The Zodiac of Dendera
I just returned from a three week trip to Paris where I had the good fortune of visiting the Louvre and seeing the Zodiac of Dendera. I went last Saturday night during the Moon-Venus conjunction that could be seen clearly in the night sky in the tropical sign of Cancer. The Zodiac of Dendera (or “Dendara”) is a giant stone diagram from a temple in Egypt dating to the mid-1st century BCE, which depicts the twelve signs of the zodiac and the 36 Egyptian decans, as well as a number of other constellations and astronomical phenomena.
This Hellenistic-era depiction of the zodiac has apparently been dated to to sometime between June 15th and August 15th, 50 BCE based on astronomical data in the diagram itself. The engraving shows the positions of certain planets in specific signs of the zodiac as well as a few eclipses that took place on March 7th, 51 BCE and September 25, 52 BCE.
The temple complex that houses the zodiac has Egyptian origins dating at least back to the 4th century BCE, with the last native Egyptian pharaoh Nectanebo II, and it appears to have been periodically renovated and added to by later Hellenistic and Roman rulers in Egypt.
The Zodiac of Dendera is interesting to me because it provides some of the earliest evidence of the synthesis of the Mesopotamian and Egyptian astrological systems which took place in Egypt at some point during the 2nd or 1st centuries BCE, with the end result being the invention of horoscopic astrology.
There is currently a debate going on within the astrological community over whether or not horoscopic astrology was devised or invented by one person or one group of individuals over the course of one or two generations, or whether the system actually developed gradually over several centuries and we simply do not have much evidence of this gradual development because so many of the source texts from the period have been lost or destroyed. That debate aside, the Zodiac of Dendera is a nice example of the fact that this synthesis had taken place or was taking place at that time.
Here is a video clip that I took at the Louvre:
Some additional pics:
Here are some closeups of the different signs of the zodiac. Unfortunately my camera battery died before I got to Virgo and Libra. My sincerest apologies to all of the Virgos and Libras reading this.
The dating of the Zodiac of Dendara that I mentioned above is based on a paper that was published in 1995 by Éric Aubourg titled “La date de conception du temple d’Hathor à Dendérah.” Aubourg assumed that the relief depicted an actual horoscope that could be dated to a specific time period, and he used the positions of the planets that are inscribed on it to come up with a date around 50 BCE. There are two problems with this though:
The first issue is that once the positions of the planets are identified it turns out that they are all listed as being in their signs of “exaltation.” So, for example, Saturn is in Libra, Jupiter is in Cancer, Mars in Capricorn, and so on. What this seems to imply, then, is that the relief is simply depicting a conceptual or artificial arrangement of the planets in certain signs, and it is not acting as an actual horoscope which reflects the arrangement of the planets on a specific date. This is reenforced by the fact that the signs of planetary exaltation are arranged in such a way that it would be astronomically impossible for them to depict a specific date, since, for example, Mercury is depicted as being 5 signs away from the Sun.
This brings us to the second issue, which is the plausibility of Aubourg’s dating. What he ends up finding is a range of dates over a two year period in which some of the planets where in the signs of their exaltation at certain times, rather than a single date in which all of the planets fit the parameters listed. Ultimately while it is interesting that he does find a period in which several of the planets were in their exaltations during this range, it does appear that the evidence is stretched a bit thin, and the dates that he found do not seem to line up perfectly.
Now, based on archeological grounds the monument still probably dates to sometime in the late 1st century BCE, but if the identification of the planets in the specific signs of the zodiac is certain, then in my opinion the relief probably does not reflect a specific astronomical date, but instead it depicts a highly important astrological notion that is purely conceptual in nature.