Depicting Man or Beast? Can You Solve the Riddle of the Great Sphinx of Giza?
The Great Sphinx of Giza is one of the most fantastic monuments of ancient Egypt. A monolith carved into the limestone bedrock of the Giza plateau, the statue depicts a mythical creature with the head of a man and the body of a lion. According to legend, the Sphinx protects the tombs of the great pharaohs of Egypt and has done so ever since 2500 BC. However, in recent times, much debate has swirled around the origins and nature of this statue. Some say that erosion patterns actually indicate the Sphinx was built hundreds, if not thousands, of years earlier. Others suggest that the oddly disproportionate head suggest that originally, the statue was not of a sphinx at all, but rather of a lion or perhaps even the dog god, Anubis. As nobody may ever know the truth for certain, the Riddle of the Sphinx lives on.
The Great Sphinx of Giza. Source: Public Domain
The Mythical Sphinx
A sphinx is a mythical figure in Greek and Egyptian mythology. It is typically portrayed as having the head of a man, the body of a lion, and the wings of an eagle. A sphinx can be male or female, but is always cunning and merciless. Usually, in myths, a sphinx asks riddles and if a person answers incorrect, he is eaten. Sometimes the sphinx terrorizes a village. For example, the sphinx of Boeotian Thebes “the most famous in legend, was said to have terrorized the people by demanding the answer to a riddle taught her by the Muses—What is it that has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed? —and devouring a man each time the riddle was answered incorrectly. Eventually, Oedipus gave the proper answer: man, who crawls on all fours in infancy, walks on two feet when grown, and leans on a staff in old age. The sphinx thereupon killed herself.” (The Editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 2016)
Oedipus and the Sphinx of Thebes, Red Figure Kylix, c. 470 BC, from Vulci, attributed to the Oedipus Painter, Vatican Museums. (Marcus Cyron/ CC BY SA 2.0 )
At other times, as in the Great Sphinx of Giza, the creature is said to be guarding something and will not let anyone pass unless they correctly answer a riddle.
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Who Built the Sphinx of Giza?
Conventional wisdom holds that the Sphinx of Giza was built during the 4th Dynasty of the Old Kingdom of Egypt under the reign of Pharaoh Khafre (2558 – 2532 BC), around the same time that the Great Pyramids were being built. The statue’s face was supposed to be made in the Pharaoh’s image. Yet, one cannot help but be confused by the appearance of such a little head on top of such a gigantic body. “If we know anything about the ancient Egyptians and their statues, we know that they always got the proportions right. In fact, we could say that they were evidently obsessed with correct proportions in everything. So why would they carve what is still even today the world's largest stone statue and get the proportions wrong?” (Temple, 2009)
Giza Plateau - Great Sphinx - front view, note the proportions of the head to larger body. (Daniel Mayer/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
In addition, the face of the Sphinx does not look like other depictions of Khafre. “Known depictions of Khafre on statues and the Sphinx reveal many differences, though one might defend – though no one seems to have done so – that the sculptors got the precise features of Khafre slightly wrong, because of the uniqueness, the scale and challenge of working with the native rock at Gizeh, rather than with the much smaller scale and tested methodology of his known statues, some of which were recovered from the Valley Temple right next to the Sphinx.” (Coppens, 2016).
Some say that the Sphinx is more in the style of Pharaoh Khufu, Khafre’s father, and was therefore built sometime during his reign (2589 – 2566 B.C.). Others argue that it was built by Khufu’s other son, the little-known Pharaoh Djedefre (2528 – 2520 B.C.) in honor of Khufu, which explains why was in Khufu’s style and why it does not look like Khafre – it could have been made in Khufu’s likeness.
Left-right: Head of a statue of Pharaoh Khafre (Einsamer Schütze/ CC BY SA 3.0 ), and head in ivory of Pharaoh Khufu exposed in Altes Museum (Marcus Cyron/ CC BY SA 3.0 ). Do you see a resemblance between either pharaoh with the Sphinx?