I’m primarily a textual historian, but I do find myself both fascinated and moved by certain artifacts. I’m creating a series of posts on various objects, whether from museums or “the field” that I find engaging.
For my first post, I’m going a bit beyond Classics to talk about this object currently housed in the British Museum: a Haida Sphinx.
The Haida are a Native North American people who inhabit the islands known as Haida Gwaii (for a time, re-named the Queen Charlotte Islands; their original name has now been officially restored) off the coast of the province of British Columbia in Canada. The Haida were a major seafaring power prior to European colonization, engaging in trade and piracy in their longboats. Haida artist Bill Reid has referred to them as “the Phoenicians of the Northern Pacific.” They were also master-craftspeople, excelling in woodcarving on both monumental and intricate scales. Following European contact, the Haida initially prospered, selling sea-otter pelts to Spanish, British and Russian traders. However, when overhunting led to the extinction of the sea-otters in the area, and the Haida began contracting diseases against which they had no natural immunity from the Europeans, the Haida swiftly declined. By the early twentieth century, the population had fallen by around 90%, from a high of roughly 7000 down to 700, clustered in just two remaining settlements out of the hundreds of villages that had dotted the island. To this physical destruction was added the attempted destruction of Haida culture, as the Canadian government pursued a policy of assimilation aimed at eradicating traditional cultures, languages, and ways of thought.
Fortunately for the Haida, Europeans were greatly taken by their artistic products. A thriving trade for Haida wood- and stone-carvings grew up, and Haida artists like Charles Edenshaw (1839-1920) achieved relative fame and prosperity. As a result, artists were able to keep aspects of Haida culture alive, helping pave the way resurgence of the Haida nation that continues now. Haida art continues to be internationally recognized: probably the most famous Haida artist is Bill Reid (1920-1998), whose most famous work is perhaps “The Spirit of Haida Gwaii”, copies of which stand in the Canadian Embassy in Washington DC, the Vancouver International Airport, and which until recently graced the Canadian $20 bill.
To return to the sphinx, however. According to the British Museum, it was carved by Haida artist Simeon Silthda between 1874 and 1878, and was later found buried in a house in one of the many villages abandoned following the collapse of the Haida population.
Sphinxes are not in any way part of Haida tradition. They are, of course, Egyptian, used to monumentalize the rulers whose heads were joined to the lions’ bodies. So how did a Haida artist come to depict a creature from the traditions of a people thousands of miles and thousands of years distant?
According to the BM, the artist had seen a picture of a sphinx, likely the Great Sphinx of Giza, in an illustrated bible brought by Christian missionary William Collinson. The bible does not in fact mention the Sphinx by name, or describe anything like it. Nevertheless, by the late 19th century the Sphinx had become an immediately-recognizable symbol of Egypt, and so, when illustrating a part of the bible dealing with Egypt – perhaps the story of Joseph, or the Book of Exodus – the illustrator added the Sphinx as a way of immediately bringing home to the reader the location of the story.
Exactly why Simon Silthda chose to sculpt the sphnix we cannot know, but something clearly captivated the artist about this strange creature, part human and part animal. The product is, to my mind, a highly arresting one, a fascinating combination of Haida artistic tradition and that of Ancient Egypt (as mediated through a late-Victorian European illustrator). The Sphinx is immediately recognizable as such – its curving headdress and Pharaonic false beard are instantly recognizable. At the same time, the style is also unmistakeably that of the British Columbia First Nations, with its careful symmetry and geometrical exactitude.
I grew up in British Columbia, and native BC art has always been a part of my life. I find this artifact a powerfully evocative one: an artist working in an ancient tradition, inspired by the product of a foreign but equally ancient culture, mediated through the imagery of the new religion that his country’s colonial rulers were eager to promote. It’s a fascinating study in cultural interaction and influence, and, I think, a beautiful piece of art even apart form its fascinating history.
The BM record of the Haida Sphinx is here:
Details on Haida history can be found here, on the website of the Haida Gwaii tourism agency: