Rambling Through the Skies
Sky & Telescope, February 1997.
Copyright (c) 1997 by Sky Publishing Corp.
Reproduced with permission.
Magical incantations inscribed on the interior walls of some Egyptian pyramids pinpoint the destiny of the pharaohs once buried within them. These prayers are known as the Pyramid Texts, and they tell us that the final destination of a dead king’s soul was the sky. In particular, the pharaoh flew to the circumpolar stars. Neither rising nor setting, these stars migrate around the north celestial pole without ever slipping into the underworld below the horizon. To the Egyptians they were the “undying” stars, and their immortality would naturally attract a soul in search of everlasting life. In ancient Egyptian belief these stars advanced as a celestial army, parading eternally around the hub of heaven and keeping the cosmos on course with the daily rotation of the sky.
The marching orders of the circumpolar stars were probably issued by the star Thuban, in Draco, the Dragon. You can find it billeted in the north-northwest on our all-sky map this month on pages 66 and 67. However, during the first half of the third millennium B.C. Thuban performed North Star duty in the same way Polaris, in Ursa Minor, the Small Bear, does now. The slow precessional wobbling of the Earth’s axis has now moved Thuban 26° or so from the sky’s north pole. Polaris resides there today; it’s near the middle of the upper half of the map’s meridian, the blue vertical line that runs north-south.
According to the Pyramid Texts, the pharaoh also rose to the stars of Orion, the Hunter. Egyptian astronomy recognized Orion, or at least his Belt, as the celestial incarnation of Osiris, the god who presided over cyclical change, seasonal renewal, and the transformation of the soul. On our February sky chart Orion is just about to reach the meridian, the highest point of his nocturnal maneuvers. His Belt just touches the celestial equator, the blue arc that spans east and west through the southern sky. Our map is drawn for latitude 40° north, but Giza, the home of the Great Pyramid, is almost exactly 10° farther south. If the map were drawn for the Great Pyramid, the shift in latitude would lower Polaris 10° closer to the northern horizon and lift Orion’s Belt to a higher altitude – almost 60°. But precessing the sky back to 2650 B.C., the time when the Fourth Dynasty pharaoh Khufu built the Great Pyramid, pushes the Belt of Orion farther below the celestial equator and moves Thuban closer to the pole. That means the pharaoh’s soul had to soar no more than 44 1/2° above the southern horizon to merge with Osiris.
The ancient elevations of Orion and Thuban attract interest because two enigmatic shafts ascend at the same angles through the solid, stone-block interior of the Great Pyramid. They connect the King’s Chamber deep inside with openings high on the pyramid’s north and south faces. Sometimes called ventilation shafts, their role in air conditioning the burial chamber of the king is questionable. Their astronomical significance was first recognized by the late Alexander Badawy, an architecturally oriented Egyptologist on the faculty of UCLA, and by Virginia Trimble, now a well-known astrophysicist. Trimble was a UCLA undergraduate when she collaborated with Badawy. They reported their work in a pair of papers published in 1964, and I first learned about their discovery through a reference in Leslie V. Grinsell’s Barrow, Pyramid, and Tomb (1975).
The greatest strength of Badawy and Tumble’s analysis was their integration of astronomical alignments with the cultural context of Egyptian belief They supported their interpretation with citations from Egyptian texts and showed that the shafts were neither air ducts nor astronomical sightlines. In fact, both flues are horizontal at both ends. Despite the appealing romance of dimly lighting a simulation of the King’s Chamber in a 1970 “Dawn of Astronomy” planetarium show at Griffith Observatory, as Thuban edged into the window of the northern shaft the granite sarcophagus of Khufu was never bathed in the rays of a North Star or the Belt of Orion. Rather, the two shafts, which break the surface at the same height above the Giza plateau, reflect the most probable function of the pyramid. It was the pharaoh’s transcendental launch pad, and it propelled his soul into the sky. There he marshaled the forces of cosmic order and stabilized the universe, just as he had organized society and governed Egypt.
The celestial significance of the Great Pyramid’s oddly sloping conduits is also spotlighted in The Orion Mystery (1994), a book on astronomy and ancient Egypt by Robert Bauval, an Egyptian construction engineer, and Adrian Gilbert, a writer specializing in esoteric wisdom. Although the dust jacket claims the book unlocks the secrets of the pyramids and contains the “revolutionary discovery that rewrites history”, it uncomfortably mixes valid study by researchers like Badawy and Trimble with a dubious claim about the configuration of the Giza pyramids.
According to The Orion Mystery, the three largest pyramids at Giza were built together as a monumental representation of the Belt of Orion. This “revelation” has been parroted without critical study in other books, television programs, and even an advertisement for astronomical software.
Readers of The Orion Mystery are shown an aerial photograph of Giza paired with a picture of Orion’s Belt. There is something wrong with these images, however. The picture of the pyramids is oriented with north at the bottom of the page. Orion’s Belt, on the other hand, has north at the top. To make the pyramids match the sky, you have to turn Egypt upside down. In fact, all of the book’s maps of Egypt are published upside down, with south at the top.
The authors also suggest that the Fourth Dynasty “Unfinished Pyramid” at Zawyet el-‘Ayran, south of Giza, stands for Bellatrix, which is north of Orion’s Belt. Saiph, on the south side of the Belt, is supposedly mapped in the pyramid of Djedefre at Abu Rawash, north of Giza. It’s even more unsatisfying that Betelgeuse and Rigel, the two brightest stars in this part of the sky, have no pyramids.
Although an Orion-mystery enthusiast might argue that the inversion is not really significant, or that the Egyptians deliberately upturned their constellation for arcane reasons known only to them, these rationalizations won’t fly. Embracing the plausibly astronomical orientation of the Great Pyramid’s north and south shafts, Bauval and Gilbert are obliged to accept the fact that north means north and south means south in the Great Pyramid. It makes no sense, then, to reverse them in the overall plan.
Instead, however, one might adopt a completely independent perspective and imagine the way Orion would look from a point outside the celestial sphere. In that case, east is east and west is west, but the twain still don’t meet. The Belt is in the wrong direction.
Mapping the skies onto ancient monuments is nothing new. Paul Kosok, without adequate evidence, once called the giant prehistoric ground drawings on Peru’s Nazca desert “the largest astronomy book in the world.” In 1929 Katherine K Maltwood fabricated a huge terrestrial zodiac from landforms in the vicinity of Glastonbury, England. Now personal computers may be creating a growth industry with the conformal mapping of stars on Earth. It’s true that astronomical software can turn anyone into a calculator, but that doesn’t mean it comes with training in critical thinking. We have to give the facts a chance to contradict our ideas.
E.C.Krupp brings the sky down to Earth at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.
From Sky & Telescope, February 1997.
Copyright (c) 1997 by Sky Publishing Corp.
Reproduced with permission.