ETH Sphinx

A mysterious pair of lamps outside the ETH main building.

Gold-painted lampposts outside ETH main building.On sunny days it can be nice to walk past the west side the ETH main building – where there is an expansive stone courtyard with spectacular views across the city and to the distant Alps.  It’s long struck me as odd that the west entrance to this classical-style building, in rather drab grey stone, is flanked by a pair of golden lampposts.

Surely they are not made of gold, or even painted with gold paint, but on a sunny day they are nonetheless brilliant in their contrast with the surroundings.  Each is supported with three legs, each of which is a buxom one-legged sphinx character.  Apparently sphinx icons were quite popular in Europe during the Rennaissance.

I can find no online explanation for the ETH lamps, nor any nearby signage to indicate the meaning or import of these lamps and their golden paint.  The base of each lamp indicates the name of its foundry, in nearby Winterthur, but no more.  Perhaps they are a warning to the students who enter ETH, based on the traditional Greek origin of the sphinx: “She is mythicised as treacherous and merciless. Those who cannot answer her riddle suffer a fate typical in such mythological stories, as they are killed and eaten by this ravenous monster.” [Wikipedia]


Author: dfkotz

David Kotz is an outdoor enthusiast, traveller, husband, and father of three. He is also a Professor of Computer Science at Dartmouth College.

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