The Egyptian Constellations

Considering the way that the Egyptian astronomers have been treated by the academic world until recently, it is not surprising that the problem of the Egyptian constellations is still far from being solved.

Two historical figures who are often the subject of disputable speculations are the female pharaoh Hatschepsut and her architect Semnut. Many historians believe that they had a romantic affair, but more importantly their names are linked for eternity because we owe to them one of the most impressive masterpieces of architecture of all time: the temple of Deir el Barhi, on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor.

Next to the temple, Semnut had a tomb built for himself on the side of the mountain. The tomb remained unfinished for unknown reasons, but the fresco of the funerary chamber was already drawn, although not fully colored, at the time of the abandonment. This fresco (c. 1473 BC) can be considered a compendium of astronomy of the New Kingdom, and is both the oldest and the most complete compendium known to us.

The fresco, 3 x 3.6 meters large, was made by tracing a grid of red and blue lines, partially still visible today, and then painting the hieroglyphics in black. Touch-ups in red and blue appear on some of the figures. The picture is divided into two parts by a double belt of stars with a central inscription. The top square shows a list of decans similar to a stellar clock. Under the name of each decan are depicted the stars representing it. The list starts, on the left side, with Sirius followed by Orion represented turned toward Sirius, and then by the lades, the stars that form the basis of the Taurus constellation, in the typical shape of a V. On top of them there is a group of four stars, three of which are aligned with one another, and the central one is circled by three ellipses, possibly representing the Pleiades (Juan Belmonte, personal communication). Four of the five visible planets are also represented—Jupiter, Saturn, Mercury, and Venus—while Mars is missing, as in many other later astronomical representations probably copied from the same source. The bottom square shows what is probably a 12-month calendar. In the center and below are some figures of constellations of stars. These figures were named by Neugebauer and Parker with terms that only served create more confusion; for example, they used the term northern constellations, even though they specified that they are not all circumpolar constellations. On the left and right sides of the "northern constellations" there is a line of standing figures representing "partner" divinities, like Isis and Horus's sons (the northern constellations, following a similar scheme where the figures would sometimes change, were represented in many other tombs, for example in the astronomical ceilings of the Ramessides tombs).

Bedford Star Constellations
Figure 4.7: Senmut astronomical ceiling, the "northern constellations".

Endless discussions and debates have addressed the problem of the identification of these starry figures with the constellations, but most such debates are uninteresting. For instance, for a long time there has been a discussion regarding the question of whether the Egyptians had elaborated a zodiac of their own (meaning a division of the stars of the ecliptic into constellations; cf. Appendix 1) before the introduction of the zodiac of Babylonian origin, and there has been more than one attempt to use the lack of knowledge regarding the zodiac as proof of the lack of astronomical knowledge, which makes no sense. What really matters is to try to understand the logic behind the representation of the various constellations, zodiacal or not. It is quite obvious that the identification of ancient constellations, not only in Egypt, is complicated by the fact that there is no reason why different people should connect the stars in the sky to form the same figures (even worse the same animals, if they live in completely different parts of the planet), and therefore the constellations can be very different from ours (for example, many civilizations kept Orion and Sirius separate; nevertheless, during the Minoic period in Crete, Sirius and Orion were part of the same constellation, a double ax, with the handle formed by a segment linking Sirius to Orion's belt, see Blomberg and Henriksson 2007). As a consequence, when looking for the first time at the Egyptian constellations, one cannot avoid being fascinated by them. It is indeed the representation, right in front of us, of how an Egyptian read the sky some 3500 years ago. While we inherited our main constellations from the Babylonians and, therefore, did not invent their figures by ourselves, the images depicted in the tombs of the New Kingdom represent a projection into the sky of the imagination and of the religious thought of the Egyptians of that time. Even the way in which the images are represented in the sky is different from our own; it looks like someone had stretched and flattened the celestial vault, according to a different sense of perspective than the one we are used to now, which is nevertheless perfectly logical and organized.

Despite all these problems, we can at least attempt to identify the figures (Belmonte 2001a, Belmonte and Lull 2006). We will use the terms (a bit complicated, but of common use) chosen by Neugebauer and Parker:

1. Mes: a bull's foreleg, which we have met before (in the Semnut ceiling as an oval bull, and in other depictions, like the one on the ceiling of the tomb of Seti I, a real bull).

2. Hippo: a female hippopotamus, standing on two legs, with a crocodile on its shoulders. The hippopotamus is leaning against a pillar and another crocodile.

3. An: a falcon-god pointing a spear toward Mes.

4. Serket: a goddess with a disk on her head, parallel to Mes.

5. Lion: a lion, in some pictures, like the ones in Semnut, has a crocodile tail.

6. Sak and Croc: crocodiles; Sak with a bent tail, on top of Lion, and Croc with a straight tail, under Lion.

7. Man: a standing man facing Croc.

8. Pole: a pillar or pier, set between Hippo and Mes.

The key to unraveling their counterparts in the sky is clearly Mes, which certainly represents the Big Dipper. The Bull seems to rotate around the pommel of the instrument hold by Hippo (in the Seti ceiling there is a Bull tied with a rope to such a point); therefore, the Hippo's paw identifies the celestial North Pole. Because at the time, due to precession, the pole was near the constellation Draco, Hippo must be identified with our Draco, while the pillar leaning against it is in a position corresponding to the Little Dipper. The identification, however, of all the other constellations is much more delicate. One possibility is to read them like a spiral in the sky and, at the same time, move from right to left in the picture; in that case An, the falcon killing the bull with a spear, could perhaps be identified, at keast in my opinion, with a constellation in the Cygnus and Hercules region; not all experts agree, however (see Belmonte and Lull 2006). Serket, the goddess with the disk on her head, is our Virgo, and Lion is our Leo (but its tail perhaps should be identified with the Cancer). Under Lion we find Croc, maybe to be identified with Hidra. The other crocodile above Lion is then in the Gemini region. Lastly, the falcon, present only in some of these pictures, should be identified with Perseus.

Senmut Tomb
Figure 4.8: Senmut astronomical ceiling, the "southern constellations". In particular, from the left, Sirius, Orion, and Taurus are clearly visible.

Incidentally, it is interesting to note that the scene staged around the celestial North Pole is very similar to the completely unrelated one we discussed in Lascaux (see Chapter 1), painted about 14,000 years earlier. There as well a one-legged being, the baton-bird, indicates the pole, and there is also a bird-man, basically identifiable with the Cygnus constellation, the constellation that, due to precession, hosted the celestial North Pole at that time (Rappenglueck 1999).

Beside these northern constellations, it is probable that the Egyptians identified the stars of the Milky Way with a celestial river, a kind of cosmic counterpart of the Nile. They also had, as we have already seen, at least two more constellations ("of the south"), corresponding to Orion-Osiris and to Sirius (our Canis Major). Sirius is represented as a star between the horns of a cow, while Orion-Osiris (Sah) is represented as a man holding a baton. In the Semnut ceiling, Orion turns to his left and holds the baton with his left arm; however, in many other depictions, for example in the one on the Pyramidon (the stone in the shape of a pyramid forming the cuspid of the pyramid) of the pharaoh Amhenemat III (c. 1800 BC), a shining star is sitting on the hand of Orion. It is Aldebaran, the beautiful star at the bottom of the group of the Iades, in our Taurus (the Bull) constellation. The region of these southern constellations formed by Sirius, Orion, and by the Iades, was identified in Egypt, already in very ancient times, with the Duat, or Kingdom of the Dead. It is not clear, though, if this afterworld was also, in some way, underground, and, conversely, it is not clear where the stars of the Duat were supposed to go during their invisibility period.

As we have seen the exceptional interest (and complexity) of the astronomical ceilings is due to the fact that they depict an imaginary view of the sky according to the thought and the feelings of the ancient Egyptians much before the arrival of the astronomical ideas of the Babylonians, which percolated through into Egypt in Hellenistic times together with the zodiacal constellations as we know them.

A merging occurred then between the autochthonous constellations (the Bull's Foreleg and the Hippo, for instance) and the imported zodiacal constellations; the reflexes of this syncretistic vision of the sky can be seen in various depictions (incorrectly called zodiacs), the oldest one dating to the 2nd century BC. The most famous of such zodiacs is certainly the one from the temple of Hathor in Dendera, today preserved in the Louvre. It is a basrelief carved in heavy sandstone, found on the ceiling of a chapel on the roof of the temple. The relief contains a map of the sky within a circle held by four human couples with falcon heads, and by four divinities associated with the cardinal points. On the external belt run the 36 decans, the first one of them corresponding to Sirius, represented by a cow on a boat. On the inside we find the zodiacal constellations depicted together with the Egyptian traditional figures like Hippo and Mes (Aubourg 1995).

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Responses

  • david kluge
    Which constellations are visible from egypt?
    8 months ago

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