A New Interpretation of the Dendera Zodiac
[The following extract is taken from ‘Babylonian Star-Lore, An Illustrated Guide to the Star-lore and Constellations of Ancient Babylonia’ by Gavin White]
After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, the throne of Egypt passed to one of his generals, Ptolemy, who became the eponymous founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty. For the next 300 years this Greek dynasty ruled Egypt implanting many aspects of Hellenic culture in the fertile ground of this ancient civilisation. During this period two significant astronomic monuments were created at the temple of Hathor in Dendera, Upper Egypt. They are known as the Square and Circular Zodiacs – both somewhat inaccurate titles as they are actually star-maps covering a much greater range than the 12 constellations of the zodiac.
Since their rediscovery by western scholars, the Dendera Zodiacs have been compared to the Greek star-map, not only to determine the locations of the Dendera figures, but also in light of the hypothesis that any constellation figures occurring in both Greek and Egyptian star-maps must ultimately represent elements inherited from Babylonian tradition. Only three constellations beyond the zodiac figures are easily recognised as occurring in both Greek and Dendera star-maps – the serpent and raven positioned close to Leo, and the fish swimming in Aquarius’ outflow. The conclusion generated by this argument is that Babylonian influence on the Greek and Egyptian star-maps is negligible beyond the transmission of the zodiac constellations and a handful of stars closely associated with them. Another inference naturally follows from this conclusion – that the majority of Greek and Egyptian constellation figures were either created within their own independent native traditions or have been inherited from non-Babylonian sources.
Needless to say, the flaws inherent in these arguments are quite apparent – as the Greek star-map could easily contain any number of Babylonian figures that don’t appear on the Dendera Zodiacs and vice versa. It is now time to start reassessing the evidence by comparing the Greek and Egyptian star maps with what we know of the Babylonian constellation figures.
Before venturing into virgin territory it is a good idea to briefly return to the zodiac, and to the figures of Sagittarius, Virgo and Pisces in particular.
Apart from the Egyptian headdress, the depiction of Sagittarius is almost identical to its Babylonian prototype (see fig 98) even down to its two heads and two tails. What is more, below his front feet is a small figure of a boat – this can only be an image of the Babylonian Cargo-boat, which is said to be located beneath the figure of Pabilsag, the Babylonian name for our familiar Sagittarius.
Similarly, the figure of Virgo from the Dendera Zodiac is much closer, in terms of its size and orientation, to its Babylonian prototype (see fig 160) than it is to its Greek counterpart. In addition, there is a second goddess stationed at the tail of Leo and this is very likely to be an image of the Babylonian constellation called the Frond of Erua, which is said to stand at the tail of the Lion.
Finally, the square enclosure that can be seen between the Piscean fish is, in all likelihood, a depiction of the Field constellation that is known to correspond to the Square of Pegasus. As its name suggests, the Field represents a rectangular plot of irrigated land, which is inscribed with zigzag lines representing irrigation channels filled with water.
The examples illustrated above establish two significant facts. Firstly, that the designer of the Dendera Zodiac had some direct knowledge of the Babylonian forms of the zodiac. And secondly, that they also had some knowledge of less well known Babylonian constellations such as the Field, the Frond of Erua and the Cargo-boat, none of which were actually transmitted to the Greek star-map.
This last point further raises the obvious question – are there other figures from the Dendera Zodiac that represent previously unrecognised depictions of Babylonian constellations?
Personally, I am convinced that there are many more parallels between the Dendera figures and the Babylonian constellations, and that they are especially evident in the sequence of southern constellations that stretch between the figures of Taurus and Scorpio. It is well worthwhile comparing these particular Dendera figures with what is known concerning their potential Babylonian counterparts.
The Egyptian figure corresponding to Orion is called Sah, the ‘Fleet-footed’ or ‘Long-strider’, presumably because he is portrayed in a walking posture. He is first depicted in Egyptian astronomic documents dating to the last centuries of the 3rd millennium. On the Dendera Zodiac (left) a crested bird can be seen walking behind him.
The Babylonian version of Orion is called the True Shepherd of Anu. Although no depictions are known, it is likely that he was portrayed as the messenger to the gods known as Ninšubur or Papšukkal. Star names indicate that he was posed as if walking with one foot and hand extended before him. His symbol of office was a long staff and on entitlement stones he was frequently represented by the figure of a crested walking bird (see fig 112). On the Babylonian star-map this bird is characterised as the Rooster, which is located below and behind the figure of the True Shepherd. That the figure of Orion should be envisioned in the form of a walking man is no particular surprise given the configuration of stars, but the common association with a walking bird with a crest on its head must surely point to an inherited influence.
Moving on to the next group of images we see the Sothis Cow, the well-known Egyptian star figure that corresponds to Sirius. She is flanked by two figures unknown outside the Dendera Zodiacs – a female archer and a perching hawk.
On the Babylonian star-map the stars of Canis Major, which include Sirius, are referred to as the Bow and Arrow. We can be quite certain that the Babylonian star figure was depicted as a female archer, modelled on the warrior goddess Inanna. The Arrow was treated as a separate constellation associated with the god Ninurta, who combined the roles of warrior and farmer; one of his symbols from entitlement stones is known to be a perched bird. Once again a close correspondence can be seen between the Dendera images and what we know of the Babylonian constellations.
This is, arguably, a depiction of the Babylonian constellation called the Star of Eridu. Although we have little direct knowledge concerning its celestial image, we do know that it was held sacred to Enki, the wise god of the waters, who lived in the freshwater Abyss below the earth. Enki’s sacred city of Eridu, after which the star was named, was reputedly the oldest city in the world. It was located in the southern marshlands of Mesopotamia, and was the site of his principle temple – ‘the House of the Abyss’, which was built on an island set in the midst of a lagoon.
The Star of Eridu obviously has very strong associations to water, a fact that may have led it to become closely allied to the Great One, our Aquarius, in Babylonian astrology. The linkage is so strong that there is reason to believe that both constellations were depicted in a similar manner – as human figures holding overflowing vases. As such the Dendera figure is very compatible with what we know concerning the Star of Eridu. We should also add that the Greek constellation of Eridanus, which obviously derives its name from the Babylonian figure, was depicted among the stars as a winding river.
On the Babylonian star-map the constellation of Ninmah is located behind the Star of Eridu. Ninmah, the ‘Exalted Lady’, is closely associated with mankind in general and with children in particular. She appears in creation mythology where she is involved in creating mankind and setting his destiny. For these reasons she is known as one of the Mother Goddesses. Several other references demonstrate her close affinity to children and babies – an incantation dedicated to her asks her to protect newborn infants and in a Sumerian poem she laments the loss of her own child. Even though we have no information on the appearance of Ninmah’s constellation from Babylonian sources the Dendera image of a goddess nurturing a child has got to be a convincing candidate.
Behind the goddess and child is the strange figure of a bull-headed man holding a hoe-like implement. He stands in front of a rectangle decorated with wavy lines – very similar to the rectangle located between the Piscean fish.
It is very likely that this figure is based on the Babylonian constellation known as the Harrow. It is described in star texts as ‘the weapon of the god Mar-biti’ and that within it is seen a representation of the Abyss – the reservoir of fresh-water found beneath the earth. We have already seen that the rectangle infilled with wavy lines symbolises the watery Abyss in Mesopotamian art. Once again the Dendera imagery and Babylonian star-lore, even though difficult to understand in isolation, throw considerable light on each other when combined.
The penultimate figure of this sequence is sometimes described as a lion-like creature, which has its front feet resting on the Abyss symbol. Judging by the surrounding constellations it is very likely to be located in the region of Centaurus.
In Babylonian tradition this region of the sky is occupied by the Wild Boar; some omen texts even describe it as being located close to the Abyss. In the section on the Wild Boar, I argue that the protruding tongue of the Dendera beast is actually a misunderstanding of the Boar’s tusks and that its mane is similarly a misrepresentation of the Boar’s spinal brush.
Finally, the strange creature that stands in front of Scorpio can be confidently located among the stars of Lupus. It is depicted as a composite figure made up of human and hippo elements, which wears the white crown of Upper Egypt.
The corresponding Babylonian figure that occupies the stars of Lupus is known as the Mad Dog. It is also a human-beast composite depicted in Neo-Assyrian art as a standing human figure with a lion’s tail and hindquarters, like the Dendera beast it is crowned with a horned headdress that signifies its divine nature (see fig 90).
As can be seen from the preceding comparisons there are some striking parallels between these individual Dendera images and their Babylonian counterparts. That one or two figures should show some resemblance might be put down to chance but what is particularly convincing about this comparison is that it is made up a sequence of 8 or 9 star figures all correctly located in relation to each other. It should also be stressed that beyond the well-known Egyptian figures of Orion and the Sothis Cow, the remaining figures do not occur in Egyptian art outside the Zodiacs at Dendera – this in itself suggests that they have been imported from elsewhere.
The sequence of stars just examined doesn’t exhaust the potential parallels between the Dendera Zodiac and the Babylonian star-map. I would propose that there are at least five more Babylonian constellations depicted with a reasonable degree of clarity on the Circular Zodiac.
Up in the northern regions of heaven, behind the monstrous figure of the Hippo and Mooring Post, we can see the tiny figures of an enthroned goddess and a dog-like creature – they are very likely to be representations of the well-known Babylonian constellations known as the She-Goat and the Sitting Dog (see fig 123).
And just the other side of the Hippo, in the circumpolar regions of heaven, is a particularly interesting image of a wolf-like creature set upon a plough. They are, doubtless, an image of the Babylonian constellations known as the Wolf and Plough, which have proved difficult to locate from Babylonian sources alone, so having a clear presentation of their forms is an additional bonus.
Finally, set below the figure of Aries, we have a pair of staff-wielding gods who could well be a representation of the lion-headed Babylonian constellations known as Lulal and Latarak. Like the Wolf and Plough, they have proved difficult to locate on the celestial sphere. Their placement on the Circular Zodiac suggests that they are located among the stars of Cetus.
As far as I am aware the close relationship between the Dendera Zodiacs and the Babylonian star-map has not previously been recognised. This is partly due to the relative inaccessibility of information on the Babylonian constellations and the lack of a surviving star-map. The fact that the Dendera figures have been recast in Egyptian iconographic conventions has only made it more difficult to recognise the Babylonian figures.
It is now possible to reconfigure the Circular Zodiac in the light of Babylonian star-lore – the result is displayed below:
The extent to which the Circular Zodiac has been influenced by Babylonian star-lore is amply demonstrated by the figure above, which reconfigures the Circular Zodiac into a more accurate and easily assimilated format. I have rearranged the constellation images to better fit the visible configuration of stars in the sky and have further identified them by their Babylonian names. The planetary figures have also been replaced by their familiar planetary sigils and the handful of native Egyptian figures have been labelled in italics.
In the final analysis, I would argue that the Circular Zodiac is really a rather inaccurate and ‘Egyptianised’ version of the Babylonian star-map with a handful of Egyptian star figures added in or substituted for their Babylonian counterparts. Beyond the cases already examined I would further propose that another nine or ten Babylonian figures are present but have been misunderstood, misplaced or distorted to such an extent that they are actually quite difficult to recognise
Copyright Gavin White, 2007