Ancient Wonders of the Aegean: The Sphinx of the Naxians

Dedicated by the islanders of Naxos, a conspicuous display of their vast wealth, the mysterious Sphinx guarded the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.

The Sphinx of Naxos stood on a tall Ionic column next the famous Temple of Apollo at Delphi, the religious center of the ancient Greek world. It served as a guardian within the sanctuary, erected near the sacred Halos (“threshing floor”), where, according to tradition, the god Apollo killed the serpent Python.

The sphinx, now on display in the Delphi Archaeological Museum, sits on its haunches with forelegs fully extended atop an early example of an Ionic capital. Over two meters tall, it has the head of a woman, the body of a lioness, and the wings of a large bird of prey. The feathers on the wings and chest are extensively detailed, while the face, bearing large triangular eyes and the enigmatic “Archaic smile,” points ahead. Carved from a large piece of Naxian marble and dating to 560 BC, it is one of the earliest examples of a carving in-the-round.

The combined height of the statue and the column would have reached a staggering 12.5 meters, evoking fear and awe among the pilgrims arriving at the sanctuary. It was dedicated by the islanders of Naxos, described by Herodotus as the richest of all Greek islands at the time, and served as a reminder of their power and influence.

Sphinxes were often associated with grave monuments or religious temples and frequently appear in Greek mythology and literature, most famously the cycle of Theban legends involving the House of Oedipus. They were regarded as malevolent and mysterious in almost equal measure.

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