Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Birth and Death of the Sun - the Daily Cycle in Ancient Egypt

The role of cycles and routines in culture have been explored in various aspects on this blog earlier. From early settlements to the concept of time in terms of units such as days, weeks and month.
One of the cultures that have throughout a very strong concept of repetition in the more literal sense is ancient Egypt, the culture of the Pharaohs. There is so much research on this culture out there and for Europe and especially Britain this has been a deep fascination for centuries. The British Museum is stuffed to the roof with artifacts and knowledge collected in Egypt.
What I want to look at is the “simple“ concept of the birth and death of the sun during the course of one day. Two elements in Egypt have had a fundamental impact on how the Egyptian culture has formed. This is on one hand the Nile as the life spending river that runs through the deathly desert from south to north and the sun that spends the warmth and makes the plants grow that travels from east to west. These two elements might also had a fundamental influence in how orientation and navigation was developed. (Yi-Fu Tuan (1974), Topophilia. Columbia University Press, New York) It is believed, that the Egyptian culture hated the darkness that arose together with the cold as soon as the sun has touched the horizon in the west. The dark and the cold were associated with death, just like the daily death of the sun. As an opposition to this there was the daily birth of the sun as it rose over the horizon in the east. For this miracle the Scarab beetle was responsible. The beetle was an important character that took care of the death and was associated with the Egyptian god, Khepri. He did take care of the sun and made sure, that after she died in the evening she was reborn in the morning in the east. To do so he rolled the sun just like a ball backwards along the sky, just like a Scarab beetle would roll a ball of dung. So the beetle rolled the son during the night from west to east. The Egyptian name for this important insect was ”Kheper“. The scarab beetle was also a symbol of rebirth after death. To believe in being reborn led to the mummification of the dead body, to preserve it for it’s next life. When the Egyptians mummified a body they would remove the heart and put a stone carved like the beetle in its place. Just like the sun would be reborn every day, also humans would be sent back from the death to be reborn. The idea of cycles and repetition as observed in nature was deeply embedded in the culture of ancient Egypt.

Image from

Some sort of visualization with a time lapse of the night sky.

Perseids from powrslave on Vimeo.

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