The Sphinx is arguably one of the world’s most well-known images. The creature is closely associated with Egypt, mostly due to the 5,000-year-old statue still standing tall guarding the Giza plateau to this day.
However, this isn’t the only image of the Sphinx in ancient culture. The Greeks had their own Sphinx as well, and it was nearly as famous.
The Greek Sphinx
The Egyptian Sphinx was revered as a royal guardian, but the Greek version was much less noble. In Ancient Greece, the Sphinx was a female with broad wings, a bad attitude, and an even worse reputation. She was cunning, vicious, and thirsty for blood.
According to Hesiod, the Sphinx was the offspring of a fire breathing Chimera and a monstrous two-headed dog by the name of Orthrus.
However, the Sphinx is more commonly believed to have been the daughter of Echidna and Typhon, which would have made her a sibling of the Chimera, Cerberus, Lernaean Hydra, and Nemean Lion. By all accounts, the Greek Sphinx was a mythical monster with the head of a woman, body of a lion, wings of an eagle, and tail of a serpent.
As another example of the complicated relationship between the gods and humans, the gods sent the Sphinx to the town of Thebes to prey on its citizens and devour everyone unable to solve her riddle.
She wreaked so much havoc that King Creon, the Regent of Thebes, offered his throne to anyone who would kill her. Oedipus was the only one to take the challenge and succeed.
Greek Sphinx vs. Egyptian Sphinx
In Egyptian lore, the Sphinx was a symbol rather than an individual entity. The creature was considered a guardian figure. It was the protector of the great pyramids and the destroyer of the enemies of the sun god, Re. It was also seen as a representation of the pharaoh and his divine power.
In the Greek mythos, the Sphinx was little more than a monster. However, strangely enough, the figure was introduced into Greek mythology by Grecians travelling back and forth across the Mediterranean to Egypt, the only other comparable civilization at the time.
So, how did the image of the Sphinx become so distorted in the Greek’s eyes? Legend clearly indicates the precise quarter it was introduced into Greek mythology. While the original Egyptian or Ethiopian figure lacked wings and had the upper torso and face of a man, hawk, or ram rather than a woman, the Sphinx’s figure was significantly modified after its incorporation into the Grecian story.
The Egyptian Sphinx clearly depicts an unwinged lion with a human upper body. Although its upper part was human, the Sphinx was described as a lion.
The Greek Sphinx was quite different. Its body was also a lion, but it possessed wings, a serpent tail, and had the face and upper torso of a woman. Greek Sphinxes also appear in different positions, not just lying down forward like their Egyptian counterparts.
Oedipus and the Sphinx
In the classic Greek story of Oedipus, the Sphinx was sent by the goddess Hera to scourge the people of Thebes as punishment for some ancient, unknown crime. Some believe it was for the failure to apologize and atone for crimes committed by a former Theban king.
The Sphinx would sit perched on a mountainside outside of the ancient city and forced anyone hoping to enter or leave to solve an impossible riddle. She learned the riddle from the Muses, and each time a traveler was unable to solve it correctly, she devoured them, resulting in no one being able to leave or enter the city. The difficulty of the riddle and the cunning of the Sphinx meant no one could outwit her.
Then one day, a lost prince of Thebes by the name of Oedipus was travelling toward the city to confront the creature and solve her riddle. The earliest accounts didn’t indicate the specific riddle given to him by the Sphinx, but a later version did include it, and it has since become very well-known.
Those who came walking near the monster would be asked, “Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?”
When Oedipus heard this riddle, he simply answered, “Man.” During childhood, a man crawls on his hands and knees/feet, so he has four feet. During adulthood, he walks on two feet. In old age, he uses a cane or walking stick as a third foot.
The Second Riddle
By a few accounts, Oedipus was given a second riddle after successfully answering the first: “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, which Oedipus guessed correctly once again, is “day and night.” After answering her riddles, Oedipus was free to pass.
Death of the Sphinx
After correctly answering both questions, Oedipus didn’t need to do anything else to destroy the monster. Most myths say she killed herself by jumping off of the rock she was perched upon and tumbling to her death below. However, according to a few accounts, she devoured herself.
In either case, the story of Oedipus and the Sphynx is recognized as a pivotal moment helping in the transition from the old religious practices to those centered around the Olympian gods.
Many Greek sources admit the Sphinx was not Greek in origin. According to several texts, she came from far away in Africa. In both the modern and ancient world, the most well-known sphinxes resided in Egypt.
Trade flourished along the Nile, which is likely how the Greeks were introduced to this ancient creature.
In Egypt, there were many sphinxes, but the most famous of all was the gigantic guardian of Giza. When the Greek myth of Oedipus was told, this landmark had already stood for almost two thousand years.
Having traded with the Egyptians across the Mediterranean, the Greeks were very familiar with the image of the Sphinx and other Egyptian deities. However, unlike the Egyptians, there was only one Sphinx told in their stories. She was one of a kind.
The sphinxes depicted in Egyptian art are different from the Greek Sphinx in several ways. For one thing, Egyptian sphinxes like The Great Sphinx of Giza are almost always male. However, the Greek Sphinx is depicted as female.
The Greek creature also had wings as well as a serpent tail, both of which are never shown in Egyptian iconography. Also, unlike the Greek Sphinx, Egyptian and Mesopotamian sphinxes took many forms. While the lion with the human head is most famous, images also show sphinxes with heads of rams or falcons.
Despite these differences, the Greek Sphinx was undoubtedly based on the images of sphinxes in Egypt. Greek mythology even states it came from a foreign land.
However, in adapting it for Greek mythology, features were changed and added to make the creature uniquely Greek. The serpent tail and eagle wings of the Greek’s version of the Sphinx were familiar traits commonly associated with the mythological monsters there.
A female sphinx was also more in line with Greek custom. The Sirens, Harpies, and many other hybrid monsters all had bodies of animals and faces of beautiful women.
Lastly, the Egyptian Sphinx had attributes of a king or god and was idolized as a protective guardian. In Greece, however, it was a bloodthirsty monster working on behalf of the goddess Hera.
Link/cite this page
If you use any of the content on this page in your own work, please use the code below to cite this page as the source of the content.
Link will appear as Sphinx: https://greekgodsandgoddesses.net - Greek Gods & Goddesses, January 10, 2022