Tut's scarab 'brooch': Ancient Origins May 2019

Pectoral counterweight of Tutankhamen.
Image  C. Desroches-Noblecourt 1963 Tutankhamen.

The following article supports my negligible regard for the quality of news research shown over at Ancient Origins.  If the story seems familiar, it is because it is.  

It has made headlines on at least two occasions in the past 20 years, plus two documentaries were aired in the US and Britain in 2006. See references below.

I wrote a thesis on Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean vitreous materials a few years ago so this sort of lazy reporting irritates me.  Plus it is about an object from Tut's tomb (enter thesis number two).  My corrections and comments are italicised.

‘Tutankhamun’s Scarab Brooch Confirmed as Born From a Direct Comet Hit’ (it is a pectoral, a big pendant, or a counterweight for one, pharaohs did not pin brooches on their blouses).

The fascinating story of the origins of a component in Tutankhamun’s scarab brooch (pectoral) has been furthered this week.  It has been established that some of the material found in that brooch (aaargh) was result of a phenomenal event that occurred 28 million years ago. The consequence of an incomprehensibly ancient comet (cmon, dinosaurs are waaay older) that had come hurtling through the cosmos towards the earth created a component which was subsequently used as the centerpiece of King Tut’s brooch (I’ll stop now). But there has been some debate as to how exactly this event created the glass. Now scientists from Australia (A. Cavosie) and Austria (C. Koeberl, but they never cite him) think they (might) have the evidence that provides an end to the argument.

Small but Significant
The findings at the tomb of Tutankhamun were numerous and a small artifact (are you kidding me?  It is 14.9 x 14.5 cm, that is big for a pendant) such as a brooch might be over-shadowed by the weightier items (it is photographed in every damn book on Tut, and is in fact too flash to be overlooked or overshadowed).  But often times unassuming (famous) items have a deeper story than is at first evident.  This impressively preserved brooch!! has such a deep history it could not be imagined (by you perhaps) and it came to light only through thorough research from multiple disciplines (over the past 25 years). 

The brooch contains a striking yellow-brown scarab composed of a yellow silica glass stone (too many nouns ... glass contains large ratios of silica, e.g. sand or quartz ... say glass ffs ... I've never heard of ʽglass stone’ .... these errors stem from the copy paste media releases in 2013 about the Kramers et al research paper)... (Glass that was) procured from (heating) the sand of the Sahara (to very high temperatures) and then (this was) shaped and polished by some ancient Egyptian artisan. It is this scarab that has perhaps the most interesting history of all (anyone would think they were going to talk about it, but no).

Unlocking the Sands of Time
Chemical analysis revealed that the silica glass (again all glass is silica) from this desert (not the scarab, which has not been tested, the scarab glass was identified by optical measurement in 1998) was originally formed 28 million years ago, when a comet entered the earth's atmosphere above Egypt.  The sand beneath it was heated to a temperature of about 2,000 degrees Celsius and resulted in the formation of a huge amount of the yellow silica glass (ffs all glass is etc) which lies scattered over a 6,000-square kilometer area in the Sahara Desert (Western or Libyan Desert, Egypt).

In 2017, this silica glass (grrr) was one of the clues that led Professor Jan Kramers of the University of Johannesburg, South Africa, and colleagues to a remarkable discovery (wrong year: Kramers et al was published in 2013. ’Unique chemistry of a diamond-bearing pebble from the Libyan Desert Glass strewnfield, SW Egypt: Evidence for a shocked comet fragment’ ... the title says it all)

The other (remove ‘other’ because this was their study) key find was a small black diamond-bearing pebble, which the researchers named ‘Hypatia’, that had been found by an Egyptian geologist several years earlier (Aly Barakat in 1996).  This gave the clues needed to detect the cataclysmic event and the resulting composition of the desert (composition of the desert??? ... the event btw has been studied repeatedly since the 1970s). The detection of tiny diamonds within the stone which are the result of extreme pressure usually deep within the earth’s crust showed it to be remarkable. This pebble was found on the surface and so the diamonds formed were the result of a massive shock – an impact of some kind. The study team’s conclusions were that the pebble represented the very first known specimen of a comet nucleus (rather than an ordinary meteorite) and provided the first clear proof of a comet striking Earth millions of years ago (I want a citation for ‘the first known specimen of a comet nucleus’).


I am stopping at approximately the point where my knowledge of astronomical theory is not helpful to identifying errors or hyperbole, there follows another few paragraphs of interpreting the science of the two articles via garbled press reports.  

My only observation would be, read the actual reports, (or pro reviews of same, see e.g. Hypatia’s Story below) as the accuracy of this article is pretty shoddy for my area, therefore the rest is suspect, oh and Professor Jan Kramers is male, he is referred to as female in this.

This pithy news item was authored by Joanna Gillan and April Holloway at Ancient Origins, and basically illustrates how casual their approach to their news stories is, even when they are not banging on about bigfoot, or little green men building the pyramids.  Their writing style is lurid and misrepresents the original paper.  They also clearly did not understand the topic.

Andrea Sinclair

P.S. The current spate of reports claiming that the daggers of Tutankhamen also had this meteoric glass are incorrect, the coloured glass used as inlays to decorate the two gold ceremonial daggers from the tomb is Egyptian technology, aka furnace produced industrial glass (article in Cairo Scene 16/05/19, for example).

Highlights from Western Desert meteoric glass research
M.R. Kleindienst et al 2006. ‘Archaeological Investigations in Dakhleh Oasis,Western Desert, Egypt: Did a mereorite strike Dakhleh during the Middle Stone Age occupations?’  Archaeology of Northeastern Africa, Studies in African Archaeology 9.

World Archaeology 2006. ‘In search of Desert Glass’: https://www.world-archaeology.com/world/africa/egypt/in-search-of-desert-glass.

National Geographic Channel: 2006. ‘Ancient Asteroid! About the connection of the counterweight to a meteor impact and the yellow desert glass’, featuring Christian Koeberl.

BBC 2006. (also a documentary) ‘Tut's gem hints at space impact’: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/5196362.stm

G.R. Osinski et al 2008. ‘The Dakhleh Glass: Product of an impact airburst or cratering even in the Western Desert of Egypt?’ Meteorics and Planetary Science.  

T. Aboud 2009. ‘Tut’s Desert Glass: has the enigma of its origin finally been solved?’ Science Direct.

J. Kramers et al. 2013. ‘Unique chemistry of a diamond-bearing pebble from the Libyan Desert Glass strewnfield, SW Egypt: Evidence for a shocked comet fragment.’ Science Direct. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0012821X13004998

S.A. Hamouda and F.M. El Sharif 2013. ‘New Interpretation for Desert Glass Formation.’ IJASS 1(4)

C. Stead 2013. ‘Hypatia’s Story: The Comet that struck Earth’.

D. Bressan Forbes 2018. ‘Gemstone found in king Tut’s tomb formed when a celestial body collided with earth’: https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidbressan/2018/11/04/gemstone-found-in-king-tuts-tomb-formed-when-a-celestial-body-collided-with-earth/#7f2fe5bdedc6

A.J. Cavosie and C. Koeberi 2019. ‘Overestimation of threat from 100 Mt–class airbursts? High-pressure evidence from zircon in Libyan Desert Glass.’ Geology.

Curtin University press release 2019: https://news.curtin.edu.au/media-releases/curtin-planetary-scientist-unravels-mystery-of-egyptian-desert-glass/


Bullshit Memes #4: Snake Goddesses and Vril girls

Today’s contribution to the pseudo-archaeology hall of shame is a ripper.  

There is so much misinformation in the image shown below that I struggled to know where to start.  So hats off to pseudo-'anthropologist' Robert Sepehr for sort-of-winning the internet the day he threw this puppy together in a digital image program. 

I laughed noisily…

So what is wrong here you may ask? … the answer is … lots.

Facebook dumb meme du jour

The figurines
Well let’s start with the four images photoshopped together in a casual fashion that for me alone accurately illustrate just how expansive Sepehr’s knowledge of ancient Minoan cult objects is … the answer to this btw is … 

...his understanding is not wide at all...

Only one of these ladies is an authentic faience figurine from Minoan Crete.  The other three are decidedly not.

Can you guess which one is real?

I am really hoping you chose the figurine on the right, because the 2 in the middle are the nastiest reception copies that I have come across in a while.  What don’t I like about them? … Well, their proportions are distorted, big faces doll-like and they retain too much colour to be authentic.  Real ancient Minoan faience has faded like a boss ...

Oh and they are not faience.  Pencil me in for ceramic.

The 3rd figure on the left is also a copy, but she is a different kind of copy, a modern forgery, probably made using ancient materials and produced in the early 20th century to supply demand for Minoan figurines after Sir Arthur Evans discovered the faience figures at Knossos.  As it happens the forgery is well known, she is the ‘Boston Goddess’ in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in the USA. 
There are in fact many good Minoan forgeries from the early 20th century (14+) and it is worth emphasising here that most of the ‘goddess’ figurines holding snakes in museum collections are modern forgeries.  There is actually only one, maybe two authentic Middle Minoan figures that  appear to hold snakes in their hands.  The rest are dodgy reception.

A smattering of the modern forgeries, note the lovely Art Deco faces: all published in Evans' Palace of Minos III and IV, 1930 and 1935.

Snake Goddesses?
But then there are other novelties here than the ‘one of these is not like the others’ gag, because the authentic faience figure from Crete shown in the meme is only partially authentic.   

Yes, that is right, only some of her is authentic.

The figure was in pieces when she was dug out of a Knossos pit (Temple Repositories) by Arthur Evans and his plucky crew, incidentally with some original pieces missing.  It is estimated that there were pieces from about 5 to 6 faience figurines jumbled in the pits, but only 2 figures were considered complete enough to restore. 

Therefore only 2 were reassembled in the early 20th century, with the assistance of the same people that made the ivory forgery.  This is because Arthur Evans wasn’t overly picky about what his restorers did in their spare time, in fact he encouraged them and he published the dubious pieces that appeared on the antiquities market, because they supported his fantasy of the Minoans as peace loving goddess worshippers. 

Oh and because he was the go to guy for authenticating Minoan art at the time … have a think about that. 

Fritz Blackolmer 2009. A Pantheon Without Attributes: Goddesses and Gods in Minoan and Mycenaean Iconography, p 28.

Evans was a man of his time and approached his excavations at Knossos from the viewpoint of a Victorian classicist, from naming the Cretan culture after king Minos, to his publications interpreting the finds. He was a slick publicist and promoted his excavations via the London press, where he generously employed references to classical myth and Homeric prose, fabricating a persona for the Minoans based substantially on his own upper class classically educated vision.

The faience figurines were interpreted by him as evidence of a Minoan cult of a great mother goddess, largely influenced by the views of prehistoric and classical scholarship at the time and findings of female ‘fertility’ figures in Neolithic sites, incidentally regardless of the fact that his figures were Bronze Age.

Sadly Evans’ creative vision of the ritual association of snakes with this cult also inspired him to have his artists and restorers incorporate snakes into figures where there were none indicated.

Early artist's sketch of the figure showing reconstruction and original pieces (dark). Source Evan's Palace of Minos 1921.

The fake bits
So what is restored on the ‘real’ faience figure? 

Well, she was more damaged than the other figure, so a little over half of her dress is modern.  Her lovely head, neck, some hair, half the hat and the ‘cat’ on the hat are not original (the cat does not belong at all).  But for our discussion, one hand including the forearm and most of her two ‘snakes’ are modern additions  (See drawings above).

Yes, that is correct, she may not have been holding snakes.  

Only a small curvy fragment in one hand was original, the rest is modern, including the important bit that would indicate a snake, the head. And, to add insult to injury, an old excavation note actually stated that the figure had originally held twine in her single hand. This is assuming of course that the hand went with the body.

The Snake Goddess/'Mother Goddess’
The larger figure that Evans named the ‘snake goddess’ or ‘mother goddess’ was also restored and had some of her snakes added too, there is possibly one snake twining along her arm and ending in her right hand.  The rest are modern.  Whether the tall hat has a snake is debatable, as the restorers added the snake head to the crown because Evans rather liked the idea, and he was thinking of the Egyptian cobra goddess Wadjet.  I am not making this up btw, he compares this symbolism in a publication.

So the myth of a Minoan snake goddess actually mainly hinges on that one possible snake head in a hand on one figure from one site in Crete (below left).  The rest was creative licence.

Original Temple Repository figurines in Heraklion Museum; Crete. Image Wikipedia

Are they Goddesses?
So back to the authentic faience figure, who is also awkwardly unlikely to be a goddess. 

That name is another romantic concoction, dating back to the 1920s.  Even Evans who liked a good story did not think she was a goddess until 20 years later, after more (fake) figurines supported his theories.  He initially called her a Votary or Priestess/Attendant.   

But now if you search ‘snake goddess’ on the web you will get this figure first, because she is highly attractive to a modern audience, fake face 'n all, and there is nothing like a good story to roll right over evidence any day. 

However, it is just as likely that this figure is meant to represent a worshipper or priestess, because of her posture (there are other male and female votive figures from Crete), but the greater argument against is that she is smaller than the other faience figures (that may be actual goddesses, but since they are unique and not labelled, we can’t know for sure). 

Yet these few badly restored figures are the basis for an argument that there was a Minoan snake goddess.

So hardly any snakes, quite possibly no goddess, in fact.


Now let’s have a look at the text
Well, in his caption Robert Sepehr skips merrily along with the misconceptions about the faience figures, plus like a total newb he assumes his images are real and from sites in Crete, which as I have said, is bollocks.  Otherwise the date he gives for the Temple Repositories is more or less okay (1700-1550 BCE would be more correct), here Wiki may be his source, and it is suboptimal, because whoever made the 'snake goddess' page when I read it hadn’t quite entered the 21st century yet. 

From the Minoan goddess fantasy and using 20th century predilections for making any connection between ancient cultures Sepehr then builds much more.  He jumps forward in time more than 1000 years and cites the Greek myth of the Phoenician princess Europa whom the god Zeus abducted and carried off to Crete, to become the parents of king Minos (Lucian The Syrian Goddess). There is another version of this by Herodotus (Histories) who was a bit less fanciful and claimed the Cretans kidnapped Europa.

So I guess there’s some sort of tie back to Knossos and Minoans.   

Sepehr then identifies the mythical princess Europa with the goddess Astarte which is just a tad dated and not connected to snakes, or goddesses of same, rather just exploiting geography, and likely relying on that late and discredited Roman text by Lucian (Syrian Goddess).  But in his defence he uses 'some scholars say' which is pseudo speak for 'I don't know who, but I think somebody said this'.   

Astarte was incidentally a west Semitic warrior and hunting goddess, sometimes equated with Ishtar and later associated with kingship ... zero snakes, no connection to the Minoans. Sepehr’s source appears to be English Wiki ‘Europa’, where the bright spark who wrote it makes these associations, citing Lucian, Karl Kerenyi and Robert Graves (eek). Maybe they are Sepehr's 'some scholars'.

Europa is also neatly associated with Wadjet, the Egyptian cobra goddess, but this goddess was actually associated with the Sun god, kings, unity and royal power in Egypt (looks like he wiki’ed this too, cos ‘Oracle’ English page covers this and joins the dots seamlessly together, citing Walter Burkert). But I can't exclude Evans from guilt either, as I said, he went down this road too.

Additionally, Sepehr claims Europa was associated with a city called Aphroditopolis; but there were two cities with this name in Egypt, and both were sacred to Hathor (the goddess the Greeks associated with Aphrodite … go figure).  Basically there were Aphroditopolis' all over the classical world. For all I know he may be talking about Paphos in Cyprus, which was Aphrodite’s sacred city.

Seriously, citation pls.... 

I'm guessing it was her first day on the job.  No, just kidding, the Pythia breathed noxious gas to prophecy, the snakes are modern license.  L'oracle de Delphes, from Histoire de la Magie by P. Christain, late 19th century.

Oracles and mediums
Then Oracles come in properly… No I don’t know why, although I suspect the subtle influence of  the Wiki pages and out of date theories, particularly Robert Graves because, well, The White Goddess has always been the go to book for a great goddess and he argued in it that poisonous snakes could be used for oracular practices by goddess devotees.  Just a hunch … an educated one, and Graves had a drawing of Minoan ‘goddesses’ with a snake bang on his cover … don’t look shocked, I have it, one has to start somewhere.


Contrary to Mr Sepehr, ancient Greek oracles were not always female nor were they all the mediums of the earth goddess Gaia …  Nup, gross generalisation … they were in fact associated with a selection of male and female gods, like Zeus, Apollo, Asclepius, Trophonius or Dione, and depending on cult, the officiant could be male or female. 

The Pythia, the famous oracle of Apollo at Delphi was female, but I can only assume he is confusing 19th century images of this Pythia handling snakes for romantic effect, (inaccurate, but kinda cool), and of course, he may also be confused by her name (she was named after the snake Python that Apollo killed to found the temple).

So in order to make sense of citing oracles and Gaia in connection with Minoan figures I can only propose he is confusing fantasy with reality and throwing in some 19th - 20th century rationalisations about a great prehistoric mother goddess; Gaia being ‘mother earth’.

From Izak Cornelius 2008 The Many Faces of the Goddess, p. 9.

However, polytheism is way more complicated than all gods of a given gender being equivalent to one ‘great one’, no matter how attractive this sounds.  The idea of equating all ancient goddesses with one big one (like Sepehr does above) is a model straight out of the casebook of old school misogynists from monotheistic backgrounds.  The other one is the argument that male gods usurped the Neolithic cults of a mother goddess (ie Apollo usurping the oracle of Gaia).

In fact the myth of the mother goddess and prehistoric matriarchy was created by a German scholar, Johan Bachofen in his book ‘Das Mutterrecht’ in 1861, and he didn’t write it as a feminist treatise.  He wrote of matriarchy and the worship of a goddess as the most primitive form of human culture from which we evolved to male gods then one male god and of course, patriarchy. 

Not everyone responded to social-Darwinism in a positive way. 


But the best is left to last, the Vril girls
The only discernable connection between this and the previous paragraph appears to be the strategic use of the word ‘medium’.  Oracles are mediums, perhaps he thinks figures holding snakes were mediums too, and so were the Vril girls? …  actually I’ve got nothing.

Anyway, Sepehr crosses a continent, jumps forward about 2400 years and goes on to talk about Maria Oršić and the all female secret Vril Society (Vril Gesellschaft) that is claimed to have existed in Germany in the first half of the 20th century.  I say ‘claimed’ for a reason, because as it happens this is another modern myth that has been circulating over the last century among pseudo-science  adherents. 

The source of the idea, ‘Vril’ (from Latin virilis) - a magical life force - is hilariously a fantasy novel from 1871 by British peer Edward Bulwer-Lytton that was called The Coming Race, or, the New Utopia.  In this book the hero encounters a superrace living under the earth in hi-tech caves (oh look, hollow earth theory) who practice eugenics and can bend this force to their will and power machinery, also revive the dead, heal the sick, explode planets, strangle enemies with their minds (wait … ). 

The Vril-ya are utopians who are descended from refugees from Atlantis (another box ticked) and incidentally the 'bad guys' in this story.  They are presented as a threat to humanity and civilisation, not unlike prehistoric matriarchy was modelled at the same time by Bachofen.  The Vril force is incidentally strongest among the Vril-ya women, who are physically superior to men, so this is presumably the inspiration for the later myth of the female secret society run by Oršić. 

However, neither Lytton nor Bachofen was a fan of the suffragettes, and the women’s rights movement takes a beating in this parody.  So technically, the bad guys in this book are bad girls, except for the woman who naturally rejects her own people to hook up with the manly Victorian hero.

You could not make this up, Bovril is named after Vril (bovine + vril).  Bovril label from the late 19th century. Source https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/bovril-a-very-beefy-and-british-love-affair

The Coming Race was very popular and mostly viewed as social satire, however some of the public assumed it was subversive esotericism, disguised to protect the author.  Therefore rumours were circulated about Lytton’s connections to occult societies like the Rosicrucians.  Then Helena Blatavsky and her clique weighed in and used Vril as the ultimate magical force in esoteric publications and the rest is pseudo-history.  Enthusiasm properly snowballed into the odd Vril club being formed in London and Berlin in the early 20th century. 

None of these were named the Vril Society.

In the German National Socialist era and immediately after WWII, Vril was added to the myths of esoteric research by the Nazis and their secret technologies.  Initially this was predominantly in the area of negative press, but since then the far right have jumped on board and sexed it up quite a bit.  Maria Oršić and her club of dishy followers appear to have been added in the 1990s in books about Nazi esotericism and of course their contact with aliens from Aldebaran. 

However, in reality there is no evidence of these lovely ladies existing, just the pseudo publications and the madness of the internet.  In fact the Vril Society itself, the so-called secret society that is said to have existed in Germany from the beginning to the mid-20th century also cannot be proven to have ever existed.  It was first mentioned in 1960 in another pseudo publication.  

Sure some keen occultists would probably meet in basements in 1920 and plot plottings because they’d read Lytton, seriously who hasn’t done that at one time or another?

At this point I am struggling to see the tie in to Minoan goddesses, is he suggesting Vril girls practiced their skills with the bare minimum of warm attire and waving snakes around?  Are there pictures?  Also, is this standard practice for mediums?

So many questions.

Quote by German physicist Willy Ley from American science fiction magazine Astounding Science Fiction 1947. 
From D. Huckvale 2016 A Dark and Stormy Oeuvre.

The swastika
Sepehr then goes on to cite the swastika as an important element of this society and of Vril worship which tells you exactly what sources he is using and also hints at his personal inclinations.

He rationalises a spiritual value for the symbol that links occultism 'east and west', which is incidentally a neat manipulation of his audience.  Yes, the swastika is a symbol that has had various meanings in many cultures.  And which was reinvented in the late 19th century among western occultists who cherry picked the Hindu symbol and various ancient examples. 


But the most important thing about symbols is contextsymbols are not universal in meaning, they are very culturally specific, and many values does not change the swastika’s value to the Nazis, which is what Sepehr is citing in a canny attempt to bring their narratives into the mainstream. 

I confess I am wary every time I see someone on the internet exclaim ‘but not all swastikas’.  Sure not all swastikas are evil, nuh, duh, but Nazi ones, yup, safe bet they are.

There is incidentally no connection to snakes, goddesses or the Minoans associated with this elaborate concoction, but it does make for magical storytelling for fascists.  Magical storytelling with common appeal, or why else would US movie makers and superhero comics regularly dust off the basic plot and retell it for a new audience, maybe with some dinosaurs and Hitler for lols.

Blackhawk comic from 1956, trust me there is quite a bit of Vril to this plot.You can read it here: http://comicbookplus.com/?dlid=14359

But to return to topic-ish .... After all what’s not to love about female only cults that could have secretly always existed, maybe with their tops off and waving poisonous snakes around for maximum effect?  Cults that have ironically been created in the fertile imaginations of western men for their own intellectual gratification, why else do the priestesses need to be young and beautiful?
It never ceases to impress me how misogynistic narratives can be artfully dressed up as fantasies of female empowerment while simultaniously disguising questionable agendas ... beautiful ancient female oracles, fascist mediums and great mother goddess narratives are good examples of these ... romantic window dressing.

So to wind up this shabby performance, somehow Sepehr started with some badly identified and dubious Minoan figures, jumped to ancient Greece, added a dash of ancient Egypt and Phoenicia and rather surprisingly ended up in Nazis, incidentally claiming that the magic energy Vril was known to ancient mystics ... 

urr ... again ... citation pls .....

What I find most astonishing is that this Vril bollocks is basically the outcome of a British peer brutally satirising late Victorian democracy, social Darwinism and the suffragette movement (I bet he was surprised).  Just as the Minoan 'snake goddess' myth is largely the outcome of another British peer having plenty of cash, a large shovel and a creative imagination based on a classical education from an esteemed British university.

However, hats off to Robert Sepehr for knowing bugger all about ancient topics, for his deft use of the best of sources, Wikipedia, and for somehow tying together a lot of unrelated concepts, misinformation, misogyny, boobs, Nazis, neo-paganism, some tourist knock offs, a forgery and a botched restoration, and yet presumably making something that his fans might actually buy into …  

It boggles the mind actually.

I guess that’s a skill of sorts, however, I find he has a very casual approach to accuracy and a degree of incoherency to his writing style …

Seriously the reader ought not to need a cipher to make sense of this manipulative mishmash. 

Buyer beware.

Andrea Sinclair

Further Reading and sources
PS: If you think I am citing the pseudo-conspiracy theory sources you are wrong... Google Vril Gesellschaft (if you google this in English you will get the modern myths, however there are good critiques available in German).

Minoan figurines
E. Miller Bonney 2011. ‘Disarming the Snake Goddess: A Reconsideration of the Faience Figurines from the Temple Repositories at Knossos’. Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 24.
K. Butcher and D. Gill 1993. ‘The Director, the Dealer, the Goddess and Her Champions: The Acquisition of the Fitzwilliam Goddess’ American Journal of Archaeology 97.
C. Eller 2012. ‘Two Knights and a Goddess: Sir Arthur Evans, Sir James George Frazer, and the Invention of Minoan Religion’. Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 25. 
K.D.S. Lapatin 2002. Mysteries of the Snake Goddess: Art, Desire, and the Forging of History.
K.D.S. Lapatin 2001. ‘Snake Goddesses, Fake Goddesses’. Archaeology 54.
J.A. Macgillivray 2000. Minotaur, Sir Arthur Evans and the Archaeology of the Minoan Myth.
Panagiotaki, Marina 1993. ‘The Temple Repositories of Knossos: New Information from the Unpublished Notes of Sir Arthur Evans.’ Annual of the British School at Athens 88
D. Panagiotopoulos ‚Arthur Evans’ langer Schatten’, Abenteuer Archäologie 5
A. Sinclair 2013 ‘Enduring Fictions of Late Victorian Fantasy: Sir Arthur Evans and the Faience Goddesses from Minoan Crete’. Ancient Planet 5.
C. Tulley 2018. ‘The Artifice of Daidalos: Modern Minoica as Religious Focus in Contemporary Paganism’. International Journal for the Study of New Religions 8
C. Tulley - Necropolis Now: http://necropolisnow.blogspot.com/2007/08/snake-goddess-fake-goddess.html

Astarte and Europa
Herodotus Histories
Lucian The Syrian Goddess
R. Schmidt.2013. Astarte, Mistress of Horses, Lady of the Chariot: the Warrior Aspect of Astarte. Die Welt des Orients.
Iconography of Deities and Demons in the Ancient Near East
I. Cornelius: Astarte http://www.religionswissenschaft.uzh.ch/idd/prepublications/e_idd_astarte.pdf

D. Ogden 2001. The Ancient Greek Oracles of the Dead. Acta Classica.
Oracles: King's College: http://departments.kings.edu/womens_history/ancoracles.html?fbclid=IwAR34f7vuykLhq2LXHJYfjaWqKbSroulHmZzYV_0MG-C47wp_z_VImtLWeTU

Matriarchy as myth
C. Eller 2000. The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why An Invented Past Will Not Give Women a Future. Beacon.
A. Fleming 1969. ‘The Myth of the Mother-Goddess’. World Archaeology 1(2).
J.A. Hackett 1989. ‘Can a Sexist Model Liberate Us? Ancient Near Eastern ‘Fertility’ Goddesses’. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 5.
A. Sinclair 2012. ‘Erroneous Terms in Archaeology and Popular Literature: the ‘Mother Goddess’, or Why I Can be Tiresome at Social Engagements’. Ancient Planet 3. https://issuu.com/ancientplanet/docs/vol.3

E. Bulwer-Lytton 1871. The Coming Race. 
P. Fitting 2017. ‘Underground Worlds’. In Routledge Encyclopedia of Imaginary Worlds.
D. Huckvale 2016. A Dark and Stormy Oeuvre: Crime, Magic and Power in the Novels of Edward Bulwer-Lytton.
J.J. Kripal 2011. Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics and the Paranormal.

Ancient Egyptian girlpower: The female sphinx

Reconstruction of queen Tiye as a sphinx from her throne in the tomb of Kheruef, Thebes  (I took a bit of licence here).
Image by Andrea Sinclair.

It stands to reason that I do not have to introduce the Egyptian sphinx to you.  It must be one of the most well known symbols of ancient Egypt, with the enormous limestone sphinx at Giza standing as pinup boy for the entire species.  Therefore, I assume you know that the average Egyptian sphinx is an hybrid creature with the body of a lion and the head of a pharaoh.  And the pharaoh is male. 

That’s more or less the party line, right?

The living image of the sun god
So, this piece is going to mess a bit with that, because in ancient Egypt a ‘sphinx’ was not always a lion, nor was it always male.  At a stretch, and if you are flexible about classifications, it can sometimes have a completely different head (ram – criosphinx, hawk – hieracosphinx, Set animal, etc), so the big cat body is more or less the only constant.  But I will not go down this road here, it is not actually relevant to today’s topic. 

Also, bear in mind that the term itself is a generalisation and it is not ancient Egyptian.   

The Egyptians did not use the word ‘sphinx’ or necessarily think within this simplistic idea range.  The term is much later and from ancient Greek; σφίγξ.  It means ‘strangler, throttler’ and often refers to the female monster who murdered travellers on the road to Thebes (in Greece) right up until the youth Oedipus put a firm stop to her activities and the went on to marry his mum (but that’s another story). 

Female sphinx on a seal gem from the Roman period.  © British Museum, London: https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=434766&partId=1&searchText=1923,0401.700&page=1

In the past there have been attempts to make a linguistic connection for the Greek word σφίγξ with the ancient Egyptian phrase ‘seshep ankh’, ‘living image’, and from there backwards to track a connection to the ancient sphinx, but this idea is pure speculation and driven more by our need to connect the dots, as there is no established direct relationship between the two names.

This misnomer has however led to ideas about the ancient Greek and Aegean sphinxes being female and the Egyptian one, male (in early academic lit. as well).  However, it is much more complicated than this and the ancient Egyptian sphinx does not fit neatly into one tidy box.  The Egyptians instead may have referred to sphinxes in many ways, but the most common type of sphinx was a representation of the pharaoh.  

This is easy to identify because the head wears all the appropriate regalia of an Egyptian king, like various crowns, false beard and uraeus cobra.

Faience figurine of Amenhotep III as a sphinx making an offering, 18th Dynasty. © Metropolitan Museum, New York: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/544498?searchField=All&sortBy=Relevance&ft=1972.125&offset=0&rpp=20&pos=1

Sphinxes were all heka which means ‘magical/powerful’, later also described as phty ‘strong/mighty’, and they were often set up as guardians of the Egyptian necropolis. In the late period the ancient Egyptians even had a sphinx god (Tutu, slayer of demons).  They were pretty flexible and polytheists, so their sphinx was not necessarily limited to one name, one god or to one idea.

What I don’t expect most people to know is that the female sphinx was also very much a thing in ancient Egypt. 

In fact, if we pointedly ignore the Giza monument (it gets too much press anyway), the earliest sphinx from Egypt is an Old Kingdom queen, Hetepheres II, a princess and later queen of the 4th Dynasty.  She was a daughter of Khufu who built the Great Pyramid (2470-2447 BCE) and she was important enough to be represented as a sphinx in the same pose as the more famous monument.  Her sphinx was found near her brother and husband Djedefre's pyramid at Abu Roash north of Giza.  Due to size and her pose, she may have been one of a pair, or even a line of statues within the royal necropolis.

Seals with royal sphinxes from the 18th Dynasty. 
Image A. Sinclair. Originals Petrie Museum London.

And that is another thing, there are a selection of poses for sphinxes that were used for royal monuments and they too had their own significance.  I am going to call the two most important ones ‘chilled’ and ‘cranky’ sphinx.  You will be familiar with the first; the chilled sphinx is passive and lying on its belly with its paws stretched out in front and the tail curled behind a back leg.  The other important sphinx stands upright, is active and often strides forward, trampling on symbolic enemies of Egypt. 

These two are creatures that were associated with different royal roles and with different gods, or aspects of gods.  The Giza chilled sphinx was associated with the sun god, later with Horemakhet, because in the 18th Dynasty a king dedicated a stele to this god underneath the monument directly between its paws.  It is a fair assumption that this sphinx is the 4th Dynasty king Khafre depicted as the sun god, while which sun god he represents is a bit flexible, as it may be one of a few, like Re, Re-Horakhty, Horemakhet etc.  The ruler of Egypt was the living sun god on earth. 

Father and son, Amenhotep III (left) and Thutmose IV (right) as sphinxes from the armrests of 18th Dynasty thrones. 
Images A. Sinclair. Originals in tomb of Anen, Thebes (left) and Metropolitan Museum New York.

On the other hand, the cranky sphinx is most often associated in iconography with warrior gods, like Monthu, and these sphinxes reflected the ruler’s role as defender and protector of his territory.  In the New Kingdom these magical creatures do not have the bodies of large male lions, but instead they are lean black panthers with royal heads.  Often this black is dark blue, but this colour is still technically within the Egyptian value range of black (‘magical black’).  The warlike sphinxes may well always have been panthers.

The earliest images of the warlike sphinx-griffin, reigns of Sahure (left), and Pepi II (right), 5th and 6th Dynasty. 
Both are clearly winged.  Images A. Sinclair (left, original in Berlin) and Jequier 1940, pl 15.

Female sphinxes
But back to topic, female sphinxes are not overly common from Egypt, but contrary to what some may tell you, they are not rare.  We know they existed throughout the Old Kingdom to the Middle Kingdom, because a few lovely statues have survived.  The first is of queen Hetepheres II, as I have already mentioned.  Another statue was discovered in Syria in the early 20th century in a Middle Bronze Age temple.  This too is a chilled sphinx and it names princess Ita, the daughter of Amenemhat II (1932-1896 BCE).  Ita was buried with another sister in their father’s funerary enclosure near his pyramid at Dahshur.   So we know who she was.

Queen Hetepheres II (left) and Princess Ita (right). Sources Wikimedia Commons - John Bodsworth, and
© Louvre AO13075, http://cartelfr.louvre.fr/cartelfr/visite?srv=car_not_frame&idNotice=16668&langue=fr

The statue of this princess is likely to have been a royal gift from her or her father, or even a later king to the king of Qatna, where it was dedicated in the temple of the goddess Ninegal.  This may sound odd, but in the 12th Dynasty quite a few states in Syria had close political ties to Egypt, so there are beautiful Egyptian royal objects from their cities.  A gift from the Egyptian court by a princess is actually not out of the ordinary, except that unrobbed tombs or temples are not quite as common as we would like them to be.

There are a few more examples of fragments from royal female chilled sphinxes in museums around the globe, sadly they do not conveniently have names to identify the queen, but we sometimes know the king. Two sphinxes come from the 12th Dynasty and probably were from the main temple complex of the sun god at Heliopolis, and one is a queen of Thutmose III from the 18th Dynasty that was taken to Rome in the Roman period.  See links below.

So with the limited resources available to us it is still reasonably clear that female sphinxes were not rare, they were placed in the temples of major gods, or at the mortuary complexes of kings and as well they were sent to foreign kings as gifts.  They appear to have been quite popular in Egypt between the Middle and New Kingdoms  (2066-1060 BCE).

Tutankhamen as a panther sphinx on a bowcase from his tomb, 18th Dynasty.  Can you see his wings?  
Image is mirrored and by A. Sinclair.

Winged sphinxes
However, like many things Egyptian, the New Kingdom is the place to look for examples of queens immortalised as powerful and magical creatures.  This may be due to the importance that the royal women acquired during the 18th Dynasty (like Ahhotep, Ahmose Nefertari, Hatshepsut, Tiye and Nefertiti), but I am also not entirely prepared to rule out the influence of archaeological accident.  We simply have way more objects and monuments from this period (think Tutankhamen), and female sphinxes are suddenly quite visible if you are looking, like me. 

The feature that has wasted a lot of ink over the last 150 years is that these ladies acquired a ‘new’ look.  In the 18th Dynasty a female sphinx appears with raised wings, which has been attributed to the influence of the Aegean or Syria (depending on an academic’s bias).   Personally I blame Pierre Montet for the Syrian assumption (if you have ever attended a lecture of mine, you will have heard that phrase repeatedly, because he argued this, along with other flawed assumptions about artistic styles … sometimes I even shake my fist for emphasis). 

Female sphinxes from a silver platter dedicated to the ka of a chantress of Neith, Amy. New Kingdom, 19th -20th Dynasty. 
Image A. Sinclair. Original in Cairo Museum.

But I also blame everybody else in the 20th century who was so busy arguing about the cultural origin of stylistic features of New Kingdom sphinxes that they didn’t think about what this female sphinx was doing in top ranking Egyptian royal art.  Instead a few features like raised wings and diadems were used to argue foreign artists, foreign origin or even meaningless copying of other cultures by Egyptian artists.

The idea that wings are un-Egyptian tends to get jumbled up with female sphinxes not being present in Egypt before 1550 BCE.  This assumption is wide of the mark.  Obviously I have already mentioned earlier queens and princesses, but there is one other characteristic of Egyptian sphinxes that I have not mentioned … they were winged …  With falcon wings which incidentally provides another connection to solar gods.  However, before the New Kingdom the wings of a sphinx are usually, but not always, lying along the back, regardless of its pose. 

Male winged sphinxes from noble's tombs of the 2nd Intermediate Period and early 18th Dynasty. Image A. Sinclair.
  Originals in the Metropolitan Museum New York (bead left), and Petrie Museum London (seal).

So technically speaking, Egyptian sphinxes were falcon, king and feline hybrid creatures.  Not all Egyptian sphinxes have wings, but most cranky sphinxes do before the New Kingdom. To blur the model more, griffins and other magical creatures also sometimes have raised wings in Egyptian art before this time.

In the New Kingdom there are at least two images of male royal sphinxes (one passive and one active) with raised wings from around 1550 BCE, but many more winged sphinxes after this date are female.  So regardless of the subtleties, the pose may be a bit new to us, but not the falcon wings, they are there on an Egyptian sphinx up to a thousand years earlier.  They just become more visible.

Detail from a throne of princess Sitamen, daughter of Tiye. Sitamen wears blue nymphaeas and holds symbols of Hathor. 
18th Dynasty, tomb of Yuya and Tjuya.  Image A. Sinclair.

Floral diadems
There is another feature that has contributed to this topic other than gender and wings, it is that the queenly sphinxes of the New Kingdom often wear floral diadems, and this too has been used to reinforce an Aegean or Syrian origin argument for the female sphinx, or at least for her New Kingdom popularity, because it is thought to be un-Egyptian.

However, floral diadems were a feature of female cult costume in Egypt from as early as the Old Kingdom, with a limited selection of meaningful flowers being used for these, particularly the blue and white nymphaea lotus, but sometimes the papyrus and the ‘south flower’.  The real change is in the manner of depicting them, as sometimes in the New Kingdom flowers are shown facing frontally, but the flowers themselves won’t have changed … (although I will also point the accusing finger at Montet for arguing Egyptian rosettes were Phoenician chrysanthemums).

Design woven on the hem of a Jubilee tunic of Tutankhamen, tomb of Tutankhamen, 18th Dynasty. Image A. Sinclair.

None of these flowers worn on a queen or princess’s head in a ritual scene in Egypt was unusual, if that queen or princess was represented as a sphinx the same most probably applies. This was a ceremonial crown, not just a pretty garland of flowers.

The floral diadem has been called Hathoric by some Egyptologists, because throughout the pharaonic period it was commonly worn by priestesses in ritual scenes associated with the rather complex goddess Hathor.   She was goddess of love, lust, partying, inebriation and the necropolis (possibly if taken incautiously, in that order).  These flowers were also common to decorate ritual equipment and votive offerings in her temples.

Priestesses of Hathor wearing white and blue nymphaea diadems in a cult scene from the tomb of Djehutihetep at Bersheh.  Middle Kingdom. Image after Newberry 1895 vol. I, pl. 29.

Incidentally, the other popular and highly significant diadem that may be worn by queen’s sphinxes in ritual scenes, also confirms a connection to Hathor and this was the tall double falcon feathers and modius crown of the chief queen. This too was worn by her for important royal ceremonies.

Tiye as chilled sphinx. Left holding her husband's royal name on a buckle. Right depicted as the goddess Wadjet on a ring from Malqata palace. 18th Dynasty. Image A. Sinclair. Originals in the Metropolitan Museum, New York.

What was the significance of a female sphinx?
So that is the basic background.  Egypt had female sphinxes from historically quite early, at least from the 4th Dynasty, and the first female statue is possibly the earliest sphinx we know about. These sculptures represent female figures who were important enough to match the royal male sphinx in some monumental contexts, like in temples or funerary enclosures.  Then they really kick off properly in royal art after about 1600 BCE.

Let’s have a think about that, because the functions of the male sphinxes are relatively clear.  They were guardians and defenders of the sun god, or representatives of the sun god, but as living or regenerated representative of the sun, aka the king.  Therefore the function of the female sphinx ought to be also relatively clear; she was always a senior royal, either queen or an important princess, perhaps the queen mother.  She will not have been decorative any more than the king’s sphinx was.  

Sphinx adoring the name of Hatshepsut (left) and Mutnodjme (right) queen of Horemhab on his coronation monument. 18th Dynasty. Images A. Sinclair. Originals from Prisse d'Avennes 1878, vol. II and Turin Museum.

The Egyptian universe was dualistic, while the pharaoh had to be male, he did not have to actually physically be male, hence the royal women who ruled Egypt as living pharaoh, but who presented themselves as kings.   Not as a trick or disguise, but because that was the nature of their world.  The king had to be male, but in Egypt there also had to be a representative of the female element at his side to create order and balance. 

The chief queen, the queen mother or a senior princess had to fill this role, depending who was available, and by that I mean alive, what with mortality rates and all.  These royal women were therefore very important to social harmony too.  They represented different aspects of solar and protective goddesses, like Hathor, in ritual scenes and at festivals, particularly in the context of a king’s coronation or at his jubilee.  After he was dead they were ritual participants in his rebirth. 

Furniture inlay from Gurob, Queen Tiye holding symbols of eternal rule and flanking her own and her husband's names. Image A. Sinclair. 
Original in Berlin Museum.

The female sphinx reflected the queen’s role in assuring the king his throne and his eternal rule of Egypt (and the universe).  This was achieved by depicting her or a senior princess as chilled sphinx, often in the act of handing him his name and titles, or symbols guaranteeing his rule.  The main difference to earlier sphinxes is probably that in the early New Kingdom the chilled sphinx also has mobility, with threat and power inferred by her raised wings, and sometimes she can have human arms instead of forepaws, because paws are actually not very useful for ritual activities.  

The goddess Hathor is here still the main runner up for the goddess they represented, as the queen acted as high priestess of Hathor and her daughters as musician attendants in festival scenes.  She stood in for the goddess at important events like the coronation of the king.  As Sekhmet, Pachet, Wadjet, Nekhbet or Weret Hekau she could literally hand him his ‘crown’ in the role of the sorceress cobra on his brow.

His and hers sphinxes, Amenhotep III (left) and Tiye (right) from throne armrests in jubilee scenes. Image A. Sinclair. Originals from the tombs of Kheruef and Anen, Thebes.

Her other important role was in defending the king and the sun god from their traditional enemies; as ‘not taking any of your shit’ cranky sphinx.   Therefore, in the 18th Dynasty she could also be shown just like the pharaoh as a sphinx trampling upon the bodies of the enemies of Egypt, like queen Tiye above who incidentally suppresses female enemies as symbols of disorder.  
In this case, these sphinxes represented the martial lioness and cobra goddesses known to spit fire and defend the sun god from the forces of chaos, such as the Eye of Re, and who were aspects of Hathor again.  Goddesses like Sekhmet, Pachet, Wadjet, Nekhbet, Iaret and Weret Hekau (the sorceress) again all filled this role.  When she was this kind of sphinx the queen could be represented as a black panther like the male version, rather than a boring old lion. 

Ostraca from Deir el Medina that has a trial drawing of a queenly sphinx and a fragment of cartonnage reputedly from Thebes, both New Kingdom. Images A. Sinclair. Originals in Cairo and Borchardt 1933.

While we have a few, we don’t have as many representations of queens in these roles as we would perhaps like and it will likely be related to where they were put and the materials they were made from.  We actually don’t have that many examples of kings either from these contexts and the New Kingdom is still where they may be found, particularly from the 14th century (Tiye and A III).  If you exclude the imposing stone statues, the examples we do have come from tomb paintings, seals, ritual vessels, jewellery and royal furniture. 

The latter were made with perishable materials which are long gone or from valuable materials which will have been very attractive to tomb robbers.  But one could argue that these representations will have been common on the ceremonial furniture and jewellery of these powerful women, just like sphinxes were used for the king’s ceremonial objects and to decorate his palace or handed out as royal gifts to his favourites at New Year.  

Royal female sphinxes from a faience offering bowl from a royal residence at Gurob. Late 18th-19th Dynasty. Image A. Sinclair.  Original in Manchester Museum.

After that rather compact barrage of information and my usual overkill of pictures … (I actually could not put every queenly sphinx here, but the drawings are mostly mine) ... I hope it is clear to all that there is more to an Egyptian sphinx than a guy wearing a fake beard and gaudy stripped handkerchief who incidentally has a lion’s body.  Don’t let anyone tell you that the Egyptian sphinx was always male and boring, like that show pony, the Giza sphinx.  Not only were ancient Egyptian sphinxes way more complicated than that, they were also female.

Queens kicked arse in the Bronze Age too.

Andrea Sinclair 2019

Queen Tiye as sphinxes from a temple dedicated to her at Seidinga in Nubia.  Here the relationship of the queen to Hathor and the royal uraeus is clear. Image from Prisse d'Avennes 1878, vol. I, pl. 12.

Female sphinxes in museums
a) Sphinx of a queen of Thutmose III (1479-1424 BCE), that was discovered in the Roman period temple of Isis in Rome, Museo Scultura Antica Giovanni Barracco Museum: MB 13. 
b) The head of a sphinx of a queen of Senwosret II (1900-1880 BCE) that may be from the Heliopolis temple. Boston Museum of Fine Arts: 2002.609. 
c) Head of a sphinx of a 12th Dynasty queen (1994-1781 BCE) that may be from the Heliopolis temple. Brooklyn Museum: 56.85. 

Further reading – references

This post is a ‘very’ casually reworked version of a subsection of my doctoral thesis; Outlooks on an International Koiné Style: ‘Hybrid’ Visual Idiom from New Kingdom Elite Iconography’, (open access) publication will hopefully be in mid to late 2019.

H.A. Liebowitz. 1987. ‘Late Bronze II Ivory Work in Palestine: Evidence of a Cultural Highpoint I’. BASOR 265.
Montet 1937. Les reliques de l’art syrien dans l’Égypte du nouvel empire.(don't do it, it’s a trick)
R. Preys 2006. ʽLe mythe de la lointaine: Lionne dangereuse et déese bénéfique’, in E. Warmenbol, Sphinx: Les gardiens de l’Égypt.
R.K. Ritner 2008. The Mechanics of Ancient Egyptian Magical Practice, SAOC 54.
R. Stadelmann  2001. ‘Sphinx’, in D.B. Redford, Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt.
H. Te Velde 1970. ‘The God Heka in Egyptian Theology’. JEOL 21.
L. Troy 2002. ‘The Ancient Egyptian Queenship as an Icon of the State’. NIN Journal of Gender Studies in Antiquity 3(1).
R.H. Wilkinson 2003. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt.
C.M. Zivie-Coche 1984. ‘Sphinx’, in W. Helck, Lexikon der Ägyptologie V.

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