The Sphinx's Identity

Khafre 1 Khafre? Khafre 2

What pharaoh was the Great Sphinx at Giza meant to resemble? Because evidence indicates that the Sphinx was fashioned during Khafre's reign, most Egyptologists have concluded that the king had it made in his own likeness. It has become the tendency of late for proponents of the "old Sphinx" theory to dispute this conclusion based on the observation that the Sphinx's face does not resemble the face of Khafre at all. This is evidence, they say, that someone else built the Sphinx, and during a much earlier era at that. At least one author, John Anthony West, has gone so far as to enlist the aid of a forensic police artist to help make his case (see Serpent in the Sky: The High Wisdom of Ancient Egypt, 1993, pp. 230-232). But when the face of the Sphinx is compared to the face of Khafre, what exactly is being compared? It might seem obvious, but it really isn't.

West's method was to compare the face on the Sphinx with the face of Khafre as represented by the famous diorite statue in the Egyptian Museum at Cairo (see photo above, left). But this assumes that the face on the statue matches exactly the face of the pharaoh Khafre in life. Can we really accept this assumption with a significant degree of confidence? There is another statue of Khafre, made of alabaster, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (see photo above, right). It differs in some respects to the diorite statue, and one wonders what the forensic artist would conclude upon comparing these two likenesses of the same pharaoh.

In ancient Egypt, it wasn't so much the physical similarity of a statue to its owner that lent its identity, but rather the name on the inscription. Statues were idealized representations, even in the Old Kingdom, and the figure could only be related to a particular individual when the inscription was added. This artistic protocol made it easy for statues of one pharaoh to be usurped by another. W. Stevenson Smith wrote:

Inscriptions are ... a necessary part of the statues. They provide the essential identity of the owner by giving his titles and name, although the portrayal of his outward appearance is usually generalized without individual characteristics, except in certain outstanding works... [The Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt, 1981, p. 18]

But even assuming that the diorite statue of Khafre is one of these "outstanding works" that imitates in photographic quality the likeness of its owner, can the same be said of the Sphinx? The Sphinx was carved from limestone bedrock that doubtless presented certain limitations due to the stone's layers, fissures, and friability, any of which might affect its shape. The face of the Sphinx was likely carved by a team of workmen rather than a single dedicated artist, and the king would not have posed while the image was created. Both of these factors might allow for further deviation from the real. There is a sloppiness in the execution if not the design of the face of the Sphinx. Its left (north) eye is higher than its right (south) eye, and its mouth is a bit off-center. The axis of the outline of the head differs from the axis of the facial features. The quality of details apparent on the face of the diorite Khafre are absent from the face of the Sphinx.

Trying to match the face on the Great Sphinx with the face of any known pharaoh is something of an exercise in futility. The Sphinx was an idealized representation of the king, and its unique identification with a particular individual was secured by means of inscription rather than physical similarity. Time, or perhaps a subsequent ruler, has erased the original name, but as with other ancient Egyptian statuary and monuments, it was essential that the owner be identified by name before it could serve its purpose. Similitude was not a requirement.

Khufu, the Sphinx (c.1870), Djedefre.
Khufu Khafre? Djedefre

Catchpenny Mysteries © copyright 2000 by Larry Orcutt.