BMCR 2000.01.17

Sun, Moon, and Sothis

, Sun, Moon, and Sothis. Deerfield Beach, FL: Kronos Press, 1999. 339. $35.00.

1 Responses

This work is an attempt to introduce a new chronology for Ancient Egypt. The author has culled the secondary Egyptological literature concerned with dates, calendrics, and astronomy in an effort to carry on, with major modifications, the earlier pseudo-scientific reasoning of I. Velikovsky. By and large Rose is fair to previous scholarship without, however, letting up in his relentless quest to prove the work of Richard A. Parker to be false. This single-mindedness detracts from the opening chapters of this study, which are, for the most part, a reevaluation of key Egyptological sources.

Disconcerting to no small degree, however, is Rose’s failure to provide the reader with footnotes. Although from the bibliography it would appear that he has read the scholarly literature on ancient Egyptian astronomy, one rarely finds this material explicitly addressed in his argument. Except for some references in the text (Parker is the main one, indeed, the “culprit”), a candid scientific approach has not been taken. By this I mean that Rose virtually never informs us of the depth of previous scientific and humanistic research that has been progressing for more than 150 years. In some cases, to be sure, the primary data are cited: see, for example, his use of the Canopus Stela (pp. 132ff.) or the recent works of Luft and Krauss on Middle Kingdom chronology. However, when one turns to these brief references it is quickly discovered that they are considerably out of date; e.g., he follows Budge with regard to the latter inscription. Likewise, the old work of Schoch (not listed in the bibliography but included in the text) is equally unreliable. As for the modern studies indicated in the general bibliography, scholarship demands that Rose duly ascribe (in footnotes) the information that he used in his presentation.

One can also ask why the results of the recent plethora of calendrical studies, some (but not all) of which appear in the bibliography, have not been incorporated. If he disagrees with them, then it is necessary to provide a full refutation and not merely a mathematically-oriented criticism. I am thinking in particular of the lunar-based origins and applications of the Egyptian calendars. To take a case in point, whereas Rose spends a reasonable amount of time on Parker’s lunar evidence for P. Carlsberg IX, where are the double dates (lunar-civil equivalences) for the New Kingdom? They are of crucial importance in settling the absolute chronology.

The question of the beginning of the day in Pharaonic Egypt, to take an extremely crucial point, is never fully discussed. What was the epoch that the Egyptians employed? Did the day for them commence at the moment of sunrise or, rather, did it begin in morning twilight? Krauss and Wells each maintain the latter position. Leitz and Luft do not. This is not a case of mere hair-splitting for, depending upon which we choose, the absolute chronology of Egypt will be altered because the exact date of the heliacal rising of Sothis will change. Moreover, one’s interpretation of P. Carlsberg IX, discussed in detail by Rose, would have to be reinterpreted.

With regard to this text let it be fairly stated that the author has presented a good series of mathematical evaluations that have to be taken into consideration. Recent scholars, Wells and I included, have covered the same ground, yet none of us is cited in the body of the work. It is one thing to argue against Parker and Samuel’s use of P. Carlsberg IX; it is another to ignore the host of later studies on the same matter, including not so much my comments as those of Gryzybek. Koenen’s 1977 contribution is admitted as a source, but that knowledgeable papyrologist knew that the difficulties in resolving the Egyptian = Macedonian double dates remain. (Samuel, it should be added, was the first to attempt to use the Carlsberg lunar table for these Ptolemaic double dates in the administrative papyri as well as on the royal inscriptions.)

This reviewer is not convinced that Rose can read his primary sources, the ancient Egyptian texts, in hieroglyphic and hieratic. Strong doubt is raised by his reliance upon out-of-date and very inexact translations of the Canopus Stela. Caustic comments against Egyptologists who have mastered the language are uncalled for.

But of far greater consequence is the author’s Venus = Sothis equation. Here it is obvious that Rose has not covered the primary data from such disparate materials as the ceilings of the royal tombs of the New Kingdom, the evidence from Illahun with regard to the Sothic rising (Krauss’ later work on this matter is ignored), the private stelae of the Middle Kingdom, the festival calendars of the New Kingdom (e.g., the Elephantine fragment of Thutmose III), and the like. If one desires to reconstruct ancient Egyptian chronology then one must be as conversant in ancient Egyptian as in arithmetic.

One should not try to build a theory by stacking blocks without cement. Rose is convinced of two main ideas: first that Venus must be equated with ancient Egyptian Sothis ( Spdw); and second, that the Middle Kingdom has to be placed considerably later in time — the late first millennium B.C. ca. 500. One wonders what the Achaemenides would have thought of this.

Rose fails to disprove the well established identification of Isis with the star Sothis (Egyptian Spdw), nor does he prove his own equation of Sothis with Venus. He offers absolutely no evidence that Sothis = Venus outside of some rather detailed post-hoc mathematical formulations (see below on this methodology). His argument with respect to this hypothesis is first introduced on p. xxxiv and briefly outlined on p. 4. By and large, Rose maintains that the Egyptian calendar “may also have been geared to the planet Venus”. But there is no documentation of this assertion. The Egyptian calendar, which I unrepentantly call the Civil Calendar because it was instituted by the nascent Egyptian state, may have been devised according to the annual (longitudinal course) of the sun. In any case, the structural basis of the calendrical system is simple: 365 days. Nothing Venusian is implied. Quite to the contrary, the quasi-artificial three seasons, each of four months, constituted a sound and reasonable solution to a complicated arithmetical problem. The sun became primary, but connections to an earlier lunar-based calendar were retained. The motion of Venus does not enter here. The attempt to correlate Isis with the star Sothis has justification. Isis, after all, heralds the ideal New Year. She is also connected to Venus. But Sothis itself is not Venus.

Rose’s mathematical “retrojections and retrocalculations” (see p. 18) fill the pages of this volume. I am not opposed to the use of basic arithmetical support for any calendrical system. Indeed, I find that Rose has performed able service in this context, especially with regard to the problems of the true length of the so-called “Sothic Cycle”. However, he — and Rose is not alone in this matter — believes in the unfailing accuracy of the primary sources and the ancient practitioners. But were they mathematicians in the modern sense? Is the use of such arcane terms as the Sothic “quadrennia” or even “triennia” applicable to the state of astronomy in Egypt during the third and second millenniums B.C.? This seems unreasonable. Granted, Rose acknowledges such problems as cloud formations altering visibility and he factors leeway into his calculations. Nonetheless, such rigid adherence to mathematical presuppositions leads the author down the primrose path of rejecting modern Egyptology. Owing to this, he places the Middle Kingdom (Dynasty XII in particular) far too late, and the entire schema of Pharaonic civilizations is questioned for no reason other than the author’s arithmetical presuppositions.

I find no justification for dismantling the edifice of Egyptology that is based not only on calculations, but more importantly, on historical sources, synchronisms both within and outside of the Nile Valley, and shows a steady improvement in accuracy with respect to absolute dates. No one would deny the fact that even at present the Sothic cycle needs further study. Indeed, it is time to attempt a new historiographic analysis of all of these sources in light of contemporary standards of accuracy. But to assemble an argument from one segment of Egyptological data and ignore the others (e.g., king lists; dynastic systems; the wealth of private and royal inscriptions; genealogical data; outside synchronisms such as those with Babylonia, Asia Minor, and Palestine) is to construct a facade instead of a building.

Equally, Rose’s objections to the accepted historical setting of the Middle Kingdom (Dynasty XII in his case) can be dismissed with no qualms. Not only does the archaeological evidence in and around Egypt preclude our moving the early second millennium B.C. date any lower, but moreover the native Egyptian records of Dynasties XI and XIII dovetail with the XIIth perfectly. If we were to follow Rose, then the preceding and subsequent phases of the Middle Kingdom would have to be rearranged. If this were done, then the entire First and Second Intermediate Periods would be in untenable positions. Thereby go the chronological sequences of the Old and New Kingdom, and so forth. As a result, all of Pharaonic Egypt is catapulted into a black hole, never to escape. Such a procedure is patently false, but it is nevertheless dependent upon the author’s idée fixe concerning the exact chronology of the XIIth Dynasty and his unwillingness to tackle the immense amount of historical, pictorial, and archaeological data pertaining to this royal house. Following Rose’s methodology, only mathematical calculations are allowed their day in court.

In fine Rose has not proved that Sothis = Venus or that the present chronology of modern Egypt is false. The burden of proof is upon Rose as the author of a new hypothesis. Perhaps it would be useful for him to study the Egyptian language for a mature understanding of the ancients’ words and accounts, all of which help modern scholars in reconstructing Egypt’s history. Too much math addled the outlook of Lewis Carroll’s Humpty-Dumpty, no matter how clever in Oxonian logic he may have been. I recommend to the author of this book more humility, more courtesy, and less arithmetic.