If you have ever seen the star of Isis, Sirius, through a telescope, you will never forget it. She scintillates. She glows. She shoots off rays of blue, green, pink, and white. Yes, really. Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky, second in illumination only to the sun. No wonder we notice this brilliant and beautiful star. And from at least the time of the Pyramid Texts, if not before, Sirius is connected with Isis.
In the sky, Sirius is to the lower left of the extremely easy-to-spot constellation of Orion, which has always looked to human beings like a human torso. Orion has been visualized as a Great Shepherd, Hunter, Warrior, or simply a Giant. And since every shepherd or hunter must have his hunting hound, Sirius itself, as well as the constellation in which it is the lead star, has been envisioned as a Great Dog. Interestingly, this is true in cultures throughout the world, from ancient Mesopotamia to China (where Sirius is a wolf) to Native North American tribes like the Blackfoot, who called it Dog-Face, and the Inuit, who called it the Moon Dog. (The Wikipedia article on Sirius seems to be pretty good and includes references.) Surely it was envisioning Orion as a shepherd, hunter, or warrior that led so many ancient peoples to see Sirius and its constellation as a companion dog.
Sirius cannot be seen during a period of about 70 days, from May to sometime after midsummer. At this time, Sirius and the sun are in conjunction so that the sun’s greater light blocks the visibility of Sirius. The heliacal rising of Sirius is when the star and sun are sufficiently separated so that—for the first time in 70 days—Sirius can be seen on the horizon just before dawn. In the northern hemisphere, this occurs in mid-to-late summer, the hottest part of the year. From Classical times, this period has been known as the “Dog Days” since the Dog Star of Sirius is once again visible. As those suffering through this year’s drought can attest, this hottest time of the year can be miserable. Homer knew it as a time of fevers and suffering. The Romans thought it made dogs act crazy. We think of it as a time when we’re panting like a dog because of the heat.
In contrast, ancient Egypt didn’t originally connect Sirius with dogs or wolves. It did, however, connect the star with something vitally important—the Inundation, the annual flooding that enabled farmers to grow the crops required for Egypt to feed itself. The heliacal rising of Sirius was the herald of the Nile flood and its rise marked the beginning of the New Year; thus Sirius (Sopdet in Egyptian) was called the Fair Star of the Waters and the Opener of the Year. In Egypt’s earliest written records, the Pyramid Texts, Sopdet is Isis: “Your sister Isis comes to you [Osiris] rejoicing for love of you. You have placed her on your phallus and your seed issues into her, she being ready as Sopdet, and Hor Sopd has come forth from you as Horus who is in Sothis [the Hellenized version of the Egyptian Sopdet].” To acknowledge the Goddess’ ancient connection with Her star, some shrines and temples of Isis, including the small Isis temple at Ptolemaic-era Denderah, were oriented towards Sopdet.
When Egypt came under Greek and then Roman rule, Isis got Her canine connection. In a later-period aretalogy (self-statement) from Kyme in modern Turkey, Isis says of Herself, “I am she that riseth in the Dog Star.”
Just as Orion the hunter is inseparable from his hound, so the Egyptians saw a connection between the constellation they called Sah (Orion) and the most brilliant star in the heavens, Sopdet. Sah could be identified with Osiris Himself or considered to be His soul. Sopdet was identifed as Isis (as in the text above) or as Her soul. As Orion rises before Sirius, you can see the ancient myth of Isis searching for Her lost husband played out before you as the constellation Orion appears to move through the sky ahead of the Beautiful Star.
Yet there is another interpretation of the movement of the stars through the sky that takes us to an even more important point in the Isis-Osiris myth. You see, when the Orion constellation first appears on the horizon, Osiris seems to be on his back, with Isis-Sopdet rising beneath Him. As the night passes and the constellation rises higher into the sky, He “stands up,” with Isis at His back all the while, pushing upward until the God is raised. Even more so than the myth of Isis following Osiris to pick up the pieces, we can see the rising of Orion and Sirius as Isis raising Osiris from the dead, the stellar model of the ritual of Raising the Djed Column, which the pharaoh, with the help of Isis, performed on earth.
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