Throughout the history of Ancient Egypt the Sun, Moon, planets and stars all held immense importance. These celestial bodies were seen as one of many ways that the Neteru (Egyptian Gods and Goddesses) manifested themselves. Yet, astrology as we understand it today with its twelve signs of the zodiac and pattern of houses dividing the sky didn’t exist in Egyptian culture until late in its history, following the Persian invasion of 525 B.C. (Parker 1978.723). Still, consideration of the influence of the objects in the heavens was an important part of the religious and magical practice of Ancient Egypt from very early on in its history. Evidence of this stretches back to the pre-dynastic era with the Nabata stone circle which is synchronized toward the solstices. This simple megalithic structure dates back to between 4000 and 4500 B.C., a full thousand years before the classic period of Ancient Egypt had begun.
Perhaps this examination is best begun with a brief look at some of the Gods and Goddesses the Egyptians associated with various celestial bodies. From the outset it is vital to understand that the complexity of the Egyptian Neteru is such that many of them are not easily assigned to a single celestial body. Rather, as will be shown, the Egyptians saw the Neteru expressed in many forms and in many celestial bodies at once.
The Sun held immense spiritual significance in the Egyptian system. This can be seen in the three phases of the Sun God in his forms of Khepri – the “becoming one” born at dawn, Ra – the potent Sun God of high noon, and Atum – the setting Sun. The Sun also was associated with a number of Goddesses including the lionesses Sekhmet and Mut. Aset (Isis), wife of Ausir (Orisis), was strongly associated with the Sun, but also with the Star Sirius. Hwt-Hrw (Hathor) and the feline Goddess Bast had distinct links to both the Sun and the Moon. We will see that Hwt-Hrw was also associated with Sirius as well as other celestial bodies.
Despite these complexities it is clear that the overall central role of the Sun in the Egyptian spiritual system can not be over stated. Each of the deities noted relate either directly to creative energy, regeneration and renewal, or with divine power and authority. This gives us a clue into the Egyptian understanding of the Sun’s influence. It is the life giving power through which all on earth come into being.
The Moon, too, is very important in the Egyptian system. Generally it was associated with a variety of male Neteru including Dejhuty (Thoth), Ausir (Osiris) and Khonsu. While the solar deities are fairly direct relating to dynamic energy and creativity, the lunar Neteru are associated more with subtle concepts and processes. As Dejhuty, the Moon is the keeper of sacred time, thus the religious calendar of the Egyptians was lunar based. Dejhuty is the Neter of magic, learning and wisdom. I know that it is common among contemporary magicians to assign Dejhuty to the planet Mercury, and certainly this association can work well. Yet for the Egyptians this connection does not appear to have existed.
As Khonsu the Moon becomes the embodiment of protection, for Khonsu is a Neter with the power to drive evil entities away. Yet he is also strongly associated with healing, fertility, conception and childbirth – all of which are very Hathorian in nature.
Ausir (Osiris) is a very complex deity. Ausir, as the Moon, shines in the depths of the Dwat, the underworld, bringing light to the beings there. Each of the twenty-eight days of the average lunar month held esoteric symbolism in the mysteries of Ausir. Yet, as the God who dies and is transformed he has definite solar attributes. Further, as will be shown he is also associated with certain stellar configurations.
In addition to male deities there is evidence suggesting that Goddesses may have been associated with the Moon as well. In the late period in particular the feline Goddess Bast was seen represented in the Moon. Renowned Egyptologists Dimitri and Christine Favard-Meeks describe Bast as “Atum’s eye, she is associated with the moon and protects pregnancies and births” (Meeks 1996.236). In her book “Egyptian Mythology” Egyptologist Veronica Ions writes “As state deity in the Late Period, Bast was regarded as a kindly goddess representing the beneficent powers of the sun protecting the two lands, and was sometimes said to personify the moon” (Ions 1968.103).
An important clue to a connection between the Moon, female fertility and the practices carried out in the temples of Hwt-Hrw during the Middle Kingdom, can be seen in a number of fecundity figurines. Found in temples of Hwt-Hrw, as well as in a number of tombs, these female figures usually are represented as being nude with the breasts and genitals clearly depicted. Dr. Geraldine Pinch notes that many of these figures “wear the crescent moon amulet associated with breast-feeding children” (Pinch 1993.201). Dr. Pinch continues the discussion:
“Some of the jewelry shown on Middle Kingdom figurines, such as cowrie-shell girdles and crescent moon amulets, are known to be linked to the protection of women’s fertility and ability to rear children.” (Pinch 1993.217)
Cowrie shells in particular were amulets related to female sexuality. Carol Andrews describes this:
“The cowrie shell was believed to have amuletic significance because of its resemblance to the female genitalia, so when beads in its shape formed an element of a woman’s girdle they were in exactly right place to ward off evil influences from the relevant bodily part of the wearer, especially if she were pregnant.” (Andrews 1994.42)
Interestingly in Dr. Andrews work “Amulets of Ancient Egypt” she presents a photograph of a “leaf green glazed composition openwork cowrie” (plate 64, item K). What is most fascinating about this piece is that carved into the cowrie amulet are figures of Djehuty in his form as a Baboon with the Moon atop his head, and a Cobra Goddess. The startling image of the Moon God portrayed on such an obviously feminine symbol would appear to be significant. The Goddess in the form of the Cobra is in all likelihood a representation of the “Eye of Ra” with strong connections to Hwt-Hrw and Sekhmet. It should be noted that Hwt-Hrw is one of the primary goddesses of sexuality and fertility. One possible Goddess that the Cobra in the amulet may be a representation of is Wadjet. Dr. George Hart points out that in the myths Wadjet breast feeds Heru-Sa-Aset (Hours-Son-of-Isis) when he was a child (Hart 1986.220). Thus, in this simple amulet we see clear a portrayal of lunar symbolism in connection with female sexuality and breast-feeding.
To return to the references to Bast, Dr. Barbara Lesko discusses the importance of this goddess in the promotion of female fertility and sexual expression (Lesko 1999.231). She explains that during the festivals of Bast women exposed their genitals as part of the ritual celebrations. The themes of sexuality, fertility and rejuvenation seem to revolve around many goddesses, but especially Bast. These same themes appear to have associated with the cycles of the Moon as noted above. In fact, the Semed, or Full Moon of any given month was seen by the Egyptians as “a time of dancing and joy” (Clark 1959.229).
Finally, in regards to the goddesses in general and their possible association with the Moon, Dr. Lesko makes the following observations when examining the cow goddesses and the similarity between the Nile valley cattle’s horns and the crescent Moon:
“The crescent moon, as I have seen it in Luxor, hanging low over the western hills with its points turned upward, certainly evokes a celestial bovine’s horns. Thus we may have in this early rendition of a sacred cow one of the few hints of a moon goddess who might have flourished as far back as the Neolithic or early Chalcolithic but who disappeared, or was suppressed, during the early historic period. From the archeological evidence it is clear that not one but several religious cults were established long before the Two Lands were unified and a documented Egyptian history began.” (Lesko 1999.17).
The comments of respected Egyptologist R.T. Rundle Clark follow a similar line of reason. In the introduction of his classic work “Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt” Dr. Clark discusses predynastic Egypt and the worship of both the Sun and Moon. In this regard he states:
“It is likely that the main cult of the prehistoric people was that of a Mother Goddess who was also the sky. This goddess worship seems to have been kept alive among the common people throughout the ages, reappearing in provincial centers and whenever the official religion lost its grip, until finally it almost ousted all other gods in the great expansion of the Isis mysteries at the second and third centuries A.D.” (Clark 1959.28).
It would seem that the evidence does point to possible links between a variety of goddesses and the moon. While those links are not as apparent as those found in relation to the state religion and male deities, nevertheless the themes of female sexuality, fertility and the moon can be found in the archeological record extending from early on in Egyptian society to the very end of this incredible civilization. I strongly believe that much more research needs to be conducted in the area of female mysteries and the training of the priestesses of Egypt. From that we may find that we get an entirely new and revised view of the deeper workings of the religion.
Before leaving the subject of the Moon I would like to discuss the Goddess Isis and her eventual association with this orb. Throughout the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms of Egypt Aset (Isis) was seen largely as a solar deity. It wasn’t until the influence of the Romans that Aset began to be associated with the moon. Essentially this began to occur during the Second and Third centuries A.D. At that time Hellenistic thought from Greek and Roman sources had a firm foothold in Egypt. It was during this same period that the religion and practices of Aset began to take root in Rome. However, this was not the Aset of the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms of Egypt. Rather Hellenistic practices merged Aset with the Greek lunar Goddess Selene and the Roman Goddess Luna. As a result the Roman worship of Isis as a lunar Goddess was born. While many of the same ritual items and images associated with Aset continued to be used in the cult of the Roman Isis the practices changed dramatically over time. Eventually any resemblance to the original practices involved in the Egyptian religion of Aset were clouded.
Throughout the entirety of the Ancient Egyptian spiritual system we find that the planets also held important significance. Like the Sun and Moon they were seen as representations of the various Neteru. The planet Mercury was named Sebeg by the Egyptians. Mercury was frequently associated with Sutekh (Set) particularly when viewed in the twilight of the evening. In this regard it is important to remember that Sutekh (Set) was very important to Ra as Sutekh is the only member of the sacred barge who could repel the serpent of chaos. Thus, as Mercury always travels closest to the Sun’s position in its journey through the sky, this association with Sutekh is obvious. It may be significant that Sutekh is noted for his cunningness, a trait long associated with Mercury. In addition Mercury is the planet which most frequently goes retrograde, appearing to move backwards, and thus in effect reversing its nature. This can be seen as relating to Sutekh’s rebellious nature.
Venus was called the “crosser” or the “star that crosses.” In earlier periods it was associated with Ausir (Osiris). However, Venus also was seen as the phoenix bird known as the Benu. The Benu is the personification of renewal, transformation and rebirth. The word Benu has its roots in the Egyptian term to “rise radiantly” or “to shine,” as well as having associations with sexual intercourse. Here the themes of rebirth and transformation can be seen as similar to contemporary themes associated with Venus in her governing of sensuality, sexuality and the energy of passion.
The planet Mars was seen as representing one of the many different aspects of Heru (Horus). In the New Kingdom it was referred to as “Heru on the Horizon.” In the late period it was thought of as “Heru Desher” or “Horus the Red.” Red being a color of power, strength, victory, or conversely, destruction and anger, this gives a clue into the nature of this planet as perceived by the Egyptians.
Initially Jupiter was known as “Heru who bounds the Two Lands” or “Heru who illuminates the Two Lands.” In later periods it was also known as “Heru who opens the mysteries.” In my opinion these titles refer to the two different aspects of Jupiter’s nature. As “Heru who bounds the Two Lands” we see the theme of travel, journeys and expansiveness, all of which are attributes which we recognize in Jupiter today. As “Heru who opens the mysteries” the more esoteric attributes of Jupiter are shown. In contemporary astrology Jupiter is known to relate to higher thought, philosophy, religion and higher education.
For the Egyptians Saturn was known as “Heru, the Bull of the Sky” or simply as “Heru the Bull” (Parker 1978.719). The bull was seen as a symbol of royal strength, fortitude, stability, power and virility. Through this symbol stability, the established power of the kingdom, was embodied and maintained. In many respects these are all attributes which we, today, ascribe to Saturn.
A number of stars and constellations were also immensely important. Some of these clearly were regarded as the embodiment of certain Neteru themselves. Others may be thought of as representing the spirits of the deceased. The following is a list of just a few of the stars and constellations that are significant in the Egyptian system:
Sirius – Known as Sopdet, this star’s annual appearance just before dawn marked the beginning of the New Year. On this day the statues of the temples were place in the combined light of the Sun and this star to infuse them with celestial energy. Sirius most strongly embodies the Goddesses Hwt-Hrw (Hathor), Aset (Isis) and Sopdet (Sothis).
Orion – This constellation was called Sah by the Egyptians and referred to Ausir (Osiris) as the “far strider” or “fleet footed.” The belt of Orion was frequently seen as the phallus of Ausir.
Ursa Major, also known today as the “big dipper” – The Egyptians saw this as the foreleg of a bull, or in some instances the “foreleg of Sutekh (Set) . . . in the northern sky, tied to two mooring-posts of flint by chains of gold” (Parker 1978.718). It is significant that the Adzu, one of the primary ritual tools used in the “Opening of the Mouth” ceremony is shaped as this constellation. Thus, the celestial power of these stars is brought to bare in the ceremony to bring new life.
Coupled with Ursa Major are the entire group of northern stars. These were seen as being particularly sacred as, for us in the northern hemisphere, these stars never set below the horizon. As such they were called the “imperishable ones.” This area of the sky was frequently thought of as the abode of the Neteru as well as the blessed Akhu (spirits).
The Pleiades were frequently associated with the “Seven Hathors.” Essentially Hwt-Hrw was seen as having seven (sometimes nine) forms. In these forms Hwt-Hrw took on a particularly maternal role of nourishing the souls of those who had passed on. Also in these forms the Hathors helped to provide sustenance for newborn babies. At birth the Hathors also announced the child’s fate or Shay.
One of the first major contributions that Ancient Egypt made to what has developed into contemporary astrology was the discovery of the Decans. According to Dr. Richard Parker the astronomer-priests of the temples began observing the sky just before sunrise at the beginning of each week. As each Ancient Egyptian week consisted of ten days, there were thirty-six weeks in the ‘civil year.’ In time thirty-six star groups were identified and associated with each week of the year. These celestial groupings have come to be termed “decans.” Yet these were seen as more then mere markers of time. It is clear that each decan personified a specific stellar energy, spirit, Neter or, as I prefer to term them, otherworld being.
The entities associated with each decan were very important in the stellar aspects of the Egyptian esoteric system. The mention of individual decans date back to the Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom. In Hwt-Hrw’s temple of Dendera the decans are reported to be:
“Mighty, great, great Neteru who are protective, following Sopdet in the sky.
They are living stars who are on the east of heaven
And are defending the Neteru of Dendera.
They are messengers of her majesty (Hwt-Hrw),
Who slaughter those who are hostile towards her.
They protect Dendera!” (Kakosy 1982.179)
On the ceiling of a rooftop shrine in Hwt-Hrw’s late period temple of Dendera the now famous circular map of the heavens was found. This is one of the most elegant pieces of Egyptian esoteric art known to exist. Perhaps what is most intriguing is that it not only depicts long standing traditional Egyptian images of the sky, it also shows the twelve signs of the zodiac. This has lead to speculation that astrology, as it is practiced today, may have been in use throughout the history of Pharonic Egypt. Being trained in contemporary astrology myself this is a particularly appealing idea. However, to my knowledge, no convincing evidence has emerged that would indicate the existence of the traditional zodiac in Egyptian culture prior to the Persian invasion. Archeological evidence demonstrates that the system of the zodiac as it is understood today stems from Babylon and not Greece as some authorities had initially suggested (Parker 1978.719). It was during the Babylonian control of Egypt that the zodiac was first introduced to the Nile valley.
During Babylon’s reign over Egypt it is known that there was a constant cultural exchange occurring throughout the various countries that the Persians ruled. Dr. Richard Parker explains:
“Egyptian priests are known to have been in Persia; indeed, we have the personal account of one Udjeharresnet, who was commanded to return to Egypt by Darius I (521 – 486 B.C.). And there reform the Houses of Life, the centers in the precincts of the temples where medical and religious books were written. It may well have been through him that the first astrological literature reached Egypt from Babylonia.” (Parker 1978.723)
It was during this period that the Egyptian priesthood enthusiastically received this new way of ordering the sky. In fact, they proceeded to incorporate their system of the decan stars into the zodiac, placing three decans in each of the twelve signs. Again, Dr. Parker sheds light on this:
“The first horoscope we have is dated to 410 B.C. and is Babylonian. Horoscopic astrology probably came to Egypt with the zodiac around the turn from the fourth to the third century B.C. as a developing Hellenistic science.” (Parker 1978.725).
Despite its foreign origins the priesthood of Egypt found real meaning and value in this system of divination. They quickly merged this system of viewing the sky with their own spiritual disciplines. It is for this reason that we find the wonderful depictions of the zodiac in some of the most sacred portions of Hwt-Hrw’s temple of Dendera. Construction of the temple that now stands was begun during the reign of Ptolemy XII Auletes (80 – 51 B.C.) and continued until the reign of the Roman Emperor Nero (A.D. 54 – 68). By this point the concept of the zodiac had been in Egypt for close to four hundred years. This was long enough for the priesthood to become highly proficient in this art.
As shown above, before the intervention of the Babylonian system the Egyptians recognized that various celestial bodies did hold specific influence. Nevertheless, until the introduction of Persian astrology predictions concerning the future of individuals was more dependant on determining the festival that the person was born on and whether this was a “lucky” or “unlucky” day. The establishment and continued development of Babylonian astrology within Egyptian culture brought with it a means of determining specific information on the influence of the celestial bodies in one’s life. This, in my opinion, seems to have been quite compatible with Ancient Egyptian thought in that the Egyptians had always seen these stellar forces as manifesting as the Neteru. With the entry of the science of astrology this expression of celestial forces could be understood and predicted in ways that were only hinted at before.
In his investigation of ancient middle eastern texts on Astrology renowned researcher and author Robert Hand has come to some very important conclusions regarding the role of Egypt in the development of Astrology. He agrees that the fundamentals of the Zodiac and the calculation of the planets did originate with the Babylonians. However, he points out that prior to its insertion into Ancient Egyptian temples none of the astrological charts found resemble the complex horoscopes of later Hellenistic periods. In fact, none of them had the detailed interpretations of the later period Egyptian Hellenistic horoscopes. In the introduction to a recent translation project on ancient Greek Astrological texts Robert Hand states:
“The ancients [Greek authors of the texts in question – KW] clearly knew that astrology had something to do with Babylon (after all they did call astrologers Chaldeans) but the principle credit was given to the Egyptians. It is customary among academics to pass this off as something that was merely a fashion among ancient writers with no real historical basis. And in fact the ancient writers did often attribute astrology to persons dating back to the pharaohs such as Nechepso and Petosiris. Nevertheless, there is no reason to assume that the ancients were not correct as to Egypt’s being the primary source of horoscopic astrology; it was just somewhat later than they supposed.”
Mr. Hand continues:
“What did the Egyptians add to Babylonian astrology? We cannot say for certain, but internal evidence indicates the following. The use of a rising degree may or may not have been found in pre-Hellenistic Babylonian astrology. But the Hellenistic writers attributed the use of houses, or signs used as houses to Hermes. For Hermes we should understand a reference to Hellenistic Egyptian sources. It is probable that aspects are also Egyptian but we cannot say for certain. The lots [Parts – KW] are almost certainly Egyptian as well as most of the systems of rulership. Only the exaltations have a clearly Mesopotamian origin. At any rate it is quite likely that the entire apparatus of horoscopic astrology was in place by 1 C.E., quite possibly several centuries earlier. One of things that we have found in our studies of the later Greek writers is that they are already dealing with a later era of astrology. They have their “ancients” and they have already begun to misunderstand some of the ancient teachings. One of these writers, Vettius Valens, actually went traveling through Egypt looking for masters of the old traditions, much like modern Americans have gone to India to study astrology and various sacred teachings. While most of the Greek writers seemed to have studied from books, Valens studied with at least a few living teachers of the old traditions. And it is clear from his work that much of what they taught would never have been written down but for Valens.” (Robert Hand, 2004, Project Hindsight)
The implications of Mr. Hand’s comments are enormous. For, if true this would imply that the Priesthood of the Late period of Ancient Egypt not only embraced Babylonian Astrology, over the three to four hundred years of existence in Egypt before the 1st Century C.E., they improved upon it. It would appear that Astrology was taken from a simple charting of the sky with different planetary positions being seen as basic omens, to a science and art of complex dimensions enabling in depth delineation and prediction. This also implies that the priesthood of the late period were truly renaissance thinkers. At once they were the keepers of ancient wisdom; the initiates of a system of ritual, a magical and spiritual practice extending back literally thousands of years. And at the same time, they were genuinely innovative by incorporating a foreign system of divination into their own paradigm and then making consistent improvements to this. In doing so they changed the art into something far more advanced and significant than it had ever previously been before.
I do need to point out that the late period was a time of decline in Ancient Egyptian culture, religion and even its very identity. It seems obvious that the influx of foreign culture, concepts, religious and magical ideas may have contributed to this decay. Perhaps even more to the point, it has been argued that this influx was the primary cause of the eventual loss of the Ancient Egyptian spiritual tradition. To counter this loss of sacred knowledge some authorities have postulated that the increase of inscriptions within the late period temples was an attempt on the part of the priesthood to keep their sacred teachings intact. Astrology, as a foreign discipline, may potentially be classified in the category of an outside influence that contributed to the decline of Egyptian wisdom.
I would submit that, in fact, Astrology helped to not only preserve the ancient Egyptian spiritual system, it was a natural evolution to this esoteric discipline. One telling fact is obvious, several representations of the zodiac exist in the temple of Dendera. If in fact the priesthood were attempting to save their wisdom from eventual extinction the inclusion of this system into the hieroglyphic record of Dendera may indicate that the priesthood did see this as an important (albeit foreign) contribution to Egyptian esoteric wisdom.
In support of this possibility is the historical fact that once the Persians were driven out of Egypt there was a real effort to purge the culture of all things related to the Babylonian rule. As Dr. Assmann points out in his masterful work “The Mind of Egypt” the Persians were seen by the Egyptians as being the embodiment of chaotic and evil forces. They had plundered the temples, killed sacred animals and suppressed many aspects of the religion (Assmann 1996.373). So intensely did the Egyptians come to loathe this rule that later they would engrave the crypts of the temple of Dendera with warnings not to allow these same foreigners to enter the temple. This was not a form of racism. Rather, because of the results of the Persian rule, “It reflected their concern that foreigners might act in a blasphemous way toward the gods, who, offended, might turn away from Egypt” (Assmann 1996.396).
So here find that in the same temple that houses the beautiful representations of the zodiac in some of the most holy sanctuaries of the structure there are also strict warnings about allowing the foreigners into the temple. In light of the concerted effort to remove all things relate to Babylonian influence, and in fact to demonize their rule later in ritual, we have to ask why was the zodiac incorporated into the sacred design of this temple? It can be argued that the priesthood clearly did see real spiritual significance and compatibility with traditional Egyptian esoteric teachings. In fact, Clement of Alexandria describes one of the late period classes of the priesthood as astrologers. Members of this priesthood were expected to have mastered four important astrological texts. These included tomes involving the night, the planets, the appearances and movement of the Sun and Moon, and the rising of the decan stars (Assmann 1996.412).
With this new ordering of the sky and the revisions that came with it, new ways of interpreting the influences of the movements of the celestial bodies became apparent to the Egyptian priesthood. Further, it is clear that Egypt not only embraced this system as a valid art, they may very well have been instrumental to its continued evolution. Thus, it is my opinion that Astrology is a vital extension of, and addition to, the esoteric wisdom begun in Ancient Egypt. And when understood and used properly astrology can be a powerful and highly effective tool for the initiate. One that is every bit in concert with Ancient Egyptian teachings and practices.