There are several species of this dominantly female creature. The Grecian species has the face and breasts of a woman, the body of a lion, and the wings of an eagle. Others say they had a dog's body, tale of a snake, paws of lions and bird's wings. The Egyptian, or Andro-Sphinx, is similar to the Grecian except that she has no wings, while and Egyptian sub-species, the Crio-Sphinx, has the head of a ram or a falcon.
Persia, Assyria, and Phoenicia harbour sphinxes of both sexes. The males has beards and long curly hair. The shpinx of ancient Rome was female and probably of Egyptian origin, because she wore an asp, the serpent of the Nile, around her forehead.
Middle Eastern sphinxes are renowned for their wisdom, perhaps because they rarely reveal their knowledge and appear to be content to bask in the reverence of their worshippers. The Grecian species betray a totally different personality. They are voluble, aggressive, itinerant, and predatory, and have relish for human flesh.
Normally they walk around the countryside on their lion feet, but there are sphinx flight-paths between various Greek islands. A marked characterisitic of Grecian sphinxes is the feline, or female, practise of talking to and teasing their victims before devouring them. They are, however, what are known as 'sore losers', and if a victim escapes a Grecian sphinx she may fly into a self-destructive fury.
The best-known of the Grecian sphinxes is the one which the goddess Hera commissioned to punish the people of Thebes for their drunkeness, after Dionysus taught them to make wine. In typical sphinx style she was not content simply to crunch up some unwary Theban, but diverted herself by asking him a riddle (known, ofcourse, as the Riddle of the Sphinx) with the promise of freedom if he could answer it.
Nobody solved this riddle until Oedipus of Corinth approached Thebes during his self-imposed exile. The sphinx pounced out of ambush, licked her lips at the sight of the handsome young man, and after a little preliminary banter purred out her usual riddle:
'What is it that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening?'
'Why, a man, ofcourse. He crawls on hands and knees as a baby, walk on two legs as an adult, and supports himself on a stick in the evening of his days.'
The sphinx was so furious at her defeat that she flung herself into the sea, but it may be said that she won after all. The governor of Thebes was so pleased by the disappearence of the sphinx that he married Oedipus to the widowed queen, Jocasta, and made him king of Thebes. But it transpired that Jocasta was the mother of Oedipus and the Fates inflicted terrible punishment upon them for this crime.