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Work Sphinx furniture ornament

Department of Near Eastern Antiquities: Levant

Sphinx furniture ornament

© 1998 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Near Eastern Antiquities
Levant

Author(s):
Castor Marie-José, Caubert Annie

This furniture ornament in the shape of a sphinx was carved from the canine tooth of a hippopotamus, probably in the Levant during the 2nd millennium BC. Stylistically and iconographically, it is a perfect illustration of the cosmopolitan nature of the art produced in these regions.

Hippopotamus ivory for a royal sphinx

The sphinx is a recent purchase, of interest because of its material and its iconography. The ivory has been identified as the lower canine of a hippopotamus. The front teeth of a hippopotamus grow continuously, acting as tusks. The lower canine is curved. The carver has cleverly incorporated the shape of the tooth, demonstrating an economical use of materials and great virtuosity; this dexterity and skill in exploiting the tusk's potential are characteristic of the workshops in the Levant in the 2nd millennium BC. In the 1st millennium BC, hippopotamus ivory gave way to elephant ivory, which was used in abundance in the Assyrian and Persian periods.

An Egyptian symbol used in Asian mythology

The figurine, cut out of a thick slab, is more elaborately carved on the right side; the left has all the devices used to fasten it to the furniture. The head thrust forward, the sharp profile running into a pointed beard, and the shape of the nose contrast with the rounded, almost plump body. The curled hair is voluminous and its backward sweep is picked up in the movement of the fused wings.

A composite figure

Probably made for one of the dynasts who parceled out the territory of the Levant in the 2nd millennium BC, this little ivory sphinx conveys a complex, refined message. Indeed, it combines the royal character of the sphinx, the strength of the Mesopotamian hero, and an Asian identity asserted by the facial features. A composite monster with a human head on a lion's body, the sphinx is a mythological being of Egyptian origin, representing the pharaoh. It was quickly adopted in the Levant and then spread to the Greek world, with a number of variants. Levantine sphinxes are characterized by an impassive or smiling mask, ideal beauty, and sexual ambiguity. This one is an exception, with its racially explicit face and mass of curls. Long hair, when not a sign of femininity, can signify childhood in Egypt and the Orient, and the sacrifice of childhood locks is a rite of passage into adulthood.
But a mass of hair may also symbolize virile strength triumphing over wild nature: Mesopotamian imagery of the naked, animal-taming 'hero,' recognizable by the curls framing his face, illustrates the legend of Enkidu, who was first a rival then a friend of Gilgamesh. His generous curls thus link this little sphinx to the lineage of the heroes who mastered nature and won the favor of the gods.
Its features also link it, however, to another well-known group in Egypt: the Asians. Always portrayed as conquered and prostrate, bound, trampled or bearing tributes, Asians and Africans symbolize the enemy kings from the lands surrounding Egypt over whom the pharaoh triumphs. This negative, almost caricatural imagery was nonetheless adopted by the 'Asian' kingdoms themselves, giving the traditional Egyptian model a positive twist.
The hunter on the gold patera from Ras Shamra (ao17208), probably the king of Ugarit, is another example.

Bibliography

Annie Caubet, "Deux sphinx d'ivoire au musée du Louvre", in Monuments et Mémoires, t. 79, Paris, 2000, Fondation E. Piot

Technical description

  • Sphinx furniture ornament

    Late Middle Bronze Age, circa 1600 BC

    Levant or southern Anatolia (Qatna?)

  • Hippopotamus ivory

    H. 8.4 cm; W. 4.6 cm

  • Purchased, January 27,1993

    AO 30256

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

    Sully wing
    Ground floor
    Levant
    Room C

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Additional information about the work

Ekta (slide) RMN 99 CE 13923