PROVIDENCE has ordered that the plains of Egypt, which on account of their latitude, and some other causes, were not visited by showers, should be fertilized by the overflowing of the Nile. This noble river, which, like the hand of real and unostentatious generosity, conceals the origin of the good which it bestows, exceeds in fulness the height of its banks once a year, a little after the summer solstice. This annual phænomenon, bringing unfailing fertility in the vales of Delta up to Memphis, and under the basis of the majestic and venerable Pyramids, was of the greatest importance to the people of Mesraim, from the far-famed Pharos to the frontiers of Ethiopia. It was therefore their interest to find out and mark correctly the season, the month, and nearly the hour when the flood should begin; chiefly as the sudden invasion of the fecundating waters was dangerous to the inhabitants of the lower places, the meadows and the fens, and often destroyed the cottages, dragged in the flocks, and drowned the improvident villagers. The star Sirius was remarked to emerge from the blazing neighbourhood of the sun about the time of the rising of the Nile; it was a warning, and it was called accordingly the dog star, as if barking from the heavens to apprize the inhabitants of the vallies of the imminent swelling of the stream. Another mode was adopted, and they combined the signs of the Zodiac answering the two months during which the overflowing takes place. These signs happening to be Leo and Virgo, the natural taste of the Egyptians of those times could not allow them to unite the two figures in the same order as they stand in the solar belt, and having the good sense of inverting them, they composed the figure of the Sphinx, which is partly a young woman and partly a lion. This, indeed, was an enigma for the Greeks and Phœnicians who travelled as far as Egypt; they saw the monster but could not understand the real meaning. They returned to their respective countries, and, fraught with more fancy than reality, invented the fable of the Sphinx offering riddles at the gates of Thebes, and destroying those who could not unravel them; since they were very likely told by the supercilious sages of that nation, that who could not guess the meaning of the Sphinx were to forfeit their life in atonement for their ignorance. Long afterwards, the real sense of the symbol was forgotten, and Egypt, in her superstition, began to worship the emblem of which several remains are still found in that once flourishing and now degenerated country.
The Sphinx has been of late introduced in heraldry, to adorn the shields of those general officers who distinguished themselves against the French on the banks of the Nile; it has been admitted also to adorn our apartments, in various ways; and two very beautiful specimens of them are seen on the front wall of Sion House, at Brentford, the seat of his grace the Duke of Northumberland; they are reckoned of exquisite workmanship.
This chimerical figure is generally represented as if sitting and at rest; an attitude which, being the most graceful for such a compound, has been adopted by Egyptian sculptors, and imitated by the Greeks and Romans.