The Brazilian sphinx and its enigma: devour me or decipher you!

Image: ColeraAlegria


The new version of our eternal sphinx is a moth of death, which feeds the delusional fantasies of characters who are not capable of devouring their own repression.

The inspiration for the title stems from the desire to honor the insubordinate spirit of Millôr Fernandes (1), our versatile comedian. But it is also a reference to the inversions of the text that follows, in its rhapsodic construction, as well as an allusion to the epilogue, as will be seen in time.

The sphinx is an integral part of the millennia-old mythology of various cultures. Egyptians, Greeks or Persians had a sphinx to call their own. In Greek myth, she guarded access to Thebes, asking passers-by: “- What animal walks on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon and three in the evening? ” Who did not decipher the riddle, whose well-known answer in Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles (2)Is anthropos – crawling in infancy, erect in adulthood and with a cane in old age – was devoured.

Our Brazilian sphinx, with its contemporary “political enigma”, is so abysmal that it seems to make the Theban myth no more than… banal… However, let's take it easy! As is known, it was not a trivial matter for Oedipus. Nor for Freud who derived the psychoanalytic concept from the famous Complex.

It must be remembered that, behind the riddle of the sphinx, there was another obscene Delphic riddle, predicting death and destruction, for Oedipus would kill his father in order to have an incestuous relationship with his mother. There is, in his answer to the riddle, a critical implication that Oedipus had his feet “traumatized” since childhood, perhaps giving him clues to his answer to the sphinx. (3). It embodies physical, psychological and emotional deformity. He is the man with the “swollen feet”, supposedly born to rule but unable to rule himself at the price of his hybris. And of these devouring sexual complexes there is still much to be said.

And yet there are ravenous myths in all cosmogonies. Such as “story of the lizard that had the constumbre of eating its women” (4). And even in certain unsuspected literature one finds them. Gargantua and Pantagruel (5), with his character Eusthenes, “who, being fasting”, right under whose teeth and under his saliva “beings of viscosity and rottenness came to lodge” (6); the Gorgons – Medusa, Euryale and Stheno – who turned anyone who looked them in the eye into stone (and from Medusa it is known that she could have become the patroness of Cavalry, since Perseus, having cut off her head, sprouted the fiery and winged Pegasus. Sex again).

In Brazil, even though there was Cavalry, we didn't have Pegasus, Medusa or Gorgons. A feather. Even so, we make recursive use (abuse?) of that strange/familiar sphinx through the crooked ways of a broken-mirror narcissism. (7), both in metaphorical terms and in the conjunctural framing strategy of our most challenging socio-political enigmas. Despite the absence of this foundational mythical figure in our culture, we still produce mythical fables best represented by Ñavcuruçu, the great creator, Peri and Jaci. and the boy Caapoã, handsome, who put anyone who dared to enter his domains without the proper license to lose. All in need of interpretation, all sphinxic beings who proposed riddles.

And once again, with Macunaíma, the creation of well-born Paulistas, the anthropophagic myth appears that devours, chews and digests everything, to later regurgitate the substratum of renewed Brazilianness. But Macunaíma did not imagine that one day, at the turn that Brazilian culture and political order suffered, he would have to swallow Heidegger (the one from 1933) and Olavo (the usual one), and from this indigestible metabolization regurgitate the “mi(n)to” … Oh Martin, oh Martin you who saw the direct link (direct speech) between the classical Greek past and the Aryan claim, Athens and Berlin (8), why didn't he imagine that there could also be a farcical rebirth in the future, another direct connection, Berlin and Brazilia?

It's a lot of numbers! Do you think it's too riddle? Ask Turing for help, with his "Bletchley Park Bombe“ decryptor, to decipher the code of the current “Enigma“ machine. But look if we're not right. For example, we still haven't given up in terms of political ideation, despite its evident anachronistic mark, the reactionary “Sebastianism” that insists on returning to each new block of history. The eternal return of the mythical idea, imported from an Iberian nostalgia, of a messianic “savior” modeled for every taste and occasion, capable of waking up the sleeping giant.

Bringing the issue closer to the modern cultural universe, another reference to the sphinx – which symbolizes a noteworthy form of literary expression – was given by the American fiction writer, poet and critic Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), best known for works dark, marked by an aesthetic of horror. By contrast and as further proof of his talent, when he used humor (comic, satirical), it was also coated with ambivalent social irony. (9). Poe was committed to his time and to the arrangements that were configured in his time, the “contraptions” that every society produces.

Horror/humor, more than an aesthetic effect of contradiction, define the elaboration of “The Sphinx” (10), a short story by Poe published for the first time in 1846. There is “a character devoid of a sense of humor and, therefore, incapable of understanding what the real is infinite and it is impossible to contemplate and apprehend it in its entirety”(10), therefore, unable to understand that the perception of “a real” (the one only conceived by the character, in his mediocrity) does not eliminate the possibility of its opposite (the existence of endless real “others”). The preamble of the short story is contemporary with these times we live in:

“During the terrible reign of cholera in New York I accepted the invitation of a relative to spend a fortnight with him at his mother's retreat. ornate cottage, on the banks of the Hudson […] Not a single day passed without our learning of the death of someone we knew”.

The sphinx, at the end of the story, turns out not to be the monster that the character imagines, but just a big moth (atropos acherontia, the skull butterfly or skull sphinx), characterized by the vague shape of a skull found on its back.

Let us now carry out the exercise of bringing the references used so far to our Brazilian daily life, which has been known to be divisive and hateful in recent years, verifying whether it is possible to rescue it through humor – at least, to try to maintain sanity. An exchange, as a practical use of Orwellian newspeak, in which the founding or interpretive myth appears modified: where it was a cosmifier, it is now pseudocosmos or phantasmagoria; where it was sacred, it is now dogmatically the pastoral claim to authority; where before it was out of time, it has now become “out of time”; if before it reconciled contradictions, now it disguises them; where one saw unity, one sees disaggregation; and when in the past it was purely argument and narration, in the present it is merely mythical conveyed through clichés; and if it had a touch of universal wisdom, today it is just the obscurantism of a commonplace dominated by fake news.

Such are the marks of a classical mythology, however, contemporaneously degraded into an ideological myth. The sphinx that reappears, conjuring in the mystifying shadows of the current governmental arrangement, is devoid of humour, a depressed myth and incapable of erecting a constructive and lasting cultural heritage. She is just a funereal sphinx, incapable of mobilizing enigmas that contribute to deciphering/building new mornings, days and nights of our civility.

More than quadrupeds, bipeds and tripods invoked in an enigmatic challenge, what emerges is the ghostly image of a lowly Kafkaesque lepidoptera with a skull on its back. The new version of our eternal sphinx is a moth of death, which feeds the delusional fantasies of characters who are not capable of devouring their own repression (as any character who embodies “Brazilianness”, any anthropophagic Macunaíma would do).

We will survive the widespread resentment, driving perverse, fratricidal characters, such as the myth that failed to decipher the true popular light of a solar nation. We are not going to devour it, as it is already the detritus of a bad mythical memory that will remain forgotten.

*Samuel Jorge Moyses is professor of epidemiology and public health at PUC-PR and UFPR.

*Carlos Botazzo is a professor at the Faculty of Public Health at USP.


  1. Fernandes M. Devour me or I decipher you. Porto Alegre: L± 1977. 107 p.
  2. Sophocles. Oedipus Rex: Perspective; 2011. 192 p.
  3. Baum R. Oedipus' Body & the Riddle of the Sphinx. Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism [Internet]. 2006; 21(1):[45-56 pp.]. See here.
  4. Romero JCG, Ramirez MDA. The danger of the waters: aspects of the terrible feminine in a short story by Galeano. Religare [Internet]. 2017; 14(2):[311-42 pp.]. See here.
  5. Rabelais F. Gargantua and Pantagruel. Belo Horizonte: Itatiaia; 2009. 944 p.
  6. Foucault M. Words and things. An archeology of the human sciences (10th ed.). São Paulo: Martins Fontes; 2016. 564 p.
  7. Aguiar FW. The sphinx and the sheet of paper. Magazine Fragmentos [Internet]. 1999 June 14, 2020; 17:[35-40 pp.]. See here.
  8. Feimann JP. Heidegger's shadow. Buenos Aires: Planet; 2015. 206 p.
  9. Silva AMZ. Humor and satire: the other face of Edgar Allan Poe. Araraquara: Unesp; 2006. (Doctoral Thesis). See here.
  10. Poe EA. The Sphinx. In: Poe EA, editor. Collected works, stories and poems. San Diego: Canterbury Classics; 2011. p. 598-600.
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