The encounter between the sun and the moon on hypocephali
On many hypocephali one of the pictorial registers shows the meeting of the solar and lunar boats. The analysis of the cosmographic scheme of these funerary objects and the comparison of the scene with other astronomical depictions demonstrate that the encounter between the sun and the moon represents the situation when they are both dwelling in the liminal zones of the netherworld, close to the western and eastern horizons, respectively. The lunar boat is in fact a proxy playing the role of the morning barque of more traditional representations that show the two solar boats prow to prow.
The hypocephalus, a circular object made from various materials and placed under the head of the deceased, appeared in Late Period Egypt as part of the funerary equipment of a narrow echelon of society who held elevated priestly offices in the localities of Thebes, Akhmim, Abydos, Hermopolis, and Memphis.1 It was supposed to aid rebirth by magically inducing light and heat around the head, and this objective was achieved on the one hand by several inscriptions, notably among them excerpts from chapter 162 of the Book of Going Forth by Day,2 and on the other by various illustrations that were arranged into registers and accompanied by either short captions or longer texts. The number of these pictorial registers shows some variation among the individual specimens but they never exceed four. The images may be different as well, although mostly within a limited repertoire, and in fact no two hypocephali have been found so far that are exactly the same.3 This paper focuses on the examination of one of the hypocephali found by W. M. F. Petrie in Abydos (fig. 1)4 which belongs to the category considered ‘standard’ in Egyptological literature.5 Generalisations will be made on the assumption that it fairly represents the overall message that these funerary objects were intended to convey.
The first thing to be noted is that when there are four registers, they are split into two ‘hemispheres’ so that the depictions in them are arranged in a reverse fashion. Thus in two registers the figures stand upright while in the two remaining ones they are upside down. In other words, when the hypocephalus is rotated around its centre by 180 degrees, the upper registers will always appear upright. This arrangement of the registers no doubt reflects a cosmographic setting, inasmuch as two of them show the visible world (in temporal terms, daylight), while the opposing ones depict the hereafter (night; fig. 2).6 The same iconographic device of inversion to mark out the two distinct levels of existence, the here and the beyond, is not unprecedented and can also be seen in the well-known circular cosmographic drawing on Wereshnefer’s sarcophagus (end of 4th century BCE).7 In funerary literature the inverse nature of the netherworld is expressed by the frequently repeated wish of the deceased not to walk upside down.8 It is important to keep in mind this cosmography of the hypocephali, because it can help to properly understand what the depictions in the particular registers signify.
The images on the hypocephalus
In the hemisphere of the visible world the figures represent the diurnal journey of the sun across the sky.9 In the top register of depictions we see two images on the right. The upper one shows a boat in which Isis and Nephthys surround a falcon on a pedestal, a scene that corresponds to the rising of the sun in the east. The two goddesses are known from the New Kingdom onward to assist the birth of the sun god on the eastern horizon.10 The same message is repeated in the lower scene, where a goddess, a scarab, and a baboon are on board the boat. One of the glosses in chapter 17 of the Book of Going Forth by Day identifies Khepri (the scarab) in his boat as Re himself, while the baboon is mentioned in connection with Isis and Nephthys,11 so a direct link with the top boat can be established,12 and the two scenes on the right are really parallel images alluding to the cosmic event of sunrise. In the middle a double- faced figure, looking both ahead and behind, represents the sun at its zenith in the middle of the day,13 while the mummified falcon with spread wings (aXm) on the left stands for the setting sun, Atum (often represented by a reclining ram, also read aXm; see trigram in the upper netherworld register).14
In the other register of the same cosmographic sphere (i.e. the world of the living), the seated and duplicated anthropomorphic figure with four ram heads, that represents the unity of four bas in the god Amun-Re,15 depicts the creator god in its most powerful manifestation, and thus also the sun at the peak of its glory. Since on some hypocephali adoring baboons – sometimes wearing the lunar disc on their head – flank the deity on both sides,16 and accompanying inscriptions mention Khepri and the solar eyes, this could be the moment of sunrise in the morning,17 though as the image is placed in the middle of the register, just below the double-faced figure above, it could perhaps also be understood as the midday sun.
To lend weight to this supposition, it might be added here that the midday sun indeed assumes the form of a ram with four heads in the listing of hours on the walls of the pronaos at Edfu and on the astronomical ceilings of the Dendera and Esna temples.18 From a more theoretical perspective, the four-headed figure in the centre of the register encompasses the totality of creation, including nature, and thus might refer to each and every aspect of the sun.
The sun god, together with a crew of divinities, also features in one of the netherworld registers travelling in his boat from left to right, that is, from west to east. This idea of the sun traversing the netherworld from the place of its setting in the west towards its place of rebirth at the opposite end of the compass is of course well-documented by the netherworld books of the New Kingdom.19 In this particular register of the hypocephali east is often signified on the right by the figure of Nut crouching over the scarab of Khepri, and this image is also reminiscent of the netherworld books in which the scarab ‒ the hypostasis of the sun emerging from the duat ‒ makes an appearance in the final hour of the night.20 Opposing the solar boat, another barque is shown on the right, carrying a naos in which a squatting baboon can be seen and to whom another baboon offers the wedjat-eye. The boat in question without doubt transports the lunar god, as on some hypocephali the baboon in the naos wears the lunar disc on its head.21 In Ptolemaic orthography and temple scenes this image frequently identifies the preeminent lunar deity, Thoth, or the moon itself.22 The appearance of the moon on a funerary object that is principally associated with the warmth emanating from the sun may seem surprising, but it must not be forgotten that one variant of the text that forms the ideological antecedent to the hypocephali, Book of Going Forth by Day chapter 162,23 besides evoking the sun god, Re, also makes references to Osiris, and explicitly mentions his lunar capacity (see below).24 The two versions of spell 162 bear witness to and arise from two different strands of tradition. One equated the deceased, and especially their head, with the sun,25 while the other ‒ simultaneously with developments by which the lunar traits of Osiris became more pronounced ‒ increasingly linked the rejuvenation of the dead with the constant renewal of the moon.26
In the other, netherworldly, register of the hypocephali the depictions, though somewhat enigmatic, are certainly connected with the ideas outlined in chapter 162 of the Book of Going Forth by Day.27 The Ihet cow that plays a crucial role in the text of the spell as the guarantor of the heat desired by the deceased is drawn in the middle, followed by a female figure whose head is replaced by the wedjat-eye inscribed into a disc and who holds a plant in her raised left arm. On the other side the cow is faced by the four sons of Horus, a trigram made up of a lotus, a lion, and a ram, signifying the sun god,28 and three more manifestations of the sun, namely, a ram-headed naos, a squatting deity with solar disc on the head, and a scarab. In another scene on the left the ithyphallic Nehebkau offers the wedjat-eye to a seated deity who has wings on his back and in his raised left arm holds the flail like Min. The precise meaning of these depictions is elusive, though close parallels are found both on magical objects (Metternich stela),29 and in funerary contexts (tomb of Petosiris in the Dakhleh
oasis).30 It must nevertheless be noted that the spatial arrangement of the figures on the hypocephalus reinforces the orientation of the adjacent register, as on the right the symbol of the rising sun ‒ the scarab of Khepri ‒ appears, again making a reference to the east. The figure at the opposite extreme of the register, Nehebkau, is mentioned in connection with Min in chapter 149 of the Book of Going Forth by Day.31 This text enumerates the mounds of the Field of Reeds, a region that is most probably located in the eastern parts of the duat since the sun is said to rise from there in the morning.32 Nonetheless, within the Field of Reeds the two gods are associated with the mound of the west (jA.t n.t jmn.t), so their appearance on the left of the register may be an allusion to that cardinal direction.
The encounter between the solar and lunar boats
The encounter between the solar and lunar boats is the focus of the present paper. A well- attested Egyptian concept of close contact between the two celestial bodies is snsn kA.wj, that is the meeting of the two bulls of the sky in the middle of the month, when both the sun and the moon are displaying their powers to the full.34 Ptolemaic texts explain that in nature this moment is observed when the sun sets on the western horizon, while almost simultaneously the full disc of the moon appears on the eastern horizon, mimicking at the beginning of the night the rising of the sun at dawn.35 In astronomical terms this alignment of sun and full moon is called opposition. It has been conjectured that there were two instances of snsn kA.wjduring the month: one at dusk, when the sun is in the west and the moon is in the east (supposedly lunar day fourteen), and one at dawn (sun in the east, moon in the west, day sixteen),36 but the term itself, in its entirety, only occurs in connection with the first situation (i.e. the appearance of full moon). The text that allegedly describes the second occasion more likely refers to waning.37
Another lunisolar encounter takes place at the end of the month when the waning crescent moves closer and closer to the rising sun so that eventually only the sun can be seen in the sky at dawn (conjunction, blacked-out moon). Egyptian texts refer to this period of lunar invisibility as psDn.tjw.38 Since the starting point of the lunar month in ancient Egypt was defined by this very moment (the morning of last crescent invisibility),39 the meeting of the sun and the moon at psDn.tjw was also evidently an important development. Its significance was already underlined by the monthly feast lists of the Old Kingdom.40 In Ptolemaic Egypt, one of the greatest festivals of the country – HAb sxn nfr ‘the beautiful embrace’, involving the sojourn of Hathor of Dendera with her counterpart, Horus of Edfu – was timed to commence on the day of psDn.tjw in the third month of the Shemu season (Epiphi).41
As regards the two boats on the hypocephali, it has been suggested in a regretfully still unpublished paper that they depict the moment of snsn kA.wj.42 Here, however, I will propose an alternative interpretation and will claim that the boats are connected with conjunction, rather than opposition. My arguments to this effect stem from the analysis of three factors: the internal organisation of the pictorial registers on the hypocephali, the parallel depictions found elsewhere showing two opposing barques, and finally the comparison with scenes that can either be identified with almost absolute certainty to refer to the mid-month encounter of the two brightest lights of the sky, or link the sailing of the squatting baboon to the latter half of the lunar cycle.
As described above, snsn kA.wj is an event that takes place in the visible world at dusk when the setting sun is seen in the west and the rising full moon begins its ascent in the east. The meeting of the solar and lunar boats on the hypocephali is, however, shown in a register that definitely belongs to the netherworld. The directions in which the boats are heading are also quite revealing. On the right side of the register the figure of Nut arching over Khepri clearly establishes east, and while the full moon is of course moving away from east as the night progresses, there is no way that the setting sun – when it is conceived to be still above the western horizon – could be depicted as heading towards east. The scene can easily be made sense of, however, if it is understood as showing the meeting of the sun and the moon when they are both invisible. For the sun ‒ represented here in its netherworldly form as a cryocephalic human ‒ this state sets in every night, while the moon’s behaviour is much more complex. In the first half of the month the waxing crescent is seen day by day at dusk and, before its setting on the western horizon, for incrementally longer periods during the night, while in the second half the waning crescent, emerging from the eastern horizon, is observed for gradually shorter periods before the rays of the rising sun start to cancel out its light at dawn. Waning eventually leads to the complete invisibility of the moon at the time of astronomical new moon (conjunction), when it is not seen at all in the sky for one or two days.43
The sun fades out daily in the west and, according to Egyptian beliefs, after having crossed the netherworld from the west towards the east, re-emerges on the eastern horizon in the morning. The moon apparently runs a reverse course during its cycle. At the end of the waning period the last crescent is observed to rise slightly over the eastern horizon before dawn, then ‒ after the one or two days of total invisibility ‒ the moon reappears as the first crescent of the new month just above the western horizon immediately after sunset. Therefore we may surmise that in ancient Egypt the moon was thought to traverse the duat from east to west during its monthly absence from the sky. However, this idea seems to have never been elaborated in writing, unlike the vivid accounts of the nocturnal wanderings of the sun god in the New Kingdom netherworld books. In reality of course the invisible moon, being situated in front of the sun and orbiting simultaneously with it, still moves in a counterclockwise direction, and is not seen by an earthbound observer because the glare of the sun drowns it out. The description of a solar eclipse in Coffin Texts spell 160 demonstrates that the Egyptians were ‒ already at the beginning of the 2nd millennium BCE ‒ well aware of the interrelated movement of the sun and the moon at the time of conjunction.44 Several Graeco- Roman texts (for some examples, see below), and the hieroglyphic sign for psDn.tjw ( ), introduced at the beginning of the New Kingdom and most probably showing the sun and the moon together, seem to confirm this understanding
Bearing in mind that the Egyptians did grasp the true behaviour of the moon at conjunction, we are prompted to take a look at the scene from an entirely different perspective. According to a well-documented iconographic tradition when two celestial boats are shown with their prows opposing each other, they represent the evening and morning barques of the sun god.46 Within this scheme the evening boat (msk.tjt) moves from west to east, whereas the morning or day barque (manD.t) sails from east to west.47 Obviously, the two boats correspond to two different periods: evening/night and morning/day. The encounter between the sun and the moon on the hypocephali can be fitted into this pattern, but here the morning solar boat is not carrying one of the usual representatives of the rising sun. Instead, the emerging sun ‒ rather innovatively ‒ is marked by the presence of the baboon, a preeminent lunar symbol. This is only possible because, as expounded earlier, the moon at the end ‒ for the Egyptians, at the beginning ‒ of its cycle ‘boards the morning barque’, that is on the day of psDn.tjw it starts to move in unison with the rising sun, only of course invisibly to the naked eye. Nevertheless, to signify this merger of the two celestial bodies, the rising sun is still depicted right next to the boat in the form of the scarab beneath Nut.
A couple of inscriptions in the Ptolemaic temples also state that the moon joins the morning barque on the day of invisibility. Straightforward evidence for this comes from the first eastern Osiris chapel on the roof of the Dendera temple, where a line of hieroglyphs running above the frieze says: ‘[You are] the left eye in your name of Osiris-Moon. Your limbs rejoice over your secret form of the moon at the beginning of every thirty days as you rise in the morning barque and your image rejuvenates on the day of the blacked-out moon’ (jAb.t m rn=k n Wsjr-JaH Haa Ha.w=k tp hrw 30 m sStA=k n jwn-Haa xa=k m manD.t rnpj sSm=k m hrw psDn.tjw).48 Similarly, on the eastern wall of the pronaos at Edfu, as part of the description of the new moon,49 it is written: ‘It is in the Place of the Two Gods (= the Edfu temple) where Re and Horus, the sun and the moon shine forth. The eastern horizon jubilates in joy as the two luminaries rise in their barque … Re completes his course with his radiance and his rays hide the light of the moon’ (s.t nTr.wj pw ntj Ra @r.w ra jaH psD m-xnt=sn Ax.t jAbt.t Xnm m rS.wt xa HAy.tj m wjA=sn … mH.n=f Sn=f m psD.w=f sdg.n psD.w=f mAw.t jaH).50The word ‘barque’ (wjA) is definitely in the singular in the text, so the logical inference is that the sun and the moon travel in the same boat.
From the above it can be concluded that on the hypocephalus the boats are poised at the two liminal zones of the netherworld: the solar boat on the left (west) represents the sun’s entry into it, while the lunar barque on the right (east) shows the emergence of the moon on the morning of lunar invisibility coinciding with the rising of the sun. If the boats are taken to represent the whole solar cycle, as can also be argued for on the basis of similar depictions,51then the barque on the left stands for the night sun travelling in the duat from the western to the eastern horizon, while the one on the right describes the conjoined journey of the moon and the sun at psDn.tjw through the day sky from the eastern to the western horizon.
This interpretation is strongly supported by the existence of two hypocephali that – in place of the encounter between the solar and lunar boats – do in fact show the two solar barques prow to prow (fig. 3).52 Though these specimens lack the neat cosmographic setting of the standard four-register hypocephali, the correspondence of the nautical scenes on the different types can hardly be doubted. Here the conventional and undisputed representation of
the morning sun, the scarab beetle, is not replaced by the squatting baboon, while the boat on the left continues to carry the evening sun, in the form of a ram-headed human or a ram itself. The apposition of the solar boats with the same or very similar iconography is attested on a number of late stelae coming from Akhmim,53 reinforcing the view that the hypocephali shown in fig. 3 must originate from that location.54
Other small details of the boat with the baboon on board seem to substantiate its identity with the solar barque. On the prow a reed mat is depicted with a child sitting on it. Whereas this is a typical feature of the solar barque,56 itself signalling the rebirth of the sun in the morning,57 whenever the moon is represented as sailing in a boat, its prow may carry a falcon or a baboon, but never a squatting child.58 Also, the presentation of the wedjat-eye by a baboon is part of the iconography of the solar boat;59 on the lunar barque it is the anthropomorphic form of Thoth that offers the wedjat-eye.60 Therefore the boat on the right really mixes the iconographic elements that are used to represent either the solar or the lunar barque. The cosmographic scheme of the hypocephali provided a good opportunity for the substitution of Khepri by the baboon because the apparent motion of the boat on the left could be conceived as reflecting both the east-west movement of the morning/day sun in the sky and the east-west transition of the duat by the invisible moon.
The register is thus a compact depiction of the journey of the sun in the netherworld, also making reference to one of the key points of the lunar cycle. In light of this, it is not impossible that the right part of the top register in the other hemisphere of the hypocephalus,
with its double depiction of the emerging sun in the visible world, was also intended to express the dual nature of sunrise on psDn.tjw. This intermingling of solar and lunar motifs may indicate the growing importance of the moon – and Osiris – in the second half of the 1stmillennium BCE. It is perhaps unexpected that – instead of the more luminous stage of the lunar cycle, full moon – the hypocephali allude to the invisibility of the moon. However, an inscription on the propylon leading to the Khonsu temple at Karnak, built by Ptolemy III, links psDn.tjw with conception (Khonsu ‘is conceived on the day of the new moon’, bkA.tw=f m psDn.tjw),61 so this point in time was evocative of (re)birth, and thus concurred with the primary purpose of the hypocephali. Chapter 141 of the Book of Going Forth by Day also relates that the initiation of the deceased into the netherworld was to take place on the day of lunar invisibility.62
The wider context of the hypocephali also offers some arguments in favour of interpreting the lunar boat as showing conjunction. We learn from Ptolemaic texts that Min was considered as the god who stood in for the moon at its time of invisibility,63 so the scene in the other register of the netherworld ‒ Nehebkau offering the wedjat-eye to a deity who for one part displays the peculiar characteristics of Min ‒ may relate to the same time as the meeting of the celestial boats in the duat. Furthermore, in the lunar version of chapter 162 of the Book of Going Forth by Day the description of the moon seems to point to the time of its monthly disappearance, echoing a previous passage in which the sun is addressed when it is about to plunge into the duat as the lion of the western mountain of Manu (jnD Hr=k rw aA rw mAnw).64 The relevant lines about the moon read: ‘You rise on the eastern horizon of the sky, the months are made for you, the hours pass by for you, you come victoriously to the ground of the earth all year round, you rise as the moon at its time of waking (= in the morning) as you are seen aging’ (xa=k m Ax.t jAbt.t n.t p.t jrj n=k Abd.w sS n=k wnw.t jj=k m mAa-xrw <Hr> sATw m tr rnp.t nb.t xa=k m jaH m tr=f n wrS mAA n=k m oH).65
The events listed here refer to the second half of the lunar cycle, and more particularly perhaps to the day of the last crescent. It is in the latter half of the month that the moon rises in the east, and on successive nights it reaches lower and lower heights in the sky so that the last crescent only briefly emerges above the horizon immediately before sunrise (‘you come victoriously to the ground of the earth’), and all this of course takes place at dawn when the brightness of sunshine masks the light of the moon (‘you rise as the moon at its time of waking as you are seen aging’). Also, on the propylon of the Khonsu temple at Karnak it is stated in no uncertain terms that the moon ‘grows old after the day of the full moon’ (tnn.n=f m-xt smd.t).66 Therefore both the sun (Re) and the moon (Osiris) in spell 162 are viewed as poised to enter the duat at the end of their respective cycles, and this situation immediately precedes the moment that is depicted by the meeting of the two celestial boats on the hypocephali.
Finally, there is one more detail that may hint at the time of conjunction on the hypocephali, and that is the depiction of the moon travelling in its boat as a squatting baboon, either with or without the lunar disc on the head. Although, as remarked above, it is clear that such an image could refer to the moon in general, Horapollo, the Greek author who described Egyptian hieroglyphs in the 4th century CE, especially connects the figure of the baboon with the meeting of the sun and the moon at the eastern horizon: ‘When they mean the moon … they draw a baboon. The moon, because this animal has a certain sympathy with the
conjunction of this goddess. For when the moon, moving into conjunction with the sun, is darkened, then the male baboon does not look nor does he eat’.67
Gyula Priskin: The encounter between the sun and the moon on hypocephali