home articles forum events
glossary horary quiz consultations links more

Astrological techniques explored:

Combust / Under Sun's Beams
Via Combusta
Under the Earth
Decans / Faces
Planetary Hour Ruler


Time, the Egyptians & the Calendar

The Egyptian Calendar and the Zodiac
An example of a mundane effect that arose from Egyptian worship of the eastern horizon as the spiritual source of 'beginnings' is in their development of the calendar. Like the Mesopotamians, the early Egyptians originally used a Moon-based calendar. But whereas the Mesopotamians began their month with the first appearance of the new crescent Moon in the west at sunset, the Egyptians began theirs with the rising of the old crescent Moon in the east at sunrise; it was untenable in their faith to associate rebirth with the west. They soon realised, however, that whilst a lunar calendar was serviceable for most purposes, it had many disadvantages. Its main drawback being that twelve lunar months fell eleven days short of the solar cycle. An extra month had to be added every two to three years in an attempt to keep the calendar in line with the seasons.

Sometime in the third or fourth millennium BC the Egyptians decided to break with tradition and introduce a new 'civil' calendar based on the movement of the Sun. This was used to serve government administration, with the lunar calendar retained for religious affairs and common, everyday activities. They were able to calculate that the Sun took 365 days to complete its cycle by noting the time between one heliacal rising of Sirius and the next. For ease of division they adopted a year of twelve 30-day months and added an extra 5-day period at the end of the year, which was mainly used for festivities. Each month was then divided into three 10-day weeks that began with the nightfall rising of a particular star or constellation rather than any relevance to the phase of the Moon. In effect, this broke the celestial sphere into 36 subdivisions, the rising and setting of whose stars were used as a way of telling time throughout the night.

The Egyptian division of the year into 36 ten-day periods, each presided over by a particular stellar deity, gave birth to the astrological system of ruleship known as decans in classical astrology, though usually referred to as 'faces' in medieval texts. This is where each 30° sign of the zodiac is subdivided into 10° segments and governed by one of the planets. Thus the Stars of Time became the Gods of Time - the Rulers of Destiny. It is not known exactly when the amalgamation of symbolism took place but the astrological use of decans is shown in the temple of Esna, which has been dated to around 200 BC. The 4th century Sicilian astrologer, Firmicus Maternus, is among many who placed great emphasis on their use, saying that a planet in its own decan is as good as in its own sign. Like Manilius before him, he attributed decan rulership to the signs of the zodiac, but most authors, including Ptolemy, gave them to the planets in descending order towards the earth, (i.e., Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sun, Venus, Mercury, Moon).

Decan/face rulership

Firmicus refers the system to Nechepso "a most just Emperor of Egypt and a truly good astrologer, who, ... by means of the decans predicted all illnesses and afflictions".[7] There is no historical record of such a ruler but Firmicus may have been referring to the last Egyptian pharaoh, Nectanebo II (360-343BC), whom legend recalls as the astrology tutor of Alexander the Great. A major astrological work compiled around 150 BC was named after the legendary Nechepso and an Egyptian high priest Petosiris, most probably the high priest of that name who served during the reign of Ptolemy I around 300 BC. Nechepso and Petosiris are also quoted as the initiators of the astrological system of terms, where planets are allocated degrees of dignity in signs other than their own. Although the dates of origin are hazy, we can suppose that terms and faces were employed in predictive astrology at least from the 3rd century BC onwards.

The arrangement of the terms is altogether more complex than that of the faces and it is less apparent exactly how and why it arose. In his Tetrabiblos, Ptolemy speaks of two systems of terms in common use: the Egyptian and the Chaldean. He gave more credence to the Egyptian system, which is believed by many to be the original. It is assumed that, having evolved in Egypt in a complicated form, it was taken up and simplified by the Chaldeans. Ptolemy's main criticism of the Egyptian system was that it was arbitrary, with the number of degrees supposed to be in proportion to the years of life each planet determines when it is ruler of the chart. He claimed to have possession of an old manuscript that contained a simpler arrangement belonging to the Chaldeans. By combining the best of both he produced his own system, based upon the signs, triplicities and exaltations of the planets. This found universal acceptance among astrologers in the west, as noted in the 17th century text of astrologer William Lilly:

After many ages had passed, and until the time of Ptolemy, the astrologers were not well resolved hereof but since the time of Ptolemy, the Greeks unanimously followed the method he left, which ever since the Christians of Europe to this day retain as most rational.[8]

We lack detailed evidence of how the terms and faces were used in practical application by ancient astrologers, but their use in the classical period is fairly well documented and through the renewed interest of traditional astrological techniques their medieval application has found its way back into modern day practice.

The detail to which Egyptians sought to deify the concept of time is worthy of note. Under their belief every star represents a god and in their calendrical use of decans, the star that rises at the beginning of the week is considered to be the god or ruler of that week. At a very early stage star clocks were produced to identify these weekly rulers - diagrammatic devices that indicated the name of each decan rising on a particular date and at a particular hour of the night. Thus a sky observer, by knowing the date, could use the diagram to calculate the hour of the night. These are known to have been in use as early as 2400 BC and the fact that all twelve existing examples have been found in tombs suggests that they were highly prized possessions offering value in the afterlife. The tomb of Rameses VI contains a star map drawn as the figure of a seated man, which allows the position of each star to be marked out on the figure as it moves along in the sky. In this way the positions of the stars can be shown at each hour of the night for every fortnight of the year.

The Egyptian deification of time went further, to the point where almost every moment had its own presiding ruler based upon the stars and constellations. The gods of the hour were especially important in mythology as the guardians of the twelve provinces (daylight hours) of the Sun's domain. When the Sun-god sank beneath the Earth at the end of each day, he progressed through the Underworld by permission of the ruler of the hour, who opened the gate leading into the next hour with a password known to him alone.[9] The ruler of the hour continues to be relevant in astrology, particularly in horary judgements where agreement between the planetary ruler of the hour at the time of the question and the ascendant is taken as a sign of a valid and descriptive chart.

Planetary hours are not of constant duration like the clock hours we use today but vary in length, following on from Egyptian tradition. By devising water clocks the Egyptians were the first to develop the 24-hour day, which consisted of 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness. The lengths of the hours were equal around the equinoxes but the rest of the time they could vary considerably. They were reckoned by dividing the time from sunrise to sunset by twelve, resulting in long daytime hours in summer and short ones in winter. Nighttime hours were similarly calculated by the division between sunset and sunrise.

Sunrise and sunset were invested with great significance since they highlighted the times of the Sun's 'death' and 'rebirth'. The presence or absence of the Sun transforms the whole quality of life from activity to rest, and the Egyptians felt it was important to mark this transformation. Religious services were held at sunrise (Matins) - part of the priest's duty being to invoke the planetary deity of the day. This planet was regarded as a kind of celestial captain, with the planetary ruler of the hour envisioned as his deputy.[10] Hour rulership passed through the planets in the Chaldean order: Moon, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sun, Venus, Mercury. Another religious service (Vespers) was held at the eighth hour, when hour rulership returned to the ruler of the day. Our modern days of the week still bear the names of their planetary rulers although planetary hours were consigned to the realms of mysticism when the more convenient, equal-length hours were introduced in the Hellenistic period, disassociating the segments of the day with the season of the year.

Notes & References:

  7] Matheseos, IV.22.2. The Babylonians also had 36 seasonal stars divided between the roads of Anu, Enlil and Ea, which could have been an early basis for their own system of decans. In the epic of creation it is said that Marduk: 'constructed stations for the gods..... He fixed the year and designed the signs, for the 12 months he placed three stars each' - Origin of the Zodiac by R.Gleadow, p.158.
Back to text

  8] Christian Astrology, p.103.
Back to text

  9] In a similar but separate ritual, passages in the Book of the Dead refer to seven gates through which the deceased must pass, a concept that obviously shares an origin with the Mesopotamian Ishtar myth.
Back to text

  10] The 4th century text of Paulus Alexandrinus, Introductory Matters, makes an early reference to the use of day and hour rulers in astrology:

For each birth and for every day, it will be necessary to consider the star going about [planetary day ruler] and the one executing [planetary hour ruler] .... For, it is through these that the incidents that arise generally for contract, promise, favour and gift are accomplished. The inquiry itself is useful for the success of alliances with the ruling or prevailing persons. It is also useful for lawsuits, blackmail, bonds and confinements; complaints, slanders, complications, destructions, thefts and testaments that come up. And on voyages, commercial trips and journeys, we will be able to detect battles, entanglements, decumbitures and the like. And for physicians it contributes to inquiry both in the diagnosis of those who are sick and in the application of surgical arts or medical treatments. And it helps to make an unerring commencement in the aforesaid matters.

Translated by ARHAT; published Golden Hind Press, 1993, p.42
Back to text


© Deborah Houlding, 1996; published online 2003
From Heritage of the Stars

For quotations please quote:

The Sun

Part 1: Combustion and the Symbolism of Heliacal Risings

Part 2: The Egyptian Calendar & the Zodiac

Part 3: The Planets in Egyptian Imagery
Contact Deborah Houlding  | terms and conditions  
All rights on all text and images reserved. Reproduction by any means is not permitted without the express
agreement of Deborah Houlding or in the case of articles by guest astrologers, the copyright owner indictated