A sphinx (Greek: Σφίγξ [sfiŋks], Boeotian: Φίξ ['fi(:)ks]) is a mythical creature with the head of a human and the body of a lion.

In Greek tradition, it has the head of a human, the haunches of a lion, and at times the wings of a bird. It is mythicised as treacherous and merciless. Those who can't answer its riddle suffer a fate typical in such mythological stories, as they're killed and eaten by this ravenous monster. This deadly version of a sphinx appears in the myth and drama of Oedipus. Unlike the Greek sphinx, which was a woman, the Egyptian sphinx is typically shown as a man (an androsphinx). In addition, the Egyptian sphinx was viewed as benevolent, but having a ferocious strength similar to the malevolent Greek version and both were thought of as guardians often flanking the entrances to temples.

In European decorative art, the sphinx enjoyed a major revival throughout the Renaissance. Later, the sphinx image, something quite similar to the original Ancient Egyptian concept, was exported into a large number of additional cultures, albeit often interpreted quite differently due to translations of descriptions of the originals and the evolution of the concept in relation to additional cultural traditions.

Sphinxes are generally associated with architectural structures such as royal tombs or religious temples. The oldest known sphinx was found near Gobekli Tepe at another site, Nevali Çori, or possibly 120 miles to the east at Kortik Tepe, Turkey, and was dated to 9,500 BCE.

Egyptian sphinxes

Great Sphinx before clearance, Brooklyn Museum Archives
Back of Sphinx, Giza Egypt

The largest and most famous sphinx is the Great Sphinx of Giza, situated on the Giza Plateau adjacent to the Great Pyramids of Giza on the west bank of the Nile River and facing east (). The sphinx is located southeast of the pyramids. Although the date of its construction is uncertain, the head of the Great Sphinx now is believed to be that of the pharaoh Khafra.

What names their builders gave to these statues isn't known. At the Great Sphinx site, a 1400 BCE inscription on a stele belonging to the 18th dynasty pharaoh Thutmose IV lists the names of three aspects of the local sun deity of that period, KheperaAtum. The inclusion of these figures in tomb and temple complexes quickly became traditional and a large number of pharaohs had their heads carved atop the guardian statues for their tombs to show their close relationship with the powerful solar deity, Sekhmet, a lioness. Other famous Egyptian sphinxes include one bearing the head of the pharaoh Hatshepsut, with her likeness carved in granite, which is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the alabaster sphinx of Memphis, Memphis, Egypt, currently located within the open-air museum at that site. The theme was expanded to form great avenues of guardian sphinxes lining the approaches to tombs and temples as well as serving as details atop the posts of flights of stairs to quite grand complexes. Nine hundred with ram heads, representing Amon, were built in Thebes, where his cult was strongest.

Perhaps the first sphinx in Egypt was one depicting Queen Hetepheres II, of the fourth dynasty that lasted from 2723 BCE to 2563. She was one of the longest-lived members of the royal family of that dynasty.

The Great Sphinx has become an emblem of Egypt, frequently appearing on its stamps, coins, and official documents.

Greek traditions

From the Bronze Age, the Hellenes had trade and cultural contacts with Egypt. Before the time that Alexander the Great occupied Egypt, the Greek name, sphinx, was already applied to these statues. The historians and geographers of Greece wrote extensively about Egyptian culture. Herodotus called the ram-headed sphinxes Criosphinxes and called the hawk-headed ones Hieracosphinxes.

The word sphinx comes from the Greek Σφίγξ, apparently from the verb σφίγγω (sphíngō), meaning "to squeeze", "to tighten up". This name might be derived from the fact that the hunters for a pride of lions are the lionesses, and kill their prey by strangulation, biting the throat of prey and holding them down until they die. Notwithstanding the historian Susan Wise Bauer suggests that the word "sphinx" was instead a Greek corruption of the Egyptian name "shesepankh", which meant "living image", and referred rather to the statue of the sphinx, which was carved out of "living rock" (rock that was present at the construction site, not harvested and brought from another location), than to the beast itself.

There was a single sphinx in Greek mythology, a unique demon of destruction and bad luck. According to Hesiod, she was a daughter of Orthrus and either Echidna or the Chimera, or perhaps even Ceto; according to others, she was a daughter of Echidna and Typhon. All of these are chthonic figures from the earliest of Greek myths, before the Olympians ruled the Greek pantheon. The Sphinx is called Phix (Φίξ) by Hesiod in line 326 of the Theogony, the proper name for the Sphinx noted by Pierre Grimal's The Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology.

In Greek mythology, a sphinx is represented as a monster with a head of a woman, the body of a lioness, the wings of an eagle, and a serpent-headed tail.

The sphinx was the emblem of the ancient city-state of Chios, and appeared on seals and the obverse side of coins from the sixth century BCE until the third century CE.

The Riddle of the Sphinx

Assyrian Lamassu dated 721 BCE Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago.
Marble Sphinx, dated 540 BCE, in the Acropolis Museum, Athens

The Sphinx is said to have guarded the entrance to the Greek city of Thebes, and to have asked a riddle of travellers to allow them passage. The exact riddle asked by the Sphinx wasn't specified by early tellers of the stories, and wasn't standardised as the one given below until late in Greek history.

It was said in late lore that Hera or Ares sent the Sphinx from her Aethiopian homeland (the Greeks always remembered the foreign origin of the Sphinx) to Thebes in Greece where she asks all passersby the most famous riddle in history: "Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?" She strangled and devoured anyone who answered incorrectly. Oedipus solved the riddle by answering: Man—who crawls on all fours as a baby, then walks on two feet as an adult, and then uses a walking stick in old age. By a few accounts (but much more rarely), there was a second riddle: "There are two sisters: one gives birth to the additional and she, in turn, gives birth to the first. Who are the two sisters?" The answer is "day and night" (both words—ἡμέρα and νύξ, respectively—are feminine in Ancient Greek). This riddle is additionally found in a Gascon version of the myth and can be quite ancient.

Bested at last, the tale continues, the Sphinx then threw herself from her high rock and died. An alternative version tells that she devoured herself. Thus Oedipus can be recognised as a "liminal" or threshold figure, helping effect the transition between the old religious practices, represented by the death of the Sphinx, and the rise of the new, Olympian gods.

In Jean Cocteau's retelling of the Oedipus legend, The Infernal Machine, the Sphinx tells Oedipus the answer to the riddle in order to kill herself so that she didn't have to kill anymore, and additionally to make him love her. He leaves without ever thanking her for giving him the answer to the riddle. The scene ends when the Sphinx and Anubis ascend back to the heavens.

There are mythic, anthropological, psychoanalytic and parodic interpretations of the Riddle of the Sphinx, and of Oedipus's answer to it. Sigmund Freud describes "the question of where babies come from" as a riddle of the Sphinx. Numerous riddle books use the Sphinx in their title or illustrations.

Michael Maier in his book, the Atalanta Fugiens (1617) writes the following remark about the Sphinx's riddle, in which he states that the solution is the Philosopher's Stone:

Sphinx is indeed reported to have had a large number of Riddles, but this offered to Oedipus was the chief, "What is that which in the morning goeth upon four feet; upon two feet in the afternoon; and in the Evening upon three?" What was answered by Oedipus isn't known. But they who interpret concerning the Ages of Man are deceived. For a Quadrangle of Four Elements are of all things first to be considered, from thence we come to the Hemisphere having two lines, a Right and a Curve, that is, to the White Luna; from thence to the Triangle which consists of Body, Soul and Spirit, or Sol, Luna and Mercury. Hence Rhasis in his Epistles, "The Stone," says he, "is a Triangle in its essence, a Quadrangle in its quality."

Sphinxes in South and Southeast Asia

Burmese depiction of the Manussiha

A composite mythological being with the body of a lion and the head of a human being is present in the traditions, mythology and art of South and South-East Asia. Variously known as purushamriga (Sanskrit, "man-beast"), purushamirugam (Tamil, "man-beast"), naravirala (Sanskrit, "man-cat") in India, or as nara-simha (Sanskrit, "man-lion") in Sri Lanka, manusiha or manuthiha (Pali, "man-lion") in Myanmar, and norasingh (from Pali, "man-lion", a variation of the Sanskrit "nara-simha") or thep norasingh ("man-lion deity"), or nora nair in Thailand.

In contrast to the sphinx in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Greece, where the traditions largely have been lost due to the discontinuity of the civilization, the traditions of the "Asian sphinx" are quite much alive today. The earliest artistic depictions of "sphinxes" from the South Asian subcontinent are to a few extent influenced by Hellenistic art and writings. These hail from the period when Buddhist art underwent a phase of Hellenistic influence.

In South India, the "sphinx" is known as purushamriga (Sanskrit) or purushamirugam (Tamil), meaning "human-beast". It is found depicted in sculptural art in temples and palaces where it serves an apotropaic purpose, just as the "sphinxes" in additional parts of the ancient world. It is said by the tradition, to take away the sins of the devotees when they enter a temple and to ward off evil in general. It is therefore often found in a strategic position on the gopuram or temple gateway, or near the entrance of the Sanctum Sanctorum.

Male purushamriga or Indian sphinx guarding the entrance of the Shri Shiva Nataraja temple in Chidambaram

The purushamriga plays a significant role in daily as well as yearly ritual of South Indian Shaiva temples. In the shodhasha-upakaara (or sixteen honors) ritual, performed between one and six times at significant sacred moments through the day, it decorates one of the lamps of the diparadhana or lamp ceremony. And in several temples the purushamriga is additionally one of the vahana or vehicles of the deity throughout the processions of the Brahmotsava or festival.

In Kanya Kumari district, in the southernmost tip of the Indian subcontinent, throughout the night of Shiva Ratri, devotees run 75 km while visiting and worshipping at twelve Shiva temples. This Shiva Ottam (or Run for Shiva) is performed in commemoration of the storey of the race between the Sphinx and Bhima, one of the heroes of the epic Mahabharata.

The Indian conception of a sphinx that comes closest to the classic Greek idea is in the concept of the Sharabha, a mythical creature, part lion, part man and part bird, and the form of Sharabha that god Shiva took on to counter Narasimha's violence.

In Philippines, the sphinx is known as nicolonia. Depicted as part man and part eagle, it is known to ask riddles to wanderers who trespass in the Bicol region. Anyone who fails to reply its riddle is said to be carried off to the Mayon Volcano where the person is said to be offered to the volcano god, Gev'ra, to appease his anger.

In Sri Lanka, the sphinx is known as narasimha or man-lion. As a sphinx, it has the body of a lion and the head of a human being, and isn't to be confused with Narasimha, the fourth reincarnation of the deity Vishnu; this avatar or incarnation is depicted with a human body and the head of a lion. The "sphinx" narasimha is part of the Buddhist tradition and functions as a guardian of the northern direction and additionally was depicted on banners.

In Burma, the sphinx is known as manussiha (manuthiha). It is depicted on the corners of Buddhist stupas, and its legends tell how it was created by Buddhist monks to protect a new-born royal baby from being devoured by ogresses.

Nora Nair, Norasingh and Thep Norasingh are three of the names under which the "sphinx" is known in Thailand. They are depicted as upright walking beings with the lower body of a lion or deer, and the upper body of a human. Often they're found as female-male pairs. Here, too, the sphinx serves a protective function. It additionally is enumerated among the mythological creatures that inhabit the ranges of the sacred mountain Himapan.

Revived sphinxes in Europe

La Granja, Spain, mid-18th century
Fernand Khnopff's symbolist version of a sphinx.

The revived Mannerist sphinx of the late fifteenth century is at times thought of as the "French sphinx". Her coiffed head is erect and she has the breasts of a young woman. Often she wears ear drops and pearls as ornaments. Her body is naturalistically rendered as a recumbent lioness. Such sphinxes were revived when the grottesche or "grotesque" decorations of the unearthed 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 spread throughout Europe in engravings throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Sphinxes were included in the decoration of the loggia of the Vatican Palace by the workshop of Raphael (1515–20), which updated the vocabulary of the Roman grottesche.

The first appearances of sphinxes in French art are in the School of Fontainebleau in the 1520s and 1530s and she continues into the Late Baroque style of the French Régence (1715–1723).

From France, she spread throughout Europe, fitting a regular feature of the outdoors decorative sculpture of 18th-century palace gardens, as in the Upper Belvedere Palace in Vienna, Sanssouci Park in Potsdam, La Granja in Spain, Branicki Palace in Białystok, or the late Rococo examples in the grounds of the Portuguese Queluz National Palace (of perhaps the 1760s), with ruffs and clothed chests ending with a little cape.

Sphinxes are a feature of the neoclassical interior decorations of Robert Adam and his followers, returning closer to the undressed style of the grottesche. They had an equal appeal to artists and designers of the Romantic, and later Symbolism movements in the nineteenth century. Most of these sphinxes alluded to the Greek sphinx, rather than the Egyptian, although they might not have wings.

Sphinxes in Freemasonry

Sphinx adopted as an emblem in Masonic architecture

The sphinx image additionally has been adopted into Masonic architecture. Among the Egyptians, sphinxes were placed at the entrance of the temple to guard the mysteries, by warning those who penetrated within that they should conceal a knowledge of them from the uninitiated. Champollion says that the sphinx became successively the symbol of each of the gods, by which portal suggests that the priests intended to express the idea that all the gods were hidden from the people, and that the knowledge of them, guarded in the sanctuaries, was revealed to the initiates only. As a Masonic emblem, the sphinx has been adopted in its Egyptian character as a symbol of mystery, and as such often is found as a decoration sculptured in front of Masonic temples, or engraved at the head of Masonic documents. It cannot, however, be properly called an ancient, recognised symbol of the order. Its introduction has been of comparatively recent date, and rather as a symbolic decoration than as a symbol of any particular dogma.

Similar creatures

  • The 32,000-year-old Aurignacian Löwenfrau Goddess is the oldest known anthropomorphic statue. Previously known as the Lion-man, she has a human female body and a lioness head.
  • Not all human-headed animals of antiquity are sphinxes. In ancient Assyria, for example, bas-reliefs of shedu bulls with the crowned bearded heads of kings guarded the entrances of the temples.
  • In the classical Olympian mythology of Greece, all the deities had human form, although they could assume their animal natures as well. All the creatures of Greek myth who combine human and animal form are archaic survivals: centaurs, Typhon, Medusa, Lamia.
  • Narasimha ("man-lion") is described as an incarnation (Avatar) of Vishnu within the Puranic texts of Hinduism who takes the form of half-man/half-Asiatic lion, having a human torso and lower body, but with a lion-like face and claws.
  • The Manticore is a similar creature, which additionally features a lion's body with human-like face.

Gallery

Similar hybrid creatures

  • Anzû (older reading: Zû), Mesopotamian monster
  • Chimera, Greek mythological hybrid monster
  • Cockatrice, snake with rooster's head and feet and bat's wings
  • Dragon, European and East Asian reptile-like mythical creature
  • Griffin or griffon, lion-bird hybrid
  • Harpy, Greco-Roman mythological bird monster with woman's face
  • Lamassu, Assyrian deity, bull/lion-eagle-human hybrid
  • Manticore, Persian monster with a lion's body and a humanoid head.
  • Nue, Japanese legendary creature
  • Pegasus, winged stallion in Greek mythology
  • Phoenix, self-regenerating bird in Greek mythology
  • Pixiu or Pi Yao, Chinese mythical creature
  • Qilin, Chinese/East Asian mythical hybrid creature
  • Sharabha, Hindu mythology: lion-bird hybrid
  • Simurgh, Iranian mythical flying creature
  • Sirin, Russian mythological creature, half-woman half-bird
  • Snow Lion, Tibetan mythological celestial animal
  • Yali, Hindu mythological lion-elephant-horse hybrid
  • Ziz, giant griffin-like bird in Jewish mythology