Sphinx

SEMIMYTHICAL BEAST of ancient North Africa.

Etymology: Greek, possibly meaning "strangle" or "grasp."

Variant names: Abu hol (Arabic/Semitic, "Father of terror"), Harmakhis, Hor-m-akhet (Egyptian, "Horus is on the horizon").

Physical description: In Egyptian art, a reclining figure with a human head (usually male) adorned with a royal headdress (nemes); a narrow, stylized beard; and the mane and body of a lion. Sometimes, the Sphinx had the head of a ram or a hawk fused with a lion's body. The concept was adopted by the Greeks, Hittites, and Assyrians. In Greek art, the Sphinx had the head and breasts of a woman and the wings of an eagle.

Behavior: In Greek mythology, the Sphinx sat on a mountain and asked travelers a riddle; if they failed to answer correctly, it killed them. However, Oedipus solved the riddle, and the Sphinx threw itself off a precipice.

Distribution: Egypt; Mount Phikios, west of Thivai, central Greece.

Significant sighting: The best-known repre-

Punic SPHINX from the site of Thinissut, modern Bi 'r Bu Ruqbah, Tunisia, and housed in the National Bardo Museum, Tunis. (From a postcard in the author's collection)

sentation is the Great Sphinx of Giza, Egypt, carved out of solid limestone and measuring 240 feet long and 66 feet high. The date of its construction is not known for certain, but it is usually ascribed to the Fourth Dynasty pharaoh Khafre (Chephren), who ruled from 2558 to 2532 B.C. (Controversial evidence involving water erosion has led some Egyptologists to place it much earlier.) It was apparently carved from a rock outcrop remaining after the blocks for the Great Pyramid of Khufu had been quarried. Many other smaller Egyptian Sphinx sculptures exist, including a rare female-headed Sphinx representing the Eighteenth Dynasty queen Hatshepsut (1498-1483 B.C.).

Present status: Contrary to frequent statements, the Great Sphinx did not lose its nose because either the French or the Mamelukes used it for cannon target practice in the late 1790s; the broken nose is shown in Friderik Norden's drawing in 1755. Before the fifteenth century, someone pried it off by hammering long rods or chisels into it, one below the bridge and the other under a nostril; the marks are still there. Tomb robbers and others would often remove the noses from Egyptian sculptures in order to deprive them of breath or potency.

Possible explanations:

(1) The face of the Great Sphinx is accepted by most Egyptologists as Pharaoh Khafre. The lion was a solar symbol as well as a sign of royalty. Human-headed Sphinxes represent the king as guardian of the temple—in this case, the Old Kingdom Sphinx temple that rests at the feet of the Great Sphinx. Ram-headed Sphinxes lined the processional way leading to the god Amun at Karnak, and hawk-headed Sphinxes are associated elsewhere with the god Re.

(2) Some Greek and Roman authors considered Sphinxes to be based on monkeys or baboons, and this identification was repeated in the medieval bestiaries.

(3) The Gelada baboon (Theropithecus gelada) was suggested by Bernard Heuvelmans for the body of the Greek Sphinx because of its lionlike body and tail, as well as the chest patch of naked pink skin; in the female, this patch is surrounded by a necklace of fleshy, white, breastlike sacs that swell and redden during estrus. The historian Philostorgios, in the fifth century A.D., was the first to identify the Sphinx with this animal, after seeing a gelada himself in Africa.

(4) Pausanias cited a story basing the Greek myth on a female pirate whose band used Mount Phikios as a base of operations until Oedipus captured her with an overwhelming army from Corinth. Sources: Pausanias, Guide to Greece, vol. 1,

Central Greece, trans. Peter Levi (New York: Penguin, 1979), p. 363 (IX. 26.2); Agatharchides and Philostorgios, excerpts in Photius, Myriobiblon (Geneva, Switzerland: Pauli Stephanus, 1612); Bernard Heuvelmans, Les bêtes humaines d'Afrique (Paris: Plon, 1980), pp. 157-158, 166; Mark Lehner, The Complete Pyramids (London: Thames and Hudson, 1997), pp. 38-49, 127-133; Zahi A. Hawass, Secrets of the Sphinx: Restoration Past and Present (Cairo: American University in Cairo, 1998); The Sphinx, http://www.sis.gov. eg/sphinx/html/sphnx000.htm.

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