Religion and the sky

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is a5-egypt.jpg

Gods were the principal actors in a series of complex myths, each of which was associated with a particular cult centre – the principal ones being at Heliopolis and Memphis at the division of the two lands, and at Hermopolis and Thebes in upper Egypt. Confusion arises because the cosmogonies taught at each centre are contradictory, and involved a different selection of gods.

Some only rose to pre-eminence in later periods, as with the cult of AMUN at Thebes, while other gods act out their part in more than one myth – as with THOTH, god of science and learning, whose chief cult centre was located at Hermopolis, home of the ancient myth of the Ogdoad. The chief god of Memphis was PTAH, from whom our name for Egypt is derived. But the myth which arose during the pyramid age was that of HELIOPOLIS, which was to become the essential myth of Egypt until classical times – the well known tragedy of ISIS and OSIRIS.

It must be emphasized that it is unknown how and when the myth of Isis and Osiris originated. There appears to have been some sort of change of cult at the end of the IVth dynasty when Shepseskhaf reverted to building at Saqqara. A solar cult arose in the following Vth dynasty, successive pharaohs building ‘sun temples’ beside their pyramids. During this time the first mention of Osiris is found in relatively humble graves, and thereafter the myth was, perhaps somewhat shrewdly, embraced and developed by the elite, and is referenced in the first writing – the ‘Pyramid Texts’ of the Vth and VIth dynasties. The increasing popularity of the Osiris cult owed much to the tale of a suffering and human god to which people could relate.

Before the Pyramid Texts there is little to go on in attempting to reconstruct the beliefs of earlier times (gods of the Old Kingdom are described below in APPENDIX 2). Giza remained the object of great reverence (most of the mastabas in the Western Cemetery postdate the IVth dynasty) and pyramids continued to be built long afterwards. One might therefore presume that the fundamental meaning of the pyramid remained the same, a tomb for a king. (In later periods the mummification ritual was intended to re-enact resurrection with Osiris, but what did it represent in the time of Khufu?).

(See APPENDIX 3 ) below for a fuller description of the structure of Heliopolitan myth).


Fundamental to the Egyptian concept of order was the rhythm of the Nile. Each year the rains in Ethiopia caused the swelling of the river and this produced an annual flood in Egypt, usually at the end of June. When the inundation had subsided, and deposited its fertile silt, the fields would be re-surveyed and planting begun. The flood occurred at about the time that Sirius or SOPDET, the brightest star in the sky, first appeared before dawn over the eastern horizon and traditionally this was taken to signal the inundation. In early dynasties depicted as a cow, Sopdet was later identified with ISIS.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is a6-solar-boat.jpg

Solar Barque

The backdrop to the mythological drama, as in many other cultures, was the sky. The sky goddess NUT is portrayed in tombs giving birth to her celestial progeny and along the ‘Winding Waterway’, conceived as a body of fresh water like the Nile, the gods travelled in their celestial boats to set in the west – the land of the dead. Bauval proposed that the Winding Waterway was the Milky Way. Krauss argues that the Waterway was the band of the ecliptic. The netherworld, called the DUAT, was pictured as a star in a circle, probably signifying that part of the sky beneath the earth. Gods needed to transfer from the day boat to the night boat in their daily round and these boats were often represented by models or pits, as in the illustration below showing the boat pits beside Khafre’s mortuary temple –

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is a7-temple.jpg

The Book of the Dead tells us that the aim of the deceased was to enter into the presence of OSIRIS, while the Pyramid Texts make clear that the dwelling of this god was somewhere in the prominent, man-like constellation Orion, just south of the ecliptic. Orion was personified as SAH, who according to the Pyramid Texts was the ‘father of the gods’ –

‘O king, you who are this Great Star, the Companion of Orion, who traverses the sky with Orion, who navigates the Duat with Osiris; you ascend from the east of the sky, being renewed in your due season, and rejuvenated in your due time. The sky has born you with Orion.’ (Pyramid Texts 882, 883).

The sarcophagus containing the mummy destined to be re-born as ‘an OSIRIS’ was associated with NUT (the sky) – the first utterance of the Pyramid Texts, inscribed upon the sarcophagus, reads :

‘Recitation by Nut, the great beneficent. The king is my eldest son who split open my womb; he is my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ (Pyramid Texts 1).

In coffins of later periods the inner side of the lid presents a portrayal of NUT flanked on one side with Isis/Sirius and Osiris/Orion in their celestial boats (the southern constellations) and, on the other, a portrayal of the northern constellations. Similar portrayals have also been found on the ceilings and walls of New Kingdom tombs.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is a8-coffin.jpg

North and south skies on coffin lid

Throughout the pyramid age, the entrance passages of tombs and pyramids were aligned in the general direction of the celestial pole – the axis around which the heavens revolve, and the region of the sky which was given especial prominence in Egyptian astronomical representations. Pyramids are laid out with precision to the cardinal points and it is often thought that to have achieved this the builders must have used astronomical methods, for example by sighting on stars near the pole. It should be mentioned however that Dash demonstrated that solar methods can achieve high precision.

Nevertheless stars were gods, and the layout of pyramids was no pragmatic exercise but a sacred act. Egyptian scholar priests appear not to have sought the abstract truth of the invisible pole but actual stellar targets near the pole.


As the ‘dome’ of the sky rotated around the polar axis the Egyptians noted the rising and setting points on the horizon of prominent stars, or sometimes groups of stars. From these they selected 36 key stars, called ‘Decans’, to divide up what we now think of as the celestial equator. 10 days to each Decan, producing a virtual ‘year’ of 360 days, which of course was out of sync with the solar and lunar calendars in use.

The famous ‘zodiac’ of Dendera ( NOTE 1) is actually of Roman date. It is the only circular constellation chart in Egypt. The figures in red represent the Decans –

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is a9-coffin.jpg

The figures in blue represent a mix of Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Greek constellations. It is hardly representative of the real Egyptian sky. On tomb ceilings the sky is shown like this –

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is a10-senenmut.jpg

Astronomical tomb ceiling

The top panel shows the southern constellations and the lower the northern. The focus of Egyptians on graphic representations of mythology, rather than making star charts, makes the interpretation of such scenes and the identity of the various figures somewhat uncertain. But all agree the identity of a few key figures.

The first Decan was defined by the Heliacal rising (or ‘rising with sun’) of Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. Because of its position on the heavenly vault it was invisible for 70 nights of the year, and this became the traditional length of time allocated for mummification ceremonies.

The second Decan was Orion – the large manlike constellation. The two Decans appeared in the southern sky like this –

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is a11-sirius-orion.jpg

Sirius and Orion due south

It is interesting to note that at the conventional date for Khufu two stars of Orion culminated in vertical alignment, or simultaneous transit, on the south meridian.

There are actually no Egyptian depictions of the stars of Orion but it is generally assumed that the belt stars were the focus of their attentions. (NOTE 2)

The first two Decans were portrayed like this –

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is a12-isis-osiris.jpg


In the northern sky the most prominent constellation was and remains Ursa Major, or in Egyptian MESKHETIU –

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is a13-ursa-major.jpg

The Egyptians portrayed it as the thigh of a bull –

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is a14-meskhetiu.jpg

The name Meskhetiu means ‘adze’ –

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is a15-adze.jpg

The shape of the constellation itself also resembles an adze. A sacred adze was used to ‘open the mouth’ of the mummy in the burial ritual. Roth compared this to the experience of midwives when clearing the mouth of the newly born –

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is a16-opening-mouth-1.jpg

Opening the mouth

On the north side of Djoser’s step pyramid there is a stone box containing a statue of the king, gazing out through to two holes. Puchkov shows that most probably the target of his gaze was Meskhetiu at lower culmination –

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is a17-djoser.jpg

Djoser’s box

The absence of astronomical writings from the Old Kingdom makes interpretation of the architecture difficult but undoubtedly the importance of these constellations in the stellar mythology remained high.