(This essay was originally posted to The Daily Grail in 1999. I’m reposting it for those that may have missed it first time around.)
In the depictions of mythological scenes on Near Eastern archaeological monuments and artefacts, a number of ‘archetypal images’ are apparent. One of the most intriguing of these is the ‘God with the Upraised-Arm’, which can be found in scenes from Egypt, right through the fertile-crescent to Anatolia. In Egypt it is apparent from the time of unification onwards, seen in identical depictions which capture the pharaoh in the act of smiting his enemies. This common image can be linked within a mythological context to the contendings of the gods Horus and Seth, with the king identified as Horus and the enemy Seth. Further, it would also appear that the ‘smiting pose’ was considered by the Egyptians to be visible as a constellation in their sky. The constellation of Orion presents itself as the most convincing candidate, although previous studies will have to be considered before accepting this identification.
If correct, this would suggest that some of Horus’ characteristics were due to the use of Orion as a seasonal marker. This becomes even more apparent when we shift our gaze to other parts of the Near East, where the ‘God with the Upraised Arm’ can be found in abundance. His context remains the same: either as the adversary of chaos, or as the bringer of rain and fertility. The common depiction and mythological treatment of this god across a range of cultures and time-periods suggests that it must be have been based upon an important and archetypal image. It is impossible to say for certain whether this image was Orion; nonetheless, this identification provides a comprehensive explanation for certain characteristics of the ‘God with the Upraised Arm’.
The Narmer Palette (Figure 1) is often seen as a historical depiction of the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt. The image of King Narmer, wearing the white crown of the south and smiting an enemy commonly held to be a northerner, is often cited as evidence that he was the unifier of the two lands (Grimal 1992, p. 37). This became a standard picture of the king throughout the history of Egypt (see Figures 2 and 3), whether the king holds a mace, a spear or even a bowstring in his right hand. Frankfort (1948, pp. 7-9) sees this as not only a scene showing a decisive historical battle, but also as a representation of the king as the divine ruler.
He asserts that the real meaning of the scene is that the king’s victory represents the ‘reduction of chaos to order’, an important pre-occupation with the ancient Egyptians. Chaos assumed many forms: death, drought, invading enemies; these were all seen as manifestations of Seth (Frankfort 1948, p. 183). It was the king’s job, as the earthly incarnation of Horus, to overpower Seth/chaos and maintain the established order. This is obvious from ancient Egyptian texts. For example, in the Cosmology of Abydos we find the following passage describing the triumph of Horus over Seth: ‘Dignity has been set in place, honesty has been established through his laws, evil has departed, wickedness is gone, the land is at peace under its lord’ (Colless 1994, p. 23). If the Narmer Palette scene is thus considered a symbolic representation of Horus defeating Seth, we would expect to see similar representations explicitly showing these gods battling. There is ample evidence of this and, importantly, certain elements such as the ‘upraised arm’ seem to hold great significance.
At the Temple of Edfu there is an abundance of imagery concerning the contendings of Horus and Seth. On approaching the temple one is immediately met by huge images on the pylons of the king in ‘smiting pose’ in the presence of Horus (Figure 4). Inside the temple is found the dramatic text ‘The Triumph of Horus’ with associated scenes. Dated to approximately 110 BCE, its antecedents would appear to be in feasts and texts from the earliest dynasties (Fairman 1974, p. 34). The drama concerns the harpooning of Seth by Horus (10 times, a symbolic detail which perhaps shares a common origin with the 10 decapitated bodies on the Narmer Palette), after which Horus is crowned the King of Upper and Lower Egypt. Fairman (1974, p. 32) points out that this was not just the re-enactment of myth, but also a means by which the success of the king was ensured each year. Again, Horus is depicted with his arm raised (Figure 5), this time harpooning Seth (represented by a hippopotamus).
That this pose is not simply incidental is confirmed by the naming of Horus in the text as ‘Him-with-the-upraised-arm’ (Fairman 1974, pp. 106, 117). This was originally the epithet of Min, the god of rain and fertility, for obvious reasons (see Figure 6): he is pictured with an upraised arm holding what is thought to be a thunderbolt. Horus and Min became increasingly identified as one and the same during the Middle Kingdom,
although Min was already associated with the Pharaoh at least as early as the 4th Dynasty. On the verso of the Stela of Sobek-iry is found the Hymn to Min, which includes the verse ‘I worship Min, I extol arm-raising Horus’ (Lichtheim 1973, p. 204). The overall impression is that the upraised arm of Min-Horus was considered to be a characteristic pose of vital importance.
Another crucial point to emerge from the ‘Triumph of Horus’ is that Horus was the ‘Great God, Lord of the Sky’ (Fairman 1974, p. 90), a quote which is followed by the passage ‘we grant strength to thine arm’. There are numerous other references implying that Horus is to be looked for in the sky; for example ‘the gods of the sky are in terror of Horus’ (Fairman 1974, p. 102). Significantly, Min in pre-Dynastic times was a sky-god called the ‘Chief of Heaven’ (Arnold 1999). This raises the question of whether the archetypal image has its origin in the sky. A look at the astronomical ceilings of Senmut and Seti I confirms this. On Senmut’s ceiling (Figure 7) there is an almost identical depiction of Horus as at Edfu, with the arm upraised in the act of harpooning Seth (this time represented as the constellation Meskhetiu). There is also an unidentified individual in the same pose amongst the group of constellations at the lower part of the image, this time harpooning a crocodile (another incarnation of Seth). He appears almost identically on the Seti I ceiling (Figure 8). Thus the ‘God with the Upraised Arm’ can be considered a constellation recognisable by the ancient Egyptians. The obvious question therefore, is which one?
The outstanding candidate to fit the description is the constellation of Orion (Figure 9), at the very least on sheer resemblance. This constellation was well known to the Egyptians, mentioned in the Pyramid Texts in connection with the stellar destiny of the ‘resurrected pharaoh’. For example, in Utterance 442 we find ‘Lo, Osiris has come as Orion’ (Lichtheim 1973, p. 45). That Osiris is seen as Orion is not considered a problem to the thesis currently under discussion; he was also thought to be incarnate in the Moon and the Nile, and ancient Egyptian cosmologies often contain seemingly contradictory concepts (Frankfort et al. 1946, p. 47).
Turning our attention to Horus, we find evidence in Plutarch’s Isis and Osiris (1927, p. 53) of a connection with Orion: ‘the soul of Isis is called Sothis (Sirius), the soul of Horus is called Orion, and the soul of Typhon (Seth) the Bear’. Plutarch may be thought of as slightly unreliable in regards to the recording of Egyptian culture, however, considering the correct attribution of Isis and Seth to their respective constellations the conflation of Horus and Orion should be taken seriously. More circumstantial is the story recorded on the Metternich Stela in which the young Horus is stung by a scorpion, a mythological motif suggesting the setting of Orion as Scorpius rises (Krupp 1991, p. 137). It should be taken into account as well that Horus was said to have been placed upon the ‘seat of his father Osiris’, perhaps an indication that they were both identified with Orion.
One of the arguments against this identification could well be that the constellations on this section of the ‘astronomical ceilings’ are all supposed to be north of the ecliptic (Parker 1974, p.60). It is pertinent to note that Parker actually says ‘we are reasonably sure they are all north of the ecliptic’. Neugebauer (1957, p.89) names them as the northern constellations directly after mentioning that ‘artistic principles determined the arrangement of astronomical ceiling decorations’. Also, in describing the northern constellations on the Denderah Zodiac, Parker (1974, p. 63) mentions that these are ‘presumably all north of the ecliptic but none is depicted in the usual group of northern constellations’. Interestingly Plutarch (1927, p. 93) mentions that the Egyptians hold the lion in honour because the Nile overflows when the sun comes into conjunction with Leo, which is on the ecliptic (Leo and Sirius rise almost together in Egypt). This suggests that the ‘Lion’ constellation on the astronomical ceilings may in fact be Leo (contrary to current thought). Lastly, to illustrate that the Egyptian conception of the sky was perhaps completely different to ours, consider the following passage from a tomb at Luxor, describing the movements of the ship of Re: ‘Once the constellation of Masheti (Meskhetiu) has been passed, they reach shelter in the centre of the sky on the side south of Sah-Orion, and they turn towards the western horizon’ (Zinner 1957, p. 28). From this account of the east-west passage of the sun, the ancient Egyptians’ conception of the heavens appears to be more complex than usually thought. Another argument against the Horus-Orion link may be that the figure with the upraised arm is sometimes reversed, however, the same is true of the northern constellation of the hippopotamus on the Denderah circular zodiac. Probably the most difficult problem is that on the decanal list on the Senmut ceiling Isis is illustrated with her arm upraised, the significance of which is not clear. However, accepting a link between Horus and Orion has the strong point of explaining the attributes of the god, especially once Orion’s role as a seasonal marker is understood.
Using stars and constellations as seasonal markers was commonplace in the ancient world. The heliacal rising of Sirius in July was considered by the Romans to be the reason for the sultry weather (Krupp 1991, p. 222). To the Egyptians this same event signalled the beginning of the Nile flood and thus the New Year. The heliacal rising of a star or constellation was seen as its resurrection after being ‘dead’ for a period of time. This is due to the apparent motion of the sun through different portions of the sky (a result of the actual motion of the Earth around the sun). When the sun moved into the vicinity of a certain star or constellation it would only be seen late in the west just after the setting of the sun, and after a time would eventually ‘disappear’ (when the sun was in direct conjunction with it). Once the sun moved further still the star/constellation would then appear in the morning sky in the east just before dawn: this was its heliacal rising. Sirius and Orion both ‘died’ for approximately 70 days, which could well be the origin of the embalming time for Egyptian mummies (Neugebauer 1957, p. 87).
In the time of the ancient Egyptians, Orion was ‘dead’ from around the spring equinox through to mid-summer. Interestingly, Frankfort et al (1946, p. 35) note that in Egypt the prevailing wind is from the north, which gives relief from the heat of the sun and makes life much more comfortable. However, late spring (at the time of Orion’s ‘death’) was the season of hot dry winds bringing ‘sandstorms and a brittle heat out of Africa to the south’. It was from this period until Sirius’ heliacal rising that the Nile was at its lowest ebb also. Plutarch (1927, pp. 93-99) states that Seth was considered the power of drought and the south wind, while Horus was the north wind, the ‘seasonal tempering of the surrounding air’. He asserts that the story of their battles is actually an allegory for the seasonal changes: so as Horus ‘dies’ in spring, Seth gains the upper hand until the reappearance of the rightful king. Thus Orion, connected with Horus, seems to have been used as a seasonal marker indicating the return of ‘orderly’ weather. As Krupp (1979, p. 189) says, the ‘apparent connection between celestial and terrestrial phenomena greatly affected the Egyptian view of the world’. This is just as evident when we turn our gaze to other parts of the Near East.
The ‘God with the Upraised Arm’ was present in many cultures and across a wide timeframe in the Near East. The gods Teshub, Hadad, Baal and the unnamed Hittite weather god (Figures 10 – 13) all had similar appearances and mythological contexts and could be considered incarnations of this one god (Krupp 1997, p. 147). A common motif in the depiction of all of these is the upraised arm wielding a mace or lightning. Also sometimes present is a vertical object in the left hand such as a spear or lightning, which has a parallel in the depictions of the Egyptian pharaohs in their smiting pose (see Figure 2). The god is also often presented as riding on two mountain gods, or some sort of animal (another parallel with Horus standing upon the hippopotamus).
All of these characteristics are indicative of the constellation Orion (see Figure 14 which is an Islamic depiction of Orion, portrayed from outside the celestial globe, hence it is reversed), although it far from proves the case. Treating the Ugaritic god Baal as representative of this group of gods may prove illuminating however.
The myths concerning Baal have two major themes, which are very similar to the mythic themes surrounding Horus. The first is Baal’s battle with Yamm, which personifies the battle of order against chaos. The other is Baal’s death at the hand of Mot, and subsequent resurrection. This myth clearly suggests the yearly cycle, and also that Baal may well be a constellation. In a direct parallel to the Horus-Seth confrontation, Baal finds out that he is to be swallowed by Mot, the god of death and drought. His descent suggests that he is a sky-god: he is to be ‘numbered with those who descend into the earth’ and set his face ‘to go to the mountains where [the sun sets]’ (Colless 1994, pp. 166-167). Also, after his death Athtar (who is identified with Venus) tries to take Baal’s throne, but he cannot reach it (Gray 1969, p. 75). In his absence ‘Shapash (the Sun) the luminary of the gods glowed hot, the heavens languished under the hand of Mot (drought)…the days passed into months’ (Colless 1994, p. 169), a clear indication of the heat of summer. Baal’s return heralds the return of the rain, for he was believed to be manifest in the storms of late autumn and winter (Gray 1969, p. 81). While acknowledging that cultivation was of the utmost importance to these early civilisations, it is difficult to subscribe to the common opinion that this is a ‘vegetation myth’ (Ringren 1973, p. 134). Certainly this is part of it, but it encompasses more than this. For the result of the weather gods’ disappearance is not restricted to the suffering of vegetation; every aspect of life is affected (Deighton 1982, p. 71). This indicates an allegory for seasonal change. And the seasonal marker par excellence of the Mediterranean was Orion. His heliacal rising indicated summer, and the time of threshing; his evening appearance the approach of winter and its attendant storms (Allen 1963, p.306). Even taking into account the precession of the equinoxes, this attribute of Orion would have been reasonably constant for the time period concerning ancient civilisation in the Near East.
The similarity in depictions of this god across the Near East argues for its importance. Deighton (1982, p. 29) mentions that ‘certain types of scene are repeated time and time again…the wealth of meaning which must have lain behind the monuments…was so alive to those who produced them that they did not require any explanatory notes’. Also the common mythological motifs: Baal goes into the earth, the Hittite weather god is deemed to have withdrawn into a hole; Horus’ victory marks the return of the cooling north wind, Marduk’s vanquishing of Tiamat results in the ‘bringing of rain and coolness’ (Colless 1994, p. 102). The acceptance of this ‘God with the Upraised Arm’ as Orion, and as seasonal marker, fits the pictorial and textual evidence well. Needless to say, restricting any definition of these gods to one particular manifestation is unwise. The significance of the ancient gods was manifold to their respective cultures, the many aspects of Osiris being good evidence of this. But the archetypal model upon which the ‘God with the Upraised Arm’ was based is quite probably the constellation Orion, in both depiction and ‘nature’. Describing these mythological concepts as agricultural in nature only covers part of the territory, as agriculture depends upon the celestial cycles. The importance of these cycles to ancient people cannot be underestimated. It is a proven fact that they recognised significant ‘markers’ within this cycle, and it is only natural that one of most important of these should be the constellation of Orion. To paraphrase Sir James Frazer in The Golden Bough (1922, p. 506): in the course of our enquiry it has, I trust, been made clear that there is another natural phenomenon to which the conception of death and resurrection is as applicable as to the agricultural cycle. This phenomenon is the yearly death and resurrection of the constellation of Orion, as represented in the mythic themes concerning the various incarnations of the ‘God with the Upraised Arm’.
Aldred, Cyril, 1965. Egypt to the End of the Old Kingdom. Thames and Hudson,
Allen, Richard Hinckley, 1963. Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning. Dover
Publications, New York.
Arnold, April 1999 ‘Min’, Ancient Egypt: The Mythology,
Colless, Brian, 1994. Hieroglyph and Cuneiform: Ancient religious writings.
Deighton, Hilary J. 1982. The ‘Weather-God’ in Hittite Anatolia: An
Examination of the Archaeological and Textual Sources. Biblical Archaeology
Fairman, H. W. (ed.), 1974. The Triumph of Horus: An Ancient Egyptian Sacred
Drama. B. T. Batsford Ltd, London.
Frankfort, H. and H. A., Wilson, John A., Jacobsen, Thorkild, Irwin, William
A., 1946. The Intellectual Adventure of Early Man. The University of Chicago
Frankfort, H., 1948. Kingship and the Gods. University of Chicago Press,
Frazer, Sir James George, 1922. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and
Religion (Abridged edition). Macmillan Press Ltd., London.
Gray, John. 1969. Near Eastern Mythology. Hamlyn Publishing Group Ltd.,
Grimal, Nicolas, 1988. A History of Ancient Egypt, trans. Ian Shaw, Blackwell,
Guirand, Felix, 1996. The Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology, trans Richard
Aldrington and Delano Ames, Chancellor Press, London.
Krupp, E. C. 1979. In Search of Ancient Astronomies. Chatto and Windus,
Krupp, E. C. 1991. Beyond the Blue Horizon: Myths and Legends of the
Moon, Stars and Planets. Harper Collins, New York.
Krupp, E. C. 1997. Skywatchers, Shamans and Kings: Astronomy and the
Archaeology of Power. John Wiley & Sons Inc., New York.
Lichtheim, Miriam. 1973. Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume I: The Old and
Middle Kingdom. University of California Press, Los Angeles.
Neugebauer, O. 1957. The Exact Sciences in Antiquity. Brown University Press,
Providence, Rhode Island.
Parker, Richard A., ‘Ancient Egyptian Astronomy’, in The Place of Astronomy in
the Ancient World, ed. F. R. Hodson, Oxford University Press, London.
Plutarch, 1927. Plutarch’s Moralia, trans. Frank Cole Babbit, William
Heinemann Ltd., London.
Ringren, Helmer, 1973. Religions of the Ancient Near East, trans. John Sturdy,
Sidgwick, J. B., 1951. Introducing Astronomy, Faber & Faber Ltd., London.
Santillana, Georgio and Von Dechend, Hertha, 1969. Hamlet’s Mill: An essay
the origins of human knowledge and its transmission through myth. David R.
Godine, New Hampshire.
Zinner, Ernst, 1957. The Stars Above Us. George Allen & Unwin, London.
Text is copyright © 1999 to Greg Taylor. Published on the internet on
4th November 1999, at the “Daily Grail” website (http://www.dailygrail.com/)