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The Great Sphinx

The Sphinx by David Roberts 19th cen.

The name Sphinx derives from the Greek word "sphingo" - to strangle, or "sphingein" - to bind tight, based on the Greek Sphinx - a fabulous creature which had the head of a woman and the body of a lion and the wings of a bird (some say gryphon) - who had a habit of strangling its victims. The name was subsequently applied to the Egyptian and other arabic sphinxes because of their physical similarity to descriptions of the mythical Greek Sphinx, although the construction of the Great Sphinx in Giza Egypt certainly predates the Greek story.

The Egyptian sphinx is usually a head of a king wearing his headdress and the body of a lion. There are, however, sphinxes with ram heads that are associated with the god Amun.

The Heritage - The Sphinx was one of the ill-fated offspring of the monsters Typhon (which breathed fire, had a hundred venomous heads and was eventually pinned by Zeus under Mt. Etna), and Echidna (which had a beautiful nymph's head and the body of a giant serpent). Other offspring of Echidna were the Nemean Lion, Cerberus, Ladon, Chimaera and Hydra.



"The marble image came alive, Began to moan and plead
She drank my burning kisses up With ravenous thirst and greed.
She drank the breath from out my breast, She fed lust without pause;
She pressed me tight, and tore and rent My body with her claws."
Excerpt from the forward of Buch der Lieder, 1839 Heinrich Heine



Oedipus and the Sphinx

Thebes was afflicted with a monster which infested the highroad. It was called the Sphinx. It had the body of a lion and the upper part of a woman. It lay crouched on the top of a rock, and arrested all travelers who came that way, proposing to them a riddle, with the condition that those who could solve it should pass safe, but those who failed should be killed. Not one had yet succeeded in solving it, and all had been slain. Oedipus was not daunted by these alarming accounts, but boldly advanced to the trial.

The Sphinx asked him, "What animal is that which in the morning goes on four feet, at noon on two, and in the evening upon three?" Oedipus replied, "Man, who in childhood creeps on hands and knees, in manhood walks erect, and in old age with the aid of a staff." The Sphinx was so mortified at the solving of her riddle that she cast herself down from the rock and perished. The gratitude of the people for their deliverance was so great that they made Oedipus their king, giving him in marriage their queen Jocasta.

Thus the tragic prophecy was fulfilled that Oedipus would slay his father and marry his mother. When Oedipus learned the truth, he went insane, gouged out his eyes, and wandered the countryside, cared for by his daughters until his death.



Poem written after reading the description of the painting Oedipus and the Sphinx by Gustav Moreau
Oedipus (1896)
The Sphinx has fallen on him
with her teeth and nails outstretched,
and all the savagery of life.
Oedipus collapsed beneath her first assault,
her first appearance terrifying him -
he'd never dreamt of such a form or
such a voice 'til then.
But though the monster rests
her paws upon his chest,
he quickly pulls himself together - and he
isn't frightened any more, because he's got
the answer ready, and will triumph.
Yet he takes no joy in victory.
His melancholy-laden gaze is not
upon the Sphinx, but far away, upon
the narrow road which leads to Thebes,
and which will finish at Colonus.
And in his mind a clear foreboding
that the Sphinx will speak to him again
with riddles that are vaster, and more
difficult, and answerless.

Sphinx - Around the World
Most people first associate "sphinx" to the Great Sphinx of Egypt, which was 'rediscovered' by the western world when Napoleon's soldiers came across it in 1798. However, there are other sphinxes in Egypt as well as in other cultures and myth.

Sphinx of Giza in front of the Pyramid of Chephren Sphinx of Santorini Greece Sphinx of Edinburgh Scotland
Sphinx of Giza by the Pyramid of Chephren
Santorini, Greece Edinburgh, Scotland
Sphinx - Paris, France Sphinx - St. Petersburg, Russia Sphinx - Las Vegas, Navada
Paris, France St. Petersburg, Russia Las Vegas, Navada


The Shudder of the Sphinx
Jean Delville

In the land of Huros, Rameses and Sesostris,
But in the time of the Latins and when ruddy Rome
Upraised in bronze and gold her wasted emperors,
This is the hour when the infinite penetrates the heart of man.

Like the elected orb of the great sacred haloes
With which the head of future saints should be encircled,
The moon in blossom smiles her ethereal dreams
In sidereal incense brushing against the holy land.

Far in the blue sands of the biblical desert,
Reclining in her secrecy and beatitude,
The Egyptian monster, with her half-open eye,
Gazes at eternity amid the solitude.

Not a breath in the night. But, at times, persistently,
The distant howling of an old beast that roams
And with long-drawn snuffling, turned horizonwards,
Scents the tragic exhalmations of Herod's great crime.


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See Treasures of the Sunken City - The Riches of Alexandria, Egypt
Video clips of sphinx and other stone artifacts available. Or take a tour of the pyramids and the Sphinx. PBS/NOVA



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