How old is astronomy? A study on the northern sky mythology
Most common explanation of the word “Druid” is “the one who knows the tree”. It is further understood that this “tree” is in fact a “world tree”. Its stem is the rotational axes of the earth and its fruits are the stars and the planets. Therefore, the one who knows the tree is the one who knows the universe and knows the secrets of the movement of the stars.
Nobody knows for sure how old is the astronomy, but it is widely known that even the oldest megalithic constructions were aligned to the cardinal directions. However, not all of them were designed to be observatories. According to the NASA criteria, in order to be considered as an ancient observatory, a construction needs to have a “throne” – an observation spot. This seat was usually carved out of a huge megalithic rock, as if it was intended for a giant (or a neanderthal), not a mere human. I have seen examples of these giant thrones in Balkans and Ireland, but they are very common all across the globe, wherever there are megaliths.
Here is an article about Kokino observatory in Macedonia, ranked by NASA as the 4th most ancient observatory in the world.
It is precisely these thrones, rather than any recorded myth, that tell us how important were these holly men to the society. They were the masters of time and subsequently masters of human destiny – they knew when the seasons will change, when is the best time to cultivate the land, when to go to war, when to get married… Once the cardinal points were marked on the ground, they could easily keep track of the changes in the movement of the stars. Those markings were usually made of wooden poles, megalithic stones, or simply holes cut in the stones or edges of the cliff.
But we are only coming to realize how complex was this knowledge, and it is very likely that most of it was kept in secrecy. The facts accumulated over time, and in order to transfer them to the next generation, a star-lore is created – a vast body of epic stories of heroes, animals and supernatural beasts, stories impregnated with symbolic, whose purpose was practical, as well as mystical, spiritual.
Ptolemy knew 48 constellations. Each of them has an important story to tell, but amongst the most important are surely the big dipper and the little dipper. (Ursa major and Ursa minor). In our times, the little dipper is probably the most important, as on its “tail” lies Polaris – the north star.
Moreover, rotation of the big dipper around the fixed north star, marks perfectly the seasons of the year, in the shape of the swastika, as illustrated in the following picture:
Picture taken from Graham Hancock’s website forum
However, our north is not really fixed – it moves for 1 degree of a circle every 72 years, or 30 degrees every 2160 years. This is why the further we go back to time, the closer we get to the point where the north was near the big dipper – last time roughly some 5000 years ago.
Circle of precession, Wikipedia commons.
North is currently near Polaris, but it moves 30 degrees every 2160 years (here circled at 2000)
Now, it is a fact that different tribes saw different things in these constellations. In North America they were seen as bears, (as well as in most of European countries). But they were also often seen as wagons and plows. The boundaries between these believes in European countries are not very clear – usually two or three different representations are known within the same country.
I believe that the reason behind these different ideas is in fact surprisingly simple:
- Tribes of the forests saw them as bears, as the beginning of bear hibernation in the late September was signaling the beginning of the winter.
- Tribes of the nomads saw them as wagons, as the autumn was the time to move from the higher pastures to the lower ground.
- Agricultural tribes saw them as plows, as the autumn is the season for plowing.
If I am correct, it would mean that these believes are simply the result of a lifestyle, rather than belonging to a specific group of people, or a nation. For example, Slavs knew about all three representations, and at the same time Slavic tribal names come from their specific lifestyle – Drevljani, tribes of the forests and Poles, tribes of the fields…
Now, since all the three images of these constellations are related to the late autumn – the bear, the wagon and the plow, we can easily determine the precise moment that the ancient priest would use to give a signal to his tribe – a fall equinox of 22nd of September! Sitting on his throne, observing the markers allied to the cardinal directions, he would just need to wait for the Sun to set and look towards the north.
I will now show you what he would see, but during the fall equinox of 3000 BC. I chose this specific date because since then the stars had moved for the whole 70 degrees on the sky, and this particular star-lore has lost its meaning.
It is not only because of the shift of the north star that I know this – 3000 BC was one of the last years in which the Sun was setting in the constellation of Libra, a constellation that was clearly named due to the “balance” of the equal day and night during the fall equinox. Nowadays Sun sets between Virgo and Lion, 70 degrees further.
So this is how the fall equinox of 3000 BC would look like (click to enlarge):
Northern constellations after sunset on the fall equinox of 3000BC (created with Stellarium)
What we see here is that the big dipper is horizontally aligned, marking the beginning of the fall. Currently, due to the effects of the precession, the big dipper is slowly moving upwards diagonally, and in a few thousand years it will stand vertically, instead of horizontally at the beginning of the fall. However, this does not affect the main symbolic of the swastika – eternal rotation, a wheel of life. (or tree of life in Biblical terminology)
On the above picture we see that in 3000 BC, there was a constellation Bootes to the left of Ursa major (currently not visible during the equinox). The name of this constellation comes from Greek and it means a “plowman”, or an “ox-driver”. Whatever the translation, this image was obviously associated with the idea of the big dipper being a plow, as the plow is pulled by the oxen. This representation obviously comes from an agricultural society, as for the nomadic tribe Bootes would probably be a “wagon driver”.
However, the brightest star of Bootes is Arcturus (from arctur – bear), and to the ancient Greeks Bootes was also known as Arctophylax – “the bear watcher”. Trough previous examples we got the sense of idea that Bootes is “pulling” the big dipper, and this idea comes to mind again with the image of Ursari, nomadic bear handlers of the Romani people, who would make the bears dance in public since the times immemorial, during the main holidays of fall, winter and spring. (solstice and equinoxes)
There is very little doubt that this custom can be traced all the way back to the neolithic, and ancient shamanic rituals related to the movement of the big dipper and the change of seasons. Shaman would carry a pole – a representation of the axis mundi, while his control of the bear was a symbolical control of the cosmic law.
The Ursari tradition was banned in Germany in 1920’s because of the concerns of the animal cruelty but remained alive in Balkans until the recent decades. It is now almost extinct, I suppose because its original meaning and purpose became lost with the movement of the stars. Anyhow, a typical representation of Bootes looks almost identical to this photo of Ursar from the Belgrade museum archives, if we exchange the dogs on his leash with the bear.
- Bootes, a typical representation 2. Blagoje Đorđević, “Mečkar”, year 1912.
The position of Ursa major during the final winter months was used by Druids to predict the end of the winter. This is the real meaning of the saying “if the bear sees his shadow”, typical in Western Europe, or its equivalent, the “Groundhog day” in America, as well as St. Brigid’s day in Ireland – whose symbol is swastika (aka St Brigid’s cross). During this time of the year, the Ursa Major appears very high in the sky, taking away the winter of the north from the earth, as illustrated in this rhyme chanted by the Ursari:
Dance, dance Old Boy Martin,
And I shall give you bread and olives!
Green leaf of crab apple,
Climb, bear on the stick,
Climb higher and higher still,
For I brought you honey, too.
Dance, dance Old Boy Martin,
For I give you the honey of bees.
Dance, dance nicely,
And take little steps.
Jump, jump, higher and higher,
For your master has gone away!
Now, I used the date of 3000BC to illustrate this, as this was the last date when the star-lore described above was fully functional. However, the setting of the stars was appropriate for this kind of star-lore already from the 6th millennium BC!
But we can maybe go even further back in time, to around 9000 BC when the north star was near the constellation of Hercules. Besides looking very similar to swastika, Hercules is clearly related to the polar star mythology trough the story of “the apples of the Hesperides”.
- Movement of the north star 2. Constellation Hercules
In the myth of the Hesperides, Hercules meets Atlas, who is holding the world on his shoulders (a reference to the axes mundi). Hercules takes the weight off him for a while, causing the earth to tremble as they exchange. Since Bootes is the nearest constellation to Hercules, and within the line of precession, MAYBE we can assume that something happened around 9000 BC, when the earth’s axes was in between these two constellations, an event that caused the earth to tremble – something like an earthquake or a meteorite strike. This is the approximate time when the ice age had ended. (!)
Bootes and Hercules on the star chart
Moreover, did the story of apples of Hesperides originate in this period, surviving millennia within the star lore, only to be recycled again once the polar star has shifted to Polaris of Ursa minor – the tree of the Hesperides?
If we go even further back, to around 11000 BC, when the north star was Vega of the constellation Lira, we may have an analogy with the myth of Orpheus, the most famous lyre player in history, and his wife Euridica, that got bitten by the snake. (constellation Draco). Orpheus (the Sun) goes to the underworld in search of his beloved Euridica (the Earth) and makes a deal to rescue her if he doesn’t look back to see if she follows. But he does look, and so she returns to the underworld. What is this myth describing if not the change of seasons?
If you think that I went too far back in time – I didn’t. First, the oldest swastika ever discovered is the one from Mezine, Ukraine, and it has been dated to 10500BC – an officially confirmed data. Swastika was obviously a sacred symbol even back then. Its relation to the star lore in this period can’t be proven, but I believe that it leaves a firm ground to make such assumptions.
Besides, very few scholars would nowadays argue that amazing finds at Göbekli tepe, dated to 10th millennium BC, are filled with astrological symbols – we see scorpions, lions, bulls… and even Cygnus – the swan. (click to enlarge)
Göbekli tepe stone carvings: 1. Bull 2. Cygnus 3. Lion 4. Scorpio (and Cygnus)
Observational holes are also found at this site:
After these findings, I do not believe that anyone can seriously challenge that the knowledge of astronomy existed even in the 10th millennium BC. And why wouldn’t it? Homo sapiens has been walking under the stars for at least 100 000 years! During this period the precession circle has turned at least 5 times. (not to mention the knowledge of our predecessors)
From all the animals of Göbekli tepe, a bird identified as a constellation Cygnus – the swan, seems to be the most popular motif. The north star was in this constellation around the 16th millennium BC. Moreover, there is a very strong mythology related to this constellation, a mythology that can’t be properly described in this short article. But let’s just mention that Zeus was transformed into a swan, Orpheus was transformed into a swan, and a Vedic Brahma – creator, rides on one.
And even more importantly, Cygnus – and more precisely its brightest star Deneb – the polar star of the 16th millennium BC, can perhaps be related to the myth of the cosmic egg. This was an extremely important ontological myth that resonated from ancient Egypt to Vedic India, and even further. The position of the Deneb star, as well as the very importance of the polar star, necessarily bring the idea of the cosmic egg mythology to mind.
- Brahma on a swan 2. Cygnus constellation, with Deneb as the cosmic egg
Now, Cygnus is usually described as a swan. This is because the ancients considered this part of the sky to be covered in “water”. In Arabic culture it was a hen. As for Göbekli tepe, theories go from unidentified species of vulture to dodo birds and even penguins. In my opinion it was a Great cormorant. This bird, whose habitat is still on the coast of Turkey, has the same curved beak and a similar body shape to the carvings of Göbekli tepe.
However, in the light of everything said so far, I think that even the image of a stork would not be out of place. It is the storks that migrate around the fall equinox and return in the spring – a myth that would make so much sense during the ice age, (more sense than a swan) besides following the same logic of the myths of a later date.
From 16000BC when Deneb was the polar star, to 11-10000BC, when Göbekli tepe was built, there would be a shift in the position of the north star, just like the one we witnessed from the 3000BC to now. For builders of Göbekli tepe, the Cygnus constellation would be in the same position where we now see Ursa major!
But perhaps the most striking parallel comes from Mal’ta, Siberia, where we see Cygnus looking bird figurines, dated to 20000BC!
Mal’ta figurines, Hermitage museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
And this is where it becomes really, really interesting.
In Slavic languages, a word for the stork is “roda”. And the main god of the Slavic pantheon was Rod – the creator of the universe, equivalent of Brahma in Vedic religion. Rod was born out of the cosmic egg. His name is so deeply rooted in the Slavic language, that numerous important words can be related to him, words such as: “roditi se” – to be born, “roditelji” – parents, “porodica” – familly, and “priroda” – nature.
Rod – Slavic god creator, holding a bird.
Göbekli tepe idol