Sphinx

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In Egypt, the best-known sphinx is the one at Giza, which is represented as a lion with a human head in a lying position. The face is possibly that of the pharaoh Khafra. This iconic image was much reproduced in most temples. A great avenue with sphinxes on either side extended in front of the pillars of the entrance to a sanctuary. Between the enclosure of the Temple of Amun in Karnak and that of Amun in Luxor there is a processional avenue of various kilometres in length flanked by hundreds of sphinxes with human heads, but also with rams’ heads. This piece is an example of this type, on a smaller scale. The sphinx was sculpted with the face of a ram, in reference to the god Amun, as the said animal was one of his sacred representations.

Sphinxes were created by the Ancient Egyptians and form an essential part of their complex mythology. They also have cultural relevance in the mythology of Ancient Greece although with very dissimilar ideas and meanings. The Ancient Egyptians denominated the sphinx as “Sheps-anj”, which means “living image” or “living statue”. Herodotus called the sphinx “androsphinx”, as it had a male face in contrast to the female face of winged sphinxes in the Greek tradition. The Egyptians created sphinxes with the heads of two of the most important sacred animals: the ram (crioesphinx) and the falcon (hieracosphinx).

Symbol of royalty, they represented the force and the power of the lion associated with the power of the pharaoh, in life as well as in death. That is why they appear in many tombs in reliefs. The avenue of sphinxes mentioned above was produced from the time of the New Kingdom, a time when the god Amun was the most important in Egypt. For this reason, the majority were represented with the head of a ram. At the same time sphinxes on a smaller scale were produced, both for temples donated by private persons as an offering to please the god, and for cult chapels and private tombs. The piece in question may come from one of these two contexts.

Apart from ram-headed sphinxes, there are other variations according to the cultural tendencies at different artistic-historical periods, and depending on the governing personage. Some with a female aspect are known: the sphinx of Hetepheres II is the oldest-known sphinx. That conserved in the Barracco Museum in Rome, of black granite and believed to be of Hatshepsut, and another of the same queen conserved in the Cairo Museum are examples of the first queen-pharaoh to be represented in this form. Other queens whose faces can be seen on sphinxes were Mutnedjmet and Nefertiti.

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