Circular Myth: The Dendera Zodiac

In 1799, Napoleon and his armies were beginning to expand their presence throughout Egypt. Napoleon brought artists to record sketches of his findings of a country that was considered exotic and out of the norm from traditional European culture. One particular artist, Vivant Denon, was fascinated by a full-fledged circular zodiac that was carved into the ceiling of The Temple of Hathor, located in the village of Dendera. After thoroughly sketching the circular zodiac, Denon returned to Paris and publicly released his findings. His report was published in a work that became massively popular in England and France, as everyone seemed to be hungry for more knowledge about this strange circular design in the temple. Now referred to as the “Dendera Zodiac”, several of France’s greatest scientists, astronomers and mathematicians were in an uproar, trying to find the exact dates and times of the celestial events depicted within it. Physicists Joseph Fourier and Jean-Baptiste Biot alongside astronomer Johan Karl Burckhardt spearheaded the investigation, but were puzzled by the constellations depicted on the zodiac. Were they actual astronomical calculations depicting the movements of the stars, or were they merely symbolic representations? France was beginning its study into the world of archaeostronomy.

The Dendera Zodiac is the only circular depiction of astronomy to be found within Egyptian antiquity. All other references to the zodiac or astrology are either square or pyramidal in shape and design. The zodiac itself depicts the 360 days of the Egyptian year, with thirty-six decans arranged in a circular fashion. A decan represents one-third of the duration of a zodiacal constellation. Twelve signs with three decans each means thirty-six decans in total. This is a metric that western astrologers continue to use to this day.  

Renowned English Egyptologist Gerald Massey was able to reconcile each of the traditional western zodiacal signs with an Egyptian counterpart. Looking at the Dendera Zodiac, The ram of Aries corresponds with the ram-headed deity Amun. Taurus corresponds with Osiris, sometimes referred to as “The Bull of Eternity”, while the two fish of Pisces is signified by two crocodiles swimming in opposite directions. For every constellation in the traditional western zodiac, there is an Egyptian equivalent with the same symbolism; ranging from Khnum the goat with the same characteristics as Capricorn, to Atum, the lion-headed deity that bears resemblance to Leo. The image of Isis carrying Horus in her arms is synonymous with the constellation of Virgo, and bears resemblance to the image of the Virgin Mary carrying Jesus. The important question remains; what were these symbols meant to convey, and what importance did the Ancient Egyptians place on them? For the Egyptians, each zodiac sign corresponded with a season of the year that was believed to be ruled over by a specific deity. The scarab beetle signifying Cancer was symbolic of summer, while the scales of Libra signified the autumnal equinox. You may notice that although all twelve of the constellations appear in the Dendera Zodiac, the placements of some are somewhat distorted and skewed. The crab of Cancer (Number 39 in the image) seems to have been deliberately placed towards the center of the zodiac, resulting in a spiral-like configuration of the zodiac. It is uncertain why this choice was incorporated into the design; the Cancer month may have held a particular significance.            

To the Egyptians, each season had a unique effect on the passing of days within the 360-day calendar. The hours in a day were not measured in a static and fixed fashion, but were subject to change from season to season. The zodiac also depicted the movement of the star Sirius; a star of foremost importance to the Ancient Egyptians. Sirius rising from the horizon marked the beginning of the New Year, however this date would change by eight and a half days every thousand years. The sign of Aquarius was given great importance, as it represented the sign of inundation, signifying a time of flood. The Egyptians would use Sirius as a marker to indicate when the annual flooding of the Nile would occur, in what we would now call the month of June.   

Without a doubt, Ancient Egyptians placed a great deal of importance on astronomy and the movement of the heavens, however, where did the construction of the zodiac itself fit on the timeline?  Charles Dupuis, a pre-French Revolution scholar believed Egyptian astrology originated as far back as 14,000 years ago; 10,000 years earlier than the commonly accepted timeline of 4000 B.C. Dupuis believed the Ancient Egyptians were miles ahead of the Ancient Greeks in their knowledge of astronomy, going so far as to label the Greeks ‘children’ in comparison. 

The Dendera Zodiac portrayed the ecliptic of the sun, which refers to the circular path of the sun’s orbit. The configuration of the patterns on the zodiac indicated a strange feature; the arrangement of the constellations show a date that occurred at least 650 years prior to construction of the zodiac itself. The solstice between Gemini-Cancer shows the position of an ecliptic that should have existed in 650 B.C.  French scholars believed the Dendera Zodiac to be thousands of years older than the Biblical date of creation. This undoubtedly troubled the church, whose beliefs were at risk of being turned upside down because of this strange new artifact. Jean-Francois Champollion, France’s most prominent Egyptologist during the reign of Napoleon, was able to rectify the date of the zodiac’s creation. He examined the hieroglyphic cartouches that were adjacent to the zodiac, and traced the royal names to a period of time ranging between 100-20 B.C, which was either the late Ptolemaic or Augustan time period. Champollion’s opinion carried a great deal of weight, given that he was the first to decipher the hieroglyphics on the infamous Rosetta Stone.  The Pope was so grateful for Champollion’s revision that he offered to make him a Cardinal within the church, despite him being an atheist. 

In the grand scheme of things, what is the purpose of studying ancient astrology? The fact that almost every ancient civilization made a point to document the movement of the stars, and focus on twelve distinct constellations can help us piece together the larger narrative of human history. Psychologist Carl Jung believed that certain images and symbols were embedded in the subconscious of our earliest ancestors, known as archetypes.  These archetypes are universal in scope and recognizable by every human. Early civilizations transcribed their interpretations of the stars into twelve distinct archetypes that are embedded within the human psyche. We also find the number twelve recurring in many points across history and mythology, ranging from the twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve trials of Hercules, to the twelve disciples of Jesus and the twelve original points of Freemasonry, and the list goes on. The fact that depictions of each zodiac sign are echoed through nearly every civilization can lead us to believe there is some hidden significance within this continuing story, whose images are repeated throughout different periods of time. The idea of a universal monomyth has been discussed in great detail by authors Giorgio DeSantillana and Hertha von Dechend, in their book, Hamlet’s Mill, in which the authors point out distinct similarities between celestial myths of nearly all of the world’s cultures. The same conclusion was reached by Joseph Campbell, who once stated that the myths of the world “resemble each other as dialects of a single language”.

The Dendera Zodiac was eventually stolen and taken to France in 1821 by engineer Jean Lelorrain, who used gunpowder and explosives to break the zodiac free from its rightful place on the ceiling of the temple. The zodiac now rests on a different ceiling, in the Egyptian Antiquities exhibit of the famous Louvre Museum in Paris.