Egyptian Astronomy and Its Role in Religion

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For many years, the most important work on Egyptian astronomy was that of Neugebauer and Parker (1960/1969). This has been amplified and in many ways superseded by the work of Clagett (1995). Among the Greeks and Romans, it was widely believed that Egyptian astronomy was greatly superior to their own. Modern scholars have found nothing to justify such a belief. There is no indication that any sort of mathematical astronomy comparable to that of Mesopotamia flourished in Egypt prior to the Greek takeover. However, there is substantial evidence that many Egyptian deities were identified as Sun, Moon, planets, or asterisms. The importance of astronomy in the religion and calendar is evident. In the tomb of Thutmose III in the Valley of the Kings near Thebes, the religious context of the hours of the night are made clear. The entire text of the Amduat or Book of What is in the Underworld appears on the burial chamber wall; it can be found in Clagett (1989). It is set out in 12 chapters or hours, which mark the hours of the night, and transformed through the power of myth into the passage of the soul of the king through the underworld to be reborn, like the Sun. It begins with the lines:

The writings of the hidden chamber, the places where the souls, the gods and the spirits stand. What they do. The beginning of the Horn of the West, the gate of the Western Horizon. This is the knowledge of the power of those in the Netherworld. This is the knowledge of what they do: the knowledge of their sacred rituals to Re; the knowledge of the mysterious powers; knowledge of what is in the hours as well as of their gods, knowledge of what he says to them; knowledge of the Gates and the way on which God passes; knowledge of the powerful ones and the annihilated.

During the first hour, the Sun orders the dead king, his physical body, to open the underworld's doors, beginning the process of bringing light and life to the underworld, and awakening its gods, hour by hour. The dead king too is restored to life, through an encounter with the scarab beetle god, who ultimately rolls the Sun up to the eastern horizon. Later, resurrection became an important theme of the religion of the masses as well, especially through the Osiris myth. This powerful myth involved several key elements:

(1) The killing and dismemberment of Osiris by his brother, Seth

(2) The persistence and success in the reconstitution of Osiris's body by his wife (and sister), Isis

(3) Osiris's achievement of eternal life

(4) Their successful union, which produced Horus, who then avenged his father

Parker (1950, p. 80, f.n. 23) has suggested that the entire Osiris myth is lunar and based in astronomy. Much of his monograph is devoted to the proposition that the 25-year lunar cycle (see ยง8.1.4) had been recognized prior to the adoption of the 365-day civic year in Egypt. Parker writes, "The new crescent is the symbol both of the reborn Osiris as king of the dead and of his son and successor Horus as king of the living." He associates the "dying Horus" with the waning moon, but the death of Osiris is the central theme of the myth. The cutting up of the body of Osiris would coincide well with the night-by-night diminution of the waning moon. The rebuilding of the body of Osiris by Isis would correspond with the waxing moon, and the complete Osiris with the full moon. We think that the occasional blood-red lunar eclipse might be considered the killing of Osiris.

Parker also thinks that the Sed festival, or "jubilee," celebrated in or after a king's 30th year of rule may be based on the symbolic equation of the 30 days of a lunation with the 30 years of royal rule. Although he does not mention it, such an equation is widespread in mythology. Moreover, it can be used to support Parker's views of the original lunar calendar. The names of the days of the lunar month (given in Table 8.2) include the 26th day, Peret, and "going-forth," "emergence," and normally interpreted as "heliacal rise" with reference to Sirius may refer to the 26th year as the beginning of a lunar cycle. If this is accepted, then the reference to the 29th day as "Peret Min" may refer to the 29-year sidereal cycle of Saturn and would identify the ithyphallic Min as one aspect of Saturn, perhaps relating Saturn to the Sed festival.

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