Sphinxes

The mythical sphinx spans thousands of years around the ancient world. Also, technically, the Great Sphinx of Giza isn’t a “sphinx”.

The sphinx is a human-animal hybrid chimera (except not a literal chimera). At its most basic it is part human part lion with other design options available depending on the culture.

Egypt, the protector sphinx

The first human-lion hybrids come from Egypt. While most Egyptian human-animal hybrids are animal heads on human bodies, the sphinx is the other way around. To borrow from Spinal Tap, “No one knows who they were or what they were doing”no one knows what these creatures were called in Egyptian culture nor is anyone exactly sure what they were meant to do. It’s thought they were created as protectors, defending royal tombs, but nobody is certain. They were frequently carved with the face of whichever pharaoh’s tomb they were beside and as such most Egyptian sphinxes are male.

Egyptian sphinxes are generally male and thought to be protectors of royal tombs but nobody is certain.

As for the largest, oldest, and most famous sphinx of them all, while it was built somewhere between 2600 BCE and 2500 BCE, no one is exactly sure who built the Great Sphinx of Giza or why. It’s thought to have been commissioned by (and is thought to have the face of) the pharaoh Khafre. It’s positioned facing East near the Great Pyramid of Khufu (the tomb of Khafre’s father). Khafre also built himself a pyramid caddy corner to his father’s, just 10 feet shorter. 

The Great Sphinx of Giza is the largest, oldest, and most famous sphinx. He used to have a nose and a beard and was possibly painted, but all three features have been lost over time.

It’s hard to appreciate just how old the Great Sphinx is (and how long sphinxes have been a part of Egyptian culture). The pyramid complex had been built and subsequently abandoned so long ago that the Sphinx was buried in sand up to its shoulders by the time the first excavation attempt took place in 1400 BCE. That means the first excavation was around a 1000 years after the Sphinx was built and that was still around 3400 years ago. Trying to rescue the Great Sphinx from the desert sands has been going on for thousands of years.

The Greek sphinx is one particular sphinx. She is famous for her riddle and her role in the story of Oedipus.

Greece, the monster sphinx

Sphinxes spread counterclockwise around the Mediterranean from Egypt to the Middle East, to Mesopotamia, and into Greece around 1600 BCE – the visual design and meaning changing along the way. In Greek mythology there was a single sphinx (not numerous sphinxes like in Egypt) who was also a human-lion hybrid but was female and she had wings.

The Greek sphinx comes to us through the story of Oedipus. This sphinx is more of a monster than her Egyptian counterparts (she is inline with other Greek female monsters, like the gorgons). As Oedipus is traveling to Thebes he encounters the sphinx. The city of Thebes is at her mercy as she offers a challenge to all who want to enter the city: she will grant safe passage if you can successfully answer a riddle. If you fail she kills you. Oedipus correctly solves the riddle and the sphinx (dramatically) kills herself … and this isn’t even the craziest part of the Oedipus story (paging Dr. Freud).

The word “sphinx” was both the specific name of the sole Greek sphinx as well as a general term the Greeks used for these kinds of creatures (like what we do today). That said, the word “sphinx” is of Greek origin and so technically outside of Greece these creatures aren’t “sphinxes”. While the Greeks may have called the Egyptian creatures “sphinxes” the Egyptians did not. The word “sphinx” didn’t even exist until over 2000 years after the Great Sphinx of Giza, so again what the Egyptians called these things is something else unknown.

The Greek sphinx also influenced South and Southeast Asian cultures where sphinxes are seen as holy guardians at temples and other religious sites. In these places the sphinxes are meant to ward away evil and cleanse the sins of religions devotees.

Sphinxes have appeared in art around world over the centuries but especially during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Egyptomania

Sphinxes (both the male Egyptian kind and the winged female Greek kind) made appearances in European art from the 15th century onward but their greatest surge in popularity was during the 19th century Egyptology and Egyptomania craze. After Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt from 1798-1801 the French brought treasures to France which led to an interest in all things ancient Egypt. Bits of this can still be found in Egyptian Revival architecture which features pyramids, sphinxes, and other Egyptian motifs.

Also, on the topic of the French in Egypt, Napoleon’s troops did not shoot off the Great Sphinx of Giza’s nose. One story is that around 1378 CE a Sufi Muslim named Muhammad Sa’im al-Dahr destroyed the nose in an attempt to stop a cult that was making religious offerings to the Great Sphinx. Muhammad Sa’im al-Dahr was supposedly executed for defacing the Great Sphinx. The Great Sphinx also had a beard but it most likely fell off from erosion of sitting in the desert for thousands of years.

Added info: Egyptian culture had yet another resurgence in western popularity with the 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb. Two years later in 1924 H.P. Lovecraft was the ghostwriter of Harry Houdini’s Under the Pyramids, an adventurous tale of Houdini’s kidnapping and imprisonment under the pyramids. The Great Sphinx plays a pivotal role in this supposedly true tale.

Also, the hairless Sphynx cat breed is not from Egypt, but rather is from Toronto, Canada.

The Mummy’s Curse

The idea that Egyptian tombs are cursed as a means of protection is largely a 20th century creation.

Egyptians began mummifying their dead around 3500 BCE. In all the years of archaeological explorations of Egyptian tombs very few written or inscribed “curses” have ever been found. Those that have however could be thought of as early security systems – trying to protect the contents of the tomb from grave robbers (both amateur and archaeological). Unfortunately, given centuries of rampant looting of Egyptian graves it’s safe to say the curses didn’t work. Despite so few curses having ever been found our modern pop culture is firmly gripped by the undead idea of cursed tombs with mummified Egyptians exacting their revenge from beyond the grave.

The primary reason we think of cursed Egyptian tombs is the 1922 excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamun. George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, had financed the search for King Tut’s tomb which was run by archaeologist Howard Carter. As Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered, and the magnitude of the discovery was realized, the Egyptian government ensured that all artifacts would stay in Egypt. Without being able to sell any of the treasures (to cover his costs … or to make a profit) Lord Carnavon sold the exclusive rights to the excavation story to the London Times for £5,000 up front as well as 75% of the Times’ profits from sales of the story to other papers. This left every other news outlet high & dry for a story. Enter: the mummy’s curse.

Howard Carter's discovery of King Tut's tomb changed how we think of Egyptian mummies
Howard Carter’s 1922 discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb changed the world (and how we think of Egyptian mummies).

From Beyond

Without access to the largest archaeological find of the age, all other news organizations were left scrambling for another angle. Less than six months after the discovery, on April 5th 1923 Lord Carnarvon died and the press had their angle. The media began to report on a supposed Egyptian curse that had killed Carnarvon for opening King Tut’s tomb (despite no such curse being written anywhere in the tomb).

Paranormal “experts” crawled out of the woodwork to substantiate the idea of a curse. Archaeologists (especially the ones who were excluded from the tomb) where willing to discuss potential curses, which allowed them to profit from the find. Rumors and claims spread & grew like wildfire. Even Howard Carter let the reports of a curse continue, never publicly denying them, because (like a Scooby-Doo episode) it had the effect of scaring people away from the tomb, allowing him to continue working on the excavation for the next decade in relative peace.

The association of mummies with curses proliferated across pop culture after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb.

I want my mummy

The western fascination with Egypt, and the orientalized ideas that it was an exotic land of magic, has existed since at least the Middle Ages. Using ground up mummies as medicine, or turning them into paint pigment, had long been practiced by Europeans. The 19th century Egyptomania craze popularized Egypt as a setting for fantastical stories of mummies and tombs. The first story featuring a reanimated mummy (a trope most later mummy stories would follow) was 1827’s The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century by Jane Webb. Bram Stoker’s 1903 horror novel The Jewel of Seven Stars also features Egyptian magic and resurrection. However the discover of King Tut’s tomb did more to popularize the idea of a mummy’s curse than anything else.

In 1932, not long after the 1922 discovery of King Tut’s tomb, the film The Mummy was released featuring Boris Karloff as an ancient mummy resurrected. This was the beginning of many, many mummy movies (including 1944’s The Mummy’s Curse and 1957’s Pharaoh’s Curse, both of which have a curse right in the title). Each telling of a mummy story wanted to be better or more fantastical than the previous so the idea of a mummy’s curse grew. Today the idea of resurrected mummies & curses is a standard part of the horror genre.

Added info: As for any idea that Lord Carnarvon’s death might be attributed to some kind of curse, there is no evidence to support this. While a few people associated with the excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamun died not long after its discovery, nobody died at an unusually young age. An epidemiological study of the people who entered the tomb found that these individuals died on average around 70 years old, which was normal for the early 20th century.

Also, Lord Carnarvon’s home was Highclere Castle, which today is the setting of Downton Abbey.

Egyptian Mummies: From Medicine to Paint

For hundreds of years Europeans used ground up Egyptian mummies as medicine and paint pigment.

The Arabic word mūmiyā (which later became “mummia”) was the name for the black sticky asphalt material that came out of the ground used as a sealant, an adhesive, and as medicine around the ancient world. Pliny the Elder and others wrote about the medicinal uses for mummia which became a bit of a cure-all for a range of ailments.

Unfortunately mummia the petroleum product looked like another black substance that was a byproduct of the Egyptian embalming process. As such the word “mummia” came to mean both the petroleum product AND the byproduct of Egyptian mummification, which was then even further confused as meaning an entire mummified body. This is how we got the word “mummy”. Unfortunately this series of mistakes also led to hundreds of years of cannibalism.

Cannibal Medicine

Since the petroleum based mummia was used both externally as a salve as well as ingested internally, the Egyptian mummy version of mummia became used in the same ways. The 11th century physician Constantinus Africanus even described mummia as a “spice” found in the sepulchers of the dead. Soon the human version replaced the petroleum version and people began to crumble & grind human corpses for medicine.

With the Crusades, Europeans learned of mummia and its medicinal possibilities. This significantly increased European demand for Egyptian mummies and by the 15th-16th centuries there was a thriving trade in mummies. Thousands of bodies were being exhumed and shipped to Europe to be turned into medicines. In 1586 English merchant John Sanderson shipped 600 pounds of mummies to London to sell at various apothecaries. This was fueled in part by orientalism, that Egyptian mummies had some sort of exotic ancient knowledge or power.

Europeans would consume portions of Egyptian corpses for help with general pain, ulcers, inflammation, epilepsy, cough, difficult labor, etc. – none of which worked, or if they worked it wasn’t the mummy that was the active ingredient. The practice was so common Shakespeare included mummy as an ingredient in the witches’ potion in Macbeth. Demand was so high that by the 17th century some mummy dealers were producing counterfeit mummies. Newly deceased people, animals, or prisoners who had been purposefully starved & executed, were put through a process to simulate ancient Egyptian mummies.

After a few hundred years of medicinal cannibalism Europeans began to express doubt as to the practice’s efficacy (and ethicality). The 16th century herbalist Leonhard Fuchs felt foreign mummies were acceptable but local ones were wrong. While doubts arose during the Renaissance in the 16th century it took until the 18th century age of Enlightenment for the practice to fall out of fashion. As consuming mummies slowly ended Egyptian mummies took on a new role: paint pigment.

The Egyptian Widow by Lourens Alma Tadema is an 1872 painting of Egyptian life potentially painted using mummy brown paint.
Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix is another painting that’s theorized to contain mummy brown.

Mummy Brown

Around the end of the 16th century artists began using ground up Egyptian mummies (mixed with other materials) to produce mummy brown, a shade of brown pigment. Apothecaries that were grinding up mummies for medicine began to grind them up for paint as well. As a paint it was good for shadows, flesh tones, and glazing. Artists Benjamin West, Martin Drolling, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Edward Burne-Jones, Eugène Delacroix, and others all painted with mummy brown.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that mummy brown began to fall out of favor. That said as recently as 1926 C Roberson & Co. still sold mummy brown made with ground up Egyptian corpses. As mummy brown died out so too did hundreds of years of large-scale desecration of deceased Egyptians, using human beings for medicines and paints.

Added info: in another example of “what’s old is new again”, in 2024 some Sierra Leoneans were digging up dead bodies for their bones to make the highly addictive street drug kush.

Cleopatra was Egyptian…ish

Cleopatra was the last in a line of Greek rulers of Egypt

Cleopatra (aka, Pharaoh Cleopatra VII Philopator) was the final ruler of Egypt before the kingdom fell to the Roman Empire. During her rule she commissioned portraits of herself in the traditional Egyptian style and she could speak the Egyptian language (something that her family predecessors never bothered to do). All of this would make it seem like Cleopatra was Egyptian, except she was Greek.

Cleopatra was the last ruler of the Ptolemaic dynasty, a 275 year rule that originated in Greece. The founder of this family dynasty was her ancestor Ptolemy I Soter who was one of Alexander the Great’s most senior generals. When Alexander died in 323 BCE he left a kingdom that stretched across the ancient world from Egypt to India and it had to be managed. After a series of deals & wars Ptolemy gained control of the Egyptian portion of the kingdom and declared himself pharaoh. Thus began the Ptolemaic dynasty.

Under this dynastic rule, native Egyptians were generally held to the lower classes while Greeks held the political and economic power. The Greek descendants of Ptolemy continued to rule over Egypt until Cleopatra’s defeat by Julius Caesar’s grandnephew Octavian in 30 BCE.