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I: Early Egyptian Constellations

19: Northern and southern constellation groups

 

The ancient Egyptians developed their own constellation system based on important gods/goddesses and animals in their mythology. Their constellations were representations of the gods and goddesses of the night sky. 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 existing evidence makes it certain that the ancient Egyptians had a complete set of constellations covering the entire sky visible from Egypt latitudes. Many of the brighter stars were grouped into constellations/asterisms. For purposes of discussion the ancient Egyptian sky can be divided into northern and southern constellation groups. The northern region of the sky was full of constellations. The southern sky was essentially constellated by a belt of asterisms/stars known as decans. The system of Egyptian astronomy was in some was polar and equatorial. The celestial equator and ecliptic were vaguely/imprecisely recognised by the Egyptians. The Egyptians introduced an equatorial belt of decan stars/asterisms.

Evidence for an early Egyptian star cult is found in the Pyramid Texts (a collection of ancient Egyptian religious texts from the time of the Old Kingdom). The Egyptian star cult existed alongside the early solar theology, which had achieved dominance prior to the 5th Dynasty. The 2 systems were joined together but not always successfully syncretized. The major Egyptian theological systems always attempted to incorporate the star gods/goddesses into their own schemes. With the rise of the cult of Osiris the stars came to be called the "followers of Osiris." The most important Egyptian star gods and goddesses were the "Imperishable Ones"  - the northern circumpolar stars (which were constantly visible each night). In several of the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings - including those of  Seti I and Ramses VI - the night sky is artistically depicted on the ceiling of the burial chamber and many of the important star gods and goddesses are represented and named. The Egyptologist Amanda-Alice Maravelia states the astronomical ceiling of the tomb of Ramesses VI combines images from the Book of the Day and the Book of the Night, together with outstretched diurnal and nocturnal figures of the goddess Nut.  

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. (In 1100 BCE Amenhope wrote the 'Catalog of the Universe.' Though it identifies the major constellations known at that time it curiously does not mention either Sirius or any of the planets previously known to the Egyptians.) 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 circumpolar stars. Using the tomb of Seti I and Senmut as a guide the northern group of constellations included a lying lion, a crocodile, a bull's foreleg (also represented as a complete bull (with short legs)), a boatman, a giant man, and/or a huge female hippopotamus (with a crocodile tail) carrying an entire crocodile on her back. (At least the crocodile (of varying size) is standing against the back of the hippopotamus.) Additional Senmut tomb figures with the northern constellations include a pole, Selket (the scorpion goddess), a constellation named Anu (falcon-headed god/man in the apparent act of spearing the bull). The female hippopotamus has both a Merekhet (astronomical instrument) and a crocodile in her hands.

,In the late 19th-century the British Egyptologist Peter le Page Renouf (1822-1897) discussed and identified a number of Egyptian constellations. Amongst his identifications he established that mshtyw (Meskhetyu), the Bull's Foreleg, was the asterism of the Plough. There was also early general acceptance that Sopdet was Sirius, and Sah was substantial parts of Orion. In cases where Sah is represented by a complete Bull or a Bull's foreleg with an attached bull's head it might be extended from substantial parts of Orion to include nearby areas of Ursa Major. (Some Egyptian constellation identifications were also made by the pioneering German Egyptologist Heinrich Brugsch (1883), and later by the British Egyptologist Flinders Petrie (1940). 

In 1985 Kurt Locher (also using the tomb of Seti I and Senmut as a guide ?) 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). Because the northern constellation figures represented in tombs are not consistently arranged in the same positions it is not possible to make identifications between these constellations and our current Western constellations.

Also in 1985 the Egyptologist Virginia Davis tentatively suggested the following identifications for 11 Egyptian constellations: Falcon-headed human = Ursa Minor, Bird = Leo Minor, Large crocodile = Hydra, Small crocodile = Cancer, "Man in front" = Gemini, Scorpion-goddess = Virgo, Hippopotamus with crocodile on back = Ophiuchus + Libra + Scorpio, "Man behind the bull" = Botes, and Cord(s) and stake = Hercules + Libra + Scorpio.

The most recent and the most satisfactory likely identifications of ancient Egyptian constellations (with modern Western constellations) is set out in Table 6.1 (Pages 162-163) in Lull, Jos. and Belmonte, Antonio. (2009). "The constellations of ancient Egypt." In: Belmonte, Juan. and Shaltout, Mosalam. (Editors). In Search of Cosmic Order: Selected Essays on Egyptian Archaeoastronomy. Identifications are made for 41 ancient Egyptian constellations (32 of which are deemed 'firm').

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 term "unwearying stars" was likely applied because the southern stars, especially those in the region of the celestial equator, traveled a longer distance (compared to the circumpolar northern stars) from their rising above the eastern horizon to their setting beneath the western horizon. The ecliptic can be conveniently used as an arbitrary dividing line between the northern constellations and the southern constellations. (Virginia Davis usefully proposed that the Milky Way would have been the boundary between the northern and southern skies of  of ancient Egypt.) 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. From the New Kingdom Period astronomical ceilings and water clocks show a clear distinction is now established between the northern sky and its constellations and the southern sky and its constellations/asterisms (i.e., decanal stars)..

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 on astronomical ceilings 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 (or hippo-crocodile constellation) is commonly identified with the stars of Draco, the Dragon.)

 

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 Senmut tomb has the oldest intact representation of the northern constellations. (The tomb dates about 3 centuries later than the coffin lids with decanal/diagonal calendars.) 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.  Included in the northern constellation figures are a lying lion, a crocodile, 

 

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. In the coffin of Heter (which dates to circa 125 CE) we have an astronomical representation that resembles the tomb ceiling (north side) of Seti I. However, the imported Greek-Babylonian zodiac figures are drawn separate to the traditional Egyptian constellation figures. The dominating female figure is the Egyptian sky goddess Nut. The zodiacal constellations flank her.

 

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 astronomical ceiling of the tomb of Senenmut (at Deir el Bari in Luxor), and the circular zodiac of the temple of Hathor (at Denderah) are both masterpieces of ancient Egyptian art.

The oldest known example of an  "astronomical ceiling" is from the second or "secret" tomb of Senmut, dating to the 15th-century BCE (painted circa 1460 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. (The planets Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn are also included.)

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.

Egyptian representations of stars frequently have a circle in the middle. Examples include the funerary temples of Sahure, and Pepy II; and the Sun Temple of Niuserre, and Tutankhamen's shrines. Stars can also be represented as circles (i.e., without holes). The explanation given by J. D. Degreef  (2002) is: "Ordinarily when one looks at a star, it's just a dot of light, hence the small circle. The branches are caused by diffraction in the air or in the anterior parts of the eye. So a circle with branches isn't a bad representation of a star."

In 2010 a brightly coloured astronomical ceiling was discovered at the South Asasif (Assasif) necropolis. The necropolis is comprised of Late Period tombs - the 3 largest tombs there date to the 25th- early 26th Dynasties.

 

Appendix 2: The Goddess Nut

Nut was the ancient Egyptian goddess of the 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.

 

Appendix 3: The Supposed Egyptian Origin of the Greek Ship Constellation Argo

The constellation Argo was well attested in the Hellenistic period. The suggestion that the Argo was made a constellation in conformity with Egyptian astronomical lore (i.e., the supposition that the ship of Osiris was set in the night sky) can be rejected. (Franz Boll in his masterwork Sphaera (1903) rejected the suggestion.) The ship of Osiris traversed the underworld, not the night sky. This fact ensures the ship of Osiris could not have been an Egyptian constellation. It is likely that the identification of the ship of Osiris with the Argo is a Greek idea.

 

Appendix 4: Identification of Ancient Egyptian Constellations

It has proved extremely difficult to identify the ancient Egyptian constellations/asterisms with their modern Western constellation equivalents. There is still unresolved controversy over the identification of the constellation figures displayed on Egyptian tomb ceilings. The most recent and the most satisfactory likely identifications of ancient Egyptian constellations (with modern Western constellations) is set out in Table 6.1 (Pages 162-163) in Lull, Jos. and Belmonte, Antonio. (2009). "The constellations of ancient Egypt." In: Belmonte, Juan. and Shaltout, Mosalam. (Editors). In Search of Cosmic Order: Selected Essays on Egyptian Archaeoastronomy. Identifications are made for 32 ancient Egyptian constellations. (Jos Lull is an Egyptologist and amateur astronomer and Juan Belmonte is an astrophysicist working in archaeoastronomy and an amateur Egyptologist.) In Table 6.2 (Page 163) Lull and Belmonte set out 9 further constellation identifications that are subject to disagreement. The 41 constellations (note that due to font limitations the transliterated constellation names are mostly approximate only) are:

Ancient Egyptian Constellation Name (Transliteration and Translation) Identification With Modern Western Constellations
1)          spdt = Triangle  Sirius & its companions
2)          s3h = Sah  Parts of Orion (Head at the Belt)
3)          ‛rt = Jaw  Hyades Cluster, with Aldebaran
4)          h3w = Myriad or Flock  The Pleiades Cluster
5)          kd = The Circle or Sheepfold  Head of Cetus
6)          sb3 n sr = Star of fire  Capella
7)          3pd = The Bird  Triangulum & Perseus
8)          ‛ryt = (The 2) Jaw(s)  Cassiopeia
9)          nht = The Giant  From Aquila to the Square of Pegasus
10)        tms n hntt = The Red One of the Prow  Antares
11)        srt = The Sheep or Goat  Capricornus, perhaps extending to the area of Grus
12)        wi3 = The Boat  Sagittarius
13)        sb3w ‛š3w = Many Stars  Coma Berenices
14)        rrt (3st d3mt) = The Female Hippopotamus

15)                                  Crocodile on back of rrt

 Big area near the Pole covering from Lyra to Botes

 Area of Serpens Caput

16)        t٤ nfr = Beautiful Child  Spica
17)        mnit = Mooring Post  Area of Botes, including Arcturus
18)        mshtyw = The Bull's Foreleg  The Plough
19)        ٤n(w) = Anu, an avatar of Horus  From Lynx to Venatici
20)        ipds = Its Own Count or Bright Star  β Centauri
21)        sbšn = Sage's Star  α Centauri
22)        wš3ty bk3ty = Twins and Two Ladies  Southern Cross
23)        d3t = The Ferryboat  Area of Argo Navis
24)        htp rdwy = Lying on His Feet  Hydra
25)        m3i = The (Divine) Lion  Leo
26)        hkw n s‛k = The Plunderer  Leo Minor
27)        sb3w nw mw = Stars of Water  The Praesepe Cluster (M44)
28)        tpy-‛ sb3wy = Predecessor of the Two Stars  Alhena, in Gemini
29)        sb3wy = Pair of Stars  Castor and Pollux
30)        štwy = The Two Tortoises  Procyon and Gomeisa
31)        knmt = Cow?  Canis Major & Puppis
32)        nwt = The Goddess Nut  The Milky Way
33)        [none] = Standing man of celestial diagram  Gemini (Lull) / It may be identical to the giant (Belmonte)
34)        [none] = Triangular shape of celestial diagram  An astronomical instrument similar to a gnomon (Lull) / The constellation mnit of Ramesside clocks (Belmonte)
35)        mnitwy = The Mooring Posts  One of them is the mnit of Ramesside clocks (Lull) / The posts held by the Hippopotamus - in Ursa Minor and Draco - they might represent the Celestial and Ecliptic Poles (Belmonte)
36)        srkt = Selkis Goddess  Ursa Minor (Lull) / Virgo (Belmonte)
37)        kdty = The 2 Nets  Between Sagittarius and Scorpius, Corona Australis could be one of them (Lull) / One of them might be Corona Australis (Belmonte)
38)        hnwy = 2 Khanuwy Fishes  Region of λ Scorpius (Lull) / α Sagittarius & β Sagittarius (Belmonte)
39)        tm3t = The Wings  In Corvus and Crater (Lull) / In the area of Argo Navis (Belmonte)
40)        3hwy = The Two Spirits  Square of Pegasus (Lull) / Pisces (Belmonte)
41)        b3wy = The Two Souls  Alferatz and Algenib, in the Square of Pegasus (Lull) / No identification (Belmonte)

Copyright 2005-2014 by Gary D. Thompson

 


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