Origins of Astrology: The Egyptian Legacy

Origins of Astrology: The Egyptian Legacy

By: Joanne Conman

In his first encyclical letter “Deus Caritas Est” (God is love), Pope Benedict wrote: “Everything has its origin in God’s love, everything is shaped by it, everything is directed towards it.” The equivalent of what Benedict says about what God’s love means to Christians was, for the ancient Egyptians, transformation.

If there was one thing that embodied the concept of the divine for the ancient Egyptian, it was transformation. That a thing can become another thing was the essence of Egyptian magic. The Afterlife books are filled with spells for transforming, for coming into being in other forms. The process of mummification, called beautifying in Egyptian, served to transform the corpse from rotting mortal remains into something of a cult statue, immune from decay, a form which enabled the deceased to live in another way. The natural world was transformed every year by the annual flood of the Nile; without it, there was no life in Egypt. In their understanding of the universe, of nature, and of the divine, everything had its origin in transformation, everything was shaped by it, everything was directed towards it.

In the natural world, the two causes of transformation known to the Egyptians were time and chemistry. These two were the subjects of extensive study by the Egyptian priests for centuries; yet, links to later astrology and alchemy, even when supported by numerous ancient authors, are generally denied by Egyptologists. What is it that so many scholars have missed? We’ll put the issue of alchemy aside here as my focus is on astrology and there is plenty to explore in astrology. Above all, astrology is the study of relationships between moments of time based on a unique point of view concerning how time works. Astrology’s foundation is the knowledge of this concept of time. That it was understood through the behavior of stars is evidence of Egyptian influence.

Academics do acknowledge that ancient people used the sky to mark and measure time, and when it comes to attempts to understand respectable time-keeping, involving calendars or clocks, they are willing to deal with that limited aspect. But what have been taken to be calendars and clocks from ancient Egypt present some practical problems: chiefly, that no one can get them to work. The theories behind how these alleged calendars and clocks were actually used tend to be awkward at best, outlandish at worst. Within Egyptology, some of the more esoteric ideas concerning the nature of time as conceived by the Egyptians have been undertaken as part of theological studies, but the striking parallels to fundamental tenets of later astrology appear to be unknown to the experts, so any potential connections to astrology are left unexplored.

Otto Neugebauer thoroughly misunderstood the Egyptian decan system, and because of that, he –- and all who follow him unquestioningly –- fail to recognize that the Egyptian decans were incorporated directly into Hellenistic astrology. My understanding of the decan model solves the problem of Neugebauer’s confusion.[1] It is clear that the Egyptians divided the sun’s apparent path into 36 sections rather than the 12 the Babylonians used in the zodiac that was adopted by the Greeks. The Egyptian zodiac used many of the same stars used by the Babylonians and the Greeks. Greek and Roman authors were quite right in attributing some of what was incorporated into astrology from the Egyptians.

It’s not so much that academics do not understand, though some don’t; the fact is that many will not understand. They simply refuse. They tend to cringe at the mention of astrology. Beliefs incorporated in it are generally not considered worthy of study and are not recognized as having arisen in ancient religion. The few scholars who have written anything on ancient astrology seem to feel compelled to defend their interest in the subject, while proclaiming as loudly as possible that astrology is silly or superstitious because it is not science. They go to great pains to reassure readers that they are far too intelligent to believe astrology themselves. When they do explore ancient astrology, their bias tends to lead them to focus on what is easy to dismiss as irrational, e.g., omen reading.

The scholars who specialize in ancient religions generally do not have the depth of understanding of astrology to recognize ideas that have survived into it when they encounter them in other texts. Additionally, most of those who study Egyptian religion have already been indoctrinated by Neugebauer so that they are certain astrology has no foundation in Egypt and no place in Egyptian culture until the Late Period. Coupled with the fear, ignorance, and distaste for astrology that is advocated and even celebrated by academics, it’s not surprising that little headway has been made into any serious exploration of astrology’s Egyptian origins.

Archaeoastronomy, the other area that purports to make sense of what is alleged to be Egyptian astronomical material, accepts as fact many completely unsubstantiated, often ethnocentric assumptions. Thanks to the fantasies of historians of Western science and astronomy, it has become ingrained in many academics that anyone who ever looked at the sky in ancient times for almost any reason, with the possible exception of bird-watching, was a de facto astronomer. Thus, we come across the ridiculous epithet “astronomer and snake charmer” being applied to the Egyptian Prince Harkhebi, who probably lived in the third century BCE. He is given this label by Neugebauer and Parker, who translate the text on a statue that tells us about him and what he knew. Their notes on their translation are in parenthesis; my emendations of their translation are in brackets.


Hereditary prince and count, sole companion, wise in the sacred writings, who observes everything observable in heaven and earth, clear-eyed in observing the stars, among which there is no erring; who announces rising and setting at their time, with the gods who foretell the future, for which he purified himself in their days when Akh (decan) rose helically beside Benu (Venus) from earth and he contented the lands with his utterances; who observes the [twA risings] of every star in the sky, who knows the heliacal risings of every [decan] in a year, and who foretells the heliacal rising of Sothis at the beginning of the year. He observes her (Sothis) in her festival, knowledgeable in her course at the times of designating therein, observing what she does daily, all she has foretold is within his charge; knowing the northing and southing of the sun, announcing all its wonders (omina?) and appointing them for a time, he declares when they have occurred, coming at their times; who divides the hours for the two times (day and night) without going into error at night; knowledgeable about everything which is seen in the sky, for which he has waited, skilled with respect to their conjunction(s) and their regular movement(s); who does not disclose (anything) at all concerning his report after judgment, discreet with all he has seen.[2]

Prince Harkhebi foretold the future so well that his prophecies contented the whole country. He knew the decan system (the Egyptian zodiac) well; he knew how it worked with the sun’s motion; and he knew how both worked to tell time. He purified himself when Venus rose in its exaltation in order to please the gods who foretell the future. That he did not disclose anything concerning his reports after judgment, while contenting the lands with his utterances, implies that he gave private readings as well as making public prophecies at New Year. So why deny him the title of astrologer?

Neugebauer and Parker desperately want to attribute this “astronomer’s” knowledge to the Babylonians. Neugebauer imagined that the Egyptian decans consisted of a belt of stars that does not exist. His theory would not work with ecliptic stars, so he had to imagine a separate set of decans being created just for astrology by the Greeks. Never mind that the earliest lists of astrological decans take names from Egyptian lists attested two millennia earlier; never mind all the ancient authors who attribute the astrological decans to the Egyptians. Neugebauer was out to protect his theory, no matter how many facts refute it.

Let’s consider Harkhebi’s inscription further. The pattern of exaltation for four of the planets (including Akh, the decan of Venus’ exaltation mentioned in Harkhebi’s inscription) matches exactly the pattern of certain specially honored decans in a prayer that is found on a number of coffins dating back to the Middle Kingdom, c. 2000 BCE.[3] It is centuries before anything like this is attested in Mesopotamia. And from the New Kingdom tomb of Ramesses VI, c.1138 BCE, the king is shown worshipping Venus, certainly implying that Harkhebi’s practice of purification when Venus appears in exaltation was consistent with prior religious practice in Egypt.

The Egyptian title is well attested by the 18th Dynasty, c. 1550-1290 BCE. Applied to certain priests and often translated as “astronomer,” it literally reads “Who is in units of time.” “Who is in” is used in the beginning of many occupational titles. A better sense in English may be “the one who knows about…” or “the one who is in charge of…” This is a time-keeper, one who knows how to mark and measure time periods, one who know how to divide sections of time. Why translate this as “astronomer?” Why not “calendarist” or “time-keeping priest?”

Hieroglyphs can represent sounds or they can represent concepts. The same glyph can have two functions. The glyphs for “star” and for “sun” used to write imi-wnwt above are used as determinatives; they are ideograms representing concepts in this word. However, there is still some ambiguity, as each of these determinatives has more than one meaning. The star glyph is used to mean a star or a planet but it is also used to determine a segment of time marked by a star, such as the 36 ten-day Egyptian weeks, the decans. Egyptologists also consider the decan stars to be hour markers, which is probably not correct since it is based on misunderstood texts, although the decan stars were definitely used to mark shorter periods of time at night. The sun glyph was used to indicate the sun, but it also means “day.” So both astronomical glyphs are used as determinatives in writing words pertaining to divisions or units of time. In this case, for the Egyptians, the double entendre was entirely appropriate. The same title of imi-wnwt has also been translated as “hour watcher.” The word horoscope derives from a Greek translation of the same term: hora (hour) and skopos (watch).

The Babylonians watched planets as if they were living creatures traveling through the night sky. Many of their omens concerning planetary activity are quite similar to their omens involving animal behavior. If a planet behaved in a certain way, it foretold famine, war, prosperity, or peace for the land or for the king. The Babylonian constellations were used as a backdrop, scenery against which the planets and moon moved, and, comparable to landscapes rather than to beings, those constellations do not appear to have had any intrinsic characteristics that were transmissible to planets. For the Babylonians, the planets were under the jurisdiction of specific deities who could use them to communicate messages to people. That is quite different from the temporal control of the manifestation of deity’s power as the Egyptians understood it.

A fundamental tenet in astrology is that a star, a section of the sky, or a zodiac sign has its own spirit or deity that can influence events on earth or impart its traits at a certain time determined by its position in relation to the sun and its position in the sky. This closely resembles the Egyptian belief found in numerous texts that deities manifest at certain times only or in certain forms only at specific times. It’s likely that the decans brought this into the Greek zodiac and may explain why they were absorbed the way they were, as sections of each zodiac sign, rather than incorporated en masse.

In the Egyptian language, the word At means a moment or instant of maximum force or power. The word refers to a point in time when a person or deity reaches his greatest effectiveness. Egyptians understood gods and the king to have moments when they manifested in a state of being in which they could produce or develop an activity.[4] Egyptian gods appeared in different forms depending on the time. The annual inundation by the Nile was associated with the heliacal rise of the star Sirius, attested in the oldest known texts from Egypt. Sepdet, the deity associated with Sirius, had a fierce male aspect, a warrior god, but she revealed herself as a beautiful young woman when she brought the annual flood at New Year. Prayers circa 2500 BCE tell of us her causing the inundation and thereby creating food. She also gave oracles in her “good time,” her moment of At. One goal of advanced religious knowledge in Egypt was to know the various forms of the gods. Part of the instruction in the Afterlife books specified how to recognize the different forms, all of which were governed by time. This is identical to the knowledge sought by astrologers to discern the forms of the planets through the twelve signs and twelve houses.

That time itself governed the various forms of the decan star deities is again consistent with what is found in later astrology, paralleling the changes in the nature of a sign depending on the house in which it appears, as well as qualities planets manifest in different signs or in different houses. Astrologically, the conditions in which planets are found influences the planets’ powers, strengthening or weakening them. The strength or weakness of planets in signs and the strength or weakness of signs in houses is not explained by what the Babylonians were doing with their omens; however, it is absolutely consistent with Egyptian ideas concerning the nature of time as they understood it to be revealed by the stars. A planet in exaltation or in rulership, in its moment of At, is different from the planet at other times. The notion that the opposite place (its fall or its detriment) weakens the planet does seem to be a much later Greek invention. Places in the sky (houses) imparting a strength or weakness is again consistent with Egyptian ideas and different from the Babylonian divisions of the sky. The Babylonians saw locations in the sky as corresponding to locations on earth.

The decan stars played different roles, exerting different influences and changing gender, according to the time of year when they appeared. The Babylonians did not envision the sort of life cycle for stars that is described in Egyptian texts; still, something very much like that life cycle survives in later astrology. The notion that when stars precede the sun, they are masculine; when they follow the sun, they are feminine, as found in the writings of the Egyptian author Claudius Ptolemy is consistent with New Kingdom decan lists, c. 1550-1070 BCE. The decan rising heliacally is masculine; the decan rising acronychally is feminine. Later astrological ideas regarding day and night chart differences may be an expansion of this belief.

Babylonian astrological prognostications take the form of modern mundane astrology. But are the roots of genethlialogy in Babylon as well? From the earliest Egyptian texts we have that concern the stars, there is good evidence that individuals had differing connections with the sky and what is in it. There are tantalizing clues to natal astrology originating in Egypt. A critical component of an ancient Egyptian’s personality was the name; names had to do with the circumstances of birth. Even today, such naming traditions continue among many cultures in East Africa. We have a scene in a story from a papyrus dated to the New Kingdom (the story itself appears to have been written several centuries earlier) that depicts the naming of children at birth and the association of each child’s name with his or her destiny.

It has also been suggested that the names of gods were called out during delivery and the deity’s name which coincided with the child’s appearance was incorporated in the child’s name. Many theophoric names may allude to this, such as Ramesses (Born of Ra), Thutmoses (born of Thoth) or Ahmose (Born of Yah). Finally, from the Late New Kingdom, we have a number of amuletic papyri. These were inscriptions on narrow roles of papyrus that were kept in special containers meant to be worn around the neck. They were created within a week or so of a child’s birth and were personal to that child, invoking the protection of certain gods, asking for protection from particular stars, and making predictions for the child’s life.

Largely because of early Egyptologists, ancient Greek and Roman authors who credit astrological knowledge to the Egyptians are discounted and dismissed. But there is considerable evidence from Egyptian sources that supports the ancient authors, not the early Egyptologists. While Babylonian contributions to Hellenistic astrology are generally accepted, we can see that a number of crucial tenets that are integral to astrology, particularly those concerning the understanding of time, cannot be attributed to Babylonian tradition. Certainly, Babylonian astronomy was key in the formation of Hellenistic astrology. But, as I argue in my paper on the Egyptian origin of the planetary exaltations, the Babylonians themselves appear to have gotten some of their star lore from the Egyptians. The Greeks contributed a number of original ideas to astrology, especially concerning the nature of fate. Yet the fact remains that there are core beliefs in astrology that are remarkably similar to long-held Egyptian ideas. Why should anyone question that these concepts came from anywhere but Egypt? Why is there such reluctance to accept the Egyptian contributions to Western astrology?


[1] Conman, Joanne, “It’s About Time: Ancient Egyptian Cosmology,” Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur Volume 31, 2003, 33-71

[2] Neugebauer, Otto and Richard A. Parker, Egyptian Astronomical Texts Volume III (Brown University Press, Providence, RI, 1969), 214-5

[3] Conman, Joanne, “The Egyptian Origins of Planetary Hypsomata,” Discussions in Egyptology Volume 64 2006-2009, 7-20.

[4] Ogdon, Jorge R., “Studies in Ancient Egyptian Magical Writing, Apropos of the Word At” Göttinger Miszellen, Volume 164, 1998, 79-83.