Is The Iconic Dendera Zodiac of Ancient Egypt The Oldest Horoscope in the World?
The Dendera Zodiac is the name given to an interesting bas-relief found on the ceiling of a chapel in the Temple of Hathor, which is part of the Dendera Temple complex in Upper Egypt. This famous bas-relief is notable for its depiction of the constellations, which include the signs of the zodiac. Most of these signs would be easily recognized by a modern-day observer, as they are depicted almost as they are today. Nevertheless, there are also several odd signs that may be less easily identified, as they are represented in accordance to the sacred iconography of ancient Egypt.
The Important Dendera Temple Complex
The Dendera Temple complex is situated to the south of Abydos, in what was, in ancient Egyptian times, the 6th Nome of Upper Egypt. This main temple of this complex is the Temple of Hathor, in which numerous smaller shrines / chapels may be found. On the ceiling of one of these, where the mysteries of the resurrection of the god Osiris were once celebrated, the Dendera Zodiac may be found.
General view of the Dendera Temple complex. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The existence of the Dendera Zodiac came to be known in modern times thanks to Napoleon’s military campaign in Egypt. In January 1799, one of the savants, Vivant Denon (who would later be appointed as the first Director of the Louvre Museum) stumbled into one of the chapels in the temple, where he saw the amazing bas-relief on the ceiling.
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Denon did not have time to make a sketch of what he saw during this visit, but when he returned later during the spring, he managed to make a rough drawing of it. This drawing was published in his Voyage dans la basse et la haute Egypte (“Journey in Lower and Upper Egypt”) in 1802. Shortly after this, a more detailed drawing was produced by Jollois and Devilliers, and their work was published in the fourth Antiquités volume of the famous Description de l'Égypte (“Description of Egypt”).
The Battle of the Pyramids, Louis-François, Baron Lejeune, 1808 (Public Domain)
A Beautiful and Unique Star Map
The Dendera Zodiac is a map of the stars on a plane projection. This zodiac is somewhat unique, as it is circular in shape, as opposed to the more usual rectangular ones. The heavens, in the form of a disc, are shown to be held up by the four pillars of the sky in the form of four female figures who are assisted by eight falcon-headed figures. In the circumference of the disc (the part of which is closest to the female and falcon-headed figures) are 36 spirits or ‘decans’. These are first magnitude stars used in the ancient Egyptian calendar to keep track of the days of the year. Hence, these spirits, each of which represents 10 days, were carved onto the Dendera Zodiac to symbolize the 360 days of the ancient Egyptian calendar.
The Dendera zodiac as displayed at the Louvre. (Public Domain)
The 36 spirits enclose a group of constellations, amongst which are the signs of the zodiac. Many of these signs are familiar to the modern-day viewer. Amongst others, the images of a bull, a scorpion, a pair of scales, and a ram can be found on the disc. These represent the signs of Taurus, Scorpio, Libra, and Aries respectively. Nevertheless, there are also constellations that have a more pharaonic ‘flavor’. For example, Aquarius is depicted as the ancient Egyptian god Hapy, the god who controlled the flooding of the Nile, pouring water from two vases, whilst the Great Bear (Ursa Major) is represented as a bull’s foreleg.
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Dendera zodiac with original colors. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Dating the Ancient Signs
In 1821, the Egyptian ruler, Mohamed Ali Pasha, permitted the Dendera Zodiac to be transported to France. The artifact arrived in the following year, and resides today in the Louvre Museum. The Dendera Zodiac sparked the interest of the French intellectual elite, one of the questions that was debated about being the period during which the Zodiac was made. Some believed that it dated to the New Kingdom, whilst others, especially those with an anti-clerical inclination, claimed that it had been produced thousands of years before the Biblical date for the creation of the world. It was Champollion, famous for deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphs, who found in one of the cartouches of the Zodiac the Greek word autocrator written in hieroglyphs, thus leading him to conclude that the artifact was made during the Graeco-Roman period.
Featured image: The Dendera zodiac (CC by SA 3.0)
By Wu Mingren
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Available at: http://www.crystalinks.com/DenderaTempleComplex.html