Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Something About Some Sphinxes

Riddle ye this.

Richard Cardenas is celebrating John Bellairs Month this January and supporting an online read-along of The Dark Secret of Weatherend (1984), the second book in the Anthony Monday series. Here's a discussion around an object seen a few places in the story.

First, some background. We have an image of John Bellairs in our archives from when he lived in England. The scene: it’s Christmastime in 1967, and his friends the Wagners are visiting. Robert Wagner photographs Bellairs sitting on a bench along the Thames. Bellairs sits near Cleopatra’s Needle, and there are Sphinx heads on the armrests of the bench.

That’s it. So what, you're likely asking.

Cleopatra’s Needle is one of three similarly named Egyptian obelisks. The granite obelisk in London was presented to the United Kingdom in 1819 but originally stood in the Egyptian city of Heliopolis around 1450 BC. Although an Ancient Egyptian obelisk, it has no connection with the Ptolemaic Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt and was already over a thousand years old in her lifetime.

Two faux-Egyptian sphinxes flank Cleopatra’s Needle. In Greek tradition, the sphinx has the head of a woman, a lion's haunches, and a bird’s wings. She is treacherous and merciless, and will kill those who cannot answer her riddle. The Egyptian sphinx is typically shown as a man and is viewed as benevolent but having a ferocious strength similar to the malevolent Greek version. Both were thought of as guardians and often flank the entrances to temples. Sphinxes are generally associated with architectural structures such as royal tombs or religious temples and adopted some into Masonic architecture.

I bring this up because when I learned where Bellaris’s photograph was taken, it immediately brought to mind a couple of sphinxes associated with J.K. Borkman. There are some on his Weatherend estate outside Rolling Stone, Minnesota:

Everywhere the grass was long, rank, and full of weeds. Down in the shallow valley between the two hills Anthony could see a flight of cracked stone steps leading up to a neglected overgrown garden. Two headless sphinxes guarded the top of the stairs, and there were broken marble statues, overturned mossy benches, and weeds galore.

And there are some on his mausoleum in Saint Boniface’s Cemetery in Duluth:

At the top of a slight rise stood the Borkman mausoleum, a gloomy granite house with tiny slitlike windows. Two marble sphinxes crouched in front of the mausoleum, and two Egyptian pillars with lotus capitals held up the massive carved cornice.

It's interesting to wonder if these statues witnessed firsthand in 1967 helped were used as set pieces in Weathered (1984) a mere seventeen years later.

Where else – besides Egypt – have you seen statues of sphinxes?

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