The Great Sphinx in Egypt: Definition, Facts & History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Explore the history and meaning of one of the greatest wonders of the ancient world, the sphinx, and test your understanding about ancient Egypt, the Pharaohs, and Egyptian mythology.

The Creature that has 4 Legs at Dawn

What goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet in the evening? Give up? Then you get eaten by a riddle-telling monster.

The Great Sphinx

This was the riddle of the Sphinx, a creature from mythology that had the body of a lion and head of a person. That riddle came from the tale of Oedipus, but perhaps the most famous sphinx is the one that guards over the great pyramids in Egypt on the west bank of the Nile. This statue is 241 feet long, 63 feet wide, and 66 feet tall, making it the largest monolith statue in the world. Monolith statue means it was carved from a single piece of stone rather than assembled. The exact origins of the Great Sphinx of Giza remain a mystery, but the popularity of this colossal statue is no riddle. Oh, and by the way, the answer to the sphinx's riddle in Oedipus was 'humans'.

The Sphinx in Mythology

In ancient mythology, a sphinx is a creature with the body of a lion and the head of a person. It was often a guardian of something and renowned for ferocity and cunning. In Greek mythology, the sphinx always had the head of a woman and often wings of an eagle, but it was always referred to as a foreign monster that came to Greece from Ethiopia or elsewhere in Africa. This suggests that the Greeks were aware of sphinxes that predated their own culture.

Egyptian sphinx with face of Pharaoh Hapshetsut

The oldest sphinx statue ever found was in modern-day Turkey, and dates to around 9,500 BC. The first identifiable Sphinx in Egypt seems to have the face of Queen Hetepheres II and dates between 2723 and 2563 BC, the dates of her political dynasty. It became common practice for Egyptian pharaohs to present their faces on a sphinx, probably as an association with the solar deity Sekhmet who took the form of a lioness.

The Great Sphinx

The Great Sphinx is a monumental statue carved from a single piece of limestone, and is one of the oldest colossal statues in the world, if not the oldest. We do not know what name the statue originally held; the term sphinx comes from ancient Greece. Although there are no records to tell us the exact date of its construction, it is believed to have been built around 2500 BC for the pharaoh Khafra (c.2558- 2532 BC), builder of the Second Pyramid at Giza. Archeologists also believe that the face of the Sphinx is Khafra's. The architectural styles and techniques in the complex of the Second Pyramid are consistent with those of the Sphinx, leading archeologists to determine they were built together.

Great Sphinx of Giza with dramatic lighting

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