Positive Progress Through The Benevolent Use Of Knowledge

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

I: Early Egyptian Constellations

The ancient Egyptians developed their own constellation system based on important gods/goddesses and animals in their mythology. The number of Egyptian constellations was not a extensive as in other contemporary civilizations such as the Babylonians of the Tigris-Euphrates basin. However, the evidence suggests that the ancient Egyptians had a complete set of constellations that covered the entire sky visible from Egypt.
In the New Kingdom period (circa 1500 to 1100 BCE), the classical astronomical representations were painted on temple ceilings (i.e., the Ramesseum ceiling) and on the sepulchral vaults of kings (i.e., the tomb of Senmut). (The Ramesseum (a temple complex which was built for Ramses II, whose reign lasted from 1279 to 1212 BCE) is situated in Upper Egypt at Luxor (formerly known as Thebes) on the west bank of the Nile River.)
The "astronomical ceilings," some from tombs and some from temples, are amongst the most important surviving Egyptian "astronomical documents." These particular ceilings contain decorative motifs and were designed to provide both a symbolic and schematic summary of astronomical knowledge. During the 1930s the astronomer Alexander Pogo (then working at Harvard University (following his 1929 appointment as a Fellow in the History of Science by the Carnegie Institution)) conducted investigations of Egyptian astronomy and (1) first recognised the astronomical content of inscriptions on coffin lids from the end of the Middle Kingdom, and (2) the relationship between these simple pictures and the elaborate representations on the tomb ceilings of kings of the New Kingdom period.
It would appear that by the late 2nd-millennium BCE the Egyptians had divided the sky into a small number of very large constellations. By circa 1100 BCE, not including the 36 decans, an Egyptian catalog of the universe had marked the sky with 5 or 6 very large constellations (including such animal figures as the Hippopotamus, Ox, and Crocodile). Two of these constellations were similar to the Western constellations Orion and Ursa Major. As the Egyptians were accustomed to regard the whole sky as a figure of the goddess Nut, supported on hands and feet, it posed no difficulties for them to develop constellation figures of half that extent. (The constellation figure of Nekht ("mighty man") must, by the description of its hourly parts, have extended over 6 hours.) During the 1st-millennium BCE these constellations would be divided further into some 25 constellations. The grouping of constellations around (and including) the Big Dipper stars is conveniently described as the northern group of constellations. The designation is not necessarily restricted to the the circumpolar stars. The northern group of constellations included a lion, a crocodile, a bull's foreleg (also represented as a complete bull), a boatman, a giant man, and/or a huge female hippopotamus with a crocodile tail (or an entire crocodile) on her back.
In 1985 Kurt Locher offered his view that the circumpolar constellations could be identified as Crocodile, Hippopotamus, Chain, Mooring Posts, (God) Anu, and Foreleg. However, it is more difficult to determine correspondence between the ancient Egyptian constellations and our present-day Western constellations. All of the northern constellation figures are not located in the same positions on Egyptian tombs and ceilings. The northern constellation figures drawn on the ceiling of the burial chamber in the tomb of Seti I (19th Dynasty) are positioned differently to the same northern constellation figures drawn in the tomb of Senmut (Senenmut) (18th Dynasty).
The northern (circumpolar) stars were called lkhemu-sek (imperishable stars), because they never sink below the horizon. The southern stars were called lkhemu-wredj (unwearying stars), because they rose on the eastern horizon and set on the western horizon. The ecliptic can be conveniently used as an arbitrary dividing line between the northern constellations and the southern constellations. The southern group of constellations was essentially formed by the belt of individual stars and asterisms comprising the decanal belt. The goddess Nut was the Milky Way.
It appears the oldest existing northern constellation is Meskhetyw (the foreleg of a bull). This constellation appears on the inside of a coffin lid excavated at Asyut and dating from the First Intermediate Period (circa 2145 BCE to circa 2025 BCE). To the left of the foreleg is vertical hieroglyphic writing stating Meskhetyw m pet (Meskhetyw in the northern sky).
Two identifiable constellations among the southern Egyptian star groups are Sah (corresponding to the current Orion's belt) and Sepdet (corresponding to Sirius). Due to Sah rising 1 hour before Sirius in the decanal tables Sah is commonly interpreted by Egyptologists as the constellation Orion. The name Sah is first found in the "Pyramid Text" engraved in the pyramid of Unas (the last king of the 5th Dynasty Old Kingdom). He reigned circa 2340 BCE to circa 2320 BCE. The figures of both Sah and Sepdet appear on wooden coffin lids dating between the First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom.
An alternative name for the Bull's thigh (= Foreleg of the bull)", which was the "big dipper" asterism, was "The foreleg of Seth." The Boatman comprised Orion's belt and some other stars. The Hippopotamus was identified with the goddess Isis - at least in the New Kingdom Period (1570-1070 BCE). The Hippopotamus and the Giant Man took up about half the sky.
One of the few constellations that is unambiguously identifiable is the constellation of Orion (Sah). However, the association of names with its individual stars is indeterminate. (The only one of the decans that is able to be unambiguously identified is Sirius (Sepdet).) A coffin lid provides the only other certain constellation identification from ancient Egypt. A scene on a coffin lid depicts the 7 stars of the Big Dipper asterism (part of Ursa Major) in the form of the foreleg (thigh) of an Ox (not Taurus) and is named Meskhetyw (Meskheitu (Mshtyw)). (This constellation is not part of the decanal system or the star tables.) It is the only example of a pattern of stars being actually drawn in approximately the known configuration. (The Hippopotamus is commonly identified with the stars of Draco, the Dragon.)

The Senmut tomb has the oldest intact representation of the northern constellations. Above is a reconstruction (by Otto Neugebauer and Richard Parker (EAT, Volume 3, Text)) of the arrangement of the ancient Egyptian northern constellations depicted on the Senmut ceiling. The circumpolar constellations were important to the Egyptians because they never appeared before the rising sun. As such they were often linked with the powers of darkness and with ferocious animals. The (unfinished) tomb of Senmut is located at Deir el-Bahri, Luxor. (Senmut was an architect and the vezir of Queen Hatshepsut.) It dates to circa 1473 BCE. This is approximately three centuries latter than the astronomical inscriptions on coffin lids from the end of the Middle Kingdom. The tomb has the earliest preserved ceiling discovered to date. Whilst placing representations of the sky on ceilings is quite logical the practice also contributes to their easy destruction.
On the ceiling of the decorated chamber there is a decan list and planets (excepting Mars), northern constellations and deities, and lunar calendar.

The arrangement of the ancient Egyptian northern constellations on the astronomical ceiling of Hall K of the tomb of Seti I. No written record survives for identifying the constellations depicted.
Seti I (reigned 1303-1290 BCE) was the son and heir of Ramses I. The tomb of Seti I is located in the Valley of the Kings, Luxor. It is the next well-preserved astronomical ceiling after that of Senmut's tomb. It has close parallels in the tomb of Ramses IV (Dynasty XX, circa 1100 BCE) and later Egyptian rulers. The content of the vaulted ceiling of Hall K comprises a decan list and planets with deities, northern constellations and deities.
Also contained within the Seti I tomb are decorations of the complete versions of the Book of the Dead, the Book of the Gates, the Book of the Caverns, the Book of the Day, the Book of the Night, and the Book of the Cow of Heaven. Further, there is the text of the Deliverance of Mankind, and the Litany of the Sun.
The papyrus "Carlsberg 1", though written more than 1000 years after the Seti 1 text, is a commentary to these inscriptions.
The astronomical ceiling (Denderah zodiac) located at the temple of Hathor in Denderah, Egypt dates to the Late Ptolemaic Period (i.e., late Hellenistic Period). The representation of the Egyptian sky is called the Denderah zodiac because it depicts the (Babylonian-Greek) zodiacal constellations (and other Egyptian constellations). (All Egyptian zodiacs are late and originated in the Hellenistic and Roman periods.) Construction began on the temple of Hathor circa 125 BCE and it was finished circa 60 CE. The Denderah circular zodiac itself is dated circa 36 BCE or 30 BCE. It is the oldest known representation of the zodiac.

Appendix 1: Astronomical Ceilings
The "astronomical ceilings" from tombs and temples provide an important schematic summary of the astronomical knowledge of the Egyptians. There are about 20 astronomical wall paintings depicting the northern constellations, dating back to the 15th-century BCE.
The oldest known example of an 䳴ronomical ceiling" is from the second or "secret" tomb of Senmut, dating to the 15th-century BCE, which is located to the east of Deir el-Bahri in the western Theban necropolis.The ceiling of this tomb is unfinished. It is, however, the best preserved of all the surviving examples of "astronomical ceilings." The ceiling is divided into northern and southern panels. The upper portion of the southern panel contains a list of decans showing their relation to the star clocks. Also portrayed are a number of constellations: the ship, the sheep, Osiris in a boat (Orion), and Isis in a boat (Sothis). The centre of the northern panel features a set of figures representing the northern circumpolar constellations.
Other examples of "astronomical ceilings" are: (1) the ceiling of the second hypostyle hall of the Ramesseum (dated circa 1213 BCE); (2) the mortuary temple of Rameses II on the ceiling of Hall K in tomb KV 17 belonging to Seti I. Nearly all "astronomical ceilings" include some representation of the northern constellations and the decanal stars.

Appendix 2: The Goddess Nut
Nut was the ancient Egyptian goddess of he heavens and sky. The ancient Egyptians conceived of the goddess Nut as a naked female who arches her body across the sky (basically east to west and like the arc of the sky) in a protective posture over the earth. Nut's fingers and toes were believed to touch the 4 cardinal points or directions. A myth, recorded in dynastic times, has the god Ra entering Nut's mouth, passing through her starry body, and emerging, reborn, from her loins. According to the astronomer Ronald Wells her figure, during the 3rd-millennium BCE, the Milky Way was believed to represent the goddess Nut. In his 1996 essay (but originally suggested in 1994) "Astronomy in Egypt" (in: Astronomy Before the Telescope) Ronald Wells theorized that the Egyptians equated Nut's body with the Milky Way, seeing her head in our constellation Gemini, and her birth canal in Cygnus, where cosmic dust clouds split the Milky Way into two "legs." He pointed out that early in Egyptian prehistory, about 6,500 years ago, the Sun would have set just before Gemini-Nut's head-at the spring equinox, as if swallowed by the goddess. Nine months later, at the winter solstice, the Sun, reborn, would have risen very close to Cygnus, as if emerging from the birth canal. However, many Egyptologists and archaeoastronomers consider this particular theory of Ronald Wells as highly speculative.
Copyright ? 2005-2008 by Gary D. Thompson

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