A to Z Challenge Folklore

The Original Riddler: The Sphinx #folklore #AtoZChallenge

R is for Riddler

I’m doing folklore and book review posts to reach and please a larger audience. Previous years have shown select interest in both and to minimise blogging throughout the year, I’m focusing my efforts on April.

If you’d rather check out my book review for today, go here.

Learn more about the challenge here.

I’m not sure where I encountered the Sphinx for the first time, but it was probably in some TV show or another.

The Sphinx in Giza. Image credit


BULFINCH’S MYTHOLOGY by Thomas Bulfinch [1855]


Laius, king of Thebes, was warned by an oracle that there was danger to his throne and life if his new-born son should be suffered to grow up. He therefore committed the child to the care of a herdsman with orders to destroy him; but the herdsman, moved with pity, yet not daring entirely to disobey, tied up the child by the feet and left him hanging to the branch of a tree. In this condition the infant was found by a peasant, who carried him to his master and mistress, by whom he was adopted and called OEdipus, or Swollen-foot.

Many years afterwards Laius being on his way to Delphi, accompanied only by one attendant, met in a narrow road a young man also driving in a chariot. On his refusal to leave the way at their command the attendant killed one of his horses, and the stranger, filled with rage, slew both Laius and his attendant. The young man was OEdipus who thus unknowingly became the slayer of his own father.

Shortly after this event the city of Thebes was afflicted with a monster which infested the highroad. It was called the Sphinx. It had the body of a lion and the upper part of a woman. It lay crouched on the top of a rock, and arrested all travellers who came that way, proposing to them a riddle, with the condition that those who could solve it should pass safe, but those who failed should be killed. Not one had yet succeeded in solving it, and all had been slain. OEdipus was not daunted by these alarming accounts, but boldly advanced to the trial. The Sphinx asked him, “What animal is that which in the morning goes on feet, at noon on two, and in the evening upon three?” Oedipus replied, “Man, who in childhood creeps on hands and knees, in manhood walks erect, and in old age with the aid of a staff.” The Sphinx was so mortified at the solving of her riddle that she cast herself down from the rock and perished.

The gratitude of the people for their deliverance was so great that they made OEdipus their king, giving him in marriage their queen Jocasta. OEdipus, ignorant of his parentage, had already become the slayer of his father; in marrying the queen he became the husband of his mother. These horrors remained undiscovered, till at length Thebes was afflicted with famine and pestilence, and the oracle being consulted, the double crime of Oedipus came to light. Jocasta put an end to her own life, and Oedipus, seized with madness, tore out his eyes and wandered away from Thebes, dreaded and abandoned by all except his daughters, who faithfully adhered to him, till after a tedious period of miserable wandering he found the termination of his wretched life.

Sphinx. Image credit

Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology edited by William Smith [1849]

SPHINX (Sphinx), a monstrous being of Greek mythology, is said to have been a daughter of Orthus and Chimaera, born in the country of the Arimi (Hes. Theog. 326), or of Typhon and Echidna (Apollod. iii. 5. § 8; Schol. ad Eurip. Phoen. 46), or lastly of Typhon and Chimaera (Schol. ad Hes. and Eurip. l. .c.). Some call her a natural daughter of Laius (Paus. ix. 26. § 2). Respecting her stay at Thebes and her connection with the fate of the house of Laius. The riddle which she there proposed, she is said to have learnt from the Muses (Apollod. iii. 5. § 8), or Laius himself taught her the mysterious oracles which Cadmus had received at Delphi (Paus. ix. 26. § 2). According to some she had been sent into Boeotia by Hera, who was angry with the Thebans for not having punished Lains, who had carried off Chrysippus from Pisa. She is said to have come from the most distant part of Ethiopia (Apollod. l. c. ; Schol. ad Eurip. Phoen. 1760); according to others she was sent by Ares, who wanted to take revenge because Cadmus had slain his son, the dragon (Argum. ad Eurip. Phoen.), or by Dionysus (Schol. ad Hes. Theog. 326), or by Hades (Eurip. Phoen. 810), and some lastly say that she was one on the women who, together with the daughters of Cadmus, were thrown into madness, and was metamorphosed into the monstrous figure. (Schol. ad Eurip. Phoen. 45.)

The legend itself clearly indicates from what quarter this being was believed to have been introduced into Greek mythology. The figure which she was conceived to have had is originally Egyptian or Ethiopian; but after her incorporation with Grecian story, her figure was variously modified. The Egyptian Sphinx is the figure of an unwinged lion in a lying attitude, but the upper part of the body is human. They appear in Egypt to have been set up in avenues forming the approaches to temples. The greatest among the Egyptian representations of Sphinxes is that of Ghizeh, which, with the exception of the paws, is of one block of stone. The Egyptian Sphinxes are often called androsphinges (Herod. ii. 175; Menandr. Fragm. p. 411, ed. Meineke), not describing them as male beings, but as lions with the upper part human, to distinguish them from those Sphinxes whose upper part was that of a sheep or ram. The common idea of a Greek Sphinx, on the other hand, is that of a winged body of a lion, having the breast and upper part of a woman (Aelian, H. A. xii. 7; Auson. Griph. 40 ; Apollod. iii. 5. § 8; Schol. ad Eurip. Phoen. 806). Greek Sphinxes, moreover, are not always represented in a lying attitude, but appear in different positions, as it might suit the fancy of the sculptor or poet. Thus they appear with the face of a maiden, the breast, feet, and claws of a lion, the tail of a serpent, and the wings of a bird (Schol. ad Aristoph. Ran. 1287 ; Soph. Oed. Tyr. 391 ; Athen. vi. p. 253; Palaephat. 7); or the fore part of the body is that of a lion, and the lower part that of a man, with the claws of a vuiture and the wings of an eagle (Tzetz. ad Lycoph. 7). Sphinxes were frequently introduced by Greek artists, as ornaments of architectural and other works. (Paus. iii. 18. § 8, v. 11. § 2; Eurip. Elect. 471.)

Sphinx. Image credit

A Wizard’s Bestiary by Oberon Zell Ravenheart and Ash “LeopardDancer” DeKirk

Sphinx (from Greek sphingo, “to strangle”; or possibly from Egyptian shesep ankh, “living image”)—A composite creature with a lion’s body and paws and the head of a human or other animal. In ancient Assyria, it appears as a temple guardian called the Lamassu. Three types of Sphinx appear as guardians in Egyptian statuary, all with the wingless body of a crouching lion: The Criosphinx has the head of a ram; the Hierocosphinx is falcon-headed; and the Androsphinx, such as the Great Sphinx of Giza, has the head of a man. The Greek Gynosphinx has the head and breasts of a woman, with eagle wings. The offspring of Orthus and Echidna, the Gynosphinx is a demon of death, destruction, and bad luck. She is famous for posing the following riddle to trav elers: “What goes on four legs, on two and then three; but the more legs it goes on the weaker it be?” If they replied correctly, they were allowed to pass; but if they failed, she devoured them. Oedipus gave the correct answer, whereupon the mortified Sphinx killed herself. Pliny the Elder believed that Sphinxes were apes. Indeed, the Guinea Baboon (Papio papio) is still called a Sphinx. See Celphies, Cynocephali.

*More can be read in the book.

Sphinx. Image credit

Further Reading:

Sphinx. Image credit

Folklore in a Nutshell by Ronel

Though mostly connected to Egypt, the sphinx is also found in Greek, Assyrian, Persian and Phoenician mythology. This mythical creature has the body of a lion, head of another animal or human, and sometimes has the wings of an eagle or falcon. In Egypt, it has a male head, and in Greece, a female head.

Egyptian sphinxes usually wore a headdress like that of the pharaohs. Sphinxes guarded temples and tombs.

Persian sphinxes usually had wings and a male head. They stood outside palaces and guarded against evil forces.

The sphinxes from ancient Greece, though, was always female and troublesome creatures born from the Chimaera and Orthus – the two-headed dog born from Echidna and Typhon – or sometimes the offspring of Echidna and Typhon, and siblings to the Nemean lion and Cerberus (among others). She’s the one who challenged all with riddles, killing those unable to answer her correctly. The most famous myth surrounding her, is the one where she terrorised Thebes and was beaten by Oedipus when he solved her infamous riddle:

What animal is that which in the morning goes on four feet, at noon on two, and in the evening upon three?

The answer is, of course, Man. And it’s about Time: as infants, humans crawl; as adults, they walk; in old-age, they need a cane.

These days, the answer would be more PC as “humankind”.

According to myth, this sphinx jumped to her death when her riddle was successfully answered.

A lot of ancient Greeks saw the sphinx as an Underworld demon creature who learned from the Muses themselves, and was usually depicted on funerary objects such as urns.

No matter where you look, the sphinx has a feline body and a human head – and the females are more vicious than the males. Beware!

Sphinx. Image credit

Sphinx in Modern Culture

Harry Potter books by JK Rowling

“The Egyptian sphinx has a human head on a lion’s body. For over a thousand years it has been used by witches and wizards to guard valuables and secret hideaways. Highly intelligent, the sphinx delights in puzzles and riddles. It is usually dangerous only when what it is guarding is threatened.”

A female sphinx was stationed in the maze during the Third Task of the Triwizard Tournament of 1994–1995. The sphinx guarded the closest route to the Triwizard Cup, and also gave a clue to Harry Potter concerning the last creature that was guarding the Cup.

Learn more here
Sphinx in the Maze. Image credit

Percy Jackson books by Rick Riordan

The Sphinx is a monster with the head of a woman and the body of a lion. She is known as “The Master of Riddles”.

The Battle of the Labyrinth

Percy JacksonAnnabeth ChaseTyson, and Grover Underwood run into the Sphinx while navigating the Labyrinth. She asks the group to play Answer That Riddle, a game show type trap where if they lose they will be eaten. Rather than the riddles however, the Sphinx asks a series of random trivia questions that at first confuses Annabeth as she wants to know what happened to the riddle about man. The Sphinx says that everyone knew the answer so she changed the questions. Annabeth gets frustrated because the questions are so easy, she feels they’re an insult to her intelligence and refuses to answer the Sphinx’s ‘riddles’. The Sphinx then attacks them, but is trapped by Grover’s woodland magic that was charming pencils to attack her and Tyson throws her correcting machine at the sphinx.

Learn more here
Sphinx. Image credit

Gods of Egypt Movie

Sphinx in My Writing

Origin of the Fae: Sphinx

There are several sphinxes – male and female. They have feline bodies – usually lion – and human heads. Most have eagle wings. They love riddles and puzzles – and have no tolerance for stupidity, eating those who cannot solve their riddles. They reside in the Underworld after the Fae made their Compact with Humankind.

See it in action:

Origin of Irascible Immortals (Origin of the Fae #7)

What do you think of the Sphinx? Where did you hear about sphinxes for the first time? Any folklore about sphinxes you’d like to share? Check out my Pinterest board dedicated to the subject.

You can now support my time in producing folklore posts (researching, writing and everything else involved) by buying me a coffee. This can be a once-off thing, or you can buy me coffee again in the future at your discretion.

*If you have difficulty commenting, check that you’ve ticked the data use block beneath the comment before leaving your comment. (Protecting your privacy per regulations.) If you’re still unable to comment, try enabling all cookies in your browser. On a device, like a tablet, go to settings, find your browser (eg Chrome), and uncheck “prevent cross-site tracking” AND “block all cookies.”

Want a taste of my writing? Sign up to my newsletter and get your free copy of Unseen, Faery Tales #2.

Success! You're on the list.
image credit https://pixabay.com/illustrations/ai-generated-fairy-wings-magic-8121013/

No-one writes about the fae like Ronel Janse van Vuuren.

1 thought on “The Original Riddler: The Sphinx #folklore #AtoZChallenge”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *