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Unknown constellations come to light from the mysteries of an ancient Egyptian temple

By Elizabeth Rayne
NASA image of the constellation of Orion

So many mysteries lurk in the darkness of space, that humanity might never figure them all out, let alone find them all—but evidence of this one wasn’t beamed back to Earth by a telescope.

Next-gen telescopes that can see billions of light years away didn’t exist in Ancient Egypt. Early astronomers gazed at the night sky, doing their best to align the stars with architectural marvels, such as the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid, that would survive the ravages of time. The pyramids of Giza were aligned with the three stars on Orion’s Belt. But what is the constellation only identified as “The Geese of Ra”, which emerged recently as Egyptologists were dusting soot off the Temple of Khnum at Esna? Other than the ancient Egyptians probably seeing it as a vision of cosmic geese that belonged to the Sun god, nobody knows.

Khnum is the ram-headed creator deity often associated with the inundation of the life-giving Nile, and thought to form human bodies out of clay before placing them in their mothers’ wombs. The temple at Esna was dedicated to him along with his wife, lion-headed war goddess Mehnit, and son Heka, the god of medicine and magic. While the temple had started undergoing cleaning and restoration in 1976, the work was suspended for decades until it was finally restarted in 2018. Underneath the layers of soot was literally an entire universe. Imagery of known constellations, such as the Big Dipper (Mesekhtiu) and Orion (Sah) emerged, but so did things like The Geese of Ra, which has left Egyptologists confounded.

The Geese of Ra and other unknown—some yet unnamed—constellations in the temple are identified by hieroglyphs and sometimes mysterious imagery, but there is no image of the actual constellations that gives away exactly what stars the artists were referring to.

"There are many representations of constellations which are carved in relief and already known (this does not mean that anybody knows which stars these are)," said Egyptologist Christian Leitz, who led the project. "What we found under the soot were the Egyptian names of those constellations which were previously unknown."

You would never recognize what is meant to symbolize the Big Dipper (above). It appears as the leg of a bull held by the goddess Tawaret, who usually appears as a hippo. The ancient Egyptians saw the Big Dipper as a manifestation of the god Seth, who murdered his brother Osiris and scattered the parts of his body all over the earth. He was never revived completely, so he ruled as god of the dead. Seth was never allowed to reach Osiris in the underworld after that. Tawaret is seen holding him (in the form of a bull’s leg) back, and this literally seems to be written in the stars since the Big Dipper never sinks below the horizon.

Maybe the temple was built to align with a star or stars in one of the mystery constellations. If evidence of this emerged, it wouldn’t be the first time the mortal world was linked to the divine.

"So far, this is unknown," Leitz said. "Some temples, like Karnak, certainly possess an astronomical alignment (in that case with the winter solstice), but for most of the existing temples, this is not so easy to say. It is only credible if you have a connection of the main deity and the supposed star or constellation, which is normally difficult to prove."

Because the ancient Egyptians believed that Duat, the underworld which Osiris ruled over, was where the gods dwelled. They are thought to have replicated it on Earth by creating a sacred landscape. Because Duat was supposedly located where the constellations of Orion and Sirius rise near the sun and just before it when the summer solstice dawns, they aligned the three pyramids in the Giza plaza with the three stars in Orion’s belt. The lion-headed Sphinx was appropriately the earthly equivalent of the constellation Leo, and the Nile was supposed to represent the Milky Way.

So what could the Geese of Ra be? Is there a possibility that it was how the ancient Egyptians saw the swan constellation Cygnus? Out of all 88 known constellations, that is the one whose animal counterpart is most closely related to geese, but that remains an enigma for now. Maybe further work on the temple will finally illuminate it.

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