It is one of the great riddles of antiquity: the (actually linguistically: the) Sphinx. This is how the ancient Greek word for representations originally only reads of the Egyptian king with a lion’s body and a human head; an Egyptian name for this human-animal combination is not known. The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in Cairo has now announced that archaeologists have found a Roman-era sphinx statue.

The work of art was excavated in the Temple of Dendera in the province of Kena, about 450 kilometers south of Cairo. According to a first interpretation, the human head on the neck of the lying big cat’s body possibly bears the facial features of the Roman Emperor Claudius (born 10 BC, reigned 41 to 54 AD), who after the violent death of his nephew Caligula became the fourth ruler of the Principate and the penultimate of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

The statue is made of limestone and is placed on a pedestal. It was buried in sand in a Byzantine-era adobe basin. A stone tablet inscribed with hieroglyphs was also found, the inscription of which may contain further information. The research is ongoing.

Especially this sphinx statue makes her smile. The few photos that have been published so far clearly show that the corners of the mouth of the man’s head are pulled up slightly. This distinguishes the new find from the best-known and largest sphinx, which stands guard in front of the pyramid of Chefren in Gizeh and probably also represents this pharaoh of the Old Kingdom. However, there are sphinxes that smile at least slightly, such as the Alabaster Sphinx in Memphis.

In the Greco-Roman tradition, sphinxes were considered insidious and merciless; typical of this is the myth of the Theban sphinx. According to him, a lion-human hybrid (here, by the way, female) with wings lurked in front of the city of Thebes, 60 kilometers north-west of Athens, and killed all passers-by who could not solve a riddle. It read (here in the version of the sophist Athenaios): “What has one voice, four, two and three feet and is weaker the more feet it walks on?”

Only Oedipus, the rejected son of the King of Thebes, was able to solve the riddle – the correct answer was: Man in the course of his life from the crawling small child to the upright adult to the old man with a stick. Now the sphinx’s reign of terror ended.

In the Egyptian tradition, on the other hand, sphinxes were usually, though not always, considered masculine and benevolent, yet alert; Pharaohs were regularly depicted in this form, and a granite sphinx has also been preserved from Queen Hatshepsut, which was killed after her death in 1458 BC. However, at the behest of her stepson and co-regent Thutmosis III. smashed and thrown into a quarry with other sculptures of Hatshepsut. In 1920, excavators at the Metropolitan Museum of New York found the fragments and put them back together; for decades this statue has been one of the highlights of the world’s most important art museum.

Widespread religious tolerance prevailed in the Roman Empire, albeit with a special twist: in addition to the regional cults, which were allowed to continue to exist, the imperial cult had to be worshiped, at least pro forma. It can be assumed that the sphinx statue that has now been found was an expression of this understanding of religion: in it (if the facial features actually belong to Princeps Claudius) the Egyptian rite and the imposed veneration of the Roman Empire were combined.

Not historical, but very funny is perhaps the best-known Sphinx depiction in the comic “Asterix and Cleopatra”, the sixth volume in the series in the French original 1965/66, but the second volume in the German translation 1969. Here Obelix accidentally breaks off the nose of the Chefren Sphinx while climbing it, while Asterix and the druid Miraculix look at smaller copies of the Sphinx at a knick-knack stand.

The “Smile of the Sphinx” is also the title of a short and somewhat enigmatic story by the writer Ingeborg Bachmann, which first appeared in 1949. In the text, a ruler kills his subjects to answer a sphinx’s third and final question, which is: What is the situation inside the people? The ruler then has all the people in his empire beheaded by machine – without getting any closer to the answer.

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