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Death, the dog and the Guanche astronomers 

Prehistoric people and so-called ‘backward’ tribes are well known to have had a profound knowledge of the stars and their movements in the heavens. It is also well known that on Tenerife the pre-Conquest Guanche tribes embalmed their dead and then put the mummies in caves, places half way between the world of dead and the world of the living. The actual funeral rites are unknown, and yet it is possible that a little light – a little starlight in fact – can be shed on the ritual.

Some years ago, some-where on Tenerife (the site is too sensitive to be named), an archaeological investigation was carried out into a Guanche burial cave. During the investigation attention was drawn to another man-made feature nearby. The feature consisted of a system of small cups and channels carved into the bedrock, such as might be found in many places in Britain, that together would make a singular place for rituals to be held. But, by studying the configuration an interesting and revealing similarity was seen between the pattern made by the distribution of these cups and channels and the constellation of Canis Major, ‘the Big Dog’, dominated by Sirius, the dog star, its main celestial body and the brightest star in the heavens. After checking this apparent coincidence with several other authorities for parallels, one by one, the other constellations were eliminated until it was clear that the only astronomical configuration that fitted the pattern was indeed that of Canis Major. But the surprise increased when the archaeologists learnt about the historical significance of that constellation among North African civilisations, such as the Dogon tribe in Mali among many others, but, in particular, the culture of ancient Egypt.

The symbolism of Canis Major and Sirius can be traced to the 3rd millennium B.C. in Egypt. Here the star Sirius was called Sothis, where it was the main point of reference for the agricultural and religious life of the country. The first brief appearance of Sirius-Sothis before dawn in the middle of July, after an absence of several months during which time it was not possible to be observed, coincided with the annual inundation of the River Nile. But its significance also touched the horizon of funerary beliefs. This point is highly relevant because it gives credence to a possible connection between the constellation of Canis Major, and the Guanches approach to death. The Guanches of Tenerife could have held this fundamental knowledge of astronomy and cultural philosophy in common with the Egyptian civilisation.

Throughout history, Canis Major and Sirius have been given different interpretations. At one time identified with the goddess Isis, the sister and wife of the Egyptian god Osiris, the symbolic link to the figure of the dog is even older. Sirius-Sothis has also been identified with Anubis, the Egyptian jackal-headed god that served as a guide for the dead. He was the god of the funerary rituals, including the task of weighing the souls of the dead in the scales of justice in order to decide their destiny in the afterlife. Sirius-Sothis is credited with the invention of the art of embalming and he was part of the ritual of embalming the bodies that were kept unburied for seventy days, the same seventy days that the Sun covered Sirius between sunset and sunrise.

Another tradition equates Canis Major with the dreadful figure of Cerberus, the three-headed dog that in Greek mythology guarded the doors to Hades, the underworld, the kingdom of the dead, or, perhaps in the case of Tenerife, the caves. This function links Cerberus with Sirius-Sothis-Anubis who was the guide to the same place and could even enter that forbidden kingdom.

So, on Tenerife we have mummies, tomb-caves and a representation of Canis Major with Sirius, the dog-god of death rites. A faint image of a Guanche burial ceremony begins to take shape.

All this cultural and symbolic knowledge linked to Canis Major raises the question, if the connection with this hypothetical representation of the constellation by the cups and channels carved onto a rock could be proved beyond doubt, could it be that it is an outstanding testimony of ancient knowledge possessed by the Guanches of Tenerife, and that they were the heirs to a valuable and remarkable accumulation of astronomical and symbolic knowledge?