The Modern Riddle of the Sphinx

The Sphinx

by P.D. Ouspensky

Reprinted with Guardian's permission
Photograph ©1998 Guardian

Yellowish-grey sand. Deep blue sky. In the distance the triangle of the Pyramid of Khephren, and just before me this strange, great face with its gaze directed into the distance.

I used often to go to Gizeh from Cairo, sit down on the sand before the Sphinx, look at it and try to understand it, understand the idea of the artists who created it. And on each and every occasion I experienced the same fear and terror of annihilation. I was swallowed up in its glance, a glance that spoke of mysteries beyond our power of comprehension.

The Sphinx lies on the Gizeh plateau, where the great pyramids stand, and where there are many other monuments, already discovered and still to be discovered, and a number of tombs of different epochs. The Sphinx lies in a hollow, above the level of which only its head, neck and part of its back project.

By whom, when, and why the Sphinx was erected -- of this nothing is known. Present-day archaeology takes the Sphinx to be prehistoric. [Note: Ouspensky was writing between 1908-1914.]

This means that even for the most ancient of the ancient Egyptians, those of the first dynasties six to seven thousand years before the birth of Christ, the Sphinx was the same riddle as it is for us today.

From the stone tablet, inscribed with drawings and hieroglyphs, found between the paws of the Sphinx, it was once surmised that the figure represented the image of the Egyptian god Harmakuti, "The Sun on the Horizon." But it has long been agreed that this is an altogether unsatisfactory interpretation and that the inscription probably refers to the occasion of some partial restoration made comparatively recently.

As a matter of fact, the Sphinx is older than historical Egypt, older than her gods, older than the pyramids, which, in their turn, are much older than is thought.

The Sphinx is indisputably one of the most remarkable, if not the most remarkable, of the world’s works of art. I know nothing that it would be possible to put side by side with it. It belongs indeed to quite another art than the art we know. Beings such as ourselves could not create a Sphinx. Nor can our culture create anything like it. The Sphinx appears unmistakably to be a relic of another, a very ancient culture, which was possessed of knowledge far greater than ours.

There is a tradition or theory that the Sphinx is a great, complex hieroglyph, or a book in stone, which contains the whole totality of ancient knowledge, and reveals itself to the person who can read this strange cipher which is embodied in the forms, correlations and measurements of the different parts of the Sphinx. This is the famous riddle of the Sphinx, which from the most ancient times so many wise souls have attempted to solve.

Previously, when reading a book about the Sphinx, it had seemed to me that it would be necessary to approach it with the full equipment of a knowledge different from ours, with some new form of perception, some special kind of mathematics, and that without these aids it would be impossible to discover anything in it.

But when I saw the Sphinx for myself, I felt something in it that I had never read and never heard of, something that at once place it for me among the most enigmatic and at the same time fundamental problems of life and the world.

The face of the Sphinx strikes one with wonder at the first glance. To begin with, it is quite a modern face. With the exception of the head ornament there is nothing of "ancient history" about it. For some reason I had feared that there would be. I had thought that the Sphinx would have a very "alien" face. But this is not the case. Its face is simple and understandable. It is only the way that it looks that is strange. The face is a good deal disfigured. But if you move away a little and look for a long time at the Sphinx, it is as if a kind of veil falls from its face, the triangles of the head ornament behind the ears become invisible, and before you there emerges clearly a complete and undamaged face with eyes which look over and beyond you into the unknown distance.

I remember sitting on the sand in front of the Sphinx -- on the spot from which the second pyramid in the distance makes an exact triangle behind the Sphinx -- and trying to understand, to read its glance. At first I saw only that the Sphinx looked beyond me into the distance. But soon I began to have a kind of vague, then a growing, uneasiness. Another moment, and I felt that the Sphinx was not seeing me, and not only was it not seeing, it could not see me; and not because I was too small in comparison with the profundity of wisdom it contained and guarded. Not at all. That would have been natural and comprehensible. The sense of annihilation and the terror of vanishing came from feeling myself in some way too transient for the Sphinx to be able to notice me. I felt that not only did these fleeting moments or hours which I could pass before it not exist for it, but, that if I could stay under its gaze from birth to death, the whole of my life would flash by so swiftly for it that it could not notice me. Its glance was fixed on something else. It was the glance of a being who thinks in centuries and millennia. I did not exist and could not exist for it. And I could not answer my own question -- do I exist for myself? Do I , indeed, exist in any sort of sense, in any sort of relation? And in this thought, in this feeling, under this strange glance, there was an icy coldness. We are so accustomed to feel that we are, that we exist. yet all at once, here, I felt that I did not exist, that there was no I, that I could not be so much as perceived.

And the Sphinx before me looked into the distance, beyond me, and its face seemed to reflect something that it saw, something which I could neither see nor understand.

Eternity! This word flashed into my consciousness and went through me with a sort of cold shudder. All ideas about time, about things, about life, were becoming confused. I felt that in these moments, in which I stood before the Sphinx, it lived through all events and happenings of thousands of years -- and that on the other hand centuries passed for it like moments. How this could be I did not understand. But I felt that my consciousness grasped the shadow of the exalted fantasy or clairvoyance of the artists who had created the Sphinx. I touched the mystery but could neither define nor formulate it.

And only later, when all these impressions began to unite with those which I had formerly known and felt, the fringe of the curtain seemed to move, and I felt that I was beginning, slowly, slowly, to understand.

[From: A New Model of the Universe]

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