The difference between Ancient Egyptian and Greek Sphinxes

Egyptian sphinxes versus Greek sphinxes

Egyptian sphinxes versus Greek sphinxes

The Great Sphinx of Giza, a third-millennium BC colossal structure, is generally associated with ancient Egyptian culture. However, unbeknownst to many people artwork and myths about the sphinx were quite ubiquitous in the ancient world, especially in ancient Greece. Regardless of where the sphinx popped up in the ancient world, they all seemed to have one thing in common: a feline body and humanoid face. However, there were some subtle differences in their depictions, myths and meanings to people of that era.

In the article below, World History Edu takes an in-depth look at the difference between ancient Egyptian sphinx and ancient Greek sphinx, as well as the various myths and meanings surrounding them.

The sphinx in ancient Egypt

It is widely accepted that the sphinx appeared in ancient Egypt around the third millennium BC, however it is possible that myths about this mythical creature dates several centuries before that. Take the most famous example of the sphinx in ancient Egypt, i.e. the Great Sphinx of Giza – archeologists and scholars estimate that the gargantuan structure was built in the middle of the 3rd millennium BC during the era of Egyptian pharaoh Khafre.

Born to the great Egyptian ruler Pharaoh Khufu, Khafre reigned in the 4th Dynasty of the Old Kingdom. In addition to building the Pyramid of Khafre, which is the second-largest pyramid at Giza, Khafre is said to have carved out the Great Sphinx of Giza as protector of his pyramid.

Ancient Egyptian sphinx

The Great Sphinx of Giza is located in the Giza Plateau. The limestone statue measures at 20 meters (66 ft.) tall. Due to its close proximity to the Pyramid of Khafre, many Egyptologists and scholars have stated that the sphinx was built in the time of Khafre (known to the ancient Greeks as Khefren). The Sphinx is considered the oldest known monumental sculpture in Egypt. Image: The Great Sphinx of Giza in 1858

Standing at 20 meters tall, the Great Sphinx of Giza is a colossal limestone statue that has the body of a lion and the head of human. It is generally accepted that the head of the Great Sphinx of Giza bores a slight resemblance to face of Khafre. It is for this reason why some historians and Egyptologists maintain that the structure was carved during Khafre’s reign.

However, it is also possible that the structure existed long before Khafre, and that Khafre simply reworked on the face of the sphinx to bear his resemblance.

Sphinx of Hatshepsut

There were a number of granite sphinxes that stood in Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri. Image: Sphinx of Egyptian pharaoh Hatshepsut, a female ruler of Egypt from the 18th Dynasty

The Great Sphinx, like many other monumental sculptures and artworks from the Old Kingdom, would go on to inspire subsequent dynasties in the Middle and New Kingdoms. Egyptian rulers that followed Khafre commissioned quite a number of sphinxlike works. For example, there are the two small limestone sphinxes of Hatshepsut, which depicts Queen Hatshepsut, one of ancient Egypt’s greatest female rulers. It’s most likely that the sphinxes of the Egyptian queen were originally placed on either side of the entrance to her mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri.

Also found in Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple is the colossal sphinx of the queen. The granite sculpture shows her with the body of a lion and wearing the traditional false beard, a symbol of pharaonic power in ancient Egypt.

Read More: Greatest Accomplishments of Pharaoh Hatshepsut

Did you know?

Much of what we know about the Great Sphinx of Giza comes from the Dream Stele, a work unearthed between the paws of the structure. It’s said that stele was made around the time of Thutmose IV, a pharaoh from the 18th dynasty.

Meaning of the sphinx to ancient Egyptians

Egyptian sphinx

The ancient Egyptian depictions of sphinx have them as kind and protective creatures. They symbolized the pharaoh’s power, strength and rule. Image: An early Egyptian sphinx, Queen Hetepheres II from the Fourth Dynasty

The ancient Egyptians believed the sphinx to be a divine protector of the pharaoh and his family members, both in the land of the living and the afterlife. This explains why the sphinx was usually sited in close proximity to pyramid complexes and burial sites of the pharaohs.

Generally speaking, the ancient Egyptians saw the sphinx as the embodiment of divine protector deities like Sekhmet, Bastet or even the sun god Ra. Usually depicted as cats or lionesses, Sekhmet and Bastet were important Egyptian deities revered for protecting the home. In the case of Ra, the sun god, Egyptians saw him as the head of the Egyptian pantheon and the deity whose royal boat emerged every day from the underworld, bringing the people of Egypt daylight.

Therefore, the sphinx symbolized a force of good – a force that protected the pharaoh against chaos and darkness (i.e. Apophis). As a result, it was not uncommon for people to worship the sphinx.

RELATED: What everyday life was like in ancient Egypt

The sphinx and the falcon-headed god Horus

Another very important deity associated to the sun and hence associated to the sphinx in Egypt was Horus. A widely worshiped falcon-headed god, Horus was the son of Egyptian deities Isis and Osiris.

As the son of Osiris, the first divine pharaoh of Egypt, Horus claimed his birthright after defeating his arch rival, Seth, who killed Osiris and seized the throne.

As a result, ancient Egyptians believed that the when the pharaoh was alive, he/she was the embodiment of Horus. However, in death, the pharaoh became Osiris. Another point worth mentioning is that Horus’s right eye was seen as the sun while his left eye was the moon.

There is a particular version of Horus called Horemakhet, who was believed to be the deity associated with the dawn. In some artworks, Horemakhet is depicted a sphinx.

Relief of Horus depicting the falcon-headed god as sphinx.

The Great Sphinx and the summer equinox

To the ancient Egyptians, the sun was everything – it was the vital force that sustained everything in the land of the living as well as the afterlife. Come to think, the sun is truly everything to us even in the modern era. However, unlike our modern age, the ancient Egyptians in many ways worshiped the sun, seeing it as the embodiment of the Ra. They took cognizance of all these whenever they made any artwork or built any structure.

Archeologists and Egyptologists have noted a startling thing about the structures in the Giza plateau. The Great Sphinx lines up with two other structures in the plateau – the Great Pyramid of Giza (also known as Khufu’s Pyramid) and the Pyramid of Khafre. Those three structures line up with the summer equinox. This is to gives even more credence to the extent to which the ancient Egyptians revered the sun and by extension the sun god Ra.

Therefore, the positioning of the Great Sphinx was ancient Egyptians’ way of associating the pharaoh with Ra.

RELATED: 10 Most Famous Ancient Egyptian Goddesses

Ram-headed sphinxes in ancient Egypt and the god Amun

In ancient Egyptian tradition, sphinxes could also have the head of an animal. We see this in the over 850 ram-headed sphinxes discovered in Waset (i.e. Thebes) in Upper Egypt. It’s said that those sphinxes represented the Egyptian creator god Amun (or Amon), a deity whose worship was widespread in the Old Kingdom. Seen as a patron deity of Thebes, Amon had the symbol of a ram to reinforce his association with fertility. In later dynasties, Amun came to be identified with the solar god Ra as well as the god of fertility and creation Min.

The Riddler Sphinx in ancient Greece

This mythical creature appears in a number of myths from ancient Greece. In the story of Oedipus, a devious sphinx terrorizes the inhabitants of Thebes by asking a very difficult questions. Anyone that fails to provide the right answer to her questions is instantly devoured. This terrible situation continues until the Greek hero Oedipus shows up.

According to the myth, the Sphinx demands Oedipus provide the answer to the question: “which animal has one voice and becomes four-footed and two-footed and then three-footed with the passage of time?” Oedipus took a long thought about the question and then answered: “Human”. Having secured the right answer, the Sphinx was left with no option but to commit suicide. In a different account of the story, Oedipus proceeds to slay the creature.

Oedipus and the Sphinx

Oedipus and the Sphinx by French Neoclassical artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

Egyptian sphinx versus Greek sphinx

The common trait shared by the sphinx from ancient Egypt and ancient Greece is the fact that they were mostly depicted as with feline body and a humanoid face.

Unlike the portrayals in ancient Egypt, ancient Greek sphinx were seen to be somewhat devious in nature. According to ancient Greek poet Hesiod, the sphinx was the product of Echidna and Orthrus (also known as Orthus).

Echidna, a sibling of the Greek Gorgons, which include Medusa, is a half-woman, half-snake creature. She is also the consort of Typhon, the most vicious creature in Greek mythology. Orthrus, on the other hand, is the two-headed dog that watched over the three-bodied giant Geryon’s cattle in the “sunset” land of Erytheia which is along the Mediterranean. This creature is also the brother of Cerberus, the multi-headed hound that guards the gates of the Underworld.

Ultimately, Orthrus is slayed by the Greek demigod Heracles in his quest to secure the red cattle. The quest was the tenth labor (of 12 very daunting labors) Heracles had to complete for Eurystheus, king of Mycenae.

Another important similarity between the Greek and Egyptian version has to do with their roles. In both cultures, the mythical creatures were known for serving as guards or protectors. Image: A recumbent sphinx of Amenemhat III, the sixth king of the Twelfth Dynasty of the Middle Kingdom.

It was also often the case that the sphinx were depicted as feminine creatures that were almost always outwitted or slayed by a brave hero. The Greek sphinx also usually had wings of a bird, often that of an eagle. This is seen in the story of Oedipus.

The sphinx in ancient Egypt, on the other hand, were mostly depicted as forces of good. They were almost always portrayed as male. However, if the pharaoh at the time was female, say in the case of Queen Hatshepsut, then the sphinx appeared as a female.

It is important to note that the ancient Greeks believed that sphinx as a mythical creature traces its origins to a place around the Nile River, perhaps in Upper Egypt.

Owing to the sheer time scale between the Old Kingdom of ancient Egypt and the ancient Greek era, it was inevitable that there would be some differences, especially in their portrayals and roles, between the Egyptian sphinx and the Greek sphinx. It’s possible that by the time the stories about the ancient Egyptian sphinx arrived on the shores of Greece in say the 5th century BC, some of it got lost in translation. This would explain the variations we see between the Egyptian version and the Greek version.

Unlike the stories about them in ancient Egyptian religion, the Greek sphinx were seen as terrible and merciless creatures that often inflicted untold misery upon people. And in most cases, they got outsmarted and killed by the hero. The ancient Greek sphinx were believed to be related to malevolent and frightening monsters like the Gorgons (including Medusa), Echidna, Chimera, Orthrus, and Typhon. Image: Ancient Greek sphinx from Delphi

Ancient writers’ descriptions of the sphinx

According to the Apollodorus, which is a compilation of Greek myths, the sphinx often has a woman’s face, the body and tail of a lion, and then the wings of a bird.

Renowned Greek historian of the 5th century BC Herodotus wrote extensively about ancient Egypt. As a matter of fact, much of what we know about Khafre comes from the writings of Herodotus, which he compiled during his travels to Egypt. The historian described Egyptian sphinxes with ram heads as Criosphinxes and those with hawk heads as Hieracosphinxes.

According to the Greco-Roman poet Publius Papinius Statius, sphinxes are wild winged monsters with the face of woman. He goes further to say that the creatures are immensely corrupt and look very hideous on the eyes. In some cases, they have a snake-like tails.

The Smiling Sphinx

In early March of 2023, the Smiling Sphinx statue was found in the temple of Dendera in Qena Province, 450km (280 miles) south of the capital Cairo, Egypt. Some scholars opine that the Smiling Sphinx was produced during Roman emperor Claudius’ reign. It is thought that the face of the statue is in the likeness of Claudius.

Image (L-R): Roman Emperor Claudius (10 BC – 54 AD) and the Smiling Sphinx

Did you know…?

  • As a matter of fact, the word ‘sphinx’ is of Greek origin. It comes from the word ‘sphingein’, which means ‘to compress’ or ‘to bind’. It is generally accepted that the famous ancient Greek poet Hesiod was the first-known person to make mention of the mythological animal; he called it Phix.
  • Artworks and myths about the ancient mythical creature, the sphinx, weren’t peculiar to ancient Egyptian culture. From ancient Mesopotamia to ancient Greece, the creature, which is often depicted with a head of human and a body of lion, evoked a lot of fascination among the people.
  • There are some scholars that state the Great Sphinx of Giza predates Khafre by at least 2500 years. This would put the date of the construction of the Sphinx at around 5000 BC. The scholars that hold this view base their dating on evidence found using the extent of water erosion in the vicinity.

Image (L-R): Sphinxes of the ancient world – Winged sphinx from the palace of Darius the Great during Persian Empire at Susa (480 BC), and Hittite sphinx. Basalt. 8th century BC. From Sam’al. Museum of the Ancient Orient, Istanbul, Turkiye.

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