Published by The Blavatsky Study Center

S.A. Mackey and the Dendera zodiacs

By Antonios Goyios
October 2009




1. Introduction
2. S.A. Mackey's "three virgins"
3. The rectangular Dendera zodiac
4. The rectangular zodiac's 'crab'
5. The Scarab, the Sun and Khepri
6. Duplicate scarabs appearing in Nut's feet
7. The 12 zodiacal signs in Egypt
8. The age of the current temple of Dendera
9. Appendix: S.A. Mackey's reasoning and conclusions -- some further observations
10. Conclusion
11. Notes
12. References


Sampson Arnold Mackey (1765-1843) was a Norwich shoemaker by profession, wherin he lived most of his adult life. Although he had received a minimal education, he eventually pursued his own studies in fields such as astronomy, geology, and world mythology. Based on his pursued studies, Mackey eventually formulated his personal theories on a variety of subjects, such as equinoctial precession, ancient history, and mythology. He gave lectures and made several publications describing his theories, doing this at his own expense. David Pratt writes:

"He was one of the first writers to publicly challenge the biblical dogma that the earth was no more than about 6000 years old, and argued instead that the earth, and humanity too, was millions of years old. He was invited to join the Freemasons, but refused to do so as he wanted to preserve his independence. He died in an almshouse. "[1]

S.A. Mackey was a source frequently cited by H.P. Blavatsky, primarilly in relation to his theory pertaining to the zodiacs of the Egyptian temple of Dendera, and his interpretation of them. Mackey was of the opinion that, during the millennia through which equinoctial precession occurs, the path traced by the celestial north pole of the Earth is not a closed circle, as is commonly held, but a spiral [2]. What this means, is that Mackey held that the inclination of the Earth's axis constantly shifted in a mostly regular pace, changing inclination by about 4 degrees in the duration of time encompassing one precessional cycle (or "Great Year", considered to very roughly constitute a period of 25000-26000 years). This gradual change of axial inclination was assigned by him as the cause of periodic and very intense climatic changes that took place on the planet's surface, and thus drastically affected the modes of life upon it. Mackey considered that mythology was essentially a descriptive medium meant for communicating important occurrences of a celestial, astronomical and geological nature, by converting the observed phenomena into "sublime incomprehensibilities", as he himself described it. He thus considered mythology, and even ancient architecture, sculpture and paintings to essentially convey what he formulated as his theory of the planets' movements over the course of millions of years. As he writes in the beginning of his "A new theory of the earth and of planetary motion":

"As this [...] is so totally different in it's nature from all the rest of my works; being a book calculated as a treat to the Mathematician, whose steady mind is never drawn from the direct object of his researches by the brilliant embelishments of fascinating Poetry, -- who never creates a world of imaginary beings [...]. When he sees a close conjunction of Mercury and Venus, whose Grecian names are Hermes and Aphrodite he does not create a monster of the epicene gender, by blending their names and calling it Herm'aphrodite: nor, when he sees a total eclipse of the Sun between Mars and Mercury, would he record it by representing a dead man between two Thieves; even where it to happen in that part of the heavens where the Meridian is crossed by the Equator!. [...] As the Mathematician does not allow himself to be misled by any of those happy flights of Genius, which have proved the curse of society by not being understood; I shall, therefore, for the conveniency of those who may not be inclined to read those sublime incomprehensibilities, page this work seperately. " [NTE, p. 1]

In this article, we are going to review some of the assertions and related interpretations of S.A. Mackey regarding the Dendera zodiacs, as his material on this subject is quoted several times in H.P. Blavatsky's The Secret Doctrine and elsewhere.


S.A. Mackey's "three virgins"

One of the commonly cited assertions of Mackey regarding the two zodiacs of Dendera [3] is that multiple representations of the Virgo constellation can be found in them. Mackey identifies three figures in each of the two zodiacs as representing the constellation of Virgo. Having done so, he interprets their collective presence in the zodiacs as a representation whose intended meaning is that the axis of the Earth had found itself “three times within the plane of the ecliptic”. He writes:

"We are told by Herodotus, that the […] men of learning in this country [Egypt], informed him, that, the Pole of the Earth and the Pole of the Ecliptic had formerly coincided. I have seen, in Denon's second volume of Travels in Egypt, two ancient Zodiacs, from a temple in Tentyra or Dendera, where the Poles have been represented in both situations: and in that which shews the Poles at right angles, there are marks which shew, that it was not the last time they were in that position: but the first. […] [T]he chief characteristics of its being a monument commemorating the first time that the Pole had been in that position, are, the Lion & the Virgin. […]"

"[In the rectangular] Zodiac, as given by Denon, we see three Virgins between the Lion and the Scales; the last of which holds, in her hand, an ear of wheat." [MA, p. 2-4]

S.A. Mackey also supplies a drawing of his own, depicting the rectangular zodiac. A portion of it is reproduced below, making clear his meaning by the statement that "we see three Virgins between the Lion and the Scales; the last of which holds, in her hand, an ear of wheat.":

mackey drawing of three virgos

Fig. 1 Part of S.A. Mackey's drawing of the rectangular zodiac of Dendera.
It depicts the "three virgins" between Leo and Libra.

Thus, Mackey interpreted this group of three figures between Leo (the Lion) and Libra (the Scales) as a triple representation of the Virgo constellation, thus showing that the poles had been three times “within the plane of the Ecliptic”.

However, turning to the actual Dendera zodiac, we find that Mackey’s drawing is giving a quite selective, and rather one-sided representation of the rectangular zodiac’s features. The two female figures accompanying the wheat-bearing figure of Virgo, which are characterized by a single star over their head, are not at all as special to the wheat-bearing Virgo as Mackey’s drawing makes them appear. In fact, the rectangular zodiac has a total of 24 such figures, dispersed throughout it’s length, which obviously makes it clear that they cannot be representations of the constellation of Virgo. Such figures can be seen in the image below:

rectangular zodiac figures

Fig. 2 An image of a portion of the actual rectangular zodiac of Dendera, as found at the temple of Hathor, Dendera.
In this image, the female figures in question have been marked by a dot-sign placed above them to make them more distinguishable.

It is noteworthy that not even the configuration of two of these figures being found right in front of a zodiacal sign is at all specific to the wheat-holding Virgo, since we clearly see this pattern repeating itself for Gemini, Taurus and Aries in Fig 2 above. In Fig 3, we can see the dispersement of these female figures in the whole of the rectangular zodiac, clearly showing their pervasive presence in the zodiac as a whole:

rectangular zodiac figures dispersement

Fig. 3 Overview of the rectangular zodiac, with the female figures in question highlighted in red.

The matter of these female figures is treated somewhat further in the relevant section of the notes [4]. For the purposes of this section, the above observations make it clear that a connection between the wheat-bearing Virgo and the female figures in the rectangular zodiac is rather doubtful.


Furthermore, turning to the circular zodiac of Dendera, Mackey informs us of the presence of "three Virgins" there also. He writes:

"[I]n the circular Planisphere there are three virgins, which represent the three Decans, into which each sign of the Zodiac was divided. But, here, the first virgin is represented with a Child on her knee[.]"  [OD,p. 21-22 ]

For this zodiac also, Mackey has provided us with his own drawing, which is reproduced below:

Mackey's drawing of the circular zodiac of Dendera

Fig. 4 S.A. Mackey’s drawing of the circular zodiac.

The virgin holding a child on her knee, and the Virgo with the ear of wheat, are clearly discernible in Mackey’s drawing (bottom-right portion of Fig. 4). But what of the third ‘virgin’, alluded to in the passage in question? The figure with the prominent scythe, located to the left of the child-bearing virgin, is identified by Mackey as the constellation Bootes. So the only other option would be the figure standing to the left of the wheat-holding Virgo. Yet, the figure is obviously male, as the characteristic Egyptian loincloth shows. Furthermore, by consulting a more accurate drawing of the circular zodiac, and also the zodiac itself, we find an inscription over this figure, reading “Horus the Bull”. This is an appellation denoting one of the five planets, and is unanimously ascribed to the planet Saturn by Egyptology. Thus, from the above, it is evident that the figure in question cannot be either female, or a representation of Virgo. [5]

The rectangular Dendera zodiac

S.A. Mackey, in explaining his interpretation of the rectangular zodiac (shown in Fig. 3 and Note#3), writes:

"Every body knows that the summer sun rises higher at noon than the winter sun does. When the sun has acquired its greatest altitude in Summer, we say it is Midsummer, and the sun turns back again; that point then is called the Summer Tropic, the upper or highest part of the zodiac, – the top part, and when the sun has descended to his lowly place in midwinter, from that point he turns back, and that point is termed the lower tropic, the bottom of the zodiac. […] Here [in the rectangular zodiac] we have the 12 constellations in two strait parallel bands, placed between two female figures embracing the whole; here is a pole with a knob at one end, indicative of the top; but to prevent doubt, the knob is placed touching the mouth of the female, and no one can suppose for a moment that the mouth in the head, was intended to represent the bottom of the zodiac;– here then at the top of this zodiac we find the goat [Capricorn], and at the bottom, at the feet of the figure we find the crab [Cancer] divided near its middle. Here then, in this celebrated zodiac, we have the most satisfactory evidence, that the crab was formerly a winter constellation, and the goat, at the top, a summer constellation[.] "   [TZT, p. 15-21]

Thus, it appears that Mackey, upon seeing the above mentioned configuration of the rectangular zodiac of Dendera, considered the following to be fully demonstrable presuppositions:

The “upper” or “higher” part of the zodiac corresponds to the summer solstice (Midsummer), where the sun rises at it’s highest point in the sky.

The “lower” part of the zodiac corresponds to the winter solstice (Midwinter), where the sun rises at it’s lowest point in the sky.

The “pole with a knob” in the zodiac is indicative of the top, but to prevent doubt, the knob is placed touching the mouth of the female figure, and it is unthinkable to suppose that the mouth in the head, was intended to represent the bottom of the zodiac.

Thus, the above suppositions are thought to fully demonstrate that Cancer (placed at the feet of the figures) was a winter constellation, and Capricorn (placed at the head of the figures) a summer constellation.

However, it is obvious from Mackey’s comments that he is interpreting the zodiac without at all taking into account the respective context in which it is found – in fact, apparently being ignorant of it. All religio-philosophical systems, and even simple schools of artistic depiction, have some characteristic symbols and “motifs” which need to be interpreted in a proper context, to avoid gross misrepresentations and misunderstandings from taking place. Even things that can seem “evident” to oneself, may carry different meanings and connotations in a different cultural setting, characterized by it’s own mythological background and social standards.

For instance, we may ask at this point: By showing a painting of a Tibetan Buddhist “wrathful deity” to an observer thoroughly unacquainted with the subject and with Tibetan iconography, would the observer in question without a doubt consider it “evident” that this is a depiction of an enlightened being, exerting itself for the benefit of the world? Or would the simple depiction of the hairy primordial man “Pangu” -- ascribed by Chinese mythology to being the divider of the primordial world egg into Heaven and Earth – instantly and unanimously convey the idea of a universal “builder”? Obviously, these crude examples, and other similar and potentially more subtle ones which could be cited, evidently show that to properly appreciate a “mythological” depiction, and even any depiction related to a specific cultural setting, it is important to sufficiently acquaint oneself with the basic symbols and concepts characterizing that setting.

Consequently, we can proceed to see how S.A. Mackey’s assumptions relate with basic Egyptian symbolical concepts.

Mackey assumed that it is evident that the female figures encompassing the rectangular zodiac can be used for deriving the zodiac’s “top” from it’s “bottom” portion. However, the figures in question, are depictions of the Egyptian female deity Nut, which translates as “night”, and was mythologically / astronomically ascribed to arching over the earth, and spreading over it as the vault of the sky. Nut was traditionally and consistently considered as arching over the earth in an East-to-West direction, giving birth to the astronomical bodies (such as the Sun, Moon, stars and planets) in the eastern horizon, and “eating” them as they reached the western horizon. The astronomical bodies were said to be sailing over her body in “boats”. The Sun would be daily given birth to by Nut in the east, traverse the expanse of the sky, and eventually become “eaten” by her in the west, where the Sun’s nightly journey in the Duat (the so-called “underworld”) would begin, this time in a West-to-East direction – which would eventually lead the Sun to be reborn in the eastern horizon the next day.

The "Book of Nut" is an ancient Egyptian literary compilation, currently preserved in several versions for us, which specifically deals with the description of this system of cosmology and astronomy. A version of the “Book of Nut” can be seen below:

Book of Nut

Fig. 5 The “Book of Nut”, as found on the ceiling of the cenotaph of Seti the First, at Abydos.

As we are told in the "Book of Nut" 's inscription describing the body of Nut as a whole:

"This is the picture [...]. The female figure of this position -- that is to say, her head is in the west and her hind part in the
east -- is the goddess [...]. The hind part [is] the beginning, that is to say, it is the place of birth."   [EAT,vol2, p.49]

It thus becomes quite clear that the head, mouth and feet of the figure of Nut carry quite different connotations from those that Mackey readily ascribed to them. This presents problems for Mackey’s subsequent conclusions, as can be readily perceived.

Furthermore, Mackey considered the orbs found at the head and feet of Nut as “knobs”, indicating which way is “up” for reading the zodiac. However, the orbs in question map out the various positions of the Sun throughout the day and night. The most usual positions for the orbs to be drawn, are usually the genitals and the mouth of Nut, thus visually singling out the “first” and “last” states of the Sun in it’s daily course (i.e. being “given birth to” and “eaten” by Nut, respectively). This can become readily apparent by also seeing an “abbreviated” version of Nut, found in another part of the same temple of Dendera:

Nut at a ceiling of Dendera temple

Fig. 6 The goddess Nut, as found on the ceiling of another part of the temple of Hathor, Dendera.
(This constitutes the ceiling of the Chapel of the New Year)

Consulting the "Book of Nut" 's description, we can cite the following relevant extracts [6]:

"It is by her mouth that the majesty of this god -- that is to say, Ra -- enters within the Duat. Look at the picture, the disc which is at her mouth. [...]

Afterwards, [...] from it -- that is to say, the Duat -- he goes forth. In it -- that is to say, the sky -- he travels again. With him [the] stars set and with him they rise. [...] [Nut caused] her children to set, which she did in order to cause that she give birth to them. [...]

The redness comes after his [Ra's] birth. It is in the colour which comes in the sun-disc at dawn that he -- that is to say, Ra -- rises, his rays being upon the earth in the color named. Look at the picture. [...]

It is by her mouth in the hour of s.htp.n.s in the evening that this god enters [the Duat]. [...] That is to say, it is by her mouth in the third hour of [the] evening that he enters [the Duat].

It is in the ninth hour of the night that he is accustommed to go forth from her. The majesty of this god goes forth on the earth again. Having become a youth, his strength is great like the first time (of his antiquity). [...]

They -- that is to say, the stars -- are in the place at her [Nut's] hind part in the east every day, as she gives birth to Ra daily."

The above-cited exemplary extracts make a fitting overview of the cosmology, astronomy and mythology pertaining to the figure of Nut. They also make clear a number of difficulties with Mackey's initial assumptions, as his approach to several crucial elements of the iconography in question is evidently quite foreign to the meaning understood by the ancient Egyptians themselves, when portraying those cosmological iconographical elements.

Furthermore, it is worthwhile to draw attention to this passage:

"After in the western horizon his majesty [Ra] sets, they [the stars] enter into her mouth in the place of her head in the west. [...] It is within her that they travel in the day, when they do not shine and are not seen."   [EAT, vol1, p.67]

On account of the fact that Nut is said to "give birth to" and "eat" the celestial bodies daily, and also due to the fact that Nut's body is described in certain places as the ‘celestial river’ on which the celestial bodies “travel” both by night and by day, it is occasionally stated that the celestial bodies, after being "eaten" and while remaining unseen, actually travel within the body of Nut in a West-East direction, approaching the point of their eventual re-appearance by means of becoming "reborn" by Nut in the east. This same interval between setting and rising is described as the passage of the Sun-god Ra through the Duat. Furthermore, the stars are also described as going through the Duat in the interval between their setting and rising.

Due to the above partially interlaced descriptions of the cyclic path of the Sun and the stars, and due to their travelling "inside Nut" when they are not seen, there are occasions where this cycle is depicted by means of employing two Nut figures rather than one, where one Nut figure corresponds to the East-West direction pertaining to the daily path of the Sun, and the second Nut figure corresponds to the West-East direction pertaining to the nightly path of the Sun through the Duat, on his way to being reborn on the eastern horizon.

This structure is also the one which characterizes the "Books of Day and Night", two ancient Egyptian texts containing cosmological and astronomical descriptions, and describing the passage of the Sun-god throughout his cycle of successive "rebecomings". One version of the "Books of Day and Night" can be seen below:

Books of Day and Night

Fig. 7 The “Book of Day” (lower part of image) and the “Book of Night” (upper half of image),
as found on the ceiling of the tomb of Ramses VI, Valley of the Kings.

In the “Book of Day” shown above, Nut is strung with Sun disks, tracing the day course of the “celestial river”, while in the “Book of Night”, Nut is strung with stars, tracing the night course of the same “river”. Observe that the course of the “river” changes for each Book, the “Book of Day” being read East to West (left to right, as appearing in the image above) while the “Book of Night” being read West to East (right to left). Each 'book' is divided into 12 "chapters" or sections, each one of these "chapters" describing the events taking place in each hour of the Sun's cyclic journey. As the ancient Egyptians divided a day (and night) into a 24-hour period like we do today, the day was allotted 12 hours, and the night was allotted the remaining 12.

It is worthwhile to note here that in the "Book of Day" portion of Fig. 7, the body of Nut has a total of 12 Sun-disks strung upon her body, corresponding to the 12 hours of the day, each of the Sun-disks roughly positioned in accordance with their related "chapter" as found along Nut's figure. In Nut's mouth and hind portion there are two more Sun-disks, thus punctuating the "birth" and the "devouring" of the Sun at the day's start and end, and also punctuating the beginning and end of the "Book of Day" as a whole.

The rectangular zodiac's 'crab'

It is known that, in the Egyptian depictions of the 12 zodiacal signs that are available to us, the sign of Cancer/Crab has often been intermixed with the Egyptian scarab, or dung beetle. Furthermore, by looking at the rectangular zodiac of Dendera, it is evident that the part of the zodiac where the sign of Cancer is to be found, is at the feet of the Nut figures. There, we find two depictions of a scarab, one at the feet of each figure.

scarabs of rectangular Dendera zodiac

Fig. 8 Portion of the rectangular zodiac, showing the scarab figures found at the feet of Nut.

Regarding this subject, Mackey writes:

"At the feet of the figure [of Nut] we find the crab divided near its middle. Here then, in this celebrated [rectangular] zodiac, we have the most satisfactory evidence, that the crab was formerly a winter constellation[.]"   [TZT, p. 15-21]

Thus, Mackey assumes that the two scarab/beetle figures are solely related to the depiction of the sign of Cancer. In continuation of his assumption that the feet of the figure must correspond to the winter solstice, he considers the “crab” to be depicted as a winter constellation. Furthermore, he interprets the appearance of two scarabs/crabs as an indication that the crab is “divided near it’s middle”, i.e. that the winter solstice occurs in the midst of Cancer.

However, by acquainting ourselves with the context of the Egyptian symbols that Mackey readily attempts to interpret in the above manner, it soon becomes apparent that the subject involves quite different dynamics.

The Scarab, the Sun and Khepri

In ancient Egyptian mythology and cosmology, the Egyptian scarab (or dung beetle) is a symbol which has always held a very distinct place, both in textual references as well as iconographic depictions. The “deity” in question is known as Khepri, Kheper, or Khepera [7], the self-created father of the other gods. He was distinctly related with the concept of “becoming”, and was consistently ascribed the position of the rising Sun, coming forth from the darkness of the Night. E. A. Wallis Budge writes:

The god Khepera is usually represented with a beetle for a head; and the scarab, or beetle, was sacred to him. The name means "to become, to turn, to roll," and the abstract noun kheperu may be rendered by "becomings," or "evolutions." The god was self-created, and was the father of all the other gods; men and women sprang from the tears which fell from his eyes; and the animal and vegetable worlds owed their existence to him. Khepera is a phase of Tmu [Atum], the night-sun, at the twelfth hour of the night, when he "becomes" the rising sun or Harmachis (i.e., Horus in the horizon). He is also described as " Khepera in the morning, Ra at mid-day, and Tmu [Atum] in the evening."   [EBD, p. 246]

scarab-headed Khepriwinged Khepri    Khepri

Fig. 9 Depictions of Khepri.

In "The Secret Doctrine", H.P. Blavatsky tells us:

"The Spirit of Life and Immortality was everywhere symbolized by a circle: hence the serpent biting his tail, represents the circle of Wisdom in infinity; as does the astronomical cross — the cross within a circle, and the globe, with two wings added to it, which then became the sacred Scarabaeus of the Egyptians, its very name being suggestive of the secret idea attached to it. For the Scarabaeus is called in Egypt (in the papyri) Khopirron and Khopri from the verb Khopron “to become,” and has thus been made a symbol and an emblem of human life and of the successive becomings of man, through the various peregrinations and metempsychoses (reincarnations) of the liberated Soul."  [SD, II, 552]

Khepri, Ra, Atum

Fig. 10 The three aspects of the Sun, wall painting in Luxor.
Khepri in the morning, Ra at mid-day, and Atum in the evening.

It is thus very clear that Khepri is an important ancient Egyptian deity, with characteristic attributes. In the “Pyramid Texts”, considered the oldest known ancient Egyptian inscriptions available to us, we read:

"You shall embark into the boat of Ra, in which the gods love to ascend,
[Name] shall embark into it, like Ra.
You shall seat yourself upon this throne of Ra, that you may command the gods,
for you are indeed Ra, who comes forth from Nut, who gives birth to Ra every day.
They cause [Name] to come into being as Ra, in this, his name of "Khepri".   "    [PT, p. 258]


"They cause [Name] to ascend to Khepri,
he who exists on the eastern side of the sky."     [PT, p. 305]

In the Egyptian “Book of the Dead”, Ch. XV, we read:

A hymn of praise to Ra when he rises in the eastern part of the sky: [...]
“Homage to you, O you who has come as Khepera,  Khepera, the creator of the gods.
You rise, you shine, making bright your mother [Nut], crowned king of the gods.
[Your] mother Nut does homage to you with both her hands. […]  “   [EBD, p. 246]

Lastly, we could cite the "Book of Nut" by reproducing the following extracts:

"[Thus reads] the text which is under the scarabaeus which is under her [Nut's] thigh [8] :

He [the Sun] enters as this scarabaeus. He comes into existence as he came into existence the first time on earth, in primeval time.

It is as this (scarabaeus) that he enters, it is as this (scarabaeus) that he goes to the sky, that is to say, the form of Kheper which is in the picture. [...] It happens that it is the form in which he rises in the sky, when he is strong [...]. It was in the form of Kheper that he began to go to the sky, in primeval time. [...]

It is the rising of Ra [...]. It opens to the sky, that is to say, the place in which Ra rises upwards from the Duat, that from which he rises daily. [...] He, in the form of Kheper, [...] assumes the form of the sun-disc, [...] the one which is in the picture. [...] The redness comes after his birth. It is [...] the colour which comes in the sun-disc at dawn [...] . "   [EAT,vol 1, p. 52-55]

From the indicative quotations cited above, the context of the Egyptian deity Khepri may be better understood. The consistent semi-astronomical attribution of Khepri as the rising Sun in the eastern horizon is also appreciable from them.

In consequence of the above, the scarab at the feet of Nut as seen in the rectangular Dendera zodiac (Fig. 8, right portion) , along with the effulgent orb (which Mackey interpreted as a “knob”) emerging from Nut’s body, are quite understandable in their respective context. As for the face among the rays of the Sun (Fig. 8), it is the face of Hathor, the goddess of the temple in question, whose face is seen on the pillars throughout the temple [9] .

Temple of Dendera     Dendera temple outer gate

Fig. 11 Temple of Hathor, Dendera.
Left: Main entrance of temple.
Right: Relief found on the underside of the top portion of the temple's outer gate.
(Notice the winged solar orb and winged scarab. )

From the above, it should be quite demonstrable by now that the rectangular zodiac's portrayal of the scarab and the effulgent solar orb emerging from Nut's lower body is an Egyptian iconographical element that has a most well-defined intended meaning, and also is of cardinal cosmological significance in Egyptian mythology, thus making it quite unfit for inventive interpretative approaches -- especially as uninformed ones as Mackey's.

Of course, needless to say, the scarab would not be liable to appear in any other part of Nut's body than in Nut's feet, and this is perfectly explainable by the very definition of the scarab in Egyptian symbolism (as has been given in summary above). Thus, as it would be expected, it is worthwhile to point out that in all depictions of the scarab in association with Nut, the scarab is consistently portrayed in that position of Nut's body in virtually all extant representations of it that have been preserved in Egypt to this day.

Duplicate scarabs appearing in Nut's feet

But let us focus on a particular attribute of the scarab Khepri, which can help us account for the duplicate scarabs seen in certain representations of Nut and Khepri.

As was pointed out earlier, the ancient Egyptians divided the time between two successive risings of the Sun into 24 hours, like we do today. In certain representations and texts, like the "Books of Day and Night" (Fig. 7), where the journey of the solar deity is divided in two portions of "Day" and "Night", the figure of Nut is also duplicated in order to accomodate the portrayal of the Solar deity's cyclic path in it's entirety (both in the East-West and the West-East directions). In these cases, each Nut figure is allotted 12 hours. Furthermore, the part of the picture where the two Nut figures' heads converge is the "turning point" from Day into Night (see Fig. 12), and the part of the picture where the Nut figures' feet converge is the "turning point" from Night into Day.

Nut eats Sun

Fig. 12 The end of the "Book of Day". Detail from right portion of Fig. 7, found above.

Once past the "turning point" shown in Fig. 12, the “Book of Night” begins, detailing the course of the solar deitiy's "barque" through the 12 consecutive hours of the Night.

At this point, it is significant to return to what E. A Wallis Budge tells us about Khepri:

“Khepera is a phase of Tmu [Atum], the night-sun, at the twelfth hour of the night, when he "becomes" the rising sun or Harmachis (i.e., Horus in the horizon)“.   [EBD, p. 246]

As pointed out previously, the twelfth hour of the Night is the moment just before the Sun’s dawning, or “becoming” – the interim between Night and Day. As such, Khepri is a specifically assigned form of the Sun at this point. Due to this, and the importance of the moment of “becoming”, Khepri is often depicted both just before the rising time, and at the rising time of the Sun. As an example of this feature, such multiple depiction of Khepri can be seen clearly in the "Books of Day and Night". John A. West, in his description of the "Book of Night", describes the twelfth hour of the Night as follows:

"An altar rests on a sledge. From the scarab atop the altar a stream of water falls upon the sign of the heavens beneath held aloft by another scarab, beneath which is a child. Facing are two of the primeval gods, Heh and Hehet, who represent eternity [10]. Beneath this composition are the barges of Isis and Nephthys, and beneath the barges, the goddesses themselves, transferring the disk of the sun from the barge of night to the barge of day." [TKE, p. 312]

The text of the 12th hour of the Night reads as follows:

"To come out of the Duat, to rest in the Morning Barge, to navigate the Abyss until the hour of Ra, She who sees the beauty of her Lord, to make transformations in Khepri, to rise to the horizon, to enter the mouth, to come out of the womb, to burst forth out of the Gate of the Horizon of the Hour, She who lifts up the beauty of Ra in order to make live men, all cattle, all worms he has created. "

While for the beginning of the “Book of Day”, West informs us that:

"The book begins to the east, where from Nut’s womb the solar disk emerges, supported by the winged scarab Khepri. " [TKE, p. 311]

Book of Day and Night, Eastern direction Book of Night, zoom on scarab

Fig. 13 "Books of Day and Night", eastern portion, denoting the end of the "Book of Night" and the beginning of the "Book of Day".
Two scarabs occupy the concluding portion of the “Book of Night” (magnified in the image on the right).
A winged scarab pushing the solar disk is placed in the beginning of the “Book of Day” (seen in the lower left portion of the image on the left).

Thus, this version of the "Book of Day and Night" happens to display a total of three scarabs in the region of Nut's lower body. Comparing the above with the layout we find in the rectangular Dendera zodiac (Fig. 8), with it’s multiple scarabs / beetles, one winged and depicted at the lower part of one Nut figure, the other non-winged but directly adjacent to the effulgent solar orb emerging from Nut’s womb, it is quite appreciable that the depiction of multiple scarabs has very specific connotations in Egyptian iconography, commonly employed for denoting different “moments” in the Sun’s journey. They are similar to the depiction of multiple solar orbs in a single picture [11].

So, at this point, it may be justifiably asked: What is the connection of the scarab with the zodiacal sign of Cancer, or crab, in the overall depiction of the rectangular Dendera zodiac? As we see, in compositions such as the “Book of Nut”, and "Books of Day and Night", although multiple scarabs make their appearance in the lower body of the goddess Nut, there is no trace or mention of any other of the 12 signs of the zodiac, as commonly understood today. The ecliptic is divided into 36 decans instead.

As for the symbol of the scarab itself, apart from having a wholly different and very specific set of connotations as the rising Sun, and “the creator of the gods” (as is comprehensively shown above), we know that it was apparently substituting for the sign of a “crab” in some depictions of the 12 zodiacal signs that are found in ancient Egypt. So, within the context of the 12 zodiacal signs, the scarab was adopted as a local equivalent to the “crab” . But how do the 12 zodiacal signs relate to ancient Egyptian iconography, and astronomical representations? This is discussed below:

The 12 zodiacal signs in Egypt

Ancient Egyptian astronomical texts, drawings, and inscriptions are available to us in large number, and from various times of ancient Egypt’s known history. Examples of these are the "Book of Day and Night", and the “Book of Nut”, mentioned previously. There are plenty of other stellar depictions however, which collectively form a large corpus of material for study. 

Despite the fact that plenty of astronomical material is available to us from ancient Egypt, very much of this material remains quite doubtful as to its precise identification with our currently defined constellations and divisions of the sky. The reason for this is that, as far as available inscriptions and texts show, the ancient Egyptians used a system of constellations which was quite distinct, and – at least for long periods of time – did not involve any of our familiar depictions for representing constellations (such as the currently used system of the 12 zodiacal signs). Instead, much like other ancient astronomical traditions (for example: the ancient Chinese astronomical tradition), ancient Egyptians had quite distinct ways of mapping the celestial sphere into divisions, groups and distinct constellations, thus providing us with a star map which is difficult for current astronomy to decode in terms of which precise star groups their maps were referring to.

Circumpolar constellations circumpolar constellations circumpolar constellations

Fig. 14 Some northern circumpolar constellations, as shown in three different astronomical paintings.
(these being extracts from the complete paintings).
Circumpolar constellations are constellations which are found in the vicinity of a celestial pole (the north one, in this case).

Although the greater portion of these ancient Egyptian star maps remains uncorrelated with modern star maps in strict exactness, or are mostly disputedly correlated, they maintain a significant internal cohesion of expression among themselves, communicating a distinct system of mythological and astronomical description. This can be partly appreciated in the exemplary extracts from star maps that have been put side by side for comparison in Fig. 14. Although in cases it may be that several centuries may divide each of these maps from the others in terms of historical chronology, their content is in the greater part consistent with all earlier or later equivalents, and evidently portrays the same system of charting the sky, both in the constellations' conceived appearance and also in the constellations' names.

Thus, throughout the vast corpus of extant astronomical material that can be consulted, there is a distinct consistency in using the constellations of a purely Egyptian origin, without any reference to what is understood today as the 12 zodiacal signs (Pisces, Aries, etc.). We do find this system of 12 zodiacal signs utilized in a very characteristically small number of Egyptian astronomical texts and inscriptions, however. It is significant to note that these cases of appearance of the 12-sign system seem to conform very closely with one another in terms of a very specific and short historical timeframe. This has to an extent to do with what appears to be a chronologically synchronous construction of temples in various parts of Egypt, which all bear similar internal decoration and imagery, as well as cartouche "signatures" by the rulers of that time period. The subject involves other kinds of apparent historical "synchronisms" which are worth pointing out, so it will be discussed below.

The age of the current temple of Dendera

As it was briefly mentioned previously, all the 12-sign depictions available to us from ancient Egypt, appear to uniformly be part of a specific time period. This time period corresponds to a quite late part of ancient Egyptian history, at least as far as the monuments in question are concerned (which happen to contain these depictions). This means that the older depictions of astronomical subject matter systematically include only the constellations which are distinctly local in origin (such as the ones shown in Fig. 14), and do not show any similarities with the modern 12 zodiacal signs in their arrangements. Instead, the ecliptic is divided solely into 36 segments represented by the 36 decans. There are occasional variances among lists of decans in terms of their specific names, but the decans systematically number 36 in number, and are the sole dividers of the ecliptic. On the other hand, the few astronomical drawings depicting the 12 zodiacal signs appear in temples and settings which are known to have been built (or rather rebuilt) during the Ptolemaic period (starting in the 4th century BCE), and also the Roman Period.

The temple of Hathor at Dendera in the form that is known to us today, although indisputably being the last “embodiment” of an immensely older and very influential temple, is a monument whose date of construction is assigned by archaeology to the Ptolemaic period (332-30 BCE). This is appreciable from a number of clear indications, such as the very specific mention of the endeavor of various historical rulers in building the temple, as also their “signatures” in the parts of the temple that they themselves completed, or added. As a consequence, the current structure of the Dendera temple is said to be the result of an endeavor which took place in the first century BCE. Furthermore, and as a result, there are numerous Egyptian rulers and Roman emperors from that period depicted on it’s walls. Other characteristic features of it are the empty cartouches [12] which are found throughout the temple, including the immediate vicinity of the zodiacs. These are understood to be the result of the very uncertain political climate of the Ptolemaic times, which led to reluctance to fill royal names in, as the succession of rulers was quick and their rule short. It is a feature shared with other temples from that period [13].

Empty cartouches in Dendera temple   Empty cartouches of Dendera temple

Fig. 15 Empty cartouches at the temple of Hathor, Dendera.

Obviously, the apparent fact that the temple as it stands at the moment is a quite late construction does not at all detract from the fact that the temple’s site has housed a long succession of previous temple “embodiments”. This is appreciable to us from the writings in the temple itself, but also from other comparative sources, which make it clear that the Dendera temple is a site with long history.

At this point, it is significant to turn our attention to Egyptian astronomical imagery from the Greco-Roman period of ancient Egyptian history, and see how it relates to the imagery we see used in the Dendera zodiacs. Unlike the astronomical depictions seen in older (and not subsequently restored) monuments and inscriptions (e.g. the constellations shown in Fig. 14), which do not have almost any apparent relation with the Dendera zodiacs and their 12 zodiacal signs, we find that the Greco-Roman period’s astronomical depictions in Egypt closely parallel what we find in the Dendera zodiacs, and prominently involve the 12 zodiacal signs, which are depicted in a nearly identical manner. For instance, below are some examples:

First, we could refer to a drawing found on the coffin lid of Heter, a ruler from the early Roman period (about the first century CE). This drawing involves a depiction of Nut, along whose sides we see constellations, and representations of the 24 hours of the day and night [14] . The zodiac of 12 signs is prominent, and has been somewhat differentiated from the other purely Egyptian constellations, the 12 signs being placed in the direct vicinity of Nut’s body. It can be seen that the Egyptian imagery is rather haphazardly put together. The scarab at Nut’s feet has been placed in an adjacent enclosure in a corner (top right of the left portion of Fig. 16). Noteworthy is that the scarab and crab are here depicted as distinct ideas, as the crab can be seen among the 12 zodiacal signs depicted. Furthermore, the symbols used for the zodiacal signs are in agreement with the Dendera zodiac ones (Leo is drawn over a snake, Virgo holds an ear of wheat etc).

Heter lid drawing heter lid drawing

Fig. 16 Astronomical representation, found on coffin of Heter.
The portion showing the zodiac of 12 signs is magnified in the image on the right.

Another good example would be the astronomical representation on the coffin lid of Soter, a Roman Period ruler of the area of Thebes, who lived in the second century CE. The astronomical representation in question (seen in Fig. 17), drawn about a century after Fig. 16, is evidently involving much less strictly Egyptian elements – perhaps on account of Greco-Roman iconography gradually becoming more prominent. The drawing’s inscriptions are in Egyptian hieroglyphic and Greek. The 24 hours of the day and night are represented along the sides as female figures with stars overhead (see bottom border of Fig. 17). Egyptian constellations (such as those in Fig. 14) do not appear at all in this drawing. The figure of Nut is seen stretched in the middle portion, with the zodiac arranged around her. Decans, and Egyptian barques of constellations do not appear, apart from two representations of the Sun’s barque on each side of Nut’s head. Furthermore, we can see the scarab specifically placed at Nut’s feet, although here too it is drawn as a notion distinct from the sign of Cancer, which can be seen as a crab on the bottom right portion of Fig. 17, under Nut’s armpit.

Soter lid drawing

Fig. 17 The coffin lid of Soter, from the second century CE.

Here too we see Leo drawn as a lion over a snake, and Virgo as a female figure holding an ear of wheat, or another type of grain.

Other examples which could be cited are the Petamenophis coffin lid (2nd century CE), the Anthribis zodiacs (2nd century CE), etc.   . This manner of astronomical depiction, although not present in any inscriptions and drawings prior to the Ptolemaic period, becomes the norm from the Ptolemaic period onward.

From the above indicative examples, it can be seen that Egyptian iconography was utilized in peculiar ways during the Greco-Roman period, often infused with non-Egyptian iconographical elements. There also seems to be less prevalence of ancient Egyptian iconography, which is a ramification of the extensive Greek and Roman presence in Egypt at the time.

At this point, it should be clear that the above examples of Fig. 16 and Fig. 17 show a ready relation with depictions such as the Dendera (and also Esna) zodiacs – which form parts of temples which underwent extensive renovations in the Greco-Roman period. Equally evident, is the strict absence of this type of iconography of the 12 signs from drawings found in monuments and inscriptions of much earlier periods (such as the examples shown in Fig. 14).

In consequence, even though it is definite that the Dendera temple was built in accordance with the plan of an earlier structure, it is clear that the Dendera zodiacs as known to us today involve an iconography cognate to the Ptolemaic period, and when taking into account the other architectural elements of the temple they are found in (the empty cartouches, the Ptolemaic and Roman emperor “signatures”, the renovations etc) they cannot be considered as a production of an earlier date. In short, whatever may be said to be encoded in the Dendera zodiacs, is encoded with Ptolemaic imagery, and in a Ptolemaic Period monument. Thus, the communicated concept was definitely using the astronomical “language of the times” of the latest temple renovation – an iconography that was thoroughly absent in known Egyptian imagery until that time, but which was present in Greece, Rome, and elsewhere [15] .

The above is relevant when we consider how to interpret H.P. Blavatsky’s mention of the circular Dendera zodiac, which she describes as “the planisphere on the ceiling of one of the oldest Egyptian temples” (SD, II, 368). Obviously, the temple of Hathor as it now stands cannot be considered one of the oldest Egyptian temples, and its iconography is equally absent from older Egyptian representations, while being thoroughly relevant with, if not identical to the astronomical imagery of the Ptolemaic period, and of its Ptolemaic and Roman “signed” rebuilders. Thus, the Dendera temple can only be considered the latest structure built on the site of one of the oldest Egyptian temples.

S.A. Mackey's reasoning and conclusions -- some further observations

S.A. Mackey discusses the Dendera zodiacs more extensively in his own works, than what quoted passages found in Theosophical literature may portray. In those publications, Mackey provides a number of additional justifications for his proposed opinions, and also expands further in describing his reasoning on the subject of the Dendera zodiacs.

Even though these additional conclusions and justifications are not quoted directly in Theosophical literature, it is of interest to look at some of them in more detail. This is due to the fact that S.A. Mackey’s model of the Earth’s motions, along with his conclusions for the Dendera zodiacs, are subjects often quoted in Theosophical literature (thus making Mackey’s viewpoint important to be aware of). In consequence of this, some more extracts from Mackey's works will be discussed below.

It is worthwhile to note that Mackey provided these explanations as evident corroborations of his reasoning. Consequently, Mackey expected that readers would find his deductions to be self-coherent, and that they would naturally come to agree with him upon acquainting themselves with the facts and with his explanations. Thus, for instance, he writes:

"In the time of Cambyses, Aries was a vernal equinoctial constellation, and the Crab coincided with the summer tropic; but in [the rectangular zodiac of Dendera], the winter solstitial colure [the meridian of the celestial sphere which passes through the point of the winter solstice] divides the Crab near its middle, and the Ram [Aries] must of necessity be an autumnal sign[.]  […]  I shall demonstrate [this] so clearly that all who know the summer noontide sun is higher than that of winter, and that our heads are above our feet, shall be satisfied that cancer in the long zodiac of Dendra, is a winter sign."   [TZT, p. 10]

Obviously, upon acquainting ourselves with the observations and facts brought forth in this article, it is quite difficult to think that any of Mackey’s primary assumptions here have much of a basis, and appear more like speculative and arbitrary interpretations, which radically take the imagery out of its very consistent local context. The same can be said about the following, being Mackey’s professed ‘clear demonstration’, found a few pages after his previously quoted extract:

"Every body knows that the summer sun rises higher at noon than the winter sun does. When the sun has acquired its greatest altitude in Summer, we say it is Midsummer, and the sun turns back again; that point then is called the Summer Tropic, the upper or highest part of the zodiac, – the top part, and when the sun has descended to his lowly place in midwinter, from that point he turns back, and that point is termed the lower tropic, the bottom of the zodiac. […] Here [in the rectangular zodiac] we have the 12 constellations in two strait parallel bands, placed between two female figures embracing the whole; here is a pole with a knob at one end, indicative of the top; but to prevent doubt, the knob is placed touching the mouth of the female, and no one can suppose for a moment that the mouth in the head, was intended to represent the bottom of the zodiac;– here then at the top of this zodiac we find the goat [Capricorn], and at the bottom, at the feet of the figure we find the crab divided near its middle. Here then, in this celebrated zodiac, we have the most satisfactory evidence, that the crab was formerly a winter constellation, and the goat, at the top, a summer constellation[.]"   [TZT, p. 15-21]

These points were discussed in the article above, so they will not be discussed here. They are recounted here to provide a more appreciable context for briefly discussing some other selected points from Mackey’s ideas on the Dendera zodiacs, in the hope of providing a more comprehensive comparative presentation between Mackey’s reasoning and the zodiacs themselves.

The probability of Mackey’s assumptions of the Crab being divided "near it’s middle", and of the subject of the "three virgins" were also discussed above (so they will not be addressed again). In an attempt to corroborate his initial assumptions, Mackey proceeds to make other observations relevant to the rectangular zodiac. One of these is the following:

"It is well known in our time, that the summer half of our year is longer than the winter half by eight days. This is a consequence of the Earth being nearer the Sun in winter than in summer. . . .
     But the eccentricity of the Earth's Orbit is observed to be constantly diminishing; therefore, in taking a retrospective view of Time, the eccentricity must have been greater; and consequently, the difference between the nearer half year and the remote half year must formerly have been more than eight days. And as the perihelion point moves through the Ecliptic in something more than twenty thousand years, it must be vertical to different parts of the Earth. And when over the Equator, in Autumn, the autumnal half year would be shorter than the Spring half, or in other words, from midsummer to midwinter, the Earth would require less time than from midwinter to midsummer. Now if we examine the long Zodiac of Dendera, it will be seen why all the Goat and half the Crab with the five signs between, are on one side; while on the other side there are but five signs and a half: hence there must have been, at that time, more than eight days difference between the two half years. The cause of all which is so clearly pointed out by the two Decans in the Ram seated on flames and pointing their fingers to their mouth, expressive of thirst, that no man of science can doubt that, at that time, the place of the perihelion point was in the autumnal Ram. I say, and repeat it, the autumnal Ram. For were we to consider the Sun returning from the winter to the Ram, there could not have been that heat and thirst experienced in Spring especially in the beginning of Spring, as to warrant the two expressive Decans in Aries." [OD, p. 8-9]

Thus, Mackey proposes as a corroboration that, on account of what he interprets as “the two Decans in the Ram seated on flames and pointing their fingers to their mouth, expressive of thirst”, it is thought quite obvious that the depiction of the rectangular Dendera zodiac is portraying Aries as an autumnal sign (and that it is also considered indicative of a period in the distant past when the eccentricity of the Earth’s orbit was much greater). Aries being an autumnal sign in this case implicitly corroborates the supposition that the rectangular Dendera zodiac depicts Cancer as a Midwinter sign and Capricorn as a Midsummer sign (which was proposed by Mackey earlier).

But let us look at the Decans in question, said to be ‘seated on flames and pointing their fingers to their mouth, expressive of thirst’. Maybe such was a possible interpretation of the early drawings of the zodiac in question. Upon examining the actual zodiac however, we find that what the figures sit on are Egyptian lotuses. Furthermore, the finger-to-mouth posture is a most consistent iconographical element of ancient Egypt, and is a representation of an infant (since infants are apt to take that posture).

rectangular zodiac decans   rectangular zodiac decans magnified

Fig. 18 Rectangular zodiac of Dendera (detail).
From the two Decans, the Decan on the left is the one having a finger in the mouth, representing an infant.
The Decan on the right seems to be holding a cup in his hand.

The infant-on-lotus, with the lotus emerging from a body of water, is a very characteristic and common ancient Egyptian symbolic depiction. It is often used to portray the deity Horus in its particular aspect of “Horus the infant” [16] .

Horus as an infant on lotus   Horus as an infant on lotus

Fig. 19 Horus as an infant.

Furthermore, Mackey proceeds to write:

"[Between Taurus and Cancer] we see a group of three men and women, whose attitudes seem to express, an agreement with a fourth woman on terms of accommodation on board her husband's boat. […] In the ancient history of Egypt, the City of Thebes is represented as containing the whole population of the Country round about it during the Winter, and in the inundation in the Summer; to which place the mode of travelling might be by way of the Nile; this would explain the busy group in the zodiac between […] Taurus and the Beetle, or Cancer, – they were about to depart for Thebes, there to remain till the end of winter, in one instance, and the retiring of the water in the other; at which time the people would issue from their retreat to their various occupations on the land. – This going into, and coming out of Thebes annually, looks very like the story of the Flood and the Ark. "   [TZT, p. 15-21]

Here Mackey continues to assume that the beetle / scarab and its relation to the zodiac is an indication of it being a Midwinter sign. He proceeds to interpret a number of figures appearing between Taurus and the beetle as a representation of “a group of three men and women, whose attitudes seem to express, an agreement with a fourth woman on terms of accommodation on board her husband's boat”. Even though this type of explanation is most dubious and arbitrary in nature, it is conceivable that the 19th century drawings of the rectangular Dendera zodiac might allow such an interpretation. For instance, using the drawing of Bentley (who based his drawing on Denon’s original drawing – being the one used by Mackey), we can locate the group in question, and the individual figures’ orientations and distances might be considered as suggestive for such an approach as Mackey’s. Needless to say, this approach disregards all but an arbitrary “guess” as to what the figures look like, but it is at least possible to be met, under the circumstances.

Like previously however, through consulting the actual zodiac, we find that the situation is quite different. Even if we supposed that Mackey’s explanation was potentially plausible, it appears that Bentley has inverted the orientation of each of the figures for some reason. Consequently, the effect produced by the actual orientation as seen on the original zodiac far from allows one to say that it seems to express “an agreement” of any kind, among the group of figures.

comparison between Bentley drawing and actual rectangular zodiac

Fig. 20 Portion of the rectangular Dendera zodiac.
Above: Portion of drawing from Bentley (Bentley, 1825, plate VII).
Below: Corresponding portion of the actual Dendera zodiac.

Incidentally, it can be noted at this point that Mackey here interprets three more "virgins" (female figures with a star situated over their head), figures identical with those he discusses in his "three Virgos" hypothesis (see Fig. 1), as a group of women intending to accommodate themselves on one of the adjacent men’s boat. Quite needless to say, this is a most speculative and arbitrary manner in which to interpret an astronomical drawing.


Certainly, more could be said about S.A. Mackey's writings on the Dendera zodiacs. However, the above is hopefully sufficient to give an overview of some significant aspects of this subject, and to also encourage critical and personal study among Theosophical students and researchers.

For a complete list of Dendera-related extracts from S.A. Mackey's published works, interested readers are directed to the Appendices section of David Pratt's article "Poleshifts". The Appendices section can be found here.







(Click on a note's respective number to be redirected back to the appropriate portion of the main text. )

[1] This quote is from part 5b of David Pratt's article "Poleshifts", found here. This is an informative article, involving quite relevant material with what is treated here. (It is noted that the short biographical sketch on S.A. Mackey is also based on "Poleshifts" 5b, by David Pratt).

[2] The precessional cycle is commonly supposed to take place without a significant change in the inclination of the planetary axis, with the celestial north pole tracing out a circle, as is shown and described in this short article on the subject.

[3] There are two rather famous zodiacal representations pertaining to the Egyptian temple of Dendera that became widely known in the early portion of the 19th century, shortly after Napoleon Bonaparte's military expedition in Egypt. One of these is a planisphere, a map of the stars on a plane projection. It constitutes a circular bas-relief depiction featuring numerous constellations, that was found on the ceiling of the pronaos of a chapel dedicated to Osiris in the temple of the godess Hathor, at Dendera. This zodiac will be referred to as the "circular Dendera zodiac" from here on in this article.

The second celestial depiction which will be treated here, commonly referred to as a "Dendera zodiac", constitutes a portion of the ceiling depictions found in the hypostyle hall of the same temple at Dendera. It is a rectangular bas-relief depicting constellations and other celestial elements in a sequential fashion (one positioned next to the other), and will be here on referred to as the "rectangular Dendera zodiac". Drawings of both the circular and rectangular zodiacs are shown below.

circular Dendera zodiac    rectangular Dendera zodiac

The "Dendera zodiacs". For larger images, interested readers can consult the images collected in this website.

It is noteworthy to briefly mention at this point that there are significantly more astronomical depictions on the walls and ceilings of this temple of Dendera than these two specimens alone. Some of these depictions were chosen by the French artist Vivant Denon to be included in his "Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte", published shortly after the Napoleonic expedition. This work widely popularized the Dendera temple and also happens to be the source of information on Dendera that S.A. Mackey himself utilized for formulating his theory on these zodiacs (since he had never visited Egypt personally).

[4] The female figures with a star over their head that are found in the rectangular zodiac of Dendera are not an uncommon sight in ancient Egyptian astronomical depictions. In fact, they are most commonly found, particularly in depictions dating from the Greco-Roman period of ancient Egyptian history, and they consistently number 24 in total. Since rectangular astronomical depictions are common in that period, these figures are placed one next to the other in a sequential order, and are divided into two sets of 12, each set occupying one side of the rectangular zodiac (precisely like the dispersement of these figures in the rectangular Dendera zodiac, as seen in Fig. 3). Examples of their occurance are shown below:

24 hours   24 hours

The image on the left is a detail from the coffin of Heter (early Roman period), and the image on the right is a part of a wall-depiction of these figures from the ancient Egyptian temple of Kom Ombo.

These figures are known (through the aid of both Egyptian and Greek inscriptions found in Egypt) to represent the 24 hours of the day and night, which is a very important concept in ancient Egyptian depictions throughout the history of ancient Egypt. The female figures as representations of them appear in a relatively late period, comparatively speaking. In all known depictions, sometimes all 24 figures are drawn with stars overhead, while at other times 12 of them are drawn with stars, occupying half of the zodiacal circle, while the other 12 are drawn with solar orbs overhead, and occupy the other half of the zodiacal circle.

[5] At this point it should be noted that there is another female figure in the circular Dendera zodiac, which is however not shown in Mackey’s drawing. This is a small figure which is directly behind the lion representing the constellation of Leo. This figure seems to be a part of the depiction for Leo, although it is conceivable that it might be considered a third “virgin” in the circular Dendera zodiac. However, closer inspection shows that in the drawing of Denon this figure had been defectively drawn as a type of animal (standing on the lion’s tail), as shown in the image below.

figure behind lion

It thus appears that the figure in question was not at all conceived as a “virgin” by Mackey, and therefore not even included in his own drawing of the circular zodiac (Fig. 4). Further corroboration of this, is that we can find a similar female figure, partially damaged from the waist down, situated directly behind Leo as depicted in the rectangular Dendera zodiac (visible in Fig. 3, and also in the image provided in Note#3). If we look for this figure in Mackey’s corresponding drawing (shown in Fig. 1), it is found missing. Consequently, this further shows that this figure was not thought to be one of the “virgins” by him.

[6] Extracts from EAT, vol1, p. 49, 55, 66-69, 71-76.

[7] The exact pronunciation of ancient Egyptian words is not appreciable, as the ancient Egyptian written language did not represent the vowels of words, but only the consonants.

[8] By referring to Fig. 5, this scarab found "under Nut's thigh" is roughly discernible in the region slightly above and to the right of Nut's knee joints.

[9] Worthy of note here is that the most popular festival pertaining to the proceedings of the ancient Egyptian temple of Dendera was that of the New Year, during which the temple's priesthood engaged in an enactment of the "symbolic union of the Sun with the goddess Hathor". A golden statue of Hathor would be taken to the roof of the temple, in a specially built kiosk, wherein it would be left for the duration of the night, until the dawn of the following day, when the rays of the rising Sun would fall upon the countenance of the statue, thus signifying the symbolic "union" and the festival's culmination. As François Daumas writes:

"[M]ost prestigious of the statues was that of the ba of Hathor. According to the texts written on the walls, we know that the kiosk [partially destroyed at present] consisted of a gold base surmounted by a gold roof supported by four gold posts, covered on all four sides by linen curtains hung from copper rods. Inside was placed the gold statuette representing a bird with a human head capped with a horned disc. This was Hathor, Lady of Dendara, residing in her house... [This statuette] was carried in the kiosk on the evening of the New Year. "

The same face of Hathor, under the rays of the rising Sun, can be seen in Fig. 6, as found on the ceiling of Dendera's Chapel of the New Year where this festival occurred.

[10] “Heh” means “endlessness”. Hehet being the female form of “Heh”.

[11] Furthermore, it is worthwhile to briefly note that in the case of the Dendera temple's rectangular zodiac in particular, the double depiction of scarabs at Nut's feet may also have to do with other matters, which pertain to the architectural layout of the ceiling it is found on. Consulting the actual architecture of the temple, we find that the two Nut figures are a lot farther apart than they appear in some drawings, and are actually about 50 meters apart from one another. They are placed along the very edges of the ceiling, and encompass between them the entirety of the hypostyle hall. This can be appreciated by consulting the picture below:

hypostyle hall ceiling

Hypostyle hall's ceiling, temple of Hathor, Dendera. (from "Description de l' Egypte", vol 4, plate 18)
The Nut figures can be seen on the left and right edges, on the sides of the hypostyle hall's ceiling.
The gray squares are the positions of columns. The entrance of the temple is in the middle portion of the top of the picture.

So, apart from the well-known fact that multiple scarabs at the feet of Nut figures is a very common occurance in Egyptian iconography, in this architectural context an added factor resulting to this "doubling" could very well be that the other Nut figure with her scarab was very physically distant. Thus, in this case, it could be that the scarabs were added to both figures for purposes of contextual completion, also (because the twelfth hour of the Night would be positioned 50 meters apart from the scarab Khepri, were a scarab added only to the first hour of Day).

[12] Cartouches are oblong enclosures wherein royal names were inserted. These were commonly reserved for the Pharaoh’s enthronement name.

[13] It is said that the rear part of the Dendera temple was apparently built first, probably in the early part of the 1st century BCE. The earliest king named on the monument is Ptolemy XII Auletes (who ruled in the first century BCE), but, like previously mentioned, mostly the temple’s cartouches are empty. Archaeologists consider this to be an effect of dynastic struggles in the mid-1st century.

It is understood that the temple was taken down and rebuilt during that period. The massive foundations of the temple probably contain many blocks from the earlier structure it replaced. Early texts refer to a temple at Dendera which was rebuilt during the Old Kingdom, and several New Kingdom rulers, including Tuthmosis III, Amenhotep III and Ramesses II and III are known to have embellished the structure. However, while fragments of earlier periods have been found on the site, there have been no earlier buildings unearthed. Pepi I and Tuthmosis III, being Egyptian rulers who lived 2 millennia and 1.5 millennia earlier from that period, were recalled in the new temple's inscriptions.

Below is a relevant collection of extracts from a publication on the subject.

Quoted from: Pharaonic temples in Upper Egypt from the Ptolemaic and Roman periods ( )

The construction of the temple of Hathor [at Dendera] started in 54 BC in the reign of Ptolemy Auletes. [...] The work continued with Cleopatra and her two brothers. From Octavius (30 BC) to Marcus Aurelius (161-80) the cartouches of almost all the Roman emperors of this two-centuries-long period are to be found on the temple's wall. This is in fact one of the last monumental achievements of the Pharaonic civilisation which was preceded, […] as attested by the engraved texts on its walls, by a series of sanctuaries dedicated to the goddess Hathor. In the goddess's chapel, at the back of the sanctuary, is the cartouche of Pepi I who reigned over 2200 years before the first stone of the new Ptolemaico-Roman temple was laid.

[...] The Ptolemies introduced Greek culture into Egypt whilst preserving Egyptian culture.[...] The newly built temples generally followed the traditional plans. The walls were decorated with bas-reliefs on which the Greek sovereign appeared as a Pharaoh. His name was transcribed into hieroglyphs, accompanied by Egyptian first names and titles and enclosed within a cartouche.[...] The [subsequent] Roman administration was relatively respectful of the priests, restoring some temples and building others. The temple of Hathor in Dendera was thus completed by the [Roman] emperor Tiberius 185 years after the work was started under the Ptolemies.

[...] There is the surrounding brick wall built by Domitian with its monumental door from the Roman period, the sacred lake and one Roman and one Ptolemaic mammisi [small chapels attached to a larger temple]. [Upon entering the Dendera temple,] first you go into the hypostyle hall decorated in 34 AD by Tiberius with 24 cow-headed or Hathoric columns and a ceiling with the goddess Nut who swallows the sun in the evening and gives birth in the morning. [...] On an outer wall, at the back of the temple, a bas-relief represents Cleopatra together with Caesarion, the son she had with Julius Caesar. On the terrace is a pair of mausoleums dedicated to Osiris, one of which gave the famous [circular] "Dendera zodiac" which today is in the Louvre (replaced by a copy). [...] As for the cartouches which were to bear the names of the emperors, they remained mostly empty [.]

Cleopatra VII and Caesarion reliefs on outer wall of Dendera temple

Reliefs of Cleopatra VII (69-30 BCE) and her son Caesarion, on an outer wall of the temple of Hathor, Dendera.

Furthermore, another noteworthy temple is the temple of Khnum in Esna, which also contains a zodiac of the 12 signs on it’s ceiling. The same source quoted above continues to describe the temple of Khnum in Esna:

What is seen today is only the hypostyle hall of Khnum's temple. A stele engraved with the name of Amenophis II [~15th century BCE] bears witness to the old age of the place of worship which was completely destroyed and whose blocks of stone were re-used in the new religious building which, from the Ptolemaic period, and with the exception of the inner door leading further into the temple, dates entirely from the Roman period. From Nero (54-68 AD) up to Decius (249-251 AD) most of the Roman emperors left their cartouches and most of the inscriptions are from the second and third century AD.

Of the Ptolemaic and Roman temple, only the immense hypostyle hall remains in the middle of the town of Esna [...] This imposing hall, supported by twenty four columns and decorated with reliefs from the 1st to the 3rd century AD, does not really have any Ptolemaic features except for the back wall. All the rest is from the Roman period and carefully dated by the cartouches left by the Roman emperors from Nero (56-68 AD) up to Decius (249-251 AD); so that this is truly a Roman building but constructed in the [style of Egyptian architecture].

Thus, the Khnum temple of Esna is also characterized by extensive signs which show that it was a construction of the Greco-Roman period. Below can be seen an image of part of the Esna zodiac:

Esna zodiac

Part of the Esna zodiac, showing the 12 signs.

[14] The hours of day and night are divided in two sets of 12, are represented by the familiar female figures with stars and solar orbs overhead, and are placed at each side of Nut's body (In the left portion of Fig. 16, the hours can be seen along the upper and lower borders of the image). We can also see the circumpolar constellations of Fig. 14, situated in the bottom left portion of the drawing (or, we might say, on Nut's "right side"). This is a usual occurance, since if Nut's head corresponds to the western direction and Nut's feet correspond to the East, her right side would correspond to the North.

[15] Noteworthy is the fact that the Babylonian equivalent of Virgo, placed between the Babylonian constellations of “lion” and “scales”, is literally translated as “Seed-furrow” (and that, furthermore, the same "ear of wheat"-holding female figure is very common in representations of the zodiac of 12 signs from various other contexts). Thus, it is probable that the consistent representation of the Virgo holding an ear of wheat in Egyptian iconography was due to more expansive reasons, and not just because of the Egyptian harvest month, as Mackey assumed. Equally important though is to point out the strict absence of these representations (the "virgin with an ear of wheat", the "scales", etc) in earlier ancient Egyptian depictions known to us. So this imagery became "current" in Egypt during the Greco-Roman period, and from then onward was apparently the main medium for expressing astronomical ideas, as all the available zodiacs and astronomical drawings from that period onward show.

[16] The other very common mode of representation being Horus depicted as an infant being suckled by his mother Isis.





MA: S.A. Mackey, 'Mythological' Astronomy of the Ancients Demonstrated, Norwich, 1822/23 (Wizards Bookshelf, 1973)
NTE: S.A. Mackey, A New Theory of the Earth and of Planetary Motion, Norwich, 1825
TZT: S.A. Mackey, The Two Zodiacs of Tentyra, and the Zodiac of Thebes, Norwich, 1832
OD: S.A. Mackey, The Original Design of the Ancient Zodiacal and Extra-Zodiacal Constellations, Norwich, 1834
SD: H.P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, 1888
PT: Samuel A.B. Mercer, The Pyramid Texts, 1952
EAT: O. Neugebauer, Richard A. Parker, Egyptian Astronomical Texts, London, 1960
EBD: E. A. Wallis Budge, The Egyptian Book of the Dead, 1967 (unabridged republication of Budge's 1895 work)
TKE: John Anthony West, The Traveler's Key to Ancient Egypt, 1985