Saturday, December 29, 2007

Heavens above

Sydney Morning Herald

The ancient Greeks envisioned a great hunter with a sword hanging from his belt. These days Australians are more likely to imagine a saucepan, or even a shopping trolley.

To the ancient Egyptians, the constellation of Orion was identified with the god Sah, a manifestation of Osiris, god of the dead.

Since the 1960s archaeologists have been debating why Egypt's king Khufu, who lived some 4500 years ago, had mysterious shafts built into his Great Pyramid at Giza - including one that pointed towards Orion.

"For a long time people thought they were ventilation shafts, but they are carefully incorporated into the fabric of the pyramid and don't seem to serve any practical function," says Dr Karin Sowada, a Macquarie University Egyptologist. A possibility is that the Orion-facing shaft "was a stairway to heaven".

"In pointing the airshaft to the constellation, the king's soul could exit the pyramid and be united with Orion, where he dwelt as a god for eternity in the heavenly realms."

Sowada noted that, as with many interpretations of pyramid architecture, the theory remains speculative, "but it's got legs".

We may never know if Khufu reached his afterlife in Orion, but the constellation, now shining brightly in Sydney's northern night sky, seems as good a place as any to establish a new world. Orion, says Dr Nick Lomb, curator of astronomy at the Powerhouse Museum's Sydney Observatory, is the closest large region of star formation to Earth.

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