The art object which this paper focuses on depicts the famous myth of the Sphinx, a powerful female monster; she terrorized the city of Thebes until Oedipus, who correctly answered her riddle, bested her. The piece is a ceramic, red-figure amphora, which was typically used as a storage vessel, especially for wine. This Classical Period vessel was produced in Athens between 450-440 BC and was given to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in 1906 from the Mrs. Martin Brimmer Collection. The Sphinx on the amphora, with her human-animal attributes, her gender, and her origin as a figure of eastern mythologies challenges ancient Greek moral beliefs, and it falls on Oedipus to uphold these values of the civilized world. The defeat of the sphinx represents the triumph of the ancient Greek ideals of order over chaos, masculinity and male power over femininity and women, and Greek culture over foreign culture.
Order over Chaos
The Sphinx is a manifestation of chaos because of her lineage and nature, so this places her in opposition with Greek society which values Themis. Although they are not in complete agreement, various literary sources tie the Sphinx to primordial forces of Greek mythology through its parentage, signifying her unrefined nature. According to Hesiod, “Echidna was subject in love to Orthus and brought forth the deadly Sphinx which destroyed the Cadmeans,” (Hes. 326) while Pseduo-Appollodorus spoke of the Sphinx “whose parents were Ekhidna and Typhon” (Ps.-Apollod. 3. 52-55). In both cases, the parents of the Sphinx link her to a time before the Olympians had fully established their rule, a time when the world was a more disorderly place. Moreover, all possible parents of the Sphinx are monsters. These creatures are clearly agents of chaos in the Greek Cosmogony while the more anthropomorphic gods are representations of civilization. The Sphinx’s monstrous attributes like those of her parents therefore indicate her role as a force of chaos.
Besides being directly related to other monsters, the typical Sphinx is depicted as a terrifying, hybrid creature. Egyptians represented her “with her two-fold nature, as of two-fold shape, making her awe-inspiring by fusing the body of a maiden with that of a lion” (Ael.12. 7). The human-lion hybrid, which is the core of Sphinx imagery, links the monster with other human-animal hybrids, like centaurs. These creatures are commonly the barbaric and chaotic opposition to a civilized human society. The fact that the Sphinx is part lion, a completely untamed creature, amplifies her unruly nature and the savagery of her character. As multiple Greek myths, such as Perseus’s defeat of the Gorgons and Heracles’s defeat of Geryon demonstrate, all beastly creatures must naturally be conquered by civilized humanity; the Sphinx is no different and indeed becomes vanquished by Oedipus.
The “two-fold,” Egyptian depiction was changed by the addition of wings in Greek spheres since “every painter and...