sphinx (sfĭngks) [key], mythical beast of ancient Egypt, frequently symbolizing the pharaoh as an incarnation of the sun god Ra. The sphinx was represented in sculpture usually in a recumbent position with the head of a man and the body of a lion, although some were constructed with rams' heads and others with hawks' heads. Thousands of sphinxes were built in ancient Egypt; the most famous is the Great Sphinx at Giza, a colossal figure sculptured out of natural rock, near the pyramid of Khafre. It was considered by the ancients one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Sphinxes, however, were not peculiar to Egypt; represented in various shapes and forms, they were common throughout the ancient Middle East and Greece. In Greek mythology and art the Sphinx was a winged monster with the head and breasts of a woman and the body of a lion. In the legend of Oedipus she acts as a destructive agent of the gods, posing the riddle of the three ages of man: "What walks on four feet in the morning, on two at noon, and on three in the evening?" She killed all who failed to answer her question until Oedipus solved the riddle by saying, "Man crawls on all fours as a baby, walks upright in the prime of life, and uses a staff in old age." The Sphinx then killed herself.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.