The Sphinx is a zoomorphic, mythological figure depicted as a recumbent lion with a human head. It has its origins in sculpted figures of Old Kingdom Egypt, to which the ancient Greeks applied their own name for a female monster, the "strangler", an archaic figure of Greek mythology. Similar creatures appear throughout South and South-East Asia, and the sphinx enjoyed a major revival in European decorative art from the Renaissance onwards.
There was a single Sphinx in Greek mythology, a unique demon of destruction and bad luck. According to Hesiod she was a daughter of Echidna and Orthrus or, according to others, 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. She was represented in vase-painting and bas-reliefs most often seated upright rather than recumbent, as a winged lion with a woman's head; or she was a woman with the paws, claws and breasts of a lion, a serpent's tail and eagle wings. 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 BC until the third century AD.
The Sphinx's Riddle
She is said to have guarded the entrance to a certain area, often the Greek city of Thebes, and to have asked a riddle of travelers to obtain passage. The exact riddle asked by the Sphinx was not specified by early tellers of the stories about the Sphinx, and was not standardized 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 Ethiopian homeland (the Greeks always remembered the foreign origin of the Sphinx) to Thebes in Greece where, in the writings of Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus, she asks all passersby history's most famous riddle:
- "Which creature in the morning goes on four feet, at noon on two, and in the evening upon three?"
She strangled and devoured anyone unable to answer. Oedipus solved the riddle, answering, "Man — who crawls on all fours as a baby, then walks on two feet as an adult, and walks with a cane in old age." 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 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 deities.
In Ancient Culture
From the Bronze Age the Hellenes had trade and cultural contacts with Egypt. Before the time that Alexander the Great occupied Egypt their name, sphinx, was already applied to these statues. The historians and geographers of Greece wrote extensively about the Egyptian culture and their writings were circulated widely with Greek and Roman culture. They sometimes called the ram-headed sphinxes, criosphinxes and the bird-headed ones, hierocosphinxes. The word "Sphinx" comes from the Greek Σφιγξ — Sphingx, apparently from the verb σφιγγω — sphinggo, meaning "to strangle" (note that the γ takes on a 'ng' sound in front of both γ and ξ). This may be a name derived from the fact that the hunters for a pride are the lionesses and they kill their prey by strangulation, biting the throat of prey and holding them down until they die. The word "sphincter" derives from the same root.
- A Greek sphinx is in the book Mythical Monsters.