BMCR 2011.10.12

The Zodiac of Paris: How an Improbable Controversy over an Ancient Egyptian Artifact Provoked a Modern Debate between Religion and Science

, , The Zodiac of Paris: How an Improbable Controversy over an Ancient Egyptian Artifact Provoked a Modern Debate between Religion and Science. Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2010. vi, 428, 71 figures. ISBN 9780691145761 $35.00.

On July 1, 1798, Napoleon and his troops entered Alexandria with the intention of establishing a colony in Egypt, disrupting British trade with India, and purportedly freeing the Egyptians from their Mameluke oppressors and imposing liberty and equality on this land. After a struggle with the Mamelukes (who were supported by the British and the Ottoman Turks), Napoleon fled to France on Oct. 11, 1799, leaving behind the savants—the intellectuals and scholars who had accompanied him—along with remnants of the French army to preserve the glory of Napoleon. The savants had been given a vacant palace in Cairo and an academic organization, the Institute of Egypt. Napoleon had also ordered them into the field to make copious notes, chart maps, record contemporary life, gather artifacts and natural specimens and, above all, to document the ancient temples and monuments. During this campaign Vivant Denon drew the circular Dendera Zodiac, which he published in 1802, after the Napoleonic expedition. In 1821 the actual zodiac was moved to Paris and in 1822 installed in the Bibliothèque Nationale, and in 1964 it was moved to the Louvre.

In this book, as reflected in their subtitle, Buchwald and Josefowicz focus on the Dendera zodiacs to illustrate the practical uses and pitfalls of applying scientific reasoning to problems in the humanities. They discuss the two zodiacs from the Temple of Hathor in Dendera, Egypt, to the north of Luxor on the river Nile. One of these, a circular stone bas-relief, was transferred to Paris in 1821; the much larger one remains in situ, spanning the width of the temple ceiling in two carved rectangular strips flanking a row of columns. Also discussed is a zodiac from Esnah, which lies south of Luxor on the river Nile. The controversy here concerns the dating of the zodiacs.1 In the decades following Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt, during which the zodiacs were “first seen, and drawn, by Europeans” (p.1), several respected French scientists, historians and religious commentators proffered various origin dates for the artifacts. The more ancient of these proposed origins predated the supposed occurrences of Le Déluge, the biblical flood of Noah, and even perhaps Creation itself. Biblical dating was considered by the Catholic Church to have been determined with some accuracy based on Old Testament generations. The existence of human handiwork that pre-dated Creation or had managed to survive Le Déluge was seen as an obvious threat to belief in an era when the church was already under increased criticism in France in the wake of the French revolution. The book chronicles the major arguments of the generally atheistic French savants and the counterarguments of church apologists.

The book opens with a French expedition to Egypt in 1820 led by the engineer Jean Lelorrain, who had been commissioned to remove the circular zodiac from the temple of Hathor in Dendera and transport it to the expedition’s sponsor in France. At the chapter’s end, the zodiac has been transported downriver to Cairo in preparation for the voyage to France, a destination it doesn’t reach until chapter 9. Chapter 2 then provides background regarding religious and political attitudes in France during the decades before the zodiac’s discovery. The anti-religious attitudes flourishing during the French Revolution set the tone for forthcoming attempts to use the existence of the zodiacs as a refutation of church dogma.

In the third chapter, the authors trace how the artist Dominique Denon sketched the Dendera zodiacs in situ in 1799 and published the engravings, to intense interest, after fleeing the Egyptian debacle along with Napoleon. They then follow the career of the brilliant academician Charles Dupuis (1742-1809) as he integrates his ideas regarding the antiquity of the zodiacs, based mainly upon Denon’s sketches, into his existing theory of the origins of religion. The phenomenon of precession of the equinoxes2 is used by Dupuis to claim an antediluvian origin for the zodiacs, based upon his placement of astronomical solstitial and equinoctial points on the monuments. 3 Chapter 3 concludes with a brief review of Napoleon’s motivations for the Egyptian expedition, while Chapter 4 follows the efforts of the savants who accompanied Napoleon’s military expedition as they attempt to found a scientific academy in Cairo, the imagined new Paris of the East. In Chapter 5 the prominent mathematician Jean- Baptiste Joseph Fourier (1768-1830), who had led an exploratory party along the Nile during Napoleon’s expedition, is found among those supporting Dupuis’ proposals.

Chapter 6 presents the inveterate church defender Gian Domenico Testa’s counterarguments to Dupuis, using alternate interpretations of the zodiacs. Here several of these claims and counterclaims are presented in detail, which are based both on tenuous evidence and subjective opinion gleaned from illustrations of the zodiacs. The authors proceed to demonstrate the inaccuracies found in these early engravings, such as the presumed significant stances of zodiacal figures, and their effects upon all interpretations.

As soon as Napoleon appointed the wily politician Joseph Fouché (1759-1820) as Minister of Police for France (1799), 4 Fouché immediately began censorship of any publications that were considered threatening to Napoleon’s regime, including antireligious works, in keeping with Napoleon’s wishes. Dupuis, wary of Fouché’s censorship, modified his date for the zodiacs. A wave of Egyptomania had already swept through the French populace, however, even before the zodiac finally arrived by ship in Marseilles in late 1821. Theater, popular literature and art featured classical Egyptian themes or speculative interpretations of the meanings of the zodiac. In 1822, after the zodiac’s arrival in Paris, the plagiaristic and prolific physicist Jean-Baptiste Biot (1774-1862) began to publish extensively on the subject. Biot overwhelmed his audience with calculations of probabilities regarding locations of apparent celestial objects on the zodiacs.

In Chapter 11, the views of the philologist Jean-Francois Champollion (1790-1832), “today remembered mostly for his decipherment of hieroglyphics” (p.313), are introduced. His proposals, contemporary with Biot’s but adverse to mathematics, introduced an interdisciplinary approach which pleased various factions. We also see his first attempts at interpreting the hieroglyphics applied to the zodiacs. The final chapter (12) provides a “surprise ending” for the reader regarding the evidence used by Champollion.

Buchwald and Josefowicz, both of whom are historians of science, are concerned with the practical uses and pitfalls of applying scientific reasoning to problems in the humanities. It may be difficult for readers unfamiliar with French history—particularly that of post-revolutionary France at the beginning of the nineteenth century—to follow some of the argument, since the historical background is not clearly presented. Arguments on both sides of the debate are adequately explained in several chapters, although the contents of the zodiacs upon which these arguments were based are not sufficiently explained or illuminated for the benefit of most readers.

Three of the figures contain printing errors. In Figures 10.11 and 11.2, the identifying marks referred to in the accompanying descriptions are missing. In Figure 7.3, the rectangular zodiac from Dendera, the highlight box that is intended to outline the sign of Capricorn is mistakenly placed over the nearby symbol for Mes, the Bull’s Foreleg, which, for the Egyptians, is the deadly polar constellation. The placement of two constellations close to each other on the monument which are actually widely separated in the sky, and of which only one is a zodiacal sign, serves as a reminder that the subject artifacts are actually images of the sky rather than strictly “zodiacs”. Or, perhaps more accurately, they are artistic representations of the components of ancient Egyptian sky-religion, invoked by late Ptolemaic rulers in the first century BCE.

The authors discuss the concept of precession of the equinoxes and solstices in relation to its use in Dupuis’ theories. As with most works that discuss this discovery, attributed to Hipparchus, the authors do not adequately explain the mechanics of the concept, which would help the reader understand the zodiacal arguments soon to be presented. There is a verbal description of the functioning of precession in chapter three, but their illustration (Fig. 3.3) shows the movement of the summer solstice along the path of the ecliptic without an illustration of the mechanics behind precession, which may warrant an additional illustration.

As historians of science, the authors would do well to provide a more thorough explanation of the actual historical background of the objects. This could inform the modern reader in much the same way that the savants had attempted to enlighten their contemporaries. Buchwald and Josefowicz do succeed in presenting the theories and opinions of the major figures in this controversy. Of particular note to the reader is the extent to which the various savants managed to attribute complicated and implausible sets of skills and knowledge to their putative creators of the zodiacs, such as extensive mathematical abilities. The authors have thus provided the contemporary scholar with a useful warning about the pitfalls of extensive self-reference and too narrow a focus when attempting to understand the beliefs and mindsets of ancient peoples. Their ample indices will also be useful to their readers.5


1.The currently accepted date for the relief is 50 BC, based on the stars in the positions they would have been seen in at that date. Cf. John H. Rogers, “Origins of the Ancient Constellations: I. The Mesopotamian Traditions”, Journal of the British Astronomical Association, 108 (1998) 9–28.

2.Precession of the Equinoxes, the discovery of which is generally credited to the astronomer Hipparchus (c. 190- 120 BCE), is the gradual movement of the location of the north celestial pole through a circle in the northern sky over a period of approximately 26,000 years. Currently, as well as during the time of the Dendera zodiacs’ creation, the celestial pole is near the star Polaris in the constellation Ursa Minor. The diametrically opposite point on the circle is near the star Vega in the constellation Lyra. Of particular significance to the discussion here is that this movement shifts the celestial locations at which the equinoxes and solstices are located.

3.The use of precession by modern scholars in their attempts to date artifacts or to understand ancient religions remains controversial. Dupuis and the other savants discussed were hampered by their inability to interpret Egyptian hieroglyphics. See Noel Swerdlow, “On the Cosmical Mysteries of Mithras,” CPh 86.1 (January 1991) pp. 59- 61.

4.Apparently in late 1799 (p. 149). The authors are not as specific on such details as one would wish.

5. Note: on p. 324: It would appear that “ αντοχρατορ ” should read “ αυτοχρατορ ”; additional Greek vowel modifications on p. 325 ( ΑΟΤΟΧΡΤΡ) and elsewhere may also be necessary.