Mythic Monday: The Riddle of the Sphinx

The Sphinx «sfihngks» was a mythical creature with the body of a lion and the head of a human, falcon, or ram. The Sphinx is found in both ancient Egyptian and Greek mythology. In Egyptian myth, the Sphinx was more of a symbol than an individual entity. It was a guardian figure, the protector of the pyramids, and the scourge of the enemies of Re, the sun god. It also represented the pharaoh and the pharaoh’s divine power. Sometimes the face of a carved or painted sphinx was meant to resemble a particular pharaoh.

In Greek mythology, the Sphinx was a monster. Some accounts note that it had the body and tail of a lion, the face of a woman, and the wings of a bird. It was an offspring of Echidna and Typhon, who also bore such other monsters as the Hydra, the Chimera, the many-headed dog Orthus, and the nasty Gorgons.

In the story of Oedipus, the goddess Hera sent the Sphinx to plague the people of the ancient city of Thebes. This was punishment for an ancient crime, possibly the failure to atone for the crimes of a former king of Thebes. The Sphinx sat perched on a mountain cliff nearby the ancient city. The creature guarded Thebes with a riddle that she had learned from the Muses. Each time a traveler failed to solve her riddle, she devoured them, effectively preventing anyone from leaving or entering the city.

The riddle? “What being has four legs, then two, and then three?” Some accounts write it, “What has four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening?” After many people guessed incorrectly and were killed, the king of Thebes announced that he would give the kingdom to anyone who could solve the riddle. The road past Mount Phicion, where the Sphinx awaited her victims, was strewn with the bones of people who had failed to find the right answer. Eventually, Oedipus, fleeing Corinth, solved the riddle. He answered, “Man, who crawls on all fours as a baby, then walks on two legs, and finally needs a cane in old age.” Upon hearing the correct answer, the Sphinx jumped from the cliff to her death. The plague of Thebes was lifted.


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Image: Sphinxes figure in stories of ancient people from Egypt, Greece, and the Middle East. The Great Sphinx, shown here, is a huge limestone statue created near Giza, Egypt, about 4,500 years ago. Credit: © Dreamstime

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