There is an article on Ancient Origins and discussed at the Daily Grail that alleges that a bowl on display at the Aswan Museum on Elephantine depicts the constellation Orion surrounded by Canis Major, Canis Minor, and Lepus. The bowl, which Italian mystery-monger Adriano Forgione identified as pre-dynastic, depicts a Nubian hunter drawing a bow and shooting at a cheetah while two dogs chase a hare beneath and behind him. According to Forgione, the scene bears a striking resemblance to the constellations.
We can find the more ancient representation and relationship between Orion and the Great Hunter Archer, of the Egyptian mythology, in a dish of pre-dynastic era (dating back to 3500 BC) in the Museum of Aswan. This can tell us that this correspondence could go back to the Egyptian prehistory. Not only that, this would demonstrate that prehistoric Egyptians already associated the constellations that today we identify with Orion the Hunter, the Hare and the Canis Major and Canis Minor to these very ancient symbologies, so they were not Greek, but of Egyptian origin. As proof of what I’m saying, and I read in this finding, there is depicted a hunter with bow and arrows, in the same posture that we know now as the "symbol of Orion." To the left of the hunter there is a dog, exactly where in the sky there is the constellation "Canis Minor". But according to mythology, and also according to the astronomy, the dogs following Orion in its hunting are two. The other is the Canis Major, where Sirius lies, (called the "Dog’s Star”) and that, chasing the constellation of the "Hare", placed just under the feet of Orion.
It bothers me that ancient mystery writers go shooting their mouths off about “amazing” discoveries without so much as cursory research into the objects they are evaluating. It took me only a few minutes to learn that the bowl is one of four very similar bowls unearthed by the University of Bonn expedition to Aswan in 1969, and that it is not predynastic but rather a Middle Kingdom piece from the early Eleventh Dynasty (c. 2120-2030 BCE). Granted, this is much earlier than the Greek constellations, but as we shall see, there is reason to suspect that Forgione is reading into the picture what isn’t there.
According to Dorothea Arnold, writing in Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom, the key finding is that the University of Bonn expedition reported that the bowls were intended to be two matched sets, buried in two adjacent tombs, QH 206 and 207. The pair at 207 shows an archer with animals, while the pair at 206—the one we are concerned with—shows two similar scenes of hunters, one light-skinned and the other dark-skinned, in similar poses and surrounded by similar animals.
The light-skinned hunter is dressed in traditional Egyptian garb, while the dark-skinned hunter is dressed as a Nubian. The two scenes are meant to be read together, identifying the two men as equals in a liminal space on the border of Egypt and Nubia—a distinct difference from the iconography of dominance and submission that characterizes many Egyptian depictions of Nubians.
On both bowls, we see images that Forgione has omitted from his analysis but which are vital to understanding the scene: Both bowls feature a large fish beside the dogs, and in the second bowl, with the Nubian hunter, the cheetah appears on the opposite side from the hunter, away from the aim of his weapon. This hunter is instead aiming at a bird. On the Nubian bowl, the bird and the cheetah reverse their positions. On the Nubian bowl, the hare appears to have been replaced with a gazelle or something similar.
As should be clear, neither fish nor fowl abuts Orion in the night sky. The images, considered in their complete context, bear no resemblance to Orion and his hunting-dogs except that people in both Greece and Egypt associated hunting with hunting-dogs. Big surprise there.
If we want to get into more detail, it’s probably worth noting that the Egyptian hunter’s belt slants the opposite direction of Orion’s and that the dog supposedly representing Canis Minor is too close to “Orion.”
It’s not really important, though, because we know why Canis Minor became associated with a dog. In Babylonian astrology, the constellation (or, rather, the two stars that make it up) was known as the “Twin Gods,” and when the Greeks adopted it, they gave it no specific mythological image. Ptolemy, for example, assigned the constellation, known to him as Procyon, only two stars but offered no description of the form. The oldest surviving Greek astronomical treatise, Aratos’ Phaenomena, from the third century BCE, attaches no myth to Procyon and alludes to it only in passing as the star that rises before the “flaming Dog.” Early Greeks seemed to consider it simply a pair of stars. Thus, the Greeks called it only Procyon, which is literally “the one that comes before the Dog,” referring to Canis Major. Because of the proximity to the Dog, in popular lore the “one before the Dog” became a dog itself (see Hyginus, Astronomica 2.36), but only relatively late, apparently in Hellenistic times. While Pseudo-Eratosthenes’ mention of it as a dog suggests that there was a tradition of viewing it as such, the ancients weren’t always clear on what the constellation was meant to be, and others said that it was the Teumessian Fox. The constellation was not clearly and regularly defined as a separate dog until late, when the Romans—in known and historic times—appended the descriptor minor, to distinguish it, and gradually corrupted Antecanis or Praecanis (the literal translation of Procyon into Latin) into simply Canis minor. The weight of evidence suggests that the star Procyon became the dog Canis Minor only in the early centuries BCE.
The long and short of it is that the writers who made a huge deal out of the Middle Kingdom plates and excitedly declared that everything we know about Greek astronomy—which wasn’t Greek anyway, since they borrowed it from Babylon—is wrong ought to do some actual research before rushing to print with half-formed ideas. Questions like those above must be addressed before we can even consider the chance that the bowl is a star map. The bowl, according to the evidence, is what it appears to be: a hunting scene. If it bears similarity to Hellenistic views of the constellations, it’s because hunting was pretty much the same for a few thousand years.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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