As almost everyone reading this knows, Robert Bauval, Graham Hancock, Robert Schoch, and their friends have made a career out of claiming that the Great Sphinx of Giza was carved in the time of Atlantis, around 10,500 BCE. This number derives, ultimately, from a combination of a belief in the existence of Plato’s Atlantis prior to 9600 BCE, the dating of the end of the last Ice Age, and, above all, to the idea that the Sphinx’s leonine form was meant to gaze at the constellation Leo on the spring equinox, something which would only have happened during the so-called “Age of Leo,” when the slow drifting of the stars placed Leo in that position from 10,500 BCE to 8,000 BCE.
A while back I mentioned that the astrological interpretation of the Sphinx’s age had already been worked out in the early 1900s, based on still older astrological claims going back to the Middle Ages that saw the Sphinx as a combination of woman and lion, thus symbolizing Virgo and Leo. But it turns out that John Kilduff, writing around 1909, was hardly the first to have attempted to date the Sphinx through appeal to the precession of the equinoxes. I have uncovered some earlier examples that show how the claim gradually evolved.
Regular readers will remember that the claim that the Sphinx represented the constellations of Leo and Virgo originates in Late Antique Greco-Roman speculation about sphinxes in Egyptian and Greek mythology, and Pliny’s claim that the constellation of Leo was associated with the Nile flood. George Sandys, in his Journey of 1610, originated the modern concept when he conflated Greek accounts into the following claim: “The upper part of a Sphynx resembled a Maide, and the lower a Lion; whereby the Egyptians defigured the increase of the River, (and consequently of their riches) then rising when the Sunne is in Leo and Virgo.” Other writers copied his mistaken conflation until the symbolic link to the stars ran square into the burgeoning occult belief that the precession of the equinoxes routinely transformed religious beliefs based on the constellations against which the sun rose on specific days of the year. This belief seems to follow from an Enlightenment-era effort to rationalize religion by arguing that myths were stories of the conjunction of stars and planets rather than anything truly divine. It was the result of an understandable but wrong belief that the zodiac was timeless and that astrology had a scientific basis.
Charles Hatfield, an astrologer who believed that the Age of Aquarius commenced in 1899, wrote in 1901 that he had calculated the age of the Sphinx based on its astrological symbolism: “When Leo was at the Vernal Equinox, about 12,944 years ago, the Egyptians probably carved the Sphinx: Virgo and Leo, represented by the body of a lion and the face of a woman.” That would place his dating of the Sphinx at 11,044 BCE. The difference is due to his assigning the start of the Age of Aquarius to 1899 instead of c. 2000 and his use of 2,154 years for an astrological “Age” instead of the more common rounded figure of 2,160 years. The methodology, however, is identical to that employed by today’s fringe writers. Hatfield believed that “the Vernal Equinox is truly the finger of time, and it signifies what has been and what is to be.” Based on that, he thought that the “scientific” constellation of Virgo heralded the rise of an advanced scientific culture, Atlantis, which was destroyed at the end of that age.
Another writer stated the same case succinctly: “As the Summer solstice passed from Virgo to Leo, there must have been a time when it was just between the two, so they represented these monuments one-half lion and one-half woman. This is reasonable, as the event must have happened about that time.” That time, of course, was right around 10,500 BCE.
But the interest in the Vernal Equinox as the marker of time is based entirely on astrological convention, from the time of the Greeks. It need not necessarily be the governing color. In 1907 the spiritualist Gerald Massey suggested that the Sphinx aligned with the autumn equinox constellations, for example. Much earlier, in 1809, William Richard Hamilton offered an earlier version of the Sphinx dating based on the summer solstice, which its writer felt was more appropriate as the governing holiday. His explanation for this shows an attempt to apply reason to, basically, wild speculation:
Now whatever date we attach to this monument, we cannot but admit that the science of astronomy must have been studied many years before; particularly as on the foregoing hypothesis we are led to imagine that the procession of the equinoxes must have been an ascertained fact, in order to the admission of the popular interpretation of the sphinx. We may fairly then suppose, without carrying the origin of Egyptian science to a too remote antiquity, that when the course of the sun in the ecliptic was first determined, the part of the heavens where he then was at the summer solstice, was denominated Virgo, perhaps illustrative of the state of Egypt before it was fecundated by the periodical inundation of the Nile: and if a further conjecture were admissible, the sign of Leo may imply the month when the country, unprotected by the waters, parched by the dry heats of the season, was exposed to the ravages of the wild beasts of the Desert—the lion being in many other instances applied in illustration of acts of cruelty and destruction.
The wild speculation, of course, is that the Sphinx is astrological in origin and that the Egyptians recognized the same constellations as the Greeks, with a modern understanding of the precession of the equinoxes. The wilder speculation is that the summer solstice was the period when lions attacked the Nile Valley! As bizarre as this sounds, it nevertheless seems to be the earliest effort to date the Sphinx by the stars. Hamilton did not want to assign the Sphinx’s leonine form to the vernal equinox because it would have placed its construction in 10,500 BCE, which he considered too far before the Flood to make sense, which is why he moved the date to the summer solstice, placing it around 1400 BCE, which left “a period amply sufficient the acquisition of astronomical knowledge between the deluge and the date assigned.”
In reviewing Hamilton’s work, the Edinburgh Review was more succinct in 1811: “We believe the Sphinx to be the symbol of the Sun at the summer solstice, precisely at the point where the last degree of Leo meets the first degree of Virgo. The head of a woman joined to the body of a lion, seems to justify this explanation of the symbol.”
An anonymous piece in the Classical Journal of 1822 (expanding on a pamphlet of 1821) attempted to prove the zodiac to be antediluvian:
The Egyptian Sphinx is much more simple, and exhibits the head of a woman joined to the body of a lion. Now this symbol seems to indicate the period, when the Sun at the summer solstice was retrograding, owing to the precession of the equinoxes, out of the constellation of Virgo into that of Leo. This supposes the symbol, not only to have been formed by the Antediluvians, but to have been formed at a period when a zodiac was already constructed. But the thing is not impossible. The symbol answers to the Sun's place at the summer solstice, in the year 730 after the creation, according to the chronology of the LXX. Seth (the great founder of antediluvian astronomy, according to the traditions of the Orientalists,) had then just accomplished one Ner, or cycle of 600 years. If then the Ner were known to the Antediluvians, as Josephus indicates, it was not unlikely that Seth should have marked his having attained the age of 600 years by the symbol before us. The Dog-star rose heliacally in Egypt about the time when the Sun at the summer solstice, 730 years after the creation, was passing between the signs of Leo and Virgo; and this again connects the symbol with Seth, since we have seen the Dog-star was named both Soth and Seth by the Egyptians. I shall not, however, insist further upon this topic; though I must say, that if ever a symbol clearly told its origin, it is the astronomical Sphinx. As I find Leo to be the last of the ascending signs in the zodiac of Esneh, I cannot avoid concluding, that a part of this sign at least was ascending when the plan of the zodiac before me was originally traced; and I cannot consequently assign to it a later date than 25 centuries before the Christian aera. From some circumstances, however, I am inclined to fix its date still earlier, about 2800 years before our aera, and rather more than 300 years after the deluge according to the chronology of the LXX.
There are dozens more examples of similar ilk. It appears that while the very first writers on the subject speculated that the Sphinx represented astrological symbols, Hamilton and his anonymous reviewer were the earliest I can find who attempted to use the symbols to date the monuments to specific eras, followed by their imitators. I’m not sure, however, who was the first to relocate Leo from the summer solstice to the spring equinox to cast the date farther back in time.
Now, there is where we can speculate a bit: At the same time as all of this, advocates of astrology became fascinated with the Dendera Zodiac, and assuming it to be a copy of a primeval original, identified the lion on it with Leo and concluded that the zodiac had been constructed when the vernal equinox fell in Leo since the zodiac “begins” in Leo rather than Aries. Consequently, they concluded that Egyptian astronomy began around 10,500 BCE. Whoever was the first to connect this to the Great Sphinx almost certainly began with this faulty claim.
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.
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