Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, November 17, 2023

The non-mystery of the Dendera Light

One of the things that has always struck me about woo-woo types is how little it takes to get them going.  I suppose when you've already decided what you believe, the amount of evidence you require to support that belief can asymptotically approach zero without changing your stance one iota.

I ran into a particularly good example of that yesterday -- the Dendera Light.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Olaf Tausch, Dendera Krypta 48 (cropped), CC BY 3.0]

The Dendera Light is a motif found in the carvings in the Temple of Hathor in Dendera, Egypt.  The design is of a giant snake emerging from a lotus flower.  It appears in at least six different places, accompanied by texts that are all rather similar -- so its meaning is fairly well understood.  It is part of the creation myth, showing the god Harsomtus (an incarnation of Horus, in the form of a snake) being born and going out into the world.  This is supported by the inscriptions, one version of which reads:

Speaking the words of Harsomtus, the great God, who dwells in Dendera, who is in the arms of the first in the night-barge, sublime snake, whose Chentj-statue carries Heh [the personification of eternity], whose crew carries in holiness his perfection, whose Ba [spirit] caused Hathor to appear in the sky, whose figure is revered by his followers, who is unique, encircled by his forehead-snake, with countless names on the top of Chui-en-hesen, the symbol of power of Ra in the land of Atum, the father of the Gods, who created everything.

The Dendera Light motif almost always appears on lists with names like "Ten Unexplained Mysteries From Ancient Egypt" despite the fact that except insofar as we still have a fairly fragmentary understanding of Egyptian mythology, beliefs, and practices, it's not very mysterious at all.


First, someone noticed that the oval container (or halo) surrounding the snake was the same basic shape as a Crookes tube, an early version of the cathode-ray tube invented by British physicist William Crookes in 1870:

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons D-Kuru, Crookes tube two views, CC BY-SA 3.0 AT]

The second thing was a passing comment by British astronomer and polymath Joseph Norman Lockyer, who had gone to Egypt to investigate the alignment of ancient temples and monuments with astronomical objects.  He and a colleague noticed the absence of soot deposits in the interior of some of the temples -- something you'd expect with the use of torches or oil lamps -- and the colleague jokingly said that this could be explained if the ancient Egyptians had electric lights.  Lockyer, clearly recognizing that it was a joke, mentioned it to a friend, and that was all it took.

In a classic example of adding two and two and getting 318, we have "vaguely oval shape in a religious motif" plus "humorous comment about the lack of soot in Egyptian temples" equaling "the ancient Egyptians had high technology, including electricity and who-the-hell-knows what else."

Therefore, of course, you-know-who had to be involved:

Needless to say, this claim has actual archaeologists tearing their hair out.  Kenneth Feder, professor of archaeology at Central Connecticut State University, who is a vocal debunker of ancient aliens claims and the like (he is the author of The Encyclopedia of Dubious Archaeology) points out correctly that if the ancient Egyptians had electricity and light bulbs, it's a little odd that we've never found a single trace of a wire, socket, filament, generator, or battery -- not so much as a glass shard from a broken bulb.

I get that the ancient Egyptian culture is fascinating and, in one sense, mysterious.  As I mentioned earlier, our understanding of how these people lived and what they believed is incomplete at best.  The monuments and temples and relics we still have today are beautiful and evocative.

But none of that is an excuse for making shit up.

So let's keep a sense of perspective, here.  The inscriptions and designs we don't yet understand do not imply that ancient aliens had anything to do with it.  "We don't yet understand" means only one thing; "we don't yet understand."

And as far as the Dendera Light, I'm afraid that's where we have to leave it.


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