During Predynastic and pharaonic times, astronomy was almost entirely devoted to keeping track of time and making calendars, with the primary purpose of predicting the time of sunrise, the appearance of the stellar deities, the celebration of the feasts for particular gods, and the eschatological connection between the spirits of the deities and the pharaoh (also later of the ordinary Egyptian). Astrology, in the modern sense of computing horoscopes (the relative positions of the Sun, Moon, and planets with respect to background constellations of the zodiac and the use of that information as a predictor of the human condition) was not an Egyptian development. Instead there emerged, in association with the rather intricate development of Egyptian religion, a series of special times to be heeded, usually referred to as the calendar of lucky and unlucky days. Each month of the lunar-based religious calendar contained both lucky days, propitious to the average person, and unlucky days, harbingers of misfortune. These were based on the fortunes or misfortunes of a specific deity or a group of deities who were associated with the particular day or days of the month, as recounted in Egyptian legends.
When the Greek Ptolemies became the rulers of Egypt (304–30 BCE), both Hellenistic and Babylonian cultures soon strongly influenced the character of Egyptian astronomy, which has been evident in the surviving temples, monuments, and papyri. The twelve ecliptic constellations of the zodiac first appeared on temples and monuments during the Ptolemaic period. Although the traditional Egyptian constellations as well as their names were also used, the basic pictorial elements of today's zodiacal signs (such as the Capricorn goat-fish, the double-headed archer of Sagittarius, and the ear of corn representing Virgo) were Babylonian in origin. Similarly, the underlying astrological notion connected with the “exaltations” (the ordering of particular planets into certain zodiacal signs that produced special influences on the human condition) was derived from Babylonian astrology. Conversely, the concept we know to be connected with the “houses” (the association of a given planet with a given constellation to produce the greatest influence) seems to be of Greek origin, based on the arrangement of planets according to their orbital periods, since a different ordering of the planets was used in Babylonian astrology.
Of the zodiacs found in Egypt, six come from ceilings in temples; six or seven from Roman-era coffin lids; and eight from ceilings in private tombs. The best known is the zodiac in the round sky map of the temple of Hathor at Dendera, now displayed in Paris, at the Louvre. Zodiacal signs were not specifically named in any of the scenes, so our information comes from horoscopes on ostraca (Neugebauer and Parker 1968) and from planetary tables, in which Demotic names for single signs were direct translations from Greek. In some cases, iconographic relationships existed between the zodiacal signs and similar pharaonic-era signs. An example would be the Ox Leg called Meskhetiu (msḫtyw), which is our Big Dipper.
Some Greek and Demotic papyri and ostraca contain astrological horoscopes and, sometimes, Babylonian-like omens. Owing to the brevity of the texts, the latter were mostly incomplete; yet the stated planetary positions were usually sufficient to permit scholars to compute a date. Most referred to Roman times, with the oldest dated to the reign of Cleopatra VII (Neugebauer and Parker 1968). Inscriptions, however, were very often written long after the event described in the texts.
A statue of the astronomer/astrologer Harkhebi, dating to the early third century BCE, contains a brief text that summarized his accomplishments and provided some cultural information about his duties, which were inherited from his forebears. Several excerpts are quoted below (taken from the translation given by Otto Neugebauer and Richard Parker 1969); the commentary on them reflects some of the concepts mentioned in this article:
"who announces rising and setting at their times, with the gods who foretell the future."
These two clauses refer to Harkhebi's casting of horoscopes. The “gods who foretell the future” are the planets, so that the announcement of rising and setting times must refer to the constellations of the zodiac. Then there is:
"for which he purified himself in their days when Akh rose heliacally beside Benu from earth and he contented the lands with his utterances."
The name Akh (ʒḫ) is one of the thirty-six Decans and Benu (bnw) is one of the names for Venus. The phrase indicates a particular configuration that appears on the eastern horizon in early morning light. The actual star is not known; but the heliacal rising reference indicates that it is the star's first appearance after a long period of absence from the sky. That Venus is the nearby morning star at that moment suggests an exaltation; because of the rarity of the event, perhaps it is even an occurrence in a “house.” Either interpretation is indicative of the astrological nature of the phrase. The word utterances probably refers to any associated predictions. There is also:
"who observes the culmination of every star in the sky, who knows the heliacal rising of every…in a good year, and who foretells the heliacal rising of Sothis at the beginning of the year."
The lacuna is undoubtedly the word star. This phrase apparently implies that knowledge of when certain stars reach the prime meridian could be used for the prediction of heliacal risings of other stars. Accumulated observational experience by a trained observer of such culminations has been used in other cultures to predict the heliacal rising of stars. The preeminent star for the Egyptians was Sirius (called by them Sothis), the heliacal rising of which marked the beginning of the lunar year, because of their early association of this event with the onset of the annual Nile River flood.
"He observes her (i.e., Sothis) on the day of her first festival, knowledgeable in her course at the times of designating therein, observing what she does daily, all she has foretold is in her charge."
These phrases reflect the importance attached to determining the time of the major heliacal rising festival each year. The last part, “all she has foretold is in her charge,” seems to indicate that the prediction depends on the positions of the Moon and planets in the zodiac. A late papyrus does contain specific positions of the Moon and planets in relation to a Sothic rising that would be consistent with this interpretation. In the following:
"knowing the northing and southing of the sun, announcing all its wonders and appointing for them a time, he declares when they have occurred, coming at their times,"
this reference is associated with Harkhebi's ability to predict the summer and winter solstices, again with the positions of the Moon and planets (wonders) in the zodiac as the principal indicators. The important winter-solstice festival was celebrated in Egypt as the birthday of Re. The phrase
"who divides the hours for the two times (day and night) without going into error at night,"
indicates that two methods of telling time were used. During the day, the hour was measured by a shadow clock, which was quite inaccurate for the first hour or so after sunrise and before sunset, because of the lengthy shadows cast. At night, a water clock was used, which was accurately calibrated to account for longer winter night hours and shorter summer night hours. Finally, in the phrases
"knowledgeable in everything which is seen in the sky, for which he has waited, skilled with respect to their conjunctions and their regular movements,"
the Egyptian word for “conjunction” (ẖnm; khenem) also means “unite,” so that the last part of the phrase clearly refers to following the planets as they approached the Sun from one side, disappeared, and then emerged on the other side during the course of a few weeks (Wells 1985). The reference to “regular movements” includes the fact that planets also have retrograde motions. The phrase, “he travels backwards,” is sometimes encountered in reference to the planets.
The inscription from Harkhebi's statue, more than any other document, informs us of the wide-ranging nature of the duties expected of an Egyptian astronomer/astrologer/ priest of his time.
- Allen, James P. “The Celestial Realm.” In Ancient Egypt, edited by David P. Silverman, pp. 114–131. New York, 1997.
- Britton, J., and Christopher Walker. “Astronomy and Astrology in Mesopotamia.” In Astronomy before the Telescope, edited by Christopher Walker, pp. 42–67. London, 1996.
- Neugebauer, Otto, and Richard A. Parker. “Two Demotic Horoscopes.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 54 (1968), 231–235. Examples of two horoscopes written on ostraca; the omens are missing, but the positioning of the Sun and Moon in Taurus and Capricorn, respectively, as well as the planets in some of the other constellations, plus a date in both the civil and lunar calendars, permitted the authors to date the horoscope to 4 May 38 BCE, during the reign of Cleopatra VII. The article demonstrates the difficulties faced in interpreting our few surviving documents.
- Neugebauer, Otto, and Richard A. Parker. Egyptian Astronomical Texts, vol. III: Decans, Planets, Constellations and Zodiacs. Brown Egyptological Studies, 3. Providence, 1969. This last of three volumes requires a knowledge of Egyptian grammar and some background in positional astronomy for full appreciation.
- Toomer, G. J. “Ptolemy and His Greek Predecessors.” In Astronomy before the Telescope, edited by Christopher Walker, pp. 68–91. London, 1996.
- Wells, Ronald A. “Sothis and the Satet Temple on Elephantine: A Direct Connection.” Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur 12 (1985), 255–302. Figure 11 and associated discussion (pp. 275–277) describe the iconography found on the unique depiction of the crown of Satet, dating to Ptolemaic times; it shows a scorpion, holding in its claws the sun sign, containing a star, which is a symbol for the heliacal rising of Sothis. The scorpion holding the sun symbol in its claws indicates Egyptian recognition of the ecliptic passing through Libra (claws of the scorpion) and Scorpio, based on careful observation of the constellations before sunrise and after sunset. Similar observation would be required for the planetary conjunctions.
Ronald A. Wells