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Sirius For Seekers: The Star Sirius in Astronomy, Myth, Religion, and History

by M. Temple Richmond


Long before the publication of the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling and the existence of her character Sirius Black, the star Sirius had attracted the attention of inquiring Humanity.  Throughout time, the star Sirius has figured prominently in mythic and religious systems, and, as the brightest of the nighttime stars, caught the eye of the early sky watcher.  In fact, Sirius has been described by the authors of the widely acknowledged mythic study, Hamlet’s Mill, as the first star in heaven and the kingpin of archaic astronomy, a star the significance of which far surpasses our unsuspecting expectations.  The same idea was partially unveiled by 19th century Russian occult writer  H.P. Blavatsky, who stated that the star Sirius exerts a mystic and direct influence over the entire living heaven and is to be found linked with every great religion of antiquity.  What this premier role for the star Sirius may imply about the character Sirius Black remains unknown until Rowling’s septology is complete, yet the outline of something looming large on the horizon seems to be in sight.

          Just to make sure all readers know exactly what star is meant by the name Sirius, the astronomical identification of this star should be mentioned. 

          Located just southeast of prominent Orion, Sirius is easily identified by northern hemisphere dwellers in the winter sky.  Sirius sits in the constellation Canis Major (The Greater Dog), the eastern edge of which borders on the Milky Way.  Sirius itself is located just to the lower left of the three conspicuous stars forming the belt of Orion, and is most readily visible from approximately December to February (in the northern hemisphere).  As the brightest of the stars in its grouping, Sirius is thus designated Alpha Canis Major.  And at 8.3 light years away, it is one of the stars nearer to our system.


Astronomical and Astrophysical Views of Sirius

          As early as 1844, astronomers suspected that Sirius was a member of a binary star system, and it was thought to have a smaller companion known as Sirius B.  This fact was verified in 1862 and further validated by spectral analysis in 1915.  Binary systems consist of two stars, a larger and a smaller, which orbit a common centre of mass in eliptical orbits.  The star lighter in weight has a larger, eliptical orbit; the smaller, more massive star has a smaller one.  In the case of the Sirian binary system, the internal orbital period is 49.97 years.  All binary systems also orbit around the center of our galaxy.  Thus, as the two stars orbit both their common center of mass and the galactic center, they trace out intertwining spirals .  This type of arrangement is now considered to be quite ordinary, about half of all star systems being of this nature.  Triple star systems are also known, and the Sirian system may yet prove to be one of these.

          In fact, by the twentieth century, astronomers thought that most of the stars in our galaxy exist in some type of relation with other stars, being not solitary, but bound by the force of gravity to at least one and sometimes many companion stars.  However, the scientific acceptance of this type of relatedness among stars was in no way ordinary at the time during which the nature of Sirius B was demonstrated.  As it turned out, the existence of binary systems opened up a new vista in astrophysical theory, for the recognition of Sirius B entailed the creation of a whole new star type, called the white dwarf, and a whole new matter type, called degenerate.   

          White dwarfs such as Sirius B are stars that have undergone gravitational collapse and which, because of the dense packing of their atomic structure, have enormous density and surface gravity.  Constituted of atoms stripped of their electrons, the matter of which white dwarfs are made is called degenerate matter.  Gases in the degenerate state of matter do not expand when heated, as do ordinary gases.  Hence, white dwarfs do not follow the same life cycle as the other types of stars known before their discovery.  White dwarfs are stars in an extreme state of contraction.

          As a result, Sirius B is much heavier and about one hundred times smaller in radius than is Sirius A.  Further, the visible light from Sirius B is ten thousand times fainter than that from Sirius A, though Sirius B gives off far more ultraviolet and other light.  Thus, Sirius A is huge, bright, and light in weight; Sirius B is compact, faint, and weighty.  According to current astrophysical theory, stars like Sirius B sometimes cool further to become cold black dwarfs, while others heat back up again to become novas.  Novas erupt and spew into space the matter of which they are made.  Such matter may be caught in the gravitational field of a partner star, and in this way, binary stars sometimes exchange matter and eventually switch roles.  The future of the Sirian system in this regard remains yet to be seen. 

          The fact that J.K. Rowling elected to give her character Sirius Black a last name which begins with letter designating the Sirian companion can hardly be coincidence.  What she may have meant to suggest in so doing remains to be seen, though it may have something to do with the dynamic cycle in which companion stars are locked, in which one gives light and matter to the other, and vice versa, as their life cycles proceed. 

Sirius in Myth

          At any rate, it is certain that the extraordinary collection of light energy currently residing in Sirius A is as obvious today as it was in ancient times, for Sirius A is the brightest star in the night sky.  In fact, it is thought by some that this exceeding brilliance is the origin of the name of this star , for the present day name of Sirius is likely derived from a Greek word close in both sound and meaning to the English word for searing.  The original Greek term, SEIRIOS, means sparkling or scorching, and refers to the facts that Sirius is the brightest star in the sky and rises with the Sun during the hottest part of the year.  This bright and hot theme associated with Sirius is reflected in the fact that the star Sirius may be one of the oldest forms of a fire deity.  Here again is an attribute which may be in some way implied in the naming of Harry’s godfather as Sirius.  Perhaps it is a suggestion that Harry is linked to ancient sources of spiritual power, such as fire and solar deities, some of the first to be revered on our planet. 

          However, the Greeks also had other names for the star we now call Sirius, or Sirius A.  Sometimes they referred to it simply as ASTRON, a term which is the root word for our English term, astronomy.  The Greeks also labeled Sirius with various forms of the term Dog-Star, because of the star's placement in the constellation Canis, which is Latin for Dog.  In fact, the star Sirius was sometimes called The Dog of the nearby hunter, Orion. Various other cultures and peoples of the Mediterranean area also had names for Sirius with the word dog involved.  Here is an overwhelmingly obvious correlate to the figure of Sirius Black in the Potter novels, for Black is an animagus who can transform himself into the form of a large black dog.  Plainly,  Rowling’s character Sirius Black is a direct reference to the real Dog Star, which is Sirius, or Alpha Canis Major.  It would follow that all the astronomical, mythic, and astrological features associated with this star are consequently implied in the figure of Sirius Black.

          In this vein, it is of significance to know that the Greeks and their neighbors most likely got their ideas about the star Sirius from Egyptian culture, for it appears that the linkage of the star Sirius with the dog figure originally arose in Egypt.  There Sirius was from the earliest of times represented in hieroglyphics by a dog  and associated with the god Anubis, a highly important member of the Egyptian pantheon depicted with the head of a jackal,  which is a small wild dog related to the wolf. 

          The jackal (or dog) - the symbol of Anubis -  represented the star Sirius in Egyptian hieroglyphics perhaps as early as 3285 B.C.  Thus, through the connection of Anubis the Jackal-Headed god and Sirius, Sirius came to be called the Star of the Dog, or the Dog-Star.  Eventually, this imagery imparted its name to the star grouping within which Sirius is perceived.  Hence, the constellation of the Dog, or Canis, using the Latin in which some constellations are designated.  Today astronomy recognizes two dog constellations, the Greater and the Lesser, or Canis Majoris and Canis Minoris.  The star Sirius is to be found in the Greater Dog, as mentioned above.  Thus, the figure of Sirius Black in the Potter novels of J.K. Rowling evokes the Egyptian Anubis and all for which that god stood in the Egyptian pantheon.

          This affiliation of Sirius with the dog figure has given rise to the folk notion of the Dog Days, a period of about forty days each year in July and August when Sirius and the Sun rise over the eastern horizon at about the same time.  This period of time is so called simply because it is an interval in which the Dog-Star is prominent by association with the Sun.  But the Dog Days have come to be conceived of popularly as a period of misery and distress caused by the oppressive heat of summer hanging over many lands at that time in the northern hemisphere.  Similarly, the phrase "Dog Days" has also come to mean any difficult period in general.  Fans of the Harry Potter novels can see right away that Sirius Black has suffered through just such a time, first, falsely accused of multiple murder and incarcerated in Azkaban, next hounded as a villain, and finally hamstrung against his wishes in the fight against Voldemort and his forces.  Here again is a direct correlation between the character of Sirius Black and the themes with which the star Sirius is associated.

          The origin of this Dog-Days terminology is largely lost to contemporary society, being thought widely to have originated in the behavior of domesticated dogs, which are presumed to be infected with rabies more readily in the late summer of the year.  As can be seen, the actual meaning of the term "Dog Days" has nothing whatsoever to do with canine illnesses and their threat to humans.  Instead, it has only to do with astronomical alignments.  All the same, the folk wisdom seems to have been incorporated into the tragic fate endured by Sirius Black.
          In the faulty association of troublesome canine behavior with the star Sirius, the western world is not alone.  The Chinese called Sirius the Heavenly Wolf, and felt that attacks from thieves were presaged when this star was was particularly bright.

          Yet however mistreated and mistrusted the star Sirius is as the Dog, Sirius the star has also been conceived of differently throughout the world.  From East to West, Sirius has gone under various names, some linguistically related to one another.  By and large, these names reflect the views of different cultures regarding the shapes and mythologies of constellations in the neighborhood of Sirius as viewed from Earth. 

          For example, the Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Chinese, and Indian cultures all at one time or another perceived Sirius to be part of a constellation suggesting the shape of an archer and a bow, a notion easily accepted by anyone who has studied portions of next-door neighbor Orion, which can be seen as a distinct arrow shape.  Hence, some of these cultures called Sirius the Bow-Star.  In connection with this theme, certain Hindu names for Sirius play upon the arrow-like appearance of part of Orion and call nearby Sirius The Deerslayer, The Hunter Who Shot the Arrow, and other names connected with the bow and arrow theme .

          The Euphrateans, Persians, Phoenicians, and the peoples of Vedic India called this star The Leader , while the Romans knew Sirius as Janitor Lethaeus, or the Keeper of Hell, both of which titles are perhaps reminiscent of Anubis, Egyptian god who led the deceased through the underworld (GOE v.2, 261 - 262).  What this might mean for the character Sirius Black is yet to be revealed, but none should be terribly surprised if Black turns up in volume seven as a guide for whomever else must traverse the world beyond the veil.  This is certainly the role attributed to Anubis and his star Sirius by the ancient Egyptians, who revered the star Sirius under several other names as well, including Sothis, Sothi, Sept, Sepet, Sopdet, Sot, and Sed. 

          In sum, Sirius has been known to Humanity under a number of images, all of which may yet be found in some way partially to reveal Rowling’s possible meaning in incorporating the name of this star in the story of Harry Potter.  Of one thing we can be certain: like other stars, Sirius has captured the imaginations of peoples around the world, and it held that attention for ages.  In this fact may be a hint as to what J.K. Rowling intends to convey by including a reference to this star in the Potter narrative.


Sirius in History, Literature, and Religion

          It may be of interest for Potter enthusiasts to know that the star Sirius has even commandeered the attention of certain prominent thinkers throughout history.  Four of these are ancient philosophers all considered to have had a profound influence upon the later development of science.  These four are Hippocrates,  Pliny the Elder, Galen, and Ptolemy, all of whom alluded respectfully to Sirius. 

  • Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, made much of Sirian influence.  Hippocrates was a Greek physician who lived from approximately 460 to 377 B.C.  He included a discussion of Sirius in his Epidemics and Aphorisms, describing the power of this star over the weather and the consequent physical effect upon mankind . 
  • Pliny was a Roman scholar of science, politics, and literature who lived from 23 to 79 A.D.  He propounded the view that Sirius was highly influential upon our planet.  Oddly enough, Pliny also associated Sirius with the origin of honey at the times of its rising! 
  • Galen was a Greek physician, philosopher, and writer who lived from approximately 130 to 200 A.D.  He accepted the proposition that stars in general have an influence over human affairs, and considered Sirius in particular as relevant to the course of illness and the preparation of medicines . 
  • Claudius Ptolemy was a mathematician, astronomer, physicist, and geographer who did his work at Alexandria in the second century A.D., contributing generously to the literature of astrology as well with his Almagest and Tetrabiblos.  Part of Ptolemy's astrological work included the characterization of fixed stars, and Sirius was included in this effort.        
  • Creative thinkers have also been drawn to Sirius in more modern times.  The French writer Voltaire placed the home of one of his heroes on a Sirian satellite in his Micromegas of 1752. 
  • Even the eighteenth century German philospher Immanuel Kant fell under the spell of Sirius.  Kant imagined Sirius to be the central sun of the Milky Way Galaxy, an idea now completely passe since the galactic centre has been located behind the constellation Sagittarius, on the opposite side of the sky.  Nonetheless, Sirian enthusiasts will appreciate Kant's intuitive grasp of this great star's importance.

          But Kant was not alone in placing Sirius at the centre of a great design.  This same pride of place was accorded the star Sirius by the ancient Near East religion,  Zoroastrianism.  The primary sacred scripture of Zoroastrianism, the Zend-Avesta, states that the Supreme God established as Master and Overseer of all the stars the star Sirius, called Tishtriya by the Zoroastrians.  This mystical prominence is echoed in the number of ancient temples in other lands oriented to Sirius.  The great archeoastronomer Sir Norman Lockyer felt that there were at least seven Egyptian temples oriented to Sirius.  One of these was an Isis temple positioned in such a way that the star Sirius was featured when it rose in conjunction with the Sun. 

          Sirius is also represented on the walls of a step-temple at Sakkara, which dates from 2700 B.C. and is likewise thought to have been erected in honor of the star Sirius.  And at Denderah, great prominence is accorded to Sirius on the square zodiac there, where Sirius is symbolised in the Egyptian style by the cow-goddess, Sothis. It appears that structures honoring Sirius in various ways were found all over the ancient world at one time, with sanctuaries dedicated to Sirius existing not only in Egypt, but also in Persia, Greece, and Rome. 

          Further, in Greece, the overhead passage of Sirius was celebrated during initiations into the Eleusinian Mysteries at the temple of Ceres at Eleusis. Later in the days of the Roman Empire, the prominent astronomical alignments of Sirius were often used to set dates for the high festivals of many popular religions and mystery cults.  And the mystery teachings of both Egypt and Babylon contained information on Sirius. 

          As these examples demonstrate, Sirius was often to be found deeply enmeshed in ancient religious and spiritual expressions, whether these were the positioning of sacred buildings, the timing of sacred celebrations, or initiation into mystic traditions.  But of all the ancient cultures in which Sirius held a prominent position, the Egyptian is the most outstanding.  In the Egyptian culture, Sirius played a significant part in essential religious beliefs and helped delineate the rhythms by which the Egyptians lived.


Sirius in Ancient Egypt

          In fact, Sirius was the most important star in the sky to the Egyptians, for their entire civil and religious system was based upon its astronomical alignments. The Egyptian yearly calendar was originally calculated upon the basis of the Nile floods, but the dates for that event were found to vary. It was discovered that a more reliable indicator existed in the yearly rising of Sirius with the Sun (or the heliacal rising of Sirius).  In about 2800 B.C., that astronomical occurrence became the basis upon which the beginning of the Egyptian New Year was determined.   This method of time reckoning has come to be called the Sothic Cycle, after Sothis, one of the Egyptian names for Sirius.  The Babylonians used this yearly heliacal rising of Sirius to determine their calendars as well.

          The Sothic Cycle has become legendary because it allowed the Egyptians to construct a dependable system for measuring time.  This was possible because the visual relationship of Sirius to our Sun was less affected by the normal changes wrought by the precession of the equinoxes than were the positions of other stars relative to our Sun.  Hence, the Sothic (or Sirius) Cycle was used in the ancient world to correct calendars based upon less regular measures, such as cycles of the Sun and Moon, which often yield year measurements slightly out of register with the orbital periods of the Earth.  Sirius and its representative gods and godesses may thus be thought of as figures  representing time itself. Could this be the reason why Sirius Black passed through the veil in the Department of Mysteries, wherein is kept a guarded room housing the force of Time?

          But to return to the history of Sirius Black’s namesake, consider the following.  Of great importance to the ancient Egyptians was the fact that the heliacal rising of Sirius occurred nearly simultaneously with the yearly flooding of the Nile.  Hence, the knowledge of the Sothic cycle enabled them to predict with confidence the rising of the Nile waters, upon which their entire economy and life support system depended.  This predictive knowledge made it possible for the Egyptians to cooperate wisely with the cycles of nature expressing through the waters of the Nile.  The Sothic Cycle was therefore key to both survival and successful civic management.  To the Egyptians, then, attunement to the cycles of Sirius was indispensable.

          The association of Sirius with an abundance of water appears elsewhere than Egypt in the ancient world as well.  In fact, it is possible that Sirius was associated with deluges in general, perhaps because of its connection with the Nile flood.  The Egyptians considered such an inundation beneficial, but the Romans of the first century A.D. thought the influence of Sirius brought highly destructive weather. 

          Further association of Sirius with water themes occurs in The Zend-Avesta, which calls Tishtriya (or Sirius) the author of rain and the enemy of the daemon of dryness.  According to the Zend-Avesta, the Supreme God once made Tishtriya cause a massive flood as punishment for men's wickedness and corruption.  In this last example, it is to be seen that Sirius may well have been perceived as an agent karma, a theme which might pertain to the Potterian Sirius Black as well.  At any rate, to the Zoroastrian religion, Sirius was a maker of rain and great waters.

          The star Sirius was also historically associated with large bodies of water in general, though these were perhaps substitutes for an archetypal whirlpool.  The whirlpool itself has been taken to signify all whirling, spirallic configurations, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, galaxies in motion, and the creative process in general, all themes with which the star Sirius may be associated as well.  It is of interest to note that ancient peoples may have connected spiral motion with Sirius, for this motion is now recognized by astrophysicists as characteristic of the paths of stars in a binary system, such as the one formed of Sirius A and B.

          But whatever the connections of Sirius with threatening or unruly forces of nature, to the Egyptians, Sirius connoted order, as it made possible the organization and use of time.  Perhaps as early as approximately 3000 B.C., the Egyptians observed the fact that the year is about three hundred and sixty five days long.  The ancient Egyptians dedicated the final five days of their calendrical year to a feast celebrating Sothis, or Sirius, so that the year ended and began with reference to Sirius.  As a result, Sirius likely functioned as a time deity, or watcher over the year. In fact, one of the pyramid texts calls Sothis (or Sirius) the Year itself.  And Anubis, symbol of Sirius, is certainly thought to have been connected with time.  This role for Sirius as a time-keeper or time marker is of great significance, and has lead to speculation that Sirius is the real kosmokrator, or cosmic time measurer, of the ancient world.  Here again is a point of considerable significance to which Rowling may have meant to allude.  If so, Sirius Black and the power of time residing in the Department of Mysteries are almost certain to be related in some way.

          There is more.  In about 3285 B.C., the star Sirius had become a major star of orientation for the Egyptians, replacing Gamma Draconis.  At the same time, the Egyptians had begun to worship the star Sirius, the only star definitely known to have been revered by the Egyptian culture, though certain constellations, such as Orion and the Great Bear, are known to have been significant to them as well.  

          Though the star Sirius is not now and probably never has been a pole star, orientation to it can help in establishing true north, since a line of sight could easily be drawn from Sirius to that direction at certain times of the night.  Location of north was important because it was the direction in which the Egyptians believed part of the afterworld lay.  Not north but still important, Sirius is mentioned specifically in The Egyptian Book of the Dead as a point to which the souls of the deceased go, as are four stars of the Great Bear, a constellation quite close to the celestial north pole.  In general, the Egyptian doctrine held that the deceased became one with the stars, with certain of them specified, as described.  It might be fairly said then that to the Egyptian mind, union with certain circumpolar stars meant immortality, a fact reflected in the plea of Horus for the deceased, "May his soul rest among the stars that never set!"  The stars that never set are, of course, those nearest the celestial North pole, the polar or circumpolar stars.

          There was another portion of the night sky which was of great importance to the ancient Egyptians for the same reason.  This they called ‘The Duat,” which was an area of the sky including the constellation Orion and the star Sirius. It was to this region of the sky that the soul of the deceased King was thought to rise in a ritual which constituted the sacred bond between Heaven and Earth.  This fact is commemorated by the orientation of one of the shafts contained within the Great Pyramid.  This shaft is constructed so as to train itself right on the star Sirius at certain times of the year and of the night.  This was important because this shaft may have functioned as an alignment aid for the soul of the deceased, helping him to commune directly with the intended target.  To rise to the vicinity of Sirius and Orion was thought by the ancient Egyptians to be the highest spiritual attainment, as these stellar entities were unto them the very bodies of their primary goddess and god, Isis and Osiris.  Osiris made his home in Orion, or Time-Man as the ancient Egyptians called him, while his Queen-Sister made hers in nearby Sirius.   That Rowling has seen fit to name one of her important characters in such a way as to evoke the imagery and rituals of ancient Egypt is significant.  Just what she means to say in this way remains open to conjecture, but it would seem that an allusion to both immortality and intelligence in star life are not out of the question.

          At any rate, the importance of Sirius to the Egyptians is clear.  This is even true in matters of the afterworld, as is evident in their burial customs.  The ancient Egyptians adopted seventy days as the amount of time to be spent in the embalming of the dead, the same amount of time that Sirius is invisible each year due to its proximity to the rising Sun.  Thus, following a death, they set aside seventy days for the careful, ritualistic treating and wrapping of the body of the deceased, a process held in the highest regard.  It was astronomical fact regarding Sirius which was instrumental in establishing this practice, for the Egyptians regarded the seventy-day invisibility of Sirius as the archetype of experience in the after-death state.  That Sirius Black has now spent at least one volume of the Potter story in the after-death state is a clear correlate.

            Thus, it has been shown that the importance of Sirius to the ancient Egyptians resulted from not only the utilitarian need to order and organize time, but also from the significance of Sirius in the religious arcana of ancient Egypt.  It appears that the Egyptians looked upon Sirius, called by them Sothis, as a sacred star, union with which conferred immortality.  Here is one of the main reasons why Sirius claimed the position of great prominence which it did in Egyptian culture.

          In fact, the star Sirius was associated by the Egyptians with several of their gods and goddesses, including Osiris, Isis, Horus, Hathor, Anubis, and Thoth.  Thus, a brief look at each of these is in order.

          Osiris was the main Egyptian god, symbolizing the power of resurrection and immortality, the belief in which was widespread from the earliest times in Egypt As stated above, the soul of Osiris was thought to dwell in the constellation Orion, which constellation Osiris was therefore identified with in addition to Sirius.

          Isis was the main Egyptian goddess and the female counterpart of Osiris, the greatest of goddesses from the earliest to the latest Egyptian dynasties.  She was a beneficent goddess and mother who personified the feminine creative power, and whose influence and love pervaded all heaven, the Earth, and the abode of the dead.  Isis was also known as the goddess of the Earth, the goddess of the Underworld, the power which caused the Nile Flood, producer of fertility, giver of life, goddess of cultivated fields, goddess of the harvest, and goddess of food.  As the goddess of the underworld, she was said to assist in transforming the bodies of the dead into those in which they would inhabit the realm of Osiris, such bodies perhaps being an allusion to some type of immortal vehicle like the soul or causal body.  The symbol of Isis in the heavens was the star Sept, or Sirius, and this star was thought to be the resting place of her soul. 

          Horus was the son of Isis and Osiris, and a Sun deity himself.  Hathor was an aspect of Isis, depicted as a cow with a star between her horns, and lying in a boat.  Anubis was the god of the underworld, the guide of the deceased in the after death state.  He was charged with tending the scales upon which were weighed the hearts of the dead, making sure that the cross beam was entirely even and true.

          Thoth, often depicted as the ibis-headed god, was thought to be the personification of the reason and mental power of the great Egyptian over-god, Ra.  Sometimes Thoth was described as the mind, reason, and understanding of Ra, resulting in a title of Thrice Great, or Trismegestos in Greek.  This great intellectual power called Thoth was of astounding perspicacity, for Thoth was considered to have been the inventor and god of all the arts and sciences, to have made the original calculations establishing the heavens, stars, and Earth, to be the master of all physical and moral law, to be the master of books, the scribe of the gods, and to have knowledge of divine speech.  In fact, it was Thoth who spoke the word whereby the wishes of Ra were carried into effect. 

          Thoth it was who reckoned the times and seasons, and who directed the motions of the heavenly bodies.  The aspect of Thoth as director of the heavens is of particular importance, for the knowledge and application of astronomical cycles became part of the ancient Egyptian initiatory tradition.  In this context, then, we can draw a direct line from an Egyptian god linked with Sirius to knowledge which forms part of an esoteric initiatory tradition.  To be really simplistic about it, we might say that Sirius equals Thoth, who equals knowledge regarding astronomical cycles, or in short, Sirius equals knowledge of astronomical cycles. If all this information is coded into the character Sirius Black, the implications of his presence in the story are immense.  His demise in the fifth volume might be compared to the suppression of the classical mystery tradition, the various branches of which were smothered to death by the early Christian movement.  If Sirius Black is meant to embody all that did the Egyptian Thoth, this and more would be the case.

          Great Thoth was also considered to be the force which kept hostile forces in equilibrium, appearing in one of his forms as the dog-headed ape who sits atop the scales of justice or Karma and ensures their correct balance.  Certainly this aspect of Thoth is reminiscent of Anubis, who also tends the scales and has the head of a jackal, or small dog.  In the judgment scene in The Egyptian Book of the Dead, Thoth takes the role of a recording angel, functioning in much the same way as what 19th century Russian occultist H.P Blavatsky and the Tibetan Master who spoke through Alice Bailey call the Lipika Lords, karmic record keepers who like Thoth are closely connected with Sirius.  Hence, both the Anubis and Thoth figures suggest that the Egyptians had a doctrine in some respects similar to certain of the esoteric tenets given out by various sources, and all attest to a linkage between Sirius and the forces of Karmic Law.  Could our Sirius Black be an embodiment of this profound theme?  Have we ever seen him working to keep opposing forces in check, and making an effort to right wrongs, set the record straight, or force the truth into the open?  Perhaps the seventh volume of the Potter story shall conclusively answer these and other questions.

          Of what we can be sure is that the various god and goddess figures associated with Sirius by the Egyptians were linked to the most profound themes of their spiritual philosophy - the continuity of life after the present physical embodiment, the certainty that the hearts (or souls) of the dead must be weighed in the scales of divine judgment, and the importance of astronomical cycles.  Since life after death implies immortality, and the scales of justice imply karma, we might rightly label two of these beliefs the doctrines of reincarnation and karma.  The third we might dare to call the theory of celestial influence. 

          Thus, in the simplest of terms, it can be said that the Egyptians linked the nature of Sirius with doctrines forming the foundation of esoteric spirituality  - the reality of the soul and its recurrent embodiments, the centrality of karma as a decisive agent in the life of the inner person, and the relevance of celestial influence to the experience of human consciousness.  And since Sirius was the astronomical foundation of the entire Egyptian religious system, these themes could hardly have been more important.  Rowling’s Sirius Black thus may represent in one fell swoop a whole panoply of critical concepts – reincarnation, cyclicity, the law of cause and effect, and the livingness of the heavens.  All this may be so if Rowling meant to invoke the understanding of the star Sirius cultivated by the ancient Egyptians.


Sirius in African Initiatory Teachings

          According to twentieth century scholar Robert K. G. Temple, an astounding body of knowledge about Sirius made its way from Egypt to a west African tribe called the Dogon.  In his extraordinary book entitled The Sirius Mystery, Temple traces the origin of the Dogon initiatory tradition back to ancient Egyptian times, before 3200 B.C.  As Temple reveals, the Dogon, in every way primitive, have since time immemorial closely guarded a secret initiatory tradition containing accurate and detailed astronomical knowledge regarding Sirius.  For example, long before the rise of modern astronomy, the Dogon knew that Sirius was a member of a binary star system, and possibly of a triple star system.  They knew of the elliptical orbit of Sirius B, its correct period of motion, its extremely small size and excessive weight, and its composition -  as they say, heavier than iron and not found anywhere on Earth, an apt description of super-dense matter.  In addition, the Dogon have always known of the form and organization of our solar system.  All these astronomical facts form the most sacred and secret tradition of the Dogon and are the basis of their religion and lives .        

          Temple's hypothesis, based upon much linguistic and literary study, is that the Dogon are descendants of Greeks and Egyptians who garnered this knowledge and then migrated to the western part of Africa.  Temple points to a conspicuous period of time in Egyptian history, about 3400 B.C., when writing, monumental architecture, and the monarchical form of government sprang suddenly and inexplicably into existence.  He then marshals convincing linguistic, mythological, and historical evidence that between seven and ten thousand years ago, or between 8000 and 5000 B.C., there took place a contact with an extra-terrestrial culture apparently from the area of Sirius.  This contact, he speculated, caused the rise of Egyptian dynastic civilization and is the origin of Dogon knowledge about the Sirian system.

          From there, the story becomes even more amazing but not necessarily implausible.  Aware of the connection of water themes with Sirian influence, Temple deduces from mythological and literary sources that the planets of the Sirian system are watery worlds with highly intelligent amphibians as their inhabitants.  In support of this contention, he offers the well-known fact that the ancient Sumerian tradition held that civilization was brought by Oannes, the Fish Man, a figure clearly portrayed in ancient art.  It only remains to say that the Sumerians and the Egyptians derived their god figures from a common, very ancient source, a point in which the great Egyptologist E.A. Wallis Budge concurs.  Thus, Temple's proposition may not be so very far-fetched.  Its possible connection with the character of Sirius Black in the Potter novels is not perhaps as evident as other factors mentioned above, though it is of interest that Sirius has the last name of Black, which is the common term for those of African descent.  Could the name Sirius Black refer to the privileged, secret, hidden (in the dark or black) ancient knowledge of Sirius held by a dark-skinned African tribe?  Many a secret is hidden in plain sight within the velvet folds of black night’s cape.

Sirius in Early, Middle, and Modern Astrology

          Back out in the light of day, ancient astrologers were busy trying to characterize every influence under heaven.  To get a grip on the nature of Sirius, they brought to mind the fact that in the ancient world, Sirius was a main tool used for the making of predictions.  Weather conditions at the time of its heliacal rising, together with the quality of light perceived to be coming from Sirius, were thought to indicate the nature of the year ahead for agricultural harvests, demographic and political developments, relations with nearby countries, and issues of health and illness for the general populace. It appears that star-priests of the Syrian, Zoroastrian, and Egyptian cultures used indications from Sirius in this way.  Later, the condition of Sirius at its helical rising was combined with the astrological sign in which the Moon was placed and with transiting planetary aspects to arrive at similar predictions. 

          The influence of Sirius in this context was thought to range from ominous and tragic to propitious and blissful .  However, there seems to have been a general ill feeling about the star, for in early astrology and poetry there was much evil influence attributed to Sirius, as it was in Virgil's Aenid .  And then in the first century A.D., the Roman astrologer Manilius wrote of Sirius in verse,

"...from his nature flow
the most afflicting powers that rule below."

          The Potter fan is here put in mind of the fury shown by Sirius Black when Snape oversteps what would seem his proper boundaries, such as occurs in the dueling scene which takes place in the kitchen at 12 Grimmauld Place, and into which the barely recovered Arthur Weasley bursts upon his return from St. Mungo’s.  There we see Sirius Black in his face as “threatening weather, wind, hail, and lightning,” indeed, barely restrained by the dictates of good manners.

          To astrologers, this side of Sirian influence might be as no surprise, for in the second century A.D., the Alexandrian astrologer Ptolemy accorded the nature of Mars and Jupiter to Sirius, which is to say he found the star a mixed bag of warlike and regal (or perhaps pompous) characteristics.  Might this be an apt description of Sirius Black in some of his more temperamental moments?

          Though indeed this sort of mixed bag was indeed the portrait painted of Sirius in early astrology, Sirius in later astrology became the significator of wealth and renown.  For example, in medieval magic, the influence of Sirius was thought to incline toward honor, goodwill, the power to pacify nobles and to gain the favor of others, and to converse with airy spirits.  In this view of Sirius, the main theme has to do with the ability to secure the elevation of one's social or political standing.  This image of  the star Sirius seems to have come from the theory that the influence of any star of great magnitude connotes honor and preferment when placed in the sky due east, due south, due west, or due north (which is invisible and underfoot) at the time of a birth.  By this criterion, Sirius as the brightest star in the night sky would certainly be propitious when brought to these positions at a birth, by virtue of the Earth’s continuous rotation.   It is possible that the high position of the Black family in the wizarding world is the direct reflection of this side of medieval views of Sirian influence.

          The auspicious influence of the star Sirius was even carried into the field of healing in the late Middle Ages.    The astrologers of that time felt that the heliacal rising of Sirius (i.e., when it rose together with the Sun) was an outstandingly favorable time for the gathering of medicinal herbs, while the alchemical physicians of the late 1500s recommended that certain ingredients be gathered or captured throughout the year at the rising of Sirius.  Sirius was thought to rule savine, mugwort, dragonwort, and the tongue of a snake, probably all ingredients in medieval magic or medicinal operations.  Indeed, it appears that the medieval view of Sirian influence included certain curative or healing powers, as those qualitites were definitely attributed to the influence of Canis Major (the constellation in which Sirius is located). 

          In the late 1650s A.D., the rising of the star Sirius was thought to coincide with the agitation of snakes, not an entirely unflattering association given the long established connection of serpents with places of healing and divine inspiration in Greek tradition, and with initiates of the Wisdom Tradition in general.  For Potter fans, there is an intriguing connection.  In that Harry Potter is a Parselmouth and can therefore speak the language of snakes, the implication is that he, too, is a snake or serpent, which is to say in symbolism that he is an initiate of the Wisdom Tradition.  In a variation on the medieval view, it might be said that the influence of the star Sirius calls into action the initiates of the Wisdom Tradition.  Such a view of Sirian influence is consistent with the metaphysical teachings of 20th century metaphysical writer Alice Bailey, in whose writings it is held that the star Sirius is  the star of Initiation, the home of our Planetary Hierarchy, and the source of all esoteric initiatory traditions leading to that august body.  In terms of the Potterian world, using the same metaphor, it can be said that the presence of Godfather Sirius Black jolts Harry into a recognition of his true magical heritage. 

          Given this, it is possible that Rowling has woven into the fabric of the story an allusion to the positive meaning of snakes and serpents as agents of healing and higher insight, such as was the case in ancient tradition.  Such would be as a tension against snakes presented as emblems of evil, animosity, and destruction in the case of the basilisk and of Voldemort in his attack mode.  Here is to be noted a profound metaphysical controversy about the nature of good and evil. Are they two sides of the same coin?  Might snakes symbolize the good, the healing, the force of eternal renewal, as well as the frightful, the mean, and the selfish?  This is for each to decide.  Whatever the case, there are certainly suggestive connections between the medieval astrological view of Sirius and certain images in the Potter story.

          In more modern astrological literature, Sirian influence is, like the conundrum above, viewed as a mixture of benign and dangerous characteristics. 
The dangerous part comes from what is left over of ancient views of Sirius.  The more benign is as follows.  According to one popular astrological source, the placement of the following planets in the same degree as the zodiacal intercept of Sirius (or a conjunction with Sirius) brings these results in the natal chart.

          Conjunct the Midheaven.....fame and high office
          Conjunct the Sun.........……success
          Conjunct the Moon........… success
          Conjunct Mercury.........… success
          Conjunct Venus...........……ease and comfort
          Conjunct Mars............…….courage
          Conjunct Jupiter.........…….business success
          Conjunct Saturn..........…….high position
          Conjunct Uranus..........……prominence
          Conjunct Neptune.........……intuition
          As is apparent, these are largely no more than elaborations on the classical planetary natures and that of Sirius, with a heavy lean to the side of elevation, power, prestige, recognition, and material advantage.  And so it seems, the one-time aristocratic position of the Black family in the Potter story may well be an intentional reflection of the astrological characterization of the star for whom Sirius Black is named.


Final Reflections

          As has been shown, the star Sirius has played a prominent role in astronomy, myth, religion, literature, and history.  It would be hard to swallow any contention that the author of the Harry Potter novels has remained untouched by this fact.  Quite to the contrary, it would seem that here is yet another example which tends to support the widely-voiced notion that J.K. Rowling is an immensely well-read literate, a scholar of the Western Esoteric or Wisdom Tradition, as well as of religion, history, and literature.  We’d be hard pressed to imagine that she has not intentionally condensed into her character Sirius Black a number of themes which can legitimately claim lasting and outright profound implications.  That the popular press should fail to acknowledge this fact and continue to classify her works as mere juvenile literature is their great loss.


Sirius, a book by M. Temple Richmond

This article is a revised version of the introduction to M. Temple Richmond's Sirius. For bibliographic references, please write to the author at or see a copy of the book.

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