May the sun in heaven be favorable to thee.
Egyptian cosmology is significant both as a study in itself and in view of its significant impact on later Western worldviews, especially in relation to its notions of a cosmos struggle between light and darkness, and elaborate views on the soul’s ascent to the stars, including a judgment of the dead. Merged with Babylonian astral divination and Greek philosophy, Egyptian spirituality gave rise to the Western-Islamic-Indian tradition of astrology. If there is a single theme that lies at the heart of Egyptian spiritual astronomy, it is of the sun in its splendor as an image of monarchy and, in its nocturnal descent to the darkness and rebirth at dawn, as a model both for the repetitive nature of existence and the hope of resurrection after death. It is for these reasons that we may describe ancient Egypt as a “solar society.”
The antecedents of Egyptian civilization in the Nile Valley are evident in the so-called Gerzean culture of around 3200–2850 BCE, when the country’s characteristic monumental architecture and hieroglyphic writing begin to appear. The most dramatic periods from a cosmological point of view are the fourth dynasty of the Old Kingdom (c. 2613–2589), whose Pahoraohs constructed the pyramids at Giza, and the creation of the New Kingdom in around 1570 BCE, which coincided with the first surviving evidence of interest in the planets. Finally, conquest by Alexander the Great in 332 brought Greek domination but also a remarkable period in which the new city of Alexandria became the creative hub of Hellenistic culture, fusing Greek, Babylonian, and Egyptian cosmology into the system that survives as the technical and ideological foundation of all modern Western and Indian astrology. The reliable sources on Egyptian cosmology are few but nevertheless provide sufficient basis for a satisfactory account. I deliberately distinguish reliable from unreliable sources because the latter, which are numerous, are based on speculation and wishful thinking and a curious desire for Egypt to have been a center of wisdom, magic, and technology beyond anything we can establish in the historical record. Most of the available textual sources on Egyptian cosmology are readily available.
Parker’s volume of primary sources, Egyptian Astronomical Texts, compiled with Otto Neugebauer, is an essential work The other crucial primary sources are The Book of the Dead, of which there are two main versions, by E. A. Wallis Budge and O. R. Faulkner, together with a collection of documents by Thomas Urban, Faulkner’s three volumes of The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts, and Samuel Mercer’s The Pyramid Texts.As the titles imply, these works consist of the collected accounts of texts associated with cosmological matters, including funerary rites and the journey to the stars, primarily from pyramids, tombs, and coffin lids. Marshall Clagett’s Ancient Egyptian Science: A Sourcebook, also contains much of relevance to astronomy, calendars, and timekeeping. The most authoritative scholarly works on Egyptian astronomy are R. A. Parker’s articles on “Egyptian Astronomy, Astrology and Calendrical Reckoning” and “Ancient Egyptian Astronomy.” There are additional articles by Otto Neugebauer, Gregg de Young, Kurt Locher, and Ronald Wells.7 The recent volume edited by Juan Antonio Belmonte is, though, a major addition to the field.Together, Jan Assmann’s The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs, Siegfred Morenz’s Egyptian Religion, Stephen Quirke’s The Cult of Ra: Sun-worship in Ancient Egypt, Byron Shafer’s Religion in Ancient Egypt, and Louis Žabkar’s A Study of the Ba Concept in Ancient Egyptian Texts give excellent accounts of Egyptian spiritual cosmology. Jeremy Naydler’s work is also recommended.
The Egyptians’ religious system is best described as cosmotheism, a term which suggests that the cosmos itself is the object of worship.Even though there was a multitude of deities in the Egyptian system, each had a function and a place in the cosmic order, so much so that it was the cosmos itself—the spinning of the stars, the daily movement of the sun, the monthly changes of the moon, and the annual shift of the seasons—that was the ultimate focus of religious ritual. We should be aware, though, of certain limitations in our knowledge. First, in 3,000 years of recorded history we must expect that the meanings of stories and objects could change, develop, and evolve. Second, the modern interpretation of Egyptian hieroglyphics must be necessarily uncertain and provisional: We can neither grasp the nuances nor be certain of any use of metaphor or simile. Third, there is a huge amount of source material, much of it contradictory, so we should resist the tendency to assume a single coherent system of thought and belief, even when it is necessary to generalize. Fourth, most texts contain extracts from stories rather than the full version, and the fullest accounts are often late in the period. It is therefore difficult to construct a complete picture of Egyptian religious literature and myth. As an example, the stories of Osiris and Isis, the archetypal heavenly king and queen, survive only in Greek from the 1st century CE.
Last, the cosmology, religion, and pantheons of Pharaonic Egypt developed as the synthesis of dozens of local cosmologies as the state was created in the late fourth millennium BCE. We should therefore not expect to find single origins. A number of cities contributed local variations to Egyptian cosmology, Khnum (the Greek Hermopolis, or Hermes’ city), Iwnw or On (the Greek Heliopolis, or Sun’s city), and Memphis, to which we can add Busiris and, later, Thebes, the New Kingdom capital.13 As the city-states of the Nile became kingdoms, and the kingdoms united, so each city’s cosmology was adopted, the result being a proliferation of deities with overlapping characters and functions. We may, though, identify four major male creator gods: Thoth (linked with the moon), Ra (a solar deity), Ptah (the “Eternal Mind,” also associated with the underworld), and Osiris (connected to the three stars of Orion’s Belt). Thebes contributed its chief god, Amun.
Such male creator gods could also be gathered together, as they were in the temples constructed by Rameses II at Abu Simbel in the 1240s BCE. There was also a powerful feminine element evident in such goddesses as Nut (the sky) and Isis (the archetypal queen), who was associated with Sirius, the brightest of the fixed stars. In spite of the diversity, though, we can identify certain key themes: The entire cosmos was alive, ensouled, and endowed with personality; human beings possessed an immortal soul that might travel to the stars, the stars and (from the mid–second millennium) the planets were either divine or controlled or represented by deities; and the heavenly bodies moved in an unchanging order that was the basis of the sacred calendar and the timing of religious ritual through the day, month, and year. To the foregoing we need add an important qualification. There is considerable uncertainty as to the precise nature of the Egyptian conception of the soul—whether it was, for example, coincident with the whole human being or separate from it. That it was divided into different constituent features doesn’t help.
So, while we know that the king could travel to the stars, there is doubt as to whether ordinary people might also make this journey. Scholars are coming to accept that they could.The concept of the soul’s ascent to the stars was, according to Herodotus, borrowed by the Greeks.It then became a central feature of Hellenistic astrology and ultimately encouraged Christian belief in a journey to a celestial paradise. Although there was great diversity in the detail of various cosmogonies, they generally tend to assume one of two possibilities: either the emergence of order out of a primeval chaos or creation as deliberate, a physical act. In Mircea Eliade’s terms the origin of the cosmos could therefore be either chaotic or cosmic.In one version of the cosmogony popular at Khnum, the original existence was Nun, the Primeval Waters or Primordial Ocean, dark, deep, endless, and infinite. Sometimes called “Father of the Gods,” Nun had neither temples nor worshipers and manifested in eight original deities, representing his four qualities, subdivided in turn into male and female forms. In another variant, a lotus flower grew out of the Primeval Waters.
When its petals, which had been closed in the primeval darkness, opened, the creator of the world sprang from its heart in the form of a beautiful child. This was the infant sun, who immediately spread his rays of light throughout the world; at dusk, darkness falls as the lotus petals enclose the sun, while at dawn they open and light floods out. In a third version the creator god, Neb-er-Djer (“the Universal Lord”), created the deities from his sweat and humanity from his tears (remeyt = tears, romet = men). Nun also seems to have been revered at Iwnw, but Atum (probably meaning the “Complete One”) was the effective creator. In earlier versions Atum emerged out of Nun as a hill (like an island forming in the middle of the Nile?), or in that he was a form of the sun, associated with Ra, as the sunrise, and was either a child of Nun or self-created. He was originally alone, and then creation began out of his being, after an act of masturbation in which spit and expectorate are euphemisms for semen.
Pyramid Text Spell 600, which dates to around 2400 BCE, reads O Atum-Koprer, thou becamest high in the height. Thou did rise up as the benben stone in the Mansion (i.e., Temple) of the Bennus Bird (Phoenix) in Heliopolis. Thou didst spit out Shu.Thou didst expectorate Tefenet (or Tefnut), and thou didst set thy arms about them as the arms of a ka-symbol that they essence might be in them.The structure of the cosmos was similar to that in many ancient cultures. The sky was usually a canopy supported at four corners by pillars or mountains, but it could also be a celestial ocean (suggested by its blue color). If so, it provided a mechanism for the sun to travel—in a boat (the remains of a great solar boat have been discovered at Giza and are exhibited next to the Sphinx). Naturally, the center of the created world was the Nile, surrounded by the “black land,” the alluvial plain around the river, and the “red land,” the desert. Earth itself was divided into two river banks (the Egyptians never found the source of the Nile, at which the banks would have disappeared), one (our west) the land where the sun set, the other (our east) the land where the sun rose. More distant places such as Ethiopia and Syria were the “mountainous countries” that ringed Egypt.
The physical structure, though, was contained within the notion of cosmos as a giant, ticking, participatory machina mundi, a huge clock whose mechanism was maintained partly by human activity. Plumley summed up the priorities of Egyptian cosmology succinctly and effectively—it was based, he wrote, on the belief that the maintenance of the original creation and resistance to all threats to its stability was, for the benefit of all, a collaborative venture among gods, goddesses, men, and women. Ma’at, the cosmic order itself, was personified as a goddess but may also be seen as an abstraction, a force, a power, as well as the ethical behavior and devotion to truth and justice required for men and women to collaborate with the gods and goddesses in the maintenance of order.
She also represented the ethics that recognize the need to act in all circumstances for the upholding of the universal order. It was Ma’at’s symbol, the feather of truth, that was placed in one pan of the balance used for the weighing of the hearts of the dead in their judgment by Osiris in his role as the god of the dead. All Egyptian religion can therefore be seen as an expression of the need to maintain Ma’at, and all ritual was devoted to the need to renew creation, and order, every day without fail. Although this renewal was the work of the gods, priests, and the reigning pharaoh—in theory the high priest of every temple—and the gods’ representative on earth, the Egyptians were obliged to assist by uttering the required incantations and making the correct sacrifices at the appropriate times. It was primarily for this work that the temples existed, and their function was to assist the defense of the state against hostile forces; they were not houses of prayer to which people might resort to seek comfort for their souls. If the preservation of order, though, was the goal of religion, the means was harmonization with time, and this prime necessity was the rationale for all measuring systems and the resulting rituals, from the daily welcome given to the rising sun to the major calendar festivals. The pre-dynastic calendar was probably lunar, or “luni-stellar,” measuring the moon’s passage, or the movement of Thoth, against the background of the stars, or Nut. It relied on the appearance of the crescent new moon in order to time the month and the annual rising of Sirius, which coincided with the annual flooding of the Nile in July, and our earliest written record if it is from the Fourth Dynasty, that of the Great Pyramid builders. The year was divided into three seasons based on natural cycles rather than celestial, a reminder that sky and earth are inseparable.
Akhet, “Flood” or “Inundation,” coincided with the rise and flood of the river and was followed by Peret, “Emergence,” which saw the water subside and the land reemerge, and finally Shomu, “Low Water” or “Harvest,” saw the height of agricultural activity. The solar year itself was tied to observation not only of the sun but also of the stars, particularly Sirius, the star of the goddess Isis. For a certain period of time every year Sirius was so close to the sun, as seen from the earth, that it was invisible, and its reappearance as a bright evening star on the eastern horizon in late summer coincided with the annual Nile flood, which restored fertility to the land and signified the new year, reviving the eternal cycle of solar time. The observation of this coincidence can be traced back to the First Dynasty, perhaps as early as 3000 BCE. Equally impressive, though less frequently mentioned, would have been the rising of the stars of Orion earlier in the year. The period of invisibility was seventy days, and there might just be a connection with the seventy-two accomplices who assisted Osiris’s murder by his evil brother, Set. There is certainly a connection with the entire notion of divinity either journeying to the underworld (as the sun did every night) or being subject to a cycle of death and resurrection. In the case of Isis, though, it was her husband Osiris who died and her tears of grief that caused the annual inundation of the Nile, which, in turn, restored fertility to the land.
The twelve months were each named after an important celestial festival, usually lunar. The first month was named after the Tekhy feast, the third from the feats of the goddess Hathor, and the eighth from the festival of Ernutet, the goddess of the coming harvest. The twelfth month was named after the heliacal rising of Sirius, known as Wep-renpet (“Opener of the Year”) or later Peret-Sepdet (“the Coming Forth of Sirius”). However, new moons happen on a different day of the solar year every year while the rising of Sirius stays constant. A simple rule was therefore applied that whenever Sirius was seen to rise heliacally (before dawn, immediately prior to sunrise) for the first time, in the last eleven days of the twelfth month an additional, thirteenth, month was added, named after Thoth, the lunar god. The extra month was added every three or, occasionally, two years and had the effect of guaranteeing that the next year Sirius would still rise on the twelfth month. Now, we might see such rules as the mere meaningless tinkering with dates and times with which we might regard the addition of a day every four years to give a leap year in the modern calendar. The truth is very different. For the Egyptians such adjustments were part of the absolutely essential attempt to maintain Ma’at and preserve order in a system that was permanently on the edge of disorder:
They were actively participating in an attempt to keep the entire cosmos in harmony. There were five primary celestial deities: the sky itself, the goddess Nut, the sun, the moon, and Sirius and the stars of Orion’s belt. Although the primary substance of the Egyptian cosmos can be perceived in nonpersonal terms as “order” or “time,” once the cosmos achieved three-dimensional form it was alive, physical, and sexualized, and its different constituents held the same relationship to one another as do humans. Nut, for example, was a beautiful mother goddess, and the lover of her brother Geb, the earth. The two were separated by their father, Shu, the air, son of Atum, but it was the act of copulation between them that was responsible for all the generative processes in nature—the birth, nourishment, and growth of all things. The celestial bodies moved across, or through, Nut’s body, and she, in turn, protected them. The most powerful of all heavenly bodies was the sun, with which Old Kingdom monarchs increasingly identified themselves, the first signs of a tradition that was eventually bequeathed to the Roman emperors. Spell 15 in The Book of the Dead contains a hymn specified for the “Worship of Re when he rises in the eastern horizon of the sky, when those who are in his following are joyful”: Hail to you, O Re, at your rising, O Atum-Horakhty! Your beauty is worshiped in my eyes when the sun-shine comes into being over my breast.
You proceed at your pleasure in your Night-bark, your heart is joyful with a fair wind in the Day-bark, being happy at crossing the sky with the blessed ones. All your foes are overthrown, the Unwearying Stars acclaim you, the Imperishable Stars [i.e., the circumpolar stars] worship you when in the horizon of Manu, being happy at all times, and living and enduring as my lord…. How beautiful are your rising and your shining on the back of your mother Nut, you having appeared as King of the Gods.The Imperishable Stars are usually thought to be those in the north that, in the northern hemisphere, never set and so are considered to be immortal: They were therefore the “indestructibles,”“those who know no tiredness” or “no destruction,” perfect symbols of immortality.By associating with them, the sun may then share in their freedom from death. In reality, though, the sun engages in a struggle with mortality every night when he descends below the earth, facing a struggle with Set, the brother of Osiris, and son of Nut and Geb. The sun presided undisputed over the day and his daily journey was a permanent reminder of the eternal struggle between light and dark and perhaps the central feature of the religious cosmology. In one myth Re impregnates his mother, Nut, each day, while in another he enters her mouth and travels though her body during the hours of darkness, and in both he is reborn at dawn, a matter for the greatest rejoicing. The moon was only slightly less important than the sun.
Represented in the celestial kingdom by Thoth, who was pictured either as an ibis-headed man surmounted by a crescent moon or as a dog-headed ape, perhaps representing the union of two more archaic traditions, he was an ally of Isis and Horus in the struggle against Set, became Osiris’s chief minister, and was charged with measuring time, much like the Babylonian god Sin, and his importance was recognized when the first month of the year, Thoth, was named in his honor. A host of other talents were the natural consequence of Thoth’s ability to count and measure; he was the clerk, herald, and arbiter of the gods, resolving disputes between them and announcing Osiris’s verdict on the dead. He kept a complete inventory of all natural resources and property, and he invented every one of the arts and sciences including surveying, medicine, and music.
He also invented writing, and hence magic. The reason why the one implied the creation of the other is simple: Words contain the power of the beings, ideas, or objects they represent, which is why the texts we find on the inside of tombs are interpreted less as pleas to the gods to accept the soul of the deceased than as a form of magical technology designed to facilitate the soul’s journey to the duat.The planets do not appear to have been important in early Egyptian cosmology and never achieved a pivotal role in the divine kingdom until the introduction of a complex judicial astrology in the 3rd century BCE. Our earliest known portrayal of the planets (excluding Mars) is found in a painting in the tomb of Senmut, a high official in Queen Hatshepsut’s court at Thebes around 1473 BCE.
The Egyptians knew the planets as “stars that know no rest” and identified three (if not all) of them—Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter—with Horus.Jupiter was “Horus who bounds the two lands” or “Horus who illuminates the two lands” and, later, “Horus Who Opens Mystery”; Saturn was “Horus-Bull-of-the-Sky” or just “Horus the Bull.” Mars was “Horus of the Horizon” or “Horus-the-Red,” and while the last name is obviously purely descriptive, the first two suggest religious significance, and all three suggest that they were aspects of the sun god—or, perhaps it’s truest to say the universal god manifested in the sun. Currently, though, we have no clear evidence to substantiate what might otherwise be an obvious conclusion—that from around 1500 BCE onward, the planets assumed a divinatory function. We suffer from a similar lack of knowledge concerning the constellations. As far as we can tell, about twenty-five star groups were recognized and represented by animal and human figures in an abundance of sacred texts, but we have little sense of their meaning, and, although the various scholars disagree, we can identify the location of perhaps no more than three with any certainty.In addition, there were thirty-six constellations, generally known to us by the Greek word decan, although BCE—and include timekeeping, calendar collation, the holding of purification rituals, and “announcing all (the) wonders” of the star Sirius.The current evidence indicates that an elaborate interpretative astrology, including the twelve-sign zodiac, was first imported from Babylon in the Persian era, probably in the 6th or 5th centuries BCE.The substantial creative period, though, took place in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE after Alexander the Great’s conquests laid the foundation for Hellenistic culture, that fusion of classical, Near Eastern, and Egyptian thought that, carried by the Greek language, was eventually to spread east to India and—under the Romans—west to Morocco, Spain, and Britain.
The earliest surviving Babylonian zodiac in Egypt is a monumental carving dating to some time before 30 BCE. Now in the Louvre but originally from the roof of the East Osiris Chapel in the temple of Hathor at Dendera, “Dendera E” incorporates ancient Egyptian constellations such as the Ox leg and the Hippopotamus as well as Orion and Sothis, suggesting that there was an attempt to merge the two systems rather than replace one with the other Two genres of astrological literature were created. The first was primarily passive and interpretative and dealt mainly with establishing the nature of the soul’s current incarnation as well as predicting the future. The second was active and, again, falls into two varieties. One, which we may describe as magical, dealt with the use of talismans or spells in order to manipulate the future. The other, to adapt a term that came into philosophical use in the 3rd century, was theurgic (theurgy is “god-work,” as opposed to theology, or “god-knowledge”) and dealt with the soul’s desire to return, via the stars, to the creator. The original texts of Hellenistic interpretative astrology are lost, although sufficient material survives from the 1st to the 5th centuries CE.
Theurgic astrology was represented in a group of texts ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus (literally Hermes thrice-great, or “the greatest”) and known to us collectively as the Corpus Hermeticum. These works assumed a single creator, envisaged in a divine, supreme consciousness, a physical cosmos that was essentially evil and a path to salvation through the planetary spheres.True, some astrology appeared to be completely deterministic. We can pick an example from one of the eclipse omens that were adapted from a Babylonian to an Egyptian context, perhaps in the 6th century BCE: “If [the moon be eclipsed in II Shimu, (since) the month belongs to Egypt] it [means]: The chief of the land named shall be captured. The army shall fall to [battle]-weapo[ns].”Such astrology, though, existed only within a context in which it was understood that the future could be negotiated, which is where the magical literature came in. One Hellenistic-era text advises on the role of talismans or magical rituals conducted when the moon is in different signs: “Moon in Virgo: anything is rendered obtainable. In Libra necromancy. In Scorpio anything evil. In Sagittarius: an invocation or incantations to the sun and moon” and so on.The principle behind magic was the ancient doctrine of Hike, the active power that came into existence as the world was created. As Hike pervaded the cosmos, it provided a link between all things—including speech and objects.
The basis of magic, including astral magic, is therefore that by uttering or writing a word, one actively invokes the thing that the word represents. So, by speaking the name of Venus or inscribing a symbol representing her, one invokes the planetary deity, but perhaps as force, an essential component of the fabric of the cosmos, rather than as an anthropomorphized goddess. The act of horoscope interpretation itself in Hellenistic Egypt, therefore, borders on the magical in the sense that supernatural forces—powers beyond the material and physical—are being invoked. In the wider scheme of Egyptian history, astrology is best seen as a harmonizing system, a means of maintaining the smooth functioning of Ma’at by using sacred architecture, religious ritual, and management of the calendar to ensure that order was never overwhelmed by chaos. It wasn’t religion, but it was religious, a statement that makes sense only in a context in which religion and daily life are interdependent and inextricably intertwined. The Egyptian cosmogony was generally “chaotic,” assuming the emanation of the world from a formless state.
At the heart of the Egyptian worldview lay the proposition that the entire cosmos which emerged from this primeval condition was alive. That simple statement sums up some of its most important features—the attribution of personality and gender to objects such as stars, which in the modern world would be considered dead; the power of words to conjure miraculous events; and the existence of power relations in which the sun exerted a monarchical role over the earth. The primary human attitude to the sky, indeed to the entire environment, was one of relationship. People had relationships not just with one another but also with planets, animals, birds, fish, stones, plants, and the gods and goddesses, the powers who animated them. While cosmogony broadly remained chaotic, positing the spontaneous emergence of the universe from an original “nothing,” and while there seems to have been little interest in a codified, structured astrology until very late, the attitude toward time seems to have always been very ordered from the beginning of the dynastic era. The exact observation of the calendar and the day through carefully timed rituals was vital to the ongoing survival of the world: The Egyptians were not passive observers but active participants in the cosmic cycle. When complex astrology did arrive in Egypt from Babylon, it fused with Egyptian spirituality and Greek logic to produce the particular form of the discipline that survives today in India and across the Western world. Wherever modern New Agers talk of the cosmic evolution of the soul or their spiritual connection to the stars, they are paying
Campion, Nicholas (2012-06-11). Astrology and Cosmology in the World’s Religions (p. 93). NYU Press short.