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KRONOS Vol VI, No. 1
ON SOTHIC DATING: SOME PRELIMINARY REMARKS
LEWIS M. GREENBERG
The conventional reconstruction of Egyptian history is based on the assumption that the Egyptians regulated their calendar according to the heliacal rising of the star Sothis ( Spdt in Egyptian), or Sirius. This is known as Sothic dating, and it has become the pillar of support for reckoning the absolute chronology of ancient Egypt. In the words of Montet: "Were it not for the dates determined by the Sothic Cycle which provide a few fixed points of reference, Egyptian chronology would be a very uncertain field." The application of Sothic dating presumes, among other things: 1) That Sothic astronomical calculations do, in fact, have historical validity; 2) That the calendar of Egypt remained unaltered throughout that period of history to which Sothic dating is applied; 3) That certain statements (see below) made by the Latin author Censorinus are definitive.
As it happens, all of the above may be challenged.
After careful study into the supposed existence of a Sothic year, Winlock was forced to conclude that the Egyptians, for the entire duration of their history, "have not left a single trace of such a fixed calendar" (Cf. Parker, The Calendars of Egypt, pp. 3742). Besides that, Velikovsky has convincingly argued that "the Egyptian New Year followed the planet Isis, which is Venus, and not Sirius"; therefore, "the confusion of Venus with Sirius renders obsolete the astronomical computations made for Egyptian chronology" ( Theses , No. 283; Worlds in Collision , p. 195; Peoples of the Sea , pp. 235ff.). Weill, as cited by Danelius (KRONOS I:3, p. 5), "thought it possible that 'the calendar may have been displaced for reasons which are quite obscure' between the XIIth and XVIIIth Dynasty .... and claimed that 'the "Sothic theory" is ruined for the ancient periods,' i.e., the Old and Middle Kingdoms..."(1) Indeed, for during the period of Egyptian history covered by Sothic dating, at least two calendar changes did occur (W in C, pp. 124, 338; Cf. D. Courville, "Limitations of Astronomical Dating Methods", KRONOS I:2, pp. 59-60). This fact alone should suffice to invalidate Sothic calculations as a chronological guide.(2)
Censorinus, a writer of the third century AD, made reference to the rising of Sirius one hundred years before his time. This rising of Sirius has become crucial for Sothic dating. But Bickerman (Chronology of the Ancient World , pp. 4142) has noted a potential problem in this connection.
"Censorinus spoke of the return of annus canicularis (Sirius being also called Canis maior ). From his words modern scholars inferred, without any warrant, that the Egyptian annus vagus must have started on the day when the heliac rising of Sirius fell on 1 Thot. From Freret (1758) on, they hesitated between 1322 and 2782 as the starting years of the Egyptian calendar.... But the dispute is futile. A calendar is a tool which cannot be justified by either logic or astronomy. The Egyptian calendar took account of the Nile and not of Sirius. . . Furthermore, there is no inherent necessity to start a new calendar on its first day. England changed from the Julian calendar and the year beginning on 25 March, to the Gregorian style and the adoption of I January as the New Year, on 2 September 1752.
"In fact originally the Egyptians, together with many primitive peoples, did not count by years, but by agricultural seasons. . . All conjectures about the date of the introduction of the annus vagus are premature.... The Egyptian word for 'year' does not have any astronomical connotation; it means 'renewal' and each year was a beginning."
Further discussions of Sothic dating, pro and con, follow.Notes.
1. Additionally, the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus of the Hyksos period and the Ebers Papyrus of the New Kingdom both offer possible evidence for a year of 360 days (see T. E. Peet The Rhind Mathematical Papyrus, pp. 129-131) - another stumbling block for Sothic dating.
2. Calendrical changes were not confined to the Mediterranean region for the historical period whose reconstruction is governed by Sothic dating. Among ancient peoples, calendar reform and calendar concern were a universal phenomenon (Worlds in Collision pp. 348-359); and this alone should be enough to destroy the uniformitarian presumptions of Sothic chronology. In China, for example, "questions about the calendar come into striking prominence in Chou times. . . there is hardly a single Chou bronze inscription that omits to begin with the day, the month, and the quarter of the moon" (W. Speiser, The Art of China, p. 48); and during the Chou dynasty, in 776 BC - the same date as the first year of the first Olympiad - the Sun was eclipsed. But, as recounted by the Shih Ching, this was no ordinary matter for "the sun and moon announce evil, not keeping to their proper paths" (J. Campbell, Oriental Mythology, pp. 407 408, Legge translation, emphasis added). It would seem that something more profound than a solar eclipse occurred in that fateful year. Moreover, from 800 BC onwards there are frequent incursions of barbarians into China which "were bound up with a fundamental natural catastrophe of most far-reaching importance. A great force caused these invasions from the north, which disturbed the Near East and Europe no less than China.
Indeed China is only one of the theatres in which a worldwide upheaval can be observed" (Speiser, op. cit., pp. 52-5 3).