By P. Le Page Renouf

[Extracted from TSBA, 3, 400-21.]

Read 2nd June, 1874

The Astronomical Calendar of which a translation is here given was discovered in 1829 by Champollion in two of the royal tombs at Biban-el-moluk, near Thebes, and was supposed by him to present a table of the constellations and their influences for all the hours of each month in the year. The copy of the text, which is given in the plates of Champollion's Monumens, is unfortunately a mere chaos, made up out of two texts, identical indeed in many parts, but different and even contradictory in others. Champollion had carefully noted the discrepancies, which have been wholly disregarded by his editor. The only trustworthy copies of the two texts are those contained in the Denkmaeler of Dr. Lepsius (Abth. Ill, Bl. 227, 228 and 228 bis.).

The most elaborate comment on this Calendar is to be found in a dissertation of the late eminent French astronomer, M. Biot, in the twenty-fourth volume of the Memoires de l'Academie des Sciences. A French translation of the Calendar, by M. Emmanuel de Rouge, is appended to M. Biot's dissertation. The fundamental hypothesis of this dissertation is that the Calendar is a record, for astrological purposes, of the risings of stars and constellations. This hypothesis is entirely without foundation in the Egyptian text, which contains no allusion whatever either to astrology or to risings of stars. [p.401] M. Biot's mistake was suggested by the old version of Champollion, "la constellation d'Orion (influe) sur le bras gauche." Had not the unfortunate word influe been interpolated by the translator, M. Biot could hardly have missed the sense of "Orion sur le bras gauche," or "au milieu." The document simply records the star's position in the sky.

The Calendar, which is unfortunately imperfect in many parts, consisted of twenty-four columns, two being assigned to each month, or one to every fifteen days. Each column contains thirteen entries, one for the beginning of the night, and one for each of the twelve hours. Throughout the Calendar a star occurs in one of seven positions, "the middle," the right eye, ear or shoulder, or the left eye, ear or shoulder. The position is not merely described in words, but graphically indicated. The perpendicular line passing through each of the positions corresponds to the limb of a sitting figure, which is drawn underneath the diagram, and represented as facing the spectator. The line of "the middle" passes through its axis.

If the text were Greek instead of Egyptian, there never would have been a doubt as to what was meant by a star being in "the middle." The verb [Greek], "to be in the middle," when applied to sun, moon, or star, is equivalent to [Greek]. Agamemnon in the Iphigenia in Aulis asks,


A star is in the middle of its course or in mid-heaven at the moment of its transit or culmination. The technical expression for this in the Egyptian Calendar now before us is [glyphs] er ak, literally "in the middle."1 A synonymous expression [glyphs] amtu appears to be used in the same sense in another very curious document, which I shall speak about later on.


This explanation of the expression "the middle" is the key to the whole Calendar. As the earth turns upon its axis in very nearly four minutes less than twenty-four hours, a star which to-day culminates at six o'clock will in fifteen days culminate very nearly at five, or it loses about an hour m position every fifteen days. Accordingly in our Calendar the head of Sahu, for instance, which culminates at the eleventh hour in the first column of the month Thoth, does so at the tenth hour in the second column of the same month, and the entries in each successive column imply the loss of an hour.

The entries, however, do not by any means always place a star in the same position which it held in the previous column. The head of Sahu, which was in the middle in the second column of Thoth, is on the right eye on the 1 Paopi at the ninth hour, on the left eye on the 16 Paopi at the eighth hour, and again in the middle both on the first and the sixteenth of Athyr, at the seventh and sixth hours respectively. The head of the Two Stars is in the middle at the twelfth hour on the first night of Paophi, on the right shoulder at the eleventh hour on the sixteenth night of Paophi, and in the middle once more at the tenth horn of the first Athyr. The conclusion which I draw from these facts is that "right eye," "left shoulder," and the like, signify certain relative short distances from the meridian; "left eye" being nearer to the meridian than "left ear," and this again less distant from the meridian than "left shoulder." Even this extreme distance from the meridian must have been short, for a star which is said to culminate at the twelfth hour on the first night of a month, and two hours later on the thirty-first night, cannot possibly be many degrees distant from the meridian at the eleventh hour of the sixteenth night. This is true, even upon the supposition that the hours of the Calendar may vary in length according to the season.2 It must, moreover, be remembered that in the climate of Thebes the difference between the lengths of [p.403] days and nights is not so great as in northern climates, and that the difference between the twelfth parts of the longest and of the shortest night in that latitude does not amount to many minutes.

The whole Calendar then, in my opinion, records nothing but real or approximate transits of stars. Once in the course of every fifteen nights, the observer appears to have noted down, at each successive hour, the name of the principal star which was either actually upon the meridian or close to it. We do not know how he determined his meridian, what instrument he used, or by what contrivance he limited the field of his observation. But he seems to have noted the passage of stars over seven different vertical lines. If a star were crossing the first line, beginning from the east, it was noted down as being on the left shoulder; if it were on the fourth line which represented the meridian, it was put down as in the middle; if on the fifth, it was "on the right eye," and so on.

This general view of the document is open to no serious objection that I am aware of. There are, however, difficulties to be encountered as soon as we endeavour to understand all the details. Part of these difficulties arise from the state of the text. We are not in possession of the original, or even of a copy intended for general perusal. Our copies were made inside tombs, and were never intended to be seen by mortal eye after the tomb was once closed. The Egyptian texts, which were made under these conditions, are always grossly inaccurate. The inaccuracy often arises from the ignorance or carelessness of the artist: but it is as often occasioned by the text being made subordinate to decorative effect. The two texts we possess betray the most shocking confusion between the Egyptian signs for "right" and "left." This is perhaps the less to be wondered at when we sometimes find two such exceedingly intelligent and accurate scholars as Champollion and Lepsius at variance on this very point in their copies of the same text. The graphic indication of the position of stars is absolutely worthless in the tomb of Rameses IX; in the tomb of Rameses VI some portions of this part of the work are [p.404] carefully done, others most negligently. Some of the entries are manifestly made at the wrong hour. At the beginning of the first night of Pachons, for instance, Menat is said to be on the "left ear," whereas two hours later it appears on the "right eye." The correct entry at the beginning of the night would be Many Stars. Menat is also a manifest error at the beginning of the sixteenth night of Pharmuthi.

If the artist ever discovered his mistake he made no erasures: the only approach to a correction which he made was as follows:—at the fifth hour of the night of Epiphi, having placed a star on the right eye instead of in the middle, as his text says, he subsequently added a second star in the middle line without effacing the first. At the sixth hour of the sixteenth Phamenoth, Menat is said. to be "in the left middle." The artist, after having written "in the middle," discovered that he should have said "on the left ear"; but instead of effacing "middle" and substituting "ear," he left the word he had written and added the adjective "left," which in Egyptian always follows the noun. At the seventh hour of the sixteenth Payni the artist has skipped a line, and put down the star belonging to the eighth hour, and the only compensation for this blunder is the insertion at the eighth hour of the entry which ought to have been made at the seventh. "Il a sacrifie," as M. Biot says of the artist of Rameses IX, "le sens du document, qui apparemment ne lui importait guere, a la symetrie du dessin."

For a vast number of errors like these the original Calendar is not to be held responsible. But even this document no doubt may have contained very serious errors. It suggests many questions, which we have unfortunately no means of answering. Is it the work of one man or of several? Are all the entries made from direct observation, or have some of them been deduced from observations already made? Were all the observations corresponding to the entries of each column made on the same night? How was the time for each observation determined? These are but specimens of important questions which naturally arise from the inspection of the Calendar, and on which it is impossible even to hazard a guess.


This is, however, the proper place to mention another interesting document, to which I have already alluded. There is in the British Museum a calcareous stone, No. 5635, upon which a note in hieratic character gives the names of certain persons who observed the transit of the Star of the Waters from the fifth Phamenoth till the seventh Payni of some year of an unknown king. There are thirteen entries altogether, and all in the following form:—3


Abt 3 pirt 13 an ursu Ken seh en ma, amtu, "on the 13th Phamenoth—by the observation of Ken—the Star of the Waters in the middle." The observations recorded were made on the 5th, 6th, and 13th Phamenotli, the 7th, 9th, and 13th Pharmuthi, the 16th and 23rd Pachons, the 5th, 16th, and 21st Payni, and the 4th and 7th Epiphi. The names of the observers are Nebnefer, Pennub, Ken, Penamen, Nechtu, Het, Mes, Nebsemennu, Panebtma. No indication is given of the hours at which the observations were made, or of the name of the reigning king.

The names of the constellations and stars mentioned in our Calendar are as follow:—

1. Necht, with his feathers, top of sceptre, neck, back, knee and footstool.
2. Arit.
3. The Goose, with its head and rump.
4. The Chu.
5. Sarit,
6. Sahu.
7. Sept (Sothis) and its train.
8. The Two Stars.
9. The Stars of the Water.
10. The Lion, with its head and tail.
11. The Many Stars.


12. The Lute Bearer.
13. Menat, with his scouts and followers.
14. The Hippopotamus, with its two feet, leg, pizzle, thigh, breast, tongue, and feathers.

Some of these constellations must have been of enormous extent. The entries for the whole of the first night of Epiphi are confined to stars belonging to the Hippopotamus and Necht. The head and rump of the Goose culminated at an hour's distance from each other, and Sahu and the Lion have also two entries each in the nights when they are mentioned.

The Egyptian constellations of the northern sky, the Thigh (Great Bear) and the Leg (corresponding, I believe, to Cassiopeia) do not appear at all in this Calendar, which probably contains only stars more closely approaching the equator. Two of them are known to us independently of this Calendar; Sahu is Orion and Sothis is Sirius.

From the acknowledged identity of Sothis and Sirius I endeavoured, some years back, first of all to ascertain the date at which the Calendar was drawn up, and, secondly, to identify a certain number of the asterisms which it contains.

The method which I adopted was this: "Whatever may have been the length of the Egyptian hours of the night, the sixth hour undoubtedly corresponds to midnight. Now Sothis, that is Sirius, is said by the Calendar to be 'in the middle' at the sixth hour in the first column of the month Choiak, the fourth Egyptian month. The question, therefore, arises—in what year did Sirius culminate at midnight at Thebes within the first fifteen days of the Egyptian month Choiak?4 Through the very great kindness of the Astronomer Royal and of his First Assistant, Mr. Stone, to whom I am also indebted for a table of the approximate Right Ascensions of certain stars which I had specified, I am able to say this transit took place about the year 1450 before Christ. This inference of date, as the Astronomer Royal remarks, is necessarily a very vague one but from [p.407] the whole nature of the case a vague date is all that can be asked for. It is sufficient for us to know that the Calendar records observations of the fifteenth century before Christ, or thereabouts. It does not at all follow that the tomb of Rameses VI is of the same antiquity. The very same Calendar was found in the more recent tomb of Rameses IX, and it may have been inscribed on much earlier tombs. The decorators of those magnificent chambers did not think it necessary to alter the document in consequence of the changing positions of the heavenly bodies."5 Many successive editions of a popular work like Keith on The use of the Globes, reproduce in like manner, without the least alteration, the same "Table of the culminating of the Zodiacal Constellations on the first day of every month, and the Semi-diurnal Arc in London."

The approximate date of the Calendar being known, the next question is, what remarkable stars at that date culminated at the intervals before and after Sirius, which are assigned by the Calendar to its asterisms? And finding, for instance, that in 1450 B.C. the approximate Right Ascension of a Arietis was 23h 5m, whilst that of Sirius was 4h 11m (the difference therefore being 5h 6m), I have no hesitation in identifying a Arietis with the Goose's head. In the same manner I identify Arit as probably β Andromedae, the Chu (a group of stars) with the Pleiads, Sarit with a Tauri (Aldebaran), the Lion with part of our own constellation of the same name, the Many Stars with part of the Coma Berenices, the Lute Bearer with a Virginis: a Bootis and a Scorpionis are probably parts of the Constellation Menat. Castor and Pollux, which at the present day come to the meridian about three-quarters of an hour after Sirius, seem at first sight to claim identity with the Two Stars, but their position in the sky with reference to Sirius was quite different at the time of our Calendar to what it is at present.

It is not necessary to give the process by which each of these results has been attained. If the method I have indicated be the right one, the results can easily be verified [p.408] and corrected, if necessary, by any one who is familiar with astronomical science.

I have only to add that the translation of the Calendar is made from the text of the Tomb at Biban-el-molnk, numbered IX in the Denkmaeler of Dr. Lepsius. The first columns of Thoth and Phamenoth, which fail in this text, are supplied from the text of Tomb VI. The latter text contains only the months of Thoth, Paopi, Athyr, Payni, and portions of Epiphi and Phamenoth. The month of Mesori is destroyed in both tombs. Each text has very serious defects peculiar to it, but some defects are common to both, and show that the Calendar was already corrupt at the date of the earlier tomb. The star Sarit, for instance, is confounded in certain columns with the star Arit, which culminates four hours earlier.

See pages:
409, 410, 411, 412, 413, 414, 415, 416, 417, 418, 419, 420


In the discussion which followed the reading of this paper, it was suggested by the Rev. Basil Cooper that the Calendar represented not the vague Egyptian year of 365 days, but a fixed one of the same length as our astronomical year. Into this question I do not wish to enter, but it is well to observe that the hypothesis of a fixed year does not affect the essential points on which I wish to insist.

1. The true philological meaning of the Calendar remains undisturbed.
2. The asterisms are identified by their relative positions in the sky, as indicated by the time of their culmination before or after Sirius and each other in the year 1450 B.C. For this identification the map of the sky in 1450 B.C. is sufficiently correct as regards any year within the millennium (2000-1000 B.C.) to which the royal tombs undoubtedly belong.


1 This explanation, which I first published in the Chronicle, January 25, 1868, was promptly recognised by M. Chabas as the true one. It has also been adopted by Dr. Brugsch in his Dictionary, and has not been controverted by any Egyptologist.
2 To this clement of uncertainty we must add the doubt whether the actual hours of the night were marked out to the observer by any instrument of precision.
3 Dr. Birch first called attention to this stone in the Zeitschrift f. Egypt. Sprache, 1868, p. 11. His transcription, however, of the passage here quoted omits the important sign m, which gives to the group [glyphs] amtu the sense of "in the middle." Cf. my paper on the Egyptian prepositions, Trans. Soc. Bib. Arch. II, 301.
4 "Les dates de jours et d'heures," says M. Biot, "ne peuveut etre rigoureusement applicables qua une scale des nuits comprises dans la quinzieme designee, sans que le tableau nous apprenne quelle est cette nuit la."
5 Chronicle, Vol. II, p. 82.