I usually like to end the week on a high note, but today I can report a bit of a disappointment. Yesterday, I discussed a French text by Assyriologist Francois Lenormant that is the obvious source for most fringe writers’ claims that the Sphinx predates dynastic Egypt and that the Valley Temple is a primeval construction by a wandering tribe of mystics known as the Followers of Horus. Lenormant attributed his information to the eminent Egyptologist Gaston Maspero, in his 1875 book The Ancient History of the Peoples of the East. Taking Lenormant at his word, I believed that Maspero must have made the same claims as Lenormant, presumably with more detail. I was quite disappointed to see that he had only very briefly alluded to the claims in the book Lenormant cited. The bottom line therefore seems to be that Lenormant is the origin point for the specific formulation of the myth that the Shemsu Hor built the Sphinx and the Valley Temple thousands of years before dynastic Egypt.
Maspero’s words I translate below. You can see that they are the foundation for Lenormant’s passage, but that the Assyriologist has amplified them dramatically by adding additional details and so-called evidence to transform a suggestion into a certainty and to stretch the timeline much farther back than Maspero’s more cautious approach suggested:
The formative period of the soil and of the nation lasted for a long time, myriads of years according to what the ancients themselves said, and between three and four thousand years according to the most moderate calculations of most contemporary scholars. With the instinctive naiveté that leads people to seek perfection in the past, the Egyptians had come to regard the first centuries of their stay on the banks of the Nile as the happiest period of all the ages, and they saw their half-savage ancestors as pious men who were usually called the Shemsu-Hor (Servants of Horus). It is upon these generations without history that we visit honor of having constituted Egypt, as we know it from the beginning of the historical period. At first divided into a great number of tribes, they began by establishing small independent states simultaneously in different places, each of which had its own laws and its own worship. […]
So, the good news is that we can more closely discover the actual source for the Sphinx claim. Maspero, of course, was not alone in believing the Sphinx to predate the Fourth Dynasty. His predecessor, Auguste Mariette, said the same and based his analysis on the Inventory Stela.
Lenormant used the Inventory Stela as his evidence for the Sphinx and the Valley Temple predating Khufu, alleging that the story of Khufu finding in the Sphinx and the Temple during his own reign, already a ruin, was a contemporary account of real facts. Yet we see in no less a bonkers source as Charles Piazzi Smyth’s classic of nut-job pyramidology Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramid (1864). In that book, Smyth reports quite correctly that the Inventory Stela is nothing but “a rigmarole by certain revivifiers of the ancient Egyptian idolatry, with additions, under the 26th dynasty.” This opinion, Smyth said, was supported by the English Egyptologist William Osburn and none other than Heinrich Karl Brugsch—whom you will recall as Crown Prince Rudolf’s guide to all things Egyptian—who condemned the stone as of a “late date” and of no value in understanding the ancient history of Giza. That is the judgment of today as well.
The careful reader will notice that there is a bit of a nationalist undercurrent here. Supporters of the Inventory Stela’s antiquity, and thus that of the Sphinx, are largely French: Mariette, Maspero, Lenormant. Those who opposed its antiquity were not: Smyth, a Scot; Brugsh, a German; Osburn, an Englishman. This was not a universal view in the North, of course: Flinders Petrie and E. A. Wallis Budge both though the Sphinx to be early dynastic or late predynastic, for the same reasons. But I found almost no dissent in French sources of the era, though admittedly my reading of them is much sparser. Despite the flimsy evidence for the French position, it seems to have maintained an unusual staying power in the Francophone world for decades while the Northern European world gradually rejected it. The French, who wanted to maintain primacy in Egyptology, had an interest in continuously finding the oldest and most important evidence of high civilization.
Now, you would think that this would be the end of the story, but it is not.
Lenormant gives us the fullest account from the Victorian era of the predynastic Sphinx and the cult of the Followers of Horus, but it was not him through whom fringe writers got their information. It turns out that it was Maspero who delivered the false facts to the fringe world after all.
After the text quoted above, Maspero made brief mention of the same claim in this lengthy book Dawn of Civilization, appearing in three footnotes that I reproduce here from page 366 of M. L. McClure’s 1894 English translation:
1 The Stele of the Sphinx bears, on line 13, the cartouche of Chephren in the middle of a blank (VYSE-PERING, Appendix to Operations carried on at the Pyramids of Oizeh, vol. iii. pl. B, facing page 115; LEPSIUS, Denkm., iii. 63; YOUNG, Hieroglyphics, pi. Ixxx.). We have here, I believe, an indication of the clearing of the Sphinx effected under this prince, consequently an almost certain proof that the Sphinx was already buried in sand in the time of Kheops and his predecessors.
Here we can see that Maspero has become blunter in his language, closer to Lenormant, whose book he had undoubtedly read. This is important because the occult writer R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz read Dawn of Civilization and adopted his view of the predynastic origins of the Sphinx from Maspero, citing the above text in his book Sacred Science (1958/1961). It was in this book, and in attempting to justify Maspero’s claims, that Schwaller de Lubicz invented the water erosion hypothesis of the Sphinx, the foundation for John Anthony West and Robert Schoch’s work. As any fan of the West and Graham Hancock school of history knows, the predynastic Sphinx claim ended up in their work because West had picked it up from Schwaller de Lubicz.
And thus did a literal reading of a pious fraud, the Inventory Stela, filter through French efforts to retain supremacy in Egyptology and enter into the occult and blossom like a poisonous mushroom into a squishy, tumorous horror in modern fringe studies.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.