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One of the most enduring symbols of ancient Egypt and Greece, the sphinx is a mythical creature that has intrigued and inspired human imagination for thousands of years. The very symbol of mystery, the sphinx’s original purpose remains unclear.
Depending on the cultural perspective you view it from, it’s either a benevolent protector or a malevolent riddle-asker. Here’s a look at the sphinx, its origins and symbolic meaning.
Sphinx – History and Origins
The sphinx goes as far back as the oldest Egyptian myths. As these creatures were worshipped as benevolent guardians, statues of them were often placed at the entrances of tombs, temples, and royal palaces.
It was also common for pharaohs to have their own faces depicted as the heads of sphinx guardian statues for their tombs. The rulers’ ego may have played a part here but it’s also an Egyptian tradition to link the rulers with the gods, as they themselves are supposed to be viewed as demigods of sorts. In this case, portraying the pharaohs as sphinx guardians was linking them to the solar deity Sekhmet who herself had the body of a lioness.
As such, a lot of the famous sphinx statues uncovered to this day bear the likeness of old Egyptian pharaohs. For example, there is a sphinx with the head of Hatshepsut carved in granite, currently sitting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Sphinxes with non-royal human or animal heads were still much more common, as they were used as sphinx temple guardians. One good example is the temple complex in Thebes that has 900 sphinxes with ram heads, representing god Amon.
Throughout Egypt’s history, they were mostly used to protect royal palaces and tombs and were commonly built by and for pharaohs. However, there was no royal “exclusivity” to the sphinx. If a commoner wanted to buy or carve a sphinx figurine, to paint a sphinx image on a plate or a vase, or even to build a smaller or bigger statuette of their own – they were allowed to do this. The sphinx was a universally beloved and worshiped mythological creature for all Egyptians.
Depiction of the Sphinx
The sphinx is typically depicted with the body of a lion and the wings of an eagle. However, it sometimes has the head of a human, a falcon, a cat, or even a sheep, depending on the myth.
Falcon-headed sphinxes may be related to later griffin or gryphon myths, but human-headed sphinxes were the most well-known variant.
As discussed below, the Greek’s also had their own sphinx. The Greek’s sphinx had the head of a woman and was generally malevolent in nature, while the Egyptian sphinx had a male head and was viewed as benevolent.
Egyptian Sphinx vs. Greek Sphinx
While the Egyptian sphinx is the most well-known, the Greek’s also had their own version of the sphinx. In fact, the word sphinx comes from the Greek word sphingo – which means to strangle.
The Greek sphinx was malevolent and nasty – basically a monster in nature. It was depicted as a woman, with the body of a lion and the wings of a falcon. This creature is typically depicted as seated and is the size of a regular lion.
It’s the Greek sphinx that asked travelers the famous riddle:
“Which animal walks on four feet in the morning, on two feet at noon and three in the evening?”
If the passerby couldn’t answer the riddle, the sphinx would strangle and then devour them. Finally, it was Oedipus who was able to answer the riddle, saying:
“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.
The sphinx, realizing that she was defeated, threw herself off her high rock and died. Talk about being a sore loser.
There is only one of the Greek sphinxes, whereas there are many Egyptian sphinxes.
The Great Sphinx of Giza
The Great Sphinx at Giza
The most famous sphinx monument is, of course, the Great Sphinx of Giza. To this day beloved as a national treasure by modern-day Egyptians, this giant statue on the Nile River bears the face of the pharaoh Khafra.
Located to the southeast of the equally famous pyramids of Giza, the sphinx was likely built to protect these great tombs, much like any other Egyptian sphinx.
Today, the Great Sphinx is even an official emblem of Egypt and frequently appears on the country’s stamps, coins, official documents and flags.
Symbolism and Meaning of the Sphinx
The symbol of the sphinx evokes different interpretations. Here are the most notable:
The sphinx was a symbol of guardianship and protection, which is why they were typically located outside of tombs to protect the deceased.
- Enigma and Mystery
The original purpose of the sphinx is unknown. The very image of a sphinx standing guard at a tomb or asking travelers a riddle with no apparent objective, evokes mystery.
Why did the sphinx ask a riddle? Why did the sphinx kill herself when Oedipus answered the riddle? Why is it part human, part animal? These questions and more enhance the mystery of the sphinx, making it a symbol of the enigmatic.
The very word sphinx has entered our lexicon as a synonym for inscrutable, mysterious and enigmatic. For example: She became a sphinx when he asked her what had happened to the money.
The sphinx was believed to be highly intelligent and wise, which is why it could stump humans with its riddles. As such, it represents wisdom.
The body of the lion represents strength, while the head of a human symbolizes intelligence. Some scholars view this combination as a symbol of strength, dominance and wisdom.
Sphinx Depictions in Art
The sphinx is probably the one Egyptian mythological creature that’s most often represented in art. Even before it became modern Egypt’s national symbol, the sphinx was widely revered throughout Egypt’s history.
Today, it’s typically represented in statues, as well as on wall engravings, paintings, vase engravings, and on virtually everything that can be painted or engraved upon. It’s generally portrayed from the front, at a diagonal or from the side. Below is a list of the editor’s top picks featuring the sphinx symbol.
In modern art, the sphinx is no less iconic. Even outside of Egypt, the mythical creature is recognized worldwide. It has appeared in countless movies, shows, games, and books all over the world and will likely continue to do so.
FAQs About the Sphinx
The sphinx was invented by the Egyptians which probably influenced the Greeks. There are significant differences in the depictions of the sphinx in these two cultures.
In Egypt, the sphinx was viewed as a protector and a benevolent guardian. The combination of the lion’s body and the human head is interpreted as symbolic of strength and intelligence. In Greece, the sphinx was symbolic of mystery, enigma and brutality.
The original purpose of the sphinx is unknown and unclear. It appears to have been built as symbolic of guardianship over Giza.
The name sphinx appears to have been given to the figure about 2000 years after it’s original construction in Egypt. The word sphinx is a Greek word deriving from the word for to strangle.
The sphinx remains a mysterious figure and one that has captured human imagination for millennia. It’s often depicted in movies, books and artwork, and is as alive today as it’s ever been.