Ancient Egyptian Astronomy

The Ancient Egyptians cared a great deal about astronomy. Probably too much, in fact. According to their beliefs, the movements of the planets and stars played a role in the annual flooding of the Nile river, and if you are an Ancient Egyptian, you will do just about anything to appease the Nile, and that includes laboriously tabulating star positions for millennia.

Astronomically inspired stone circle at Nabta Playa from the fifth millennium BCE.

Beyond simply recording positions, the Ancient Egyptians also devised methods to be able to predict the behaviour of astronomical objects in the future, and even to use stars to tell the time of day. One of these time-keeping methods functioned through the use of a “star clock”. To use a star clock, one needed two people. One person to sit facing North, and another to sit facing them. As the night passed the recorder would mark when certain stars passed behind the body of the other. The information gathered from this could then be used to find an entry in a table which gave the correct time.

Astronomy even came to have a religious significance. The tombs of various pharaohs feature many artifacts and murals depicting the movements of the stars and charts representing their positions. It is theorized that knowledge of these stars would benefit the pharaohs in navigating the realm of the afterlife.

A star chart from an 18th dynasty tomb. The small, repeated figures on the borders that resemble stars represent stars.
Another star chart from the tomb of Ramses VI, featuring Nut, the Egyptian goddess of the sky, in the top left corner.


3 thoughts on “Ancient Egyptian Astronomy

  1. I took a look a the Wikipedia page for the goddess Nut. She seems to have been one of the most important deities, which makes sense considering the significance Ancient Egyptians ascribed to astronomy. There even exists the Book of Nut, a collection of astronomical texts, many of which focus on Nut.

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  2. Great post! It’s definitely interesting that they attributed agriculture to both a religious and inadvertently scientific connotation. It astounds me how advanced they were for their time, despite missing the mark oftentimes. I’d love to know how star clocks work in greater detail though, and to see if any are left in existence today!

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  3. Astronomy really does have a rich history that also spans many cultures, would have loved to learn more about during my undergrad/time in high school. How much was able to be determined before modern times is definitely impressive.

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