The Sphinx As Anubis
The first time I went to Egypt and saw the Sphinx with my own eyes, I was deeply shocked. I have already discussed in the previous chapter how hard it is to get a true impression of the proportion of the head to the body from a photo. And when I first saw the Sphinx, the ridiculously tiny head on the huge body was naturally one of the things that most shocked me. But what struck me even more was that the Sphinx did not look at all like a lion. I had always been told the Sphinx had the body of a lion with the head of a man, and I accepted that account as being true, since who was I to challenge such a fundamental “truth” that “everybody knows”? It had not even occurred to me that there could be anything wrong with this “truth.” But now that I stood there staring at the Sphinx with my own eyes, I failed to see a lion anywhere.
I rubbed my eyes, I examined my conscience, I craned my neck, I stared and stared, thinking that the obvious would soon become apparent to me if I just looked harder.
Well, there we were, stuck with the reality that wouldn’t go away: The Sphinx was something, but it certainly wasn’t a lion.
So what was it? It had four legs and it was lying on its belly in a position that is generally called recumbent. One can’t tell much from the paws, because they had been so mangled by restoration work and covered all over in small stone blocks. The original carved portion of the paws is no longer visible, so what they looked like can only be determined by inference or by guessing.
The thing that struck Olivia and me as most obvious and most peculiar was that the back of the Sphinx was entirely straight, that is, its spine was absolutely flat. It did not rise anywhere, whether in the rear or in the front. It was flat. All Egyptian statues and pictures of lions show the back rising sharply in front, to indicate the massive chest of a lion, and generally a mane is also clearly shown, as well as muscular haunches. But the Sphinx has no massive lion’s chest, no rising line of the back to a higher neck, no bulging muscles, and certainly no trace of a mane.
When the Sphinx was cleared of sand during the New Kingdom by the Pharaoh Tuthmosis IV circa 1400 BCE, the Egyptians of that time thought they saw a lion. This fallacy is thus not a modern one. It has been believed for 3,400 years. But just because something is believed for 3,400 years does not mean that it is correct. For many thousands of years it was believed the sun went around the earth, and that was not true either.
Many people have commented on the strange fact that there is no mention of the Sphinx in very early times in Egypt. To give a recent example, Mark Lehner has said in The Complete Pyramids that “there are no known Old Kingdom texts that refer either to the Sphinx or its temple.”1 But I would say that the reason for this is that people have been looking for the wrong things--texts referring to a lion with a man’s head will not be found, because that is not what the Sphinx was.
This opens up all kinds of possibilities. We have already seen that the man’s head was probably a recarving during the Middle Kingdom. So in the Old Kingdom, what we have to do is look for references to something else that might be the Sphinx and that is neither a lion nor an animal statue with a man’s head at all.
We will see that there are numerous references to something else, which was a gigantic creature that is sometimes specifically said to be at Giza.
But before we turn to ancient Egyptian texts, we need to consider what the Sphinx actually is, or I should say was, before it had its head recarved. In the previous chapter I said that I believe the Sphinx once had an animal head. Whatever the head was, it needed to be in the correct proportion to the body. So we come to the question: What beast could this be, lying on its belly, guardian of the necropolis of Giza?
The usual guardian of the necropolis in Egyptian tradition was the god Anubis, and he was represented as a dog, or jackal, or jackal/dog. Anubis is the Greek name of the god called Anpu in Egyptian, but because everyone uses the form Anubis, we shall call him Anubis. In fact, there is no real agreement as to what precise creature Anubis is. Some think that there was a wild dog in those days that looked like that, or the creature may have been a cross between a jackal and a dog. In the thousands of years that have elapsed, it may well be that this precise breed has disappeared.
The Egyptologist Alberto Bianchi has actually published an article claiming that Anubis was a wild dog and that “the image of the sitting dog as Anubis protects the deceased.”2 He also says the position is a natural posture for the wild dog: “As is common with dogs, they adopt when they are resting a characteristic position consisting in projecting their four legs forward, parallel to one another, keeping at the same time an attitude of watchful attention. Surely, the observation of this peculiarity of many occasions, mainly by the people working in the cemeteries, caused that it was given a transcendent meaning, linking it to the protection of the dead and the burials.”3 Certainly this is the precise position of the Sphinx, which conforms exactly to the natural position of the Egyptian wild dog as a guardian.