1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Sphinx

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SPHINX (Gr. σφίγγειν, to draw tight, squeeze), the Greek name for a compound creature with lion's body and human head. The Greek sphinx had wings and female bust, and the male sphinx of Egypt (wingless) is distinguished as " andro-sphinx " by Herodotus. The type perhaps originated in Egypt, where figures of gods with human bodies and animal heads, and compound animal forms like the gryphon were numerous from very early times. The sphinx, however, is a perfectly clear and well-defined type there, and is usually recumbent. The most celebrated example is the Great Sphinx of Giza, 189 ft. long, a rock carved into this shape, and from its situation likely to be a work of the IVth Dynasty. The pattern of the wig-lappets has been quoted to prove that it dates from the XIIth Dynasty, but it is said that the peculiar disposition of the uraeus on its forehead agrees with that in the earliest sculptures. The face looks out due eastward from the pyramid field over the Nile valley, and, according to the inscriptions of the XVIIIth Dynasty in the shrine between the paws, it represented the sun-god Harmachis. Sphinxes of granite, &c, occur of the XIIth Dynasty and later. A pair from Tanis are attributed by Flinders Petrie to Pepi I. of the VIth Dynasty. The heads of the sphinxes are royal portraits, and apparently they are intended to represent the power of the reigning Pharaoh. The king as a sphinx, in certain religious scenes, makes offerings to deities; and elsewhere he tears his enemies in pieces. In the Saite period accordingly the figure of the sphinx was used as a hieroglyph for neb, " master," " lord." Recumbent sphinxes were especially used in pairs to guard the approach to a temple, and it may be conjectured that the Great Sphinx was sculptured at Giza to guard the entrance of the Nile Valley. The name of the sphinx in Egyptian was Hu.

The great temple avenues at Thebes are lined with recumbent rams, true sphinxes (a few late instances), and with the so-called criosphinxes or ram-sphinxes, having lion bodies and heads of the sacred animal of Ammon. A falcon-headed sphinx was aedicated to Harmachis in the temple of Abu Simbel, and is occasionally found in sculptures representing the king as Horus, or Mont, the war-god. It is distinguishable from the gryphon only by the absence of wings.

W. M. F. Petrie, History of Egypt from the Earliest Times to the XVIth Dynasty, p. 51, &c. ; L. Borchardt, " Das Alter der grossen Sphinx," in Sitzungsberichte of the Berlin Academy (1897), p. 752. Baedeker's Egypt; Prisse d'Avennes, Histoire de l'art égyptien (Paris, 1878), vol. ii. pl. 26, 35, text, pp. 405, 410.  (F. Ll. G.) 

From Egypt the figure of the sphinx passed to Assyria, where it appears with a bearded male head on cylinders; the female sphinx, lying down and furnished with wings, is first found in the palace of Esar-haddon (7th cent. B.C.). Sphinxes have been found in Phoenicia, one at least being winged and another bearded. They are copies of the Egyptian, both in form and posture, wearing the pshent and the uraeus, but distinguished by having the Assyrian wings. The sphinx is common on Persian gems, and the representations are finely executed. On a Persian intaglio are two sphinxes face to face, each wearing a tiara and guarding a sacred plant which is seen between them; but the sphinx, whether of the Egyptian or the Assyrian type, is not found in Persian sculptures (Perrot and Chipiez, History of Art in Persia, Eng. trans., London, 1892). In Asia Minor the oldest examples are the " Hittite " sphinxes of Euyuk. They are Egyptian sphinxes treated in the Assyrian style. They are not recumbent, and the hair falling from the head is curled, not straight, as in the true Egyptian sphinx. An ancient female sphinx, but wingless, stands on the sacred road near Miletus. Sphinxes of the usual Greek type are represented seated on each side of two doorways in an ancient frieze found by Sir Charles Fellowes at Xanthus in Lycia, and now in the British Museum. The same type appears on the early sculptures of the half-Greek, half-Oriental temple at Assus. In the early art of Cyprus—the half-way house between Asia and Greece—sphinxes of this type are not uncommon. On the other hand, on a gem of Phoenician style found at Curium in Cyprus there appear two male (bearded) sphinxes, with the tree of life between them. With regard to Greece proper, in the third tomb on the acropolis of Mycenae were found six small golden sphinxes; they are beardless, but the sex is doubtful. The bust is not that of a woman, though the head and face are distinctly feminine. A shallow cap covers the head, and from the middle of it there is always a sort of tail or plume, blown back by the wind. It is curious that, though the sphinx (as also the gryphon) were thus common in the Mycenaean period, the words σφίγξ and γρύψ do not occur in Homer. Helbig suggested that the word κύων (dog), which is connected with the sphinx in the tragedians, was used by Homer for the sphinx, but this theory has not met with general acceptance. In the ancient tomb discovered in 1877 at Spata near Athens (which represents a kindred but somewhat later art than the tombs at Mycenae) were found female winged sphinxes carved in ivory or bone. Sphinxes on glass plates have been found in graves at Camirus in Rhodes and on gold plates in Crimean graves. Sphinxes were represented on the throne of Apollo at Amyclae and on the metopes at Selinus; in the best period of Greek art a sphinx was sculptured on the helmet of the statue of Athena in the Parthenon at Athens; and sphinxes carrying off children were sculptured on the front feet of the throne of Zeus at Olympia. There is also an Athenian vase from Capua in the form of a sphinx painted white. It is winged, and the face is smooth and delicate in contour. Though Greek sphinxes are in general winged, there have been found in Boeotia terra-cotta figures of wingless sphinxes. Roman sphinxes of a late period have sometimes a man's, sometimes a woman's head with an asp on the forehead. An indefinable man-lion nara sinha) represents the fourth avatar of the Indian Vishnu, and is found also among the Tibetans.

In Greek mythology the most famous sphinx was that of Thebes in Boeotia, first mentioned by Hesiod (Theog. 326), who calls her the daughter of Orthus and Chimaera. According to Apollonius (iii. 5, 8), she was the daughter of Typhon and Echidna, and had the face of a woman, the feet and tail of a lion and the wings of a bird. She dwelt at the south-east corner of Lake Copais on a bald rocky mountain called Phicium (mod. Fagas), which was derived from Φίξ, the Aeolic form of σφίγξ. The Muses taught her a riddle and the Thebans had to guess it. Whenever they failed she carried one of them off and devoured him. The riddle was this: “What is that which is four-footed, three-footed, and two-footed?” At last Oedipus guessed correctly that it was man; for the child crawls on hands and feet, the adult walks upright, and the old man supports his steps with a stick. Then the sphinx threw herself down from the mountain.

The story of the sphinx's riddle first occurs in the Greek tragedians. Milchhöfer believes that the story was a mere invention of Greek fancy, an attempt to interpret the mysterious figure which Greek art had borrowed from the East. On the other hand, he holds that the destroying nature of the sphinx was much older, and he refers to instances in both Egyptian and Greek art where a sphinx is seen seizing and standing upon a man. And, whereas the Theban legend is but sparingly illustrated in Greek art, the figure of the sphinx appears more commonly on tombs, sculptured either in the round or in relief. From this Milchhöfer seems to infer that the sphinx was a symbol of death.

Among the remains of the Mayan culture in Yucatan are found examples of sphinxes, male and female, which are not unlike those of Egypt and Asia Minor.

Milchhöfer, in Mitth. d. deulsch. archdol. Instit. in Athen (1879), p. 46 seq.; J. Ilberg, Die Sphinx in der griechischen Sage und Kunst (1895); Sir R. C. Jebb's edition of Sophocles, Oed. Tyrann., app., note 12.  (J. M. M.)