The Dendera Light: Myths, Tests and Truth
The Dendera light is a particularly controversial topic since it is not exactly an artifact of potential ancient technology, but the possible depiction of such an artifact on a wall of one of the best-preserved ancient temples in Egypt—the temple of the Egyptian goddess Hathor at Dendera.
Did Ancient Egyptians Have Electric Lamps?
The image known as the Dendera light is found on three stone reliefs in the temple and, at first glance, could be construed as a bulb similar to a Crookes tube, with a lotus “socket” at one end, a “cable” traveling underneath, and a snake-shaped cord “filament” inside. In the most popular representation of the so-called Dendera light a priest is shown holding up the “lamp” and a few smaller figures are seen below it.
The most popular ‘Dendera light’ relief in the Temple of Hathor, Dendera, Egypt. (Ioannis Syrigos)
One of the figures appears to be directing the “lightbulb” upwards. A two-armed Djed pillar is also shown with the “bulb” and the hands are apparently connected to the snake/cord inside. A baboon is presented in front of the “lamp” while holding two knives in front of itself.
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A Norwegian electrical engineer was the first to propose that this image depicted an electrical lamp. Austrian authors Peter Krassa and Rainer Habeck brought the hypothesis to worldwide attention when they published a book based on the Dendera reliefs titled ‘Das Licht der Pharaonen. Hochtechnologie und elektrischer Strom im alten Ägypten’ (Light of the Pharaohs. High Technology and Electricity in Ancient Egypt). W. Garn, another electrical engineer, later tested the hypothesis and constructed a working model of the Dendera light. In an English translation of an excerpt from the book, Garn is quoted as saying:
“If we evacuate a glass bulb with two metal parts reaching into it (B), (C), we can see a discharge at much lower levels, depending on the size of the glass balloon (D). At a pressure of about 40 t (tonnes) (40 mm of mercury) a snakelike light filament meanders from one metal part to the other (E). If we evacuate further, the light filament grows wider until it fills the whole glass balloon. This is exactly what we see in on the pictures in the subterranean chambers of the Hathor sanctuary.”
The Myths Behind the Symbols
Most Egyptologists, however, interpret the so-called Dendera light in a different way. The key is to remember that there are inscriptions (and other images) beside the reliefs, so it’s necessary to consider the writing alongside the vignettes when interpreting them. An excerpt from a translation of the texts surrounding these images made by Egyptologist Dr. Wolfgang Waitkus includes the following information in direct relation to the most famous Dendera light scene:
“W.t.s.o. Harsomtus, the great god who is in Dendera, who rises from the lotus flower as living Ba, whose perfection is risen by the km3tjw-images of his Ka, whose ssmw-image is worshipped by the crew of the day barge, whose body is carried by the dd-pillar, below his ssmw-image the primeval beginner (Hathor) sits and whose majesty is carried by the companions of his Ka.”
The chamber with the controversial reliefs, Temple of Hathor, Dendera, Egypt. (Ioannis Syrigos)
The inscriptions are telling us that Harsomtus (another creator god - “Horus the Unifier of Two Lands”) is the snake rising from the lotus flower, with his body being carried by the Djed pillar on the day barge (the so-called “cable” in the Dendera light hypothesis).
Now it is much easier to see how many symbols in the so-called Dendera light are actually linked with Egyptian mythology. In one of the ancient Egyptian creation myths, the first thing to emerge from the infinite primordial sea of Nun (sometimes referred to as the “Sea of the Two Knives"), which pre-existed creation, was a lotus flower. That flower is said to have given birth to the sun god, Atum-Ra. There are many ancient depictions of the lotus in the shape of a ‘lamp,’ similar to the relief at the Temple of Hathor in Dendera.
We also know that a snake in a bubble was used in later depictions to represent Atum-Ra. The bubble or essence around the snake may represent the emergence of the universe out of nothingness. Therefore, an obvious interpretation of the Dendera “light”, according to most Egyptologists, is the depiction of the sun god emerging from the lotus flower .
Another snake is seen near the “Dendera light”, but it is without the surrounding bubble as it rises from a lotus flower. (Alicia McDermott)
There is even more we can see just but analyzing this controversial image with a knowledge of ancient Egyptian myths. For example, we see the Djed pillar, which is generally linked to the god Osiris , but is also associated with a creator god called Ptah. This pillar is also seen as a symbol of power, endurance, and stability. M R Reese explains more about the importance of the Djed pillar in ancient Egyptian life:
“The djed symbol is also used in a ceremony called “raising the djed.” This ceremony is meant to represent Osiris’ triumph over Set. During the ceremony, the pharaoh uses ropes to raise a pillar, with the assistance of priests. This coincided with the time of year when the agricultural year began and fields were sown. This was just one part of a 17-day holiday of festivals dedicated to Osiris. Overall, the raising the djed ceremony represented both the resurrection of Osiris, and the strength and stability of the monarch.”
Is the Dendera Light Mystery Solved?
Thus, many of the symbols shown in the controversial reliefs believed by some to depict the Dendera light are related to ancient Egyptian creation stories, ceremonies, significant gods in their pantheon , and ideas of rebirth. The inscriptions around the reliefs clearly suggest this is not evidence of ancient Egyptian technology.
The inscriptions suggest this relief is probably not depicting ancient technology. (Ioannis Syrigos)
Another major point against the Dendera light hypothesis is the absence of historical texts discussing the use of electricity in ancient Egypt; which one would expect to find if the reliefs depicted electrical lamps.
Finally, it’s worth considering that archaeologists have not found any unambiguous electrical artifacts, much less lightbulbs, in the thousands of ancient sites throughout Egypt. There is no concrete proof available yet to suggest that ancient Egyptians had harnessed the power of electrical lighting.
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Two “Dendera lights”, one held up by Ptah and the other by a Djed pillar. (Ioannis Syrigos)
In response to these points, some proponents of the Dendera light hypothesis have claimed that the rituals around the use of electric lights would have been conducted in secret ceremonies undertaken by the ancient priests near New Year/creation-related celebrations. That could mean that the artifacts themselves were also secret or ritually destroyed following the ceremonies.
While it is possible that there are some aspects of the reliefs in the Temple of Hathor at Dendera that are missing in the interpretations we have today, we cannot disregard the inscriptions and the accompanying story that we can see playing out in the vignettes.
Whatever the meaning behind the Dendera reliefs, they continue to draw in crowds from around the world, who are eager to catch a glimpse of the unusual and controversial carvings at one of Egypt’s most amazing sites. Ancient Origins led a tour to visit this marvelous site and many of the other wonders of the ancient Egyptian world in 2020.
Top Image: The so-called Dendera light, relief in the Temple of Hathor, Dendera, Egypt. Source: Ioannis Syrigos
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