The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Aug 30, 2009

Astronomer Priests

Why, goes the question, would there have been astronomy in ancient times? Everyone then thought that the sky was Heaven, and that it was filled with mysterious creatures. Stories about these creatures and their doings formed our earliest myths. Was there any connection at all between this early mysticism and the beginnings of astronomy? Behind these tales of gods and monsters, was there a glimpse of divine reason?

When our ancestors gazed into the night sky, they saw more than stars. They saw heavenly creatures and terrible beasts whose moods could shape their lives and fortunes. These heavenly denizens were feared and worshipped by the ancients, who recorded their stories of love and war, jealousy and revenge. These stories are nowadays dismissed as fairy tales, but Dr Allan Chapman believes they are the earliest records of astronomical observation, and do much more than expected in explaining the beginnings of human civilization.

001 One of the oldest scientific instruments known to man is Stonehenge, a millennia-old collection of rocks assembled to mark the summer solstice – the longest day of the year. The builders of Stonehenge knew that the length of the day, as measured by the arc described by the sun on its path across the sky, was a function of the season. In winter, the sun would describe a short arc, not rising too high above the horizon (right-hand arc in figure); in summer, however, the arc was much larger, resulting in a longer trajectory, and hence the longer day (left-hand arc in figure). They therefore oriented their monument in the direction of the midsummer sunrise, and that would then act as a natural marker of time and season.

We know almost nothing about the people who built Stonehenge. We know nothing about why they built the monument; we know nothing of their beliefs. So the Druids who assemble each year at Stonehenge to indulge their rituals and mystical mumbo jumbo are enacting a modern fantasy. But we know far more about another ancient culture, and we might profit from an investigation into their astronomical achievements.

002 Ancient Egypt. The adulation and adoration for Stonehenge is nothing compared to the fascination New Age religionists have for the Pyramids. When in the 19th century, European archaeologists rediscovered the civilization of this ancient land, the imagination of the Victorians ran riot. Who could have built these vast monuments, and who could have designed them in this strange way? Fortunately, unlike the builders of Stonehenge, the builders of the Great Pyramids left written records. So we know that the people who designed these structures were priests, and we know that the gods they worshipped inhabited the skies. And we know that the most important of these Gods was Ra.

At the beginning of time there was boundless chaos and out of this chaos came Ra, not begotten of any father, not conceived of any mother. Of his own volition, he gave himself a body and entered into active existence. The demiurge, the supreme being, the quintessence of all the forces and elements of nature! Praise to thee, oh Ra, exalted power and lord of the hidden circles!

009 royal barge Remarkably, the doings of Ra perform the same function as those of the stones of Stonehenge, for like the stones, these myths refer to important astronomical events. To see how, we must decipher one of the most important of Egyptian myths, that of Ra and the beautiful goddess Nut. It is said that at the beginning of time, Ra took hold of his phallus in his hand and ejaculated the gods Tefnut and Shu, and from them came the star-spangled goddess Nut, whose beautiful naked body straddled the sky. We are told that at the dawn of each day, Nut gives birth to Ra from her blood red birth canal; across the day, Ra sails on his royal barge over Nut’s back, accompanied by Thoth and Ma’at, of whom more later. At night Nut, whom the Egyptians call ‘the sow that eats her own piglets’, swallows Ra, and the cycle of the day is complete.003 ra from nut

So what does this have to astronomy? Well, Ra is the Sun God, and his journey across Nut’s back is the path taken by the sun across the sky. The Sun represented light and dark, hot and cold, life and death, and defined the cardinal points of the compass – North, South, East, West. And when it came up in the morning, the deep dark was banished, and light was cast over the land of Egypt.

We should not be surprised that so many ancient peoples worshipped the Sun. Its appearance every morning represented the victory of day over night, life over death, good over evil. But why did the Ancient Egyptians believe that the Sun was swallowed by a giant woman who later gave birth to him? The story of Ra and Nut is not just a description of the daily journey of the Sun – it is also a clever way of representing the position of the Sun in the sky at different times of the year.

004 nut milky way For the Egyptians, Nut represented the Milky Way. Strangely enough, this hazy spread of stars does appear to bear the shape of a woman arching her back over the horizon (see picture, left). Next, the Egyptian astronomers realised that at the spring equinox the Sun rode to a point corresponding to Nut’s mouth, and moved over the next nine months through her body to be born, nine months after the equinox, at a point corresponding to her birth canal (see picture, right). For the Egyptians, this period of nine months was self-evidently the period of gestation of a human being; added to that fact was their belief that a woman conceives through her mouth, and suddenly the myth of Ra and Nut makes a lot more sense.005 sun thru milky way

The myth of Ra and Nut, then, helped the Egyptians mark two points in their year: the vernal equinox and the mid-winter solstice. But decoding the myth raises further questions: why did they want to mark these points of the year? And why did they worship the objects in the sky as Gods?

Historians are loath to accept any astronomical significance to ancient monuments (New Age nonsense, they scoff), but Allan Chapman believes that it is difficult to understand the purpose of such edifices as the Great Pyramids without recourse to astronomy. The steps leading to the tomb of Cheops in the greatest of the pyramids rises at a particular angle, and while it’s true that this angle has little significance today, we must remember (as historians often tend to forget) that the positions of the stars in the heavens are not fixed for all eternity. They have, in fact, moved in the 4500 years since the construction of the Pyramids. It is possible to calculate what the steps would have pointed towards at the time of the construction – they pointed at a very significant part of the night sky, which the astronomer priests of Egypt associated with Heaven.

They had observed that there was a small group of stars that did not rise, travel across the sky, and set as the other stars did. The Northern circumpolar stars were always visible. These are the stars we call the Great Bear. The Egyptians called them Ikhemusek – the Ones Not Knowing Destruction.

With the Ancient Egyptians we see for the first time the idea of a Heaven in the skies, and this heaven was populated by a bizarre collection of gods and goddesses that they associated with the stars and planets. When they looked at the planet Mercury, the Egyptians imagined the god Seth, the evil god of chaos and destruction. When they observed the planet Venus, they thought of Isis, the lovely goddess of fertility. And when they looked upon red Mars, they imagined they were charting the progress of angry Horus, the falcon-headed son of Isis. 

If we visit the tombs of the ancient Egyptians we see that they are covered with strange incantations to the great Gods, with symbols for the moon and stars and the planets. But why should the priests of the land have been so fixated with astronomical bodies? To understand, we need to acquaint ourselves with the daily rhythms of life in Egypt, lives that were so intimately connected to the mighty river Nile.

Egypt was one of the world’s first agricultural civilisations, and its fortunes, thus, were related to those of the immensely long river that flowed through it. Farming requires planning: you need to know when to sow, when to reap, and you need to know when the river will burst its banks and cover the plain with fertile mud. For all this, you need a concept of time.

To make use of the Nile’s life-giving properties in the dreary desert of Egypt, it was vital for the farmers to know when the river was about to flood. For them, an ability to measure time was literally a matter of life and death, and it was to the gods in the sky that they turned to for help. The use of astronomy in the all-important prediction of the annual inundation of the Nile can be seen in that myth of drunkenness and murder involving the seductive goddess Hathor. Hathor, also known as the star-spangled heavenly cow, was a seductive courtesan and dancer, and also, herself, a lover of the great Ra. We are told of a time when the divine Ra had grown old and dribbled at the mouth, and was mocked by mortal men and women. He summoned the other gods and goddesses to his great house, and spoke to them of the evil words used against him. It was decided that the Eye of Ra should go forth on Hathor and destroy all those who had spoken ill of him. Hathor rampaged throughout Egypt, putting the insolent mortals to the sword. The savage massacre continued until there were hardly any humans left. But Ra realised that Hathor had to be stopped in order to preserve humanity. So he made seven thousand pots of beer and poured them into the Nile. The river rose, flooding the land around, and Hathor noticed her lovely reflection in the rising waters and knelt before the Nile to drink. She drank and drank, until the river subsided, and by the time she had drunk all the seven thousand pots of beer, she was in no condition to kill any more.

The Ancient Egyptians connoted the Sun with Ra, who grows feeble as the summer comes to an end. Hathor they associated with what they called the Dog Star, or Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. Sometime in 3500 BC, it was observed that there was a time of the year when Sirius rose just before the Sun at dawn. This event, it was further noted, presaged the annual flooding of the Nile. By charting the progress of the divine gods, the Egyptians realised they could predict momentous events on Earth, such as the passing of the seasons and the floods of their life-giving river. The acts of the gods had direct consequences on their lives, and that is why it was necessary to worship these gods.

But Ra and Hathor only told the time two or three times a year. The Egyptians needed to tell time at greater frequency than this, and they turned to the wisest of the gods for assistance. Thoth, who accompanied Ra in his royal barge across the day, was the god of wisdom and time. He was depicted with an ibis-head crowned by the rising moon, and this is no accident. The moon, realised the priests of Egypt, was an uncannily regular timekeeper. Over its period of 28 days, it waxed and waned, and its phases had bearings on events on Earth – the tides, for example, or the menstrual cycle of women. And as far as we know, the Egyptians were the first people to divide the year into months, and this was such an important innovation that the moon-god, Thoth, became one of their most revered divinities. And although Ra the Sun was the creator, Thoth the Moon was the controller of the Universe.

But there is a problem. The sun governs the year, the moon controls the month, but there is no satisfyingly regular relation between the length of the month and that of the year. The Egyptians had other difficulties: they didn’t know exactly how long a year was, or when it began and ended. The most important myths of these people, therefore, dealt with their efforts to mark out astronomical time.

Initially, for instance, the astronomer priests believed that the solar year was 360 days long (which, indeed, is the origin of our 360-degree circle). But this  error meant that their seasons began to gradually slip out of line, forcing them to adjust their calendars every few years. Finally, they realised that they needed to increase their reckoning of the year by five days, and this realisation manifested itself in yet another myth of revenge and jealousy.

We are told that the beauteous goddess of the Milky Way, Nut, fell in love with her brother, the Earth god Geb, whom the Egyptians depicted as a bird. But when Nut began to make love to Geb, who should appear but her husband, the great god Ra? Trembling with jealous rage, Ra put a curse on his cheating wife: she would be unable to bear children on any day of the year. The clever Nut realised she could get around this curse by extending the number of days in the year, and to achieve this, she seduced Thoth. After having his wicked way with her, Thoth agreed to help, and oddly enough, began a game of draughts with the goddess Isis, wife of Osiris, whose death marked the shortest day of the year. To the Egyptians, draughts charted the movements of the stars and were much used in astrology; indeed, Thoth himself is said to have invented the board. Unsurprisingly, Thoth was able to defeat Isis and claimed the extra five days as his prize, which Nut then used to give birth to five children; and so it was that the ancient Egyptians became the first people to use a 365-day calendar.

Why did the Egyptians require precision to within a day? Farmers only need accuracy up to the seasons, but the civilisation they wrought had need for far finer details in time. The priests were not just astronomers and religious figures; they were also administrators who needed to organise the business of state. They needed to calculate taxes and pay workers; they needed to agree contracts and arrange building work. These people needed to know what day it was. Such was the sophistication of this culture that they needed to measure time in units smaller than a day! Again the Egyptians found the metronome for such time in the heavens, and again they depicted its discovery in their sagas.

Once again, we have a story of Ra and Nut. Every night when Ra was swallowed by Nut, he was transformed into Osiris, the ram-headed god of the dead. As Osiris, he was forced to sail down the Tuapt, the dangerous river that flows through Nut, passing through twelve gates where the powers of evil congregated to thwart him in his progress. Osiris had to defeat living mummies and the terrifying snake demon with twelve human heads on its back, until in the morning he re-emerged as Ra from the birth canal of Nut.

006 nut rameses VI The story of the twelve gates played an important part in Egyptian mythology, as can be seen, for example, in the superb burial chamber of Rameses VI in the Valley of the Kings. A fresco on the ceiling shows the entire legend in spectacular detail: the golden naked body of Nut in a double line across the sky, one side of her representing day, the other night. We see the evening sun entering her mouth and winding its way through her body. The twelve gates through which Osiris must pass are marked by twelve solar discs. At the end of the journey, we see him emerge again as Ra, triumphant in the dawn.

007 zodiac So what is the astronomical significance of these twelve gates? Well, each gate was a star, used by the priesthood to mark time. If they looked at the eastern sky at any period of time, they would see different stars rising and setting, each one following the other and making a great arc across the sky. At first, the Egyptians divided their sky into 18 divisions of the night, each one marked by a star, but they found that at dusk and dawn they lost several of these stars to the twilight. So they ended up using twelve bright stars, which divided the sky into twelve equal sections of darkness; by seein which star was rising, they could tell which gate Osiris was encountering at that point in time, and how many more he had to pass through before being reborn in the glory of the dawn sky. 

The priests didn’t stop measuring time at dawn; instead, they developed water clock to continue the division of the daytime into twelfths. Thus they became known as the Overseers of the Hours. And here we have the origin of our 24-hour day: twelve-hour night and twelve-hour day. For the Egyptians, the hours were a wondrous thing.

The conquest of time is one of the cornerstones of our civilization, for it allows us to reckon our seasons, grow our food, and order our lives. Astronomical timekeeping in Egypt, then, was not incidental to daily life. It was vital.

But we must remember that to the Egyptians the gods were not mere artefacts of astronomy. They were powerful beings that imposed morality and ethics, whose actions had direct consequences on their daily lives. One of the most bizarre of the myths recounts the battle between Order and Chaos, something that was of supreme relevance to the Egyptians’ existence and prosperity, and their fear that Chaos was an ever-present and lurking danger.

Chaos, the Egyptians knew, was a constant threat. There was natural chaos: disease, famine. There was social chaos: criminals, wars and invasions. Bad monarchs meant that there was no justice in the land. Chaos was personified by Seth, the god of destruction and disorder. We are told that Osiris was killed by Seth who hacked his body and scattered the pieces throughout Egypt. Isis, his wife, was distraught because his death meant that she would have no son to inherit Osiris’s kingdom, which would then fall to Seth. So she went in search of the pieces of her husband so that she might conceive from his reconstructed body. Unfortunately, Seth had thrown Osiris’s phallus into the Nile where it had been eaten by a fish. Nevertheless, Isis was able to construct another phallus from the parts of Osiris’s body she found, and with that was able to conceive a new Sun God, Horus. Horus tried to reconcile the warring gods and Seth invited him to his house. When Seth saw Horus, he became aroused and tried to violate the falcon-headed god. He failed in his attempt, but accidentally ejaculated into the hand of Horus. Horus ran to his mother to complain of his violation; outraged, Isis grabbed a sword and hacked off her son’s polluted hand and threw it into the Nile. She constructed a new hand for Horus and excited him sexually and collected his seed in a pot and secretly went to the house of Seth where she discovered some cabbages and poured the seed onto them. Ignorant Seth ate the cabbages and became pregnant with the child of Horus. Now Thoth, as governor of the living sky gods, entered the story. He summoned Seth and Horus to him to attempt to reconcile the two. He ordered that the child growing within Seth should come forth, and come forth he did, a new planetary disk, child of light and dark. Before Seth could claim suzerainty over the disc, Thoth wrestled it away from him, and triumphantly placed it on his own head.

008This is a story of the battle between good and evil, and light and dark, and order and chaos, in which good only wins because of the intervention of Thoth, the moon god. Egyptians described the moon poetically as the child of light and dark, it dispels the dark night with light, and as the primary clock in the sky, imposes order on chaos. Thoth himself as governor of the gods imposed logical order upon stellar and planetary movements, and thus became the Egyptian god of logic and numbers and reckoning as well as language. He was held in special reverence, and they called him the Prince of Books and the Lord of Truth.

Astronomy was religion for the Egyptians because of the deep connection that they saw between events in the heavens and the consequences on Earth. They wished to bring the order and reason and truth they saw in the heavens down to earth and make it a living moral force in their own lives. Indeed, they had a goddess whose special task this was. She was the goddess Ma’at, the third traveller in Ra’s royal barge across the sky. Ma’at was a goddess of paramount importance to the Egyptians. When a king ruled in Ma’at’s name, there was peace and prosperity and order in the land. The Pharaohs had to earn the blessing of Ma’at by governing with the same logic and law on earth that they could see manifest in the heavens.

Today we have driven a wedge between religion and science. Religion is about good and evil, whereas Science is about cold facts and truths. But the astronomer priests of antiquity perhaps recognised better than us that the ability to understand the patterns of nature, and to use this knowledge for our own ends is what protects us from Chaos. This kind of knowledge is not neutral. It is a force for good. 

[From Allan Chapman’s series on Channel 4 – Gods in the Sky]


km said...

Brilliant stuff. You guys really do get the best science/history shows on TV.

Till PBS broadcasts this, I'll just re-read Joseph Campbell.

(But could this have been split into two or even three posts?)

Fëanor said...

Could have been split, I guess, but the last time I did that, I got a comment suggesting I put it all in one, heh.

Have you read any of D. Boorstin's series (Discoverers, Seekers, etc.)? I think similar stories are discussed in his works...

Veena said...

This is too cool.

And the 4oD player ain't bad at all. I am going to go watch the second episode now.

Fëanor said...

Aha! Rediscovering the wonders of the television, then, Veena? :-)

km said...

There's no pleasing everybody, is there?

Thanks for that reco. I should look up Daniel Boorstin's books.

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