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What Is the Sphinx?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 06 July 2014
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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 is probably the Great Sphinx of Giza in Egypt, and when people talk about “The Sphinx,” this is usually the one they are thinking of. In fact, numerous depictions of these creatures can be found throughout Egypt, the Middle East, and Greece, and they were occasionally included as themes in European artwork in various eras.

The Egyptian name for the sphinx has been lost to history; the word comes from a Greek word which means “to strangle,” a reference to the Greek version. In Greek mythology, the creature had the face of a woman, and she challenged passersby to answer riddles. If they failed to answer them, she threatened, she would strangle them. One of the riddles is particularly well known: what walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening?

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The Great Sphinx appears to have been constructed around 2500 BCE, from an existing rock outcropping. Evidence suggests that the statue was created by excavating the outcropping and then carving the exposed stone, and that it was at one point in the center of a large temple complex connected to the Great Pyramids. The massive statue faces east, with a small temple located between its front paws. For centuries, it was largely buried in sand, until being excavated in the early 20th century.

Historians are not only fuzzy on what the Sphinx was called, they are also unsure about whom it was built for. For many years, people thought the statue was built by the pharaoh Khafra, as his pyramid is right behind it. However, records conflict; the Sphinx may have been built by Khafra's father, or by someone else entirely. In any case, the role of the statue in the complex of temples and pyramids was probably as a guardian.

The iconography of the sphinx often includes the idea that the creature acts as a guardian. In Egypt, they were built along the walkways leading to temple complexes, and depicted in artwork in positions which suggested that they were meant to guard. The Greeks appear to have borrowed the legendary beast from the Egyptians, and their sphinx also acted as a guardian, as did the those depicted in Middle Eastern art.

At its highest point, the Great Sphinx is 65 feet (20 meters) tall, and the statue is around 185 feet (57 meters) long. Modern visitors to the statue often comment on the damage it has sustained over the years. Archaeologists suspect that much of this damage was caused by natural flaws in the limestone which were exacerbated by severe weather conditions; the smog of neighboring Cairo also appears to be having a deleterious effect on it. A legend persists that the Sphinx was used for target practice by the troops of Napoleon, who allegedly knocked off the statue's nose; in fact, evidence suggests that the nose was destroyed before Napoleon was even born.

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