We all know about the Sphinx… it’s that big statue in the Egyptian desert featuring a lion with a man’s head — and not just any man’s head but a pharaoh’s head, possibly the 4th dynasty ruler Khafre. But that’s the Great Sphinx of Giza guarding the three great pyramids of Ancient Egypt that are located nearby. There is however another Sphinx in history and that is the Sphinx of Classical Greece — and she is a monster.
This Sphinx is said to have a woman’s face (and in some depictions prominent female breasts), the body of a lion, the wings of an eagle, and a tail that ends in a serpent’s head. One 1st century AD poet described her as also possessing “pallid cheeks, eyes tainted with corruption, plumes clotted with gore, and talons on livid hands”. And she’s also a demon that brings with her bad luck and destruction. All in all not the kind of woman you want to bring home to meet your family.
So far, so bad but there is another twist in this tale as the Sphinx (and the Greeks believed there was only one of these creatures) and that is she lurked on a high rock overlooking the main road into the Greek city of Thebes (modern-day Thiva) in the Beoetia area of central Greece. When travellers approached along the road, she would ask them a riddle — and the punishment for anyone who gave the incorrect answer was she would strangle and then devour them. The problem for the Thebans was that nobody ever solved the Riddle of the Sphinx.
It is at this point the great Greek anti-hero Oedipus enters the story as the Sphinx stopped him, as he was on his way to Thebes, and asked him to solve her riddle. Now a quick interjection here as there is some mystery as to the exact nature of that riddle but tradition says it was: “What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three at night?”
To which Oedipus replied: “Man: as an infant he crawls on all fours, as an adult he walks on two legs, and in old age he uses a walking stick.” This was the correct answer and the Sphinx, in her shame at being out-witted by a mere human, threw herself from her high rock, killing herself as she smashed into the ground.
Oedipus then continued on his way into Thebes, where he learned it had been decreed that following the death of King Laius of Thebes, any man who killed the Sphinx would be made king of the city and be permitted to marry the recently widowed Queen Jocasta. So Oedipus got the throne and the woman and lived happily ever after?
Well no because Oedipus was trying to escape a prophecy, made by the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi, that he would murder his father and marry his mother — and it transpired he had killed his father, who turned out to be King Laius, and married his mother. Jocasta killed herself when she learned the truth and Oedipus blinded himself. Which just goes to show the Sphinx really was a demon who brought bad luck and destruction in her wake.
There is another version of the Riddle of the Sphinx: “There are two sisters: one gives birth to the other and she, in turn, gives birth to the first. Who are the two sisters?” The answer is “Day and Night” which was probably funnier in the original Ancient Greek.
There’s also no shortage of Sphinxes that can be found today. London is full of stone carvings of them, especially in the City of London where they are a popular motif for guarding the buildings of insurance companies and financial institutions. You can also find them guarding the gates to Chiswick House and Greek Park. Incidentally the two sphinxes guarding Cleopatra’s Needle on the Embankment are pointing the wrong way: they shouldn’t be staring at it, they should be on guard duty looking out from either side of it.
Still on the subject of sphinx statues, spare a thought for the sphinx in the Water Garden at Blenheim Palace. It was put here in the 1920s by the 9th Duke of Marlborough and the face is modelled on either Consuelo Vanderbilt, the Duke’s first American wife, whose large fortune saved Blenheim but whose marriage was unhappy, or on Gladys Deacon, the Duke’s second American heiress wife, whose marriage was also unhappy — in fact so unhappy that she kept a loaded revolver in her bedroom to discourage the Duke from visiting.
There are also two sphinx is on the terrace of Oldway Mansion in Paignton, Devon, which was built for Isaac Singer, the American sewing machine entrepreneur who ended up in England after fleeing from bigamy charges in the United States. This didn’t stop him from marrying Isabella Eugenie Boyer, a French woman who abandoned her husband to live with Singer. He decorated the terrace at Oldway with two sphinxes that had Isabella’s face. After Singer died in 1875, Isabella inherited a huge fortune, returned to Paris, met the sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, and became the model for the Statue of Liberty. (The image to accompany this story appears to be the Sphinx as Kate Bush!)