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:,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:

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,

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.

Sitchin’s rocket in the tomb of Amenhotep-Huy

Painting of the west wall in the tomb of Huy by Charles K. Wilkinson (1920s), Image © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. If yo...