The Constellation Leo & the Great Sphinx

A New Book by Robert Schoch and Robert Bauval Explores the Great Monument’s Disputed Origins

It has long been believed (and still is!) by Egyptologists that the ancient Egyptians did not know the zodiac and that the Greeks brought it—the so-called Greco-Babylonian Zodiac—into Egypt sometime in the third or fourth century BCE, probably. This may indeed be so for the Babylonian zodiac, but it does not necessarily follow that the ancient Egyptians did not have a zodiac of their own or did not identify certain constellations along the zodiacal belt that were important to them. I very much believe they did have a four-constellation zodiac, and I will endeavor to show this here.

In the course of one year the sun appears to travel along a set path against a background of fixed stars. Astronomers call this path the ecliptic. There are clusters (constellations) of stars along this path that are very reminiscent of certain animals or objects that were familiar and common to most ancient cultures. These clusters are known as the zodiacal constellations, which is a derivative from the Greek word zoidiakos, meaning “circle of animals.” One of these zodiacal constellations is Leo, the lion. The writer Nancy Hathaway noted in her Friendly Guide to the Universe, “Leo resembles the lion after which it is named” (Hathaway 1964).

Indeed, this constellation inspired many ancient cultures to identify it as a crouching or striding feline, usually a lion (Allen 1963, 252–263). In Egypt it was depicted as a lion on a sky-boat in the two zodiacs of Dendera and also in other zodiacs painted on the lids of sarcophagi, all dating from the Greco-Roman period. Egyptologists and astronomers agree that this lion is Leo, but are adamant that the ancient Egyptians did not know Leo before the Greco-Roman period, and thus any lions shown on astronomical drawings before the Greco-Roman period are deemed not to be the constellation we call Leo. The most outspoken on this matter is Edwin Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. According to Krupp, “Despite some wishful thinking, the Egyptian lion constellation was probably not Leo” (Krupp 2001b, 8-88; italics added).

However, Russian astronomer Alexander Gurshtein, one-time president of the International Astronomy Union Commission on the History of Astronomy, hotly opposed Krupp’s view on this issue. According to Gurshtein, not only did the ancient Egyptians know the zodiacal constellation of Leo long before the Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans, but also the Great Sphinx was a symbolic image of Leo and Aquarius: “According to my conclusion the Great Sphinx is a symbolical image for two constellations: Leo (summer) and Aquarius (winter)” (Gurshtein 1999).

Also, more recently, a Spanish astronomer specializing in ancient Egyptian astronomy, Juan Belmonte, Ph.D., of the Teide Observatory on the island of Tenerife, as well as his colleague Jose Lull, an Egyptologist, have jointly published their views that Leo was known in the New Kingdom, thus some one thousand years before the Greco-Roman period in Egypt. Referring to the “divine lions” called m3i and ntr rwti in the Ramesside star chart and the Senmut ceiling, respectively, both of the New Kingdom and dated circa 1450 BCE–1100 BCE, Belmonte and Lull wrote, “We accept the premise that ntr rwti and m3i are exactly the same constellation (both rw and m3i mean “lion” in ancient Egyptian, the former having a certain sacred character). As a corollary, we support the idea that the lion can be identified to Leo” (Belmonte and Lull 2009, 166; Belmonte 2001, 57–66).

Previously, as early as 1985, the Egyptologist Virginia Davis of Yale University had also identified the constellation of Leo in ancient Egyptian texts that predate the Greco-Roman period (Trimble 1985, S103). Davis was followed by Donald Etz, Ph.D., in 1997 (Etz, 1997), and more recently, in 2003, the Egyptologist Richard Wilkinson of the University of Arizona wrote, “The stellar constellation now known as Leo was also recognized by the Egyptians as being in the form of a recumbent lion… the constellation was directly associated to the sun-god” (Wilkinson 2003, 206).

When Graham Hancock and I published Keeper of Genesis (Message of the Sphinx in the United States) in 1996, we also presented textual and astronomical evidence that not only did the ancient Egyptians recognize the constellation that we today call Leo as a recumbent lion, but also they related it to the Great Sphinx of Giza. But, as to be expected, Krupp rushed to the attack again to debunk this theory. His attack came with the usual patronizing tone toward “amateurs” in an article he titled “The Sphinx Blinks,” which appeared in the popular journal Sky & Telescope (Krupp 2001b, 86–88). Krupp’s main objections were:

  1. [Ancient Egyptians] did not recognize the zodiac that is so familiar to us today. The zodiac is really a gift from the Greeks primarily rooted in Mesopotamian star lore.
  2. The Sphinx represents Horemakhet and is the divine personification of the rising disk of the Sun, and its intentional alignment toward cardinal east reflects the ritual significance of the cardinal directions in the Old Kingdom period.
  3. Leo is on the other side of the celestial Nile, east of the Milky Way, and it faces Orion. On the ground, however, the Sphinx, the terrestrial reflection of Leo, is west of the Nile and on the same side of the river as the pyramids that allegedly symbolize the Belt of Orion. It also faces away from Orion. The Sphinx is on the wrong side of the river and facing the wrong way to match the sky (Krupp 2001b).

I will deal only with item 3 of Krupp’s objections, since items 1 and 2 have already been discussed at length elsewhere in our book [Origins of the Sphinx, Celestial Guardian of Pre-Pharaonic Civilization, Robert M. Schoch, Ph.D. and Robert Bauval, Inner Traditions, 2017]. Krupp, quite simply, is unable to grasp the dualistic form of ancient Egyptian thinking, where sky above and ground below were constantly thought of together (i.e., as above, so below). The celestial lion, Leo, faces the celestial river, the Milky Way, as does the terrestrial lion, the Great Sphinx, which faces the earthly river, the Nile—as, indeed, depicted on the Dream Stela of Tuthmoses IV: one lion (terrestrial) faces east and the other (celestial) faces west. This may appear “contradictory” to Krupp and others who think like him, but it is entirely consistent with ancient Egyptian dualistic thinking.

There is, however, another argument brought by Krupp that merits careful review, mostly because it also reveals the intractable attitude of the good doctor, even when confronted with irrefutable evidence that he is wrong. This concerns a curious statement he made in the same article of Sky & Telescope. I had pointed out to Krupp that the “lion” depicted on many of the astronomical ceilings of New Kingdom tombs was almost certainly Leo, as indeed suggested by many astronomers as well (e.g., Belmonte and others.). Krupp totally rejected this outright and supplied a photograph with his article with a caption that explains his objections.

Figure A3.3 shows an enlarged, high-definition photograph taken of the original Dendera Zodiac at the Louvre Museum in Paris (I was living in England in July 2002 when this particular debate with Krupp was ongoing. A good friend who lives in Paris, Claude Commander, offered to go to the Louvre Museum on my behalf to take photographs of the Dendera Zodiac). Krupp’s alleged “small lion” can clearly be seen.

As can be clearly seen, the small creature, which Krupp insisted is a “small lion”, has its forelegs folded in. Such a posture is anatomically impossible for a lion or any other feline. Only bovines and other hooved creatures, such as cows, sheep, goats, horses, and such can fold their forelegs in this manner. Indeed, on the Dendera Zodiac is another animal with a similar posture. Such animals with forelegs folded are common, in fact, quite common, on Egyptian zodiacs and other religious iconography.

There is absolutely no doubt that the small creature is a hooved animal, probably a ram, and that Krupp made a blunder by calling it a “lion.” However, when this was pointed out to him, instead of gracefully admitting his error, he went on to produce a long-winded argument on the Internet, trying desperately to convince his supporters that the small creature could still be a lion. He quoted other authorities who thought it might be a lion, then tried tongue-in-cheek statements such as “unwilling to let the lion lie down with the lamb” or “in like a lion, out like a lamb.” When all his huffing and puffing failed to convince even his most enthusiastic supporters, Krupp suggested that “in the most familiar crouched posture of lions and other felines the forelegs are extended forward, and so that the bent forelegs on the small Crouching Lion is the only element of the figure that introduces any doubt in the animal’s identity” (Krupp, in the HALLOFMAAT discussion board, September 29, 2002) (See Accessed November 15, 2016). Which is like saying that a small creature, say, that looks like a bird, flies like a bird, perches like a bird, and has feathers like a bird cannot be considered to be a bird because these are the only elements that identify it as a bird! At any rate, finally as a last shot, Krupp then proposed that the sculptor who created the Dendera Zodiac was unable to represent the small creature properly because of its small size. “If this creature be a lion, we might explain this single discrepancy [the bent foreleg] in its image as a product of the very small scale in which the artist was working. It is, in fact, remarkable that the artist was able to include as much realistic detail as was seen” (Krupp, in the HALLOFMAAT discussion board, September 29, 2002).

This argument, again, is flawed since there are many other small creatures and human figures on the Dendera Zodiac depicted in very realistic details! Frankly, it was getting clear, to me at least, that Krupp expected people to believe what he was saying rather than what their own eyes were showing them.

I rest my case.


The Lion in Summer

There can be no doubt that the lion was a very important symbol in ancient Egyptian iconography. There is no need for me to list the plethora of lion statues and lion-bodied sphinxes, engravings, and drawings to make this obvious point. And this is not surprising, since in predynastic and even during dynastic times the adjacent deserts to the Nile Valley were inhabited by, and probably even infested with, lions. We can only but imagine how dangerous it must have been to wander in the desert before the invention of rudimentary weaponry such as the spear or the bow and arrow. And even when these weapons were available, the lion nonetheless remained a very dangerous creature to confront in the wild. We can also imagine the inhabitants of the Nile Valley being in constant vigilance of lions marauding down to the Nile to drink, especially in the hot summer during the Inundation season, when the overflow from the river reached the desert’s edge. The appearance of packs of thirsty lions in this season at dawn on the water’s edge, as well as the appearance of the constellation of Leo rising in the eastern horizon at that same time of year, almost certainly inspired the dualistically minded Egyptians of the dynastic era to regard both—lion and constellation—as symbols of the Inundation.

In Chapter 6 [of The Origins of the Sphinx], however, we have shown how the Pyramid Texts, which date from the Old Kingdom, confirm that the constellation of Leo was observed rising at dawn during the summer solstice. This, in my opinion, was when the association of the Great Sphinx and the Inundation was made.


The above is taken, with the publisher’s permission, from Appendix 3 of the forthcoming book, Origins of the Sphinx, Celestial Guardian of Pre-Pharaonic Civilization, by Robert M. Schoch, Ph.D. and Robert Bauval, Inner Traditions, 2017. Dr. Schoch, a geologist and tenured professor at Yale University is a frequent contributor to Atlantis Rising. He is best known for his redating of the Great Sphinx of Egypt to predynastic times. Robert Bauval, author of The Orion Mystery, Keeper of Genesis (Message of the Sphinx in the United States), and many other books has asserted that the Great Sphinx represents a lion and the constellation Leo in the zodiac.

By Robert Bauval