A Dendera Zodiac with added blue and gold color, Neues Museum, Berlin

A Circular Egyptian Mythology: Does the Dendera Zodiac Represent the Most Ancient Astronomy?

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In 1799, Napoleon and his armies were beginning to expand their presence throughout Egypt. Napoleon brought not only armies but artists to record sketches of his findings of a country that was considered exotic and out of the norm from traditional European culture. One particular artist, Vivant Denon, was fascinated by a full-fledged circular zodiac that was carved into the ceiling of The Temple of Hathor, located in the village of Dendera. After thoroughly sketching the circular zodiac, Denon returned to Paris and publicly released his findings. His report was published in a work that became massively popular in England and France, as everyone seemed to be hungry for more knowledge about this strange circular design in the temple.

The Temple of Hathor in Dendera

The Temple of Hathor in Dendera ( CC BY SA 4.0 )

Calendar of Confusion

Now referred to as the “Dendera Zodiac”, several of France’s greatest scientists, astronomers and mathematicians were in an uproar, trying to find the exact dates and times of the celestial events depicted within it. Physicists Joseph Fourier and Jean-Baptiste Biot alongside astronomer Johan Karl Burckhardt spearheaded the investigation, but were puzzled by the constellations depicted on the zodiac. Were they actual astronomical calculations depicting the movements of the stars, or were they merely symbolic representations? France was beginning its study into the world of archaeoastronomy.

Figure 2. Sketch of the Dendera Zodiac

Figure 2. Sketch of the Dendera Zodiac ( Public domain )

The Dendera Zodiac is the only circular depiction of astronomy to be found within Egyptian antiquity. All other references to the zodiac or astrology are either square or pyramidal in shape and design. The zodiac itself depicts the 360 days of the Egyptian year, with thirty-six decans arranged in a circular fashion. A decan represents one-third of the duration of a zodiacal constellation. Twelve signs with three decans each means thirty-six decans in total. This is a metric that western astrologers continue to use to this day.

A Clear Comparison Emerges

Renowned English Egyptologist Gerald Massey was able to reconcile each of the traditional western zodiacal signs with an Egyptian counterpart. Looking at the Dendera Zodiac, the ram of Aries corresponds with the ram-headed deity Amun. Taurus corresponds with Osiris, sometimes referred to as “The Bull of Eternity”, while the two fish of Pisces is signified by two crocodiles swimming in opposite directions. For every constellation in the traditional western zodiac, there is an Egyptian equivalent with the same symbolism; ranging from Khnum the goat with the same characteristics as Capricorn, to Atum, the lion-headed deity that bears resemblance to Leo.  The image of Isis carrying Horus in her arms is synonymous with the constellation of Virgo, and bears resemblance to the image of the Virgin Mary carrying Jesus.

Figure 3. The figures represented in the Dendera Zodiac correspond to the traditional zodiacal signs

Figure 3. The figures represented in the Dendera Zodiac correspond to the traditional zodiacal signs ( CC BY 4.0 )

Seasonal Significance

The important question remains; what were these symbols meant to convey, and what importance did the Ancient Egyptians place on them? For the Egyptians, each zodiac sign corresponded with a season of the year that was believed to be ruled over by a specific deity. The scarab beetle signifying Cancer was symbolic of summer, while the scales of Libra signified the autumnal equinox. You may notice that although all twelve of the constellations appear in the Dendera Zodiac, the placements of some are somewhat distorted and skewed. The crab of Cancer (Number 39 in the image) seems to have been deliberately placed towards the center of the zodiac, resulting in a spiral-like configuration of the zodiac. It is uncertain why this choice was incorporated into the design; the Cancer month may have held a particular significance.            

To the Egyptians, each season had a unique effect on the passing of days within the 360-day calendar. The hours in a day were not measured in a static and fixed fashion, but were subject to change from season to season. The zodiac also depicted the movement of the star Sirius; a star of foremost importance to the Ancient Egyptians. Sirius rising from the horizon marked the beginning of the New Year, however this date would change by eight and a half days every thousand years. The sign of Aquarius was given great importance, as it represented the sign of inundation, signifying a time of flood. The Egyptians would use Sirius as a marker to indicate when the annual flooding of the Nile would occur, in what we would now call the month of June.  

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