The 'God with the Upraised-Arm' in Near Eastern Mythology: An Astronomical Archetype?
By Greg Taylor of The Daily Grail
The outstanding candidate to fit the description is the constellation of Orion (Figure 9), at the very least on sheer resemblance. This constellation was well known to the Egyptians, mentioned in the Pyramid Texts in connection with the stellar destiny of the 'resurrected pharaoh'. For example, in Utterance 442 we find 'Lo, Osiris has come as Orion' (Lichtheim 1973, p. 45). That Osiris is seen as Orion is not considered a problem to the thesis currently under discussion; he was also thought to be incarnate in the Moon and the Nile, and ancient Egyptian cosmologies often contain seemingly contradictory concepts (Frankfort et al. 1946, p. 47).
Figure 9 : Orion Constellation (Source: Sidgwick 1951, p 159)
Turning our attention to Horus, we find evidence in Plutarch's Isis and Osiris (1927, p. 53) of a connection with Orion: 'the soul of Isis is called Sothis (Sirius), the soul of Horus is called Orion, and the soul of Typhon (Seth) the Bear'. Plutarch may be thought of as slightly unreliable in regards to the recording of Egyptian culture, however, considering the correct attribution of Isis and Seth to their respective constellations the conflation of Horus and Orion should be taken seriously. More circumstantial is the story recorded on the Metternich Stela in which the young Horus is stung by a scorpion, a mythological motif suggesting the setting of Orion as Scorpius rises (Krupp 1991, p. 137). It should be taken into account as well that Horus was said to have been placed upon the 'seat of his father Osiris', perhaps an indication that they were both identified with Orion.
One of the arguments against this identification could well be that the constellations on this section of the 'astronomical ceilings' are all supposed to be north of the ecliptic (Parker 1974, p.60). It is pertinent to note that Parker actually says 'we are reasonably sure they are all north of the ecliptic'. Neugebauer (1957, p.89) names them as the northern constellations directly after mentioning that 'artistic principles determined the arrangement of astronomical ceiling decorations'. Also, in describing the northern constellations on the Denderah Zodiac, Parker (1974, p. 63) mentions that these are 'presumably all north of the ecliptic but none is depicted in the usual group of northern constellations'. Interestingly Plutarch (1927, p. 93) mentions that the Egyptians hold the lion in honour because the Nile overflows when the sun comes into conjunction with Leo, which is on the ecliptic (Leo and Sirius rise almost together in Egypt). This suggests that the 'Lion' constellation on the astronomical ceilings may in fact be Leo (contrary to current thought). Lastly, to illustrate that the Egyptian conception of the sky was perhaps completely different to ours, consider the following passage from a tomb at Luxor, describing the movements of the ship of Re: 'Once the constellation of Masheti (Meskhetiu) has been passed, they reach shelter in the centre of the sky on the side south of Sah-Orion, and they turn towards the western horizon' (Zinner 1957, p. 28). From this account of the east-west passage of the sun, the ancient Egyptians' conception of the heavens appears to be more complex than usually thought. Another argument against the Horus-Orion link may be that the figure with the upraised arm is sometimes reversed, however, the same is true of the northern constellation of the hippopotamus on the Denderah circular zodiac. Probably the most difficult problem is that on the decanal list on the Senmut ceiling Isis is illustrated with her arm upraised, the significance of which is not clear. However, accepting a link between Horus and Orion has the strong point of explaining the attributes of the god, especially once Orion's role as a seasonal marker is understood.
Using stars and constellations as seasonal markers was commonplace in the ancient world. The heliacal rising of Sirius in July was considered by the Romans to be the reason for the sultry weather (Krupp 1991, p. 222). To the Egyptians this same event signalled the beginning of the Nile flood and thus the New Year. The heliacal rising of a star or constellation was seen as its resurrection after being 'dead' for a period of time. This is due to the apparent motion of the sun through different portions of the sky (a result of the actual motion of the Earth around the sun). When the sun moved into the vicinity of a certain star or constellation it would only be seen late in the west just after the setting of the sun, and after a time would eventually 'disappear' (when the sun was in direct conjunction with it). Once the sun moved further still the star/constellation would then appear in the morning sky in the east just before dawn: this was its heliacal rising. Sirius and Orion both 'died' for approximately 70 days, which could well be the origin of the embalming time for Egyptian mummies (Neugebauer 1957, p. 87). In the time of the ancient Egyptians, Orion was 'dead' from around the spring equinox through to mid-summer. Interestingly, Frankfort et al (1946, p. 35) note that in Egypt the prevailing wind is from the north, which gives relief from the heat of the sun and makes life much more comfortable. However, late spring (at the time of Orion's 'death') was the season of hot dry winds bringing 'sandstorms and a brittle heat out of Africa to the south'. It was from this period until Sirius' heliacal rising that the Nile was at its lowest ebb also. Plutarch (1927, pp. 93-99) states that Seth was considered the power of drought and the south wind, while Horus was the north wind, the 'seasonal tempering of the surrounding air'. He asserts that the story of their battles is actually an allegory for the seasonal changes: so as Horus 'dies' in spring, Seth gains the upper hand until the reappearance of the rightful king. Thus Orion, connected with Horus, seems to have been used as a seasonal marker indicating the return of 'orderly' weather. As Krupp (1979, p. 189) says, the 'apparent connection between celestial and terrestrial phenomena greatly affected the Egyptian view of the world'. This is just as evident when we turn our gaze to other parts of the Near East.