Category Archives: EUROPE

Inhabitants of the Subterranean Passageways of Malta

Just after the Hypogeum in Malta was discovered by accident in 1902, it was kept secret so as not to disturb the building schedule on the site and therefore continued work caused irretrievable damage to a large megalithic circle that once stood directly above the subterranean part, giving access to its abyss (Magli 2009:56; Haughton 2009:162). It is hence believed that more such underground complexes may exist beneath other overground temples (Alberino, Quayle 2016). As a matter of fact, in the eighteenth century in Gozo, another hypogeum carved down in the rock was brought into light (Magli 2009:57).

Aquarelle painting of the Xagħra Stone Circle by Charles Frederick de Brocktorff (1825). This media is about Maltese cultural property with inventory number 26. Public domain. Image cropped. Photo and caption source: “Xagħra Stone Circle”(2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The complex was once depicted in a painting with the famous Ggantija temple in the background (Magli 200:57). The site is known as Xaghra and was excavated in 1990 by Anthony Bonnano and his group of archaeologists (Ibid.:57). One of their most famous findings is, also like in the case of Hypogeum Ħal Saflieni, a figurine. That one, however, represents two “fat ladies” sitting side by side, probably mirroring the way two nearby temples of the Ggantija complex are situated.

After Giulio Magli (2009:57) the placement of Xaghra in relation to Ggantija is analogous to that of the Hypogeum in relation to the nearby free-standing Tarxien temple. Indeed, the pairing cannot be coincidental as it also happens in other megalithic free standing temples of the archipelago (Ibid.:57).

Interesting but disturbing article in National Geographic …

I was still in the deep chasm of the earth’s belly, when I realized I found myself in one of the entrance to a huge underground labyrinth (see: Maltese History in the Negative). For it is well known that the Hypogeum constitutes just a part of an intricate maze of tunnels, caverns and chambers buried deep in the limestone bedrock beneath the islands (Alberino, Quayle 2016). During World War II, the island of Malta suffered the most terrible bombing attacks, and people used this underground world as a shelter, storage for ammunition and other vital supplies (Ibid.).

“National Geographic August 1940, Back Issue”. In: National Geographic Back Issues. Accessed on 12th of August, 2018.

Many legends and folk stories tell about eerie creatures who have inhibited the subterranean world, especially the Hypogeum complex (Alberino, Quayle 2016). In August, 1940, National Geographic Magazine featured an article entitled Wanderers Awheel in Malta by Richard Walter (Roma 2017). In his article from the wartime, the author describes the underground corridors in Malta used once as part of the island’s fortifications and defense system (Haughton 2009:165). Furthermore, Richard Walter detailed the underground world  that honeycomb the bedrock of the archipelago, and stated that the British government blew up ancient tunnels to shut them off permanently after the school children and their teachers became lost in the labyrinth of the Hypogeum and they had never returned (Funnell  2014; Haughton 2009:165). Additionally, it was also said that yet many weeks after the incident, the parents of these children had claimed to hear their children’s crying and voices coming from under the ground in various parts of the island (Haughton 2009:165168; Tajemnice historii 2016).

The article Wanderers Awheel in Malta by Richard Walter (1940) actually reports this misfortune twice, on the following pages, 267 and 272. (Roma 2017):

Many subterranean passageways, including ancient catacombs, now are a part of the island’s fortifications and defence system (page 258). Supplies are kept in many tunnels; others are bomb shelters. Beneath Valletta some of the underground areas serve as homes for the poor. Prehistoric man built temples and chambers in these vaults. In a pit beside one sacrificial altar lie thousands of human skeletons. Years ago one could walk underground from one end of Malta to the other. The Government closed the entrances to these tunnels after school children and their teachers became lost in the labyrinth while on a study tour and never returned (page 272).

Walter, Richard (1940) “Wanderers Awheel in Malta”, p. 267. The National Geographic Magazine, Aug 1940, pp. 253-272. The text source: Roma (2017) “Shades of Malta. Folklore on the Fringe”. In: Investigating Malta.

Tragedy in Malta’s Tunneled Maze

While we cycled homeward, our friends told us that the island was honeycombed with a network of underground passages, many of them catacombs. Years ago one could walk underground from one end of Malta to the other, but all entrances were closed by the Government because of a tragedy. On a sight-seeing trip, comparable to a nature-study tour in our own schools, a number of elementary school children and their teachers descended into the tunneled maze and did not return. For weeks mothers declared that they had heard wailing and screaming from underground. But numerous excavations and searching parties brought no trace of the lost souls. After three weeks they were finally given up for dead. Sections of this underground network have been used to protect military and naval supplies. Indeed, many of the fortifications themselves are merely caps atop a maze of tunnels (page 267) . Thus is Malta fortified. Her thrifty, religious, and intelligent people love peace. Yet, with war in Europe, they now are in the center of Mediterranean strife.

Walter, Richard (1940) “Wanderers Awheel in Malta”, p. 272. The National Geographic Magazine, Aug 1940, pp. 253-272. The text source: Roma (2017) “Shades of Malta. Folklore on the Fringe”. In: Investigating Malta.

The rat-catcher from Hamelin

Sceptics believe, however, that the story of the lost children is not based on facts, but actually echoes some legends appearing in various areas in Europe (Haughton 2009:168). One of them is a medieval folk tale of the Flutist from Hamelin (Germany), which was written down, among others, by the Brothers Grimm (Haughton 2009:168; “Flecista z Hameln” 2020). Then it was translated into thirty languages of the world, telling about the events that were to happen on June 26, 1284 in the German city of Hamelin (“Flecista z Hameln” 2020).

Flutist (Rat-Catcher) from Hamelin, a copy of the stained glass window from the Marktkirche church in Hamelin (according to Reisechronik Augustin von Moersperg from 1592) – watercolor. Public domain: Photo source: “Flecista z Hameln” (2020). Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

According to the legend, in 1284, the Lower Saxony city of Hamelin in Germany was hit by a plague of rats (“Flecista z Hameln” 2020). The rat-catcher hired by the inhabitants lured the rats out of the city with the help of music produced by a miraculous flute (Ibid.). As a consequence, the animals lured out by the magical instrument drowned in the Weser River (Ibid.). After the work was done, the rat-catcher was, however, refused the promised payment for getting rid of the rodents (Ibid.). Out of revenge, the deceived musician similarly led all the children from Hamelin into the unknown, in some versions, to the underground (Ibid.).

Among the rational explanations for the origin of the legend is the hypothesis related to the plague epidemic, a disease spread by rats (“Flecista z Hameln” 2020). Such an assumption has been made because a mass grave from the mid-fourteenth century was discovered near Hamelin, containing several hundred skeletons of children (Ibid.).

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay and the lost children in the Hypogeum

Many scholars also claim the story provided by the article is just a local folk tale, possibly invented to keep children away from the dangerous tunnels (Haughton 2009:168). It also brings to mind the mysterious disappearance of Australian schoolgirls described in the novel, Picnic at Hanging Rock (1967) by Joan Lindsay (Ibid.:168). As the story goes, it was a clear summer day in 1900, when a group of schoolgirls from Mrs. Appleyard’s elite girls’ school, along with a few teachers, went on a picnic near a place called the Hanging Rock (Lubimyczytać.pl 2021). After lunch, a few of the older students went for a walk around the neighborhood but only one girl returned, terrified and hysterical (Ibid.). One of the teachers was also missing … (Ibid.)

The novel begins with the author’s brief foreword, which reads (“Picnic at Hanging Rock (novel)” 2021):

Whether “Picnic at Hanging Rock” is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year nineteen hundred, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.

Joan Lindsay’s Foreword to the novel “Picnic at Hanging Rock” (2021). In: “Picnic at Hanging Rock (novel)” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.
At the Hanging Rock by William Ford (1875) was the basis of the novel’s title; in addition to her writing, Lindsay was also a professional painter and influenced by visual art (1875). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Picnic at Hanging Rock (novel)” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

This short excerpt by the author perfectly illustrates and characterizes the tone of the entire book; until the very end of the story it is not even clear what really happened to the missing girls and their teacher or if the story itself is based on facts at all (Sudnik 2018). Joan Lindsay does not say that the events described in her book are just a part of an invented story (Ibid.) On the contrary, the writer suggests that they could have actually happened (Ibid.). Consequently, there is still a persisting belief that it was a real event, as much as in the case of the children lost before World War II in the Maltese Hypogeum (Haughton 2009:168).

Is there anything more to the Maltese story?

Archaeologist Brian Haughton (2009:168) believes that in the National Geographic (1940) article you can actually find the source of many modern fascinating stories, mostly being published on the Internet. They are all about mysterious disappearing into secret tunnels below the Hypogeum (Ibid.168). After him, the problem is that the National Geographic (1940) article lacks any reference to the actual sources it has been based on, and more modern reliable descriptions of that alleged tragedy have never been discovered (Ibid.:168). Moreover, although the Hypogeum is mentioned in the article, it is not clearly described as an actual place where the children actually got lost (Ibid.:168). The author only describes the misfortune happened in the network of the underground tunnels on Malta, of which the Hypogeum is an integral part (Ibid.:168). Consequently, it cannot be certain that the said incident occurred just there (Ibid.:168).

The only thing that can be reliably assumed is that the story itself was in the public sphere (Roma 2017). It could have happened but it could also be just an urban myth. If the latter is the case, why did the British government shut off ancient tunnels permanently? (Roma 2017; Funnell 2014).

National Geographic August 1940, p. 272. Source: Peter (2018-2020).
National Geographic August 1940, p. 272. Photo source: Kelly Peter (2018-2020). In: “This Amazing Reality”. In: Pinterest. Cf. Walter, Richard (1940) “Tragedy in Malta’s Tunneled Maze“. In: “Wanderers Awheel in Malta”, p. 272. The National Geographic Magazine, Aug 1940, pp. 253-272.

Riley Crabb, akin Commander X and his continuation of the story

The article Wanderers Awheel in Malta by Richard Walter (1940) is the primary source for the lost children story (Roma 2017). Yet there is also another record from the sixties of the twentieth century, entitled The Reality of the Cavern World, written by Riley Crabb, akin Commander X, who was a former Director of the Borderland Sciences Research Foundation (Haughton 2009:169; Funnell 2014). It is actually a publication of his own lecture in the book Enigma Fantastique by Dr. W. Gordon Allen, published in 1966 (Haughton 2009:169). The Crabb’s reprinted article not only summarizes the story known from the National Geographic (1940) about the missing children but also mentions another important person of the story, Lois Jessup, and the fact there are tunnels beneath Malta that may reach as far as the catacombs beneath the hill of the Vatican (Funnell 2014; Haughton 2009:168-169). It also refers to the Lower Level of the Hypogeum as an actual place where the dramatic event took place (Ibid.). Accordingly, the so-called Lower Level is not the dead end of the underground temple (or a storage! as some scholars suggest) but in fact the entrance to the maze of the underground network.

Hypogeum of Xaghra on Gozo Island, Malta. This media is about Maltese cultural property with inventory number 26. Photo by Hamelin de Guettelet (2008). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Xagħra Stone Circle”(2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Tradition holds that before the British government sealed up several tunnels, one could walk from one end of Malta to the other underground. One of the labyrinths, discovered by excavators, is the Hypogeum of Hal Saflini, in which excavators discovered the bones of over 33,000 people who had been sacrificed by an ancient pagan neolithic cult. National Geographic, Aug. 1940 issue, told of several school children who had disappeared without a trace in the Hypogeum. British embassy worker Miss Lois Jessup convinced a guide to allow her to explore a 3-ft. square “burial chamber” next to the floor of the lowest room in the last [3rd] sub-level of the catacombs. He reluctantly agreed and she crawled through the passage until emerging on a cavern ledge overlooking a deep chasm. In total shock she saw a procession of TALL humanoids with white hair covering their bodies walking along another ledge about 50 feet down on the opposite wall of the chasm. Sensing her they collectively lifted their palms in her direction at which a strong “wind” began to blow through the cavern and something big, “slippery and wet” moved past her before she left in terror to the lower room, where the guide gave her a “knowing” look. Later she returned after the 30 school children and their teacher[s] had disappeared in the same passage that she had explored, only to find a new guide who denied any knowledge of the former guides’ employment there. She heard reports however that after the last child had passed through the “burial chamber” and out onto the ledge, a “cave-in” collapsed the burial chamber and the rope connecting them to the lower chamber was later found to be “cut clean”. Grieving Mothers of several of the children swore that for a week or more following the disappearance they could hear their children crying and screaming “as if from underground”. Other sources state that an underground connection exists or did exist between Malta and reaches hundreds of miles and intersects the catacombs below the hill Vaticanus in Rome. 

Riley Crabb, akin Commander X (1940). “The Reality of the Cavern World”. Reprinted in: Enigma Fantastique by Dr. W. Gordon Allen (1966). Text source: Lyn Funnell  (2014) “Malta’s Catacombs, Aliens & The Disappearing Children; True or Urban Myth?” In: B-C-ing-U.

One of numerous cavities on Malta; the Cave of Għar Dalam, Triq Għar Dalam in Birżebbuġa. Photo by Frank Vincentz (2013). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Għar Dalam” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

I was really grabbed by these two stories (Cf. Funnell 2014). Even more mysterious is Lois Jessup’s own experience she had on the Hypogeum’s Lower Level (Cf. Funnell 2014; Tajemnice Historii 2016). Yet on my way to the Hypogeum I asked a driver if he knew anything of the children who had got lost in there before the war. He replied that he had never heard about it but actually it was good I mentioned that as he would have never let his daughter go there …

Anyway, as far as I know one is not allowed to enter the Hypogeum with a child younger than six years old.

Deliberate disinformation or accidental lack of sources?

Mainly due to such publications from the 1960s, as the article by Riley Crabb, the story of the missing children and other mysteries of the Hypogeum were endlessly repeated on the Internet, yet during the first decade of the twenty-first century (Haughton 2009:168). According to these stories, which unfortunately lack actual sources one could follow and verify, thirty children disappeared along with their teachers during a school trip to Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum (Haughton 2009:168; Tajemnice Historii 2016). Before they came down deeper, they had been secured with a long rope that was attached at the entrance to the corridor (Haughton 2009:168; Tajemnice Historii 2016). Nevertheless, the same rope that was supposed to ensure their safe return was found cut clean (Haughton 2009:168; Tajemnice Historii 2016). Moreover, the entrance to the tunnel in which the children disappeared was said to have eventually been boarded up (Jessup 1958-1960).

There are also mentioned new archaeological elements that were not provided either by the author of the National Geographic (1940) article or by earlier archaeological reports from the conducted field works (see: Maltese History in the Negative); accordingly, instead of the 7,000 excavated skeletons, there is a note of the bodies of over 33,000 buried people who had been probably sacrificed to a chthonic deity from the Hypogeum (Haughton 2009:168).

Also the novel by Joan Lindsey (1969) was published at the time when the story about the lost children in Malta kept circulating in various publications. Was it then the author herself inspired by the mysterious tale of the Hypogeum and its innocent victims?

In search for the truth

Is the story about the lost children true then? Such a horrific happening must have been passed down through the generations (Funnell 2014). Many people have done research on the lost children to find out more but nobody’s heard anything about it (Ibid.). Lyn Funnell (2014) writes that if this accident happened it was a year or two before World War II broke out. “Malta was heavily bombed day after day. Houses were reduced to piles of rubble and there were hundreds of casualties. Many of the families who apparently lost their children would have been killed” (Ibid.).

It is well known that there is an intricate maze of tunnels, caverns and chambers buried deep in the limestone bedrock beneath the islands. Here are the steps leading to the underground beneath the Museum. Photo by Elżbieta Pierzga. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“There was a desperate shortage of food. Day-to-day survival was the main thing on the Maltese minds” (Funnell 2014). As Lyn Funnell (2014) underlines “the facts and the dates seem so clear. And the article’s written about the children as though it assumes that everyone knows what it’s on about!” “The National Geographic Magazine is a very reputable publication” (Ibid.). Mrs. Constance Lois Jessup, also spelled Jessop, is believed to have been a real person who lived in New York City, in the 1950s and 60s (Ibid.). She might actually have worked for the British government and not for the British embassy as it is suggested in some sources, as the latter had not been yet established in Malta before 1964. Her experience in the Hypogeum probably made her join the New York Saucer Investigation Bureau, known as the NYSIB, or she had been already a member of the Institution when she went down there… (Ibid.). Her friend, Riley Crabb, known as the Commander X, wrote the article cited above about her strange experience (Ibid.).

Lois Jessop’s tour and hairy giants in her way …

One article written by Miss Lois Jessop herself, entitled Malta, Entrance to the Cavern World also appeared in an old issue by Riley Crabb’s Borderland Science Magazine, published by the Borderland Sciences Research Foundation (B.S.R.F.) and was also later reprinted in full in the book Enigma Fantastique by Dr. W. Gordon Allen (Funnell 2014). Here is the story by Lois Jessop told in her own words:

I visited some friends on the Island of Malta in the Mediterranean in the mid-1930s. One afternoon six of us decided to hire a car and visit some of the many historical tourist attractions on the island. One of our party suggested that, since the weather was very hot, our best bet was to visit some of the caves and underground temples. At least there we could keep cool for a few hours.

Figurines found in the Hypogeum. Photo by Elżbieta Pierzga. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Some few miles out of Valetta, the capitol of Malta, is the little town of Paula. It has only one main street, Hal Saflini, and on this is the entrance to an underground temple known as the Hypogeum of Hal Saflini. We stopped here and sought out the guide for a tour of the cave or catacombs of the Hypogeum. There was a fairly large cave entrance with ancient mural decorations of whirls and wavy lines, diamond patches here and there, also oval patterns seemingly painted with red ochre. The entrance itself smelt damp and mouldy, but inside the cave there was not a trace of mustiness. Joe, the guide, told us there were three floors of underground rooms and gave each of us a lighted candle.

One by one we bent down low to walk through a narrow passage which led to a step or two, and again we were able to stand up in a fair sized room which had been built out of the Malta sandstone aeons ago in the Stone-Age. Joe told of a powerful oracle (or wishing well) deep down, and how it had worked wonders in the old days for the initiated who knew the correct sound to use. I think the oracle still works today unless it was damaged. Malta was heavily bombarded during World War II.

The oracle was supposed to work only if a male voice called to it but as the guide was saying this I slipped down a small step and gave a yell that was picked up by something and magnified throughout the whole cave.

We followed the guide through some more narrow passages which led down, down, down, then straightened our backs again when we came into another room. In this large opening was a circular stone table or altar in the center of the room. Cut out of the rock walls around were layers of stone beds or resting places of some kind, with hollows scooped out for head, body, and narrowing to the feet. I guess these were places for adults about four feet tall, with smaller scooped out beds. It looked like mother, father and child either slept or were buried here, although we saw no bodies here.

Down, down, down again, stooping and crawling through a narrow passage into another large room, with slits or narrow openings in the stone wall.

“They buried their dead in here,” said the guide.

I peered through a slit and saw skeletons another. Through another slit I peered into a cave where, the guide said, they kept their prisoners. A three foot thick stone door, about four feet high and four feet wide, guarded the entrance.

“What kind of people, and how strong were these pigmies, to be able to carve out these rooms to a definite pattern and to move doors this thick and heavy?” I thought.

“This is the end of the tour,” Joe, the guide, said. “We must now turn and retrace our steps.”

“What’s down there?” I asked him; for on turning I noticed another opening off one of the walls.

“Go there at your own risk,” he replied, “and you won’t go far.”

I was all for more exploring and talking it over with my friends, three of them decided to go with me and two waited with the guide. I was wearing a long sash around my dress and since I decided to lead the group I asked the next one behind me to hold on to it. Holding our half-burnt candles the four of us ducked into this passage, which was narrower and lower than the others.

You are not allowed to take pictures in the Hypogeum. Photo by Elżbieta Pierzga. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Groping and laughing our way along, I came out first, onto a ledge pathway about two feet wide, with a sheer drop about fifty feet or more on my right and a wall on my left. I took a step forward, close to the rock wall side. The person behind me, still holding on to my sash, had not yet emerged from the passage. Thinking it was quite a drop and perhaps I should go no further without the guide I held up my candle.

There across the cave, from an opening deep below me, emerged twenty persons of giant stature. In single file they walked along a narrow ledge. Their height I judged to be about twenty or twenty-five feet, since their heads came about half way up the opposite wall. They walked very slowly, taking long strides. Then they all stopped, turned and raised their heads in my direction. All simultaneously raised their arms and with their hands beckoned me. The movement was something like snatching or feeling for something, as the palms of their hands were face down. Terror rooted me to the spot.

“Go on, we’re all getting stuck in the passage!” My friend jerked at my sash. “What’s the matter?”

“Well, there’s nothing much to see,” I stammered, taking another step forward.

My candle was in my right hand. I put my left hand on the wall to steady me, and stopped again. My hand wasn’t on cold rock but on something soft and wet. As it moved a strong gust of wind came from nowhere and blew out my candle! Now I really was scared in the darkness!

“Go back,” I yelled to the others, “go back and guide me back by my sash. My candle has gone out and I cannot see!”

In utter panic I backed into the narrow little passageway and forced the others back, too, until we had backed into the large room where Joe and my friends were waiting. What a relief that was!

“Well, did you see anything?” asked one of them.

“No,” I quickly replied, “There was a draft in there that blew my candle out.”

“Let’s go,” said Joe, the guide.

I looked up at him. Our eyes met. I knew that at one time he had seen what I had seen. There was an expression of caution in his eyes, adding to my reluctance to tell anyone. I decided not to.

Out in the open again and in the hot Malta sunshine we thanked the guide, and as we tipped him he looked at me.

“If you really are interested in exploring further it would be wise to join a group. There is a schoolteacher who is going to take a party exploring soon,” he said.

I left my address with him and asked him to have the schoolteacher get in touch with me, but I never heard any more about it, until one of my friends called me to read an item from the Valetta paper.

“I say, Lois, remember that tunnel you wanted to explore? It says here in the paper that a schoolmaster and thirty students went exploring, and apparently got as far as we did. They were roped together and the end of the rope was tied to the opening of the cave. As the last student turned the corner where your candle blew out the rope was clean cut, and none of the party was found because the walls caved in.”

The shock of this information didn’t change my determination not to say anything about my experience in the Hypogaeum, but several months later my sister visited Malta and insisted on making a tour of the underground temple on Hal Saflini. Reluctantly, I went along, retracing the same route; but there was a different guide this time. When we got down to the lowest level, to the room where I had taken off to explore the tunnel entrance was boarded up!

“Wasn’t it here that the schoolmaster and the thirty students got trapped?” I asked the guide.

“Perhaps,” he replied, with a noncommittal shrug of the shoulders, and refused to say anything more. You cannot get a thing out of the Maltese when they don’t want to talk.

“You are new here, aren’t you?” I asked him. “Where’s Joe, the guide who was here a couple of months ago?”

“I don’t know any Joe.” He shook his head. “I alone have been showing people around this catacomb for years.”

Who was this guide? And why did Joe disappear after we left Hal Saflini that first time? And why is it impossible to get any facts on the disappearing schoolchildren story? In the Summer of 1960, Louise Becker, N.Y.S.I.B.’s treasurer visited Malta during her European trip. She searched old newspaper files and the Museum, trying to get some facts to substantiate my story, but in vain. The Maltese are tight-lipped about the secrets of their island.”

By C. Lois Jessop, Secretary, New York Saucer Information Bureau (1958-1960) “Malta, Entrance to the Cavern World”. Source of the text: Borderland Sciences Research Foundation. Journal of Borderland Research. Vol. 17. No. 02.

A clay figurine found in the Hypogeum of Xaghra, Gozo, representing two “fat ladies” sitting side by side, probably mirroring the way two nearby temples of the Ggantija complex are situated. Ggantija Museum. Photo by Elżbieta Pierzga. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The underworld and human psyche

All the mentioned stories that refer to the mysterious world of the Hypogeum, whether real, imaginary or legendary, are certainly also inspired by human curiosity of the unknown, which is always hidden deep in the depths of the earth, to which both natural caves and man-made passages are the gateways. The latter, like the Hypogeum Ħal Saflieni, built either as a temple or necropolis, particularly lures human imagination by its abyss that both, terrifies and delights. It is because it offers an alternative and inexplicable world of mystery. The journey of the school children and that of Lois Jessup ends at the last permitted threshold of the Lower Level. Beside it, the unknown realms, and it explanation fades with the candlelight. Likewise, the mystery of the darkness leads to the unknown of Hanging Rock from the novel by Joan Lindsey. Still it cannot be revealed to the outside world. It disappears together with those whom it devours. In any case, the darkness attracts and absorbs the children’s innocence. Trustful as they are by nature, they follow its path without knowing that they would never return to the sun. What they left behind is just an enigma.

“Primitive” inhabitants of Malta.

So where is the beginning of the whole story of the Hypogeum after all? Prehistory of Malta begins (if we stick with the established dates) quite late, namely around 5200 BC. (Magli 2009:48). Between 5200 and 4000 BC. nothing extraordinary happened: like the cultures of Sicily, with which Malta’s inhabitants had a contact, people of the archipelago made pottery and developed economy based on fishing, hunting and farming (Ibid.:48). They built their houses in brick and small stones and led a very ordinary Neolithic life (Ibid.:48). Then, out of the blue, as if “primitive” inhabitants of Malta had awakened from a long dream, a great explosion of building activity with the use of giant megaliths had started (Ibid.:48).

The so-called Temple Period lasted for over one millennium, from around 3800 to 2500 BC. (Magli 2009:47). What is even more interesting, the builders of the temples vanished as mysteriously as they had appeared on the scene (Ibid.:48-49). Prof John Evans (1925 – 2011), a leading Maltese temple researcher admitted himself, there has been no explanation for such a fact (Kosmiczne opowieści 2017). After the sudden end of the megalithic culture, the island was apparently not inhabited for a long time but finally everything came back to the “primitive” state of things (Magli 2009:48-49; Kosmiczne opowieści 2017). It actually does not make any sense … (Magli 2009:48-49).

More stories about giants

Figures representing gigantic and fluffy women have been excavated in great numbers on Malta. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Some independent researchers claim that the Maltase Cyclopean  architecture, including the Hypogeum and other structures, such as enigmatic cart ruts, actually come from the Prediluvian times and were constructed and inhabited by long – headed hybrids, and giants, maybe similar to those encountered and described by Lois Jessup (Magli 2009:64-65; Burns 2014; Kosmiczne opowieści 2017). Successive inhabitants of the archipelago also assigned the construction of the megalithic structures to giants, especially to Cyclops (hence the term Cyclopean architecture coming from the Greek) (Kosmiczne opowieści 2017; Burns 2014). Similar stories were repeated by the Minoan and Mycenae cultures whose members regarded Malta as the island once inhabited by strange and powerful beings (Kosmiczne opowieści 2017). According to a legend, in the beginning, the island was ruled by the offspring of the Giantess who had emerged from the Atlantic Ocean (Ibid.). Similar stories are also known in other parts of the world (Ibid.). Figures representing gigantic and fluffy women have been excavated in great numbers on Malta (Ibid.). Prof. John Evans claimed, however, that some of them look rather asexual (Ibid.). Who were those giants then? As the legend goes they were the teachers passing on knowledge to people (Ibid.). Dr. Anton Mifsud claims that his friend living on Gozo island has dug up a three metres long skeleton but he hid it from the authorities (Ibid.).. Still, there is no other evidence of such a discovery … (Ibid.).

UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Hypogeum was closed for several years, namely in the years 1992-1996, although it was reportedly not related to the mysterious events happening inside the monument (Haughton 2009:169). It was because more serious restoration work had to be carried out due to the progressive destruction of the limestone rock caused by the action of carbon dioxide exhaled by tourists in the limited space (Ibid.:169). In order to protect this valuable archaeological site from further damage, the number of visitors has now been limited to eighty a day, which requires prior reservation of a visit (Ibid.:169). In addition, a micro-climate was created above the underground chambers, artificially regulating temperature and humidity (Ibid.:169). In 1980, the fascinating Hypogeum Ħal Saflieni was eventually declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (Ibid.:169). It has truly deserved it!

Up Back in the Sun!

A modern day Malta is a collective blend of ethnic and cultural heritages but the identity of the earliest inhabitants of the archipelago is shrouded in mystery. Today it is difficult to separate the myth from the truth but material evidence left behind cannot be ignored. Like other megalithic builders around the world Cyclopean architects from Malta, whoever they were, vanished almost overnight, without a trace.

The facade of the museum after restoration in 2017. Photo by Continentaleurope (2017). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo and caption source: “Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum” (2018). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

I felt strangely liberated when I eventually emerged from the darkness of the Hypogeum and found myself again in the sunshine, under the azure sky of the Mediterranean. The underground world attracts to its mystery but it must have been invented to appreciate more the daylight and outside world, still existing on the surface of its creepy stories. For many reasons, it was a strange and profound experience that is yet worth recommending.

When my friend joined me, we headed off to other great monuments of Malta – the free standing megalithic temples built “in the positive”, on the surface.

Featured image: Photograph of the Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni made before 1910. Photo by Richard Ellis. Uploaded in 2008. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum” (2018). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

Continue reading Inhabitants of the Subterranean Passageways of Malta

Disaster of the Bronze Age Spreads Beyond the Epicenter

Experts have only recently learnt the true scale of the disaster triggered by the volcano eruption on Thera (see: The World Ended When Gods Turned against the Minoans). As they have concluded, its deadly impact stretched far beyond the island of the tiny Minoan island (Mitchel 2011). The volcano spewed out huge plumes of ash, carried by wind southwards (History Channel 1980s; Lilley 2006). It travelled from Thera to Crete in less than half an hour (Masjum 2006). When the dense clouds appeared, it must have seemed to the Minoans on Crete that nature had turned against them (Lilley 2006). ‘Imagine this ash coming over the island’, asks the professor of Greek archaeology, Jan Driesser (Ibid.). ‘It blackened the air [and the] blue sky for several days’ (Ibid.).

I looked up in the azure colours of the sky over the Mediterranean. I just could not imagine it turning into black pitch and breathing fire and ashes.

Town under the ashes

In 1980s, Prof. McCoy and his colleagues found ash deposits on neighbouring islands and on the seabed near Crete (Lilley 2006). ‘We calculated the amount of the volume of this material, which is how we [figured] out how explosive [the] eruption had been’, says Prof. McCoy (Ibid.). Recent analysis of the seabed around the island has revealed that sediments from pyroclastic flow extend over thirty-two kilometres and are up to eighty meters deep (Mitchell 2011).

The earthquakes on Akrotiri seemed to happen in a couple of waves. One set did substantial damage to the town. Photo by Gretchen Gibbs. Source: Mari N. Jensen, UA College of Science (2018).

Excavations on the island of Santorini reveal that pyroclastic flow broke the upper fronts of the buildings on Thera (Mitchell 2011). Subsequently, the Minoan settlement was buried in a layer of volcanic ash and pumice stones more than forty meters deep (Jensen 2018).

Biblical darkness

With time, more evidence of Thera’s deadly deposits began to emerge not just from the Mediterranean but as far as the Black Sea (Lilley 2006). Volcanic ash must have plunged the region into darkness for weeks (Mitchell 2011). Computer modelling expert and volcano enthusiast, Dr Stuart Dunn, decided to plot the results by creating a database putting together all ash thicknesses with their locations (Lilley 2006). The location and thickness of these residues allowed to calculate how many millions of tons of material were blasted across the region (Ibid.). ‘We concluded that the eruption was very much larger than [it] was previously thought’, admits Prof. McCoy (Ibid.). ‘Now we’re up to ten times of the explosivity of Krakatau’, he concludes (Ibid.). After scientists, It was one of the most violent volcanic eruptions in human history, one hundred times the eruption of the volcano at St Helens and forty thousand times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima (Mitchell 2011).

The ruins of the palace of Knossos on Crete, excavated and then reconstructed by Sir Arthur Evans at the beginning pf the twentieth century. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The clouds of ash caused the climate collapse over the whole region and subsequent lightning and hail storms (Masjum 2006; Wengler 2009). Temperature around the world lowered, inhibiting plant growth even in the British Isles (Mitchell 2011). Before collapsing into itself, the volcano expelled twenty billion cubic metres of molten lava and pumice has been found far inland of the Mediterranean region, where could have been carried by the waves of tsunami (Wengler 2009). Hundred and forty pumice stones from Thera’s eruption were found by Prof. Bietak in Avaris, in the Delta Nile (Ibid.). It is the same site, where the Egyptologist has found the Minoan fresco. Some number of pumice has been also found by archaeologists in Sinai (Ibid.).

Decorative flower-like rosettes from a fresco at Akrotiri, on the island of Thera, today Santorini. Copyright©Archaeotravel

Also this has prompted some scholars to suggest that the stories in the Bible may be linked to Thera eruption (Masjum 2006). In the Book of Exodus, signs of the ten Egyptian plagues include thunder and hail and total darkness, the phenomena that could have been volcanic in origin (Ibid.). And another plague mentioned in the Bible, namely the waters of the Nile turning into blood (Ibid.). Zeilinga de Boer explains that huge amounts of reddish dust, as upper layer in Santorini, and lot of dead material actually wiped out over the area of Egypt (Ibid.). He says that all this volcanic dust was in the atmosphere and was brought in the Nile by very heavy rains falling at a time and so the colour of the Nile could have changed from its natural into reddish tint (Ibid.). For the people of the entire Mediterranean observing such phenomena, the world must have descended into chaos (Ibid.).

Fire in the sky

Prof. McCoy assumes that in the morning, after the eruption, Minoans at Knossos and other towns along the northern coast, must have seen the clouds of smoke on the horizon (Masjum 2006). Although they must have already been frightened, they had no idea yet what was in store for them (Ibid.).

The north entrance to the palace of Knossos passing by the North Pillar Hall. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

‘They saw black sky, lightnings, darkening clouds enveloping them and ash falling on the ground all around them. And constant earthquakes. For them the world looked like it was ending’, he says (Masjum 2006). ‘When something blew up, north of them, on the horizon, they must have known it was the island’, he speculates (Ibid.). ‘Maybe some [Cretans] had family or friends there. There was fire in the sky, […] ash falling out of the sky and even torrential rains coming along with the latter part of the eruption’ (Ibid.). Earthquakes from the eruption triggered further fires setting ablaze the Minoans temples, houses and other buildings (Ibid.). Climate change also badly influenced their agriculture (Ibid.). The effect on them must have been tremendous (Ibid.). Zeilinga de Boer adds that ‘the volcano brought a lot of pumice, the material that floats very easily and have covered apparently most of the eastern Mediterranean for years, making rowing or sailing impossible, so this commercial empire lost its major part of existence’ (Ibid.).

Each numbered triangle represents the deposit of ash from Thera. Source: Harvey Lilley (2006). The Real Atlantis. A Quickfire Media Wales Production for BBC and Arte France.

Until recently, many archaeologists believed that the ash from Thera suffocated the entire island but Dunn’s computer model shows that only the eastern part of Crete received a significant covering, whereas the western part of the island reminded virtually untouched (Lilley 2006). Prevailing winds blew most of the ash clouds away (Ibid.). If the ash did not cause the Minoans’ downfall, what then did? (Ibid.).

Catastrophe speeding up towards Crete

Today the serenity of Crete is a far cry from the fabled land of half-human monsters, bloody sacrifices or natural disasters (History Channel 1980s).

Gramvousa Peninsula in north-western Crete is nowadays a dream destination for tourists. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Much of what is encountered today seems barely to have changed in the course of its mysterious past (History Channel 1980s). Just in the ancient times, the forests were logged because the wood was needed for monumental architecture and ships (Ibid.). Sheep and goats graze here as they have for thousands of years (Ibid.). The work of farmers and shepherds give little hint that this island was once the center of a powerful commercial empire (Ibid.). After centuries of foreign occupations, residents here are more aware of their immediate past (Ibid.). The tale of the Minotaur has faded into a legend (Ibid.). Only at the beginning of the twentieth century, following the independence from the Ottoman Empire archaeologists came (Ibid.). Among the first, there was Sir Arthur Evans, able to start digging into Crete’s great past (Ibid.).

The remains of the Minoan town of Palaikastro, situated on eastern coast of Crete. Photo source: Ian Swindale (2020) “Palaikastro”. In: Minoan Crete. Bronze Age Civilization.The buildings of the town itself show unusual signs of damage. ‘We find some walls entirely missing’, says Dr. Sandy McGillivray.

The archaeologist, Dr Sandy McGillivray has been excavating the Minoan town of Palaikastro on eastern Crete (Lilley 2006). The extent of ruins found there suggests that this was the largest Minoan settlement after Knossos and home to around five hundred people, stretching from the mountainside to the seaside (Ibid.). Like in other Minoan settlements, paved roads with drains were laid on a grid pattern in its town plan (Ibid.). Palaikastro’s extensive workshops produced everything from basic foodstuffs to some of the finest art, yet discovered on Crete (Ibid.).

Today the small hill, the town stood on at the water’s edge is eroding into the sea (Lilley 2006). It reveals strange layers of chaotically mixed material of pottery, building material, stones, cattle bones and lumps of ash, reaching up to five metres above Minoan sea level (Ibid.). After Prof. Hendrik Bruins, a soil scientist who specializes in identifying and dating unusual layers, the deposit does not look like natural archaeological stratification or the result of an earthquake (Ibid.). To find out the origins of the strange deposits in Palaikastro, Prof. Bruins has conducted thorough laboratory studies (Ibid.). He was thrilled by the results (Ibid.). ‘We saw foraminifera in these deposits’, he says (Ibid.). Foraminifera are the shells of tiny organisms only found beneath the sea (Ibid.). Accordingly, it suggests that the deposit has been formed with the power of sea waves (Ibid.). Another marine creature within the soil sample is coralline algae from the seabed (Ibid.). ‘These come from below the sea level and in order to deposit them in that level, where we found them in a promontory, [they had] to be scooped up […] to [the] level, where the sea normally never comes’, explains Prof. Bruins (Ibid.). No storm would have lifted the algae from the seabed and left it stranded metres up on the island (Ibid.). Nevertheless, there is another powerful natural force that has the power to do that (Ibid.). These are tsunami waves (Ibid.). Are the Palaikastro beach deposits the terrifying footprint of a tsunami? (Ibid.).

Now it makes sense

Prof. Costas Synolakis, an expert on tsunami, has explored the excavated part of the Minoan town of Palaikastro, situated three hundred metres from the beach (Lilley 2006). He has found there further evidence that something extraordinary happened there in the far past (Ibid.).

Tsunami waves demolishing the coast of Crete. Shot from the documentary: Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell. Source: CDA.

The buildings of the town itself show unusual signs of damage (Lilley 2006). ‘We find some walls entirely missing’, says Dr Sandy McGillivray. Prof. Costas Synolakis claims that ‘this is what we [observe] in modern tsunamis. We call this the blow out. The sea comes in [and] blows out the walls. If the building is strong enough, the side walls […] will survive but the walls facing the ocean […] collapse’ (Ibid.). For Dr Sandy McGillivray ‘all of the sudden a lot of deposits [around Palaikastro] began making sense […] because [the town] had these buildings pulled away, [it] had the fronts of buildings missing. [it] had buildings raised right down the foundation level’ (Ibid.). What kind of wave was then powerful enough to cross three hundred metres of land before demolishing a town? (Ibid.).

When Thera erupted, it unleashed a powerful force into the sea, which caused giant waves of tsunami, breaking into Minoan cities, mainly on the north-eastern coast of Crete. Shot from the documentary: Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell. Source: CDA.

The scientists also travelled further inland of Crete to find out how wide was the range of the waves terrible progress (Lilley 2006). Around one kilometre from the shore, and well above sea level, they have found deposits of seashell (Ibid.). Soil samples from excavation from ancient Palaikastro also contain the tale-tell microscopic signs of marine life, which is another evidence that the tsunami deluged the town (Ibid.).

Destructive tsunamis

When Thera erupted, it unleashed a powerful force into the sea (Masjum 2006). Scientists believe it caused giant waves of tsunamis (Ibid.). Hour after hour, pyroclastic flows on Thera were pushing volcanic debris into the sea, causing great tsunami waves that battered the Aegean coast (Masjum 2006; Mitchell 2011). ‘And then what happens is that the centre of the volcano […] has been blasted. it collapses to produce today’s caldera’, describes Prof. Floyd. ‘The land suddenly fell in, the ocean poured in and out producing constant tsunami’ (Masjum 2006). Inhabitants of nearby Crete could notice warning signs, but did not have enough time to react (Mitchell 2011). The first tsunami moving at the speed of three hundred and twenty kilometres per hour reached the coast of Crete within twenty minutes (Ibid.). At the time of contact with the land, the wave could have been up to twenty meters high (Ibid.).

The remains of the Minoan town of Malia, Crete. Scientists have found there layers of smashed pottery, building debris and crushed seashells that are observed along the northern coast of Crete as the results of the tsunamis. Source: Ian Swindale (2020) “Malia”. In: Minoan Crete. Bronze Age Civilization.

Apparently, the tsunami generated by Thera eruption was powerful enough to ravage the entire civilization (Lilley 2006). On the north coast of Crete, fifty kilometres west along the coast from Palaikastro, Malia lies. Now it is known for ruins of a Minoan palace but once it was the third largest settlement on coastal Crete (Ibid.). Close by the ruins, the team of scientists has found the same layers of smashed pottery, building debris and crushed seashells that they have observed in Palaikastro (Ibid.). That is further evidence that a huge wave had struck the northern coast of Crete, dumping marine life onto the land (Ibid.). Next step was the study of the Minoan port of Amnissos (Ibid.). The site is located west of Malia and near the settlement of Knossos (Ibid.). Four thousand years ago, a villa nestled among olive groves on this idyllic coast (Ibid.). It was decorated with frescoes that celebrated the Minoan love of nature (Ibid.). But about the time of eruption of the volcano, the villa was destroyed and the frescoes torn from the walls (Ibid.). Pumice from Thera was once found in the ruins of this Minoan villa (Ibid.). Initially it was thought that the petrified volcanic froth may have been brought in there by a storm (Ibid.). However, the team has also found Thera pumice higher in the hills behind the villa, twenty metres above sea level, which may suggest it floated in on a massive tsunami (Ibid.).

NOVA senior science editor, Evan Hadingham, described the tidal wave as ‘terrifyingly destructive’, perhaps larger than the Indian Ocean tsunami that hit Banda Aceh, Indonesia, in 2004. Source: Telegram.com (2007).

Dr Sandy McGillivray says that he remembers from his childhood a big anthill at one end of the garden and as a child he used to go with a garden hose and wash ants off it (Lilley 2006). That memory keeps coming back to in his memory when he is thinking how the tsunami destroyed the Minoans on Crete (Ibid.). Tsunamis weeping people out to the sea must have been just like washing ants off the anthill. ‘It is a terrifying thing’, he admits (Ibid.). ‘Those ants never had a chance [to survive]’ (Ibid.). ‘Once the tsunami starts climbing up on dry land’, he continues (Ibid.). ‘It’s moving at [such] speed that nothing can stop it’ (Ibid.).

You wish you hadn’t found out …

Evidence gathered also demonstrates the range of destructive powers of the tsunami that would have struck on northern coasts of Crete (Lilley 2006).

As it can be concluded, when the caldera of Thera collapsed, it sent several walls of water into the Aegean Sea, like a pebble dropping into a pond (Lilley 2006). These waves cumulated around the islands and bounced off them (Ibid.). As a result, Crete was hit not by one but by several rebounding waves (Ibid.). The intervals between them were from around forty-five to thirty minutes (Ibid.). Recent studies have shown that more tsunamis ravaged cities on the northern coast of Crete for hours or even days after the eruption (Mitchell 2011). It is estimated that they killed from thirty to forty thousand people (Ibid.). After the first tsunami, there were surely Cretans who escaped but they came back to look for the injured and dead relatives and friends, smashed by the powerful wave (Lilley 2006). They did not realize that another wave was coming (Ibid.). Consequently, the survivors of the first wave may have become the victims of the second (Ibid.).

Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell; Writer: Rhidian Brook; Stars: Stephanie Leonidas, Reece Ritchie, Langley Kirkwood; Network: BBC One
Documentary tells the story of the greatest natural disaster of the ancient world, an event that some experts believe inspired the legend of Atlantis. Source: Youtube.

Dr McGillivray has been deeply moved by the obtained results. ‘You know, it’s like time looking for something and then when you find it, you wish you hadn’t because it becomes too real and, you know, you begin to feel the experience’, he admits (Lilley 2006). ‘This is life, this is people just being washed out to sea [in vast numbers]. There’s a whole instant that flashes through your head’ (Ibid.).

Mysterious legend that haunts to this day

The most massive volcanic eruption of the ancient world blew the island of Thera apart and buried for centuries all the evidence of the lives of people who had once called it home (Westbrook 1995). Yet memories have remained (Ibid.). Footprints in the dust have finally been discovered by archaeologists (Ibid.). There are, however, no written records left about the Thera’s eruption and subsequent tsunamis, no figures for the death or destruction it has caused (Lilley 2006). It is only known that the rich culture of the Minoans, one that awed and inspired the earliest civilizations of the Mediterranean, completely vanished at the end of the Bronze Age (History Channel 1980s). Was the powerful empire of the Minoans destroyed by natural forces or was there human intervention? (Ibid.).

Bronze Group of a Bull and an Acrobat, the so-called a bull-leaper. Said to be from south west Crete. Today it is preserved by the British Museum. Photo by Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany (2011). CC BY-SA 2.0. Photo source: “Minoan Bull-leaper” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

On Thera, a massive eruption had buried Minoan streets and buildings beneath the flowing lava (History Channel 1980s). Meantime, clouds of ash engulfed the entire region (Ibid.). Crops were ruined and livestock suffocated (Ibid.). Consequently, all life on Santorini was destroyed (Ibid.). The utter destruction of the island and its people who settled there, must have left the powers of the region awestruck (Westbrook 1995). The palaeontologist, Charles Pellegrino, claims that the Egyptians must have known Thera (Ibid.). In the Bronze Age, it was surely known as a powerful colony of the Minoans (Ibid.). Egyptian ships would have travelled north to the very mountainous island for trading (Ibid.). After the volcano eruption, there was nothing but the silvers of broken rib-like land (Ibid.). Pellegrino thinks that to the ancient Egyptians finding the still smoking and blooming crater probably meant that the whole island and its inhabitants had simply sunk and disappeared (Ibid.). In centuries to come a great legend was heard of a Utopian island society that vanished in the sea “in a single day and night” (Ibid.).

The Palace of Knossos: North Passage. 3D Digital Reconstruction by John Carlina (2011). Source: Youtube.

Did the Egyptian priests mean Thera in their written story of the sunken island that they retold to Solon? According to some scholars, the history of the volcanic disaster on Thera may have been recorded by the ancient Egyptians and survived in repeatedly embellished stories (Mitchell 2011). In the fourth century BC., they may have inspired the Greek philosopher to write a morality play about the rise and fall of a great civilization, called Atlantis (Ibid.). For centuries, Plato’s words were considered a legend, until archaeologists discovered a lost world on Thera (Ibid.).

In one day and one night

The legend of Atlantis has teased human imagination ever since (Westbrook 1995). Some scholars definitely claims the story is a myth, others believe it is a true story and they either still keep looking for it or point to the small dot in the Aegean between Egypt, Greece and Asia, today just a rim of volcanic rock jutting out of the sea (Ibid.). Is Thera a legendary Atlantis? (Ibid.). Plato described the island of Atlantis as alternating rings of land and sea (Mitchell 2011). The port was full of ships and buyers from all over the world (Ibid.). Such great wealth had never been seen before (Ibid.). Bulls grazed at Poseidon’s temple, and ten princes hunted for them using wooden sticks and ropes (Ibid.). Then came powerful earthquakes and floods (Ibid.). In one day and one night, Atlantis was swallowed up by the sea and disappeared (Ibid.).

Bull’s head rhyton from the palace at Knossos, Crete. It is made of black steatite, jasper, and mother-of-pearl. One of the greatest finds. Now exposed by the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

After some enthusiasts of the legend, like Pellegrino, there are some convincing clues and local finds that confirm that Plato’s Atlantis was in fact the island of Thera (History Channel 1980s; Mitchell 2011). “Like the Atlanteans, the Minoans were island-dwellers with shipyards, powerful fleets and a thriving maritime commerce. They had fine houses and superb artifacts, and were skilful builders and engineers – again like the Atlanteans. As in Atlantis, the bull, sacred to Poseidon the earth-shaker, was important in Minoan rituals (Harpur, Westwood 1997:21). Also Plato describes Atlantis as an island made of sea and land rings (Mitchell 2011). Thera’s reconstructions before the volcanic eruption show that the island could have fit this description (Ibid.). The unusual terrain was the effect of the most powerful geological forces on earth, always active beneath the island throughout its geological history (Ibid.). Nevertheless, there would have just been one concentric ring of land and two of water, building up the island, whereas Plato describes Atlantis as a fortified dwelling place with concentric rings, two of land and three of water (Harpur, Westwood 1997:18). Thera, as one of the Minoan colonies in the Mediterranean, was too small to be self-sufficient (Mitchell 2011), yet it was as wealthy and self-assured as much as the settlements of Minoans on Crete (Lilley 2006). Its geographical location made it an important trading point in the Mediterranean (Mitchell 2011). Its buyers acted as intermediaries by trading precious metals, oil, wine, ceramics and spices from Africa, Asia and Europe (Ibid.).

Bull-leaping fresco from the east wing of the palace of Knossos (reconstructed). Today in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. Photo by Jebulon and one more author – Own work (2015). Originally at Wikipedia. CC0. Bull-leaping was an important initiation ritual for young Minoan men, perhaps also for women (Mitchell 2011). Photo source: Dr. Senta German (2020). Bull-leaping fresco from the palace of Knossos. In: Khan Academy.

Also the bull, especially bull-leaping, is a recurring theme in Minoan art and there are many depictions of this powerful animal (Westbrook 1995). Such representations echo Plato’s description of Atlantis; there are described golden cups with scenes of bull ceremonies engraved on the sides, also analogous to Plato’s narrative (Ibid.). Such details as bulls being tied up by nooses and with rope furthermore match the author’s descriptions (Ibid.). Pellegrino also recounts the moment ‘early in [the twentieth] century, when the Minoan civilisation was being unearthed’ (Ibid.). ‘Some of the first archaeologists to arrive on the site, looking at the paintings of the bull ceremonies, and so on, said: ‘that’s Plato! That’s his Atlantis story!’, he claims (Ibid.). Plato also mentions that “first noble and innocent, the Atlanteans in time became power-hungry aggressors, seeking to subjugate neighbouring lands. Eventually, they were however, defeated by the Athenians, and then their island was destroyed by natural forces, earthquake and flood” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:18). As archaeological records suggest, the Greeks indeed invaded and conquered the Minoans in the second half of the fifteenth century BC. Moreover, like the wonderful civilization of Atlantis, Thera was destroyed by a terrible cataclysm during its greatest heyday and vanished (Westbrook 1995). “If Plato’s date for Atlantis, 9 000 years before Solon, were to lose a zero (a scribal error, perhaps, or storyteller’s exaggeration), [after some scholars], it would fit neatly into the timescale of Minoan culture” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:21).

Elephants on Thera?

“But problems remain, not least the fact that Plato explicitly states that Atlantis lay beyond the Pillars of Hercules, [on the Atlantic Ocean]” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:21). Although Thera’s explosion blew the island apart, it only precipitated the downfall of Minoan Crete, which eventually happened generations after the volcano eruption with the invasions of Mycenaeans from Greece (Ibid.:21). Correspondingly, the Minoans were not defeated by “the Athenians” before the natural disaster but long after it. There are also other differences between Plato’s story and archaeological facts about ancient Thera. Among animals living on Atlantis, there were elephants, which did not live on Thera, at least not in the Bronze Age (Ibid.:18). Thera was also too small to fit Plato’s description or to be divided into ten kingdoms between Poseidon’s descendants, like Atlantis actually was (Ibid.:18).

Found at Akrotiri, Minoan frescoes of Boxing Boys or Girls (on the left) and Gazelles (on the right) Today they are exposed in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Photo source: Ricardo André Frantz (User: Tetraktys). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Wall Paintings of Thera” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

What is more, Crete and not Thera was the headquarters of the Minoan empire. And, unlike the legend of Atlantis says, Crete did not disappear in a single night and day (Westbrook 1995). It was only Thera that vanished (Ibid.). Plato does not either mention any volcano eruption on Atlantis but the fact the island was destroyed by earthquakes and floods (Masjum 2006). Moreover, although recurring representations of bull ceremonies are the traces left by the Minoan civilization, the evidence is hardly found on Santorini (Westbrook 1995). Yet it is abundant on Crete (Ibid.). Or maybe was Thera (and the Minoans) just a legacy of the Atlanteans, and not Atlantis itself?

Fatal thread to Cretans

Prof. Walter Friedrich, a geologist, thinks that the volcano eruption was entirely fatal for Thera, but not for Crete (History Channel 1980s). For Cretans living on the northern coast of their island, the biggest thread came from the sea (Ibid.). Giant waves of tsunamis swept across the Aegean, destroying their glamorous architecture and powerful fleet (Ibid.). The tsunami was enough to bring a great civilization to its knees but there were survivors (Lilley 2006). Knossos, the Minoan capital was too far inland to be destroyed (Ibid.). According to archaeological evidence, the Minoans rebuilt their palaces, and although they never regained their full power and influence, they could still create exquisite works of art (Ibid.).

Detail of the Palaikastro Kouros. It is a statuette of a male figure, probably an idol, made of serpentine, hippopotamus ivory, and gold. The statuette was deliberately destroyed during social unrest following the volcano eruption. (Archaeological Museum of Siteia, photo by Olaf Tausch, CC BY 3.0). Source: Dr. Senta German (2020). “Statuette of a Male Figure (The Palaikastro Kouros)”. In: Khan Academy.

‘Did the volcanic eruption on Santorini directly destroy the Minoan culture’, asks Dr Don Evely, the archaeologist (Masjum 2006). ‘The answer is simply no. If, however, we ask a more subtle question: did it contribute to the decline? Did it undermine the Minoan power? The answer is almost certainly yes.’ (Ibid.). The devastating effects of Thera’s eruption on Crete are not limited to the number of dead and destroyed palaces (Mitchell 2011). Minoan society suffered a serious shock (Ibid.). Archaeological data testifies a deep social unrest; towns and temples were looted and set on fire (Ibid.). People were probably sacrificed (Ibid.).

Invaders from Greece

A final outburst of destruction overtook the Minoans in around 1450 BC (Lilley 2006). In western Crete, an excavation in the heart of the modern town of Chania has revealed evidence of arson, which proves strong fires once took place there (Ibid.). It is a pattern repeated also in other sites across the island (Ibid.). Was this a revolution within the Minoan society or is it the evidence of conquest by outsiders? (Ibid.). The archaeologist, Dr Maria Vlazaki, discovered a highly unusual cemetery in Chania (Ibid.). It dates from the same period as the widespread destruction in the Minoan world (Ibid.). ‘These are warrior graves’, she claims (Ibid.). ‘They are single burials, something that is in opposition with the traditional [Minoan grave. The buried were of the age] between twenty-four and thirty. They [were] tall, robust and they look [like] invaders’ (Ibid.). These invaders’ burials have been also found at Knossos and elsewhere on Crete so it suggests an invasion from the mainland of Greece (Ibid.). The invaders are believed to have slashed and burned their way across Crete, overwhelming the Minoans (Ibid.).

Flotilla fresco of the miniature frieze from the West House or House of the Admiral at Akrotiri, Room 5, south wall: detail. It probably represents a mountainous landscape of the island of Thera with its flourishing port and fleet. Source: Fritz Blakolmer (2012). “Image and Architecture: Reflections of Mural Iconography in Seal Images and Other Art Forms of Minoan Crete”. In: Minoan Realities. AEGIS Approaches to Images, Architecture, and Society in the Aegean Bronze Age, pp. 83-114. Diamantis Panagiotopoulos et Ute Günkel-Maschek (dir.), fig. 27.

Dr McGillivray believes that the tsunamis and forthcoming social unrest may have actually helped the Mycenaeans to attack Crete (Lilley 2006). Coastal towns of the Minoans, like Malia, had no protective walls (Ibid.). Minoan defences rested instead on their control of the sea as the leading naval power in the ancient world (Ibid.). ‘The [islanders] were so confident in their navy that they were living in unprotected towns and cities all along the coastline’, he explains (Ibid.). All that naval force must have been, however, smashed and lost in the waves of tsunamis (Ibid.). Meantime, the fleet of Mycenae had grown in power (Ibid.). ‘[Their] traditional homeland is on the southern shores of the Gulf of Corinth’, says Dr McGillivray (Ibid.). The archaeologist thinks that the tsunami could not reach into there because of its geographical landscape and natural closure from the sea (Ibid.). ‘Mycenaean Greeks up there were probably the only people who had survived with a navy, possibly in the whole eastern Mediterranean’, he explains (Ibid.). Hence their upcoming powerful empire.

Idyllic life on the coast of Crete. The town of Amnisos was believed to have served as the harbour of Knossos, which was located farther inland and so was not directly affected by the tsunamis. Shot from the documentary: Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell. Source: Sherna Bhumgara (2004). Hooked on Inspiration’s Blog.

Did these invaders encounter a dark side of Minoan culture? (Lilley 2006). In Knossos, archaeologists have found grisly human remains (Ibid.). ‘One of the most telling and horrifying deposits from the post-Thera eruption period in Crete was a deposit recovered in the town of Knossos up along the Royal Road and that [were] these cannibalized youths’, says Dr McGillivray (Ibid.). ‘The analysis of these bones from this […] deposit strongly [suggests] that [the bones] have been hacked up in order to take the flesh off [and] eat [it]. This cannibalistic aspect of the Minoans is probably one of the things that was recalled when the Greeks first arrived in Crete’ (Ibid.). Was this an origin of the Minotaur myth? (Ibid.). Did the Greeks imagine that these unlucky victims had been led to the labyrinth to be sacrificed to the Minoan bull god? (Ibid.). Whatever is the truth of their myth’s origins, within a generation of their arrival, the Greeks had conquered Crete (Ibid.). The last embers of Minoan culture flickered out (Ibid.).

Between now and then

Today, the only things that have survived from the Minoan culture are the remains of their monumental architecture, being visited by flocks of tourists every summer (Masjum 2006).

Today, Crete is being visited by hordes of tourists, who usually prefer sandy beaches and the warm sea to spending time on archaeological sites, where the heat is quite unbearable. Yet, the Minoan legends are still very tangible on the island and their elements can be encountered and felt everywhere on the island. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Yet for most the real story of the catastrophic disaster smashing the civilization is too heavy for people’s relaxing vacation. Soon most tourists usually abandon the ancient stones and go to sandy beaches. But endowed with its natural grandeur, the Aegean islands and Crete fire people imagination. In this idyllic landscape the atmosphere of the past is still very tangible. And it makes them unconsciously listen to its legends.

Featured image: The refugees from the erupting Thera are trying to flee to Crete. Shot from the documentary: Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell. Source: CDA.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Minoan Bull-leaper” (2020). In:  Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2TJkdNa>. [Accessed on 27th May, 2020].

“Wall Paintings of Thera” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2XL26YH>. [Accessed on 26th May, 2020].

Blakolmer F. (2012) “Image and Architecture: Reflections of Mural Iconography in Seal Images and Other Art Forms of Minoan Crete”. In: Minoan Realities. AEGIS Approaches to Images, Architecture, and Society in the Aegean Bronze Age, pp. 83-114. Diamantis Panagiotopoulos et Ute Günkel-Maschek (dir.). Available at <https://bit.ly/2TF7bR1>. [Accessed on 26th May, 2020].

Bhumgara S. (2004) Hooked on Inspiration’s Blog. Available at <https://bit.ly/2ZKfCOH>. [Accessed on 28th May, 2020].

Bibi Saint-Pol (2012) “Illustration: A Map of Minoan Crete”. In: Ancient History Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3gvVoyi>. [Accessed on 27th May, 2020].

Carlina J. (2011) The Palace of Knossos: North Passage. 3D Digital Reconstruction. Available at <https://bit.ly/2TFQFQK>. [Accessed on 25th May, 2020].

German S. Dr. (2020). “Statuette of a Male Figure (The Palaikastro Kouros)”. In: Khan Academy. Available at <https://bit.ly/2LX6bTN>. [Accessed on 26th May, 2020].

German S. Dr. (2020). Bull-leaping fresco from the palace of Knossos. In: Khan Academy. Available at <https://bit.ly/2Pwgr81>. [Accessed on 27th May, 2020].

Harpur J., Westwood J. (1997) The Atlas of Legendary Places. New York: Marshal Editions.

History Channel (1980s) Crete. Death came from the Sea. Time Life’s Lost Civilizations. Available at <https://bit.ly/3d3mCKx>. [Accessed on 21st May, 2020].

Jensen M. N. (2018) “Dating the ancient Minoan eruption of Thera using tree rings” In: UA College of Science. Available at <https://bit.ly/36D5GI8>. [Accessed on 28th May, 2020].

Lilley H. (2006) The Real Atlantis. A Quickfire Media Wales Production for BBC and Arte France.

Masjum M. (2006) Inside the Volcano. Kraylevich Productions Inc.; Mechanism Digital.

Mitchell T. (2011) Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend. BBC Production.

Swindale I. (2020) “Malia”. In: Minoan Crete. Bronze Age Civilization. Available at <https://bit.ly/3d8jSv9>. [Accessed on 27th May, 2020].

Swindale I. (2020) “Palaikastro”. In: Minoan Crete. Bronze Age Civilization. Available at <https://bit.ly/2Xx4v9b>. [Accessed on 27th May, 2020].

Telegram.com (2007) “Layers of Mystery – Archaeologists Look to the Earth for Minoan Fate”. In: Red Ice.TV. Available at <https://bit.ly/3daXXnd>. [Accessed on 28th May, 2020].

Wengler G. (2009) The Biblical Plagues; Episode 2: Darkness Over Egypt. Taglicht Media GMBH; ZDF Enterprises.

Westbrook J. (1995) Time life’s: Lost Civilizations; Episode 4: Aegean: The Legacy of Atlantis. Time-Life Video & Television.

Travel Guidebooks of the Ancients in the Hands of Modern Visitors

The ‘Seven Wonders of the Ancient World’ is the collective concept and canon of knowledge, widely known to the ancient European (Klein 1998:136). The entry into the canon was determined not only by the majesty and uniqueness of a given building, but also by its historical significance and, above all, the myth related to these wonders (Ibid.:136). The latter has always revived ancient monuments and their creators in wandering human minds trying to fully embrace their mystery with a triggered imagination. Such feelings must have accompanied ancient travellers while they were setting off in the unknown to visit the outstanding monuments, many of which had already been said archaic in those times. Even today, when one is faced with the fate of the seven ancient wonders, they unconsciously study the history of the real world from those ages, where such monuments were a real symbol of human striving for perfection and beauty, and of a growing desire to discover and travel far, beyond one’s limits and knowledge (Ibid.:136). But visitors of the ancient wonders had already been guided.

Eternal ancient wonder in Egypt

I was in Egypt on the Plateau of Giza, surrounded by over two millions of squared multi-ton blocks of stone, piling up into three massive pyramids. While standing at the foot of the Pyramid of Khufu, I was looking up at its cone shining in the background of the clouded sky. After a while, I decided to follow some visitors in their way up along the pyramid’s northern wall.

While walking with my sister along the base of the Great Pyramid, I am pointing to the white rows of stones, imitating a fragment of the casing of the Pyramid of Khufu. It was not placed there originally due to its wrong trajectory. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

When I approached its base at the north side, the pyramid’s stones enormously grew in my eyes, which is quite logical when one observes something from close but at the same it was still surprising how large they really turned out to be, especially for someone who had just looked at illustrations of the pyramids depicted from the distance. Simultaneously, I noticed at the bottom of the pyramid a fragment of a flat and white row of stones which were said to be the remains of the outer casing of the pyramid (Grimault, Pooyard 2012). It was not, however, placed there originally, as if its trajectories are stretched up it would hit the opposite blocks just above it (Ibid.). 

Presumably, the fragment of the imitated casing was there just to show how it may have looked like in the past, yet it does not give any valuable insight into an actual construction of the pyramid (Grimault, Pooyard 2012). When I got used to my first impressions, I started climbing up the pyramid, stretching my arms forwards and lifting my legs up to reach the edge of another block above, using each like a successive step of the stairs on my way  up the building. Every block reaches at least to my hips, and some even up to my arms, so climbing up the pyramid definitely involves some physical fitness and strength. Soon my sister joined me and we were both found ourselves just under the original entrance to the pyramid, flanked by angled stones forming a pointed arch above it.

“Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids”

The Great Pyramid, as the Pyramid of Khufu is usually called, has captivated human imagination throughout centuries. Various studies evidently show that there are as many presumptions as false facts about the history and construction of the pyramid (Grimault, Pooyard 2012). As a result, it has remained an everlasting mystery (Ibid.). Actually, it was already so in the times of Herodotus (the fifth century BC.), who, together with other contemporary and later authors unanimously identified it and the two other pyramids of Giza as one of the architectural wonders of the ancient world (see: Zamarovsky 1990:13-64; Klein 1998:141-146).

Soon my sister joined me and we were both found ourselves just under the original entrance to the pyramid, flanked by angled stones forming a pointed arch above it. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

It may have been either due to their massiveness, majesty, age or mystery, or all these aspects together were taken into account, deciding about their high status throughout human history (Zamarovsky 1990:13). The pyramids are also the only wonder of the ancient world that has ever survived and is still enjoyed by the modern world. As such these three pyramids in Egypt  seem to be eternal, which is highlighted by the old and broadly known Arab proverb “Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids.”

As many wonders as their lists

Since the discovery of the pyramids in Egypt by the Hellenized world, much progress had already been made in history by construction of brand-new in comparison to the pyramids but spectacular buildings that arouse such admiration among people to which only natural wonders inspire (Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:2). There were many authors of the lists of wonders, enumerating these human achievements, and their selection was measured, as it seems, by certain criteria (Ibid.:2).

At some point in history, there were huge discrepancies in various records of the Seven Wonders, which were prepared by independent ancient authors. And although the enumerated wonders were always compiled in the number of seven, each list slightly differed depending on its author. After an archaeologist from the University of Trier (Germany), Michael Pfrommer, If one would sum them all up, they could find ten, if not eleven, or even a dozen ancient wonders described by all the ancients writing on the subject (Klein 1998:137). On the other side, the fact that the successive wonders are listed by various authors in a different order is quite irrelevant as they are all treated on the same scale; It is not a ranking (Zamarovsky 1990:8).

Modern list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World

The modern canon of the ancient wonders, known today as the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World is provided by numerous contemporary lexicons and the Internet (Zamarovsky 1990:7). It includes works which, due to their technical or artistic qualities, were admired by the ancients (Ibid.:7). These are: the Great Pyramid of Giza, Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, Statue of Zeus at Olympia, Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, Colossus of Rhodes (see: Island of the Sun in Favour of Gods), and the Lighthouse of Alexandria (Ibid.:7).

The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (from left to right, top to bottom): Great Pyramid of Giza, Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Temple of Artemis, Statue of Zeus at Olympia, Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, Colossus of Rhodes, and the Lighthouse of Alexandria. A collage of The Seven Wonders of the (ancient) world, depicted by sixteenth-century Dutch artist Maarten van Heemskerck. The original uploader was Mark22 at English Wikipedia. – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons (2005). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Although at first the Seven Wonders of the World, including the pyramids and the hanging gardens of Babylon, were considered must-see attractions on ancient travel routes, they were later considered the greatest structures ever built by man (Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:1). What was so special about them that they were clearly distinguished by the ancients? Philo of Byzantium answers that question:

For these wonders are the only things which diminish the worth and reputation of other distinguished sights, for, truly, ordinary men may see them in the same way as other sights, but they do not marvel at other sights in the same way. For beauty, like the sun, dazzles by its own brilliance and does not allow one to see the others.

Philo of Byzantium, “On the Seven Wonders of the World”. A free translation by Jean Blackwood of the text of De Septem Orbis Spectaculis as it appears in Aelianus Praenestinus, compiled by Rudolf Hercher and published in 1858. In: Rogers Pearse. Thoughts on Antiquity, Patristics, Information Access and More.

Though tarnished by time, the Pyramids of Giza have fortunately survived to our times. But what about those wonders that have already gone? Michael Pfrommer says that ancient travellers describing the wonders were surely convinced of the durability of these places and monuments (Klein 1998:137). Often, however, of the architectural wonders people consider to be eternal, there is absolutely nothing left behind after all (Ibid.:137). Or at least very little. The garden on the terraces of Babylon and two statues, one of Zeus made of chryselephantine and the other of Helios made of bronze, have disappeared forever. Of the burial site of Mausolus of Caria, the mighty temple of Artemis in Ephesus and the Lighthouse of Pharos, there are left only few remains, of which some are scattered in museums around the world.

The real authorship of the list

Little is known today about an ancient Greek poet, named Antipater of Sidon, who lived in the second half of the second century BC. (Klein 1998:147).  His character unfortunately disappears now in the fog of history (Ibid.:147). Still it is believed that it was him who compiled the first completely preserved list of wonders of the ancient world in the second century BC. and perhaps he had seen them all himself during his long and distant journeys (Ibid.:147). It was a list of architectural wonders that would surely have been labelled today as ‘must see monuments’, and therefore his work can be regarded as the first travel guidebook for contemporary adventurers and travellers.

Assyrian wall relief showing Hanging Gardens of Babylon … in Assyrian Nineveh. Photo by Noah Wiener (2015). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Hanging Gardens of Babylon” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Initially, the creation of the list was mistakenly attributed to a certain Philo of Byzantium, a mathematician who probably lived in the second century BC. and was wrongly said to have been the author of a treatise titled On the Seven Wonders of the World (Klein 1998:147; Zamarovsky 1990:7). Such information was first disseminated by the first modern translator of the book by Philo of Byzantium, a French D.S. Boessius, who in 1640 discovered the Greek original in the Vatican Library and translated it into Latin as De septem mundi miraculis (Zamarovsky 1990:7-8). Such mistakes once in writing are often copied in the literature, and the wrong information about the authorship had been then unintentionally replicated and so circulated from one work to another (Ibid.:7-8).

Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, as imagined, at the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology. Photo by Jona Lendering – Livius.org Provided under CC0 1.0 Universal license (notice under the photograph in the description page of the photograph). Retouched by the uploader (2018). CC0. Photo and caption source: “Mausoleum at Halicarnassus” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The matter was clarified only by a Swiss classical scholar, Johann Caspar von Orelli, who published Philo’s book in print for the first time in 1816 and it finally turned out that there were actually two different ‘Philos’, who had initially been confused (Klein 1998:147; Zamarovsky 1990:7-8). The real author of the work is also Philo of Byzantium but he lived much later than his namesake, probably in the third or fourth century AD. (Zamarovsky 1990:7-8). The records of him are fragmented almost as much as those of the ancient Philo (Ibid.:7). It is only known for certain that Philo from our era is an actual author of the book On the Seven Wonders of the World (Klein 1998:147; Zamarovsky 1990:7-8). Additionally, from this work one can also learn that he had not seen a single monument of the architectural wonders he described in his work (Zamarovsky 1990:7-8). So he depicted them just with the eyes of his imagination, inspired only by what he knew from second-hand accounts (Ibid.:7-8). To justify such practice, it can be added that many current authors, including myself, do the same today, when it Is not possible to take a trip and see a given site personally (Ibid.:8). Sometimes, it is an education that relieves some authors of the necessity of traveling, and things worthy of their attention they learn just from books without even leaving home (Ibid.:8).

The fame of the Temple of Artemis was known in the Renaissance, as demonstrated in this imagined portrayal of the temple in a sixteenth-century hand-colored engraving by Martin Heemskerck. Photo by Philip Galle – From en:wikipedia. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Temple of Artemis” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In any case, Antipater of Sidon has regained his right to be named the first author of the list of the Seven Wonders of the World that he described in a poem written about 140 BC. (Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:3; Klein 1998:147-150; “Antipater of Sidon” 2021). Accordingly, his name is now placed just along with Philo of Byzantium, Strabo, Herodotus and Diodoros of Sicily, who were all involved in writing on the subject (“Antipater of Sidon” 2021).

Travel fever in ancient times

Today there is a common view that real travellers no longer exist and a noble phenomenon of traveling has already been replaced by the less noble term of mass tourism (Lachowicz 2015). As a result, white spots on the travel map of the world are slowly disappearing, being replaced by tourist folders to distant, so far inaccessible places on the planet (Ibid.). The epoch of pioneering unknown routes and travelling over hidden treasures has unfortunately ended with the last dare-devil explorers at the turn of the twentieth century. Yet, I believe that a human desire for an adventure is still alive in the hearts of curious modern travellers and there is somewhere not a single wonder still waiting for its discoverer.

The Colossus as imagined in a 16th-century engraving by Martin Heemskerck, part of his series of the Seven Wonders of the World. By Marten van Heemskerck (1498-1574). Uploaded in 2014. Public domain. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Colossus of Rhodes”(2020) Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.

Simultaneously, I can imagine all these ancient visitors coming to see the seven wonders, directed just by guidelines of contemporary authors, who had visited the sites first. Surely, a journey along the track of the seven wonders must have taken many years or even a lifetime to be accomplished, providing that one was taking a journey with intention to see all the monuments on the list. Alternatively, ancient travellers could  have chosen their desired destinations at random, according to their own bucket list, as it is practised today. I can bet that many modern travellers, if they only had a chance to live in those times, would have travelled long distances to visit the wonders at their height. Nowadays, there are, after all, lots of people who are addicted to travelling and they are only fully alive on the way, even at their personal cost. On the other side, although such an ancient journey made one’s dreams come true, it must simultaneously have been a real challenge to contemporary travellers.

Everyone knows of the renowned Seven Wonders of the World, but few have set eyes on them, for, in order to do so you have to arrange a long journey to the land of the Persians on the far side of the Euphrates; you have to visit Egypt; you must then change direction and go to Elis in Greece. Then you must see Halikarnassos, a city-state in Caria, and Ephesos in Ionia, and you have to sail to Rhodes, so that, being exhausted by lengthy wanderings over the Earth’s surface, and growing tired from the effort of these journeys, you finally fulfil your heart’s desire only when life is ebbing away, leaving you weak through the weight of years.

Philo of Byzantium, “On the Seven Wonders of the World“. A free translation by Jean Blackwood of the text of De Septem Orbis Spectaculis as it appears in Aelianus Praenestinus, compiled by Rudolf Hercher and published in 1858. In: Rogers Pearse. Thoughts on Antiquity, Patristics, Information Access and More.

An outstanding ancient travel journalist, Antipater of Sidon must also have possessed quite a bit of courage and endurance to visit all the wonders he later described (Klein 1998:147). Certainly, in antiquity there were people such as the author, who were ready to endure the hardships of dangerous journeys, especially in the period after the conquests of Alexander the Great, when the world known at that time expanded considerably in the fourth century BC., including the lands of Babylon, Persia and Egypt (Klein 1998:147; Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:1).

Reconstruction of the Oikoumene (inhabited world), an ancient map based on Herodotus’ description of the world, circa 450 BC. Photo by Bibi Saint-Pol (2006), based on the GIF by Marco Prins and Jona Lendering from www.livius.org. Public domain. Photo source: “Atlantis” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Those ancient travellers took risks that modern tourists have not even dreamed of (Klein 1998:147). To imagine any struggles they may have encountered on their way, it is enough to read various descriptions of a number of journeys done by mythological heroes, such as Hercules, Theseus or Odysseus, who on their way met hosts of various monsters, robbers, giants, including cyclops, or mermaids, and their journey lasted for years, additionally experienced by the violent vagaries of nature and the whims of the gods deciding about travellers’ fate (Ibid.:147,149). All these stories testified to the dangers that the ancient traveller had to reckon with (Ibid.:147,149). How mysterious and dangerous but, at the same time, fascinating the world must have been for them (Ibid.:147,149). For some, travel meant fullness of life, but also death (Ibid.:147). Nevertheless, the ancient traveller, though exposed to many dangers, trusted in both, their lucky star and the smile of gods (Ibid.:147,149). They were also able to be delighted with what they had seen, as can be noticed in the verses recorded by Antipater of Sidon, returning from his expedition (Ibid.:147,149).

I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the Colossus of the Sun, and the huge labour of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus; but when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, ‘Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand.

Antipater, “Greek Anthology IX. 58“. In: “Antipater of Sidon” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The walls of Babylon instead of the Lighthouse of Pharos

It is noteworthy that Antipater mentions the walls of Babylon in his work, an object that does not appear in later lists (Klein 1998:149). And he omits the Pharos Lighthouse (Ibid.:149). This may be a decisive clue saying that Antipater used a prototype for his own work as the Lighthouse had already been there when the author lived, that is to say in the second century BC. (Ibid.:149-150). Babylon’s walls made of fired bricks were on everyone’s lips in the fourth and third centuries BC, while the Pharos Lighthouse had not been built until around 280 BC. (Ibid.:149-150). On the other hand, the original list cannot be much older than the Alexandrian Tower, since the author mentions the Colossus of Rhodes (Ibid.:150). This statue was built less than twelve years before the Lighthouse was built (Ibid.:150). Thus, the date of the creation of the oldest list of wonders of the world can be placed between 292 and 280 BC. (Ibid.:150).  

A mosaic depicting the Pharos of Alexandria, (labeled “Ο ΦΑΡΟϹ”), from Olbia, Libya c. 4th century AD. Mosaic Lighthouse of Alexandria: was found in the Qasr Libya in Libya, which was known by several names including history and Olbia Theodorias, This is a painting that was left over to show the form of lighthouse after the quake, which destroyed the lighthouse. Uploaded by Qasr Libya Museum – Qasr Libya Museum (2010). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Lighthouse of Alexandria” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Accordingly, some scholars claim that in the third century BC., a Greek scholar of the Great Library of Alexandria, Callimachus of the Cyrene, Libya, was probably the first to have compiled the very first list of marvellous buildings (Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:3). Presumably, he placed on it the greatest achievements of contemporary Greece, taking into account their size, materials used, technical solutions and innovation of their creators (Ibid.:3). His list, however, has not survived to our times (Ibid.:3).

As it is seen, while searching for any historical traces of the first description of the ancient wonders, one comes across many complex issues, in which they move like in a maze of assumptions and questions (Klein 1998:150). Generally, taking into account the above, Antipater of Sidon, who was born a hundred years later than the estimated above dates, may have used an earlier source, treating it as a travel guidebook in his journey and at the same time the source of his own work (Klein 1998:150; Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:3). Is it possible that Antipater had access to Callimachus’ work, and so compiled his list a century later? (Klein 1998:150; Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:3). Or maybe his trip, which he described, took place only in his imagination …? (Klein 1998:150; Starożytne Cywilizacje). Or for the author, the walls of Babylon he had visited deserved more attention and privilege to be called one of the wonders than the Lighthouse itself; accordingly, the latter did not appear on his list, which was created in the second century BC.

Map of Europe according to Strabo. Photo by Fphilibert – Picture from polish Wikipedia (2005). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Strabon” (2020). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

The truth, however, remains unknown.

Different roads guided by different writers

Like Antipater of Sidon, Philo of Byzantium lists other wonders of the world than those given in today’s lexicons (Zamarovsky 1990:8). He clearly does not consider the Lighthouse from Pharos as a wonder of the world and, like Antipater, grants this dignity to the walls of Babylon (Ibid.:8). There is also no description of the Mausoleum in Halicarnassus in his work, as this chapter has been lost along with a part of the description of the temple of Artemis (Ibid.:8). What is more, after J.C. Orelli, Philo of Byzantium describes the wonders in a more subjective way, ascribing them more glory and splendour than they really deserve (Ibid.:8). Therefore, in order to obtain a faithful description of these timeless works, one should turn for help to Herodotus, Strabo, Diodorus, Pliny the Elder, Pausanias and many other ancient authors and, equally, to modern archaeology (Ibid.:8).

Father of History

Herodotus (the fifth century BC.), called by Ciceron the “Father of History”, was a native but Hellenized Carian, born in Halicarnassus (modern Turkey) (Zamarovsky 1990:8). He has travelled a huge part of the world, even for our measure, and everywhere he did what the Greeks called ‘theory’, that is to say in modern language, conducting research (Ibid.:8). Accordingly, he got to know countries, cities and people, and wrote down everything he learned about their past (Ibid.:8). The work Histories of Herodotus to this day is a valuable historical resource about peoples such as the Lydians, Medes, Persians, the ancestors of the Greeks, the Scythians, and even the Slavs, and about lost countries, such as Babylon, Little Asiatic Greece, regions of India and Arabia, and, of course, ancient Egypt (Ibid.:8).

Bust of Herodotus, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen (2009). Public domain. Photo and caption source: ”Herodot” (2021). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Herodotus adds to the list of wonders and describes in detail also the Tower of Babel (the ziggurat of Etemenanki in ancient Babylon and not necessarily the Biblical Tower of Babel), the bridge over the Euphrates River again in Babylon and the legendary Egyptian labyrinth (Zamarovsky 1990:8). All these wonders either are in ruins, vanished or, like the latter, has never been found (though academic Egyptologists claim that the labyrinth has already been uncovered and it has turned out to be much less miraculous than it is described by the ancient historian).

Simultaneously, Herodotus also delightedly described three other buildings, all of the located on the island of Samos, treating them as ancient marvels of architecture (Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:3). These were the water-pipe tunnel, port breakwater and a temple in honour of Hera (Ibid.:3).

The book, Travels with Herodotus (2004) by Ryszard Kapuściński (1932-2007), a Polish journalist, photographer, poet and author shows how Herodotus’ records have also stimulated an imagination and creativity of modern authors (“Ryszard Kausciński” 2021). Kapuściński was the Communist-era Polish Press Agency’s correspondent and in the aforementioned book the author compares his travels through Asia and Africa with the adventures of the ancient historian, Herodotus, where he conducts deliberations and often recounts amusing or interesting anecdotes from his escapades, enriched by those from the Histories of Herodotus (“Ryszard Kausciński” 2021; lubimyczytać.pl 2021).

Personally, I often refer to the quotes from this book, especially those about the nature of man in relation to travel and the passion for discovering the world, or the the phenomenon of travelling itself:

After all, the journey does not start when we hit the road and it does not end when we reach the finish line. In fact, it starts much earlier and practically never ends, because the tape of memory keeps spinning inside us, even though we haven’t physically moved for a long time. Actually, there is such a thing as an infection by travel, and it is a kind of disease that is essentially incurable.

Ryszard Kapuściński, Travels with Herodotus, 2004.

And there is another interesting quote that seems particularly true in relation to travelles being continuously pushed into the unknown by their own personal passion and curiosity of the wold, in comparison to people to whom such feelings are completely alien:

The average person is not particularly curious about the world. Well, they are alive, they have to face this fact somehow and the less effort it costs them, the better. But learning about the world involves effort, and that is a great deal of effort that consumes men.

Ryszard Kapuściński, Travels with Herodotus, 2004.

I believe that explorers of the world must have made such an effort, from ancient times to the present day.

Father of Geography

Strabo. By André Thevet (1584) Original uploads comes from Potraits from the Dibner Library of the History and Science of Technology. Updated upload from the original scan from the book André Thevet, Les vrais pourtraits et vies des hommes illustres, chap. 35, page 76. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Strabon” (2020). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Strabo (the first century BC.), called in turn the “Father of Geography”, was a slightly later travel guide around the contemporary world (Zamarovsky 1990:8). He was born in the Greek settlement of Amaseia in Pontus (in present-day Turkey), by the Black Sea (Ibid.:8). Like Herodotus, Strabo undertook numerous journeys and travelled all over the known world (Ibid.:8). The results of his observations the author included in the seventeen books of Geographica hypomnemata (Ibid.:8).  As an ancient guide along the track of the Seven Wonders, Strabo helped find paths in ancient Egypt, on the Island of Rhodes and in Mesopotamia and described some of the Eastern legends related to the subject, such as those about Ninos and Semiramis (Ibid.:8).

Diodorus, Pliny and Pausanias, and their wonders

There were also other ancient travellers and authors, who were experts on the ancient wonders (Zamarovsky 1990:8). One of them was Diodorus Siculus or Diodorus of Sicily (the first century BC.) (Ibid.:8). He includes particularly important information on the wonders in his descriptions about Egypt, Babylon and Greece (Ibid.:8). Some of them he drew from the now lost work of Ctesias of Cnidus (the fifth century BC.), the physician of the Persian king, Artaxerxes the Second (Ibid.:8).

Diodorus Siculus as depicted in a nineteenth-century fresco). Uploaded by fonte. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Diodorus Siculus” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The next author, Gaius Plinius Secundus, known as Pliny the Elder (the first century AD.), was a Roman author, who created the famous Historia Naturalis (Zamarovsky 1990:8). In terms of the subject of wonders, it is extremely important that he was interested in the history of art and so he interpreted the wonders in their artistic context (Ibid.:8). Moreover, as a real Roman citizen, he also included on the list the whole city of Rome (Klein 1998:137). The constant drive to knowledge, however, ultimately led to Pliny’s downfall; on August 24, in 79 AD., the author wanted to take a closer look at the erupting volcano Vesuvius, which resulted in his death from poisoning by sulfur fumes (Zamarovsky 1990:8-9).

Nineteenth century image of Pliny the Elder. Uploaded by the User: Angela (2019). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Pliniusz Starszy” (2020). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

In the second century AD., there was another guide to the Seven Wonders, a Greek geographer Pausanias, who elevates to the rank of wonders the walls of a citadel from the times of the Mycenaean, located in Argolis, in the Peloponnese (today’s Tiryns) (Zamarovsky 1990:9). According to legend, it was the seat of the hero, Hercules, built of blocks so huge that the structure is attributed to one-eyed giants, Cyclopes (Ibid.:9). Hence, similar megalithic walls composed of crude stones are called Cyclopean. Pausanias’ work, known as Hellados Periegesis (Description of Greece), was especially appreciated by Heinrich Schliemann (1822 – 1890), the famous discoverer of Troy, who, using information from Pausanias, thought that he had excavated the so-called tomb of king Agamemnon in Mycenae (Peloponnese), in 1876 (Ibid.:9). The archaeological site is located around twenty kilometres north of Tiryns and is also characterised by similar Cyclopean masonry. Moreover, it has turned out that it is not the tomb of the legendary Greek chieftain from Troy, but actually of a Mycenaean king who reigned in Mycenae several centuries earlier (Ibid.:9).

More travel guides wanted

Manuscript of Pausanias’ Description of Greece at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, created circa 1485. Uploaded by Institution: Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana – Web Gallery of Art: Image Info about artwork. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Pausanias (geographer)” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Among other authors writing with the wonders of the world, a Roman poet, Marcus Valerius Martialis (the first century AD.), considers the Roman Colosseum to be the first of the wonders of the world (Zamarovsky 1990:9; Klein 1998:137). A Latin Author, Gaius Julius Hyginus (at the turn of our era) adds to the list of wonders the palace of the Persian king Cyrus in Ekbatan (today Hamadan in Iran), built of coloured stones and gold by an artist, named Memnon (Zamarovsky 1990:9; Klein 1998:137). The palace is also included among the wonders of the world by a  Roman writer Vibius Sequester (the fifth century) (Zamarovsky 1990:9). Another Roman geographer and historian, Lucius Ampelius (the fourth century) even multiplies the number seven by seven wonders and records forty-nine wonders of the world, including the oil sources in present-day Iraq or Iran (Ibid.:9).

More pretenders for the title

Among other wonders mentioned by various ancient authors, there is also a notice of the horned altar on the Greek island of Delos and Egyptian Thebes of the hundred gates (Klein 1998:137). And then one can list the wonders endlessly: Minos’ Labyrinth in Crete, Hadrian’s Tomb in Rome (today’s Castel Sant’Angelo), the Roman Capitol, the Athenian Acropolis, or finally the altar of Zeus in Little Asian Pergamon (modern Turkey) (Zamarovsky 1990:9).

From the Middle Ages to modern times

In the first millennium AD, two monks also wrote about the wonders of the ancient world in Christian Europe (Zamarovsky 1990:9). The one was an ex-dignitary at the court of the Ostrogothic king, Theodoric the Great, and was called Cassiodorus (490-583), whereas the second was an Anglo-Saxon historian, known as Beda (673-735) (Ibid.:9). J.C. Orelli assumes, however, that the work on the ancient wonders is wrongly ascribed to Bede, as the book seems too primitive to have been written by a man as educated as he was (Ibid.:9).

Historia Nturalis by Pliny the Elder. Uploaded in 2005. Public domain. Photo source: “Pliniusz Starszy” (2020). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

The author of the first modern work on the ancient wonders was also a monk, but apart from that also a French philologist and archaeologist, and a great traveller (Zamarovsky 1990:9). He is known as Bernard de Montfaucon (1665-1741) (Ibid.:9). In his work Diarium Italicum (Italian Journal) there is a new list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, which was based on ancient sources (Ibid.:9). It contains: Egyptian Thebes, the walls of Babylon, the Mausoleum in Halicarnassus, the pyramids by the Nile, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Roman Capitol and the Tomb of Hadrian (Ibid.:9).

After Bernard de Montfaucon, it was the turn for an encyclopaedist who eventually  represented such a list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World as it is well known today (Zamarovsky 1990:9).

The magic number of seven

All the lists of the ancient wonders may have  contained various monuments but they have always had one common feature (Klein 1998:139). Namely, the number of the ancient wonders has always been limited to seven (or seven was additionally multiplied by seven) (Ibid.:139). This was because the number of seven played an important role in the Greek tradition (Klein 1998:139; “7 (liczba)” 2020). Moreover, it was already widely referred to in cultures much older than that of ancient Greece (Klein 1998:139; “7 (liczba)” 2020). As a matter of fact, the ‘seven’ encompassed the entire mystery of existence and was seen as a magic number (Klein 1998:139). As such it reappears numerously in culture (Ibid.:139).

Masonry tunnel in ancient Tiryns,in Peloponnese, Greece. According to legend, it was the seat of the hero, Hercules, built of blocks so huge that the structure is attributed to one-eyed giants, Cyclopes. Photo by Alun Salt – originally posted to Flickr as Tiryns, a passageway (2005). CC BY-SA 2.0. Photo source: “Tiryns” (2021). ” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In ancient Greece, there were seven artes liberales, in Greek mythology, seven gates defended the Greek city of Thebes (Boeotia, central Greece), against which Theseus set off at the head of seven heroes (Klein 1998:139; “7 (liczba)” 2020). Then, the Christian tradition enumerates the Seven Cardinal Virtues, the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Sacraments, and the week was divided into seven days, too; as the Bible says, on the seventh day God rested after creating the world (Genesis 2:2-3) (Klein 1998:139; “7 (liczba)” 2020). It was also believed that there had been seven hills of Rome, on which the city was established, and that the heaven and hell were divided into seven spheres, hence the phrase ‘the seventh heaven’ (Klein 1998:139; “7 (liczba)” 2020). In addition, the Bible says about seven fat cows and seven thin cows, and then the seven ripe heads of grain and the seven worthless heads of grain (Genesis 41:26-27) (Klein 1998:139; “7 (liczba)” 2020). Noah waited seven days before he released a dove from the Ark to see if the flood waters had subsided (Genesis 8:6-12) (Klein 1998:139). Seven is also the key to Saint John’s Revelation; there are mentioned the seven churches, the seven spirits (Revelation 1:4), the Seven Signs in the Book of Signs (Revelation 1:19-12:50), seven golden lampstands (Revelation 1:12), seven stars (Revelation 1:16), a scroll with seven seals (Revelation 5:1), the Lamb with seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits (Revelation 5:6), as many angels, the trumpets of the Last Judgment (Revelation 8:2) thunders (Revelation 10:3) and seven thousand people killed in the earthquake (Revelation 11:13) (Ibid.::139). There is also a dragon with seven heads and seven crowns on its heads (Revelation 12:3), the seven last plagues (Revelation 15:1), seven golden bowls filled with the wrath of God (Revelation 15:7) and also seven kings (Revelation 17:10). Such list is much longer.

Coin from Elis district in southern Greece illustrating the Olympian Zeus statue (Nordisk familjebok). Unknown author – second (1904–1926) edition of Nordisk familjebok Transferred from sv.wikipedia. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Statue of Zeus at Olympia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

A special position of the number seven can also be obtained scientifically (Klein 1998:139). In mathematical terms, seven is a prime number, so it is only divided by itself and by one (Klein 1998:139; Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:2). Accordingly 7 cannot be a product or a quotient of integers other than 7 in the range from 1 to 6 and from 6 to 10, so it cannot be obtained either by multiplication or by dividing the integers from the given range (Klein 1998:139-140).

Rankings of modern wonders

From a psychological point of view, the number seven seemed to be perfect for the ancients in terms of quantity; it would have been too difficult or even impossible to select up to three ancient wonders, and a list of more than ten would, in turn, have lost its relevance (Klein 1998:140). One could imagine loads of magnificent buildings, but not loads of wonders of the world (Ibid.:140).

Nowadays, numerous travel guidebooks and magazines are created describing increasingly distant and exotic destinations (Lachowicz 2015). Such “wonders of the world” are usually illustrated in rankings, by referring to them as ‘places to visit before you die’. And although ‘the must-see places’ are usually grouped into sub-categories, like monuments and places within particular countries, cities, or lists including just architectural monuments or wonders of nature, their number keeps changing. Accordingly, one can find in travel books or online such travelling clues as “21 Most Beautiful Places in Poland to See Before You Die!”, “25 Truly Amazing Places To Visit Before You Die”, “30 World’s Best Places to Visit”, “50 Must Visit Places in the World” or “50 awe-inspiring natural wonders for your bucket list”, and so on …

Well, once the world has become larger, it has also got smaller due to greater possibilities of modern travellers to reach its remotest corners. Accordingly, the number of places to visit has essentially grown.

“Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids”, as an Arab proverb says; the Great Pyramid, as the Pyramid of Khufu is usually called, has captivated human imagination throughout centuries. Various studies evidently show that there are as many presumptions as false facts about the history and construction of the pyramid. As a result, it has remained an everlasting mystery. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Despite all these changes of the world, we still come back in memories to the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, which even now create a unique world of human achievements, on which Pliny the Elder writes about in the first century AD., referring to the Egyptian pyramids in his words: “Owing to such works, people ascend to gods, or gods descend among people” (Klein 1998:140-141).

Featured image: Own work made of two images from Wikipedia, illustrating the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World on the map: there are Great Pyramid of Giza, Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, Statue of Zeus at Olympia, Mausoleum at Halicarnassus (also known as the Mausoleum of Mausolus), Colossus of Rhodes, and the Lighthouse of Alexandria as depicted by 16th-century Dutch artist Maarten van Heemskerck. Images of the ancient wonders by Mark22 at English Wikipedia (2007). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Wonders of the World” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Combined with: Europe depicted by Antwerp cartographer Abraham Ortelius in 1595. The used Map by Abraham Ortelius – Orteliusmaps.com (created from 1570 until 1609). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “History of Europe” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Images cropped, colours changed to sepia.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

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Traces of Slavic Pagan Rites in the Polish Easter Tradition

Easter comes with spring and it is the most significant Christian holiday, also beautifully celebrated in Poland. The very beginning of spring had already been celebrated in Polish territory in the times of paganism and was associated among the former Slavs with the so-called Jare Gody, a several-day Slavic ritual spring festival that was a farewell to winter and a welcome to spring (Sławosław.pl 2019). These celebrations took place around the spring equinox and so began with the calendar spring, that is to say on the twenty-first March (Ibid.).

Goodbye to Marzanna

The first important ritual of the Jare Gody was to burn or drown Morena (Marzanna in Polish), an effigy which has been a symbol of the Slavic goddess of winter of the same name (Sławosław.pl 2019; “Morana (goddess)” 2021).

Marzanna in Poland. Photo by Ratomir Wilkowski, www.RKP.org.pl (2010). CC BY 3.0. Photo source: “Morana (goddess)” (2021). In Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Sometimes, for a better effect, even both of these activities were performed: first, Marzanna was set on fire, and then thrown into the water, especially into rivers whose currents are able to take her away from the view of the audience (Sławosław.pl 2019). In the past, this ritual was often accompanied by making noise: crackling, rattling, knocking, singing and playing all kinds of instruments (Ibid.). I am not sure if this custom is still celebrated in Polish schools. In my time, all the children at school participated in the competition to create the best effigy of Marzanna, which we later carried to the river and drowned them all there. I remember that the fun was great, although now children’s entertainment is unfortunately changing … Yet, my seven-year-old nephew still cuts out a small image of Marzanna from coloured paper and glues to her round head curly hair from tissue paper.

Jare Gody and Easter

As Marzanna is associated with winter, Jaryło and Jarowit, who were gods of fertility in the folklore of eastern and southern Slavs, are both associated with spring (Sławosław.pl 2019).

Morena effigy, Slovakia. Photo by T. Kičin, early twentieth century. Public domain. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Morana (goddess)” (2021). In Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Today, the place of pagan deities in Poland is obviously taken by the Risen Christ, who replaced them as a symbol of the New Life. In the pagan times, after the beginning of Jare Gody (the name originates from the names of the gods), people lit fires on the hills to summon as much heat and sun as possible (Ibid.). Willow and hazel twigs were also collected, from which the so-called panicles were made (Ibid.). Those were bunches of branches and flowers clogged on the roofs of new buildings (Ibid.). At that time, the houses were cleaned and incensed, as much as it is today, and traditional Slavic cakes were also baked (Ibid.). It was a time of joy, because then everything was slowly beginning to bloom and revive (Ibid.).

Pussy willow branches are cut and used for the panicles. Photo by Avicennasis (2010). Public domain. Photo source: “Śmigus-dyngus” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Christianity celebrates this time in a similar way, but with other religious values; houses are adorned with flowers and blooming twigs to glorify the promise of the Resurrection with the forthcoming of spring and with it, the hope that the dead will be reawakened to eternal life.

Different ways of fasting

In Poland, Easter is also a culinary celebration (Lemnis, Vitry 1979, p. 218). The overture to the Easter feasts has always been the preceding Lent. In old Poland, fasting was followed very strictly, even at the royal court, but those were primarily the poor urban population and peasants who fasted truly, in a real “Catholic” way, both for religious and material reasons (Ibid.:218). So people ate sour rye soup (żur), groats, cabbage, herring, and later also potatoes, all sprinkled only with oil (Ibid.:218). In the Polish region of Masuria, fasting was particularly exemplary, without using either butter or milk (Ibid.:218). At magnate courts and rich monasteries, people fasted in a peculiar way, serving various and deliciously seasoned fish dishes, by no means in fasting amounts, and alcoholic drinks did not seem to interfere with fasting at all (Ibid.:218).

Funeral of herring

On Good Friday, the court and city youth organized a “funeral of sour rye (żur) and herring” (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:218). The clay pot with the sour rye soup was smashed, while the herring was hung on a branch as a punishment for the fact it had ruled over meat for six weeks, harassing human stomachs with its weak meal” (Ibid.:218).

Actually nowadays, Polish żur is one of the most frequent served soups during Easter. Still, it is not a fasting dish, as it is usually enriched with halves of boiled eggs and slices of white or ordinary sausage.

The Easter “Blessed

In the mansions of magnates and noble courts, a wonderfully set Easter table was blessed by the parish priest or chaplain, while the poor brought food for the same reason to the church (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:218-219). On Easter Saturday, both in towns and villages, eggs, bread and salt were brought to the church and placed on the festive table after blessing (Ibid.:218).

Food blessing in the nineteenth century, by Michał Elwiro Andriolli (before 1893). Public domain. Photo source: “Święconka” 2020. In Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

This custom has fortunately remained in Poland to this day, when beautifully decorated baskets filled to the brim with Easter specialties are brought to the church and blessed. As the old Polish tradition dictates, the basket is not complete without beautifully painted eggs (pisanki), a piece of bread and salt.

Modern ceremony in Poland of blessing the food brought to the church in baskets for Easter breakfast. Photo by Błażej Benisz – WSD Ołtarzew, www.wsdsac.pl (2007). CC BY-SA 2.5. Photo source: “Święconka” 2020. In Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In addition, we put now a little bit of everything in the basket that will later be served on the Easter table: pepper, sausage, ham, horseradish, butter, a lamb made of sugar or flour, with the inscription “Hallelujah”, and for children – chocolate hares.

Pisanki and kraszanki

Easter in Polish folk cuisine was much more modest than that of the nobles, but more closely related to the old customs and rituals (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:219). Such relics of pagan beliefs include Easter eggs (pisanki or kraszanki in Polish), which are hard-boiled, dyed and artfully decorated; in the past it was usually made by village women (Ibid.:219). Painting eggs, which for the Slavs symbolized energy, joy of life and harvest in the new growing year was an important part of the pagan festival of Jare Gody (Sławosław.pl 2019). The culmination of the celebrations were feasts given on the hills, during which people sang, danced and exchanged Easter eggs as gifts (Ibid.). The practice of dyeing eggs for Easter still persists (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:219). The old Easter eggs were often true works of folk art; today’s ones usually give way to the old ones in terms of elegance and artistry (Ibid.:219). Yet all do their best to make them colourful and carefully decorated.

Easter eggs (pisanki). Photo by LeCornichon (2007). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Pisanka” (2021). In Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Since the egg is an ancient symbol of life, it has reigned supreme on Easter tables, because Easter is also a feast of nature awakening to life (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:219). Easter eggs were often dyed red in particular (Ibid.:219). A special dye can be used to obtain a dark red colour, but my mother always dyes the eggs organically by soaking them in onion shells. Such red Easter eggs had, according to ancient Slavic beliefs, magical properties and were said to be effective, especially in matters of love (Ibid.:219).

In the eastern territories of former Poland, it was also customary to give the priest Easter eggs on Good Friday (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:219). A French cartographer and architect, Guillaume de Beauplan, who stayed in seventeenth-century Poland, described this custom, claiming that the priest collected up to five thousand eggs in two hours (Ibid.:219). He also adds that while thanking the pious donors, he kissed the girls and the younger girls, but he only gave the hand to kiss to the old women (Ibid.:219).

Easter traffic in the kitchen

During the Holy Week, the greatest traffic was in the kitchen, from which the delicious smells of various dishes prepared for Easter came from (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:219). They aroused the appetites of the fasting household, longing for the Resurrection, which marked the end of the fast and the beginning of the Easter feast (Ibid.:219). Nowadays, we do fasting in Poland only on the Good Friday and Good Saturday, till the Resurrection, or we start celebrating just after the Easter Mass, when finally we sit down to a ceremonial breakfast. As in modern-day Poland, the so-called “Blessed” (“Święcone” in Polish), that is to say the food from the basket, and other delicacies were placed on the spring-decorated table in the dining room (Ibid.:219). Compared to the old Polish appetite, today’s one is much smaller. In old Poland, the Easter breakfast consisted of hams, sausages, brawn fish, fish in jelly, whole baked piglet and Easter cakes: mazurek cakes (Easter pastry), tortes and the famous old Polish “baba” cakes (Ibid.:219-220). Of course, vodka, meads, beer and wine were not forgotten (Ibid.:210).

The Easter Lamb made of butter or sugar towered over everything. It has been a symbol of the Risen Christ (Ibid.:210). The entire table, shimmering with a wide range of colours and tempting with seductive scents, was decorated with green dyes and colourful Easter eggs (Ibid.:220). Of course, the blessed food eaten on Easter was either more modest or stunningly rich, which depended on the wealth of the house (Ibid.:220).

Easter breakfast

Easter breakfast started either quite early, or at noon or even a little later (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:242). In some houses, the more impatient gentlemen “attacked” the festive table already on Good Saturday, but mostly these were just preliminaries to the Sunday “culinary battle” (Ibid.:242). The Easter feast, even the most modest one, began with the sharing of a hard-boiled egg with mutual wishes, as it happened between pagan Slavs (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:220; Sławosław.pl 2019). The “Blessed” consisted only of cold dishes, with a huge variety of tastes and aromas (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:220). People were seated at the table, which, due to the set of dishes, was the prototype of today’s cold buffet (Ibid.:220). Of the hot dishes, only red borscht prepared on beetroot kvass was served, which differed from Christmas borscht in that it was cooked on essential meat broth, often on boiled ham (Ibid.:242). Instead of Christmas Eve dumplings, quarters of hard-boiled eggs or sliced ​​sausage were put into the borscht (Ibid.:242). At the end of the feast, hot bigos (a Polish dish of cabbage, meat and sausages) was served (Ibid.:242).

Formerly, different beliefs were associated with some of the dishes on the Easter table (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:242). According to Mikołaj Rej (1505-1569), a poet and prose writer who lived during the reign of King Zygmunt August, sausage protected against snake biting, horseradish – from fleas, and roasted hazel grouse from … prison.

Easter baba sprinkled with powdered sugar. Photo by Diego Delso (2013). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Baba wielkanocna” (2019). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Polish Easter pastries also deserve special attention during the celebration: tortes, bundt cakes (“baba” cakes) and Easter pastry (“mazurek” cakes) (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:220).

Polish queen from Italy and tortes

Tortes appeared relatively late in Polish cuisine and the fashion for them probably came from Italy, thanks to Polish queen, Bona Sforza d’Aragona (1494 – 1557) who came from the Dutchy of Milan (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:220). During the reign of her son, Zygmunt II August (Sigismund II Augustus 1520 – 1572), splendour and luxury prevailed at the royal court in Krakow (Ibid.:222). The queen mother herself, marrying the Polish king, Zygmunt I Stary (Sigismund the Old 1467 – 1548), introduced Italian customs to the court (Ibid.:222).

The traditional form of baking baba cakes. Photo by Hubertl (2014). CC BY-SA 3.0. The making of this work was supported by Wikimedia Austria. Photo source; “Baba wielkanocna” (2019). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

This meeting of two high-level European cultures has proved beneficial in many cases, particularly in the fields of art, architecture, literature and music (Ibid.:223). With time, Italian influences also began to emerge in Polish cuisine (Ibid.:223). Italians were amazed to see how much meat Poles ate every day (Ibid.:223). The Poles, on the other hand, mocked the Italians’ love of vegetables, which they considered exaggerated (Ibid.:223). And although vegetables are often served on Polish tables, the excessive and by no means health-promoting passion for meat dishes has remained with us to this day (Ibid.:223). An example of this is the Easter table with the “Blessed”, both in the past and now (Ibid.:223).

Baba cakes

Among the Easter cakes served to this day, the so-called baba cakes (bundt cakes) and mazurek cakes (Easter pastry) are a peculiarity and pride of Old Polish cuisine and native Polish specialties (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:220).

The girl in the national Polish costume, serving Polish baba cake. Postcard sent on April 11, 1936, entitled “Happy Hallelujah”. Publisher: Polonia Kraków. By Adam Setkowicz.Publisher: Polonia Kraków (1936). Public domain. Image source: “Baba wielkanocna” (2019). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Baking Easter baba cakes was an emotional event and could be called a kind of theatrical mystery (Ibid.:221). The cook, the housewife and other women locked themselves in the kitchen, where men were forbidden to enter their kingdom (Ibid.:221). The whitest wheat flour was sifted through a sieve, hundreds of yolks with sugar were rubbed in pots, saffron was dissolved in vodka, which not only beautifully coloured the dough yellow, but also gave it a spicy aroma Ibid.:221). Then the almonds were ground, the raisins were carefully selected, the scented vanilla was mashed in mortars, and the yeast was made into a leaven (Ibid.:221). The dough placed in the cupcake moulds was covered with linen tablecloths, because the “chilled” baba cake did not grow and was slack-baked (Ibid.:221). So the windows and doors of the kitchen were sealed for fear of drafts (Ibid.:221). Properly grown baba cakes were carefully put into the oven (Ibid.:221). Finally, as they were lifted from the hot cavities of the oven on a wooden shovel, it was not uncommon for the kitchen to hear dramatic shouts and crying; a baba cake which was browned too much or “sat down” was a disgrace (Ibid.:221).

A selection of Mazurek cakes ready for Easter in Poland. Photo by Magic Madzik – Flickr: 100/365: Ready for Easter (2009). CC BY 2.0. Photo source: “Mazurek (cake)” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Simultaneously, successful baba cakes taken out of the oven were placed on fluffy quilts to prevent them from being crushed while cooling down (Ibid.:221). In addition, the conversation was in whispers, as the noise could harm the delicate dough (Ibid.:221). The cooled baba cakes were beautifully and generously glazed (Ibid.:221). The most famous and delicate were the so-called fluffy and muslin babas (Ibid.:221).

Mazurek

On the other hand, the origin of the mazurek has not been sufficiently explained so far (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:221). Perhaps they reveal the influence of sweet Turkish cuisine (Ibid.:221). Mazurek is a low cake, usually on a crispy bottom or on a wafer, covered with a layer of nut, almond, cheese and dried fruit mass, colourfully glazed and beautifully decorated with preserves and dried fruit (Ibid.:221). Good housewives often had several dozen recipes for mazurek cakes (Ibid.:221).

How Poles spend Easter

According to our tradition, we spend the first day of Easter at home with our family and sometimes we invite our closest friends to the “Blessed” breakfast (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:264). On the second day of Christmas, that is the Good Monday, we either visit our friends ourselves or host guests (Ibid.:264). Then we serve cold stews or bigos as a starter, and after borscht or żur, usually roast meat, such as turkey in rich sauce (Ibid.:264). The sweet finale are surely Easter cakes: mazurek, baba cakes and tortes (Ibid.:221).

Śmigus-Dyngus

The Good Monday morning is still associated with a long tradition of pouring water over each other, hence usually called “Wet Monday” or, more commonly, “Śmigus-Dyngus” (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:264).

Soaking a Polish girl on śmigus-dyngus (a postcard). Nationwide Specialty Co., Arlington, Texas — In Buffalo, N.Y., Stanley Novelty Co., 200 S. Ogden St. – Boston Public Library (circa 1930-1945). CC BY 3.0. Photo source: “Śmigus-dyngus” (2021). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Of course, this rite comes from our pagan ancestors (Sławosław.pl 2019). Slavic Śmigus and Dyngus were originally separate rites and cleansing rituals, bringing strength and health (Ibid.). Śmigus relied on lashing each other with blooming twigs, and Dyngus on pouring water over each other (Ibid.). In the evening of that day, the dead were remembered, their graves were visited and they were offered food (Ibid.). The custom of pouring water, that is to say Dyngus, has survived to this day as a real national water fight, especially in the countryside (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:264). Yet, it is still called Śmigus-Dyngus. In the Old Poland, particularly unmarried girls were the victims of watering, and boys were their “water” attackers (Ibid.:264). The girls defended themselves vigorously and noisily (Ibid.:264). In reality, however, they were satisfied, because if a girl had not got soaked on that day, she would have been considered deliberately disregarded, which did not bring about a quick marriage, and even threatened with her ending as a spinster (Ibid.:264). In cities, especially nowadays, water can be streamed to anybody, either with buckets, water guns, bottles, or balloons filled with water and thrown from above (Culture.pl 2014). In rare cases, water is sprayed in small sprinklers in the form of colourful eggs or perfumes are used instead of water, confined to rather symbolic sprinkling of a potential “victim” (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:264).

But just in case, to avoid getting soaked, especially when it is still chilly outside, it is definitely better to stay home on that day, enjoying that time together with your family and friends and to have an opportunity to change your clothes if the fun is full-blown (Culture.pl 2014).

Another opportunity to spend family holidays

As in 2020, Easter of 2021 is still heavily marked by the time of pandemic and so it cannot be fully celebrated, especially by participating in all religious celebrations in the church. People usually take part in them by means of online transmissions. Nevertheless, today, that is to say on Good Saturday, according to the long Polish tradition, people anyway came to the church with their beautifully decorated baskets to bless the food to be served on Easter Sunday as the “Blessed”. Although last year I was spending Easter on my own in Dublin due to the pandemic, this year for the same reasons, I can enjoy it together with my family. After Christmas, 2020, it is the second important family feast I have had an opportunity to celebrate in Poland, and hence write on typical Polish traditions connected with Christian feasts, some of which have originated from pagan Slavic rites, still very present in our modern Polish lives.

Happy Easter and God bless!

Featured image: “The Resurrection” by Ricci, Sebastiano (1659 – 1734). Uploaded by DcoetzeeBot (2012). Public domain {{PD-US}}. In: Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Image cropped.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology;
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Baba wielkanocna” (2019). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3wlGWka>. [Accessed on 3rd April, 2021].

“Mazurek (cake)” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/31JeieF>. [Accessed on 3rd April, 2021].

“Morana (goddess)” (2021). In Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2R26GSy>. [Accessed on 2nd April, 2021].

“Pisanka” (2021). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3mjapq9>. [Accessed on 3rd April, 2021].

“Śmigus-dyngus” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at < https://bit.ly/3rLClEn>. [Accessed on 3rd April, 2021].

“Święconka” 2020. In Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3cMv3Mn>. [Accessed on 3rd April, 2021].

“West Slavic fermented cereal soups” (2021). In Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2PoOfHm>. [Accessed on 3rd April, 2021].

“Wielkanoc” (2021). In Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3wlCkdQ>. [Accessed on 3rd April, 2021].

Culture.pl (2014). “Śmigus-Dyngus: Poland’s National Water Fight Day”. In: Culture.pl. Available at <https://bit.ly/3cIAMmq>. [Accessed on 3rd April, 2021].

Lemnis M., Vitry H. (1979). W staropolskiej kuchni i przy polskim stole. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Interpress.

“The Resurrection” by Ricci, Sebastiano (1659 – 1734). Uploaded by DcoetzeeBot (2012). Public domain {{PD-US}}. In: Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Available at <https://bit.ly/3dzTqMm>. [Accessed on 3rd April, 2021].

Sławosław.pl (2019) “Cykl roczny: wiosna”. In: Sławosław.pl. Sławny Słowian Świat. Creative Commons 4.0. Available at <https://bit.ly/3h9N0Fe>. [Accessed on 2nd April, 2021].

Images of the ‘Infancy Gospels’ in Sgraffito

Once again I found myself among the finest artefacts gathered by the British Museum; I felt as if I had been in the middle of piled or scattered volumes, surrounding me and calling for being opened and read. Walking up and down between all the museal objects, without paying them enough attention, would be like skipping pages of those books and missing their stories. It is worth thus choosing one and read it from cover to cover.

Room 40 in the British Museum

At that time, the Room 40 of the Medieval Europe galleries was my destination for homework; I was studying one of the core modules of Medieval Cultures at Birkbeck College and was analysing medieval artefacts preserved by the Museum for the following class. There were just few people around so I decided to squat on the floor and making my notes in front of ‘my homework’. Those were eight red clay tiles resembling large domino blocks of 33 centimetres long and 16 centimetres wide, but without black dots (The British Museum I 2021).

Instead, there were intriguing medieval representations of apocrypha scenes related to the unknown events of Jesus Christ’s lifetime, which is not recorded in the canonical Bible (Robinson et al. 2008:118; Casey 2007:1). Such artistic documents do not only seem uncommon in traditional representations of the Christ but may be also provocative in their interpretations (Casey 2007:1). First of all, the official image of Jesus known from the writings and art stand here in sharp contrast to the illustration of Christ provided by the tiles, especially because they depict and regard Him as a Child at the age between five and twelve (Ibid.:1). Such images, however, do not belong to a canonical tradition of the Gospels but are taken possibly from the anonymous second century’s Apocryphal Infancy of Christ Gospels, translated into art in the form of the earthenware rectangular tiles in the fourteenth century AD., precisely circa 1330 (Casey 2007:1; The British Museum I 2021).

Biblical story of the Child Jesus

The four Gospels written by tradition by the Evangelists, Saint Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the only recognized source of Christ’s life and ministry (Robinson et al. 2008:118).

Nazareth as depicted on a Byzantine mosaic (Chora Church, Constantinople) (created between 1315-1320). Meister der Kahriye-Cami-Kirche in Istanbul – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202. Public domain. Colours intensified, Image source: “Nazareth” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.
Marble sculpture of “Christ as the Teacher” (Cristo docente) by anonymous early Christian Roman sculptor (the fourth century AD.) Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome. Photo source: Weitzmann, K., ed. (1979). “Age of Spirituality: Late Antique and Early Christian Art, Third to Seventh Century:”, p. 524; statue: 469. In: MET Publications.

According to the Evangelists, Saint Luke and Saint Matthew, the Holy Family, after their stay in Egypt, returned to Nazareth in Galilee (Rops 1944:109). Little Christ’s homeland was just that little town, white and green, situated on the slope of the rolling hills that enclose the Jezreel Valley to the north (Ibid.:111). The streets and houses of Nazareth are like all the streets and houses of the East (Ibid.:111). The city is only distinguished by the number of its churches, monasteries and bell towers; it is surrounded by a semi-circle of gently rolling hills dotted with villages with houses made of white clay (Rops 1944:111). Among the olives, the vineyards and grain fields, bullets of black cypress trees shoot up into the sky (Ibid.:111). The gardens of Nazareth are full of lilies and verbenas, and on many walls of its houses, juicy flowers of bougainvillea spread their covers in the colour of episcopal purple (Ibid.:111). It was in this environment that Jesus the Child grew up (Ibid.:111). However, one should not imagine him under the very graceful figure represented by a late antique statue from the fourth century, known as Jesus the Teacher, preserved in the National Museum of Baths of Diocletian in Rome: he is represented there too calm, too well-mannered, and hieratic in his long pleated tunic (Ibid.:111). Rather, it should be assumed that little Jesus looked like one of those lively, nervous kids that one still meets on the roads of Palestine, lightly dressed, barefoot, with an expression of great intelligence on passionate and serious faces (Ibid.:111).

The House of the Holy Family

The life of the Holy Family, whose secrets so many painters wanted to represent, was passing in one of the modest houses of Nazareth, one of those that can still be seen today (Rops 1944:111). There is usually only one room inside them; there is a sweet smell of oil in the air; smoke from the fire often comes out only through the door; in the evening, a clay lamp placed on an iron candle, or on a stone protruding from the wall, casts a dim light (Ibid.:111).

In the modern town of Nazareth, there are plenty of monuments ascribed to the times of Christ Child: the Basilica of Annunciation with said remains of the house of the Virgin Mary, the Mary’s Well or Joseph’s workshop. Based on various archaeological excavations, it is assumed the Holy Family’s house looked like the one in which the Archangel Gabriel announced Mary she would conceive and bear the Son of God (today overbuilt with the walls of the Basilica of the Annunciation); it was probably largely underground, embedded in the soft local limestone; God’s Child was to walk up its rather primitive stairs, in the contemporary Basilica, they are today decorated with mosaics (Rops 1944:111-112).

Bejt-haseter

Jesus received the education that all young Israelites received; it seems that at that time there were whole cycles of studies described by the Talmud (Rops 1944:112). They were dependent on the synagogue, and they were led by a hassan, someone like a sacristan, perhaps the administrator of a venerable place, where the faithful gathered (Ibid.:112). In the bejt-haseter, an elementary school, boys, sitting around the great scroll of the Law, repeated the verses of the Torah in chorus until they had memorized them perfectly (Ibid.:112).

Probably, the adolescent Jesus did not pursue further studies in one of the rabbinical schools that existed near Nazareth (Ibid.:112). This assumption is supported by an openly expressed amazement of Jesus’ family members and acquaintances who heard his wise preaching in God’s matters (Ibid.:112).

Finding in the Temple

Jesus, therefore, grew up in Nazareth living in a modest house with his mother and adoptive father, Joseph, and after his death, He lived in the company of numerous cousins (Rops 1944:113). The canonical messages regarding this period are limited (Ibid.:113): “And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him” (Luke 2:40). And only one episode of this time is known from the Bible; namely, the one that happened in the twelfth year of Jesus’ life, when a young Jew was becoming a man and a “son” of the Law (Ibid.:113).

Christ among the Doctors, c. 1560, by Paolo Veronese. Public domain. Colours intensified. Painting source: “Finding in the Temple” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The event in question is the famous scene from the Temple; Mary and Joseph, as devout Jews, went to Jerusalem every year for the Passover (Rops 1944:113). Perhaps for the first time they took the Son with them (Ibid.:113). In the evening of the first day of their journey back, Joseph and Mary were looking for Jesus among their friends and relatives (Ibid.:114). They did not him all day, but assumed that he had joined some group of relatives or friends (Ibid.:114). Extremely worried, they returned to Jerusalem and it took them three days to finally find Him in the Temple (Ibid.:114). In its cloisters, surrounded by a circle of students, the wise men taught; the children squeezed into the crowd of listeners and were sometimes allowed to ask questions (Ibid.:114).

The twelve-year-old Jesus, however, was not among the listeners but sat among the wise men of Israel (Rops 1944:114), and “[everyone] who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:47). “When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, ‘Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you ‘.’ Why were you searching for me? ‘ [Jesus] asked. ‘Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?’ “(Luke 2: 48-49). Jesus’ words show that He is fully aware of his mission. There is also the teaching of the Gospel that whoever wants to follow Christ must sever all human ties and bonds (Ibid.:114).

‘Unofficial’ God’s life

This one and only event in Jesus’ childhood, described in detail in the Bible, though so eloquent, has not satisfied yet the curiosity of the crowds since the first centuries of Christianity through the Middle Ages to the present day (Rops 1944:114).

New Testament Apocrypha. First page of the Gospel of Judas (Page 33 of Codex Tchacos). Uploaded by WolfgangRieger (2009).”The Gospel of Judas. Critical Edition”. Washington 2007. Public domain. Photo source: “Infancy gospels” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

There are yet other ancient records of Christ’s life but apocryphal, that is to say officially rejected from the standard Bible, though not sanctioned by the Church (Robinson et al. 2008:118). “In everyday conversation ‘apocryphal’ refers to a story of doubtful authenticity, but one that is nevertheless told frequently, perhaps even believed widely. The New Testament apocrypha are books accepted by neither Catholic nor Protestant faiths, although artists and theologians have used them as sources of information and ideas” (Austin “Footnote” Date unknown).  Especially in the Middle Ages, the apocrypha was used to elaborate on gaps in the Gospel stories, which were thought fairly sparse in details about the life of Christ (Robinson et al. 2008:118; see Casey 2007; Austin Date unknown). “Apocryphal stories, [such as the one] based on the dream of Pilate’s wife, […] or of the forging of the nails for Christ’s crucifixion were [therefore] incorporated into medieval mystery plays and were an integral part of the imaginative religious experience” (Robinson et al. 2008:118). The light and colour used in the art of churches and cathedrals additionally embellished the words heard from priests during their homilies; by various artistic expressions, people who everyday experienced poor and hard conditions, could admire the splendour and dignity of the image of the mighty and omnipresent God who yet became Man and suffered for the sins of mankind. At the time, when Biblical stories were accessed in paintings and sculpture for the illiterate populace, their main characters were treated similarly to modern celebrities, and like today, common people wished to know more details about their lives than the official version of the Church was able to offer.

Jesus between His years five and twelve

“One of the most frustrating  absences in the Gospels is the early years of Christ’s life, [that id to say when He is between five and twelve. In the Bible, “Christ is encountered as an infant and then later as an adolescent disputing with the doctors of the law in the Temple but no mention is made of His upbringing or his relationship with his parents” (Robinson et al. 2008:118).

Nazareth,1842. In the Holy Land Book. Image by David Roberts. Public domain. Photo source: “Christ Child” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In the eyes of contemporary people, this gap had successfully been complemented by the apocryphal Infancy Gospels, believed to have been written anonymously by early Christians from the second century AD., who imaginatively tried to create their own fictional version of what Jesus’ childhood might have been like (Casey 2007:3). Yet these imaginary pictures were quite successfully interwoven with the canonical portrayal of Jesus’ life (Ibid.:3-4). Simultaneously, the apocrypha author built up the stories around their own experiences in the process of the development of Christianity (Ibid.:3; see Elliott ed. 2005).

Anecdotes about the Christ’s Childhood

Surely, the Infancy Gospels had circulated in oral tradition before a series of their written compilations appeared (Casey 2007:4). From the very beginning, however, all of them shared several cohesive narrative elements (Ibid.:4). Central to this genre is the Gospel of Thomas dating back to the second century (Ibid.:4). It “describes the doings of Jesus during his boyhood, no record of which exists in the canonical gospels.  According to Thomas, Jesus proved to be an infant prodigy at school, instructing his teachers in the unsuspected mysteries of the alphabet and astonishing his family and friends by the miracles that he performed” (Austin “Footnote” Date unknown). The Infancy Gospels tell a lot of different anecdotes about this unknown period of Christ’ childhood (Rops 1944:114-115). Some of them are famous and charming; Jesus, playing with His companions, makes birds out of clay, and then gives them life, and when He claps his hands, the wonderful creatures start flying in the air (Ibid.:115). Jesus is also playing with the other children at the entrance to the grotto, and then suddenly two huge snakes come out of it; the joyful flock runs away screaming, only Jesus remains and calmly orders the dangerous beasts to place their heads under the feet of His Mother, Mary (Ibid.:115).

Jesus (on the right) animating the clay bird toys of his playmates. Klosterneuburger Evangelienwerk, Germania, 14th century. Public domain. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Nazareth” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The Apocrypha also attributes many miracles to Christ Child (Rops 1944:115). Many of them are modelled on the miracles of the canonical Gospels; they tell that one seed Child Jesus planted is enough to feed an entire city in times of famine (Ibid.:115). Another time, the Apocrypha depict the young worker who is resurrected by Christ (Ibid.:115). Other miracles are rather magical; Jesus, riding the mule, turns the spell on him and the animal becomes a beautiful youth again (Ibid.:115). Another miracle tells that as the little Christ calls out, the salted fish begins to roll and flutter (Ibid.:115). Another time at school, when a teacher starts teaching Jesus the alphabet, the Child proves that he can do it, even though he has not learned it before (Ibid.:115).

Other apocryphal miracles can seem utterly repulsive while being attributed to the Son of God; when the same teacher wants to punish his rebellious Student, he sees at once that his hand is withered (Rops 1944:115). In turn, to show off His power to His playmates, Jesus turns one of them into a ram, another, who poked Him, becomes stroke dead (Ibid.:115).

Apocrypha in art

In the eighth or ninth centuries, the Gospel of Thomas was furthermore compiled with the Protevangelium of James, including the Apocrypha of the Virgin Mary (Casey 2007:4).  As such, it formed the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (Ibid.:4; see Elliott ed. 2005). And when the cult of the Virgin Mary had grown since the twelfth century, an interest in her Parents’ lives and the Holy Family with the Christ Child in the center also raised, and so did the interest in the Apocrypha, which was mainly reflected through art in the whole Christian world (Robinson et al. 2008:118). As such all these, more or less known apocryphal fairy tales served especially as a source of inspiration for the painters and sculptors of the Middle Ages; paintings and mosaics of small churches and images of Gothic cathedrals are full of memories of these Christian legends (Rops 1944:115).

Saint Anne ( circa ninth century AD). Nubian wall painting. By unknown author. The National Museum in Warsaw. Public domain. Source: “Saint Anne (wall painting)” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

It is enough to mention a set of wall paintings created inside the Nubian church of Faras, with the representations known ultimately from the Apocrypha. Among them, there is the eight century’s famous representation of the Virgin Mary’s Mother, Saint Anne with her mysterious gesture of pointing her index finger to the lips (see: Saint Anne of Nubia – “it will make you speechless”.). “Scenes such as these are [also] depicted in the [fourteenth century’s] Tring Tiles” (Austin “Footnote” Date unknown).

Medieval apocryphal writings

With the late twelfth century, an increased fascinations with the humanity of the Christ, especially with His childhood, had further inspired the creation of a large number of manuscripts, which mainly originated from the writings of the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, many of which were written in vernacular languages (Casey 2007:4). Such extensive compilation of the Infancy stories, along with the French manuscript Bodleian MS. Selden Supra 38.8 (circa 1325), combined of the Anglo-Norman manuscript, Les Enfaunces de Jesu Crist and an Apocalypse manuscript, were apparently the foundations of the now lost model for the Tring Tiles (Ibid.:4-5). Although the Bodleian MS. Selden Supra 38.8 is the most complete medieval illuminated manuscript with the Infancy Gospel stories, its illustrated simple and miniature figures significantly vary with the style of highly expressive and highly caricatured images on the Tring Tiles (Ibid.:5).

Red clay tiles

The Tring Tiles, ceramic pieces of 3,5 centimetres in thickness, were made in the technique known as sgraffito, an expensive hand-worked process popular especially in France (The British Museum I 2021; Austin Date unknown), which involves “decorating ceramics [where] a substrate, usually ‘slip’, is incised to reveal the contrasting ground underneath” (The British Museum I 2021). Obtained in this way slip-decorated designs on the tiles were additionally lead-glazed (Ibid.). The group of tiles was uncovered during the late Victorian (the mid-nineteenth century) restoration of Tring Parish Church in Hertfordshire, which has given the tiles its name (Casey 2007:7; Austin Date unknown).

Four of the Tring Tiles preserved by the British Museum; Room 40 in the Medieval Gallery. Image cropped and colours intensified.. Photo source: Priory Tiles (2021). “The Tring Tiles”. In: Priory Tiles.

“Although the tiles were, for the most part, found in a curiosity shop in Tring” (Munday 2018), it is not sure if they had originally been laid down in the church or only preserved or applied there after being moved from elsewhere, even from abroad (Austin Date unknown; Munday 2018). “More research into the origins of the tiles needs to be done, for the mystery is still far from solved” (Ibid.). Nevertheless, “the peculiar character of their sgraffito design, may suggest that they were produced in the east of England, where this technique was popular on pottery” (British Museum II 2021).

Having been found, the tiles were continuously passed through many hands before achieving their final place: nowadays, ten complete tiles and a few fragments are known of which the eight are preserved in the British Museum and the two, saved by a local resident, are displayed in the Victoria and Albert Museum (The British Museum I 2021; Casey 2007:7-8; Austin Date unknown). Still their number is not complete; the tiles must have been part of a much larger scheme, unfortunately now lost (Robinson et al. 2008:118). Their condition is surprisingly good, and for this reason, it is believed that the tiles had never been walked on in a pavement of the church floor but were possibly used as a frieze set on the walls of the chancel (Austin Date unknown; the British Museum I 2021).

Medieval comic strip

Today, the Tring Tiles are remarkable survivals witnessing the devotional curiosity of the Middle Ages with the Christ’s childhood (Robinson et al. 2008:118) and a clear reflection of “the resurgence in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries of Christianity’s focus on the humanity of Christ” (Casey 2007:2).  “The scenes [on the tiles] are arranged in pairs [except for one of the canonical character], in a composition that resembles a modern-day comic strip” (Robinson et al. 2008:118). There are more traditional Christian miracles, such as a multiplication of food (Casey 2007:1): “planting a single grain of wheat, which immediately produces an entire crop for the poor to harvest” (Ibid.:1). There is equally a scene showing “healing the lame and the injured” (Ibid.:1).

The four other Tring Tiles preserved by the British Museum; Room 40 in the Medieval Gallery. Image cropped and colours intensified. Photo source: Priory Tiles (2021). “The Tring Tiles”. In: Priory Tiles.

Christ is obviously the driving force of all these miracles. Still He is also the hero of more humoristic but confrontational scenes while He is depicted “at play, [often resulting in fatal accidents], working in the fields or in the carpenter’s workshop, at school, and, occasionally, in trouble” (Robinson et al. 2008:118). On the whole, the “[stories] told by the tiles are drawn from the ordinary activities of children, though enriched by a miraculous element” (The British Museum II 2021), which, on the other hand, “struggle [to show] the notion of a child at once human and divine”(Robinson et al. 2008:118).

Consequently, the angelic face of the Child Jesus, as drawn on holy pictures in the Church, as much as in the Tring Tiles (Casey 2007:2) “may belie the strangeness of his actions” (Ibid.:2); the Christ Child behaves as an average boy but granted with supernatural powers that he openly uses not only in good intentions but also for his own, rather selfish purposes; if the author of the Apocrypha “was to humanize the Christ Child, he went to such [extremes in Jesus’ behaviour] that centuries of Popes, Church Fathers, theologians and scholars have dismissed the stories as incorrect, […] exaggerated [and even heretic, as they declare] the [Child] Jesus to be rude, vindictive, unruly, and ‘non-Christian’” (Ibid.:3).

Mediation of the Virgin Mary

Such an attitude of the Church is not surprising; in the apocryphal legends, also illustrated on the Tring Tiles, Jesus transforms other boys into pigs and even kills his colleagues and a Jewish teacher for offending Him, after which, however, He restores them either to the previous state or even to life, especially on the initiative of His Mother, Saint Mary, who asks Him for mercy on behalf of the people and, in every instance, the intercession of the Virgin Mary sees the return to normality (Robinson et al. 2008:118; Casey 2007:1; Munday 2018).

The image of the Virgin Mary with Jesus Child in one of the illuminations decorating the Infancy Gospels in Bodleian MS. Selden Supra 38.8, fol. 027v (detail) (c. 1315-1325). Apocryphal Childhood of Christ. Written in French. Image source: Bodleian Library (2021) “Bodleian MS. Selden Supra 38, pt. 1”. In: Digital Bodleian; Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

Sometimes, the Virgin is represented as if She rebuked Her Son for His bad behaviour towards humans (Casey 2007:15) or even as if “it was the Virgin, not [Her Son], who restores order after a death or some other catastrophe” (Munday 2018). Such an illustration of the Jesus’s Mother shows the cult of the Virgin Mary at its height and underlines Her increasing, almost godlike power in the Christian tradition (Munday 2018; Casey 2007:15). Despite the negative reaction of the Church officials’ towards the Infancy Gospels, the Church simultaneously remained quite tolerant when it comes to a growing popularity of such stories among the lay Christian populace, and while they were being consecutively repeated in multiplying images created by artists in religious art, like those depicted on the Tring Tiles (Casey 2007:3).

Starting with a miracle

I decided to start analyzing the objects from up down; consequently, I looked up at the uppermost tile in the showcase covered with glass. It displays two, rather unrelated scenes; the first one shows a cart drawn by one horse and two peasants harvesting a field of wheat, miraculously grown from the one grain which Jesus has planted (Fig.1A) (Casey 2007:27,39). In Pseudo-Matthew and Selden Supra 38 the grain is barley (Ibid.:27). The tile with the preceding scene of Christ sowing and multiplying His Mother’s grain is lost. Missing scenes obviously disturb the continuity of the story represented on the Tring Tiles. Although they can be easily complemented and retold by means of the written versions of the Infancy Gospels, the tile showing the reaping of wheat miraculously multiplied to a vast amount still remains combined with an unconnected accident, namely Fathers and Jesus at oven (Fig.1B) (Ibid.:39).

‘Unpleasant’ transformation

The latter scene (Fig.1B) shows three parents of Jesus’ colleagues who “are reluctant for their children to play with Jesus [and thus] often [implement] extreme measures to prevent [His] contact with [their children]” (Robinson et al. 2008:118). In the scene, they are standing with Jesus Child in front of an oven, pointing to it.

Fig. 1A “Harvesting” and Fig. 1B “Fathers and Jesus at oven”, represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Priory Tiles (2021). “The Tring Tiles”. In: Priory Tiles.

The medieval Infancy Gospels say that the parents have just hid their children in the oven away from Jesus only to find them later transformed by Him into pigs, when they finally open it (Robinson et al. 2008:118). “Missing from the extant Tring Tiles is the pig-children’s culminating escape from the oven, but this dramatic scene would undoubtedly have been part of the original tile series” (Casey 2007:38). The story is not a part of Greek and Latin texts of the apocryphal Gospels of Thomas or Pseudo-Matthew (Ibid.: 38). Yet it may have originally been included in one of the early versions of Gospels of Thomas, from which it was removed for being too ‘unpleasant’ (Ibid.:38). Anyway, it reappears in early apocryphal literature of the Arabic Infancy Gospel but the boys there are transformed not into pigs but into goats (Ibid.:38). “The exchange of the pigs for goats has been attributed to a […] Jewish aversion to pork, a restriction shared with Islam” (Ibid.:40).

Another reason may be the historic antisemitic association of Jews with pigs or an Islamic notion (Casey 2007:40), according to which “Jews [and] Christians were once punished by being transformed into pigs and apes” (Ibid.:40). Nevertheless, the story with the boys transformed into pigs already appears in medieval Christian manuscripts and so must equally have been included in the lost model for the Tring Tiles (Ibid.:38-39).

Privileged animals, a miracle, and the Crown for the Virgin Mary

In the lower row, there are two tiles; one from the left portrays jumping and apparently happy lion cubs, accompanied by Child Jesus, His Mother Mary and Joseph, and two Jews further behind them (Fig.2A) (Austin Date Unknown). The scene is to express the fact that in contrast to Jews, animals are able to recognize Jesus as the Son of God (Ibid.). In the scene, “Mary’s appearance reflects the evolution of the Cult of the Virgin by the early fourteenth century as she is portrayed in elegant Gothic dress, wearing the crown of the Queen of Heaven, as opposed to her depiction in Selden Supra 38, where she is seated, holding a book, with a shawl over her head” (Casey 2007:15).

Fig. 2A “Lion cubs” and Fig. 2B “Broken plough”, represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Wendy Austin (Date unknown; accessed on 23rd January, 2021) The Mystery of the Tring Tiles.

Next scene on the same tile (Fig.2B) is the first of the three (two more are shown on the next tile in the same row: Fig.3A&B) illustrating Christ’s miracle of mending the broken plough. In the first scene (Fig.2B), a workmen is scolded by his master for breaking or cutting a plough beam too short (Priory Tiles 2021). Jesus observes the incident and eagerly helps to fix the tool; He miraculously repairs the beam (Fig.3A), which can be successfully applied again in ploughing the fields (Fig.3B).

Culmination of the story in the middle

Below the second row, there is only one tile in the middle, which actually should be the culmination of the series (Fig.4: feature image) (Robinson et al. 2008:118). It is the only scene which occupies a full tile, which stands for its significance, and illustrates Christ’s first official miracle at the wedding feast at Cana, where Jesus changes water to wine (John 2:1-11) (Robinson et al. 2008:118; Casey 2007:46).

Fig. 3A and Fig. 3B “Christ’s miracle of mending the broken plough”, represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Wendy Austin (Date unknown; accessed on 23rd January, 2021) The Mystery of the Tring Tiles.

By these means, the ‘unofficial’ life of Christ naturally complements the canonical version (Casey 2007:46). Moreover, including the biblical scene in the series of formally rejected stories also “[lends] an air of legitimacy to the marginalized apocryphal Infancy Gospels“ (Casey 2007:46).

Death and resurrection

The successive row of the tiles below again displays two of them with four related scenes. Starting from the episode on the left (Fig.5A), Child Jesus is shown playing alone a “game of making pools on the banks of the river Jordan, which is [suddenly] disturbed by a [bad Jewish boy] who destroys them: the bully promptly falls down dead” (Robinson et al. 2008:118; see Casey 2007:46). “Likewise, [in the first scene on the right side tile (Fig.6A)], when a fellow pupil jumps on Christ’s back in a playful attack, he is struck down, [in front of seated Zacharias]. In both cases instant dead is shown by the figures being flipped upside down” (Robinson et al. 2008:118).

Fig. 5A “Jesus building pools; dead boy” and Fig. 5B “Mary, Jesus reviving dead boy.”, represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Wendy Austin (Date unknown; accessed on 23rd January, 2021) The Mystery of the Tring Tiles.

In the second scene of the first tile (Fig.5B), Saint Mary with the crown on Her head admonishes Jesus for killing the boy (Casey 2007:15). She puts “her hand on Jesus’ back, encouraging him to rejuvenate the dead boy” (Ibid.:15). Although Jesus still curses the Jewish colleague, He revives the boy, yet underlying that he does so only for Her Mother’s sake (Ibid.:15).

Caricatured faces

In the second tile, in the left side scene (Fig.6A), “Zacharias is hieratically seated on an elevated bench, holding a book […], his head capped with a stalked beret, a style seen frequently on Jewish scholars. He looks beyond Jesus to exchange gestures and glances with the Bad Boy, implying a possible collusion between the teacher and the boy, and reminding viewers of the Christian assertion that the Jews were blind to Christ [as it is also underlined in the scene showing lion cubs]. The exaggerated, yet comical, antisemitic caricature of Zacharias’ visage does not suggest a man of wisdom” (Casey 2007:20).

Fig. 6A “Zacharias, boy and Jesus; dead boy” and Fig. 6B “Joseph and parents; Jesus reviving boy”, represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Wendy Austin (Date unknown; accessed on 23rd January, 2021) The Mystery of the Tring Tiles.

Written versions of the Infancy Gospels also adds that “Jesus starts lecturing [Zacharias], pointing out the teacher’s ignorance, in contrast to Jesus’ superior knowledge” (Ibid.:20). The compression of the two successive events in a single scene, with Jesus and the boy jumping on His back, and the Bad Boy seen again upside down behind the first group was a typical artistic practice in the medieval art, also observed in a comic strip. Having killed the boy, Jesus again appeared in the right scene accompanied by Joseph who is standing in front of the Bad Boy’s annoyed parents, trying to calm them down (Ibid.:17,19). Meantime, Jesus restores their son back to life (Casey 2007:17; Robinson et al. 2008:118).

Castle tower

At the bottom of the showcase there is the last row of the two tiles; “[they] continue the polemic between Christianity and Judaism” (Casey 2007:36). The one on the right side shows in the first scene (Fig.7A), a father who has just locked his son in a tower with a huge key, “to protect him from the ‘accidents’ which seemed to occur when children play with Jesus” (Ibid.:36). However, already in the second scene (Fig.7B) “Christ miraculously pulls the boy through the lock” (Robinson et al. 2008:118).

Fig. 7A “Father locks son in tower” and Fig. 7B “Jesus pulls boy from tower”, represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Wendy Austin (Date unknown; accessed on 23rd January, 2021) The Mystery of the Tring Tiles.

The symbol of a tower seems significant as it used to be an important feature of medieval Anglo-Jewish co-existence (Casey 2007:37). In England, the tower was a place of refuge for Jews or, like the Tower of London, it was used to imprison and execute them (Ibid.:37). “At times, Jews saved their lives by converting [to Christianity] while they were imprisoned […]” (Ibid.:37-38). The tile illustrating the tower may metaphorically symbolize such a conversion of the released boy, who was eventually set free by Jesus Himself.

Again in school

“Following an interlude of [those two Tring Tile scenes, in the left side scene of the second tile], Jesus appears [again in school (Fig.8A). He is standing in front of] a second teacher, a bearded Levi, seated on a bench with his legs crossed. This teacher also attempts to instruct Jesus, but Jesus rejects the teacher’s instructions, exhibiting his knowledge […] and […] the extent of his wisdom” (Casey 2007:20). As a result, “the teacher scolds him for his insolence, and slaps him” (Ibid.:21). In this scene, there also appears the mentioned practice of duplicating the same character in order to present it at a later stage of events, being the aftermath of the previous one.

Fig. 8A “Levi slaps Jesus; Jesus scolding” and Fig. 8B “Teachers, Jesus; lame persons”, represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Wendy Austin (Date unknown; accessed on 23rd January, 2021) The Mystery of the Tring Tiles.

Consequently, behind the ‘first’ representation of the Christ Child, “[the] second figure of Jesus shows [Him again] responding to the teacher, as he in turn, scolds the Hebrew master” (Casey 2007:21). The right side of the same tile (Fig.8B) further illustrates Jesus who is still engaged in preaching but this time there are two teachers seated in front of him (Ibid.:31). Behind Jesus, there are two lame people whom only Jesus, and not the teachers, can heal. “The compositional placement of the teacher [or teachers] seated on the left and Jesus standing on the right appears [in all such scenes and may be symbolically related to the right side associated with good, and the left with evil]”(Ibid.:20).

Difficult relations

By observing and analysing the artefacts behind the glass, I understood that the Tring Tiles not only illustrate the apocryphal Infancy Gospels to fill in the gaps in the biblical stories, but also to reflect tense and difficult Jewish-Christian relations in medieval England, where there was the supremacy of Christianity over Judaism, especially because Jews reminded blind to Jesus’ teaching; “the stories [represented on the tiles], sometimes not so subtly, reflect the conflicts that existed between Jews and Christians [already] in the early years of the new faith when both groups proclaimed the predominance and superiority of their beliefs, while competing over converts. The stereotypical, [even caricatured, depictions] of the Jewish figures, [usually featuring huge noses and bulging eyes] in the scenes on the Tring Tiles, reminds […] that these conflicts still existed in the minds of the fourteenth century English, even though King Edward [the First] had expelled all Jews from England in 1290” (Casey 2007:1-2).

Two other tiles

In the Middle Ages, “from the Jewish perspective, the fathers in both the tower and the oven stories would have recognized the need to hide their children from Jesus, not just for their physical safety, but to protect them from the threat of medieval Christians who attempted to convert [Jews] to Christianity” (Casey 2007:41).

Tring Tile on the left: Fig. 9A “Jesus and kneeling boys”. Fig. 9B “Jesus and boys at well”. Tring Tile on the right: Fig. 10A “Joseph and angry parents”. Fig. 10B “Jesus and kneeling boys”. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. Preserved by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Photo source: Mary F. Casey (2007). “The Fourteenth-Century Tring Tiles: A Fresh Look at Their Origin and the Hebraic Aspects of the Child Jesus’ Actions”, p. 42. In: Peregrinations: Journal of Medieval Art and Architecture, Vol. 2, Issue 2, pp. 1-53.

Images depicted on the two missing Tring Tiles, displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum illustrate such conversions among Jewish children (Casey 2007:41-42). The first tile (Fig.9A) shows kneeling boys and Jesus preaching or blessing them in the first scene (Ibid.:41). The same composition reappears on the second tile, on its right side (Fig.10B) (Ibid.:41-42). “These images show [obedient] children, as Jesus’ blessing gesture suggests that he is fulfilling his mission and converting the children” (Ibid.:41); moreover, the “repetition of [the] image of kneeling children (Fig.9A and 10B) suggests a special emphasis on conversion” (Ibid.:42). The Infancy Gospels also read that Child Jesus “revives and blesses his playmates, after they accidentally fall while attempting to follow him as he jumped from hill to hill and slid down a sunbeam” (Ibid.:41). This underlines “the importance of Jesus’ life-saving power, even though following his lead can be difficult” (Ibid.:42).

The well

The second scene on the first tile (Fig.9B) is also related to the theme of conversion. Jesus and boys are at well (Casey 2007:42); while one figure is using a pitcher to draw water from it, others carry the pitchers, already full or empty, on their shoulders.

This is probably a reference to the baptism following the conversion. It also brings to mind the Gospel scene in which the adult Jesus talks by a well with a Samaritan woman who consequently experiences conversion (John 4: 5-42). Jesus then said to her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” (John 4:10).

‘Convert or die’ threat

The first scene of the second tile (Fig.10A) shows in turn Joseph and the children’s parents who have just witnessed Jesus’ ability to revive their dead children (Casey 2007:41-42). The one standing just in front of Joseph seems angry, yet others behind them look like wondering at Jesus’ miraculous powers (Ibid.:41).

Although those tile scenes show that the miraculously restored to life Jewish children were converted, in contemporary England, it was also “a reminder of the ‘convert or die’ threat often faced by Jews. […] In reality, the attempted conversion failed after a two-century effort which ended in [their] expulsion of 1290” (Casey 2007:42).

The Humanity of God

It was almost one hour, I was squatting on the floor in front of the tiles. The scenes drawn on them were both, informative and touching; not only do they portray politics, ethnic and religious conflicts in medieval England but also a strong desire of contemporary people to approach their God closer in His Humanity by observing Him as a human Child with miraculous powers, yet with flaws typical of common children. I also understood that the ten preserved Tring Tiles of the whole larger series would not give all the answers to the questions posed without the written versions of the Infancy Gospels, in turn, filling gaps in the missing stories expressed in art. And although apocrypha does not deepen the canonical knowledge of God’s Child as represented on the Tring Tiles (Rops 1944:115), they do reveal mankind’s desire to find human nature, with all of its aspects, in the Divine.

Nazareth, old postcard by Fadil Saba. Uploaded by TheRealHuldra in 2008. Public domain. {{PD-Israel-Photo}}. Photo source: “Nazareth” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

So deep in my thoughts I hardly noticed there was a group of visitors gathering in the Room 40 and trying to approach the object of my study. I quickly gathered my notes from the floor, stood up and sent my last glance at the red tiles. ‘To be continued during the lecture’, I thought.

Featured image: The Wedding Feast at Cana (Fig.4), represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Wendy Austin (Date unknown; accessed on 23rd January, 2021). The Mystery of the Tring Tiles.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology;
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

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Casey M. F. (2007). “The Fourteenth-Century Tring Tiles: A Fresh Look at Their Origin and the Hebraic Aspects of the Child Jesus’ Actions”. In: Peregrinations: Journal of Medieval Art and Architecture, Vol. 2, Issue 2, pp. 1-53. Available at <https://digital.kenyon.edu/perejournal/vol2/iss2/1>. [Accessed 22nd January, 2021].

Elliott J. K. ed. (2005). The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation Based on M. R. James, pp. 88-99. Oxford University Press.

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Weitzmann, K., ed. (1979). “Age of Spirituality: Late Antique and Early Christian Art, Third to Seventh Century: Catalogue of the Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, November 19, 1977 through February 12, 1978.”, p. 524; statue: 469. Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, N.Y.). In: MET Publications. Available at <https://bit.ly/2KTpjFB>. [Accessed 27th January, 2021].

Following the Spiral of the Phaistos Disc’s Mystery

Here in the capital of Crete, the Phaistos Disc is preserved in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. Today, it is one of the icons of Minoan civilization and so one of the main attractions of the Museum attracting visitors from all the corners of the modern world (Gregor 2016).

Just like Zbigniew Herbert[1] once, during his visit to the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion, I devoted some time to this Disc, standing long in front of its private glass case. I was wondering that if it stood just among other Minoan artifacts, it would attract so much attention of many visitors who would not know its history, or what mystery it is associated with. Or perhaps their trained eye would notice that it differs from typical Cretan finds, especially the Minoan writing from clay tablets or from images of miniature seals made of gold and carved stone.


[1] Zbigniew Herbert (1924 – 1998), a Polish poet, essayist, drama writer and moralist. His trilogy (three volumes of essays: Barbarian in the Garden, Still Life with a Bridle and Labyrinth on the Sea-Shore) is the result of his trips around Europe, during which he describes, with a passion typical of art connoisseurs, particular places and artifacts he has seen.

The pearl of Italian Archaeology

A famous discovery in Phaistos was made by members of the Italian Archaeological Society, who were working at the same time as Sir Arthur Evans (1851–1941) in Knossos (Gregor 1997:24). ‘Glory to the Italian archaeologists to whom Phaistos has been entrusted,’ writes Zbigniew Herbert (2000:54). It includes sheer ruins, without pretentious reconstructions, a complete contradiction to Knossos (Herbert 2000:54).

Palace complex at Phaistos. Ruins of Phaistos; Municipality of Festos, Crete, Greece. Photo by Olaf Tausch (2007). CC BY-SA 3.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Phaistos Disc” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Dr Alessandro Greco says that Italian archaeology on Crete began in very special historical circumstances, when Greece had achieved an independence from the Ottoman Empire, in the middle of the previous century (Gregor 2016). Consequently, Crete was divided into several protectorates: Italian, French and British (Ibid.). It was due to this situation that archaeologists from Italy were able to work without any obstacles (Ibid.). Nevertheless, when an Italian archaeologist and the protagonist of the story, Luigi Pernier (1874–1937), landed on Crete, the island was still officially ruled by Ottoman Turks (Ibid.). At that time, archaeologists working in the south of the Island of Crete had far greater difficulties to deal with than Evans’ group working parallelly in Knossos (Ibid.). The coast in the south is bleak and uninviting; archaeologists there had to be good climbers because many of the sites have been set in the remote valleys or in high mountains, where access is still extremely difficult (Ibid.). In such mountainous landscape, it was possible to explore the island only on donkeys and the researchers themselves were continuously exposed to malaria (Ibid.). Although challenging, the mountains also provided once Minoans with the protection against foreign invaders (Ibid.). Beyond the mountains lies the Libyan Sea, which once connected the Minoans with the developed cultures of the Near East and Egypt (Ibid.).

From the hills of Phaistos the valley leads to the sea, and behind it, Mount Ida rises with a white cap on the top; there was the grotto of Zeus (Herbert 2000:54-55). The so-called Phaistos Palace, where Luigi Pernier was excavating, was also the site where one of the greatest puzzles of the Minoan Empire was discovered – the Phaistos Disc (Gregor 2016).

Mystery of baked clay

“In July 1908, […] Luigi Pernier [had] discovered a small disc of baked clay in a basement cell […] at the site of the Palace of Phaistos, on the south coast of Crete.” (Ward 2020).

The Phaistos Disc: Side A; the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, Crete, Greece (2011). Copyright©Archaeotravel.

At first sight, the discovery must rather have seemed unexceptional; it was just a simple terracotta disc in the shape of a not quite regular circle, with a diameter of sixteen centimetres and about two centimetres thick (Gregor 1997:24; Herbert 2000:53). Nevertheless, soon it has turned out to be one of the most unique archaeological artifacts, which has ever been excavated on Earth (Georgievska 2016). Today it still “remains an enigma; its purpose and meaning and even its original geographical place of manufacture remain disputed, making it one of the most famous mysteries of [human history]” (Ibid.).

Invention of ancient Gutenberg

The Phaistos Disc’s mystery is inscribed on both of its sides, labelled as A and B, where its surface is covered with undecipherable pictographs (see: Ward 2020). Those are stamps pressed in wet clay yet before the Disc was fired (Ibid.). They are composed of various symbols, which involved making a movable type or rather sealstone for each pictograph (possibly for the very first time in the history of writing) (Gregor 1997:24-25; Ward 2020). As Zbigniew Herbert notices, creators of the Phaistos Disc must have been then Gutenberg’s precursors, because each character on the Disc was imprinted with a separate stamp, which could be satisfactorily called a prototype of a modern type used for printing (Herbert 2000:53).

The Phaistos Disc: Side B; the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, Crete, Greece (2011). Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As such, the so-called Phaistos Disc is the oldest embossed inscription, yet significantly different from the hieroglyphic writing of the Minoans (Linear A) (Gregor 1997:24-25; Herbert 2000:53).

Signet seal with a spiral

By this occasion, it is worth mentioning that Minoans astoundingly mastered the craftsmanship of miniature, though highly precise, gold or hardstone seal-stones with intricate carvings in their own peculiar style, showing various mythological, ritual and everyday scenes, typical of the Minoan culture (“Minoan Sealstones” 2018).

A gem-grade seal-stone (top) and its impression. Minoan Seal, 1700 BC, Badisches Landesmuseum Karlsruhe – Special Exhibition. Photo by Andree Stephan (2001). CC BY 3.0. Photo source: “Minoan sealstone” (2018). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Even if the visual language of the scenes is still puzzling, the function sealstones is not such a mystery; they were possibly used by rulers, dignitaries and priests to place their official seals on documents and letters (Gregor 2016). But whereas on each of the Minoan sealstones, there is a ‘negative’ (embossed) image leaving a ‘positive’, three-dimensional impression on the soft surface, the pictographs from Phaistos were made in the other way round; the types with ‘positive’ images therefore have given ‘negative’ impressions in clay. The way the Minoan sealstones were used also suggests that such archaic types as those from Phaistos must have been used more than once, even if they had been intended uniquely for composing sacred texts (Ward 2020). Yet they had not been applied to any other known clay surface (Ibid.). At least, no other Minoan artefact bearing pictographs identical to those of the Phaistos Disc, has ever been found in Crete (Ibid.). There are, however, a few examples showing iconographical analogies present on the Phaistos Disc (Gregor 2016). One of the Minoan gold seals, which is a signet with a ‘negative’ image, has got the spiral form and includes an undeciphered pictorial inscription; the both characteristics resemble the features of the Phaistos Disc (Ibid.).

What is the Disc’s message?

The mysterious characters all flow around the Disc as spiral strings that may represent pictorial or hieroglyphic writing that archaeologists are still trying to decipher (Gregor 199724-25). However, so far they have not produced any decisive results (Ibid:25). What do the Disc’s symbols mean and what is their message? (Gregor 1997:25). The Disc has already been ascribed many different functions; a calendar, “poem, hymn [or] a prayer [ to the goddess of fertility], sacred text, magic inscription, curse, […] funerary record, almanac, court list, political treaty, proof of a geometric theorem, list of soldiers, a board game and even musical notation for a stringed instrument” (Ward 2020). For some it can be even a message from aliens or the Atlanteans (Gregor 1997:25); “[some] believe that it was a Token used in healing rituals or other ceremonies in ancient times” (Georgievska 2016), whereas others have recognised in it a report of the journey of one of the Minoan missionaries who visited Numidia, located in the northern coast of Africa (the ancient kingdom of the Numidians, 202–40 BC., situated in what is now Algeria and a smaller part of Tunisia and small part of Libya in the Maghreb) (Gregor 1997:25; “Numidia” 2021). On the other side, for a British researcher Alan Butler (TheHallOfRecords 2015), the Disc was a piece of a Bronze Age sophisticated calendar, and so it should rather be interpreted in terms of astronomy.

Fields numbering by Louis Godart (born in 1945); an Italian archaeologist of Belgian origins, a specialist in Mycenaean archaeology and philology, currently Director for the Conservation of Artistic Heritage of the Italian President. Image by D. Herdemerten (2009). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Phaistos Disc” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Zbigniew Herbert (2000:53) mentions a French researcher, Marcel F. Homet, who basing on a certain similarity of the hieroglyphs from Phaistos and Indian rock carvings of South America, concluded that this Minoan artifact is no less than a letter of the last inhabitants of Atlantis, containing a description of the catastrophe and the fate of those few who managed to escape it safe. Academic scholars, however, ignore Homet’s theory placing it between fairy tales (Ibid.:53).

In the 1980s, an ancient history and languages specialist, Christian O’Brien (1985), puts forward another hypothesis related to the Phaistos Disc, comparing its pictographs to Sumerian cuneiform (Ward 2020), “wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets, made by use of a blunt reed as a stylus” (Ibid.). After the researcher, the inscription from Crete would have originated from the earliest systems of writing, which were invented in the fourth millennium BC., in Mesopotamia (Ibid.). Such an ancient writing is present in the world’s oldest religious text, known as the Kharsag Epics, which tells a story of the foundation of a settlement near Mount Hermon, in modern-day Lebanon (Ibid.). Accordingly, the Phaistos Disc would be a Cretan version of the story which had originated in the Middle-Eastern Kharsag, and had been written in the pictographs predating but linked to the proto-Sumerian language (Ibid.).

It is also worth mentioning another way of reading the inscription (Gregor 1997:25). It was proposed by a Norwegian linguist Kjell Aatrun in 1991 (Ibid.:25). He interpreted the signs as a Semitic writing (Ibid.:25). Semites represent the nations of the ancient Middle East, using the following languages: Aramaic, Hebrew, Syrian, Arabic, and Akkadian (Ibid.:25). During the Bronze Age, Semitic influences reached Ethiopia and Upper Egypt, and from there over 4,500 years ago came to Crete (Ibid.:25). Aatrun believes that he can decipher the secrets of the disk by comparing its writing to other old Semitic written records (Ibid.:25). Aatrun interpreted the signs in the Phaistos disc as an invitation to intercourse addressed by a woman to a man (Gregor 1997:25). In his opinion, these forty-five characters are a written rite celebrating the deprivation of virginity (Ibid.:25). Every spring in Phaistos, girls who were mature enough to begin their sexual life may have gathered in large numbers to sacrifice their virginity to some deity by participating in the initiation ritual and becoming women (Ibid.:26). According to Aatrun’s interpretation, the disc would be a songbook and instructions for priests (Ibid.:26). Massive deflorations made by Minoan priests as a part of the fertility rite would also occurred in Babylonia, so Kjell Aatrun’s proposition to interpret the disc is not without sense (Ibid.:26).

In a pile of valuable deposition

Most researchers agree that the Phaistos Disc is Minoan in its origins and it possibly dates back to the Middle Minoan (2100-1600 BC.) or Late Minoan (1600-1100 BC.) Bronze Age. Although the information board in the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion says that the Disc comes from the New Palace Period (1600-1450 BC.) (information from July, 2011, generally accepted period for the Disc is the end of the so-called First Palaces on Crete (1900-1700 BC.) (Georgievska 2016; Gregor 2016). Such a range of dating also shows how little is known about the artifact. Accepting the latter period, it was a very wealthy time in Minoan history but it was ended around 1700 BC by massive earthquakes (Gregor 2016).

Tablet of Linear A (Ph-1), found with Phaistos disc. From Arthur Evans “The palace of Minos”, 1921 (PD-license). Public domain. Drawing source: “Phaistos Disc” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The Phaistos Disc, which was found in the basement along with the remains of other clay tablets and Kamares pottery (Gregor 2016). For this reason it can be assumed that the Disc had been deposited in the part of the Palace, where other valuable objects were stored (Ibid.). After Luigi Pernier the Disc probably fell down together with other artifacts from the upper story during the earthquakes (Ibid.). But how did such a fragile object survive its fall from several meters down and the crash against the hardstone floor without any apparent damage? (Ibid.) An answer to this question is offered by another theory, according to which the Disc did not fall down but it had been originally deposited in the basement cell, where it was finally excavated.

Precursor of Minoan Linear A?

The date ascribed to the Disc is also the time of Linear A script development. “Comparisons of existing Linear A examples have led some scholars to believe the [Disc] actually is a version of Linear A” (Ward 2020); for example, Kjell Aatrun believes that the clay tablets with Linear A script found in the archives of the palace in Phaistos are a simplified working version of ritual-religious hieroglyphs from the Disc, collecting data from the field of administration or legal rulings (Gregor 1997:26). Perhaps the priests, using ‘holy’ archaic writing, recorded some spells or a mystery on the disc? (Ibid.:25). Some language experts studying the script argue that it may be a cult hymn because it is possible to find the rhythmic arrangement of symbols and the repetition of certain combinations of signs (Ibid.:25). Also Dr Alessandro Greco claims the Phaistos Disc originated in Crete; it is because its script features open syllables as much as all later Minoan scripts in Linear A and B, which are also an open syllable writing type (Gregor 2016).

How to read it?

Generally, it is believed that even a layman, after examining the artifact more closely, will realize that he Phaistos Disc’s narrative should be read from the outside to the inside (Gregor 1997:25; Ward 2020), that is to say “clockwise from the outside of the spiral into the centre” (Ward 2020).

After a researcher, Dr. Minas Tsikritsis (Menzies 2011:306), however, the idea of spiral is actually the key to the way of reading the Disc. He claims that the Minoans continued to use spiral patterns, as in the Disc of Phaistos, and unlike other researchers, Dr. Tsikritsis believes that the spiraling symbols printed in the clay can be read back and forth, that is to say, from the outside to the center and backwards, from the inside out (Ibid.:306). Supporting the thesis is the fact that characters printed on the outer edge also repeat inwards (Gregor 1997:25). Also Geoff Ward (2020) indicates the spiral format of the Disc’s writing can be significant itself in understanding its meaning. After the author “[the] spiral [is] the age-old symbol, found in cultures [in the whole world], of creation, life-giving and aspiration, of birth and rebirth, and of spiritual development and our identity with the universe” (Ward 2020). The spiral is also a universal symbol of the Mother Goddess to whom the Phaistos inscription has been equally ascribed as a prayer or a hymn (Ibid.).

The side A of the disc of Phaistos, as displayed in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion after the 2014 renovation. Photo by C messier (2015). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo source: “Phaistos Disc” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The spiralling string of symbols actually begin with a visible straight line marked with five or six dots at the edge of each side of the Disc, which is probably the point from where the reading of the text should also be started (Ward 2020). On side A, adjacent to the starting point there are two symbols; the first one looks like a plumed head, the second is a circle with seven dots inside it, possibly a warrior’s shield, a loaf or a sun symbol (Ibid.). This pair of signs keeps being repeated throughout the whole writing; they can be equally noticed on side B, also next to the straight line with points, matching exactly the position of the both pictographs on the opposite side (A) (Ibid.). Those symbols and others are grouped from three to five individual symbols, sectioned off by a dividing line (Ibid.). Yet on the outer edge, the number of pictographs included between the dividing lines is always limited to four. In turn, the vertical lines separating the signs are sometimes identified with punctuation marks (Herbert 2000:53).

Forty-five pictographs

“There are [two hundred and forty-two pictographs] on the disk, comprising [forty-five] distinct signs. […] The [forty-five] symbols were numbered by Arthur Evans from 01 to 45, and this numbering has become the conventional reference used by most researchers” (Georgievska 2016). Dr Gareth Alun Owens explains that there are “[too] many signs for an alphabet, too few signs for a system, like Chinese or Egyptian, so [it was decided] to progress with systematic, epigraphic work [in the case of the Disc; consequently, the linguistic studies have followed the rule according to which] if a sign is the same in different scripts, it has the same sound value. And all the forty-five signs, the sound values, can be found among the ninety sound values of Linear B, which is a script of roughly the same time, from the same place, which has [already] been deciphered” (Gregor 2016).

Unfortunately, in order to read some unknown language with absolute statistical certainty, it takes at least fifty-six symbols, yet, there are only forty-five different signs represented in the Disc of Phaistos (Menzies 2011:306). In his book, Gavin Menzies (2011:304-310) refers to the research done by Dr. Minas Tsikritsis on the Linear A. To proceed with his studies, the researcher first had searched for tablets and other artifacts, such as rings with spiral engravings, that could help him to translate the insufficient number of symbols on the Disc (Ibid.:306). In the course of his work, he has found that the artifact actually shows fifteen symbols identical to the characters of a script in Linear B (Ibid.:306). What is more, he claims that the meaning of individual symbols is likely to change depending on what word follows a given symbol (Ibid.:306). On the whole, the researcher’s systemic solution to the ancient puzzle of Linear Type A seems to be consistent and well-thought-out (Ibid.:307). So what is the thesis proposed by Dr. Tsikritsis? The results of his research reveals that the examples of ancient texts in Linear A mostly concern ways and the process of obtaining bronze, an alloy of special importance for the Minoans (Ibid.:307). Is it also the actual message of the the Disc of Phaistos?

Generally, researchers assume that each of the forty-five different characters on the Disc also stands for a syllable (Gregor 1997:25). The pictographs represent either easily identifiable things or abstract signs (Gregor 1997:25; Georgievska 2016). Among the stamps, which are all surprisingly clear, there are human heads, whole human figures, tools, vessels, birds, flowers, fish, weapons, and a series of difficult to define ideographs: dotted fields, rectangles, geometric figures, or wavy lines (Herbert 2000:53).

Philistines depicted in Minoan Disc?

More identifiable pictures show objects bringing to mind or even pinpointing various cultures developing in different periods in the area of the Mediterranean; for example, one “sign depicts a structure similar to a sarcophagus used by the Lycians of Asia Minor” (Georgievska 2016), whereas the mentioned above picture looking like a plumed head or ‘fluted crowns’ possibly portrays a helmet with crest (Ibid.). Strikingly similar headgears have been depicted in a famous scene from the north wall of the Temple of Medinet Habu in Egypt, illustrating the Egyptian campaign led by Ramses the Third (1198 – 1166 BC.) against the so-called Sea Peoples (“Sea Peoples” 2021). Such a helmet was also used later by Philistines, who settled down in Juda, in the twelfth century BC. (Georgievska 2016). They may once have been a part of  the Sea Peoples who plundered the Eastern Mediterranean region in the late thirteenth century BC. (Aleff 1982-2015).

This famous scene from the north wall of Medinet Habu is often used to illustrate the Egyptian campaign against the Sea Peoples in what has come to be known as the Battle of the Delta. Whilst accompanying hieroglyphs do not name Egypt’s enemies, describing them simply as being from “northern countries”, early scholars noted the similarities between the hairstyles and accessories worn by the combatants and other reliefs in which such groups are named. The original uploader was Seebeer at German Wikipedia (2006). Public domain. Photo source: “Sea Peoples” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

It is still difficult to precisely identify the Philistines’ origins, although it is certain they did not create homogeneous society in respect of their culture, apparently composed of elements typical of Asia Minor, Mycenae, the Aegean islands, and Cyprus (Aleff 1982-2015). According to the Bible, the Philistines had come from Caphtor, which is usually believed to stand for Crete (Ibid.). Taking into account the fact that the Phaistos Disk is impressed all over with the symbol of a plumed head, it can be assumed that the sea raiders sailed eastwards centuries after the Disk was buried in the south of Crete (Aleff 1982-2015; Ward 2020). The problem is, however, that the Disc dates back to at least the late sixteenth century BC. (most often 1700 BC), whereas the Philistines appeared as the invaders only in the late thirteenth century BC. and set up a historically recorded civilization in the twelve century BC (see Ward 2020). There is thus over three hundred years gap and lack of the continuous tradition; neither Minoan frescoes nor other artifacts show Minoans wearing such a headgear, especially if it is widely accepted the Minoan civilization was not based on warfare but mostly on trade.  

H. Peter Aleff (1982-2015), however, suggests that “the Disk is more firmly connected with the Philistines as religious descendants of its maker than it is with Crete”. Although the artifact was found in Crete, it might not have been made there (Aleff 1982-2015). Even if the Disc’s clay was compared by Luigi Pernier to the fine clay of Kamares, it has never been analysed in this aspect and so could have come from elsewhere in the Mediterranean region (Ibid.). Moreover, the Phaistos Disc in completely unique in its appearance among other excavated Minoan objects; some scholars have consequently claimed the Disk can have been either a hoax or an import from beyond Crete, or even the Aegean region, taking into consideration the fact Cretans sailed far and wide (Aleff 1982-2015; Ward 2020).  Therefore, as H. Peter Aleff (1982-2015) underlines “[the] place where the Disk turned up says […] nothing about where it was made”. Nevertheless, even if the Phaistos Disc is related to the Philistines, it predates the historical records of those ancient people for a few centuries, irrespective of the fact if they actually came from Crete or passed by the island on their way to the East.

Forged or genuine?

Due to the mentioned above anachronisms, discrepancies and questions, the Phaistos Disc is declared by some scholars as a modern forgery or a hoax made in the middle of the last century (Georgievska 2016; Ward 2020). “[Although the Phaistos Disc] is generally accepted as authentic by archaeologists” (Georgievska 2016), it has been long the subject of international debate regarding its authenticity and archaeological value (Ward 2020). As Geoff Ward speculates, “the suggestion it might be a forgery was probably generated by a hundred years of failure to decode it” (Ibid.). Moreover, an official request to conduct scientific tests of the Disc’s clay to resolve the question of its date and origins were definitely turned down by the Ministry of Culture in “Greece on grounds that the Disc [is] a national treasure and ‘untouchable’” (Ward 2020).

Similar accusations of forgery have also been made against such famous artifacts as the iconic bust of Nefertiti, preserved by the Egyptian Museum of Berlin, Nebra sky disk at the State Museum of Prehistory in Halle, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany or the Lady of Elche at the Archaeological Museum in Madrid (Gregor 2016; see: Mystery of the Lady). While, some of those artifacts were examined in this aspect and eventually turned out to be genuine, the Ministry of Culture of Greece still refuses such an analysis of the Phaistos Disc. The fact that “the Greek government [does not want it to be] tested [does not have to] mean its authenticity is problematic. Such a stance is not uncommon when such [examining of the fragile artefact] can cause damage to, or loss or theft” (Ward 2020).

Further doubts of experts

Although there are many voices of different specialists that the Disc is genuine, an art collector from New York, “Dr Jerome Eisenberg, an expert on ancient forgeries, [is] still convinced that Luigi Pernier […] forged [it]” (Ward 2020).After his opinion, the Italian archaeologist did ‘invent’ his famous discovery as “he was jealous of the successes of fellow archaeologists, Sir Arthur Evans and the Italian Federico Halbherr (1857–1930), at other excavations in Crete” (Ibid.). Moreover, there exists an artifact that may have served as a prototype of his potential forgery. In addition to archaeological excavations, Luigi Pernier was also employed in Florence as an Antiques Inspector (Gregor 2016). His jurisdiction included the city’s Archaeological Museum, where one of the most valuable artifacts in the Etruscan collection is the so-called Magliano Disc (Ibid.). The object is made of lead and “was found in Magliano in the Toscana near Grosseto (Italy) in 1883 and bears an Etruscan script dating to the [fifth or fourth century BC.]” (Luwian Studies 2019). It is half the size of the Phaistos Disc (Gregor 2016). The words and sentences sections on it are separated by dots, whereas on Phaistos Disc vertical lines are used instead (Ibid.). Despite such striking similarities, the Etruscan Disc originated thousand years after the Palace collapsed in Phaistos; for this reason, cultural exchange between Etruscans and Minoans would appear extremely unlikely (Ibid.). For Dr Jerome Eisenberg such a phenomenon is inexplicable (Ibid.). After the art collector, Luigi Pernier could have studied the Magliano Disc while staying in Florence (Ibid.). At that time, the Etruscan script on the Disc had not been deciphered yet, and so Pernier could have used it as a model for his forgery, when he later excavated at the site in Phaistos (Ibid.).

Line Art Drawing of a cestus. Drawing by Pearson Scott Foresman – Archives of Pearson Scott Foresman, donated to the Wikimedia Foundation (2007). Public domain. Drawing source: “Cestus” (2020). In Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Furthermore, Dr Jerome Eisenberg points to some examples of suspicious discrepancies regarding the Phaistos Disc (Gregor 2016). First, the inscription goes from right to left as Egyptians hieroglyphs do, whereas Minoan scripts, both Linear A and B, are read from left to right (Ibid.). Secondly, the pictographs are too highly realistic to compose an ancient script; for instance, there is a symbol of a gloved hand or cestus or caestus (Latin), an ancient battle glove, which only occurs in Roman period, which is fifteenth hundred years later (Gregor 2016; “Cestus” 2020). Thirdly, Dr Jerome Eisenberg points to the fact that ancient tablets accompanying the artifact are unevenly fired, which happened during the fire of the First Palace in Phaistos (Gregor 2016). Such a damage to clay objects was typical if they were long exposed to the heath (Ibid.). On the other hand, the Phaistos Disc was fired too evenly and thoroughly (Ibid.). Dr Gareth Alun Owens, however, claims the Disc was baked deliberately in the process of being created and not accidentally like the destruction level that saved other clay tablets with Linear scripts during the First Palace’s fire (Ibid.). It would then suggest the Disc must have fallen down from the upper floor as Luigi Pernier assumed (Ibid.). But then, how did it avoid being crashed into pieces? (Ibid.) In addition to that, Dr Jerome Eisenberg claims that the edges of the Phaistos Disc are still quite sharp and hardly defaced, whereas in other ancient tablets and anything made of clay have especially had their edges damaged (Ibid.). Next, the circumstances of the famous discovery are suspicious; the excavations in Phaistos were directed by Luigi Pernier and so has been naturally ascribed to the find of the famous artifact. Nevertheless, no archaeologist was a direct witness of the discovery, (Ibid.). According to the records, at the very moment of uncovering the Phaistos Disc, Luigi Pernier was taking a nap (Ibid.). Finally, the Ministry of Culture in Greece does not allow to take any tests on the artifact or even to handle it, which according to the expert is already questionable (Ibid.). He thinks that the government, unsure of results of the tests, is afraid of losing one of the most iconic ancient objects attracting tourists to Crete (Ibid.).

Who then made the Phaistos Disc if it is a forgery? (Gregor 2016). After specialists, It must have been an expert very familiar with archaeological material, like Emile Gilliéron (1850-1924), who worked for Arthur Evans at restoration and reinterpretation of Minoan frescoes, and other artifacts, and made very successful replicas (Ibid.). Only such a person was well positioned to be able to make forgeries like the Phaistos Disc (Ibid.).

Archaeology in favour of the authenticity

Despite all the claims against the Phaistos Disc, recent archaeological discoveries can indicate that it is actually genuine (Gregor 2016). Such evidence is provided, for example, by another artifact, also preserved in the Museum in Heraklion; it is a bronze double-axe, possibly a religious and ritual Minoan object (Ibid.). On the head of the axe, there are three lines with overlapping signs engraved upon them (Ibid.). Linguistic experts, like Dr Gareth Alun Owens, see in those signs parallels with stamped pictographs on the Phaistos Disc, and believe the script is a prayer to the Minoan Goddess from the top of the Mountains, where Minoans massively pilgrimaged with their offerings (Ibid.). A lately discovered sacrificial bowl from such a holy mountains’ peak also bear similar pictographs; they are almost identical to those on the Phaistos Disc (Ibid.).

The side B of the disc of Phaistos, as displayed in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion after the 2014 renovation. Photo by C messier (2015). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo source: “Phaistos Disc” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Similar clues are highly valuable in the quest for true origins of the Phaistos Disc and evidence needed to confirm its authenticity, and to defend the good name of its founder (Gregor 2016 ).Professor of archaeology and the director of the Heraklion Museum, Dr. Athanasia Kanta says that she has no doubt the artifact is authentic (Ward 2020). In her opinion, accusing an eminent scholar of fraud after a century of his discovery, without providing any strong evidence is highly unfair (Ibid.).

Everlasting mystery

For many scholars, the Phaistos Disc in another Minoan mystery, for others, a tantalizing message from the ancient world and a link to a lost and legendary civilization. Although archaeologists mostly agree it is genuine, its content and origins are still under debate. Generally, it is thought to have been either an import from Asia Minor or a local product of Minoans (Herbert 2000:53). Granting the last option, the Phaistos Disc would be the oldest script in Europe, whose message yet will possibly remain lost forever.

Featured image: Detail of the Phaistos Disc, side A. Photo by Geoff Ward (2020). Photo source: Geoff Ward (2020). “The mysterious Phaistos Disc: a lost message from the ancient world”. In: geoffward.medium.com.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology;
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Cestus” (2020). In Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/3idp6t0>. [Accessed on 14th January, 2021].

“Minoan sealstone” (2018). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/3spYJVB>. [Accessed on 12th January, 2021].

“Numidia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at < http://bit.ly/3i0yEYj>. [Accessed on 11th January, 2021].

“Phaistos Disc” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/3nIHR8N>. [Accessed on 11th January, 2021].

“Sea Peoples” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/38zGJ2U>. [Accessed on 12th January, 2021].

Aleff H. P. (1982-2015). “The Board Game on the  Phaistos Disk: 3.1.2. The Philistine connection with the Disk”. In: recoveredsince.com. Available at <http://bit.ly/2XumPjx>. [Accessed on 11th January, 2021].

Georgievska M. (2016). “The Phaistos Disk is the best-known Minoan inscription and one of the most famous mysteries of archaeology”. In: The Vintage News (2014-2021). Available at <http://bit.ly/3nw53a9>. [Accessed on 11th January, 2021].

Gregor M. (1997) “Państwo króla Minosa“. In: Sfinks. Tajemnice Historii, część 1 [Sphinx. Geheimnisse der Geschichte] Posmyk A. trans. Huf Hans-Christian ed. Warszawa: Berteismann Media.

Gregor M. (2016). The Secret of the Phaistos Code. doc.station Production in association with 2DFArte & 2DF.enterprises.

Herbert Z. (2000) Labirynt and morzem. Fundacja Zeszytów Literackich.

Luwian Studies (2019). Caption under the image of the Magliano Disc. In: “The Etruscan Culture”. In: Luwian Studies. Available at <http://bit.ly/3oTSPdb>. [Accessed on 13th January, 2021].

Menzies G. (2011). Atlantyda odnaleziona. Rozwiązanie największej zagadki w dziejach świata. [The Lost Empire of Atlantis. History Greatest’s Mystery Revealed.]. Mikos J. trans. Warszawa: Grupa Wydawnicza Foksal MMXIII, First edition.

O’Brien C., Joy B. (1985). “The Enigma of the Phaistos Disc. A Question of Language”. In: The Genius of the Few, Appendix F, pp. 340 – 352. Available at <http://bit.ly/3i9R74z>. [Accessed on 12th January, 2021].

Ward G. (2020). “The mysterious Phaistos Disc: a lost message from the ancient world”. In: geoffward.medium.com. Available at <http://bit.ly/2XumPjx>. [Accessed on 11th January, 2021].

TheHallOfRecords (2015). “Alan Butler – Mystery of the Phaistos Disc”. In: TheHallOfRecords Youtube Channel. Available at <https://bit.ly/3uv4HF6>. [Accessed on 6th May, 2021].

From Slavic Rites to Old Polish and Modern Polish Christmas

“The first star” (oil painting), circa 1913. By Tadeusz Popiel (1863 – 1913). Public domain. Image source: “Wigilia Bożego Narodzenia” (2020). In Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Christmas is, apart from Easter, the most celebrating feast in Poland (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:178). This Christian holiday, which is intimate, family, and usually spent with the dearest people, however, goes back to the traditions of pagan-Slavic times (Ibid.:178). Particularly important is the Christmas Eve supper, probably the only festive meal in Polish cuisine, in which there are clearly preserved the traces of rituals from the times before the introduction of Christianity in Poland (966 AD) (Ibid.:178). In Polish Christmas, both these themes, pagan and Christian, have intertwined into a colourful and poetic whole (Ibid.:178).

When the first star appears in the sky

Polish people sit down to the Christmas Eve supper at dusk, when the first star appears (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:178). The latter is being impatiently watched for by children (Ibid.:178). The ceremony starts with a mutual pray or reading the relevant fragment of the Bible.

Tradition of oblatum

Then it continues with sharing the wafer combined with making wishes (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:178). Opłatek, wafer in English, from Latin oblatum – ‘sacrificial gift’, is a very thin, usually white bread flake, unleavened and unsalted, baked with white flour and water without the addition of yeast, which is shared by the gathered at the Christmas Eve table, while making wishes (“Opłatek” 2020). It is not an exclusively Polish custom but it is mostly found among descendants of the ancient Slavs, namely in Slovakia, Belarus, Ukraine, and the Czech Republic (Ibid.). It is similarly present in Lithuania (ancient Balts), as Poland and Lithuania had a joint country between the years 1569 and 1795, known as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth or the Republic of Both Nations, and sometimes the Christmas wafer also appears in Italy (Ibid.).

Christmas Wafer in a basket. Photo by Julo (2006). Public domain. Photo source: “Opłatek” (2020). In Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Sharing the wafer is a very touching moment like no other in the year, evoking many memories going back to childhood and youth, a moment obscured by sadness for those who have passed away, and at the same time illuminated by human hope of full happiness, forever burning in people’s hearts (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:178). At this solemn moment, all resentments and offenses are forgiven, sealing mutual agreement with a kiss (Ibid.:179). If someone dearest is far away, or while sending Christmas postcards to friends, nowadays, we also put a piece of wafer into the envelope. Old Polish wafers were once colourful and very decorative (Ibid.:180). Today, mainly white wafers are baked, but they are also decoratively embossed (Ibid.:180).

Time for children

For children, it is probably the most beautiful evening of the year, in which the atmosphere of a fairy tale becomes real for a few hours (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:178). Charming moments happen in the light of candles and colourful Christmas tree lights, under which loving hands have just put various gifts – any of which one can afford (Ibid.:178). But even the most modest gift has an exceptional value on this evening, becoming a symbol of friendship and love that unite people (Ibid.:178).

Traces of mysterious Slavic past

It is believed that many Polish Christmas customs are derived from pagan Slavic rituals (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:178). On the other hand, such a tradition was exclusively oral and thus no written sources of myths have survived to answer the fundamental questions about Slavic religions (MaDar S.C. (Ławecki), Sypek, Turowska-Rawicz 2007:7). Therefore, researchers must use in their studies, apart from historiographic achievements and archaeological discoveries, linguistic and etymological research as well as comparative religious studies (Ibid.:7).

The origins of the Slavs have long been the greatest mystery of European prehistory, and there are still various contradictory theories regarding the time of their appearance in Europe (Ziółkowski 1999:306-308). The fact is, however, that peoples who settled down in Central and Eastern Europe belonged mostly to the Slavic groups (Ibid.:306-308). When did they appear there? Officially, they had started migrating westwards, following the hordes of Huns, since the fifth century AD (Rosłoniec 2020). The Slavs who headed off to the north, towards the Baltic Sea, were the ancestors of Poles, Belarusians and Russians, and they had come from the area of contemporary Ukraine (Ziółkowski 1999:306-308; Rosłoniec 2020). Some other Slavic groups migrated south, towards the Adriatic Sea, and established the foundations of such nations as Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Bulgarians and Macedonians (Ziółkowski 1999:306-308; Rosłoniec 2020). It is also said the Slavs had come from the Middle East, and their culture was less advanced than those having occupied Central Europe at the time of the Roman Empire or even earlier (Rosłoniec 2020).

On the other side, there is an alternative theory, mostly disseminated in Poland by Janusz Bieszk (2015), saying that around the eighteenth century BC., in the area of present-day Poland, there had already been the Slavic state, called the Empire of Lechites, European Scythia or European Sarmatia (Ibid.). The so-called Lechites are said to have had a highly advanced culture and strong national organization (Ibid.). Such a theory, although strongly criticized, is supported by the results of the latest genetic tests of Aryans – Slavs, historical records and maps, and by the recent discoveries of archaeologists in the area of present-day Central Europe (Ibid.).

Calendae becomes Polish Christmas carolling

Zbruch Idol, an example of a Slavic deity. The truth is, there is very little known about the Slavic religion. Author of the image unknown; from the “Political History of Poland” written by E.H. Lewinski-Corwin and published in New York in 1917. Photo source: “Zbruch idol” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Irrespective of the proposed versions, in the fifth century AD. the terrain occupied by the Slavs in Poland must have been flat, swampy, forested and crossed by wide rivers. Thus it is not surprising the ancient Poles were very close to nature, the best proof of which is that the most important Slavic holidays were related to the natural cycle: changes of seasons, equinoxes and solstices (as it occurred in the case of other ancient peoples) (Sławosław.pl 2019). At the time of the winter solstice and so the Christmas time, there was the Winter Sun Festival (Szczodre Gody aka Calendae) (Ibid.). It was a herald of the new year, because at that time the darkness is overcome by the light, since then the day starts to grow longer (Ibid.). Like among the Proto-Indo-European peoples, the most significant was then the solar cult; the departing Sun, represented by the Slavic god Swaróg, had to be replaced by the new one, his son Swarożyc (or the incarnation of or the young Swaróg himself) (Ibid.). The triumph of the sun is a reason for unlimited joy, just like Christmas is celebrated today (Ibid.).

Slavic ancient tradition has survived to this day in a disguise of the Christian Christmas feast, proving how deeply it was once rooted in the hearts of our ancestors (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:178). Today even the twenty-first century generation still refers to such Christianised pagan rites as the most familiar tradition (Ibid.:178). By its continuous celebration, Polish Christmas has preserved for us some relics of Slavic rites in the form of customs, commemorated not only in the countryside, but also in cities (Ibid.178-179).

Slavic Diduch (Didukh) and Christmas tree

In the countryside, sheaves of grain have usually been placed with the ears up in four corners or in the corner on the eastern side of the room, where the Christmas Eve supper takes place (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:179; Sławosław.pl 2019).

By tradition it is the first sheaf from the harvest, which is commonly known as Diduch (Didukh) – the East Slavic equivalent of the Christmas tree (Sławosław.pl 2019). It was also placed by the Slavs in the corner of their house during the Winter Festival (Ibid.). The sheaf has been usually made of wheat and oats, and sometimes also of un-threshed rye (Ibid.). The Diduch’s symbolism is wide; it has been believed to bring prosperity for the next year, and has also been a talisman against evil powers (Ibid.). Originally, however, it was primarily associated with the cult of ancestors and so it meant the same as grandfather ‘ancestor’ (Ibid.). Therefore, it was placed near the table so that the deceased ancestors could feast with the family (Ibid.). Diduch was kept at home until the end of the celebration of Calendae, which lasted twelve nights, which is today until the Epiphany (Ibid.).

Colours of Christmas

The Christmas tree dressed up today in Poland has not yet escaped from other Slavic influences (Sławosław.pl 2019). The Christmas tree has been only decorated since the years 1795-1806 (Ibid.). Poles have adopted this custom from Prussian Protestants (Ibid.). However, Christmas decorations of a tree in Poland possibly originated from the custom of hanging evergreen trees beneath the ceiling (Ibid.). Green turquoise was for the Slavs a symbol of abundance and fertility, heralding a new growing year (Ibid.). The red and gold colours of Christmas tree decorations have also their Slavic symbolism; red warded off diseases, while gold (most often expressed by nuts) symbolized wealth and abundance (Ibid.). Nuts were also a symbol of vitality (Ibid.). The custom of lighting the Christmas tree can be additionally associated with the old Slavic belief; burning candles protected the household members against evil spirits (Ibid.).

Speaking animals

The old custom of giving animals a piece of wafer to ensure their health and a beautiful offspring persisted here and there (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:179). My mum was raised up in the countryside and she has told me that her parents (and my grandparents) also used to offer colourful wafer to their livestock. Now, we have got just one but a large dog, with whom we also share the wafer.

The so-called Podłąźnica; the top of the Christmas tree, hanging from the ceiling and beautifully decorated. By Tadeusz Seweryn „Podłaźniczki”, Kraków 1932. Public domain. Image source: Szczodre Gody” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Additionally, It is still believed that at midnight animals speak human voice, but overhearing such a conversation does not unfortunately bring good luck (Ibid.:179). Of course, such an idea must have originated in the ancient times. The Slavs believed that animals could be intermediaries in transmitting the word from the soul of family ancestors (Sławosław.pl 2019). Moreover, it must also be related to the Slavic view of the soul, which, according to our forefathers, was also possessed by animals (Ibid.).

In areas particularly haunted by wolves, the leftovers of Christmas Eve food have been brought out in front of the farm (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:179). Being served in such a way, the wild animals should not do any harm to the farmer’s livestock (Ibid.:179).

Foretelling from hay

We traditionally put some hay under the cloth or on the table, by which we are having the Christmas Eve supper. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

It is quite common, also in Polish cities, to put some hay under the table cloth covering the Christmas Eve table (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:179). In Christian tradition, it refers to the fact the Child Jesus was lying on a hay in a manger. The young people have used the hay during the Christmas Eve supper for foretelling their future, which is once again a pagan tradition (Ibid.:179). The green stalk pulled out from under the tablecloth meant success in love and an imminent wedding, whereas the blackened one – a failure, thwarting marriage plans, and even staying single forever (Ibid.:179). Of course, the fortune-telling is not taken too seriously, but it is quite entertaining (Ibid.:179).

Empty seat

During the Christmas Eve, those who have already passed away or those who are absent during the holidays are also remembered (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:179). For them, a separate place is reserved by the table (Ibid.:179). On an empty plate prepared for them, a little bit of each dish and a piece of wafer are placed (Ibid.:179).  Likewise, in the Slavic pagan tradition, an empty seat at the table is intended for the souls of family ancestors (Sławosław.pl 2019). Today, such a covering is also meant for a stray traveller or an unexpected visitor. It is because the most beautiful custom has always been to invite lonely people at the time of Christmas Eve (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:180). No one should feel abandoned and sad this special evening (Ibid.:180).

Kolędy (Christmas carols)

Polish Christmas carols, often very old, are among the jewels of Polish folk and religious songs (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:180). Among them there are dancing melodies to the rhythm of the mazurek, oberek, krakowiak and polonaise, and their lyrics may be sometimes humorous, satirical and even with social accents (Ibid.:180). For many Poles living far away from the country, Polish carols have been a touching symbol of Polishness (Ibid.:180). Fryderyk Chopin (1810 – 1849), staying in Paris during the partitions, expressed his great longing for Poland by weaving into the tragic accents of the Scherzo in B minor – a sweet lullaby melody of the popular Polish Christmas carol, Lulajże, Jezuniu … (Hush Little Jesus … ) (Ibid.:180).

Carol singing in Ukraine (1864). By Trutovsky Kolyadki. Public domain. Image source: “Koledowanie” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The Slavic Winter Festival was also referred to as the Calendae (today Kolęda), which in English means a Christmas Carol (Sławosław.pl 2019). This concept may be closely related to the idea of circle and so to the circular solar disc and its transformation during the winter solstice (Ibid.). Today, Polish Kolęda often means carolling, the customary visiting nearby houses with wishes for the New Year (Ibid.).

Carolling with Turoń

Unfortunately, a beautiful tradition of visiting houses by carollers is slowly disappearing (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:180). The carollers have usually been dressed up as the significant characters of the Nativity, including the king Herod, the Death, angels, the devil, shepherds, the Magi, an Old Woman and Man, a Jew, a Gypsy and representatives of various professional groups, and the so-called scarecrows whose job was to frighten (Sławosław.pl 2019).