Ancient Egyptian astronomy reaches far back into prehistory. As discussed in AR #133, the stone circle at Nabta Playa in the western desert of southern Egypt has sophisticated astronomical alignments dating back at least 7,000 years, likely much longer, including a primary connection to summer solstice sunrise. Ancient Egyptians fixed dates for religious festivals, determined the hours of night, and divided the time between two successive risings of the Sun into twenty-four hours. The main axis of the Karnak temple aligns with winter solstice sunrise, and the main axis of the Luxor temple aligns with winter solstice sunset. Temple sky watchers observed lunar phases, planetary conjunctions, and the rising and setting of planets and stars.
By the time of the dynastic period of Egypt, around 3,000 BCE, the 365-day Egyptian calendar was already in use and observation of certain stars was key to determining the timing of the annual Nile flood. The flood occurred at the time of summer solstice and was heralded by the heliacal (before the Sun) rising of Sirius, brightest star in the sky, and star of the goddess Isis.
Priests and priestesses served Egyptian deities within temple precincts where ordinary people were typically not permitted. The people outside the temples lived more in resonance with the land and the agricultural cycles of the year. Seasonal festivals and ceremonies marked important points in the annual wheel of time and included ordinary people in temple life through extravagant celebrations, likely providing financial support through tribute and taxes.
Ancient Egyptians lived in a realm of magic similar to the Shinto religion that still thrives in Japan. Nature is experienced as alive and filled with conscious spirits who must be honored in order to maintain balance. The Egyptians, like the Hindu and Shinto, believed that the deities lived in the shrines and embodied the statues. Rituals and festivals that related to fertility and the agricultural year, such as the perennial mysteries of Osiris, had to be timed, and the sky was both clock and calendar.
Ceremonies and celebrations maintained a critical balance between heaven and earth, above and below. The goddess Ma’at (pronounced May-et) was seen as the abstract principle of order that held the world together and without which everything would descend into chaos. Her name meant, “that which is straight.” Ma’at was born from the sun god Ra by heka, the power of magic, when he spoke the first word at the beginning of creation. She had no temples or priests but was worshipped by living a life in accordance with her highest principles of truth, order, harmony, and justice. Temples of other deities had small shrines to her, as her principles of order were understood to infuse everything.
The Egyptians performed rituals to “Keep Ma’at on Earth,” restoring and sustaining harmony by attuning to cosmic order. Acting according to Ma’at’s principles included the organization of sacred space, orientation of life in time, creation of the calendar, and mapping the celestial landscape. In a similar manner, astrology seeks to find meaning and balance through correspondences between heaven and earth—timing is everything.
The temple of the goddess Hathor at Dendera is stunning. Hathor was an ancient goddess of fertility and beauty. Archaeology dates the present form of the temple to the Ptolemaic period (332–30 BCE). The present Greco-Roman structure is built over an ancient site and is the last construction of an immensely older and influential temple. Dating of the existing building is known from specific mention of the building efforts of various historical rulers; their “signatures” appear in areas of the temple they completed or expanded.
Two extraordinary “zodiacs” were incorporated into the beautiful and extensively painted reliefs in the Dendera temple. The older zodiac, which is circular and generally dated to the middle of the first century BCE, forms roughly half of the ceiling in the eastern room in a series of small chapels built on the roof of the temple. The second zodiac, conventionally dated around eighty years later, is high up in the hypostyle hall of the temple and is part of a series of rectangular sections known as the astronomical ceiling of Dendera. The zodiacs are really star maps since they contain much more imagery than the twelve zodiac constellations. Because of the historical timeframe, the zodiac characters are the familiar Greco-Roman figures with a decidedly Egyptian flair.
The round zodiac is unique as a circular design as other astronomical designs on walls or ceilings are linear. It’s also puzzling that Cancer, the Crab, is almost at the center of the circle, appearing overhead with the circumpolar stars. Leo and Virgo follow in a clockwise direction around the inner part of the circle, moving in the direction of precession rather than the annual sequence. As Earth orbits the Sun each year the Sun appears to move through the zodiac constellations in a “right to left” counterclockwise direction. Because of its circular shape, and the enigmatic depiction and direction of the constellations, this zodiac has been the subject of intense speculation and scholarly debate.
The rectangular zodiac is formed of two sections, each containing half of the zodiac figures depicted as the familiar Ram to Fishes. Both sides of the rectangular zodiac have the elongated starry body of Nut, goddess of the sky, arching across the top. Nut symbolically swallows the solar orb at sunset, and the Sun was imagined to move through her body at night and be from her reborn at sunrise. The constellations of Capricorn, Sagittarius, Scorpion, Libra, Virgo, and Leo are clearly seen on one half of the rectangle. On the other side Gemini, Taurus, Aries, Pisces, and Aquarius can be seen, but Cancer does not follow Gemini, and the Crab seems to be missing. What does immediately follow Gemini is the Egyptian Holy Trinity–Isis, Osiris, and Horus—key players in the annual resurrection drama. Their placement indicates that they have risen before the Sun.
The zodiacs are believed to contain the mysteries of Osiris, which was the most important festival celebrated to assure the annual fertilization of the land. The Web Renpet festival opened the sacred year at the time of the annual flood at summer solstice. The star Sirius (Sopdet/Isis) and the constellation of Orion (Sah/Osiris) had disappeared for seventy days at the time of spring equinox. Osiris had descended into the underworld, and at summer solstice, which coincided with the flood, he reappeared in early morning darkness, rising ahead of the Sun. This was perceived as a symbolic death and resurrection, and the mysteries of Osiris were reenacted in the temple to attune to the mystery of Nature’s cycles. The star Procyon, alpha Canis Minor, shown as the god Horus, divine son of Isis and Osiris, announced the imminent ascension of Sirius in the dawn sky, which heralded the flood. The stellar holy family had returned, bringing the waters of life to renew the land.
The constellation of Cancer, the Crab in modern symbolism, has central emphasis and significance in both zodiacs. At the time these zodiacs are believed to have been created, summer solstice aligned with Cancer and the annual flood. At summer solstice the Sun is directly overhead the Tropic of Cancer and appears to stop, sol sistere, “sun stands still,” and then seems to change direction and head south again. This moment is the onset of the zodiac sign of Cancer in the Greco-Roman zodiac. The key figures of Osiris, Horus, and Isis are strongly represented in the round zodiac, and I believe placing Cancer at the center fixed a moment in time when the Osiris mysteries were celebrated.
In the rectangular zodiac Cancer is significant because of its apparent absence. However, a closer study of the area around the feet of the goddess Nut in both halves of the zodiac, where the Sun is reborn, reveals a scarab beetle. The beetle that is close to Gemini, the Twins, where Cancer should appear in the sequence, is closer to her feet. The newborn Sun shines on the countenance of the goddess Hathor. Further down her legs is the scarab beetle, symbol of the rising Sun, and the gaze of the goddess Hathor seems to look at the scarab, highlighting its importance.
Moving to the other half of the zodiac the scarab beetle has one wing, perhaps representing that the Sun has almost completely risen, and Leo the Lion follows in the correct zodiac sequence. I believe the designers of the rectangular zodiac represented Cancer, the Crab as a scarab beetle, the newborn rising Sun at summer solstice. Cancer is not missing, it is represented by a profoundly Egyptian symbol.
The scarab, or dung beetle, was an ancient Egyptian symbol with importance in textual references and iconography. The scarab represented the god Ra Khefer, self-created father of the other gods, who was related to the idea of “becoming” and was depicted as the rising Sun, coming forth from the darkness of night. If these zodiacs commemorated an annual sunrise festival, and perhaps also a specific point in time, depicting the birth of the summer solstice Sun as a scarab beetle, in the place where Cancer falls in the zodiac, would have had obvious symbolic meaning to astronomer priests of the time. This was not only the daily rebirth of the Sun but also the rebirth of the year.
All cultures place a symbolic overlay on the wheel of time and add ritual to give it power. In the same way that the Christmas season is a celebration of the return of light in the northern hemisphere at Winter Solstice, the festival of Osiris in ancient Egypt celebrated the annual flooding of the Nile that brought life back to the desert. This was the new year, since without the flood waters, there would have been no life in Egypt. This was experienced as an annual resurrection. Easter sunrise services in Christian churches, and spring festivals in many other cultures for thousands of years, have served the same purpose.
We can take a lesson from the ancient Egyptians. Invoking the principles of the goddess Ma’at, we should strive to move through our lives attuned to the seasonal cycles of light and dark, learning to live in accordance with the principles of truth and justice, bringing divine order into our lives.
The halves of the ‘Long Zodiac,’ separated by the ceiling of the hypostyle hall, are joined here. Scarab beetles (i.e.,‘Cancer’) are circled in red.
The red circle indicates a scarab beetle at Nut’s feet.