Ancient Egyptian Astronomy -Ursa Major-Symbol of Rejuvenation | Osiris

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The constellation of Ursa Major became a major metaphor in the religious and agricultural lives of both Predynastic and Dynastic Egyptians. Evidence from astronomy, the Pyramid Texts, and tomb and coffin imagery, plus the ethnographic parallels offered by contemporary Sudanese tribal cultures demonstrate the complex and multilayered symbolic meanings that Ursa Major inspired for both priestly and farming classes.
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  64 ARCHAEOASTRONOMY   © 2003 by the University of Texas Press, P.O. Box 7819, Austin, TX 78713-7819 Ancient Egyptian Astronomy:Ursa Major—Symbol of Rejuvenation  JOAN   RELKE   AND   ALLAN   ERNEST Abstract The constellation of Ursa Major became a majormetaphor in the religious and agricultural lives of both Predynastic and Dynastic Egyptians. Evidencefrom astronomy, the Pyramid Texts,  and tomb andcoffin imagery, plus the ethnographic parallels of-fered by contemporary Sudanese tribal culturesdemonstrate the complex and multilayered symbolicmeanings that Ursa Major inspired for both priestlyand farming classes. It was related to the concept of the ka,  the Opening of the Mouth ceremony, and theNile inundation, and thus was a potent symbol of rejuvenation, perhaps from as early as the beginningof the Predynastic, ca. 4000 B . C . E .This article is a speculative exploration of themultiple meanings implied by the shape of UrsaMajor, drawing on Egyptian astronomy, ethnogra-phy from the Sudan, and the agricultural cycle of ancient Egypt. The Stars in Ancient Egypt In many ways, ancient Egyptian religion was a collec-tion of stellar beliefs incorporating the obvious heav-enly bodies of the Sun, Moon, the five recognizedplanets, and a number of constellations in the northernand southern skies of the Earth’s Northern Hemi-sphere as seen from Egypt. In these heavenly bodies,the Egyptians envisioned many of their spiritual be-ings, and most of the major Egyptian deities havesome relationship with the sky and the movements of the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars. It is well estab-lished that Egyptian eschatology focused on the heav-ens, particularly on the northern sky and those starsand constellations that remained above the horizonduring their diurnal rotation around the polar center.To the Egyptians, these circumpolar stars representedthe souls of dead kings immortalized in the region of the Imperishable Stars, and many references from the Pyramid Texts  to the king as a star, generally(Faulkner 1969), 1  or as a star among the ImperishableStars (Faulkner 1969), 2  indicate that this belief wasamong the earliest eschatological beliefs of at leastthe priestly and royal elites of Dynastic Egypt.People in the agricultural sector of Egyptian soci-ety, probably from the earliest Predynastic times, alsolooked to the stars for information they needed forsuccessful planting and harvesting. Unlike their NearEastern neighbors from Canaan and Mesopotamia,they did not experience the storms, thunder, lightning,and other weather phenomena usually invested with  Joan Relke  is currently an Honorary Research Associate with the School of Classics, History and Religion, Division of Studies in Religion,at the University of New England, Armidale, Australia. Her research focuses on Middle Eastern and South Asian Neolithic and early historicreligious imagery and iconography. Of particular interest are the implications of iconography for domestic and agricultural rituals. Allan D. Ernest  is currently working as a postdoctoral research fellow in science education within the School of Education, Faculty of Health Education and Professional Studies at the University of New England, Armidale, Australia. He has been associated with theuniversity for the past 20 years, predominantly undertaking research in the area of atomic and molecular physics. He also has an interestin astronomical research, particularly the applications of quantum physics to astronomy and cosmology, and teaches astronomy tostudents enrolled in the relevant courses within the university’s distance education program. V OLUME  XVII 2002-2003 64  V OLUME  XVII 2002-2003 65 number of other lesser spiritual beings commonlydepicted in other similar tomb and coffin illustrationsand represented as a lion, a crocodile, and a man. 5  Inthe full illustrations of the northern sky, human andtherianthrophic figures representing the 30 days of thelunar month (Neugebauer and Parker 1969:3–4) lineup beside the principal deities on the left and right.The illustrations of the northern sky accompaniedseveral Egyptian kings, nobles, and well-off com-moners on the north or west ceilings of their tombs oron the right inside of their coffin lids. They alsoappear on temple ceilings and water clocks (Clagett1995:106–127).The central constellations of the northern sky todayrevolve around the pole star, Polaris, situated at the tipof the handle of the Little Dipper, or Ursa Minor. Atthe time of the ancient Egyptians, and prior to thebeginning of the Predynastic period, ca. 4000 B . C . E ., 6 spiritual importance. And the Sun, perhaps suitablefor a symbol of absolute, all-seeing, reliable author-ity, hardly nourished agricultural life in its annualcycle, as it brought intense heat and drought just at thetime of year when the Nile was at its lowest, com-pounding the difficulties of having limited water:“The sun . . . was . . . a destructive force and an enemyof farmers. Rather it was the Nile that was recognizedas the source of cosmic good will. . . . The sun wasrespected for its power, but the Nile was the real rulerof Egypt” (Krupp 1984:187). 3  The star we know as Sirius, rather than the Sun,marked the beginning of the Egyptian lunar calendar(Depuydt 1997:17) and agricultural year, for its heli-cal rising in early July heralded the imminent inunda-tion of the Nile after a three-month period of lowwater, blistering summer heat, and accompanyingdrought. In addition to Sirius, the constellation of Ursa Major may have also functioned as an agricul-tural symbol but had added eschatological signifi-cance, and the following discussion explores thepossible significance of its observed behavior for bothpriest and farmer. The Foreleg and the Opening of the Mouth That part of Ursa Major, otherwise known to us as theBig Dipper or the Plow, 4  was known to the ancientEgyptians as the Foreleg, or  Meskhetiu  (Neugebauerand Parker 1969a:189; Parker 1974:51, 61). Depictedon Middle Kingdom coffins as a bull’s foreleg, in theNew Kingdom,  Meskhetiu  appears as a bull, in full orpart, in the tomb and coffin illustrations of the con-stellations of the northern sky of Earth’s NorthernHemisphere (Neugebauer and Parker 1969a:183)(Figure 1). In the Late and Ptolemaic periods, theshape of  Meskhetiu  reverts to a bull’s leg or a bull-headed leg (Neugebauer and Parker 1969a:68, 188,1969b:Plates 26, 50).Figure 1, a section from the ceiling illustrationfrom Senmut’s tomb (ca. 1473 B . C . E ., Dynasty 18),depicts the arrangement of deities and constellationsenvisioned by the Dynastic Egyptians to occupy thenorthern sky.  Meskhetiu  is situated at the top. Theaccompanying deities include Anu, the sacrificer;Hippo, a presiding deity; Isis, standing behind Hippo;Serket, a goddess standing beside  Meskhetiu;  and a FIGURE   1 . Detail from the northern sky, region of the Imper-ishable Stars. Tomb of Senmut ca. 1473 B . C . E . (adapted fromNeugebauer and Parker 1969b:Plate 1).  66 ARCHAEOASTRONOMY these constellations revolved around a blank centercircumscribed by Ursa Major (Figure 2). Figure 2depicts Ursa Major in the northern sky as seen fromUpper Egypt in 2500 B . C . E ., early in Egyptian Dynas-tic history. The illustration comes from a computersimulation of the northern sky of the Northern Hemi-sphere and depicts Ursa Major as an enclosed ladle-shaped constellation. 7  The straight line runningthrough Figure 2 represents the horizon to the north,and Ursa Major can be seen above the horizon. Thecurved line represents the ecliptic, the path the Sunappears to take across the sky, and along which theconstellations of our zodiac are arranged and theplanets revolve. Other constellations are shown inoutline only. Their names are not included here, asthey would complicate the illustration, detractingfrom the major concern here, Ursa Major.In 2500 B . C . E ., and for at least 2,000 years beforeand after that, each day Ursa Major revolved aroundthe blank center, never disappearing below the hori-zon (Figure 3). 8  Of course, the constellation could notbe seen during daylight, but at night it constituted thecentral constellation of this part of the sky. Figure 3shows the pattern made by Ursa Major as it revolvedaround the polar center. Once again, the straight linerepresents the northern horizon. Every two hours,Ursa Major changed direction significantly. This il-lustration shows Ursa Major at six four-hour intervalson October 30, 2500 B . C . E . To an earthly observer, itappeared to remain, more or less, in each position forabout one hour, but of course, in reality, it movedconstantly, revolving once per day.The other constellations represented by deities inFigure 1 revolved with Ursa Major. Unfortunately, itis not possible to determine which actual star forma-tions gave shape to these deities, for we recognizeonly three of Egypt’s star patterns to this day: theconstellations of Ursa Major and Orion and the starSirius. 9  Only Ursa Major,  Meskhetiu,  is located in thenorthern sky.To the ancient Egyptians, the circumpolar stars andthe entities they represented were immortal. In the Pyramid Texts,  one of the several eschatologies de-scribes the dead king as a star in this region, continu-ing his existence as an immortal star, as mentionedabove. In other eschatologies, as an immortal spirit,he accompanies Re, the sun god, in his solar bark; 10 becomes an Osiris, the Foremost of Westerners,below the western horizon; 11  or goes to Orion. 12  Asthe theology of death advances during the Dynasticperiod, all these eschatologies become fused together,and the king becomes Osiris as well as an immortalspirit traveling with Re along the ecliptic. FIGURE   3 . Revolution and shape of Ursa Major. Egypt 2500 B . C . E . FIGURE   2 . Ursa Major in the Egyptian northern sky. SunriseOctober 28, 2500 B . C . E . (SkyGlobe image).  V OLUME  XVII 2002-2003 67 Complementary to the northern sky illustrationsare those of the southern sky (Figure 4), which appearopposite the northern sky on the left inside of coffinlids or on the opposite side of the ceiling, the south oreast side (Neugebauer and Parker 1969a:1–5). Thestar formations chosen by the Egyptians from thesouthern sky compose the decanal belt—a belt of 36stars and constellations (Neugebauer and Parker1969a:2), which lies nearly parallel to and south of theecliptic (Neugebauer and Parker 1960:99–100;Parker 1978:712–713). Figure 4 comprises the cen-tral part of the illustrations of the decanal belt, witha range of deities and planets lined up on both sides,to the east and west. Although the planets can beidentified (in Figure 4 Jupiter stands behind Isis), onlytwo of these star patterns can be identified: the con-stellation of Orion and the star Sirius (Neugebauerand Parker 1960:97). In these stars, the Egyptiansenvisaged Osiris in Orion and Isis in Sirius, known tothem as Sopdet. Rather than in his typical mummyform, Osiris here appears as a male figure standing ina bark with legs wide apart and holding a was  scepter.The earliest surviving record of the constellations of the northern sky and the decans comes from the FirstIntermediate Period coffins of Heny, Dynasty 11,2134–2199 B . C . E . (Neugebauer and Parker 1969a:8).However, the characteristic form of Orion as Osiriscan be identified from a fragment from the OldKingdom funerary temple of Djedkare-Isei (Eaton-Krauss 1987:234), suggesting that the myths andtraditions associated with the illustrations of thenorthern and southern skies go back at least to the fifthDynasty.The Imperishable Stars of the northern sky and thedecanal belt form the two major astronomical regionsof the Egyptian night sky. The Egyptians recognizedthat the Sun and the planets follow a path across thesky, but they did not recognize any constellationsalong the ecliptic, as did the Babylonians and later theGreeks. As the Greeks increasingly came to influenceEgypt in the later phases of the Dynastic period, theseconstellations, familiar to us as the zodiac, becameincorporated into the Egyptian system to form a thirdband of constellations in the night sky. The merger of these two systems can be best observed in the illustra-tion on the ceiling of the Hathor Temple at Dendera(Neugebauer and Parker 1969a:78–85), although italso appears inside coffin lids. 13 Also depicted in mortuary iconography is the fore-leg of a sacrificed bull, an important offering made tothe king or Osiris and frequently found in tombillustrations either among the many funerary offer-ings or as a single offering (Figure 5). In Figure 5, the judgment scene from the  Book of the Dead,  a singleforeleg is offered to Osiris, who presides over theritual. A foreleg is also mentioned in the Pyramid Texts  as a mortuary offering 14  or as the desired food inthe afterlife. 15  The shape of Ursa Major suggested tothe Egyptians the shape of this foreleg, when depictedas an offering, and Figure 6 shows how Ursa Major ina certain position parallels the shape of the forelegseen in the offering to Osiris. 16 The “ladle” on the leftand the bends in the “handle” of the constellationmirror the form of the foreleg offering. That theEgyptians thought of  Meskhetiu  as a foreleg, perhapsthe foreleg of Seth cut off by Horus and placed in thenorthern sky where Hippo holds it (Neugebauer and FIGURE   4 . Orion as Osiris and Sopdet as Isis on the decanal beltfrom the tomb of Pedamenope ca. 560 B . C . E . (adapted fromNeugebauer and Parker 1969b:Plate 18). ORION / OSIRISSOPDET / ISISJUPITER
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