The Canopus Revelation 

Published by Frontier Publishing
& Adventures Unlimited Press.

To order,
visit the store

 

The star Canopus and the Mystery of Osiris

Philip Coppens

 

Egyptology, in its widest aspect, is very much like the music industry: certain stars are popular, and others are not - and popularity never lasts. Though the ancient Egyptians labelled their stars "imperishable", Egyptologists over the past centuries have frequently changed their opinions as to what the Egyptian cosmology comprised of.

An often heard comment tackles the importance of Sirius. Books have been written with such titles as The Sirius Mystery, claiming that an African tribe, the Dogon of Mali, possess knowledge of this star that surpasses "primitive man's" ability know such facts about the star system. The author of this book, Robert Temple, wondered, if not actually stated, that in Antiquity, extra-terrestrial beings from Sirius visited the Earth, imparting to primitive man the knowledge of how to civilise themselves, as well as advanced knowledge about the star system of Sirius. Sirius' fame is closely followed by that of Orion. Robert Bauval and Adrian Gilbert wrote The Orion Mystery, in which they argued that the constellation of Orion was linked with the Egyptian deity Osiris and that this constellation formed a vital aspect in the lay-out of the pyramids of the Gizeh plateau, as well as in the ancient Egyptian burial rituals.

Both Sirius and Orion are indeed bright stars and constellations, dominating the Southern sky. Alas, I feel both books, as well as Egyptology and history in general have distorted - either unintentionally or on purpose - the true meaning of the ancient Egyptian star lore, by de-emphasising and suppressing the importance of another bright star: Canopus, the second brightest star in the sky - though as a sun, much more bright than Sirius. Perhaps this is merely because that star is not visible in Western Europe, home of so many Egyptologists. It is, however, clearly visible in Egypt and in Africa in general, the continent that gave rise to the ancient Egyptian civilisation.

We know that Sirius is linked with Isis, but what is Canopus? Canopus is a Greek name and is linked to Greek mythology, in particular to the chief pilot of the fleet of Menelaus. Menelaus was the Spartan King, whose wife Helen (of Troy), eloped with Paris and brought about the siege and destruction of that city, known as the Trojan War. In mythology, Menelaus pillaged Troy and regained his wife Helen. Canopus, the brave captain of the king's ship managed to get his fleet safely back to Egyptian waters. Canopus is not only important to ancient seafarers; it is important to extra-terrestrial space-farers as well. By an intriguing coincidence, Canopus is an important navigational marker for interplanetary space probes, which use its light as a directional aid. One of these is the Voyager spacecraft. By manoeuvring Voyager to keep the sun and Canopus in sight of its sensors, the orientation of the spacecraft is fixed and the antenna pointed toward Earth. Its name, which originates from the Coptic or Egyptian Kahi Nub, means "Golden Earth". Canopus has always been linked with gold and lead - the two symbols of alchemy, where it was the alchemist's work to transform lead into gold. Is this a coincidence or could it be intentional? However, another translation is from the Greek, where Canopus means "eye of the dog". The name seems to imply a relationship with Sirius, the Dog star.

What is intriguing is that esoteric traditions, including those of Western Europe, have always hinted at the importance of Canopus. Even Robert Temple himself often referred to Canopus. At one point, he made a contrived and erroneous link to the Egyptian city of Canopus - for no apparent reason. Scattered throughout his book dealing with Sirius, there are numerous anecdotes about Canopus that were outside the scope of the book, but that somehow suggested that he wanted to talk about Canopus. He was not alone. Two academics, de Santillana and von Dechend, are the authors of Hamlet's Mill. They also brought the enigma of Canopus to the forefront, but never went the proverbial extra mile to make sense of the entire subject. Australian archaeo-astronomer Gregory Taylor stated how he felt that Hamlet's Mill was a strange book: "When reading the book, I'm constantly struck that they both - know - something very important. Unfortunately, they never seem to illumine the reader … lots of tantalising hints but never a front-on approach. Santillana does qualify this with his talk of the 'fugue' in the thinking of these people. But I do have to wonder: is their secrecy just scholarly caution, or are they really just throwing out the fishing line waiting for a bite?" They hinted, they highlighted the role of Canopus, but they never interpreted it. This was all the more strange as, when I consulted their sources, that interpretation was there for all to see and absorb. They had to have seen it, yet they did not report it. Why?

So there we had it: Canopus was the second brightest star in the Egyptian sky; it was there for all to see in the ancient civilisations; temples had been aligned to it. But somehow no-one was paying attention to this star - far brighter than the stars of Orion; far more important, as Canopus actually formed the South polar star for the ancient Egyptians. Could it be that out of all the stars that the Egyptians knew, revered and deified, they had somehow missed the second brightest one? Did they miss the one that marked the South Pole, making it appear as if all other stars circled around it? Stars such as Sirius and constellations such as Orion? Surely the answer had to be no.

Hamlet's Mill described how one of their sources, the ancient writer Plutarch himself, "usually knew more than he cared to discuss." Intriguingly, it is Plutarch who talks about Canopus and identifies one of the most prominent Egypt gods, Osiris with Canopus - not Orion, as many believe. Plutarch travelled in Egypt and spoke with Egyptian priests. Although he visited it when it was already overrun with Greek ideas, he was nevertheless an eyewitness. In De Iside and Osiride, a work clearly tackling the deities Isis and Osiris, he writes: "Further they [the Egyptians] call Osiris a general and Canobus a steersman, after whom they say the star was named. They add that the vessel which the Greeks call the Argo is the image of the vessel of Osiris and that, adorned with stars, it voyages not far from Orion and the Dog star; the former of these the Egyptians hold sacred to Horus, the latter to Isis." So, according to this first-hand testimony, Orion was the constellation of Horus. Osiris was identified with both Argo and its chief/pilot star Canopus, perhaps Canopus being the "part designating the whole". Whatever the scenario, it is clear that Osiris is not Orion, as Plutarch has given that constellation to Horus.

According to Plutarch, Canopus is linked with the god of the dead, Osiris. So why do we believe Osiris is connected with Orion? In fact, recently, British author Alan Alford stated: "The identification of Osiris with the star constellation of Orion is well-established, and requires no justification in these pages." One of the rare voices of discord is found in the book Land of Osiris by Stephen S. Mehler, who refers to the Egyptologist and tour guide Abd'El Hakim. Hakim states that Sahu is not linked with Orion and should be translated as "The One who knows but keeps silent", referring to the fact that it is connected to the wisdom of Osiris, but in no way to the constellation Orion. Of course, "knowledge kept quiet" is a perfect manner in which to identify the members of mystery cults, who knew, but were sworn to secrecy. Mehler, however, is not an Egyptologist and if anything, is an outsider. As such, his voice of dissent has gone unnoticed. But only outsiders dared to challenge the dogma of Orion. But if not Orion, then what star? The centre of controversy is the Egyptian name "Sahu", the star of Osiris. Suhel or Suhail is the Arab name for Canopus. Those two words are virtually identical. But such word tricks are not scientifically sound. In Utterance 441 of the Pyramid Texts, it says that Sothis will guide the King who is "Sahu". If Sah must be Orion, how can it be, as a guide usually goes first, and in this case, Orion is first, rising before Sirius. Sahu needs to rise after Sirius and Orion does not fit that description. Canopus, however, does.

Another proponent of the "Sah is not Orion"-theory was Robert E. Briggs, pleading his case in the appendix to Samuel A.B. Mercer's The Pyramid Texts in Translation and Commentary (1952). Briggs reiterated that there were no references in the Pyramid Texts to constellations, only to stars. Briggs believed that the Egyptians were not interested in constellations until the time of Ramses II, virtually a millennium after the building of the pyramids, when they "borrowed" the constellations from their neighbours of Babylonia. He argued that the identification of Sahu with the constellation Orion happened after this time. Although Briggs promotes the argument against Sah being Orion, he does not agree that Sah is Canopus. Nevertheless, he writes: "We note that Sah and Sothis repeatedly form a triad with [the star representing the king]. Surely no star is more naturally paired with Sothis than Canopus - the second brightest star." This would be logical. Sirius/Isis is the brightest star and what other marriage could she take on, except for a marriage with the second brightest star, Canopus? Furthermore, that when Isis is identified with Sirius, her husband Osiris would have to be equal, and hence would also be a single, brilliant star, Canopus. We can also see a trade-off here. Isis was the brightest, but Canopus was in the most important position, the "throne of heaven", the South Pole Star, around which Sirius revolved.

One person who did observe the importance of Canopus was Norman Lockyer, who popularised the idea that many ancient temples were designed with astronomical observations in mind. At least two of the great structures at Karnak, dated to 2100 and 1700 BC respectively, pointed to its setting; as did another at Naga, and the temple of Khons at Thebes, built by Rameses III about 1300 BC, afterwards restored and enlarged under the Ptolemies. Richard Hinckley Allen added: "It thus was the prominent object of the religion of Southern Egypt, where it represented the god of the waters." Therefore, Lockyer and Allen state that the Egyptians did think highly of Canopus, specifically in Southern Egypt. Furthermore, they state that the star was linked with the God of the Waters - Osiris in his form of Hapi, the Nile God - the Egyptian counterpart of Ea, or Enki. Perhaps it won't come as a surprise then to learn that Canopus is linked with the Sumerian town of Eridu, the first town of Enki. Enki, like Osiris, was the Lord of the Underworld, the Abyss. Legends state that Sirius "as an arrow" measured the abyss, but Sirius was not the only star that made this "arrow", also known as the "plumb line". Its colleague in those tasks was Canopus, who was also known as "heavy", it being the weight of the plumb line. One of the reasons why Sirius and Canopus are deemed to measure the Abyss is because Canopus is situated virtually directly South from Sirius. Visually, a line connecting Sirius and Canopus would thus be considered a "plumb line", with Canopus the weight at the bottom of it. One person who actually noticed this link was Robert Temple, who stated that Canopus, when connected to Sirius, was called "Ponderosus", meaning "the Weight". Our other enigmatic book, Hamlet's Mill, links the Arabic name for Canopus, Suhail el-wezn, meaning "heavy-weighing", with the weight at the end of a plumb-line. Why Canopus should have this association is unclear to many - not, as should be clear by now, because it is difficult, but because Canopus' importance is the subject of stony silence. The answer is to be found in harbourmasters' circles. Canopus was connected with Argo, the ship/ark/barque; and ships used plumb-lines to measure the depths of their positions. This instrument is termed the "sounding lead". This sounding lead was used literally to measure the depths of the ocean, i.e. the Abyss.

It is furthermore interesting that one of Osiris' names translates as "plumb line". This was mentioned by Jane Sellers, where Sellers herself links this epithet with Canopus. But of course the importance seems to have been ill-understood. The same applies to Utterance 518 of the Pyramid Texts, where there is a reference to a plumb-line. "I am the herald of the year, O Osiris." This is very precise, for not only do we have Osiris here, but also an indicator of a new era. Other references to the plumb-line are "I am the plumb line of the two Enneads by means of which the Field of Offerings was founded." There is also mention of the ferryman, Hr-f-ha'f, who is also the gate-keeper of Osiris, who ferries the pure ones so they can obtain for Osiris the "cold water at the [polar] quarter of the Imperishable Stars." Utterance 609: "Your sister is Isis, your offspring is the Morning Star, and you shall sit between them on the great throne which is in the presence of the two Enneads." Here, we have a reference to Osiris sitting on his "Great Throne", with Isis/Sirius on one side, his offspring, Horus, the Morning Star, on the other side. It is clear that this vision was visible in the sky, with Canopus being flanked by Sirius and, one assumes, Venus, the Morning Star. So Canopus is the "plumb lead", the weight, also known as merkhet. This was used to measure the depths of the Abyss. Furthermore, it was said that Sirius stirs up the Abyss. And it seems this "cosmic spoon" sometimes spilled the contents of the cup, resulting in the Flood. To quote Richard Hinkley Allen: "The Egyptian story said that it [Argo] was the Ark that bore Isis and Osiris over the deluge." Temple had therefore hinted at the role of Argo, the Ark, led by its "navigator star" Canopus, and the Egyptian belief that it was this constellation that had allowed for the survival of two gods, Isis and Osiris. It is clear that all these legends are telling us the same thing - and this makes the enigma why no-one has puzzled it together before even more intriguing.

Dogon cliff dwelling

In The Sirius Mystery, Temple stated that the Dogon had accounts regarding Sirius that stated that around Sirius orbited another star, a heavy star. Temple knew that science had confirmed that Sirius was orbited by "Sirius B", a white dwarf, a star invisible to the naked eye. From this conclusion, Temple conjectured that this meant that, as it was impossible to learn this by observation with the naked-eye, the Dogon had somehow attained this knowledge from other sources. In the last few years, I have highlighted the research of Professor Walter Van Beek, suggesting that the Dogon did not have specific knowledge of this nature and that the visiting anthropologists "injected" certain knowledge into the Dogon mythology, in an effort, I would suggest, to give credence to pet theories of those anthropologists.

To quote Van Beek: "Though they do speak about sigu tolo, they disagree completely with each other as to which star is meant; for some, it is an invisible star that should rise to announce the sigu, for another it is Venus that through a different position appears as sigu tolo. All agree, however, that they learned about the star from Griaule." Irrelevant to this debate, the vital question in Temple's theory was whether or not the "heavy star" was visible or not. If invisible, it could be Sirius B. If visible, it could not be Sirius B. Could Temple be wrong and could the companion be a visible star? Temple used a lot of licence here. The Dogon reports, which he actually quoted, spoke of a star that was barely visible. But Temple pointed out that Sirius B was totally invisible. Rather than conclude that Sirius B could not, therefore, be the "Digitaria" of the Dogon, he did not even highlight this major discrepancy that invalidated his theory. When I joined up with authors Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince for The Stargate Conspiracy, Temple came under further attack as to why he presented his theory with such obvious "licence", which those authors interpreted as Temple being part of a grander scheme to promote the fame of Sirius. It was known that Digitaria revolved around Sirius and was regarded by the Dogon as the smallest and heaviest of all stars, said to contain the germs of all things. This did not seem to imply that it was Canopus, as Canopus does not revolve around Sirius. If anything, Sirius revolves around Canopus, as the latter marks the South Pole. "Its movement on its own axis and around Sirius upholds all creation in space. We shall see that its orbit determines the calendar", is what Marcel Griaule and Germain Dieterlen wrote. Being the second brightest star in the sky, Canopus was clearly visible, but only for a limited period of time - the reason for its name of "heavy" and its connection with "lead". But Temple stated: "To call a star in the same constellation as Sirius 'too heavy to rise over the horizon with ease' looks suspiciously like an attempt to describe a 'heavy star' such as Sirius B." Unfortunately, this does not bear scrutiny. For one, Sirius B circles Sirius A and hence rises as easily over the horizon as does Sirius A. The only star in that region to have some difficulty lifting itself over the horizon is Canopus - and it was specifically this difficulty that set it apart from all others. In one part of his treatise, Temple even writes that "obviously the description of the invisible Sirius B 'fled South' to a likely visible star, Canopus". So, he argues that even though much evidence points to the fact that Canopus is the "mystery star", this in itself is merely because the ancient cultures could not see Sirius B, and hence equated Canopus as the visible aspect of Sirius B. There is, of course, no way to argue against such an argument - but of course Temple knew this and hence created this circular logic. He seemed to imply that Canopus was the most logical candidate for the job, but that this was erroneous: it was Sirius B. Period. Why? Because he had said so. One problem remains, which is with the eye star orbiting Sirius, suggesting that indeed it needs to be Sirius B, not Canopus. However, in Temple's own book, he provides a possible, reasonable explanation for this. The Egyptian word for oarsman, i.e. Canopus, can be, "with a different determinative and when not applied to a man, the word means 'orbit', 'revolution', 'to go around'." Canopus, the oarsman of Argo, can therefore also mean "orbit", provided it does not apply to a man. Of course, in the case of the stars, it is not a person, and hence Canopus and "orbit" suddenly become good friends. Hence the enigma of a star "orbiting" Sirius A has been answered. Temple admits that, whereas all the evidence fits the case for Canopus, he nevertheless argues for Sirius B. Why? So therefore, it should not be considered at all strange that such warped thinking in Temple's case led to allegations, particularly those made by Picknett and Prince, about his motives to promote the case of Sirius.

Sirius was not the origin of ancient astronauts, as Temple would make us believe. But Canopus is - though this time, the person putting forward this theory did not claim it was science; it was science fiction. In Frank Herbert's Dune there is an intriguing connection with the star Canopus. Arrakis, the "actual" name for the planet Dune, had been positioned by Herbert as the third planet orbiting Canopus. This was, of course, science fiction, but Herbert had definitely done his research. As Canopus was called the "ship of the desert", Dune was a desert-like planet. Nothing grew there, except a spice, which "bent time and space". In short, it altered reality and it was only to be found on this planet - making it the most important planet in the universe. Another aspect of Herbert's research was that a special gild of navigators, who required the spice, were vital to interstellar trade. The legend went that these navigators, who were not allowed to be seen by mortal eyes, had become superhuman, transcended into something else, as a result of their diet of spice. As such, they bent space and guided space travellers. Intriguing parallels between science fiction and science. The case for Canopus is complex, but it is clear that there is more to the "eye of the dog" than has met the eye so far. The question why no-one has properly interpreted the star's lore is even more bizarre - and might become an intriguing debate once again. Some stars, even in the music industry, never die; they get reborn. And as Canopus was the star of the God of the Dead, what better candidate for a "Best of…"-compilation?

Adapted from: "The Canopus Revelation. The Stargate of the Gods and the Ark of Osiris" by Philip Coppens (Adventures Unlimited Press/Frontier Publishing, 2004).