The sex of the Great Sphinx of Giza

People argue over many aspects of the Great Sphinx of Giza. Whose face is on the Great Sphinx of Giza: is it Khufu's, Khafre's, or Amenemhat III 's? Did the Sphinx once have the head of a lion, or a hawk, or the jackal deity Anubis? When was it built? Was it in the Middle Kingdom, the Old Kingdom, or by an unknown ancient, ante-diluvian civilisation? And lastly, and most controversially, who removed it's nose?

But there once was a time, not so long ago, when visitors of, and commentators on, the Great Sphinx disagreed about something even more basic - the sex of the Great Sphinx of Giza.

Sphinx of Hetepheres II found at Abu Rawash

In Ancient Egypt Sphinxes were carved for both male and female rulers. While the majority that remain appear to be male this was not always the case. In fact a female sphinx has a possible claim to being the oldest ever found. This ancient, and somewhat disputed, sphinx represents Hetepheres II, the wife of the 4th dynasty king Djedefre, and was found at his funerary complex in Abu Roash.

The extant Egyptian texts that refer to the Great Sphinx of Giza from the 18th dynasty onward, refer to the Great Sphinx as Horemakhet (Horus on the Horizon), the statue of Khepri-Re-Atum, and Hauron-Horemakhet. All these names seem consistent in considering the Great Sphinx, in its divine aspects of Horus, Khepri, Re, Atum, and Hauron, as implicitly male.

However hieroglyphic representations of male deities can sometimes seem to blur the lines of male and female, with many gods being represented in hieroglyphic form as similar to those representing women.

The hieroglyphs A1, B1, and C1 representing, man, woman and the sun god Ra respectively. The hieroglyph of the god Ra adopts the pose and dress of the hieroglyph for a woman.

As if to reflect this ambiguity the earliest historical texts, rather than those of the Egyptians themselves, are silent on the sex of the Great Sphinx. Pliny in his Natural History, Book 36, Chapter 17 refers to it simply as a "monster" but avoids any reference indicating it's sex.

Likewise Abd Al-Latif, an Arabic historian writing over a thousand years later in 1220CE, refers to the monument with gender neutral pronouns. (Relation de L'Egypte (1810) Silvestre de Sacy).

Throughout the 15th-18th centuries European visitors would oscillate between reporting that the colossal statue bore the face of a man or a woman.

The Sphinx illustrated in 1653

The Sphinx illustrated in 1679

The Sphinx illustrated c.1685-87

Two of the earliest European observers, Bernhard von Breidenbach (1483) and Felix Fabri (1483) refer to a colossal idol of Isis close to the pyramids of Giza, seemingly referring to the head of the Great Sphinx of Giza that was at that time buried up to its neck in sand.

Felix Fabri writing in 1483 states Near the pyramids we saw a huge stone idol which had the form of a woman, and we had no doubt that it was a monument dedicated to Isis ( Voyages en Egypte Vol 14 p452-454*)

The Sphinx illustrated in 1579

Local traditions of an idol of Isis may have misled these early visitors. It is known from the writings of an early 15th-century Arabic historian, Al Maqrizi, that an idol of Isis did indeed once stand in the environs of Cairo but that it had been completely destroyed: " the territory of Masr near the royal palace, was a second [statue], also colossal in size and perfectly proportioned like the first. In her lap she holds a child...It is claimed that she is a woman, the wife of Abu 'l-hôl [the Sphinx] ....In 711 [ 1311- 1312 CE], an emir, named Balât, arrived with workers, stonemasons and quarrymen; they broke the statue known as the statue of the woman and hewed it into large and small pieces, thinking that underneath must be hidden a treasure, but there was only found a huge stone pedestal under which they dug up, until they encountered water, but nothing was discovered." (translated to English from the French, Description topographique et historique de l’Égypte, (1895) Urbain Bouriant, p352-353).

Perhaps unaware of Al-Maqirizi's assertion that the idol of Isis was completely destroyed, many visitors to Giza at this time continued to refer to the Sphinx as that of a woman. They also regularly mention in their travelogues that the Sphinx represented the fusion of a lion and a maiden symbolically representing the sun rising in the zodiacal signs of Leo and Virgo, marking the point in the year when the flood waters of the Nile rose to inundate and fertilise the flood plains of Egypt. Whether or not the ancient Egyptians recognised the equivalent of the modern constellations of Leo and Virgo is another question, but it cannot be denied that the sun did indeed rise in these constellations in Egypt during the season of the flood throughout most of Ancient Egyptian history.

A simulation of the sun rising between Leo and Virgo c.2500 BCE at the start of the season of the flood in Egypt.

This idea of the Sphinx being a hybrid of a lion and woman was also suggested to these early travellers by ancient Greek mythology that spoke of the Sphinx as a winged lion-woman hybrid that strangled and, alarmingly, ate travellers en route to Thebes (in Greece) who were unfortunate enough to be unable to solve a riddle that she posed to them.

A modern bronze statue of a Greek style sphinx guarding the entrance of the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid

Detail of the right eye of the sphinx showing the faint remnants of the eye strip.

Another possible reason for the identification of the head of the Great Sphinx as female (the head being the only part of the Great Sphinx that was at that time visible above the desert sands) may have also have related to the presence of the eye-strip that emulated kohl eyeliner that adorned the eyes of Egyptian Kings and Queens from the Middle Kingdom onward. Travellers unfamiliar with this mode of royal ornamentation may have assumed that the face must therefore represent a woman.

André Thevet in his Cosmographie de Levant (1556) appears initially to resolve the ambivalence regarding the sex of the Great Sphinx by describing a colossal head at Giza that had been raised by Isis after the death of Osiris in his honour (and therefore presumably a head with male characteristics) saying: "Some say that Isis raised the monument after the loss of her friend "* In retrospect we can see the potential for a subtle linguistic misunderstanding of the term "the idol of Isis", that is to say, it could be taken to mean, an Idol representing Isis or an Idol created by Isis.

The Sphinx illustrated in 1556 in André Thevet's Cosmographie de Levant

Despite Thevet's apparent resolution of the conundrum, he then goes on to create more ambiguity when he states that, in addition to the monument raised by Isis, he has also read of a colossal Sphinx in the area! This means that he did not consider the colossal (male) head that he saw to belong to a Sphinx and that he believed that there was another separate monument at Giza that conformed to the stereotypical Greek sphinx, that is to say, a female lion with wings.

17th to 18th centuries CE

Thevet's confused and confusing, yet widely read, text had a knock-on effect. By the late 17th and early 18th centuries CE illustrators had started to show two colossal statues in the area around Giza and the pyramids, one in the form massive Greco-Roman bust of a man, based on the wildly inaccurate illustration in Thevet's Cosmography, and the other as a winged female sphinx in the style of a Greek sphinx.

Two sphinxes illustrated in 1686.

Two sphinxes illustrated in 1720.

Two sphinxes illustrated in 1725 with a close up of the female Sphinx in the foreground.

Some dealt with the confusion in other ways.

Antonius Gonzales writing in 1665-1666 refers to the Great Sphinx as a female in one paragraph and then as a man in the next*. Gabriel Bremond sought an alternative resolution “The figure represents a young adolescent or a woman." (1643-45)* Cornelius De Pauw in his Recherches Philosophiques sur les Egyptiens et les Chinois (1774) presents yet another unique solution suggesting that the sphinx is in fact intersex* - a belief that was sharply criticised by Claude-Etienne Savary (1785)*.

A youthful and more androgynous Sphinx (top left) illustrated in The Journal of the travels of Monsieur de Monconys (1665).

In the mid 1600s the earlier belief that the Great Sphinx represented Isis also evolved into a story that it represented a Corinthian courtesan called Rhodope or Rhodopis. Jean De Thevenot (1655), Edward Melton (1661), Corneille Lebrun (1674) all refer to Rhodope. This new twist on the story seems to have its roots in Pliny the Elder's similar assertion that Rhodopis was the builder of the 3rd and smallest pyramid (a view strongly denied by Herodotus, and also by modern Egyptologists who attribute the 3rd pyramid to the male pharaoh Menkaure).

19th and 20th centuries CE

Things were to change forever at the beginning of the 19th century. In 1817 Caviglia excavated the front part of the Great Sphinx. No breasts were discovered as had been conjectured in earlier depictions of the Sphinx.

After visiting the Sphinx shortly after Caviglia's excavations at the front of the Sphinx in 1817 Robert Richardson notes in his "Travels along the Mediterranean and Parts Adjacent" (1822)

The sphinx, in the Greek mythology, is generally represented with the countenance of a beautiful female, and the body of a lion, .....The countenance of this sphinx, however, was that of a man...the beard, which was found between its paws, leaves little doubt on that subject.

Even if the specific identity remained uncertain, it had been established that the Great Sphinx was the figure of a (once) bearded king. The confusion and ambiguity regarding the sex of the Great Sphinx was laid to rest never to be revisited.

However, the wheel of fate sometimes turns with a strange irony. A few years later - a mere decade after Caviglia's excavations in 1817 - Champollion, the famous translator of the Egyptian hieroglyphs, visited the great temple of Deir el Bahri in Thebes in Upper Egypt, the namesake of the Greek city once guarded by the Sphinx in classical mythology. When he was there he noted a puzzling peculiarity:

"If I felt somewhat surprised at seeing here, as elsewhere throughout the temple, the renowned Moeris [Thutmose III], adorned with all the insignia of royalty, giving place to this Amenenthe, for whose name we may search the royal lists in vain, still more astonished was I to find on reading the inscriptions that wherever they referred to this bearded king in the usual dress of the Pharaohs, nouns and verbs were in the feminine, as though a queen were in question.

I found the same peculiarity everywhere. Not only was there the prenomen of Amenenthe preceded by the title of sovereign ruler of the world, with the feminine affix, but also his throne name immediately following on the title of 'daughter of the Sun.' Finally, in all the bas-reliefs representing the gods speaking to this king, he is addressed as a queen, as in the following formula :

“Behold, thus saith Amon-Ra, lord of the thrones of the world, to his daughter whom he loves, sun devoted to the truth: the building which thou hast made is like to the divine dwelling" " (quoted in The Temple of Deir El Bahari, (1894), Edouard Naville)

In the 1840's Lepsius also visited the temple as Naville also reports:

[Lepsius] was the first to discover the founder of the temple.....It was a queen, Numt Amen, Numt Amen are the two first words of the cartouche of Hatshepsu[t], and Lepsius had in truth recognised the name of the founder of the temple, although, as he had at once observed, the queen is never represented as a woman, but always in the dress of a man.

Champollion's Amenenthe and Lepsius' Numt Amen were one and the same person - Hatshepsut, a previously unknown female "King" of Egypt.

In excavations conducted at Deir El-Bahri by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the late 1920s the fragments of several sphinxes of Hatshepsut were uncovered. They had been smashed to pieces. After careful reconstruction by the Museum they are now on display, representing Hatshepsut as a King, as a Sphinx, and adorned with the royal beard symbolic of her Kingship.

An 18th dynasty Sphinx of Hatshepsut from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. From Upper Egypt, Thebes, Deir el-Bahri, MMA excavations, 1926–28

Head and shoulders of an 18th dynasty Sphinx of Hatshepsut from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. From Upper Egypt, Thebes, Deir el-Bahri, MMA excavations, 1926–28

An 18th dynasty Sphinx of Hatshepsut from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. From Upper Egypt, Thebes, Deir el-Bahri, MMA excavations, 1926–28

The question we must ask ourselves now is, if Hatshepsut could be represented with a royal beard and in the dress of a man (which modern Egyptologists speculate were used to represent her royal authority as King and Pharaoh), has the issue of the sex of the Great Sphinx of Giza really been laid to rest for good? Could the Great Sphinx be female with the beard of a deity? One thing is certain, when Robert Richardson confidently asserted in 1822 "The countenance of this sphinx, however, was that of a man...the beard, which was found between its paws, leaves little doubt on that subject." he was wrong.


*translations by Olivia Temple from The Sphinx Mystery (2009) Temple, R.