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What Was the Sphinx in Greek Mythology?

The Sphinx is a famous ancient wonder in the deserts of Egypt, so how did it end up in a story about a Greek king? Read on to find out how the Sphinx mythology was brought to ancient Greece!

The Sphinx is one of the most well-known images in the world. The nearly five thousand year old statue in Egypt has been a symbol of the country’s cultural heritage for millennia.

There is another image of the Sphinx, however, that is nearly as famous. This one is female, with broad wings and a terrible reputation.

While the Egyptian sphinx was a royal guardian, the Greek version was less noble. She was vicious, bloodthirsty, and cunning.

The difference between these two guardians is in more than their pose and gender. While the Great Sphinx of Giza is an icon of Egypt, the clever but merciless female version is a monster of Greek mythology.

So how did the Sphinx transform into a classical Greek monster?

Oedipus and the Sphinx

According to the Greeks, the Sphinx was a one-of-a-kind monster.

She was human-headed with the body of a lioness. She had eagle’s wings and, in many images, a tail that ended with a snake’s head.

Pliny the Elder said that many such creatures could be found in Ethiopia, but only one had been brought to Greece. Many legends said that either Apollo or Hera had moved the Sphinx to the city of Thebes.

This Sphinx was usually said to be the daughter of well-known Greek monsters rather than foreign demons. Sources varied, but gave well-known monsters like Typhon, Echidna, Orthrus, and Ceto as possible parents.

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In Greek mythology, the Sphinx had been set as the guardian of the city of Thebes. No one could pass into the city without answering her riddle.

The Sphinx was a cunning creature, however, so no man could outwit her. When a traveler answered incorrectly, she strangled and devoured them without mercy.

Some historians believe that the Sphinx’s name may have come from the fact that she strangled those who crossed her. There are some similarities between the Greek words.

The detail of strangulation could have also shown that she was inspired as much by real lions as by Egyptian monuments. In nature, lionesses typically take down their prey by biting their necks and faces to suffocate them.

When Oedipus, the lost prince of that city, was traveling toward Thebes he encountered the monster. The earliest accounts did not specify the riddle that the Sphinx gave him, but a later version became well-known.

According to most sources, the riddle of the Sphinx was “What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs during the day, and three legs in the evening?”

Oedipus became the first man to correctly answer the Sphinx’s riddle. The correct answer was man; he crawls on all fours as an infant, walks upright through most of his life, and leans on a walking stick in old age.

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Some accounts said that the Sphinx tried to keep Oedipus from passing by asking a second riddle. “There are two sisters. One gives birth to the other, who in turn gives birth to the first. Who are they?”

Oedipus again answered correctly by saying, “Night and day,” which were both feminine words in Greek. The Sphinx had finally challenged a man who could outwit her.

Most sources claimed that the Sphinx was so shamed by this that she killed herself, while a few said that Oedipus slayed her when she was dumbfounded by shock. The most common version of the story is the Sphinx threw itself from a tall rock as Oedipus passed by safely.

My Modern Interpretation

Even Greek sources admitted that the Sphinx was not a native of their own country. She had come from far away and, according to some, there were others of her kind in Africa.

The most well-known sphinxes in both the ancient world and the modern one came from Egypt. Trade along the Nile almost certainly introduced the Greeks to this ancient symbol.

The most famous sphinx in Egypt is, of course, the enormous guardian of Giza. This landmark was already nearly two thousand years old when the story of Oedipus was told.

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The Greeks were familiar with these images; many ancient sources mentioned them. But the Sphinx in their own stories was the only one of her kind

The sphinxes shown in Egyptian and Near Eastern art differed from the Greek monster in many ways.

The Great Sphinx of Giza and others like it are, for one thing, almost always shown as male. The Greek Sphinx, however, was always shown as female.

Unlike the Egyptian images, the Greek monster also had wings and a serpentine tale. These details are almost never seen in Mesopotamian and Egyptian iconography.

Elsewhere in the Mediterranean, the sphinx could also take on many different forms. The human-headed lion is the most famous because of the monument at Giza, but images also showed sphinxes with the heads of falcons, cats or sheep.

Nine hundred guardian sphinxes with the heads of rams were built in the Egyptian city of Thebes. While this was not the same as the Greek Thebes, it seems likely that the number of statues there may have inspired the Greek version of the guardian monster.

The Egyptian city of Thebes was named by Greek writers based on their pronunciation of a local name. It is likely, however, that the proliferation of sphinx images also formed the connection in their minds between the Egyptian temple site and the home of the legendary Oedipus.

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The Greek Sphinx was very clearly based on images from Egypt. Even the myths in which it was mentioned said that it was brought from a foreign country.

In adapting the Sphinx for Greek mythology, however, features were added to the story that made it a uniquely Greek monster.

The wings and snake tail of the Greek Sphinx were common traits of mythological monsters there. Many creatures, including those that the Sphinx was sometimes said to be related to, had similar traits.

The fact that the Greek Sphinx was female is also in keeping with Greek custom. Many hybrid monsters, such as the Sirens and the Harpies, had the faces of beautiful women and the bodies of animals.

In Egypt, the sphinx was viewed as a protective guardian, often having the attributes of a god or king. To the Greeks, however, it was a much more menacing and merciless monster.

In Summary

In Greek mythology, the Sphinx was a singular female monster. Usually said to have been brought from Ethiopia, she guarded the road to the Greek city of Thebes.

A monstrous, winged creature with the body of a lion and the head of a human woman, the Greek Sphinx devoured anyone who tried to pass by her. The only way to get by was to outsmart the monster by correctly answering its riddle.

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Oedipus became the first man to survive his encounter with the Sphinx by answering her riddle correctly. Many sources said that the monster killed itself in shame at having been outsmarted.

This Greek legend is quite different from the Egyptian images of the sphinx. The Egyptians almost always portrayed their sphinx as male, often representing a god or king, and they also showed them with a variety of different animal heads.

The nine hundred sphinx statues of the Egyptian Thebes, which was named for the Greek city, had the heads of rams to honor the god Amun. Others were cats, falcons, or other animals.

These older Egyptian images obviously inspired the Greek Sphinx, which was said to have come from the region. The Greeks changed the creature, however, to be more in keeping with the style of other famous Greek monsters.

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My name is Mike and for as long as I can remember (too long!) I have been in love with all things related to Mythology. I am the owner and chief researcher at this site. My work has also been published on Buzzfeed and most recently in Time magazine. Please like and share this article if you found it useful.

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