The Sphinx

What Is The Sphinx?

The sphinx is an ancient mythological creature with the body of a lion. In the original Egyptian form it usually has the head of a human however is sometimes depicted with that of a hawk or ram. In Greek mythology the lion usually becomes a lioness and is given wings.

The Egyptian sphinx is most commonly associated with the great statue at Giza, the Greek with the famous riddle from the tale of Oedipus.

Ancient Egypt

Gods in ancient Greece often had attributes of animals. The lion was a divine beast often associated with the solar god Atum. Atum was a creator god and some ancient texts such as the Egyptian Book of the Dead suggest the image of the lion being one of the first creatures to emerge into the world. This would fit with the use of the sphinx as a symbol of entry and exit - it was often used to guard doorways along with other entrances and exits. In this role they usually occurred in pairs.

Great Sphinx of Giza

The Great Sphinx sits outside the Giza Pyramid facing East watching the rising sun - thus fitting in with the solar motif of Atum. Giza is, of course, very popular with tourists who like to see the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx and buy related merchandise.

The Sphinx is massive at around 240 feet in length and is believed to have been built around five thousand years ago. Given its age it's not surprising that it has sustained considerable damage, however it remains an impressive sight. The face - which long ago lost its nose - is thought by some to have been based on the face of the 4th dynasty pharaoh Khafra (also spelt Khafre and known to the Greeks as Chephren).

The placing of a sphinx statue near a pyramid is not unusual, however the sheer scale of the one at Giza is unmatched. Many people have assumed that it must have a significance other than being "merely" a huge monument to a dead pharaoh. There have been many theories that it is connected with some form of esoteric knowledge, everything from having astrological significance to being connected with UFOs and/or the lost city of Atlantis. Few modern egyptologists support these theories.

Ancient Greece

The Greeks took the Egyptian idea of the Sphinx and turned it into a single, fearsome creature. The ancient Greek sphinx was a lioness with a woman's head and wings. She was a symbol of ill fortune and destruction who originated in Ethiopia and was later sent to Thebes by the gods.

The Riddle of the Sphinx

The Riddle of the Sphinx is part of the legend of Oedipus as told by Cinaethon of Sparta in his Oedipodea. The sphinx doesn't appear in Homer's story of Oedipus and Oedipus doesn't appear in Hesiod's story of the sphinx!

When the two stories did merge, they gave us a sphinx that asked all who pass her famous riddle. All fail to answer and are destroyed. Oedipus solves the riddle, defeats the sphinx and becomes king.

The exact riddle was not written down explicitly at first but later became standardised as:

"What is it that goes on four feet in the morning, on two at noon and on three in the evening?"

The answer? That would be telling... Let's just say that it nothing to do with the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.