Last week I mentioned the information about the Great Sphinx provided by the traveler George Sandys, who in 1610, so far as I know, became one of the first to link the Sphinx to the constellation of Leo, a claim which is today an article of faith among fringe historians such as Graham Hancock and Robert Bauval. At the time, I noted that Shaw doubted the religiously oriented claim that the Pyramids of Giza were either the granaries of Joseph or the remnants of constructions by Hebrew slaves. Today I’d like to note a very interesting variant that occurs in the work of another traveler, Thomas Shaw, who wrote in 1738 of his trip to Egypt. Mostly it’s interesting for what Shaw leads us to: the original source of the claim that the Sphinx represents the constellation of Leo.
Shaw followed Sandys in seeing the Sphinx as a symbol of the constellation Leo, and then he added some observations about why he could not believe that the pyramids were intended as tombs. His argument will be familiar to anyone who has read a fringe history book in the last century or two. You will forgive me for not reproducing all of the eighteenth-century italics.
For Pliny asserts that they were built for ostentation, and to keep an idle people in employment. Others, (which is the most received opinion) that they were to be the sepulchres of the Egyptian kings. But if Cheops, Suphis, or whoever else was the founder of the great Pyramid, intended it only for his sepulchre, what occasion was there for such a narrow sloping entrance into it? or for the wall, as it is called, at the bottom of the gallery? or for the lower chamber, with a large nitch or hole in the eastern wall of it? or for the long narrow cavities in the walls or sides of the large upper room, which likewise is incrusted all over with the finest granite marble? or for the two ante chambers, and the lofty gallery, with benches on each side, that introduce us into it? As the whole of the Egyptian theology was clothed in mysterious emblems and figures, it seems reasonable to suppose, that all these turnings, apartments and secrets in architecture, were intended for some nobler purpose; and that the Deity, which was typified on the outward form of this pile, was to be worshipped within. No places could certainly have been more ingeniously contrived for these Adyta [i.e. secret chambers] that had so great a share in the Egyptian mysteries. (p. 417f.)
You will at once recognize the “pyramid mystery” school of thought, in which the Pyramid is a mystical initiation center, clothed in symbolic language. That argument is too familiar to rehearse here, but I am fascinated instead by something Shaw accidentally revealed. To return for a moment to the claim about the Sphinx, Shaw echoed Sandys:
The Head of a woman, joyned to the Body of a Lyon, was called the Sphinx, being, in general, an Emblem of Strength, united to Prudence. When such figures were placed near the Nile, they denoted the Inundation to fall out, when the Sun passed through the Signs of Leo and Virgo… (p. 399)
But Shaw does us one better than Sandys in that he actually cites his source and tells us why he thought such a thing. I feel confident that we can assume that Sandys used the same sources since the resulting claims are so similar. I was right in that Sandys (and Shaw) were drawing on Greek mythology to understand the Egyptian statue (and thus mistook it for a woman), but I didn’t realize that the Greeks had a specific claim about the constellation Leo, and this seems to be the ultimate origin of the Sphinx-as-Leo myth. Let’s thank Shaw for citing a source!
That source is Horapollo’s Hieroglyphics, a somewhat dubious Late Antique guide to Egyptian hieroglyphs. Because the text is mostly worthless for understanding Pharaonic Egypt, I never really gave it much thought, but in terms of establishing misinformation, it turns out to be a rather useful guide, not least because its rediscovery in the Renaissance sparked a wave of interest from the humanists who became the forerunners of the mystics and alchemists who gave rise to our modern fringe history practitioners.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
According to the Suda (s.v. Ὡραπόλλων), a certain Horapollo was one of the last of the pagan priests of Egypt, living in the reign of the Emperor Zeno (r. 474-475, 476-491). He allegedly converted to Christianity. In the Renaissance, however, our author was identified with the Suda’s other Horapollo, a grammarian from Phaenebythis, famed for his expertise gained from Alexandria in Egypt in the time of Theodosius II (r. 408-450). Chances are that neither was the actual author. Rumor had it, though, that Horus was the true author, or perhaps the Biblical Pharaoh, or maybe that it was the Sacred Book of Suphis (the name Manetho gave for Khufu), at least according to the occultists of the era.
The extant text, in two books in bad Greek, claims to be a translation from the Coptic made by an unknown Philippos. Scholars are divided on its ultimate origins. The consensus seems to be that Book II is a Greek or Byzantine concoction, made up of traditional Greco-Roman authors’ works on animals. However, Book I is believed to be based on real knowledge of Egyptian hieroglyphs, though reported through a fog of corruption and confusion. Some have argued that it represents a genuine living tradition from the last Egyptian priests to understand hieroglyphs. One argument is that the Greek translator misunderstood an original work and adapted it badly into his language. Another argument has it that the Greek “translator” is actually the author, reporting in his own words material learned in Egypt but only partially understood.
Whatever the real source, Horapollo’s work preserves legends of Egypt that fed directly into the stories familiar to us from their Arabic-language form several centuries later. For example, he declares that a sphinx is the Egyptian symbol for “the terrible,” because “this animal, being the most powerful, terrifies all who behold it” (1.20). Recall that the Arabs called the Great Sphinx the “Father of Terror” in the Middle Ages. Immediately following this comes the key section on Leo, in Book 1, chapter 21:
To signify the rising of the Nile, which they call in the Egyptian language NOUN, and which, when interpreted, signifies New, they sometimes pourtray a LION, and sometimes THREE LARGE WATERPOTS, and at other times HEAVEN AND EARTH GUSHING FORTH WITH WATER. And they depict a LION, because when the sun is in Leo it augments the rising of the Nile, so that oftentimes while the sun remains in that sign of the zodiac, half of the new water [Noun, the entire inundation?] is supplied; and hence it is, that those who anciently presided over the sacred works, have made the spouts [?] and passages of the sacred fountains in the form of lions. (trans. A. T. Cory)
And there it is! Sandys and later writers conflated this with the preceding discussion of sphinx symbols, and therefore made the lion-part of the Great Sphinx into a symbol of Leo, Nile flood-maker. It should be obvious, of course, that this tradition is of dubious authenticity since Greco-Babylonian astrology goes back only to around 500 BCE—though it is worth remembering that in Coptic noun is the word for “water” (here mistaken for the Greek neos), and that a water-pot was indeed used for the purpose given above. I’m not aware of a connection to lions, though.
The point is that in Late Antiquity, after Greek astrology had thoroughly infiltrated Greco-Egyptian culture, it seems that a legend had grown up applying astrological lore (about Leo and the Nile flood) to physical representations of lions, even when they had no real connection.
I must concede that I am fascinated by the survival of this strange belief as it trickled down the ages from Hellenistic astrology to Late Antique mysticism to New Age pseudohistory, all the more fascinating because the tradition died out in the “wild” in the early centuries CE but somehow keeps springing up thanks to the indirect influence of Horapollo on Renaissance scholars and then alchemists and occultists, and then Victorian pyramidiots, and then modern pseudohistorians, most without really being aware of more than one preceding step in the chain of influence.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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