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De bureau de Cosmologie Par
© Amir Bey, 2010
March 8
THE NEW TIMES HOLLER! continues its discourse on ancient Egypt by interviewing Joanne Conman. Her recent paper, The Egyptian Origins of Planetary Hypsomata, traces the Egyptian decanal star system’s origins of the Babylonian and Hellenistic astrological concepts of the exaltations (Hypsomata) of the planets.
Joanne Conman's formal academic background includes a degree in anthropology, with minors in linguistics and psychology, and a year of graduate work in psychology, with particular emphasis on perception and learning. An interest in botany and herbs led her to investigate medieval medical astrology, which in turn led her to study ancient astrology. For over 15 years, as an independent scholar, her focus has been on the Egyptian decans and the possible Egyptian roots of Hellenistic astrology.
Conman’s ideas challenge established notions of Egyptian cosmology such as those by Otto Neugebauer, and they are avoided by some astrologers who see the beginnings of astrology as having Greek and Babylonian sources (see her “It’s About Time: Ancient Egyptian Cosmology”) in Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur Volume 31, 2003. Building on her decan model, her second paper, “Speculation on Special Sunlight and the Origins of the wSAw Hour,” was published in Apuntes de Egiptología Number 3, 2007). THE HOLLER! feels that Conman's ideas are the result of well-reasoned conclusions derived from careful research, and her plausible ideas should have exposure. She has an Egyptological discussion group and her Email is:

photo by John Wall

HOLLER!: What are the essentials of your recent work, The Egyptian Origins of Planetary Hypsomata?

CONMAN: The paper makes the case that the astrological places of planetary hypsomata (also known as exaltations) in Hellenistic astrology, very likely have roots in ancient Egyptian religion. It has been argued that the places of exaltation originated in Babylonian omen texts; however, the Egyptian material predates those omen texts by over a thousand years. That suggests the Egyptian material was the source for the Babylonians. Egyptian notions about time are unique and a number of those ideas seem to have been incorporated into astrology. In particular, at certain times in the Egyptian calendar, particular Egyptian deities were believed to be in a special state of power. Those times were associated with the festivals for those deities. The times of the festivals were determined by priests who kept track of the risings of the decan stars.

HOLLER!: What originally bothered you about Neugebauer and Parker's theories on the decanal stars?

CONMAN: First, let me rephrase your question here; I was not bothered by Neugebauer’s and Parker’s theories. Neugebauer's theory on the decans is demonstrably wrong.
Working in the 1940s with H. O. Lange, Otto Neugebauer came up with an understanding of the workings of the stars as described in Demotic texts known as the Carlsberg papyri. There are two versions of these texts that date from the Roman period. Both were written by the same scribe. They review and discuss a number of much older Egyptian texts, including the New Kingdom Book of Nut (c. 1200 BCE), which may actually date back as far as the Middle Kingdom (c. 2000 BCE).
Neugebauer came up with a testable hypothesis for his understandings of how the decan system worked, yet he failed to test it. It is ironic that a man known as a great chronicler of the history of modern Western scientific thought failed to do something so basic to the scientific method in his own work. Furthermore, he actually published a paper in the mid-1950s that actively discourages others from testing his hypothesis. It is remarkable that no one ever called him on any of this.
Neugebauer, whose formal training was in mathematics, teamed up with Egyptologist Richard A. Parker and the two went on to publish three volumes in the 1960s concerning what they refer to as astronomical texts. The texts are collection of various calendric, religious, and astrological material spanning over two thousand years. The final version of Neugebauer's decanal belt theory appears in Volume I.
The problem with his theory is that it fails when tested. Good science requires failed hypotheses to be scrapped; the theorist must begin again. Of course, since he never tested his theory, Neugebauer also failed to come up with any alternate hypotheses.
When I began working with his model and realized that it failed, I was initially stumped, as so many others have been. My solution was to reexamine the texts, accepting that while the translation of the words from ancient Egyptian to English is accurate, the correct understanding of what those words actually mean had been missed. I saw the solution to the correct understanding of the texts; the scribe provides ample information. It is simply a matter of finding the pattern of star behavior that matches the scribe’s description.

HOLLER!: I'm intrigued by the rhythm of your model, the relationship between different phases of the stars in relation to the Sun!

CONMAN: The ancient Egyptians observed stars rising in an area that they called the mesket region, which was defined by the author of two Roman-era texts known as the Carlsberg Papyrus I and the Carlsberg Papyrus Ia. These two texts are a compilation and review of many much older Egyptian books on the heavens. The author tells us the mesket region is located on the eastern horizon and is the area through which the sun passes when it rises. This can only be the general range of the ecliptic on the eastern horizon.
Approximately every 10 days, the rising of a particular star or stars just before the sun in the mesket region, marked the beginning of a new 10-day week for the Egyptians. These stars are called "decans" from the Greek word for "ten." The Carlsberg author tells us that Sirius sets the pattern of behavior for all the decan stars by doing four things over the course of a year. It is first, then 90 days later, it is Shen Duat. 70 days after that, it is born. 80 days after that, it works or serves. Then, 120 days later, it is back to first.
Sirius disappears from the sky for roughly 70 days following its heliacal setting; that is, when it sets just after sunset. Because of that, Otto Neugebauer assumed that in the 70-day period that stars are said to be shen duat refers the period of invisibility that follows a star’s heliacal setting. Based on that, Neugebauer further conjectured a model that sounds plausible, but which, in fact, fails because it conjectures a pattern that no stars fit. Neugebauer, along with Richard A. Parker, recognized similarity between New Kingdom funerary texts known as the Book of Nut and the Carlsberg papyri. Since they knew that the Carlsberg author was copying and commenting on much earlier books, they realized one the books was the Book of Nut. Surviving copies of other books named by the Carlsberg author have not been found yet.
The spreadsheet that is part of the Book of Nut as found in the Cenotaph of Seti I and in the tomb of Rameses IV indicates that every 10 days a different star moves into each of these four states. If the concordance Neugebauer and Parker found is valid, then, using the model described in the Carlsberg texts, one should be able to find stars that were observable at some time and place in Egypt and put them into a Book of Nut spreadsheet. That is impossible using Neugebauer's model. Stars that are far enough away from the ecliptic so that they disappear for about 70 days do not rise and set in the same sequential order. His model does not and cannot match the pattern required by the spreadsheet in the Nut texts.

The Dendera zodiac combines the 36 Egyptian decans around the rim of the inner disk with the Hellenistic zodiac.
The Dendera temple is one of the most well-preserved in Egypt. The original zodiac is now in the Louvre.

HOLLER!: What was the process that you undertook to discover the model that you propose?

CONMAN: The pattern required by both the Carlsberg and Nut texts is satisfied by a model that I have proposed. I discarded Neugebauer's hypothesis altogether. I re-examined the Egyptian material, focusing on the unambiguous information in the Carlsberg texts. Once a year, a star will be the last star to rise just before sunrise. This rise, so close to sunrise, is called the star’s heliacal rise. The Egyptians used the heliacal rise of the star Sirius to mark their New Year. That is attested independently in ancient texts, so I assumed that it would make a good starting point. I assumed that the heliacal rise of Sirius was one of the four things the star did during the course of a year that set the decan stars' pattern as described by the Carlsberg author. I looked at what Sirius does over the course of a year, what it does 70 days, 80 days, 90 days, etc. after its heliacal rise. I found that about 160 days after its heliacal rise, Sirius rises acronychally; that is, it rises just after sunset. It would be the first bright star rising in the evening. And approximately 200 days after its acronychal rise, it rises heliacally again. Obviously, 160 days is the sum of 90 and 70 days (the first and Shen Duat periods) and 200 days is the sum of 80 and 120 days (the born and work periods). Therefore, based on the behavior of Sirius, "first" must mean heliacal rise and "born" must mean acronychal rise. It is possible to find a bright star rising in the mesket region (or very near it) about every ten days and those stars all follow the same general pattern. This model works at various times in Egypt's history, as well as at different locations throughout Egypt. While there are some differences in the actual stars that rise at different locations and/or at different times in history, the pattern itself remains consistent.

HOLLER!: What is the "special state of power" that the Egyptian deities had, and how did that carry over into Hellenistic and Babylonian astrologies?

CONMAN: The Egyptians had a word, At which means a "moment or instant of maximum force or power." The word refers to a point in time when a deity (or a person, like the king) reaches his greatest potency. Egyptians understood gods (and sometimes people) to have a moment "when they appeared or manifested in a state or condition of being in which they are able to produce or to develop an activity," according to the late Egyptologist Dr. J. R. Ogdon. (Ogdon, Jorge, R., Studies in Ancient Egyptian Magical Writing, Apropos of the Word At, Göttinger Miszellen 164 (1998): 79-83.) This is a very similar concept to the notion that planets are particularly stronger and more powerful at certain times than they are at others. This is what is involved with sign rulerships and with exaltations. Both rulerships and exaltations are used to determine the Almuten or [astrological] chart Ruler.
The ancient Greek view of planetary strength in astrology is remarkably similar to the Egyptian view of deities coming in and out of moments of power and potency. The Babylonians seem to have adopted a somewhat different view of the Egyptian association with particular stars. The Babylonians thought certain places in the sky were particularly fortunate for a planet to reach as it traveled thought the zodiac. That those places correspond to the same pattern found in the decan stars some 1500 years earlier suggest that Egypt was the source of the information for the Babylonians.

[Editor's note: although the Carlsberg Papyrus that Joanne Conman refers to was written in Demotic, a late form of written Egyptian, THE HOLLER! would like to provide hieroglyphs that can offer some insight for the meanings of some of the terms used. mesket uses the hieroglyphs for "birth land or region"; combines the word for "ring", as in "eternity" shen, and netherworld duat; At, striking power of a god or king; another version that could have a related meaning is , moment, instant, and time in general. See A Concise Ditionary of Middle Egyptian, Raymond O. Faulkner.]

HOLLER!: Although your model for the decan stars works in most places in Egypt, do you feel that there were specific sites that Egyptians could have better observed their risings?

CONMAN: The Egyptians observed stars as they rose in the east; they were horizon watchers. They needed a good unobstructed view of the eastern horizon, of the mesket region.

HOLLER!: Since the Nile flooded days earlier in southerly locations like present-day Aswan and Luxor than in the north, do you think that it is possible to determine where the Egyptian New Year was observed through Sirius’s heliacal rising at the beginning of the Inundation, the Nile’s flooding?

CONMAN: No. The heliacal rise of Sirius was used to mark the New Year. The Inundation did not actually coincide so precisely with the rising of Sirius. In the 19th century, it was noted that the timing of the flood varied by as much as 6 weeks over a period of a few decades. Over the centuries in Egypt that fluctuated. I see the association of the heliacal rise of Sirius marking New Year with the flood as being similar to our own association of snow with Christmas. Normally within three or four weeks of Christmas, we see our first snow and the weather event and the holiday have become linked in popular culture. Every year, we have our first snowfall around Christmas, but very rarely exactly on that day.

HOLLER!: What do you see were the early influences on Egyptian cosmology, for instance, in what ways do you think the Nabta Playa site in southern Egypt had on Egyptian cosmology and religion?

CONMAN: There is no way to know what influence, if any, Nabta Playa had on Pharaonic Egypt. I am quite skeptical of claims made alleging astronomical alignments of sites that are so ancient and have nothing remaining of the cultures that may have created them.
It’s difficult to know exactly how Egyptians formulated their ideas. In the third dynasty, nearly 5000 years ago, kings worshipped Re. We know in the fifth dynasty, priests were stationed on King Niuserre’s sun temple roof at night, apparently observing stars rising in the mesket region. I have suggested in one of my papers that the decan stars were used to mark the time of the sun’s regeneration each night. Counting the stars, knowing their rising order is part of how the decan system worked. To watch the mesket region, to see what was going on there when the sun wasn’t rising, could have led to watching and counting the stars.

HOLLER!: How has your knowledge of astrology aided your research into your model for the decan stars?

CONMAN: Knowledge of astrology played no role at all. The model was researched using astronomy.

HOLLER!: In your paper you talk about what must have been for the ancients, an impressive conjunction between the visible planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. In your model you relate it to the Hypsomata, the exaltation degrees of the planets in astrology. How do you think they were originally thought of by the Egyptians, and how did it carry over to Hellenistic and Babylonian astrology?

CONMAN: The conjunction itself was likely to have been connected with the star Canopus, which was the evening rising star, the “born” star, at the time when the conjunction coincided with the new moon. The order of the planets as they began to separate at that time matches the order that is represented in all Egyptian planetary lists until the Late Period. It’s an order that was maintained for over 1500 years and there’s no apparent reason for the order, unless it is to reflect a memory of this conjunction. The oldest tables of decans also date from around the time of this conjunction. Those tables, which were found on coffins dating about 2000 BCE, include a list of special decans that received offerings. The spacing of four of those decans corresponds exactly to the spacing of four of the planets’ exaltations, Jupiter, Mercury, Mars, and Venus.
A festival dedicated to the god Amun apparently dates from about that time. It appears that the specially honored decans relate to the timing of that festival as well as to other festivals of Amun. There seems to be a link to the star Canopus and its phases in the decan system and the times of Amun festivals. His festivals were held when he was At, in a moment or instant of maximum force or power.
Based on the prayers directed to the honored decans, it is clear that they were special to the Egyptians. But there is no evidence that the Egyptians used the kind of astrology that either the Babylonians or the Greeks used so many centuries later. That said, it does seem quite likely that some Egyptian religious and philosophical ideas were incorporated in later astrology.