The Pyramids and the Myth of Osiris

The concerns of Egyptian religion with the resurrection of Osiris, and the funeral texts involving the glorification of the pharaohs after death, raise the possibility that the burial places of some of these kings may demonstrate alignments. Popular literature on alleged "mysteries" of the pyramids abounds, and one of the more recent pyramid books

Table 8.2. Named days of the Egyptian lunar month."

1. Psdntyw, earlier Psdtyw

3. Mspr, "Arrival day"

4. Prt sm, "Day of the going-forth of the sm-priest"

5. Iht hr h^wt, "Day of offerings on the altar"

7. Dnit, "Part day, first quarter day" (see 23)

10. Slf

12. (reading uncertain)

15. (Tp) smdt, "Half-month day, 15th day, day of full moon"

16. Mspr sn-nw "Second arrival day"

20. Stp

21. prw

23. Dnlt, "Part-day, last-quarter day" (see 7)

26. Prt

27. Wsb

28. Hb-sd Nwt, "Day of the jubilee of Nut"

30. Prt Mn, "Day of the going-forth of Min" a ff. Parker 1950, pp. 11-12.

entertains just such an idea (Bauval and Gilbert 1994). The argument does not concern the pyramids, which have a good, although hardly miraculous, cardinal points alignment precision (see Neugebauer 1980 [or 1983a, p. 211ff], for a terse and convincing description of how it was done). We are unconvinced that the shadow produced by the Sun's disk did not provide sufficient precision to accomplish this alignment because of the fuzziness of the shadow. Neither, of course, can it be proved that the Sun or indeed any star or combination of stars was used for this purpose.

The discovery of narrow shafts within the Great Pyramid of Gizeh erected by Khufu provides a new line of inquiry. The astronomical data are succinctly summarized by Trimble (1963), reproduced by Bauval and Gilbert (1994, pp. 237-241). Two shafts ascend upward from the burial chambers of the king and queen to the north face of the pyramid. The angle of rise of the outer part of the shaft from the King's Chamber is 31°. A line through the shaft would have intersected the upper culmination of a Draconis at ~2620 b.c. Because the souls of the dead rulers were expected to ascend to the skies, the northern shafts would provide the means to reach the realm of the "eternal," undying circumpolar stars. There are two other shafts that ascend from the same chambers to the south face of the pyramid. These too may have a religious significance. The altitude of the south-facing shaft from the King's chamber is ~44.5°; at a latitude of 30° (the latitude of Gizeh is given as 29°58'51"), this corresponds to a meridian-crossing declination 8 = h - (90 - f) ~ -15.5°, approximately that of e Orionis, the center star of the star of Orion's belt, at about 2600 b.c. With the coordinates obtained from Table 3.1, and the rigorous formulae (Eqs. 3.19 and 3.20) of §3.1.6, we can calculate the declination1 of e Ori: 8 = -15°22' in 2620 b.c., in agreement with the tabular value given by Neugebauer (1912) cited by Trimble (1963). Why should the Belt stars have any significance? Trimble (1963) notes that Sah, or Osiris, "the god who crosses the sky," is one of the few identifiable asterisms; the equivalence with Orion, in the words of Neugebauer and Parker (1969, p. 24), "must be taken as likely in the highest degree."

The legend of Osiris and Isis was an essential part of Egyptian religion2 and symbolized the strong belief in resurrection. Seth so hated his brother, Osiris, that he held a banquet at which he offered a finely crafted coffin to whomever it fit. When Osiris entered it, the coffin was closed, sealed with lead, and thrown into the Nile. Isis recovered the body, but Seth again stole the body, this time hacking it to bits and distributing it all over Egypt. Isis again recovered all of it except the penis, which she fabricated, and then brought Osiris back to life, long enough to be impregnated. Their son, Horus, eventually killed Seth. During the struggle, one eye of Horus was injured and became the Moon; the good eye became the Sun. Horus is often portrayed as the falcon of the skies, whose outspread wings center on the solar disk and encompass the sky. The name Horus may derive from hor, face, and in other contexts, Horus was identified with the Sun. Osiris became judge of the newly dead and oversaw the weighing of souls against the feather of truth. In many depictions, the jackal-headed god Anubis is shown presenting the souls to Osiris.

Precession has been responsible for the development of, and changes in, the stories of Osiris (Orion), Isis (sometimes identified with Sopdet, i.e., Sirius), Horus, and Seth, according to arguments of Sellers (1992). She regards crucial dates in this evolution as the time when the last star of their constellation Sahu (more or less Orion) ceased to rise heliacally at the spring equinox (by about 6700 b.c.) (Sellers 1992, pp. 29 and 43) and the later time when Aldebaran (representing Taurus) ceased to rise heliacally at the spring equinox at about 4866 b.c. At present, there are few if any ways to check this possibility. However, Sellers thinks that descriptions of the darkening of the Eye of Horus (equated with the sun) strongly suggest solar eclipses. The myths include a statement of a continuing battle between Horus and Seth over a period of 80 years, which Sellers thought referred to eclipses. Although recognizing the major problems involved in back-calculating eclipse paths, she found one interesting set of eclipses. In southern Egypt, there were three total solar eclipses and one annular eclipse over a period of 80 years. The first was on 27 July, 4867 b.c. (Gregorian date, 20 June, summer solstice). The next was on 6 August 4849 b.c., and

1 This includes a declination component of proper motion of -0.002"/ year for a declination correction D8 = +9"2.

2 Details of this myth as summarized here are first reported by Plutarch in De Iside et Osiride, although some aspects can be attested in early Egyptian texts.

the third on 16 April 4787 b.c. The annular eclipse had occurred on 26 May 4864 b.c. (Sellers 1992, pp. 74-85).

Sellers also found some suggestive evidence that dynastic changes in Egypt sometimes occurred following an eclipse that was total at the capital of the particular dynasty that lost power. Given uncertainties in the backcalculation of eclipses and other uncertainties in the calculation of ancient Egyptian chronology, it would be rash to consider this more than a reasonable hypothesis, but given the identification of the Pharaoh as the son of the Sun, one would expect solar eclipses to be regarded as extremely bad omens. The coincidences of dynastic changes with eclipse dates as calculated by Sellers (1992, p. 277), shown in Table 8.3, are more than we would have expected. We should make it clear that Sellers is proposing a causal connection based in the emotional reactions of the Egyptian people in terms of their mythology. If there was such a correlation, later people might have interpreted it as astrological causation, but nothing indicates that this was an idea present in Egypt earlier than, perhaps, the time of the Assyrian invasions.

Part of the funeral ritual, prescribed in the Book of the Dead, is the "opening of the mouth," a procedure requiring the use of an adze to pry open the mouth of the corpse. The instrument, which is often depicted in burial chamber paintings, bears a strong resemblance to a dipper, such as the Little Dipper. The angle of rise of the northern shaft from the Queen's Chamber is ~39°, and it could have targeted the bowl of the Little Dipper, a circumstance that supports the association with the adze. Although Horus was said to perform the "opening of the mouth" ceremony on his father, the association with the "Queen's Chamber" may not be contradictory, because the names of the chambers were given by Egyptologists.

Bauval and Gilbert (1994, p. 222) argue that the orientation of the Belt stars of Orion as it rose was strongly similar to the orientation of the three pyramids of Gizeh and perhaps two others, analogs of the stars of Orion. However, the site map of the region shows that the smallest, slightly off-line Menkaura pyramid is to the SW, not to the NW as it is in the sky. Thus, if this is to be a geographic reflection of cosmogony, an inversion as well as a reversal is required.

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