Appropriately Sphinxlike?

A slight digression from my series on Ancient Egyptian Religion

So, before we move onward with my series on Ancient Egyptian Religion, I wanted to talk about the Great Sphinx, since we talked about the pyramids last week.

Now, the thing is, that if the exact symbolic and religious meaning of the pyramids is a mystery, the Great Sphinx has sometimes been made out to be like, that, times a hundred. On the surface, it seems pretty appropriate that over the millennia, “sphinxlike” has become an adjective meaning “mysterious”.

If you took a lot of Western Civ in school, you may remember that a sphinx as a mythological figure is not exclusive to Egypt, although the Great Sphinx, located near the Great Pyramids at Giza, is definitely the oldest sphinx we have record of. It’s dated to around 2570 BC (during the Old Kingdom). Sphinxes later began appearing in Greek and Mesopotamian storytelling and iconography around 1600 and 1500 BC, respectively. You may remember a sphinx featuring in the Greek tale of the unfortunate Oedipus.

If you watch a lot of “documentary-style” TV, you may also have heard that the symbology, meaning, and indeed the origin of the Great Sphinx is up for debate. I want to clear this up.

Egyptologists are, in fact, pretty darn sure of that circa 2570 BC date, and they’re pretty darn sure that that’s a pharaoh’s face sitting up there on the Sphinx – the Pharaoh Khafre. Now, why Khafre wanted his head up on that statute is a little more of a mystery. There’s far later examples of pharaohs represented as sphinxes, so there may be a connection between the early Egyptian sphinx and the ideas of power or guardianship. (In later Ancient Greece, the sphinx was often seen as a guardian or bearer of knowledge.)

By the time of the Egyptian New Kingdom, the Great Sphinx itself had become the center of a cult which connected it to the sun. The Pharaoh at the time even built a nearby temple for the cult – note that this is around 1000 years after the Great Sphinx was constructed. So, whatever the initial reason for its existence, the Ancient Egyptians continued to consider it important, at least during certain phases of their history.

Here’s the thing, though. If you look it up or watch “documentary-style” TV, you may see a lot more “fringe” types hypothesizing about the meaning and origin of the Sphinx. The idea that had me fooled for a long time (it had been presented to me as fact) says that the Great Sphinx is far older than 2570 BC and dates to Predynastic times (before the Old Kingdom). While this is a fascinating idea, created based on certain water erosion patterns noticeable on the Sphinx, there ended up being no real evidence for the theory when scientists examined the water erosion patterns more thoroughly.

There’s also argument that it’s not Khafre’s face up there, but another pharaoh. Arguments to this effect are based on comparisons between the face on the Sphinx and other representations of pharaohs. However, mainstream Egyptologists are pretty sure it is Khafre.

Further, there are even arguments that the face was changed over time. Suggestions include the original head being that of the jackal-headed god Anubis, which would make the original Sphinx no more than an idol figure.

For a long time, there was even a belief that an ancient Hall of Records was located under the Sphinx. This idea, which, admittedly, is pretty fun, has been propagated in pop culture works.

You may have even heard that Napoleon’s troops are the ones responsible for the missing nose of the Great Sphinx, having shot it off with a cannon for some reason. This would have been around the same time that Napoleon’s troops also found the famous Rosetta Stone, a much more useful accomplishment. In fact, the story of the nose is false – drawings from the time show that the nose was missing long before the Napoleonic Era. Other pieces of the statue, such as the traditional pharaoh’s false beard, which was once attached, have also become detached with time.

So, long story short, “sphinxlike” may have come to mean “mysterious”, but there’s nothing too mysterious about this particular sphinx, especially when compared with other aspects of Ancient Egypt.

Next week we’ll be taking a look at Ahkenaten, The Pharaoh Who Almost Broke Egypt, as we begin to wrap our series on religion.

(Do you have any questions you want me to answer? Topics you want me to cover? Comment below, and don’t forget to follow me on Facebook and Twitter @headdeskliz .)

Published by headdeskliz

Elizabeth Jacobson is the author of Not by Sight: a novel of the patriarchs. She lives and teaches in sunny California and loves fantasy, science fiction, and historically-based Christian fiction. She has multiple other titles in the works.

2 thoughts on “Appropriately Sphinxlike?

  1. I remember when the “older sphynx” theory first gained traction, and I thought it was fascinating. I thought, surely the water erosion evidence would upend our ideas about how Ancient Egyptian culture emerged.

    Then the guy who proposed this theory started saying that the pyramids were actually meditation chambers. I remember thinking, “Well, there goes all your credibility.”


    1. Lol, I thought it was fascinating too! What a door to blow open. Then it didn’t turn out to be true – oh well. And I did NOT hear about the meditation chambers until now. There’s a fun one. Haha.


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