Headless Sphinx: A Visit to Baltimore

January 2014.

“But for your exceeding minuteness,” he said, “in describing the monster, I might never have had it in my power to demonstrate to you what it was. In the first place, let me read to you a schoolboy account of the genus Sphinx, of the family Crepuscularia of the order Lepidoptera, of the class of Insecta-or insects.”

– Edgar Allen Poe,The Sphinx (1850)

What follows is an informal meditation on “the Sphinx” during a day-trip to Baltimore, MD.

I. A Sphinx in The Window

In Edgar Allen Poe’s The Sphinx (1850), the narrator misinterprets his encounter with the death’s head hawk moth, of the eponymous genus Sphinx [1], for a terrifying monster of incredible size. Poe’s narrator, waiting out an urban cholera epidemic in the country-house of a family friend, admits a constant (if variably subtle) fixation on death. Rapt by the monster as it descends the forested hill framed by his window, Poe’s narrator is finally reassured that the terror is little more than a moth directly within his line of sight, and inches from his face.

The legendary sphinx is classically a harbinger of death. As the symbolic guardian of the Theban throne in Oedipus Rex, those who cross the sphinx meet a gruesome end. In ancient Egyptian myth, the likeness of Pharaoh in the sphinx proclaimed a divine ferocity and might. Additionally, these beasts are the foreboding guardians of royal tombs; reminders of the unearthly fate transgressors of those sacred boundaries would suffer.

So the effect of this narrator’s misinterpretation is double. The Sphinx is literally the immense, mythic bringer of death and, simultaneously, an insect that (while relegated to the domain of ordinary and scientifically organized normalcy) is itself a minuscule stand in for death. Its remarkably evocative power is demonstrated in the hysterics of the narrator. The Sphinx appears between the image of a moth and a monster.

II. The Sphinx of King Psamtik II

In Baltimore there is a sphinx. It is displayed among the antiquities collection of The Walters Art Museum. Carved of greywacke, a matte-black / sooty grey sandstone, The Sphinx of King Psamtik II retains a formidable affect despite its comparably minute stature. Dwarfed by the limestone and calcite monoliths at Giza or Memphis, The Sphinx of King Psamtik II evokes disquiet and mystery in a number of conspicuous details – or specifically, in a number of conspicuous differences which set it apart from its cohorts. Cut from a small black stone, The Sphinx of King Psamtik II has also been beheaded.

“The Sphinx of King Psamtik II” (664-589 BC [Late Period])

“The Sphinx of King Psamtik II” (664-589 BC [Late Period])

The monumental sphinxes at Giza and Memphis are carved from limestone and calcite – the creamy color of these stones giving stride to the image of statues that rise from the sands themselves. The magical image of whole sphinxes being born from the earth is compounded with the western cultural fantasy of spectacular archeological digs during the British occupation of Egypt (a colonial imagery treated explicitly in: The Mummy [1932/1999], Indiana Jones [1981-1989/2008], Tomb Raider [1996-], etc.). While the use of greywacke in Egyptian statuary is hardly unique to The Sphinx of King Psamtik II, it resists (however briefly) the ready associations between Egyptian art/artifacts and Egyptology’s sun-bleached stock images of Karnak at midway.

That the object is headless is no small detail. While in other examples of dynastic sculpture, dilapidation and dismemberment support an antiquarian charm (ex. the disfigured face of the Sphinx at Giza, the noseless likeness of countless pharos,) here decapitation is a jarring reinvestment of the strange – even sacred. What remains of the mythic creature is its long animal body, adorned in ornament and hieroglyphs. In lacking its head, the vestige of the sphinx’s sacred and monstrous connotations reemerge from the bleakness of familiarity.

The sphinx, in multiple traditions, iconizes enigma: both as one who literally speaks riddles and as one who is riddle, for the sphinx represents the divine unity of the human and bestial. The “Sorcerer” at Trois Frères emblemized this primordial location of the tacitly sacred in the “man-beast.”

Decapitation of the man-beast stands in for an ecstatic liberation: beheading locates the divide between the sacred realm of the animal and profane realm of men along the gory contour of a headless neck.

III. The Tale of the Heike

It is late in the day. We converge on the harbor like a pack. The building is narrow and tall, three floors of paper wrapped tables. Conversations are light and enjoyable over a pitcher of beer. I discover that us two will be the only one’s eating crab this night. The rest of our group is appalled by the idea. I wouldn’t know why, for this is my first time picking such a decapod to pieces.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi "The ghost of Taira Tomomori along with the anchor he drowned with, and heikegani with faces of fallen soldiers," (19th Century)

Utagawa Kuniyoshi “The ghost of Taira Tomomori along with the anchor he drowned with, and heikegani with faces of fallen soldiers,” (19th Century) [2]

It is a strange thing to witness food dissected out of the whole animal it comes from. Even as with holiday birds, the butchery occurs elsewhere. In the mechanical ambiance of some faraway slaughterhouse, turkeys and hens are sectioned up to resemble pale footballs and anonymous pimply mounds. But with the crab, as with the lobster and company, the whole animal, perfectly intact, arrives at our table, steaming and red.

We tear them to pieces. Limb from limb at first, placing the dismembered claws and legs apart from the shuttles of shell that contain the entrails and that mysterious tomalley.

Having pulled a mess of reticulated lung, green slop and brains from this midsection, I look at the empty shell, a spiny red ellipse, think it so closely resembles a bug as to cause pause in my throat, and then imagine a death’s head there.

[1]. The death’s head hawk moth is technically classified under the genus Acherontia; however, given Poe’s penchant for ominous poetic symbolism over scientific accuracy (recall that the legendary “Raven” was originally envisioned as the less ominous parrot, a bird more accurately associated with human mimicry) we can assume that this is not a scholastic oversight but an act of poetic liberty.

[2]. At Dan-no-ura, the last great sea battle of The Genpei War, the ghosts of fallen samurai were said to have been reincarnated as the crabs which now inhabit the bay- the graphic markings on their shell are said to resemble the faces of the dead.