Illustrated Architecture Dictionary ............     Egyptian / Egyptian Revival Architecture.................. Illustrated FURNITURE Glossary


A sphinx is a mythological creature from the Mediterranean and Middle East with the body of a lion and the head of a person, ram, or hawk.

The most famous depiction of a sphinx is probably the Great Sphinx of Giza in Egypt, and when people talk about "The Sphinx," this is usually the sphinx they are thinking of. In Egypt, sphinxes were built along the walkways leading to temple complexes, and depicted in artwork in positions which suggested that they were meant to guard.

The Egyptian name for the sphinx has been lost to history; the word sphinx comes from a Greek word which means to strangle, a reference to the Greek version of the sphinx.

In Greek mythology, the sphinx had the face of a woman, and she challenged passerby to answer riddles. If they failed to answer the riddles, she threatened, she would strangle them. One of the Greek sphinx's riddles is particularly well known: what walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening? [Oedipus solved the riddle and the Sphinx killed herself.]

The iconography of the sphinx often includes the idea that the creature acts as a guardian.

- S. E. Smith, What is the Sphinx?  (online August 2017)

Winged Sphinx

Through Egyptian influence the sphinx became known in Asia, but its meaning there is uncertain. The sphinx did not occur in Mesopotamia until about 1500 bce, 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 first began to appear in the 15th century bce. On seals, ivories, and metalwork the sphinx was portrayed sitting on its haunches, often with one paw raised, and was frequently paired with a lion, a griffin (part eagle and part lion), or another sphinx.

About 1600 bce 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 flamelike projection on top. Nothing in their context connected them with later legend, and their meaning remains unknown.
- Encyclopædia Britannica: Sphinx  (online August 2017)

In ancient Egypt, each year the god left the temple sanctuary to travel through the streets of the city and visit the other gods. In this procession, he was carried in sacred boat on the shoulders of his priests. The processional way was often lined with monuments and statues of various types- most often sphinxes - which marked its route and offered their protection to the god. At some temples the sphinxes had animal heads, usually associated with the god or goddess worshipped there - the ones at Karnak were ram-headed, for example - while at others the face was that of the pharaoh.

See also: Egyptian / Egyptian Revival Architecture


The sphinx enjoyed a major revival in European decorative art from the Renaissance onwards, especially during the Adam, and Regency periods. It was particularly popular as furniture support during the Empire and Regency periods when things Egyptian were mixed with classic Greek and Roman motifs.

Examples from Buffalo:

Other examples:

Photos © 2009 Chuck LaChiusa
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