Friday, October 9, 2009

Riddle of the Sphinx: Symbolic vs. Literal

The "Riddle of the Sphinx" from Greek mythology (not the Egyptian one next to the pyramids) asks a seemingly simple question that has dramatic results, depending on the answer: If the person answers incorrectly, the Sphinx will eat him or her, but if one answers correctly, the Sphinx will destroy itself. Often cited as a requirement for entering the Mystery Schools, the question goes something like this:

"What creature walks on four legs in the morning, two legs during the day, and on three legs in the evening?"

Oedipus and the Sphinx, Gustave Moreau, 1856

Only Oedipus was able to answer correctly (more on the so-called Oedipus Complex and what the story of Oedipus really means in a later post). And the answer is -- Man. Man crawls on all fours as a baby, walks on two legs through adulthood, and hobbles on a cane in old age. The answer to the riddle seems simple enough once you "get" it, but in order to arrive at the answer, one has to look more deeply into the question itself.

There are two things going on in the question and both need to be taken symbolically, as metaphors for something else, to arrive at the answer. First there is the question of the Creature. We know that a frog starts off as a fish (more less) and winds up being able to walk (or at least hop) on terra firma. But this is taking the question literally. As a metaphor, the term "legs" can mean something else, and in this case it refers to the hands and knees as being the four "legs" and the cane being the third "leg."

Next, there's the part about the time frame. Again, this is to be taken symbolically and not literally. We know that a flower can begin the morning as a bud, open up and bloom during the day, and close back into a bud in the evening. But this literal interpretation is part of the deception of the riddle - they're supposed to be tricky, right? So, when we translate a "day" as meaning one's lifespan, we can see that the morning is childhood, afternoon adulthood, and the evening as old age.

So why is this important, why do I need to know this, and how can this solve my current problem?

I'm glad you asked, but you might not like the answer. To really understand, and therefore utilize, the Ancient Wisdom, you must learn the language of symbols and metaphor. We've heard this before as the difference between the "spirit of the law" and the "letter of the law." Dreams speak to us in a language coded with symbolic images that somehow relate to our waking lives. Myths, scriptures, and other wisdom tales use metaphor or allegory - a story about someone else in some other place that, while seemingly a world apart from ours, hits us directly and emotionally and tells us something about a deeper aspect of our own lives. Sometimes the indirect route is the best way to get through.

As you develop this skill further, this "symbolic sight" will give you greater insight and allow you to see underlying patterns and clues to solutions that would otherwise remain obscured with only a literal read of the situation.

Since this is such a vast subject, just focus on the "lifespan in a day" metaphor from the riddle and open it up a bit. Now, what if a person's lifespan took place using the time frame of one year? This person would be born Jan 1st, die Dec. 31, reach physical maturity in the Spring, and begin old age in the Autumn. This is why we call a relationship between a younger woman and an older man a "May - December" relationship. This is the same metaphor, just placed within another time frame. This symbolic analogy shows up in Christian theology, where Easter, which is also a fertility festival, takes place roughly nine months before December 25th, or equal to the gestation period before birth, which in this case is Christmas. And in the lifespan of the Universe (as we thus far think we know it), astronomer Carl Sagan put the 15 or so billion year life of the Cosmos in the period of one year. In this model, starting with the so-called Big Bang, it wouldn't be until December 14th that the dinosaurs showed up, humans started on December 31st, and the last 2,000 years have taken place in the last four seconds of the "year." Again, the same process is used and the recurring patterns of the life and solar cycles are used, just in another context.

So just as the term "feet" can be used to describe other kinds of feet, and that a day or a year can be a metaphor, or a sort of scale model, for describing the lifespan of a human being or of the universe itself. The important thing is to keep seeing these patterns and metaphors to describe something through analogy, or "this is like that." As we do, patterns that are strikingly similar will reveal themselves in a variety of situations, bringing us closer to what the ancient Greek philosopher, Hericlitus, called the "hidden harmony" which underlies all things.

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