The familiar stone lion with a human head that peers out over the
Nile was built in adoration of the Sun.
With a rock-steady
gaze, Egypt's Great Sphinx has faced due east for 4,500 years. If the Sphinx ever blinks, it must be in March and September,
when the equinox Sun rises and shines straight in its eyes. This monumental sculpture, carved from a natural bedrock limestone
outcrop on the doorstep of the Giza pyramids, is a crouched lion with a human head. Our gatefold all-sky map for March displays
one of the proposals once offered for its hybrid character. The composite creature was allegedly engineered through the symbolic
fusion of Leo, the Lion, and Virgo, the Maiden, both now climbing out of the east on our monthly star chart.
In Star Names and Their Meanings, (1899), Richard Hinckley Allen explained that the Sphinx
was constructed "with Virgo's head on Leo's body, from the fact that the sun passed through these two constellations
during the inundation of the Nile." Allen acknowledged the objections of Egyptologists to this astronomically facile
answer to the riddle of the Sphinx but nevertheless asserted the lion's solar significance in ancient Egypt.
Thanks to ancient Egyptian texts, we now know the Sphinx represents Horemakhet ("Horus of the
Horizon") and is the divine personification of the rising disk of the Sun, fully poised on the eastern horizon. Intentionally
aligned toward cardinal east, the Sphinx reflects the ritual significance of the cardinal directions in the Old Kingdom period
(2686-2181 B.C.). Cardinal directions originate astronomically in the daily rotation of the sky around the north celestial
pole, a location of high interest to the ancient Egyptians. The entire Giza necropolis adheres to an accurate cardinal grid.
The Sphinx is said to be the vigilant guardian of the Giza cemetery, but its name and its eastward
dedication also reflect ancient Egyptian ideas about cyclical celestial renewal and its affiliation with the divine destiny
of the dead pharaoh. Some evidence suggests the face on the Sphinx was a portrait of the pharaoh Khafre, the son of Khufu
(or Cheops, as the Greeks called him), who built the Great Pyramid.
second-largest pyramid belongs to Khafre. The Causeway that connects Khafre's Mortuary Temple, on the east side of his pyramid,
to his Valley Temple passes next to the Sphinx, and this architectural bond with the Sphinx supports Khafre's claim on it.
His Valley Temple is also right next to the Sphinx Temple, just east of the paws of the beast.
The sides of the Sphinx Temple, like most of the rest of Giza, are cardinally aligned, and a pair
of sanctuaries on its primary axis - one on the east and one on the west - amplify a connection with equinox sunrise and sunset.
Felicitously positioned with respect to the Sphinx, the temple retains a clear line of sight due west. This axis just skirts
the lion's southern flank with a clearance for the equinox sunset. On that line, the Sun touches the horizon at the southern
edge of Khafre's pyramid and reinforces, with solar adhesion, Khafre's bond with the Sphinx.
Additional astronomical and calendrical connotations have been spotted in the Sphinx Temple's interior
colonnade. Its 24 red granite pillars have been interpreted as a reference to the 24 hours of the day, an Egyptian convention
we still observe today.
Most of the evidence attributes the construction
of the Sphinx to Khafre, but Giza Egyptologist Mark Lehner believes the Sphinx was intended to portray a manifestation of
Atum, the solarized aspect of the divine Creator. Certainly, by the New Kingdom (1570-1070 B.C.) Egyptian pharaohs believed
the Sphinx was a solar god and gave it names that expressed that character. As a predator near the top of the food chain,
the lion was already an emblem of power associated with royalty before the Giza pyramids. If the Sphinx was also Khafre, it
promoted Khafre's solar deification.
Although Leo, the Lion, is depicted
on the Dendera zodiac, this Egyptian sky chart was carved around 30 B.C. and incorporates Greco-Roman astronomical traditions.
Indigenous Egyptian astronomy did not include familiar zodiacal constellations such as Leo, which is visible here at the bottom
of the picture. Near the upper middle of the frame, a figure that looks somewhat like a broom and is actually the leg of a
bull represents the stars of the Big Dipper. Just beneath the bull's "knee" is the curved shape of a small crouching
feline. This is the lion that does appear in early Egyptian images of the northern constellations near the celestial pole.
We understand enough about Egypt's
astronomy in the early periods to know Egypt did not recognize the zodiac that is so familiar to us today. The zodiac is really
a gift from the Greeks, primarily rooted in Mesopotamian star lore. The "message of the Sphinx" is, however, even
more mistranslated. Here's the problem: In the sky, Orion is located to the west of the Milky Way. Leo is on the other side
of the celestial Nile, east of the Milky Way, and it faces Orion. On the ground, however, the Sphinx, the terrestrial reflection
of Leo, is west of the Nile and on the same side of the river as the pyramids that allegedly symbolize the Belt of Orion.
It also faces away from Orion. The Sphinx is on the wrong side of the river and facing the wrong way to match the sky.
You don't have to be an Egyptologist to realize there is no Orion mystery or 12,000-year-old message
from the Sphinx. You just have to ask questions like a sphinx.