101955 Bennu

This tapestry celebrates both ancient human culture and modern human accomplishment by depicting the journey of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft to asteroid 101955 Bennu in embroidery. It features the spacecraft flying ahead of Ra’s solar barge and towards the night sky and the stars. Below, the deity Bennu looks down upon the asteroid and the largest boulder upon its rocky surface. Bennu is the ba-soul of the Atum, the god of creation, and is said to enable his creative actions. He is also associated with the other solar deities, Osiris (god of the dead), and with rebirth. The image of the Bennu bird and the hieroglyphs were recreated from the ancient Egyptian text “The Book of Going Forth By Day,” otherwise known as the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

This piece of art has been a very very long time in the making. I had the idea for this tapestry months ago on the way home from a scientific conference. I had learned about the mythology surrounding the name of asteroid 162173 Ryugu and its largest boulder Otohime. Thinking about the artwork of the ancient cultures, whose legends from which we often name celestial objects, inspired me to get back into textiles after working with paper for so long. I learned how to sew years ago as a kid from my mother, but I’ve always thought that the colors and the texture of the thread allow embroidery to portray  both a delicate and powerful image, and one more detailed than I could accomplish with fabric itself. I decided I want to do a series of tapestries focused on asteroids that we have visited with spacecraft missions, and so as a member of the OSIRIS-REx team there was no better place to start than asteroid 101955 Bennu.

So this was what ultimately inspired me to finally buy an embroidery machine. If you’ve been following my projects, it clearly it is not the first embroidery project that I have completed. The learning curve for creating high quality, custom embroidery designs has been much steeper than I expected. I really wanted this piece to be done well, so I set it aside for a long time while I worked on developing the skills required to do it justice. I feel as though I’ve finally mastered it, for the most part, though I’m sure I have plenty more to learn in future projects. I’ve written about some of the challenging parts of the embroidery process over in the 3 Wolf Moon page. In light of the lessons I had learned, I wanted a simple design structure for this piece with only a few panels. The layout and look of the piece is inspired by paintings and murals from ancient Egyptian artifacts and ruins. Central to the work is the image of the deity Bennu, recreated from the ancient  text “The Book of Going Forth By Day,” otherwise known as the Egyptian Book of the Dead.


The herioglyphs to the right of the bird spell Bennu’s name. Reading them is difficult because they can be written to be read in multiple directions, spellings varied from scribe to scribe, and no vowels were represented in the way words were spelled. There is also often a lot of redundancy in the words, which I find baffling for a civilization that put in the effort to painstakingly carve and paint complex characters into stone. For example the characters below, the foot is an “b” sound, the horizontal bar is an “n” sound, the simple bird is another “n” or “nu” sound, and the last character is just a character that means Bennu bird. Like, just in case you couldn’t read the word, here’s a character that tells you what the word says.

Mythology is complicated, and the way the Egyptian gods are depicted in image and story doesn’t always make sense to a modern reader. Bennu is associated with the with the god of creation, Atum. Ancient Egyptians believed that the soul was made up of multiple parts: khet (physical body), sah (spititual body), ren (name/identity), ba (personality), ka (double, vital essence which separated the living from the dead), jib (heart), shut (shadow), sekhem (power, form), and akh (combined spirit of person that transitions to the afterlife). So Bennu, the deity, is the ba soul or personality of Atum who created the world. And it is Bennu that was said to have enabled Atum’s creative actions. The ba aspect of the soul generally appears with a bird form, representing the mobility of the soul after death. I like the symbolism of Bennu, the asteroid, representing one fundamental aspect of the solar system as a whole, or one aspect of the solar system’s origin story. It doesn’t hold all the answers, but it is primordial, and by studying it we can come to understand key aspects of how the solar system came to be and its fundamental nature. This is the goal of the OSIRIS-REx mission, and I can’t even express how much we have begun to learn since arriving.

Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

In the creation story, Atum, in the form of a bird (Bennu), flew across the primoridial waters of Nu. He landed on a mound called Benben, from which he created the world. The mound was said to have turned into a small pyramid located in Heliopolis. The Benben stone (or benbenet in ancient Egyptian), named after this primordial mound, was a sacred stone in the temple of Ra at Heliopolis, the location upon which the first rays of the sun fell. The bird deity Bennu was venerated in this city and lived atop the Benben stone. Because of this, pyramids had benben stones (aka pyramidia), capstones inscribed with titles and religious symbols, and were often gilded to reflect sunlight. These can be seen in museums all over the world today.

Atum created the world and brought it to completion, and so he is known as the god of the setting sun. Ra is the most well known sun god, the god of the noon-time sun. He is depicted in the top panel of the tapestry riding with the sun in the solar barge. The barge is called the Atet, or the Mandjet (“The Boat of Millions of Years”) during the day and the Mesektet during the night. It was said to carry the sun across the sky and towards the night and the stars. The Atet moved around the whole world, so at night he had to travel through the underworld so that the sun could rise again once more. The young god Khepri is known as the god of the rising sun, and is associated with rebirth because of the sun’s emergence from the underworld to the world of the living. So there you go- Ra drives the sun around in a boat, but at different times of day he is also other sun gods, because mythology is complicated. Because Bennu is a part of Atum and therefore linked to the solar cycle, he also came to be linked to the other sun gods, and to to Osiris (god of the afterlife), and to rebirth. Bennu’s name is related to the word “wbn”, “to rise” (used in relation to the rising of the stars in the sky) and “to shine” due to its relation to the sun gods and presence atop the benben stone of the temple of Ra.

In the tapestry, the top panel shows the spacecraft flying ahead of the solar barge (atop which sits Ra) and towards the night sky. This particular imagery was inspired by a picture from Wikipedia, for which there is no reference. Based on my general reading online and in books, Ra rode the Atet through the daytime sky and through the underworld, passing through a series of gates or doorways along the way. So while I don’t know where this particular image was sourced from, I like the image of the night sky as a door, a destination, a gateway to a greater place– somewhere we can travel to and learn from. The Egyptians had a pretty sophistocated understanding of astronomy and had more than one deity devoted to it. Seshat or “she who is the scribe,” is the goddess (and inventor) of writing and record keeping, as well as wisdom, knowledge, accounting, astronomy, math, geological surveying, and building. She is usually depicted with a pattern of dots on her dress, thought to represent the stars in the night sky and associate her with time and eternity. Her male counterpart, Thoth, is also associated with record keeping and science, as well as law and judgeship. He is said to have done the calculations for establishing the heavens and placing the celestial objects in the sky, and is responsible for directing their motion. I am looking forward to finding more information and stories about these two, and gleaning some more insight into the role that astronomy played in their culture. I also got a lot of general inspiration for this piece from looking at murals from the Temple of Dendera.

Embroidered below the Atet sits Bennu, surveying the asteroid surface. The hieroglyphs below the bird are text from The Book of Going Forth By Day, which describe him: “I am that great Benu-bird which is in Heliopolis, the supervisor of what exists.” This translation comes across as awkward, but seems to reference Bennu’s control over creation. The full text included on tapestry goes somewhat beyond the quoted line, “As for what exists…It means eternity and everlasting. As for eternity, it means daytime; as for everlasting, it means night.” I’m not going to pretend I totally (or partially?) understand what is going on in this part of the book, but it seems to relate Bennu to Osiris and gives him domain over certain aspects of both creation and time. I am not an Egyptian scholar though, so my interpretation is based on my own reading and the notes in the translation* that I bought. And to be honest, it is really hard to tell where words begin and end, so it is even hard to tell exactly how much of the text I included on the tapestry. But hey, we do what we can and it looks good, right?

The large boulder depicted in the bottom panel of the tapestry is named for Benben. Or at least, that was the name the OSIRIS-REx team wanted for the boulder. It’s the largest boulder on the asteroid’s entire surface, so large that its presence was inferred from the way light reflected off the asteroid from ground based observations, though no surface features or topography can be resolved on such a small body from Earth. The IAU controls how how naming conventions are determined on planetary objects, and it is unclear as of the time of writing this post what the official naming convention for Bennu’s surface features will officially be.

I should emphasize here that I am not an expert on Egyptian mythology, and my understanding is limited as an enthusiast rather than a professional scholar. Maybe someday I’ll have time for another degree, but for now mythology is a pastime not a profession. I didn’t include references for anything that I’ve told you hear because it was all cobbled together from things I found scrounging online and through the handful of books that I have. If you are interested, I encourage you to do the same! I found the Egyptian Book of the Dead really interesting to read through, and once you start digging down into the deities in their legends and the symbolism behind how they are depicted you may find yourself lost (in the best way) before you know it.

Next up will be a tapestry for Hayabusa 2 and asteroid Ryugu. Then, who knows where?

*Goelet Jr., O., R. O. Faulkner, C. A. R. Andrews, J. D. Gunther, J. Wasserman, 2015. The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth by Day, Twentieth Anniversary Ed., Chronicle Books LLC.