I’m not talking about the riddle Oedipus solved, thereby fulfilling the prophecy he was trying to avoid and giving Freud something to write about. Now everyone knows what walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the evening. There’s probably an Instagram meme. I mean who built the ancient limestone creature that has sat placidly before the pyramids at Giza for at least 4,500 years.
Last night my daughter wanted me to watch a documentary about the Sphinx on Netflix, which is why it’s on my mind. In the film, several archaeologists were arguing passionately about which pharaoh had his likeness carved atop the lion’s body. My daughter had watched it before, was in the Khafre camp, and wanted my opinion, since I used to be an ancient historian. But I was a Roman historian, and when Caesar chased Pompey to Egypt 2,158 years ago, the Sphinx and the great pyramids were already some 2,400 years old — ancient history to the subjects of what’s ancient history to me.
These days I can’t get too worked up over who built the Sphinx. Who had it built, I should say, since it was unnamed and unnumbered stonemasons and laborers who actually built it. All the forgotten men toiling in obscurity so a megalomaniac could live forever in the minds of men — or at least in the minds of archaeologists.
Immortality. The elusive dream that mocks us all. The grail at the end of every king’s quest. Eventually, even the mightiest of them end up like Shelley’s Ozymandias:
I met a Traveler from an antique land,
Who said, “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is OZYMANDIAS, King of Kings.”
Look on my works ye Mighty, and despair!
No thing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that Colossal Wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
My daughter kept poking me to wake me up as I dozed off during the show. Poor old Khafre. Even an ancient historian couldn’t stay awake to ponder his immortality in limestone. It was past my bedtime, but any time one of my kids wants to watch something educational rather than another episode of Bob’s Burgers, I’m all in.