The Dendera Reliefs

Crypt wall
© Photo copyright Larry Orcutt

Beneath the Temple of Hathor at Dendera there is a crypt with walls inscribed with some very strange reliefs. Krassa and Habeck describe the site in their book Light for the Pharaoh:

The walls are decorated with human figures next to bulb-like objects reminiscent of oversized light bulbs. Inside these "bulbs" there are snakes in wavy lines. The snakes' pointed tails issue from a lotus flower, which, without much imagination, can be interpreted as the socket of the bulb. Something similar to a wire leads to a small box on which the air god is kneeling. Adjacent to it stands a two-armed djed pillar as a symbol of power, which is connected to the snake. Also remarkable is the baboon-like demon holding two knives in his hands, which are interpreted as a protective and defensive power.

In his book The Eyes of the Sphinx pp. 171-173, Erich Von Däniken writes that the relief is found in "a secret crypt" that "can be accessed only through a small opening. The room has a low ceiling. The air is stale and laced with the smell of dried urine from the guards who occasionally use it as a urinal." The room is not so secret, however, as many tourists visit and photograph the room every year. Von Däniken sees the snake as a filament, the djed pillar as an insulator, and claims that "the monkey with the sharpened knives symbolizes the danger that awaits those who do not understand the device." This "device" is, the reader is assured, an ancient electric light bulb.

The Temple of Hathor at Dendera contains a number of small crypts along the eastern, southern, and western sides. These crypts are thought to have served as warehouses or treasuries for ritual furnishings, sacred and ceremonial equipment, and divine images used in celebrating various feasts and holidays. The crypts are small and it is likely that few served as locations for formal rituals. Many have plain, undecorated walls, but some have walls of limestone, rather than the sandstone of the temple itself, that are covered with carefully carved reliefs

At the southern end of the temple there are five subterranean crypts aligned along a straight hallway. It was in these small rooms that the most valuable of the temple statues and objects were kept, including two gilt statues of Hathor decorated with precious stones. The statues have long since vanished, but they are described in the text: one was "the height of one cubit, three palms and two fingers." François Daumas wrote:

But most prestigious of the statues was that of the ba of Hathor. According to the texts written on the walls, we know that the kiosk consisted of a gold base surmounted by a gold roof supported by four gold posts, covered on all four sides by linen curtains hung from copper rods. Inside was placed the gold statuette representing a bird with a human head capped with a horned disc. This was Hathor, Lady of Dendara, residing in her house... It was certainly this statuette that was carried in the kiosk on the evening of the New Year. [Dendara et le Temple d'Hathor, 1969, p. 60; my own translation.]

It is in the easternmost of these five crypts that the strange reliefs are found. Daumas describes this room:

In the last room, one sees, carefully carved on the Southern wall, a falcon with detailed feathers, preceded by a snake emerging from a lotus blossom within a boat. Whereas the whole of the temple is constructed of sandstone, to facilitate a relief of fine quality there was placed in the wall, at the level of the figures, a block of limestone suitable for very detailed work, and of this the artist took full and perfect advantage. These reliefs are cosmological representations. The snake that comes out of the lotus is equated with the shining deity Harsamtawy as he appears for the first time out of the primordial sea. He is again represented near the bottom of the crypt in the form of two snakes also coming forth, but this time wrapped in lotuses like protective envelopes. Sometimes those that were on the Mesktet-barque collaborated with Horus; other times the Mandjet-barque with its crew helped to reveal the god: Djed raises his body, a supreme manner of worship, attendant of the god's prestigious ka. The statuettes appear to have been used for the New Year celebration and the festival of Harsamtawy. It is likely that on these solemn occasions these objects were transported to the vault [i.e. the room above the crypt]. [pp. 60-61; my own translation.]

Harsamtawy, son of Hathor, here takes the form of a serpent (he also appears as a hawk). It was "in this form," wrote Budge, that "Horus was believed to have sprung into existence out of a lotus flower which blossomed in the heavenly abyss of Nu at dawn at the beginning of the year." (The Gods of the Egyptians, I, p. 473)

Daumas believes that it was from this easternmost of the southern crypts that the sacred procession began on the eve of the first day of the new year, bearing the image of the goddess from the subterranean room just as the created world rose from the abyss on the First Day. (See Frank Doernenburg's "Mysteries of the Past" web site for translations of the hieroglyphic inscriptions in both German and English.)

Crypt wall
© Photo copyright Larry Orcutt

But what does any of this have to do with electric light bulbs? The answer is, nothing at all. It is the prejudiced conceit of members of our own modern culture that compel them to impose their own symbols, values, and meaning on a civilization so distant and different, a civilization which they do not make the least effort to understand. It is within the context of the ancient Egyptian religion that these temple walls must be interpreted, not within the context of our own modern home appliances.

There is, then, no reason to ascribe fantastic meanings, such as electric light bulbs, to the reliefs in the Dendera temple. Such an interpretation would be especially suspect in the absence of any associated artifacts or supporting technology, such as wires or power supplies. John Anthony West, who is not loathe to take his own occasional flight of fancy, describes the meaning of the reliefs in his book The Traveler's Key to Ancient Egypt:

The splendid but enigmatic reliefs of the crypt are cosmogonical and depict the serpent (dualizing principle underlying all creation: In Genesis the separation of heaven and earth) borne aloft by the lotus, the symbol of creation as a manifestation of consciousness. [p. 402]

Catchpenny Mysteries © copyright 2000 by Larry Orcutt.