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Greek Influence on the Representation of the Heaven in Ptolemaic Egyptian Art

Greek Influence on the Representation of the Heaven in Ptolemaic Egyptian Art






For many ages, in Egyptian art the heaven is represented by the arching goddess Nut. This image is the artistic expression of the archaic conception of the universe as a roof or firmament. All of a sudden, however, on the ceiling of temples in Philae and Dendara, dating from the Ptoemaic Dynasty, duplicate and even triplicate pictures of Nut appear. So far, no explanation has been given for these strange images. The ceiling in Philae shows two Nuts arching over each other. The lowermost is dotted with stars, the uppermost bears winged suns. So they are represented in an inverted astronomic order. On the ceiling in Dendara, these Nuts are arching over each other. It will be argued that this break with an age-old tradition can be explained as the artistic translation of a new Greek astronomical paradigm, introduced by Anaximander of Miletus. He broke with the conception of the firmament and taught that the heavenly bodies make up three concentric rings, the nearest of which is that of the stars and the farthest that of the sun.




Il est difficile d’imaginer ce que ce peut être que ces trois figures de femmes dans de si singulières attitudes

(V.Denon, Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte, Vol.II. Caire 1803, at Planche CXXIX, no.6)



The Egyptian word for ‘heaven’ (‘p.t’) is written with the signs for ‘p’ and ‘t’ over the ideogram for heaven. This ideogram is a simplified picture of a flat roof (see Figure 1). The same picture is used many times in Egyptian art as an indication of the heaven, as is seen e.g. on a painting above the entrance to queen Nefertari’s burial chamber ± 1210 BCE (see Figure 2).[1] Sometimes, however, the picture of the heaven is not flat, but curved, so that it recalls the more common picture of the celestial vault. This is the case, e.g., on a memorial stone of Tanetperet, ± 850 BCE (see Figure 3).[2] In writing, however, the hieroglyph of the heaven is never curved.


Another very common Egyptian representation of the heaven is that of the goddess Nut. On the other side of the same memorial stone of Tanetperet, Nut takes the position that the curved roof took in the foregoing picture (see Figure 4).[3] Nut is usually pictured as a naked female, standing on all fours, arching over the lying earth-god Geb, her body studded with stars. This picture is common in Egtptian art for many hundreds of years. One example of it is given in Figure 5. The god between Geb and Nut is the baboon-headed sky-god Shu, who keeps up the heavens, his raised arms making the ka-gesture as a symbol of cosmic power[4]. On many pictures Nut not only bears stars all over her body, but is also shown giving birth to the sun (in the morning), and swallowing it again (in the evening). So her head must be thought to be looking towards the west, and her rear towards the east. Another representation of the heaven is that of the heavenly cow with stars on her belly. And, according to Heinrich Schäfer, also the picture of the winged sun, which is usually depicted with straight wings, but also often with gently downward curved wings, which are at least once dotted with stars, is a representation of the heavens.[5]


The common denominator of all these different pictures is that they all represent the ancient and unsophisticated picture of the celestial vault. We are all acquainted with this way of representing the heavens, for it is essentially the same as that of the heavenly bodies projected on the semispherical ceiling of a planetarium. It is this conception of the celestial vault which until nowadays enables us to recognize the constellations like Orion or the Big Dipper, which allows us to describe the orbits of sun, moon, and planets among the stars, or to determine the azimuth of a celestial body. And, still more important, it is the way we see the heavens. We know that in reality there is not such a thing as the constellation called Orion. For in reality the stars making up that constellation are not all at the same distance, but at various distances. Looking at the heavens, we see all the heavenly bodies at the same distance, but we have learned to imagine that they are at various distances. In other words, the image of the celestial vault is a very natural one, and we meet it in many cultures, albeit disguised in mythical cloths, as in the Egyptian cosmological representations.


Having stated this, I will ask your attention for a peculiar change in the established Egyptian representation of the celestial vault, which took place in the time of the Ptolemaic dynasty. When the French army under Napoleon conquered Egypt, it was followed by another army of scientists, who laid down their discoveries in the famous Description de l’Egypte. One of them pictured the ceiling of a room in the temple of Isis on the island of Philae. This picture, which can be dated ± 140 BCE (during the reign of Ptolemaios VIII Eurgetes), is interesting because it exhibits three remarkable features. The first is that we clearly see not one goddess of the heaven, but two Nuts, the one arching over the other. Obviously, this representation breaks with the common view of the one and only celestial vault, by duplicating the arching goddess of the heavens. The second feature is that on the body of the uppermost Nut we recognize two winged suns, whereas on the belly of the lowermost Nut dotted stars can be seen. The most reliable copies count 24 dots, 12 of them light and the other 12 dark (Figure 6)[6]. Obviously, this difference indicates night and day. I think the simplest explanation is, that the stars are bright during 12 hours of the day and not visible during 12 hours of the night (the hours differing in length according to the season).[7] Mark that the sun is on the uppermost Nut and the stars are on the lowermost. This is the opposite of the order we would expect, as the sun is nearer to the earth than the stars. There exist other duplicate representations of Nut, e.g. on the famous roof of the tomb of Ramesses VI. The difference, however, is that in the last representation the two Nuts are pictured in a kind of Siamese twin position next to each other, representing the heaven with the birth and swallowing of the sun, and the heaven with the stars. In Figure 6, on the other hand, the two Nuts are combined into one composition, the one goddess arching over the other.


As a third feature we notice the strange position of the earth-god Geb.[8] Ordinarily, Geb is shown in a lying position, showing a state of exhaustion. Here, however, his body is stretched in a tense and acrobatic way. It has been explained as a position in which he impregnates himself, but this explanation is doubtful, e.g. because he is not painted with an erected phallus. In fact, Geb is represented here in an andogynous way with no phallus at all. We may contrast this picture with an interesting representation of a curled and self-impregnating Geb, over whom an evidently male Nut arches (see Figure 7).[9] I think that this strange picture, in a papyrus that dates from the 11th or 10th century BCE, is not just ‘complicated’, as Niwi½ski puts it.[10] The least one can say is that the picture is satyric-erotical, as Omlin suggests. However, I think there is more in it than that. As regards Nut this is, as far as I know, the only example of her being represented as a male. The whole picture strikes me as overtly blasphemous.


We know of still another example of such an acrobatic position, this time of Osiris (see Figure 8, from the Book of Gates in the Osireion of Seti I, ± 1275 BCE).[11] Osiris encircles the underworld, (the ‘Dwat’) and lifts up Nut, who, at her turn, holds the disk of the sun. This parallel might suggest the identification of the lying god in Figure 6 not with Geb but with Osiris.[12] I would not agree with this interpretation. The lying god in Figure 6 does not encircle the Dwat, but stars, and his place is that of Geb in many pictures of the arching Nut. Therefore, he must be Geb. Moreover, Osiris in Figure 8 is curled backwards, whereas the god in Figure 6 is bent forwards.


In Figure 6, the way in which Geb is rendered, as closely parallel to Nut as possible, seems to be intentional. I would like to say that the strange bow of Geb’s body looks like a repetition of the two arched bodies of Nut. In other words, it looks as if the artist has meant to hint at a threefold representation of the heavens. This impression is particularly strong when you cover the right half of the picture. One might say that this interpretation is supported by the androgynous way in which Geb’s body is represented. Be this as it may, I will leave the interpretation of the curled Geb, for in this paper I will concentrate on the representation of the goddess Nut.


What can be the rationale behind this picture of a twofold Nut and what is the meaning of the reversed order of stars and sun on her two bodies? Why this sudden deviation of an age-old tradition of representing the heaven? Before we try to answer these questions, let us look at another picture. Victor Denon, also a scientist in the train of Napoleon, was the first to make a copy of it (see Figure 9)[13]. On it we see three goddesses of the heaven arching over one another. This time Geb is missing, whereas we can explain the three little figures making the ka-gesture as a threefold sky-God Shu. It is from the temple of Hathor in Dendera on the ceiling of the room next to that where the famous map of the heavens, known as the “Zodiac of Dendera”, has been found, which is now in the Louvre Museum in Paris. On the Zodiac, Greek influence is unmistakable, for not only the traditional Egyptian constellations are depicted, but also the Greek zodiacal signs. The Zodiac has recently be dated at later than 50 BCE, as could be deduced from the special constellation of planets in the signs of the zodiac, as well as the location of a solar and a lunar eclipse.[14] The picture of the three Nuts presumably dates from the same time.


So we meet the strange phenomenon that all of a sudden, at the time of the Ptolemaic dynasty, the representation of the heaven by one arched Nut, which has been identical for may ages, is replaced by a twofold or threefold Nut. The interpretation of the representations of the two Nuts in Philae and the three Nuts in Dendera is quite uncertain. In fact, there exists no satisfying interpretation. With reference to the painting of the two Nuts, Schäfer remarks that it proves that the Egyptian mythologists supposed the existence of more than one heaven.[15] This statement contradicts the fact that until Ptolemaic times the Egyptians used to depict the heaven by only one arching Nut. As concerns the ceiling with the three Nuts, Denon wonders, what, for heaven’s sake, these three figures may mean.[16] Cauville suggests that the three Nuts of Dendera have the same meaning as the three boxes of Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus.[17] I regard this a sheer fantasy.


Elsewhere, Cauville makes a more serious remark when she compares this picture of the three Nuts with that with the two Nuts in the temple of Isis in Philae.[18] Reflecting on the picture of the two Nuts in Philae and the three Nuts in Dendera, I think that two features of these representations of the heaven point into a certain direction. The first is the strange order of the celestial bodies in Philae, with the stars nearer to the earth than the sun, and the second is the threefold curvature of the heaven in Dendera, and perhaps also in Philae. Both features remind me of the first great philosopher and astronomer of Greece, Anaximander of Miletus (610-546 BCE). He was what I have called elsewhere “the discoverer of space”.[19] By this expression I mean that he was the one who broke with the conception of the celestial vault and taught that the celestial bodies lie behind each other. He was the first to imagine depth in the universe and so made possible the typically western conception of the universe, the infinite dimension of which we do not see, but only can imagine. According to Anaximander, the earth is in the center of the universe, its form like that of a column-drum. Around the earth circle the celestial bodies, which are like huge chariot wheels. Each celestial wheel carries a hole, through which fire shines. The nearest celestial bodies are the stars, which are at 9 earth diameters distance from us, then follows the moon, at 18 earth diameters distance, and farthest away is the sun, at 27 earth diameters distance. Scholars like Tannery and Diels have, a century ago, reconstructed this astronomical conception, which results in a picture like this (Figure 10).


The images are different, turning chariot wheels versus arching goddesses, but two main features are exactly the same: the stratification of the heavens into three stores and the upside down order of the celestial bodies. The pictures of the double and triple Nuts look as if the artists have tried to reconcile the new Greek astronomical insights with the traditional way of depicting the heaven. So my hypothesis it that it must have been the influence of Anaximander’s teachings that made the Ptolemaic Egyptians introduce such a drastic change in a representation of the heaven that has been the same for many centuries.


Perhaps three questions have to be answered, before the reader is inclined to accept this interpretation. The first is: how could Anaximander’s conception of the universe have influenced Egyptian representations so far away from his birthplace? The second: why has it taken so long before it exercised its influence? And the third: why, of all the Greek astronomers and philosophers, was it Anaximander that the Egyptians took the pains to deal with? First of all, we must not underestimate the measure of exchange of philosophical and scientific ideas between the countries around the Mediterranean Sea. On the other hand, the rate of exchange of ideas was necessarily much slower than what we are used to. A factor of importance is that since the time of Alexander the Great, Greek (Ptolemaic) dynasties ruled over Egypt. The Greeks were used to look with awe at the Egyptian civilization. In the days from Thales to Plato, the idea was that you had to go to Egypt in order to get real wisdom. Since Alexander had conquered the land and had become ruler over Egypt the tables were turned, and gradually Greek influence on the Egyptian culture became substantial. In the famous library of Alexandria all the wisdom of that time was stored. It was founded in the third century BCE by Ptolemaios I. Anaximander’s book seems to have been in this library, where Apollodorus (second century BCE) should have consulted it.[20] The ceilings with the double and triple Nuts were created in the second and first century BCE, in temples deep in the southern part of Egypt, about 800 and 1000 km. from Alexandria. This quick survey of some relevant facts allows us to understand why it was Egypt, where Anaximander’s ideas became known, and why it took so long before they arrived at Philae and Dendera.


As regards the third question, it is appropriate to remark that Greek astronomical ideas gradually influenced the Egyptian astronomy. As an example I have already mentioned the Greek zodiacal signs and other constellations, next to the traditional ones, on the Zodiac of Dendera. Anaximander’s conception of the universe, however, when it had reached Egypt, must have meant a special challenge to the Egyptian astronomers. It was precisely his main idea of what I use to call ‘depth in the universe’, which broke with the age-old tradition of the representation of the celestial vault. The Egyptian astronomers must also have observed that the idea of a stratified universe had become a constituent of Greek astronomic thinking as such. Therefore, we may imagine that the Egyptian astronomers must have been anxious to incorporate this idea, which seemed so threatening to their own opinions. Their challenge was, so to speak, to show that this new idea was somehow compatible with the age-old representations of the celestial vault by means of an arching Nut. This is exactly what we see on the ceilings of the temples in Philae and Dendera. Obviously, the Ptolemaic astronomers tried to incorporate Anaximander’s revolutionary view of the universe into the traditional Egyptian representations of the heaven, and they told the artists how to achieve this goal.







[1] Drawing by Hans Exterkate after P.A.Clayton, Chronicle of the Pharaohs. London 1994, p.148.

[2] Drawing by Hans Exterkate after J.Leclant (ed.), Le monde Égyptien. Les Pharaons. Tome 3, L’Égypte du crépuscule. Paris 1980, p.119. The date of this picture is not sure. Leclant gives as date: “7th century BCE (?)”. D.P.Silverman (ed), Ancient Egypt. London 1997, p.170, gives: ± 1000 BCE, and R.Schulz & M.Seidel, Ägypten, Die Welt der Pharaonen. Köln 1997, p.432: ca. 850 BCE.

[3] Drawing by Hans Exterkate after Leclant (o.c.), p.120.

[4]Author’s drawing, after A.Piankoff, & N.Rabova, Mythological Papyri, in Two Parts. New York 1957, Vol. II, no. 8, Papyrus of Nisti-ta-Nebet-Taui (scene eleven). New Kingdom. I cannot see a reason for the suggestion that the baboon-headed god should be perhaps the desert-god Ha (o.c., Vol. I, 101, note).

[5] H.Schäfer, Ägyptische Kunst und Heutige Kunst und Weltgebäude der Alten Ägypter, Zwei Aufsätze, Berlin und Leipzig 1928, p.118.

[6] From: M.G.Bénédite, Description et Histoire de l’Île de Philae. Première Partie, Textes Hiéroglypiques. Paris 1893., Pl.L See also: V.Denon, Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte, Vol.II. Planches. Caire 1803, pl. CXXIX, no.5; H.Prinz, Altorientalische Symbolik. Berlin 1915, Tafel VII,2; R.V.Lanzone, Dizionario di mitologia Egizia. Torino 1881-1886 Vol. I, TAV. CLV (b). There exists a (very vague) photograph of this ceiling, in a publication that is only available on microfiches: H.Junker & H.Schäfer, Berliner Photos der Preussischen Expedition 1908-1910 nach Nubien. Wiesbaden 1975, photo 1246. See also C.L.F.Pancoucke, ed., Description de l’Égypte, Paris 1820ff, A. vol. I, pl 10 (1), and A. vol. I, pl.18. It has been described in Pancoucke 1821, Tome Premier, p.62: “Ce bas-relief (….) est d’une grande singularité par l’enroulement, on peut dire monstrueux, des trois figures qui le composent.” In Pancoucke 1820, A. vol. II, pl. 37, the same picture appears three times on the representation of the hindmost ceiling of a temple of Hathor (wrongly called temple of Isis) at Deir-el-Medina. These, however, are additions of the French artist, probably for aesthetic reasons.

[7] This invalidates an interpretation, mentioned by H.Prinz, Altorientalische Symbolik. Berlin 1915, p.22, in which the lower Nut should be the night sky and the upper Nut the heaven at day. For similar reasons, these 24 dots cannot be explained as the sun disks that are sometimes seen on pictures of Nut, representing the nightly passage of the sun through her body.

[8] Another example of Geb in this strange position is in the temple of Hathor in Dendera. See: L.Lamy, Egyptian Mysteries. New Light on Ancient Knowledge. London 1981, p.21. For the first reproduction of this painting, see: V.Denon, o.c., PL.129.8.

[9] Author’s drawing, after J.A.Omlin, Der Papyrus 55001 und seine satyrisch-erotischen Zeichnungen und Inschriften. Torino 1973, pl. XXVIII(b).

[10] A.Niwi½ski, Studies on the Illustrated Theban Funerary Papyri of the 11th and 10th Centuries B.C. Göttingen 1989, p.199. This qualification, however, holds especially for the physically impossible posture of Geb’s legs, with the knees bending the wrong way.

[11] W.A.W Budge, The Egyptian Book of the Dead, New York 1895, p.cii.

[12] This is the interpretation of a similarly curved figure Hathor’s temple at Dendera in S.Cauville Le Zodiaque d’Osiris. Leuven 1997, p.48. Others, however, identify this figure with Geb; see L.Lamy, Egyptian Mysteries. New Light on Ancient Knowledge. London 1981, p.21.

[13] From: V.Denon, o.c., PL.129.6. A modern representation of this ceiling in: S.Cauville, Dendara X, Les chapelles osiriennes, Le Caire 1997, p.260 and p.283 (photo). See also: Cauville (Zodiaque), p.75. Although Pancoucke, o.c., does not have a copy of it, it is described in Tome Troisième, p.369: “(….) trois femmes emboîtées, pour ainsi dire, les unes dans les autres (….) elles sont surtout dignes d’attention, à cause de la disproportion choquante de tous leurs membres (….).”

[14] See: É.Aubourg, “La date de conception du zodiaque du temple d’Hathor à Dendera” Bulletin de l’Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale. 95.1995, pp.1-10. See also: Cauville, o.c., passim.

[15] H.Schäfer, o.c., p.107.

[16] Denon, o.c., at Planche CXXIX, no.6. The same astonishment is expressed in Pancoucke, o.c., p.369-370: “(….) l’on ne peut douter qu’elles ne soient des êtres de convention pour exprimer de certaines choses dont nous ne pouvons plus maintenant deviner le sens.”

[17] Cauville, Zodiaque, p.75.

[18] S.Cauville, Les chapelles osiriennes. 2, Commentaire. Le Caire 1997, p.204.

[19] See D.L.Couprie, ‘Anaximander’s Discovery of space’, in: A.Preus, ed., Essays in Ancient Greek Philosophy VI. Before Plato. Albany 2001, pp.23-48.

[20] See H.Diels, Doxographi Graeci. Berlin 1879, p.219, n.3. See also W.A.Heidel, “Anaximander’s Book: The Earliest Known Geographical Treatise”, Proceedings of the American Academy of the Arts and Sciences, 56.1921, pp.239-288, at p.261: “It was there in all probability that Apollodorus found the book”. Recently, evidence has appeared that Anaximander’s book must have been available in the second century BCE in Taormina in Sicily, where a fragment of a catalogue of a library has been found, on which the name of Anaximander, son of Praxiades can be read. See H.Blanck, ‘Anaximander in Taormina’, Mitteilungen des deutschen archäologischen Instituts (römische Abteilung) 104.1997, pp.507-511.

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