Unusual orientation parameters in a statuette representing pharaoh Pepi I with a falcon may show the breaking of the inflexible Egyptian ritual rules related to sacred geography.
At a certain point in the history of our civilization, there was a swivel of the orientation axes for sacred buildings from solstitial to equinoctial, and this was almost apparent in ancient Egypt. To the reader unfamiliar with the ancient architectural lexicon, it is enough, for the moment, to know that the solstitial orientation – north/south – is almost Polar and Stellar (the Roman “Cardus), while the equinoctial – east/west – follows the Sun (the Roman “Decumanus”), although the Moon cannot be excluded, as it has rising and setting points similar to the Sun).
For a long time now, I have suspected that territorial layouts had been observed not only by ancient priests but also by ancient alchemists (a supposition that both human categories had been contiguous is rather well grounded). And the requirement of “territoriality” for the Philosophers’ Stone is something I have always heard of, but only as indistinct background noise. I say this supposing that Alchemy is the basis of the oldest religious beliefs, in fact, death and the afterlife were undeniably the most salient concerns of archaic thinking.
Before examining the specific case of the statuette representing Pepi I, and in the light of the above-mentioned assertions, it would be interesting to know if any ancient sacred building has ever hosted alchemical practices. The finding of some weird cult objects implying technologies incredibly useful, or fit, for our alchemical works, the position near or above caves or underground water cisterns, the presence inside the ancient temples of some symbolic items which would then play a role in the later alchemical iconography, the contiguity of religious mythology and Alchemy, the personification of high priests as legendary alchemists, all that made us suspect that the orientation system of some very ancient sacred buildings, belonging to eras lost in the night of time, could officially have been planned for ritual duties or services and, unofficially, for alchemical services needing specific sky, or terrestrial, conditions. So might the change of paradigm in sacred building orientation imply a definitive interruption between the official religious ritual and the clandestine alchemical secrets? And was this done by simply walking Alchemy out of the door and never letting it in? Apparently, yes. But, at a thorough examination, this change of paradigm was full of implications. One for all, the confirmation of the existence of more than one celestial parameter is to be observed. In fact if the traditional solstitial – north/south – stellar axis had never swiveled to a later equinoctial – east/west – solar axis, would have the laypersons ever suspected the importance of the solar orientation, and, alternatively, the importance of the stellar one? In fact, why change the old orientation axis, if not to hide something the layperson should never know? This is very like the notorious axiom known by investigative professionals as “providing of never asked specifications”, which in fact usually made investigative people prick up their antennas.
The orientation of the ancient shrines is a subject not surprisingly neglected by many archaeologists, as uncertain and often with contradictory results. But today no one denies there might be both astronomical and terrestrial codes behind the very ancient sacred buildings’ position on the ground. And the same codes might be of great interest to Alchemy too.
My present research avails of Marco Baistrocchi’s essay “Aspects de Géographie sacrée: l’orientation soltistiale et equinoxiale dans l’Ancienne Egypte” (or “aspects of sacred geography: solstitial and equinoctial orientation in ancient Egypt”), Edizioni Archè, Milano 1981. Baistrocchi was an Italian scholar of scarcely known and poorly deepened aspects by the historians’ academic community. The Italian author examines not only the sacred buildings but also the cult objects and paintings found inside. The theory on which the essay is based is about swiveling from the more ancient solstitial orientation to the later equinoctial. But, as Baistrocchi soon realizes, this is just an oversimplification. In fact, the two types of orientations could actually have deep reasons to co-exist. If it is true that the nether world traditionally moved along the Polar (or Stellar) axis, Baistrocchi seems deliberate to ignore the alchemical reasons behind a Solar orientation. Conversely, some alchemists still insist on neglecting the stars.
It is known that ancient Egyptians oriented themselves turning their back to the north. This was the primitive guidance indeed, to which we find evidence in numerous sources: the west is on the right and the east is on the left. Additionally the north – Lower Egypt – was indicated as that which is behind, while the south – Upper Egypt – as that which is in front. The idea of above, as well as the light, was associated with the north, so the idea of below, as well as the darkness, was associated with the south.
In fact, the most ancient representations of the god of light and sky were a bird and a falcon on a perch. The god and the bird have the same writing: Hr, Horus, which ancient Greeks transcribed as “Oros”, from which the Latin “Horus”. The word Hr, with the adjectival inflection Hrj, means “superior”.
Horus’ apparent antagonist was identified with Seth Nubti, goddess Nut’s son (Nut is the goddess of the sky), and lord of Upper Egypt (south). Despite having his dwelling in the sky like Horus, Seth was hostile to the light and was embodied in storms, winds, and thunders. In later times he was embodied in Evil. As, in comparison with Horus, Seth represented what was below, so he also represented the earth to an extent to be charged with bearing the terrestrial globe. In another version, he was the very Osiris. In later times Seth was said to embody the setting phase of the sun in the inferior hemisphere when coming southwards and consequently representing the destructive heat of summer.
Despite all that, the two gods didn’t embody antagonist powers but were considered almost complementary. The rivalry between light and shadow, earth and sky, although different, was reciprocal and represented by the “two fighting brothers”. At the end of their furious battle, they were assigned two reigns: to Horus, the Lower Egypt (the north); to Seth, Upper Egypt (the south). This event was enacted during the pharaoh crowning ceremony when the “union of the two lands” took place. The king was sitting between the goddess of Upper Egypt, Nekhbet (vulture) in front of him, and the goddess of Lower Egypt, Wadjet (serpent), behind him. Alongside the two goddesses, there were Horus and Seth. On the day of his death, the pharaoh was taking the way to the sky around the lands of Horus and Seth. In conclusion, we can state that the pairs “upper-lower” and ” in front-behind” were rendered by Horus-Seth.
An alabaster statuette representing pharaoh Pepi I (VI dynasty, c. 2423-2263 BC), presently conserved in the Brooklyn Museum in New York, provides interesting indications. The statuette portrays the pharaoh ritually sitting on a throne, but this is the last orthodox detail, as the falcon, which according to the traditional iconography should have protected the king’s nape with its wings, on the contrary, is perched on the back of the royal throne, perpendicularly to the pharaoh orientation axis. Baistrocchi points at the anomaly, which has not been appropriately studied, and sets out to check the different possibilities to get who, between the pharaoh and the falcon, has abandoned the traditional orientation north-south:
- Let’s imagine the falcon is perched on the north back of the chair and looks southwards. Then Pepi I looks westwards with his back turned to the east. If the falcon position is canonically in the north, there are no representations of pharaohs looking westwards;
2. The falcon is positioned in the east looking westwards, while Pepi I is in the south and looks towards the north. Both orientations are anti-traditional;
3. The falcon is positioned in the south and looks northwards, then Pepi I is in the west and looks eastwards. This orientation of the pharaoh has already been adopted in the Middle Kingdom, but the falcon’s orientation is extremely anomalous and will be attested only in late and confusing periods when Horus and Seth orientations got swiveled;
4. The falcon is in the west and looks towards the east, while the pharaoh is in the north and looks southwards. Thus the pharaohs are still on the axis of north-south. This is probably the most credible hypothesis, even if it would represent abnormal anticipation of the times.
What Baistrocchi doesn’t say is that maybe no one among the pharaoh and falcon was entitled to overcome the other. Perhaps their “atmospheric” importance was judged to be equal; in fact, one might represent the path of the Sun and the other the path of the Stars. Both are indispensable in Alchemy. But rarely together at the same time of the day, as their emanations tend to compete with each other. In this sense, the Moon, which is used to rise and set along a path not so different from the Sun, would be more eligible, since it could get along with the Stars, during the daytime the Sun is behind our slice of earth. Nevertheless, nobody seems to have ever taken into consideration our natural satellite, when it comes to equinoctial orientation. In fact, unfortunately, it doesn’t emit any light of its own but behaves like a mirror. However, it is also true that no scientist can affirm the Moon cannot emit its own waves or may interfere with less known waves. Closed the parenthesis with the Moon, it remains to us to note that the solar path may also, and better, be considered as ecliptic, so as calendar, not as a light radiator competing with the Stars. Baistrocchi concludes that the statuette may beautifully render the switch from the ancient tradition, represented by the pharaoh’s north-south orientation, to the new east-west placement, i.e. the falcon’s one. In fact, according to the Italian scholar, from the Middle Kingdom on there would be numerous examples (Teti, Pepi I, and Pepi II) of similar conceptions. Eventually, he takes for granted that, in the statuette, we are examining, the two axes of orientation cross each other to form an exact 90° angle. I mean: why the day of the year must necessarily be perpendicular to a certain star? Or why a sunbeam must be perpendicular to a star beam? Or even why a reflection from the moon must be perpendicular to a star beam? Was it specifically planned to take place in that way, by the ancient architects, or the perpendicular intersection of the rays might be intended as purely symbolic, but just occurring in the due time? To complicate things, or help to unravel the tangle, we should additionally remember that Horus, the falcon on a perch, represents symbolically the light, or the sky, while Seth stands for the earth or the night.
Back to Egyptian art, Baistrocchi provides evidence of his theory with a group of statues in granite representing Ramses III (XX dynasty) standing between Horus and Seth. In this case, the pharaoh seems to be oriented according to an axis exactly perpendicular to that joining Horus and Seth.
Horus and Seth are traditionally said to represent “the right and the left side”(1). Hence, giving for granted their task of accompanying the pharaoh, as well as giving for granted the king’s north-south axis, the two gods should represent the equinoctial orientation, Horus on the western side looking eastwards and Seth on the eastern side looking westward. But Baistrocchi doesn’t mention what happens when the two gods have the chance to escape their accompanying task: what if they get back at their traditional solstitial – north/south – axis?
The Italian scholar seems to be posing the same dilemma when observing that Horus and Seth’s orientation must otherwise be swiveled from equinoctial to solstitial when encountering a “modern” pharaoh, one of those looking westwards.
Nevertheless, Baistrocchi seems to not recall what he has previously written in his book, that’s to say that Horus, the falcon on a perch, symbolically represents the light, or the sky, while Seth stands for the earth or the night. So, in this case, Ramses III could be walking between the light and the dark, the day and the night, the sky and the earth. But Baistrocchi’s book will be long enough to provide other examples.
To be continued.
- B. de Rachewiltz ” Il Papiro Magico di Roma”, Roma 1954;