The Meaning of the Great Sphinx of Giza in Egypt

The Meaning of the Great Sphinx of Giza

by Allen Winston

A frontal view of the Great Sphinx at Giza in Egypt

Whatever else it might be, the Great Sphinx is certainly not the keeper of long lost knowledge, or ancient technologies, as has been popularly reported over the years. There are surely no hidden chambers holding the secrets of Atlantis between its paws, or elsewhere. What the Great Sphinx is in reality is grand enough. It is a monumental symbol of ancient Egyptian kingship, probably related to solar worship.

There was a trend toward colossal stone architecture in Egypt by the middle of the 4th Dynasty, as Khafre took the reigns of kingship. This tendency had been going on for more than a century, when Khafre came to power, but he took the trend even further. He began by using limestone core blocks weighing hundreds of tons in his temples, but his craftsmen also created more than two hundred statues, that we know of, made from hard stone. Twenty-two of these were at least three times life size, but the largest statue of all is thought to be the Great Sphinx at Giza near Cairo. It would remain unique for both its size, and for the fact that it was hewn directly from the living rock.

Much controversy has surrounded the Great Sphinx, including whether or not it was actually carved as late as the 4th Dynasty, not surprisingly considering that it appears suddenly and without much precedent. Though it remained a classic image of kingship throughout Egypt's ancient history, there was no continuum of development of its form prior to the Great Sphinx's appearance on the Giza Plateau. Rather, the complete form appears all at one at Giza, even though a detached Djedefre head in the Louvre Museum suggests that the form had been executed in stone a few years earlier. This is certainly not the manner in which pyramids were developed in Egypt, through much trial and error.

A side view of the Great Sphin at Giza

The fact that this earliest super-colossal image of the king was a mixed form, both animal and human, is significant. In mixed forms, it is the head that conveys the essential identity, and with the nemes scarf about the Great Sphinx's head, it must be the representation of a king. But as Henry Fischer relates the head's attachment to the lion's body, it is "a suggestion of shape-shifting, of metamorphosis, that is appropriate to the king who is, uniquely, the link between mankind and the gods, and stands constantly on the threshold of these two worlds".

This time, the Sphinx has the head of Tutankhamun, trampling the enemies of Egypt

However, we should also look to some of the oldest images of ancient Egypt, as well as elsewhere. The lion was a solar symbol in more than one ancient Near Eastern culture. It is also a common archetype of royalty. Even as early as the Predynastic period, we find carved on luxury objects probably of royal origin, scenes depicting fantastic animals mingling with wild, real world animals. These may be found on ceremonial slate palettes, ivory plaques and ivory knife handles, particularly found at Hierakonpolis or from nearby Naqada in Upper Egypt. Most of these early depictions were of winged, falcon headed griffins, leopards with long, winding necks and other accompanying animals that are usually considered to be inspired indirectly from models found in Mesopotamia.However, some two dimensional images on slate palettes of the Early Dynasty period, some three to four hundred years prior to the carving of the Great Sphinx, depict the king as a wild lion or griffin, destroying his enemies.

A magic wand from ancient Egypt, with a double headed Sphinx

A magic wand from ancient Egypt, with a double headed Sphinx

In the earliest of Egyptian times, men saw and knew the power of beasts, and seem to have envied them. There is a sense that humans, at the dawn of civilization, were subject to, and seemingly inferior to, the world's more feral inhabitants. However, as man's intellect grew, together with his ability to control, or at least defend himself from wild beasts, so too did his confidence. Many scholars believe that mixed images such as the Sphinx symbolize mankind's domination over wild beasts, and over chaos itself. Such images as the Great Sphinx may very well represent animal power tamed by human intelligence and thus transformed into divine calm. Traditionally, mixed, or composite images were almost always seen as divine. One way or the other, what could be more dangerous and powerful, or more self assured than the king of the jungle with the mind of a human king?

Some times, it is difficult to imaging that, at the dawn of the use of photographic images, the Great Sphinx remained mostly buried beneath the sands

More specifically to the Great Sphinx, however, Alan Gardiner suggested that the Egyptian phrase, shesep ankh Atum, meaning "Living Image of Atum", which was associated with sphinxes in later times, signified the pharaoh in the form of the primeval sun and creator god. The word Shesep ankh used for statue, perhaps of a particular kind, is known from the Old Kingdom. Fischer suggested that it derives from shesep, which means "to receive". Fischer goes on to say that such a statue is "one who receives offerings and other ministrations".

The sphinx of a Late Period Pharoah, identified by a cartouche as Menkheperra, probably referring to a High Priest of the 21st Dynasty

Carved from the living stone, the Great Sphinx of Giza is an apt symbol for the god Atum, or the king in the guise, especially in Atum's aspect of a chthonic creator god. James Allen has pointed out that Atum's name means "completed one", and that, according to the ancient Egyptians, the entire physical world came forth from Atum as the "primeval mass". There is, in fact, an obscure notion in the Pyramid Texts, Coffin Texts and the Book of the Dead that has the lion emerging from the primeval mass within the primeval waters before all other animals, including mankind. Karol Mysliwiec pointed out an association between the birth of Atum and the lion; that Atum appeared on earth as a lion. According to The Treasures of the Pyramids, edited by Dr. Zahi Hawass:

"The idea is expressed in the association between Atum and Ruti, the double lion god who is somewhat like a cell that has doubled its elements and begun to divide, before the actual split has occurred. The double lion also alludes to Shu and Tefnut, the first differentiation of Atum's being. But Ruti says 'I am the double lion, older than Atum,' so appearing even before the actual birth of the next primordial generation"

Nevertheless, it is not certain that the 4th Dynasty Egyptians saw in the Sphinx an image of Atum. However, even if the Great Sphinx was an image of the king, according to the Pyramid Texts, kingship descended from Atum, through Shu, Geb and Osiris to Horus, and therefore, the reigning king of Egypt. While the pyramid structure was almost certainly associated with Atum in his capacity of the primeval mound and the sacred benben tone of Heliopolis, the Great Sphinx could also be associated with Atum as the primeval king in lion form, emerging form the formless mass of creation, with its royal head rising just above the earthy pit.

The granite sphinx of Amenemhat III is such a masterpiece that later kings reused it for 600 years as a symbol of power

The sphinx temple also suggests that the complex was related to the solar cycle, which would not only include Atum as it sets, but also the sun in its other phases, including the rising sun, Khepri and the sun at its zenith, Re. Various elements in the Old Sphinx temple appear to be solar related, such as the 24 columns, thought to represent the 24 hours of the day and night, that support its roof.

It seems that the Sphinx may relate to an advancement of the royal sun cult during the 4th Dynasty. Djedefre, who ruled briefly around the time of Khafre and Khufu, was the first pharaoh to adapt the title, "Son of Re". As Horus, the presenter of offerings, the Sphinx might represent a sublimation of kingly power to a higher deity. At the same time, it would not be hard for the Sphinx to represent both the king as Horus, and also be identified with the sun god.

We must also finally look at the Great Sphinx as a guardian of the necropolis at Giza from evil. Situated at the very entrance to the sacred cemetery, the Sphinx must have been a warning to dangerous forces.

See Also:






Reference Number

Atlas of Ancient Egypt

Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir


Les Livres De France

None Stated

Complete Pyramids, The (Solving the Ancient Mysteries)

Lehner, Mark


Thames and Hudson, Ltd

ISBN 0-500-05084-8

Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt, The

Wilkinson, Richard H.


Thames and Hudson, Ltd

ISBN 0-500-05100-3

Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul


Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers

ISBN 0-8109-3225-3

Encyclopedia of Ancient Egyptian Architecture, The

Arnold, Dieter


Princeton University Press

ISBN 0-691-11488-9

Giza The Truth

Lawton, Ian; Ogilvie-Herald, Chris


Virgin Publishing Ltd.

ISBN 0-7535-0412-x

Illustrated Guide to the Pyramids, The

Hawass, Zahi; Siliotti, Alberto


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 825 2

Monuments of Civilization Egypt

Barcocas, Claudio


Madison Square Press; Grosset & Dunlap

ISBN 0-448-02018-1

Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, The

Redford, Donald B. (Editor)


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 581 4

Pyramids and Sphinx, The (Egypt Under the Pharaohs)

Steward, Desmond



ISBN 0-88225-271-2

Pyramids of Ancient Egypt, The

Hawass, Zahi A.


Carnegie Museum of Natural History, The

ISBN 0-911239-21-9

Sacred Sites of Ancient Egypt

Oakes, Lorna


Lorenz Books

ISBN (non stated)

Treasures of the Pyramids, The

Hawass, Zahi


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 798 1