A sphinx (Ancient Greek: Σφίγξ [spʰíŋks], Boeotian: Φίξ
[pʰíːks], plural sphinxes or sphinges) 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 sometimes the wings of a bird. It is mythicised as
treacherous and merciless. Those who cannot answer its riddle suffer a
fate typical in such mythological stories, as they are 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 during
the Renaissance. Later, the sphinx image, something very similar to
the original Ancient Egyptian concept, was exported into many other
cultures, albeit often interpreted quite differently due to
translations of descriptions of the originals and the evolution of the
concept in relation to other cultural traditions.
Sphinxes depictions 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 195 kilometres (120 mi) to the east at Kortik Tepe,
Turkey, and was dated to 9,500 BCE.[better source needed]
1 Egyptian sphinxes
2 Greek traditions
Riddle of the Sphinx
3 South and Southeast Asia
6 In popular culture
7 Similar creatures
9 See also
12 Further reading
13 External links
Sphinx before clearance,
Brooklyn Museum Archives.
Back of the Great 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
the west bank of the
Nile River and facing east (29°58′31″N
31°08′15″E / 29.97528°N 31.13750°E / 29.97528;
31.13750). 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 bear the likeness of the pharaoh Khafra.
What names their builders gave to these statues is not known. At the
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, Khepera–Rê–Atum. Many
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. Besides the Great Sphinx, 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 very grand
complexes. Nine hundred sphinxes with ram heads, representing Amon,
were built in Thebes, where his cult was strongest.
Sphinx has become an emblem of Egypt, frequently appearing
on its stamps, coins, and official documents.
Sphinx. Attic red-figure pyxis, 2nd half of the 5th century BC. From
In the Bronze Age, the Hellenes had trade and cultural contacts with
Egypt. Before the time that
Alexander the Great
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
Herodotus called the ram-headed sphinxes Criosphinxes and
called the hawk-headed ones Hieracosphinxes.
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
The word sphinx comes from the Greek Σφίγξ, apparently from the
verb σφίγγω (sphíngō), meaning "to squeeze", "to tighten
up". This name may 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. However, 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
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
The sphinx was the emblem of the ancient city-state of Chios, and
appeared on seals and the obverse side of coins from the 6th century
BCE until the 3rd century CE.
Riddle of the Sphinx
Riddle of the Sphinx" redirects here. For other uses, see
Classical Greek sphinx in the Corinth Archaeological Museum.
Sphinx is said to have guarded the entrance to the Greek city of
Thebes, asking a riddle to travellers to allow them passage. The exact
riddle asked by the
Sphinx was not specified by early tellers of the
myth, and was not standardized as the one given below until late in
It was said in late lore that
Ares sent the
Sphinx from her
Aethiopian homeland (the Greeks always remembered the foreign origin
of the Sphinx) to Thebes in Greece where she asked 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 could not answer.
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
some accounts (but much more rarely), there was a second riddle:
"There are two sisters: one gives birth to the other 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 second riddle is also found in a
Gascon version of the myth and could be very ancient.
Bested at last, the
Sphinx then threw herself from her high rock and
died. An alternative version tells that she devoured herself. In both
Oedipus can therefore be recognized 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
Oedipus the answer to the riddle in order to
kill herself so that she did not have to kill anymore, and also 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
Michael Maier, in his book the
Atalanta Fugiens (1617) writes the
following remark about the Sphinx's riddle, in which he states that
its solution is the Philosopher's Stone:
Sphinx is indeed reported to have had many Riddles, but this offered
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 is not 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."
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 sphinxes in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Greece, of
which the traditions largely have been lost due to the discontinuity
of the civilization, the traditions related to the "Asian
sphinxes" are very much alive today. The earliest artistic depictions
of "sphinxes" from the South Asian subcontinent are to some extent
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 other 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 also one of the vahana or vehicles of the deity during
the processions of the
Brahmotsava or festival.
In Kanya Kumari district, in the southernmost tip of the Indian
subcontinent, during the night of
Shiva Ratri, devotees run 75
kilometres while visiting and worshiping at twelve
Shiva temples. This
Shiva Ottam (or Run for Shiva) is performed in commemoration of the
story 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.
Sri Lanka and India, 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 is not 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 also 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 are found as female-male pairs. Here, too,
the sphinx serves a protective function. It also is enumerated among
the mythological creatures that inhabit the ranges of the sacred
La Granja, Spain, mid-18th century.
The revived Mannerist sphinx of the late 15th century is sometimes
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
engravings during the 16th and 17th centuries. Sphinxes were included
in the decoration of the loggia of the
Vatican Palace by the workshop
Raphael (1515–20), which updated the vocabulary of the Roman
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, becoming 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
Queluz National Palace (of perhaps the
1760s), with ruffs and clothed chests ending with a little cape.
Caresses (1896) by Fernand Khnopff, a
Symbolist depiction of Oedipus
and the Sphinx.
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
Romanticism and subsequent Symbolism movements in the 19th
century. Most of these sphinxes alluded to the Greek sphinx and the
myth of Oedipus, rather than the Egyptian, although they may not have
Sphinx adopted as an emblem in Masonic architecture.
The sphinx image also has been adopted into Masonic architecture.
Among the Egyptians, sphinxes were placed at the entrance of the
temples to guard their mysteries, by warning those who penetrated
within that they should conceal a knowledge of them from the
uninitiated. Champollion said that the sphinx became successively the
symbol of each of the gods. The placement of the sphinxes expressed
the idea that all the gods were hidden from the people, and that the
knowledge of them, guarded in the sanctuaries, was revealed to
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, recognized 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.[citation
In popular culture
The 1992 animated film Aladdin depicts the construction of the Great
Sphinx of Giza. In the film, a man is carving the Sphinx's human
face just as Aladdin flies by on a flying carpet. The sight
proves such a distraction to the sculptor that he mishits the great
statue, causing its nose to break off.
Sphinx makes an appearance in the 2016 film Gods of Egypt, where
it is voiced and motion-captured by Kenneth Ransom. It is found
in Set's pyramid and poised to kill any who cannot solve its riddle:
I never was, am always to be. No one ever saw me, nor ever will,
and yet, I am the confidence of all who live and breathe. What
Horus and mortal Bek bring Thoth, the god of wisdom, with them, sure
he will be able to solve whatever riddle is posed. Thoth
stumbles at first, offering order and other suggestions before landing
on, at the last second, the correct answer: tomorrow. The Sphinx
expresses its disappointment before residing.
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[citation
needed]. In ancient Assyria, for example, bas-reliefs of shedu bulls
with the crowned bearded heads of kings guarded the entrances of the
Many Greek mythological creatures who are archaic survivals of
previous mythologies with respect to the classical Olympian mythology,
like the centaurs, are similar to the Sphinx.
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.
Manticore is a similar creature, which also features a lion's body
with human-like face.
Winged sphinx from the palace of
Darius the Great
Darius the Great during Persian
Susa (480 BCE).
Head from a female sphinx, c. 1876-1842 BCE, Brooklyn Museum
Great Sphinx of Giza
Great Sphinx of Giza in 1858
Typical Egyptian sphinx with a human head. (Museo Egizio, Turin)
Sphinx of Egyptian pharaoh
Hatshepsut with unusual ear and ruff
Ancient Greek sphinx from Delphi.
3000-year-old sphinxes were imported from Egypt to embellish public
Saint Petersburg and other European capitals.
Park Sanssouci in Potsdam
Queluz wingless rococo sphinx.
Classic Régence garden
Sphinx in lead, Château Empain, the Parc
d'Enghien (nl), Belgium.
Park Schönbusch in Aschaffenburg, Bavaria, 1789-90.
Oedipus and the Sphinx.
Oedipus and the
Sphinx by Gustave Moreau.
Sphinx at Plaza de los Emperadores (Parque de El Capricho, Madrid).
Marble sphinx on a cavetto capital, Attic, c. 580-575 BCE
Sphinx of Adi Gramaten, Eritrea.
Wings of sphinxes from the Thinissut sanctuary, c. 1st century CE
(Nabeul Museum, Tunisia).
An early Egyptian sphinx, Queen
Hetepheres II from the Fourth Dynasty
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Sphinxes.
Hybrid creatures in mythology
List of hybrid creatures in mythology
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
Komainu to compare its use in Japanese culture
Chinthe similar lion statues in Burma, Laos and Cambodia
Shisa similar lion statues in the Ryukyu Islands
Nian to compare with a similar but horned (unicorn) mythical beast
Pixiu to compare with a similar but winged mythical beast
Haetae to compare with similar lion-like statues in Korea.
^ "Dr. J's Lecture on
Oedipus and the Sphinx". People.hsc.edu.
^ Kallich, Martin. "Oepidus and the Sphinx." Oepidus: Myth and Drama.
N.p.: Western, 1968. N. pag. Print.
^ Stewart, Desmond. Pyramids and the Sphinx. [S.l.]: Newsweek, U.S.,
^ "Is The
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Archived from the original on 24 June 2011. Retrieved
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^ Nicholas Birch in Istanbul (2008-04-23). "Birch, N., 7000 Years
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^ Regier, Willis Goth.
Book of the
Sphinx (Lincoln: University of
Nebraska Press, 2004), 54, 59, 177.
^ Entry σφίγγω at LSJ.
^ Note that the γ takes on a 'ng' sound in front of both γ and ξ.
^ Bauer, S. Wise (2007). The History Of The Ancient World. New York:
W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. pp. 110–112.
^ Who is meant as the mother is unclear, the problem arising from the
ambiguous referent of the pronoun "she" in line 326 of the Theogony,
see Clay, p.159, note 34
^ Edmunds, Lowell (1981). The
Sphinx in the
Königstein im Taunus: Hain. ISBN 3-445-02184-8.
^ Apollodorus, Library Apollod. 3.5.8
^ Grimal, Pierre (1996). The Dictionary of Classical Mythology. trans.
A. R. Maxwell-Hyslop. Blackwell Publishing.
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comme motif préhistorique. Bulletin de la SERPE, 61: 15-21.
^ 'An Autobiographical Study', Sigmund Freud, W. W. Norton &
Company, 1963, p.39
Book of the Sphinx, chapter 4.
^ Maier, Michael (1617). Atalanta Fugiens. trans. Peter Branwin.
Johann Theodor de Bry.
^ Deekshitar, Raja. "Discovering the
Lion in Indian
Art." in Marg. A Magazine of the Arts. 55/4, 2004, p.34-41;
^ Demisch, Heinz (1977). Die Sphinx. Geschichte ihrer Darstellung von
den Anfangen bis zur Gegenwart. Stuttgart.
^ Demisch, Heinz (1977). Die Sphinx. Geschichte ihrer Darstellung von
den Anfangen bis zur Gegenwart. Stuttgart.
^ "Thep Norasri". Himmapan.com. Retrieved 2014-05-15.
^ Royal Museums of Fine Arts of
Belgium (2017). "Caresses". Google
Arts and Culture.
Clay, Jenny Strauss, Hesiod's Cosmos, Cambridge University Press,
2003. ISBN 978-0-521-82392-0.
Stewart, Desmond. Pyramids and the Sphinx. [S.l.]: Newsweek, U.S., 72.
Kallich, Martin. "
Oedipus and the Sphinx." Oedipus: Myth and Drama.
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Dessenne, André. Le Sphinx: Étude iconographique (in French). De
Sphinx Head Found in Greek Tomb
The Sphinx: Totally Random Trivia - slideshow by Life magazine
Ancient Egyptian religion
Veneration of the dead
Four sons of Horus
Souls of Pe and Nekhen
Land of Manu
Book of Thoth
Crook and flail
Eye of Horus
Eye of Ra
Books of Breathing
Book of Caverns
Book of the Dead
Book of the Earth
Book of Gates
Book of the Heavenly Cow
Book of Traversing Eternity
The Contendings of
Horus and Seth
Book of the Netherworld
Great Hymn to the Aten
Litany of the Eye of Horus
Litany of Re
Temple of Set