So here we go again. The Universe: Ancient Mysteries Solved E02 “The Pyramids” intends to show us how the pyramids of Egypt connect to the stars. Obviously, this could go one of two ways. It could look at real archaeoastronomical investigation into what the Egyptians really believed, or it could descend into New Age theories about radical alignments to various constellations based on astrology. The fact that the first person to speak on the show is the Egyptologist Mark Lehner suggests early on that we will be sticking closer to facts rather than the most outlandish claims for stellar associations.
I take a small bit of exception to the use of scenes from what seems to be Egyptian temples (and possibly the Valley of the Kings) to illustrate the interior of the Giza pyramids, which contain no walls full of murals, reliefs, or carved hieroglyphs, but this is a minor issue. In describing the pyramids’ mysteries, oddly enough, the narrator uses the same words as Giorgio Tsoukalos to describe the pyramids—that no “blueprints” for the pyramids have survived. It’s an odd choice of expression. I also take issue with the idea that Egyptologists use the sky as the predominant way to understand the pyramids, which even the show itself seems to walk back when they note that archaeologists actually do excavate at Giza to help understand the society and people who erected the pyramids.
The show talks about the Pyramid Texts and how they indicate that the pharaohs and their pyramids were somehow linked to the Imperishable Ones—the circumpolar stars. The show explains that the north-facing doorways on each pyramid open with a view to the circumpolar stars, though the Egyptologist telling us this emphasizes that it remains speculative. The program then suggests that the doorways were aligned precisely to the north through the use of the circumpolar stars, which seems logical enough, though another possibility will be suggested before the end of the hour.
After the break, we discuss mummification and the Egyptian idea of the two souls. Lehner talks of how the mummy served as the “battery” running the great machine of the pyramid, spiritually charging it to guide the king to the stars. This, of course, leads to the question of the so-called “air shafts” of the Great Pyramid and whether they, too, were targeted to specific stars. Because the shafts bend, they could not serve as actual observation points, only symbolic ones. As most readers will probably already know, the stars shift position over time due to axial precession. Calculating backward, it seems that the southern shaft targeted the constellation of Orion and the northern shaft Thuban, the star of immortality.
The narrator asks if the pyramid had been an observatory, and here I have something I can add! That notion emerges from Arab myths, later mistakenly attributed to the Neo-Platonic philosopher Proclus. A medieval Arab poet asked the following question of the builder of the pyramids, in my translation from the lines preserved in Al-Maqrizi:
Did he build them for his treasures and his corpse
The medieval myth suggested that the observations were made from atop the pyramids, but Richard Anthony Proctor decided it referred instead to the interior of the pyramids, in their unfinished state, particularly the Grand Gallery.
After the break the show decides to explore the constellation of Orion, and here we start to get into Hancock and Bauval territory. The show presents the Orion Correlation Theory, which suggests that the offset alignment of the three Giza pyramids were designed to resemble the constellation of Orion’s three bright stars, which are similarly misaligned. Astronomer Edwin C. Krupp explains that the three pyramids are “upside down” relative to Orion—the largest star of Orion being the southernmost, but the largest Egyptian pyramid being the northernmost. However, UC Berkeley astrophysicist Alex Filippenko shrugs and says “we don’t really know if it’s correct” because he can see it both ways. Egyptologist Willeke Wendrich explains that the geography of Giza probably determined the layout of the pyramids, not Orion.
Following this, the show talks about Egyptian beliefs about the sun. Sunset is connected to death; therefore, the pyramids are on the west bank of the Nile to connect to the realm of the dead. This suggests that the pyramids were not meant to be stars but rather the sun, the ever-resurrecting immortal light.
After the break, the show asks whether the pyramids were part of a sun cult. Perhaps, Wendrich, says, the pyramids aren’t necessarily oriented to the north but rather to the east and the west—to life and death. The show says that the pyramids’ diagonal alignment forms a line that points to Heliopolis, the home of the sun cult of Ra. Wendrich says this means that the pyramids were connected to the sun and to Ra. The east and west sides of the pyramids are more closely aligned to true than the north and the south, suggesting that the sun—not the stars—was used to lay out the buildings, using shadows cast by a nomen to find true north. (The shortest a shadow is during the day is when it points true north.) Using the nomen, the show conducts an experiment to demonstrate that a clear east-west line and an approximation of true north to within a small fraction of a degree. This is more than Ancient Aliens has ever done to prove an idea.
The buried ships found beside the pyramids are entered into evidence. These, too, are suggested to be solar symbols, the ship of Ra which the sun god uses to traverse the waters of death at night. This is a very old and widespread idea in the Near East—the Sumerians also believed that the sun spent the night in the underworld as the judge of the dead, and even the Greeks retained a fragment of this as the golden cup that Helios rides across the ocean at night to return to Aea, his nighttime headquarters.
After the final break, the show asks whether the Great Sphinx is also part of the solar cult. The show states that lions are sun symbols, and Lehner tells us that the Sphinx might have been begun by Khufu before being finished by Khafre. On the equinoxes, the sun pauses for a time between the two pyramids of Khufu and Khafre (relative to an observer at the Sphinx), forming an Akhet, a horizon symbol made up of two mountains with the sun disc between them. Therefore the Sphinx would have been Aker, the lion god who guards the horizon.
The show concludes that the pyramids were solar symbols connected to the sun’s daytime passage across the sky and his nighttime adventures among the imperishable stars.
Unlike last week’s episode, this week offers solid information with perspectives from multiple Egyptologists, producing a solid hour with interesting information and a plausible conclusion.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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