J.D. Degreef

The religious beliefs of the Ancient Egyptians during prehistoric times and the Archaic Period, i.e. before the pyramid age, remain shrouded in mystery. Even more so the astronomical concepts of the time. This article presents evidence for the existence of an astronomical system marking the seasons, older than the decanal and zodiacal systems.


Many late pre-dynastic or early dynastic objects are decorated with rows of animals, often alternating herbivores and carnivores. On two such objects, the Brooklyn Museum knife handle and the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art comb, a star has been carved alongside such a design. This is an important clue that the animal processions are not merely a decorative theme. Another point showing this is that the rows are not disposed in a haphazard fashion, but that certain rules in the grouping of the animals can be distinguished. The presence of a star on two objects may well indicate that the animals are in fact stars or constellations, whose representations have been multiplied for decorative reasons.

knife handle
Brooklyn Museum knife handle

MMA comb


But how can such an assertion be proven ? What we need are Ancient Egyptian religious texts alluding to these stars and constellations. There may actually be such allusions in the Pyramid Texts, and even in the oldest of these, discovered in the pyramid of Unas, the last king of the 5th dynasty, situated in Saqqara, 15 km south of the better known Giza pyramids. The text forms the end of Unas’ ritual. [2] They seem to concern the king’s ascension through the northern passageway of his pyramid, from where his soul is going to reach the stars in the northern sky. This part of the celestial vault played an important role in Egyptian religion, because the Ancients had realized that due to their position some of its stars never set below the horizon, i.e. they never “die”. They were called the Ikhemu-sek, the “Never-setting Ones”, and were a powerful symbol of immortality. Having directed their gaze towards this part of the sky, the Egyptians seem to have used its constellations for other purposes also : to mark specific moments of the year, coinciding with the main seasonal festivals. In the exit passage of Unas’ pyramid, the king seems to be identified with three of the northern constellations (not all circumpolar, as we will see).


Utt. 315

505: ‘Unas is a jan-baboon, a hTt-baboon, a pATT-baboon. Unas’ death (or: bottom [4]) is according to Unas’ own wish. Unas’ honor is on Unas’ head. Unas makes jubilations (hnj) and rejoices. He will sit among you, youthful ones (HaAtjw).’ [5]

Utt. 316

506: ‘O hmj, o sHd, Unas will not give you his magical power. Unas will sit side by side with She-the-Holy-One in Heliopolis. Take Unas to the sky!’

Utt. 317

507: To say the words: ‘Unas came today, out of the overflow of the Inundation. Unas is Sobek with green feather, with watchful face, with uplifted brow, the raging one coming from the leg and the tail of the Great One, she who resides in the brilliant light (jmj.t jax). 508: Unas came to his water ways which are on the bank of the flood of the Great Overflow (mH-wr.t) (= sky), to the place of peace (contentment/setting/offerings) with green pastures, which is on the horizon. 509: Unas causes the grass to become green on the two banks of the horizon. Unas brings the green brilliance to the Great Eye (or: Eye of the Great One) which resides among the pastures. Unas takes his seat which is on the horizon. 510: Unas arises as Sobek, son of Neith. Unas eats with his mouth, Unas urinates, Unas copulates with his phallus. Unas is the lord of seed, he who takes the women from their husband wherever Unas wants, according to the desire of his heart.’


Utt. 318

511: ‘[Unas is the Nau-snake, the leading bull], who has swallowed his 7 Uraei, and so his neck vertebrae came into being, he who gives orders to his 7 Enneads who hear the word of the king (md.w jt.w). 512: Unas has come, he inhales myrrh (antjw). Unas takes myrrh, he wallows (anjj=f) in myrrh. The nails (ant) of Unas are of myrrh. Unas has taken your necks (or: power), o gods. Serve Unas so that he invests (nHb.t=f) you with your kas.’

Utt. 319

513: To say the words : ‘This Unas is the bull of double brilliance in the midst of his Eye. Safe is the mouth of Unas through the fiery breath, the head of Unas through the horns of the lord of the South. Unas leads the god. Unas rules over the Ennead. Unas lets the lapis lazuli (xsbD) grow (srwd). Unas causes the southern twn-plant to grow. 514: Unas has twisted the SmSm.t-plant into ropes. Unas has united (zmA) the heavens (pt.w). Unas rules over the lands (tA.w), the South and the North, as the god of those who were before. Unas has built a divine city as it should be. Unas is the third when he appears (xa).’

Utt. 320

515: To say the words : ‘Unas has regulated (or: made clear) the night, Unas has sent on their ways the hours (wn.wt). The powers (sxm.w) appear, they honor Unas as bAbjj. Unas is the son of her who did not know that she gave birth to (one as great as) Unas, for Powerful Face (or : He whose Face is Yellow), the lord of nights. 516: Humble (?) yourselves, hide yourselves, o rekhyt-populace, before Unas. Unas is bAbjj, the lord of the night, the bull of apes (kA ian.w), who lives without knowing it (or: on those who do not know him).’

As one can see, the Pyramid Texts are not easy to understand, even after they have been translated! But let us see what we can find in this text.

Utterance 315, §505: the king is identified with a number of sacred baboons, also named in later texts, e.g. the New Kingdom book of the Amduat, “What is in the Netherworld.” There, baboons bearing exactly the same names are among the deities of the first hour of the night. [6] This is an important clue, for it may imply that the celestial observations underlying the present spells concern phenomena observed at sunset. Sunrise is a possibility too, as the baboons appear on vignettes of the Book of the Dead accompanying hymns to the rising sun. [7]

Utterance 316, §506: Hemi and Sehed may be stars [8], for there is a celestial structure or a part of the sky named Sehedu, which is also mentioned in the Pyramid Texts, and whose determinative sign represents the sky.

Utterance 317: §507 first mentions the Inundation, which in Egypt occurred near the Summer solstice and marked the New Year. The mention of the grass becoming green in §509 agrees with this. Then the crocodile-god Sobek is mentioned, and he is said to have come from the leg and the tail of the Great One (wr.t, feminine). This is a strange thing to say about a crocodile, were it not for the fact that the Great One, Uret (later tA-wr.t, Thueris), is a well-known constellation linked with another asterism from the circumpolar region: the Bull’s Thigh. Thueris is often, but not always represented with a crocodile on her back, which may indicate the crocodile’s origin out of the Hippopotamus goddess. “Sobek of the Leg” is also attested by other sources. The god himself is sometimes called pA-wr [9], “the Great One,” which links him with tA-wr.t, Thueris. A Thueris-like goddess Sobeket is represented on a torso of Nektanebo II [10]. During the Graeco-Roman period, Thueris is Sobek’s mother in two important cult places: Medinet el-Fayum and Kerkeosiris, and the two are again linked on a statue base from the former site. [11] The allusion in §510 to the crocodile-god “taking the women from their husbands” is also applied to the Nile flood in later texts. In the Tale of the Two Brothers, the waves of the river frighten Bata’s wife, who flees away. The water pursues her and yells “I want to seize her!” but only manages to capture a lock of hair (in Egypt an erotic symbol). In Djoser’s pseudo-historical stela from Sehel Island near Elephantine, the Nile is said to run “like a male towards women.” [12] Sobek’s link with the Nile flood is attested later too and an image very near that in Unas is presented in the Late Period hymns written down by Sobek’s priests in Sumenu in the Theban nome. [13]

Utterance 318, §512: Unas invests (nHb.t) the gods with their ka-energy. This seems like a clear allusion to the god Neheb-kau (nHb-kA.w) [14], “who distributes the ka-energies,” whose festival is an important occasion, celebrated in the Fall, at the beginning of sowing. [15] Two other interesting allusions in Utt. 318 are to a snake, which is a classical representation of Neheb-kau, and to the neck (twice, in §511 and 512). They will come in handy later on, as will the variant of §511 in Teti’s pyramid, where the Hn.t pelican is called the king’s mother (in his role as Neheb-kau).

Utterance 319, §513: Unas is a “Bull of double brilliance,” which could be a constellation with especially bright stars. The brightest constellation near the celestial North pole is the modern Great Bear or Big Dipper, which was indeed represented as a Bull (or a Bull’s Thigh) in Egyptian astronomical representations, known from the First Intermediate Period on. [16] Although he is represented as a mummified (akhem) hawk, the “Lord of the South” mentioned next is probably Seth, who is specifically given this title elsewhere in the Pyramid Texts (§204). The Bull’s Thigh is a Sethan constellation indeed, as attested by several Late Period texts [17], where it appears as a dismemberment piece of Seth’s body. The dead king’s identification with a Sethan constellation may seem strange, but in the Pyramid Texts Seth does not yet play his later role of an archfiend. Interestingly, the Thigh constellation is called Osiris’ foreleg on a very late monument also. [18] The possible seasonal indications in Unas’ Utterance 319 are difficult to interpret: what is the southern twn-plant and when does it grow? The fact that the lapis lazuli (or azurite or blue turquoise, cf. Lexikon der Ägyptologie, henceforth LÄ, III, 937) is rwd, “strong,” may be an allusion to its color, which may have been thought to be spoiled by the summer heat. If this is true, the season announced by the “third” constellation (§514), the Thigh, would exclude the warmest months in the Sinai (June-August).

Utterance 320, §515 confirms that Unas, as all three the circumpolar constellations, “regulates the night” and “sends on their way the hours,” reminding us in §516 that this happens at the onset of the night, during the hour of the jAn.w-baboons, the first hour of the Amduat.

So we seem to have three constellations linked with an astronomical phenomenon, probably at sunset, at specific moments of the Egyptian year: the Crocodile at the New Year in July (in the Julian calendar), an animal with a prominent neck in November, the Bull or Bull’s Thigh (Great Bear) at some moment of the Winter or Spring. The latter season can be defined by features of the Late Period ceremonies during the month of Epiphi, the second last month of the year. These comprised the throwing of the thigh of a sacrificed bull (or goat) towards the sky. The main feature of this “Beautiful Reunion” festival in Edfu was the sacred marriage between Horus and Hathor, celebrated during the second month of the dry season Shemu, Epiphi. The ceremonies included the throwing of a bull’s thigh into the air, which was repeated during successive days of the festival:

“One brings the red ox and one has its throat cut in front of Horus of Edfu. One cuts loose (with a knife) its right foreleg. one throws it into the crowd. It is seized by the singer (?) whose name is Horus, who puts (it) on his neck.” [19] In the Pyramid Texts, the bull could be a Sethan animal: “Horus has fallen because of his Eye, the (sacrificial) Bull has rolled down because of his testicles.” (§418) and “The messenger of Horus who loves (the king) brings him his Eye; the messenger of Seth who loves (the king) brings him his testicles; the messenger of Thot who loves (the king) brings him his arm.” (§535).

During the Old Kingdom, a festival named Sadj (sAD) is attested during the same month of Epiphi. As in Edfu, it seems to have involved a voyage by Hathor, the moving out and back into his temple of the god, and ended with the festival of the hippopotamus goddess Ipet. [20]

A festival involving a divine union, thus possibly similar to the later one in Edfu, was celebrated in Thebes during the New Kingdom, that of the Beautiful Feast of the Valley. But it did not fall during the month of Epiphi, but during the preceding one, Payni, to which it gave its name. [21]

This may place the astronomical phenomenon linked with the Great Bear during either one of these two harvest months. The dismemberment of the Sethan bull or goat, and the strange throwing of their thigh into the air may have paralleled the threshing and winnowing of corn.


We are then able to use astronomy software [22] to try and find out what the event is which involved the Great Bear at sunset during the Spring months, around 3200 BCE, since the constellations considered here already appear on late pre-dynastic monuments.

Now as to the Spring event, it appears to be the Thigh’s superior culmination at sunset, i.e. the moment when the constellation, which circles the celestial north pole, reaches the highest point of its orbit, right above the pole. More precisely, the culmination of the tip of the Great Bear’s tail, the star Benetnash (Eta UMa), which appears as a hallmark on the Middle and New Kingdom representations of the northern constellations, as we will soon see.

The fact that the allusion to the Thigh concerns it culmination is an important point, for it will allow us to identify the other two constellations, i.e. the asterisms culminating at sunset around the Summer New Year and the autumnal sowing festival. No suitable modern constellation culminated at sunset around the Summer New Year in 4000-3000 BCE, but star maps may still allow us to identify the stars grouped into a constellation by the Egyptians.

The constellation which culminated about a month after the Fall equinox in 3200BCE was the Little Bear: its rectangular portion lies towards the celestial north pole, whereas its “tail” sticks up vertically away from the pole. For somebody looking North, the constellation thus has the shape of a long-necked animal, explaining the neck mentions in Unas’ Utterance 318! To the naked eye it also has seven main stars, which may explain Unas’ allusion to the seven neck vertebrae.

Culmination of Eta
Culmination of Eta of the Great Bear after sunset, three weeks after the Spring equinox.
(N at top)

Culmination of the Lion
Culmination of the Lion after sunset around the Summer solstice.
(N = down)

Culmination of the Lion
Culmination of the Little Bear after sunset, about 5 weeks after the Fall equinox.
(N at top)


It is time now to go back to our starting point, the pre-dynastic objects with putative astronomical representations.

1. The Carnarvon knife handle (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) (verso):
-first row: long-necked birds (cranes) but a giraffe in second place.
-second row: lions (not crocodiles!).
-third row: bulls.

2. The Abu Zedan (Edfu) knife handle (Brooklyn Museum) (verso):
-second row: a snake (?) and cranes, with again a giraffe in second place. The former could well correspond with Neheb-kau’s representation as a serpent and the latter animals allude to the long neck of the Little Bear.
-third row: lions.
-following rows: herbivores (among which a row of bulls) alternating with carnivores.

3. The Pitt-Rivers Museum knife handle (verso) :
-second row: various species of long-necked birds.
-third row: lions.
-fourth row bulls.
-following rows: alternating herbivores and carnivores.

4. The Th. M DAVIES comb (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) (recto and verso):
-second row : a snake (?) and cranes, with a giraffe in second place.
-third row: lions or dogs.
-following rows: herbivores (oryx antelopes or indeed bulls), alternating with rows of carnivores.

Carnarvon knife handle
The Carnarvon knife handle.

Brooklyn Museum knife handle
The Brooklyn Museum knife handle.

Pitt-Rivers knife handle
The Pitt-Rivers knife handle.

MMA comb
The MMA comb.

The sequence is fairly clear on these objects: from bottom to top herbivores, carnivores and cranes with a giraffe. But sometimes the representations are different: the recto of the three knife handles has alternating rows of herbivores and carnivores, obviously continuing the lower part of the decoration of the other face.

Another object, a beautiful mace shaft found in a rich tomb in Sayala, Nubia, has herbivores intercalated between the giraffe plus crane and the carnivores.

Sayala mace shaft
The Sayala mace shaft.

Several other objects are known, decorated with rows of animals, especially the fragments of ivory furniture discovered in Hierakonpolis. They usually do not exhibit the same clear-cut order as the knife handles and the MMA comb.

Decorated ivory fragment from Hierakonpolis. [28]

Above : ivory inlay of a chair arm rest, from Hierakonpolis. [29]

Above and below : decorated ivory fragments from Hierakonpolis. [30]

Above and below : decorated ivory fragments from Hierakonpolis. [31]

Ivory arm rest of chair from Hierakonpolis. [32]

Sometimes the animals are completely mixed up, as on the object below, left [33], where a bull occurs in the upper row, alongside a crane.

Hier. II, pl. XII, 1.
Arm rest from Hierakonpolis.

But the diversity of the representations does not disprove the astronomical identification presented here. The rows of animals also played a decorative role, as seen on the knife handles, where the typical representation of cranes plus giraffe, carnivores and herbivores continues as alternating rows of herbivores and carnivores on the other side of all three objects. In the same manner, a piece of furniture inlaid with ivory could have the typical sequence on one of its parts, and simple rows of animals, or a mix of all the themes, elsewhere. The arm rest of a chair has the animal rows in the traditional order: lions on one of the sides, long-necked birds and possibly a giraffe on top, herbivores on the other side (and birds as a filling for the fourth, the less important, the underside). One thing to be learned from all these objects is that the link between the various animals and constellations is not a specific one: the Little Bear is not a crane or a giraffe, but any long-necked animal can do, e.g. several bird species with this anatomical feature. These graphical plays are reflected in the Pyramid Texts. As already mentioned, the mother of the autumnal snake-deity Neheb-kau is a Hn.t pelican (§511). In §278, the psD.t pelican “announces,” sr, a word usually written with a giraffe (not in the Pyramid Texts, though). The Summer constellation can also be represented by several species of carnivores: lions, dogs, panthers. As to the Spring constellation, it corresponds with all kinds of herbivores.

The decoration of the pre-dynastic objects mentioned here seems to comprise other religious allusions, which can only be mentioned in passing, such as the elephant on entwined serpents, the alternating herbivores and carnivores, and the fact that on two objects where a star has been represented alongside the animals, it lies near a row of dogs, as was pointed out to me by Cristina WADDINGTON.

But one important animal which we have not seen represented on any of these objects is the Crocodile, the deity of the beginning of Summer in Unas’ text.


To solve this problem, we have to turn towards the astronomical representations of the northern constellations, which appear from the Middle Kingdom on and persist until the end of Ancient Egyptian civilization. There are a number of variants of these, described in EAT III, 184-194. Given the Egyptians’ tendency to schematise, to idealize and to use corrupt and thoughtless copies of prestigious old monuments, they are not easy to interpret.

Senenmut’s tomb
Reconstructed astronomical representation from Senenmut’s tomb in Deir el-Bahari.

1. The Thigh is easy enough to identify. The tip of its tail, the star Eta UMa, is indeed especially highlighted as a hallmark, from the above apparently that used to define the constellation’s culmination. On some monuments, the Thigh has become a hybrid between a leg and a bull. In others, it is represented as a complete bull indeed.

Senenmut’s tomb
Astronomical representation Ramses III A.

2. The Lion / Crocodile: an interesting detail is that in several representations a recumbent lion has a crocodile tail. [38] Two other crocodiles are represented on these monuments, but the lion-crocodile must be the constellation culminating at sunset at the New Year [39], from the presence of the lions on the pre-dynastic objects. The identification of the Lion constellation with a crocodile seems to have been made during the pre-dynastic too: it appears alongside the Hippopotamus in a rather clumsy representation on a knife handle from the PETRIE collection (University College, London):

Hippopotamus and Crocodile
Hippopotamus and Crocodile.

Sobek himself can also be represented by animals other than the crocodile: a bull, a ram, but also a lion. [41] Looking at sky maps, the Lion/Crocodile seems to be composed of parts of the present constellations Hercules and Corona Borealis: see diagram p. 6 of the present article, showing the striking resemblance between the Ancient Egyptian lion representation (Ramses VI C) and the actual stars on the sky map. Hercules and Corona Borealis are not circumpolar constellations. In the Pyramid Texts, Unas is identified with the Circumpolar Stars a number of times (e.g. in Utterances 217-218), so it would have been preferable for all three northern constellations to be circumpolar, but the lion shape which star maps show culminating in early summer is too striking and is probably the best candidate. Besides, the sky is fairly empty between it and the pole, so it would be hard to find a circumpolar lion constellation there.

Ramses VI C
Astronomical representation Ramses VI C.

3. The Snake/Crane/Giraffe/Scorpion: One constellation we are still missing on the Egyptian objects from the historic period is the Snake/Crane/Giraffe (Little Bear). Could it not have had yet another representation, that of a scorpion, with the uplifted tail corresponding to the “neck” of the Little Bear in the other interpretations? The astronomical monuments indeed show the scorpion-goddess Serqet above the Lion. The Scorpion identification may have existed during the pre-dynastic too. An ivory furniture fragment from Hierakonpolis features a scorpion preceding a lion, itself walking in front of a herbivore (an oryx), possibly the three constellations in their usual inverted order. In the Pyramid Texts, §489, Serqet does indeed appear as the autumnal god Neheb-kau’s mother, as did the pelican elsewhere.

Hierakonpolis ivory. [43]


The occurrence of what we have identified as northern constellations on such a large proportion of the remaining fragments of pre-dynastic sacred furniture, and the diversity of these objects (knives, a comb, a mace, furniture... ) shows the all-important role of astronomical phenomena at this early period. This is confirmed by yet another class of roughly contemporary monuments: the same symbols occur on the colossal statues of Min, discovered by PETRIE under this god’s temple in Coptos. [44] As found, the statues were lying on an east-west line (more exactly running ENE-WSW).
-statue Ashmolean Museum 1894.105e was lying at the eastern end of the line, some distance from the other two; its decoration comprises a recumbent Lion.
-statue Cairo JE 30770 was found near the next one, somewhat south of the line joining the two other effigies; its decoration comprises a Crane.
-statue Ashmolean Museum 1894.105d was lying to the west; the severed head of a herbivore (antelope? stag?) in its decoration is larger and of another technical quality than the Lion and the Crane on the other two statues, so it may not be homologous, but it checks well with what one would expect for the third, the Spring sign. The decapitated head may be an allusion to ritual dismemberment, itself possibly alluding to the threshing of corn (the Spring is harvest time in Egypt, up to the present day).

Were these statues used for the cult of Min at three specific moments of the year? Or for a procession touring the three constellations and mimicking the celestial tour which the god, regenerated by the rituals, had become able to do? The second possibility would check well with the later festival rites.


Of the animals chosen for the three constellations, one, the giraffe, specifically belongs to the environment of Archaic Egypt. This animal may have reappeared each year in the savannas around the Nile Valley with the onset of the winter rains, thereby “announcing” (sr) the fertile season in the desert, since sr is also the Egyptian name of the giraffe. [45] The choice of this animal indicates the antiquity of these star groups, and also explains the later replacement of the Giraffe by the Scorpion, at a time when the former had become but a vague memory. Even the New Kingdom and Late period variants of the representations of the northern constellations seem to indicate that these were mere memories from the past, things copied from sacred and ancient documents, but which were not used any more.

The culprit may be the slow drift of the celestial pole’s position, a phenomenon astronomers call the precession of the equinoxes. The seasonal clock of the 4th millennium BCE had shifted by more than a month during the early Middle Kingdom. So one decided to use another system, replacing the old northern constellation culminations. A number of stars were chosen in a totally different area of the sky, in a belt south of the celestial equator: the decan stars, first attested in astronomical tables on First Intermediate Period sarcophagus lids. None of these is mentioned in the Pyramid Texts, which may be due either to the fact that these elements were fairly new at the time and that most of the Pyramid Texts were actually copied from an ancient corpus, which Unas’ allusions to the Circumpolar Stars seems to confirm, or that the decans were indeed defined during the First Intermediate Period. The new stars could be used to mark the seasons and to determine the time after sunset, when, as at later periods, hourly spells may have had to be recited to protect the god in his temple from the influences of the evil beings of the night. The Pyramid Texts do allude to this: “O you who are set over the hours, you who go in front of Re, prepare a way for Unas, that Unas may pass through the guard (of demons) with terrible faces” (§269). The 5-6th dynasty Abusir papyri give us the duty rosters of the people responsible for these nightly (and also diurnal) vigils on the pyramid temple roofs. [46] Astonishingly, they are low level temple servants (xntj.w S), hardly the people one would expect to recite protection spells. Only one of them is needed during the day (to read a sundial?), seven during the night: four people sitting at the southern end of the terrace, watching the northern constellations above the three servants sitting at the northern end of the roof. [47] Their position on the terrace confirms that what was observed were astronomical phenomena on the meridian, not risings or settings. A recently discovered papyrus fragment from Pepy I’s funerary temple [48] also shows that a version of the Pyramid Texts was kept there. This is an important discovery, for it confirms that the Pyramid Texts were the spells used during the temple rituals, possibly comprising the nocturnal ones on the roof.

When the northern stars were replaced by the decans, some of their elements may have been transposed into the new system, such as the Hippopotamus goddess holding a mooring post (the double location is mentioned in EAT III, 191).

Astonishingly, we also find the three archaic constellations, at their proper place, among the Late Period zodiacal signs: Leo, Scorpio and Taurus! Even in Mesopotamia, these three signs are attested earlier than the others. The Bull, the Lion, Bull-man, Lion-man, the Scorpion are among the most frequent themes on seals from the Archaic Period (2600-2334 BCE). [49] The three signs are often associated. [50] The Epic of Gilgamesh mentions the throwing of a bull’s thigh into the air (Tablet VI, 169 [51]), apparently its threshing and winnowing. On the HOOKE pl. 14,c seal, the star of Inanna, i.e. the planet Venus, has been represented between the Bull and the Lion, indicating the astronomical symbolism. Thus even in Mesopotamia, the three signs studied in this article may have belonged to an older tradition, as of yet unattested in the too scarce archaic written sources. [52] The question is whether they already were zodiacal constellations, i.e. lying on the sun’s path, or whether this is another case of a transposition of the archaic north polar system. The Mesopotamians may have loved tradition less than the Egyptians, abandoning the old system when it had become astronomically obsolete. In any case, the Great Bear is not named the Bull’s Thigh in the later, classical Mesopotamian inscriptions. [53]

Lion attacking bull
Lion attacking bull near corn ear.

Fight of heroes
Fight of heroes near palm tree.

Seal with ploughing, moon and star
Seal with ploughing, moon, and star.

Fight of heroes
Fight of heroes, scorpion.

Fight of heroes
Fight of heroes, scorpion.


[1] November 2003 version of the February 2002 article ; as Hierakonpolis I is now available online, the relevant plates have been removed from the article (but their titles have been left to provide the refernces).

[2] J. ALLEN, “Reading a Pyramid,” in: Fs. J. Leclant, BdE 106/1, 1994, p. 12.

[3] K. SETHE’s classical hieroglyphic version of the texts, from “Die altägyptischen Pyramidentexte nach den Papierabdrücken und Photographien des Berliner Museums...,” 1908-1910, can be downloaded here:, i.e. pages 258-264. The translation presented is mainly that of A. PIANKOFF (“The Pyramid of Unas,” Bollingen Series 40, 1968, pp. 17-19), emended on a few points by that of R. FAULKNER (“The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts,” Oxford, 1969, pp. 98-102).

[4] An allusion to the very particular bottom of a baboon?

[5] FAULKNER translates “This is Unas, o jan-baboon...,” but the allusions to jubilations (and the bottom?) show that Unas is indeed identified with the baboons, so that PIANKOFF’s translation is preferred here.

[6] A. PIANKOFF, “The Tomb of Ramesses VI,” Bollingen Series XL p. 236 & fig. 74.

[7] BUDGE, “The Book of the Dead,” Kegan Paul, Trench & Trubner, London, 1923, pp. 75 & 77.

[8] A. PIANKOFF, Pyr. Unas, p. 18.

[9] Ed. BROVARSKI, ‘Sobek,’ LÄ V, 1012.

[10] Ibidem, 1009, with ref.

[11] Ibidem, 1013, 1014.

[12] Both quotations from A. MORET, “La Mise à Mort du dieu en Egypte,” Libr. orient. Paul Geuthner, Paris, 1927, p. 13.

[13] Ed. BROVARSKI, ‘Sobek,’ LÄ V, 1000, 1011, with ref.

[14] A. PIANKOF, Pyr. Unas, p. 19.

[15] W. BARTA, ‘Nehebkau,’ LÄ IV, 388-390.

[16] Coffin of Heny, see EAT III, pp. 8-9 & fig. 1.

[17] Cf. EAT III, 190-191.

[18] Cf. EAT III, 1.

[19] ALLIOT, « Le Culte d’Horus à Edfou au temps des Ptolémées », Bibl. Et. I.F.A.O., Cairo, 1949, II, 523.

[20] H. ALTENMÜLLER, ‘Feste,’ LÄ II, 179.

[21] Ibidem, 174.

[22] The software used is the excellent and easy to use freeware Homeplanet©, which can be downloaded here:
The diagrams shown are constructed using several functions provided by Homeplanet©, with the hour, day and month values visible at the top. One will notice that each diagram provides a map, which shows that the Cairo area has just entered into the night. The hour chosen is approximately at the end of twilight. There is no need here for very precise dates and times, since we do not know when and where (i.e. at which latitude) this system was introduced, and since it concerns naked eye observations. The dates may seem odd, but they are Julian dates. The celestial N pole is marked with a cross on the sky maps.

[23] H. Asselberghs, “Chaos en Beheersing. Documenten uit Aeneolithisch Egypte.”, E.J. Brill, Leiden, 1961, fig. 17 p. 104.

[24] H. Asselberghs, fig. 15, p. 101.

[25] H. Asselberghs, fig. 16 p. 103.

[26] H. Asselberghs, fig. 14 p. 99.

[27] B. MIDANT-REYNES, „Préhistoire de l’Egypte,“ Armand Colin, Paris, 1992, p. 185 fig. 11.

[28] J.E. Quibell, Hier. I, pl. XIV. [Nov. 2003: now online here:]

[29] J.E. Quibell, Hier. I, pl. XVII.

[30] J.E. Quibell, Hier. I, pls. XVI, 1-2; XV, 5.

[31] J.E. Quibell, Hier. I, pl. XVI, 4-5.

[32] J.E. Quibell, Hier. I, pl. XIII, 2.

[33] J.E. Quibell, Hier. I, pl. XII, 1.

[34] J.E. Quibell, Hier. I, pl. XIII, 1.

[35] J.E. QUIBELL, Hier. I, pl. XIII, 1.

[36] O. NEUGEBAUER & R. PARKER, “Egyptian Astronomical Texts” (EAT) III. Decans, Planets, Constellations and Zodiacs, Brown Univ. Press, Providence, Long Island, 1969, fig. 27 p. 184.

[37] EAT III, fig. 28 p. 185.

[38] EAT III, figs. 27 & 28 pp. 184-185.

[39] The name of the crocodile with curved tail, sAq, may be a pun on a variant of Sobek’s name. The presence of multiple crocodile forms is a feature of Sobek’s cult, according to H. KEES, “Der Götterglaube im Alten Ägypten,” 3d ed., Akademie Verl., Berlin, 1977, p. 160. From the name of the lion constellation, “the Divine Lion who is between Them” (EAT III, 193), there may have been several adjacent crocodile constellations.

[40] J. Capart, “Les Débuts de l’art en Egypte,” Vromant, Brussels, 1904, fig. 36 p. 71.

[41] J. GARDINER, RdE 111, 1957, p. 55.

[42] EAT III, fig. 29 p. 186.

[43] J.E. Quibell, Hier. I, pl. XII, 2.

[44] Situation plan, see B. KEMP, “The Colossi from the Early Shrine at Coptos in Egypt,” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 10:2, 2000, p. 215, fig. 7.

[45] Wb. IV, 189 –the word for giraffe is not attested as such but known through its use as a phonogram-

[46] POSENER-KRIEGER, “Les archives du temple funéraire de Néferirkarê-Kakai,” IFAO, Cairo, 1976, vol. I, 29-34.

[47] Ibidem, p. 3.

[48] BERGER-EL NAGGAR, Catherine, “Des Archives sacrées à Saqqâra dans le Temple de Pépy Ier,” Egypte, Afrique & Orient 12 (February 1999), pp. 29-32.

[49] Judging from publications such as L. DELAPORTE, “Catalogue des Cylindres orientaux et des cachets... de la Bibliothèque Nationale,” Leroux, Paris, 1910 [Nov. 2003: in ETANA list, probably online soon. Two works by the same author are now available online: Musée du Louvre, Catalogue des cylindres orientaux, vol.I:
and vol. II: (see pl. 3, 7-14 & pl. 4, 1)]

[50] See: (bull and scorpion); (lion fighting bull); (zebu-bull, lion, scorpion); (palm tree, bull, scorpion, serpents). [Nov 2003 : links are dead.]
A seal in a Belgian private collection shows the Lion attacking the Bull, alongside a Hero separating or holding together the Lions, and a Scorpion is represented at far right (“A l’ombre de Babel,” exhibition catalogue, Brussels, 1995, pp. 45-46, nr. 23). Another (undated but similar) seal shows the fight between the Bull and the Lion and the cutting off of the Bull’s thigh by Gilgamesh (S.H. HOOKE, “Middle Eastern Mythology,” Harmondsworth, 1963 -1981 edition-, pl. 14, c).

[51] See (unfinished draft) or [Nov. 2003: links are dead.]

[52] Not much is known about the Sumerians’ interest in astronomy or astrology: B.L. VAN DER WAERDEN, “Erwachsende Wissenschaft, vol. 2 Die Anfänge der Astronomie,” Birkhause Verl., Basel, 1960, p. 32. Why would scenes of the Gilgamesh Epic have been so popular on archaic seals? Because the Epic is not a mere story but a religious narrative. It may have had an underlying seasonal symbolism, which on the seals is sometimes revealed by the presence of corn ears or a palm tree next to the figures (DELAPORTE, Catal. pl. I, 2; III, 29). Another seal carries a representations of ploughing next to a star and a moon crescent (ibidem, pl. I, 7).

[53] It is called mar-gid-da, “the chariot:” VAN DER WAERDEN, Anfänge, p. 67.

[54] DELAPORTE, Catal., pl. I, 2.

[55] Ibidem, pl. III, 29.

[56] Ibidem, pl. I, 7.

[57] Ibidem, pl. III, 28.

[58] Ibidem, pl. IV, 32.