The Great Sphinx of Giza, (Image: NadineDoerle,

The Sphinx Blinks

Sky & Telescope, March 2001.
Copyright (c) 2001 by Sky Publishing Corp.
Reproduced with permission.

Despite the worldwide fame enjoyed by the Sphinx today, two of antiquity’s
celebrated historians failed to mention it. Herodotus visited Egypt in the 5th century
B.C. and saw the Great Pyramid but was silent on the Sphinx. Another Greek,
Diodorus Siculus, also wrote about Egypt but said nothing of the Sphinx. Part of
Khafre’s pyramid can be seen to the left of the Sphinx.
All photographs by E. C. Krupp.

The familiar stone lion with a human head that peers out over the Nile was built in adoration of the Sun.

With a rock-steady gaze, Egypt’s Great Sphinx has faced due east for 4,500 years. If the Sphinx ever blinks, it must be in March and September, when the equinox Sun rises and shines straight in its eyes. This monumental sculpture, carved from a natural bedrock limestone outcrop on the doorstep of the Giza pyramids, is a crouched lion with a human head. Our gatefold all-sky map for March displays one of the proposals once offered for its hybrid character. The composite creature was allegedly engineered through the symbolic fusion of Leo, the Lion, and Virgo, the Maiden, both now climbing out of the east on our monthly star chart.

In Star Names and Their Meanings, (1899), Richard Hinckley Allen explained that the Sphinx was constructed “with Virgo’s head on Leo’s body, from the fact that the sun passed through these two constellations during the inundation of the Nile.” Allen acknowledged the objections of Egyptologists to this astronomically facile answer to the riddle of the Sphinx but nevertheless asserted the lion’s solar significance in ancient Egypt.

Thanks to ancient Egyptian texts, we now know the Sphinx represents Horemakhet (“Horus of the Horizon”) and is the divine personification of the rising disk of the Sun, fully poised on the eastern horizon. Intentionally aligned toward cardinal east, the Sphinx reflects the ritual significance of the cardinal directions in the Old Kingdom period (2686-2181 B.C.). Cardinal directions originate astronomically in the daily rotation of the sky around the north celestial pole, a location of high interest to the ancient Egyptians. The entire Giza necropolis adheres to an accurate cardinal grid.

The Sphinx is said to be the vigilant guardian of the Giza cemetery, but its name and its eastward dedication also reflect ancient Egyptian ideas about cyclical celestial renewal and its affiliation with the divine destiny of the dead pharaoh. Some evidence suggests the face on the Sphinx was a portrait of the pharaoh Khafre, the son of Khufu (or Cheops, as the Greeks called him), who built the Great Pyramid.

Giza’s second-largest pyramid belongs to Khafre. The Causeway that connects Khafre’s Mortuary Temple, on the east side of his pyramid, to his Valley Temple passes next to the Sphinx, and this architectural bond with the Sphinx supports Khafre’s claim on it. His Valley Temple is also right next to the Sphinx Temple, just east of the paws of the beast.

The sides of the Sphinx Temple, like most of the rest of Giza, are cardinally aligned, and a pair of sanctuaries on its primary axis – one on the east and one on the west – amplify a connection with equinox sunrise and sunset. Felicitously positioned with respect to the Sphinx, the temple retains a clear line of sight due west. This axis just skirts the lion’s southern flank with a clearance for the equinox sunset. On that line, the Sun touches the horizon at the southern edge of Khafre’s pyramid and reinforces, with solar adhesion, Khafre’s bond with the Sphinx.

Additional astronomical and calendrical connotations have been spotted in the Sphinx Temple’s interior colonnade. Its 24 red granite pillars have been interpreted as a reference to the 24 hours of the day, an Egyptian convention we still observe today.

Most of the evidence attributes the construction of the Sphinx to Khafre, but Giza Egyptologist Mark Lehner believes the Sphinx was intended to portray a manifestation of Atum, the solarized aspect of the divine Creator. Certainly, by the New Kingdom (1570-1070 B.C.) Egyptian pharaohs believed the Sphinx was a solar god and gave it names that expressed that character. As a predator near the top of the food chain, the lion was already an emblem of power associated with royalty before the Giza pyramids. If the Sphinx was also Khafre, it promoted Khafre’s solar deification.

A temple dedicated to the Sphinx was built in front of it. A pair of interior niches face each other on the temple’s eastern and western walls and establish an axis aligned with equinox sunrise and sunset. In this view taken from the eastern niche, the western niche is visible on the far left of the frame (arrowed), just left of the Sphinx.

The monumental astronomy associated with the Sphinx is completely consistent with what we know about ancient Egyptian religion and Egypt’s symbolism of power. Another astronomical dimension has been promoted, however, by Graham Hancock and Robert Bauval. Both have written books containing free-wheeling interpretations of antiquity. Bauval is the coauthor of The Orion Mystery (1994), which matches the three main pyramids at Giza with the three stars in the Belt of Orion, the Hunter. I have already described a debilitating internal contradiction of this claim in this column (S&T: February 1997, page 64), in Skywatchers, Shamans, & Kings, in lectures, and on television. For the moment, however, we’ll accept this flawed premise to examine the argument Hancock and Bauval more recently presented in The Message of the Sphinx (1996).

Hancock and Bauval insist the landscape of Giza replicates the sky. Equating the Sphinx with Leo, identifying the Nile River with the Milky Way, and committed to mapping Orion’s Belt in pyramids on the ground, they claim the reflection of the Egyptian sky in terrestrial monuments doesn’t make sense for 2500 B.C. Presuming the Sphinx was intended to face vernal-equinox sunrise, they argue that Leo and Orion are incorrectly placed for a recapitulation of what they believe were the celestial circumstances of the Creation time in Egyptian myth.

Because the equinox-aligned Sphinx is supposed to represent Leo, the vernal-equinox Sun should have been in the stars of Leo, but in 2500 B.C. it was in Taurus, the Bull. Also, because Orion’s Belt was targeted by the south shaft from the King’s Chamber in the Great Pyramid when it was due south and crossing the meridian, and because the pyramids allegedly map Orion’s Belt, they say Orion should have been on the meridian when the Sphinx primordially stared at equinox sunrise. However, Orion was still east of the meridian at equinox sunrise in 2500 B.C.

According to The Message of the Sphinx by Graham Hancock and Robert Bauval, the primary monuments on Egypt’s Giza plateau mapped the celestial configuration of the vernal equinox sunrise in 10,500 B.C. Although this era is too early for construction at Giza, as far as Egyptologists are concerned, it positions the vernal-equinox Sun in Leo and places Orion on the meridian at sunrise. According to Hancock and Bauval, the Sphinx is Leo, the Nile is the Milky Way, and the three Giza pyramids are the Belt of Orion. If so, the Sphinx is on the wrong side of the river.

To resolve what Hancock and Bauval judged to be an incorrect configuration of the sky with respect to Giza, they precessionally displaced the constellations back to 10,500 B.C. In that era, the vernal-equinox Sun was in Leo, and at sunrise Orion was not only on the meridian but at its lowest elevation above the southern horizon in the entire precessional cycle.

Allied with advocates for an unorthodox age for the Sphinx that would affiliate it with the inhabitants of the legendary lost continent of Atlantis, Hancock and Bauval astronomically dated the Sphinx to 10,500 B.C. To endorse this result, they reminded their readers about the Dendera zodiac, a circular Egyptian relief that maps the constellations. It once filled a ceiling of the Temple of Hathor at Dendera. Now it is displayed in the Louvre in Paris, and it includes Egyptianized images of the 12 zodiacal constellations, including Leo.

Dendera, however, does not tell us the Sphinx is Leo. In fact, the zodiacal Lion was not even an Egyptian constellation. We find it in Egypt only in the Ptolemaic era and in the last half of the 1st century B.C., when Dendera Temple was built. This is long after the Pyramid Age and really long after 10,500 B.C.

A lion constellation is depicted on the astronomical ceilings of pharaonic tombs of the New Kingdom, but that lion is not Leo. It is part of Egypt’s indigenous Northern Group of constellations, and the paintings show a crouched lion near what we now recognize as the stars of the Big Dipper. That same crouched lion appears next to the Bull’s Leg (the Big Dipper) on the Dendera zodiac, which also features Leo.

Although Leo, the Lion, is depicted on the Dendera zodiac, this Egyptian sky chart was carved around 30 B.C. and incorporates Greco-Roman astronomical traditions. Indigenous Egyptian astronomy did not include familiar zodiacal constellations such as Leo, which is visible here at the bottom of the picture. Near the upper middle of the frame, a figure that looks somewhat like a broom and is actually the leg of a bull represents the stars of the Big Dipper. Just beneath the bull’s “knee” is the curved shape of a small crouching feline. This is the lion that does appear in early Egyptian images of the northern constellations near the celestial pole.

We understand enough about Egypt’s astronomy in the early periods to know Egypt did not recognize the zodiac that is so familiar to us today. The zodiac is really a gift from the Greeks, primarily rooted in Mesopotamian star lore. The “message of the Sphinx” is, however, even more mistranslated. Here’s the problem: In the sky, Orion is located to the west of the Milky Way. Leo is on the other side of the celestial Nile, east of the Milky Way, and it faces Orion. On the ground, however, the Sphinx, the terrestrial reflection of Leo, is west of the Nile and on the same side of the river as the pyramids that allegedly symbolize the Belt of Orion. It also faces away from Orion. The Sphinx is on the wrong side of the river and facing the wrong way to match the sky.

You don’t have to be an Egyptologist to realize there is no Orion mystery or 12,000-year-old message from the Sphinx. You just have to ask questions like a sphinx.

E. C. KRUPP winks at the Sphinx from Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.

From Sky & Telescope, March 2001.
Copyright (c) 2001 by Sky Publishing Corp.
Reproduced with permission.