Greek and Egyptian
Hesiod's Theogony, Seneca's Oedipus
Offspring of Typhon and Echidna
The Sphinx was a legendary winged monster of Greek mythology that had the body of a lion and the head of a woman. Her siblings were Cerberus (pronounced SUR-ber-uhs), Hydra (pronounced HYE-druh), and the Nemean (pronounced ni-MEE-uhn) Lion. The Sphinx lived on a rock outside the city of Thebes (pronounced THEEBZ), where she terrified the local people. Some sources say Hera (pronounced HAIR-uh), the wife of Zeus (pronounced ZOOS), sent the Sphinx to punish the king of Thebes for carrying off one of the children of Zeus. Others claim that the god Apollo (pronounced uh-POL-oh) sent the monster because the Thebans failed to honor him properly.
The Sphinx posed a riddle to any passerby: “I have four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening, but I am weakest when I have the most legs. What am I?” No one was able to solve the riddle, and the Sphinx killed and devoured anyone who failed to answer correctly. Finally, the Greek hero Oedipus (pronounced ED-uh-puhs) provided the correct answer: “A human being crawls on all fours as a baby, on two legs as an adult, and with a crutch as a third leg when he grows old.” Upon hearing Oedipus's answer, the Sphinx killed herself.
The Sphinx in Context
Egyptian sculpture also included a type of figure called a sphinx, which had a lion's body and the head of the pharaoh, or ruler of Egypt, or sometimes an animal representing one of the Egyptian gods. Many of these included the likenesses of male figures, but some—just like some pharaohs—were female. Egyptian sphinxes, which guarded temples and monuments, were unrelated to the Greek Sphinx, though it is possible— likely, even—that ancient Egyptian art inspired the Greek legends. The Egyptian sculptures existed nearly two thousand years before the rise of ancient Greek culture, and were located just across the Mediterranean Sea from Greece. With many ships crossing the Mediterranean as part of established trade routes, it would make sense that these figures were known to early Greeks, and their foreign location may have inspired the tale of an exotic or fantastic creature previously unknown to Greeks. In fact, the name “sphinx” is actually a Greek term, used for both the mythological character and the Egyptian sculptures because there is no indication that the Egyptians gave their figures any sort of name.
Key Themes and Symbols
One of the main themes of the tale of the Sphinx is the victory of shrewdness over violence. The Sphinx destroys all those who cannot solve her clever riddle; when Oedipus figures out the solution, she kills herself. Oedipus does not have to resort to violence to defeat her. Another theme is the vengeance of the gods, since the Sphinx is sent to terrorize Thebes at the request of one of the gods.
The Sphinx in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
The tale of Oedipus and the riddle of the Sphinx remains one of the best-known tales from Greek mythology. Many painters have created their own depictions of the Sphinx, including Ingres and Gustave Moreau. The figure became very popular in European decoration during the sixteenth century, rendered with the realistic face and chest of a beautiful young woman and usually referred to as a “French sphinx.” In modern times, the best-known Sphinx is undoubtedly the Great Sphinx of Giza found in Egypt, which has been featured in many films; however, this monument is not directly connected to the character found in Greek myth.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
The Sphinx challenges travelers with a riddle. See if you can come up with a riddle to challenge your friends. Use the riddle of the Sphinx as a model: think of a thing, and describe it in a way that would require creative thinking. Make sure your clues make sense, but do not reveal the answer too easily. Example: “I tumble over a cliff, but even when I hit the bottom, I never stop falling. What am I?” Answer: a waterfall!
SEE ALSO Oedipus
sphinx / sfingks/ • n. 1. (Sphinx) Greek Mythol. a winged monster of Thebes, having a woman's head and a lion's body. It propounded a riddle about the three ages of man, killing those who failed to solve it, until Oedipus was successful, whereupon the Sphinx committed suicide. ∎ (the Sphinx) an ancient Egyptian stone figure having a lion's body and a human or animal head, esp. the huge statue near the Pyramids at Giza. ∎ (usu. sphinx) an enigmatic or inscrutable person.2. (also sphinx moth) another term for hawk moth.
The Sphinx was a legendary winged monster of Greek mythology that had the body of a lion and the head of a woman. Her siblings were Cerberus, Hydra, and the Nemean Lion. The Sphinx lived on a rock outside the city of Thebes, where she terrified the local people. Some sources say Hera* sent the Sphinx to punish the king of Thebes for carrying off one of the children of Zeus*. Others claim that Apollo* sent the monster because the Thebans failed to honor him properly.
The Sphinx posed a riddle to any passerby: "I have four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening, but I am weakest when I have the most legs. What am I?" No one was able to solve the riddle, and the Sphinx killed and devoured anyone who failed to answer correctly. Finally, the Greek hero Oedipus* provided the correct answer: "A human being walks on all fours as a baby, on two legs as an adult, and with a crutch as a third leg when he grows old." Upon hearing Oedipus's answer, the Sphinx killed herself.
pharaoh ruler of ancient Egypt
Egyptian sculpture also included a type of figure called a sphinx, which had a lion's body and the head of the pharaoh. Egyptian sphinxes, which guarded temples and monuments, were unrelated to the Greek Sphinx.
See also Oedipus.
The name sphinx was later used for the sculptured or carved figure of an imaginary creature with a human head and breast and the body of a lion, in particular, an ancient Egyptian stone figure having a lion's body and a human or animal head, especially the huge statue near the Pyramids at Giza.
The word is recorded from late Middle English (and comes via Latin from Greek, apparently from sphingein ‘draw tight’); from the early 17th century, the name is used for a person held to resemble the sphinx, in posing difficult questions, or in being of a mysterious or inscrutable nature.
J. Curl (2005);
Mythological human-headed lion carved from rock at the pyramids of Giza.
The Sphinx is 190 feet (27 m) long and 66 feet (20 m) tall at its highest. It probably represents the pharaoh Khafre (c. 2550 b.c.e.), whose pyramid is nearby. Arabs called it Abu al-Hawl, "father of terror." Like the pyramids, it has become a symbol of Egypt, first appearing on postage stamps in 1867 and replacing the bust of King Farouk (1936–1952) on coins in the 1950s.
Hassan, Selim. The Sphinx: Its History in the Light of Recent Excavations. Cairo: Government Press, 1949.
donald malcolm reid
Sphinx WOOf! 1981 (PG)
Woman archaeologist searches for hidden riches in the tomb of an Egyptian king. The scenery is impressive, but otherwise, don't bother. Based on the novel by Robin Cook. 117m/ C VHS, DVD . Lesley-Anne Down, Frank Langella, John Gielgud, Maurice Ronet, John Rhys-Davies; D: Franklin J. Schaffner; W: John Byrum.