|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.
That’s more or less the party line, right?
|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 is easy to identify because the head wears all the appropriate regalia of an Egyptian king, like various crowns, false beard and uraeus cobra.
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.
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.
|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.
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.
|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.
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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
|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.|
|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.|
|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.|
|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.
|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.|
|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.|
|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.|
Further reading – references