AskDefine | Define sphinx

Dictionary Definition



1 an inscrutable person who keeps his thoughts and intentions secret
2 (Greek mythology) a riddling winged monster with a woman's head and breast on a lion's body; daughter of Typhon
3 one of a number of large stone statues with the body of a lion and the head of a man that were built by the ancient Egyptians [also: sphinges (pl)]

User Contributed Dictionary

see Sphinx



From Spynx < Sphinx < Σφιγξ, (Sfinx) < σφιγγω (sphingo) "to strangle".


  • IPA: /sfeiŋks/
  • SAMPA: /sfĭnx/


  1. A person who keeps his thoughts and intentions secret.
  2. A creature with the head of a human and the body of an animal (commonly a lion).


Derived terms


person who keeps his thoughts and intentions secret
mythology: creature with the head of a human and the body of an animal
  • Chinese: 狮身人面像 (shī shēn rén miàn xiàng)
  • Dutch: sphynx
  • Finnish: sfinksi
  • Georgian: სფინქსი
  • Hungarian: szfinx
  • Italian: sfinge
  • Lithuanian: sfinksas
  • Portuguese: esfinge
  • Romanian: sfinx
  • Russian: сфинкс
  • Slovak: sfinga
  • Swedish: sfinx

See also

Extensive Definition

A Sphinx is a zoomorphic mythological figure, depicted as a recumbent lion with a human head. It has its origins in sculpted figures of Old Kingdom Egypt, to which the ancient Greeks applied their own name for a female monster, the "strangler", an archaic figure of Greek mythology. Similar creatures appear throughout South and South-East Asia, and the sphinx enjoyed a major revival in European decorative art from the Renaissance onwards.

Egyptian sphinxes

In Ancient Egyptian mythology, a Sphinx is a zoomorphic figure, usually depicted as a recumbent lioness or lion with a human head, but occasionally with the head of a falcon, hawk, or ram. The figure had its origin in the Old Kingdom and is associated with the solar deity Sekhmet, who also was the fierce war deity and protector of the pharaohs. She remained as a strong figure in Egyptian religion throughout its history, even during the Amarna period. The sphinx were often described as Sekhmet's children. The use of heads of other animals atop the lioness body followed the titularly deities of the city or region where they were built or which were prominent in the Egyptian pantheon at the time.
Generally the roles of sphinxes were as temple guardians and they were placed in association with architectural structures such as royal tombs or religious temples. Later, the sphinx image, or something very similar to the original Egyptian concept, was imported into many other cultures, albeit often interpreted quite differently due to translations of descriptions of the originals and the evolution of the concept in relation to other cultural traditions.
What names their builders gave to these statues is not known. Probably having been erected a thousand years later, in 1400 BCE, by Thutmose IV the inscription on a stele at the Great Sphinx site lists the names of three aspects of the local sun deity of that period, Khepera - Re - Atum. The inclusion of these figures in tomb and temple complexes quickly became traditional and many pharaohs had their heads carved atop the guardian statues for their tombs to show their close relationship with the powerful deity, Sekhmet.
Other famous Egyptian sphinxes include one bearing the head of the pharaoh Hatshepsut, with her likeness carved in granite, which is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the alabaster sphinx of Memphis, currently located within the open-air museum at that site. The theme was expanded to great avenues of guardian sphinxes lining the avenues to tombs and temples as well as serving as details atop the posts of flights of stairs to very grand complexes. Nine hundred with rams' heads, representing Amon, were built in Thebes, where his cult was strongest.

Greek traditions about sphinxes

From the Bronze Age the Hellenes had trade and cultural contacts with Egypt. Before the time that Alexander the Great occupied Egypt their name, sphinx, was already applied to these statues. The historians and geographers of Greece wrote extensively about the Egyptian culture and their writings were circulated widely with Greek and Roman culture. They sometimes called the ram-headed sphinxes, criosphinxes and the bird-headed ones, hierocosphinxes.
The word "Sphinx" comes from the Greek Σφιγξ — Sphingx, apparently from the verb σφιγγω — sphinggo, meaning "to strangle" (note that the γ takes on a 'ng' sound in front of both γ and ξ). This may be a name derived from the fact that the hunters for a pride are the lionesses and they kill their prey by strangulation, biting the throat of prey and holding them down until they die. The word "sphincter" derives from the same root.
There was a single Sphinx in Greek mythology, a unique demon of destruction and bad luck. According to Hesiod she was a daughter of Echidna and Orthrus or, according to others, a daughter of Echidna and Typhon. All of these are chthonic figures from the earliest of Greek myths, before the Olympians ruled the Greek pantheon.
She was represented in vase-painting and bas-reliefs most often seated upright rather than recumbent, as a winged lion with a woman's head; or she was a woman with the paws, claws and breasts of a lion, a serpent's tail and eagle wings.
The Sphinx was the emblem of the ancient city-state of Chios, and appeared on seals and the obverse side of coins from the sixth century BC until the third century AD.

The Riddle of the Sphinx

She is said to have guarded the entrance to a certain area, often the Greek city of Thebes, and to have asked a riddle of travelers to obtain passage. The exact riddle asked by the Sphinx was not specified by early tellers of the stories about the sphinx, and was not standardized as the one given below until late in Greek history.
It was said in late lore that Hera or Ares sent the Sphinx from her Ethiopian homeland (the Greeks always remembered the foreign origin of the Sphinx) to Thebes in Greece where, in the writings of Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus, she asks all passersby history's most famous riddle: "Which creature in the morning goes on four feet, at noon on two, and in the evening upon three?" She strangled and devoured anyone unable to answer. Oedipus solved the riddle: answering, Man—who crawls on all fours as a baby, then walks on two feet as an adult, and walks with a cane in old age.
Bested at last, the tale continues, the Sphinx then threw herself from her high rock and died. An alternative version tells that she devoured herself. Thus Oedipus can be recognized as a liminal or "threshold" figure, helping effect the transition between the old religious practices, represented by the death of the Sphinx, and the rise of the new, Olympian deities.

Sphinxes in South and South-East Asia

A composite mythological being with the body of a lion and the head of a human being is present in the traditions, mythology and art of South and South-East Asia Variously known as purushamriga (Sanskrit, "human-beast"), purushamirukam (Tamil, "human-beast"), naravirala (Sanskrit, "man-cat") in India, or as nara-simha (Pali, "man-lion") in Sri Lanka, manusiha or manuthiha (Pali, "man-lion") in Myanmar, and nora nair or thepnorasingh in Thailand.
In contrast to the sphinx in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Greece, where the traditions largely have been lost due to the discontinuity of the civilization, the traditions of the "Asian sphinx" are very much alive today. The earliest artistic depictions of "sphinxes" from the South Asian subcontinent are to some extent influenced by Hellenistic art and writings. These hail from the period when Buddhist art underwent a phase of Hellenistic influence. But the "sphinxes" from Mathura, Kausambi, and Sanchi, dated to the third century BC until the first century AD, also show a considerable non-Hellenist, indigenous character. It is not possible, therefore, to conclude the concept of the "sphinx" originated through foreign influence..
In South India the "sphinx" is known as purushamriga (Sanskrit) or purushamirukam (Tamil), meaning "human-beast". It is found depicted in sculptural art in temples and palaces where it serves an apotropaic purpose, just as the "sphinxes" in other parts of the ancient world. It is said by the tradition, to take away the sins of the devotees when they enter a temple and to ward off evil in general. It is therefore often found in a strategic position on the gopuram or temple gateway, or near the entrance of the Sanctum Sanctorum.
The purushamriga plays a significant role in daily as well as yearly ritual of South Indian Shaiva temples. In the sodasa-upacara (or sixteen honors) ritual, performed between one to six times at significant sacred moments through the day, it decorates one of the lamps of the diparadhana or lamp ceremony. And in several temples the purushamriga is also one of the vahana or vehicles of the deity during the processions of the Brahmotsava or festival.
In Kanya Kumari district, in the southernmost tip of the Indian subcontinent, during the night of Shiva Ratri, devotees run 75 kilometers while visiting and worshiping at twelve Shiva temples. This Shiva Ottam (or Run for Shiva) is performed in commemoration of the story of the race between the Sphinx and Bhima, one of the heroes of the epic Mahabharata.
In Sri Lanka the sphinx is known as narasimha or man-lion. As a sphinx it has the body of a lion and the head of a human being, and is not to be confused with Narasimha, the fourth reincarnation of the deity Mahavishnu; this avatara or incarnation is depicted with a human body and the head of a lion. The "sphinx" narasimha is part of the Buddhist tradition and functions as a guardian of the northern direction and also was depicted on banners.
In Burma the sphinx is known as manusiha and manuthiha. It is depicted on the corners of Buddhist stupas, and its legends tell how it was created by Buddhist monks to protect a new-born royal baby from being devoured by ogresses.
Nora Nair and Thep Norasingh are two of the names under which the "sphinx" is known in Thailand. They are depicted as upright walking beings with the lower body of a lion or deer, and the upper body of a human. Often they are found as female-male pairs. Here too, the sphinx serves a protective function. It also is enumerated among the mythological creatures that inhabit the ranges of the sacred mountain Himapan.

Similar creatures

Not all human-headed animals of antiquity are sphinxes. In ancient Assyria, for example, bas-reliefs of bulls with the crowned bearded heads of kings guarded the entrances to temples.
In the classical Olympian mythology of Greece, all the deities had human form, although they could assume their animal natures as well. All the creatures of Greek myth who combine human and animal form are archaic survivals: centaurs, Typhon, Medusa, Lamia.
Narasimha ("man-lion") is described as an incarnation (avatara) of Vishnu within the Puranic texts of Hinduism who takes the form of half-man / half-lion, having a human torso and lower body, but with a lion-like face and claws.
The Manticore is a similar creature, who also features a lion's body with human-like face.

Revived sphinxes in Europe

The revived Mannerist sphinx of the sixteenth century is sometimes thought of as the French sphinx. Her coiffed head is erect and she has the breasts of a young woman. Often she wears ear drops and pearls as ornaments. Her body is naturalistically rendered as a recumbent lioness. Such Sphinxes were revived when the grottesche or "grotesque" decorations of the unearthed "Golden House" (Domus Aurea) of Nero were brought to light in late fifteenth century Rome, and she was incorporated into the classical vocabulary of arabesque designs that spread throughout Europe in engravings during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Sphinxes were included in the decoration of the loggia of the Vatican Palace by the workshop of Raphael (1515-20), which updated the vocabulary of the Roman grottesche.
The first appearances of sphinxes in French art are in the School of Fontainebleau in the 1520s and 1530s and she continues into the Late Baroque style of the French Régence (1715–1723).
From France she spread throughout Europe, becoming a regular feature of the outdoors decorative sculpture of eighteenth-century palace gardens, as in the Upper Belvedere Palace in Vienna, La Granja in Spain, or the late Rococo examples in the grounds of the Portuguese Queluz National Palace (of perhaps the 1760s), with ruffs and clothed chests ending with a little cape.
Sphinxes are a feauture of the neoclassical interior decorations of Robert Adam and his followers, returning closer to the undressed style of the grottesche. They had an equal appeal to artists and designers of the romantic, and later symbolism movements in the nineteenth century. Most of these sphinxes alluded to the Greek sphinx, rather than the Egyptian, although they may not have wings.

Sphinxes in Freemasonry

The sphinx image also has been adopted into Masonic architecture. Among the Egyptians, sphinxes were placed at the entrance of the temple to guard the mysteries, by warning those who penetrated within, that they should conceal a knowledge of them from the uninitiated; and hence, Portal derives from the word from the Hebrew TSaPHaN, to Hide. Champollion says that the sphinx became successively the symbol of each of the gods, by which Portal suggests that the priests intended to express the idea that all the gods were hidden from the people, and that the knowledge of them, guarded in the sanctuaries, was revealed to the initiates only. As a Masonic emblem, the sphinx has been adopted in its Egyptian character as a symbol of mystery, and as such often is found as a decoration sculptured in front of Masonic temples, or engraved at the head of Masonic documents. It cannot, however, be properly called an ancient, recognized symbol of the Order. Its introduction has been of comparatively recent date, and rather as a symbolic decoration than as a symbol that announces any dogma.

The Sphinx in U.S. Army Military Intelligence

The Sphinx has been associated with the U.S. Army Military Intelligence since 1923, when it was adopted as the insignia of the Military Intelligence Officers Reserve Corps. This mythological creature has exemplified the combination of wisdom with strength from ancient times to the present. It is on the Military Intelligence Corps regimental insignia and is included on many unit crests. A large statue of the Sphinx can be found at Fort Huachuca at the north end of historic Brown parade field not far from the MI Corps museum.
The original branch insignia was authorized on 30 July 1923. It is described as a gold color eared shield bearing a circle connected with the border by 13 radial ribs, within the circle a sphinx in profile couchant. The thirteen stripes on the shield converge toward a common point at the center where sits the sphinx, the symbol of wisdom and strength, thus symbolizing the collection of information by the Military Intelligence; and conversely from the center after evaluation, the military information is disseminated. The Military Intelligence Branch, USAR, was merged with the newly-established Army Intelligence and Security Branch on 1 July 1962 and the insignia was cancelled.


External links

sphinx in Arabic: أبو الهول
sphinx in Bulgarian: Сфинкс
sphinx in Catalan: Esfinx
sphinx in Czech: Sfinx
sphinx in Danish: Sfinks
sphinx in German: Sphinx (ägyptisch)
sphinx in Estonian: Sphinx
sphinx in Modern Greek (1453-): Σφίγγα (μυθολογία)
sphinx in Spanish: Esfinge (mitología)
sphinx in Esperanto: Sfinkso (egipta mitologio)
sphinx in Persian: ابوالهول
sphinx in French: Sphinx (mythologie égyptienne)
sphinx in Manx: Sphinxyn
sphinx in Korean: 스핑크스
sphinx in Croatian: Sfinga
sphinx in Ido: Sfinxo
sphinx in Indonesian: Sphinx
sphinx in Ossetian: Сфинкс
sphinx in Italian: Sfinge#Mitologia greca
sphinx in Hebrew: ספינקס
sphinx in Lithuanian: Sfinksas (mitologija)
sphinx in Hungarian: Szfinx
sphinx in Dutch: Sfinx
sphinx in Japanese: スフィンクス
sphinx in Norwegian: Sfinks
sphinx in Uighur: ئادەم باشلىق شىر
sphinx in Polish: Sfinks
sphinx in Portuguese: Esfinge
sphinx in Romanian: Sfinx
sphinx in Russian: Сфинкс
sphinx in Serbian: Сфинга
sphinx in Finnish: Sfinksi
sphinx in Swedish: Sfinx
sphinx in Thai: สฟิงซ์
sphinx in Vietnamese: Nhân sư
sphinx in Ukrainian: Сфінкс
sphinx in Yiddish: ספינקס
sphinx in Chinese: 狮身人面像
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