Monster Monday #6: Sphinx
Updated: Mar 4
Of the many creatures I talk about in these posts, the Sphinx will certainly be one of the more famous. It is likely that most people will have heard of it, whether they think of the popular monument that sends thousands of tourists flooding to Egypt every year, or the mythical creature on which the monument is based. In fact, those that think of it will most certainly think of Egypt, as well as it's penchant for asking riddles. But that is not all there is to this magnificent, ancient creature.
In ancient Egypt, the Sphinx actually referred to a grouping of distinct mythical beings, normally found guarding knowledge and secrets, or protecting temples and other sacred areas. There were a variety of 'types', each being a composite of two or more animals - the Androsphinx is probably the closest to the one we know, with the body of a lion and human head, while the Criosphinx had a ram's head instead, and the Heirocosphinx had a falcon or hawk's head. Those with human faces usually had the faces of previous Pharaohs and many historians say that they are the oldest combination of animal and man to emerge within art and religious iconography that we have. The Sphinx that we may be more familiar with nowadays - female face, wings, and the body of a lioness - is actually found in Greek mythology. This one is a little more villainous, seen as a man-eating demon rather than a deity or protector. It is found in the myth of Oedipus, in which it asked riddles of it's victims and proceeded to eat them should they answer incorrectly.
Sphinxes are also found in many other areas of the world in a protector or deity role like Egypt. In Assyrian mythology, Lammasu is a protective female deity that was seen as a hybrid of a human, bird, lion and/or bull. Though the creature itself is technically genderless, its 'male' avatar was known as a Shedu, and in Persian mythology a similar creature exists known as the Gopat. Traditions surrounding Asian Sphinxes are also still very much alive today unlike their Egyptian predecessors. There are many examples, including the Purushamigra (meaning 'human-beast') in South India, Guardian Lions or Foo Dogs in China or the Narasimha (meaning 'man-lion') in Sri Lanka. More broadly, Winged Cats or Winged Lions pop up all over history. The biblical prophet, Daniel, in Christian Tradition had a vision of the first beast being a form of Winged Lion. The Manticore is another famous example from Persian myth that the Greeks may have drawn inspiration from when devising their Sphinx - a man-eating creature with a human face, lion's body, spiked or scorpion’s venomous tail, and sometimes wings.
Nowadays, there are many examples of the Sphinx having an influence in pop culture and symbology. Aq Bars (the legendary winged snow leopard) and The Lion Of St. Mark (a winged lion associated with Mark the Evangelist) are commonly seen examples in heraldry and flags around the world. Sphinxes are found in books such as the Harry Potter or Discworld series, TV shows such as Digimon (specifically the character design for Nefertimon) and games such as Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, the Final Fantasy series, and God Of War. The guardian’s riddle is also a trope found in a variety of places and certainly draws inspiration from the Sphinx - in Labyrinth for example, the main character must solve a riddle told by two guardians (one always telling the truth, one always lying) in order to proceed.
So perhaps the idea of a Sphinx seems really cool to you and you want one in your game? It’s time for me to look at some helpful stat blocks then! Let's start, as always, with what Wizards Of The Coast provides.
There are in fact two stat blocks already provided for the Sphinx. First - the Gynosphinx (Basic Rules, page 348).
Being the in-game female Sphinx, this CR 11 beast closely resembles the real-life popular idea of this mythical creature and is a challenging encounter at higher level play. Its ability to Cast Spells, Damage Resistances, Multiattack, and Legendary Actions make this a pretty formidable opponent in fact! They even have Lair Actions, if you wanted to use them! I love that its skills reflect its role as a keeper of knowledge too, and Wizards Of The Coast have gone into a lot of depth when writing the lore surrounding it. My one gripe with 5e Sphinxes is the choice to make them Monstrosities. Given that both real-world and in-game lore ties them so closely to the gods, I would probably have picked for them to be a Celestial being instead.
Want a higher level encounter? Then try the male Androsphinx (Basic Rules, page 347).
At a CR 17 this is going to be a high tier encounter, and I love that about it! Looking at the differences, this stat block has access to some slightly different and higher level spells. The biggest addition that I can see however is the introduction of its three Roar abilities, each being more powerful than the last. I really like this idea, and it's a terrifying concept to see the Roar get more powerful each time it is emitted. Once again, Legendary Actions and Lair Actions make this a creature that players might want to get on side!
How about lower levels? Well my next choice is not a Sphinx, but shares a lot of similarities - the Lamia (Basic Rules, page 235).
Interestingly, the real-world mythical creature of the same name usually has the body of a serpent instead of a lion, but I presume that the role of human/snake hybrid was already filled by the Yuan-Ti and Naga. Though wingless and technically an 'Evil' creature, this CR 4 has a lot of potential for a lower level encounter with a Sphinx. It has magical abilities, but also relies a lot on its physical prowess, and feels very reminiscent of the Greek interpretation of the Sphinx. Perhaps it has been mistaken for a Sphinx instead, or is pretending to be one? Or maybe it is fallen/corrupted? I have a couple of other suggestions along these lines - one is the Manticore (Basic Rules, page 143) which is a CR 3 and has the human head, wings and lion's body in common with the Sphinx, with added tail spikes. The other is the Liondrake (Fizban's Treasury Of Dragons, page 207) which lacks the human face but is a CR 7 Winged Lion, has an interesting Blood-Chilling Roar ability, and could be given some adaptations to work as a Sphinx related plot hook. Even the Tressym (Baldur's Gate: Descent Into Avernus, page 241), though not very mighty, is a Winged Cat that gives me some Sphinx-esque vibes.
So what about outside of Wizards Of The Coast source material? Again - I have found some very viable options, and Kobold Press has been my best friend in the search! Meet the Lamassu (Creature Codex, page 247).
I mentioned this creature as being very similar to the Sphinx in real-world mythology and it is as a stat block too. It is CR 10, with Innate Spellcasting, Multiattack, and Legendary Actions. Even better - IT'S A CELESTIAL! A lot of its abilities centre on healing and this is down to the lore provided on its nature as a protector. It would certainly make a valuable ally, or a tricky encounter should your players incur its wrath in some way.
I would also absolutely encourage anyone to have a read of Metal Weave Games's Atlas Animalia also for some AMAZING Sphinx variants (among a ton of other creature variants), and the Atlas Animalia Statbook for its stat blocks. The Desert Sphinx (page 150, or page 90 in the Statbook) is the one that we know and love - at CR 13 it has access to some fantastic spells, but the thing I love most is its Maddening Riddle ability. The Quoll Sphinx (page 151, or page 92) is a beautiful CR 8 spotted variant looking as if it would be more at home in Grassland than the Desert. The River Sphinx (page 152, or page 93) is a little different, changing the lion's body for an otter's, giving it a swim speed, and placing it at CR 5. The Arctic Sphinx (page 153, or page 91) is probably my favourite at a CR 10 thanks to its icy-themed spells and Confounding Riddle ability.
I'm also a huge fan of a variety of stat blocks in Dragonix's Monster Manual Expanded III - there are a variety of Sphinxes to ponder over which lack human faces and remind me a lot more of the Egyptian variants that existed in folklore. I particularly love the CR 9 Crocosphinx (page 231) that makes use of the crocodile's famous Death Roll, and the CR 8 Threskisphinx (page 235) which has magical suppression abilities that is sure to challenge players that overly rely on magical weapons and items. They also have stat blocks for the CR 5 Lammassu (page 181) with a Fire Breath and interesting spells, and a Shedu that has a very unique psychic ability called Mind Hammer.
So what about plot hooks to get your players encountering one of these fine beasts? As usual, I have come up with some ideas that will hopefully get them interested!
The information that your players desperately need for their main quest arc is found in a forgotten library in the middle of the desert. It is said to be guarded by a creature though - one that will test them in some way.
A local village have begun worshipping a strange beast that claims it is a Sphinx sent from the gods to grant them boons, so long as they make sacrifices in return. Accounts vary on its appearance but the party are hired to find it and check that it its not deceiving the deity-fearing people in some way.
A creature guarding a sacred site that the party wants to explore tells them to answer its riddles. If they succeed in solving its puzzles, it shall allow them to pass as they are worthy of the secrets inside. If not, it shall destroy them.
While fighting an evil monster, a winged lion with a human face flies in and assists the party. It has a quest for them, should they want to aid it in return.
The party stumble across an abandoned city, entirely overrun by cats. Interestingly, all of them appear to have wings and as they explore they see the shadow of a similar creature much larger than what they have encountered so far.
Had you ever heard of the Sphinx before reading this post? Did you learn anything new? Would your players enjoy a puzzle-oriented creature encounter? Let me know!