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A Bit of a Riddle: Mount Holyoke Class Colors and Emblemse

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Mount Holyoke College News and Events Vista The College Street Journal Archives

May 23 , 2003

A Bit of a Riddle: Mount Holyoke Class Colors and Emblems

Emblem designs through the ages, from top to bottomt 1927, 1935, 1963, 1975, 1991, 2003.

Curious why the class of 2003 seems particularly fond of yellow? Wondering why many of its members are taken with a certain mythological monster? It's all part of a Mount Holyoke tradition that goes back nearly one hundred years, when College classes began affiliating themselves with particular animal emblems. The riddle is why. No one seems to know.

The class of 1905 selected a lion, a fitting choice for a College that boasts brave and strong Lyon athletic teams, but a pick made with no more (recorded) explanation than the adoption of the unicorn, tiger, or dragon as symbols by the classes of 1906, 1907, and 1908 respectively. In 1909, according to The First One Hundred Years 1872–
by Mary Higley Mills '21, the griffin, Pegasus, sphinx (the symbol of the class of 2003), and the lion became new MHC standards, along with the colors green, red, yellow (this year's class color), and blue. These creatures have represented MHC's classes on a four-year rotation ever since, the mystery of their origins as symbols only adding to their appeal.

So What about the Sphinx?

Stories about the sphinx vary somewhat depending on the source, but are best known through the plays of Sophocles and in the writings of Apollodorus. According to ancient Greek mythology, the sphinx was the child of monsters Typhon (known for its one hundred venomous heads) and Echidna (a combination of nymph and giant serpent). After an oracle was given that said that Oedipus, the son of King Laius of Thebes and Queen Jacosta, would kill his father and lie with his mother, the prince was sent away and raised without knowledge of his birthright.

Oedipus ended up killing a stranger after meeting him on a road and arguing with him. That man was actually his father. Soon after, the sphinx, who in some versions of the story is sent by Hera or Hades, made its appearance in Thebes. Sitting on a high rock (or, in some versions of the tale, on Mount Phicium), it offered to anyone who passed by a riddle given to it by the Muses.

The riddle has been translated to mean, roughly, "What animal has one voice, but goes on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and upon three legs in the evening?" The sphinx strangled (sphinx derives from the Greek word sphingo, to strangle, or sphingein, to bind tight) anyone who couldn't solve the riddle. Finally, Thebes offered the reward of kingship and Jacosta as wife to anyone who could solve the riddle and rid the city of the monster. Oedipus offered this answer to the riddle, "Man, who in childhood creeps on hands and knees, in manhood walks erect, and in old age with the aid of a staff."

Upset that its riddle had been solved, the sphinx killed itself. Thebes made Oedipus king, and Jacosta became his wife. When Oedipus discovered that he had indeed killed his father and married his mother, he gouged out his eyes and roamed the countryside until his death. The phrase, "riddle of the sphinx" most often refers to the Greek sphinx, although it is often used to describe the Egyptian sphinx and to connote mystery.

While the members of the class of 2003 have certainly solved many puzzles and enigmas during their tenure at MHC, the seniors might feel more of a bond with Egyptian and Arabic sphinxes, typically represented as guardians who are wise, noble, and strong, than with these creatures' bloodthirsty Greek cousin. This certainly seems true for Mount Holyoke artist Kara Bergeron '03, who has continued the tradition of a student depicting her class's emblem. Her simple linear linear sphinx seems proud and strong, with no hint of evil intent. Bergeron will graduate with a double major in English and economics. The treasurer of her class's board and a member of the College's basketball team during all four of her years at MHC, "Bergeron enjoys designing things," and noted that she "likes the idea of a class color to give each class individuality, while offering a connection to previous classes." Bergeron plans
a career in law.

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