Episode 30: Egypt in a Nut-Shell

June 5, 2023

We turn to ancient Egypt, one of the oldest and most beguiling of the ancient civilizations. Egypt is particularly notable for the sheer conservatism of its civilization and changed little in more than two millennia. After a brief overview of its geography, history, and textual sources, we look at Egyptian conceptions of the creation, structure, and end of the universe.


Good evening, and welcome to the Song of Urania, a podcast about the history of astronomy from antiquity to the present with new episodes every full moon. My name is Joe Antognini.

Well this month I hope to make good on the promise I made to you, dear listeners, two months ago and start to look at the astronomy of one of the oldest and most beguiling civilizations of the ancient world — Ancient Egypt.

Now I think it is fair to say that in recent years ancient Egypt has enjoyed something of a revitalization in appreciation for it by historians of astronomy. Or even maybe not so much a revitalization as just a vitalization. If I were making this podcast fifty years ago, I would not have too much to say on the topic. Historians of science would only bring up the astronomy of Egypt just to point out how little of it there was. One of the sources I’ve found tremendously useful in the past episodes on Babylonian and Greek astronomy is a book by Antonie Pannekoek from 1951 called A History of Astronomy. Pannekoek devoted some 75 pages of his 500 page book to Greek astronomy and about 60 pages to Babylonian astronomy. But when it came to Egyptian astronomy he fit everything he had to say on the subject in under three pages. And to really twist the knife he concludes this chapter with the line, “Egypt can show us how little a science of the stars is fostered even by an ever brilliant sky unless that science finds a practical basis in human life and activity.”

One of the great historians of astronomy, Otto Neugebauer, whom I’ve mentioned several times over the course of this podcast put it a bit more bluntly and in the late 60s wrote, “Astronomy played a uniformly insignificant role in all periods of Egyptian history.”

Today I think it is fair to say that the scholarship on Egyptian astronomy is still rather limited compared to the scale and historical influence of Egyptian civilization, but the greater appreciation that modern historians of astronomy have for Egypt can be attributed to two things. The first is just that Egypt, despite being one of the great civilizations of antiquity, is relatively inaccessible compared to, say, the artifacts left behind by ancient Greece, and as the decades passed, historians have uncovered more and more of the depth of Egyptian astronomy. The other factor is that over the past few decades the umbrella of historical astronomy has broadened somewhat and historians of astronomy have developed interests in topics that were ignored by earlier historians. To earlier generations of historians like Neugebauer and Pannekoek, ancient astronomy was practically synonymous with keeping a calendar and observing and modeling the planetary motions. Naturally, when viewed from this lens, the only ancient civilizations with an astronomy to speak of were the ancient Babylonians and Greeks. And, to be fair, in the overall historical development of astronomy to its modern-day form, modeling planetary motions played an unrivaled role. So these aspects of astronomy really were especially critical in the development of the field. But historians of astronomy today are not only interested in those developments in astronomy where we can draw a more or less straight line from antiquity to the present day. They are also interested in an astronomy understood in a culture’s own terms, not just bits and pieces of it that later cultures found corresponded with their own interests. So today we might spend more effort understanding things like the culture’s cosmological structure, how they read the skies, whether any individuals specialized in watching the skies, and if so, what precisely they were looking for. So if we limit our astronomy to the motion of the planets and maybe the basics of the calendar we can say everything we need to say in three pages flat like Antonie Pannekoek did. But with a broader understanding of astronomy there’s enough material in ancient Egypt to fill a 600 page book, as Juan Belmonte and José Lull recently did.

Well, before we can really get into the astronomy proper, broadly defined or not, it would be good to get better acquainted with the broader cultural and historical context of ancient Egypt. Now if you have been listening to the podcast for some time, you may have noticed by now that I tend to be partial to the idea that civilizations are shaped by the geography that they inhabit, and so I like to spend a bit of time describing that geography and how it may have influenced that civilization’s history. Well, nowhere is this more true than in ancient Egypt, whose culture and activities were all molded by the central feature of Egyptian geography: the Nile. Almost all the inhabited territory of ancient Egypt was a narrow strip of land along the Nile and a fan of marshy territory at the Nile delta, the few exceptions being five oases to the west, the most important of which was the Kharga Oasis. This valley along the Nile is not very wide at all, it’s only 12 miles across at the widest point. But it is long. The Nile is the longest river in Africa, and close to being the longest river in the world as well, just a bit shorter than the Amazon. Egypt was only ever in control of the parts of the river farthest downstream, but that was still enough territory to make it a formidable civilization of the ancient world. There are a couple of major sets of landmarks along the Nile that demarcate the major political boundaries. Starting at the mouth of the river into the Mediterranean and working our way upstream, the first of these is the Nile delta, where the river splinters into a fan of distributaries that empty into the Mediterranean Sea. The first major split produces the Damietta distributary to the east and the Rosetta distributary to the west, Damietta and Rosetta also being the port cities on the Mediterranean that these distributaries empty out to. The location where the Nile first split into the Rosetta and Damietta and the Nile delta began was an extremely important point in the geography of Egypt. One of the main capitals of ancient Egypt, the city of Memphis, sat just upstream of this location, as does the modern capital of Egypt, Cairo. And this was also roughly the location of Heliopolis, one of the most important religious complexes in ancient Egypt.

This point also marked the division between the two main regions of ancient Egypt: upper Egypt and lower Egypt. Upper Egypt referred to the region upstream of the Nile and was topographically higher than Lower Egypt, which consisted of the Nile delta. So if you look at it on an ordinary map with north pointing up you’ll find that upper Egypt is below lower Egypt.

The second major set of landmarks are called the six cataracts of the Nile. The cataracts are points where the Nile is shallower and the flow of the river is interrupted by boulders to produce whitewater rapids. These cataracts impede navigation by boat and form natural boundaries along the Nile, so the traditional southernmost border for upper Egypt was at the first cataract, at the city of Aswan, about 500 miles away from the Mediterranean. South of the first cataract was a region called Nubia that was occupied by several empires over the centuries, the most powerful of which was the Kingdom of Kush. Nubia extended south to the final landmark along the Nile at the modern day city of Khartoum, where the Nile splits into two major tributaries, the Blue Nile, which meanders to the east and the White Nile, which continues to travel largely south. These two tributaries get their names from the colors of the water — the White Nile carries a larger amount of sediment which makes it appear lighter in color, whereas the water carried by the Blue Nile is clearer. The White Nile ultimately finds its source some 2300 miles south at Lake Victoria, although hairsplitters will point out that actually the source of the White Nile is a downstream lake, Lake No, since the Nile then splits into two, the Bahr al Jabal and Bahr el Ghazel rivers, which later join up again at Lake Victoria.

But for the history of ancient Egypt, the Blue Nile was far more important, though the Egyptians probably weren’t directly aware of it. I mentioned in the last episode that the eastern half of the African continent is geologically younger and at higher elevations, and the place where this is most pronounced is in northern and central Ethiopia, which forms the Ethiopian highlands. Here, being at high elevation and not too far from the Indian Ocean, the highlands catch the weather patterns from the Indian Ocean, and in particular are subject to the summer monsoons of the Asia-Australian weather system. Consequently, starting in June or so, the highlands begin to receive a tremendous amount of precipitation that lasts through the summer until about September. Much of this precipitation is carried away by the Blue Nile and downstream this causes the Nile to flood every year. This annual flooding was the central event of the Egyptian year and was what the entire agricultural system, and by extension the entire culture, depended on. After all, Egypt gets very little rain. It is not unusual for the southern parts of Upper Egypt to go a full decade without seeing any rain at all. But the annual floods of the Nile would form a marsh along the valley bed that would soak the soil. Once the floodwaters had receded, the soil would retain enough moisture to permit crops to grow without any rainfall being necessary.

Because the Egyptians depended critically on the floodwaters from the Nile for their food, sophisticated irrigation and floodwater management was of paramount importance for the civilization and seems to have been what drove the development of the Egyptian state in the first place. The region had been sparsely inhabited by hunter-gatherers since the paleolithic, but the main spur to development seems to have started around 6000 BC, when the Sahara began to transform from grasslands to a desert. The increasing desiccation of the Sahara forced more and more people into the Nile valley who then turned from a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a sedentary agricultural lifestyle, perhaps out of necessity due to the limited space, or perhaps because it was simply more convenient. Either way, around 3600 BC the inhabitants of the Nile valley were subsisting on domesticated crops and animals, and over the next few centuries the increasing population density necessitated larger scale organization to handle the periodic flooding from the Nile. As in other parts of the world, this seems to have begun with the development of city-states, but the period of independent city-states was relatively short-lived in Egypt. Fairly rapidly, neighboring city-states coalesced into three kingdoms in Upper Egypt, and one in Lower Egypt, and by about 3200 BC the three kingdoms of Upper Egypt had coalesced into a single kingdom as well.

The official start of ancient Egypt, though, is taken to be around 3150 BC when, at least according to Egyptian tradition, the king of Upper Egypt, named Menes, succeeded in conquering Lower Egypt and managed to unify Egypt into a single political entity. Now over the centuries Menes became more legendary than historical. He became a divine figure in Egyptian mythology but some king from Upper Egypt did indeed conquer Lower Egypt, and modern historians believe that it was probably a king named Narmer. Nevertheless, we can see the importance that managing the annual flooding had for the state from the fact that the earliest depiction of King Menes shows him building an irrigation canal. But even after this unification by the legendary King Menes, Upper Egypt and Lower retained a nominal sense of independent identities. For about a millennium after its unification, the Pharaoh would wear two crowns to represent the separate kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt, and when the Pharaoh died he would be buried twice, once in Upper Egypt and then again in Lower Egypt. And as an aside here, using the word Pharaoh to describe these ancient kings is common, but strictly speaking is something of an anachronism. During this early period, the word “pharaoh” referred to the court and palace where the king ruled from, rather than the man himself. It’s only after a millennium or so that the word pharaoh came to be identified with the person of the king. But it’s such a nice word that most people tend to use it to refer to the Egyptian king throughout all periods of Egyptian history, and that’s what I’m going to do.

Now, traditionally, the history of ancient Egypt as a unified, independent state is divided into three main periods called the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom, and these three periods are interspersed with two so-called Intermediate periods, each about a century or two long, which were more chaotic times when the Egyptian state fragmented either from internal or external forces.

Now, it’s worth pointing out at this stage that the history and culture of ancient Egypt, including its astronomy, is almost exclusively a culture of the elites. Relative to other ancient civilizations, Egypt was extremely centralized. Part of the reason for this was that Egypt never had a long tradition of strong, independent city-states in the same way that Mesopotamia, or especially Greece did. Many of the Egyptian cities were either little more than glorified markets where commoners would occasionally coalesce to buy and sell things they needed, or, in the case of the capitals, essentially large palace complexes. True urban environments were not a large part of the Egyptian culture. Egyptian society was characterized first and foremost by the pharaoh and then his court of officials and priests. Below them was a vast mass of peasants who factor very little into any of the surviving artifacts of Egyptian culture, apart from the obvious fact that it was their hands that built Egypt’s great monuments. Because of this, the surviving artifacts we have really only give us a view into Egyptian society from the perspective of the elite. We can see this bias, for instance, in these so-called Intermediate periods, which histories of Egypt will normally characterize as being chaotic periods that produced little culture. And indeed it was so for the Egyptian elite. But some fragments suggest that the common people may have viewed things a little differently. One author writing during the First Intermediate Period commented that after the disintegration of the unified Egyptian state, “the high born are full of lamentation, but the poor are jubilant.” Temples were looted, which probably upset the priests, but seems to have been to the benefit, or at least not the detriment, of the commoners.

Well, each of the three kingdoms, old, middle, and new, lasted around half a millennium apiece, and by the late second millennium, Egypt found that it was not immune to the Late Bronze Age Collapse that afflicted so many other civilizations of the Bronze Age. Around the 1180s, Egypt was attacked by the mysterious Sea Peoples, and although the pharaoh was able to hold them off, the waves of attacks proved costly to the Egyptian state, and unable to handle the subsequent several decades of prolonged drought and famine. After this, the Egyptian state began to fragment and various parts were invaded, either from the south by the Kushites, the east by the Assyrians and Persians, or eventually from the north by the Macedonians led by Alexander the Great in the late 300s. And after his death, one of his generals, Ptolemy Soter, established three centuries of culturally Greek rule over Egypt, which was followed by the Roman conquest of the land. But regardless, after around 1050 BC or so, ancient Egypt never achieved its former glory as a fully independent, unified state.

But, until then, for the most part, over a span of more than two millennia, Egypt was the preeminent civilization in the region. One of the most remarkable features of ancient Egypt was the sheer conservatism of the culture, and I mean this in the literal sense of the word. From what we can tell, the culture simply did not change very much over a period of more than 2000 years. Even after Egypt as a unified, independent political entity ceased to exist in the wake of the late Bronze Age collapse, the religious practices of the priests in Egypt’s temples appear to have continued largely unchanged for yet another millennium until the old polytheistic religion died out around the 4th century AD in favor of the new religion of Christianity. The characteristic style of Egyptian art that everyone is familiar with persisted from the beginning of the Old Kingdom all the way through to the end of the New Kingdom.

So, that is a very coarse sketch of Egyptian geography and history, but before getting into the astronomy proper as with the other civilizations I’ve talked about, I would like to lay out how exactly we know what we know about ancient Egypt. What are the sources we’re working with?

One of the really striking things about Egyptian sources is the extent to which they are funeral texts. The vast majority of the most important sources we have on ancient Egypt are funerary. It’s hard to get away from the impression that the Egyptians were obsessed with death and the afterlife, but really, given what they left to posterity, they kind of left us with no other choice. The dwellings they lived in were largely built of impermanent materials, whereas the pharaohs truly spared no expense in building massive, lavishly decorated tombs for themselves. So, much of what survives of ancient Egyptian literature comes to us from these tombs. Now, I don’t to overstate this, there is also quite a lot of other ancient Egyptian texts that are not directly funerary in nature, in particular by the New Kingdom. There are letters, histories, decrees, texts written on monuments and so forth. But even in texts that were not directly preserved in the tombs the theme of death and the afterlife is dominant. One fascinating text is called, at least in one translation, “The Debate between a Man and his Soul,” and is a piece of wisdom literature from the Middle Kingdom in which a man tells his soul how he longs for death so that he can escape the hardships and tribulations of life on Earth and enjoy the promised splendors of the afterlife. His soul, on the other hand, attempts to convince him of the value of earthly life.

Probably the three most important texts, though, are directly funerary. The oldest of these is called the Pyramid Texts and consists of hieroglyphs carved onto the walls and sarcophagi of the pyramids at Saqqara. These texts date to the Old Kingdom with the earliest going back to the 24th century BC, so they written after the construction of the more famous pyramids at Giza.

The second text is called the “Coffin Texts” and appears in the Middle Kingdom. These were written on the coffin itself but sometimes also the walls of the tomb or other objects in the tomb. The Coffin Texts are associated with a phenomenon that developed during the Middle Kingdom that has been termed “the democratization of the afterlife.” In the Old Kingdom, only the grand tombs of the pharaohs were adorned with magic spells to aid the pharaoh in the afterlife. The tombs of everyone else, even relatively wealthy individuals, or powerful officials, had no such adornments. Now, this observation admits a number of interpretations, and at one extreme it’s been claimed that during the Old Kingdom, ancient Egyptians held that only the pharaoh had the privilege of experiencing an afterlife. The rest of us poor schmucks would be consigned to an eternity of oblivion. But starting in the Middle Kingdom we find that the tombs of wealthy individuals begin to be covered in the same kinds of incantations to aid them in the afterlife that in the Old Kingdom had been the preserve of the pharaohs. This “democratization of the afterlife” has been tied into the general weakening of the Egyptian state during the First Intermediate Period. But some Egyptologists like Mark Smith at Oxford have argued that the extent of this change has been rather overstated in the literature. While there was indeed a large increase in the number of people who were granted spells in their tomb during Middle Kingdom, there are nevertheless a few, albeit rare, examples of non-royal tombs being granted spells during the Old Kingdom, and there is quite a bit of circumstantial evidence that it was not unknown for non-royal individuals in the Old Kingdom to have had the benefit of incantations to aid them in the afterlife. At any rate, the Coffin Texts are the set of these new texts that appear in the tombs of wealthy or high ranking individuals during the Middle Kingdom.

The last of the most important texts is perhaps the most famous and is commonly known as the Book of the Dead. These days, though, Egyptologists prefer the more accurate, though admittedly less evocative translation, “The Book of the Coming Forth by Day.” As I am not an Egyptologist and “The Book of the Coming Forth by Day” is a bit of a mouthful, I’ll stick with the more popular title, Book of the Dead. The Book of the Dead shows up in the New Kingdom and, like the Pyramid Texts and Coffin Texts was also funerary. But unlike those older texts which were written onto the walls or coffins, the Book of the Dead was written onto papyrus and then placed into the tomb. The development of the Book of the Dead put the blessings of the afterlife into the reach of people of even more modest means. Getting a copy of the Book of the Dead in your tomb was by no means cheap, it’s estimated to have cost about half the annual wages of a laborer, but a man of modest means could afford it. Comparisons with present day money are always lacking, but you could estimate it as costing of order, say, fifty thousand dollars. Not cheap by any means, but if you were not a peasant and you really wanted it, you could probably swing it. And although at the start of the New Kingdom the Book of the Dead was almost the exclusive preserve of men, as the centuries went on, more and more women were buried with a Book of the Dead, too.

Now, one thing to point out here is that these texts had no canonical versions. If you went into two different New Kingdom tombs and compared the Book of the Dead you found in each one, you would find that there were a lot of similarities between the two, but they were by no means identical. Individuals who commissioned a Book of the Dead seem to have been able to customize its contents to some extent. So if you were to go to Amazon and buy a copy of the Book of the Dead, which, thanks to modern printing techniques costs considerably less than $50,000, the version you will get will probably be a collection of spells and hymns that were drawn from a variety of individual sources.

Now, beyond these three best known texts, there were, of course, many other Egyptian texts, but for the history of astronomy, there are a few that are especially relevant, all of which are also funerary texts and all of which date from the New Kingdom. Two of them are the Book of Gates and the Amduat, and both of them describe the journey of the Sun through the underworld over the course of the night and describe the stages or gates of this journey at each of the 12 hours of the night. The other collection of texts is collectively called the Books of the Sky, and consists of four books: the Book of the Day and the Book of the Night, both of which have obvious relevance to the heavens, then the Book of Nut, Nut being the goddess of the sky, and lastly the Book of the Heavenly Cow, a cow being one of the representations of the sky goddess Nut.

Now, one of the difficulties in studying these texts is that they are written in a script that went extinct around 1700 years ago when the last of the Egyptian priests died out after Christianity became the dominant religion, and to make matters worse, the language that that script represented also mostly died out a few hundred years after that when Islam entered the region, and Arabic became the vernacular language. If you recall the major African language branches I talked about in the last episode, you probably won’t be too surprised to hear based on its location in northeast Africa that Ancient Egyptian fell into the Afro-Asiatic family. Since it no longer exists it’s a little hard to categorize and generally is placed its own distinct branch of the Afro-Asiatic family, but it seems to have been most closely related to the Berber and Semitic branches. Today the closest surviving relative of ancient Egyptian is the Coptic language, which is no longer spoken as a vernacular language, but survives in a more limited form in the liturgies of the Coptic Orthodox and Coptic Catholic Churches. In this way its status is somewhat like that of Hebrew 150 years ago, not spoken anywhere in day-to-day life, but still preserved for religious purposes.

But by far the most beguiling characteristic of the ancient Egyptian language was its writing system of hieroglyphics. Now, ancient Egyptian actually had three distinct scripts of which hieroglyphics were only one, but hieroglyphics were the oldest, most elaborate, and most formal, so it was what we see engraved on the walls of tombs, painted onto coffins, or written into a Book of the Dead, and so it’s the script that we most closely associate with ancient Egypt. But the intricate and figurative shapes of hieroglyphs that give them their charm also makes them rather impractical for day to day use. So fairly early on, in the protodynastic period before the Old Kingdom even began, ancient Egyptians developed an alternative script called hieratic, which was a sort of cursive version of hieroglyphs. Eventually, almost half a millennium after the fall of the New Kingdom, a third script emerged called demotic which was more like a standard phonetic alphabet.

Well, by the time that the demotic script became common, knowledge of the older, formal hieroglyphic script became confined to the priests and seems to have been kept something of a secret. The hieroglyphic system was discussed by a couple of ancient Greek and Roman authors, but their knowledge of the script was very limited and they all had fundamental misconceptions about how it worked. By the time the last of the Egyptian priests had died off and the old temples closed up shop in the 4th century AD, no one alive had knowledge of how to read hieroglyphs any longer.

Over the centuries the odd scholar here or there attempted to decipher the mysterious script that appeared on the magnificent monuments that Egypt left behind, but these efforts bore no fruit. The fundamental misconception that Islamic and Western scholars had about the script, from the time of the Greeks onwards was that they were rather bewitched by its elaborate and naturalistic forms, and labored under the conviction that hieroglyphs were ideograms, where each symbol represented an individual idea or object. Or in other words, they worked under the assumption that a hieroglyph represented an entire word, generally in a fairly literal way. So if you saw a bird, people would try to interpret that symbol as a literal bird, or a symbol that looked like a beetle as a literal beetle. But Egyptian hieroglyphs do not work this way, so this produced gibberish and was a doomed effort from the start. Although hieroglyphs probably originated as ideograms in their early past, for the most part, hieroglyphs throughout recorded Egyptian history are what are called logoconsonantal, where the symbol represents the consonants of a word. For example, the hieroglyph for the word “son,” as in a person’s male child, is written with a drawing of a duck, because the word for son had the consonants “skh” and the word for “duck” also had the consonants “skh,” though almost certainly these two words had different vowels.

But without knowing these fundamental mechanics, no one made any progress deciphering hieroglyphics until the early 1800s, after the discovery of the famous Rosetta Stone by Napoleon’s army in, as you can probably infer, Rosetta, the port city that the Rosetta distributary of the Nile opens out to on the Mediterranean. The contents of the Rosetta stone are fairly prosaic, at least unless you’re really into the domestic politics of early 2nd century Ptolemaic Egypt. It praises the Pharaoh Ptolemy V for reducing or eliminating many taxes, establishes temples dedicated to the Pharaoh, grants amnesty to some prisoners, and declares some new festivals to celebrate the Pharaoh. But the contents of the text were not what really made it valuable. What was valuable about the stone was that this same text was repeated in three separate scripts: ancient Greek, demotic Egyptian, and, crucially, hieroglyphics. Now, the stone was not in mint condition and the upper part in particular was the most badly damaged, and unfortunately that was the part that was used to write the message in hieroglyphs. But nevertheless 14 lines of hieroglyphs survived, in addition to 32 lines of demotic and 54 lines of Greek. In the two decades after its discovery the most substantial progress in understanding it was made by the English scholar Thomas Young. Incidentally, ancient languages were not Young’s only speciality, we’ll probably talk about him again in a much later episode when we get to the astronomy of the early 19th century. You may have already heard of him from the Young’s modulus and the famous double slit experiment which was a conclusive demonstration that light was a wave and not a particle. But one of the things that Young realized while looking at the text of the stone was that there were simply too few distinct characters on the stone for the hieroglyphs to represent individual concepts and he concluded that there must be a phonetic component to hieroglyphs. With this key insight he was able to identify the hieroglyphs that represented the name Ptolemy. But unfortunately, without more knowledge of the language he was able to proceed no further.

The man who was able to do this was a young French scholar. This scholar was not young in the way that Thomas Young was Young, he was not named Young but was just not very old, starting is work on the Rosetta stone around the age of eighteen. His name was Jean-François Champollion and what gave him an edge in deciphering hieroglyphs was that he happened to have a strong knowledge of the modern day Coptic language. Based on Young’s insight that foreign names like Ptolemy had been written phonetically, Champollion was able to draw on his knowledge of Coptic along with the parallel texts in Greek and demotic to decipher native Egyptian words, and from there he was able to muddle his way through a variety of Egyptian texts that hadn’t been read since antiquity. Now, unfortunately Champollion also had a fundamental misconception about the mechanics of the hieroglyphic system. He had assumed that each symbol represented only a single phoneme and had also applied modern day Coptic syntax a bit too rigorously in his translations. Modern Coptic resembles ancient Egyptian rather in the way that modern French resembles classical Latin. You can easily see the origin of French words in the Latin language, but they are also obviously different languages and there are non-trivial differences in both syntax and vocabulary. Sadly Champollion died before his time, but about a decade after his death, in the late 1830s, a German philologist named Karl Richard Lepsius made the final breakthrough and realized that individual hieroglyphs do not necessarily represent a single phoneme, but for the most part represent an entire syllable of one, two, or three consonants.

With the benefit of another 170 years of study, modern Egyptologists have a pretty good grasp of the ancient Egyptian language. That said, the language is not perfectly known. Many pronunciations are rather conjectural because the Egyptians, as with many ancient languages, generally did not write down their vowels. So modern transliterations of Egyptian hieroglyphs look something like a caricature of an eastern European language, they’re just a long string of consonants with nary a vowel in sight. And as we’ll see in a future episode, the meanings of many words are still debated. So understanding ancient Egyptian is by no means a solved problem.

Okay, so that is a bit about how it is that we’ve come to know what we know about ancient Egypt. Now by this point in the episode you can probably infer that there is no way that I can cover all of ancient Egyptian astronomy in a single episode, so for the rest of this episode I’ll confine myself to a few small topics: the beginning of the universe, the end of the universe, and structure of the universe.

Now, I mentioned earlier that Egypt was a remarkably conservative society and its religious practices changed very little for around three millennia. But little change is not the same as no change, and there are five distinct creation myths that survive in the literature. That said, the oldest and by far the most important of these is what is called the Heliopolitan cosmogony because it details the birth of the nine deities who were worshipped in the temples at Heliopolis. The main source for the Heliopolitan cosmogony is the Pyramid Texts, but this creation myth was pervasive enough that it also appears in much later works including the Coffin Texts and the Book of the Dead.

In this story the universe begins in a state that is called Nu or Nun. Now, many cultures begin their creation myths in a similar kind of way. If we think back to the Greek creation myth, Hesiod tells that the universe begins in a state identified with the god Chaos and is described as a vast void. In the Hebrew cosmogony the Universe begins as a “watery void.” We also saw last month that according to the Bushongo in the beginning the universe was nothing but a dark water. The sense of the Nun is similar to these ideas, the Nun is portrayed as a vast emptiness, but not so much in the sense of a literal emptiness as a void is empty, but more in the sense of being inert, silent, still, and dark. While there is nothing of any form, it’s not a vacuum — the Nun contains the essence of all things. The idea of chaos is connected to the Nun, but not so much the destructive sense that we associate with the word “chaos” today, only in the sense that there is simply no order to begin with for the chaos to destroy.

Throughout most of Egyptian history, the demiurge, the creator of the universe, in the Heliopolitan cosmogony was identified the god Atum. In the very earliest days, prior to the Protodynastic period the demiurge may have been the falcon god Horus, and towards the New Kingdom Atum became more closely associated with the Sun god Ra. But throughout most of Egyptian history it was Atum who started it all.

Atum’s very name reflects his role in the creation of the universe. In a similar kind of way that the Biblical God reveals his name to Moses to mean “I am who am,” Atum’s name is associated with the word “to complete,” so the most straightforward interpretation of the meaning of his name is that he is “the completed one,” which could be read as the most complete being, and the being who completed the creation of the universe and will bring the universe itself to completion at the end of time. Another reading by the Egyptologist Rudolf Anthes is that Atum means “the one who has been completed by absorbing the other first living beings.” In this sense, Atum is the collection of the vital essence that existed dispersed throughout the Nun. This vital essence was known in the Egyptian religion as the “ka,” and every person was born with a spirit called his “ka.” When I talked earlier about the text “The Debate between a Man and His Soul,” the soul that the man is debating with is his Ka, and the implication of Atum’s emergence from the Nun is that all Ka in the universe proceeds from him and is, ultimately, a gift from him, and he will bring all the Ka in the universe back to himself at some point in the future.

In the Coffin Texts, Atum says that prior to creating the universe, “I floated sluggishly, my limbs inert.” Atum then emerges from the Nun solely by his own will. In the Coffin Texts he describes it as “disturbing my repose,” and later on says “I brought my body into being through my power. I am one who made myself, and I formed myself at my will according to my desire.”

Atum’s creation of himself from the Nun is then described as being a primordial hill that emerges from the water, thereby creating the beginnings of the Earth. From there he next creates two deities, Shu, and Tefnut. The Pyramid Texts explain that “he put his penis in his fist so that he might make orgasm with it, and the two twins were born, Shu and Tefnut.”

In another, less sexual, description Atum sneezes out Shu and spits out Tefnut. This mode of birth seems to have been chosen because Shu, who was sneezed, is the god of air and Tefnut, who was spat, is the goddess of moisture. Shu and Tefnut then know each other in the Biblical sense and Tefnut gives birth to Nut, the goddess of the sky, hence the title of this episode. Nut is in a way the Egyptian version of the Greek God Atlas, but unlike Atlas, who sits under the Earth and is condemned to support the vault of the heavens on his shoulder, Nut herself is the sky. In Egyptian art she is depicted as a woman who literally bends over the entirety of the Earth, with her feet on one side, and her arms touching the ground on the other. We on the ground essentially observe the stars emblazoned on her belly. In later representations Nut is also depicted as a cow standing over the Earth whose four legs represent the four cardinal directions.

How it was that Nut came to be the goddess of the sky is conveyed in the Book of the Heavenly Cow. In this story, early in history, the gods lived on the Earth along with mankind. But humans, being a rebellious lot, attempted to overthrow Ra, the chief of the gods. Ra then convened a council of the gods to deliberate as to what to do with humanity, saying that he could not slay them all without first consulting the other gods. So the gods came before him, among whom included the primordial Nun. Nun argued that there was no need to slay humanity because Ra was far more powerful. It was just that proper fear of the gods needed to be instilled in humanity. So Nun proposed that Ra, along with the rest of the gods, should be elevated to the heavens. Nun ordered that Ra be placed on Nut’s back and elevated above humanity, and in so doing she took the form of a cow towering above the Earth.

After becoming the sky, Nut marvelled at her own majesty and asked that she be provided with a multitude to worship her splendor, and thus the Milky Way was created. Then Ra, now in the heavens, looked about and said, “This field is peaceful. I shall make vegetation grow in it and provide them with everything.” And so the planets and stars came into being. Then, being overcome by fear at the great height Nut now found herself in, she began shaking, and so Ra created the Infinite Ones and placed them at the twilight to support the sky.

Well this image of the goddess Nut either as a cow or a woman hunched over the Earth forms the basis for Egyptian cosmology. In Egyptian depictions of the universe Nut is probably the most striking feature of the image. Like nearly every other ancient civilization, the Earth itself was conceived of as a disk, and the whole structure was supported by four pillars at the cardinal directions, which could be seen as the limbs of Nut. Below the Earth was the water of the Nun, and the waters themselves actually extended up above the Earth as well, over the sky. Physically, rather than mythologically, the Egyptians thought that the sky was a giant dome made of iron which kept the waters of the Nun from falling below. Evidence for this association of iron with the sky is quite old in the Egyptian sources. The oldest example of the Pyramid texts comes from the tomb of the pharaoh Unas. The inscriptions generally praise the pharaoh and identify him as the incarnation of various gods. For instance one passage identifies him with the god Sobek, who was a symbol of power, male fertility, and war. One portion of the text reads:

Unas has appeared as Sobek, Neith’s son. Unis will eat with his mouth, Unas will urinate and Unas will copulate with his penis. Unas is lord of semen, who takes women from their husbands to the place Unas likes according to his heart’s fancy.

Later on in the text the authors extol the power of the pharaoh Unas and his command over all things, writing: “Unas will acquire the sky and splits its iron.” The Egyptians believed that on occasion a piece of the sky would break off and fall to the Earth and this was what they observed as meteors. Now, what makes this connection between the meteors, the sky, and iron especially intriguing is that there was a major meteor impact in the region around 3000 BC. This impact produced the Gebel Kamil crater. The crater itself is a few hundred miles to the west of the of the Nile, close to the modern-day border between Egypt and Sudan. Because there is so little rain in this region, the Gebel Kamil crater is perhaps the best preserved crater on the planet. Incidentally, the location is so remote that the crater was only discovered in 2008 by accident when an Italian mineralogist was combing through images on Google Earth and noticed the strange feature. Based on the crater, the meteor itself was about 1.3 meters across and it would have been extremely bright and easily visible to the Egyptians hundreds of miles away. Now, whether or not the Egyptians recovered any pieces from this particular meteor is unknown, but what is not in doubt is that they did find iron from some meteor or meteors. Iron derived from meteors can be distinguished from terrestrial iron because it contains more nickel and less carbon, and the oldest iron artifacts in ancient Egypt are all meteoric iron. In fact, the best preserved example of some of this meteoric iron is the blade of a dagger that was buried with the pharaoh Tutankhamen, which suggests that the material was viewed as being both rare and valuable.

Now at this point I should probably make a small detour and say a few words about good old King Tut himself since he is by far the best known of the Egyptian pharaohs today. Of course his modern renown comes from the discovery of his remarkably lavish tomb in 1922, which, fortunately for the dead pharaoh, came at a time when journalism, especially photographic journalism, had been expanding rapidly, which allowed its discovery to be publicized across the Western world, and the public’s fascination with this discovery ensured yet more immortality for King Tut than the already hefty helping of immortality that Egyptian pharaohs are accustomed to.

But the splendor of King Tutankhamen’s tomb was probably a reflection of the internal politics and religious turmoil of his own time in the late New Kingdom, and, in fact, his own name almost tells the whole story. Tutankhamen had been preceded by a pharaoh named Amenhotep IV. Now I mentioned earlier that one of the defining features of Egyptian civilization was its tremendous conservatism. But Amenhotep IV threw caution to the wind and decided to institute a radical new cult dedicated to the sun-god Aton. To emphasize that he was serious about this change, he founded a new city, built a temple to the new god, and even changed his name to Akhnaton in the new god’s honor. Now this on its own was surely scandalous, but it seems that what made Akhnaton’s changes truly revolutionary was that this cult was monotheistic. In other words, he was not simply adding a new god into the mix of the Egyptian pantheon, or elevating an existing god over the other gods, he was in essence abrogating the religion of Egypt for the past two millennia. It would be rather as though one day the pope declared that the Catholic Church was moving on from the whole Jesus thing. Now, it’s a little unclear what Akhnaton’s motivations were for these changes. Perhaps he had a mystical vision and was a true believer in his new religion. But it’s also possible that he had more cynical, secular motives for his changes. The priests wielded a tremendous amount of power among the Egyptian elite, and by minimizing and eventually more or less outlawing the traditional religious practices, and forcing them into his own cult, Akhnaton may have been trying to get a rival power center in Egyptian society under his control. Regardless, his changes were unsurprisingly vastly unpopular among the priests. After Akhnaton died he was succeeded by his son-in-law Tutankhaton. Tutankhaton did not have the same religious convictions as his father-in-law did and during his reign reversed those changes and restored the old cult to the traditional god Amon. And to show his sincerity, he changed his name from Tutankhaton to Tutankhamen to emphasize the priority of Amon over Aton in the Egyptian pantheon. In gratitude, he was among the few pharaohs to be worshipped as a god while still living and upon his death the priests buried in a particularly lavish tomb.

Okay, well I’ve talked a bit about the Egyptian conception of the creation of the universe and their view of the structure of the universe, let’s turn now to the end times. The Egyptian texts are fairly clear that they believed that the universe would not last forever and that the world would end in some kind of apocalypse. This apocalypse is described most clearly in the Book of the Dead. One passage reads:

What is a span of life? says Osiris [Atum responds:] You are to have millions of millions, a lifespan of millions. … [Then] I shall indeed destroy all I made, and this land shall turn into Nun, as a floodwater, as its original condition. I alone am to remain, with Osiris, when I have transformed myself into other snakes, which men do not know, which gods do not see.

The idea was that Atum had created himself and all things out of the Nun, and in due time, it was in his power to return all things back to the Nun when he so desired, not only mankind and the stars and the Earth, but the gods apart from himself as well. Now, we can’t really understand the Egyptian apocalypse without saying a few things about how the ancient Egyptians conceived of time. I talked a little bit in the last episode about pre-modern conceptions of time and once again we’ll have to step outside of our modern ideas to understand the past. Probably what would be most striking to the modern mind about Egyptian time was that the Egyptian language had no word that directly corresponds to our modern word for “time.” They had several different words which overlap with different meanings of the English word “time,” but which all are somewhat different from each other. Two that come up in discussions of the apocalypse are “neheh” and “djet.” Neheh had the connotation of a cyclical and regenerative process, whereas djet had the connotation of a linear and immutable eternity. The Egyptian vision of the course of the universe was that it was neheh followed by djet. We live in a period of cycles, but eventually these cycles will come to an end when everything returns to the Nun, and they will be replaced by a linear, immutable eternity.

By the later part of the New Kingdom, this conception was depicted by a new symbol which emerges called the “ouroboros,” which is a serpent eating its own tail. This became a fairly popular symbol and spread beyond Egypt’s borders and was adopted by the Greeks and other cultures but it seems to have originated in ancient Egypt. In fact the earliest depiction appears outside of Tutankhamen’s second golden chapel. The serpent eating its own tail represented in a single symbol both the neheh and djet conceptions of time. As the serpent ate its own tail it could regenerate what it had lost, maintaining the circle and symbolizing the neheh. But the process was clearly self-defeating and would one day come to an end, symbolizing the djet.

Well, this episode was focused on some of the more mystical conceptions that the Egyptians had around the heavens, along with a taste of the geographical and historical context that they developed in. But next month we’ll get into somewhat more hard-headed astronomy by looking at who the astronomers of ancient Egypt were and what kinds of observations they made. I hope you’ll join me then. Until the next full moon, good night and clear skies.

Additional references

  • Belmonte, Ancient Astronomy
  • Belmonte & Lull, Astronomy of Ancient Egypt
  • Clagett, Ancient Egyptian Science, Vol. 2