Unlocking Ancient Astronomical Knowledge

Brenan Dew is an astronomy guide at Sydney Observatory and is currently working on his PhD at Macquarie University. Below he discusses ancient astronomy and the Egyptians.

In our modern society it is well known that the Earth is constantly spinning on its axis, completing one revolution in approximately 24 hours. This means that once the sun drops below the western horizon in the evening, it is only a matter of time before the Earth revolves into such a position that the sun will rise the following morning, in the eastern sky. This current understanding was foreign to many ancient cultures who had their own mythologies to explain the fundamentals of night and day as well as the extended world around them.

After traversing across the sky during the day, the ancient Egyptians of the New Kingdom (16th -11th Century BCE) believed that the sun deity Re entered the so-called “Duat” or “Netherworld” which it would cross in a journey throughout the night. The ancient Egyptians believed that while in the Netherworld, the sun would encounter many forms of chaos culminating in a confrontation between Re and the snake-shaped deity Apophis. For the sun to rise the following day, Re must overcome Apophis as well as other hardships encountered on this journey. Therefore the very act of the sun rising in the morning was heavily intertwined with the religion and actions of ancient Egyptian deities.

The enigmatic nature of the Duat, and other Netherworldly locations, are described in detail within various texts that many modern tourists will have encountered lining the walls of the royal tombs within Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. By translating and investigating these so-called “Books of the Netherworld” my PhD research will straddle the disciplines of history and astronomy, in order to gain a better understanding of how the ancient Egyptians understood the world around them, particularly that beyond the physical borders of their known world.

A section from the “Book of the Caverns”
A section from the “Book of the Caverns” – a modern title given to one of the ancient cosmographic texts from the New Kingdom, belonging to the tomb of Ramesses V.
Attribution: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

One response to “Unlocking Ancient Astronomical Knowledge

  • This sounds like a most intriguing project, Brenan, and I will be very interested to see how it unfolds. I’m not sure if you’ve read Hamlet’s Mill, but it might be of interest to you. Best wishes.

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