Sunday, November 14, 2010

Ancient Egyptians Tracked the Big Dipper

Horus applying the 'peshenkepf'' to
the deceased's mummy in the Opening
of the Mouth Ceremony.
The constellation we call the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) was very important in the iconography of the ancient Egyptians having to to with their death-to-life rites and rituals.  As the article below points out, the ancient Egyptians viewed Ursa Major as a shape similar to a ox's leg.  In many surviving tomb paintings these legs of meat were almost always present - but probably the representation served multiple purposes:  first, as what it appeared to be - an offering of food for the deceased's dining table; second, as a representation of the Imperisable Stars embodied in Ursa Major; and third, possibly as a representation of Hathor, the very old mother goddess who sometimes was represented as a sacred cow or a woman with a cow's head and horns.  I want to also point out that the tool used in the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony is shaped just like an ox's leg - another representation of the Big Dipper.  The ancient Egyptians were very clever at using one symbol to represent many things. 

2,400 yr-old star table reveals secrets of ancient Egyptian 'star-gazing'

London, Nov 11 : The Ancient Egyptians kept close tabs on the Big Dipper, monitoring changes in the constellation's orientation throughout the course of an entire year, a new research on a 2,400 year old star table has shown.

Faience ox-shaped
Egyptian amulets,
c. 500 BCE.
The Big Dipper is composed of seven stars and is easily viewable in the northern hemisphere. Its shape looks like a ladle with a scoop attached. Ancient Egyptians represented it as an ox''s foreleg.

If a person were to observe the constellation at the exact same time every night they would see it gradually move counter-clockwise each time they saw it.

Professor Sarah Symons, of McMaster University in Hamilton Canada, carried out the new research. The star table she analyzed is located inside the lid of a 2,400 year old granite sarcophagus, constructed in the shape of a bull, which is now in the Egyptian Museum, reports The Heritage Key.

The table is, "unique, though interesting, a very provocative astronomical object," she said.

Indeed the sarcophagus dates to the 30th dynasty, an important period in Egyptian history. It is the last point of time in antiquity where Egypt would be ruled by native born rulers.

Inside the sarcophagus there is an astronomical table, a section of which has rows that show the foreleg of an ox in a wide range of different positions. "It''s quite a jumble," Symons said.

This section, although confusing to read, includes notation for the three Egyptian seasons, Akhet, Peret and Shemu. Each season is broken down into four months. It also has symbols representing the beginning, middle and end of the night - although it isn''t known at what exact time these points would have been set.

"(Its) location throughout the course of the night, across the course of the year, was important for them to report."

Symons decided to focus on the orientation of the forelegs, re-drawing them as arrows. When she did this a pattern started to appear.

"In general the motion that it follows is the counter-clockwise motion that we would expect."

But there were problems. Over the course of a year the forelegs sometimes went the wrong way - as if the stars had stopped obeying the rules of astronomy. She believes that this was a scribal error, caused by someone writing down the information in the wrong format.

When the observations were first made they were written on papyrus and the months were probably organized into columns. On the other hand they were written in as rows on the sarcophagus.

"What happens to our table if we just keep all the months together?" And work with them as columns, she wondered. She found that the table had fewer errors and the information fell into place.

"Overall the motion is counter-clockwise throughout the year in general," she said.

The results were presented at an Egyptology symposium in Toronto.


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