The Sirius lore
To the earliest Egyptians, Sirius/Sothis was the home of departed souls. Assem Deif*
shows how the triad Osiris-Isis-Nephthys affected other cultures
Click to view caption|
top: A relief featuring god Osiris From left: an Osirian god; statuette of god Sothis; Senemut's drawing
The place is the Isis-Hathor Temple of Denderah, where the priests hasten along the columned aisle to witness an important event. The principal temple is dedicated to Hathor, whereas a small adjacent one is dedicated to Isis in which a statue of the goddess is located at the end of the aisle.
It is a little before 5am on 22 July, 700 BC, the summer solstice; the priests wait to watch Sirius rise and its rays penetrate the temple to fall on Isis's gem. As they arrive the sun is still below the horizon, and they gaze impatiently for the apparent heliacal rising of the Dog Star. For the priests already knew that the appearance of Sepdet lasts only for a brief moment before Ra brightens the sky.
When the star begins to flicker low on the horizon it marks the beginning of a New Year in Ancient Egypt. The festivities will soon begin. The Egyptians referred to the heliacal rising and its associated festival as prt spdt, "the going forth of Sepdet". The star hid for 70 days, and now it has returned from the duat (underworld) to bring welfare to the land and to allow its people to bury their dead.
The 70 days of the star's invisibility is due to the dominance of sunlight in this period. When it starts its heliacal rise from the east it is ahead of the sun by about 11 degrees, moving across the celestial sphere to set in the west. On subsequent nights, it distances itself from the sun by appearing earlier and spending longer in the night sky until it eventually becomes out of phase with the sun, rising just when the sun is setting over the western horizon. It again approaches the sun on successive nights until it disappears totally from view, obscured by the sun's brilliance for 70 days before reappearing again for a few minutes just before sunrise -- the heliacally rising.
Not only does the star herald the flooding of the Nile, but the shade of the blue-white star is also important. If the star appears bright and clear, the Egyptians expect an abundant harvest. If it is dull and reddish, a poor harvest results. In the second century AD the Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy described the star as being red, and the less red it was the better the harvest.
The Arabs too revered the star ,which they called "Al-Shi'ra Al-Yamaniyyah", referring to Yemen, south of Mecca; for it was this star which guided them in this direction. Many nations paid homage to its goddess, Isis. Her fame spread to all corners of the Roman Empire, and the last recorded festival of Isis took place in Rome in 394 AD. There was even a temple of Isis on the River Thames in London. To the Egyptians she was the caring mother and the symbol of fertility. She also owned magical powers; as she restored her husband to life after he was murdered by his brother Set. Some scholars believe the River Nile took its name, Siris, from Sirius. Not only was it the foundation of the Egyptian religious system, but its celestial movement determined the Egyptian calendar.
Another bright star is Canopus (Arabic Suhayl ), the second brightest star in the sky after Sirius and similarly located in the southern hemisphere. It is used nowadays to guide spaceships. Both stars disappear for an almost equal amount of time and rise heliacally at the summer solstice.
Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky, 20 times brighter than our Sun and twice as massive. It is called the Dog Star because of its prominence in the constellation of Canis Major . Since it is the star of Isis, it was supposedly married to Orion, or her brother Osiris. The Arabs, however, made Sirius the sister as well as the wife of Canopus, "Alpha Carina" rather than Orion. Scholars say "Sah" in the Pyramid Texts, with whom the soul of the king was to be united, resembles the name Suhayl. They also say that Sirius, as a star, was married to another star and not to a constellation.
Sirius is not one single star, but rather a binary one. This became known in 1862 when Alvan Clark, testing a new lens he had made to serve in an 18 1/2 inch refracting telescope, saw another smaller star orbiting Sirius. He thought there was a defect in the lens until he realised he had discovered a companion star to Sirius. Astronomers called them Sirius A and Sirius B. Although B is a dwarf star, it is incredibly dense (120,000 tons/ cm3). In 1926, it was found to revolve in an elliptical orbit around Sirius A once every 50 years. At the beginning of the 20th century, astronomers began to realise the existence of white dwarfs like Sirius B which were small, heavy and white (Sirius B is 10,000 times dimmer than A) yet massive.
In 1931, the French anthropologists Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen visited Mali, home of the Dogon tribe, and came up with what they announced it to be a very important discovery. The Dogons knew from their ancestors that Sirius A ( sigu tolo in their language) had an invisible companion, Sirius B ( po tolo ). They even asserted the existence of a third star. Sirius C, which they called Emme Ya (extremely small). A book written by both scientists about the Dogons appeared in 1965, after Griaule's death, under the title of The Pale Fox.
Since Sirius B could only be seen through strong telescopes unavailable to the Dogons, leaving aside Sirius C, this triggered all sorts of industry, with astronomers looking for the tiny star and writers producing books, most favouring the visit of aliens from Sirius who conveyed this information to the Dogons. A minority of astronomers did not exclude the possibility that Sirius B had evolved from an earlier massive star and was visible to the naked eye in the historical past. But transforming to a dwarf this would have taken at least 500,000 years, and the chances that early Homo sapiens conveyed knowledge to our ancestors are dim. Some say it might take only 2,000 years for the transformation to take place, or how could ancient astronomers describe a red giant in the vicinity of Sirius while the latter is known to be bluish-white? So Sirius was red at times due to atmospheric causes, and Ptolemy called it red. The hieroglyph of Sirius is a red triangle with a small ben-ben and a five- pointed star near it.
It happened that the book published by the French anthropologists attracted the attention of Robert Temple, who in 1970 wrote one of the best selling books on the subject, The Sirius Mystery, which suggested the Dogons might have taken their knowledge from the ancient Egyptians for they had initiated the worship of Sirius A, the star of Isis, so perhaps Sirius B related to Osiris and C to Anubis or vice versa. Another author, L Scranton, in Hidden Meaning s, tried to correlate many of the Dogon symbols, words and rituals, to the structure of matter -- whether the atom, water, or stellar objects. He also offered an insight into the drawings of the Dogons and the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt. Others correlated it with the Sumerian civilisation. A clear example is the epic poem of Gilgamesh, which describes a dream in which the hero is drawn to a heavy star which cannot be lifted despite enormous effort. This star, which possessed a potent essence, descended from heaven to him. Gilgamesh had as his companions, 50 oarsmen in the great ship, Argo, the constellation bordering Canis Major.
Temple's book and the legend of the Dogons stirred the minds of many researchers. Some argued whether the ancient Egyptians had telescopes enabling them to see Sirius B. Others claimed the discovery in ancient Egypt of a crystal lens, the first step to making a telescope. Others, doubting the honesty of the two anthropologists, chose to go themselves to Africa to investigate. As expected, they found no evidence of the so- called astronomical knowledge of the Dogons and no trace within the tribe of this Sirius mystery. The team attributed it instead to the astronomical background of one of the anthropologists, who passed it on to the Dogons.
I believe the mistake lay in that all the information the scientists relied on came from one source, namely the Dogons. Looking into other cultures we find equal myths about the same type of story. To the Indians the name "Tishtrya" goes back to the Sanskrit term "three stars". In Arab mythology there are abundant poems on the Sirius lore. They believed there were three stars getting along well. They called the original star "Al-Shi'ra Al-Yamaniyyah or "Al-Shi'ra Al-A'bour", denoting Sirius A in Canis Major from the Arabic verb a'bar, meaning to traverse, and another "Al-Shi'ra Al-Shamiyyah or Al-Ghomaisaa" from the verb ghamasa i.e. blink from excessive weeping. But the latter is not Sirius B, but Procyon in Canis Minor; the appearance of which above the horizon heralds the coming of Sirius approximately an hour later. Both are the alpha stars of the dog constellations and both are binary stars, each with a white dwarf companion (both are also relatively close, 8.7 light years for Sirius, and 11 light years for Procyon). Perhaps it was because Procyon was also called by the Arabs "Al-Shi'ra" (Sirius) that Griaule took it for Sirius B and impelled the Dogons unnoticeably or involuntarily to accepting it this way; thus attributing them more knowledge than they actually possessed.
A third star in the set is Suhayl in the Constellation Carina (part of Argo), known as "the ship of the desert". There are the three most important stars for the Arabs, along with Ursa Major. It meant they recognised the triplet Sirius- Proycon-Canopus, in which the last was the brother of the first two sisters and Sirius is married to Canopus. Now the legend goes as follows: "As Canopus and Sirius were husband and wife and the first flew to the south, Sirius in order to follow suit traversed the constellation. Procyon, being left alone and losing its brother, not being able to traverse similarly, began to weep heavily; losing its brightness and becoming a smaller star and staying at the end of the constellation". So eventually, Sirius moved to the south, whereas Procyon was tilted to the north. This explains their Arabic names "Al-Shi'ra Al-Yamaniyyah" for Sirius and "Al-Shi'ra Al-Shamiyyah" for Procyon, referring to Al-Sham (Syria).
This is similar to the Dogon story. But where did the Arabs hear it? Clearly from the ancient Egyptians. Sirius-Procyon-Canopus is no more than Isis-Nephthys-Osiris. It follows that Sirius is Isis, Procyon is Nephthys and Canopus is Osiris. I am following an Occam's razor approach (a principle stating that the explanation of a phenomenon should make as few assumptions as possible) by drawing a one-to-one correspondence between both the Arab and Egyptian mythologies to discover that they match. It seems that Canopus or Suhayl, and not Orion, designates the Egyptian star Sah, piloting Osiris. Egyptologist Alexander Badawi, known for his theory of the unification of King Khufu with Osiris via the king's southern shaft, instead considered Betelgeuse "Alpha-Orionis" to denote "Sah". This is possible; for it is neither necessary nor demanded to match or superimpose the Arab mythology with the Egyptian. Badawi had his reasons. Moreover, Betelgeuse is a star not a constellation, and therefore a possible candidate.
To investigate further let us consult the Pyramid Texts, where exists the first appearance of the word Sah. On the west wall of the sarcophagus chamber of the Pyramid of Pepi I we encounter utterance no 442, and similar phrases can be found in the pyramids of Merenre and Pepi II: "O King, the sky conceives you with Sah, the dawn-light bears you with Sah. You will regularly ascend with Sah from the eastern region of the sky, you will regularly descend with Sah into the western region of the sky, your third is Sepdet pure of thrones, and it is she who will guide you both on the goodly roads which are in the sky in the Field of Rushes." Philip Coppens concluded that since Sothis was Sah's guide, it rose first, contrary to Orion which rises before Sirius. The meaning of "guide" is to show the king the way to the afterlife; for Sirius holds its door and it is commonly known that it is the home of departed souls, which the Dogons incidentally believe. So the phrase should be taken in the rhetorical sense. Further, Utterance 216 in Unas says: " Sah is encircled by the duat, pure and living on the horizon," which applies equally to both stars.
As for Canopus, it does not rise or set, yet it does appear to move but remains at about the same height above the horizon for a few hours, passing through its lowest point in the sky. The Arabs calls it Al-Wazn (the weight); for the star seems to rise with difficulty from the horizon. It describes a large circle with its centre at the south celestial pole. When above the pole, at the top of the circle, it is high. In the evening it slowly drifts from right to left above the southern horizon as it moves through the lowest point on the circle. Another reason for calling it the weight is that it is virtually directly south of Sirius. Coppens also had a point here: when Isis is identified with Sirius, her husband Osiris would have to be equal, and hence would also be a single, brilliant star, Canopus. So the trade-off here is that since Isis was the brightest, then it should marry no less than Canopus having the most important position, the "throne of heaven", the South Pole Star, around which Sirius revolved. However, it is known that Suhayl disappears like Sirius for a season and this parallels utterance 219: "In your name of Dweller in sah with a season in the sky and a season on earth." This conforms to both Sirius and Canopus disappearing into the duat for almost the same period.
Betelgeuse is associated with Sirius in what is called the Winter Triangle (with Sirius and Procyon) which is easy to locate with the naked eye: first find Betelgeuse on Orion's shoulder, then follow a direction down from Orion's Belt to Sirius, then trace a V upwards to Procyon, then return to Betelgeuse to complete the triangle. They form an almost equilateral triangle in the southern sky.
Which of the two stars denotes Osiris? Both share features with Sirius and both live low on the horizon. The king seeks unification with sah in order not to be destroyed as the texts imply. Utterance 142 in Unas says: "Grant that I, Unas, may seize the sky and take possession of the horizon." In Utterance 167-170, Unas addresses Osiris: "O Lord of the Horizon, make ready a place for me." In Spell 159: "Stand at the doors of the horizon, open the doors of the firmament."
To identify Sah as Betelgeuse or Canopus, apart from the Arab myth which points to the latter, we have a source in Plutarch (46-120 AD), a Greek historian. In his work The Moralia he tells the myth of Isis and Osiris and says he heard from Egyptian priests that the gods Hermes, Typhon, Horus and Osiris had human complexions. Hermes had one shorter hand; Typhon was reddish; Horus fair; and Osiris black. Osiris was a general and Canopus the pilot of the ship the Greeks called Argo, which was made in imitation of the ship of Osiris and turned into a constellation placed near Orion and the Dog Star. The former is sacred to Horus and the latter to Isis. The passage therefore assigns Horus to Orion, Isis to Sirius and Osiris to Argo.
Further, the astronomical ceiling of the tomb of Senmut, a courtier of Hatshepsut, showed -- as Coppens remarks -- Isis standing to the left, Osiris to the right, and above Orion. Looking at the southern sky you will note Sirius on the left, Orion top right and, going down, Canopus. The paintings show the celestial ferryman Herf-haf (he whose face is turned backwards) ferrying the souls of the righteous across the river in the duat to the Island of Osiris. None but the righteous could enter his boat, and none but the righteous was allowed to the island. Herf-haf therefore carries Osiris in his boat (Argo) and is precisely where you would expect Canopus to be. This complies also -- as Coppens iterated -- with Utterance 609: "Your sister is Isis, your offspring is the Morning Star, and you shall sit between them on the great throne which is in the presence of the two Enneads." Here we have a reference to Osiris sitting on his "Great Throne" with Isis/ Sirius on one side and Horus on the other. So Canopus is the plumb lead, the weight.
Recent excavations at Abu Qir, east of Alexandria, have unveiled the legendary sunken cities of Canopus and Heracleion lying at the mouth of the now-extinct Canopic Branch of the Nile. The importance of the site lies in its existence long before Alexandria was founded. The cities renowned for their richness and lifestyle had numerous temples of the god Serapis (also known as Osirapis, a Graeco-Roman fusion of the gods Osiris and Apis). Legend says Canopus, the principal port in Egypt for Greek trade before Alexandria, was named after the pilot of the fleet of Menelaus, who pillaged Troy to regain his wife Helen. Others claim its name was the ancient Egyptian Kah Nub, or golden floor. The temples of Canopus were devoted to Osiris: it was where Isis found the 14th and last part of his body and placed the pieces in a vase. This is why Osiris is often represented in the shape of a canopic vase called an Osirian jar with a stopper in the shape of a crowned head and decorated with a relief depicting a winged scarab carrying the sun disk between two crowned snakes. That the inhabitants of Canopus worshipped human-headed jars personifying Osiris provided Egyptologists with a name for the human-headed jars used for the burial of the viscera of the deceased.
A trilingual decree dated 7 March 238 BC, in the reign of Ptolemy III, states that a statue of Princess Berenice was to be set up with Osiris in the sanctuary of Canopus, and that each year the sacred barque of Osiris would sail to this sanctuary from Heracleion on the 29th day of the month of Choiak. Thus Canopus was the sacred place of the cult of Serapis and Isis. This, in my view, helps establish the Canopus-Osiris connection.
* The writer is a professor of mathematics at Cairo University and Misr University for Science and Technology.