A prominent figure in Egyptian and Graeco-Roman religions, the Egyptian sphinx appeared as mythological creature with the body of a lion and the head of a man, symbolising the king and pharaonic power. Such iconography was borrowed by Ancient Greek mythology, where the hybrid creature assumed female features and was regarded as treacherous and merciless. Typically, it would ask a person a riddle, and should the person be unable to answer correctly, they would have been killed and eaten by the sphinx. The creature appears in a variety of myths and stories – perhaps most famously as part of the myth of Oedipus, who was made king of Thebes for answering the sphinx’s riddle correctly: one of the first steps in the realisation of his fate.
This statuette is a beautiful example of the cultural and aesthetic syncretism which was common in antiquity across the Mediterranean regions. It was perfectly accepted in the Ancient world that other deities could exist and that they had no less legitimacy than those in one’s territory. The sphinx is an example of an Egyptian mythological creature adopted and adapted by the Greeks and the Romans. The Egyptians themselves could worship deities who did not originally belong to their own culture: for instance, Astarte, the warrior goddess from Western Asia, was said to come to protect the pharaoh in battle.
To discover more about religious syncretisms in Antiquity, please visit our relevant blog post: Religious Syncretisms in the Ancient Mediterranean Region.