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Adventures with Cassiopaea
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Adventures With Cassiopaea

Chapter 29


As noted, the basic organization of Egyptian history around 31 dynasties begins from the work of Manetho compiled in the 3 rd century BC. Manetho's records are supplemented and corrected by records recovered from the ancient monuments and archeological excavations of Egypt. Manetho's work survives only in quotation. It is not clear how reliable these materials are. Nor is it clear how much his dynasties overlap with one another or how all of the royal names in Manetho match up with the different names recovered from ancient monuments and records. Manetho's general outline of dynasties is followed, but there are serious problems with his pharaohs' names and his sequence of pharaohs. John Brug, Ph.D., writes in The Astronomical Dating of Ancient History before 700 AD.:

The Palermo Stone of the 5th Dynasty (from about 2400 BC.) is the only major document which originates from the period preceding the 12th Dynasty, but it is only a fragment of a large slab. A fragmented papyrus of the 19th Dynasty (about 1300 BC.), known as the Turin Royal Canon, gives a complete list of the kings of Dynasties I-VIII, which seem to cover a period of about 955 years.

The important point is that none of these documents can by themselves provide any absolute dates for early Egyptian history since they are not linked to our modern era of dating or to any other system which can be connected to our system.

The use of astronomical calculations to decipher references to this Sothic cycle in ancient Egyptian records forms the foundation of all ancient chronology. Censorinus says:

"The moon is not relevant to the "great year" of the Egyptians which we call the "Year of the Dog" in Greek and the "Year of the Little-Dog" in Latin, because it begins when the constellation or star "Little-Dog" [allegedly the modern Canis Major or Sirius] rises on the first day of the month which the Egyptians call "Thouth". For their civil year has only 365 days without any intercalation. Thus a quadrennium among them is about one day shorter than the natural quadrennium, thus it is 1461 years before this "year" returns to the same beginning point. This "year" is called "heliacal" by some and "the divine year" by others." (Censorinus, De Die Natali, ch. 18, my translation)

Censorinus' statement certainly is not exhaustive. It gives us little information about how this "great year" was used or when it came into use. It is certainly open to debate how applicable this description of the Egyptian calendar and astronomy is to the 2 nd and 3 rd millennia BC. It does not address the issue of changes in the nature of the Egyptian calendar which may have occurred over the millennia. We have no definite proof that the Egyptians were aware of dating long eras by the Sothic cycle in the 2 nd millennium BC. Even if we grant that they did, we have no certain knowledge of the date when any Sothic cycle began.

Most historians presently accept the claim that Censorinus places the beginning of a Sothic cycle in about 140 AD and by extension in 1320 BC, 2780 BC and perhaps 4240 B.C. Censorinus says:

"As among us so also among the Egyptians a number of "eras" are referred to in their literature, such as that which they call "of Nabonnasar" which began from the first year of his reign, which was 986 years ago. Another is called "of Philip" which is counted from the death of Alexander the Great which was 562 years ago. But the beginning of these is always from the first day of the month which the Egyptians call Thoth, which this year fell on the 7 th day before the Calends of July [June 25], 100 years ago when Emperor Antoninus Pius was consul for the second time, and Bruttius Praesens was the other consul, the same day fell on the 12 th [corrected to the 13 th ] day before the Calends of August [July 21, corrected to July 20] at which time the "Little-Dog" usually rises in Egypt. Therefore it is possible to know that of that great year, which as I wrote above is called "solar" or "of the Little-Dog" or the "divine year," now the hundredth year has passed. I have noted the beginnings of these years lest anyone think that they begin from January 1 or some other time, since the starting points chosen by the originators of these years are no less diverse than the opinions of philosophers. For that reason the natural year is said to begin by some at the new sun, that is the winter solstice, by others at the summer solstice, by others at the vernal equinox and by others at the autumnal equinox, by some at the rising of the Pleides and by some at their setting, by many at the rising of "the Dog." (Censorinus, Ch. 21, My translation)."

Again it is noteworthy how little Censorinus actually says and how much is deduced from his statement. Censorinus is writing not to establish a system of chronology, but to discuss various dates for New Years Day in different cultures. He gives no specific date as the starting point for a Sothic Cycle as he does for the other eras which he mentions. All he does is give the date of the Julian calendar on which the first of Thoth fell in the year of his writing, which is well established as 238 or 239 AD., and one hundred years earlier in 139 AD. In 238 AD the first of Thoth fell on about June 25 Julian. One hundred years earlier it fell on about July 20, which is the date The Little-Dog (supposedly Sothis) usually rises in Egypt. He seems to be referring to a conventional method of dating more than to an actual observation of the rising of Sothis on that date.

As noted in the translation above, a textual correction of one day is necessary to get the rising of Sirius onto the correct calculated date. Censorinus, makes no direct statement that a new Sothic cycle began then, but his statement about the passage of one hundred years of the great year and his indirect reference to the rising of Sothis are interpreted as indications that a new Sothic cycle began in about 139 AD. It is argued that some coins of 139 AD also suggest that a new Sothic cycle began then.

Theon, another late classical writer, explicitly states that a Sothic cycle began in 26 BC. Now this period of 1460 years, commenced from a certain time, terminated in the 5th year of the reign of Augustus so, from the last epoch, the Egyptians begin all over again to find themselves every year one quarter of a day in advance.

Al Biruni an Arab chronologist (973-1048), supports Theon. It was Augustus who caused the people of Alexandria to give up their system of reckoning by non-intercalated Egyptian years, and to adopt the system of the Chaldeans, which in our time is used in Egypt. He did this in the sixth year of his reign; therefore, they took this year as the epoch of this era. Augustus wanted the Egyptians to intercalate the years, that they might always agree with the Greeks and the people of Alexandria. Into this subject, however, it would be necessary to inquire more closely. At that time precisely five years were wanting till the end of the great intercalation period. Therefore, he waited till five years of his rule had elapsed, and then he ordered people to intercalate one day in the months in every fourth year, in the same way as the Greeks do. Thereupon they dropped the use of the names of the single days, because, as people say, those who used and knew them would have been required to invent a name for the intercalary day.

If Theon rather than Censorinus is correct, the chronology of early Egypt is off by 165 years.

Among recent astronomers the same divergencies exist. Lockyer rejected the Censorinus date and placed the beginning of Sothic cycles in 270 BC, 1728 BC and 3192 BC. He bases his conclusions on the premise that Censorinus was in error because he failed to take into account calendric reforms which Lockyer believed might have occurred about 600 BC. If Lockyer's theory were correct Egyptian history would be misdated by over 400 years. Other pioneers of the field, such as Boit, had still different dates.

Lockyer's theory does not seem to be acceptable, because he calculates the move of Sothis through the fixed year in the opposite direction from all other authorities. However, Lockyer does introduce an additional Sothic date which has a bearing on the Censorinus/Theon controversy. According to an inscription found at Philae, which can be dated to about 122 BC the rising of Sirius was 37 days away from Thoth 1. Since Sirius moves one day every four years, it would take about 148 years for the rising of Sirius to arrive on Thoth 1. Lockyer counts in the wrong direction (122+148 = 270 B.C.). However, if we go in the standard direction (148-122= 26 AD.), we get the same date specified by Theon, and thus we have support for Theon versus Censorinus.

Besides lack of agreement of the time when a Sothic cycle began, this theory also faces other uncertainties. It is not certain how long a Sothic cycle lasts since there are other astronomic variables involved besides the precise length of the solar year. Calculations of the Sothic cycle have ranged from 1423 to 1506 years.

We do not know for sure with which star or constellation Sothis should be identified for all periods of Egyptian history. It is generally accepted that Sothis is the star which we call Sirius, although none of the sources gave any evidence for this from before classical times. Porphry in De Antro Nym harum says, "Near Cancer is Sothis which the Greeks call the Dog." Solinus Polyhistor says that this star rises between July 19-21.

In Chapter 21 of his work, concerning Isis and Osiris, Plutarch says, "The soul of Isis is called `Dog' by the Greeks and the soul of Horus is called Orion." Since Sothis is identified with Isis in other Egyptian texts, and Sirius is called the Dog in Greek, we conclude that Sothis is the star which we-call Sirius. However there are a number of difficulties. At least the second half of Plutarch's statement appears to be in error, because Orion is usually associated with Osiris not Horus. According to some Egyptologists Egyptian astronomical names did not always remain attached to the same celestial object. Osiris was first associated with Venus; later Osiris was associated with Jupiter. The planet Venus, which was first identified with Osiris, was later identified with Isis. Sometimes "right eye" is a title of Isis-Hathor, sometimes it is a title of the sun.

Plutarch also identifies Osiris with the constellation which the Greeks call Argo. The hieroglyphic triangle which represents Sothis also appears to represent the zodiacal light, and the Egyptians apparently knew both an Isis-Sothis and a Horus-Sothis. The term wp rnpt which refers to the rising of Sothis, also refers to the beginning of the civil year and the birthday of the king. Even the Greek word "Sirius" is not always attached to the same celestial object. Similar shifts and uncertainties apply to the identification of ancient astronomical names in general, for example, the constellations in Job.

According to the English astronomer Poole, Sirius was not on the horizon coincident with the rising of the sun on the Egyptian New Year's Day in 140 BC, the date specified by Censorinus and those who follow him. Macnaughton set up a chronology based on the supposition that Sothis was Spica, not Sirius, as a way around this difficulty. Canopus and Venus are other candidates that have been suggested, perhaps less plausibly. Kenneth Brecher has revived the doubts about identifying the bright star referred to in records as Sothis/the Dog/Sirius with the star we call Sirius today. Babylonian and Roman sources as late as Ptolemy all call "Sirius" a red star. Seneca says it is redder than Mars. In his star catalog Ptolemy refers to the bright red star in the face of the Dog. He links Sirius with red stars like Aldebaran and Arcturus.

The star which we presently call Sirius is not a red star. No theory of stellar evolution offers any explanation for how a red star could become white in 2000 years, although much speculation has centered around possible changes in the companion star which is part of Sirius. There is a flaw either in our identification of Sothis as our Sirius, in the ancients' observations, in our translation of their texts, or in present theories of stellar evolution, which must be based more on computer analysis than on observation.

One explanation which has been offered is that the red color refers to the star only as observed in heliacal rising near the horizon. Perhaps "red" simply means "bright" or "beautiful" as it does in Akkadian or Russian. At any rate, we can say that there is at least some question about the identification of Sothis as our star Sirius, and a thorough re-study of the pertinent Egyptian and Greek astronomical terms would be valuable. Furthermore, the whole concept of dating by reference to the Sothic cycle is only tenable if we assume that there were no revisions of the Egyptian calendar between the Hellenistic age and the time of the Twelfth Dynasty, or that we have an accurate knowledge of any such changes that did occur. Such changes are especially possible in the Hyksos period when foreigners controlled Egypt. Two notes in Manetho's king lists say that two different Hyksos kings introduced changes from 360 day calendars to 365 day calendars in the time following the Twelfth Dynasty. Since there is evidence that a 365 year calendar was in use already in the 5th Dynasty, it is possible that the Hyksos introduced their own calendar when they took control of Egypt, but then returned to the superior Egyptian calendar. [Brug, John, Ph.D.; The Astronomical Dating of Ancient History before 700 AD., 1988]

Nevertheless, all of Egyptian chronology is based on this Sothic cycle proposed by Censorinus, even if there has been much argument about when said cycle is supposed to have begun. In the absence of any real evidence, the experts decided on one set of dates (1320 B.C. to A.D.141) as the cycle, and proclaimed it as the standard for the setting of ancient dates. And, in point of fact, quite a number of Egyptologists have rejected the theory entirely. What is more, the theoretical sothic cycle does not agree with radiocarbon dating, even if we already have an idea that radiometric dating methods have problems. For dates within certain ranges, these problems have been adjusted with tree-ring calibration.

Did the Egyptians have a calendar? Censorinus didn't think so, as we note from his remarks quoted above. But he was judging Egypt by what he knew at the time. Egyptologists for over a century have argued whether the Egyptians ever had a useful calendar. In fact, over a century ago researchers nicknamed the Egyptian calendar the "annus vagus," which is Latin for the "vague calendar." Some researchers have suggested that the Egyptians had a calendar which no one in modern times can figure out, but that actually is not true as we will see. The experts tell us that the only thing the Egyptians were interested in was a ritual calendar, and keeping track of summer, or hot season; season of waters, or Nile flood time, and winter and little else. There was only one truly important yearly event for the Egyptians, and that was the annual rising of the Nile. But that date was variable and its observation, to the exclusion of all other considerations, would have provided them with a fairly accurate, self-correcting year, in which case there would be no 1,460-year cycle! All of the kings of Egypt recorded dates by their regnal years, and when any king in any part of Egypt came to the throne, it was considered "year one." And the fact seems to be that many "kings" ruled simultaneously in different parts of the country.

Continue to page 256


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