Inscriptions and pictorial representations inside tombs give clues to the mythological context in which the pyramids were built, as well as to the meanings of architectural features. They contain allusions to celestial bodies. Here I briefly describe the salient points of Egyptian religion (to the best of my knowledge) as backgound to a discussion of the ideas that may have motivated the builders, beginning with some notes on the geographical and cultural context.


Egypt was organised in the name of religion and the figurehead of pharaoh, the 'living god', represented a focus of contact with the divine for the whole population. Reverence for the gods was paramount and life regulated according to an unceasing round of religious duties - periodic rituals, the building of temples, the construction of tombs and elaborate preparations for the afterlife, as well as the establishment of bodies of priests to maintain these institutions in perpetuity. Local geographical conditions were imagined to be mirrored in the sky, across which the gods travelled in their celestial boats to set in the west - the land of the dead. The western desert border therefore became the natural site for cemeteries, so that what remains of this ancient civilisation is largely a record of the rituals of death, the living historical event buried beneath the rising silt of the Nile.


According to the accepted view, civilisations are made possible by settled agriculture producing food for more people than those necessary to work the land, thus promoting the division of labour and the establishment of heirarchies. The fact that Egypt was relatively isolated from other early civilisations in the Middle East, coupled with what appears as a conscious rejection of foreign culture, meant that the energies created by surpluses were turned inwards. The extent of Egypt's debt to Sumer is difficult to assess (although as regards architectural style in the early dynasties it is clear enough) but differences are more marked than similarities. Egypt quickly became a single state governed by a god-king, but Sumer comprised a competing mass of city states administered by priests 'deputising' for the gods - the mythologies are distinct and it is difficult to see Egypt merely as a sort of Sumerian colony. Also the computational methods of Egypt were different from those of Sumer (although the length of the year and the 'hours of the night' in Egypt were sexaguesimal as they were in the Mesopotamia). Certain Egyptian traits find similarities in African tribal customs.

There are further, but more disturbing, parallels with other ancient cultures : in the Second dynasty there is evidence of the burial of retainers with their lord - as was the case in Ur of the Chaldees, An Yang in China, and elsewhere. Whether the victims were willing sacrifices we have no way of knowing for it is difficult to understand the feelings and actions of persons conditioned by a mythic outlook so different from our own, but the practice speaks of superstition or despotism.

The elite that governed Egypt shrewdly linked their power to that controlling the flood on which the life of Egypt depended, aided by a complex  but all-encompassing mythology that made heaven a copy of life on earth.Reisner comments : 'The spirit lived as a member of a familiar community not as an isolated soul dwelling in darkness and amongst strangers'.

It was nevertheless an elite that had attained its position through the exercise of power (that, at the  end of the Old Kingdom, was to collapse into chaos). Early Egypt may not have engaged in war so readily as its neighbours but its existence, like theirs, depended upon this power. In Egypt a male god gave birth to the world, in stark contradiction to all natural process, and his progeny on earth, pharaoh, assumed responsibility for the prosperity of the state - on the famous pre-dynastic 'Narmer palette' he is shown holding a hoe. He was the central figure in the birth ritual - the counterpart of the death ritual - in his 'Hebsed' festival, or 'renewing jubilee', a procession was led by a man holding aloft the pharaoh's placenta mounted upon a pole - perhaps the prototype of all flags. As one writer says of pharaoh (1) 'The elites were symbols of collective sentiment, not raw power. Kings, popes, flags, parents, and Santa Claus all rolled into one'.

Egyptians claimed that their civilisation had been founded by divine ancestors. The beginning of the historical period was commemorated as the 'unification of the two lands' and repeatedly depicted in the iconography of all later periods : Egypt was conceived as being divided into two parts - the delta, 'lower Egypt', symbolised by WADJIT the cobra; and the Nile valley extending to the tropic, 'upper Egypt', symbolised by NEKHBET the vulture. The heads of these two animals surmounted the double crown of pharaoh and represented his dominion over the united territory of Egypt.

The modern tendency has been to consider that Egyptian civilisation was a natural development of long-existing pre-dynastic groups - upper Egypt first reached 'critical mass' and then subdued the people of the delta and other neighbours. The major pre-dynastic centres appear to have been located in the south, chiefly in the area near Hierakonpolis, although of course we have little knowledge of conditions in the north, subsequently obliterated by the building of the delta, nor the extent of foreign contact which most likely would have occurred in this area. That there was such contact is however proven by the existence of Mesopotamian artefacts, cylinder seals and the like, which have turned up in pre-dynastic deposits. With the establishment of the Egyptian state these traits all but disappear and, in remains from the First dynasty, we are presented with all the essential features of the Egyptian style - a running hieroglyphic script, furniture, jewellery, the practice of mummification and burial in extended position - all to be found in the classic tomb.

How Egypt was unified remains largely a matter of guesswork based largely on certain associations represented in the pictorial art of the period. This lack of evidence is in part due to the fact that Egyptian history was not smooth but punctuated by two 'intermediate-periods' when society broke down. Climatic change and fluctuations in the Nile inundations may have created the conditions for the first of these. At any rate Petrie found that at Giza statuary had been reduced to fragments in what appears a frenzy of hatred, but such uprisings are not recorded in state propaganda. Pyramids supposedly were built for eternity but five hundred years after Khufu his temple was stripped of reliefs and blocks reused. The few extant records, such as lists of kings, appear as if manipulated for political or symbolic ends. There is little trace of an alternative voice, save for fragments of satirical graffiti.

In the late pre-dynastic period the archaeological record suggests a rapid period of development towards the classic style - for example 'proto-hieroglyphs' and the beginnings of the register system in artistic representation. (So rapid that earlier excavators (2) tended to the view that a superior culture had entered Egypt from the 'outside'). It appears that the local traditions of the numerous small states and tribes inhabiting the country were incorporated into a unified system of belief. A 'totem' is a class of natural objects to which members of a clan consider themselves related (the idea remains with us today when we adopt as political emblems lions, eagles, and suchlike, the relics of armorial bearings) and the Egyptians managed to incorporate the totems of each tribe and district into a complex yet harmonious whole. HORUS the hawk, THOTH the ibis, ANUBIS the jackal - these were just some of the gods certain of whose attributes and associations were derived from pre-dynastic times.




Egyptians believed in the existence of 'spiritual bodies' and indulged in magical practices which are described in New Kingdom papyri. 'Letters to dead' were written by pious supplicants. The deceased relied upon 'tomb-equipment' - offerings and models of workers - to provide him with sustenance in the after-life. Heiroglyphic signs were 'erased' or part-completed apparently in order to destroy their magic power. All this smacks of simple superstition. On the other hand it is clear that we are dealing with a pragmatic state religion in which the social function was paramount, and whose structure, myths, tenets, and rituals acted to impress upon the citizen that he lived in an environment self-evidently ordained by the gods.

The Egyptians acknowledged a wide and somewhat perplexing array of gods (or, perhaps better, 'divine principles'), many appearing to derive from the totems of pre-dynastic tribes. These gods were the principal actors in a series of complex and sometimes contradictory myths. Each myth was associated with a particular cult centre - the principal ones being at Heliopolis and Memphis at the division of the two lands, and at Hermopolis and Thebes in upper Egypt. Confusion arises because the cosmogonies taught at each centre appear to us to be contradictory, and involved a different selection of gods. Some only rose to pre-eminence in later periods - as with the cult of AMUN at Thebes, while other gods act out their part in more than one myth - as with THOTH, god of science and learning, whose chief cult centre was located at Hermopolis, home of the ancient myth of the Ogdoad. The chief god of Memphis was PTAH, from whom our name for the country is derived. The myth of  Heliopolis, telling the story of ISIS and OSIRIS, developed during the pyramid age.

Gods of the early Old Kingdom

RE the sun god appears in inscriptions from the late pre-dynastic period. In the early Old Kingdom he is associated with ATUM at Heliopolis.

HORUS and SET are attested in pre-dynastic times. These gods are portrayed uniting the two lands. Set was favoured in the very earliest dynasties, but later Horus became god of kingship and Set seen as a disruptive genius. Different celestial bodies were referred to as 'Horus'.
Horus the falcon-headed god had a cult centre at  Khem, or Letopolis, during the fourth dynasty. This lies due north from Giza and due west from Heliopolis.
As time went on Set became increasingly demonized. Set is portrayed as a peculiar composite with an aardvaak-like snout and long ears which have been clipped. In the second intermediate period the Hyksos invaders took up Set, identifying him with Baal.
The elder Horus has no obvious connection with the later Osiris/Isis/Horus triad

HATHOR, as her name implies, was the wife of Horus and the most prominent goddess in the early Old Kingdom. She has a sensual quality.

PTAH was the creator god of Memphis and of artisans, symbolizing material transformation. Enigmatically he was said to have created the Ogdoad and Ennead. His name is thought to be the root of the word 'Egypt'.

THOTH and his consort SESHAT were the gods of knowledge, writing, and calculation - length and time. Seshat presided over surveying and her sanctuary was at Heliopolis. Later developments give Thoth a more important role in both Heliopolitan and Hermopolitan cosmogonies.

Of the other  gods prominent in Old Kingdom times, a number  were dogs :

KHENTAMENTIU was the chief god of Abydos, later to become the cult centre of Osiris.

ANUBIS was protector of the necropolis in ancient times.

WEPWAWET protected the movements of the king, whether in war as a battle standard, or as 'opener of the ways' to help the king travel to the land of the dead.

(Other dogs include DUAMATEF, one of the sons of Horus, while sometimes Set is shown as a dog.)

Khufu is called Khnum Khufu in inscriptions. KHNUM was an ancient deity originally controlling the inundation. He was also a creator god (portrayed with a ram's head) who was said to have moulded humans from clay. He was not however responsible for creating the clay.

The goddess MAAT represented order and truth.

In Giza royal-family tomb-inscriptions the principal gods mentioned are Re, Horus, Ptah, Thoth, Hathor and Anubis. There is no Isis and Osiris.

The myth of Hermopolis - the Ogdoad

The Ogdoad was promoted at Hermopolis and is considered one of the oldest myths.
There were eight members :  four frogs and their snake consorts gathered before creation on the primaeval mound as it emerged from the flood waters of chaos. They are named as :

NUN and NUNET - watery expanse; lack of solidity
HEH and HEHET - infinity; eternity
KEK and KEKET - darkness
AMUN and AMENET - emptiness; lack of direction

The Ogdoad is a personification of the state of chaos - alchemical metaphors come to mind here. In the development of this myth the sun god emerges from the primaeval mound, sometimes described as the 'island of fire', while it is also said that an egg containing Re was laid on this mound by a celestial bird. Thoth was later associated with the Ogdoad.

The myth of Heliopolis - the Ennead

Some scholars see the myth of Heliopolis
(the 'On' of the Bible) as being a continuation of the story of creation after the Ogdoad had done its mysterious work. According to the Pyramid Texts, at Heliopolis a 'pillar' equated  the self-created father of the gods,  ATUM , with the primaeval mound upon which the mysterious BENNU bird (illustrated at the beginning of this website) was supposed to alight. It was upon this  'mound of creation' that temples were symbolically built.

The myth of Heliopolis grew steadily in importance and by classical times had become much embroidered. It should be noted that the following summary describes this myth in its fully developed form. What its exact form was during the pyramid age remains the subject of debate.

The myth was conceived as bringing order out of chaos and giving justification to the form of the Egyptian state. The 'city of the sun', across the Nile from Giza, was of supreme importance during the Old Kingdom, and a number of pharaohs of this period had the element 'Re' as part of their names - Neferkare, Menkaure, Djedkare, and so forth. The sun-god was personified in three forms : Khephere in the morning (a scarab beetle pushing a ball of dung into which it had laid its eggs), the disc of Re at midday, and the standing figure of Atum holding a staff in the evening. (It was later said that the Great Sphinx of Giza symbolised all three forms and this in turn is thought to have become the basis for the famous Oedipus riddle).

In the myth of Heliopolis ATUM was considered the father of the gods. The Heliopolitan group called the 'ENNEAD' comprised 9 gods - 5 'divine' and 4 'semi-human' - and their origins were as follows :

ATUM (m), self-arising from the primaeval waters of chaos (NUN), by masturbation created the first pair - SHU (m) 'air' and TEFNUT (f) 'moisture'. These in turn begat GEB (m) 'earth' and NUT (f) 'sky'.

Geb attempted to mate with his sister and so their parents 'came between them', and in the iconography Shu is shown with arms raised holding up the heavenly vault of Nut while Geb lies recumbent. In spite of this, Geb and Nut managed to beget OSIRIS (m) and ISIS (f), and SET (m) and NEPTHYS (f) - brothers and sisters and wives and husbands  - 'semi-human' members of the Ennead, with Set being portrayed with the head of a strange beast.

Accounts of succeeding events are fragmentary and sometimes contradictory but it is generally agreed that Set became jealous of his brother Osiris and killed him, and ultimately succeeded in dismembering his body and distributing its parts throughout Egypt. Isis then collected these parts together (thus making the prototype mummy) and brought Osiris back to life to reign as lord of the 'DUAT' - the mysterious netherworld of the dead.

In the continuation of the myth, the resurrection of Osiris enables Isis  to conceive HORUS (m) the well-known falcon-headed god (yet distinct from the 'elder Horus'), who is often depicted as protecting the earthly pharaohs. Horus fights against Set and succeeds in reclaiming his rightful inheritance. But the balance between the two gods, often portrayed as 'the uniting of the two lands', is a dynamic one - Set represents forces of disorder which must continually be resisted through the collective efforts of mankind, organised, for this purpose, into an ideal state headed by pharaoh the living 'son of Re'.

(The role of Set in early dynasties is unclear - one IInd dynasty pharaoh even appears to have made Set pre-eminent. Set as a symbol of disorder must be distinguished from the primaeval chaos from which Atum emerged through his own will. : in later scenarios Set is even allocated a place in the barque of Re. De Lubicz suggested that Set's 'asses ears' are clipped so that, like the fallen angel Satan, he is deaf to order and wisdom).

The supreme importance of the Ennead and Horus in the New Kingdom is demonstrated by their allocation to the first ten divisions of the Royal cubit rule - an important measure of length throughout dynastic Egypt and which was particularly employed in royal monuments. The Ennead is present in the earliest-known inscriptions found inside small pyramids of the fifth and sixth dynasties : the Pyramid Texts. In the Middle Kingdom the material in these texts was written on coffins, and in the New Kingdom was elaborated to form the famous 'Book of the Dead'- a collection of invocations on papyrus to be read at funeral ceremonies and then buried with the deceased.

The essential part of the Book of the Dead was the 'negative confession' - the reading over the mummy of the deceased of a long, formulated list of moral transgressions that he had resisted during his lifetime. Then, with his relatives re-enacting the parts of mythic protagonists, he was imagined to undergo the ceremony called the 'weighing of the heart' : in which his heart was tested in the balance against the feather of truth. If he failed in this test he would be devoured by a fearsome beast and utterly destroyed. But if his heart was true he would be led into the presence of Osiris - his son as Horus 'opening the mouth' of the mummy and causing it to enter the world of the Duat.

The broad tenets of Heliopolitan belief might not appear greatly different from some of today's monotheist beliefs - a male god procreating without woman; judgement; life after death; and the idea that humanity has been created to do god's work. But in Egypt 'god and caesar' were one : pharaoh, the 'living Horus', represented the focus of contact with the divine for the whole population. Egyptian history was the acting out of ritual, and each succeeding king stood at the beginning of mythological time, overcoming chaos, and causing Egypt to come into being. A continuous effort had to be made against the forces of chaos (one might say against entropy). The king was the mediator between gods and men and his essential duty was to maintain the cult rituals and Maat. His name was written in a 'loop in the thread of time' called a Cartouche -

In New Kingdom temple depictions of the birth of Horus, Amun-Re takes the form of a man  to impregnate a woman chosen to give birth to the future king. Thoth appears to her (like an angel to Mary) to tell her she has the divine seed inside her and will give birth to the sun and creator. Consequently the king's mother and multiple wives (who were often sisters, in an apparent attempt to keep the bloodline pure) had very important positions at court. But evidence from the earliest dynasties does not lend much weight to such a scenario.

Tomb inscriptions suggest that the king's relations to the gods were redefined during the 5th dynasty. The semi-human members of the Ennead were co-opted from previous traditions by the priests of Heliopolis to construct a myth which would reinforce the divine rulership of the king. For example it was said that Thoth had gambled with the gods to win 5 extra days to the formal 360 day year, during which the five semi-human members of the Ennead could be born. Osiris replaced Khentamentiu and ANDJETI, the original anthropomorphic god of Abydos holding the crook and flail sceptres (emblems of animal husbandry and agriculture or, if you will, carrot and stick). The word 'Ennead', although meaning 'nine', seems to have been applied to different numbers of gods, and in the Pyramid Texts only one utterance has the 'canonical' list.

Whatever the facts of its origins, the 'passion of Osiris' appealed to the people :

"In the Fifty Dynasty [2465-2322 BC] autobiographical texts developed further to include episodes illustrating the tomb-owner's character and describe his memorable achievements....The concept of a moral evaluation was new, and perhaps the result of new religious ideas, particularly the increased importance of Osiris, which became widespread during the Fifth Dynasty." (3). 


Fundamental to the Egyptian concept of order was the rhythm of the Nile. Each year the rains in Ethiopia caused the swelling of the river and this produced an annual flood in Egypt, usually at the end of June. (It was hardly a strict rhythm - records from the New Kingdom show that the time between floodings could vary from 345 to 415 days).When the inundation had subsided, and deposited its fertile silt, the fields would be re-surveyed and planting begun. The flood occurred at about the time that Sirius or SOPDET, the brightest star in the sky, first appeared before dawn over the eastern horizon and traditionally this was taken to signal the inundation. In early dynasties depicted as a cow, Sopdet was later identified with Isis.

The backdrop to the mythological drama, as in many other cultures, was the sky. The sky goddess Nut is portrayed in tombs giving birth to her celestial progeny and along the 'Winding Waterway', conceived as a body of fresh water like the Nile, the gods travelled in their celestial boats to set in the west - the land of the dead. Krauss argued that the Waterway is the band of the ecliptic (4). (The sun of course was Re and, since the inner planets are always close to the sun, Krauss proposed that the conflict between Horus and Set is represented by conjunctions between Venus and Mercury. Bauval proposes that the Winding Waterway was the Milky Way). The netherworld, called the DUAT, was pictured as a star in a circle, probably signifying that part of the sky beneath the earth. Gods needed to transfer from the day boat to the night boat in their daily round and these boats were often represented by models or pits, as in the illustration below showing the boat pits beside Khafre's mortuary temple.

Stars were 'oarsmen' and those near the ecliptic were associated with the dead, while the 'imperishable' northern stars which never set offered renewed life. The Book of the Dead tells us that the aim of the deceased was to enter into the presence of Osiris, while the Pyramid Texts make clear that the dwelling of this god was somewhere in the prominent, man-like constellation Orion, just south of the ecliptic. Orion was personified as SAH, who according to the Pyramid Texts was the 'father of the gods'.

'O king, you who are this Great Star, the Companion of Orion, who traverses the sky with Orion, who navigates the Duat with Osiris; you ascend from the east of the sky, being renewed in your due season, and rejuvenated in your due time. The sky has born you with Orion.' (Pyramid Texts 882, 883).

The sarcophagus containing the mummy destined to be re-born as 'an Osiris' was associated with Nut - the first utterance of the Pyramid Texts, inscribed upon the sarcophagus, reads :

'Recitation by Nut, the great beneficent. The king is my eldest son who split open my womb; he is my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.' (Pyramid Texts 1).

In coffins of later periods the inner side of the lid presents a portrayal of Nut flanked on one side with Isis/Sirius and Osiris/Orion in their celestial boats (the southern constellations) and, on the other, a portrayal of the northern constellations. Similar portrayals have also been found on the ceilings and walls of certain New Kingdom tombs.

Throughout the pyramid age, the entrance passages of tombs and pyramids were aligned in the general direction of the celestial pole - the axis around which the heavens revolve, and the region of the sky which was given especial prominence in Egyptian astronomical representations. Also pyramids are laid out with precision to the cardinal points and it is generally agreed that to have achieved this the builders must have used astronomical methods, probably sighting on stars near the pole. (These stars were gods so the layout of pyramids was no pragmatic exercise but a sacred act). The precise identification of the stars in these northern constellations is the subject of some debate. The only constellation identified with certainty is the Great Bear - represented in New Kingdom times by the thigh of a bull. Sometimes portrayed are the 'Four Sons of Horus', to which four organs (lungs, stomach, liver, and intestines : ie. those involved in the processing of food) were dedicated and preserved seperately during mummification ceremonies. Perhaps most revealing is the portrayal of a pregnant Hippopotamus - TAWERET the goddess of child-birth.

The Egyptians believed in the existence of a number of spiritual bodies. The KA is variously translated as 'personality' 'individuality' 'self' and 'lifeforce' - after death, offerings of food were made to it at a special place in the tomb. The BA is more difficult to fathom, for even objects had Ba's. Usually translated as 'soul' it was represented by the Ibis bird. (Another translation is 'manifestation' : the king's Ba could manifest in acts). In funerary rituals the body needed to be re-assembled as in the myth of Osiris, that is, made into a magical mummy or 'established from decay'. Apparently only then could the Ba 'wake up' the corpse and, after this, the Ka and Ba 'combined' to make the AKH or 'radiant light' or 'resurrection body' (represented as the crested Ibis). This then ascended to Nut to become a star and accompany Re in his boat of 'millions of years'. The place just below the eastern horizon where heavenly bodies are born was called the AKHET. Hence the 'horizon' of Khufu' is the place where Khufu was transformed into an Akh.

In the Old Kingdom the king was considered as embodying the Ka's of his subjects so his rebirth would ensure that of all, and the pyramid was the magical icon which would effect this. Among other things, the pyramid appears to represent the mound of Atum arising from the waters of chaos. In later times, the pyramid was identified with Osiris :

'O Horus, this King is Osiris, this pyramid of the King is Osiris, this construction of his is Osiris; betake yourself to it, do not be far from it in its name of Pyramid.' (Pyramid texts 1657).

This 'Osiris pyramid' enabled the dead king to unite with Re the sun god, while kingship was transferred to his son 'the living Horus'. Thereafter the pyramid was 'maintained' by a body of priests. Pyramid building thus represented a sort of contract between the living and the dead, with obligations on both sides.

Although each pyramid is unique, with often quite complex passage arrangements, all are broadly similar : an entrance in the north face opening to a passage directed towards the polar region, and ultimately terminating in a sarcophagus chamber. Often this is preceded by an 'ante-chamber'. By studying the Pyramid texts, Allen (5) was able to throw some light on the meaning of this layout. He proposes that the texts were meant for the king and the direction in which they are written leads him out of the pyramid to be reborn. The sarcophagus chamber is the Duat. The sarcophagus, usually in the west of the chamber, is Nut the mother of Osiris. When the king's Ba awakes and leaves the mummy in the Duat, it moves from west to east - that is, the direction in which the sun moves beneath the earth to be reborn at the eastern horizon. The ante-chamber is the Akhet where the king becomes an Akh. The passage in the north wall leads out to the polar region and ultimately the king is reborn on the eastern horizon. From this it is reasonable to suppose that the Egyptians saw the pole as 'the navel of the sky' and the image of the goddess of childbirth located there supports this. But how did the Akh of the king appear at the eastern horizon?


The idea that the narrow-section shafts leading upwards from the King's and Queen's chambers inside the pyramid of Khufu are 'airshafts' seems to have originated when the former were first cleaned out and found to introduce fresh air into the chamber. Pyramidologists took up the idea, believing that the King's chamber contained a standard of measure which needed to be kept at a constant temperature. I do not know who first suggested that the shafts were constructed to supply fresh air to workers, or those attending upon a burial, but this unlikely idea has been widely accepted until very recently.

Some Egyptologists propose a 'cultic' meaning whereby, for example, the shafts allowed something akin to a 'soul' to leave or enter the tomb. It is well known from texts, tomb decorations, and coffin lids, that Egyptian gods had a celestial aspect. Most pyramids have 'polar' entrance passages, so-called because they point towards the circumpolar stars (or, according to the ancient Egyptians, the 'imperishables' - the stars that never set). This proposition appears to be generally accepted even though polar passage angles vary and no specific stellar target has been identified. In fact the evidence suggests that passage angles were determined primarily using geometry and proportion - this is effectively the 'language' of the pyramids.

The idea that Khufu's shafts were directed to stellar targets seems to have been rejected because the suggested alignments are not absolutely precise. The probable targets of the king's chamber shafts were identified by Badawy and Trimble in 1964 (6) as Orion's belt and Thuban. In 1993 Gantenbrink used robots to explore (so far as he was permitted - he incurred the displeasure of egyptian authorities and replaced by a team from National Geographic magazine)  not only these but the Queen's chamber shafts as well. Using Gantenbrink's data, Bauval proposed that the Queen's chamber shaft targeted Sirius, and Kochab in Ursa Minor. He concluded that these four passages had been aimed at specific stars, making a pattern very similar to the coffin lid illustrated above (7).

He noticed that the angle given by Gantenbrink for the north starshaft of the Queen's Chamber aligns tolerably well to the upper culmination of Kochab.  At the moment of this event Orion's belt, that is to say the target of the King's chamber south shaft, was rising on the eastern horizon as shown in the illustration below. (At an azimuth of approximately 108 degrees - the angle of the pentagon. This calls to mind the five-spoked hieroglyph for a star and the 'DUAT' - Al Nitak rose at 108 degrees in 2650 BC, when it is generally believed construction of large pyramids was beginning).

In fact three stars were in alignment with the pole and meridian : the Great and Little Bears were in alignment on opposite sides of the pole. This method of establishing north later became known as the 'simultaneous transit method', using a string and plumb bob. When this alignment reached the meridian - Orion was 'born'. Looking north at this epoch -


He also noted that the constellations of the Great and Little Bears resembled the 'adzes' used in portrayals of the ceremony of the 'Opening of the Mouth', performed on the mummy of the dead king to give it life (and by the way also performed to 'give life' to statues, a practice found also in Mesopotamia). (7)

The name of the ceremony itself suggests a metaphor derived from the common experience of Midwives - the need to clear the air passages of the newly born so that it can breathe and receive sustenance (8)). The Great Bear (the Egyptian constellation of the 'Thigh') was associated with the Four Sons of Horus and the cardinal points, and seems in some way to have generated the force that turned the sky. (In the illustration above the figure of 'Wepwawet' the jackal, 'Opener of the Ways' has been included). It appeared that the Egyptians had devised a myth, enacted in the heavens yet paralleled in common human experience. Even the symbolic flint implements used for cutting the foetal chord have been found at Giza, marked with the name of  Khufu.

Bauval believed he could extract a corrected date for Giza based on the mean angles of the shafts of 2450 BC. (9). Unfortunately it does not work.
The mean angles of the shafts in degrees were given by Gantenbrink as follows :

KC north  32.6
KC south  45
QC north  39.1*
QC south  39.6

The target stars at these elevations give dates as follows :

KC north   Thuban  2330 BC
KC south   Alnitak   2500
QC north   Kochab  2350
QC south   Sirius     2380

The mean of these dates is not 2450 BC. Bauval suggested that the discrepancy can be explained as building error.

However, the shafts are not straight  but made up of straight sections, and numerous bends near the chambers, so it is obvious that the builders had no interest in maintaining unbroken 'lines of sight' to their stellar targets. Tedder noted that the final section of KC north is built with a slope of  31.2 degrees, and this was the altitude of Thuban in 2570 BC - within the presently accepted dates for Khufu. (At this date Alnilam, the middle star of the belt, fits KC the south shaft alignment more precisely than Alnitak). Thuban was the pole star at this time.

The alignment of the QC shafts is more problematic, the dates given by measured shaft angles give dates that are too young for the supposed star culminations. Even so, to find the southern shafts of Khufu aligned, if only notionally, towards the two important stellar targets, Sirius and Orion, remains compelling. But there is no evidence pointing to an association with Sirius and Osiris during Khufu's time. 150 years later these associations seem to be in place. Yet the architecture of Khufu's and 5th dynasty pyramids remains essentially the same, and one would expect the 'function' of their architectural features, and the rituals that are known to have taken place, to be similar also. If Khufu was not mummified as an 'Osiris' (so without the fratricide and ensuing pathos) was it enough to become an 'Akh'? While Isis and Osiris are mentioned in the Pyramid Texts they are hardly major stars in the pantheon of gods addressed (or 'threatened' if the king be barred from joining Re!). Is the first humble appearance here of Isis and Osiris representative of a growing 'saviour' sect within the Egyptian 'church' which nevertheless had to be included in the list of spells 'just to be on the safe side'?

A note on the Stellar Correlation Theory

As a result of its extensive promotion most readers will be familiar with Bauval's proposal that the three Giza pyramids were laid out in the pattern of stars of Orion's belt. Since the south shaft of the King's chamber points to this asterism the idea cannot be lightly dismissed, but on closer examination there are many problems.
In the development of this hypothesis, Bauval suggested that the remaining IVth dynasty pyramids also corresponded to stars - the unfinished pyramids at Zawiyet El Aryan and Abu Rawash representing two other stars of the Orion configuration, Bellatrix and Saiph, while the Dashur pyramids represented two stars of the Hyades cluster in the constellation Taurus. However, while the northern 'red' pyramid of Dashur might correlate with the bright orange star Aldebaran, for the southern 'bent' pyramid there is no bright star candidate, so why was this pyramid built equal in size to its northern neighbour? Similar objections apply to further attempts to correlate stars with pyramids. The pyramids of the Vth and VIth dynasties contain the very Pyramid Texts that speak of a stellar destiny yet the positions of these small pyramids cannot be correlated with stars on a one-to-one basis. Therefore, if the theory is true,  these pyramids can only have  represented stars near Orion in a general sense,  their dimensioning and locations being determined by other factors According to this view Giza might represent 'an essential prototype' : the 'magnum opus' of Old Kingdom funerary monuments.

In the further development of his ideas Bauval claimed that the layout of the Giza pyramids, along an azimuth 45 degrees from north, reproduced the pattern of the belt stars as they lay on the meridian in 10450 BC at the lowest point of their precessional cycle. New evidence appeared to show that the Sphinx was extremely ancient and the suggestion was made that the whole site may have been laid out at this early date. Speculation arose that Giza had been designed by god-like beings from fabled Atlantis. A claim was even made that there were also pyramids and a 'sphinx-like' face on the planet Mars. Exciting stuff but rather unlikely.

That the Egyptians had copied the belt stars seemed not unreasonable - the correspondence between the positions of these stars and the Giza pyramid trio seemed not so far fetched, and the small discrepancies in position might be ascribed to the need for the layout to conform to geometric constraints. But what of the orientation of the three pyramid centres? This might be expected to reproduce the configuration of the belt as it lay on the meridian in 2450 BC (the revised date for Khufu put forward by Bauval). Yet it did not.

As we have seen, the Giza group is laid out along a 45 degree diagonal. The layout position for the belt is achieved when the star Saiph, in the 'left leg' of Orion/Osiris, lies vertically below the star Al Nitak. (Comparable to the simultaneous transit method for determing north using a string and plumb bob). But, as may be seen from these comparison pictures of Alnitak on the meridian, this was not case in 10450 BC -

But did the layout orientation need to match the position of the belt on the meridian? As the constellation of Orion moves across the sky from horizon to horizon its orientation changes, and at a certain moment the belt will appear in the layout position. I noticed that in 2450 BC (the revised date given by Bauval for Giza) this moment was defined when Thuban reached the meridian at its lower culmination. This star, at its upper culmination, was the target of the King's chamber north starshaft and at this date had a right ascension of 12 hours and at this moment the altitude of Al Nitak was about 37 degrees, while its azimuth was 37 degrees east of south -

At the estimated date of 2570 BC for Khufu this relation is lost, yet the idea that the builders had copied an image of  the belt as it hung over the south eastern horizon remained compelling. The concept of vertical star pairings appeared already to have been exploited in the planning of the north shafts of Khufu. 
Recently Tedder  has taken up the idea.  He points out that a number of pyramid sites (or the edge of the western escarpment in the Memphite zone) fall on the 37 degree alignment as shown below (south is up on this diagram). Note that the Dashur pyramids do not fit in this scheme -

Subsequently Spence (11) took up this idea and, noticing a trend in pyramid orientation over time (as a result of precession, an idea originally put forward by Haack (12)) thought this might be a way of dating the pyramids. However this required some convoluted reasoning regarding the discrepant orientation of Khafre among other things. (update 2017. Recently Puchkov (13) has put forward an alternative solution to the problem. He proposes that the stars used for the simultaneous transit method were not Mizar and Kochab, but Mizar and Pherkad, and this provides a much better fit (he follows Magli (14) in concluding that Khufu and Khafre were laid out together to solve the discrepancy) but requires a date 200 years earlier than conventional dating (based on derivative and incomplete listing of the reigns of kings). However these early dates are supported by radiocarbon dating. The jury is still out).

The Global Context

Lethaby remarked : 'The common places of poetry, in which the world is likened to a building, 'heavenly vaults', or 'azure domes', 'gates of sunrise', and the rest, are survivals of a time when the earth was not a tiny ball, projected at infinite speed through immeasurable space, one, among other fireflies of the night, but was stable and immoveable, the centre of the universe, the floor on which the sky was built. The whole, a chamber lighted by the sun, moon, and stars'. (15). He proposed that temples were built in the likeness of this world - their foundation a sacred ceremony and their relation to the heavens defined by observation. In recent decades research by archaeoastronomers has revealed that ancient sites worldwide were laid out with reference to heavenly bodies. In most cases these involve horizon alignments to the sun and moon at the extreme points of their cycles. For instance the Ka'ba in Mecca is oriented in such a way.

Many cultures have seen their mythologies enacted in the heavens (and the gods of ancient Greece are still with us as planets and the zodiac) although, of course, the figures they saw in the patterns of the stars sometimes differed greatly. The diagram below shows the system devised by a contemporary Amazon tribe (16) : the ideal distribution of of a phatry of three intermarrying Colombian tribes is considered as a hexagon. Tribal territory is bounded by 6 waterfalls and these are imagined to have stellar counterparts, and tribal longhouses are built according to the same model. The equator, marked by two other major waterfalls, passes through the centre of the hexagon. Its heavenly counterpart is imagined to be an alignment from Sirius through Orion's belt to Aldebaran, and then on to the Pleiades (this corresponding to the path from marriage to death). Men and women each have their own 'quest' - in the centre of the figure is shown the overlapping male/female dance pattern (copying the pattern of stars in Orion) and the vertical axis leads from a central rock covered with petroglyphs to Al Nilam - the central star in Orion's belt.

Given the clear desert air of Egypt and the sophisticated wealth of its civilization one might expect that 'heaven had been brought down to earth', and to find astronomical alignments in sacred buildings. Indeed, 100 years ago Lockyer wrote a book on the subject (17). Unfortunately he was an outsider, an Astronomer, and the Egyptologists of the day 'advised the cobbler to stick to his last'. Perhaps in a decade or two sufficient studies will have been made to make a proper assessment of Egyptian Astronomy. Meanwhile it is impossible to make any definite statement. RJC. 2002. (Note 2017. Work has been in progress at a number of temples and will be described in a future update).


1. Hoffman, M.A. 1980. Egypt before the Pharaohs. London.

2. Emery, W.B. 1961. Archaic Egypt. Penguin, Harmondsworth.

3. Malek, J. In the shadow of the pyramids.

4. Krauss, R. 1997. Astronomische Konzepte und Jenseitsvorstellungen in den Pyramidentexten. Wiesbaden.

5. Allen, J.P. 1988. Funerary texts and their meaning. in D'Auria, P. Lacovara and C.H. Roehrig (eds.). 'Mummies and Magic : The Funerary Arts of Ancient Egypt'. Boston.

6. Badawy, A. 1964. 'The Stellar Destiny of Pharaoh and the so-called Airshafts in Cheops' Pyramid'. and Trimble, V. 1964. 'Astronomical Investigations concerning the so-called Air-shafts of Cheops' Pyramid'. both in MIOAWB. Band.10. 

7. Bauval, R.G. and A. Gilbert. 1994.The Adze of Upuat : The Opening of the Mouth Ceremony and the Northern Shafts in Cheops' Pyramid. Discussions in Egyptology.

8. Roth, A.M. 1993. 'Fingers, Stars, and the "Opening of the Mouth" : the nature and function of the NTRWJ - blades'. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology. Vol. 79. London. Roth notes that the ceremony of 'Opening the Mouth' of statues has parallels in early Mesopotamian civilisation.

9. Bauval, R.G. 1993. 'Cheops' Pyramid : A new Dating using the Latest Astronomical Data'. Discussions in Egyptology.. 26. This dating was supported by Spence but has since been thrown into serious doubt. The presently accepted date for the middle of Khufu's reign is around 2580 - 2570 BC. (But see note 13).

10. Spence, K. Ancient Egyptian chronology and the astronomical orientation of pyramids. Nature, (2000), Vol. 408, pp. 320-324

11. Haack, S.C.J. The astronomical orientation of the Egyptian pyramids . Archaeoastronomy, (1984), Vol. 7, pp. 119-125.

12. Puchkov. A.

13. Magli, G. The Giza “written” landscape and the double project of King Khufu.

14. Lethaby, W. 1891. 'Architecture, Mysticism and Myth'. Architectural Press, London. p.14.

15. Reichel-Dolmatoff, G. Astronomical Models of Behaviour among some Indians of Colombia'. New York Annals. 385.

16. Lockyer, J.N. 1894. The Dawn of Astronomy. London.




In 1993 Gantenbrink set his famous robot to explore the shafts (so far as he was permitted - he incurred the displeasure of the egyptian authorities and was replaced by a team from National Geographic magazine) and announced his preliminary results. He found that the shafts are not perfectly straight and the average angles he gave were as follows :

KC north  32.6
KC south  45
QC north  39.1 approximately
QC south  39.6

The first two of these angles corresponds to the gradient 7/11, and the second 1/1,  and together they describe the shape of the pyramid.
Gantenbrink  estimated that the outlets of the king's chamber shafts lie 154 (2 X 77) cubits above pavement, and are seperated by a horizontal distance of 198 cubits (280/198 is the same root two relation governing the level of the King's Chamber floor) -

Legon proposed that the Queen's chamber shafts are symmetrical, each having a gradient of 17/14 -

Suggesting a plan like this -

Examing these shafts in more detail, it is seen that the northern shafts form a series of bends near to the chambers so as to avoid the Grand Gallery -

The south shaft of the King's Chamber varies near the chamber. The south shaft is straight (or rather is made up of long straight sections) over much of its length, and the point of convergence of thef two KC shafts would seem to have been planned in whole numbers of cubits -

In the case of the Queen's Chamber south shaft, the line of the shaft cuts the central axis 36 to 37 cubits above base. If the builder's had laid out this shaft according to Legon's proposal then it would need to intersect the central axis 35 to 36 cubits above base, in a similar configuration to the line of the northern shaft on the right -


Perhaps this is nitpicking but it is possible that  an alternative geometry was used -


From measurements of Gantenbrink's published diagrams, QC south  has a sloping length of 121 cubits (from the centre of the pyramid to its termination by the famous 'door') for a vertical rise of 77 cubits - giving an angle of just over 39.5 degrees. (Measured angle is 39.6). The door is 114 cubits above base. Note that the angle proposed is that of the hypoteneuse of a near Pythagorean triangle with sides 363, 280, 231 - so that if a square is drawn on the height of the pyramid and divided by 3 the door is 93.3 cubits horizontally from centre. (A threefold division also determines the junction of ascending and descending passages, as shown to the right).                                                                                                                                              revised May 08