October is a magnificent month for stargazing. Many of the summer objects are still visible in the early evening. Most notable is the summer Milky Way, a stream of milky white that still stretches straight overhead in the early evening.
As the night progresses, mighty Orion rises, and the winter sky is upon us.
But right before sunrise, the spring sky begins to peek above the horizon. Most notable to me is the constellation Cancer, the Crab, just visible above the eastern horizon at 4 a.m.
Every year about this time, I try to do an all-nighter for very personal reasons. I want to see the summer Milky Way stretched across the sky, and I also want to see Cancer peeking above the horizon.
I try to perform this odd ritual to remind myself of a trip my daughter and I made long ago.
In that regard, I still possess a small sculpture of a dung beetle made of clay. My daughter fashioned it 20 years ago as part of her humanities class at Columbus Alternative High School. Soon thereafter, I traveled with her on a class field trip to see the wonders of ancient Egypt.
Of course, I wanted to see the Pyramids at Giza and all that jazz, but my real reason for traveling 7,000 miles was to see a rather supple 3,200-year-old young lady painted and carved on the ceilings of some of the tombs of the ancient pharaohs in Egypt’s famous Valley of the Kings.
The ancient Egyptians believed that death was just a passage into another life. Thus, the bodies of pharaohs were carefully embalmed. With them in the tombs and pyramids were placed the household furnishings and other goods they would need to live in the world beyond. On the interior walls of the tombs they carved and painted images of their 730 gods.
The particular reason for my Egyptian odyssey was to see Nut (pronounced “newt”), Egyptian goddess of the sky. During the 20th Egyptian Dynasty, circa 1200 BCE, she was often depicted as an enormous human arch.
The tips of her fingers touch the floor and her arms stretch upward along the wall. Her head and midsection are on the ceiling and her legs arc downward to her toes, which touch the ground on the opposite wall to her arms. She stretches, in other words, like a band of color and light from floor to ceiling and back again.
She looks very much like the personification night sky’s most spectacular denizen, the Milky Way, the band of unresolved stars that stretch from horizon to horizon as the ancient Egyptians saw them (and we still see them see them) in late summer and into fall.
The Egyptians looked at the sky and saw their gods there. Over 1,200 years earlier than the pharaonic tombs in the Valley of the Kings, the Egyptian rulers built giant pyramids to act as their temporary resting places. Deep within the Great Pyramid is the burial chamber of the Pharaoh Khufu, who ruled the great Egyptian empire around 2500 BC.
Rising from Khufu’s burial chamber is a tiny shaft nine inches square that works its way to the northern face of the pyramid. Through this passage would rise the spirit of the reborn king, upward to a point corresponding almost exactly to the pole star, the eternal star that never sets below the horizon.
The pharaohs were considered gods, and the many gods of ancient Egypt lived among the stars. If the pharaohs wanted to achieve eternal life, they had to pass through and into the goddess Nut. They were required to sue for her protection during the long journey up to their final, celestial home. Thus, we still see her image painted upon the ceilings and walls.
Thus, we see her likeness carved on the inside lid of the pharaohs’ stone sarcophagi. While the dead pharaoh lies in his stone coffin, he gazes at and prays to “the great protectress,” as Nut was sometimes called.
And thus we see carved upon the walls of the ancient pyramids in the mysterious hieroglyphs of those days a prayer to the goddess sky, the great stream of the Milky Way, that ought to resonate in the hearts of everyone who, to this day, gains succor and courage from the beauty of the night:
“Oh great one who has become the sky! You have filled every place with your beauty. The whole earth lies beneath you, and you have taken possession of it. You have embraced the earth and everything therein within your arms.”
One glance at the Milky Way from a dark, rural sky will help you to understand why the Egyptians worshipped its splendor with such fervor. Why they felt the same way about Cancer requires a bit of explanation.
The Egyptians saw it as a dung beetle. Nestled in the center of the beetle in the place where its heart might be is a pretty fuzzy patch easily visible to the unaided eye. In binoculars, the fuzz resolves into a gloriously beautiful cluster of stars.
These days, we don’t call the constellation a bug. By the time of the flowering of ancient Greek civilization, the bug had become Cancer, the Crab, powerful household pet of Hera, queen of all the gods.
The beetle in the sky goes back much farther than that. Since long before human history, on sunny days the dung beetle has spun small hunks of animal droppings up tiny, sandy hills and allowed them to drop down again, By repeating the process many times, the beetle is able to create balls of dung much larger than itself. Most remarkably, the insect lays its eggs in the spheres. As the sun’s rays dry them out, the beetle rolls them into its tiny, underground lair. Out of whatever excrement the dung beetle finds, it passes on its proud legacy to a new generation as baby beetles eat their way out.
“Gross,” you say? Four thousand years ago, the dung beetle seemed nothing short of miraculous. The ancient Egyptians saw it rolling its dung in the bright sunshine and hypothesized that this must be the way the sun moves across the sky. The sun was an important god — Ra, the giver of light and life. They didn’t realize that the beetle laid its eggs in its droppings. They thought that somehow the bug produced life spontaneously from dung infused with Ra’s glorious glow.
Above all, the ancient Egyptians craved immortality, and so they came to worship the bug. It became for them a symbol of the great cycle of life — of death and rebirth, of endings and new beginnings, of the degeneration that comes from old age and regeneration of birth.
As a result, upon the breasts of their embalmed pharaohs was placed an artistic representation of the beetle. Sometimes, among other steps of the embalming process, the heart was removed from the corpse and replaced with a carving of the bug.
Despite her nocturnal reputation, Nut dominates the day as well. It is she who gives birth to the sun, her son, every morning. During the day, the sun is rolled along her body by the dung beetle, or scarab, until it reaches her mouth. The sun disappears at night because she, well, eats it. Over the course of the night, it works its way through her body. It reappears in the morning because she gives birth to it again, as she has since the beginning of time.
And forearmed with that knowledge, my daughter and I stood in the crypt of the pharaoh Rameses VI in the Valley of the Kings. We looked up together to see a dung beetle rolling the sun along the path of the Milky Way as she stretched across the sky like a river of light.
The bug lives in our own culture to this very day. As it was so long ago, it is called a scarab. I am often amazed to see how many people, otherwise unaware of the ancient antecedents of the practice, wear the lovely insect as a necklace, right above the human heart.
Now, I want you to know that I am not the last Nut worshipper on the planet. And yet, as I type these lines, nestled in my breast pocket, close to my heart, is a lump of clay fashioned into a scarab by my daughter so long ago. Out of that bug flows inspiration and power and a kind of immortality. They flow from the ancient sands of Egypt. They have wended their inexorable way along a river of cultural and personal memory to a cramped home office in the heart of the state where we all live.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.