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Why were/are they important in ancient symbolism?

Were they used as burial chambers or as works of art?

A sphinx is a mythical creature with, as a minimum, the body of a lion and a human head. In Greek tradition, it has the haunches of a lion, sometimes with the wings of a great bird, and the face of a human. It is mythicized as treacherous and merciless. Those who cannot answer its riddle suffer a fate typical in such mythological stories, as they are killed and eaten by this ravenous monster. This deadly version of a sphinx appears in the myth and drama of Oedipus. Unlike the Greek sphinx which was a woman, the Egyptian sphinx is typically shown as a man (an androsphinx). In addition, the Egyptian sphinx was viewed as benevolent, but having a ferocious strength similar to the malevolent Greek version and both were thought of as guardians often flanking the entrances to temples.

In European decorative art, the sphinx enjoyed a major revival during the Renaissance. Later, the sphinx image, something very similar to the original Ancient Egyptian concept, was exported into many other cultures, albeit often interpreted quite differently due to translations of descriptions of the originals and the evolution of the concept in relation to other cultural traditions.

Sphinxes are generally associated with architectural structures such as royal tombs or religious temples. The oldest known sphinx was found near Gobrkli Tepe at another site, Nevali Çori, or possibly 120 miles to the east at Kortik Tepe, Turkey, and was dated to 9,500 BCE.

The largest and most famous sphinx is the Great Sphinx of Giza, situated on the Giza Plateau adjacent to the Great Pyramids of Giza on the west bank of the Nile River and facing due east. The sphinx is located southeast of the pyramids. Although the date of its construction is uncertain, the head of the Great Sphinx now is believed to be that of the pharaoh Khafia.

What names their builders gave to these statutes is not known. At the Great Sphinx site, the inscription on a stele by Thutmose IV in 1400 BCE, lists the names of three aspects of the local sun deity of that period, Khepera-Re-Atum. The inclusion of these figures in tomb and temple complexes quickly became traditional and many pharaohs had their heads carved atop the guardian statues for their tombs to show their close relationship with the powerful solar deity, Sekhmet, a lioness. Other famous Egyptian sphinxes include one bearing the head of the pharaoh Hatshepsut, with her likeness carved in granite, which is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the alabaster sphinx of Memphis, Mem phis, Egypt, currently located within the open-air museum at that site. The theme was expanded to form great avenues of guardian sphinxes lining the approaches to tombs and temples as well as serving as details atop the posts of flights of stairs to very grand complexes. Nine hundred with ram heads, representing Amos, were built in Thebes, where his cult was strongest.

Perhaps the first sphinx in Egypt was one depicting Queen Hetepheres II, of the fourth dynasty that lasted from 2723 BCE to 2563. She was one of the longest-lived members of the royal family of that dynasty.

The Great Sphinx has become an emblem of Egypt, frequently appearing on its stamps, coins, and official documents.

From the Bronze Age, the Hellenes had trade and cultural contacts with Egypt. Before the time that Alexander the Great occupied Egypt, the Greek name, sphinx was already applied to these statues. The historians and geographers of Greece wrote extensively about Egyptian culture.   Herodotus called the ram-headed sphinxes Criosphinxes and called the hawk-headed ones Hieracosphinxes.

The word sphinx comes from the Greek meaning “to squeeze”, “to tighten up”. This name may be derived from the fact that the hunters for a pride of lions are the lionesses, and kill their prey by strangulation, biting the throat of prey and holding them down until they die. However, the historian Susan Wise Bauer suggests that the word “sphinx” was instead a Greek corruption of the Egyptian name “shesepankh,” which meant “living image,” and referred rather to the statue of the sphinx, which was carved out of “living rock” (rock that was present at the construction site, not harvested and brought from another location), than to the beast itself.

In Greek mythology, a sphinx is represented as a monster with a head of a woman, the body of a lioness, the wings of an eagle, and a serpent-headed tail.   The sphinx was the emblem of the ancient city-state of  Chios, and appeared on seals and the obverse side of coins from the 6th century BCE until the 3rd century CE.

The Sphinx is said to have guarded the entrance to the Greek city of Thebes, and to have asked a riddle of travelers to allow them passage. The exact riddle asked by the Sphinx was not specified by early tellers of the stories, and was not standardized as the one given below until late in Greek history.

It was said in late lore that Hera or Ares sent the Sphinx from her Ethiopian homeland (the Greeks always remembered the foreign origin of the Sphinx) to Thebes in Greece where she asks all passersby the most famous riddle in history: “Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?” She strangled and devoured anyone unable to answer. Oedipus solved the riddle by answering: Man—who crawls on all fours as a baby, then walks on two feet as an adult, and then uses a walking stick in old age.

There are mythic, anthropological, psychoanalytic and parodic interpretations of the Riddle of the Sphinx, and of Oedipus’s answer to it. Sigmund Freud describes “the question of where babies come from” as a riddle of the Sphinx. Numerous riddle books use the Sphinx in their title or illustrations.

In contrast to the sphinx in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Greece, where the traditions largely have been lost due to the discontinuity of the civilization, the traditions of the “Asian sphinx” are very much alive today. The earliest artistic depictions of “sphinxes” from the South Asian subcontinent are to some extent influenced by Hellenistic art and writings. These hail from the period when Buddhist art underwent a phase of Hellenistic influence.

In South India, the “sphinx” is known as purushamriga (Sanskrit) or purushamirugam (Tamil), meaning “Human-Beast”. It is found depicted in sculptural art in temples and palaces where it serves an apotropaic purpose, just as the “sphinxes” in other parts of the ancient world. It is said by the tradition, to take away the sins of the devotees when they enter a temple and to ward off evil in general. It is therefore often found in a strategic position on the temple gateway, or near the entrance of the Sanctum Sanctorum.

The purushamriga plays a significant role in daily as well as yearly ritual of South Indian Shaiva temples. In the sixteen honors ritual, performed between one to six times at significant sacred moments through the day, it decorates one of the lamps of the diparadhana or lamp ceremony. And in several temples the purushamriga is also one of the yahana or vehicles of the deity during the processions of the Brahmogsava or festival.

Sphinxes are a feature of the neoclassical interior decorations of Robert Adams and his followers, returning closer to the undressed style of the grottesche. They had an equal appeal to artists and designers of the Romantic, and later Symbolism movements in the 19th century. Most of these sphinxes alluded to the Greek sphinx, rather than the Egyptian, although they may not have wings.

The sphinx image also has been adopted into Masonic architecture. Among the Egyptians, sphinxes were placed at the entrance of the temple to guard the mysteries, by warning those who penetrated within that they should conceal a knowledge of them from the uninitiated. and has been said that the sphinx became successively the symbol of each of the gods, by which portal suggests that the priests intended to express the idea that all the gods were hidden from the people, and that the knowledge of them, guarded in the sanctuaries, was revealed to the initiates only. As a Masonic emblem, the sphinx has been adopted in its Egyptian character as a symbol of mystery, and as such often is found as a decoration sculptured in front of Masonic temples, or engraved at the head of Masonic documents. It cannot, however, be properly called an ancient, recognized symbol of the order. Its introduction has been of comparatively recent date, and rather as a symbolic decoration than as a symbol of any particular dogma.

 Kathy Kiefer

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