• ‘Mysteries of the Sphinx’ host, Julian Barratt. (SBS)Source: SBS
Documentary ‘Mysteries of the Sphinx’ tackles the secrets behind the world’s most enigmatic wonder.
Travis Johnson

26 Aug 2021 - 10:46 AM  UPDATED 26 Aug 2021 - 10:46 AM

Is any ancient civilisation more enduringly fascinating than Egypt? Egypt was already old when the Greek city-states and Republican (and later Imperial) Rome had their heyday, and scholars from those civilisations pored over Egyptian relics much like Howard Carter and his contemporaries in the 1920s – the boom of modern Egyptology. Even the name “Egyptology” bespeaks the special reverence we have for ancient Egypt – there’s no equivalent term for the study of any other civilisation of antiquity.

As you can tell from the title, the documentary Mysteries of the Sphinx focuses on one of ancient Egypt’s key symbols and most enduring enigmas, The Great Sphinx of Giza. Narrated by Julian Barratt (The Mighty Boosh), it looks at modern attempts to dig into (there are worse puns we could have made) the mighty statue’s history, construction, and religious and cultural significance. It’s not the first film to do so, nor will it be the last; the Sphinx guards its secrets well.

Not “A” Sphinx”, but “The” Sphinx

When we say “the Sphinx” what we’re really talking about is The Great Sphinx of Giza, found on the Giza plateau on the west bank of the Nile, near the Great Pyramid of Giza. It was hewn from the bedrock around 2500 B.C. at the behest of the pharaoh Khafre (probably – records are sketchy, but he’s the main candidate).

It’s a vast statue some 73 metres long, 20 metres high and 19 metres wide, and has dominated the imaginations of all who have gazed upon it for millennia, including Napoleon Bonaparte – legend has it that L’empereur’s men used the Sphinx for target practice during his campaign in Egypt, hence its disfigured face and missing nose (they did not – and Asterix and Obelix didn’t break it off either). It’s so old that cultures we consider ancient conducted archaeological digs on it – Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius had it excavated in 160 A.D.

The ancient Greeks, who had considerable cultural and trade exchange with Egypt even before Alexander the Great conquered the country, were so impressed with the Sphinx that they incorporated it into their mythology. In the Greek tradition, the Sphinx is a demon of misfortune and destruction. It guarded the city of Thebes and pressed a riddle upon any traveller wishing to pass by its station; anyone who got the answer wrong was devoured. The tragic hero Oedipus answered it correctly, causing the Sphinx to kill itself and Oedipus to win the throne of Thebes – which, if you’re at all familiar with Oedipus, was not a long-term win for him.

Or so the story goes; we owe a lot of our assumed knowledge about the Sphinx to the Greeks. Even the word is derived from the Greek language; we don’t actually know what the Ancient Egyptians called the beast or the statue, although in modern Egyptian Arabic it’s the rather evocative “abu alhol” – the Father of Dread.

Misgendering massive monuments

Yes, father – the Greek conception of the Sphinx and sphinxes in general is so pervasive that we’ve come to broadly accept the idea as canon: a sphinx is a monster with the body of a lion, the head of a woman, and the wings of an eagle. But the Great Sphinx not only lacks the eagle wings, it’s actually male – in all probability a rendering of Khafre. When originally constructed, it had a plaited beard which later fell off, and was subsequently restored, and then crumbled away again. But once an idea takes hold, it’s hard to shake, and to many the great Sphinx is decidedly feminine.

Which goes to show that you can’t pin mythology down to specifics, because people will simply go along with the first thing they heard anyway, or accept the story that goes best with their worldview – and people have been doing that with the Sphinx for thousands of years.

Later Greek writers, such as Herodotus and Pliny the Elder, contradict the notion of a single sphinx: there are plenty, they say, with Pliny putting them in the suitably distant land of Ethiopia. We also get some diversity of form, thanks to Herodotus, who described ram-headed (Criosphinxes) and hawk-headed (Hieracosphinxes) examples. And the Great Sphinx? That’s an Androsphinx – a male Sphinx to differentiate it from the “proper” Greek female Sphinx.

Thoroughly modern monolith

The Sphinx, or sphinxes in general, have remained a popular artistic motif forever, guarding temples, adorning coins and seals, enjoying popularity in early 16th century Italian art and 19th century neoclassical architecture, and cropping up in everything from the cult online comic Subnormality to the, er, cult Adult Swim cartoon The Venture Bros. It’s a symbol of mystery, of power, of insatiable hunger.

In the “real” world, the modern age of Great Sphinx archaeology began in 1817 when the Italian adventurer Giovanni Battista Caviglia was hired by the British Consul General Henry Salt to excavate the great beast, which had been almost entirely covered by the sands of the desert – the first Sphinx dig since Aurelius’ back in the 2nd century. The modern process of excavation, investigation and restoration has now been going on for over two centuries, with the archaeologists of Mysteries of the Sphinx only the latest in a long line of curious seekers drawn to the enigmatic beast. So, join them – and dig in.

Mysteries of the Sphinx premieres Friday 27 August at 7.35pm on SBS.

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