'Snakes, stars, and minerals at Dendera.'
Lined up against a starry background these colourful deities inhabit the astronomical ceiling in the outer hypostyle hall of the Hathor Temple at Dendera.
The ceiling consists of seven separate strips but here we are looking at a detail of the upper register of the SECOND STRIP EAST from centre.
The figures in this picture represent decans.
Decans were essentially 36 stars or star groups near the ecliptic whose rise or transit could be used to tell the time during the night. Eventually they were also used by astronomers as place-markers in the sky to divide up the Ecliptic in equal portions. Decans first appear during the Middle Kingdom on the inside of coffin lids, providing the deceased with his own private start clock. Unfortunately, during the subsequent centuries many different lists of decanal stars were developed and very few of these stars can be identified on a modern star map.
The decans in this register were listed by Neugebauer and Parker as belonging to the Seti I B decan family. A peculiarity of these decans is that each is associated with a certain mineral, metal or type of wood. It is mentioned in a little caption near the lower part of each figure. Thus the long legged snake on the left ( decan no. 24) is associated with garnet and gold. The winged serpent (no. 23) and lion-headed god (no. 22a) are both coupled with silver. The seated lion-headed goddess (no. 22) watches over a treasure of carnelian and gold, while the erect white serpent (no. 21)is associated with dark flint and gold.
In ancient Egypt snakes personified forces of renewal as well as of destruction. They could for instance symbolize the rising sun and were seen as the souls of gods but could also be demons, such as the monstrous water snake Apophis, who is eternally threatening the voyage of sun god Ra.
For an overview of this ceiling strip see picture 29539.
This part of the Dendera Temple was built during the Roman period (first century AD). Photo Paul Smit.