A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 1, chapter II
Egyptian science
Ideas of cosmology
In viewing this astronomical system of the Egyptians one cannot avoid the question as to just what interpretation was placed upon it as regards the actual mechanical structure of the universe. A proximal answer to the question is supplied us with a good deal of clearness. It appears that the Egyptian conceived the sky as a sort of tangible or material roof placed above the world, and supported at each of its four corners by a column or pillar, which was later on conceived as a great mountain. The earth itself was conceived to be a rectangular box, longer from north to south than from east to west; the upper surface of this box, upon which man lived, being slightly concave and having, of course, the valley of the Nile as its centre. The pillars of support were situated at the points of the compass; the northern one being located beyond the Mediterranean Sea; the southern one away beyond the habitable regions towards the source of the Nile, and the eastern and western ones in equally inaccessible regions. Circling about the southern side of the, world was a great river suspended in mid-air on something comparable to mountain cliffs; on which river the sun-god made his daily course in a boat, fighting day by day his ever-recurring battle against Set, the demon of darkness. The wide channel of this river enabled the sun-god to alter his course from time to time, as he is observed to do; in winter directing his bark towards the farther bank of the channel; in summer gliding close to the nearer bank. As to the stars, they were similar lights, suspended from the vault of the heaven; but just how their observed motion of translation across the heavens was explained is not apparent. It is more than probable that no one explanation was, universally accepted.

In explaining the origin of this mechanism of the heavens, the Egyptian imagination ran riot. Each separate part of Egypt had its own hierarchy of gods, and more or less its own explanations of cosmogony. There does not appear to have been any one central story of creation that found universal acceptance, any more than there was one specific deity everywhere recognized as supreme among the gods. Perhaps the most interesting of the cosmogonic myths was that which conceived that Nuit, the goddess of night, had been torn from the arms of her husband, Sibu the earth-god, and elevated to the sky despite her protests and her husband's struggles, there to remain supported by her four limbs, which became metamorphosed into the pillars, or mountains, already mentioned. The forcible elevation of Nuit had been effected on the day of creation by a new god, Shu, who came forth from the primeval waters. A painting on the mummy case of one Betuhamon, now in the Turin Museum, illustrates, in the graphic manner so characteristic of the Egyptians, this act of creation. As Maspero[2] points out, the struggle of Sibu resulted in contorted attitudes to which the irregularities of the earth's surface are to be ascribed.

In contemplating such a scheme of celestial mechanics as that just outlined, one cannot avoid raising the question as to just the degree of literalness which the Egyptians themselves put upon it. We know how essentially eye-minded the Egyptian was, to use a modern psychological phrase - that is to say, how essential to him it seemed that all his conceptions should be visualized. The evidences of this are everywhere: all his gods were made tangible; he believed in the immortality of the soul, yet he could not conceive of such immortality except in association with an immortal body; he must mummify the body of the dead, else, as he firmly believed, the dissolution of the spirit would take place along with the dissolution of the body itself. His world was peopled everywhere with spirits, but they were spirits associated always with corporeal bodies; his gods found lodgment in sun and moon and stars; in earth and water; in the bodies of reptiles and birds and mammals. He worshipped all of these things: the sun, the moon, water, earth, the spirit of the Nile, the ibis, the cat, the ram, and apis the bull; but, so far as we can judge, his imagination did not reach to the idea of an absolutely incorporeal deity. Similarly his conception of the mechanism of the heavens must be a tangibly mechanical one. He must think of the starry firmament as a substantial entity which could not defy the law of gravitation, and which, therefore, must have the same manner of support as is required by the roof of a house or temple. We know that this idea of the materiality of the firmament found elaborate expression in those later cosmological guesses which were to dominate the thought of Europe until the time of Newton. We need not doubt, therefore, that for the Egyptian this solid vault of the heavens had a very real existence. If now and then some dreamer conceived the great bodies of the firmament as floating in a less material plenum - and such iconoclastic dreamers there are in all ages - no record of his musings has come down to us, and we must freely admit that if such thoughts existed they were alien to the character of the Egyptian mind as a whole.

While the Egyptians conceived the heavenly bodies as the abiding-place of various of their deities, it does not appear that they practised astrology in the later acceptance of that word. This is the more remarkable since the conception of lucky and unlucky days was carried by the Egyptians to the extremes of absurdity. "One day was lucky or unlucky," says Erman,[3] "according as a good or bad mythological incident took place on that day. For instance, the 1st of Mechir, on which day the sky was raised, and the 27th of Athyr, when Horus and, Set concluded peace together and divided the world between them, were lucky days; on the other hand, the 14th of Tybi, on which Isis and Nephthys mourned for Osiris, was an unlucky day. With the unlucky days, which, fortunately, were less in number than the lucky days, they distinguished different degrees of ill-luck. Some were very unlucky, others only threatened ill-luck, and many, like the 17th and the 27th Choiakh, were partly good and partly bad according to the time of day. Lucky days might, as a rule, be disregarded. At most it might be as well to visit some specially renowned temple, or to 'celebrate a joyful day at home,' but no particular precautions were really necessary; and, above all, it was said, 'what thou also seest on the day is lucky.' It was quite otherwise with the unlucky and dangerous days, which imposed so many and such great limitations on people that those who wished to be prudent were always obliged to bear them in mind when determining on any course of action. Certain conditions were easy to carry out. Music and singing were to be avoided on the 14th Tybi, the day of the mourning of Osiris, and no one was allowed to wash on the 16th Tybi; whilst the name of Set might not be pronounced on the 24th of Pharmuthi. Fish was forbidden on certain days; and what was still more difficult in a country so rich in mice, on the 12th of Tybi no mouse might be seen. The most tiresome prohibitions, however, were those which occurred not infrequently, namely, those concerning work and going out: for instance, four times in Paophi the people had to 'do nothing at all,' and five times to sit the whole day or half the day in the house; and the same rule had to be observed each month. It was impossible to rejoice if a child was born on the 23d of Thoth; the parents knew it could not live. Those born on the 20th of Choiakh would become blind, and those born on the 3d of Choiakh, deaf."





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.