The zodiac Denderah is a planisphere, a map representing the starry sky in plane projection, with the 12 constellations of the zodiacal band, the constellations forming the 36 decans and the small planets. These decans are first-rate groups of stars in the night sky. They are used in the Egyptian calendar, which is based on the lunar cycles of about thirty days and the annual recurrence of the heliacal rise of the star Sothis (Sirius).
This representation of a circular zodiac is unique in ancient Egypt. Two other rectangular zodiacs adorn the ceiling of the temple’s pronaos.
The celestial vault is represented by a disc supported by four pillars of the sky in the form of women, between which are interposed genii with the head of a falcon. On the first circumference, thirty six geniuses symbolize the 360 days of the Egyptian year.
On an inner circle, there are constellations, which include the signs of the zodiac whose representation is close to their designation such as Aries, Taurus, Scorpio, or Capricorn. For others, the iconography is more Egyptian: Aquarius is represented as the god of the flood Hâpy, holding two vases from which water gushes.
The Dendera zodiac is an ancient bas-relief temple ceiling carved with mysterious symbols of stars and planets. During Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign (1798-1801), French scientists discovered the zodiac in the ceiling of a small chapel atop a temple outside the town of Dendera, near Thebes. Made of sandstone and weighing many tons, the zodiac excited immense wonder and admiration, for it seemed to open a window onto a civilization of almost immeasurable antiquity.
Representations of the Zodiac Dendera
This representation of the zodiac in a circular shape is unique in Ancient Egyptian art.
The Louvre museum presents the zodiac to visitors on an explanatory panel:
The five known planets at the time are indicated (in brown): Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn.
The twelve zodiacal constellations (in dark green) are on a spiral starting from Cancer followed – in the opposite direction of the astrological periods – by Gemini, Taurus, Aries, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, Sagittarius, Scorpio, Libra, Virgo and finally Leo. Champollion-Figeac (cf. infra), on the other hand, starts the spiral with Leo (follow the eleven other signs in the order of astrological periods) and final Cancer is above Leo.
Eleven other constellations (in light green) are identified: Eagle, Bouvier, Cassiopeia, Horse (Small), Cygne-Lyre, Dragon, Loup, Orion, Ourse (Large), Ourse (Small), Serpent.
The star Sirius (also in light green) is shown.
The two eclipses are explained: that of the Moon (52 before our era), that of the Sun (51 before our era).
Photo description: Dendera zodiac with original colors (reconstructed) – courtesy of Alexandre N.Isis.