She had the body of a great black cat, with the neck and head of a beautiful elf-maiden – though if that head was on a humanoid body, she’d have to be nine feet tall to match the scale. Her skin was flawless cream, her eyes glittering gold. Her long hair was midnight black, dropping down and mingling with the vast raven’s wings folded on her back. The black of her fur and hair was striped with bands of brilliant orange, and these seemed to glow in the dim light; when she shifted these stripes rippled like flames.
“Why are you doing this?” Daine said. “If you know so much about our destinies, why the riddles? Why not just tell us what you know?”
The sphinx smiled. “What answer do you wish to hear, Daine with no family name? That I am bound by divine and arcane laws, and have told you all that I can? That I have told you what you need to know to fulfill your purpose in this world? Or that I have my own plans, and I am shaping your destiny as much as any of the others who watch?”
“Which is true?”
“Which will you believe?”City of Towers
Sphinxes are enigmatic and inscrutable. For all their cryptic insights and challenges, in some ways the greatest riddle of the sphinx is the sphinx itself. Where do they come from? What is the source of their knowledge, and most of all, what is their motivation? In most tales a sphinx is found guarding some arcane site or artifact, only sharing its treasure or its knowledge to those who can pass its test. Why does it do this?
No sphinx will answer these questions. No power on Eberron can read the mind of a sphinx, and divinations shatter against their inscrutable nature. And so the sages of Eberron are left to ponder the riddle, studying the clues that are available. The first and most popular theory about sphinxes was presented by the loremaster Dorius Alyre ir’Korran. In his Codex of All Mysteries, ir’Korran asserted that sphinxes are living embodiments of the Draconic Prophecy. Their oracular abilities are tied to the fact that they are manifestations of the Prophecy and innately know the paths of the future. They are bound to their duties and found in portentous locations because they are literally instruments of destiny, positioned to guide and challenge the people who will in turn shape history. They slip through time and space because they exist beyond it. Ir’Korran suggested that although they appear to be individuals, sphinxes are in fact all part of a greater entity, fingers on a hand too vast for mortals to see.
For centuries most scholars have supported ir’Korran’s theory. Magister Mara ir’Lain observed that sphinxes often appear to be guarding tombs, temples, or treasures, but there are no reliable accounts of a sphinx being assigned such a task. An androsphinx that identified itself as Silverstorm challenged Harryn Stormblade in the ancient Dhakaani citadel below Cazhaak Draal, but the only Dhakaani account that mentions sphinxes is the story of Jhazaal Dhakaan outwitting a sphinx to obtain its secret knowledge. Ir’Lain believed that this supported the Codex: that as Silverstorm wasn’t posted by the Dhakaani, its stewardship of Cazhaak Draal must be tied to the Prophecy.
However, over the centuries, scholars have learned more about sphinxes. In his paper “The Sphinx in the Library”, Professor Cord Ennis of Morgrave University made the following observations (summarized for the terrestrial reader; Ennis doesn’t mention the Monster Manual):
- Sphinxes are powerful and varied spellcasters. The androsphinx in the Monster Manual is a divine spellcaster, using Wisdom to cast cleric spells. the gynosphinx is an arcane spellcaster, using Intelligence to cast wizard spells. While it’s possible that this is tied to the species of sphinx, it’s equally plausible that these are learned skills—that an androsphinx could master arcane magic, or a gynosphinx could channel magic through faith.
- While they often appear to be bound to some sort of duty, sphinxes seem to have personalities and even a desire to learn. The most well-documented sphinx of the modern age, Flamewind, resides at Morgrave University and often spends her time reading; she has been known to attend parties and theatrical events.
- Sphinxes are monstrosities, not celestials, fiends, or fey. This suggests that they are creatures of flesh and blood, rather than immortal incarnations.
Ennis challenges the Codex on multiple points. If sphinxes are extensions of the Prophecy, are they monstrosities rather than some form of celestial or fiend? Why do we see what appear to be both wizards and clerics among them, rather than a single path reflecting the channeled power of the Prophecy? Why did Flamewind attend the premiere of Five Lives, and even shed a tear in the final act? There are certainly reports of Flamewind assuming the role of the imperious oracle—as she did when first encountered, and as in the account quoted at the start of the article—and yet, she also seems to be capable of more casual interactions.
Cord Ennis believed this proved that sphinxes could have a more mundane origin: that they are mortal creatures, that they can study and learn, that they have more personality than the typical celestial. But as critics were quick to point out, no one has ever discovered any evidence of a civilization of sphinxes. There’s only a single account (discovered in Cul’sir ruins) of multiple sphinxes being encountered at the same time. All of this supports the Codex. There’s no signs of a sphinx civilization because sphinxes are tools of the Prophecy.
A team of researchers in the Arcane Congress presented a new theory, seeking to bridge the two: that sphinxes are creatures of Thelanis. The premise is that sphinxes aren’t instruments of destiny, but rather that they exist to drive the plot. Thelanis is the plane of stories, and its archfey often seem to enjoy seeing echoes of their stories in the world. Under this theory, the reason sphinxes show up at such dramatic times and locations is because the story needs them to—that they are some form of servants to the archfey, helping to guide the world in ways that echo the story of their masters. This ties to the fact that Thelanian creatures often show more personality and quixotic behavior than many other creatures, and that lesser fey aren’t immortal. While a compelling theory, opponents countered with the point that sphinxes don’t share the typical traits of Thelanian entities—which is to say, they are monstrosities rather than fey.
Most recently, Cord Ennis returned with a refinement of his thesis. Ennis suggests that sphinxes are mortal, civilized creatures, but that the reason there’s no evidence of any sphinx civilization is because they aren’t from this time. There are a number of accounts in which people facing sphinxes in their lairs are shifted through time—the apocryphal tale that Breggor Firstking was a beggar who was given a chance to relive his life and used his knowledge to become a king, or the story of the man who sleeps in a sphinx’s lair without permission and awakes a hundred years later. According to Ennis’s theory, the idea that sphinxes can move through time helps to explain both their seemingly oracular abilities and their interest in seeming cryptic actions; that their enigmatic behavior shapes future events in ways we don’t see, but they do. The lack of any signs of sphinx civilization is because it doesn’t exist in the scope of history as we know it. And further, the fact that sphinxes only manipulate time in their lairs suggests the use of some form of eldritch machine as opposed to the innate powers one would expect in a living manifestation of the Prophecy—that they accomplish time travel using a tool, rather than personal power alone. Ennis asserted that this could explain Flamewind’s observed behavior—at times the cryptic oracle, and at other times almost more of a curious tourist.
While intriguing, Ennis admitted that there was one piece of the puzzle that still escaped him. When do these time-traveling sphinxes come from? His first thought was the distant future—that they could even be some sort of mystically evolved descendants of the modern races. Yet if that were the case, is there no risk of their meddling changing their own future? Given this, he ultimately favors the idea that the sphinxes are from the very distant past—that they could potentially be the citizens of the FIRST civilization of Eberron, a society that predates the Age of Demons and whose existence was wiped from history by the dominion of the overlords. With this as a foundation, Ennis suggests that the actions of the sphinxes might not be the absolute demands of destiny one would expect from embodiments of the Prophecy, but rather a grand game. As their time is long past, the sphinxes don’t actually care what about the ultimate outcome; whether the overlords rise again or the daelkyr are unleashed doesn’t actually hurt them. Ennis further suggests that this could reflect the different techniques seen among sphinxes. The “divine” sphinxes—those wielding clerical abilities—could see their actions as being a divine mission, potentially even one mandated by the Progenitors (because what other gods were there at the dawn of time?) while the “arcane” sphinxes could be the scientists of their time. Thus, Flamewind could be in Sharn because she knows it is a nexus of elements she wants to deal with—events or people she wants to observe or influence—but that between those key events she is simply enjoying studying this time and place, so alien to her native time.
While these are all intriguing possibilities, as long as sphinxes remain inscrutable they will remain a mystery. Servants of the Prophecy? Agents of the archfey? Travelers from the dawn of time? All three are possible, and the only way to learn the truth is through adventure. Within their lairs, sphinxes have the ability to manipulate time and travel the planes.
Why Does This Matter?
The mystery of the sphinx is an important part of the creature, and something I want to maintain rather than simply providing an absolute answer. Are sphinxes time travelers? Agents of Prophecy? Shapers of story? All three are possible—but each has a different impact on both the role a sphinx may play in a campaign and on the mechanics of the sphinxes themselves. Most critically, the rules of the sphinx’s lair action state that the sphinx can shift itself and others to “another plane of existence.” It doesn’t specify which plane of existence or that the sphinx has multiple options. This answer—along with the circumstances under which the sphinx would USE its lair actions—likely depends on its origins. Because again, always remember that just because a sphinx CAN do something doesn’t mean it WILL. A Prophecy sphinx my have the POWER to shift people through time, but it may never use it if it isn’t required. So, let’s briefly consider the theories presented above and the ways these would impact a story.
Time Travelers. One of the core elements of sphinxes as time travelers is the idea that they are a mortal civilization. They are advanced beyond any civilization that exists today, but they are individuals using magical tools to accomplish these things—they are arcane scientists and divine spellcasters, capable of observing the tapestry of time and playing a great game they are playing with it. If this is the case, Flamewind in Sharn may indeed have very specific events she wants to observe and people she wishes to drive down specific paths, but at the end of the day she is a mortal wizard. She may play the role of being enigmatic and all-knowing, but there’s a touch of the Wizard of Oz; she DOES have knowledge of the future and of the potential destiny of the characters, but she’s not in fact infallible, she is playing her own game, and she also enjoys being a little bit of a tourist between those critical events. Should you follow this path, there’s a few points I’d consider.
- The spellcasting abilities of a sphinx reflect whether they are a divine or arcane spellcaster—essentially, a wizard or a cleric. Under this approach, gynosphinxes and androsphinxes are simply male and female sphinxes, and it should be possible to encounter an androsphinx wizard or a gynosphinx priestess. A key question is what divine power sphinxes serve; personally, I like the idea that they might have a different sort of relationship with the Progenitors than people of the present day.
- In shifting themselves or others to another plane, I would specifically use XORIAT. We’ve established that Xoriat is the key to time travel, and I’d assert that the time travel techniques being used by the sphinxes are based in this. The sphinxes aren’t creatures OF Xoriat and have no love for the daelkyr; they are scientists who are USING Xoriat. But they can also toss you into it for kicks.
- The lair abilities of a sphinx are tied to a form of eldritch machine. Most likely this is specifically linked to the sphinx and cannot be used or even understood by any other creature… But it’s POSSIBLE that someone who’s figured out the mystery of the sphinx and has access to their lair could find a way to hack their time machine. A second specific question is where Flamewind has her lair. If the lair is a machine, it’s not likely to be something she could build in Morgrave University. In the novel City of Towers, this is why she deals with the protagonists in the abandoned temple in Malleon’s Gate; she hangs out at Morgrave, but her LAIR is in Malleon’s.
- The final point is that time-traveling sphinxes are manipulating events, but they don’t have the same sort of agenda as heralds of Prophecy or Archfey emissaries. They aren’t invested in the outcome in the same way as, say, the Lords of Dust or the Chamber. Ultimately, this isn’t their time and the outcome won’t actually AFFECT them; it’s more intriguing than vital. However, divine sphinxes are more likely to be driven by a divine mission, while arcane sphinxes are more likely to be scientists and researchers.
Agents of the Archfey. If Sphinxes are tied to Thelanis, they are a form of fey; it’s up to the DM to decide whether to add the fey subtype or simply to say that you don’t HAVE to be fey to be from Thelanis. Sphinxes would effectively be Greater Fey—not truly immortal, but with a loose relationship to time and reality. A few thoughts about Thelanian sphinxes…
- The plane they can travel to is Thelanis. Their ability to manipulate time is something that they don’t use with great precision and essentially only use when it serves the story; they aren’t truly time travelers, but they can throw Rip Van Winkle ahead a century when it fits the story.
- A sphinx will be tied to a specific archfey, and its goals and the role it plays—guarding a location, posing a riddle—are tied to the story of that archfey. A Thelanian sphinx will be bound by fey logic: if it eats anyone who fails to answer its riddle, that’s not a CHOICE, it’s what it HAS TO DO. It MUST follow its role in the story.
- While they draw on wizard or cleric spell lists, sphinxes aren’t actually clerics or wizards; their spellcasting reflects innate fey powers rather than arcane science.
Incarnations of Prophecy. If they are incarnations of the Prophecy, sphinxes stand sideways to the conflicts of the Lords of Dust and the Chamber. They don’t seek to manipulate the Prophecy: they ARE the Prophecy. While they may not be celestials or fiends, neither are they mortal creatures: they appear when and where they are needed, and likely disappear back into the Prophecy once their purpose has been fulfilled. If you want to explain the curious behavior of Flamewind, one possibility is to say that while a Prophetic sphinx has a limited existence, during the time it does exist it is a conscious entity; that Flamewind has spent eons as a disembodied thread of the Prophecy and is enjoying this incarnate period while she waits for the purpose that has caused her to be made manifest comes to a point. Key points about Prophetic sphinxes…
- A Prophetic sphinx has no tied to any specific plane; as such, the planes it can access are likely tied to its specific Prophetic role.
- This likewise ties to its ability to time travel. Essentially, a Prophetic sphinx has no free will. It exists for an absolute purpose. It CAN manipulate time or transport people to the planes, but it won’t and can’t use this power unless it is necessary for the purpose it’s manifested to fulfill. If adventurers must travel to Shavarath, it will transport them to Shavarath. If they must go forward ten years, it will take them forward ten years. But it can’t just decide that it would be INTERESTING to take them forward ten years to see what happens, as a time-traveling sphinx might.
- The spellcasting abilities of a Prophetic sphinx are an innate part of its purpose and not skills it has learned.
- The sphinx only exists to fulfill a purpose, guiding or guarding a particular node of the Prophecy. It is quite possible that part of its purpose is to prevent the Lords of Dust, Dragons, or other forces from interfering with that Prophetic lynchpin. But it has no wider goals, and it will discorporate once its purpose is fulfilled.
Essentially, time traveling sphinxes are the most free-spirited and are essentially playing a game with their riddles and challenges, while Prophetic sphinxes are the least free-willed and most bound to an absolute agenda, with Thelanian sphinxes falling in between.
Don’t Time Travelers Break The Game?
The fifth edition sphinx has the ability to travel in time, and to take others with it. From a purely abstract perspective, this throws all sorts of wrenches into a campaign. If adventurers fight a sphinx, why doesn’t it just go back in time and kill their grandparents? If the daelkyr rise, why don’t the adventurers get a sphinx to take them back in time and undo everything?
First of all, that last point is an excellent argument for having that power: it IS an ultimate escape hatch. It means that you CAN put failure on the table. You CAN have have Rak Tulkhesh break its chains and drown the Five Nations in blood, and the only hope is for the adventurers to fight their way to Sharn and convince Flamewind to give them a second chance. From a narrative perspective, that option is a great thing to have. The trick is that it shouldn’t be something that trivializes every defeat… “Oh, Flamewind, I lost at cards last night. Can we redo that?” Which brings up a number of points: when they can travel in time, and when they will travel in time.
First of all: time travel is a LAIR ACTION for a sphinx. You may not meet a sphinx in its lair… and a particularly sphinx might not even HAVE a lair. In Sharn, Flamewind definitely can’t call Morgrave University “her lair.” Presumably, her lair was in the Xen’drik ruins where she was first found. I’ve suggested that she might have built a NEW lair in some abandoned part of Sharn, but it’s equally plausible to say that she just doesn’t have a lair in Sharn; if she wants to help you time travel, you’ll all have to make a trip to Xen’drik (and hope nothing else has taken over her lair!). So keep in mind that when you meet a sphinx guarding a tomb, there’s no rule saying that the tomb is actually its LAIR.
Second: Even if a sphinx COULD solve all your problems with time travel, why would it? The Thelanian sphinx is there to nudge the story in a particular direction, not to completely rewrite it; as said earlier, it’s likely doesn’t have full free access to time travel, and can only actually use the power when it fits the narrative (IE: it can toss Rip Van Winkle forward a hundred years, but it can’t take you back in time to murder King Jarot). The Prophecy sphinx is even more limited, bound by unbreakable bonds of fate to only do the things it’s supposed to do, and taking you back in time isn’t an option. The wild card is the time traveling sphinx, but here’s the catch: it doesn’t care about your problems. From the perspective of the time traveler, it sees the full scope of history, filled with uncountable deaths and tragedies. From your perspective, the release of Rak Tulkhesh is a horrible tragedy that could be stopped and hundreds of thousands of people could be saved. From the time traveler’s perspective, the rise of Rak Tulkhesh and those tragic deaths are just one page in the book of all history, one filled with countless tragedies and countless deaths; what the time traveler knows is that HISTORY GOES ON, and that in three thousand years these events will only be a memory. The time traveler’s job isn’t to defeat Bel Shalor for Tira Miron; it’s to challenge Tira Miron to realize that she has the power to do it herself. Or they might even just be here to watch! The release of Rak Tulkhesh in 998 YK is a fascinating moment in history and they’re just here to watch it unfold.
The short answer I’d give is that when dealing with a time traveling sphinx, decide EXACTLY WHY IT’S HERE. If it’s a divine sphinx it may have what it believes to be a divine mission. If it’s an arcane sphinx, it may be a tourist here to observe history or it might be playing a game, seeing if it can engineer a very specific outcome. Whatever the goal, nothing else matters to it. Everyone around it is simultaneously already dead and haven’t yet been born. You may want it to solve your problems, but your problems are no more important to it than the problems of every single other tragic person in history, and if it’s not helping them it won’t help you. It’s not here to beat Rak Tulkhesh for you—it’s here to give you the clue or the challenge, and then see if you do succeed… or take notes on exactly how things play out when you fail and then go home to the dawn of time, where that failure is just an entertaining anecdote.
Of course, there’s a third even zanier option to consider, following the model of The Magicians: How do you know that sphinxes HAVEN’T been resetting the timeline? Is it in fact possible that Flamewind is in Sharn to engineer a very specific outcome—and if it somehow fails, she will take the entire city back in time and replay the entire scenario until you dummies get it right? It could be that the adventurers somehow realize that Flamewind has prevented Rak Tulkhesh from being released thirty times already—but again, she can’t solve the problem, she can only pull everyone back a year and hope that this time you’ll figure it out. Or, on a smaller scale, you could have a Groundhog Adventure where each day ends with a second Mourning and the adventurers starting over again… Once again, Flamewind is reseting Sharn each time they fail, but she can’t actually solve the problem for them, because it’s their history. But again, it’s easy enough to say that this is the single reason she’s in Sharn… and once you to get it right, she’ll return to her own time for good.
Essentially, yes, unlimited time travel would cause all sorts of problems. So limit it. Limit what they can do (no lair, no travel; no violating the laws of the Prophecy; etc) and limit what they are willing to do. Your horrific apocalypse is just one page in a very big history book, and for the time tourist it’s a cool event to observe happen, not something they need to fix.
Looking the time travelers from the past, How do they handle and reconcile the fall of their civilization? They can go back to their home at the dawn of time, but eventually that time runs out on their civilization?
Certainly. It’s something we see in various versions of Atlantis. Imagine that they know that their civilization will end in one year. The overlords are going to rise and that is absolutely, 100% inevitable: Krypton WILL explode. They don’t have the resources to project their entire civilization beyond the Age of Demons; they can only support, say, one hundred time travelers. And it may even be that they can only support them for a certain amount of time, that they will eventually be pulled back to the doomed dawn. So those one hundred time travelers are essentially stretching that final year out for as long as possible by dwelling in other times — seeing as much as they can of a future their people will never know, cataloguing the wonders of eternity and doing what they can to be a part of legend—to create stories that WILL be remembered—before they are gone.
On the other hand, if you want a more activist story, consider this: what if the reason the sphinxes are tweaking history and shaping stories is because they are creating a point in the distant future that they CAN move their civilization to? Essentially, it’s an even longer game than the Lords of Dust. Each shift—each hero tested—is shifting the number of a combination lock. At some point they will create the future they are looking for, five thousand years from now, when Sphinx Atlantis can leap forward in time and be saved. So they could, essentially, be from both the past AND the future.
But What About Zenobaal?
Dragons of Eberron presents the idea of Zenobaal, a rogue dragon who refers to itself as “The Prophecy Incarnate”. One aspect of Zenobaal is that he has an alliance with a gynosphinx named Maris-Kossja, and that they have a brood of half-dragon gynosphinx offspring. How does that fit with this idea?
There’s a few factors: first and foremost, this article is based on the fifth edition interpretation of sphinxes, which positions them as being more rare and unique — as opposed to the default 3.5 approach, by which sphinxes are just part of the world. This article notably doesn’t address hieracosphinxes, for example. The second point is that I didn’t create Maris-Kossja or Zenobaal, and this article is based on how *I* use sphinxes — which is more reflected by Flamewind. With that said, I have no issues with Zenobaal, and I think it can work in this interpretation. The simplest approach is to use the time travel idea, because under that concept sphinxes ARE mortal and could have offspring; Maris-Kossja has come from the past or future, is fascinated with Zenobaal, and has chosen to produce offspring with him… creating that rare time when you could encounter multiple sphinxes. That’s pretty straightforward. The more exotic option is to go with the Prophetic Sphinx and say that this is evidence of Zenobaal’s deep ties to the Prophecy. Zenobaal is so bound to the Prophecy that it has literally manifested a mate for him—and that his half-dragon offspring are flesh-and-blood manifestations of the Prophecy.
In general, however, this article is based on the 5E interpretation of sphinxes and will not necessarily apply to all 3.5 uses of sphinxes. You’ll have to decide how to address other contradictions. If you go with time travel sphinxes, and interesting option is to say that criosphinxes and hieracosphinxes are MODERN sphinxes — that they are either the primitive ancestors of or devolved descendants of the time traveling sphinxes.
A warning: I am working on multiple deadlines at this point in time, and will not be answering as many questions on this topic as I often do. Feel free to post questions and thoughts below and to comment on other peoples’ questions; just keep in mind that I may not have time to answer them.
Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters, who chose this topic and the next one in the queue: Avassh, the Twister of Roots!