The Origins of the Sphinx
One of the greatest mysteries of the ancient world is that of the origins of the Great Sphinx of Giza. Even in antiquity, the Sphinx, one of the most recognizable symbols of ancient Egypt, was under a veil of secrecy. Where did the image of the half beast - half woman come from, and why is there so much mystery surrounding her? In the original story of the Sphinx that guards Memphis, she has the form of a half lion - half woman who also has the tail of a serpent. This may make a little more sense at the conclusion of this article, but before I share my discovery, let us first take a look at what we know about this unusual goddess.
First, the word Sphinx actually comes from the Greek language. This is not so unusual as there was much trade between the two cultures going back into antiquity, not to mention the Ptolemaic Dynasty. To the ancient Egyptians, however, this fearsome goddess who lies at the foot of the necropolis was known as Sekhmet, the lioness who guards the entrance to the Amduat, the ancient Egyptian underworld.
To understand Sekhmet is to understand all of who she was to the ancient Egyptians. This lioness held a significant place of honor in the ancient Egyptian Parthenon. She was not only the guardian of the entrance to the Egyptian underworld, but also Hathor, the daughter of Ra. Known as The Eye of Ra and Lady of the West – the land of the dead, and worshiped as a funerary goddess particularly in Thebes, she is synonymous with Isis, holding the same power, but in other tales she is the daughter of Isis. Hathor was depicted as a cow goddess, wearing the horns or fertility in her benevolent form, but in her aggressive form she was Sekhmet, the lioness.
Most of the statues of Sekhmet are of a lion-faced woman. This does make me wonder why the Great Sphinx wears a decidedly human one and possibly a male one at that. Could it be that a different face originally adorned the Great Sphinx of Giza?
It has long been a point of speculation as to what face the Sphinx originally wore and whose face is it that it currently wears? Is it the Pharaoh Tuthmosis IV’s visage that we look upon? As a young man he heard the voice of the Sphinx in a dream while he napped beneath the exposed head and cleared away the sand so that he could rule one day. Or is it Djedefre, son of the Pharaoh Khufu, who built the Great Pyramid? This young Pharaoh ruled only for a short period of time before he died and his brother, Khafre, assumed the title and built the other large pyramid on the Giza Plateau.
We know that during times of economic struggle that it was common for Pharaohs to recycle many of the statues, carving their own likenesses into them. Could this have happened? Did the Pharaoh Djedefre die too early in his reign to have a completed pyramid? Was the face of the Sphinx then retooled in his image?
Regardless of the face that now adorns the Sphinx, the practice of re-carving the image does not account for the steep slant of the forehead when compared to these Pharaohs’ other statues, an error that the ancient artisans would not have made on purpose.
The real controversy in regards to the head of the Sphinx is that it could be much older than either of these Pharaohs whose image it may now bare. There is some evidence to suggest that two of the temples that sit below the Sphinx, known as the Valley Temple and what remains of the Old Sphinx Temple, were built long before the pyramids. One argument for this is that the stone footings placed along the base of these buildings are much larger and unlike other structures of the same size built at that time. The Sphinx Temple was also constructed to have a nice view of the Sphinx, another indication that it existed before the Temple. There is also another strange anomaly about them. The stone walls are not adorned or decorated with hieroglyphs like the walls inside other temples built in that same period.
We can date part of the Sphinx. In the Fourth Dynasty, stones quarried from around the body of the Sphinx were used to build the pyramids that sit behind it. The head of the Sphinx, however, remains an enigma. It was most likely exposed long before the building of the pyramids on the Giza Plateau as the weathering of the stones does not match. True, it is of a harder deposit, but the head was exposed in the landscape not only in the tale of Thutmose but again when Napoleon and his group of scientists and artisans came upon it in 1800. It is only the body that was covered for centuries and most likely the head was always above the ever-shifting sands.
It is easy to see that like many of the rock formations that dot the landscape in the desert, that also take the form of an animal, that the head of the lioness was already a prominent outcropping and was highly revered long before Amenhotep chose the area for the building of the pyramids. In fact, it may very well be because of the sacred spot it occupied that the famous architect chose the spot.
So how old could it be? There is an account in the ancient stories that tells us that all of the Pharoahs of Egypt were crowned in a ceremony held at this site. The Sphinx is known as the goddess that selected the new Pharaoh. In a procession that started in Memphis they approached the Sphinx from the Nile and on to Luxor in a coronation that transformed the Pharaoh from a man into a living god by his receiving the royal ka, or soul. What was it about this area that made it so auspicious that every Pharaoh was both taken there at the beginning of his reign and at his death? The Opening of the Mouth ceremony also took place at the Valley Temple, preparing the Pharaoh after death for his journey through Amduat. This has also lead to speculation that the original face was that of Anubis, the god of embalming. So important was the site that Napoleon, Alexander the Great, and Cleopatra made sure to stand before its giant paws to claim their right to rule.
The other physical detail about the Great Sphinx that should not be overlooked is the folded headdress, or nemes, which adorns the megalith. It is the head covering worn by Shu, the god of the sky, atmosphere, light, and wind. He, too, is depicted as a lion along with his mate Tefnut, the goddess of moisture. The gold and dark blue stripes that decorate this particular headdress are associated with the day and night and were worn only by the Pharaoh as a symbol of power. Scientists have even found that the striped nemes which adorns the Sphinx was once painted gold and blue.
Looking further into the mythology surrounding this goddess gives us even more clues as to who she really was. One of the ancient stories tells of Ra calling upon Sekhmet to reap his vengeance on man for attempting to overthrow him. The lioness turned the fields to blood in her efforts, and it wasn’t until Ra took pity on man that he tried to pacify her blood lust with mead dyed by red ochre. Hathor, her human counterpart, also wears a red disk on her head between the horns of fertility.
A little known fact about ancient Egypt is that each area had its own version of the creation myth and a different set of gods that they revered. Powerful city states like Memphis and Thebes produced many of the Pharaohs that ruled Egypt, and it was the gods of these cities that were worshiped as the chief gods of ancient Egypt. These prominent gods eventually merged forming unions such as Amun-Ra.
Because of the amalgamation of the gods and goddesses in different areas, Hathor was known sometimes as the sister/wife to Horus, and in other accounts as his mother. In some tales she is the daughter of Isis and Osiris, yet still in other stories she is the mother of Ra. In poetry and at her temples in Dendera she was referred to as the Golden One and the Lady of Heaven. As Sekhmet she was thought to be a bringer of plague (no doubt due to the wiping out of mankind thing) and as such she became the goddess of medicine as the people tried to placate her. There are also magical connections. Statuary of her standing with the head of a lioness and the body of a woman holding magical serpent wands have been found in tombs. In Thebes the lion headed Goddess of the West, Amaunet, was the consort of Ptah, the Memphite god of the underworld. She was a primordial goddess, and part of the Ogdoad.
How do all of these various versions of Sekhmet relate to the Sphinx you ask? It is time I think to unveil my discovery of the true origins of the Sphinx. Sekhmet, the guardian of the Amduat rules the sky from her mighty perch. Her image etched on the moon as it sets in the West is why she is known as the Lady of the West. To see her true image and the one that the Great Sphinx may have originally worn one must gaze up at the moon.
It is Sekhmet’s image that rules the night as the moon sets.
. . . But she is not alone.
The images of the moon show the Sphinx transform into the very image of what she may have looked like originally.
To learn more about who else claims a place on this lofty throne please see the article entitled “The Enigmatic Symbols of Ancient Egypt – The All-Seeing Eye” below.
You can see now why the God of the Sky and the Sphinx have so much in common. The moon’s unique ability to be visible in both the day and the night sky explains why wearing Shu’s headdress with its strong blue and gold stripes is fitting.
This also answers one of the perplexing questions surrounding the parentage of Khonsu, the lunar deity of Thebes. His father was Amun, but the contradictions regarding his mother are numerous. In some tales she is Mut the sky goddess, in others the lion-headed goddess of the West, Amaunet, and in others still she is Wadjet, the cobra goddess. Those of you who read the first part of the Enigmatic Symbols of Ancient Egypt will see the correlation of Wadjet and the Sphinx being linked in this manner and also the Sphinx in Memphis’s serpent-like tail.
It should also be noted that the red disk that Hathor/Sekhmet wears which rests between the horns of fertility is not the sun it has been confused with, but something else entirely.
Please join me next month when I discuss the unknown or misidentified hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt.
Author -Barbara Ivie Green
Author -Barbara Ivie Green
You can read more about the Sphinx and the ancient gods of Egypt in my book, Treasure of Egypt, the first book in the Treasure of the Ancients series by clicking the book.
To read the other articles on The Enigmatic Symbols of Egypt, click below:
Part I - The All-Seeing Eye
Part III - The Misidentified Symbols of Ancient Egypt
Part IV - The Lost Symbol of the Sun and The Wings of Isis
Part V - The Unknown Symbol of Ancient Egypt