There are three types of sphinx: the androsphinx, the typical lion with a human face/head; the criosphinx, a ram-headed lion; and the hierocosphonx 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. 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 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. Like many other fabulous beasts, the Greek sphinx was thought to live in the Ethiopian mountains.
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 Roman sphinx was a simple solar symbol.
Nomadic Arabs, coming across the Great Sphinx in the Egyptian desert, referred to it as the "Father of Terrors."
The Sphinx is a legendary creature made up of both human and animal parts. This figure originated in Egypt and then spread, with many modifications, throughout the ancient world. Its name comes from the Greek "sphingo" which means "to strangle."
The Egyptian androsphinx guarded pyramids, tombs, and sacred highways.
The Phoenicians and Syrians 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 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 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 lay crouched on the top of a rock, and arrested all travellers who came that way, proposing to them a riddle, with the condition that those who could solve it should pass safe, but those who failed should be killed. Not one had yet succeeded in solving it, and all had been slain. 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.
The Egyptian Sphinx
The Great Sphinx at Giza, created about 2600 B.C., measures approximately 66 feet high and 240 feet long and bears the image of Khafre (Chephren) whose nearby pyramid was built at the same time. It faced the Nile River and the rising sun. A sun temple once stood in front of this statue to receive offerings to the rising sun. 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.
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.