Sopdet, Egypt’s Herald of the New Year

Set your calendars, Egypt. No, not for 2/11/2011. (Congratulations and good luck!) I’m talking about August 2nd, when a very old Egyptian goddess is set to rise.

Like most agrarian societies, the Egyptians watched the skies closely. They needed some sort of calendar to tell them when to plant and plan their harvests. The regular swing of the stars mirrored seasons on earth. They thought that not only the sun but also the stars might be the cause.

Sopdet, Sothis in Greek, is the ancient Egyptian name for the star Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. She follows the constellation of Orion, recognized the world over as a king, hunter or warrior. In ancient Egypt, Orion was identified as the god Osiris, beloved dying and resurrected king who promised a blessed afterlife to the righteous. Depending on the festival or inscription, Sopdet was revered as a canine goddess in her own right, as the straying eye of the sun, or as Osiris’ wife Isis who restored him to life after his Cain-life brother murdered him.

It just so happens that Orion and Sirius are hidden (rising during daylight) during Egypt’s dry, fallow season. Seventy-two days after Sopdet/Sirius vanished at sunset, anxious and sharp-eyed Egyptians would spot her twinkling on the horizon just at dawn, rising ahead of the life-giving sun. About the same time, if by magic, the Nile would begin to swell and burst its banks. Its annual flood from monsoon rains in Africa’s interior would flood the valley of Egypt, depositing rich, fertile mud that allowed them to grow rich crops in an otherwise arid land.¬†Without this bounty of the river, Egyptians would starve. So Sopdet was a herald of life’s return. The Egyptians dated their New Year by her heliacal rising, that precious dawn when she rose just ahead of the sun.

Back then, Sopdet’s return coincided neatly with midsummer’s day, the longest day of the year. Because of the precession of the equinoxes, her heliacal rising now falls on roughly August 2nd (it depends on latitude and eyesight how soon you can spot this star in the glare of dawn).

For me, Sopdet has always held additional, personal significance. I grew up in the country, moved to the city, and could see her shining dimly even through urban light pollution that obscured every star. For me, she came to symbolize not only the future and new life, but also hope.

When I see the Egyptians rejoicing at the removal of the old king, eager yet anxious to midwife new life in their ancient land, I cannot help but think of Osiris and my old friend Sopdet. They still shine in the Egyptian night sky for now, but come May, they will vanish for a time. That was always a time of great anxiety for Egyptians: would the Nile flood? Would life renew itself? How could they be sure? All they could do was prepare their fields, wait and hope and pray.

At the beginning of August, Sopdet will peep above the horizon and look down on a new Egypt whose seeds are being gathered even now for sowing.

I hope she will herald a rich harvest.

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