THE SPHINX              


Mythological creature with lion's body and human head, an important image in 
Egyptian and Greek art and legend. The word sphinx was derived by Greek 
grammarians from the verb sphingein (to bind or squeeze), but the etymology 
is not related to the legend and is dubious.


The winged sphinx of Boeotian Thebes, the most famous in legend, was said to 
have terrorized the people by demanding the answer to a riddle taught her by 
the Muses what is it that has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and 
two-footed and three-footed? and devouring a man each time the riddle was 
answered incorrectly. Eventually Oedipus gave the proper answer: man, who 
crawls on all fours in infancy, walks on two feet when grown and leans on a 
staff in old age; the sphinx thereupon killed herself. From this tale 
apparently grew the legend that the sphinx was omniscient, and even today the 
wisdom of the sphinx is proverbial.


The earliest and most famous example in art is the colossal recumbent Sphinx 
at Giza, Egypt, dating from the reign of King Khafre (4th king of 4th 
dynasty; c. 2550 BC). This is known to be a portrait statue of the King, and 
the sphinx continued as a royal portrait type through most of Egyptian 
history. Through Egyptian influence the sphinx became known in Asia, but its 
meaning there is uncertain. The sphinx did not occur in Mesopotamia until 
around 1500 BC, when it was clearly imported from the Levant. In appearance 
the Asian sphinx differed from its Egyptian model most noticeably in the 
addition of wings to the leonine body, a feature that continued through its 
subsequent history in Asia and the Greek world. Another innovation was the 
female sphinx, which appeared in the 15th century Bc. On seals, ivories, and 
metalwork they were portrayed sitting on their haunches, often with one paw 
raised, and were frequently paired with a Lion, a griffin, or another 
sphinx.


Around 1600 BC the sphinx first appeared in the Greek world. Objects from 
Crete at the end of the Middle Minoan period and from the shaft graves at 
Mycenae throughout the Late Helladic age showed the sphinx 
characteristically winged. Although derived from the Asian sphinx , the 
Greek examples were not identical in appearance; they customarily wore a 
flat cap with a flame like projection on top. Nothing in their context 
connected them with later legend, and their meaning at this time is unknown.
After 1200 BC no sphinxes appeared in Greece for about 400 years, though 
they continued in Asia in forms and poses similar to those of the Bronze 
Age. By the end of the 8th century, the sphinx reappeared in Greek art and 
was common down to the end of the 6th century. Often associated with 
oriental motifs, it was clearly derived from an eastern source and from its 
appearance it could not have been a direct descendant of the Bronze Age 
Greek sphinx. The new Greek sphinx was almost always female and usually wore 
the long-tiered wig known on contemporary sculptures of the Daedalic style; 
the body became graceful and the wings developed a beautiful curving form 
unknown in Asia. Sphinxes decorate vases, ivories, and metal works, and in 
the late Archaic period occurred as ornaments on temples. Although their 
context is usually insufficient to enable their meaning to be judged, their 
appearance on temples suggests a protective function. By the 5th century 
clear illustration of the encounter between Oedipus and the sphinx appeared 
on vase paintings, usually with the sphinx perched on a column (e.g. the 
red-figured Nalon amphora in Boston). Other monuments of Classical age 
showed Oedipus in armed combat with the sphinx and suggested an earlier 
stage of the legend in which the contest was physical instead of mental, but 
battles of men and monsters were common in Asian art from prehistoric times 
down to the Achaemenidian Persians, and Greek art may have adopted from the 
Middle East a pictorial theme that Greek literature did not share.

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