we, long since, with all our peers, Egypt
Accustomed were to reign a thousand years.
If for our place your reverence be won,
We rule for you the days of Moon and Sun.
We sit before the Pyramids
For the judgment of the Races,
Inundation, War, and Peace,—
With eternal changeless faces.
[Graphic by Oberon Zell-Ravenheart]
The Sphinx is an imposing composite monster of classical tradition, depicted with a lion’s body and paws, and the head of some other animal or a human. Sometimes it has the hindquarters of a bull, and in many versions, eagle’s wings sprout from its shoulders. It originated with the Egyptians of the
Old Kingdom (2686–2134 bce), from whence it was imported into Assyrian and Greek
mythology, appearing famously in the tragedy of Oedipus Rex. The Asian Sphinxes
appear to have originated independently.
The name Sphinx comes from the Greek verb sphingo, meaning “to strangle.” Another possible derivation has been claimed from the Egyptian shesep ankh, meaning “living statues.” Because its form encompasses both human and animal elements, the Sphinx symbolizes the union of body, mind, and soul; or physical, mental, and spiritual attributes. The human head represents intellect and knowledge, the lion’s claws connote daring and action, the bull’s loins symbolize stamina and perseverance, and the eagle’s wings connote silence. Thus composed of three animals and a human, the Sphinx is a symbol of the four Pythagorean Elements: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water.
Assyria and Phoenicia, winged lions with human heads appeared as symbols
of rulership and guardians of temples and palaces. They were called Lamassu, and they were commonly paired
with similar creatures called Shedu, which
had human heads on the bodies of winged bulls.
Fig. 1. Babylonian Sphinx (Lamassu), from an antique stone carving at the
, Palace of Nimrud . (Lehner, p.161) Nineveh
With the sole exception of the cruel, riddling Greek Sphinx of Thebes (the only one capable of speech), all other Sphinxes were friendly and benevolent guardians of sacred Mysteries; and their image universally symbolized enigma, mystic wisdom, and secret-keeping silence. In
, the Sphinx was the guardian of arcane magick
and occult wisdom, and was endowed with the four powers of the magi: to know,
to dare, to will, and to keep silent.2 Egypt
Sphinx composed of a man’s head and chest, an eagle’s wings, a bull’s hindquarters, and a lion’s forequarters, became symbols of the Biblical Tetramorph and the four creatures of Revelation. [Ezek. 1:5–14; Rev. 4:6–8] These in turn represent the Cherubim; the four Evangelists and their Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John); the four kings of the created world: the Lion (king of the jungle), the Eagle (king of the air), the Bull (king of the farm), and Man (king of creation); and, according to St. Jerome, Christ’s Incarnation (the man), His Passion (the bull), His Resurrection (the Lion), and His Ascension (the eagle).3
The Tetramorph appears twice in the Tarot cards, on The Wheel of Fortune and The World. In the former, the Sphinx sits atop the Wheel to represent equilibrium within a perpetually fluidic universe. 4
Fig. 2. Wheel of Fortune Tarot card by Pamela Coleman Smith
The later Roman Sphinx was a simple solar symbol. To astrologers, it is a calendar beast, with the female head representing Virgo, and the lion’s body, Leo. The version with a human head, bull’s body, lion’s legs and claws, and eagle’s wings symbolizes, respectively, the fixed signs of the Zodiac: Aquarius, Taurus, Leo, and Scorpio. And the Druids included a many-breasted female Sphinx among their fertility and maternal symbols.
With their rich symbolism, Sphinxes were popular creatures in ancient art. They were often inscribed upon gravestones of teenage boys, and they commonly appeared with lions and Sirens in beast processions on Greek vases.
The Egyptian Sphinx
Three types of Sphinxes appear as guardians in Egyptian statuary, all with the wingless bodies of crouching lions. Herodotus distinguished them as the Criosphinx, the Hieracosphinx, and the Androsphinx. The Egyptian Sphinx was only rarely portrayed as having the head of a woman. In such cases, the Gynosphinx symbolized the Goddess Isis or Hathor, and/or the reigning queen. In
, it was believed that the
creature’s intellectual faculties, represented by the human head, ennobled and
balanced its bestial attributes, represented by the lion’s body. Egypt
Fig. 3. Criospinx
The Criosphinx—Guardian and container of the soul of the creator-god, Amun (whose title was “Father of the Gods”), the Criosphinx is a great lion with the head of a ram. With magnificent spiraling horns, it was usually shown lying down with head erect and alert, as a guardian’s should be. In the city of
Thebes, there were originally about 900 Criosphinx statues, and
the great at Temple of Karnak Luxor was approached by an avenue flanked by them.
Fig. 4. Avenue of ram's-head sphinxes at
Karnak in Luxor
The Hieracosphinx—A representation of the Egyptian sun-god, Horus, it has the body of a lion and the head of a falcon.
Fig. 5. Hieracosphinx (Lehner, p. 163)
The Androsphinx—This Sphinx had the head of a man—specifically, that of the reigning Pharaoh who ordered its construction. It was intended to symbolize the divine power and wisdom with which he ruled and protected his people. Representing abundance, power, secrets, truth, unity, wisdom, and the Mysteries, the Androsphinx guarded pyramids, tombs, and sacred highways. Sometimes a pair of Androsphinxes was portrayed in conjunction with the Tree of Life as symbols of fertility and conception.
As a solar symbol, the Androsphinx was associated with the sun god Ra; Horus on the Horizon; and Harmakhis, the Lord of the Two Horizons, representing the rising and setting sun, rebirth, and resurrection. Androsphinx usually bore the face of the Pharaoh who ordered their construction, and symbolize the divine power and wisdom he used to rule and protect his people. As Lord of the Two Horizons, the Androsphinx’s dual nature came in Christian mythology to reflect the dual nature of Christ, who was both human and divine. Like many other solar symbols, an image of the Androsphinx was placed in or near early Christian graves as a representation of the divine Light of the World.5
Fig. 6. Androsphinx
The Great Sphinx of
The largest and most famous ancient statue, and one of the
of the World, Sesheps,
the Great Sphinx of Giza, is 240 feet long and 66 feet high, with a small Roman
temple and stele between its outstretched paws. Situated
on the Giza Plateau on the west bank of the Nile near the
Great Pyramids, it faces due east.
The face of the Great Sphinx is generally thought to be a portrait of the Pharaoh Khafra, or possibly of his brother, the Pharaoh Djedefra. This would date its carving to the Fourth Dynasty (2723–2563
Some think that the Great Sphinx is more than 12,000 years old, and that it was originally a complete crouching lion intended to represent the constellation Leo—long before its head was resculpted into that of a Pharaoh. The vertical patterns of erosion on its flanks seem to indicate centuries of rain, rather than the horizontal markings that would result from windblown sands of the desert which now surrounds it. Legends claim that a tunnel runs from beneath the Sphinx into the Great Pyramid, and that other secret passageways and chambers remain hidden under the
Giza sands. Recently a few narrow tunnels have indeed been discovered around
the statue, and ground-based sonar has indicated the existence of a chamber
Fig. 7. The Great Sphinx of
Photo credit: Ramzi Hachicho Giza
The granite stele set between the paws of the Great Sphinx gives the following account: One day young Prince Thutmose was out hunting when he lay down for a nap in the shadow of the Sphinx’s head—which was all that protruded from the entombing desert sands. The Sphinx appeared to him in his dream and prophesied that he would sit on the throne of
Egypt if he promised to clear away the sands of time from around
the great figure. As Thumose was the younger son, this seemed unlikely. But
soon thereafter his elder brother was killed in a hunting accident, and
Thutmose unexpectedly became Pharaoh—the fourth with that name, reigning from
The new ruler immediately ordered the excavation of the statue, placing the Dream Stele between its paws to commemorate the incident and to honor the sun-god, Harmakhis, who had spoken to him through the Sphinx. On the stele, Thutmose IV inscribed three names of the sun: Kheperi, Re, and Atum. However, it is not known what name the original sculptors gave to the figure itself. The Greeks called it the Sphinx, and its Arabic name, Abu al-Hôl, means “father of terror.”6
Perhaps due to the legendary dream of Thutmose, pilgrims once sought the oracular advice of the Sphinx by placing an ear to its lips. Due to its enigmatic history, the great monument has become an icon for all who seek wisdom.
The Greek Sphinx
The Greek version, of which there was only one, had the head and breasts of a woman, with eagle’s wings. Sometimes it was depicted with the body of a bull or dog, the legs of a lion, and the tail of a serpent. It had a human voice and spoke in riddles. In contrast to the aristocratic Egyptian Sphinx, she was regarded as a demon of death, destruction, and ill fortune. In Greek mythology, the bestial elements were believed to have warped her mind and spirit, and she was portrayed as a grim and miserable monster, a symbol of the “wicked mother,” and an evil perversion of the intellect, of womanhood, and of power.7
Fig. 8. Theban, or Greek Sphinx
According to Hesiod’s Theogony (c. 700
bce), “the deadly Sphinx which destroyed the Cameans” was
a daughter of Echidna and her son Orthus, the hound of Geryones. Her brother
was the Nemean Lion, “which Hera, the
good wife of Zeus, brought up and made to haunt the hills of Nemea,
a plague to men.” Like many other fabulous beasts, the Sphinx was believed to
inhabit the mountains of . Ethiopia
The Sphinx was sent from her Ethiopian homeland into Boiotia by Hera, who was angry with the Thebans for not having punished King Laios, who had carried off Khrysippos from
. The grim creature now sat upon a crag on
Pisa , overlooking the road to Mount Phikion , where she challenged all travelers with a
riddle she had learned from the Mousai. In Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus,
the riddle is stated as follows: “What goes on four legs, on two and then
three; but the more legs it goes on the weaker it be?” If they replied correctly, they would be allowed to pass; but if
they failed—as all did—she would strangle and devour them. Oedipus, who had
fled to Thebes in a futile effort to escape from a
prophesy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, was accosted by
the Sphinx, who demanded an answer. “Man,” replied Oedipus. “He crawls on all fours as an infant, then walks on
two feet as a child and adult, and finally, leans on a cane in old age.” Thereupon
the mortified monster leapt from the precipice to her death on the rocks below
(evidently the wings were just for show!).8 Thebes
Fig. 9. Sphinx on Greek plate
The Asian Sphinx
Sphinx-like, human-headed lions are common figures in the mythology and art of
, India , and China Southeast Asia. Some of these date from as early as the
3rd century bce, indicating independent origin from the Western
Sphinx, which originated in . Egypt
The Purushamriga (“human-beast”) of
is believed to take away the sins of
devotees when they enter a temple, and to ward off evil in general. It is
therefore usually strategically positioned on the temple gateway or near the
entrance to the inner sanctum. Also called Naravirala
(“man-cat”), images of them decorate lamps used in the lamp ceremony, as well
as in various other iconography. India
Fig. 10. Purushamriga or Indian sphinx depicted on the Shri Varadaraja Perumal temple in
The Sphinx of Sri Lanka is called Narasimha (“man-lion”). It is a Buddhist guardian of the North, and is often depicted on banners. In common with all other Sphinxes, it has a human head on a leonine body. However, it bears the same name as, and is thus easily confused with, Narasimha, the fourth incarnation of the god Mahavishnu, who has the head of a lion on a human body.
, or Myanmar , the Sphinx is called Manusiha. According to legend, it was
created by Buddhist monks to protect a newborn royal infant from fierce ogresses
who wished to devour the child. Images of Manusiha as a guardian may be seen today
on the corners of Buddhist temples. Burma
The Sphinx of Thailand, which is also a protector, is known as Nora Nair or Thep Norasingh. It has the lower body of a lion or deer, and the upper body of a human. It is always shown walking upright, often in male/female pairs. They are listed among the fantastic creatures that dwell upon the sacred mountain, Himapan.9
The Sphinx appears in
as well, as in this example from the San Li T’u (ca.1661–1723). It is one of
three ceremonial targets to be used by officials of different ranks in military
examinations. These tests required that arrows be fired upward from a distance,
with the goal of targeting the barrel behind the figure.10 China
Fig. 11. Chinese Sphinx, from the San Li T’u (Gould, p.360)
Sphinxes in Art
Mannerism is a period of European architecture and decorative arts which lasted from the end of the Italian Renaissance around 1520 until the dawn of the Baroque period around 1600. The typical Mannerist Sphinx is sometimes called the French Sphinx. Her elaborately-coiffed head is held proudly erect, and she has the bust of a pretty young woman. She wears pearls and eardrops, and her lioness body is rendered realistically. Such images attained popularity in the enthusiasm for the 15th-century excavations of the treasures of Nero’s Golden House in
, and they were incorporated into the new
fashion of classical decorative motifs and Arabesque designs that spread
throughout Rome Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. The
Mannerist Sphinx first appeared in the in the 1520s to the 30s, and she lasted
into the Late Baroque style of the French Régence (1715–1723) 11 School of Fontainebleau
Fig. 12. Woman-headed Sphinx from old French engraving (Lehner, p.162)]
But Sphinxes passed out of fashion in the flamboyant Rococo period and were not seen again until the 19th century, when the Romantic and later Symbolist schools revived them once again. As with the Mannerist Sphinx, these schools drew more of their inspiration from the Greek than the Egyptian model—particularly in their depictions of the feminine. However, they were generally presented as wingless. One of the most prolific artists of the Romantic style was the Australian Norman Lindsey (1879–1969), whose etchings, paintings, and statuary often featured erotic Sphinxes—along with Sirens, Fauns, and other Classical femiformes.
Fig. 13. Sphinx by Francis Xavier Fabre
Sphinxes as Apes
Pliny the Elder mentions Sphinxes, saying they are common, “with a brown duskish hair, having dugs in their breast.” Clearly, he considered the Sphinx to be a kind of ape—specifically, a baboon. Indeed, the Guinea Baboon (Papio papio) is still called a Sphinx. Baboons in particular seem to combine human and leonine features. They are quadrupeds, as lions are, but they have humanlike bodies, arms, legs, and hands. Their heads and faces are very doglike, with fierce, sharp teeth, but the males of several species have great manes like those of lions. These include the Olive Baboon (Papio cynocephalus anubis), the Gelada (Theropithecus gelada), and the Hamadryas (Papio hamadryas).
The Olive Baboon, also called the Anubis Baboon for its doglike head, is the most widely distributed of all baboons. Dwellers of savannahs, steppes, and forests, they are found throughout northern
Africa, from south to Mali and Ethiopia . Isolated populations even inhabit some mountainous
regions of the Tanzania . They were domesticated in ancient Sahara Desert and trained to pick fruit for harvest. Egypt
Fig. 14. Ape Sphinx by Ashton
The Gelada is found only in the highlands of
and Ethiopia , with large populations in the Eritrea . Its Latin name, Theropithecus, means “beast-ape.” Semien Mountains
Hamadryads are the northernmost of all the baboons, their range extending from the
Red Sea in south to Egypt and Ethiopia . The Hamadryad was sacred to the ancient Egyptians as
the attendant of the scribe god Thoth, and therefore is also called the Sacred Baboon. Colonies live in
semi-deserts, savannas, and rocky areas, requiring cliffs for sleeping and access
to drinking water.12 Somalia
Cynocephali (Greek, “dog-headed”)—Said to be very common in
Ethiopia, they are described as having a black, hairy, humanoid
body and the head of a dog. Because of these attributes, they are associated
with the Egyptian god Anubis. These ferocious creatures have been identified as
Olive Baboons, as indicated in their Latin name, cynocephalus. However, the 3-foot-tall
Indris Lemur (Indri indri) of Madagascar also looks very much like a short, dog-headed human,
especially as it often stands or sits upright.
Celphies—Ethiopian creatures with a bovine body, “whose hind feet from the ankle up to the top of the calf were like a man’s leg, and likewise his forefeet resembled a man’s hand.” (Solinus, Collection of Remarkable Facts; 200 ce) These are also certainly baboons.
Wulver—A semi-human creature of
folklore, with the body of a
man covered in short brown hair and the head of a wolf. It lives in a cave
halfway up a hill and fishes in deep water. Harmless if unmolested, it will
sometimes leave fish on the windowsills of poor folk. It sounds very much like
a baboon, but what would one be doing in the Shetlands? Shetland
Monster Movies: The Sphinx
Only one movie to date has featured the Sphinx: The Neverending Story (1984), from the book by Michael Ende. A pair of gigantic blue Sphinx statues guard access to the Southern Oracle, and they incinerate any unworthy pilgrims who pass between them.
Fig. 15. Guardians of the Southern Oracle from The Neverending Story
1. Nigg, Joseph, The Book of Fabulous Beasts: A Treasury of Writings from Ancient Times to the Present,
Press, 1999 Oxford
2. Lehner, Ernst & Johanna, Big Book of Dragons, Monsters, and Other Mythical Creatures,
Pictorial Archives, 2004
3. “Sphinx,” Monstropedia
4. Waite, Arthur Edward, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, University Books, Inc., 1959
5. “Sphinx,” Monstropedia, Op cit.
6. “Sphinx,” Wikipedia
7. “Sphinx,” Monstropedia, Op cit.
8. Hargreaves, Joyce, Hargreaves New Illustrated Bestiary, Gothic Images Publications,
, 1990 Glastonbury,
9. “Sphinx,” Wikipedia, Op cit.
10. Gould, Charles, Mythical Monsters, Allen & Co.,1886; Kessinger Reprints, Whitefish, MT
11. “Sphinx,” Wikipedia, Op cit.
For more creatures check out Oberon's A Wizard's Bestiary