Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Dendera Zodiac and the message of the Decans

I loved going to visit the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose, California, as a child. Here is a post written almost five years ago discussing a few of the many fond memories I have from visits to the "mummy museum" when I was very young.

I had the opportunity to visit the museum again this weekend, and found that one of the most striking aspects of the collection, in addition to the many actual artifacts from ancient Egypt on display, is the large number of actual castings of very significant ancient treasures which the visitor can examine up close, with no glass case in between.

These casts were made from the original ancient pieces of art themselves: they are not replicas created  by later artists (although there are some replicas in the collection as well). In other words, the castings preserve the actual artwork as created by the ancient artists themselves, and not an interpretation or imitation from the hand of a modern artist, no matter how skilled.

Some of the casts of incredible ancient artifacts which you can examine in minute detail, getting as close as you wish, include castings taken from the original Rosetta Stone, from the Dream Stele of Thutmose IV, from the famous diorite statue of Khafre enthroned with Horus Falcon behind his head, and many others.

But one of the highlights of the entire collection for me this time was the breathtaking casting of the Round Zodiac of Dendera, taken from the original ceiling of the Temple of Hathor-Isis at Dendera. The ceiling itself was actually blasted out during the invasion of Egypt by Napoleon and taken back to the Louvre, in Paris, in early 1800s. The cast of that original ceiling section was made at the Louvre for the Rosicrucian Museum in 1987. 

Sadly, the actual Temple of Hathor in Egypt also has a casting in the location of the original, since the original ceiling is in France -- a continuing testament both to European imperialism and to the "privatization" of treasures which should properly be understood to belong to all of humanity (the King of France apparently paid Egypt 150,000 francs to "purchase" the priceless Round Zodiac ceiling and remove it from Egypt to the Louvre).

Regardless of whether you think the Louvre should return the original to Dendera and display a cast for visitors to the Louvre, the cast model on display at the Rosicrucian Museum in California is spectacular.  You can get as close as you wish, and examine the detail of the incredible ancient artwork of this famous piece. Above is an image that I took at the museum this weekend. Below is an image of the actual original Dendera Zodiac on display at the Louvre:

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

Much could be written about the significance of this beautiful piece of sacred art. Much in fact has been written about the Dendera Zodiac by insightful analysts of the esoteric and symbolic art of ancient Egypt, including R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz and later by John Anthony West in Serpent in the Sky.  Both argue that the Dendera Zodiac contains evidence of understanding of the phenomenon of the precession of the equinoxes, as well as evidence of other important celestial mastery by its designers.

For those able to read the French language, there is also a study published in 1844 by Jean-Baptiste Biot (1774 - 1882) of the Dendera Zodiac and the evidence that its designers incorporated the phenomenon of precession, available online for examination here.

The precision casting of the Round Zodiac in the Rosicrucian Museum enables you to see at close range the figures of the zodiac which are arranged around the central constellations of the north circumpolar region of the sky.

Below is a reproduction of the same image from the top of this post, with the constellations of the zodiac band labeled in red letters, as well as the constellations Orion and the Big Dipper (which is technically an "asterism" and not a full constellation) labeled in yellow letters:

And below is a slightly closer view of the same labeled zodiac figures from the Dendera Round Zodiac:

Note that the Big Dipper is depicted as the "foreleg of the bull," a depiction that was common in ancient Egypt and which is discussed at some length in my 2014 book, The Undying Stars.

Just as they are arranged in the Dendera Zodiac, the Lion of Leo and the Big Dipper of Ursa Major are placed in the sky "back-to-back," such that the lower contour of the Big Dipper is always facing the line of the upper back of the Lion. You can in fact see the Lion and the Dipper in the night sky at this present time of year (end of April, 2016), high up in the night sky during the "prime time" viewing hours prior to midnight. Here is a previous post discussing the "interlocking" relationship of Leo and the Dipper.

It is also notable that the zodiac sign of Cancer the Crab, clearly visible in the Dendera Round Zodiac, is not positioned in front of the muzzle of Leo on the Round Zodiac, the way it is in the night sky. Instead, for some reason, Cancer is moved "upwards" and towards the center of the entire spiral of the heavens and heavenly denizens. Of this fact, John Anthony West states in Serpent in the Sky:
Detail of the round Denderah zodiac. Schwaller de Lubicz thought the signs of the zodiac disposed about an eccentric circle with one center at the pole of the ecliptic (nipple of the female hippopotamus) and the other at the pole star (jackal or dog). This does not seem to me entirely convincing. Note the placement of Libra, for example. But whatever the scheme directing the arrangement, it is certain that the sign of Cancer has been singled out for special treatment. 114.
Even more noteworthy on the Dendera ceiling than the zodiac spiral itself (which is undeniably possessed of tremendous significance) is the beautiful procession of the "decans" around the outermost rim of the heavenly dome in the temple relief. Previous posts have discussed the fact that each of the twelve signs of the zodiac is associated with three nearby non-zodiacal constellations as well, which are known today as "decans." But this decan system is slightly different from, and probably prefigured by, the ancient Egyptian use of decans as a division of the hours of the night throughout the year, a system which was in operation in Egyptian civilization many centuries prior to the creation of the actual Dendera Zodiac itself.

The mathematician and historian of scientific and mathematical thought Otto E. Neugebauer explains the ancient Egyptian system of decans in his 1969 text, The Exact Sciences in Antiquity. His description is both fascinating and eye-opening, for those attuned to the system of esoteric knowledge encoded in the constellations and heavenly cycles in the Star Myths of the world. 

Professor Neugebauer details how the heliacal rising of selected stars located along the zodiac band would help observers in ancient Egypt (in particular, the priests) to know when the dawn would be arriving at any given time of the year. He explains:
When we watch the stars rise over the eastern horizon, we see them appear night after night at the same spot on the horizon. But when we extend our observation into the period of twilight, fewer and fewer stars will be recognizable when they cross the horizon, and near sunrise all stars will have faded out altogether. Let us suppose that a certain star S was seen just rising at the beginning of dawn but vanished from sight within a very short time because of the rapid approach of daylight. We call this phenomenon the "heliacal rising" of S, using a term of Greek astronomy. Let us assume that we use this phenomenon as the indication of the end of "night" (meaning real darkness) and consider S as the star of "the last hour of night." One day later we may again say that the brief appearance of S indicates the end of night. 83, available to read online here.
So far, so good: Neugebauer is explaining that specific stars always appear to rise up at the same location on the horizon, although as we will see and as he is about to discuss, each star will rise later each night due to earth's progress around the sun (this is discussed in many previous posts, including in this video about the "analogy of the dining room"). Just prior to sunrise, as the eastern sky begins to grow lighter and lighter (from deep velvet black to dark blue to lighter and lighter blue), stars which made it high enough above the horizon to be briefly observed will soon be swallowed up by the light of the rising day-star. 

This is the phenomenon known as the "heliacal rising" of a star. As the earth proceeds on its orbit, a star will get further and further "ahead" of the sun, so that it is above the horizon for longer and longer portions of the night (or early morning) before the day-star pops up and drowns out the stars.

Next, Professor Neugebauer will explain that the Egyptians called the star undergoing its "heliacal rise" as the decan for that particular ten-day stretch each year. But, as it rises a bit earlier and earlier, it will be higher and higher in the eastern sky when the sun finally pops up -- which means that eventually a new star below it will be the star of heliacal rise at that time, and the previous decan will retire from the role until next year:
We may continue in the same way for several days, but during this time a definite change takes place. The sun not only participates int he daily rotation of the sky from East to West, but it also has a slow motion of its own relative to the stars in a direction opposite to the daily rotation. 
This eastward motion of the sun (completed once in one year) delays the rising of the sun from day to day with respect to the rising of S. Consequently, the rising of S will be more and more clearly visible and it will take more and more time before S fades away in the light of the coming day. Obviously, after some lapse of time, it no longer makes sense to take S as the indicator of the last hour of night. But there are new stars which can take the place of S, and this procedure can be repeated all year long until the sun comes back to the region of S. Thus year after year S may serve for some days as the star of the last hour, to be replaced in regular order by other stars T, U, V, . . .
It is this sequence of phenomena which led the Egyptians to measure the time of night by means of stars (or groups of nearby stars) which we now call decans. 83 - 84. 

Once we understand this progression, we can understand the layout of the so-called "diagonal calendars" which began to appear painted on the coffin lids of Egyptian coffins in the Middle Kingdom (11th and 12th dynasties, around 2000 BC to 1700 BC). Each month of 30 days would be divided into three "decades" of ten days apiece, in which a certain specified star was the designated decan (undergoing the phenomenon of heliacal rise in the east just prior to sunrise). In the subsequent decade, that decan would be higher in the sky (due to rising a bit earlier each night), and the decan "under" it would have taken over as the new decan, and the previous decan would be written above it, as such (read from right to left):

decade 3   decade 2   decade 1
S                                                        three hours left of night
T                    S                                 two hours left of night  
U                   T                S               last hour of the night

(Table based upon that found in Neugebauer 85).

Now, Neugebauer explains perhaps the most important aspect of this system -- the selection of the stars to be used as decans, and the criteria for their selection:
From what has been said to this point, any sequence of stars or constellations whose risings were spaced at ten-day intervals could have been used. But additional information is available. We not only know that Sirius and Orion figured among the decans but that Sirius was, so to speak, the ideal prototype of all the other decans. Its heliacal rising ideally begins the year, just as the rising of the other decans are associated with the beginning of the parts of the year, the decades. The rising of Sirius occurs after an interval of about 70 days, in which the star remains invisible because of its closeness to the sun. Similarly, it was assumed that the same holds for all decans. The Demotic commentary to the inscriptions in the cenotaph of Seti I describes at length how one decan after another "dies," how it is "purified" in the embalming house of the nether world, to be reborn after 70 days of invisibility. 87.
This discussion is of the greatest significance.

Professor Neugebauer has just explained that the 70-day disappearance of Sirius (caused by the interposition of the sun, as we on earth go around our orbit, when the direction of the star Sirius is not visible because the sun is "in the way" -- see the previously-linked video with the metaphor of the dining room) was anciently associated with the death, embalming, and purification of that star in the "nether world" (the underworld).

This corresponds to the 70-day process of embalming a mummy, which was detailed by early Egyptian scholar E. A. Wallis Budge, and which is referenced in the famous "tomb tour" at the Rosicrucian Museum. 

And now comes the most important piece of the puzzle, provided by Alvin Boyd Kuhn. In Lost Light (available online -- see the link to the 1940 text on the "resources" page of the Star Myth World website), Alvin Boyd Kuhn devotes an entire chapter to the significance of the mummy (chapter 10), and presents a convincing argument that the whole purpose of embalming the corpse was as an elaborate metaphor for our mortal life in this physical body

In other words, Kuhn avers that the mummification process was meant to signify the descent of a living spirit into a "dead" or "dying" mortal body, a descent we each undergo in our incarnation into this material world.

Now, please follow the argument: 
  • The mummification process took 70 days (very strictly 70 days, not more nor less).
  • The decans were selected because, like Sirius (the first decan), they disappeared for 70 days.
  • When the decan was not visible, it was said to be "in the underworld."
  • There, in the underworld, the decan star was envisioned as being "embalmed like a mummy" and purified for 70 days.
  • Then, the decan would reappear -- into new life.
  • Alvin Boyd Kuhn argues that the 70-day mummification process was meant to metaphorically represent this mortal life in the body.
In other words, the star's descent into the underworld for 70 days was metaphorically an "embalming" prior to new life, and our own descent into this life was metaphorically figured by the mummy's embalming over 70 days -- hence (by a kind of "transitive property of metaphors") we can see that the decan's disappearance (the "death" of the decan-star) figures our own descent into this world, where we are "purified" in a mortal body as part of our preparation for new life on a higher level!

The story of the decans (stars, plunged into the underworld, only to appear again in the celestial realm) is the story of our own plunge into incarnation for a time.

In fact, this is the exact understanding that brings the exhibits and artifacts of ancient Egypt to life for each of us, once we realize their meaning. Each symbolic piece of sacred art is in fact about us -- about you, and about me. Each piece of sacred art which has survived from ancient Egypt is meant in some way to teach us about our own human condition in this life, within a universe that is simultaneously spiritual and material.

When we understand this, we can appreciate the beautiful sacred artwork on the Dendera Zodiac (for example) on a whole new level.

Here is an image of an artist's rendition of a beautiful rectangular star-clock depiction showing the procession of the decans from the tomb of King Seti I, whose reign began in 1290 BC (and who was the father of Ramses II):

image: Wikimedia commons (link). 

Like other decan star-clocks or calendars, it is read from right to left (into the faces of the figures, reading as though you are "having a conversation" with them). Can you see the decan of Sirius, associated with the goddess Isis? She is just after a smaller figure who represents Orion (just left of the Orion figure), and she is the tallest of the decans depicted (and she has the star Sirius above her headdress).

And below is some detail of the Dendera Zodiac cast at the Rosicrucian Museum, with a few of the decans indicated (the decans are arranged in a circle, around the edge of the sky-disc in the Round Zodiac):

There is much more which could be said about the Dendera Round Zodiac, and much more that could be said about the many other accurate castings and original ancient artifacts which are on display at the wonderful Rosicrucian Museum.

It is difficult to fully appreciate these ancient treasures, however, until we begin to understand their profound metaphorical meanings.

Once we begin to understand the language that they are speaking, then they can again begin to whisper their intended message, across the vast gulf of time, to provide to us incredible ancient wisdom for application in our own lives.