Or Pawprints on a Riverbank
Who invented the sphinx? When Prince Thutmose had his dream in the shadow of the Giza Sphinx, it was already so old as to be considered practically ageless. “The sand oppresses me,” said the Sphinx, see how it irks and suffocates me. Free me from its grip and your reign will be long and prosperous.” Or something to that effect. Young Prince Thutmose was dreaming god-king dreams. Or perhaps he was thinking of his legacy. Or, chances are, he was thinking of both, and creating the first legend of the Giza Sphinx in passing.
Thutmose commanded the sand to be cleared from around the statue, built a temple between the outstretched paws, and set a tablet of red granite 14 feet tall, recording the tale.
Seven times the sand was cleared from around the Sphinx, six times it returned. Now it is not sand that surrounds the Sphinx, but drifting crowds of tourists, all come to see what is perhaps the oldest statue on earth.
But if the Giza Sphinx was already old, the very idea of the sphinx was far older, so old as to be forever lost. While the statue at Giza largely defines the Egyptian sphinx for the general public, there are countless others.
Juxtaposing human and animal elements is as old as Art.
Even etymology provides a clue, or at very least a tantalizing hint: one of the meanings of “sphingien” is to “draw tight” or “bind together”; in the case of the sphinx a binding of lion and human elements into one being.
Placing animal heads on human bodies – Isis, Osiris, Sobek, Sekhmet, Horus, even Taweret with her ample belly – confers upon them a terrible majesty. All sense of scale is removed; they look down from above, linked by their upright stature to the heavens. Gods should stride, not crawl or slither, unless all desire to identify them with ourselves is renounced. Inscrutable animal faces become masks of majesty, but we are still connected to them because both they and man walk upright; they are us, but grander, awe-inspiring, worthy of worship. Setting in monumental stone man’s need to raise gods above us in representation and in spiritual association, setting them above and apart, although connected, in overarching splendour. Man must needs represent his gods in grand style, powerful and pleasing, to both honour and propitiate. Gods that become feral shrink in scale, rejoining folklore through a diminution of stature and a certain surrendering of whole to their purely animal aspects.
Human faces affixed to animal bodies are potentially more disquieting, especially if arms become animal forelimbs; everything hinges on attitude and depiction. The Egyptian sphinx, the Theban sphinx and the manticore all have human heads on lions’ bodies. The first is benevolent, caring, a guardian of sun rising and sun declining, of life on this earth and the life after, a guardian of tombs. The second cultivates ambiguity, both devourer of men and guardian of souls (arguably, the wings are involved too, taking the Theban sphinx to a higher level of the fantastical), whereas the manticore is a ravening predator, a man-faced beast with a triple row of teeth. The Theban sphinx has no fangs – animality contained but only just – but the manticore, by baring needle fangs, drops all pretense of humanness; it is a disquieting beast with a human countenance.
The Sphinx of Egypt never shows its teeth. Tight-lipped. Inscrutable, despite all of the exhortations to “Smile, please!” for the tourists.
Inscrutable, but not all human-headed. Besides androsphinxes (some specialists divide this category into two, adding gynaecosphinxes), there are criosphinxes with the heads of rams and hieracosphinxes with heads of hawks or falcons. (All are Greek terms; we do not know their Egyptian names.)
A. Basalt criosphinx.
B. The so-called sphinx avenue at Karnak.
C. Nubian pendant with ram-headed sphinx, Napatan Period, 743–712 BC.
D. Androsphinx et criosphinx, Aménophis III—XVIIIe. dynastie. From the Description of Egypt, 1878.
E. Thèbes. Karnak. Vue et détails des Sphinx de l’Avenue des propylées du palais. From the Description of Egypt, 1812.
F. Thèbes. Karnak. 1-3. Vue et détails de l’un des sphinx placés à l’entrée principale du palais; 4. Détail de l’un des sphinx. From the Description of Egypt, 1812.
G. Steatite scarab, Canaanite, 18th – 19th dynasty. Criosphinx wearing a double plumed crown and two uraei attached.
H. Openwork ivory plaque with two ram-headed sphinxes guarding a tree.
I. Openwork plaque with criosphinx, Arslan Tash, Syria, 9th – 8th century B.C. These criosphinxes are also depicted with an aegis, similar to that worn by the god Tutu/Tithoes.
A. Hieracosphinx on a pillar of the temple of Kom Ombo, dating from the Ptolemaic period.
B. Pectoral depicting Horus and Seth. Middle Kingdom, 12th Dynasty, probably reign of Senwosret II or Senwosret III.
C. Gold pectoral with semiprecious stones, from the reign of Sesostris III.
D. Bas-relief at Edfu temple, Ptolemaic Period, between 237 and 57 BC.
E. Falcon-headed Sphinx, circa 525-30 BC.
F. Bas-relief of hieracosphinx with double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt facing vulture god Nekhbet.
G. Limestone statue of a hawk-headed sphinx from Abu Simbel, 19th Dynasty, about 1250 BC.
Most sphinxes are recumbent – the classical pose with front paws outstretched, rear legs tucked along their flanks, head erect. Monumental sphinxes all assume this pose; regal, leonine, tranquil but vigilant. Perhaps there is a certain justifiable concordance of force and majesty with simple mechanics, mass of stone and weight of majesty, which favours the recumbent rather than the standing or striding. (Avoirdupois can be also be a spiritual measure.) The particular attention paid by artisans and sculptors to their gods is certainly to please their clients, both temporal and spiritual, but also to ensure a place in the afterlife. After all, a recumbent sphinx is also a striding vengeful purposeful god, if in temporary repose.
But the sphinx is not always recumbent. Sometimes he is on his feet, and in those instances, he is generally trampling Egypt’s hereditary foes underfoot. Or he can be standing, or sitting, like a great cat.
The Egyptian sphinx can also have wings, usually on sphinxes standing, striding, or more specifically trampling enemies. Winged sphinxes appear on thrones, a reminder of solar symbolism: the lion’s majesty is earthbound; wings lift him to the sky. Sphinxes are serious contenders for the role of the original cherubim, but of that, more later. These sphinxes do not represent majesty, but uphold it.
Or, the Sphinx may, in his or her many incarnations, be petitioning the gods, or making offerings of thanks. Sphinxes in attitudes of worship and propitiation abound. In these cases, they have human forelimbs, as if the awkward anatomy of the feline paw, wholly bent on catching and rending, is both physically and symbolically unfit for a gesture of offering, even with claws respectfully sheathed.
Sphinxes in all attitudes: silently sitting, suddenly striding, supplicating.
Left: SPHINX TRAMPLING THE ENEMIES OF EGYPT
A. Ceremonial Openwork Shield of Tutankhamen as a Sphinx.
B. Cedar chair panel of Thutmose IV, New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, circa 1400–1390 BC.
C. Mural depicting the throne of Amenhotep III.
D. Decorative plaque showing Egypt’s enemies bowing in supplication before the pharaoh as sphinx.
E. Hieracosphinxes trampling Egypt’s enemies.
F. Striding sphinx (possibly also represents the god Tutu).
G. Tutankhamun tramples Egypt’s traditional foes: Syrian or Asiatic and Nubian.
H. Griffin trampling enemies, bas-relief of a palace in Luxor.
Right: SUPPLICATING OR WORSHIPPING SPHINXES
A. Akhenaton as Sphinx, from Amarna, circa 1353 BC.
B. Akhenaten as a sphinx, 18th Dynasty, Reign of Akhenaten, 1353-1336 BC.
C. Sphinx of Amenhotep III, circa 1391–1353 BC.
D. Sphinx offering jar to Amun.
E. Sphinx du roi Apriès, bronze, 26th Dynasty, 589-570 BC.
F. Sphinx of Tutankhamen, calcite, circa 1340 BC.
G. Sphinx of Tutankhamun at Karnak.
H. Sphinx of Ramses II offering jar to Amun.
I & J. Sphinxes of Menere I.
K. Sphinx of Shepenwepet II, 25th dynasty, 670-660 BC.
L. Carved plaque representing Queen Tiye (c. 1398 – 1338 BC.)
M. Horemheb as sphinx.
N. Openwork ivory plaque, possibly representing Queen Tiye, Megiddo, circa 1300 BC.
O. Openwork ivory plaque, possibly Queen Tiye.
The Kushite conquest of Egypt brings a new kind of sphinx to the pantheon. The Kingdom of Kush flourished for nine centuries, from around 800 BC to 280 AD, holding power over a vast area reaching south as far as Khartoum. Meroe became the royal city from around 300 BC until the end of the kingdom. The Nubian queens and pharaohs reigned over part or all of Ancient Egypt from 760 to 656 BC (although there is a good deal of debate over the date of the actual conquest of the Libyan rulers that preceded them). The Nubian or Twenty-Fifth Dynasty began with Kashta’s invasion of Upper Egypt and ended with the invading Assyrians pushing them back up the Nile to their homeland. The capital of Meroe features steep-sided pyramids curiously like to the early engravings of Egyptian Pyramids, and not dissimilar to Cestius’ Pyramid in Rome. While it is unlikely any European travelers knew of them, the resemblance is quite uncanny.
The first pyramids were built in Meroe about 800 years after the completion of the last Egyptian pyramids; about two hundred can be found in the ancient burial site of the Meriotic Kingdom, built from large blocks of sandstone. The dead were entombed in chambers beneath the pyramids.
One of the first Europeans to visit Meroe was the French architect, naturalist and photographer Pierre Trémaux, who visited Nubia (it was then controlled by the Ottoman Empire) in 1847. The account of his travels, “Voyage au soudan oriental, Parallèle des édifices anciens et modernes du continent africain” was published in 1854 by the Geographic Society of Paris. A second edition followed in 1862, but it was never translated into other languages, and soon after was forgotten, only to be rediscovered after his death in 1895. The next notable visitor to Meroe came with less benign intentions; Italian explorer Guiseppe Ferlini is said to have smashed the tops off 40 pyramids seeking treasure. Much of what he stole ended up in German and British museums. The pyramids of Meroe have been extensively plundered. Recently, some have been restored and the site is now protected.
The sphinxes of the Nubian queens and pharaohs have exchanged the nemes for a full lion’s mane and lion’s ears. They have more muscular, naturalistic limbs, a more powerful silhouette than their northern predecessors. Kush is so much nearer to lion territory; physical might expresses symbolic might with lines that more closely mimic nature’s suppleness of muscles in repose, the Kushite sphinxes possess little of the simpler and often static stylization of their northern counterparts. The sphinxes of queens are often coiffed like the goddess Hathor, with two tresses ending in spirals on their shoulders.
Left: NUBIAN RULERS
A & B. Sphinxes of Amenemhet III, grey granite, from Tanis, 12th Dynasty.
C. Sphinx of Shepenwepet II, 25th dynasty, 670 – 660 BC.
D & E. Granite Sphinx of Taharqo, Kawa Temple, 25th Dynasty, 690 – 664 BC.
F & G. Sphinxes of Queen Hatshepsut, 18th Dynasty, 15th century BC. While Hatshepsut is certainly not a Nubian queen, these two depictions of her either prefigure or show the influence of fashion from the south, with lion’s ears and full mane.
H. A Sphinx of a Queen from the reign of Queen Hatshepsut, 18th Dynasty, 1479 – 1457 BC.
A, B, C & D. The pyramids of Meroe.
E. Illustration from Athanasius Kircher “De Coemiteriis sive adytis Aegyptorum veterum” (from the Sphinx mystagoga, Amsterdam, 1676).
F. “Egiptische Piramiden”, Olfert Dapper, 1670.
G. Cestius’ Pyramid, Rome. The pyramid was built around 18 to 12 BC as a tomb for Roman magistrate Caius Cestius.
H. Engraving of the Porta San Paolo.
I. Cestius’ Pyramid today, rather lost and a little forlorn in modern Rome.
J. “Denkmaeler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien…”, Karl Richard Lepsius (1810–1884)
K. Pyramids of Meroe, engraving from 1835.
L.“Die Pyramiden von Meroe – Stahlstich von W. French nach Max Schmidt Berlin und seine Kunstschätze”, Leipzig & Dresden, circa 1850.
M. Pyramid tomb of Nubian king Tarekeniwal (1st century BC), at Meroe, Sudan. Photograph from the University of Chicago expedition, 1905-06.
Right: NUBIAN SPHINXES
A. Red granite sculpture of a Sphinx, 300 BC to 300 AD.
B. Sphinx, Meroitic Period, 1st – 4th century AD.
C. Sphinx amulet, Kerma, 2400 – 1550 BC.
D. Fragments of female sphinx, Meroitic Period, 90 -10 BC.
E. Amulet in the form of a seated sphinx, Napatan Period, reign of Piankhy (Piye), 743 – 712 BC.
F. Cat with a Nubian woman’s head. Note the tresses inspired by the goddess Hathor.
The curled and upraised wings in Ptolemaic Egypt certainly come from Greece, as the Theban sphinx accompanied Alexander to Egypt, rather like the compatriot who has travelled abroad and returns sporting foreign fashions and new hairstyles. The first sphinxes with human breasts in place of lion’s teats appear on Egyptian soil. Or, if the sphinx is male, he may have a crown and a naturalistic beard. The sphinx can also be quite literally reduced to a supporting role, under the weighty reclining elbow of the Roman personification of the Nile. A circle completed, another bow to the fickleness of fashion and another layer of detail to the ever-growing catalogue of the many visages of the sphinx.
A. Plate depicting a seated sphinx, Eastern Greek Orientalizing Period, 6th century BC, from Naukratis in Egypt.
B. Ptolemaic bracelet depicting winged sphinxes.
C. Faience tile with winged crowned female sphinx, Qantir, Egypt, 3rd century BC.
D.Ptolemaic or Roman period, 1st century BC to 1st century AD.
E. Winged female sphinx, Ptolemaic period.
F. Detail of a sculpture of Euthenia, goddess of the Nile, Roman period, Alexandria.
G. Submerged sphinx. Alexandria.
The lion god Tutu, son of the goddess Neith of Sais in the Delta (from the Ptolemaic Period onwards his name was hellenized as Tithoes) is a latecomer to the pantheon. Popular in Ptolemaic and Roman periods, he is a syncretic god. First a demon prowling the dark, he gradually gained attributes like so many trophies until he became himself a protector against demons. It was to him that people prayed to intercede for good fortune, or for food, as local farmers prayed to the Giza sphinx for successful harvests. Images of Tutu/Tithoes are varied and unusual, even confusing, an amalgam of symbols of many provenances. He may have a simple mane or a wig, or be coiffed with the nemes or royal headdress, he also has the uraeus cobra on his brow. He may have a solar disc and ram’s horns, the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt, or even a halo with the rays of the sun, or several together. His tail ends, chimera-like, in a snake’s head or even a cobra’s, erect and ready to strike, with hood deployed, and he is shown treading snakes or Egypt’s enemies, or snapping arrow shafts underfoot. Often his acolytes form a crown about his head: Bes, Horus, Sobek and others. Or they may crowd about his aegis-covered chest; on his back he often carries other gods, in some cases a griffin with a shield. (As to the significance of the griffins riding sidesaddle, I have not been able to track down a valid explanation, but griffins certainly seem as ubiquitous as sphinxes, with even more complex, and very likely Egyptian, origins.) Or he may even have wings of his own. Or he may have a crocodile’s head, sharing leonine legs and feet with his depiction in human form, holding aloft a double-bladed axe in one hand and a defeated enemy by the hair in the other. Tutu falls squarely in the category of the “pantheistic worldgods”, cross-cultural deities who accumulate a potpourri of qualities from many others, witness to shifting power and borders, changing times and the waxing and waning of religions. Tutu would amply merit an in-depth study on his own.
THE GOD TUTU
A & B. Painted limestone effigy of the God Tutu as a Sphinx, trampling on serpents, Roman Period, 1st century BC.
C. Basalt bas-relief of Tutu, wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt, part of a gate to an Aramaic temple or palace in Damascus, then capital of Aram. 9th-8th century BC.
D. Tutu, with a curious coif, or possibly a mane.
E & F. Bas-relief of Tutu, depicting his associated gods and acolytes around his head.
G. A relief depicting the god Tutu. Treading on arrows, he is the protector of soldiers.
H. Stela depicting Tutu.
I. Tutu, depicted as wearing a nemes with uraeus, surmounted by a crown. The head is encircled by a halo with sun’s rays. The chest is covered with an aegis with a ram’s head on the left, and a crocodile on the right. Tutu’s tail takes the form of a cobra poised to strike. On his back, he bears a griffin with recurved wings like those of a Greek Sphinx, supporting a shield. A snake is under his paws, an axe and a pole arm appear behind his rear legs.
J. Statuette of Tutu.
K. Bas-relief of Tutu, showing his cobra-headed tail with deployed hood.
L. A most astonishing depiction of the god Tutu, his human and animal aspects shown in tandem, although they seem to be sharing four legs between the two of them.
M. Mural from the tomb of Petubastis, circa 520 BC.
N. Temple furniture fitting or bronze standard, Late Period, about 664-332 BC.
O. Bronze standard depicting Tutu.
Lions and humans… put the two the other way around and you have Sekhmet: woman’s body and lion’s head. The goddess Sekhmet is one of the oldest known deities of Egypt, generally depicted as a lion-headed woman, with a sun disc above her head. She is a creative and destructive force, lady of life, lady of terror, her name derived from the Egyptian word “Sekhem”, which means power or might. Above all, she is the protector of justice (Ma´at), “The One Who Loves Ma´at and Who Detests Evil”.
Sekhmet has a son, the Lion God Maahes, god of war, guardian and lord of the horizon. Far more recent than his mother, Maahes appears only during the New Kingdom, where he rides the sun boat of Ra, helping keep Apep at bay during the nightly voyage through the Land of the Dead towards each new dawn. Usually he appears as a lion-headed man, bearing dagger or sword, though he can appear as a lion devouring a captive.
Indeed, it’s tempting to seek out Sekhmet’s siblings, lion-headed gods and beings seem to be everywhere. Apademak is the Nubian lion-headed warrior god. His portrait, on the walls of the temple of Naqa, in Meroe, depicts him with three heads and four arms, in company of the royal dynasty. Lions were perhaps kept in the temples of Apademak, and some sources claim him he is the spiritual ancestor of Sekhmet, and not her putative son.
And speaking of ancestors, it’s tempting to wonder about the tracks left by lions, from the extraordinary paintings of the Grotte Chauvet, discovered in 1984, to the Aurignacian lion man, discovered in September 2008 in a cave at Schelklingen, Baden-Württemberg in southern Germany. Both may date from approximately 32,000 years ago. (In all fairness, the ivory statuette is still hesitating between Löwenmensch and Löwenfrau, depending on which experts have spoken last.) It is the oldest known zoomorphic (or anthropomorphic) sculpture. (Another brawl between experts, is it a lion with human attributes or the inverse?) If such a path could be traced, it would take us from prehistory to today, and span the whole of Eurasia and Africa.
The goddess Hathor can become a lion too. Once, Ra plucked her from his forehead and cast her away. She hit the ground running, so to speak, in the ravenous lion-form of Sekhmet, leaving the fields red with human blood. Ra regretted his act and tried to persuade her to cease, but she was drunk with gore and continued her rampage. Ra poured 7000 jugs of beer mixed with pomegranate juice in her path. Thinking it was blood, she greedily lapped it all up and fell into a drunken stupor, awakening after three days, her blood lust abated (and likely with a serious headache). Clearly the female destroyer goes well back, and she isn’t wasting any time on riddles.
Another of the myths connected with Hathor relates a similar tale, only this time she becomes angry with her father Ra, and wanders the desert as a wild lioness. As Mistress of the Desert, she leaves death and destruction in her wake. Unable to persuade Hathor to return, Ra enlists the help of Thoth, who lures Hathor back with a magic potion and promises of a life dedicated to music, dance, and drunken gaiety. Thus transformed, Hathor becomes the gentle Netjert, goddess of love, presiding over the island temple of Philae in her benign aspect.
(Ubiquitous Hathor, besides inspiring a particular hairstyle that will influence artists across much of Asia Minor, appears in the most confounding of guises. Seven-headed Hathor appears to chaperone the birth of heroes. In one particular tale – when the hero of the story was born, the “Seven Hathors”, disguised as seven young women, appeared and announced his fate. One is irresistibly reminded of later tales and fairy godmothers.)
SEKHMET HER SIBLINGS
A. Bas-relief of Sekhmet.
B. Statue of Sekhmet, from the reign of Amenhotep III, circa 1390 -1352 BC.
C. Thoth lures Hathor back from the desert.
D. Statue of Maahes, son of Sekhmet.
E. Maahes in lion form.
F. Gold cultic ornament of a lion-headed goddess, Third Intermediate Period, circa 700 BC.
G. The lion-headed god Apedemak, circa 100 BC. The name of King Tantamani in Meroitic script is inscribed on the back.
H. Three headed lion god Apedemak, bas-relief from a temple at Naqa, Sudan.
I & J. Terracotta lion goddess with wings, Carthaginian, 814 – 64 BC.
K, L & M. Elamite statuette of a Div Shir, or lioness-demon. The statuette is approximately 5000 years old.
N & O. The Lion Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel, Aurignacian Period, 28,000 BC, from the caves of Altmuhl Valley, South Germany.
Other juxtapositions abound. Griffins – part eagle, part lion – may even have an Egyptian ancestry, or at very least a solid root of their family tree fed by the water of the Nile – roots perhaps shared with the lotus and the tree of life, as they accompany first the former in Egypt, and then the latter abroad. The soul, or Ba, is depicted as a small bird with a human visage, benign precursor of the classical harpy. When the falcon Horus is associated with the crocodile Sobek, the result is a most curious snub-beaked saurian. Greyhounds or whippets may have wings affixed to their backs. Ammut, the devourer of unworthy souls – forequarters of a leopard, hindquarters of a hippo, nemes-coiffed head of a crocodile, patiently squats next to Osiris, waiting for the feather to drop…
A most unusual “sphinx” is the goddess Selket: human head and torso and scorpion body, or as a human woman scorpion-crowned. Her venom and magic protects infant Horus or Re. She can keep scorpions at bay and heal their stings, and shields from harm the canopic vases containing the entrails of the deceased.
A. Statue of a Crocodile with the Head of a Falcon, Late Period or early Greco-Roman, circa 400-250 BC.
B. Green stone figurine representing a union of the deities Sobek and Horus, Late Egyptian Period.
C. Statue of Sobek (also known by his Greek name Souchos) from the north temple of Karanis. The centre of his cult was at Shedyet (Crocodilopolis).
D. Horus-Sobek statue, circa 330 BC.
AN EGYPTIAN MISCELLANY
A. Bas-relief of a whippet or greyhound with wings.
B. Meriotic vessel featuring a whippet or greyhound with wings.
C. Selket, the scorpion goddess.
D. Egyptian Bronze Staff Finial in the Form of Isis-Selket, 26th Dynasty, circa 664 – 525 BC.
E. Selket, the scorpion goddess.
F. Steatite plaque with a carved inscription of the cartouche of the Pharaoh Tuthmosis III before a striding sphinx, New Kingdom, 28th Dynasty, circa 1504-1450 BC.
G, H, & I. Amulets and statuettes in the form of sphinxes.
J. Scarab seal featuring a recumbent sphinx.
K. Papyrus of Ammut, quite eagerly awaiting doomed souls to devour.
L. Relief of the seven-headed Hathor, Deir el-Medina.
Sphinxes and pharaohs share two millennia of history, from about 2600 to 660 BC. Djedefre, Kafre, Ammenemes I, II and III, Amenemhat IV, Menere I, Sesostris I, Mentuhotep VII, Amenhotep I and III, Thutmose I through IV, Ramses I, Ramses the Great, Sethos I, and Siamun are all embodied as sphinxes.
Queens, as well as pharaohs, graced sphinxes with their countenances. Perhaps one of the oldest sphinxes in existence is that of a Queen Hetepheres II, daughter of Khufu, of the Fourth dynasty of Egypt, also known as the Golden Age of the Old Kingdom, which lasted from circa 2613 to 2494 BC. (The other candidate is Djedefre, son of Khufu, who ruled for eight years before his death in 2558 BC, but only the head of his statue remains, it may not be from a sphinx.) Queens are often featured with the same plaited royal beards as their male counterparts.
QUEENS & PHARAOHS
A. Head of the sphinx of Djedefre.
B. Sphinx of Hetepheres II from Djedefre’s complex at Abu Roash.
C. Ancient sphinx, Luxor.
D. Sphinx of Queen Hatshepsut. (Note the beard.)
E. Sphinx of Thutmose III, 18th Dynasty, circa1479-1425 BC.
F. Sphinx of Thutmose III.
G. Gneiss sphinx of Ammenemes IV, 12th Dynasty, circa 1795 BC.
H. Sphinx from the 18th Dynasty, in the time of Amenhotep III, 1410-1372 BC.
I. Limestone sphinx of a king, Ptolemaic Period, 304-30 BC.
J. Limestone sphinx, Ptolemaic Period, 300-250 BC, from Saqqara, Lower Egypt.
But sphinxes were not destined to recline with their paws placed demurely before them, calmly contemplating the waters of H’pī. Despite their tranquil equipoise, they were to voyage far. One thing is certain, the Phoenicians, those restless and insatiable sailors and shipwrights, were indubitably involved.
This is essentially intended as a voyage through imagery, not through history, but through the forms the imagination and belief take when they become stone, metal, ceramic or any other substance that can live longer than the intentions and memories of men. Strewn through history like so many pebbles from some forgetful Tom Thumb, they leave a join-the-dots journey (without very many helpful numbers) through a vivid and complex pantheon of visualizations of that world neighbouring ours where the gods and monsters dwell. A land of curious and strange imagery that can occasionally reveal more than dry successions of dates, crowned heads and famous battles.
And once Egypt’s shores have fallen below the horizon, it is going to get a good deal stranger.
*Searching for a collective noun for sphinxes, with murders of crows, rabbles of starlings, skulks of foxes and ostentations of peacocks in mind, combined with the meanderings and sudden floods of imagery of all sorts, and most especially with the twisted channels of the wide delta where the river reaches the sea; those special places where worlds and cultures meet is always the richest and most exquisitely complex of territories… so why not a nile of sphinxes?
All images are property of their original authors; apologies for often incomplete or insufficient captions, it is often not possible to work one’s way back to the original image or find complete descriptions. Apologies for not crediting image sources; I am more than happy to add those details on request.
Special thanks to Ann Carling