Updated: Feb 9
(Photo Credit: Deviantart)
Immortalized in the stonework of antiquity, the Sphinx is certainly one of the most famous mythical cryptids of all time. Sure, they appear less common in pop culture than dragons, vampires, werewolves, or zombies do, but they have been featured in myths, legends, and tales since before the majority of humankind had even discovered urbanization!
I have a special place in my heart for the Sphinx, as I grew up with a profound fondness for Egyptian history and folklore and love the legends it is connected to. Not to mention, the sphinx is counted as one of the “7 Wonders of the Ancient World.” All feathers in its archaeological/architectural cap aside, let's talk about the mythical creature itself.
Sphinx are known to be extremely wise, have the gift of foresight (if not omniscient knowledge of the universe), and be both very physically and magically powerful. They are gigantic, winged lions, so there is your physical might right there. Unlike griffons, which are graced with the brains of birds, Sphinx have human-like minds, wise and enlightened ones, at that.
They are generally portrayed as guardians of sacred sights—temples and the like. They tend to have a fondness for riddles and testing humans for worthiness before allowing them to enter sacred places, gain important insights, or acquire aid the powerful beings might be offering. Sphinx have been portrayed as villains, as well.
The most famous occurrence of a malevolent Sphinx is the terrorizer of Thebes from the tales of Oedipus Rex by the late, great Sophocles. In this story, Oedipus arrives in Thebes and hears a Sphinx has been devouring the local citizens with an unforgivable frequentness. As Greek heroes do, he asks no further questions and embarks on a quest to slay the beast and save the people. When he meets the mighty beast, he is prompted to answer a riddle. If he is unable to answer this riddle, the Sphinx will devour him.
"A thing there is whose voice is one;
Whose feet are four and two and three
So mutable a thing is noneThat moves in earth or sky or sea.
When on most feet this thing doth go,
Its strength is weakest and its pace most slow.”
-Oedipus Rex, Sophocles
Thankfully for we common folk of the world who like to read in modern English, wonderful sites like History for Kids have translated this myth into the more modern version that most people are familiar with today:
Question: What goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon and three feet in the evening?
Answer: Man. A baby crawls on all fours in the ‘morning’ of human life.
A fully grown person walks on two feet in the ‘noon’ of life
An elderly person walks with a cane (three legs) in life’s proverbial ‘evening.’
After Oedipus solves the riddle, the Sphinx basically kills itself in dismay. This makes Oedipus a hero. Of course, we all know where his story heads by the end . . . Unfortunately for him, he didn’t run into the sort of Sphinx who is willing to share the future with a clever hero, or else he might have known not to kill his father and bang his mother. C’est la vie, right?
Besides, this story might have been written when Greece and Egypt were on less than friendly terms. What better way to run a smear campaign than by immortalizing the idea that one of your rival's most revered idols is a temperamental man-eater who can’t handle someone solving their riddle?
The Oedipus myth notwithstanding, Sphinx are generally seen as wise, powerful, god-like figures, if not literal gods. The pharaohs of the middle and late kingdoms were well known to commission artwork that put their faces on Sphinx bodies, likely to cement their correlation to the almighty in the eyes of the people. Perhaps archaeologists will one day find the fabled ‘secret passageway’ which is said to exist beneath the mighty Sphinx, and we will have all the answers man has ever sought. Maybe a brave hero will even have to answer a riddle first.
So what do you think? Benevolent or malevolent? What would you do if you met a Sphinx? Would you risk being devoured for insight into the future or some power?
If it was the type of Sphinx that would devour you on failure, I guess you wouldn’t have a lot of choices. Best brush up on your riddle skills, just in case . . .
Until next week, thanks for reading!