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The Astronomy Of Ancient Egyptian

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I address the Old Kingdom of Egypt in the lower Nile region in the following responses.

As expected, astronomers observed the sky. They noted the rising and setting of celestial bodies and measured time by them (Ruiz 276). Certain religious rituals were held at specific times of the year as denoted by stars’ movement (Ruiz 276) and because of stellar importance, priests were often astronomers. Typically, there would be at least one priest specifically “representing stellar wisdom” and named “Horoscopus” in a temple (Ruiz 276). They were expected to recite from Tehuti’s books of astronomy describing positions of stars, the sun, the moon, eclipses, and other celestial bodies (Ruiz 276). Since astronomers played a religious role, they had a relatively important impact on Egyptian society. Based on the stellar and planetary movement, they determined signs (Ruiz 276) that were most likely passed to someone in power.

Many of the Egyptian pyramids’ architecture was rooted in astronomy. Over the third and fourth dynasties, the stars were important symbolically in tombs, commonly designed as pyramids, as well as how they were built. As previously mentioned in response two, celestial bodies were important religiously. Thus, it can be assumed that the sky played a key role in the rituals surrounding burial and the afterlife. In a third dynasty pyramid, Djoser’s, the Serdab, a sacred room holding the statue of the dead, has holes drilled into the front of the chamber (Magli 49). The holes are designed to focus “the attention of the spirit of the king residing in the statue” on the imperishable stars (Magli 50-51). These imperishable stars are thought to be circumpolar stars (Bull 283), specifically Dubhe in Ursa Major and Kochab in Ursa Minor (Magli 50). These stars were the “intended destination of the king’s ba” so that he could “take his place among [them]” (Shaw 142).

Similar to Djoser’s tomb, the Great Pyramid of Giza had shafts focusing on certain stars. In the King’s Chamber, the shafts ran from the north and south sides and were directed toward Sirius and Kochab, respectively (Magli 79-80). Once again, the intention was to have the king’s soul to be able to “magically rejoin the stars” (Magli 80).

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Later, during the fourth dynasty, pyramids were noted for the direction in which they were built. Their sides lined up to parallel each cardinal direction (Magli 89). The directional precision in which the pyramids were constructed shows that the Egyptians used stellar precession to calculate the location (Magli 90). Directions were important because the Egyptians viewed them as “times connected with certain regions of the sky” (Conman 37); specifically, the east symbolically represented sun-rise and rebirth (Magi 190). Overall, direction could further indicate “a state of being” (Conman 37). The Egyptians wished their pharaohs to take their place among the stars (Shaw 142) and essentially be reborn in this manner. The architectural alignment achieves that desire and shows that direction was a large part of the Egyptian burial ceremony.

The ancient Egyptians used star clocks for time-keeping and calendars. They were commonly found in tombs on the walls, ceilings, or coffin lids (Magli 189). Generally speaking, these celestial diagrams marked the hours of the night and the time of the year (Magli 54). Specifically, time was divided into decans, or the ten day weeks that made a total of 36 in a year (Bull 286). Eventually, the decans did not align as the Egyptians did not have a leap year, adjustments were made (Parker 55), and ultimately, they were abandoned for water clocks (Bennett et al. 56).

A major Egyptian myth surrounds the Sun’s trek across the sky. They believed that the Sun goes into the Duat at sunset, not the underworld but rather cosmic space (Conman 34), and spent the night going from east to west (Parker 55-56). Re, the sun god, joined Osiris, who was known as the lord of eternal life, to become young and be born again at dawn (Conman 34-35). In Egyptian minds, Re was not a physical manifestation of the sun. He is often described as traveling across the sky in the sun boat (Ruiz 279). The depiction of a boat and traveling gives the god a human physicality.

The Sun’s journey was further thrashed out in story. The Moon, Mercury, and Venus were defenders of the Sun. They were associated with gods Thoth, Seth, and Osiris, respectively, and were thought to “ determine Re’s course, to repel Re’s archenemy Apep, and to restore and renew the sun god himself” (Conman 40). The planet choice most likely had to do with proximity to the Sun and the ability to move, unlike the stars (Conman 40). Similar to Re, Thoth, Seth, and Osiris are not the Moon, Venus, or Mercury physically. Rather, the planets represented the gods. Thoth, like many Egyptian gods, was depicted with an animal head on a human body. In particular, he was represented with an ibis head (Pinch 17). His human representation shows he controlled the planet instead of being it. Osiris was also depicted with a corporeal body as he “travelled among humanity, teaching them the arts of agriculture” (Pinch 56). Seth does not take on a planetary body either as myth claims Horus “spear[ed] Seth in beast form” (Pinch 71).

Works Cited

  1. Bennett, Jeffery O., et al. The Cosmic Perspective: The Solar System. 9th ed., Pearson Education, 2020.
  2. Bull, Ludlow S. “An Ancient Egyptian Astronomical Ceiling-Decoration.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, vol. 18, no. 12, 1923, pp. 283–286. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3254857.
  3. Conman, Joanne. “It’s about Time: Ancient Egyptian Cosmology.” Studien Zur Altägyptischen Kultur, vol. 31, 2003, pp. 33–71. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25152883.
  4. Magli, Giulio. Architecture, Astronomy and Sacred Landscape in Ancient Egypt. Cambridge University Press, 2013. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&Auth Type=ip,shib&db=e000xna&AN=574861.
  5. Parker, R. A. “Ancient Egyptian Astronomy.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series A, Mathematical and Physical Sciences, vol. 276, no. 1257, 1974, pp. 51–65. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/74274.
  6. Pinch, Geraldine. Egyptian Myth: A Very Short Introduction. OUP Oxford, 2004. ECSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login/aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,shib&db=e900xww&AN=192092.
  7. Ruiz, Ana. The Spirit of Ancient Egypt. Algora Publishing, 2001. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost. com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,shib&db=e000xna&AN=67128.
  8. Shaw, Ian. Ancient Egypt: A Very Short Introduction. OUP Oxford, 2004. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,shib&db=e000xna&AN=192104.

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