El Castillo: Wonders and Questions

El Castillo Cave

El Castillo Cave in northern Spain is famous for containing the oldest cave art in Europe: a red disk that was painted on the cave wall at least 40,800 years ago, perhaps as long as 42,000 years ago.  These dates caused a major uproar because it’s just about the time modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) are thought to have arrived in Western Europe.  Before then, Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) occupied the area.  So debate rages about whether the red dot was the work of our Neanderthal cousins, modern humans, or perhaps a hybrid of the two.  The latter is certainly a possibility; we now know the two races/species interbred. Or perhaps the meeting of the two lines of hominins released a flood of new creativity on both sides.

You can find a good introductory video, “Paleolithic Cave Arts in Northern Spain,” on YouTube.  It also shows how close the quarters are inside some sections of the cave.

The cave also contains many very old hand stencils, the oldest of which are at least 37,000 years old.  Just for reference, the oldest paintings in Chauvet Cave in France are 32,000 years old, and the famous Lascaux Cave paintings are about 20,000 years old.

El Castillo gallery of disks

People are drawn to contests determining the first and the oldest, so most of the attention given to El Castillo has been directed at the very old dots and hand stencils.  Two of those tested are marked on the photo.

But El Castillo’s value is more than just its antiquity.

hand el-castillo-handprints

The 13,000 year span

Experts once considered the drawings made on the walls of El Castillo the product of a single time period – about 17,000 years ago.  This somewhat arbitrary date was assigned because they thought France had the oldest cave art, so any cave in Spain had to be younger than Lascaux Cave in France.  When scientists were able to date the art by dating the calcite deposits that had formed over the top of it, they were amazed at its age.   And its range.

The oldest, the red disks, are over 40,000 years old.  Some may be 42,000 years old.  But some disks are far younger, at 20,000 years old.

The disk and hand print that were analyzed by Pettitt, Pyke, and Zilhao are marked with numbers on the sketch below.

Some of the hand stencils, mostly near the front and middle sections of the cave, were apparently painted more than 37,000 years ago, but some of the more recent hand stencils are 24,000 years old.

The animal figures painted over the hand stencils are generally more recent than the stencils, in some cases by thousands of years.

So the artwork in the cave was created over thirteen thousand years. Thus, it’s impossible for us to make a single assumption or interpretation about all the paintings in the cave.  The space, though probably considered very powerful and important, may have served very different purposes over those years.  What’s interesting is the ancient artists’ decision to continue to mark the cave, often using the same imagery, and in some cases to mark right over the top of earlier signs.

 

The Panel of the Hands

One of the most intriguing sections of the cave is the Panel of Hands, located far back in one leg of the cave.

Print

el_castillo_sketched

The stenciled hands included in it were created by placing a hand over the rock and blowing a mixture of red ocher and water over it.  The slurry was held either in the artist’s mouth and blown out directly over the hand, or in a clam shell. (Several shells, mixing stones, and hollow bird bones were found on site.)  When researchers attempted to recreate the process of creating a hand stencil, they tried two methods: they blew out a mixture held in their mouth for some and for others they used two tubes, one inserted in the slurry and one held in the mouth.  The passage of air from the mouth tube over the slurry tube creates a vacuum that then allows the slurry to be sprayed over the hand.  Those of you old enough to remember artists’ fixative blowers before aerosols will be familiar with the process.  As the Dick Blick art supplies site explains, “Place the short tube in your mouth and the long tube in the bottle of fixative.  Blow gently and evenly, aiming at your drawing.  This atomizer can also be used to spray watercolors and thinned acrylics for special effects.”  (In the photo below, a modern artist uses an atomizer for special effects.)

When experimental archaeologists attempted to replicate the hand stencil technique with two hollow bird bones forming the atomizer, they found it El C atomizer in usedifficult to master. Archaeologist Paul Pettitt reported that using the two tubes to spray the slurry left them light-headed.  Many heard a persistent whirring or whistling noise in their ears.  It’s not hard to see how this would have added to the impression of entering a different world.

 

Who left those hand prints?

el castillo hand

Another interesting discovery colors our view of this panel.  Older interpretation was that the hand prints were those of men seeking success in the hunt, but research now shows that three-quarters of the hand prints and stencils in the caves of France and Spain were made by women.  Dean Snow, who analyzed hundreds of hand stencils in eight caves in France and Spain, showed that the hand prints carry a distinct signature.  Women tend to have ring and index fingers of the same length.  Men’s ring fingers tend to be longer than their index fingers. Snow’s data showed that 24 of the 32 hands in El Castillo were female. Their reasons for making the prints remain a mystery.

The semi-circle of dots

Another curious feature of this panel is the semi-circle of dots on the far right.  Several scholars have interpreted this as a representation of the Northern Crown constellation (Corona Borealis).  It’s a fascinating theory.  (I admit this whole section is sheer speculation but fun!)CoronaBorealis

El Castillo seven dots, drawing after Anati, 1991
In northern Spain, the Northern Crown constellation is visible in the night sky from spring to fall.  Since El Castillo seems to have been occupied only during those seasons, it would make sense to include it as a sort of seasonal marker.  If that’s true, it shows an impressive level of sophistication in our relatives so long ago.

el_castillo_sketched

 

If you want to push that theory, you could point to the position of the Northern Crown on the far right and see the vertical line of hands as the standing Milky Way, as the sky would have appeared in the spring. The line of hands across the middle would cross the center of the sky in early May.
The dark curved bands would appear at the base of the Milky Way, just about where Cassiopeia would be.

Addendum, January 2016

There’s something about the El Castillo Frieze of Hands that I can’t let go.  I thought initially that the Northern Crown constellation was notable enough to include in the post, though of course it is speculation.  However, I now think that the entire panel, perhaps excluding the bison drawings, relates directly to the summertime night sky.

The section marked with the heavy red lines that resemble a boat looks like the summer position of the constellation Cassiopeia. It appears, about 9:00 PM, as an uneven “W” in the summer and an uneven “M” in winter, while it appears to stand on one leg during spring and fall.

Above it rises the Milky Way, with the three stars of the Summer Triangle marked near the top, the most conspicuous asterism in the summer sky, made up of the brightest stars from the constellations Aquila, Lyra, and Cygnus.

star chart 1

With Cassiopeia in the position marked, this would be a mid-summer star scene, typical of about 9:00 PM in July.

In the drawing shown earlier, the somewhat enigmatic figure in the center of the panel could refer to a number of constellations or combinations of them.  If it is Perseus to the Pleiades, that angle would be typical of a later summer sky, late August or September.

Finally, the only times the Northern Crown would look the way it’s painted on the far right of the panel (arms pointing up) would be in spring or fall (March and October).  The constellation appears in the spring and disappears from the night sky in the fall.

The three constellations would then reference three different times during the summer.

It’s fascinating to consider the possibility that our ancestors so long ago not only understood the patterns in the stars and their relationship to the seasons but could reproduce them deep inside a cave.

Forgive me if I’ve stepped into the land of speculation.  This one wouldn’t stay quiet.

Addendum to the Addendum, June, 2017

After visiting El Castillo and looking at the panel in question, I have to admit I was wrong.  It’s not a clear semi-circle of stars but more like a full circle.  I suppose that’s the danger of working from a diagram rather than the real thing.

None of this detracts from the cave itself, which is incredibly powerful and impressive.

The Bison

Interestingly, at least eight yellow bison figures were painted over the top of the stenciled hands in the Frieze of Hands.  More appear in other sections of the cave, often painted in black.  The bison images are remarkably similar – showing the same rump and single hind leg, large hump and (often partial) head with two horns, as if they all followed the same template.  They appear at the top of the vertical line of hand stencils in the photo on the left, and over the left and central portions of the horizontal line of hands.  In the image below, lines of yellow ocher descend from the bison’s mouth, as if it’s bleeding.

El Castillo bison2

While experts once thought the hand stencils on this panel were a way for hunters to spiritually connect to the bison, perhaps to ensure success in the hunt, current research shows the people who used the cave didn’t eat bison.  Mostly they depended on deer for meat.  As the famed anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss pointed out, “Animals were chosen [for representation] not because they were ‘good to eat’ but because they were ‘good to think.’”

Besides, the bison were painted later than the hands – in some cases, much later.  The hands aren’t touching the bison.  The bison are crowding out the hands, or superseding them.

Bison also appear prominently in both Chauvet (France) and Altamira (Spain), as well as Las Monedas, Buxu, and El Pendo.  Rather than a form of hunting magic, the bison image, which seems very similar from one site to another, might have represented a spirit power, in particular a male power in a female cave.  The figure on the left is from El Castillo.  The one on the right is from Buxu Cave (Spain).

El C. buxubison

The Bison Man

This bison spirit idea is supported in El Castillo by the “Bison Man” figure.  Deep in the recesses of the cave is a carved stalactite figure known as the Bison Man.  It seems to show the figure of a bison standing upright or climbing a cliff.  There’s a nice YouTube video of the Bison Man at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FdbMAZgC7VA showing not only the carving of the bison but also the shadow effect when a light is shined on the whole formation, transforming it into a bison-human moving through the cave.  The photo (left) does not show the figure very well.  Start with the hind leg, toward the bottom of the photo.  Then follow the standing figure, which looks as more like a wolf hybrid than a bison to me.  The body uses the natural form of the rock and emphasizes it  with black drawing.

El C. Bison Man 2

The Bison Man figure is reminiscent of the Sorcerer figure in the back of Chauvet Cave (France), which combines both male and female characteristics, and the Sorcerer figure in Trois Freres Cave (France) which combines features of reindeer, bison, bear, horse, and human male.  It would be interesting to find out the date for Bison Man and compare that to the dates of the bison drawings.  If indeed the bison is the mark of a particular cult or group, it would seem logical for those people to put their symbol over the top of earlier ones, just as the horse and mammoth figures were superimposed on earlier animal forms in Chauvet.  Or the way Roman Catholic Spaniards in Peru built their churches on top of Inca stonework.

The Techtiforms

There’s much to learn from the drawings made so long ago in El Castillo cave, including the meaning of the bizarre abstract figures, called techtiforms, that appear at the base of the vertical line of hands and other places in the cave, each time accented very definitely. (Photo, right.)El Castillo boats

These forms are usually explained away as drawings of boats, maps, buildings, corrals, or simply the product of hallucinations or shamanic trance.  But they obviously had a very specific meaning and great importance.  That’s why they were repeated and emphasized.  Perhaps findings in other caves in the area will help us understand.  The drawing from Buxu Cave shown in the photo  (below left) seems to suggest an animal form, maybe a horse, but it’s hard to tell. I suspect that as we make more discoveries, we’ll get a better idea of what these diagrams mean.

El C. Buxu ideograph horse

Studying these very old drawings reminds us that our ancestors were far more sophisticated than we guessed.

If it turns out that at least some of the El Castillo artists were Neanderthals, the evidence of their art should help revise the negative image of them we’ve held for so long.

 

 

 

 

Sources and Interesting Reading:

“Alphecca, jewel in Northern Crown,” Wikipedia, http://earthsky.org/brightest-stars/alphecca-norathern-crowns-brightest-star/

Borenstein, Seth. “Spanish cave paintings shown as oldest in the world,” USA Today, 14 June 2012, http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/tech/scienc/story/2012-06-14/cave-paintings-spain/55602532/1\

“Buxu Cave,” Don’s Maps, http://donsmaps.com/buxu.html

“Claude Levi-Strauss,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claude_1_%C3%A0vi-Strauss/

“Corona Borealis,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corona_Borealis/

“El Castillo Cave,” Don’s Maps (an excellent source), http://www.donsmaps.com/castillo.html

“First Painters May Have Been Neanderthal, Not Human,” Wired, 14 June 2012, http://www.wired.com/2012/06/neanderthal-cave-paintings/

“Fixative atomizer,” Dick Blick Art Supplies catalog

Garcia-Diez, Marcos.  “Ancient paintings of hands,” BBC Travel photos of El Castillo

Garcia-Diez, Marcos, Daniel Garrido, Dirk L. Hoffmann, Paul B. Pettitt, Alistar W. G. Pike, and Joao Zilhao, “The chronology of hand stencils in European Palaeolithic rock art: implication of new U-series results from El Castillo Cave (Cantabria, Spain), Journal of Anthropological Sciences, Vol 93 (2015) 135-152.

Hughes, Virginia.  “Were the First Artists Mostly Women?”  National Geographic News, 09 October 2013, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/10/131008-women-handprints-oldest-neolithic-cave-art/

“A journey deep inside Spain’s temple of cave art,” BBC Travel, www.bbc.com/trael/story/20141027-a-journey-deep-inside-spains-temple-of-cave-art

“New Research uncovers Europe’s Oldest Cave Paintings,” The New Observer, 24 September 2013

“The Night Sky,” the original 2-sided planisphere (star guide), copyright 1992, David Chandler

“Paleolithic Cave Arts in Northern Spain: El Castillo Cave, Cantabria,” a video available on YouTube, with English subtitles, https://www.youtube.com

Rappenglueck, Michael. “Ice Age People find their ways by the stars: A rock picture in the Cueva de el Castillo (Spain) may represent the circumpolar constellation of the Northern Crown,”  Artepreistorica.com, http://www.artepreistorica.com/2000/12/ice-age-people-find=their-way-by-the-stars

Rimell, Bruce. “El Castillo – Formative Image from the Upper Palaeolithic,” Archaic Visions, http://www.visionaryartexhibition.com/archaic-visions/el-castillo-formative-images-from-the-upper-palaeolithic/

Sanders, Nancy K.  Prehistoric Art in Europe. Yale University Press, 1995.

Subbaraman, Nidhi. “Prehistoric cave prints show most early artists were women,” NBC News 15 October 2013, http://www.nbcnews.com/science/prehistoric-cave-prints-show-most-early-artists-were-women-8C11391268

Zim, Herbert, and Robert H. Baker.  Stars: A guide to the constellations, sun, moon, planets, and other features of the heavens.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956.  Still a cute book.

 

Solstice and Equinox

Up here in the Great Lakes region, spring arrives, at least according to the calendar, on March 20 this year.  More specifically, the vernal equinox arrives (autumnal to those of you in the Southern Hemisphere).  Few people today care about this celestial event, but ancient people cared very deeply, so deeply they traced the exact moment it happened by marking it in stone.

You can follow it too.  All you need to do is look at the rising run each day from a fixed point.  Note where the sun rises.  If there is a building in the way, note where the sun rises in relation to the building.  If it’s a hill or a tree, note that position.  As the days go by, you’ll see the spot where the sun rises change.  If you keep track, you’ll see the rising sun location follows a certain path along the eastern horizon.   Then one day you’ll see the rising sun stop its forward motion.  That moment when the sun seems to stop and change direction is a solstice (sol = sun, stice = stop), a sun-stop.

If you keep following the sunrises, you’ll see a progression back along the same path on the horizon until it once again seems to stop.  That’s the other solstice.

sunrise-by-season

If you followed the sunsets each of these days, you’d find an equal swing from north to south and back again.  Burlington, Vermont erected an “Earth Clock,” a modern answer to the ancient circles of stones.  They’ve even provided blueprints for other communities that would like to build their own “henge.”  The University of Massachusetts created a “Sunwheel” that marks the solstices, equinoxes, and moon cycles (diagram).

University of Massachusetts sunwheel diagram

While the far points mark the solstices, the mid-points in these swings are the equinoxes (equi =same, nox = night), where the length of the day and night are the same.  In the northern hemisphere, we  will have the spring equinox around March 21, the summer solstice around June 21, the fall equinox around September 22, and the winter solstice around December 21.

Many ancient structurMound 72 woodhenge at Cahokiaes celebrate exactly this cycle.  Stonehenge and many other circles of standing stones or wooden posts, like the woodhenge at Cahokia Mounds in the photo, are aligned to mark the solstice points.

 

The Maya E-group, a common architectural feature in Lowland Maya sites, is believed to mark both the solstice points and the equinoxes  (See diagram).

solstice Sharer-E-Group

Unlike modern people, who see the celestial events as mechanical, predictable, and fairly unimportant, ancient people saw them as terribly important parts of their lives.  The changes in the heavens caused the changes on earth: the end of winter, the coming of spring, the rebirth of nature.  But without human help, the motion of the heavens could cease or change, causing ruin and death for all the beings on earth.   Important changes, such as the solstices and equinoxes, required recognition and participation, often in the form of rituals and sacrifice.

While we don’t usually sacrifice humans or animals to ensure the change of the season anymore, we often engage in ritual behavior associated with important holidays that fall on or near the solstices and equinox.

Vernal Equinox – in North America, March 20, 2014

During the vernal equinox, the sun shines directly on the Equator, and the day and night are equal length (12 hours each). It falls on the mid-point of the swing between the equinoxes.

The Vernal Equinox marks the beginning of the New Year in many cultures.  Traditionally, spring is associated with rebirth and fertility, often symbolized by the egg and the rabbit.  Modern versions include the Easter Bunny, which (curiously) lays eggs and leaves candy for children.

The Maya pyramid called El Castillo at Chichen Itza (photo) is famous for the Snake of Sunlight that courses along the stairway on the Vernal Equinox.  Excellent videos of the event are available on YouTube. Scholars have debated why it was so important for the Maya and other ancient people to mark this moment – to celebrate it in their monuments. 
 Some say the people needed to know when to plant and harvest, but they would have known that from many signs, just as you would know the change of season froElCastillo, Chichen Itzam your immediate environment.  Around here, you could see skunk cabbage pushing up through the last snow, red-wing blackbirds returning, hear wood frogs singing.  Your dirt road would turn into a mass of ice and mud.  Your dog would shed.  You wouldn’t need a stone monument to tell you spring was happening.   But if you believed that you needed to help spring arrive, a large, impressive monument would be very important as a focal point for the ritual of bringing in the change.

Easter, the Christian feast celebrating the triumph of Jesus Christ over death, falls on a date determined by the Vernal Equinox, specifically the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox.

The Summer Solstice in North America, June 21, 2014

The June Solstice is one of the two sun-stops in the path of the sunrises (and sunsets).  In the Northern Hemisphere, it marks the longest day of the year; in the Southern Hemisphere, the shortest.  Festivals in Scandinavia celebrate the day of endless light, the Midnight Sun.  Ancient Germanic, Celtic, and Slavic people celebrated with wild parties and bonfires. In ancient China, it was the festival of the Earth and female/yin forces.  For the ancient Greeks, it marked the first day of the year.

Medicine Wheel, Wyoming

The Medicine Wheel (photo), set high on a mountain in Wyoming, is designed to mark the Summer Solstice.  Built around 1200, it is still considered a sacred site by American Indians in the area.  The photo shows the sunset on the longest day of the year.  Many researchers feel this was one of several installations in the area, each of which marked one particular moment in the turning of the year.

 

Stonehenge, the great circle of standing stones in England, has become a popular gathering place for people celebrating the Summer Solstice, though the site may have had many purposes, including honoring the dead during the Winter Solstice.  Over sixty cremated remains were discovered inside the inner circle.  The giant stone trilithon frames the Midwinter solstice sunset.

However, the revelers are not wrong in choosing this spot to mark the June solstice.  Archaeologist Parker Pearson, who has been working at the site, pointed out the avenue, discovered in 2008, that leads out of Stonehenge, built over a natural rock ledge.  Next to this ledge, pits were dug 10,000 years ago to hold a line of posts.  This feature, at least 4,000 years older than the familiar circle of giant stones, points directly to the spot where the sun rises on the midsummer solstice.Stonehenge

Celebrations at Stonehenge may also have been musical affairs.  The bluestone used to construct the famous henge makes loud and varied sounds, like gongs, bells, and drums, when struck, an early rock concert, if you will.  Some researchers believe these sonic qualities were one of the reasons ancient people dragged the giant stones 200 miles from Wales to Stonehenge. Researchers say the sounds could have been heard half a mile away.

Autumnal Equinox in North America, September 22, 2014

The September Equinox falls at the same midpoint as the April Equinox – the halfway point in the sun’s path across the horizon at the moment it rises.  Like the Vernal (spring) Equinox, the day and night are the same length.sun dagger stone, Chaco

The famous Sun Dagger on Fajada Butte in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, built at least 1000 years ago, provided a different way to mark the solstices and equinoxes.  In 1977, an artist recording rock art in the area noticed three rock slabs leaning against a cliff.  Whether they were placed exactly there or someone noticed them there is not known.  But researchers soon realized that the spirals carved on the cliff face were very carefully placed to take advantage of the shafts of light falling between the stones.  At the summer solstice, sunlight passing between the rock slabs would fall directly across the center of the larger spiral.  During the Equinoxes, the dagger would fall between the center of the spiral and the edge.  At the Winter Solstice, two daggers would appear, one on each edge of the large spiral.  Unfortunately, visitors to the site caused some damage and the site is now closed to the public.

Harvest festivals are common around the Equinox.

The Winter Solstice, December 21, 2014

By far the most dangerous of the events in the sun cycle was the shortest day of the year, a time when darkness far outweighed light.  Ancient people feared the light would not return.  To ensure it did, they kept careful vigil, especially on the night of the winter solstice and the following day.  The passage tomb at Newgrange, Ireland, built more than 5,000 years ago, features a special roofbox opening that allows light to shine along the inner passage at sunrise on morning of the Winter Solstice.  The light illuminates a stone basin below intricate carved spirals, eye shapes, and disks. The photo shows how the site looked in 1905.  It’s now a very popular tourist site.

Newgrange, 1905 photo

Maeshowe, on the Orkney Islands in the north of Scotland, has a roofbox that admits a shaft of light from the Winter Solstice setting sun.

The Great Zimbabwe complex in sub-Saharan Africa may have served a similar purpose.  Other sites in the Americas, Asia, Indonesia, and the Middle East may have also marked this important day.  In Iran, people observed Yalda by keeping vigil through the night and burning fires to help the sun battle the darkness.

We still want to light up the darkness, even if we’ve forgotten about the solstice.  We still celebrate the passing of the sun on its yearly course, but those celebrations are now submerged into our holidays: Easter, Christmas, Halloween, even Groundhog Day.  Because Groundhog Day falls halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox, we’ll always have six more weeks of winter, but the groundhog gives us a reason to party.

Happy Vernal Equinox!

Sources and interesting reading:

“Chart of 2014 equinox, solstice and cross quarter dates and times,” archaeoastronomy.com, http://www.archaeoastronomy.com/2014.html

“Chichen Itza Pyramid, the descent of the feathered serpent” (video) YouTube

“Customs and Holidays around the March Equinox” timeanddate.com, tyyp://wwwtimeanddate.com/calendar/march-equinox-traditions.html

“EarthClock measures hours, months, solstices and equinoxes,” Freethought Nation, July 29, 2011, http://freethoughtnation.com/earth-clock-measures-hours…

“Fajada Butte,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fajada_Butte

Griffiths, Sarah, and Amanda Williams, “Stonehenge was a prehistoric centre for rock music: Stones sound like bells, drums, and gongs when played,” Mail Online, Daily Mail (UK), http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2515159/Why-Stonehenge-prehistoric-cent…

Hirst, K.Kris. “E-Group: Ancient Maya Building Complex,” About.com Archaeology, http://archaeology.about.com/od/mayaarchaeology/qt/E-Group.htm

“Huge Settlement Unearthed at Stonehenge Complex,” Science Daily, http://sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/01/070130191755.htm

“June Solstice’s Influence Across Cultures and Ages,” timeanddate.com, http://www.timeanddate/com/calendar/june-solstice-customs.html

“March Equinox: March 20, 2014,” timeanddate.com, http://www.timeanddate.comcalendar/march-equinox.html   

A reader suggested http://www.thetimenow.com/ as a better source.

“Newgrange,” Wikipedia http://ed.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newgrange

Odenwalk, Dr. Sten, “Ancient Astronomical Alignments,” Sun-Earth Day 2010: Ancient Mysteries, Future Discoveries, NASA, Godard Space Flight Center, http://sunearthday.nasa.gov/2011/articles

“Rock Art and Ancient Solar Energy,” Stanford Solar Center, http://solar-center.stanford.edu/folklore/rockart.html

“September Equinox Customs and Holidays,” timeanddate.com, http://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/september-equinox-customs.html\

“Stonehenge Revealed: Why Stones Were a ‘Special Place’” National Geographic Daily News, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/13/130621

“Summer Solstice Traditions, History.com, June 18, 2013, http://www.history.com/news/history-lists/summer-solstice-traditions

“Winter Solstice – December 21,” http:www.crystalinks.com/wintersolstice.html

Young, Dr. Judith S., Department of Astronomy, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, “Moon teachings for the masses at the UMass Sunwheel and around the world: the major lunar standstills of 2006 and 2014-25,” http://www.umass.edu/sunwheel/pages/moonteaching.html

The Serpent and The Celestial Bird Become The Dragon

The dragon, the winged serpent, is the most widespread mythological beast in the world. Dragons appear in Old World myths from Europe, India, the Middle East, Asia, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific, as well in the New World in the form of the feathered serpent from Indian tribes in North America and Olmec, Maya, and Aztec cultures from Mesoamerica. Dragons have been represented on the gates of Babylon, Chinese vases, pictographs above the Mississippi River, and bones carved by Inuit artists in the Arctic.

The oldest versions were snakes, but after the Middle Ages, dragons were often pictured with legs, either stubby reptilian legs or sturdy avian or feline legs, usually two or four. Most have one head, though some have two or even three. Most are associated with bodies of water and rainfall.

Where did this image of the flying snake come from? In The First Fossil Hunters, Adrienne Mayor suggests that fossils of dinosaurs such as Archaeopteryx or skeletons of whales spawned the legend. Others suggest crocodiles, giant goannas (in Australia), or the Komodo lizard (in Japan). Anthropologist David E. Jones suggests that dragons were the sum of ancient people’s fears: snakes, birds of prey, and big cats.
All of those arguments may have some merit, but none explain the universality of the image. I think the people saw the winged serpent in the stars, specifically, in the combination of Ursa Major and Draco.

The Big Dipper

One of the most familiar asterisms in the night sky is the Big Dipper, part of the constellation Ursa Major. It’s easy to find because the stars are so bright.

The constellation Ursa Major

The constellation Ursa Major

For many, the seven bright stars look like the outline of a giant ladle or dipper, but other people see the seven bright stars of the Big Dipper as a plough, a wagon drawn by oxen or a carriage drawn by horses, a camel, a skunk, a fisher cat, a salmon net, a butcher’s cleaver, a coffin with three mourners following behind, a saucepan, or a basket. In some places, the seven stars represented people, such as the Seven Sages or Seven Brothers.

Many northern peoples saw the Big Dipper as a giant bear, a mother bear being followed by three cubs, or a bear being chased by three hunters. The bear image itself is subject to debate. Some see the Big Dipper as fitting in the bear’s back while others make the handle of the Dipper into a very long tail, which is strange since bears have such stumpy little tails, though the problem is often explained away with a story.
Let’s look at it a different way: take the Big Dipper as the body and wing of a great bird instead. Add the other wing from the bright stars already included as part of the Great Bear constellation that you can see in the illustration. Then you’ll have the body and both wings of the bird. The tail comes out at the bottom of the bird’s body, and the head comes from stars not included in the constellation grouping.

Ursa Major as part of the Great Bear

Ursa Major as part of the Great Bear

Always Circling the Center

The Big Dipper is a circumpolar asterism, meaning it rotates around the unmoving center of the night sky, which we now call Polaris, or the Pole Star, in the course of the night. It also marks the seasons, in that it rises in different positions at twilight during winter, spring, summer, and fall. It would be easy for ancient people to tell what time it was at night by the position of the Dipper, and to know the seasons from the Dipper’s position at dusk.
When you consider all the seasonal positions of the Big Dipper and Little Dipper, you get a whirling pattern like the one in the diagram.

Big Dipper and North Star

Dipper around pole

Draco the Dragon

The other half of the dragon is Draco, the constellation that snakes around between the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper. While Polaris is currently the closest star to true North in the night sky, 5,000 years ago it was Thuban, one of the stars in Draco. Farther back yet, it was the dark space between the stars referred to as the Cave of Creation.

Constellation Draco, with Thuban marked

Constellation Draco, with Thuban marked

Constellation Draco with major stars marked

Constellation Draco with major stars marked

In North America, many images of the whirling logs or swastika design appear to incorporate the movements of the Dipper. Some include both the winged figure and the serpent.

American Indian artifact at least 800 years old, showing the movement of the Big Dipper

American Indian artifact at least 800 years old, showing the movement of the Big Dipper

Whirling winged serpents

Whirling winged serpents

This piece shows the whirling pattern incorporating both horned rattlesnakes and winged figures with feline heads, combining forces of the earth and sky. As far back as 1901, Zelia Nuttall recognized the role of the Big Dipper in the whirling logs or swastika design so common in American Indian artifacts. The review of her article “The Fundamental Principles of New and Old World Civilizations” from the Archaeological and Ethnological Papers of the Peabody Museum of Harvard University, notes that Ms. Nuttall suggested that the swastika symbol was “believed to have originated in the revolution of the stars of Ursa Major about Polaris….” In fact, she suggests that the swastika itself is merely a representation of the Big Dipper at all four seasons.
If indeed, the Big Dipper is part of a great Celestial Bird, the Bird and the Serpent together wheel around the Portal of Heaven, the Cave of Creation. Their power as opposites is combined into the force that moves the heavens. They become the Winged Serpent, the Feathered Serpent, the place where earth and sky, male and female join to generate the force that moves the heavens.

My drawing of the Big Dipper as a bird and Draco as the serpent

My drawing of the Big Dipper as a bird and Draco as the serpent

This is the image I use for the Misfits and Heroes series of ancient adventure novels. It’s my own drawing based on the current positions of the stars in Ursa Major and Draco, designed to be a symbol of the dynamic opposites so important to the ancients, especially in Mesoamerica. It’s a dragon, or at least its parts, momentarily and somewhat artificially suspended in time and motion in its endless circle around the Portal of Creation.