- Jul 12, 2009The alleged Aeonic Cycle of the Ancient Egyptians based on the Helical Rising of Sirius. Supposedly dating back to the Old Kingdom, but more likely a late Greco-Egyptian concept from Alexandria.
The Helical Rising of Sirius
Sirius or Sothis rises just before the Sun in July in Egypt. Once a year it thus takes on the role of the Morning Star. Many ancient cultures use the helical risings of prominent stars as year markers, instead of Solstices or Equinoxes, as they are easier to directly observe without calculations or even calenders, Solar Days (whether the longest, shortest or equilateral) can only be known through observation after the event. Helical risings are thus the oldest type of New Year marker. Some cultures used obvious clusters such as the Plieades or a distinctively coloured star but several used Sirius, the brightest fixed star in the sky. This was almost certainly the case for the earliest Egyptians (though see scepticism below).
There was also a cosmic myth that the annual Nile Flood in July, which revitalised the land with its fertile mud, coincided with the rising of Sirius and the New Year. This is generally false as Sirius rises at a slightly different time each year, and the Nile Flood is unpredictable. But a legend had it that in a Golden Age at the dawn of civilisation the two coincided.
The Sothic Cycle
In Ptolemaic Alexandria it was recorded that the helical rising of Sirius followed a 1460 year cycle. Which meant that while Sirius could rise on any day from early to late July in different time periods, it only rose at exactly the same time every 1460 years. On average it only slipped one day every 100 years, so this was not particularly noticable, but a helical rising on say 20 July in 1460 BC would not occur again till 1 AD, and in 1060 BC might occur on 24 July. The Egyptian New Year thus varied and was called the 'wandering year'. For this reason many other cultures switched to the more regular Solar days. According to the Greeks, the Egyptians however believed this Sothic Cycle had Aeonic significance as a Great Year, and reckoned their history by it. This was taken at face value by Egyptologists for decades, as an explanation why the Egyptians maintained the Sothic year, and Egyptian history was chronologised on it. But it was later shown that the earliest Egyptians did not seem to measure time in this way and based their years on observation not calculation. Thus the Sothic Cycle was probably an invention of the later Alexandrian Egyptians based on of the Greek World Ages. The issue remains very controversial due to its consequences for historical chronology.
Roman commentators observed that the Egyptians had a primary Sothic Cycle on which their Aeonic Great Year was based, which began on the legendary date of the first coincidence of the Nile Flood and the Rising at the beginning of Egyptian Civilization. However the date varied according to different commentators. Theon (c 100 AD) claimed the date of the primal Rising was around July 18 and the last Sothic Cycle began in 26 BC, while Solinus (c 200 AD) did not comment on the start of the current Great Year, but stated the proper Rising of Sirius was 19-21 July in the Julian Calender. A popular date was based on hints by Censorinus (c 250 AD) that the current Sothic Cycle began in 140 AD when Sirius rose on July 20. This was backed by the fact that many Egyptian coins had a Phoenix stamped on them in this year, a symbol of Sirius Rising. Later other sources hint at a time in the early 20s of July. These dates are not compatable and have been used to argue that the tradition was a recent one and uncertain at this time (perhaps the confusion relates to a coincidentally synchronous helical rising and Nile Flood). The date could be seen as a convention, which itself has a magical significance beyond factual history. Robert Anton Wilson probably realised this when he argued for a Sirius Rising date of July 23, when he claimed his first Sothic experience, making this date a modern convention in Counter Culture. He also suggested Aleister Crowley, whose secret name was Phoenix, based the Aeon of Horus on the Sothic Cycle. Note the date is doubly symbolic as it is in the Julian calender not the Gregorian.
The Sothis Festival
What is certain is the Ancient Egyptians always celibrated the rising of Sirius and the New Year with a Sothis Festival, which consisted of five days 'between' the old and new year, which had 360 days each. These 'days out of time' were sacred to Osiris, Horus, Set, Isis and Nephthys and began at the helical rising. Sothis was originally associated with Nu or Nuit, the mother of these deities, who were born from her at the time. Later Isis and Nephthys (and later still Hathor and Sekhmet) were seen as the light and dark aspects of their mother, symbolising birth and death (or creation and destruction in the case of the later pair). Sometimes Nephthys' son Anubis was seen as the Sothic god of the dead and Nephthys was more a protective and rebirthing goddess. At various times Osiris, Horus and Set, originally associated with Orion, also came to be associated with their mother's star Sirius (or perhaps its companion Sirius)
An ancient papyrus claims that on one July 22nd the light of Sirius was channelled through a window in the Temple of Isis onto the goddesses statue. This has been taken by some to indicate the date of the Festival and would mean Sirius rose on July 19. It may be no coincidence that the Catholic Church also celebrates the Feast of Mary Magdalene on July 22nd (though it is unsure if this Mary was associated with Isis or Nephthys, either being possible on an 18th or 19th start date). Thus while the original Sothic Festival would have been at whatever date coincided with the helical rising of Sirius, its conventional date is held to coincide with the legendary date of the primal Rising associated with the start of the Sothic Cycle.
An alternative belief is that instead of marking the end of the old year and the start of the Sothis Festival the rising may have marked the end of the Festival and the start of the new year. If RAW was right on his intuition on the 23rd July this would fit this view and the likely start date of the Festival on the 19th July.
Academic sceptics have various arguements against this thesis, but few are convincing, most seem motivated more by doctorate opportunities than by serious scholarship.
The first argues that the Sothic Cycle is never exactly 1460 years but varies. But the point is the average cycle is 1460 and we are dealing with mythic approximations and ritual conventions not history.
The second argues that Sothis may not have been Sirius. This is based on two observations, firstly that the Egyptians changed their correspondences often, for example Osiris was once associated with Venus, then Jupiter and finally the stars, and Sothis is just a godname. But it seems unlikely that the calender star would be changed that lightly, and Sirius also constantly served this role in other cultures (such as among some Native American peoples). More mysteriously Sothis was often described as a red star, but Sirius never was or could be red. However 'red' in some languages also means 'bright' and Sirius does sometimes look red when rising, so this is not a real objection.
Finally the recent and conventional nature of the cycle is argued, but as we have seen while this discounts an historical cycle it does not discount a conventional ritual cycle or date. What really matters is simply what date a culture, group or individual chooses to observe in their ritual calender.
It should be also be born in mind that in Northern Europe the actual helical rising of Sirius (Fenris' Brand) is in early August, however while significant for the Northern Mysteries this does not have any importance for Egyptian ritual.
Sirius also equates with Daath in the modern Kabbalah, sphere of gnosis, creativity and the gate to and from the beyond. It is often regarded a non-local, synchronistic attractor. Strangely the 23rd hexagram of the I Ching signifies 'breaking apart'.