Osiris and Orion

By John Legon

One of the generally-accepted theories of modern Egyptology has been that the ancient Egyptians identified their god Osiris with the constellation of Orion. This association has become so widely recognised that it would seem futile to dispute the conventional view, and yet a detailed study of the Pyramid Texts and some other primary sources for ancient Egyptian astronomy casts considerable doubt over the validity of the interpretation, and suggests that the equation between Osiris and the constellation of Orion has been merely a convenient make-shift adopted by scholars owing to the lack of more precise information.

That the nature of the connection between Osiris and Orion is not as straightforward as it at first appears was intimated by Alexander Badawy in his academic paper, 'The Stellar Destiny of Pharaoh and the So-Called Air-Shafts of Cheop's Pyramid' [MIO 10, 1964, 189-206]. Contrary to the popular view, Badawy repeatedly referred to Orion not as a constellation, but as a star. He thus described Orion as 'a kind of prince among the other stars', ' the most powerful among the stars', and 'Orion, (probably alpha-Orionis), as the brightest star in the southern sky...' The fact that Badawy referred to 'Orion' as a star would seem to make little sense, but we have to remember that he was translating a word in the Pyramid Texts, the meaning of which has not been determined by Egyptologists with any degree of certainty.

In the Pyramid Texts, the term conventionally rendered as 'Orion' is the word S3h, written in the singular with the 'star' determinative and the s3h hieroglyphic sign meaning 'toe', or 'toes'. Thus the literal translation of the word S3h in these texts is Toe-Star. This meaning was indeed accepted by the great German philologist, Kurt Sethe, in his fundamental work on the Pyramid Texts, and it was later adopted by Alexander Badawy in his translation of a passage in these texts referring to the ascent of the deceased king to heaven. Here, the translation of S3h as 'Toe-Star' gives significance to a typically Egyptian play on words: 'Thou must approach the sky on thy toes as the Toe-Star (S3h)' (PT 723).

Substituting 'Toe-Star' for S3h in the Pyramid Texts similarly explains the allusion to the god Seth's complaint that Osiris had kicked him: 'when there came into being this his name of Toe-Star, long of leg and lengthy of stride' (PT 959); and likewise the method by which the soul of the deceased king was supposed to ascend to the heavens: 'I have gone up upon the ladder with my foot on the Toe-Star' (PT 1763). In neither case can we make sense of these passages when the word S3h is supposed to signify the constellation of Orion as a whole.

As indicated above, Badawy ventured to suggest that the 'Toe-Star' of the Pyramid Texts might have been alpha-Orionis, apparently believing that this was the designation of the brightest star in the constellation of Orion, when in fact the star in question is known as beta-Orionis or Rigel. Not only is Rigel one of the brightest stars in the night sky, and therefore an obvious candidate for the star of Osiris, but it also marks one of the two 'feet' of the anthropomorphic figure of Orion. For this reason, it accords perfectly with the translation of S3h as Toe-Star. But the same might also be said of Saiph, which marks the other 'foot' of Orion, so how can we choose between them?

Confirmation that the star S3h of the Pyramid Texts should be identified with Rigel specifically can be found in a passage in the 'Coffin Texts' of the Middle Kingdom, which indicates the order in which the stars appeared in the night sky: 'I am the Toe-Star who treads his Two Lands, who navigates in front of the stars of the sky on the belly of my mother Nut' (CT III, 263). Now when Orion rises in the east, the brilliant Rigel leads the way, and indeed may be said to navigate because it marks the place on the horizon where Sirius rises about 100 minutes later. Since Sirius was identified with Isis, the wife and sister of Osiris, there was a natural pairing between these two bright stars which had a practical application; for having watched Rigel rising on the eastern horizon, the Egyptian priest-astronomers would then have known where to look for the heliacal rising of Sirius - the harbinger of the Egyptian New Year.

Although it appears that in later times, the meaning of the word S3h (or the plural S3hu) was extended to refer to the constellation of Orion as a whole, yet the Egyptians never lost sight of the fact that only one star in this constellation embodied the spirit of Osiris. This is proven by the so-called 'decan lists' which were represented in the 'astronomical ceilings' of some tombs of the New Kingdom. Here, as shown by the classification of R.A. Parker and O. Neugebauer in their primary work, Egyptian Astronomical Texts [Vol III (London, 1969), 112-5], the ruling dieties of the various stars of Orion were identified. In the tombs of Senmut, Pedamenope and Montemhet, for example, we find that Osiris is associated with the star known as hr rmn s3hu, meaning the star 'under the arm of Orion', while other stars of Orion were known as Children-of Horus and Eye-of-Horus. In some other decan-lists, a star with the presiding deity of Osiris was still identified as the Toe-Star S3h specifically.

Upon reflection, the fact that only one star of Orion was thought to receive the soul or spirit of the great god Osiris is only to be expected, since the ancient Egyptians believed that the stars of the sky represented the bas of individual souls, and the essential being of a god could not very well be divided up between a number of stars. It therefore seems likely that in the Pyramid Texts, the frequent interplay between Isis-Spdt and Osiris-S3h took place in a balanced relationship between two stars - namely Sirius and Rigel, two of the brightest stars in the sky - and not between a star and a constellation.

Reference: J.A.R. Legon, 'The Orion Correlation and Air-Shaft Theories', Discussions in Egyptology Vol. 33 (1995), 45-56


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