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Ancient Egyptian Astronomy

Jiro Kondo
Professor at Faculty of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, Waseda University Director of Institute of Egyptology, Waseda University


The constellations we are currently familiar with originate from "Ptolemy's 48 constellations" compiled from ancient Greek constellations by Claudius Ptolemaeus (from 90 A.D. to about 168 A.D.). He was a Greek astronomer flourishing in Alexandria, Egypt in the second century A. D. Though it is believed these constellations originate from Mesopotamia or ancient Greece, there are still various views on the origin of constellations. Ancient Egypt had its own constellations.

1. Constellations specific to ancient Egypt

PL.1 Foreleg of an ox on the lid of Idy's wooden coffin in the First Intermediate Period

Ancient Egyptians called the northern stars around the circumpolar star "Ikhemw-sek" (imperishable stars) and the southern stars "Ikhemw-wredj" (unwearying stars). This naming (tireless stars) is probably because the southern stars especially on and about the celestial equator travel a very long distance after they rise above the East horizon before they sink below the West horizon, while the northern stars move counterclockwise around the celestial north pole.

2. Northern constellations, imperishable stars

PL.2 Northern constellations of Senenmut's tomb. A bull at the top of the center pole is Meskhetyw representing the "Big Dipper."

On ancient Egyptian tombs and ceilings of temples, northern constellations were discovered. These stars are called "Ikhemw-sek" (imperishable stars) because they are generally assumed to be "northern circumpolar stars" never sinking below the horizon. The oldest existing northern constellation is a constellation named "Meskhetyw." It was drawn as a forefoot of a bull on the interior lid of the wooden coffin for the man named Idy which dated from the First Intermediate Period (from 2145 B.C. to about 2025 B.C.) and was excavated in Asyut. This constellation corresponds to our "Big Dipper." On the left of the foreleg, hieroglyph showing "Meskhetyw m pet mehetet" (Meskhetyw in the northern sky) was vertically written.

As for representation of the whole northern constellations, the tomb of Senenmut, an official for Hatshepsut (around 1460 B.C.) in the 18th Dynasty in New Kingdom, is widely known. On the top of the center pole, a bull having short legs was drawn together with Meskhety written in hieroglyph. We can see Selket, scorpion-goddess with a sun disk on her head, behind the bull, and a constellation named Anu, a falcon-headed man harpooning the bull, below the bull. Further on the right of the pole, there is a female hippopotamus carrying a crocodile on her back and the astronomical instrument called Merekhet as well as a crocodile in her hands. Also a lying lion, crocodile, and human beings were drawn on the left.

PL.3 Northern constellations in the tomb of Seti I. The star arrangement is widely different from the actual one.

Northern constellations were also found on ceilings of tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Among them, the constellations drawn on the ceiling of the burial chamber in the tomb of Seti I in the 19th Dynasty are famous. Compared to the northern constellations in the tomb of Senenmut in the 18th Dynasty as described before, almost same figures were drawn, but all the figures were not located in the same positions. This implies it makes little sense to identify current constellations with the northern constellations in the tomb of Seti I. This is why it is difficult to determine correspondence between ancient Egyptian constellations and our current constellations.

3. Southern constellations, unwearying stars

PL.4 Figures of Sepdet (Sirius) and Sah (Orion's Belt) drawn in the tomb of Senenmut. Sah is a man with long beard and getting on board. 18th Dynasty, New Kingdom, West bank of Thebes

There are two famous constellations among the southern stars called Ikhemw-wredj (unwearying stars): a constellation called Sah corresponding to the current Onion's Belt and Sirius called Sepdet. The name Sah was first found in the "Pyramid Text" engraved in the Pyramid of Unas, the last king of the 5th Dynasty, Old Kingdom (reign: from 2340 B.C. to 2320 B.C.). The figures of Sah and Sepdet were also drawn on lids of wooden coffins between the First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom. Since Sah represented in hieroglyph was positioned above the head, the Orion's Belt was assumed to be crown on the head of Sah. Further Sepdet (Sirius) opposed to Sah was drawn as goddess with was scepter in her hand.

PL.5 Sah drawn on the uranometry in the Dendera temple. He holds the Was scepter in his left hand and a flail in his right hand, and wears Upper Egyptian king's white crown. In front, we can see Taurus, one of the zodiacal constellations. Collection of the Louvre Museum

The tomb of Senenmut as described before also shows a man on board as a figure representing Sah. This man holds Was scepter in his left hand and "Ankh", symbol of life, in his right hand. Due to his long beard, he is believed to be a god. In ancient Egypt, a male figure with a long beard represents either king or god. Around Sah in the tomb of Senenmut, a constellation composed of big three stars was drawn, which corresponds to the Orion's Belt. In the lower right position of these three stars, rather little nine stars were aligned vertically toward under Sah's boat. From this point, we can presume Sah was the constellation containing some stars in addition to the Orion's Belt.

Sah was also drawn on the uranometry in the Dendera temple constructed at the end of the Ptolemaic Dynasty (around first century B.C.). Though this Sah figure is a man with Was scepter in his hand, he wears an elongate Upper Egyptian king's crown "white crown." From the fact that he holds a flail in his right hand and wears a bull's tail, we can determine this figure represents Osiris.

Jiro Kondo
Professor at Faculty of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, Waseda University, Director of Institute of Egyptology, Waseda University

After graduation from School of Letters, Arts, and Sciences 1 at Waseda University, the author proceeded to Graduate School of Letters, Arts, and Sciences and left it due to expiration of the PhD course term. In 1976, he joined Waseda Egyptian Survey team for Egyptian archeological survey. From October in 1981 to September in 1983, he studied at Cairo University as a student overseas sent to Asian countries by the Ministry of Education. He specializes in Egyptology, archaeology, and cultural properties. His main works include "Beginning of things, 50 stories" (Iwanami Shoten), "Egyptian archaeology" (Douseisha), "Enjoy Hieroglyph" (Shueisha, Inc.). He is currently a professor at Faculty of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, Waseda University, a director of Institute of Egyptology, Waseda University, and a standing director of the Society for Near Eastern Studies in Japan.