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The Sphinx is a traditional monster with the body of a lion, the head of a ram, of a falcon or of a person, invented by the Egyptians of the Old Kingdom, before being imported in Greek mythology.

Theban or Greek sphinx



The name sphinx comes from the Greek sphiggein ΣφινξSphinx, apparently from the verb σφινγωsphingo, meaning "to draw tight". This may be her proper name, but The Penugin Dictionary of Classical Mythology states that her given name was Φιξ — Phix.

The Arabic name of the Great Sphinx, Abu al-Hôl, translates as "Father of Terror".


It is said to have been a daughter of Orthus and Chimaera, born in the country of the Arimi (Hes. Theog. 326), or of Typhon and Echidna (Apollod. iii. 5. § 8; Schol. ad Eurip. Phoen. 46), or lastly of Typhon and Chimaera (Schol. ad Hes. and Eurip. l. .c.). Some call her a natural daughter of Laius (Paus. ix. 26. § 2), respecting her stay at Thebes and her connection with the fate of the house of Laius.


There are three types of sphinx as guardians in the egyptian statuary:

  • the Androsphinx, the typical lion with a human face/head;
  • the Criosphinx, a ram-headed lion;
  • the Hieracosphinx which has the body of a lion and the head of a hawk.

Rarely was the Egyptian sphinx portrayed as a female. When it was, it symbolized Isis and/or the reigning queen. In Egypt the intellectual faculties ennobled the bestial traits present in the physical makeup of this creature.

The Assyrian sphinx looked quite different from the Egyptian one. It had a human head, wings, and the parts of a bull and a lion. Sometimes it had five legs instead of the usual four.

The Greek sphinx had the bust and head of a lady, the wings of an eagle, the body and legs of a lioness, and the tail of a snake or dragon. Sometimes it was portrayed with the body of a bull and the legs of a lion.

But, in early Greek mythology, the bestial nature warped the mind and spirit of this being and it was portrayed as an unhappy monster, a symbol of the 'terrible mother'; the monster of death bringing extreme bad luck and the perversion of the intellect, womanhood, and power.

The Roman sphinx was a simple solar symbol.


Like many other fabulous beasts, the Greek sphinx was thought to live in the Ethiopian mountains


The Phoenicians and Assyrians linked the sphinx to the guardian spirit Lamassu and made it a symbol of rulership and the guardian of temples and palaces. The Egyptian androsphinx guarded pyramids, tombs, and sacred highways.



The Egyptian Sphinx

The Egyptian sphinx is an ancient iconic mythical creature usually comprised of a recumbent lion — animal with sacred solar associations — with a human head, usually that of a pharaoh.

The largest and most famous is Sesheps, the Great Sphinx of Giza (it measures approximately 66 feet high and 240 feet long), sited on the Giza Plateau on the west bank of the Nile River, facing due east, with a small temple between its paws. The face of the Great Sphinx is believed to be the head of the pharaoh Khafra (often known by the Greek version of his name, Chephren) or possibly that of his brother, the Pharaoh Djedefra, which would date its construction from the fourth dynasty (2723 BC-2563 BC). However, there are some alternative theories that re-date the Sphinx to the pre-Old Kingdom (7th-5th millennium) and, according to one hypothesis, to prehistoric times.

What name or names the builders gave to the statues is unknown. The inscription on a stele in the Great Sphinx dates it from one thousand years after the carving of the Sphinx, It was erected in 1400 BC, probably by Thutmose IV. gives three names of the sun: Kheperi - Re - Atum.

About 1400 B.C., a younger son of Pharaoh took a nap in the shadow of the Great Sphinx, which had been mostly buried, in the shifting sands of the desert. While he slept, the Sphinx spoke to the young prince and promised him the throne of Egypt if he promised to clear away the sand, which covered him. Later, when his elder brother died an untimely death, and Thutmose IV unexpectedly became pharaoh, the new ruler ordered the sands cleared from the statue. He also placed the granite Dream Stela between its paws to commemorate the incident and honor the sun god Harmakhis who had spoken to him through the Sphinx.

Later the Romans built an altar between its paws. It is said that visitors once sought the advice of the sphinx by placing an ear against its lips. Legends claim that a tunnel runs from the Sphinx into the Great Pyramid and that other secret passageways and chambers are hidden by it. Recently a few minor tunnels have indeed been discovered around the monument. Some claim that the Great Sphinx was created as a mirror image of the lion-shaped group of stars above it. If so, it is a symbol of those who discover wisdom through self-contemplation.

Other famous Egyptian sphinxes include the alabaster sphinx of Memphis, Memphis, currently localizated within the open-air museum at that site; and the ram-headed sphinxes (in Greek, criosphinxes) representing the god Amun, in Thebes, of which there were originally some nine hundred.

Greek sphinx

There was a single Sphinx in Greek mythology, a unique demon of destruction and bad luck, according to Hesiod a daughter of Echidna and of Orthrus or, according to others, of Typhon and Echidna — all of these chthonic figures. She was represented in vase-painting and bas-reliefs most often seated upright rather than recumbent, as a winged lion with a woman's head; or she was a woman with the paws, claws and breasts of a lion, a serpent's tail and eagle wings. See Oedipe’s story from Sophocles Oedipus Tyrannus.


The Egyptian androsphinx is a symbol of abundance, power, wisdom, mysteries, riddles, truth, unity, and secrets. Sometimes a pair of sphinx was pictured with the tree of Life as a symbol of fertility and conception. As a solar symbol, the sphinx is often associated with the sun god Ra; Horus in the Horizon; and Harmakhis, the Lord of the Two Horizons, who represents the rising and setting sun, rebirth, and resurrection. Androsphinx usually bear the face of the pharaoh who ordered their construction and symbolize the divine power and wisdom he used to rule and protect his people.

Since its form combines human and animal parts into one body, the sphinx usually symbolizes the union of mind and body or intellectual, spiritual, and physical strengths with varying results. It is also, when composed of four animals including a human, a symbol of the four elements - earth, wind, fire, and water. The Druids counted a many-breasted sphinx among their fertility and maternal symbols.

As the Lord of the Two Horizons, the androsphinx's dual nature came to reflect the dual nature of Christ who was both human and divine. Like many other solar symbols, the androsphinx was placed in or near early Christian graves as a representation of the divine Light of the World.

Sphinx composed of a man's head and chest, eagle's wings, a bull's hindquarters, and a lions' forequarters became symbols of the Biblical tetramorph and the four living creatures of Revelation. [Ezek 1:5-14; Rev. 4:6-8] These in turn represent the cherubim; the four Evangelists and their Gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; the four kings of the created world - the lion (king of the jungle), the eagle (king of the air), the bull (king of the farm), and man (king of creation); and, according to St. Jerome, Christ's Incarnation (the man), His Passion (the bull), His Resurrection (the Lion), and His Ascension (the eagle).


Œdipe and the Thebean Sphinx


The most famous Grecian sphinx was the terrifying child of Echidna who bore many other mythical monsters including Cerberus the three-headed dog, the Hydra, and a two-headed dog named Orthros with whom she conceived the sphinx. An oracle warned Laius, king of Thebes, that there was danger to his throne and life if his newborn son should be suffered to grow up. He therefore committed the child to the care of a herdsman with orders to destroy him; but the herdsman, moved with pity, yet not daring entirely to disobey, tied up the child by the feet and left him hanging to the branch of a tree. In this condition a peasant, who carried him to his master and mistress, by whom he was adopted and called Oedipus, or Swollen-foot, found the infant.

Many years afterwards Laius being on his way to Delphi, accompanied only by one attendant, met in a narrow road a young man also driving in a chariot. On his refusal to leave the way at their command the attendant killed one of his horses, and the stranger, filled with rage, slew both Laius and his attendant. The young man was Oedipus who thus unknowingly became the slayer of his own father.

Shortly after this event the city of Thebes was afflicted with a monster sent by Hera (1) toguard the pass to the city. It was called the Sphinx. It had the body of a lion and the upper part of a woman. It had learned a riddle form the Mousai, and now sat on Mount Phikion where she kept challenging the Thebans with it. The riddle was: what is it that has one voice, and is four-footed and two-footed and three-footed? An oracle existed for the Thebans to the effect that they would be free of the Sphinx when they guessed her riddle, so they often convened to search for the meaning, but whenever they came up with the wrong answer, she would seize one of them, and eat him up.

When many had died, including most recently Kreon's own son Haimon, Kreon announced publicly that he would give both the kingdom and the widow of Laios to the man who solved the riddle.

Oedipus was not daunted by these alarming accounts, but boldly advanced to the trial. The Sphinx asked him, "What animal is that which in the morning goes on four feet, at noon on two, and in the evening upon three?". Oedipus solved the riddle, saying that man crawled on all fours in his infancy, walked on two legs as a man, and walked with a third leg, his cane, in old age Oedipus replied, The Sphinx was so mortified at the solving of her riddle that she cast herself down from the rock and perished.

The gratitude of the people for their deliverance was so great that they made Oedipus their king, giving him in marriage their queen Jocasta, the widow of Laius. Oedipus, ignorant of his parentage, had already become the slayer of his father; in marrying the queen he became the husband of his mother. These horrors remained undiscovered, till at length Thebes was afflicted with famine and pestilence, and the oracle being consulted, the double crime of Oedipus came to light. Jocasta put an end to her own life, and Oedipus, seized with madness, tore out his eyes and wandered away from Thebes, dreaded and abandoned by all except his daughters, who faithfully adhered to him, till after a tedious period of miserable wandering he found the termination of his wretched life.

1: According to some the Sphinx was sent into Boiotia by Hera, who was angry with the Thebans for not having punished Laios, who had carried off Khrysippos from Pisa. She is said to have come from the most distant part of Aithiopia (Schol. ad Eurip. Phoen. 1760). According to others she was sent by Ares who wanted to take revenge because Kadmos had slain his son, the drakon (Argum. ad Eurip. Phoen.), or by Dionysos (Schol. ad Hes. Theog. 326), or by Hades (Eurip. Phoen. 810), and some lastly say that she was one of the women who, together with the daughters of Kadmos, were throw into madness, and was metamorphosed into the monstrous figure (Schol. ad Eurip. Phoen. 45).

Theories about existence

Similar creatures


Not all human-headed animals of antiquity are sphinxes. In ancient Assyria, for example, bas-reliefs of bulls with the crowned bearded heads of kings guarded the entrances to temples. In the classical Olympian mythology of Greece, all the deities had human form, though they could assume their animal natures as well. All the creatures of Greek myth that combine human and animal form are survivals of the pre-Olympian religion: centaurs, Typhon, Medusa, Lamia.

In Hindu tradition, one of the Avatars of Vishnu was the Narasimha which means 'man-lion'. The Avatar had a human body and the head of a lion.

A threshold

The exact riddle asked by the Sphinx was not specified by early tellers of the story and was not standardized as the one given above until much later in Greek history.Lowell Edmunds, The Sphinx in the Oedipus Legend, 1981. Thus Oedipus can be recognized as a liminal or "threshold" figure, helping effect the transition between the old religious practices, represented by the Sphinx, and new, Olympian ones.



Sphinxes were popular in ancient art, especially as sculptural grave stele set upon the tombs of men who died in youth. Decorative sphinxes (in the plural) also commonly appear in animal processions on archaic Greek vases, often alongside regular lions and bird-bodies sirens. Sphinxes were popular in ancient art, especially as sculptural grave stele set upon the tombs of men who died in youth. Decorative sphinxes (in the plural) also commonly appear in animal processions on archaic Greek vases, often alongside regular lions and bird-bodies sirens.

Mannerist Sphinx

The revived Mannerist Sphinx of the 16th century is sometimes thought of as the French Sphinx. Her lovely coiffed head is erect and she has the pretty bust of a young woman. Often she wears Ear drop|ear drops and pearls. Her body is naturalistically rendered as a recumbent lion. Such Sphinxes were revived when the grottesche or "grotesque" decorations of the unearthed "Golden House" (Domus Aurea) of Nero were brought to light in late 15th century Rome, and she was incorporated into the classical vocabulary of arabesque designs that was spread throughout Europe in engravings during the 16th and 17th centuries. Her first appearances in French art are in the School of Fontainebleau in the 1520s and 30s; her last appearances are in the Late Baroque style of the Régence (1715–1723).

19th century and symbolism

Sphinxes were too somber perhaps for the Rococo, and they tended to disappear from the European design repertory - until revived in the 19th century with its romanticism, and later symbolism. Many of these sphinxes alluded to the Greek sphinx, rather than the Egyptian.

Moreau: Oedipe and the Sphinx

Sphinxes in popular culture

Sphinxes often appear in fantasy literature and role-playing games as races or species of monstrous creatures with the head of a person and the body of a lion, usually also with a pair of wings or the hind quarters of a bull.

  • It figures in the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons.
  • In the novel Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Harry encounters a sphinx that has been placed in a maze. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them reveals more information about the nature of Egyptian sphinxes in the Harry Potter world.
  • In the comic Cerebus, issue #300, Cerebus's son Shep-Shep (or She-Shep, Egyptian language|Egyptian for "living symbol") visits Cerebus and brings a box containing a baby sphinx that was created by splicing his genes with those of a lion, with which Shep-Shep intends to rule Egypt as a god.
  • In the video game Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy, the protagonist is based on the Great Sphinx of Giza.
  • In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novel, Pyramids, the Sphinx roams a border between parallel universes, accessible only between Tsort and Ephebe, when the Kingdom Djelibeybi has disappeared. Djelibeybi’s King, Teppic, encounters the Sphinx who presents him with the generic riddle. Teppic confuses the Sphinx by pointing out the obvious technical errors in the riddle – The riddle turns into: “What, metaphorically speaking, walks on four legs just after midnight, on two legs for most of the day…, barring accidents, until at least supper-time… when it continues to walk on two legs or with any prosthetic aids of its choice?” - therefore managing to escape being eaten by the dreaded creature.
  • A Sphinx character appeared in 2 episodes of Tiny Toon Adventures. Sphinx first appears in the Season 1 episode, Sawdust and Toonsil. She and her friends; a Dragon and Pegasus, have been captured by Silas Wonder and his two minions. Gogo tries to rescue her, but they both end up getting captured, and because they have not been in Wackyland for some time, they begin to fade away. Buster, Babs and Plucky sneak into the circus, as Plucky distracts Silas while Buster and Babs rescue Sphinx, Gogo, and their friends, returning them to Wackyland while outracing Silas' engine. When they return to Wackyland, Sphinx (as well as Gogo, Pegasus and Dragon) regains her magical powers.

Sphinx appears in the Night Ghoulery episode segment, Night of the Living Dull, where she and her friends, Gogo Dodo, Pen Pal, Private Eye, the Elephant (from the episode, Elephant Issues), and a plunger hide out in a haunted house to escape from dull people.

External links

  • [[1]] - The Classics Pages: Oedipus & the Sphinx