Egyptian Asterisms

Serious attempts to identify the asterisms of the Egyptians are few, despite an abundance of star maps firmly tied in Ptolemaic times to the signs of the Zodiac. Sopdet, also identified as Satet, the Archer goddess, is Sirius. The Boatman includes Orion's Belt and some other stars, and the Foreleg of the Bull is the Big Dipper. Neugebauer and Parker, who provide massive documentation of relevant material, are

7 Some scholars assert that this occurred in Ramses's 33rd year, which would bring the dates, discussed in the material below, back to Nov. 4, Nov. 1, and Oct. 29, respectively.

reluctant to go much beyond this and give reasons for doubting earlier attempts to do so. However, with zodiacal signs and decans clearly associated with asterisms, often with the star diagrams shown, a number of scholars have attempted to do so. There is still value in LePage Renouf's study (1874) of the Ramesside star clocks (criticized and extensively quoted by Clagett 1995, pp. 59-65, 413-414).

Renouf argued that the 6th hour of the night had to correspond with midnight, that "in the middle" indicated culmination and that the culmination of Sirius at Thebes in the first 15 days of the month Choiak provided a rough date of about 1450 b.c. Neugebauer and Parker estimated the date as 1470 b.c. and calculated their tables for 1500 b.c. Having the dates of culmination of the other named stars, it is certainly possible to get a good idea of their approximate location in the sky and hence probable identity.

The earliest known example of a "sky map" as the ceiling of a tomb (shown in Neugebauer and Parker 1969, III) comes from Thebes from the tomb of Senmut, the adviser of Hatshepsut. This includes the decans on the south half of the ceiling. The north half has the so-called northern constellations and wheels of the 12 months. Vertical lines run from the Thigh of the Bull to the near vicinity of the Mooring Post. Four months are left of these lines, corresponding to "Emergence" (Peret). Eight are on the right, corresponding to "Inundation" and "Harvest." Pogo (in Clagett 1995, pp. 115-116) identifies the vertical lines as "meridian cords":

The three stars attached to the bull of the Senmut ceiling correspond to the position[s] of Delta, Epsilon, and Zeta Ursae Majoris. Around 3000 b.c., Zeta was the only 2nd magnitude star within ten degrees of the pole; the upper culmination of Eta Ursae Majoris coincided, for the latitude of Thebes, with the setting of Sirius. Observations of [the] culminations of circumpolar stars for the determination of the meridian were certainly made by Egyptians when Eta and then Zeta Ursae Majoris were the nearest of the bright circumpolar stars. . .. The star surrounded by a circle on the Senmut ceiling corresponds, obviously, to the early recognizable bright star, Zeta Ursae Majoris—the one with the conspicuous companion. The scorpion goddess Selqet (Serqet) stands behind the bull Meshketi in such a way that it seems as if she were trying to grasp the two cords stretched from the culminating star Zeta—over the invisible pole—down to the northern horizon.

Pogo is thus suggesting that the sky represented in the northern half of Senmut's ceiling is much older than the time of Senmut. The month divisions in such a context may suggest a reference to the time when "Inundation" began with the heliacal rising of Sirius at a date that was then near the summer solstice; in short, that the star chart refers to the beginning of the system of 360 days plus five when the name "Inundation" was actually appropriate.

When all five planets are represented in Egyptian art, they normally appear in the order Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, Mercury, and Venus. Two Turtles, an asterism, normally appears between Mars and Mercury. The planets follow Orion and Sirius. The appearance of the planets in a fixed order in a normal relationship with a particular set of asterisms strongly suggests that they represent a single point in real time. Gleadow (1969, Chap. 12) maintained that the representation refers to the near mass conjunction at the summer solstice in 2767 b.c. (JDN 710973). Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and

Star Clock Ramesside
Figure 8.4. Petrie's (1940) star map of Egyptian constellations. After Petrie (1940, cited in Clagett 1995, Figs. III-84a and b). Drawing by Sharon Hanna.

Venus appeared in that order clustered within seven degrees of celestial longitude just after the rising of the Two Turtles (identified by Gleadow as 8 and g Cancri). The date was the heliacal rising of Sirius and corresponded to 1 Thoth of the civil calendar period. Gleadow thought that the date occurred during the reign of Djoser of the III Dynasty, but the early chronology is very confused. This interpretation implies that Mercury was added later.

Neugebauer and Parker (1969, III, p. 3) comment that the decan list of the Senmut ceiling is derived from their "Coffin Group V" (which they date to about 1870-1820 b.c.) and refer to linguistic evidence of Old Egyptian (XII Dynasty or earlier) in the Senmut text.

One of the few scholars to have attempted a star map of many of the Egyptian constellations was Petrie (1940, cited in Clagett 1995, figs III-84a and b). See Figure 8.4. He attempted to integrate material from the decan lists, the Ramesside star clocks, and the various star maps, including the ones that incorporate the signs of the zodiac, much more comprehensively than anyone else has done. This version deserves careful attention, although Neugebauer and Parker did not think it worth mentioning.

A study by Biegel (1921) is mentioned by Neugebauer and Parker as too naive to warrant discussion, but Clagett (1995, pp. 160-161) summarizes her work and criticisms by Pogo. Because some of the star maps contain dots, apparently representing stars, within the figures, Biegel tried to use these to make stick figure representations of the constellations, which she then attempted to identify in the sky. DHK thinks that this sort of naivete may be closer to an Egyptian view of the heavens than is easily recognized by sophisticated mathematical astronomers. One of Pogo's objections was to her use of some bright stars while ignoring others and the use of faint stars as connecting points. However, on a comparative basis, both of these practices are widespread. Pogo attempted some identifications and is extensively quoted by Clagett (1995, p. 164). His identifications of the Pleiades and the Hyades are certainly reasonable and are shared with several of his predecessors and successors.

Gleadow (1969, pp. 191-192) attempts to identify the main stars of the Ramesside star clocks (excepting the Hippopotamus and the Giant, which take up about half the sky), although he doubts that they were originally conceived as hour markers. There is substantial similarity between his identifications and those of Renouf.

Davis (1985) has argued that the Sun and the dead king cross what she translates as "the Shifting Waterway" from south to north and back. She identifies this waterway with the Milky Way and as the division between the Egyptian regions of the "northern sky" and "southern sky." She points out that the crocodile god, Sobek, is "Lord of the Shifting Waterway" and that the crocodile asterism is a consistent member of the northern grouping of asterisms.

The Boatman's association with Orion's Belt would support the waterway interpretation of the Milky Way. The presence of another boat in the decan sequence, roughly half way around the sky, suggests the passage of the ecliptic through the Milky Way, in or around Sagittarius. Depending on these reasonable intrepretations and the clear identification of the Foreleg of the Bull with (the Big Dipper in) Ursa Major, Davis tentatively suggests the following identifications:

Falcon-headed human



Large crocodile

Small crocodile

"Man in front"

Scorpion goddess

Hippo with crocodile on back

"Man behind the bull"

Cords and stake

Ursa Minor Leo

Leo Minor





Ophiuchus + Libra + Scorpio Bootes

Hercules + Libra + Scorpio

Davis's identifications are based largely on relative positions in various depictions. Kurt Locher (1981, 1985) takes a very different approach. He attempts to correlate star patterns with the outlines of depictions (see Figure 8.5), in the manner of Biegel. EFM finds the attempt unconvincing.

Alice Kramden Moon CartoonOutlines The Constellations

Figure 8.5. (a) Constellations from the tomb of Seti I. (b) Locher's (1981, 1985) correlation of star patterns with outlines of depictions. Drawings by Sharon Hanna.

Figure 8.5. (a) Constellations from the tomb of Seti I. (b) Locher's (1981, 1985) correlation of star patterns with outlines of depictions. Drawings by Sharon Hanna.

Table 8.5. The Coptic (Ethiopie) month names.

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