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The Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, in New Haven, CT, currently has a fascinating exhibit on ancient Egyptian artifacts which I recently checked out.  One thing in particular caught my eye: a curious-looking piece of a stone slab.  It was part of a map, although you wouldn’t know it just from looking at it.  The map dates from 664-332 BCE, during the Late Period of Egypt.  It shows how Egyptians viewed themselves and their place in the world, even if their knowledge of the outside world was limited.

Map of the Cosmos (via Yale Peabody Museum, http://echoesofegypt.peabody.yale.edu/overview/map-cosmos)

To us, it seems like the Egyptians saw the world upside-down. The top of the map is actually South, so Left is East and Right is West.  But the Egyptians knew that the earth revolved around the Sun, and they placed the Sun in the innermost ring of the map.   The next ring, with all the long rectangular figures and circles, represented Egypt itself and all of its administrative districts.  Beyond this were all foreign countries, such as Libya, which was, and still is, directly to Egypt’s West.  In the outermost region are the “cool waters of Horus”, from which all life began.

Colleen Manassa, the curator of the exhibit and professor of Egyptology at Yale, wrote this carefully researched synopsis of the Map of the Cosmos which is worth reading in full for anyone who’s even half as nerdy as me:

This stone slab, part of a larger monument of uncertain provenance, is one of the earliest depictions of the world as a spherical framework; a complete version of a similar circular map appears on a Thirtieth Dynasty sarcophagus at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA 14.7.1B), and from this parallel one may restore elements missing or damaged on the Yale fragment. In keeping with their orientation towards the south—right and west were synonymous for the Egyptians as were left and east—the Yale fragment depicts the northwest portion of the Egyptian world. The Egyptian theologians who designed the map were also able to transform the linear geography of the Nile Valley into a circular form. In religious and cult-topographical terms, theirs was a heliocentric cosmos; the center of the map, of which only a small portion remains, contains the tips of two pairs of wings, which belong to the sun god Re as a winged sun disk. Surrounding the divine world is Egypt, represented by the standards of its 42 administrative districts, often called after their later Greek designation, nomes. The Yale fragment contains the standards of six nomes of the northwest Delta alternating with the Per-nu shrine of Lower Egypt; the three uppermost standards are among the northernmost nomes of Upper Egypt and alternate with the Per-wer shrine of the south

The next portion of the ancient map, the ring beyond the borders of Egypt, depicts foreign countries, in this case the Libyan tribes who dwelt west of the Delta. Standing enshrined in a rectangular hieroglyph that “temple,” is Ha, tutelary deity of the Western Desert. Below Ha are members of the Libyan tribes who populated the eastern portion of the Sahara Desert, and the line separating the Libyans from Egypt is actually composed of loops of rope binding them to the districts of the Nile Valley.

Beyond the Libyan desert and separated by a double line is the final region of the Egyptian cosmos: the primeval, chaotic waters from which all life originated. In the hieroglyphic signs on the map, this outer region is called “the cool waters of Horus;” Horus often appears as a falcon or falcon-headed deity and was worshipped as a sky god closely associated with kingship. The waters of Horus are separated from Egypt and foreign territories, but the boundary between order and chaos is not impermeable. The Nile itself ultimately flowed from these waters, and the ancient Egyptians believed that only the proper religious rituals, which helped to maintain the course of the sun and the divine world, would prevent the chaotic waters from spilling into Egypt.

You should also check out the exhibit if you’re in the area.  There are a number of well-preserved artifacts from various eras of Egyptian history.  They even have a real mummy!.  More information can be found here: http://peabody.yale.edu/exhibits/echoes-egypt-conjuring-land-pharaohs