Oedipus and the Sphinx – Painting: Francois-Xavier Fabre – 1808

Sphinx (throttler) In Greek mythology, a monster, half-woman, half-beast; daughter of Echidna and Orthus or Typhon. The Sphinx had the head of a woman and the body of a lion. She was sent by Hera or Apollo to punish King Laius of Thebes. She would sit on a rock and ask the following riddle: “What is it which, though it has one voice, becomes fourfooted and two-footed and three-footed.” If those questioned could not answer the riddle the Sphinx hurled them from her rock, or else she ate them. When Oedipus passed by the Sphinx he was asked the riddle and replied that the answer was man, for as an infant he is fourfooted, creeping on hands and feet; in his prime he is two-footed; and in old age he uses a cane as a third foot. When the Sphinx heard the correct answer, she threw herself over the cliff and died. Pausanias, to rationalize the myth, wrote in his Description of Greece that the Sphinx was a woman bandit who waylaid travelers, her headquarters being on Mount Phicium. Carl Jung, giving a psychological account, says that the Sphinx represents the Great Mother goddess who is destroyed by the stronger masculine force represented by Oedipus. In the Egyptian version of the Sphinx, however, it is always a male and often symbolizes royal strength and dignity. The Great Sphinx at Gizeh represents the god Horus trying to catch sight of his father, Ra, the rising sun, as he journeys across the valley. Ingres and Moreau both painted the Sphinx and Oedipus.


Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legend, Third Edition – Written by Anthony S. Mercatante & James R. Dow
Copyright © 2009 by Anthony S. Mercatante

Sphinx - Greek Mythology

The sphinx has the body of a lion but the head of another species, usually but not always a human. Sphinxes may be male or female. They are aggressive, mysterious guardian spirits. Sphinx is a Greek word derived from a root meaning “strangler,” which may refer to the manner in which lions kill their prey. Whatever the Egyptians called the sphinx in their own language is now unknown.

The most famous sphinx in the world is Egypt’s sixty-five-foot-high Great Sphinx, known in Arabic as the Father of Fear. Many theories exist regarding the purpose, age, and even identity of the Great Sphinx. Sphinxes also appear in Greece from an early date. Greek sphinxes are winged. The second most famous sphinx in the world is the one that posed riddles on the road to Greek Thebes. The Greek sphinx is described as originally deriving from Ethiopia.

Sphinxes are ancient primeval spirits who guard and protect. They are a repository of secrets. (Big, mystical secrets; don’t bother the sphinx about mundane secrets.) Their powers are activated via their image. A personal sphinx may be requested to post guard over a home, building, store, or object. The request may be made via dreams, visualization, or shamanic journey. Alternatively or in addition, activate the image by speaking to it and making offerings of candles, water, and incense. Point the sphinx’s head in the direction from which danger threatens to arrive.

Sphinxes are beings of incredible might and power. They can transmit some of this power to their devotees, hence the age-old desire to place one’s own head on the sphinx’s body. Pharaohs, including Hatshepsut commissioned images of themselves as sphinxes. Sarah Bernhardt, famed French actress but also a sculptor, created a self-portrait in the form of a sphinx.

Although many sphinxes are male, the sphinx is also identified with a kind of profoundly erotic female power. German Symbolist painter Franz Von Stuck’s 1901 painting “Sphinx” portrays a nude woman reclining in sphinx position. In addition to Sarah Bernhardt, other fin-de-siècle women who posed as sphinxes include author Colette and dancer Ida Rubenstein.

Perhaps inspired by his poem “The Sphinx,” the memorial marking Oscar Wilde’s grave in Paris’ Père Lachaise cemetery resembles a sphinx. It’s also been described as a “Demonangel”, which may reveal something about the reactions evoked by the sphinx. The monument’s sculptor, Jacob Epstein, described it as a “Messenger of Beauty.”


Ancient images of sphinxes, Egyptian and Greek, abound. Among the many modern artists inspired by the sphinx are Gustave Moreau, Gustave Doré, Odilon Redon, Louis Welden Hawkins, Elihu Vedder, Fernand Khnopff, Leonor Fini, and Franz von Stuck.

Sacred site:

The Great Sphinx at Giza, Egypt



Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses– Written by Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.