The Hybrids of Amphipolis – An interpretation
Kyriakos Doulis Valenciennes, 21/10/2014
A French friend asked me what these beautiful Sphinxes of Amphipolis stand for.
An IT based reconstitution of the “Sphinxes of Amphipolis”
Why did the Greeks develop this symbol, this hybrid? I tried to find out some replies in internet. Of course there are plenty designers who use IT technology, even 3D to help us have a picture of the monument. This is nice, but still not enough: If we don’t understand the meaning of the Sphinxes we miss the message of the monument. It is not sufficient just to admire the beauty or the artistic skills. What matters is the message behind; and I am afraid we lose the message when we read complicated scientific words or terminology of archaeologists. I did not find in internet any convincing answer, consistent with the interpretation of the Sphinxes and the meaning I believe the Greeks gave to them. I think that the root of this might be the fact that we don’t know deeply the “modus vivendi” and the philosophy of the Greeks. Therefore, I will try to give interpretation which is based on the complex nature of human beings. We need to think as following:
Every single human being, each of us, is on our basis animal.
We do not differ much from the four-legs living beings (reptiles, mamals, lions, dogs, cats etc); see the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle who recognise that each of us has several animalistic instincts. In ancient Greece people accepted this fact and did not suppress it systematically. Artistically this truth is expressed in a way that could look like an animal with four legs or even like birds or like snakes (remember how sexy is for many of us the animal style sexual positions- this moment of admitting our primitive instincts). And I ask you: If you were an artist, how would you express in your painting or your art our animalistic nature? Yes, artistically our animal nature could be expressed like this:
On the top of it, we are not entirely animals, there are some differences. Our evolution as species donated us relatively developed brains. This differentiated us from the animals since we are able to think. See the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle on the brain-logic which they claim to be is the element that gives the balance to each of us. Of course the brain is in our head. And then I ask you: If you were an artist, how would you express artistically our brain? Yes, artistically our brain in our heads could be expressed like this:
B=Brain of humans
If you add A, the animal, and B, the brain, the result is a hybrid!
The result is a creature that does not exist in nature as we understand it and sense it. This hybrid entails an implication of the evolution theory of species so beautifully presented by Darwin; a theory which supports that we share common DNA with other animals. And then I ask you: If you were an artist, how would you express artistically this hybrid? Yes, artistically this hybrid could be expressed like this:
A+B=Animal with Brain=hybrid
Let’s name our hybrid “Sphinx”. We could also name it monster or devil or chimaera or utopia or daemon or anything you wish.
A Chimaera monster
1. Sphinx is a symbol of natural rule (but not only of this)
Which is the baseline truth of nature? Which is the surest fact? Which is the eternal natural rule?
– That all beings die.
Nothing else is surer than this. This is a baseline truth for every animal (including humans). Every animal’s (and human’s) bodies disappear at the end of our lives. This is a rule posed by nature. Sphinxes are built in front of tomb as reminders that they are the rulers who impose this natural rule of death with no exemption and no mercy.
2. Sphinx is also a symbol of our tragic awareness of the inevitability of death (end)
Contrary to animals, humans have brains which allow us to know that we die! This is our only difference from animals. Our brain transforms us into thinking beings and makes us aware of the fact that for sure we will die one day. The brain is allowing us to know that the death is inevitable.
3. Sphinx is also a symbol of the eternal riddle – is there life after death?
Our brain is not sufficient to offer us the proof what happens after death. In any case we know that our bodies die but we don’t know what happens after death. We can only make hypothesis (see all religions). The hybrids are there to remind us also this eternal riddle: Is there anything after death?
Fear of nature and its eternal truth
By knowing that one day we will die and having not proven what happens after death, some people are afraid. Artistically, when you watch this hybrid you might feel scared, since it is not a natural being and it symbolises the death which we know that one day will come with certainty. Our awareness of the natural true that we will merciless die is an imposed rule; no lawyer can fight it. This might create fear to most of us.
Oedipus and Jesus in front of the Sphinx
However, there are men who looked in the eyes this phenomenon of nature. The looked in the eyes the Sphinxes, they killed the monster. Fearless. I am not talking about Jesus; Jesus Christ is supposed to have suffered of fear before his crucifixion and have asked “his father” to allow him to bypass his coming death; he was not much different than most humans, than ordinary people. On the contrary, Oedipus surpassed the human nature of Jesus. He was not even for a single moment afraid of the Sphinx’s eternal truth that we are human beings which are mortal. He knew his body would die but he was not afraid of it. And this is the point where the monster was killed inside him. Death died in the soul of Oedipus. This fear went away. In the domain of art (theater) death was rationalised symbolically by Oedipus. That’s why Oedipus ascends full of awareness and fearless.
Oedipus and the Sphinx
Each of us, as Kavafis says, may kill the fear of the Sphinx that lives inside him/her; you will not meet the monsters if you don’t have them in your soul. That’s why the Sphinx is built there to guard the tomb: It is there either to create the fear of death to most people or to remind to the more sober ones that nature calls for awareness of our mortality. It’s up to us to face it.
Why a female head instead of a male?
A woman’s head – not of a man
No feministic or any other gender equality implication here. The question is why Greeks decided to add woman’s head instead of a man’s in the sculpture of this hybrid. Because simply:
- MOTHER nature was a feminine prototype for ancient Goddess Demeter was the goddess of the flora – a goddess of ecology and balance of the environment and agricultural fertility. Goddess Artemis was a symbol of this eternal massacre of animals ‘lives which live out of the death of other animals. Gaia (the earth) was also a woman.
- Moreover, woman was a symbol of the huge mystery of life and Because woman gives birth to all beings and woman heirs also the death to her children. This is a mystery. And the best symbol for this mystery is a female symbol.
That’s why the Greeks raised the female as a symbol of guarding all the mysteries of life and death. The masculine head could not express for them all these hidden meanings.
Why a human head instead of an animal’s head or a head of a king? Or what is original in the Greek Sphinx?
You most probably know that the Egyptians and Persians had Sphinxes:
A Babylonian Sphinx
A Babylonian Sphinx
You most probably don’t know that also the Greeks had Sphinxes, sometimes even smiling like this one:
A Greek Sphinx
Greeks used this prototype from Egypt and other eastern cultures. Careful, the Greeks did not invent this prototype of Sphinx! However they developed it. In which direction?
In the direction of its “humanization”!!! How?
Dialogue with the hottest philosophical questions of nature
They started a dialogue with the the following questions:
- Is the death powerful?
The questions of death that the Sphinx carries with it was a question rationalised by the Greeks; it was not anymore a question which should create fear. Greeks transformed the fear of death in art and fought it. Therefore the Greek Sphinx is never a wild animal but it has a human face. To give a human face means that you are ready to accept something at your level and have a dialogue with it.
- Should leaders base their leadership on fear and pretend to be gods?
The Greeks would not accept an ex cathedra or apocalypse truth that a Persian or Egyptian ruler would desire; they Greeks, the creators of democracy, would discuss looking the beast in the eyes and replying to it “I am not afraid of you” you will not impose your truth or politics on me! This is an artistic true of the fact that they brought gods and kings on the earth; the leaders of Greeks should not create fear to their citizens, unlike to the Egyptian pharaohs who based their leadership on fear and respect.
- What is a philosophical reflection?
Symbolically, this rationalisation was expressed by giving to the hybrid mild human characteristics. In practice this rationalisation was a symbol of the birth of philosophical reflection, considering Plato’s saying that philosophy is nothing more than a reflection on the phenomenon of death which each of us does!
Death was brought at the level of humans as a field of reflection – an issue faced at the level of humans not kings, gods or animals. The Greeks this way controlled the phenomenon. They accepted death as substantial part of their lives; moreover their leaders were not abusing the fear of people before the death – the apocalyptic truth as a tool of fear was taken for the first time in history from the leaders.
This is how the hybrid-Sphinx carries since then a human face!
A happy Greek Sphinx
Why is the Sphinx’s face expressionless or at least not smiling?
An expressionless face
The Sphinx is a hybrid. The Sphinx is neither animal, nor human, but it is at the same time both human and animal! A creature which exists in our brains but does not exist in nature. It is a neutral creation with no feelings – as neutral as the eternal rule that it carries: “we are all mortals”: an objective and neutral true. A rule or a law is not happy or sad. A rule is a rule. It is as it is. Neither sweet nor bitter. It merely exists. This is how the Sphinx is: neither sweet nor bitter. It is up to us to feel a sweet or bitter taste after we have understood its message and quests.
4. Sphinx is at the end of the day a symbol of each of us
Yes, we are nothing else that animals which evolved and which had this wonderful opportunity to have a developed brain. This might create fear because we are not eternal; the price we have for having brains is that our brain always reminds us that one day we will die. That’s why this hybrid is placed in front of the tomb of Amphipolis. As a symbol and reminder that the body is mortal and that we don’t know what is after death. The Sphinx is not a being which should create scare but reflection! The Sphinx is a reminder of us. It is there not to scare us (unlike the gothic churches) but to say: “Dude, remember but don’t be afraid: we are just ephemera”. It is up to each of us to reply to the riddle and the challenges of the Sphinx with fear or not.