The Sensational Dendera Zodiac

Ceiling installation of the Dendera Zodiac, Musée du Louvre, Paris (photo by author, 15 Jan. ’18)

Upon initial presentation to the Empire-period French public, the Dendera Zodiac caused an immediate sensation.  Discovered during Napoleon’s three-year Egyptian campaign (beginning in 1798), scientists who accompanied the troops came upon a small, sooty temple buried to the roof in sand just outside of Thebes near the village of Dendera.  The sandstone ceiling bas-relief scene depicted a round tableaux with a mix of Egyptian figures among more-recognizable astrological symbols of Greek origin.  The French had already been long fascinated with antiquities, especially the bizarre culture of ancient Egypt and her ageless mysteries. During the Renaissance, Egyptian themes (or, at least, Renaissance French artistic interpretations of Egyptian iconography) were commonly displayed in decorative arts and sumptuous masquerades.  Believed to possess healing medicinal properties, mummies (whole or in part) were traded as valuable consumable commodities.  Attendants to the Valois king François I kept mummy parts on hand which he had powdered and ingested (with rhubarb—a concoction indubitably noted for its ostensible restorative properties).  Now, during this early nineteenth-century expedition following the Revolution, French society was split between the clergy with their loyal, religious royalists and the Enlightenment thinkers of the day, including astronomers, mathematicians, and scientists.  Persistent Old Testament conventions regarding the history of mankind and the world itself were now subject to review with methodical examination of new evidence.  With the Dendera Zodiac as their raison d’être, French scholars were well on their way to exploring and advancing the budding field of archaeoastronomy.

Among the soldiers and scholars accompanying Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition was artist Vivant Denon.  At the Temple of Hathor at Dendera, Denon was fixated on the ceiling’s circular astronomical table—an unusual design for Egyptian stargazers (who typically rendered constellations in pyramidal or square configurations) but a familiar shape for European astronomers.  His ceiling sketches were published as engravings in the sensational Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Égypte, attracting keen attention from both the Vatican and anti-clerical academics alike:  the former found the work a mere mythological picture of a night sky, while the latter would argue that this was proof that civilization existed thousands of years before Biblical accounts of Creation.  Scholars believed this round zodiac offered clues as to the true age of Egyptian civilization and its relation to historic timetables as chronicled by Biblical accounts.  Such debates of religious significance would not be quelled over such limited evidence as an ink and paper drawing: the stone itself must be brought to Paris, scholars argued, for a thorough study.  The artifact would be secured from the Dendera temple for the sake of human knowledge, and an opportunistic engineer named Jean Lelorrain presently devised a plan to execute this archaeological rescue.  Secured with an ambitious contract commissioned by Restoration bureaucrat, Sébastien Louis Saulnier, Lelorrain detached the zodiac slab from the temple ceiling with gunpowder and saws and brought it to Paris in 1821 (though some might offer he essentially smuggled it).  Saulnier soon sold the zodiac—for a whopping 150,000 francs, the highest amount paid for a non-Catholic artifact at the time—to king Louis XVIII, who had it installed in the Royal Library (renamed the National Library upon the French Republic’s ensuing restitution).  A century later, the Dendera Zodiac was moved to its present home in the Louvre.

How this particular Egyptian relic garnered so much attention from antiquaires may be better understood upon closer examination of the Dendera Temple itself.  Covering an area of 40,000 square meters, the complex overlaid a site that had been used for assorted shrines and chapels beginning in the Sixth Dynasty with pharaoh Pepi I (twenty-third century BCE).  The earliest building there today was constructed during the last ruler of the Thirtieth Dynasty and the last native Egyptian pharaoh, Nectanebo II (fourth century BCE).  Subsequent additions and modifications were conducted during the Ptolemaic period that followed the conquest of that Macedonian prodigy, Alexander the Great.  Hellenistic Egypt was better understood by Enlightenment-era academics via accounts passed down from Greek scholars.  Here in the Dendera Zodiac, the juxtaposition of Egyptian and Greek iconography was also a deliberate product of Hellenistic dynastic marketing.  Lacking any capacity to decipher hieroglyphs mystics and intellectuals alike were free to explicate remote theories and other wild ideas about Egyptian history and culture in any fashion, further complicating ongoing debates over the Zodiac’s significance.  Nevertheless, before the date of the zodiac was finally established French scholars were unaware that the royal executor promulgating this propaganda was a well-known historic figure indeed: 
Cleopatra VII Philopator.

Reliefs of Cleopatra VII and her son by Julius Caesar, Caesarion at the Dendera Temple” (

Propagated over the centuries through narratives and portraiture, the allure of Cleopatra in the European imagination was established early on over a wide area, starting with the territorial expanse of the Roman Empire at the time General Agrippa conquered her kingdom in 31 BCE.  Her image was struck on Roman coins with an uncommon realistic bravura, and her Macedonian fashion was formed in marble sculptures in the Hellenistic style.  But in spite of her Macedonian heritage, Cleopatra had to appear Egyptian to her subjects.  As at the Temple of Dendera, Cleopatra was painted and sculpted in the style that her subjects recognized in order to maintain her legitimacy.  Her predecessor Ptolemy I understood the importance of perceived royal continuity:  although his newly inherited kingdom was the result of Alexander the Great delivering Egypt from hated Persian invaders, he would only succeed if he presented himself more as a secure compatriot than a chaotic conqueror.  As such, the triumphant accession of the Greek-speaking dynasty required visual representation that incorporated ancient Egyptian iconography to ensure public acceptance as an uninterrupted extension of the countless pharaohs who came before.  The Ptolemaic nobility commissioned portraits that looked Egyptian for temples across the land.  At Dendera, Cleopatra continued this Egyptian style of portraiture with a wall relief of her with her son, Caesarion (whose father was none other than Julius Caesar), portrayed with native attributes, costumes, and headdresses, properly branded with their names inscribed in hieroglyphic cartouches.  Cleopatra is shown in an elegant scene here on the exterior walls of Hathor—not as another smiting warrior conveying the superiority of Egypt over her neighbors but as both peaceable ruler and pharaoh’s mother.  Furthering her stature as commander of Egyptian society, she assimilated with Egyptian deities Hathor and Isis to assert her legitimacy.  Her penchant for monumental elegance follows the paradigm set by her Ptolemaic antecedents, focusing on the construction and restoration of temples that promoted her Macedonian lineage with Egyptian deities.  Following her death in 30 BCE and the subsequent fall of Egypt to the Roman Empire, emperor Octavian and successive Roman heads of state allowed the complex to stand to honor Egypt’s final Ptolemaic ruler—with a few succeeding Roman augmentations.  Eighteen centuries later, the well-preserved temple complex was “rediscovered” by French intruders who marveled at its pictorial complexities and strange, undecipherable inscriptions.  Although the temple complex displays architectural and figural influences from Egyptian, Greek, and Roman rulers, the hieroglyphic references to the queen Cleopatra were lost on the Napoleonic crew.

Various renderings of the zodiac published after Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign (

The zodiac itself stood out among the many bizarre Egyptian figures and inscriptions for the forms that were familiar to the French explorers.  The round disc with asymmetrically aligned figures—including a ram (Aries), a bull (Taurus), a crab (Cancer), weighing scales (Libra), a pair of fish (Pisces), et cetera—was recognizable as a diagram of the cosmos.  More figures (most of them Egyptian) filled out the diagram beyond the assembled twelve signs of the zodiac, leaving expedition scholars to wonder what they signified.  This figural ambiguity sparked the initial debate over the plan’s purpose; whether this vaguely familiar diagram was merely a map of the sky at a significant moment in history or a horoscope meant to forecast events was uncertain, but this initial mystery was enough to ignite enthusiastic imagination and furious dispute.  The mix of iconographic elements, an amalgamation of astronomic and astrologic theories imported during invasions from Assyria and Babylon (and later Persia and Greece), dumbfounded and dominated debates between scholars of every discipline: archaeology, history, mathematics—and theology.  As discussions in Napoleonic France turned to ideological debates on societal and political issues post-Revolution, the reassertion of authority over the ideology of French governance by the Catholic Church gained renewed prominence.  Politics and religion succumbed to reexamination with ancient history as a guide, with both Classical and Biblical references steering discussions.  The discovery of the Dendera Zodiac presented new “evidence” for both sides, whether loyal to republican or religious campaigns, and scholastic investigation of this Egyptian (and Greek, and Babylonian, etc.) artifact was tackled with fervent urgency.

Scientific examination of the zodiac’s dating would succumb to prolonged scholastic disorder that reflected the ongoing political turmoil in nineteenth century France.  Professors found tenure or faced exile from institutions as evolving political associations favored or distrusted motivations behind instructors and students alike.  Some scholars objected to the zodiac’s violent removal from the temple as a hindrance to understanding its meaning.  Investigating the stone slap ceiling alone, they argued, removed it from the context of its environment—and environment that may offer valuable clues for deciphering its content.  One researcher in particular, Jean-François Champollion, objected to the zodiac’s removal as well as the state of research in political contexts.  He criticized theories promoted to explain the “astronomical tablet [that] has been successively the occasion for and the subject of a crowd of systems, all contradictory, because those who wanted to explain it, and who claimed to draw from its rigorous consequences, were more or less well prepared, by the type and direction of their studies, to attempt this difficult enterprise.”  He advocated approaching the study of the Dendera Zodiac not from a modern astronomical perspective, but from the perception of the ancient Egyptians themselves: “Egyptian astronomy was in its essence mixed with religion…the courageous explorer of the Dendera monument will find himself on dangerous terrain; he chances mistaking a cult object for an astronomical sign, and considering a purely symbolic representation as the image of a real object.”  Advocating the interpretation of hieroglyphic cartouches as labels to the zodiac’s figures, his own research (with transcription assistance provided by clues offered from the recently-discovered Rosetta Stone) would eventually lead to a translation breakthrough.  In the temple’s inscriptions (left behind at Dendera but eventually published in detailed diagrams), Champollion discovered references to Greek names that corresponded to Ptolemaic contemporaries.  Champollion asserted that the zodiac and inscriptions were constructed by Egyptians under Roman rule.

With references to a specific period of history as a guide, interpretation of the Dendera Zodiac’s iconography became accessible with the assistance of mathematicians and astronomers who would calculate celestial events of the period and project them over the diagram.  The planetary configurations aligned with the Egyptian figural representations, corresponding to the year 50 BCE.  Astronomers also calculated the occurrence of not one but two eclipses that occurred around that time: a solar eclipse in March of 51 BCE, and a lunar eclipse in September the previous year.  These events, according to their scientific calculations, would have been visible in the sky at points that corresponded to Egyptian figural representations on the slab: Isis holds a baboon’s tail (Thoth), who attempts to hide the sun, and the Udjat-eye (“whole one”) where the full-moon lunar eclipse would have occurred.  These scientific revelations furthered advancements in archaeological interpretations of Egyptian iconography, and the dating of the Dendera Zodiac to the reign of Cleopatra VI quelled arguments that challenged Biblical history (for better or worse), placating the Catholic Church that had perceived the Dendera Zodiac as a threat to theological canons.  Although science and religion continue to spar now and then in the field of archaeology, the discovery of the Dendera Zodiac by French explorers at a time of particular rancor between Enlightenment philosophers and Catholic devotees in early 19th century Europe generated intense fascination in the field of Egyptology that remains today.

Under the Dendera Zodiac, photo by the author. January 15, 2018, Musée du Louvre, Paris


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Buchwald, Jed Z., and Diane Greco. Josefowicz. The Zodiac of Paris: How an Improbable Controversy over an Ancient Egyptian Artifact Provoked a Modern Debate between Religion and Science. Princeton University Press, 2010.

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