Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.05.11

Christiane Zivie-Coche, Sphinx: History of a Monument. Translated by David Lorton.   Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 2002.  Pp. xvi, 122.  ISBN 0-8014-3962-0.  $25.00.  

Reviewed by Joshua T. Katz, Princeton University / Institute for Advanced Study (
Word count: 1438 words

The Great Sphinx of Giza and the pyramids of Cheops (Khufu), Chephren (Khafre), and Mycerinus (Menkaure) before which it proudly sits are among the most enduring monuments of the ancient world: they have been there for 4,500 years and, once seen, are not easily forgotten. In this small book about a colossus, originally published in French as Sphinx! Le Père la terreur: histoire d'une statue (Paris: Noêsis, 1997), Christiane Z(ivie)-C(oche) has the admirable aim of getting behind the seemingly unchanging and unchangeable image of the Sphinx and presenting a real history, an account for the educated public of how over the millennia this icon has in fact played a number of roles and been subject to a host of natural and artificial alterations. By 1500 B.C., for example, it had become so hidden by sand that only its head was visible, while in the Roman period, staircases and platforms were erected around it for the benefit of tourists. Unfortunately, the idea behind Z-C's work is better than the execution, and it is hard not to wish that the author, a distinguished Egyptologist, had instead written a punchy essay or produced a book of roughly the same length with the flab gone and rather more about other sphinxes and sphinx-like figures.

To some extent the fault must lie with the translator, David Lorton, who has given us what no one could fail to see is a rendering into often questionable English of something composed in another language.1 Still, Lorton's many other translations of French and German Egyptological books for Cornell University Press (this is his 12th in five years!) have been widely praised in this journal and elsewhere,2 and a look at Z-C's original makes me think that Cornell University Press should have insisted on editing the French manuscript before agreeing to publish a translation. This is dangerous territory, but I will stick my neck out and say that even if there is some truth to the stereotype that French humanistic writing prizes the discursive and allusive over the direct and logical, this still does not excuse the rampant woolliness found in this book.

The book consists of seven chapters plus prefatory and concluding matter of various kinds (e.g., an annoyingly spare chronology of Egyptian history [xiiif.] and a well-organized annotated bibliography [111-16]).3 The first three chapters (Ch. 1 "Sphinx--Sphinxes," 4-12; Ch. 2 "The Modern History of the Sphinx," 13-22; and Ch. 3 "Description and History of the Sphinx," 23-35) seem to be intended as background for the chronologically more clearly ordered chapters that follow (Ch. 4 "The Old Kingdom: The Sphinx as Part of the Chephren Funerary Complex," 36-40; Ch. 5 "The Transformations of the New Kingdom," 41-77; Ch. 6 "The New Focus of the First Millennium," 78-97; and Ch. 7 "The Greco-Roman Period," 98-110), but this structure, in itself confusing, leads to repetitiveness. Z-C describes, in dribs and drabs over the course of the first forty pages, the origins of the Great Sphinx, whose very form (not just its size: 238 feet long and with a maximum height of a bit over 65 feet) is unprecedented, or virtually so, in the Old Kingdom: this lion with (most probably [?]) the head of the mid-third-millennium B.C. (Fourth-Dynasty) pharaoh Chephren (ruled ca. 2576-2551 B.C.), who also commissioned the second of the Great Pyramids, is in Z-C's view an "extraordinary work by an architect of genius, who created a new archetype in the service of a mighty sovereign whose image he was eager to magnify" (6).4 The heart of the book is Chapter 5, in which the author whisks us past the Middle Kingdom, during which Giza was largely abandoned, and into the New Kingdom (which starts ca. 1569 B.C.): "The site was no longer a royal and private necropolis attached to the capital city Memphis, but rather a cult place and a place of pilgrimage whose heart was the Great Sphinx, henceforth known by the name Haremakhet" (41). The name Haremakhet (Hellenized Harmakhis) translates as 'Horus-in-the-Horizon,' and Z-C endeavors to explain the shift from the kingly (Sphinx - Chephren) to the divine (Sphinx - Horus), concentrating on stelae depicting and otherwise associated with the Sphinx. Of special significance is the extraordinary monument that Tuthmosis IV (ruled 1419-1410 B.C.) placed between the creature's forelegs, in which he explains how when he was young, he had a dream in which the Sphinx, which at this point was largely covered with sand, came to him in the form of the god Haremakhet and effectively asked to be restored to splendor. In Chapter 6, Z-C discusses the developments of the first millennium B.C., a period scholars have tended to neglect, and shows that the Egyptians' personal devotion to Haremakhet continues, though with increasing attention to the cults of Isis (who has become, among many other things, Mistress of the Pyramids) and Osiris.

Readers of BMCR are likely to be most interested in Chapter 1, which talks about the relationship between the Sphinx of Giza and the one at Thebes, and Chapter 7, which treats the Greco-Roman Period. The Egyptian and Greek beasts are very different, of course: the former is beneficent and in the first place (probably) male, the latter malfeasant and female. The only strong connection between the two Mischwesen is their shared name in the Western tradition, which comes from σφίνξ, a Greek word of disputed origin (Z-C rightly dismisses the common idea that it is an adaptation of the Egyptian term shesep-ankh 'living image'; I shall discuss the etymology of the term in a future publication) and one whose application to the Egyptian creature, while hardly surprising, is not wholly clear.5

As for what the Greeks and Romans themselves thought about the Great Sphinx, we must begin with Herodotus, who quite astonishingly (as Z-C repeatedly notes) fails to mention it in his account of Giza and the pyramids (2.124-34). I can think of four reasons why Herodotus might not have taken note of it: (1) he did not actually go to Giza (not completely out of the question; a possibility Z-C does not mention); (2) the Sphinx was simply not as impressive as the considerably more massive pyramids (perhaps possible; ditto); (3) there was some sort of Egyptian taboo connected with talking about the Sphinx, which Herodotus then honors (Z-C dismisses this idea [103]); and (4) the Sphinx was once again--a thousand years after Thutmosis IV--largely buried in sand (as suggested by, e.g., D. E. Eichholz in the Loeb edition [vol. 10, pp. 60f. note c] and Roderich König in the Tusculum edition [vol. 36, p. 167] of Pliny the Elder's Natural History, ad 36.77, a passage to which I return below). Although Z-C insists that "Herodotus was certainly able to view the Sphinx cleared from the sands, for in his day, there was intense activity at the site" (103; compare 11, 14f., and 98), I have been unable to find evidence that supports this, and Z-C's two immediately following sentences do not inspire confidence: "From their archaeological characteristics, the huge protective walls serving to hold back the sand date to Dynasty 30 [which, however, starts in 380 B.C. with Nectanebo I (!)] or the beginning of the Ptolemaic Period. The upper levels that covered those of the New Kingdom in the 'villa' built in front of Chephren's valley temple also date back to the Hellenistic era" (103f.). Is it possible that Z-C thinks "Hellenistic" history is the equivalent of "Greek" history and that Herodotus lived around the time of Alexander the Great?

There does not seem to be any mention of the Great Sphinx in a Greek document before the inscription from Giza mentioned in n. 5, though Herodotus does speak of other Egyptian ἀνδρόσφιγγες (2.175). The first Classical author to mention it is Pliny, in his discussion of stones (the standard reference is HN 36.77, though Z-C gives it as 37.12 [99]): "Ante [sc. pyramides] est sphinx uel magis narranda, de qua siluere, numen accolentium. Harmain regem putant in ea conditum ...." The Loeb translator takes the subject of siluere in the (stylistically rather awkward) first sentence to be 'the Egyptians', but Z-C plausibly suggests a preference for Pliny's historical "predecessors" (103), notably Diodorus and Strabo. As for Pliny's second sentence, though, I am far from certain that Z-C is right to reject, with typically confused "logic," the connection between Pliny's king Harmais and the standard Hellenized name of the deified Sphinx, Harmakhis (101-3).

The Arabic name today of the Sphinx is Abû 'l-hawl, literally 'Father of Terror,' whence Z-C's French title. It is a pity that such an awesome subject has led to such a mediocre book.


1.   Consider, for example, the most baffling assertion in the whole work: of the Greek Sphinx, which Z-C recognizes is feminine, also in grammatical gender (see 10 and 101), it is claimed that "References to this terrifying being would be more appropriate in calling it a 'sphinge,' but the masculine form has always prevailed" (11). In fact, the sentence in question in Z-C's original French (see p. 22 of that edition) quite clearly refers to the name of the Sphinx (Theban and Egyptian alike) not in Classical Greek, but in some modern languages, notably French, where the word sphinx is masculine; as for Lorton's "'sphinge'" (in scare quotes), this is a direct copying of the uncommon French feminine noun sphinge (sometimes sphynge), not some strange new English word (there is no entry "sphinge" in the Oxford English Dictionary). Here, then, is a clear case in which material in the original text makes sense only in French and should have been edited out, not translated.
2.   At the time of writing, I see BMCR reviews of six of Lorton's previous 11 translations, three of which specifically celebrate his work: BMCR 2000.04.25, BMCR 2000.11.01, BMCR 2001.08.13 (Monica Bontty on a translation from the German: "Lorton has successfully mastered [the] technique"), BMCR 2002.03.26 (Bontty: "Once again, David Lorton has managed the difficult task of interpreting the complexity of the original German, while still retaining its integrity and eloquence. ... This excellent translation ..."), BMCR 2002.04.18, and BMCR 2002.05.26 (Prudence Jones on a translation from the French: "Lorton provides a clear and readable translation"). I have myself read two of these books without finding pervasive evidence for translationese.
3.   It may be noted that the illustrations in the English and French versions of the book are not always identical: the English has the better map of Egypt (xvi) and five photographs not found in the French (53, 54, 58, 84, and 107); the French opens with a splendid shot of the Great Sphinx before the Pyramid of Chephren (13) and ends with seven color photographs of other sphinxes (from Ancient Egypt to Las Vegas), six of which are absent from the entirely black-and-white English edition (151, 153, 155-58). The quality of the photographs is on the whole slightly better in the English version.
4.   Z-C notes that while "most Egyptologists agree that the Sphinx was an integral part of the funerary complex of Chephren, ... [s]ome ... have attributed [it] to the reign of Cheops" (37). A recent and high-profile defense of the minority view is to be found in Rainer Stadelmann's article "Sphinx" in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, ed. by Donald B. Redford (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001) 3.307-10.
5.   Z-C cites (in translation only) three Greek Imperial inscriptions from Giza that describe the Egyptian Sphinx; the Classicist will find these in Étienne Bernand, Inscriptions métriques de l'Égypte gréco-romaine: recherches sur la poésie épigrammatique des grecs en Égypte (Paris: Les Belles Lettres [Annales Littéraires de l'Université de Besançon, 98] 1969) nos. 127, 129, and 130. The unwary reader of Z-C's book is certain to think that these explicitly and/or grammatically describe a male and/or masculine Sphinx--but quite wrongly. Z-C and Lorton, following Bernand, render the first verse of no. 130 as, 'He has a share of everything, this sphinx which is also a divine spectacle' (109; compare Bernand, 521 ['Il a tout en partage, ce sphinx ...']), but the opening words are Ἥδε ... σφίνξ; compare my remark in n. 1 on the gender of the French word sphinx. And as for no. 129, which does not contain the word σφίνξ but does provide an interesting juxtaposition of the Egyptian and Greek creatures, Z-C writes as though there were a specific contrast in sex between the 'murderess ... at Thebes' and the male 'guardian of ... Osiris' ("comparison of the male and female sphinxes," 109 ["la comparaison entre sphinx et sphinge" on p. 135 of the original]; compare Bernand, 510 ['la meurtrière d'Oedipe' vs. 'le gardien du regretté et bienfaisant Osiris'] and 518 [this inscription "oppose 'la' cruelle sphinx grecque ... au fauve divin à tête de pharaon"]) although both are grammatically feminine in the Greek.

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