To us who are trained from childhood to understand that the year consists of (approximately) 365 1/4 days, and to know that the calendar may be regulated approximately by the introduction of an extra day every fourth year, this recognition of the Sothic cycle seems simple enough. Yet if the average man of us will reflect how little he knows, of his own knowledge, of the exact length of the year, it will soon become evident that the appreciation of the faults of the calendar and the knowledge of its periodical adjustment constituted a relatively high development of scientific knowledge on the part of the Egyptian astronomer. It may be added that various efforts to reform the calendar were made by the ancient Egyptians, but that they cannot be credited with a satisfactory solution of the problem; for, of course, the Alexandrian scientists of the Ptolemaic period (whose work we shall have occasion to review presently) were not Egyptians in any proper sense of the word, but Greeks.

Since so much of the time of the astronomer priests was devoted to observation of the heavenly bodies, it is not surprising that they should have mapped out the apparent course of the moon and the visible planets in their nightly tour of the heavens, and that they should have divided the stars of the firmament into more or less arbitrary groups or constellations. That they did so is evidenced by various sculptured representations of constellations corresponding to signs of the zodiac which still ornament the ceilings of various ancient temples. Unfortunately the decorative sense, which was always predominant with the Egyptian sculptor, led him to take various liberties with the distribution of figures in these representations of the constellations, so that the inferences drawn from them as to the exact map of the heavens as the Egyptians conceived it cannot be fully relied upon. It appears, however, that the Egyptian astronomer divided the zodiac into twenty-four decani, or constellations. The arbitrary groupings of figures, with the aid of which these are delineated, bear a close resemblance to the equally arbitrary outlines which we are still accustomed to use for the same purpose.


In viewing this astronomical system of the Egyptians one cannot avoid the question as to just what interpretation was placed upon it as regards the actual mechanical structure of the universe. A proximal answer to the question is supplied us with a good deal of clearness. It appears that the Egyptian conceived the sky as a sort of tangible or material roof placed above the world, and supported at each of its four corners by a column or pillar, which was later on conceived as a great mountain. The earth itself was conceived to be a rectangular box, longer from north to south than from east to west; the upper surface of this box, upon which man lived, being slightly concave and having, of course, the valley of the Nile as its centre. The pillars of support were situated at the points of the compass; the northern one being located beyond the Mediterranean Sea; the southern one away beyond the habitable regions towards the source of the Nile, and the eastern and western ones in equally inaccessible regions. Circling about the southern side of the, world was a great river suspended in mid-air on something comparable to mountain cliffs; on which river the sun-god made his daily course in a boat, fighting day by day his ever-recurring battle against Set, the demon of darkness. The wide channel of this river enabled the sun-god to alter his course from time to time, as he is observed to do; in winter directing his bark towards the farther bank of the channel; in summer gliding close to the nearer bank. As to the stars, they were similar lights, suspended from the vault of the heaven; but just how their observed motion of translation across the heavens was explained is not apparent. It is more than probable that no one explanation was, universally accepted.

In explaining the origin of this mechanism of the heavens, the Egyptian imagination ran riot. Each separate part of Egypt had its own hierarchy of gods, and more or less its own explanations of cosmogony. There does not appear to have been any one central story of creation that found universal acceptance, any more than there was one specific deity everywhere recognized as supreme among the gods. Perhaps the most interesting of the cosmogonic myths was that which conceived that Nuit, the goddess of night, had been torn from the arms of her husband, Sibu the earth-god, and elevated to the sky despite her protests and her husband's struggles, there to remain supported by her four limbs, which became metamorphosed into the pillars, or mountains, already mentioned. The forcible elevation of Nuit had been effected on the day of creation by a new god, Shu, who came forth from the primeval waters. A painting on the mummy case of one Betuhamon, now in the Turin Museum, illustrates, in the graphic manner so characteristic of the Egyptians, this act of creation. As Maspero[2] points out, the struggle of Sibu resulted in contorted attitudes to which the irregularities of the earth's surface are to be ascribed.