Wednesday, March 14, 2012

World of Symbols: Sphinx

 The Majestic Sphinx
Michelle Snyder, M. Phil, Symbolist

Most everyone is familiar with the Egyptian Sphinx at Giza, towering over the sandy landscape, facing the rising sun. Its animal form, the lion, has long been a symbol associated with the sun. The Giza sphinx is carved out of bedrock and is the largest single-stone sculpted statue in the world. Perhaps as long as ago ca. 8000 BC the great sculpture was part of a megalithic observatory. Four thousand years later, two pillars were placed in front of the sculpted monument to facilitate measuring the movement of stars and planets. An Egyptian Pharaoh had the sphinx’s head re-carved in his own image. For the Egyptians, sphinx statues represent kings or gods and are usually male; they are symbol of divine sovereignty.

The sphinx symbol has its origin in ancient astronomical observation. With a lion’s body and a woman’s head, this symbol suggests the relationship between Leo and Virgo. These two constellations appear together at the point where the sun’s path crosses the equator at the autumnal equinox. The sphinx symbolizes this time of year, both during the Great Year (26,000 year cycle) and the solar year (12 month cycle).

Greek sphinx statues are usually depicted as a winged lion with a woman's head, or a woman with the paws and claws of a lion, a serpent's tail, and eagle’s wings. This feminine sphinx is usually seated upright, rather than horizontal, as the Giza Sphinx is. These are majestic and magical beasts; some are guardians, and some are dangerous. They represent sacred and secret knowledge. Variations of the sphinx are found in all parts of the ancient world, both sculpted and imaged. The watchful beast wards off evil, especially at temple entrances; sphinxes with animal heads or bodies often line the approaches to temples.

Oral tradition surrounding the sphinx is also found in many cultures. A Greek legend tells of a sphinx at the gate of Thebes who asked a riddle of anyone passing by. If they did not know the answer, she killed them. When King Oedipus answered correctly, she threw herself into the ocean. The riddle was this: What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs at night? (Answer: a human) This riddle suggests the cycle of life, and is also associated with Yggdrasil (Tree of Life) and the Phoenix. The sphinx, as an astronomical symbol of Leo and Virgo, also represents a life cycle.           

In art from ancient Greece the sphinx is a common motif, usually depicted winged and crowned; with wings, they symbolize transition to higher consciousness. In South India the sphinx is known as purushamriga meaning human-beast. It is found depicted in temples and palaces where it serves as protection from evil. At one temple in India two of these guardians sit on either side of the grand doorway, guarding the entrance. They are the divine beings, warding off evil and removing sins. They smile mysteriously. One is male, one is female; they have been seated side by side for many centuries.

In contemporary symbolism this fabulous creature symbolizes mystery, power, royal dignity, vigilance, strength, secrecy, silence, inscrutability, and the riddle of the Universe; also, divine and human wisdom, discernment, and temperance. Sounds just like what my cat thinks of himself.

Article © 2011 Michelle Snyder, author of Symbology: Decoding Classic Images, and eBooks World of Symbols, and World of Symbols: Secrets of the Mermaids. Ask the symbologist at her blog:


  1. Thank you for sharing your blog space with me! I would like to invite your readers to the seminar I will do in April, it's free, visit my blog for details. Understanding symbols opens up a whole realm of information. Symbolism is the language of the mind - and of dreams, the unconscious, and the spirit. It flows from the very biology of our being and carries in it both the profound and the superficial, the complex and the simple.

  2. I just love stuff like this - must write a whole novel that expounds symbols of this nature. Can you imagine it?


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