Lesson 6) Sphinxes
Now that I have provided you with a foundation in the mind, and different types of mental magic, it is time to look at the mind in an entirely new way. From here on out, we will be applying the mind to creatures and how we can defend against them. In these remaining four classes, we will be covering creatures that require you to apply your intellect in order to defend against them. To begin with, we will be looking to the East and looking at the many forms the sphinx has taken, leading up to the discussion of the sphinx in our world.
Sphinxes in the Muggle World - Egypt
Before we can fully discuss the creature we know as the sphinx, it is imperative that we understand how Muggles perceive them, as this will open avenues for us to more thoroughly discuss aspects of the sphinx’s personality. We will begin in Ancient Egypt, where the sphinx has, for thousands of years, been perceived as a guardian of the pharaoh's tomb. In Egypt, the sphinx has always been portrayed in the form of a man. This is because the sphinx, once a guardian of the pharaoh’s tomb (which we will discuss shortly), always had the head of the pharaoh whose tomb it guarded. The most famous of these sphinxes is the Great Sphinx of Giza, shown here:
The picture, though impressive, does not nearly capture the majesty that is the Great Sphinx of Giza. However, why do we care about the sphinxes of Egypt? It is clear that, aside from the body - the body of a lion - that there is very little that connects the sphinx we see here to the sphinxes we know about already. In that, you would be wrong.
As mentioned, the sphinxes of Egypt served as guardians to the tomb of the pharaoh. All of the pharaoh’s most prized and valuable possessions were stored within the tomb. Therefore, the sphinx rapidly became known as the guardian of valuable treasures: in the Egyptian world, what was more valuable than the final resting place of the pharaoh and all his worldly possessions?
This portrayal of the sphinx - as a passive guardian - does, to an extent, come from the real sphinxes. Muggle sphinxes, similar to ours in that they serve as guardians, are much more passive. Real sphinxes can be extremely aggressive, especially if you answer their riddle incorrectly. In Egypt, the guardian status of the sphinx is symbolic, and it was expected that no one crossed its protective line. That said, not all portrayals of the sphinx are as friendly, and one in particular associates much more closely with our real sphinx.
Sphinxes in the Muggle World - Greece
The Greek sphinxes, on the other hand, were much more aggressive. These were living sphinxes that presented its foes with a riddle and, should the adversary be incapable of answering the riddle, they would be eaten. One of the sphinxes’ most famous riddles, which was recorded late in Greek history, reads as follows:
Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?
How many have heard this riddle before? If you have not, I would be most surprised, as it is repeated in many different forms, including the form I am most familiar with: “What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs at night?” How many of you still do not know the answer? By this point, I would certainly expect that my Sixth Year students are more than capable of handling a few riddles, however that brings us to the reason for the popularity of sphinxes in the magical world, a topic we will get to after a few minor points.
Similar to the Egyptian sphinx, the Greek sphinx has a lion body and a human head. However, the human head of the sphinx in Greece is almost always female, in contrast to the sphinxes of Egypt which displayed the face of the pharaoh. Greek sphinxes also have very prominent wings on their backs, as shown here:
You did not want to get on these sphinxes bad sides, as they were fast and furious if you got their riddle wrong.
Which now brings us to our own world, and why we needed to take the time we did here in order to discuss the properties of historical portrayals of the sphinx by Muggles.
Sphinxes in the Magical World
Unlike the Muggle portrayal of Egyptian sphinxes, our sphinxes are flesh and blood creatures, with claws that are incredibly sharp. They are extremely intelligent and capable of human speech. They have human heads, which are almost always female, and bodies of lions. In this sense, the Greek portrayal of the sphinx is more accurate, though it is uncertain where they got the wings on the creature. Here is a picture taken of the sphinx used in the maze during the 1994-1995 Tri-Wizard Tournament.
Image taken from the Harry Potter Wiki
There is one more difference that is far more crucial to fully being prepared should you ever find yourself in a position where you encounter this creature. The Greeks got their portrayal mostly right, however they misunderstood the length and complexity of the riddle. They assumed that the riddle was only a single line, at most two, and was layered enough that the answer was obscured without being excessively complicated. It would take the average competent person very little time to come upon the answer to the riddle.
This is very much not the case with the real sphinxes. In reality, the riddles are far more complicated. It is not unusual for a sphinx’s riddle to be eight to ten lines in length, with references that are very obscured and (in many cases) require a knowledge of the language used in order to be able to pick the appropriate word to correctly solve each part of the riddle. In the Tri-Wizard Tournament, the sphinx provided a riddle that had multiple parts, and each of the parts had to be combined to make the final answer. This meant that the listener had to remember all of the parts (though the sphinx willingly repeated the riddle as often as requested), remember the answer to each of the parts, and then piece all of the parts together, which was not as easy as it sounds. Under the pressure of being eaten, how many of you could come up with a correct answer?
Why a Sphinx?
Now, at this point the lesson, you may well be wondering why it is that sphinxes have been so popular as guardians of valuables - even to the point that Gringotts has been known to use them. In short, it is because we are illogical. It may sound emotionless, but it is true. For all of the magic we have at our disposal, magical people often prove incapable of applying an ounce of logic to situations. They can determine the right spell to use, and can effectively counter situations, but ask them to complete a logic puzzle, or to use wit, and they will fail the test - with the exception, perhaps, of our Ravenclaw students who I hear are quite used to riddles.
This is why the sphinx proves to be an effective guardian, and also why the private ownership of them has been made illegal. No individual requires a creature such as a sphinx to guard anything that they have in their homes; if the object in question is that valuable, it should be kept safely in Gringotts, or a similar wizarding bank. Because the average magical person would find themselves incapable of answering the sphinx’s riddle, and therefore would be eaten (which is also considered inhumane by the Ministry of Magic), it has been prohibited to keep a sphinx as a personal pet or guardian. However, business do have the ability to apply for a license to own a sphinx, though even those are rarely granted unless a strong case is made.
To end our lesson, we come to the question of what you should do should you find yourself in a position where you have incorrectly answered a sphinx’s riddle and are facing its claws. In short, you will have to think on your feet. Sphinxes are fast, will not stand still for long, and can dodge spells without losing their stride. They are quick, cruel, and efficient at their job. No magical person who has ever gone into an encounter with a sphinx and incorrectly answered the riddle has walked away alive, so no tests have been able to be successfully completed that allow us to know more about the magical properties of the sphinx. It is impossible to know whether they have magical resistance, or if, should you be lucky enough to land a hit, spells could be used to escape an attacking sphinx. The best advice I can provide is for you is, if you are not confident in your ability to answer riddles (and I mean completely confident that you will get it right), take the option of remaining silent and walking away from the sphinx. It will allow you to leave if you have not heard the riddle.
Which now brings us to the end of the lesson. For your essay, I want you to attempt to use the logic I have been encouraging you to attain since the beginning of this course. I will present you with a sphinx’s riddle, and I want you to break it down piece by piece, analyze it, and attempt to determine the correct response. I will expect you to be able to analyze the full riddle, not simply guess the correct response.
Off you go.
Note: Images not otherwise credited were found through Google Images searches for "sphinx" and variations of.