What Is a Sphinx?
A Sphinx is a chimeric creature with the features of a human, a lion, and a menagerie of other animals. These chimeras once guarded holy sites all over the ancient world, using riddles to judge how worthy a person was of approaching their protected treasure.
Sphinxes are powerful, regal creatures, but their exact appearance varies from region to region.
In Greece, there is officially only one Sphinx, a god-like lady with the haunches of a lion, the wings of an eagle, and the tail of a serpent. Criosphinxes, which have the head of a ram, and hieracosphinxes, which have the head of a hawk, have also been described in Greek legend.
In Egypt, the chimeras are usually male and resemble a god or pharaoh, complete with the traditional pharaoh’s headpiece. They have lion haunches, but are otherwise human.
In India, the guardians are part man, part eagle, and part lion. In some pieces of art, the lion’s tawny body is replaced with a leopard’s slinky spots, and the wings are left out. Ornate headdresses crown these alluring creatures.
Of all mythological creatures, the Sphinx has the most famous personality. Unlike other creatures, she is not merely an obstacle to be overcome. She is a complicated, feeling creature with a gaze that sees into the souls of men. At the same time, she keeps her own soul shrouded in mystery.
Sphinxes are often stationed as guardians outside holy sites. When they have something to protect, they can be ferocious, slaughtering any unworthy person who tries to approach their treasure. On the other hand, they can also be merciful, and even generous. For example, the lion-people who guard over temples in India shower blessings on anyone who enters the temple with a pure heart.
Finally, these chimeras are fantastically intelligent. They have a lofty wisdom which few men can approach, and they can never be outsmarted. Occasionally, they try to share some of their wisdom with man through prophecies, but these prophecies are usually couched in such abstract language that they can’t be understood.
The Sphinx’s most famous talent is her knack for riddles. She uses all her cunning to cook up these riddles, then she uses her riddles to test the worthiness of men. Anyone who fails to answer the riddle is eaten.
Occult legend describes the “Four Powers of the Sphinx”: to know, to will, to dare, and to keep silent. Men are encouraged to develop these powers, so that they can reach the chimera’s ideal state of wisdom and master the four elements, water, air, fire, and earth.
Greek legend proposes a variety of parents for the Sphinx. Her father may have been Orthrus, a two-headed dog; Typhon, a deadly giant who also fathered Orthrus, Cerebrus, Chimera, Hydra, Medusa, and the Colchian dragon; or Laius, a hero from Thebes. Her mother may have been Chimera, a fire-breathing lion with an extra head shaped like a goat, or Echidna, a woman-snake monster.
Egyptian legend has a different explanation for the rise of the Sphinx. She represents a relationship between Sekhmet, a sun goddess shaped like a lion, and various pharaohs, including Amon, Hatshepsut, Hetepheres II, and Khafre or Khufu.
The Sphinx first appeared in Egypt in around 2600 BC. When the Greeks discovered Egyptian statues of this beautiful, powerful creature in 8 BC, they decided to bring her back to their own culture, claiming that she was summoned from Africa by the gods. From Greece, the chimera spread to surrounding cultures, including Mesopotamia and southeast Asia. Eventually, she could be found in India, the Phillipines, Burma, Thailand, and Sri Lanka.
The Sphinx’s most famous legend is her reign of terror in the Greek city of Thebes.
Several gods were angry with the Thebans. Hera, Ares, Dionysus, and Hades all had reasons to seek revenge against the city, so it’s not clear which one of these wrathful gods decided to summon the Sphinx from Africa and set her loose in Thebes. She was instructed to act as a plague upon the people, but instead of running amok in the streets and causing mass carnage, the enigmatic chimera decided to perch herself on top of Mount Phikion and challenge the Thebans to answer a riddle.
Greek scholars have put forward to versions of this riddle:
“What has one voice but four feet, then two feet, then three feet?” The solution to this riddle, which the Sphinx learned from the Nine Muses, is “man.” As a baby, man crawls on four feet. As an adult, he walks on two feet. As an elder, he uses a cane to make three feet.
“There are two sisters. One gives birth to the other, who in turn gives birth to the first. Who are they?” The solution to this riddle, which the Sphinx learned from the Oracle of Cadmus, is “night and day.”
An oracle told the Thebans that they would be free of the dreaded Sphinx only when her riddle was answered, so they held convention after convention, trying to come up with the answer. But all the answers they tried were incorrect, and the chimera devoured the men who answered her incorrectly. After losing many of Thebes’ best men, the king of Thebes surrendered. Anyone, he declared, who could answer the Sphinx’s riddle would become king of Thebes.
Oedipus responded to this offer. He climbed up Mount Phikion, alone, to face the murderous chimera, and he answered her riddle correctly. Some versions of the story explain that Oedipus knew the answer because it was given to him in a dream. Other versions claim that the Sphinx was tired of massacring the people of Thebes, so she told Oedipus the answer. When her riddle was solved, the creature leapt from Mount Phikion and fell to her death.
Today, the Egyptian pyramids and the Giza Sphinx have become inseparable images. This weathered chimera is one of Egypt’s greatest icons. He can be found on coins, stamps, and official documents. He has also created a hotspot for tourists, who contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Egyptian economy each year.
The Sphinx has also been adopted by fantasy writers around the world, including JK Rowling, Edgar Allen Poe, and Alexander Dumas. These incarnations generally keep with Greek tradition; they are alluring females with a penchant for secrets and riddles.