The Sphinx in Video Games: An Archetype from Literature to Video Games

“As the columns of hail grew thinner, I saw the white figure more distinctly. It was very large, for a silver birch-tree touched its shoulder. It was of white marble, in shape something like a winged sphinx, but the wings, instead of being carried vertically at the sides, were spread so that it seemed to hover. The pedestal, it appeared to me, was of bronze, and was thick with verdigris. It chanced that the face was towards me; the sightless eyes seemed to watch me; there was the faint shadow of a smile on the lips. It was greatly weather-worn, and that imparted an unpleasant suggestion of disease. I stood looking at it for a little space—half a minute, perhaps, or half an hour. It seemed to advance and to recede as the hail drove before it denser or thinner. At last I tore my eyes from it for a moment, and saw that the hail curtain had worn threadbare, and that the sky was lightening with the promise of the sun.”

The Time Machine, Ch. 4

Introduction

The Time Machine, a novella by H. G. Wells, has captured my attention for some time. Although considered a lesser work by some, The Time Machine is interesting for its adventure, its exploration of class, and of course, time travel. It was originally published in 1895 and since then has spawned multiple adaptations–a handful of films, radio programs, and comics. And of course, the novella’s handling of time travel and time machines has inspired numerous other texts.

The basic premise is that a man, known only as the Traveller, journeys to the far future. He is an inventor and scientist and imagines he’ll come into contact with some advanced civilization but is instead met with decay. Civilization has fallen. In place of humans, two species exist–the Eloi who live above ground and the dangerous Morlocks who creep beneath the surface. The Eloi, described as delicate and child-like creatures, represent the rich, and the Morlocks, light-fearing and ape-like, represent the poor working classes. Ultimately, The Time Machine’s message is one of warning–ignore economic inequality and humans risk a disastrous future.

Amidst this dystopia, the Traveller witnesses many things, including that winged sphinx made of white marble. It’s described as being sightless and yet it always had eyes on the Traveller… 


When I was a young adult, I read The Time Machine for the first time. I was an avid reader then, picking up whatever I could get my hands on. When I initially read The Time Machine, I was intrigued by the journey, that a man would fling himself into the year 802,701. Beyond the adventurous aspects, I couldn’t stop thinking about two things. 1) What does it do to a person to have knowledge of the future, and 2) what about that sphinx? The sphinx fascinates me to this day. It’s what’s kept me coming back to the book and what sparked me to research its meaning and mysteries at various points over the years.

The sphinx is a striking figure–one that seems diseased and menacing, but it doesn’t just appear in the book. Wells insisted the sphinx appear on the novella’s cover, and it would have been meaningful to his audience. Afterall, the novella was published in 1895, at the tail end of the Victorian era, and the Victorians were fascinated with Egypt. 

But I’ll get to that. In order to really understand the sphinx, we need to take a step back into myth and antiquity.

History of the Sphinx

Great Sphinx of Giza

The most well-known sphinx is the one above, the Great Sphinx of Giza. Made of limestone, this reclining sphinx has the head of a man and the body of a lion. The Egyptian sphinx is a symbol of a pharaoh’s power, a guardian of the underworld, and a religious symbol found in both myth and architecture and that has influenced depictions of sphinxes in several cultures. Sphinxes can appear as male or female, though typically male, and as a composite of various beasts, with “the most common combination [being] the body of a lion and a human with the face of a reigning king or queen” (Pinch 206). They are depicted both standing and prone. While the Great Sphinx of Giza is the most iconic of the Egyptian sphinxes, other common sphinxes include Aker and Tutu (Pinch 206).

Egyptian sphinxes had several functions including that of guardian and dispatcher of enemies. They serve “as terrifying animated guardians for temples or tombs” (Pinch 206). In one Egyptian myth, “the centre of the Underworld is occupied by an enormous twin-headed sphinx called Aker” (Clark 169). Inside of Aker is a cavern where a snake resides, and this snake helps the sphinx attempt to hold back the god Osiris (Clark 169-171). In other literature, the sphinx is recognized as having a connection with the horizon and sun. In reference to the Night-sea Journey of the Solar Barge, Joseph Campbell says that the sphinx “may represent the solar power inherent in divine kingship” (76).

Other prominent sphinxes originate from the Greeks. Depending on the source, the Greek sphinx’s history and parentage varies slightly. According to Hesiod (9th century BCE), the sphinx was born of Orthos and Chimera (12), while The Library of Greek Mythology (2nd century BCE) claims she was born of Typhon and Echidna (Apollodorus 106). In both cases, the sphinx, sometimes referred to as Phix when referenced in the Oedipus tale, was an enigmatic figure born of monsters and associated with terror and disease. 

Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (5th century BCE), the first of the Theban plays, makes reference to the sphinx several times. She is referred to as a “[s]orceress” (4) and as an “oracular monster” (17). In this text, the sphinx is mentioned in the ending chorus, demonstrating how essential Phix is to Oedipus’ identity; Oedipus is “[t]he man who solved the riddle marvellous” (55).

Apollodorus describes the sphinx as having the body of a lion, wings, and a woman’s head (106); “She had learned a riddle from the Muses, and seated on Mount Phicion, she posed it to the Thebans” (106). In this depiction, the sphinx is a plague upon the Thebans, not allowing them to pass unless they can answer her riddle: “what is it that has a single voice, and has four feet, and then two feet, and then three feet?” (106). While most Egyptian sphinxes were male, Pinch states that “[f]emale sphinxes sometimes had wings, and it may be this form that influenced the development of the female sphinx of Greek mythology” (206).


Close-mouthed you sat five thousand years and never let out a whisper.

A Sphinx by Carl Sandburg

The sphinx. Guardian. Monster. Riddler. If you’ve noticed a pattern in the sphinx’s behaviors and forms, that’s because there is one. And one way to understand this pattern is by discussing the sphinx as an archetype.

So what’s an archetype? In his book Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye talks about how whenever we read something we interpret signs. For a simple example, the word “dog” is symbolic of a four-legged creature that English speakers have decided will be called “dog.” We make meaning and share associations. When we read, we also learn to look for deeper symbolic meanings of words and images within texts. In an essay titled “Ethical Criticism: Theory of Symbols,” Frye introduces what he calls the “Formal Phase” in which he discusses the recurrence of patterns in literature. He begins by establishing that the form of a poem remains the same whether we look at the poem by itself or compare it to other poems. There are certain aspects of poetry that make a poem a poem and such aspects are expected by the reader. In this same sense, a symbol or archetype can stand alone in a single piece of work and contain meaning in that work while at the same time carry meaning in other pieces of literature. Frye refers to this as “the moving body of imagery in a work of literature” (Frye 83). Essentially what he’s saying is that an image can exist within and outside of any given text. Readers and viewers are used to recognizing these archetypes. Making connections between texts is something we all do naturally and sub-consciously. Frye claims that the symbol, or archetype, in literature is the communicable unit; it is this unit readers will recognize.

Others agree with this definition of “archetype.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines “archetype” as “a pervasive idea, image, or symbol.” Joseph Cambell said that “An archetype is a constant form, a basic fundamental form which appears in the works of that person over there, and this person over here, without connecting them” (Masks of Eternity, 1988). A more detailed definition states that “[t]he literary critic applies the term to an image, a descriptive detail, a plot pattern, or a character type that occurs frequently in literature…” (Harmon 43).

If the sphinx is an archetype, where does the sphinx appear?

Well…practically everywhere.

What led to all this? We can credit Egyptomania and the Victorians for this one.

Cultural Context: Egyptomania

“I do not think Silas a product of nature, but a child of the Sphinx, and I never could understand him”

Uncle Silas by Sheridan Le Fanu

Although its early beginnings are deeply rooted in Greek and Egyptian mythology, the sphinx is readily found throughout Western literature from the late 1700’s to the early 1900’s. John Keats, Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Andrew Downing, and many others including French, Russian, Scottish, and Irish authors mentioned the sphinx in their work. And although the sphinx is brought up in earlier literary periods, its references seem most abundant in the Romantic, Victorian, and Transcendentalist eras of literature where it mostly maintained its classic functions and appearance.

The recurrence of the sphinx in literature can, in part, be explained historically. In her book Reading the Sphinx, Lynn Parramore discusses the changes England went through by the end of the eighteenth century. England was a wealthy nation due to the Industrial Revolution and they were successfully trading with India as well as North and South America (Parramore 17). The French were recovering from their own revolution and sought a means to conquer and usurp their world power. According to Parramore, “Europeans had gradually become more curious about ancient Egypt in the eighteenth century,” and it was Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign into Egypt that sparked an obsession known as “Egyptomania” (18). Both the French and the British sought control of Egypt due to its connections to India and the Far East. Although the British and the French valued Egypt for its connections they also desired the treasures and artifacts hidden there. From 1798 to 1801, Napoleon’s savants, the scientists he brought with him, scoured the Egyptian landscape finding the remnants of forgotten temples and uncovering ancient relics.

Napoleon’s campaign created a craze in France for Egyptian themed architecture and arts, and the British were soon to follow. Egyptomania caused a cultural competition between the two nations. Fabrics were printed with “scenes of sphinxes guarding temples and obelisks covered in hieroglyphs,” sphinxes graced fountains, and Egyptian motifs found their way into literature (Parramore 20). Egypt was also associated with knowledge and learning at the time, which led to Egyptian themed libraries and universities (Parramore 19).

“She herself was merely a Sphinx without a secret.”

The Sphinx Without a Secret by Oscar Wilde

The allure of Egypt found its way into many facets of people’s lives. Egyptomania made its way into the physical environment, it showed itself in the arts, and was a craze that appealed to many people. In France, Egyptomania even altered burial customs and the way people viewed death. Burleigh describes this fascination by saying that “Europeans attached all sorts of inferences to [Egypt], viewing it variously as the primal seat of natural law, the remains of a golden age of civilization, and a repository of lost magical knowledge” (10). European collectors attached themselves to Egyptomania and from this “Londoners of all classes—some of whom were not yet welcome in museums—could spend the afternoon gazing at curious foreign objects in public pavilions and exhibitions venues” (Parramore 27). This common craze led to more than just cultural enlightenment, it led to…some pretty disturbing acts under the guise of entertainment. Showmen would unwrap mummies for the curious eyes of anyone interested in such a show.  Parramore refers to this as a “mummy striptease” and they were popular in England in the mid 1800’s (30). Some men even became famous for unwrapping and picking apart mummies which often led to the complete destruction of these once preserved bodies. Egyptomania was a cultural craze accessible to many whether it be the curious observer seeking knowledge or individuals who took advantage to fill their pockets.

The Victorian obsession with Egypt appears to stem from a fascination dating back to the Greeks and Romans who saw the Egyptians as a strange and foreign people. Parramore states that “ancient Egypt was absorbed into Roman culture to the point that most people forgot the source of the stories and architectural legacies that Rome had borrowed from its neighbor on the Nile” (5). But Egypt was known for more than its perceived “strangeness,” Egypt was a land of wisdom and ancient power. It was an intriguing location of philosophy and magic. The “intellectual stars” of the Renaissance “traveled to Egypt seeking enlightenment” (Parramore 9). Shakespeare was even influenced by the intrigue of ancient Egypt. His Cleopatra reflects the seductive notion of feminine Egypt.  By the Victorian age “the masses were more enthusiastic than ever” about Egypt’s secrets and “prominent public events fed the middle-class passion for ancient Egypt” (Parramore 32). It was around this time Percy Shelley and Horace Smith challenged each other, which resulted in Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias.”  Needless to say, Egypt’s appeal was long lasting.

The Sphinx in Video Games

In The Time Machine, the sphinx ultimately harkens back to the Greek tradition as it functions as riddler and monster. After I read this story, I started noticing the sphinx appearing everywhere, including in games. It’s inclusion in video games was curious, but I eventually saw how its reference fell into similar patterns.

EarthBound, RiME, Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2, Persona 5, Injustice 2, Assassin’s Creed Origins, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy, Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap, and Super Mario Odyssey are just a few of the video games that include sphinxes in some form. The sphinxes in these games serve as keepers of riddles, barriers, and monsters. They are noticeable and alluring, drawing players in.

When approached, the sphinx in EarthBound asks a question: “Are you a thief, warrior, or one who has come to see my majesty?” Starting with this question is a nod to the sphinx’s role as riddler. If players unlock the pattern puzzle in front of the sphinx, a pyramid opens up, leading players to inner chambers where they’ll have to face the Fierce Shattered Man and other enemies. The sphinx is part of the game’s environment while also holding the “key” to enter a pyramid. In Super Mario Odyssey, the sphynxes are similar. There are multiple sphynxes that ask questions like “What is this land?” and “What type of flower did the traveler offer the bride?” These sphynxes are also guardians of treasures and locations.

In Persona 5, the sphinx is more monstrous. Futaba’s mother, Wakaba Isshiki, is presented as a “cognition” of the mind. The sphinx (known as the Palace Monster) is large, can fly, and attacks by diving and slamming into Joker and the rest of the party. This monster is a worthy enemy, putting up quite the fight. For Futaba, the sphinx represents grief, guilt, and trauma because she feels responsible for her mother’s death. As the fight progresses, the player sees Futaba as she tries to discern which of her memories are true (was her mother cruel or loving) and whether she is at fault. When the Palace Monster says, “You killed me!” the rest of the party realizes what the monster represents.

Morgana says, “Futaba’s desires and guilt must’ve distorted her [Futaba’s] cognition of her [mother].”

Persona 5

The Palace Monster then says, “You [Futaba] are nothing but a demon who stood in my way! I wish you had never been born!” This sphinx is wicked, violent, and personal. While this mother-monster is an illusion created by Futaba’s guilt, in the moment, the monster is very real. By the end of the fight, the Palace Monster is defeated, and Futaba’s mother appears in ghost form. She no longer appears as a monster but has returned to her human self. Futaba expresses her love for her mother and players are left with the sense she has found some closure. This sphinx is overcome not with a riddle but by uncovering a false memory and processing the reality of a close relationship. (Thanks to A New Game Plus for helping me remember the details of this sphinx.)

In the video games I’ve played or watched, the sphinxes tend to be guardians and monsters. They hold secrets, present riddles, and offer passage to new locations. This is all very much in line with the sphinxes of antiquity. Sphinxes also offer striking imagery to video game environments. They’re recognizable and spark a sense of curiosity. For example, even if players don’t know anything about the Greek sphinx when playing through Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, they’ll still understand through context the creature has significance.

Protector. Guardian. Riddler. The sphinx is an archetype that persists despite the medium. From The Time Machine to Persona 5, this image–this creature–continues to hold meaning in its riddles and transformations. I don’t know about you, but I’m excited to see where this magnificent creature appears next.


Want to help me build a list of games with sphinxes? Please share any and all video games in the comments!

Sources:

[Written Texts]

  • A Sphinx: https://allpoetry.com/A-Sphinx
  • Uncle Silas: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/14851/14851-h/14851-h.htm
  • The Sphinx Without a Secret: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/773/773-h/773-h.htm#page121
  • Parramore, Lynn. Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Print.
  • Wells, H. G. (1992). The Time Machine [eBook Edition]. The Project Gutenberg eBook of The Time Machine, by H. G. Wells
  • Masks of Eternity. (1988, June 26) (Season 1, Episode 6) [TV series episode]. Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth. PBS.
  • The Rare Book & Manuscript Library. (n.d.). The Time Machine. https://www.library.illinois.edu/rbx/hgwells2016/category/the-time-machine/
  • “Archetype.” In Oxford English Dictionary online.
  • Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1957. Print.
  • Harmon, William, and Hugh Holman. A Handbook to Literature. 11th ed. New Jersey: Pearson, 2009. Print.
  • Campbell, Joseph. The Mythic Image. Princeton UP, 1990.
  • Clark, Robert. Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt. Grove Press, Inc., 1960.
  • “Egypt (Sphinx) Gallery” [Image]. Penn Museum. http://www.penn.museum/exhibitions/signature-galleries/egypt-sphinx-gallery
  • Pinch, Geraldine. Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. OUP, 2002.
  • Apollodorus. “Laois and Oedipus.” (Book III). The Library of Greek Mythology. Translated by Robin Hard, Oxford: OUP, 1997.
  • Hesiod. “Theogony.” Theogony and Works and Days. Translated by M. L. West, Oxford: OUP, 2008.
  • Pinch, Geraldine. Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. OUP, 2002.
  • Sophocles. “Oedipus Rex.” The Theban Plays. Translated by Sir George Young, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2006.
  • “Sphinx.” Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/sphinx

[Images]

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