesized if one possesses the seven keys. The dreadful sphinx at Thebes posed the riddle to all who would approach: "What is four-footed in the morning, two-footed at noon, and three-footed in the evening?" All who failed to answer were seized upon and devoured on the spot. The seizure symbolizes the grasp that the furies of the lower nature have upon the unenlightened soul. Man approaches life and is engulfed by it, swallowed up and spewed down through the ages. The seven encircling snares, the lunar obstacles at the solar gates, must be fought through and overwhelmed by self-knowledge. The death of the lunar must be accomplished willingly that there may be life through death. As Plato taught, man is both man and lion, masking the many-headed beast of primordial nature and the divine. It profits man not to feast and make strong the beast while starving the man, enfeebling him so that he is dragged along in the whirlpool of animal forces. Man must dominate the many-headed beast and make an ally of the lion. It is in lion robes that the initiator attends the novice. As the threshold of highest initiation is approached, the mystery of the sphinx remains. For it is taught that when the disciple crosses the awesome threshold he has assimilated the divine essence of the initiatory animal and is restored to life in it. Thus Nara-Simha, the vahan of time, witnesses the keynote of eternity: life in death, the father in the son. All approach the Terrible Divine Face - "Lord Harmakhis who encompasses the extreme points of the sun's course" - the Lion-god with the awesome eye.