MEGALITHS AND MINOTAURS: OLD SITES, NEW THINGS TO SEE
MEGALITHS AND MYTHS: WHAT IS REAL?
In the past I have used this blog to expand my original purpose of primarily including in it articles that mainly expanded upon issues, particularly anthropological or archaeological ones, which were relevant to my novels on prehistoric America in some way. More recently, however, I have begun to look farther afield to encompass my own more expansive interests in prehistory, especially those areas concerning ancient people’s relationships with the movements of the heavens. This interest has mostly focused on how these ancient relationships manifested themselves in early myth-building and in the construction of large public works such as pyramids, roadways, and other large earth and stone structures.
Pursuant to these interests, this author has been fortunate in recent years to visit many of the world’s important “rock piles”, as I often call them, in order to investigate first hand possible applications and celestial alignments at these locations that might have been undervalued or ignored in the past. Readers of this blog will note more recent articles on places such as Chaco Canyon, Machu Picchu, the art caves of France, and early Maya locales such as Mirador whose interpretation as major celestial observational sites or interpretive centers has been discussed—often from a new perspective. Therefore, my most recent trip to Greece somewhat surprisingly (although I suppose none of this information should continue to come as a surprise to one who is open to seeing it) resulted in forcing me to reevaluate some long-standing interpretations of major sites of antiquity in that much studied and reported upon location as well. The first basic truth one must confront when first seeing these famous sites is that even though places such as Mycenae, Knossos, and even Olympia have been studied, excavated, reconstructed, and visited by millions for over a hundred years, very little of that research and reconstruction has been done in the last several decades. This is important because the initial reconstructions and interpretations by the original excavators, whose work dominates these sites still today, was done at a time when very little attempt was made to view these important sites in terms of their potential for celestial observations beyond the simplistic and obvious visual associations known at the time.
THE MYTHS WE KNOW AND LOVE
In Greece it is virtually impossible to ignore the critical place any important site such as Olympia, Delphi, or the Parthenon has on our modern knowledge and sheer dependence at times on the basic mythology we have all grown up with and still hold as the standard by which all other myths and heroes are judged. Earlier sites there like Mycenae or Knossos in Crete held an equally important place in the myth making vision of the classical Greeks themselves. The heroes of Mycenae and their contemporaries were the basis of the Trojan War stories, which set the standard by which all other accounts of the role each individual Olympian god or figure played in our mental cosmologies and constructs of ancient times—even far beyond the reach of Greece. Indeed, we still study these famous myths in our schools and wrap our basic stories of these gods and goddesses and their deeds in countless events of our everyday lives. Hollywood and Marvel Comics have made them a fertile ground within which is planted the very seeds of western ideals about what a polytheistic cosmology should look like; or how good guys and bad guys should behave and how Fate and Destiny lead us about.
However, we have often lost sight of the simple fact that these stories are also a more complex guidebook for how the heavens should work in relation to our vision of it as a place of wonder, yet one directly involved in our own daily affairs. What to us are often the merely amusing constructs of the daily astrological forecast or the quaint origin theory of some planetary event was to the ancient Greeks and others a more complete and data-based view of the real world as they saw it. After all, it was “astrology” that became “astronomy”, for which the necessity to invent “mathematics” was itself an inevitable outgrowth, and then became the basis for the invention of most “Science” as we know it, which the ancient Greeks are justly given credit for handing down to us in the form we utilize to reflect our own expanding world view.
As previous blog articles in this series have repeatedly attempted to inform, we must continue to look past the simple stories our myths—whatever culture from which they are derived—entertain us with and deeper into the motives behind those who created them in order to find the real purpose those same myths served for their ancient originators. Invariably if we do this, I believe, we will discover that the stories were their method of recording the “Science” as they knew it and for which no wider context for their expanding knowledge of the heavens they depended upon to order their otherwise supernatural world views existed. As we look deeper, the virtually inevitable result we come upon is that these stories are allegories or metaphors for far more complex and orderly views of the heavens and the celestial events being regularly played out there which these ancient peoples possessed. Furthermore, their abilities to interpret and then record these events even beyond their important oral traditions in some more permanent form can no longer be denied or seen as something more essential in our own make-ups and hence our continuity with these ancient thinkers—whether this connection is one we like to admit or not.
Sure, we know, for example, that the god Cronos is really the planet Saturn and that Cronos is somehow associated with time (check your chronometer if you’re not sure) and time keeping. He is one of the Titans, the father of Zeus (or Jupiter) the greatest of the gods. But Chronos is also the most distant planet whose regular orbit can be seen and observed. Its twenty year journey around the sun and conjunction with Jupiter every forty years form two of the biggest numbers an ancient society could observe and record in one lifetime. Saturn becomes the longest repeatable number to those ancient sky watchers. (Note: The Maya are given credit for inventing the concept of “zero”, but it was not to count in decimals of “ten” but of “twenty” instead.) Jupiter is still the easiest to see “star”, the biggest, somehow related to Saturn by this periodic conjunction as they cross paths in their journey through the Milky Way, along with the other planets (gods) and constellations of the zodiac (heroes or animals), which also move along or in and out of the great river of time (stars). Just stop and think for a moment to easily recall in how many of our myths and legends—and not just the Classical ones—the number “forty” plays a significant role. In our own mythology it rained forty days and forty nights in our culture history’s greatest “disaster” ( By the way, “dis”-means from , “aster” means stars), Jesus “wandered” in the desert for forty days. There was Ali Baba and the forty “thieves”, and so on, even in many lesser stories. Then, when you think you have several “coincidences”, check out the Incas as just one example to see how this number is “really, really” a significant one.
(Note: I once asked a guide at the Maya ruins of Tikal how many steps were up each side of a pyramid we had just walked passed. It was a smaller structure and not on the main tour as far as he was concerned. He just shrugged at my question and started to count. I told him not to bother, that it would be forty. He continued to count anyway. When he got to the top step, number forty, he turned and looked at me open-mouthed as if to say: “Who the hell are you and what is it that you are trying to tell me here?” I just shrugged and smiled back. I had got the same type of reaction from a guide once at the Lascaux cave in France when I asked him a similar type of question about the paintings—one that he had never been asked before and one that I could immediately sense he did not have the time or desire to contemplate: either the question, my answer, or my reason for asking him something that he had no context within which to store the information he had just been given.)
At any rate, at the risk of not getting too far afield of the original purpose of this article, it is always important I believe to be prepared to take a fresh look at many of the assumptions and interpretations offered when visiting ancient archaeological sites around the world. This is especially true for those whose existence has long been known and for which little new excavation or reinterpretation of often out-of-date prior reconstructions has occurred in recent years. Obviously, the fact that many of these sites are not only national treasures or world heritage sites now, which generally precludes anything beyond basic new research, there often seems to exist an unspoken almost antagonistic attitude against any changing viewpoints that might give rise to the need for further research or change the accepted “narrative” developed for these places over the decades. Stories of archaeologists or others who have made applications to renew excavations at places like Stonehenge or Machu Picchu, for example, and their difficulties in being granted such requests are legendary in the archeological community. “Come now, my dear fellow, wouldn’t want to upset the tourists and all those dollars now would we. There now, be a good lad and move on to that other little hill over there for your digging, eh. And try to disturb that parking lot we’ve got going there while you’re at whatever it is you are looking for. What did you say it was now, something to do with some planet or something?”
With this in mind, let’s take a look at three sites in Greece I have just recently visited and what observations were made there with the help of my experience, my eyes, and the aid of the compass app on my cellphone (beats carrying around the old lensatic compass and much more accurate. Now that’s modern “science” at work, eh!). Both Mycenae and the palace of Knossos in Crete far exceeded my expectations. Finally, a few words about the original Olympic site at Olympia will be mentioned.
MYCENAE: BEYOND THE LION GATE
When visiting the site of Mycenae, one is invariably led by the local guides to the nearby and justly famous “Treasury of Atreus” before climbing up to the more famous ruins of the ancient “city” itself. As someone who has often studied these sites in some detail before visiting, my first observation is always to take in the bigger picture of how the entire site or complex itself is situated within or upon the larger landscape of which it is a part. This is generally impossible to grasp without a first-hand, on the ground visit. Every horizon can be important, especially the east and west sunrise locations. At Mycenae, the Treasury is located several hundred yards below the main hilltop citadel in the narrow valley that runs almost due north to south there. The impressive, stone-lined entranceway into the treasury, tomb, or whatever it actually was, is aligned directly to catch the morning sunrise on the straight line ridge directly east. Some basic calculations would show, I believe, that solstice or equinox sunrises would shine directly down the passage to illuminate the interior of the “tholos”, or domed, circular treasury.
The guide was quick to point out that the Mycenaeans themselves were “moon worshippers”. While this may well be true, moon worship, is also generally associated with solstice based calendars (Stonehenge is a prime example). This first quick alignment got my juices flowing for the trip up the hill and through the famous Lion Gate to see the main site itself. I was shocked almost immediately by the large circular stone structure just inside the citadel walls, which was surrounded by a double row of standing stone slabs, which were just wide enough to walk between. Unfortunately, past reconstructions made it virtually impossible to get an accurate count of how many of these large slabs were in their original positions and what the two different basic widths might have once represented. The guide was unable to provide any further information or number, or steer me to a printed source, and once again seemed quite oblivious to the reason why anyone might even want to know such basic information. Still, it became immediately apparent that this entire complex was some sort of calculator, possibly of lunar events (including eclipse cycles, a la Stonehenge, which was a contemporaneous site, by the way).
If there is one basic truth when looking at ancient structures, especially those of massive stone construction, it must certainly be that anything that is circular is most certainly also celestial, in its original concept and function. No ancient peoples invested the massive outlay in labor to move large stones, often over great distances or rough terrain, for the sheer enjoyment of it. Unfortunately, time constraints at the site prevented me from spending more time with other interesting areas of the site after attempting to mentally better reconstruct the large stone circle. It was, however, situated to command both ridgelines directly east and west of the site. A last, quick climb to the highest point of the citadel did reveal that neither horizon was too high to obscure clear observations of sunrises/sets at any point of the year; and also that the entrance to the Treasury structure was clearly visible from this highest point.
Finally, it must be noted that perhaps the single most iconic symbol associated with the Mycenean peoples is the famous double spiral, connected by a single line, which connects the two spirals into one visual image. The two spirals as generally represented each has five concentric, expanding circles, which almost certainly represent the solar orbits of the five planets. Saturn, as the outermost, flows down to become the outer ring of the second spiral of planets—thus representing the repetitive and calculable nature of celestial time. To see this as anything other than what it appears to be is to deny ancient peoples the ability to record heavenly events in both a useful and meaningful way within their own view of those events playing out in the larger universe above them.
MINOTAURS AND MOONBEAMS
The second site I visited on my recent trip that produced equally unexpected results and many unanswered questions was the famous Palace of Knossos on the island of Crete. The Minoan culture that built it is generally credited with being the seed culture of much of what later developed on the mainland of Greece and certainly for justifiably providing the background for much of classical mythology. Crete was the birthplace of Zeus, home of the infamous labyrinth and Minotaur, source of the hero Theseus greatest deeds, to name a few. The Minoan culture’s subsequent destruction with the eruption of Thera in the fifteenth century BC, likely gave rise to the myth of Atlantis, as well as dramatically changing events in the eastern Mediterranean, which allowed for the quicker rise of later Greek cultures on the mainland, beginning with the contemporary Mycenaens mentioned above.
The cornerstone of Minoan civilization, as we have come to call it after the “mythical” king Minos who once ruled there, was the famous Palace of Knossos allegedly built by this king. The structure’s complexity, size, and richness for its time, gave rise to the myth of the Labyrinth, and the great man/bull that dwelled within its intricate depths. The site was originally excavated and beautifully reconstructed by the archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans over one hundred years ago. Unfortunately, little real work, other than to continue the restorations following Evans’ basic interpretations, has been done in several years. For example, his designation of “sacred waste pits” for the circular stone pits due east of the site as well as the “royal road” processional into the so-called “theater” nearby leaves one almost aghast when contemplating other possible interpretations based upon what we have learned about other such types of structures at Stonehenge again, for example; or even at many major Maya sites with clear celestial implications. I was struck by the use of the term “theater” even for the area at the end of the processional )east/west clearly, especially considering there are no contemporaries for such a term being applied to any other such locales.
Too often, we continue to fall back on the terms “palace”, “citadel”, or “temple” for those structures excavated by well-intentioned archaeologists at the turn of the 19th to 20th Century for whom such designations may have been adequate at the time or for whom doing so meant more needed publicity for fund-raising needs. Of course, it was more important to find the Treasury of King Atreus, or the mask of Agamemmon, or even the jewels of King Priam of Troy to gain public attention. However, we have since become trapped in these narratives that time has made too convenient to be challenged. One of the most important of these at Knossos is the role of the bull and bull-worshipping among the Minoans. This one is easy to adjust to reality, since we have come to be fairly certain that bull-worship and sun-worship are one and the same activity among the ancient Mediterranean peoples. The Minoans borrowed much of their cultural heritage, including an early writing system, from Asia Minor, especially the seafaring Phoenicians. The heavenly bull and associated symbols found at Knossos bear striking similarities to those precursors from the Levant region. These peoples were noted sky watchers as, indeed, all seafaring nations must be.
In addition to the many reconstructions of bull worship activities in the famous frescoes and other symbols at Knossos, one is immediately struck by the precision with which the complex site is laid out at such an early date. The main elevated plaza is on an almost perfect north/south axis. Research among the Maya shows that the initial construction of any site that would later bear multiple temples or other structures of celestial significance is virtually always a north oriented fixture of some sort. This is, of course, the easiest directional point to fix in the heavens at any time and place in the northern hemisphere. Once a direct line, in this case through the clear gateway at the southern end of the long “plaza” is established all other building measurements can be easily fixed, regardless of how large the site becomes. The so-called “royal road” and theater, which form a “T” almost at the north end of the site would have been added later to complete all the alignments at the larger site. We must always remember that when dealing with these ancient peoples, particularly those with ties to near Eastern origins, that the “king” was usually a “priest-king” in reality. That is, the head of state was also the head of the religion—and that religion was based upon the careful observation and interpretation of celestial events and the ability to successfully transfer those events into earthly metaphors the common people could latch onto and understand. Zeus often transformed himself into a bull, a figure of power the people could see and touch. The famous bull jumpers depicted in the frescoes of Knossos likely reflected ceremonies performed on important solar dates (such as solstices or equinoxes) at which processionals or sunrise or sunsets were observed, sacrifices of bulls were made, etc. Indeed, one quick glance at the western horizon easily observed from the so-called theater at the end of the royal road reveals a small temple structure conspicuously present at the top of that flat ridgeline directly aligned with the main temple/plaza complex.
It would be tempting to go on with more speculation about other possible structure’s significance at this important site and this author regrets having too little time to investigate some of these in more detail while there. However, what is obvious is that even a minimal effort to align many of these important ancient sites with clearly observable celestial movements, while at the same time correlating them with the not so hidden mythical metaphors within which they are imbedded, will repay any serious investigator with at least enough information to reformulate important questions about the original purposes for which these major structure were constructed and used. There is one last site visited on my recent trip for which, I believe, such serious investigation would also prove rewarding to the student of ancient sky watching and the surprisingly competent peoples who engaged in it.
THE FIRST OLYMPIAD
The site of Olympia is as important and famous an ancient site as world culture possesses. Any list of essential world heritage sites must place it somewhere near the top. Upon first visiting this site one is immediately struck by both the complexity of the many structures, temples, etc. associated with the larger site that are rarely discussed and with the fact that there appear to be many important ruins underlying the later, more famous ones. In other words, this was not a site chosen at random or because it was somehow neutral to the constantly changing political alliances of the many Greek city states that made it important in its own time. The main “stadia”, which was the running track for the single most important event, is also an east/west processional of approximately 200 meters length with a clear view of the sunrise horizon. We have no true knowledge of the ceremonies that were originally performed there, only the dates for the first “games”, which apparently came much later (all ancient games, however, do have some celebratory religious significance beyond whatever human interactions were being played out). Later temples to gods or individual city/state treasuries, such as those encountered at the equally significant site of Delphi, which were added at these more ancient locations may have lost some of their significance for being situated in the place and manner they were even in their own times.
However, it was the ancient myths and the memories embedded in them which brought or added to the continuity of the later peoples with their forbears. These stories added context and reality to the original “Science”, which these early priest/kings in all cultures saw fit to create in order to unify their power or their people. They used their competence in sky watching and counting to maintain any given people’s ability to survive and thrive in the ever-changing and often confusing realities within which they were forced to exist and move forward. The more successful cultures, such as the early Greeks, were able to maintain this continuity with their confusing past by relying upon the variety of myths and their ability to maintain or embellish their ancient collective memories as reflected in their wonderful and colorful cornucopia of mythological characters. That virtually all of these myths were cosmological in origin was certainly not lost upon later Greek thinkers such as Plato.
However, for the common citizen, the ceremonies, temple structures, well-chosen sites, etc. left to them by their forefathers undoubtedly became less important as “teaching” or recording tools. They eventually became seen more as merely stories of heroes and gods within which they could see themselves as victims or co-equal participants in those larger events which had always been beyond their control or understanding. The lesson to be learned here for all of us is that no matter what “mythology” or “science” our own culture chooses to follow, we must not become so wrapped up in and iconoclastic about the perceived “truth” others have created for their own purposes out of either that we become, like the ancient Greeks, victims of a metaphorical reality—which is not the actual one we are faced with at a particular moment in time.
Truly, there are universal lessons to be learned from the ancient myths and legends handed down to us. And, truly, there is wisdom based on observational “science” embedded in these stories. Still, we must remember they are the product of an incomplete world view, one that we have or should be moving beyond, and that they should be looked at now through the lens of better knowledge and the tools we can apply to a more proper study of just what they might mean, both then and now. To do so might surely reward us with a more complete and possibly more respectful and unifying view of our own past and the different peoples—who were not as different as we might still wish to think—who gave rise to the one great culture we should all desire to lay some partial claim to as our own in today’s world.
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