The Sphinx: Woman, Lion, and Bridge

The origin of the image of the sphinx is primarily considered to be in Egypt. The Egyptians invented an image of a sphinx that was human headed male lion. As the image spread out of Egypt the form of the sphinx changed; the Syrians Babylonians and Hittites depicted the creature with wings and began representing the beast as female. [1] By the Hellenistic period the image of the Greek sphinx crystalized and took on the form of the head of a woman, the body of a lion, the tail of a serpent and  wings of an eagle.

In the Myth of Oedipus by Sophocles the sphinx is depicted an enigmatic image and symbol of power, but power that can be conquered. The sphinx is characterized as a female monster that plagues the city of Thebes because she destroys all those who cannot solve her riddle. [2] In essence, she is the guard to the unanswerable riddle of life. Sophocles also describes the sphinx as a “carrion woman” to which Oedipus must resist and avoid temptation and kill the lustful monster. The creature is therefore powerful but subservient to man.

The usage of adorned utilitarian objects with figural motifs is crucial to  Greek art. During the late 8th and late 6th century BC many affluent individuals donated elaborate gifts such as bronze vases of sphinxes to sanctuaries. There are several bronze vases of the sphinx at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that Support this theory. [3] Sphinxes were used in votive offerings to sanctuaries because of their connection to the story of Oedipus but also because of their attractive design.  [4] Greeks placed sphinxes on tombs or painted on pottery for pots destined for the dead. [5]

My exhibition analyzes the Red-figured drinking horn (rhyton) Sphinx by the potter Sotades  made around 470-460 BC in Athens found out at the tomb at Capua. The vase serves a utilitarian function of pouring wine in a more elaborate process. The drinking horn contains red-figure scenes on a cup that emerges from the wings of the sphinx, this particular sphinx’s femininity is characterized supernaturally evoking a sense of sameness to depictions of sirens and other Greek mythological female imagery.

The Greek’s idea of the afterlife is spatially and temporally distinct and delineated from the mortal world. In order to ensure the dead’s transition to the underworld ran smoothly  the Greeks employed several rituals and burial techniques to help the dead on their journey. The ways in which the dead were visited at their grave and attended to as time progressed illustrated that the dead need help and reinforcement when entering the underworld. [6] The dead needed to be properly equipped for their journey because conceptually there was a problem of transmitting people across the barrier of the living and the dead. Transition is effected through pre-liminal rites during the transitional stage and post-liminal rites that include ceremonies into the new world. [7] The idea of transition of one state to another to the Greeks required aid, like a sphinx.

The sphinx represents a divine creature that is simultaneously animal, human and super human. By rejecting a single taxonomy, the sphinx transcends typical categorization of the natural, or known and rejects locality and absolute attachment to this world. Therefore the concept and image of the sphinx oscillates between spaces; it occupies a middle ground space of passage. Thus the sphinx’s application in the funerary context, specifically as the vase at the tomb of Capula, is appropriate. The sphinx is a representation of a helpful and  transcending image and has practical value as an object necessary for funeral function.  The sphinx is a bridge that connects the living to the other.

Sotades’s sphinx vase it is a tool to help the dead navigate and safely transition to the underworld. The confrontation between Oedipus and the sphinx is a confrontation of refusal and acceptance. Oedipus must make a decision to resist the female eroticism of the sphinx and accepted that he had to kill her. The sphinx is all powerful, all knowing but is malign in nature. The dichotomy of the sphinx in her nature and execution is parallel to how the idea of death is rendered. While death is daunting and a foreign process the Greeks felt that the process could be effected by outside aid and that it was ultimately an inevitable.

Death then, like the sphinx, can be conquered  by man. The sphinx can also be dominated by man therefore is useful to man. The Red-figured drinking horn (rhyton) Sphinx therefore simultaneously provides a narrative of how one can conquer their transitional passage to the underworld and is also a bridge to help the dead cross to the other side.


Works Cited:


Hoffmann, Herbert. “The riddle of the Sphinx: a case study in Athenian immortality symbolism.” Classical Greece: Ancient Histories and Modern Archaeologies (1994): 71-80.


Pearson. “From Now to Then: Ethnoarchaeology and Analogy.” The Archaeology of Death and Burial. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 21-39. Print.



An Early Greek Bronze Sphinx Support

Joan R. Mertens

Metropolitan Museum Journal , Vol. 37, (2002), pp. 23-33

Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of The Metropolitan Museum of Art Article Stable URL:


The Shavian Sphinx Rhoda B. Nathan

The Shaw Review , Vol. 17, No. 1, SHAW AND WOMAN (JANUARY, 1974), pp. 45-52

Published by: Penn State University Press Article Stable URL:


A Greek Bronze Sphinx George H. Chase

Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts , Vol. 50, No. 280 (Jun.1952), pp. 27-29

Published by: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Article Stable URL:



Eglal Henein

Merveilles & contes , Vol. 3, No. 1, Special Issue on “Beauty and the Beast” (May 1989), pp. 45-56

Published by: Wayne State University Press

Article Stable URL:

[1] Chase 27

[2] Hoffman 72

[3] Mertens 25

[4] Chase 29

[5] Hoffman 73

[6] Notes from class 4/15/13

[7] Pearson 22