Above is the Dendera Zodiac, a bas-relief excavated from the Temple of Hathor at Dendera, near Thebes. Discovered during Napoleon's invasion of Egypt (1798-1801) and later moved to the Louvre in 1822, the Dendera Zodiac is the only known circular zodiac found in Egypt, a typology imported from Babylon by way of the Greeks.
The main temple structure was started during the late Ptolemaic Period (664 – 332 BC), and was completed during the reign of Roman Emperor Augustus (63 BC - 14 AD), who became pharaoh of Egypt following the reign of Cleopatra VII. Originally situated in the portico, or pronaos of The Chapel of Osiris, this zodiac is considered to be "the only complete map that we have of an ancient sky," depicting the new moon in the spring either between 52 and 50 BC, or 2 BC and 2 AD.
In it, the visible night sky takes place inside a disk centered on the north pole star, held up by four women and four pairs of falcon-headed figures. Moving towards the center are concentric asterisms from Egypt (Decans), constellations from Babylon (Zodiac), visible planets (Venus, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn) and circumpolar constellations (Draco, Ursa Major & Minor). Placed in-between are the sun, phases of the moon, and Sirius, known to the Egyptians as Sopdet, or “the bright one.”
Well into the First Dynasty (3,400 - 3,000 BC), Sirius' heliacal rising forecasted the great inundation of the Nile and start of civil year. This annual flood, as old as Egypt itself, was believed to have emerged from the undifferentiated, primordial, cosmic ocean known to the Egyptians as Nu.
From Nu emerged Atum, Re or Ra (Sun), who begets Shu and Tefnut (atmosphere, water vapor), who then separate Geb and Nut (earth, night sky), the parents of Osiris and Isis (order, fertility), and their counterparts Set and Nephthys (disorder, mourning). Worshipped as early as the 5th Dynasty (2,465 - 2,323 BC), these 9 figures make up the Heliopolitan Ennead, the central deities of Ancient Egypt’s founding mythology.
Descending from the Chapel of Osiris at Hathor into the Hypostyle Hall are rectangular transpositions of the contents of the Zodiac across ceiling, accompanied by wall reliefs depicting Pharaohs as they make offerings of sistrums to the sky deity Hathor, goddess of love, music, and consort to Horus.
Supported by 24 hathoric columns are 7 ceiling bas-reliefs, the inner 5 detailing the phases of Sun and Moon, the outer 2 depicting the procession of planets, asterisms and constellations on barques across the unfurled torso of the goddess Nut (above). To the Egyptians, these astral intermediaries of the gods were known as baktiu, "servant," or (those) connected with work."
As ”eternal spirits of lesser divinities,” the baktiu presided over the successive rise and fall of specific stars and small constellations, marking hours of night during the performance of temple rituals, and the passage of 36 decades, 10 days intervals throughout the solar year and subsequent civil calendar. To Greeks they were known as dekanoi or decans, “tenths,” later transliterated in India to drekkāṇa.
Above is the oldest known hieroglyphic inscription of The Book of Nut, known as “The Fundamentals of the Course of the Stars.” Transcribed from the Tombof Seti I at the Osireion (Abydos, Upper Egypt), the painted ceiling depicts a map of the firmament for guiding the Pharaoh’s passage into the underworld.
In their “working” or culminating position, a sequence of 12 decans would be observed each 10-day week, dividing the night into 12 equal hours throughout the year. At the temple, it is thought that priests used their hands,plumb lines, and latersceptres to monitor the hourly motion of the decans.
To begin, priests would set the sceptre on a suitable decan in the west, and follow its passage from the top disk below the bottom, marking the hour. The sceptre would then move 10° onto the next decan, and the process would be repeated. After six hours observations would shift to stars rising above the eastern horizon, and the end of the 12th hour dawn would break in the east.
With appropriate technique, priests would have been able to time the chant of spells in sequence with the passage of Ra (Sun) and the ba (soul of a departed pharaoh) through the 12 gates of the underworld, or Duat, each night.
At the end of each 10-day week, the western-most decan would then retire into the west for 90 days, before descending into the Duat. The fallen asterism would then be replaced by a newly “born,” or ascendant decan in the eastern region of sky known as msķt (mesket), or “birthing place.”
In this cosmology, the birth, or heliacal rise of the decans had as much to do with their passage througheternity (djet) as man’s reckoning with the passage of cyclical time (neheh). Guiding the diurnal currents of the neheh was the deity Shu, god of air and atmosphere, separator of earth from sky (below).
As Egypt's second divine ruler after Ra, Shu embodied 'space,' the light cavity amidst the primordialdarkness. When paired with his counterpart Tefnut, goddess of water vapor, Shu was depicted as a lion.
Excavated from the Bay of Abukir between the 18th and 20th centuries, The Naos of the Decades (below) alongside others (dedicated to Tefnut, Sopdu and Ismalia) centralized the worship of regional deities at the Temple of Sopdu in the provincial capital Per-Sopdu.
Located at the eastern edge of the Egyptian Delta between the Nile Valley and Red Sea, Per-Sopdu punctuated an important route during the Late Period of Egypt, and the protracted struggle with Assyria throughout the 4th Cent. BC. Consecrated to the god Sopdu, protector of the eastern borders of Egypt, Per-Sopdu became one of the most influential cult centers in Lower Egypt, a place to curry the favor of the gods.
Given the shortfall of this 360 day cycle's coincidence with the heliacal rise of Sirius (365.25 days), 5 intercalary days were added to the decanal calendar to synchronize it with the solar year, or renpet. Known to the Egyptians as heriu-renpet, “five daysupon the year,” this half-decade preceding the new year constituted a time outside of time, fit for celebrating the birth of the gods.
Closing out this liminal period was festival of wep renpet, or “opening of the year,” a time devoted to feasts and offerings in worship of the sun god Ra. Beyond the festivities, wep renpetembodied the birth of a new seasonof the inundation (Akhet, ʒḫt) beginning in the month of Tḫy, or Thoth.
Arrival at a calendar of this complexity would not be possible without first reckoning the cyclicality of more easily observable phenomena — the length of day and night, phase of the moon, and the change of season.
Beginning in the season of Ahket, the Ramses IV calendar (above) divides into three seasons, each comprised of four 29.5-day cycles of the moon, or synodic months. The following season (Peret, prt) marked the time to plow the fields and plant crops, and Shemu (šmw) to harvest the grains.
In accordance with this entrainment of agricultural production and lunar timekeeping, the conduct of feasts and religious festivals largely followed suite. Within the year, each synodic month would begin (at the new moon) with a deity-specific feast, while subsequent phases (Crescent, Full, Quarter) designated special festivals.
Lagging behind each solar month (30 days), this 354-day lunar year was also brought into sync with the solar year through a 13th intercalary lunar month named Thoth every few years, resolving into a epoch of 25 civil years, or 309 lunar months.
AsGod of the Moon, Thothpresided over magic, judgement, and the act of writing. In lending his name to the intercalary lunar month, Thoth (known to the Greeks as Hermes) brought the affairs (above) of the sublunary sphere into alignment with the processionofheavenly bodies.
This dance of luni-stellar and civil calendars laid the foundation for the institution of the Pharaonic Dynasty and subsequent advancements in technology, agriculture, and literacy throughout Ancient Egypt. The coordination of the administrative functions and accounting of this dynastic system gave way to "official days," expressed as a specific day within a specific month of a season (eg. Day 15, Month 3 of the Inundation Season) in the regnal year of the Pharaoh (eg. Year 5, Ramesses III).
In this cascading synchronism of heaven and earth unfolded the serialalmanac for the everyday man. Composed during the 19th Dynasty (ca. 1225 BC), the Papyrus Sallier IV (above) outlines three prognoses (morning, mid-day, night) for each day in a given deity's month over the course of 8 months.
By no coincidence, the brightest phases of the both Algol and Moon coincide with good luck, whereas eclipses and new moons portend misfortune, especially for those who wish to "go out and see the darkness."
In Egypt's founding myth, the Pharaoh Osiris is murdered by his older brother Seth, God of Chaos. Horus, son of Osiris, and Seth then engage in a series of competitions for the throne. In a protracted textual account, Seth injures Horus' eye, which is later restored by Thoth.
With restored eye, young Horus bests Seth in a series of matches, and the Heliopolitan Ennead convenes in trial to consecrate Horus as the next Pharaoh against the wishes of an incensed Ra. After a lengthy trial and further bouts, Horus emerges as the victor. As Pharaoh he then unifies Upper and Lower Egypt, cementing the father-to-son ascension of the throne.
Prior to unification, separate calendars were used in Upper and Lower Egypt, the distinction between Upper / Lower referring to the source of Nile,"upriver." Whereas Upper Egypt's calendar revolved around the inundation of the Nile, Lower Egypt observed the winter solstice as new year, as indicated by the orientation of temples towards winter sunrise and sunset.
In this cosmogony, the gods of the Heliopolitan Enneadembodied these observed phenomena, as well as Egypt's ongoing conflict with Persia (Chaos, Seth) in Lower Egypt, and the development of agrarian civilization in Upper Egypt (Order, Osiris).
Upon taking the throne, Horus descends into the netherworld to visit his deceased father, offering him his left eye in effort to revive the fallen king. Fully enlivened in the afterlife, Osiris takes his place as King of the Dead.
From this foundational myth emerges one of the most auspicious icons found in Ancient Egypt, the wedjat, or "the one that is sound (again)." As an amulet, the wedjat (above) was used to protect its wearer, imparting the power of recovery and regeneration both in life and death.
Commonly found in the earliest mastabas through to the great pyramids, these symbols, much like Horus' offering to Osiris, aided in the passage and rebirth of the wearer's soul, or ba, into the afterlife.
Beyond the accoutrements, it was of great importance to time the entry of the soul into the netherworld. In many cases preparations were made for the construction of a coffin or tomb well before the time of death.
Upon death, the corresponding decan was notated, and inscribed inside coffins as early as the First Intermediary Period (ca. 2181 - 2055 BC) onwards. These diagonalstar tables (above) recording the hours and decades at the time of death, as well as the time the burial was to take place, 70 days later at the heliacal rising of the fallen decan.
The body then underwent the process of mummification. First, water-filled organs were removed (liver, stomach, intestines, and lungs) or discarded (brain) and then placed into canopic jars. The body was then treated with preservatives for 40 days. Prior to burial, priests wrapped the body in cloth and amulets, recited spells from the Book of the Dead, and opened the mouth of the deceased. Into the coffin, a final scarab amulet was placed over the heart, and with that the deceased's soul, or ba, embarked on its passage of rebirth in the Duat.
Having emerged fully-formed from a dung ball, the scarab was considered by to have been created from nothingness, much like the newly born sun. This early sun, known as the deity Khepri, derived his name from the verb ḫpr, meaning to "develop", "come into being", or "create."
Placed over the heart, the scarab amulet (above) ensured the deceased’s safe passage into the netherworld, with specific instructions for the weighing of the heart ceremony upon arrival. Inscribed on the reverse side of the amulet is Spell 30(A) from The Book of The Dead appealing to the heart to not testifyagainst the deceased:
To the Egyptians, the heart, or ib, rather than the brain, was the source of human wisdom and the centre of emotions and memory, and was conceived as surviving death in the Netherworld, where it gave evidence for, or against, its possessor.
The heart was then examined by Anubis (above, right of scale pointer) under the supervision of Thoth (above, right of Anubis) during the weighing of the heart ceremony. If the heart weighed more than the feather of the Goddess Ma’at, it was immediately consumed by the monster Ammit, Devourer of the Dead (above, bottom right). If deemed lighter, the deceased's ba was granted passage from the earthly order of neheh into the celestial djet.
Whether rent in the jaws of Ammit, or lifted into djet, one was bound to an inescapably divine order, inshallah. The transition from Shu’ssublunary light cavity into the heavenly body of Nut, however distinct it may seem, was manifestly observed as a reshaping of the latent life force immanent in all things.
This continuum aligned all aspects of life into a consubstantial construct, one in which every part could provide an interpretation of the whole. In it, there existed life in death, administered by the gods through observed phenomena, choreographed by celestial intermediaries in the firmament of time.
Participation in this worldview unfolded as a homologous experience of man and god alike, converging through manifold systems into an approximation to reality.Downstream of the primordial ocean of Nu, all was bound to return toNu, whence it came. The will of this universe was simultaneously one and many.
To be in it was to be of it.
APRÈS NOOS, LE DÉLUGE
When we are in love with a person, he or she appears in unfathomable profundity and variety. I would even go so far as to claim that it is the inexhaustibility of a person—or in other words the source of novelty, which to a good deal constitutes the nature of love.