BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter June 29, 2021

Stellar Scientists: The Egyptian Temple Astrologers

Andreas Winkler


The paper aims to collect and discuss evidence for astrologers in Egyptian temples during the Graeco-Roman period from several kinds of data, including astrological and astronomical texts, inscriptions, and documentary sources. Material evidence is also considered. It attempts to answer questions of who could act as an astrologer and what knowledge was required to become one. In addition, the paper discusses the position of astrologers in the temple hierarchy and other areas of knowledge in which astrologers were involved.

1 Introduction

Zodiacs appear as a new element in the decoration programmes of temples in the Graeco-Roman period.[1] The first tangible evidence comes from the late Ptolemaic period, while most can be dated to the reign of the Caesars,[2] a time when astrology came into vogue across the Empire. This was a theological innovation that had a deep impact on Egyptian society. It reached beyond the temples; tombs and coffins could also be embellished with ornamentations involving the zodiac and related concepts. While the depictions in the sepulchral sphere often attempt to configure the planets and the zodiac signs to provide the date of birth of the interred person(s), the temple zodiacs tend to depict the planets in their exaltation or houses.[3] That is, they represent the thema mundi,[4] the arrangement of the celestial bodies at the beginning of the world, and thus express ideas central to astrology as it was practiced in Egypt. The thema mundi depicting the planets in their houses is in itself an Egyptian concept that can be linked to the rising of Sothis at the beginning of an Egyptian year.[5]

The connection between astrology and Egypt was already recognised in antiquity: the Egyptians were often credited with the discovery of astrology. The invention of the art was ascribed to the higher echelon of Egyptian society. The adjutants of royalty or the royals themselves were said to have revealed the arcane art in a glorious past. The famous sage Imhotep, son of Ptah, in the time of Pharaoh Djoser, is found among the names of the discoverers.[6] In Greek sources, he is often referred to as Asclepius, and he can be accompanied by Hermes,[7] who in the Egyptian world, alongside the god of wisdom Thoth, was known as Amunhotep, son of Hapu. Other individuals who passed this information down to later times include the sages Petosiris or Petesis and King Necho II, often called Nechepso(s).[8] Such attributions placed the birth of astrology in the great centres of Egyptian learning, such as Heliopolis, Memphis, and Thebes. This image is common to both Egyptian language sources and Greek papyrological ones.[9] The latter of course drew on the former. In the classical texts, other figures also make an appearance as Egyptian authors of astrological treatises, including Chaeremon and Melampus, who were regarded as hierogrammateis.[10] In addition, individuals who possessed a less prominent place in the intellectual history of Egypt could be ascribed authorship of astrological treatises. The prime example of this is found in P.Vindob.Dem. 6614,[11] which is attributed to a priest of Amunrasonther in Thebes.[12]

It is clear that the art of astrology was highly revered; it had a place in the intellectual sphere much on the same level as medicine, magic, various other types of divinatory techniques, and several religious texts. Its place in Egyptian society was clearly tied to the temple.[13] The priests were the keepers of knowledge and wisdom, the “scientists” of Egyptian society. The question is, therefore, who was practicing this illustrious art in the Egyptian temples? Was it practiced only by a select few, the higher strata of the manifold priesthoods, or was it pursued by priests from a wider range of sacerdotal ranks?

2 What Were the Requirements?

What did an ancient Egyptian astrologer have to know in order to cast someones nativity? Of course, knowledge of reading and writing were prerequisites, as well as an awareness of the basics of astrology, for instance, the zodiac, but what beyond this? The answer depends on the type of astrology that the particular practitioner wanted to pursue.

The astrological manuals operated by the Egyptian temple astrologers displayed great variety. This material needs a far more detailed and penetrating analysis than can be offered here to do them justice, yet a brief survey can be offered. For natal astrology, the preserved Demotic handbooks of this kind suggest that there were two main types of techniques, based on which parameters were primarily considered for establishing a prediction.[14] One type primarily correlated the position of the five planets (Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and Mercury) and the two luminaries—the Sun and the Moon—with the zodiac signs. The positions were then transposed onto, for instance, the Dodecatropos, a division of the sky into 12 compartments, arranged counter-clockwise relative to the ascendant.[15] These were believed to affect various aspects of the native’s life depending on whether a planet was located there or not. The lots (see below) could also be relevant, as well as the terms (dny.t) for establishing a detailed and correct prognostication of an individual’s life.[16] These are portions of every zodiac sign assigned to each planet. When the celestial body occupied its own terms, it was thought of as extra influential. The terms were also important for establishing the extent of the native’s lifetime.

The second type of manual also depends on the zodiac, but divides each one of the 12 signs, each of which occupies 30° of the ecliptic, into three segments of 10°. Each such segment was associated with one of the 36 decans, i.e. three decans per zodiac sign. Usually, the positions of the Sun and the Moon were specified in relation to decans, less often also those of the planets.[17]

Most preserved texts making predictions about the well-being of the country base their forecast on the appearance of Sothis.[18] These treatises consider the positions of the planets in the zodiac signs or the decans at the time of the star’s rising, but weather phenomena and the colour of the star could likewise be taken into account.[19] Similar predictions were also connected to solar and lunar eclipses and phenomena of the planet Mercury.[20]

The procedure that the astrologer needed to undertake in order to find the positions of the planets consisted of several steps. First, of course, he needed to know the date and the hour of the parturition (see below), and, ideally, also the geographical location,[21] since the length of the hour varies depending on the geographical location. Based on this information he would be able to determine the positions of the celestial bodies with the help of various tools, and these positions could be written down. The result was a horoscope. With this information, finally, the astrologer could turn to his manual to look up the relevant entries before delivering the forecast to the client.

2.1 Horoscopes and Other Tools

Looking at the preserved horoscopes from Egypt,[22] one can note variation in format in both the Greek and Egyptian materials. It is possible to speak of deluxe horoscopes, elaborate horoscopes, and basic horoscopes.[23] The latter are by far the most common type. Though these can be configured in a variety of ways,[24] they all provide essentially the same information. As a rule, they specify the location of the Sun and the Moon, and that of the five planets as whole zodiac signs. This is usually complemented by the position of the ascendant, i.e. the rising point of the ecliptic. The date and time of the birth tend to be recorded as well (e.g. O.Berlin 6152).[25] What is referred to as an elaborate horoscope contains slightly more detail. The additional data is of both astronomical and astrological nature. The added astronomical information usually consists of the precise longitude of the planets in the zodiac signs. The astrological information is by and large contingent on the astronomical, and can include further information on the Dodecatropos, the terms, and the lots (e.g. O.Ashm.Dem. 633; P.Oxy. II 307).[26] The deluxe horoscopes are far more advanced in terms of their underlying astronomical calculations. Here the positions are often specified down to minutes, and they may include references to decans and other astrological dignities (e.g. P.Lond. I 98 and 130).[27] They are, so to speak, lavish versions of the elaborate horoscopes, though admittedly it is somewhat arbitrary where the line is to be drawn between each category.

How did the practitioner establish the positions found in a typical horoscope? It seems that this could be a rather straightforward affair if one had access to appropriate materials; all established positions were the result of “theory, modelling, and calculations”.[28] So what did the astrologer do? As mentioned above, the first piece of information that the diviner required was the date and time of birth of his client. The date of birth would be necessary for establishing the position of the planets and the two luminaries on a particular date, while the hour of birth was required to determine the ascendant. It was also significant for various other astrological implications: often a nocturnal birth meant a different future than a diurnal one (see below). This information was probably conveyed orally to the astrologer. There are, however, several examples where the dates were noted down as a kind of an astrologer’s aide-mémoire.[29]

The ostracon OMM 423 from second century AD Narmouthis relates to such a procedure. The text is an “astrological admonition” written in a mixed script of Demotic and Greek. The relevant part of the text reads as follows: “Bring the great pinax and come with a pen and the great list of regnal year 3 of Petosiris as well as the horoscope ⟨book⟩!” (ı͗n tꜣy πυν\αγὶϲ/ ꜥꜣ r-my ı͗rm tꜣy wpy ꜥꜣ {ı͗rm} ḥsb.t 3.t Πετοϲῖρι̣\ϲ/ ı͗rm pꜣy⟨ḏmꜥ⟩ὡροϲκο\πικῶν/).[30] The text reveals that an astrologer needed at least three tools to produce a horoscope in addition to a pen. The latter was mentioned, most probably, because the practitioner had to excerpt information from the two “books”. Secondly, he could use a pinax.[31] This device is a board that could be made of various materials, such as wood or ivory. It commonly depicts the heavens with, for instance, a zodiac. The position of the celestial bodies and other astrologically relevant points could be visualised with the help of various markers, for which gemstones were preferably used. The text may suggest that the astrologer used the pinax during his calculations, but it is also clear from other texts, e.g. O.Narm.Dem. II 82.1–7 (see below) that it was used when meeting the client. Another vivid example of how a pinax was used is put forward by an episode in the Alexander Romance when King Nectanebo casts the horoscope of Queen Olympias.[32] This literary text does not mention any written tools that may have been used by Egyptian astrologers. The ostracon mentions two items that may be such tools, namely a “great list of regnal year 3 of Petosiris” and a “horoscope ⟨book⟩”. In what follows, an attempt is made to answer the question of what information these texts may have contained.

2.2 Astronomical Texts

As already mentioned, one of the first steps that the astrologer needed to take was to determine the positions of the planets on the date provided to him. He could check it against the information found in so-called sign entry almanacs, of which there are several Egyptian examples including the so-called Stobart Tables and P.Berlin 8279.[33] These texts, which have been preserved in the two languages in use in Egypt during the relevant period,[34] contain extensive lists of dates on which the five planets enter a new zodiac sign. They usually cover several years and the information is rather unprecise. This fact explains the rudimentary nature of most horoscopes, which only report the position of the planets in terms of a whole sign. With the help of sign-entry almanacs, it is a fairly straightforward affair to establish a regular, simple horoscope. For more precise calculations other tools could be used. For instance, the Roman-period P.Monts.Roca. inv. 314 included synodic phenomena in addition to sign entries, and P.Carlsberg 32 contains a table with daily positions of Mercury as a morning star.[35] Other Demotic texts from the same period include O.Ashm.Dem. 483, which contains instructions for computing the first appearance of said planet as an evening star using a Babylonian model. On this ostracon the number of revolutions of the synodic phenomenon around the zodiac is referred to as “great year” (rnp.t ꜥꜣ.t) which alludes to the terminology used for the lunar cycle.[36] The corpus to which this text belongs also contains other procedures, such as for calculating the first visibility of the planet as a morning star.[37] P.Flor. 44 belongs to the same category of texts.[38] These treatises could be used to produce various kinds of tables,[39] and therefore also, if needed, tables with daily positions of the planets.[40] But not all astrologers may have been able to use such tools.[41]

That is not all, however. The Sun and the Moon are not accounted for in the so-called sign entry almanacs, nor is the ascendant. The position of the Sun could probably be established through simple rules of thumb. In the framework of the Egyptian calendar, the position of the Sun changes roughly by a whole sign every century. Using the Alexandrian calendar, which was introduced under Augustus, there is almost no change in position between two instances of the same calendar date.[42]

The Moon, however, is a more complicated affair. The movement of the Moon is not as easily predicted, but various texts in both Demotic and Greek were available for establishing its position fairly precisely.[43] P.Carlsberg 638,[44] for instance, is a so-called lunar ephemeris with daily positions of the Moon for the year AD 13/14, although only the period between late August and early September is preserved, i.e. the first month of the Egyptian year according to the Alexandrian calendar. The positions are given in relation to the zodiac and expressed in whole degrees. According to the editors the text was composed in close proximity to the dates covered by the tables.[45] Other relevant texts include O.Berlin 30539,[46] which contains dates of the New Moon in the year AD 184/185, the 25th regnal year of Commodus. The text also provides the hour of this phenomenon. P.Vindob.Dem. 4876,[47] from Soknopaiou Nesos of the Roman period, on the other hand, provides dates and hours that could pertain to the Full Moon.[48]

An earlier text, P.Berlin 13146–7[49] from Abusir el-Melek, contains a list of lunar eclipses, of which the dates and the zodiacal signs are specified. The calculations are based on the Callippic cycle[50] and the dates fit the interval 84–73 BC. It has therefore been suggested that the text was written a few years before this interval. Note that the papyrus is the earliest firm attestation of the zodiac in a text written in Egyptian.[51] Finally, any survey of Egyptian texts relating to the calculation of lunar positions must mention P.Carlsberg 9,[52] from Soknopaiou Nesos,[53] which can be dated to the second century AD. The text contains a table of the first lunar days over a span of 25 years of the civil calendar, or 309 lunar months.[54] The Greek P.Ryl. IV 589, which dates to the second century BC, contains a similar table, though another type of lunar cycle is used. A number of Greek texts calculate several other lunar phenomena, such as apogees and latitudes.[55] What all of these texts demonstrate is that the knowledge to calculate the path and phases of the Moon and other celestial bodies was amply available in those environments where one expects to find astrologers.[56] Even if an astrologer lacked the capacity to produce such texts himself, he could surely consult them.

Finally, the ascendant would need to be established. The zodiac sign in which the ascendant is located changes approximately every second hour. However, the Sun moves through the zodiacal signs by roughly one degree per day. Consequently, at the same hour a month later another sign will rise on the eastern horizon. The use of seasonal hours in antiquity complicates matters if the ascendant is to be determined accurately for the hour of birth as specified by the client. Seasonal hours vary in length depending on the date and geographical latitude. Thus, the astrologer would need to take account of these factors when establishing the ascendant. Indeed, certain texts explain the variation of the length of the hour throughout the year.[57] Access to these texts, or rather knowledge of how they functioned, may not have been available to all, but being able to establish the correct hour was one of the main responsibilities of an Egyptian astronomer, and it was a type of knowledge prestigious enough to deserve space in several inscriptions of owned by astronomers (see below).

Following A. Menchetti, who edited OMM 423, the “horoscope ⟨book⟩” could have been a sort of table that provided the rising times of the zodiac signs or similar.[58] Such a tool would obviously smoothen the process considerably and facilitate the precise computation of the ascendant. Yet, due to the wide use of the term “horoscope” other kinds of texts could have been implied.[59] The “great list of regnal year 3”[60] could have been a “sign entry almanac” according to the[61] But since it is specified as pertaining to a particular year, there are several other types of texts to which it may belong, such as a monthly almanac with planetary positions covering a particular year.[62] Here P.Lond. I 130, a Greek horoscope, should be mentioned, which, similarly to OMM 423, refers to equipment to be used in an astrological procedure. The text was compiled in Hermopolis by a certain Titus Pitenius for someone called Hermon. In the preamble, the practitioner boasts about having used an astronomical table compiled by the Egyptians of old, a so-called “Perpetual Table” (κάνων αἰώνιοϲ). These tables probably enabled the astrologer to calculate planetary positions down to at least a degree, but their exact content and arrangement remain elusive.[63]

A. Jones has suggested that even without many of the texts described above, a person with access to the most basic of tools, a sign entry almanac, would have needed very little astronomical knowledge to cast a basic horoscope.[64] Thus, access to written materials of the kind described above, such as various almanacs and tables containing rising times, would have been a primary concern.

2.3 Establishing Forecasts

Focussing on a few so-called planetary astrological texts, i.e. those which primarily rely on the position of the seven planets in the zodiac, it can be noted that they, similarly to the horoscopes, represent different levels of astrological advancement. One can hypothesise that the different manuals also required different levels of astronomical knowledge if they were to be used to their full extent. The simplest version of an astrological manual of this type is represented by the Roman-period P.Berlin 8345[65] from Soknopaiou Nesos. Of this text, only part of the systematic catalogue is preserved, that is, the section with a systematic list of the configurations of planets, zodiacal signs and their subdivisions with the accompanying forecasts. Usually each configuration produced a series of prognostications. The simplicity of P.Berlin 8345 manifests itself in the fact that only a planet’s position in one of the places of the Dodecatropos is considered. Even the simplest horoscopes provide more information than that. From what is preserved, the text does not appear to consider whether a birth was nocturnal or diurnal,[66] while this information was—as already stated—part of the standard information of a horoscope. The only thing the astrologer had to do once he had the standard information for a horoscope in front of him was to take note of the zodiacal sign of the ascendant. Proceeding in counter-clockwise fashion, he could then establish in what places of the Dodecatropos the planets were located.

The standard simple horoscope does not contain enough information to make full use of such astrological manuals as the three manuscripts P.Carlsberg 81, P.Carlsberg 89, and PSI inv. D 34[67] from Roman Tebtunis. In the preserved part of its systematic catalogue, the main factor upon which the prognostications are established is the relation between a planet and one of the 12 places of the Dodecatropos. But the text also considers whether it was a nocturnal or diurnal birth along with the planetary dignities (qnḥy.t)[68] and the lots.[69]

The text by and large follows the same approach as found in the doctrines of the Graeco-Roman astrologers. It incorporates, for instance, the exaltations, the planetary houses, and trines. Given that the text contains a table of terms, also the terms are considered for establishing prognostications from the planetary positions. From what is preserved of the text, the phraseology suggests that it did not matter whether a planet was in its house or in its exaltation: it would by and large produce the same outcome; however, the absence of a planet from its house or its exaltation was significant.[70]

For some dignities, a regular horoscope would do. This would be the case for the trines, if they are defined in terms of whole signs, and the planetary houses. Yet to determine the exaltations or the terms, more detailed positional information would be required. Such information is only preserved in the so-called elaborate or deluxe horoscopes, in which the longitude of a planet in a particular zodiac sign is registered. The Egyptian astrologers at Tebtunis, or at least some of them, were clearly expected to perform more advanced astrological consultations that required more skills than implied by the majority of the preserved horoscopes from Egypt. In order to produce a more advanced horoscope the astrologer could not simply resort to the “sign entry almanacs” but needed to consult the exact position of the celestial bodies, or to calculate them himself, for instance by employing so-called primary tables.[71] It is clear that such documents were available in the temples, such as the one in Tebtunis, and that they were written in both Demotic and Greek.[72]

The astrologer who used the astrological manual known as P.Carlsberg 420 (see below), as far as can be judged from the preserved fragments, would not have been successful only using the simplest of methods. For example, the manual establishes predictions based on the presence of planets in their terms.[73] For this, the knowledge of exact longitudes would be necessary. Even if the user of the manual did not know the terms by heart, he could have consulted a table of terms on a separate sheet of papyrus, such as that found in P.CtYBR 1132.[74] As the astrologer looked through the systematic catalogue, the sheet (or in fact shorter scroll) could function as a handy reference tool assuming the horoscope only contained the longitudes. It would also assist in writing down the position in a horoscope, if the terms were noted there as the case is with, for example, O.Ashm.Dem. 633.

Other astrological texts employ different operating principles.[75] These demonstrate that a variety of hermeneutical methods were available to decipher the positions of the planets and also that varying efforts were put into the casting of nativities. The reason behind the different methods is not always easy to grasp. The complexity of a horoscope must to some extent have depended on the financial means of a client and on his or her preparedness to remunerate the practitioner. As already stated above, most horoscopes were of the basic kind. These were undoubtedly cheaper to produce than the more lavish ones.[76] Personal investment in the art as well as astronomical skills may also have played a role, as already suggested by Jones.[77] The next question one can ask is therefore what can be determined about who had access to such knowledge.

3 Astrologers and Access to Astral Knowledge

Astronomers possessed the skills for making a prognostication of an individual’s future by means of the planets (see below), but were the priests who were engaged as temple astronomers, along with the hierogrammetus, the only ones who were able to do so?[78] And is it possible that those engaged in casting horoscopes also possessed specialist knowledge in other areas? Were others besides these priests allowed to acquire such skills?

O.Narm.Dem. II 82.1–7 is one of many texts from Narmouthis relevant for an enquiry into the social world of the astrologer. Although the precise nature of the document remains a matter of debate, it relates to an astrological consultation. The text is directed to an astrologer or perhaps an aspiring one. It begins as follows: “Another matter in relation to waking in the great place. When you write and arrange your astrological board and your calculations, do not allow the young boy to discover your calculations” (k.t-md.t (n) rs ẖn tꜣ s.t ꜥꜣ(.t) ı͗.ı͗r⸗k sẖ ı͗.ı͗r⸗k pꜣy⸗k pynkꜣ pꜣy⸗k gꜣy-rḫ n.ı͗m⸗w ꜥn r-tm dı͗.t ı͗r pꜣy ḫl gm pꜣy⸗k gꜣy-rḫ).

From the phrasing of these lines, it is obvious that the astrological consultation is supposed to take place in a temple environment (s.t ꜥꜣ.t).[79] The passage can be interpreted in two ways. It can be understood either to refer to an astrological consultation in which a practitioner is casting the horoscope for a young client or as describing part of the teaching process of astrology. In the latter case, the young boy would refer to the apprentice, who is not yet allowed to learn all the steps of such a process. In this first scenario, the quoted passage can be understood as assuring that astral knowledge was not disseminated to the populace, for instance by not revealing the method for computing planetary positions or check their astrological significance in handbooks. The interaction between the astrologer and the customer would be limited to delivering the forecast, and perhaps illustrating the positions with a pinax. The preparations were to be kept secret, and therefore the text on the ostracon can be viewed as an admonition to keep the knowledge within the group of practitioners. One can imagine that in this way competition could be kept at bay and an “authoritative mysticism”[80]vis à vis the customer could be maintained.

In the case of the second interpretation, that it concerned the relation between a master and an apprentice, the trainee would only be allowed to obtain insight into the working methods of astrology once he was ready, having reached the appropriate stages of his sacerdotal training. The priests are known to have gone through several steps in their education. One source that gives insight into this process and at the same time refers to astral knowledge is the so-called Book of the Temple.[81] In one section of the text that has been discussed thoroughly by J. F. Quack, one learns that priestly candidates of the higher orders (children of the prophets, the lector priests, and the superior priests [wꜥb.w ꜥꜣ.w][82]) had a partially shared schooling,[83] and that the highest-ranking among them, the children of the prophets, would go through additional stages.

These stages include an acquaintance with various forms of cultic knowledge as well as reading and writing religious scriptures. In the penultimate stage, it seems that medicine was on the curriculum.[84] In the fourth and final stage of their education, the candidates were supposed to learn, among other skills, “eclipse omens” (sḫn ı͗by.t)—though the passage can also be read as “omens and eclipses”.[85] “Eclipse omens” does not necessarily imply a deep understanding of the astronomical mechanisms behind these phenomena. The passage could refer to making forecasts based on observed eclipses. It could in theory be limited to access to texts that explain the outcome of eclipses such as the “Vienna Papyrus on Eclipses and Lunar Omens”.[86] As seen in the inscriptions from Dakke and Philae (see below), however, knowledge of the timing of eclipses was stressed. Being able to predict and understand eclipses entailed a higher level of astronomical knowledge. It is possible, therefore, that the passage describes the candidates going through this step of education as obtaining training in advanced astral knowledge, or at least it could be understood as such in later times when there were additional techniques pertaining to celestial divination.

Considering that the text was composed before the advent of natal astrology,[87] it is possible that this form of divination was later subsumed under the heading of omens[88] or was even understood as an extension of “eclipse omens”. It is of course also imaginable that there was a stark division between making forecasts on the basis of eclipses and regular natal astrology. The former concerned political events and the well-being of the country, delicate matters that may not have been entrusted to just anyone, thus being reserved for the highest stratum of temple servants. One would then also expect a similar limitation to apply to the so-called Sothis texts, which make the same kind of prognostications as the eclipse omens, to a small number of individuals at the top of the temple hierarchy. Natal astrology could have been be a pursuit that anyone with the right skillset would be allowed to engage in, while access to universal astrology or celestial divination was more restricted. Considering the numbers of Sothis texts surviving from, for instance, Tebtunis, this hypothesis seems difficult to maintain, however.[89]

The same can be inferred from P.Berlin 13146–7, whose recto side treats lunar eclipses, while the other side, the verso, concerns calculations of the first day of the first season throughout the year.[90] The manuscript may have belonged to a prophet or the like, but more likely it comes from an “astronomer’s workshop”. Recall that the “Book of the Temple” does not specify whether the “eclipse omens” of the fourth stage of education deal with solar or lunar eclipses, or both. The second text on P.Berlin 13146–7 can be viewed as an appropriate part of any temple astronomer’s toolbox (see below). Though the recto may have been discarded by the person who inscribed the verso, he did have access to that information. This text could thus indicate that some regular astronomers, and not only the prophets or other higher-ranking temple officials, had access to texts about eclipse prediction. Perhaps, therefore, the text of the “Book of the Temple” should be understood as describing what the prophet was expected to learn without any claims that other categories of priests were excluded from gaining such knowledge. Other sections of the treatise also make clear that the particular tasks ascribed to specific offices in the temple were often shared. Thus, astral knowledge does not seem to have been a secret within a fairly small “in group”.

4 Astral Knowledge and the Temple

One question that has to be answered is who was the primary practitioner of astrology in a temple environment. As mentioned, it is natural to assume that the temple astronomers[91] would be able to perform such consultations.[92] But before embarking on an exploration of this ostensibly obvious hypothesis, it must be pointed out that the English translation of the most common Egyptian title designating such people, wnw.ty in older texts and ı͗my-wnw.t in younger ones,[93] as “astronomer” is a slight misnomer. The title is literally “Who is in the Hour” and describes by and large the duties of this person.[94] The primary responsibility of this priest was to establish the length of the day, the seasons, the year, and the hour when the cultic rites were to be performed[95] as well as, for instance, finding the time when the inundation was supposed to start.[96] Being responsible for knowing and announcing the hour when the rituals were going to be performed, he needed to know the length of the seasonal hours.[97] It seems that this was by and large an observational duty, as is suggested by preserved astronomical instruments,[98] unlike the establishment of the positions of the celestial bodies on a horoscope.[99] However, texts also indicate that prediction must have been part of the duties of the astronomer (see above),[100] for instance, when establishing the length of priestly rotas.[101]

Perhaps the astral knowledge of this temple functionary only covered timing. But most temple astronomers probably possessed knowledge about the skies that goes beyond the ability to identify through observation the five planets that were known in Ancient Egypt. The description of, for instance, Clement of Alexandria (2nd–3rd cent. AD) makes this clear. His account is generally taken to be an idealised description of the office of temple astronomer during the Graeco-Roman period, but it may also be valid for earlier times.

In a famous passage from book six of his Stromateis, the author discusses the realms of Egyptian “philosophy” as displayed by the knowledge of the indigenous priests.[102] He describes the different areas of wisdom by pointing to various books whose content they were supposed to know. Included in his enumeration is a priest referred to as the Horoscopos (ὡροϲκόποϲ),[103] literally “Hour Watcher”, who bore the “insignia of astrology” (ἀϲτρολογίαϲ ϲύμβολα), by which one should understand “astronomical insignia”, a horologion and a palm rod. Clement’s description of the temple astronomer is well known from Egyptian images.[104] The Horoscopos was supposed to know by heart four Hermetic books. These concern (1) the arrangement of the bright fixed stars; (2) the positions of the Sun and the Moon and the five planets;[105] (3) conjunctions (syzygies) and luminous appearance (phases) of the Sun and the Moon; and (4) rising times. According to O. Neugebauer the four books are also attested in a temple context, namely in the title catalogue of the library of the Edfu Temple.[106] An Egyptian treatise designated as “Knowing the Motion of the Two Shining Ones (viz. Sun and Moon), Ruler(s) of Stars” (rḫ nmt.t n(.t) ḥꜣı͗.ty ḥqꜣ(.w) ḫꜣbꜣs.w)[107] was thought by Neugebauer to correspond to the four scrolls mentioned in the Greek text.[108] If correct, these works cannot be Greek but must be “proper” Egyptian ones.

Although it is not entirely evident what is implied by the content of all the texts mentioned by Clement, the titles suggest a rather broad understanding of astronomy. The fixed stars are known to have played an important role in Egyptian religion. Nevertheless, exactly what is meant with the “order” or “regularity” (τάξιϲ) of the two luminaries and the five planets cannot be known for certain, but it may well refer to their periodic motion through the zodiac. The topic of syzygies and phases of the Sun and Moon is more straight-forward, and probably involved knowledge of such astronomical texts as the ones described above. The term rising times is again more general. This may refer to the first visibility of planets or the decans. The rising times of the zodiac signs or Sothis cannot be excluded either. Whether Clement’s account can be taken to mean that these astronomers used Babylonian methods,[109] as required for the casting of horoscopes, or that they were only schooled in Egyptian “religious astronomy”[110] as contained in the “Book of Nut”[111] as suggested by Neugebauer and K. Ryholt,[112] cannot be firmly determined. The latter scholar also includes the astrological treatises as part of this functionary’s competence; such works appear to have been abundant in a temple environment.

Having access to such knowledge of the skies, the temple astronomer—at least in theory—could engage in astrological practices by casting horoscopes.[113] But would such a person really pursue divination? Scholars have assumed that temple astronomers could act as diviners (of sorts) already in earlier periods of Pharaonic history. It has also been suggested that it was the temple astronomers who were primarily responsible for dealing with the hemerological composition known as the “Book of Good and Bad Days”.[114] Even if these are not divinatory per se, according to strict definitions, they deal with a set of related practices.[115] In this connection, the so-called Israel Stela of Merenptah (13th cent. BC)[116] is relevant. It mentions individuals who observe stars and winds as having uttered a kind of prophecy about the pharaoh’s victory against his enemies. The fact that “Books of Astronomers” are mentioned in relation to astrological writings in the Demotic P.Carlsberg XI 10.2, a story about the discovery of astrological works, also suggests that the temple astronomers were engaged in astrological activities.[117] The question posed above should therefore be answered in the affirmative. Astronomers did participate in divinatory practices with the techniques that were at their disposal. Depending on rank and locality, among other factors, they could serve a wide array of clients. The royal court was clearly interested in predictions about the future, but hardly every practitioner would have been required to divine for the king. Yet universal forecasts could surely be of relevance more locally as well.[118] After the introduction of horoscopic astrology, an innovation that spurred advances in astronomy,[119] it can be assumed that astrology was part of their repertoire.

5 Inscriptions of the Astronomers and Astrologers?

5.1 Temple Astronomers

There are several more or less detailed descriptions of timekeeping from the Middle Kingdom and onwards.[120] From the Late period, for instance, a stela belonging to Ankhhor (Montgeron 2007.4), the Chief Astronomer (ḥry (ı͗my)-wnw.t/mr-wnw.ty), adds the extra information that he was one “who knows the coming forth (viz. heliacal rising) of Sothis” (rḫ pr(.t) Spd.t). His son, Hersenef, who is also mentioned on the stela, is styled in a similar way.[121] Other Late period monuments can be less informative. The stela of Ashaihy from the 30th Dynasty is more modest in terms of information. It only states that the owner was a “knower of the skies” (rḫ p.t).[122] The contemporary so-called Dattari Statue is an example of an inscription that unveils the responsibilities of the owner of the monument.[123] The person who commissioned the inscription was a prophet (ḥm-nṯr) and calls himself “the one who knows the hours with the help of the gnomon and the wnšb” (rḫ wnw.w(t) m mrḫ.t ḥnꜥ wnšb),[124] but is not labelled as an astronomer. These inscriptions display astronomical knowledge, and that the astronomers engaged in both observational and perhaps predictive astronomy related to timekeeping, but that they hardly ever dealt directly with divination or astrology. Such rather terse accounts, however, should not be viewed as encompassing the whole range of the astral knowledge of the person in question. They are rather an expression of an aspect that the commissioner of the inscription chose to emphasize.

Knowledge of the skies could also be expressed by more visual or material means. “Zenon” was a high-ranking priest in Coptos and a courtier of Ptolemy II Philadelphus.[125] Although he lacks any titles pertaining to timekeeping, a steatite gnomon (UC 16376)—an emblem of temple astronomers[126]—belonged to him.[127] The instrument displays acquaintance with observational astronomy. One can only speculate about the possible connections with his position at the Alexandrian court in a time when the astral sciences had become more fashionable.

A handful of inscriptions from the last centuries before the turn of the Common Era, for instance from Thebes, record the title of astronomer or even chief astronomer.[128] These inscriptions only rarely disclose much information about their role as time keepers or anything that can be directly interpreted as pertaining to celestial divination or astrology,[129] which does not preclude that they engaged in these arts. A reasonable explanation would be that astrology, or perhaps specifically casting personal horoscopes, was not part of the ritual duties of these priests. The latter duties were the ones stressed in the inscriptions. As ritualists in a temple they had other obligations, and if one was moonlighting as a diviner, this must have been regarded as secondary to his cultic responsibilities.

5.2 A Stargazer from the Fayum

Some of the astronomers went beyond stating that they had this title by providing a more or less elaborate description of their area of competence. One text is inscribed on the incompletely published statue belonging to Senty, son of Pensuchos (Cairo TR 25/11/18/3),[130] who was most probably active in the Fayum. He was an “astronomer[131] of the Domain of Souchos (n pr Sbk)”. The text is not the only evidence through which one can see that the owner of the statue was an astronomer. The statue itself was decorated in the manner typical of this occupation, because Senty is depicted carrying a gnomon.[132] Besides stating that he participated in the divine cult and had inherited the office from his father, Senty styles himself as one “who knows the hour correctly according to the will of the god” (rḫ wnw.t mtr ı͗b nṯr). He is also “the one who proclaims (ḏd) the years (rnp.wt), months (ꜣbd.w), days (hrw.w), and hours (wnw.wt) as well as the course (sb) of the stars (sbꜣ.w) by observing (mꜣꜣ) their way (wꜣ.t)”.[133] Aside from boasting about participation in religious festivals, Senty was clearly interested in telling the world that he knew time management through observational practices, and this was stressed in both text and image. The reference to observing the motion of the stars does not necessarily imply planets, since it could refer to stellar constellations important for measuring time, such as the decans. At the minimum the statement can be taken to imply that Senty was familiar with the regularities of the heavens. Nothing in the inscription clearly discloses astrological activities. Yet, according to the, he describes himself using the following phrase found in biographies and descriptions of sages such as Imhotep: “the one who announces what is coming (sr ı͗y.t)”.[134] Throughout most of Egyptian history this phrase and its derivatives are, however, rarely associated with divination, but with the ability of officials to anticipate or announce matters related to their profession as a result of their acquaintance with the teachings.[135] Nevertheless, as divination and divinatory treatises began to be classified as such,[136] one can assume that when the phrase was attributed to mortals, it could also be connected to divination, as was occasionally the case with deities and sages.[137] Note, however, that the phrase on Senty’s statue is not found directly adjacent to the description of his astral knowledge.

5.3 Harentebo

A longer text (Cairo JE 38545) belonged to a man called Harentebo (usually known as Harkhebis vel sim. in the scholarly literature), who was a dignitary in the Delta.[138] The date of the statue is debated. It has been ascribed to the 30th Dynasty on stylistic grounds, while the early Ptolemaic period is also possible. Unlike Senty, he does not style himself as an astronomer by providing a title. Instead he describes the scope of the astral knowledge that he possessed. The relevant part of the inscription reads as follows:[139]

The prince, governor, and unique friend, who is educated in the sacred script (mdw-nṯr), who has seen (mꜣꜣ) all that is visible on earth and in the sky, who is educated in observing (mꜣꜣ) the stars (ḫꜣbꜣs.w), among which there is no erring, who announces (šsr) the rising (ꜥnḫ) and the setting (ḥtp) in their time together with (ḥnꜥ) the gods that foretell (sr) the future (ḥn.tı͗), after he has purified himself for them in their days of coming forth, when the Effective One (ꜣḫ) was beside the Phoenix (bn.w)[140] above them so that he is able to pacify them with his utterances (tp-r(ꜣ).w⸗f), the one who sees (mꜣꜣ) the rising (twꜣ) of every star in the sky, who knows the coming of … (?) the great inundation and everything which will come into being in a perfect year (rnp.t nfr.t), the one who foretells (sr) the coming forth (pr(.t)) of Sothis in the beginning of the year, seeing (mꜣꜣ) her in her first feast, who calculates (ı͗p) her trajectory (nmt.t) to the times of touching the ground (dhn)[141] (?), who observes all that she makes so that everything that she foretells (sr) is in his hand, the one who knows (rḫ) the northern (ḫd(.t)) and southern (ḫntı͗) path of the sun disk, who announces (šsr) all its omens (bı͗ꜣ.w) and all their revelations (dı͗(.t)-r(ꜣ)⸗sn), which produce (dı͗(.w)-ḫp⟨r⟩)[142] that which he says—for they have come into being, arriving in their (right) time (nw⸗sn)—, who arranges (šbšb) the hours in accordance with the two times (day and night) without confusion during the night in … … every … bringing (to the festival) at the beginning of every month, who knows (swn) every visible (mꜣꜣ) thing in the sky since he has waited for it, who is skilled (in interpreting) their winds (ṯꜣw(.w)) and their omens (šm(.w)) …

After this, Harentebo seemingly switches topic and claims that he does not divulge anything that he has seen, except to the regent. Whether the claims relate to his astral activities or something else is not clear. The text then continues with an enumeration of his other sacerdotal duties. He was also a “scorpion charmer” (ḫrp-srq.t), a kind of physician,[143] and he describes the responsibilities that came with that title. Quack has shown that this part of the inscription quotes the chapter treating the role of this priest in the so-called Book of the Temple.[144] It is possible that the astronomical part could also be quoting from that work, at least partially, but the relevant section is not preserved.

The inscription informs us that its owner was a highly educated priest, one that had gone through the higher echelons of the sacerdotal education. But what does the inscription say about the astronomical knowledge of Harentebo?

The first statement that potentially can be attributed to some form of knowledge pertaining to the sky, “who has seen all that is visible on earth and in the sky”, appears to be a boilerplate expression. It is also found in the so-called Book of the Temple where the duties of the Priest of Sachmet (wꜥb Sḫm.t) are treated.[145] It is, therefore, unclear whether anything particular is implied due to the seemingly general nature of the statement and its use in other contexts.[146]

The second assertion referring to astral knowledge poses a problem since it can be interpreted in two ways. The stars (ḫꜣbꜣs.w) themselves may be the ones “without erring”, and are thus to be understood as fixed stars,[147] which do not visibly change their position relative to one another. An alternative interpretation is that the phrase relates to the owner of the inscription: he is an unerring stargazer. The phrase thus becomes one of a more general nature.[148] The first interpretation makes sense in the light of what is reported by Clement of Alexandria; the first Hermetic book that the temple astronomer was supposed to be acquainted with concerned precisely this phenomenon (see above).

Harentebo then goes on to state that he announces the rising and setting together with the “gods that foretell the future”.[149] The rising and setting probably refer to the fixed stars, but may also signify the decans. Since their course across the heavenly vault was important for chronometry, it is possible that this is what is implied. One can assume that the astronomer speaks about other stars than those referred to as rising (twꜣ) further on in the text.[150] The second statement has been interpreted as referring to either the planets[151] or the decans;[152] both can be designated as gods and both were used for making astrological predictions.[153] Considering how indistinct the phrasing is, it is even conceivable that Harentebo includes both categories of celestial bodies in his statement. However, they constitute another entity than the ones implied by the rising and setting due to the presence of the connective conjunction ḥnꜥ.

The passage could of course pertain to astrology—it is impossible to know for certain. If it is taken to refer to the decans, it is possible that Harentebo, instead of talking about proper astrology, alludes to the effect of these entities as described on the so-called Naos of the Decades.[154] Rather than providing prognostications depending on various configurations of planets and constellations, the text describes how the decans affect life on earth by appearing in the sky.

It is difficult to interpret the details of the passages concerning the astrologer purifying himself, the “Effective One” being besides the “Phoenix”, and the pacification of these entities with his utterances. It is unclear whether the inscription is dealing with the Sun and the Moon or Venus and a decan.[155] What is described may relate to such ideas as found on the above-mentioned naos, particularly as the decans were held responsible for terrestrial events, including the Nile flood and various calamities.[156]

The inundation is the next topic mentioned by the inscription. In the Egyptian calendar, its date gradually changes, and Harentebo indicates that he is able to make adjustments to arrive at the correct day for this event. Consequently, the next topic refers to the appearance of Sothis, whose heliacal rising ideally occurred at the beginning of the inundation. The inscription states that Harentebo is able to predict the date and follow the star through its visibility in the sky before it disappears at the western horizon. Though the star has a regular movement across the sky, the astronomer claims to be able to calculate (ı͗p) its course—just as Thoth or Imhotep.[157] That is not all that Harentebo does, however, since he declares that he has command over what Sothis foretells. This seems to be a reference to celestial divination involving the stars.[158] The practice may have entailed computing zodiacal positions of the planets, as is attested in several papyri. Simpler methods could also be involved, such as considering the colour of the star in conjunction with weather phenomena.[159] Yet, a more conservative interpretation would be that he is not really referring to divinatory practices but to natural events and feasts following the rising of the star. Similar considerations can be made regarding Ankhhor’s statement about Sothis.

Next Harentebo turns to his knowledge of the Sun’s southern and northern voyages. The phrase clearly refers to the winter and summer solstices.[160] That is, he is able to predict these dates and from when the days become shorter or longer. But his knowledge of the Sun also stretches into the realm of divination, as indicated by the statement that he announces all the omens of the Sun. The word translated as “omens” is bı͗ꜣ.w, which literally means “wonders”, if it is not just a variant plural spelling of bı͗ꜣ.t, “amazement” or “confusion”, which can be written in the same way.[161] The same root also designates “oracle”. The “omens” announced by Harentebo can be defined more precisely. It is likely that the statement refers to the ability to predict solar eclipses. Such a conclusion is not only to be drawn from the fact that solar eclipses are the most prominent omens related to the Sun, with a reasonably long history in Egypt,[162] but also because of a proximity between the term used by Harentebo and bı͗ꜣ.t. The Coptic derivative of the latter word is ⲉⲃⲏ, which compounded with ⲉⲓⲣⲉ means “darkness” and is used to describe eclipses just as its Demotic forerunner ꜣbꜣ.t (vel sim.).[163] The fact that ı͗r is lacking is of secondary importance. The term appears as ı͗by.t in the “Book of the Temple”.[164] To be able to announce eclipses implies that Harentebo, at least in theory, could calculate when they occurred. It is conceivable that such methods had reached Egypt from Mesopotamia; Babylonian astronomers were able to predict eclipses with some success[165] and a top-of-the-line astronomer, such as Harentebo, would surely be acquainted with them. Note that this is precisely what some astronomers a few centuries later claim to be able to do (see below). The prediction of lunar eclipses is also known from at least the first century BC. The statement that follows also seems to hint at precisely this. Besides disclosing that he is able to reveal the prognostications based on eclipses—perhaps to the court: his relation to the king (nb tꜣ.wy) is thematised later on in the inscription[166]—he stresses that they occurred in due time (ḫpr.n⸗sn ı͗y r nw⸗sn), which probably means just as he had predicted. Although not a direct textual parallel, the text on the statue may give an insight into what was implied by the passage referring to eclipses found in the so-called Book of the Temple.

Thereafter Harentebo returns to more ordinary matters, stating that he is able to divide the hours properly. By this he probably insinuates that he is able to use a gnomon, a clepsydra, and a sundial[167] as well as being acquainted with texts that explain the length of the hours of day and night throughout the seasons. By referencing the beginning of the month, Harentebo boasts that he is able to determine the first crescent, which defines the beginning of the lunar month. This date was important for establishing priestly services and festivals celebrated in relation to the Moon; and here the astronomer may be mentioning leap days.[168]

The section of the text that treats Harentebo’s astral knowledge is concluded by a statement about his general experience: “Who knows every visible thing in the sky since he has waited for it”, that is, spent time observing or learning about the phenomena. The fact that the stargazer stresses both observational and predictive practices in relation to the celestial bodies throughout the inscription confirms this conclusion.

The final statement refers to divination; he claims to be skilled in (interpreting) the winds and omens (of the sky).[169] Here Harentebo proclaims that he was engaged in techniques of celestial divination that have been known in Egypt at least since the New Kingdom, and were conducted by a sort of mantic specialist.[170] These techniques were probably based on the Mesopotamian celestial divination series Enuma Anu Enlil or a prototype thereof.[171] Such texts are attested in Egypt from the New Kingdom until the Graeco-Roman period in Egypt.[172] At the time Harentebo lived, such techniques would have been far from novel in Egypt.

The inscription is a key piece of evidence for understanding the role of Egyptian astronomers in the period under discussion. In addition to being able to determine and divide the various chronological cycles, such as hours, days, seasons, and years, operating with longer and seemingly more irregular temporal patterns was also part of their repertoire of skills. Their ability to predict solar eclipses implies that they were able to predict lunar eclipses with some success, using a similar technique as presented by P.Berlin 13146–7. Though it is not explicitly stated, one must imagine that being able to calculate the periodic motion through the zodiac of the planets and their synodic periods was part of the repertoire. An astronomer was thus sufficiently equipped to cast even more advanced horoscopes for natal astrology. Yet there is no evidence that Harentebo participated in such an activity. On the other hand, as has already been pointed out by several commentators, there is plenty to show that he was engaging in various forms of celestial divination, from eclipse omens to brontoscopic predictions and perhaps Sothis omens.[173] The statue reminds us that the astronomers possessed a broad repertoire of knowledge and that they sometimes served as diviners, as is known for other types of priests.

5.4 A Family of Practitioners

In Roman-period Dakke and Philae, a few inscriptions preserve relevant information about the astral knowledge of priests. In particular, Graf.Dak. 30 (3rd cent. AD), Graf.Phil. 410 (3rd cent. AD)[174] and 421 (AD227/228) are relevant.[175] These inscriptions commemorate the presence of Nubian priests participating in rituals at the sites. They were commissioned by members of the same family, several of whom engaged with astral knowledge. The beginning of the first inscription is written with hieroglyphs, while the second part uses Demotic. The other two make use of Demotic and a few Hieratic insertions, particularly in the latter text. This use of mixed scripts indicates a higher level of learning, as is fitting for men with elevated sacerdotal positions.[176]

The graffito of Harenyotef, son of Wyekye (Graf.Dak. 30),[177] refers to him as a man of many sacerdotal titles. Alongside several that connect him to Isis and Thoth, he is also royal chief ritualist (ḥry-tp) in Kush and great sage (rḫ-ı͗ḫ.t wr), which presents him as an equal of the legendary Imhotep.[178] The titles that directly pertain to things celestial are: prophet of Sothis (ḥm-nṯr Spd.t), overseer of the motion of the Moon (ı͗my-r(ꜣ) mšꜥ n I͗ꜥḥ),[179] priest of the five planets (p(ꜣ) wꜥb n pꜣ 5 sbꜣ(.w) ꜥnḫ.w) , and “one who knows the time(s) of solar and lunar eclipses” (nty rḫ wš n ı͗r(.t) ꜥby n Rꜥ I͗ꜥḥ).

The same person is also attested in Graf.Phil. 410 together with his brother and bearing similar titles as in the aforementioned inscription. Those pertaining to astral knowledge are styled slightly differently, however. The brothers refer to themselves as “(Those) who know the appearance of the five planets” (nty rḫ nꜣ šꜥ.w n pꜣ 5 sw.w ꜥnḫ.w) and “find the time of solar and lunar eclipses” (gm wš n ı͗r ꜣb n pꜣ Rꜥ I͗ꜥḥ).

Wyekye, son of Harenyotef, who is commemorated in Graf.Phil. 421, was probably the father of the two above mentioned stargazers. He enumerates fewer titles but was also linked to Isis, and he held the position of royal chief ritualist of Kush. His connection to the stars is limited to being a prophet of Sothis, overseer of the motion of the Moon, and priest of the five planets.

From the titles in Graf.Dak. 30 and Graf.Phil. 421 one gets the impression that there was a stellar cult connected to Sothis, the Moon, and the five planets. It is more probable, however, that the sacerdotal titles were a way of conveying areas of astral knowledge. They were merely a cultic paraphrasis. The actual phenomena are, however, described with the same terminology as found in astronomical texts. This is at least suggested by the inscription in Graf.Phil. 410. Instead of being the “priests of the five planets”, Harenyotef and his brother are described as the “ones who know the rising (times) of the planets”. That can be assumed to include the knowledge of their periodic planetary motion through the zodiac, synodic periods, and other phenomena. Considering that the rising of the planets is specified in relation to the zodiac,[180] it is not unlikely that they were able to cast horoscopes with this knowledge.[181] In general, it is probable that the individuals in question possessed much of the same knowledge as described by Harentebo. That Harenyotef and Wyekye were prophets of Sothis could imply that they were able to “calculate” its path in a similar way as the astronomer from the Delta, rather than this being a reference to a cult of Isis-Sothis.[182] Whether they engaged in divinatory practices related to Sirius is not certain, but the title prophet could certainly imply something in that vein,[183] particularly since they appear to be connected to a royal court. Considering the Zeitgeist of the 3rd century AD, it would be unusual if they were not familiar with such techniques. The title “overseer of the motion of the Moon” suggests that they were able to predict its motion, perhaps also to predict the first crescent and knowledge of its 25-year synodic period. Finally, the ability to calculate eclipses signals a high level of astronomical knowledge that surely subsumed other tasks, such as being able to establish the season, the length of the hours, the solstices, etc. Due to the ominous nature of eclipses, one can be fairly certain that a scholar capable of predicting them would also engage in eclipse divination.

The celestial phenomena mentioned in the inscriptions at Dakke and Philae predominantly point to predictive astronomy rather than observational practices. Since the priests refer to the rising times of planets and the timing of eclipses, their astronomical engagement reached beyond mere timekeeping. As seen above, Harentebo engaged with both predictive and observational practices. The latter cannot have been unfamiliar to the Nubian stargazers either. As astronomers, their duties would by and large include tasks similar to those of their colleagues further up the Nile. That is, to observe the celestial bodies, perhaps from an observatory such as the one at Meroë.[184] The way they expressed their astral knowledge departs from earlier inscriptions by more strongly highlighting phenomena relevant to astrology. This might reflect the spirit of the time. In the wake of the “zodiacal and mathematical turns” in the astral sciences, astrology and eclipse predictions gained the same prominence as determining time and annual celestial events in earlier periods.

5.5 Characterising the Stellar Scientists

The inscriptions show that the astronomers particularly highlight their ability to measure or announce time and predict phenomena of the major celestial bodies, thus foregrounding their knowledge of the constitution of the skies, while their ability to forecast the future was less frequently stressed. The ability to “announce time” may, on the other hand, not be as plainly defined an activity as it first appears: the process of constructing a horoscope could be referred to as “calling/reading the hour” (ꜥš-wnw.t).[185] Much of the technical knowledge of the astronomer is in line with the requirements for performing celestial divination or making astrological predictions. The fact that rising times or eclipses are calculated—phenomena that did not have any direct practical purpose for timekeeping—invites such a conclusion. As already stated, one can assume that the astronomers discussed above participated in divinatory activities, even if these were not directly, or separately, emphasised in their autobiographies or commemorative inscriptions.

The preserved inscriptions belonged to individuals from the higher echelons of the priestly hierarchy, but evidence suggests that astronomers were not necessarily always high-ranking priests. Astral knowledge or astronomical duties are also attested among temple servants belonging to the lower sacerdotal ranks.[186] At the same time, only infrequently do the texts detailing specific areas of astral knowledge attribute the title of astronomer to the commissioners of the inscriptions.

One can compare the situation with the so-called Israel stela, which mentions the stargazers without providing them with titles known elsewhere but with epithets describing their knowledge. A passage from the mythological narrative of P.Carlsberg XI 5 also fits this pattern. The passage describes how certain stars are displaced as an ominous sign. Thereupon one of the main protagonists orders sages to be brought. The text seems to imply that these men had a connection with Mesopotamia, but due to the fragmentary nature of the manuscript the specifics are unclear. They are instructed to scrutinise (gšp) the sky and observe (nw) the disk in order to interpret the signs. Following the orders, they read their books in order to unravel the situation. The interpreters of the sky are, as far as can be seen from the incompletely preserved fragment, not referred to as astronomers, but as wise men.

6 Astronomers and Astrologers at Tebtunis

Evidence for astral knowledge at Tebtunis can be found in multiple texts of various sorts from the site.[187] Though many of these are difficult to date beyond the first or second century AD, several documents suggest that a number of people with connections to the local temple had access to such knowledge.

Several indications that this was the case already in the Ptolemaic period are found in documentary texts. At the end of the second century BC, the temple notary Haryothes, son of Harmysis,[188] is attested in a number of papyrus deeds that he drew up for the inhabitants of the village: e.g. GEM 66581 (134 BC); P.Cair. II 30628 (119 BC); P.Köln.Dem. 2 (BC 110). A few years into his career, he must have acquired the office of temple astronomer. In at least three texts (P.Cair. II 30607–30609) from period BC 128–124, he signs the documents that he drew up using the title “temple astronomer of Tebtunis” (ı͗my-wnw.t (n) tꜣ ḥw.t-nṯr (n) Tꜣ-nb-tꜣ-tny). This suggests that he signed them while also possessing this role in the temple. Since priestly offices could be bartered, it is plausible that he acquired the office of temple astronomer a few years into his tenure as a temple scribe, which would explain why he did not use the title in the first deed in which he is attested (GEM 66581). For unknown reasons, he may subsequently have sold the office. He did not use the title while signing the later documents, such as P.Köln.Dem. 2. This reveals that more than one person among the priests was able to conduct the duties connected with the office (assuming that the person who possessed the title also fulfilled the responsibilities that came with it).

In the Roman period, there are indications among the documentary papyri that the same situation persisted. That is, more than one person was able to carry out the tasks of the astronomer. The Greek P.Tebt. II 599 (2nd cent. AD) contains an offer for the purchase of the office of the prophet in the temple. As part of the offer, the person also promises to carry out other priestly duties, among which those of the astronomer.[189] Lists of priestly expenses from the temple (e.g. SB XVIII 13118), however, suggest that there was only one remunerated office holder at one time.

The number of such officials probably depended, at least in part, on the size and economic strength of the institution in question. The above mentioned statues of astronomers from Ptolemaic Thebes show that there were multiple priests with such duties in the temples there, and inscriptions from Dendara and Edfu also mention a plurality of astronomers.[190] The same can be understood from Graf.Phil. 421, where two brothers announce their acquaintance with the stellar arts. The depictions of astronomers at work also involve two individuals taking part in the observation of movements in the sky.[191] Even if scholarship generally assumes that two astronomers observed the night sky in order to measure time, and perhaps a pair for each phyle, R. Birk has recently convincingly argued that astronomers could carry out this task alone with the “astronomical trident”.[192]

Unfortunately, no hitherto published document from Tebtunis shows that the astronomers were also engaged as astrologers, though it is beyond doubt that they were able to do so, having the expected standard skillset that came with their office. Priests who pursue astrological activities are attested already for the Ptolemaic period. In addition to astrological manuals, texts connecting entire biographies to zodiac signs have been found at the site along with astronomical papyri from the same period.[193]

There is other evidence for particular astrologers in Tebtunis. As has been noted, Panesis, son of Pakebkis, a priest of the Soknebtunis sanctuary during the second half of the second century AD, was probably the individual who wrote the astrological text(s) of P.CtYBR 1132 and P.Carlsberg 420.[194] According to Ryholt, he composed the latter astrological manual by means of collation. The fragmentary colophon is restored as follows: “This is its very end, it being written (i.e. copied) and it being corrected in accordance with that which was written before him (i.e. collated)” (ı͗w⸗f pw nfr [ı͗w⸗f] sẖ.w ı͗w⸗[f nfr] ⌈r⌉-ẖ.t pꜣy-sẖ wbꜣ⸗f).[195] Besides copying literary texts (e.g. P.Tebt.Tait. 15),[196] it is fairly certain that Panesis was able to use Greek astronomical tools; he clearly was able to read and write Greek, even if at a low level, as is shown by PSI X 1143 (AD 164), a Greek document that he himself signed.

It is not known if he was indeed engaged as a temple astronomer. No documents indicating this survive, but we know that he was styled as ἱερεύϲ in Greek documents. This title is rather generic, but in a Demotic document, P.Tebt.Tait. 22, his priestly position is specified as m-nṯry. From what can be gathered, this title seems to be specific to the Soknebtunis sanctuary, but it is questionable whether it signifies an elevated rank.[197]

What, if anything, is known about the scribe who penned the astrological manual of P.Carlsberg 81? He wrote the text was likely active during the second century AD, as suggested by the palaeography of the text. Unfortunately, no name or title has survived that can be attached to a specific individual. It is fairly certain that the same scribe penned at least one so-called Sothis text, P.Cair. II 31222, a text relating to universal omens.[198] That one and the same priest, viz. astrologer, engaged in both kinds of astrology should be no surprise. Practitioners of this art who wrote in Greek could often treat both kinds of phenomena. If Jones’s understanding and dating of the Cairo text is correct,[199] the astrologer can be placed in the mid-second century AD—Jones dates it to AD 134—and we can postulate that this man still engaged in casting the fortune of the coming year. It also suggests that Sothis texts were kept for “practical reasons” by the priests rather than being merely theoretical exercises from a bygone time or something only used by astrologers directly connected to the royal house.

There are other individuals—unfortunately remaining nameless to us—who were engaged in several areas of knowledge in addition to the astral arts. One person, whose handwriting resembles the style of the scribes at Narmouthis, wrote P.Carlsberg 66,[200] a treatise concerning natal astrology based on the decans, and a narrative text.[201] Another, who is commonly referred to as the “Nun-Hand”, wrote at least one astrological manual relating to universal forecasts (P.Carlsberg 688), but also “historical narratives, a mythological narrative, a cult-geographic manual, a cosmology, a religious hymn or manual” and finally also “a dream book, and a prophecy”.[202] Yet another person who wrote a treatise relating to decans and prognostications made for women (PSI inv. D 35) also penned a number of narrative texts.[203] The combination of, for instance, dream interpretation and astrology was also by no means alien to the Graeco-Roman astrologers, who were, inter alia, medics, pharmacologists, magicians, and engaged in other types of divination.[204] Other Egyptian sources, such as the autobiography of Harentebo, also inform us that some Egyptian priests were specialists in various areas beyond astrology. The above-mentioned inscriptions at Dakke and Philae suggest something similar.

Papyri from other localities point to the same phenomenon, even if one cannot always connect the texts directly to a temple environment. While the corpus of the Graeco-Egyptian magical papyri contains ample references to astrological practices, one papyrus in the group stands out: PGM LXII (3rd cent. AD). It contains a number of horoscopes as well as magical texts. P.Oxy. XLVI 3298 is a notebook of a practitioner active during the third century AD. In addition to containing an elaborate horoscope—the longitudes of the planets in the zodiac signs are given—and a simple one, it includes a brief note with instructions on how to perform a dream oracle.[205] This again shows that astrologers were not limited to one craft within the divinatory trade but engaged in a wider array of techniques that a customer might wish to consult.

One might, of course, object that those who produced the mentioned Demotic manuscripts were just professional scribes who compiled them for others. But the evidence suggests that such texts often were copied by the very same person who used them later on in one capacity or another.[206] The divinatory texts, furthermore, do not seem to be part of the “theological holdings” of a temple. One can, therefore, assume that the manuscripts were kept as personal copies, potentially stored in a collective archive or library. The discussion above shows that the priests who wrote the astrological manuals were not only ritualists in the service of the crocodile god Soknebtunis; some of them were also “scientific polymaths”. In other words, the priesthood, which included several astrologers, was interested in all areas of scholarly knowledge.

As a final remark, it can be added that even if one cannot precisely date all of the astrologers at Tebtunis, the quantity of individual hands attested in the various astrological and astronomical texts suggests that several practitioners of this art were active in the temple at the same time. As a consequence, the potential client of an astrological consultation could choose from multiple “dealers of fortune”. Regrettably, the material does not reveal much about how the astrologers divided the market among themselves. Yet a few horoscopes from other localities suggest that clients who had their nativity cast and were dissatisfied with the consultation could have another one made for them.[207]

7 A Few More Astrologers and Their Horoscopes

Tebtunis is not the only site from which there is evidence for astrologers. Aside from the above-mentioned inscriptions a small assemblage of horoscopic ostraca from Athribis in Upper Egypt provides further information about astrologers in the Graeco-Roman period. At least seven such texts are currently kept by the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.[208] The texts in question record nativities that can be dated from the early years of Queen Cleopatra VII (O.Ashm.Dem. 641) until the later parts of the reign of Augustus (O.Ashm.Dem. 634), a time span that covers roughly half a century. As such the corpus contains the oldest extant nativities from Egypt.[209] Nevertheless, one should not automatically assume that the horoscopes were composed near the birth date recorded. The texts with nativities dating to the Ptolemaic period could well have been written during the Roman era.[210]

Unlike most horoscopes written in Egyptian, which can only be described as simple horoscopes, the Athribis texts testify to an advanced level of astrology. In addition to listing the standard information found in a basic horoscope, they provide the longitudes of the planets in each zodiac sign and state in which terms they were. The texts also consider prenatal syzygies of the Moon and relate them to the year of the lunar cycle.[211] In addition to the four cardinal points, they also include calculations of several astrological lots, such as the Lot of Fortune (špšy.t) and the Lot of the Daimon (šꜣw).[212]

The texts are written in a combination of Demotic and Hieratic. Though most writings of the names of the planets or the zodiac signs are condensed down to one sign, the principles that were followed can be compared to those employed in the contemporary monumental inscriptions found on temple walls. Not only does this indicate a higher level of writing knowledge (at least as far as can be judged from the rather abbreviated writing found in the horoscopes), but the way several names are written also connects to theological doctrines, which stresses the sacerdotal schooling of the astrologers who compiled these horoscopes.

It is clear that the texts were written by a number of individuals and that they record nativities up to approximately half a century apart. Unfortunately, it is not known if they were active at the same time or in succession. Since the texts offer only a limited repertoire of signs, it is difficult to assess how many scribes were involved, but at least two of the texts, O.Ashm.Dem. 519 and 741, appear to be signed by the astrologers who compiled them, a rare feature among such materials.[213] Unfortunately, both texts are fragmentary. The first sherd contains two partially preserved horoscopes. One can be fairly precisely dated because of the reported planetary positions, which point to 36 BC, while the other contains a reference to the 10th year of a lunar cycle. The preserved astronomical information suggests a date in 23/22 BC. The second text can be tentatively dated to the first quarter of 19 BC based on the preserved planetary positions.

Two individuals appear as potential practitioners. Harnouphis, the superior priest (Ḥr-nfr pꜣ wꜥb ꜥꜣ), wrote O.Ashm.Dem. 519.[214] The title can be connected with priests who accessed the inner sanctum and were responsible for the daily ritual. As noted above, the superior priests had access to the higher echelons of sacerdotal education, even if they were not the highest-ranking temple dignitaries.[215] The name and title is placed at the left edge of the text. On its own, it could hypothetically be taken as that of the native, particularly given that adults also sought the advice of astrologers. Clients could be mentioned by titles as is known from, for example, O.Glasg.Dem. 1925.96, which derives from Roman Memnoneia[216] and was produced for Belles, son of Pasemis, the chief pastophoros (ḥry ı͗ry-ꜥꜣ).[217] There, however, the name of the native and that of his father, who is mentioned with the title, are written where expected: after the dating formula. The horoscopes from Athribis that mention the natives by name regularly do so in the same place. O.Ashm.Dem. 741 seems to confirm the assumption that Harnouphis was the compiler of O.Ashm.Dem. 519.[218] The last lines of O.Ashm.Dem. 741, which follow the astronomical information, provide a name and a title. The name, which is partially preserved on the penultimate line of the text, is probably best reconstructed as Apollonios. Only the first four letters are preserved before the text breaks off: Ꜣpln⌉[---:[219] The last line containing the title is faded, but one can still see that he was styled as the chief pastophoros.[220]

These horoscopes were probably kept in the archives of the temple, and therefore not handed out to the customers. As indicated above, at least one piece found in the Ashmolean Museum (O.Ashm.Dem. 519) contains two horoscopes on one ostracon.[221] One can only speculate about the relation between the two nativities. It is possible that these texts were kept by the practitioners in case the customer came back and asked for another prognostication for the same horoscope. Instead of redoing the calculations, the astrologer could turn to his files in order to check the positions before conducting a new astrological consultation. A potential factor as to why these particular horoscopes were kept by the astrologers is that it was cumbersome to compile them, more so than most known horoscopes of the basic type. On the other hand, the far simpler horoscopes from Narmouthis were also preserved by the temple personnel.[222]

Why the names of the practitioner were added is unclear. It is possible that this was done for archival purposes, to hold the astrologer accountable for his calculations. Another possibility is that the compilers took pride in their work in much the same way as Titus Pitenius probably did when he produced his horoscope for Hermon (P.Lond. I 130). S. Heilen understands his methods as an attempt to imitate Egyptian practices and the prelude to the horoscope as a bid to connect himself to the sages of Egypt.[223] Titus wanted to make known that he was well versed in this type of intellectual pursuit.

Be this as it may, these texts, just as several others, suggest that there were a number of individuals who were able to act as astrological practitioners in the temples, and that they were scattered among various priestly ranks, confined neither to the low-ranking pastophoroi or regular priests, nor only to the highest echelons.

8 Conclusion

Although the Egyptians engaged in divination, including techniques relating to various heavenly phenomena, at least from the time of the New Kingdom, astrology came into vogue during the Graeco-Roman period. Right from the beginning there appear to have been specialists of various techniques of divination, including prognostication based on celestial phenomena. Such activities, however, left only a small impression on the textual record of the practitioners. Although individual inscriptions relate to astronomical practices throughout the Pharaonic period, it is not until shortly before the Graeco-Roman era that more detailed clues emerge about the kind of astral knowledge that these specialists possessed and about the different practices which they pursued in connection with astrology or celestial divination.

In the private inscriptions, astronomical knowledge was treated with more reverence than astrological knowledge, as far as such a division can be made. This may seem strange, considering that, for instance, temples were decorated with zodiacs. The inscriptions, however, usually stress cultic roles of the owner, a function that astrology largely seems to lack. The explanation for this lies in the fact that the temple zodiacs, although based on the same doctrines as the astrology practiced by the Egyptians, did not primarily serve a divinatory purpose. They depicted the moment of creation and as such had a theological relevance. The situation is similar with tombs and coffins adorned with depictions of zodiacs arranged so as to fit the date of birth of the tomb owner. Rather than primarily being a “hidden horoscope” disclosing the life lived by the occupant, they assisted his or her rebirth in the hereafter by recreating the moment of the original birth. Tombs were, after all, modelled on the temples and they partially fulfilled a similar purpose. The evidence posed by inscriptions, documentary texts, and the manuals themselves sheds light on the temple zodiacs and those found on coffins and in tombs.[224] The theological innovation depicted by these monuments was not elusive knowledge. It was part of the repertoire that came with becoming a priest and thus must, unsurprisingly, have been understood by a large proportion, if not all, of the temple personnel as well as the tomb owners.[225] The related art of divination, astrology, received part of its credibility through the prominence of astral knowledge in the temples and its significance in theological doctrines. This connection can also be seen in the fact that the practitioners held epithets and titles associated with the divine patrons of these arts, such as Imhotep, or gods like Thoth. They claimed to possess the same type of knowledge as the legendary sages, and used them to model their activity. The underlying perceptions of the sages may, in fact, be understood as idealised reflections of the practitioners about their own role as scholars. They stressed their knowledge of the mechanics of the skies and thus also of the world’s constitution.

Numerous textual and material artefacts from Graeco-Roman Egypt demonstrate the importance of astrology to Egyptian culture. That the lion’s share of traceable astrologers can be tied to the temple environment has long been known, but the discussion here has fleshed out and detailed that connection. As astral knowledge turns out to have been widely accessible to the temple personnel, irrespective of position, its practitioners can be found among priests of many types and different ranks. Engaging in astral science could not only generate supplementary income for the temple servants, but also provide them with additional social authority because it enabled them to extend their services into the realm of popular religion. Astrologers who engaged in natal horoscopy clearly had an interest in making universal forecasts as well and their activities did not end there. They were also engaged in several other areas of “science”, which accords well with the image of the Egyptian priest provided by many a Greek and Latin author as a learned “polymath” versed in all sorts of “arcane” wisdom. To the priesthood as a collective, however, it was hardly arcane.

Corresponding author: Andreas Winkler, Freie Universität Berlin, Institut für Wissensgeschichte des Altertums, Arnimallee 10, 14195Berlin, Germany; and Einstein Center Chronoi, Berlin, Germany, E-mail:


This paper was finished in the framework of the project “Ancient Astral Science in Transformation: Zodiac” (885478) financed by the European Research Council under its Horizon 2020 program, Advanced Grant scheme.


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Published Online: 2021-06-29
Published in Print: 2021-06-25

© 2021 Andreas Winkler, published by De Gruyter, Berlin/Boston

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