Castle Point Astronomy Club
1969-2019 - 50th Anniversary Year
Castle Point Astronomy Club Diary
March 2019 by Dave Stratton
Castle Point Astronomy Club

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Wednesday 6th March 2019

Mike introduced our speaker tonight Rosalind Park an Egyptologist who happens to be the wife of our member Gord for her talk on the Dendera Zodiac.

The talk transpired to be too difficult for me to do justice to it here so Rosalind and I agreed that the best way would be for me to consult the internet.

Rosalind said that the Zodiac was originally located in the ceiling of an Egyptian Temple to the Goddess Hathor at Dendera which is on the River Nile in Africa. The ceiling was relocated to the Louvre in Paris which involved cutting it into three pieces. The one in Dendera is a replica with the original on display at the Louvre.

The zodiac is a Planisphere or map of the stars on a plane projection. The decans are groups of first-magnitude stars. These were used in the ancient Egyptian calendar, which was based on lunar cycles of around 30 days and on the heliacal rising of the star Sirius.

Its representation of the zodiac in circular form is unique in ancient Egyptian art. More typical are the rectangular zodiacs.

The celestial arch is represented by a disc held up by four pillars of the sky in the form of women, between which are inserted falcon-headed spirits. On the first ring 36 spirits symbolize the 360 days of the Egyptian year.

On an inner circle, one finds constellations, showing the signs of the zodiac. Some of these are represented in the same Greco-Roman iconographic forms as their familiar counterparts (e.g. the Ram, Taurus, Scorpio, and Capricorn, albeit most in odd orientations in comparison to the conventions of ancient Greece and later Arabic-Western developments), whilst others are shown in a more Egyptian form: Aquarius is represented as the flood god Hapy, holding two vases which gush water. The similarities of unfamiliar iconology with the three surviving tablets of a "Seleucid zodiac" and both relating to kudurru, "boundary-stone" representations.

The famous Zodiac of Dendera confounds today's visitors who may look for a reflection of modern-day astrological beliefs. This bas-relief actually represented a night sky scape, on the ceiling of a chapel in the Temple of Hathor at Dendera, where the mysteries of the resurrection of the god Osiris were celebrated.

The sandstone slab comes from the domain dedicated to the goddesses Hathor and Isis at Dendera. It was part of the ceiling of one of the chapels where the resurrection of Osiris was commemorated, on the roof of the great Temple of Hathor.

The vault of heaven is represented by a disc, held up by four women assisted by falcon-headed spirits. Thirty-six spirits or decans around the circumference symbolize the 360 days of the Egyptian year. The constellations shown inside the circle include the signs of the zodiac, most of which are represented almost as they are today. Aries, Taurus, Scorpio, and Capricorn, for example, are easily recognizable, whereas others correspond to a more Egyptian iconography: Aquarius is represented as Hapy, the god of the Nile flood, pouring water from two vases. The constellations of the northern sky, featured in the center, include the Great Bear (Ursa Major) in the form of a bull's foreleg. A hippopotamus goddess, opposite Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, represents the constellation of the Dragon.

The five planets that were known at the time are associated with certain signs of the zodiac: Venus "the god of the morning" is behind Aquarius, Jupiter "Horus who reveals the Mystery" is near Cancer, Mars "Horus the Red" is directly above Capricorn. Mercury is called "the Inert" and Saturn "Horus the Bull". This particular configuration of the planets among the constellations occurs only about once every thousand years; an astrophysicist has dated it between 15 June and 15 August 50 BC. Two eclipses are represented exactly where they occurred. The solar eclipse of 7 March 51 is depicted as the goddess Isis holding a baboon (the god Thoth) by its tail, signifying her attempt to stop the moon from hiding the sun. The lunar eclipse of 25 September 52 is represented by an udjat-eye (the "whole one"), because a lunar eclipse only occurs when the moon is full.

The Zodiac of Dendera was transported to France in 1821 with the permission of Egyptian ruler Mohamed Ali Pasha. It is one of the most famous Egyptian monuments preserved in France.

It should be interpreted as a map of the sky rather than a giant horoscope or a perpetual astrological tool. However, the Egyptians believed that certain constellations and decans could have a negative influence on their destiny or health.

The representations of the signs of the zodiac as we know them today did not appear in Egypt until the Greco-Roman Period. This monument reflects the way Egyptian cultural elements merged with Babylonian and Greek astronomical and astrological theories, as a result of the Assyrian and Babylonian deportations of the 8th and 6th centuries BC, and the Persian and Greek invasions of the 6th and 4th centuries.

Most enjoyable.

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