44 Scotland Street: The Symbolism of the Sphinx

VOLUME 10, episode 42: At the foot of Hanover Street, directly opposite the neo-­classical Royal Scottish Academy with its honey-coloured array of columns, their taxi stopped at a red light.

Illustration by Iain McIntosh

“The thing about Edinburgh,” Angus observed, “is that the gaze must be raised. If you walk about this city with your eyes downcast, you miss the point. That’s why our skyline is so important.”

Domenica had been looking down Princes Street, watching the crowds of evening shoppers on the pavements. Now she looked up.

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“Queen Victoria,” she said.

“Yes, there she is,” said Angus. “Seated on top of the Academy, and flanked for some reason by sphinxes. Playfair added her – and the sphinxes – afterwards, I believe. I imagine he said to himself, How about a few sphinxes? Very strange. Have you given much thought to the sphinx symbolism, ­Domenica?”

She shook her head. “Never,” she said. “We take the sphinx for granted, I suppose. We see a sphinx and think Oh, there’s a sphinx, but we never ask what it’s doing there. They’re rather like cats, I’ve always thought. Rather agreeable creatures.”

“Oh, don’t get too close to a sphinx,” said Angus, adopting a tone of mock warning. “Remember what the Sphinx got up to in Greek mythology. She asked people riddles and if they couldn’t answer, she ate them. Oedipus came up against her at Thebes, did he not? He, of course answered the riddle and the Sphinx took frightful offence and self-destructed. A bit of an over-reaction, but then if one is a sphinx I suppose one looks at things a bit ­differently.”

“I suppose one does,” agreed ­Domenica. “But why did Playfair put those stone sphinxes on top of the Royal Scottish Academy?”

“Faute de mieux,” said Angus. “Or they may represent something other than sphinxdom. I gather they were thought to represent wisdom and learning.”

“Or they could have been put up there to scare the seagulls,” suggested Domenica. “You know how people these days put plastic owls on their roof to keep seagulls from nesting, this may have been an early example of just that. A sphinx looks rather like a cat, doesn’t it? So if you put two massive stone cats on top of the Royal Scottish Academy you’d have no trouble with seagulls, would you?”

Angus laughed. “Possibly.”

The taxi began to move again, but stopped immediately to allow a man to complete his crossing of the road. Angus noticed that the man had a ­tattoo across the back of his neck – a ­tattoo that was given full exposure by the low cut of the tee-shirt he was wearing. Angus noticed it, and gave a start.

Domenica looked round. “What?”

“That man. Look.”

She followed his gaze. The man had reached the side of the road; shortly he would be swallowed up into the crowd of shoppers.

Domenica uttered a small cry of ­surprise. “My goodness! A sphinx!”

Angus craned his neck to get a final glimpse of the man and his extraordinary tattoo. He had only that glimpse, and it was a short-lived one. Now the taxi had started to move again and they were sweeping round the bend in the road that took them onto the foot of the Mound. He turned to face ­Domenica.

“What an amazing thing,” he said. “There we were talking about sphinxes and that man …”

“… had a large sphinx tattooed on his neck,” she supplied.

“I feel quite unsettled by that,” said Angus. “I know it’s only a coincidence, but still …”

“I wouldn’t read anything more into it,” said Domenica.

He nodded. “And yet, I wonder why he chose the sphinx.”

“Genre theory might throw come light on it,” said Angus. “If there is a lot of something – images or ideas or whatever – it’s often because they were ­expected within the genre.”

Domenica looked puzzled.

“Take Chinese poetry,” said Angus. “Scholars used to wonder why there were so many poems from certain periods – you, know, ages ago, Tang Dynasty and so on – that all dealt with the same subject. There were poems about finding a strand of a mistress’s hair on a pillow, or poems about losing a favourite apricot tree to frost. Hundreds of them, apparently. Was this because lost of poets had these experiences?”

Domenica looked thoughtful. “Possibly. I suppose Chinese poets had mistresses and mistresses do occasionally leave a strand of their hair on the pillow – that being the sort of thing mistresses like to do. Almost like establishing a territorial claim. My hair, my pillow, my poet …”

“No,” said Angus. “It was because poets were required to write poems on certain subjects as part of their exams for the Imperial civil service. They were exam or competition pieces.”

“Ah!”

Angus warmed to his theme. “And there were genres, too, in Greek and Latin poetry. There were certain subjects that came up time and time again. And in art.” He paused. “So in this case, you might well find the answer to your question in the design books of tattoo artists. There’s probably a Sphinx.”

Domenica smiled. “Along with all the intertwined hearts and skulls?”

“Exactly. You’d like a sphinx? No problem. How’s this sphinx here?”

Domenica looked out of the window. They were now level with the Old Sheriff Court and the statue of David Hume. “Why do people have tattoos?” she asked.

“Because, like all of us, they’re searching for beauty.”

“An odd way of doing that.”

“In your view,” said Angus. “But not in theirs. Remember we are the heirs of the Picts, and the Picts were so called because they were painted all over. Painted people. So that’s where all this comes from. We’re merely reverting to our previous enthusiasm for being painted.”

“Beauty,” mused Domenica.

“Yes,” said Angus. “The search for beauty. It carries on, you know. We’re all searching for beauty except for …”

“Yes? Except for?”

“Conceptual artists,” said Angus. “That’s why the Turner Prize is so ­absurd. It has nothing to do with the cultivation of the beautiful – which is what art should concern itself with. It’s all about posturing and banality.”

“Oh,” said Domenica.

They were now outside the City Chambers and the conversation came to an end. Within the City Chambers the Lord Provost awaited his guests for his little party.