The sphinx is mythological creature in Greek and Egyptian legend and art. It has a human head, a lion’s body and sometimes the wings of a bird. Merciless and treacherous, it asks people a riddle – and those who can’t answer correctly are killed and eaten!
The Greek sphinx is typically portrayed as a woman, while the Egyptian version is male, although both were said to be guardians of the entrances to temples. The sphinx also appears in the mythology of Asia, in particular in India, with similar creations featuring in the ancient art of Thailand and Myanmar.
The Thai sphinxes tend to be standing upright, with a lion’s lower body and plumed tail and a human’s upper body. The sphinxes in Myanmar are usually sitting and can be found guarding the four corners of the Buddhist stupas, which are places of meditation containing the tombs of monks.
The most famous sphinx and the earliest known such monument is the Great Sphinx of Giza, in Egypt. It dates from King Khafre’s reign, from 2575BC to 2465BC, when the sphinx was used as a type of royal portrait – it is thought to be a statue of King Khafre. The tradition of using the legendary creature with the king’s head continued for many generations thereafter.
The riddle of the sphinx originated from the legendary winged sphinx of Boeotian Thebes, who guarded the entrance to the Ancient Greek city. She was said to have been taught a riddle by the Muses and asked travellers the answer to allow them passage into the city. Subsequently, she terrorised the people by asking them the answer to the question: what has one voice and can become four-footed, two-footed and three-footed? Anyone who didn’t know the correct answer was eaten.
Oedipus, the mythical Greek king of Thebes, replied with the correct answer. He said it was man, who crawled on all-fours as an infant, walked on two legs as an adult but leaned on a staff (the “third leg”) in old age. Legend has it that the sphinx killed herself by throwing herself off a high rock after Oedipus solved her riddle but the mythical tale of the omniscient sphinx with great wisdom continues to this day.
The sphinx figure was revived in the late 15th century in the Mannerism style of European art, with a coiffed female head and upper torso and the body of a recumbent lioness. It was included in the decorations of the Vatican Palace during artist Raphael’s workshops between 1515 and 1520.
Today, the sphinx has its place in modern art. In the recent exhibition called Riddles at the Schinkel Pavilion in Berlin, French artist Marguerite Humeau based her artistic creation on the hypothesis that security protocols at borders and checkpoints are biological descendants of the sphinx – the mythological figure was made of a complex network of winding metal gates and activated itself when visitors triggered the mechanism, producing bizarre sounds and spinning lights.
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