The Orion Correlation

A review by John Legon, extracted from his article,
'The Orion Correlation and Air-Shaft Theories',
Discussions in Egyptology 33 (1995), 45-56.

In view of the tremendous popular interest in the Giza pyramids which has been stimulated by Robert Bauval's Orion Correlation Theory,[1] it seems desirable to consider whether Bauval's conjecture is compatible with my own discovery of the coherent dimensional plan which connects the three major Giza pyramids,[2] or whether there is any inherent conflict between these two quite different concepts of an integrated Giza site plan.

In the course of my friendly discussions with Robert Bauval which took place while his book The Orion Mystery was being written, it became evident that he thought that the concept of a correlation with the Belt Stars of Orion explained the religious motivation for the disposition of the three pyramids on the Giza plateau in general terms, while my own findings showed in detail how the plan was actually executed on the ground; and Robert was therefore kind enough to include references to my findings in The Orion Mystery, as well as in his later co-authored books. In brief, it was possible that the pyramid-builders had developed a mathematical construction for the placing of the three pyramids, which was compatible with the pattern of the Belt stars and specified the exact dimensions which had to be laid out.

For my part, however, I have never been convinced by the Orion correlation theory, from the time that I first read Bauval's article on the subject in Discussions in Egyptology back in 1989. Indeed, I have taken the view that his theory depends on a misunderstanding of the religious and funerary beliefs of the ancient Egyptians, as expressed in the Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom. There is, after all, no evidence from the Pyramid Texts or elsewhere to support the idea that the successive pyramids of the Fourth Dynasty were supposed to be equated with different stars of the constellation of Orion; and I find the idea conceptually implausible in view of the fact that the successive kings of the Old Kingdom each wished to be identified with S3h=Osiris in the afterlife, in precisely the same terms from one reign to the next. Whether or not the word S3h in the Pyramid Texts referred to a single star (as I believe) or a constellation, the whole essence of the Egyptian concept of kingship was that of an unchanging recurrence of events, so that each king became the embodiment of the god Horus during his earthly reign, and in death succeeded to the throne of Osiris in the afterlife, just as his predecessors had done before him.

Despite my theological objections to the equation between S3h and the constellation of Orion which I have described on another web page, I would not have discounted the Orion correlation theory if a satisfactory correlation had been shown to exist; but this simply is not the case. I find it surprising that Bauval should have attempted to equate the relative dimensions of the three Giza pyramids with the relative brightnesses of the stars in Orion's Belt, since when viewed in the night sky, these stars appear almost equally bright, and indeed have similar astronomical magnitudes. Certainly, Mintaka is less bright than the two other stars Alnilam and Alnitak; but when seen in the sky and in photographs,[3] the difference is not very noticeable, and can hardly account for the construction of the Third Pyramid with only one-tenth of the volume of the Great Pyramid. The stars appear naturally in the sky as points of light, and not at all as blobs of varying sizes comparable to the bases of the three pyramids, as one might suppose from the time-lapse photograph published by Bauval.[4]

Although it is agreed that the patterning of the stars in Orion's Belt resembles the broad disposition of the Giza pyramids, the orientation of the arrangement argues against a deliberate correlation, partly because the alignment of the Belt stars when referred to the meridian must have diverged by more than 30° from the corresponding alignment on the ground, at the epoch of around 2500 BC. Bauval has tried to explain this discrepancy by supposing that it was intended to reflect the situation which, due to the precession of the Earth's axis of rotation, would have existed in 10,450 BC.[5] Still more surprisingly, in order to obtain a correlation with the bend in the line of the Belt stars, Bauval has been obliged to turn Orion upside-down, reversing the positions of the stars from north to south. Thus whereas Mintaka is offset to the north of a line joining Alnitak to Alnilam, the Third Pyramid is offset to the south of a line joining the Great Pyramid to the Second Pyramid. Although it has been claimed that this inversion was deliberate, I do not believe that the pyramid-builders, who were acutely conscious of the natural orientations of the star-fields, would have conceived of such a representation; and for this reason alone I do not believe that a correlation between the Giza pyramids and Orion's Belt was intended.

Three stars do not, in any case, make a constellation, and we must also consider the larger plan which has been supposed by Bauval to encompass the other major pyramids of the Fourth Dynasty. For the reason just cited, and contrary to the impression that the pattern of the constellation of Orion had by some means been projected directly onto the terrestial landscape beneath it, Bauval has equated the northernmost pyramid at Abu Roash with the star Saiph to the south of Orion's Belt, while also relating the Unfinished Pyramid at Zawiyet el-Aryan to the south of Giza, with the northerly star Bellatrix.
If we accept this reversal of the natural geographical relationship, and take the correlation between the Giza pyramids and the Belt stars as fixed, we can determine where the other stars of Orion will fall over Egypt when mapped out on the same scale, using spherical trigonometry to calculate the angular separations of the stars according to their celestial coordinates. An accurate comparison can then be made with the distances between the Giza pyramids and the other pyramids of the plan, with reference to a large-scale map such as that published in the Atlas of Ancient Egypt.[6]

Thus equating the angular distance of 2.78° between Alnitak and Mintaka with the corresponding ground-plan dimension of 936.18 m between the centres of the Great Pyramid and the Third Pyramid,[7] we find that the angular distance of 7.89° from Alnitak to Saiph should correspond to a distance of 2.66 km on the ground. In fact, however, the distance from the Great Pyramid to the Abu Roash Pyramid is about 5 km, or nearly twice the distance required for a correlation. Similarly, the angular distance of 9.18° between Alnitak and Bellatrix gives a distance on the ground of 3.09 km, or less than half the actual distance of about 8 km. The outcome of this analysis, which is easily verified using a computer program such as Skyglobe, is shown below in figure 1. Anything less resembling a correlation would be hard to imagine, and it so happens that neither of the corner stars of Orion which were selected by Bauval, are the stars closest to their respective pyramids. We should not, of course, expect to find an exact correlation in view of the distances between these pyramids; but when the errors are of the order of 100%, we have to admit that a correlation does not exist.

The concept of the Orion correlation thus depends entirely upon the placing of the three pyramids at Giza, supposedly corresponding to three of the least significant stars of the constellation. These pyramids alone do not even begin to convey the splendid pattern of Orion which is familar to us in the night sky. Why did the pyramid-builders fail to include the brilliant stars Betelgeuse and Rigel in the constellation pattern, or the other important stars Saiph and Bellatrix? If any one of these stars had been represented on the ground, then the argument for a deliberate correlation would have been much stronger; but this is unfortunately not the case.

Reference to a detailed map of Egypt will show that the pyramids were all situated along the fringe of the western desert bordering the Nile valley, giving an essentially linear disposition from north to south. From the viewpoint of the Egyptian pyramid-builders, therefore, the concept of an Orion correlation which required a spatial distribution would surely have been something of a non-starter. In order to complete such a plan, it would have been necessary to build pyramids in the Nile flood plain, where they could never be located for obvious reasons; while to conform to the idea of a correspondence between the magnitudes of the stars and the dimensions of the pyramids, any of these other pyramids would have had to be vastly larger than the Great Pyramid.

1. R.G. Bauval, DE 13 (1989), 7-18; R.G. Bauval and A. Gilbert, The Orion Mystery (London, 1994), passim.

2. J.A.R. Legon, 'The Plan of the Giza Pyramids', Archaeological Reports of the Archaeology Society of Staten Island, Vol. 10 No. 1. (1979); 'A Ground Plan at Giza', DE 10 (1988), 33-40; 'The Geometry of the Bent Pyramid, GM 116 (1990) 65-72, 71; 'The Giza Site Plan Revisited', GM 124 (1991), 69-78.

3. For example, see the photographs in P. Moore, Philip's Atlas of the Universe (London, 1994), 152, 249.

4. Bauval, op.cit. (DE 13) Pl. 2.

5. Bauval and Gilbert, op.cit, 193.

6. J. Baines and J. Malek, Atlas of Ancient Egypt (Oxford, 1980), 135.

7. W.M.F. Petrie, The Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh (London, 1883), 125.

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