Religion and mythology in Oscar Wilde's poem "The Sphinx"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

25 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduktion

2. Religion and Mythology
2.1. Mythology in the ancient religions
2.2. Religion in Victorianism
2.3 Religious and philosophical ideas of Oscar Wilde

3. The Sphinx
3.1 Characterisation in mythology
3.2 Characterisation in the poem
3.2.1 Male or female?
3.2.2. Old age and wisdom

4. Sexuality and death – the Sphinx as femme fatale
4.1 ‘A thousand weary centuries’
4.2 Her lovers

5. Ammon
5.1 The ideal lover for the femme fatale
5.2 The ideal lover for the poet
5.2.1 The sphinx as a personification of ‘inner desires’
5.3 A symbol for the end of religion

6. The Sphinx as a metaphor for the loss of Christian faith

7. Conclusion

8. Bibliography

1. Introduktion

A poet is sitting in his room beside a Sphinx. Within the poem the Sphinx forms his main focus of interest, his whole attention belongs to her: a cheap souvenir from some street corner. But inside of the poet’s room the Sphinx no longer remains a little piece of stone but, right in front of his eyes, becomes a real-life Sphinx – the age-old female demon of death, who besieged the city of Thebes as a punishment for the king of Thebes who introduced homosexual love into Greek culture and thus incured Hera’s hatred. On top of that, in Wilde’s poem it is the Sphinx herself who becomes the taboo breaking creature, ruled only by her libido, who coaxes lecherous secrets out of the poet, originating in his own imagination.

The Sphinx, one of Oscar Wilde’s most enchanting poems, is woven out of a net of various mythological beliefs and religious ideas. Wilde invokes a hotchpotch of varying creatures, who convey a magical atmosphere of ancient grandeur. In order to understand the poem one has to get to know the concepts that stand behind the various mythical creatures, gods and heroes. Therefore I will explain to which mythologies Wilde relates to and how they refer to each other. In this connection the time of Oscar Wilde has to be taken into consideration, too: Victorianism, with its crumbling of old values and conquering of new worlds. Not incidentally most of the ‘actors’ of The Sphinx go back to ancient Egypt and Greek mythology - a deeper interest and fascination in ancient Egypt was very typical for the Victorian age.

The late 19th century was also the period of decadence. The typical ‘pleasure from decay’ manifests in The Sphinx in various motives, e.g. by the Sphinx’s sodomy with gods or the killing of her lovers. All in all the poem shows an excessive refinement of style, love of detail, and an emphasis on hideousness and grotesque which shows that the poet is fascinated with decadence.

Victorianism was also the period of aestheticism. Wilde took an interest in it because it was a theory which made art the highest value in life. Wilde believed that art possesses an immanent value – that it is beautiful and therefore has worth, and thus needs to serve no other purpose, be it moral or political: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.”[1] This attitude of l’ art pour l’ art was revolutionary to Victorian England because the Victorians believed art could be used as a tool for social education and moral enlightenment. For the aestheticists, the most important thing in a piece of art was its form, not its content. Features of this philosophy can be unmistakable recognized in The Sphinx, and some interpretations even take The Sphinx to be merely a result of Wilde’s delight in experimenting with words and melody of a poem.[2] But in my opinion, because Wilde has lifted lots of ideas for the form of The Sphinx from other authors,[3] Wilde’s own share in the poem is mainly the content, not the structure.[4] For that reason I will not go any further into the analysis of aestheticism in the poem, but I will rather show via examples of the text that although you could get the impression The Sphinx was written only because of Wilde’s delight in unusual words and rhyming couplets, Wilde was indeed very interested and well-informed in ancient mythologies and religions. He used the names of their gods, heroes and mythological creatures not just by chance, but with an provoking intention, and it is possible to find striking connections between all of them.

Naturally Wilde’s poem can not be judged without referring to his own cultural background, Victorian culture, religion and morals, which I will shortly explore. I will also give an insight into Wilde’s own ‘Christian’ ideas, which sometimes show their influences in the poem.

In my term paper I do not mean to offer a complete interpretation of the poem, but I would like to show some of the multitude of possible accesses, e.g. the identification of the Sphinx with the figure of the femme fatale; the personification of the Sphinx as the temptations and desires of the poet respectively The Sphinx as a metaphor for the loss of Christian faith in Victorian culture.

2. Religion and Mythology

2.1. Mythology in the ancient religions

The importance of myths as documents of human thought [...] is now

generally recognized, and they are collected and compared, no longer for the

sake of idle entertainment, but for the light they throw on the intellectual

evolution of our species.[5]

The Sphinx - the name of the poem does already indicate its mythological content. Mythology is the term for the accumulated myths of a religion: stories about life and death, heroic (or evil) deeds of gods, heroes, saints and mythological creatures, about the creation of the world and the past and future of mankind. Thus, religion and mythology are two strongly connected concepts. Every religion has its own myths without whom it would be purely theoretical: myths bring religious ideas to life. That is the reason why all past and present societies have their own myths. They are part of human life, they reveal confessions, mark social behaviours, justify institutions, rites and values, and shape the world view of a whole culture.[6] For The Sphinx Wilde chose the two most colourful mythological regions: Egypt and Greece. The mythology of ancient Egypt is closely connected to the Nile, from which the country was completely dependent.[7] Their myths developed in an environment that was marked by sharp contrasts: the desert and the Nile. This contrast always reminded the Egyptians of the opposites of life and death, of good and evil, morality and sin[8], and these opposites can also be found in the manifestations of their various gods. Greek mythology is closely connected to Egypt mythology.

When Alexander invaded Egypt in 332 BC the Greek became the new rulers of Egypt, but they allowed the Egyptians to keep their own culture and religion. Moreover they adopted many of the old Egyptian gods into their own religion, but gave them different names because of their supposedly ‘barbaric’ sound.[9] But 300 years later Egypt was conquered by the Romans, and the culture of ancient Egypt, their religion and rites were supplanted by Christianity.[10] A similar loss of religion happened in 19th century Victorian England.

2.2. Religion in Victorianism

"I would like to found an order for those who cannot believe: the Confraternity of the Faithless one might call it, where on an altar, on which no taper burned, a priest, in whose heart peace had no dwelling, might celebrate with unblessed bread and a chalice empty of wine."[11]

The Sphinx was written in 1881: 19th century England was, mostly, a very religious age with high moral standards and an emphasis on truth and ‘the importance of being earnest’. Orthodox Christianity, with its strong values and morals, was a part of daily Victorian life: religion occupied the public consciousness and was central in the intellectual life of the age. But in the later decades of the century it came to a decline of religious and moral values. The reason for this was the renewed scientific interest in nature. In the 1820s and 1830s British geologists made fossil discoveries of extinct species which threatened Christian faith because of their contradiction to the Genesis and its six-day Creation theory. In 1859 Darwin published his book Origin of species, the most famous challenge to Victorian faith[12]: with his theory of evolution Darwin questioned the truthfulness of the Genesis and the idea of the human form being designed as an image of God. He reduced the human race to the level of highly-developed animals; the existence of God himself was put to question. But the real conflict was not the challenge of science but the response of religion: in 1860 a book named Essays and reviews was published, whose authors were almost all clergymen of the Church of England. In these essays the spiritual leaders introduced biblical criticism to England. They questioned the authority of the whole Bible and its interpretation, and thus the Christian faith in general. With biblical criticism, the traditional Bible-centred faith of the Victorians became very problematic. Atheist and agnostic ‘belief’ became normality. At the end of the nineteenth century Victorian religion and Victorian values, which were closely connected to Christian faith, were lost. Surprisingly or not, to most this meant no new freedom but the negative feeling of an important loss.[13] The Sphinx itself does not refer exactly to this developments, but the poet mentions that “only one God has ever died”[14] (line 125), hinting at Christ.

In this time of religious uncertainty explorers made headlines all over Europe with expeditions to Egypt. A new exotic passion occupied the minds of the intellectual circles, fueled by daily reports on the search for the miraculous sources of the Nile[15], the exploration of the pyramids and the search for the hidden pharaonic treasures, the mysterious and until 1821 unsolvable riddle of the hieroglyphs[16]. Especially the decadent movement fell in love with the ancient Egyptian culture. The general fascination for Egypt at the time Wilde wrote the poem can be said to result out of the religious loss; it culminated in the conquering of Egypt by the British Empire in 1882 which made Egypt into a British colony for 120 years. The Sphinx treats the mood before this conquest, the great interest into an ancient culture, long lost but still sparkling.

2.3 Religious and philosophical ideas of Oscar Wilde

Influenced by the Victorian age, Wilde has always been fascinated by religion and theology. He was born and raised as an Orthodox Christian, which seems quite contradictory considering his attitude as a dandy and his supposed homosexual relationships as well as his mocking of Victorian morals and conventions. While he was young, he was constantly searching for spiritual transcendence, and many of his early poems[17], as well as The Sphinx, can be said to have religious meanings. In the 1880s Wilde took an interest into Hellenism. The Hellenic philosophy interested him not only because of its aesthetic views, but also because of its implied suggestion of male-male love.[18]

The Greek philosophy did deeply influence Wilde’s works: e.g. Epikur maintained that the strive for pleasure should always be the highest aim in life, and that pleasure could be achieved either by beautiful things or works of art, or by physical or spiritual experiences. The poet in The Sphinx, too, takes his impression and pleasure from a work of art – the statue of a Sphinx.

3. The Sphinx

3.1 Characterisation in mythology

One can meet the Sphinx in ancient Egypt as well as in ancient Greek mythology. The term ‘Sphinx’ derives from the Egypt word ‘spanch’ and means ‘that which receives the life’. The Greek did not only integrate the Sphinx into their own mythology but, a rather rare incident, they also adopted her name because it reminded them of their own word ‘sphingo’ - ‘to hold tight’. These different translations connect to the different characters the Sphinx has in both countries. Because in The Sphinx Wilde obviously meant to invoke a Greek Sphinx, I will not go into a detailed description of the Egypt variant.

In both mythologies the Sphinx has the body of a lion and the head of a human. But in addition the Greek Sphinx has wings on her back and sometimes she is also pictured with the tail of a snake. More importantly, she also has breasts and a female face. The Sphinx in Greek mythology is a demon of death. She descended on the city of Thebes where, seated on a rock, she laid siege to the city. The motive of her siege was the revenge of a woman: Hera, the goddess and defender of heterosexual love, sent the Sphinx to Thebes as a punishment of its king, who had fallen in love and seduced a young boy, thus initiating homosexual love into Greek culture.[19] From now on everyone who wanted to enter Thebes had to solve the riddle of the Sphinx first.[20] Those who failed she strangled - here the connection to her Greek name is made.[21] The role of the mythological Sphinx has been reversed in Wilde’s poem: the Sphinx does no longer punish sexual permissiveness, but indulges in it herself with numerous lovers, including homosexual ones.


[1] Oscar Wilde. The Preface. The Picture of Dorian Gray. in: The Complete Illustrated Plays and Poems of Oscar Wilde. London: Chancellor Press, 42000. p. 3.

[2] B. Fehr e.g. takes the whole poem The Sphinx to be merely a reaction to and processing of Flaubert’s Tentation de Saint Antoine. Compare (Cf.): Bernhard Fehr. Studien zu Oscar Wilde’s Gedichten. Berlin: Mayer and Müller, 1918. p. 179-195.

[3] E.g. Wilde used the rhyme scheme of Tennyson’s Immemorial, borrowed the whole situation – a narrator taken impressions, visions from a piece of art, from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, and took the most unusual expressions from Flaubert’s Tentation de Saint Antoine.

[4] But influences of other writers of his time can also be seen in the content of The Sphinx, e.g. lines 115 - 116. The idea Wilde describes here, the death of a god converted into a giant destroyed statue, can already be found in the poem Ozymandias of Egypt (1817) by Percy B. Shelley.

[5] James G. Frazer in: Ariel Golan. Prehistoric Religion. Mythology. Symbolism. Jerusalem: 2003. p. 9.

[6] Cf.: Richard Cavendish and Trevor O. Ling, eds.. Mythologie. Eine illustrierte Weltgeschichte des mythisch-religiösen Denkens. Frechen: Komet. p. 8.

[7] Egypt is still said to be ‘a present of the Nile’.

[8] Cf.: Rosalie David in: Cavendish 96.

[9] E.g. they changed Ammon into Zeus, Horus into Apollo, Hathor into Aphrodite and so forth. Cf.: Adolf Erman. Die Religion der Ägypter. Ihr Werden und Vergehen in vier Jahrtausenden. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2001. p. 359.

[10] Cf.: Martha Holmes, Gavin Maxwell and Tim Scoones. Der Nil. Mythos und Lebensader. München: C.J. Bucher, 2004. p. 63.

[11] Wilde, Oscar. De Profundis. Being the first complete and accurate version of ‘Epistola: in Carcere et Vinculis’ the last prose work in English of Oscar Wilde. London: Methuen & Co., 31955. p. 81.

[12] Darwin was not the first scientist who discovered the idea of evolution, but he was the first who had an explanation for it: the theory of natural selection.

[13] Cf.: Josef L. Altholz. “The Warfare of Conscience with Theology”. 15.08.2001. <> (16.07.2005).

[14] Oscar Wilde. The Sphinx. In: The complete illustrated plays and poems of Oscar Wilde. London: Chancellor Press, 42000. p. 826 - 839.

[15] Various British explorers made expeditions to discover the sources of the Nile, e.g. Richard Burton (c.1857) and David Livingstone (c.1871).

[16] Only as late as 1821, with the discovery of the stone of Rosetta, the hieroglyphs could be translated. Before this, the messages of the ancient Pyramid Texts, the obelisks and the Egyptian Book of the Dead were highly speculative.

[17] E.g. Sonnet written in Holy Week at Genoa, Ravenna or Rome unvisited.

[18] Cf.: Frederick S. Roden. Same-sex desire in Victorian religious culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. p. 137.

[19] Finney, Gail eds.. Look who’s laughing. Gender and comedy. Studies in humor and Gender. Vol. 1. Davis, California: Gordon and Breach, 1994. p. 124.

[20] The riddle of the Sphinx was as follows: "Which being, having only one voice, has sometimes two feet, sometimes three and sometimes four, and is weakest when it has most?” The correct answer was: man. Cf.: Mike Dixon-Kennedy. Encyclopedia of Greco-Roman Mythology. Santa Barbara, Californien: ABC-Clio, 1998. p. 283.

[21] Oedipus was the first to know the answer to her riddle, and the Sphinx threw herself from her cliff into the abyss. But even from the death of the Sphinx no positive outcome derived, because it allowed Oedipus to enter Thebes and in the end marry his own mother.

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Religion and mythology in Oscar Wilde's poem "The Sphinx"
LMU Munich  (Department für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Oscar Wilde
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Kommentar des Dozenten (nach Benotung): Ein geradezu unglaublich belesenes und wissenschaftlich akribisch gearbeitetes paper, das - in Abhebung von Bernard Fehrs Deutung - Wildes Sphinx als bewusstes Konstrukt inhaltlicher Anspielungen auf griechische und ägyptische Mythologie erweist und darüber hinaus noch verschiedene soziokulturelle bzw. psychologisch-beiographische Lesarten des Gedichts anbietet. [...] Ansonsten weist die Arbeit ein Niveau auf, das man sich bei so mancher Abschlussarbeit wünschen würde. Congratulations!
Religion, Oscar, Wilde, Sphinx, Oscar, Wilde
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M.A. Melitta Töller (Author), 2005, Religion and mythology in Oscar Wilde's poem "The Sphinx", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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