The sphinx is a mythological creature first introduced through ancient Egyptian culture that has represented several meanings in the course of human history. Various cultures have adopted the concept of the sphinx to enrich their own mythology, provide symbolic roles within their temples, and even describe aspects of an individual's personality.
1 The Sphinx in Ancient Egypt
The familiar depiction of the sphinx of ancient Egyptian culture is a creature with the body of a lion and the head of a man. Historians interpret this mixed form as a symbolic joining of a lion's strength and dominance to a king's intelligence. Egyptologist Henry Fischer ascribes a divine importance to this form, which demonstrates that the king is "the link between mankind and the gods." The Great Sphinx of Giza is one of the most well recognized examples of this form, but historians also believe the Egyptian sphinx held a symbolic meaning as a guardian due to its placement at the entrance of the Giza necropolis.
2 The Sphinx in Greek Mythology
The sphinx of Greek culture is usually depicted as a winged creature with a woman's head on a lion's body. In Greek mythology, Oedipus encountered the sphinx near Thebes who demanded an answer to a riddle, and ate all those who could not answer. Oedipus avoided being eaten by the creature by answering the riddle correctly, which resulted in the sphinx killing itself. This story increased the sphinx's association with mystery, but the sphinx also represented wisdom and omniscience in Greek culture.
3 The Sphinx in Other Cultures
The distinct sphinx joining of a human head with the body of a lion took on several meanings as the Egyptian icon became more widespread in other cultures. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Arabs in antiquity called the Sphinx of Giza Abu al-Hawl, translated as "Father of Terror," further suggesting a guardian role. Asian depictions of the sphinx differed from those of Egypt in adding wings to the lion's body. Versions of the sphinx found in Indian art and mythology are called "purushamriga" and were understood to remove impurities and sin.
4 Modern Interpretations
Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary also defines sphinx as "an enigmatic or mysterious person," reflecting the sense of mystery that the ancient sphinx connotes in modern culture. Perhaps this is due to the riddle-asking nature of the Greek Sphinx. Then again, the origins or purpose of the Giza sphinx were a puzzle to many who passed through Egypt over the centuries. Whatever the cause, modern cultural references still attribute a quality of mystery to the sphinx. Depictions of the sphinx on ancient monuments combined with stories of the creature's behavior in mythology have combined to form a modern meaning for the term that evokes past interpretations.