Chances are, when you see a sphinx, it’s going to ask you a riddle. Chances are, if you get it wrong, it’ll bite your head off.
So, no pressure.
Let’s practice, okay? I promise not to eat you if you get it wrong. I will only shake my head and silently judge you.
Where in the world did the sphinx originate?
*hums the Jeopardy theme*
Okay, time’s up! Ready for the answer? I’m betting you said Egypt. Maybe that’s unfair—I did kind of prime you with that picture up there. It may surprise you to learn that this is incorrect!
It’s okay, I did promise not to eat you.
But, yes—as of this writing, the oldest known depiction of a sphinx was uncovered at a site in modern-day Turkey. Archaeologists estimate the carving goes back to 9500 BCE.
So, yeah, old as dirt.
Now hold on just a second, you might be thinking, just because that’s the oldest known carving doesn’t necessarily mean that’s where the idea of the sphinx came from. True—one of the neat things about archaeology is that we’re always discovering new things about our own past.
(And in case you were tempted to assume, like I did, that sphinxes must have originated in Africa because that is where lions live, think again. A quick google will tell you that lions once ranged across Greece, the Middle East, and into India.)
So it’s reasonable to guess that the sphinx legend originated somewhere in the modern Middle East. The most well-known versions of the sphinx in the Western world are the Egyptian and Greek incarnations. While Egyptian sphinxes are typically male and Greek ones female, both share the same role. They guard important locations like temples and test intruders with riddles.
Most Asian cultures with a sphinx-like mythological creature—that is, any human-headed leonine creatures—also characterize them as guardians of some kind. In South India, statues of a purushamriga (human-beast) often sit outside temple entrances to protect them from evil. Thai legends tell of a creature with a human upper body and a lion’s legs called Thep Norasri, though sometimes they have a deer’s legs instead. Thep Norasri are guardians, too.
In Western culture, though, the sphinx isn’t always a good-hearted guardian. Its morality seems to boil down to “well, if they can’t answer my riddle then it’s totally okay to eat them.” Let’s be generous and call them neutral. Or maybe just hungry.
So let’s focus on what makes the sphinx infamous: its riddles.
I love a good riddle. Pretty much nothing makes you feel cleverer than solving a riddle. Oh, you graduated from an Ivy League school? That’s pretty cool, I guess, but I know what walks on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three in the evening, so there.
People love riddles because they’re almost always trick questions. Solving a riddle feels like outwitting the question itself.
A good riddle is a game that implies a set of rules and then makes you break them. Look at that riddle above—it’s a metaphor. If people literally lost legs and grew new ones in that way, well, the field of medicine would look pretty different, for starters. (Yes, the answer is “A human.” Sorry if I spoiled you on one of the oldest riddles known to mankind.)
It’s like calling someone out on lying when they haven’t technically said anything untrue, if you look at it from a certain perspective. Doesn’t everybody love calling out That Guy?
People love to feel smart, they love getting away with breaking the rules—so they love riddles. It’s not hard to see why the sphinx would be a popular mythical creature.
In fact, the sphinx’s legacy is everywhere. You don’t have to go to Egypt or open a history book. Even Harry Potter has met a sphinx. Beyond people-headed lions, the riddling gatekeeper has become a wildly popular trope in all kinds of pop culture. From Labyrinth to Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Doctor Who‘s “Pyramids of Mars,” our ancient love of riddles is alive and well today.
And there may not always be a sphinx, but the consequences are always deadly.
Prompt: It’s challenging to come up with a good riddle or puzzle, especially if you have to take different age groups or education backgrounds into account. Try making up your own. Even better, post it in the comments—try and really stump us!