The sphinx is a mythical creature with the body of a lion but the head and upper chest of a human. It sometimes has wings and a serpent’s tail. The common legend behind the sphinx began in ancient Greece, but sphinx-like creatures first appeared in art and architecture in ancient Egypt and have appeared in Mycenaean, Assyrian, Phoenician, and Persian civilizations.

Sphinxes are most vividly associated with Egypt and Greece, but their physical form and what they represent differ significantly within these two ancient civilizations. The Egyptian sphinx is a symbol of power and guardianship; it embodies a lion’s strength and bravery with a man’s intelligence. The pharaohs used the sphinxes to project their own power and a sense that they protected the people. In Greece, the sphinx is a monster. She is female, as opposed to the Egyptian male version, and she has generally been sent by the Gods to torment humans.

The sphinx of Greek legend does mental battle with Oedipus Rex

The sphinx of Greek legend is described as having a female head and breast with a lion’s body, wings, and tail. The Sphinx of Thebes was a monstrous being with a debatable origin. She was considered to be extremely clever and, in some cases, completely all-knowing. She was either born to Orthus and Chimera or Typhon and Chimera, three other monsters from Greek mythology. (The Chimera is a fire-breathing monster with three heads and body parts from a lion, goat, snake, and dragon.) However, another theory suggested that the sphinx was an ordinary woman who, having been consumed by madness, transformed into a monster.

The sphinx was then sent to Thebes, Greece, as a punishment for the locals. The legend was used (or possibly invented) by 5th-century BC Greek writer Sophocles in his play Oedipus Rex. The gods inflicted the monster on the people of Thebes for an ancient crime; the Thebans had allegedly not punished Theben prince Lains for abducting Chrysippus from Pisa.

The monster brought famine and plague to Thebes. It would torment the people by posing a riddle to anyone it encountered and then devouring them when they got it wrong. The riddle was taught to the sphinx by the Muses and asked “What is it that has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?” The sphinx told the king of Thebes, Creon that she would leave if someone managed to solve the riddle. Creon sent a message throughout Greece that he would give his Kingdom and his sister Jocasta in marriage to anyone who could solve the riddle.

Oedipus became the hero of the day when he solved the riddle by answering that it is a “man” who crawls on all fours in infancy, walks on two feet when grown up, and leans on a staff in old age. The sphinx was so upset that Oedipus had bested her that she flung herself off the Theban Acropolis and fell to her death. For his efforts, Oedipus was granted control of the Kingdom.

Things didn’t end well for Oedipus when he later learned that he accidentally murdered his father, a former king of Thebes called Laius, and that his mother was Jocasta. He was so horrified by this turn of events that he blinded himself.

Centuries before Sophocles’s work, from about 1600 BC, sphinx-like creatures had been appearing in the Greek world. In the Minoan and Mycenaean cultures, sphinxes appeared on clay relief plaques, pottery, and frescos. These sphinxes were generally not winged and were usually male; their meaning is unknown.

The Egyptian sphinx as guardian and protector

Outside of the Hellenic world and Greek legends, sphinx-like creatures have appeared in art and architecture across numerous regions and cultures. Their image is thought to have first originated in ancient Egypt or maybe Ethiopia.

The most famous sphinx is the Great Sphinx at Giza, Egypt. It was built during the reign of Pharoah Khafre in about 2500 BC. The Great Sphinx is a giant monolith carved out of limestone. It consists of a lion’s body with the head of a human male wearing a headdress typical of Egyptian Pharaohs. The creature is lying on its belly and appears to be guarding the pyramids.

By the 14th Century BC, the Sphinx had already fallen into disrepair, but it was restored by Pharoah Thutmose IV. According to legend, the young Prince Thutmose had been on a hunting expedition when he fell asleep at the foot of the Sphinx. He dreamt that the Sphinx spoke to him, telling him to remove the sand from his feet, and in return, he would make him Pharoah. Thutmose did as requested and restored the Sphinx. However, the story of the dream was likely just a justification for his overthrowing his older brother to become Pharoah.

The Great Sphinx has been a tourist attraction for thousands of years and has been visited by some of the biggest names in history, from Alexander the Great to Napoleon. The French Emperor has often been blamed for destroying the Sphinx’s nose by using it as a target for cannon practice; however, this is a myth most likely propagated by Napolean’s enemies. There is evidence that the nose was deliberately removed using rods or chisels, but it’s unknown who took it, why, or where it ended up.

Egyptian sphinxes differed from Greek ones in that they were male and didn’t have wings. They probably became popular in Egypt during Khafre’s reign when statues of them began appearing outside temples and tombs. Their depictions also featured on seals, amulets, pottery, and numerous other objects. The sphinxes were thought to provide protection during the afterlife.

The sphinx in Assyria and Persia

Sphinxes have also appeared in Persian and Assyrian cultures. In these regions, they generally featured male heads and were winged, almost like a combination of Egyptian and Greek characteristics. These sphinxes primarily stood outside royal palaces, guarding against evil forces.

A large sphinx, currently in the British Museum, adorned the palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud in modern-day Iraq around the 9th century BC. In the Persian cities of Susa and Persepolis, sphinxes were found in reliefs dating to the 6th and 4th centuries BC, respectively.

The word sphinx reportedly came from the Greek verb sphingein, meaning to squeeze or to bind; however, this theory is debated, as early Greek literature initially referred to them as phix.


Britannica.com, “Sphinx,” accessed April 19, 2024.

Lehner, Mark. “The Complete Pyramids,” (1997), Pub.: Thames and Hudson, accessed April 19, 2024.

Regier, Willis Goth. “Book of the Sphinx,” (2004), Pub.: University of Nebraska Press, accessed April 12, 2004.

Theo Greek Mythology, “Sphinx,” accessed April 12, 2004.

World History Encyclopedia, “Sphinx,” accessed April 19, 2024.

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