4 LET THE PYRAMID TEXTS ‘SPEAK’

There may be no need to try to connect the pyramid and the benben with the sun, as has often been done with unsatisfying effect, for the pyramid may be the agency for rebirth of the king, just as the decans (stars) themselves are reborn, as the Pyramid Texts say

— E. C. Krupp, In Search of Ancient Astronomies

It is this mixture of astronomy and religion, the commingling of myth and reality, and this application of observing, engineering and surveying to the purposes of fantasy that so frustrates and fascinates the student of Egyptian life and science.

— James Cornell, The First Stargazers

I The Land of the Pharaohs

At the first opportunity, in autumn 1982, I took a short break and went on holiday to Egypt. Though I am of European extraction, Egypt is my native land and at that time my mother, also born in Egypt, was still living there. I am always revitalised by it: though poor in a material sense, it is rich in life and spirituality even today.

Alexandria, my home town, was once a great cosmopolitan city. Now dilapidated and overcrowded, it is bursting at the seams. It was named after its founder, Alexander the Great, and flourished under his successors, the Greek Ptolemies, to become a city that rivalled Athens and Rome for the beauty of its architecture and its location on the Mediterranean. Its fame as a centre of learning attracted philosophers and students from all over the Mediterranean world to its famous library and to listen to the liberal ideas and teachings of its platonic and pythagorian philosophers and advanced astronomers.1 Under the Romans it remained a centre of learning and avant-garde ideas until the Arab conquest in the seventh century AD.

Alexandria had always been a city of ideas, a melting-pot of ethnic groups which included Greeks, Syrians, Ethiopians, Romans and Jews as well as the native Egyptians, known as Copts.2 After the Arab conquest the city slowly fell into ruins as Egypt turned its back on Europe. It was to stay forgotten for many centuries until Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, but it was not until 1830, under Muhammad Ali, the first Turkish viceroy or khedive, that Alexandria began to regain some of its lost splendour. A keen, tough leader, Muhammad Ali invited Europeans — British, Maltese, French and Italians — to help him modernise Egypt, and within a century Alexandria was once more the most fashionable city of the Mediterranean. After the abdication of King Farouk in 1952, and the Suez War in 1956, pressure was put on foreigners by the Nasser regime, and Alexandria lost most of its Europeans, leaving it once again to the local Arabs. Unfortunately, the revolution could not solve the country’s demographic problems, and Alexandria declined as Egypt’s population grew alarmingly through the following decades. A country populated by only ten million in 1910 now has fifty-five million, increasing at a rate of one thousand a day. By 1982 Alexandria had become so crowded and dirty I could hardly recognise it as the city of my childhood.

As usual, a trip to the pyramids was on the agenda. I surmised that if any ‘hard evidence’ were to be found concerning the star religion of the ancients, it was here that one should look. After all, the pyramids were built at the time Robert Temple believed the star religion to have been of the greatest importance. Perhaps then the two were linked. Being trained as an engineer and surveyor, however, the evidence I was looking for would need to be more tangible than the interpretation of ancient myths. My lifelong experience of Africa and the Middle East made me especially sceptical of accounts by Dogon priests, however convincing they might appear. I wanted something physical, something you could see or touch and if possible measure. I was also wondering whether the Ancient Egyptians might have left some sign or message in the pyramids; otherwise why build them so large and of such robust construction? If a message had been left, surely it must have been concerned with their religious beliefs and might be the answer to the Sirius mystery I had read about. I was now looking for evidence of the ‘first magnitude’, the sort a specialist panel or jury would be compelled to accept.

On a warm night in May, two hours before dawn, I drove down from Alexandria to Cairo on the desert road. This poorly maintained road approaches Cairo from the north-west, so the first thing you see are the three pyramids of Giza. I arrived just in time to catch the light of the rising sun on their faces, their majestic presence inspiring awe and a sense of mystery. The site was free of the usual crowds of tourists; there were only a dozen or so keen visitors who, like me, were happy to miss a few hours of sleep to witness this magnificent sight.

I parked the car on a high spot overlooking the Giza plateau from the west, stood for a few moments to inhale the fresh morning air, then walked down towards the smallest of the three pyramids, that of Menkaura. A flutter of wings made me jump, and hundreds of pigeons and doves rose and circled the top of the pyramid. I had decided to climb a few stages to get a good photograph of the two larger pyramids against the light of the rising sun, and as I clambered up, I noticed that I was not alone. There, watching me nervously, was a small desert jackal. This was a rare sight as these animals, now nearly extinct in the environs of Cairo, are shy of humans. During all the years I had lived in Egypt, even on the many occasions when I had been out hunting in the western desert, I had never seen a jackal. This was a wonderful place and time for such a propitious encounter. We stared at each other for a few seconds, then the jackal disappeared around the corner. I suddenly remembered the discovery of the Pyramid Texts and how a jackal had led the reis to the entrance of the pyramid of Pepi I at Saqqara. No such luck here, I thought. There was nothing to suggest that soon I too would make a startling discovery about the Pyramid Texts: one that would alter the course of my life.

After sunrise I drove to Saqqara. I had not been there for many years and wanted to see again the famous inscriptions in the pyramid of Unas, last king of the Fifth Dynasty (c. 2350BC). The sun was now high in the sky and it was getting hot, so I stopped on the canal road and had breakfast. Arriving at Saqqara, I walked to the south side of the complex, avoiding the tourists and dragomen. Reaching the end of a long stone alley that had once been the symbolic causeway leading from the Nile to the pyramid complex, I could see the silhouette of Unas’s pyramid. Viewed from the outside, it looks like a heap of rubble, but the same can be said of the other Fifth Dynasty pyramids. Yet Unas’s pyramid is in many ways more precious than its perfect and gigantic predecessors. Unlike them, it is far from mute, for inside are the huge quantities of hieroglyphic texts.

An old reis in a shabby jellabiyah, the local garb, was guarding the entrance of the pyramid waiting for bakshish (a tip). A fiver in Egyptian currency, equal to two US dollars, makes you a VIP visitor; for fifty US dollars, the old man would wrap up the pyramid in a newspaper, if he could, and sell it to you. This is the sad state of Egyptian antiquities today. No one can blame the guardians of these monuments for trying to make the best of their situation; with dozens of mouths to feed and monthly wages that would not buy a meal in England, they rely on hand-outs from tourists by offering them ‘privileged’ access to the monuments. This often entails allowing tourists to touch the hieroglyphs, to use a flash camera and, if the bakshish is generous enough, to leave them alone in the monument to do as they please. Many of these men have been on the same job for decades, jealously guarding the richest territories along the main tourist routes, and some work without wages or pay a fee to have these lucrative posts. Over the years they have become my friends. They have learnt to love the monuments they are supposed to guard, albeit for different reasons, and given the right wages they would do a fine job.

Ibrahim, an old and tired reis I have known for years, was haggling with a noisy group of Japanese tourists. He gave me a broad smile and a salaam wave with his open palm and I did my usual recommendation act for him. I told the grinning Japanese how Ibrahim was once a ‘friend of Howard Carter’ and was said by ‘Egyptologists’ to be the best guide in the land. Then I urged them to give him a good bakshish, and asked them to make sure the ancient texts were not abused when they entered the pyramid. Leaving them nodding their heads in unison, I winked to the exalted Ibrahim and, slowly, bent my knees and lowered my head to enter the pyramid.

An awkward walk, more of a scramble, through a descending passage and then a horizontal corridor brought me into the first chamber where, like Maspero a century before, I looked at the limestone walls covered with carved texts. So well preserved are these that it is hard to believe that they were carved more than 4000 years ago. On the dimly lit wall the name ‘Osiris-Unas’ was written dozens of times in a neat row. Above it was ‘Sahu’, the ancient Egyptian name for Orion; then my eyes were drawn to the pitched ceiling covered with stars.

The Pyramid Texts, of which those from the Unas pyramid are the best examples, are uncorrupted by generations of editors and scribes. They are the original copy written on the stone more than 4000 years ago. It was these texts, the oldest known writings in the world, which confronted me now.

II Who Speaks for the Pyramid Texts?

One of the common problems concerning the study of ancient texts is that the appointed ‘experts’ will often not let the writings speak for themselves. They spend endless hours studying the contents and go through the material with a fine comb, but in the end many seem interested in using them only for philological studies and debates. In the course of this process, lacunae are filled in; simple words are replaced by complex ones; explanations, where they are given, are between brackets or sidelined into footnotes which draw the reader further into the morass of academic scaramouching. Nit-picking, and looking for flaws and technical errors in each other’s arguments, causes more confusion than elucidation, and acts as a huge distraction.

The Pyramid Texts have not escaped this fate: a mass of scholarly verbiage has been thrown at them in the form of philosophical and philological arguments. Theological and etymological discussions have made their contents seem more esoteric than they need be. Decade upon decade of such treatment has reduced them to the status of boring material best left to the scholars and ‘experts’. Thus the original texts, expressed in powerful terms which testify to a deep faith in an afterlife destiny, have been obscured.

Initially, I too fell into the trap of sieving through the articles and theses of academics, but it was apparent that some experts lacked any feeling for the texts, and spent their time contradicting and attacking one another. They presented the religion of the Ancient Egyptians as a bogus liturgy of rituals which made the rites of Roman Catholicism look straightforward.

There was only one way out of this impasse: I had to find the best translation available and make up my own mind about their meaning. I was able to get hold of Faulkner’s acclaimed translation and begin with a clean slate. Our first rule is that wherever possible we should take passages at face value. Where possible the texts should be left to speak for themselves, and there are passages which speak plainly, even to a layman. It is only when this is done that we can hope to find the right connections between the texts and the material, visual aspect of the pyramid cult: the monumental architecture with its associated astronomy. When these two strands of evidence are considered together, we can understand the rituals of pharaonic rebirth.

However, the first question that must be tackled is whether the rebirth cult of the Ancient Egyptians was solar or stellar. In particular, did they believe that the departed king merged with the sun or was he supposed to become a star?

III The Star King of the Pyramid Age

Egyptologists have shown that the underlying concept of Ancient Egyptian theocracy was that while the king was alive he was a reincarnation of Horus, the first man-god king of Egypt, and was hailed as the son of Osiris and Isis. After his death it was believed that the pharaoh would depart to the sky and himself become ‘an Osiris’.3 But why an Osiris? What does the Osirianisation doctrine mean?

In Unas’s pyramid the dozens of textual passages which call the dead king Osiris-Unas are emphatic declarations that, in his afterlife form, the mummified Unas was to be an Osiris. We are also told that the Osirianised kings became stars; not any stars but specific stars in the region of the constellation of Orion. Egyptologists thus concluded long ago that the rebirth ritual was essential to convert the dead kings into Osiris and more specifically (as Mercer argues for example) to Osiris in his astral form of Sahu, the constellation of Orion: ‘Orion (Sah) was identified with Osiris …4 It is not surprising to find an identification with Orion … [for] … one of the central themes in the Pyramid Texts was the complete identity of the dead king with Osiris …’.5

Central to the rebirth rites was that the dead Osiris was brought back to life through the magical rituals of mummification performed on him by his sister-wife, Isis, with the help of Anubis. The importance of this idea was clearly understood by Jane Sellers, who says, ‘the Pyramid Texts were aimed at ensuring the same rebirth for the dead king as that for the god Osiris-Orion’.6 This is precisely what these texts are, a pharaonic ‘life insurance’ policy put there so that when the rebirth rituals were taken to the pyramid, the congregation could put into motion the magical words which would induce the soul of the dead king to become a star and rise to Osiris-Orion. Thus risen, the departed king would join the original Osiris and, like him, become a star god in the constellation of Orion. The original Osiris had become the Lord of the Duat, the realm of the dead inhabited by star beings.7

Dr Otto Neugebauer and Dr Richard Parker, who worked as a team for many years at Brown University in Rhode Island, and who were both acclaimed authorities on Ancient Egyptian astronomy, were the first to positively identify the sky image of Sahu, seen as a huge human figure, with our own constellation of Orion.8 They also noted: ‘We know further from the names of the decans (star groups) of Sahu, “upper arm”, “lower arm”, etc., that Sahu was a human figure which in any case is graphically portrayed on the traverse strips of the coffin clocks and the various astronomical ceilings, such as Senmut’s.’9 In the Senmut ceiling a striding man can be seen with the three bright stars of Orion’s Belt on top. Parker and Neugebauer correctly concluded that ‘in the Pyramid Texts Sahu is identified with Osiris, which fits well with its depiction as a human figure on the coffins and ceilings’.10 Many images of Osiris-Orion are shown in Ancient Egyptian drawings, among the oldest being that on the capstone or pyramidion of Amenemhet III’s pyramid, in the Cairo Museum. Here, too, Sahu-Orion is seen as a striding man holding a large star in his hands.

9. Celling from the Tomb of Senmut (New Kingdom) Sahu-Orion is shown with Orion’s Belt above him. He is preceded by the Hyades stars group and followed by Sirius-Sothis

It is clear from Egyptian funerary texts and the Pyramid Texts that Sahu-Orion was the soul of Osiris and that the sky region this bright constellation occupied was considered a very desirable place for the souls of kings to go to after the traumas of death and rebirth. Rundle Clark writes:

The rising of Orion in the southern sky after the time of its invisibility is the sign … Osiris has been transformed into a ‘living soul’. To achieve this, the second form of Osiris, for the deceased, is the basic purpose of the funeral rites … so as a new Osiris the dead king could, with due care by his successors, become one with the soul of the original Osiris.11

The first step in the astral transfiguration ritual was the changing of the corpse into an Osiris, i.e., the mummy-form. Thus to call the dead king, or rather his mummy, Osiris-Unas or Osiris-Pepi and so on, was to see the king ready to become a soul, that is a star in the Sahu-Orion region of the sky. This is made clear in the Pyramid Texts:

O king, you are this Great Star, the Companion of Orion, who traverses the sky with Orion, who Navigates the (Duat) Netherworld 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.… [PT882–3]

No interpretation is needed here. The texts state that the dead king becomes a star in Osiris-Orion. When this occurs is easily worked out, because we are told that the event is seen in the east, at dawn. This is confirmed by another passage:

Behold he has come as Orion, behold Osiris has come as Orion … O king, the sky conceives you with Orion, the dawn-light bears you with Orion … you will regularly ascend with Orion from the eastern region of the sky, you will regularly descend with Orion in the western region of the sky … your third is Sothis … [PT 820–2]

Faulkner, the definitive translator of the Pyramid Texts, used the Greek name of Sirius i.e. Sothis. From now on we shall refer to this star as Sirius in the astronomical context and as Sothis in the mythological context.

It is known that the star Sirius (Sothis) was linked to the start of the Nile’s annual flood, which occurred around the end of June (mid-July in the Julian calendar). Sirius always rose immediately after the constellation of Orion and as such Isis, the goddess identified with Sirius, forms a pair or couple with Osiris-Orion. There are many such passages which mention Osiris-Orion and Isis-Sothis together, and many more which mention Osiris and Isis in their human form. Mercer seemed to think that when Sothis ‘appeared as a goddess primarily, and not a star, she was represented as Isis … [and in this] … human form, she was closely associated with the constellation of Orion’.12 This is easy to understand, for Sothis immediately follows Orion. Wallis-Budge said, ‘the mention of Orion and Sothis is interesting, for it shows that at one time the primitive Egyptians believed that these stars were the homes of departed souls.’13 The Pyramid Texts are categoric that the king becomes a star soul after death and, more specifically, joins Osiris-Orion in the sky. Many passages leave us with no doubt on this matter:

‘The king is a Star …’ [PT 1583]

‘The King is a Star which illumines the Sky …’ [PT 362, 1455]

‘ … The king, a Star brilliant and far-travelling … the king appears as a Star …’ [PT 262]

‘Lo, the king arises as this star which is on the underside of the sky …’ [PT 347]

There can be little doubt that the Pyramid Texts make a clear statement that the dead kings become stars, especially seen in the lower eastern sky. They also tell us that it is the souls of departed kings which become stars:

‘be a soul as a living star …’ [PT 904]

‘I am a soul … I (am) a star of gold …’ [PT 886–9]

‘O king, you are this great star, the companion of Orion …’ [PT 882]

‘ … behold he (the king) has come as Orion, Behold Osiris has come as Orion …’ [PT 820]

Thus the dead king was an Osiris and his soul was an Osiris soul, whose depiction in the sky was Orion. The Pyramid Texts call the starry afterworld of Osiris the Duat, and it is in this Duat region that the astral souls become established. There are many indications that the Duat included the constellation of Osiris-Orion and that it was also thought of as the pyramid fields in the Memphite Necropolis:

‘The king has come that he may glorify Orion, that he may set Osiris at the Head …’ [PT 925]

‘The Duat has grasped your hand at the place where Orion is …’ [PT 802]

‘May you ascend to the sky, may the sky give birth to you like Orion …’ [PT 2116]

‘Live and be young beside your father (Osiris), beside Orion in the sky …’ [PT 2180]

‘In your name of Dweller in Orion …’ [PT 186]

‘O king, you are this Great Star, the companion of Orion, who traverses the sky with Orion, who navigates the Duat with Osiris …’ [PT 882]

The departed Osiris-king was to join Osiris-Orion in the prescribed region of the sky, where all other departed kings, (the royal ancestors) had gone. We can even gauge the time of year considered ideal for this astral rebirth ritual: We are to consider Orion’s rising at dawn, but we are also told that Sothis is involved, so this star must also be visible at dawn. We also know that this was the prelude to the start of the annual flood of the Nile which occurred near the summer solstice. For the three events to occur at the same time during the Pyramid Age, astronomical calculations give the date of c. 2750BC.14 A passage in the Pyramid Texts alludes to this ideal time:

The reed-floats of the sky are set in place for me, that I may cross by means of them to Ra (the rising sun) at the horizon. I ferry across that I may stand on the east side of the sky, when [Ra] is in [his] northern region among the imperishable stars, who stand at their staffs and sit at their east … I will stand among them, for the Moon is my brother, the Morning Star is my offspring …’ [PT 1000–1].

The words in square brackets have been inserted to give the correct astronomical sense to the passage. Near the summer solstice the sun is ‘in the northern region’ of the sky, and rises at azimuth 63.5 degrees, that is some 26.5 degrees north of due east.15 At this time Orion rises just a few degrees south of due east so that the king ‘may stand on the east side of the sky’. Using a special computer program to recreate the dawn sky for c. 2750BC at dawn on the summer solstice, we get a visual picture of the ancient textual description. Orion is ‘fully risen’, and this all-important moment is denoted by the appearance of the ‘Star of Isis’, Sothis, just over the horizon. It was exactly then that the bright star, Isis-Sothis, performed its heliacal or first dawn-rising to mark a ‘new birth’ and the beginning of a new year.16

IV Offspring of Isis-Sothis and Osiris-Orion

Although debate is rife among Egyptologists as to how the Pyramid Texts and the rituals they present should be considered, they are unanimous on one thing: the royal rebirth rituals were based on a dramatic re-enactment of the Osiris and Isis story and the miraculous seeding and subsequent birth of their son and heir, Horus.

Nowhere is the Osirian myth given in full form; it seems that the Ancient Egyptians knew it so well it was deemed unnecessary to narrate it as a preamble to the rituals, just as the majority of Christians know the basic elements of Christ’s story. There are, however, thousands upon thousands of references to Osiris, Isis and Horus in the Ancient Egyptian funerary texts, including the Pyramid Texts, so it has not been difficult for Egyptologists to reconstruct the Osiris story:

Osiris was the eldest son of Nut, the sky goddess, her other children being Isis, Seth, Nephthys and possibly Anubis. Osiris, a man as well as a god, became the first king of Egypt and his sister Isis became his consort. He was a good king and established the rule of law (maat). With the help of his vizier, the ‘god’ Thoth, he taught men religion and the arts of civilisation. Egypt became prosperous and it was at peace with itself. Unfortunately, not everyone was happy — especially his brother Seth. He plotted against Osiris, murdered him and cut up the body into small pieces, which he scattered all over Egypt. Even more tragically, Isis was still childless when this happened and Osiris had no heir to take his place. All was not lost, however, for Isis secretly gathered up the pieces of her husband’s body and, by means of her magical powers, reconstituted them into the body of Osiris, thus making the first-ever mummy. Having brought him back to life, she was now able to have sex with him. Although this was only a temporary reprieve for Osiris, it was long enough for Isis to become pregnant with his seed. His task on earth having been completed, Osiris transfigured himself into a star being (Orion) and went on to rule the Heavenly Kingdom of the Dead — called the Duat. Isis now hid from Seth in the marshes of the Delta near Heliopolis and in due course gave birth to a son, Horus. He grew up to become a powerful prince, and eventually challenged Seth to a duel to see who had the right to rule Egypt in Osiris’s stead. During the fight, Horus lost an eye and Seth lost his testicles. Though the battle was inconclusive, the sun god was eventually persuaded to judge in favour of the young Horus and he was proclaimed king, the first in the line of the pharaohs.17

10. Scenes from the Book of the Dead, the weighing of the heart and presentation of a worthy soul at the court of Osiris. Osiris is attended by his sister-wife Isis and their sister Nephthys. Before him are the four sons of Horus, standing on a lotus

The tragic story of Osiris and the heroic struggle of Horus to regain the throne served as a model throughout Egyptian history. The pharaohs legitimised their authority and, more especially, deified their rule by proclaiming themselves reincarnations of Horus; the epic battle with Seth became a metaphor for the struggle of the pharaoh against illegitimate claims to the throne. It is an accepted fact that all kings of Egypt were regarded as the reincarnation of Horus, and in this capacity they were the upholders of what the ancient Egyptians called maat,18 or ‘law and order’. When a Horus-king died, he was assured a rebirth with Osiris, that is to say he became at one with Osiris in the afterworld of the Duat. This would leave the throne of Egypt vacant for the legitimate heir to assume the role of Horus; the heir was thus the living one, the son of Osiris and Isis, as opposed to his dead father, now an Osiris-king. It was this cyclical exchange from ‘Horus-to-Osiris-to-Horus’ which was at the heart of the royal cult of the pharaohs; being gods, their mortality could be explained only in terms of this divine myth and it was never in doubt that they would be reborn in the afterworld realm of Osiris. The essential aim of the Pyramid Texts was to assist in this crucial process.

Henri Frankfort showed that the rebirth rites for a dead king ran in parallel with the coronation rituals for his heir.19 The death of a pharaoh thus triggered a double event, his funeral and the coronation of his heir, and we should be aware, when reading the Pyramid Texts, that we are dealing with a double ritual: the funeral of a Horus-king waiting to become an Osiris, and the coronation of the new Horus-king as the son of Osiris. In astral terms, the new king was the son of Osiris-Orion. Just as Osiris was identified with the constellation of Orion, so his consort and sister, Isis, was identified with Sothis (Sirius). Isis-Sirius (Isis-Sothis) was thus the astral mother of the living king. Sirius, as we have seen, is the brightest star in the sky and its constellation, Canis Major, immediately follows Orion in its rising.

In the Pyramid Texts the living king, the new Horus-king undergoing his coronation while attending to his father’s rebirth, makes these evocative claims:

“How lovely to see”, says she, namely Isis … to my father, to the [dead] king, when he ascends to the sky among the stars …’ [PT 939]

‘The sky is clear, Sothis [Sirius] lives [appears], I am a [the] living one, the Son of Sothis …’ [PT 458]

‘Your sister Isis comes to you rejoicing for love of you. You [the dead king] have placed her on your phallus and your seed issued in her, she being ready as Sothis, and Har-Sopd has come forth from you as Horus who is in Sothis … and he (I) protect(s) you in his (my) name of Horus, the son who protects his father …’ [PT 632–3]

‘The (dead) king’s sister is Sothis, the king’s offspring is the Morning Star …’ [PT 357; 929; 935; 1707]

The dead Osiris-king also makes his claims:

‘The sky is pregnant of wine (the dawn light), Nut has given birth to her daughter (Sirius) [in] the dawn-light, I raise myself indeed … my third is Sothis … [PT 1082–3] [the second here being the offspring’.]

‘Give command to him who has life (i.e., the living king as Horus), the Son of Sothis, that he may speak on my behalf and establish my seat in the sky’ [PT 1482]

These extracts indicate clearly the performance of an evocative stellar ritual, in which the dead king, as a star of Osiris-Orion, is seen as copulating with Isis-Sothis (Sirius) to seed her womb and leave her pregnant with the astral Horus, the son of Sothis. The latter is represented by the legitimate heir, now to become the new pharaoh of Egypt. It seems obvious that this son of Sothis is also identified with a celestial body, and Faulkner has suggested the planet Venus (a star) because of the name ‘Morning Star’.20 But neither Venus nor any other planet qualifies as ‘Morning Star’ so that it is also ‘coming forth’ from the womb of Sothis (Sirius). Who or what was the ‘Morning Star’ supposedly close to Sirius?

In the epoch of c. 2750BC, Sirius had a declination of about –21.5 degrees.21 This caused it to rise quite far off the ecliptic during the summer solstice, at about azimuth 116.5 degrees or some 26.5 degrees south of east, with the sun being about 54 degrees away to the north just below the horizon. This means that none of the planets could be anywhere near Sirius during its heliacal rising. So what bright star could be called the ‘Morning Star’ and considered so close to Isis-Sirius? Was there a bright object near Sirius which the ancients saw but which has now become invisible? Is a ‘lost’ star a real possibility?

Here we must recall Robert Temple’s Sirius Mystery, the heart of which revolves around the secret knowledge of the Dogon of Mali, who reported an invisible companion star of Sirius. According to Temple, the Dogon’s tradition supposedly came from Ancient Egypt, where it originated c. 3200BC. Today this invisible star is called Sirius B. It is super-dense, a white dwarf in astronomers’ jargon, which canbe seen only through a very powerful telescope. Scientists do not think that Sirius B was visible in ancient times, but could they be wrong?

But let’s leave this controversy for now, while we develop the Orion Mystery further and look at the mysterious shafts in the Great Pyramid.

V Channels to the Stars

In the Great Pyramid are four protracted and narrow channels or shafts which have long baffled Egyptologists. We discussed them briefly earlier in this book, but now we need to return to them in greater detail.

The two shafts within the King’s Chamber had been known since the early seventeenth century. John Greaves, Savillian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford, reported the existence of the openings of these channels when he made his famous survey of the Giza pyramids in 1638, and noted that the northern one was blackened by ‘lamps burning there’.22 De Maillet, the French consul-general, also reported the shafts in 1693 but came to the odd conclusion that they had been used to lower food and clear detritus during the construction of the pyramid.23 Jomard, who accompanied Napoleon to Egypt in 1798, later described ‘these deep narrow cavities which emanate from the walls of the central chamber’ in Khufu’s pyramid.24 It was the British adventurer, Colonel Vyse, and his colleague, J. S. Perring, who discovered the outside openings of the shafts of the King’s Chamber in 1837. At first they thought the shafts led to a room, despite the small cross-section (about 22 × 23 centimetres), but abandoned this idea when the air rushed through the chamber after they cleared the southern shaft.25 They then decided, erroneously, that the shafts had been designed for ventilation, and coined the term air-shafts. Flinders Petrie accepted this conclusion and adopted the term air channels in his description, saying ‘the air channels leading from this [the King’s] chamber were measured on the outside of the pyramid; the north one varies from 30 degrees 43 minutes to 32 degrees 4 minutes in the outer 30 feet; the south one varies from 44 degrees 26 minutes to 45 degrees 30 minutes in the outer 70 feet.’26 In 1872, Waynman Dixon, a British engineer, conjectured that similar shafts might be found in the Queen’s Chamber, lower down the monument. Piazzi Smyth, the Astronomer Royal of Scotland who employed Dixon, explains how the discovery was made:

Perceiving a crack (first I am told, pointed out by Dr Grant) in the south wall of the Queen’s Chamber, which allowed him at one place to push in a wire to a most unconscionable length, Mr Waynman Dixon set his carpenter man-of-all-work, by name Bill Grundy, to jump a hole with hammer and steel chisel at that place.… next measuring off a similar position on the north wall, Mr Dixon set the invaluable Bill Grundy to work there again with his hammer and steel chisel …27 [Smyth, P. The Great Pyramid, p. 428]

Sir Flinders Petrie who measured the slopes of the shafts in 1880 explains how this was done:

The channels leading from this [the Queen’s] chamber were measured by goniometer; they are exactly like the air channels in the King’s Chamber in their appearance, but were covered over the mouth by a plate of stone, left not cut through in the chamber wall; no outer end has yet been found for either of them, though searched for by Mr Waynman Dixon, who first discovered them, and also by myself …

But then followed an odd commentary by Petrie: ‘I observed something like a mouth of a hole in the 85th course on the south face, scanning it with a telescope from below; but I was hindered from examining it closely …’28

We know, from Gantenbrink’s recent extensive survey using alpine gear, that when his team scanned the north and south faces for the alleged openings, Petrie was wrong about seeing the mouth of a hole on the south face. Neither of the two shafts in the Queen’s Chamber pierces the pyramid to the outside. Egyptologists later claimed, wrongly, that these shafts stopped some eight metres from the walls of the Queen’s Chamber. Petrie gave the mean slopes of these shafts as, north channel 37 degrees 28 minutes and south channel 38 degrees 28 minutes, each statement being ‘the mean of two observations, which never differed more than six minutes [Arcminutes]’. Petrie was also to be proved wrong. However, the implications of his report were tremendous, for it did much to divert attention away from the air channels in the Queen’s Chamber; the logic being that since they did not pierce the pyramid, the channels (and consequently the Queen’s Chamber) were abandoned by the ancient builders in favour of the King’s Chamber, higher up the pyramid. This idea persisted for many decades until Rudolf made his discoveries in the southern channel of the Queen’s Chamber, showing that it was cut much deeper than Petrie had deduced, and extended well above the floor level of the King’s Chamber, about 19.5 metres higher, thus running almost parallel to the southern shaft of the King’s Chamber for the last 25 metres of its track.29

The ventilation theory had long been questioned; in 1924 a Belgian Egyptologist, Capart, suggested another plausible function for the shafts. Sensitive to the symbolic function of the whole monument, Capart did not think they were air-shafts at all, but served a religious purpose instead: ‘it is more probable that they had a funerary purpose, perhaps to afford a passage for the soul of the king.’30 The same idea was expressed by the German Egyptologist, Steindorff, in 1929,31 cautiously by Edwards in 194732 and by Vandier in 1954.33 About the same time as Vandier, the symbolic function attributed by Capart to the shafts was investigated more closely by Badawy, an Egyptologist with a knowledge of Egyptian architecture. A breakthrough was on the way.

In his detailed work on Ancient Egyptian architecture, Badawy suggested that the shafts in the King’s Chamber could have served as channels to the stars, ‘the northern passage … for the voyage of the soul to the imperishable circumpolar stars, the southern one to Orion.’34 So entrenched was the idea that the Pyramid Texts reflected a solar destiny for the dead king that no one had thought of this. It was not until 1964 that Badawy sought the help of an astronomer to make the precessional calculations which would validate his theory (see Appendix 1). He asked Virginia Trimble to help him with the problem, and they jointly published their work in an Egyptological journal in Germany.35 Badawy first considered the view that the shafts had been intended for ventilation:

This interpretation does not … withstand objective criticism. Besides the fact that no provision was ever made by the Egyptians in any of their various types of tombs this one, if so interpreted, would conform but poorly with their achievement in ventilating their houses.36

Badawy’s architectural studies had shown that the Ancient Egyptians did not ventilate tombs, nor would one expect it.37 As for the ventilation of their houses, they used slanting channels opening on the ceiling and oriented north to make use of the cool northern breeze. Badawy correctly pointed out:

11. The Great Pyramid of Giza in cross-section

Alignments of shafts to stars c. 2600BC as discovered by A. Badawy and V. Trimble in 1964

To ventilate the burial chamber of Cheops channels running horizontally at the level of the ceiling would have been more adequate than the inclined shafts that start at about one metre from the floor, at the level of the lid of the sarcophagus. One should add to this inadequacy in the design all the constructional problems involved of the building of the two inclined shafts through all the courses, a process which could have been avoided by building them through one horizontal course.38

He also pointed out that the opening of the shafts in the Queen’s Chamber had been left uncut in the walls, and that it was quite likely that the same had applied to those in the King’s Chamber; if this was the case, ‘their assumed purpose for ventilation would have been out of the question’.39 Badawy knew, of course, that the Pyramid Texts referred to Sahu-Orion and that the departed Osiris-king was identified with these stars. Orion has always been a southern constellation and so it seemed an obvious goal to consider for the southern shaft of the King’s Chamber. The average slopes were taken by Badawy from Petrie’s data, around 44.5 degrees for the southern shaft and 31 degrees for the northern. It was immediately obvious to a trained astronomer like Trimble that the northern shaft pointed close to the celestial pole, which lies at an altitude of nearly 30 degrees as observed from Giza –29 degrees 58 minutes 51 seconds to be exact as measured from the centre of the Great Pyramid. Virginia Trimble worked out the declination of the stars of Orion’s Belt for c. 2600BC, then the assumed date for the Great Pyramid. She obtained the results shown in the first table.40

Orion’s Belt

 

Declination in 2600BC

Al Nitak (Zeta Orionis)

−15°

33′

Al Nilam (Epsilon Orionis)

−15°

16′

Mintaka (Delta Orionis)

−14°

45′

Source: Appendix 1.

   


The exact latitude to the nearest minute of arc given for Cheops’s pyramid is 29 degrees 59 minutes. At this latitude the celestial equator, an imaginary line dividing the northern and southern hemispheres of the apparent sky globe that encompasses the earth, lies at an altitude of 60 degrees 01 minutes above the southern horizon i.e., the meridian looking south (90 degrees − 29 degrees 59 minutes = 60 degrees 01 minutes).

The celestial equator is taken as being zero declination, so that anything above it is a positive declination in the northern hemisphere of the sky, and anything below it is a negative declination in the southern hemisphere. To work out the altitude of a star at the meridian as seen from Giza and looking south, the declination has to be subtracted from the altitude of the celestial equator (60 degrees 01 minutes):

Orion’s Belt

Altitude, degrees and minutes

Al Nitak (Zeta Orionis)

(6o° 02′ − 15° 33′) = 44° 29′

Al Nilam (Epsilon Orionis)

(6o° 02′ − 15° 16′) = 44° 46′

Mintaka (Delta Orionis)

(6o° 02′ − 14° 45′) = 45° 17′


Both Trimble and Badawy quickly realised that it was no coincidence that the southern shaft, which pointed towards the meridian at a slope of 44 degrees 30 minutes, seemed to target the passage of Orion’s Belt. Trimble also showed that no other important stars at that epoch passed at this point in the sky: ‘It would seem likely that some other stars might pass in the same fashion over the opening of the shaft. It happens, however, that no other stars of comparable magnitude had declinations within 1 degree 30 minutes of −14 degrees 30 minutes during that period’.41

Badawy thus concluded that this shaft was aimed deliberately at Orion’s Belt, the centre of the Sahu-Osiris constellation, to help the soul of the dead king to rise to the special starry heaven of Sahu-Osiris (Orion). Badawy was actually 0.5 degrees out, for we now know that the southern shaft of the King’s Chamber is at 45 degrees. But 44 degrees 30 minutes was close enough for Badawy and Trimble to make this startling revelation. Oddly, neither Badawy nor Trimble pursued the same logic with the two shafts in the Queen’s Chamber, perhaps accepting the consensus that these had been abandoned.

The discovery that the southern shaft of the King’s Chamber was targeted in c. 2600BC to the three stars of Orion’s Belt was largely ignored at the time. Only Edwards took the matter up, but not until 1981, when he made these important comments in an article written in honour of his American friend, Dows Dunham:

The Pyramid Texts frequently allude to the king’s association in his afterlife with the stars and, in particular with the circumpolar stars and with Orion and Sothis. Scientific study has shown that the northern channel (shaft), which sloped upward at an angle of 31 with the horizontal, was almost in exact alignment with what was then the Pole Star (alpha Draconis), while three stars in Orion’s Belt passed each day at culmination directly over the southern channel (shaft), whose slope is 44.5. To suppose that such a setting of the channels had no magical significance seems highly improbable.42

It is strange that no Egyptologists have taken Badawy’s work further; perhaps because it challenges the theory of a solar destiny for the king, which still dominates pyramid studies. Yet it should be obvious that the orientation of this shaft towards the Belt of Orion was connected with the many statements in the Pyramid Texts that the afterlife destiny of the pharaoh was in that region of the sky.

When I began my investigations into the star religion of the pharaohs, I knew nothing of Badawy or his article; had I known, it might have saved a great deal of time and effort. More importantly, it might have given me the encouragement not forthcoming from Egyptologists at the start of my quest. As it was, I turned my attention to Giza, unaware of these vital stellar clues.

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