The constellation Leo, image by Oleg Gamulinskiy via

The constellation Leo (image: Oleg Gamulinskiy, pixabay)

Dancing with Lions

Joanne Conman’s close reading of “The Sphinx Blinks,” one of my monthly articles on astronomy and culture for Sky & Telescope magazine (March, 2001, 86-88) and her thoughtful remarks are a welcome surprise. Informal, popular commentaries do not usually earn serious review. Also, because my articles are written each month to deadline and to a strict 1500-word limit, I may inadvertently introduce errors and omissions. I appreciate Joanne Conman’s effort to clarify and correct what weaknesses the Sphinx article may host.

The core of Conman’s complaint is my assertion that the crouching creature adjacent to the Bull’s Thigh constellation on the Dendera Circular Zodiac is the same as the Crouching Lion that appears in depictions of the Northern Group of constellations in royal New Kingdom tombs and elsewhere. Although I do think the animal on the Dendera Circular Zodiac is also a crouching lion and likely to be a Ptolemaic representation of the Northern Group lion, I agree that view is an assertion. Although evidence suggests it is a reasonable assertion, it is not proven fact. I should have used more provisional language in the Sky & Telescope article and written, “What may be the same crouched lion appears next to the Bull’s Leg (the Big Dipper) on the Dendera Zodiac, which also features Leo.”

I am, in fact, delighted the discussion has evolved from commentary on the merits of Robert Bauval’s unorthodox astronomical interpretation of Giza to a closer examination of Egyptian celestial iconography. In this iconographical conversation, however, Conman ardently argued the lion candidate on the Dendera Zodiac is not the Northern Group Lion. Acknowledging the Northern Group Lion accompanies “astral deities,” she added, “…there is no evidence whatsoever that the lion-like creature is meant to portray any constellation.” She also emphasized the hybrid character of the lion, which in some depictions has the tail of a crocodile. Concluding that I do “not appear to be specifically trained in art history, anthropology, or Egyptology,” Conman was understandably suspicious of my characterization of the Northern Group Lion as a constellation. Fortunately, she does not have to rely on the depth of my training and experience, for I did not originate the identification of the Northern Group Lion as a constellation.

As an interdisciplinary interloper, I have relied on the judgment of recognized specialists. Heinrich Brugsch listed this lion as a constellation in Thesaurus Inscriptionum Aegypticarum (for English translation, see Griffith Observer, Vol. 43, No. 10, October, 1979, p. 18). Otto Neugebauer and Richard A. Parker listed it as a constellation in Egyptian Astronomical Texts, Vol. III, Text (Providence, Rhode Island: Brown University Press, 1969, p. 183 and p. 192). Richard A. Parker listed it as a constellation in “Ancient Egyptian Astronomy” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Volume 276, Number 1257 (The Place of Astronomy in the Ancient World, F.R. Hodson, ed. London: The Royal Society, 2 May 1974, p. 61) and in “Egyptian Astronomy, Astrology, and Calendrical Reckoning” in Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Volume XV, Supplement I (Charles Coulston Gillespie, ed. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1978, p. 718).

While Conman admirably recommended caution regarding the identification of Egyptian constellations, she did not demonstrate that the authorities cited above are wrong, only that alternative interpretations may be possible. She did not develop an alternative interpretation that matches the depth and breadth of previous studies. She did, however, characterize some efforts to identify Egyptian constellations as “unsuccessful” and “laughable” without explaining why that may be so. I am also puzzled by her detailed reference to Heinrich Brugsch. She wrote, “Brugsch recognized five ancient Egyptian constellations..There was no lion.” In fact, Brugsch did list six constellations of the “southern heaven” (the Two Tortoises, Neslu, the Ball, the Disk, Seb-ses, and Nutar) along with some element of Orion, Sirius, and 11 figures he implied are constellations of the “northern heaven” (including the Outstretched Lion).

Conman correctly spotlighted iconographic variation in depictions of the Northern Group Lion, but some of those variations reinforce the contention the Northern Group Lion is a constellation or asterism. In several contexts (the New Kingdom tomb of Seti I, the New Kingdom tomb of Tausert, the Late Period tomb of Pedamenope), the Northern Group Lion is partially outlined with five-pointed stars, a convention also evident in some depictions of known constellations, including the Bull/Bull’s Thigh and Orion/Osiris. In the tomb of Seti I, the Northern Group Lion is also marked with the same kind of red dot that appears on the other figures. The dots on the Bull, broadly accepted as the Big Dipper, or Plough, and on the man that holds cords trailing from the Bull, reasonably mimic stars of the Dipper. We cannot be certain the dots represent stars, but the pictorial information is consistent with treating the Lion as a constellation.

In “The Sphinx Blinks,” I also relied on specialist judgment for the identity of the crouching animal that accompanies familiar Northern Group figures on the Dendera Circular Zodiac. Both Joanne Conman and I have documented that Neugebauer and Parker tentatively identified it as a lion in Egyptian Astronomical Texts, Vol. III, Text (p. 200). Parker called it a lion in “Egyptian Astronomy, Astrology, and Calendrical Reckoning” (p. 721). When Robert Bauval recently disputed this identification, I submitted additional commentary and clear, detailed images of the original Dendera Circular Zodiac relief now on display in the Louvre in Paris for the Ma’at Message Board to enable all interested parties to evaluate the evidence independently.

Pictures of the original Dendera Zodiac in the Louvre Museum, Paris. The original images are recorded on 35-mm Kodak Ektachrome 400.

Entire slide centred on the Bull’s Thigh
An enlargement of the Crouching Lion with the Bull’s Thigh, from that slide

The small Crouching Lion adjacent to the Bull’s Thigh has the flat muzzle of a feline. Its lionlike tail is draped over its hindquarters in typical lion display. Because its head is turned backwards, the neck and mane are stretched and distorted. One could even argue that it is possible to detect texture in that part of the figure that distinguishes the mane, but others might dispute that. You can, however, see a bulging in the neck that corresponds to the position of a mane. The tight, compact, crouched posture of the animal is feline, and it differs in that regard from the more relaxed posture of Aries, which extends one foreleg and bends the other beneath its belly.

In the most familiar crouched posture of lions and other felines, the forelegs are extended forward, and so that bent foreleg on the small Crouching Lion is the only element of the figure that introduces any real doubt into the animal’s identity. The proportion of the lower foreleg is too long with respect to the upper foreleg for a feline. If the creature be a lion, we might explain this single discrepancy in its image as a product of the very small scale in which the artist was working. It is, in fact, remarkable the artist was able to include as much realistic detail as we see.

The “bent foreleg” probably is not a discrepancy, however. It is plausible to interpret the two parts (upper and lower) of the anomalous bent foreleg as two forelegs. The one some might call the lower part of a single bent foreleg can instead be read as the entire foreleg on the side farther from the viewer. It is in the typical leonine pose, bent at the shoulder, paw forward. What to some may look like the upper part of a single foreleg can instead be read as an extended leg on the near side of the animal. In this case, the Crouching Lion is half rising and leaning on the extended leg to support the forward part of its body as it twists around, a completely natural and lionlike pose.

An enlargement of Aries the Ram, also from that slide

Horns are the primary distinguishing characteristic of bovidae (cattle, goats, and sheep, all of which have hollow, unbranched horns), and the horns on the Ram (Aries) are explicit on the Dendera relief. In fact, the Dendera artist also included horns on all of the monument’s bulls and cows and even on Capricornus the Sea Goat. If the Crouching Lion be a bovid, we ought to see some horns. We don’t.

Also, the Ram’s rounded snout clearly differs from the flat snout of the small Crouching Lion. The Ram has hoofs. No hoofs are visible on the Crouching Lion.

I think the case for a Crouching Lion is reasonable and certainly more persuasive than a bovid.

The Dendera figure has a lion’s tail, a lion’s rear haunch, a lion’s muzzle, and what may be reasonably argued to be a lion’s mane. Although the forelegs may not appear lionlike to some, it is possible to “read” the image in a way that is consistent with the posture and proportions of a lion. Although I cannot prove the Dendera crouching creature in the northern sky is the same as the crouching Northern Group Lion, the parallels between the two figures permit this assertion, whether they are constellations or not. Conman correctly highlights iconographical variations that dilute the argument, but there are many iconographical variations in, for example, the Bull/Bull’s Thigh, and they have not compromised that interpretation.

Joanne Conman’s commentary on Egyptian sky lore was not restricted to the Northern Group Lion, She also evaluated celestial connotations assigned to the Giza Sphinx. While acknowledging the Sphinx faces due east, she dismissed this as evidence of Old Kingdom interest in the cardinal directions or in anything in particular associated with cardinal east. She also cautions, “We cannot assume anything about the “ritual significance” of cardinal directions in the Old Kingdom of ancient Egypt based on the speculation that the Sphinx was intentionally aligned due east.” It is, of course, true that we have no Old Kingdom texts that confirm the Old Kingdom name for the Sphinx, the Old Kingdom meaning of the Sphinx, or the Old Kingdom function of the Sphinx. The Sphinx is, however, archaeologically bonded to Khafre’s enterprises at Giza and adheres to the cardinal grid that defines the entire layout of Giza, which is, after all, a necropolis. In The Complete Pyramids (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1997, p. 106), Mark Lehner, whose extensive fieldwork qualifies him as one of the world’s experts on Giza, wrote, “It is certainly clear that at Giza, more than ever before, cardinality was a principal concern.”

Cardinality, in fact, dominates Old Kingdom architecture, and it reflects recognition of the north celestial pole because cardinality originates in the fundamental rotation of the sky about that completely unique spot. There is ample cross-cultural archaeological, ethnohistoric, and ethnological information to confirm nearly universal interest in cardinality and its linkage to the behavior of the sky. The Giza cardinal grid alone informs us the north celestial pole was a “location of high interest to the ancient Egyptians.”

The cardinally-oriented Temple of the Sphinx incorporates directionality into what certainly most experts regard as a ritual environment closely associated with the Sphinx. Selim Hassan, who lived at the Sphinx and excavated there for a decade, also mentioned the axial dual sanctuaries (one on the east and one on the west) in the Temple of the Sphinx and added, “But whatever it was that they were designed to accommodate, the fact that they are orientated due east and west, as is the axis of the Temple, suggests that it was something appertaining to the rising and the setting sun” (The Sphinx, Its History in Light of Recent Excavations. Cairo: Government Press, 1949, p. 31). Later, Mark Lehner also suggested the sanctuaries could be “associated with the rising and setting sun” (The Complete Pyramids, p. 129). He added, “…the Sphinx Temple must be counted as the first solar-oriented temple associated with an Old Kingdom pyramid complex.” Lehner, of course, was referring to equinox sunrise (p. 130).

The equinox is not a product of modern astronomy, and our recognition of it in antiquity is not evidence of modern cultural bias. We only talk about the equinoxes today because they were recognized in antiquity. We may not be able to prove the Sphinx was intended to face equinox sunrise, but that hypothesis is a persuasive, reasonable, and economical interpretation of the monument’s orientation and context.

Conman also criticized associating the original meaning of the Sphinx, in the Old Kingdom, with New Kingdom ideas about it. Detailed interpretations based on New Kingdom texts are compromised, but broader thematic interpretations are promoted by trained and responsible Egyptologists, not by culturally myopic astronomers. In The Secret of the Sphinx (Cairo: The American University Press in Cairo, 1998, p. 12), Zahi Hawass wrote, “According to traditional scholarship, the Sphinx temple was devoted to a cult that identified the Sphinx with the sun. The German archaeologist Stadelmann and the present author argue, however, that Khufu was the sun god Ra himself and that Khafre worshipped his father Ra within his pyramid complex. I would further propose that the Sphinx itself represents Khafre as Horus giving offerings to his father Khufu, the incarnation of Ra who rises and sets in the temple in front of the Sphinx. I would argue that the location of the Sphinx has significance in terms of the cult that was to be practiced there. This is reflected in the Sphinx’s later, New Kingdom name, Horemakhet, “Horus of the Horizon,” under which name the Sphinx became the symbol of kingship and the nation.”

Although I endorse the plausibility of this interpretation, I don’t assert it is proved. Such remarks, however, demonstrate that my earlier writing is rooted in the judgments of experts and not in personal, idiosyncratic speculation.

Joanne Conman characterized my reference to “indigenous Egyptian astronomy” as an indulgence in “the popular myth that ancient Egyptians practiced astronomy.” Her commentary relied on Neugebauer’s and Parker’s conclusion that “there is very little actual astronomy that can be documented in Egypt prior to the Greco-Roman times.” In fact, these comments reflect a very narrow meaning of astronomy, and Neugebauer and Parker made that meaning clear. As historians of science, they particularly distinguished the mathematical “planetary” astronomy that emerged late in Mesopotamia, primarily in the last half of the first millennium B.C. Astronomy, however, is a much broader and older enterprise, and Egyptian calendrics, timekeeping, and orientation of monumental architecture are all products of systematic observation of the sky. The decans, which Conman characterized as “mathematical constructions used to measure time” were, in fact, real stars observed by real skywatchers. We don’t keep time with mathematical constructions. We keep time with periodic events, and we relied on the sky, all of us, all over the planet, for periodic events until the second half of the twentieth century, when atomic oscillations replaced the sky as the fundamental clock.

Conman also characterized the decans as a zodiac, but in function and in placement they are unrelated to the zodiac. The zodiac, at first a group of Mesopotamian constellations stationed around the ecliptic, evolved into a set of 12 equal zones along the ecliptic that coincided more-or-less with the constellations in which they were rooted. The zodiac appears to have evolved from stellar markers for the progress of the moon, a function distinct from timekeeping. In a later era, the movements of planets were referenced to the zodiac. Most of the zone from which the decans were drawn is offset from the ecliptic and has nothing to do with the progress of planets and the moon. Decan stars were originally observed to mark “hours” of the night in an observing strategy that bears no relation to observations of the moon and planets.

Conman regarded my description of Dendera’s “Egyptianized images of the 12 zodiacal constellations including Leo” as an obvious error. Cancer, however, is shown as a scarab. Sagittarius wears a pharaonic crown. Virgo is dressed in female Egyptian attire. Aquarius also has an Egyptian crown and skirt. They walk the sky like Egyptians.

Conman disputed my calling the zodiac “a gift from the Greeks, primarily rooted in Mesopotamian star lore,” but her own description does not contradict that. In fact, the Neo-Babylonian zodiac was transmitted to Europe from the Hellenistic Mediterranean. She also asserts the zodiac figures on the Dendera Circular Zodiac are signs, not constellations. In the Ptolemaic era, the signs still generally coincided with the constellations for which they were named, and so this may be a subtle distinction. Even if the figures represent signs, they appear to be depicted as constellations. They are not of equal size, as signs would be, and the quadrilateral representing the Great Square of Pegasus appears between the two fish of Pisces. That quadrilateral has no meaning in a zodiac sign, only in a constellation representation.

I appreciate very much the modulating influence Joanne Conman’s discussion confers. I agree with her judgment about the problem the coffin of Heter presents for Robert Bauval, and I previously submitted a similar, but compressed, analysis for the Ma’at Message Board:

We do know the New Kingdom era name for the Northern Group lion: “divine lion” and “divine lion, who is between them.” This name appears for neither the Crouching Lion nor for Leo at Dendera, but there are no inscriptions for names of any zodiac constellations at Dendera. The absence of textual information on the various lions at Dendera suggests that texts cannot settle this problem, but we do have Egyptian names for all of the zodiac constellations on a later representation, the coffin of Heter (93 A.D., probably from Thebes). These Egyptian names are just translations of standard Greek names, and Leo is not identified with the New Kingdom name for the Northern Group lion.

More interesting is inclusion of both the Northern Group Crouching Lion and Leo in the depiction on the coffin of Heter. Leo is standing on a snake (very likely Hydra), but the Northern Group Crouching Lion is, as usual, reclining above a crocodile. The appearance of these two different lions on this coffin also strongly implies the Northern Group Crouching Lion is not Leo, whether or not the animal on the Dendera Circular Zodiac, following the suggestion of Neugebauer and Parker, be a lion or not. Of course, I believe this animal came into Dendera like a lion and did not go out like a ram. There will always be uncertainties in the details of Egyptian astronomy, but Bauval has many discrepancies to explain before he can demonstrate the Northern Group Crouching Lion is Leo.

Joanne Conman, Robert Bauval, and others should critically evaluate and rank the arguments I have moblized in my effort to spare the Sphinx from having to do Leo duty. I believe, however, that the value of my last line of evidence, the Sphinx’s position on the wrong side of a river that stands in for the Milky Way, merits a blink.

Finally, I thank Joanne Conman for nominating me for CSICOP’s 2002 “Snuffed Candle” award. It is better, I think, to snuff one candle in the darkness than to inundate the starry Egyptian night with misdirected light.

Joanne Conman’s reply: Fate Revealed