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Work The Zodiac of Dendera

Department of Egyptian Antiquities: Religious and funerary beliefs

The Zodiac of Dendera

© 2008 Musée du Louvre / Christian Décamps

Egyptian Antiquities
Religious and funerary beliefs

Author(s):
Etienne Marc

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 skyscape, 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.

A ceiling decorated with an image of the sky

This 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.

An astronomical configuration corresponding to a specific date

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, an Egyptian-style illustration?

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.

Bibliography

S. Cauville, le Zodiaque d'Osiris, Louvain, 1997
S. Cauville, Dendara. Les Chapelles osiriennes, Le Caire, 1997

Technical description

  • The Zodiac of Dendera

    Ptolemaic Period, reign of Cleopatra VII, 50 BC

    Temple of Hathor at Dendera

  • Bas-relief, sandstone

    L. 2.53 m; W. 2.55 m

  • Given by the Cabinet des Médailles de la Bibliothèque Nationale, January 1907

    D 38

  • Egyptian Antiquities

    Sully wing
    Ground floor
    Chapels
    Room 12 bis

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