The Colchester Sphinx©2001 Sue McPherson
Discovered in 1821, the Sphinx now crouches on a pedestal at the entrance to Colchester Castle Museum. With wings, human head and half-body, and the body of a lioness, crouching over a human head, hands, and bones, the Sphinx is two foot nine inches high, including the base. Carved in British stone, this work by a Roman artist probably dates back to the second century and would have formed part of a Roman military tomb.
E. W. A. Hay (1821), present at the discovery, identified it, writing, "We have an undoubtedly ancient figure of the Theban Sphinx, which here is represented as having already slain a victim of her wiles. Her blood-thirsty passion would seem from the countenance of the Monster to be shewn as already satiated. She sits, as it were, in perfect serenity over the mangled remains of her unsuccessful opponent" (p. 8).
Sometime later - close to one hundred and fifty years later - the Colchester Sphinx is described not as "the man-eating monster of the Theban legend" but as "the peaceful symbol of death's riddle and the guardian of the grave", with it being noted that "there are no traces of agony or struggle in the man's expression, which is that of one serenely sleeping in the care of his protectress" (Toynbee 1964: 113).
Whether or not this monument was of a Sphinx devouring a human head, the "remorseless devourer of those who cannot read her riddles" or one of the gryphons, "guardians of the tomb or bearers of the soul to heaven" J. A. Richmond argues, "the allusion to the grave is inescapable" (p. 5).
Hay E. W. A.
Letter to the Committee of the Essex and Colchester General Hospital
Upon the recent Discovery at that Place
Beautiful Monument of Roman Sculpture,
THE THEBAN SPHINX.
published by E. W. A. Hay, 1821
PRINTED AND SOLD BY SWINBORNE AND WALTER; SOLD ALSO BY BALDWIN, CRADOCK, AND JOY, LONDON; AND BY ALL BOOKSELLERS.
Richmond, J. A.
1946 "Roman Monumental Candelabrum of Stone, from York", The Antiquaries Journal, 26, 1-10.
Toynbee, J. M. C.
1964 Art in Britain under the Romans. Oxford University Press.