9th Edition of Encyclopedia Britannica - free ninth edition online encyclopedia Britannica » Volume 22 [SIB - SZO]: Sphinx to Xxii


greek sphinxes found

SPHINX, a hybrid creature of Egyptian and Greek art and mythology. In Egypt the sphinxes are colossal images of granite or porphyry, with a human head and breast and the body of a lion (wingless) lying down. The largest and most famous is that of Gizeh, described in vol. vii.

p. 772. The head of the sphinx is usually that of a man, but female heads are said to occur occasionally. From Egypt the figure of the sphinx passed to Assyria, where it appears with a bearded male head on cylinders ; the female sphinx, lying down and furnished with wings, is first found in the palace of Esarhaddon (7th century n.c.). Sphinxes have been found in Phoenicia, one at least being winged and another bearded. In Asia Minor an ancient female sphinx, but wingless, stands on the sacred road near Miletus. Sphinxes of the usual Greek type (female heads with bodies of winged lions) are represented seated on each side of two doorways in an ancient frieze found by Sir Charles Fellowes at Xanthus in Lycia, and now in the British Museum. The same type appears on the early sculptures of the temple at Assus. In the early art of Cyprus - that half-way house between Asia and Greece - sphinxes of this type are not uncommon. On the other hand, on a gem of Phoenician style found at Curium in Cyprus there appear two male (bearded) sphinxes, with the tree of life between them. With regard to Greece proper, in the third tomb on the acropolis of Mycenm were found six small golden sphinxes ; they are beardless, but the sex is doubtful. In the ancient tomb discovered in 1877 at Spata near Athens (which represents a kindred but somewhat later art than the tombs at Mycenm) were found female winged sphinxes carved in ivory or bone. Sphinxes on glass plates have been found in graves at Camirus in Rhodes and on gold plates in Crimean graves. Sphinxes were represented on the throne of Apollo at Amycke ' - in the best period of Greek art a sphinx was sculptured on the helmet of the statue of Athene in the Parthenon at Athens; and sphinxes carrying off children were sculptured on the front feet of the throne of Zeus at Olympia.

In Greek mythology the most famous sphinx was that of Thebes in Bceotia. She is first mentioned by Hesiod (Theog., 326), who calls her the daughter of Orthus and Chimaera. According to Apollonius (iii. 5, 8), she was the daughter of Typhon and Echidna, and had the face of a woman, the feet and tail of a lion, and the wings of a bird. She dwelt on a bald rocky mountain at the southeast corner of the Copaic lake ; the name of the mountain was Phicium (now Fagas), which was derived from Phix, the .Eolic form of sphinx. The Muses taught her a riddle and the Thebans had to guess it. Whenever they failed she carried one of them off and devoured him. The riddle was this : What is that which is four-footed, three-footed, and two-footed? At last (Edipus guessed correctly that it was man ; for the child crawls on hands and feet, the adult walks upright, and the old man supports his steps with a stick. Then the sphinx threw herself down from the mountain.

The story of the sphinx's riddle first occurs in the Greek tragedians. Milchhilfer believes that the story was a mere invention of Greek fancy, an attempt to interpret the mysterious figure which Greek art had borrowed from the East. On the other hand, he holds that the destroying nature of the sphinx was much older, and he refers to instances in both Egyptian and Greek art where a sphinx is seen seizing and standing upon a man. And, whereas the Theban legend is but sparingly illustrated in Greek art, the figure of the sphinx appears more commonly on tombs, sculptured either in the round or in relief. From this Milehhilfer seems to infer that the sphinx was a symbol of death. The word "sphinx" is Greek, being derived from arptryew, "to draw tight."

See Brugsch, History of Egypt, vol. 1. pp. 79 sq., 414 sq. ; Cesnola, Cyprus, pp. 110, 114 sq., 263 sq., and plate xxxvii. No. 13; Schlieinann, Mycenir, pp. xlv., 184; and especially Milchlkifer, in Mitch. d. deutsch. aradol. Instil. in Aileen, 1879, p. 46 sq.

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