Fictitious and Symbolic Creatures in Art, by John Vinycomb, , at sacred-texts.com
According to some heraldic writers, the sphynx should possess the head and bust of a woman, the paws of a lion, the body of a dog, and the tail of a dragon. In Lord Chancellor Bacon's book on "The Wisdom of the Ancients," there is an exposition of the meaning of the sphynx, which, says Dr. Woodward, is as curious as the creature itself.
It frequently figures in heraldry as a convenient hieroglyph to commemorate some service in Egypt. It is the crest of British families of Asgill, Baronets
[paragraph continues] Lambert, Goatley, &c., and appears in the arms of Sir John Moore, the hero of Corunna.
The strange combination of human and animal features in the figure known as the sphynx is of
frequent occurrence in both Greek and Egyptian mythology and art. The Egyptian sphynx is supposed to represent the combination of physical power, or the kings, as incarnations of such attributes. They are also associated with the special forms and attributes of the great Egyptian deities Osiris and Ammon, Neph or Jupiter, and Phreh or Helios. That is, we have the man-sphynx, the ram-sphynx, and the hawk-sphynx, or the lion's body with the head of the man, the ram, or the hawk, according to the deity worshipped. The sphynx itself was probably a religious symbol of the Egyptians, which was transferred
to Greece, and subsequently underwent a change of meaning. Among the Egyptians the sphynx seems to have been a symbol of Royal dignity betokening a combination of wisdom and strength. By the Greeks, however, it appears to have been regarded as the symbol of the burning pestilence-breeding heat of the summer sun. The form of the Theban sphynx was that of a lion, generally in a recumbent position, with the breast and upper part of a beautiful woman, and was in imitation of the original male sphynxes of Egypt. Greek Art was only acquainted with the sphynx in its female form, and also departed from the Egyptian type by adding wings to the lion's body.
"There is a great difference," says Sir Gardiner Wilkinson in his account of the sphynx, * between the Greek and Egyptian sphynxes. The latter is human-headed, ram-headed, or hawk-headed, and is always male; while the Greek is female, with the head of a woman, and always has wings, which the Egyptian never has."
In the Greek story the monster was sent by Hera (Juno) to devastate the land of Thebes. Seated on a rock close to the town, she put to every one that passed by the riddle, "What walks on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening?" Whoever was unable to solve the riddle was cast by the sphynx from the rock into a deep abyss. Œdipus succeeded in answering
it, and thus delivered the country from the monster, who cast herself into the abyss.
The sphynx occurs upon a coin of Chios (B.C. 478–412). It is represented seated before an amphore, above which is a bunch of grapes. Chios was famed for its wine, and the sphynx was a symbol of Dionysius. *
The Emperor Augustus, on his seal, used the device of the sphynx—"maid's face, bird's wings, and lion's paws"—"implying," says Mrs. Bury Palliser ("Historical Devices," &c.), "that the secret intentions of a prince should not be divulged. When Augustus was in Asia, he authorised Agrippa and Mecænas, who administered affairs during his absence, to open and read the letters he addressed to the Senate before any one else; and for this purpose he gave them a seal upon which was engraved a sphynx, the emblem of secrecy. The device gave occasion to ridicule, and to the saying that it was not surprising if the sphynx proposed riddles; upon which Augustus discontinued it, and adopted one with Alexander the Great, to show that his ideas of dominion were not inferior to Alexander's. Subsequently Augustus used his own effigy, which practice was continued by his successors."
Maurice ("Oriental Trinities," p. 315) says the sphynx was the Egyptian symbol of profound theological mystery, and was therefore placed on either side of the dromoi, or paths leading to the temples
of the gods. "They are black," he says, "in allusion to the obscure nature of the deity and his attributes. The white head-dress may allude to the linen tiaras wrapped round the heads of the priests." The origin of the myth was not definitely known even to the ancients. Some early writers say it was symbolical of the overflowing of the Nile, which happened when the sun was in the signs of Leo and Virgo; and that it had its name from this circumstance. "For," they say, "the word sphynx in the Chaldæan language signifies overflowing." The fact of the Egyptian sphynx being always male does not, however, accord with this derivation.
A statue of the Theban sphynx found in Colchester, and now in the museum of that town, gives the Greek conception of that creature. It is carved in oolite, twenty-five inches high, evidently a relic of the Roman occupation of Britain. It represents the monster seated over the mangled remains of one of its victims. Llewellin Jewett, in the Art Journal 1871, p. 113, describes it as "combining the five-fold attributes of a virgin, a lion, a bird, a dog, and a serpent. The head, breast and arms are those of a beautiful virgin; the body and teats of a female dog; hinder parts, hind legs and fore paws are those of a lioness; the tail doubled in short folds is serpent, and the wings those of a bird."
The same writer says: "The sphynx appears on the reverses of some coins of Cunobeline (Cymbeline,
of Shakespeare), struck in the city of Camalodunum (Colchester).
The gigantic statue of the sphynx half buried in the sand near the Great Pyramids, at Gizeh, is hewn and sculptured out of a spur of solid rock, to which masonry was added in places to complete the form. The actual age of the great sphynx is not known, but it is supposed to have been commenced under Cheops and finished by order of King Chefren, under whose reign also was probably built the second great pyramid. The able author of "Eothen" thus describes the appearance of the sphynx of Egypt, and the sentiments to which its contemplation gave rise in his mind: "And near the Pyramids, more numerous and more awful than all else in the land of Egypt, there rests the lonely sphynx. Comely the creature is, but the comeliness is not of this world. The once worshipped beast is a deformity and a monster to this generation, and yet you can see that these lips, so thick and heavy, were fashioned according to some ancient mould of beauty—some mould of beauty now forgotten—forgotten because that Greece drew forth Cytheræa from the flashing bosom of the Ægean, and in her image created new forms of beauty, and made it a law among men that the short and proudly wreathed lips should stand for the sign and main condition of loveliness through all generations to come! Yet there still lives on the race of those who were beautiful in the fashion of the elder world; and
[paragraph continues] Christian girls of Coptic blood will look on you with sad, curious gaze, and kiss your charitable hand with the big pouting lips of the very sphynx. Laugh and mock if you will at the worship of stone idols; but mark ye this, ye breakers of images, that in one regard the stone idol bears awful semblance of deity—unchangefulness in the midst of change—the same seeming will and intent for ever inexorable! Upon ancient dynasties of Ethiopian and Egyptian kings—upon Greek and Roman, upon Arab and Ottoman conquerors—upon Napoleon dreaming of an Eastern empire—upon battle and pestilence—upon the ceaseless misery of the Egyptian race—upon keen-eyed travellers—Herodotus yesterday and Warburton to-day—upon all, and more, this unworldly sphynx has watched, and watched like a Providence, with the same earnest eyes and the same sad, tranquil mien. And we shall die, and Islam shall wither away; and the Englishman, straining far over to hold his loved India, will plant a firm foot on the banks of the Nile, and sit on the seats of the faithful; and still that sleepless rock will lie watching and earnest the work of the new busy race with those same sad eyes and the same tranquil mien everlasting. You dare not mock at the sphynx." The conclusion of this rhapsody at the present time sounds almost like a half-fulfilled prophecy.
The sphynx is the special device of several British regiments which landed in Egypt, in the Bay of Aboukir, in the face of the French Army; and borne
as a memento of the battle of Alexandria, when General Sir Ralph Abercrombie fell in the moment of victory. It also appears upon the war medals of the English occupation of Egypt, resulting in the battle of Tel-el-Kebir, 1882, and subsequent victories. In heraldry the sphynx is usually couchant; it is, however, borne in other positions, sometimes winged, and when so borne the wings are always endorsed, i.e., back to back.
A sphynx passant, wings endorsed argent crined or, is the crest of Asgill (Bart. 1701).
165:* "Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians."
166:* W. Noel Humphry's "Coin Collector's Manual."