Ancient Egyptian Art: The Great Sphinx

The Great Sphinx is one of the most recognizable monuments in Egypt. Built during the Old Kingdom, an amazing period for Egyptian art, it is thought to represent the pharaoh Khaefre (c. 2555-2532 B.C.). The Great Sphinx guards the entrance to Khaefre’s mortuary temple and the second largest pyramid on the Giza plateau.

With the head of a human and the body of a lion, the Sphinx was the perfect symbol of Egyptian kingship. Lions were associated with the very first pharaohs. At Abydos, site of early Egyptian burials, lions were found buried with pharaohs. The Great Sphinx represented a combination of animal strength and royal power. It wore the pleated nemes head cloth often used by pharaohs, which provided a substitute for a lion’s mane.

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The Great Sphinx. Photo by Manek Kocjan May 30, 2006 http://www.kocjan.pl

Building the Great Sphinx was a massive undertaking, especially during an era when only stone and copper tools were available. The base of the sphinx was carved from hard limestone that stuck out of the surface of the Giza plateau. The middle section of the Sphinx was made of softer limestone, and the head was made of very firm limestone. When the workers finished, the Great Sphinx was approximately 240 feet long (about the length of a football field) and almost 70 feet tall. Though other pharaohs built colossal statues, Khaefre’s Sphinx remained the largest.

Though the Great Sphinx was impressive, by the New Kingdom (c. 1539 B.C.), it needed some major repairs. Since the Sphinx was built on a seabed, salt eroded parts of it, including the paws. In addition, its body was covered in sand. According to the legend carved on a stela between the Sphinx’s paws, a young prince named Tuthmosis IV came to the Sphinx’s rescue. One day while Tuthmosis hunted in the desert, he needed a place to rest. He fell asleep in the shadow of the Sphinx. By the New Kingdom a god named Horemakhet, whose name meant Horus on the Horizon, was associated with the Sphinx. The god appeared in the prince’s dream and promised him that if Tuthmosis helped to restore the Sphinx, Horemakhet would make him pharaoh.

Tuthmosis set about restoring the Great Sphinx. He had tons of sand removed from it and had its broken paw repaired. To top off the restoration, the prince had the Sphinx repainted in bright colors, including blue, yellow, and red. The god must have been satisfied with Tuthmosis’ project, since he became king despite not being first in line for the throne.

Why Isis the Ancient Egyptian Goddess has nothing in common with ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria)

Before the name ISIS (an acronym for Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) became synonymous with public executions and terror, a goddess with the name Isis was popular in ancient Egypt. The ancient Egyptian goddess Isis represented many positive values, such as protection, healing, and the importance of family. Clearly, she had nothing in common with the ISIS we read and hear about today.

According to ancient Egyptian mythology, Isis was the wife and sister of the god Osiris. Osiris ruled Egypt, and Isis supported his endeavors. Unfortunately for the couple, Osiris’ brother Seth wanted his brother’s power so badly that he murdered and then dismembered Osiris. Isis and her sister Nephthys mourned Osiris, but they did not sit around crying for long. Instead, the two women travelled to the ends of the earth to find Osiris’ remains and revive him: “Rise up, Osiris, for Isis has your arm and Nephthys your hand.” After Osiris’ resurrection, Isis conceived a son with him whom she named Horus. Osiris left Isis to care for their son and became the god of the underworld.

Osiris and Winged Isis, Isis Temple, Philae Island, Egypt. Photo by Remin.

Osiris and Winged Isis, Isis Temple, Philae Island, Egypt. Photo by Remin.

Proving that a woman’s work is never done, Isis now had to hide her son from the evil Seth. She proved to be a wonderful and protective mother. For example, she healed Horus when a scorpion stung him. Isis continued to watch over her son until he was old enough to fight Seth. Horus successfully avenged his father’s death and became king of Egypt, but he couldn’t have done it without his mother.

Ancient Egyptians associated Isis with motherhood, especially as the mother of Egyptian kings. Early Pyramid Texts state “the king drinks milk from his mother Isis.” At first the goddess could only be called upon to help Egyptian pharaohs, but later the nobility and even commoners could ask Isis for assistance. In a time with high mortality rates, ancient Egyptian mothers often recited spells that included the goddess in the hope that Isis would heal their sick children.

In addition to her role as a mother, Isis also served as the protector of the dead in the afterlife. She was often depicted on the sides of royal coffins with winged arms. With the wings of the goddess to carry their deceased loved ones to next world, Egyptians felt comforted even though they mourned the dead.

A faithful wife, loving mother, a healer of children, and a comforting presence to those who mourn—all qualities that the ancient Egyptians gave to their Isis. Unfortunately, the organization that now uses her name stands for none of these admirable traits.

Sources:

Daughters of Isis by Joyce Tyldesley

The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, Richard Wilkinson

Wife of the Pharaoh: The Role of Ancient Egyptian Queens

The pharaohs decided how much we know about their queens because men commissioned the building of monuments like temples and tombs. Unfortunately, most wives did not have much written about them. Yet the Egyptians left us with a blueprint for the perfect Egyptian queen in the story of their goddess Isis and her husband Osiris. After her husband’s brother killed Osiris so he could steal the throne of Egypt, Isis searched for Osiris’ body. She brought him back to life long enough so they could have a son named Horus. Isis then protected her son from her jealous brother-in-law until he was old enough to reign as pharaoh.

Like Isis, Egyptian queens were supposed to support their husbands and bear children. Yet in times of crisis, they could be called upon to act on behalf of their husband or son. Some queens ruled their country temporarily while their husbands were away on military campaigns. Others stepped in as Queen Regent for a son who inherited the throne at a young age. Mainly, however, a queen’s role was defined by her relationship with the king.

Following the tradition of Isis and Osiris, all pharaohs were expected to marry.  Pharaohs married wives that were chosen for them, but there is no record of how they were picked. Many came from the royal family so the king would have a wife who was trained to help in a crisis and who was supposedly trustworthy. Queens like Nefertiti and others were born commoners, however, so the idea of a non-royal wife for a pharaoh was apparently acceptable. Perhaps commoners received acceptance because in the story of Isis and Osiris, relatives were not always loyal.

In ancient Egypt, the word queen is translated as King’s Wife. Yet Egyptian pharaohs were polygamous, meaning they had more than one wife. Polygamy demonstrated the wealth of the pharaoh and provided insurance that he would have an heir. Only one wife, known as the King’s Great Wife, would be featured in official records. She hoped to earn the title King’s Mother by giving birth to a son who would become pharaoh. If she did not accomplish this, another lesser wife might receive the title.

While she lived, however, the King’s Great Wife served as the embodiment of Isis—the perfect complement to her husband who was thought to be half god and half human. Together, she and the king would serve the gods and rule their people, keeping order in their kingdom.