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Pictish Symbol Stones: from Pagan Beast to the Cross

Stone relics of monumental sculpture are characteristic of Ireland, Scotland, northern England and other smaller islands scattered around the British Isles (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). Scottish stelae, also called Pictish symbol stones, are categorized in terms of their development periods (Ibid.). About three hundred and fifty examples of similar Pictish stones have survived to our times, mainly on the eastern side of Scotland (“Pictish Stones” 2015). They had been covered with various symbols or designs by being incised or carved in relief (Ibid.).

Stelae appeared between the fifth and ninth centuries, since the heyday of the Pictish kingdom in northeastern Scotland, till the times, when the Celtic Picts were undergoing a progressive process of Christianization (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). Although stelae variations of the early Christian period belong to a wider Insular tradition of monumental stones such as High Crosses, typical of the Hiberno-Scottish monumental sculpture, pagan examples of such stelae are unique only to Scotland (Ibid.). The purpose and meaning of the earliest stones are only slightly understood (Ibid.). They may have been territorial markers, personal memorials with symbols for individual names or clans, or funeral stones associated with certain burials (Ibid.).

“Many stones have now been taken into museums to preserve them, but there are a number which still stand outside” (Historic Scotland 2020).

Inscribed Pillars and Symbol Stone Slabs

Scotland has a heritage of standing stones which mark the landscape all over the country (Short 2016). There are, among all, standing stones of considerable antiquity, such as menhirs, large pillar stones and boulders (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). Some are with ogham inscriptions, which originated in Ireland (in the fourth century AD or earlier) and later were spread to other areas of the British Isles, including Scotland (Connelly 2015:ii, 5). The Ogham script was a form of lettering based on the phonetics of the Irish language (Short “Part 2” 2016). Pictish and Welsh variations of the twenty-letter Ogham alphabet were evolved as the script spread from Ireland (Ibid.).

The so-called Pictish symbol stones or stelae are unique to Scotland and appear in the north and east of the country (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). The Picts apparently shared their ancient myths and mysteries by means of symbols they incised or carved on the earliest examples (Short 2016). The remains of the Bronze Age stone circles, such as that at Broomend of Crichie, and others in the area, show that settled communities had lived in this area long before the Picts arrived during the Iron Age (Ibid.). The latter were first noticed by the Romans in 297 AD (Parrott-Sheffer 2020). Generally, it is thought that Stone and Bronze Age circles were memorials to the dead (Short 2016). The Bronze Age stone circle at Broomend of Crichie was originally composed of six stones, two of which are still in place (Ibid.). One of the currently standing stones is quite different from the others around (Ibid.). Although it is dated back to the Bronze Age and may have come from a recumbent stone circle to the north of the site, it is covered with two carvings belonging already to the fifth or sixth century Pictish symbols (Ibid.). There is a beast or an elephant like animal in the upper part of the stone and the crescent and V-rod below (Ibid.).

Accordingly, the Picts reused far older menhirs and stone boulders as a display of their own symbology, apparently carved for a specific purpose (Forbes 2012). Additionally, “some scholars suggest their ancient creators may also have painted the stones, bringing out in vivid colours their carved salmon, ravens, wolves, boars and even a battle scene” (McKenzie 2017). Experts from Historic Environment Scotland (HES) claim that the Pictish artists would have used minerals and plants to add paint their carvings (Ibid.). “But sculptures found so far have stood outside for more than 1,000 years so any pigment is likely to have been ‘scrubbed away’ by long exposure to the effects of the sun, rain and wind” (Ibid.). Pigments have yet survived on Pictish metalwork and contemporary stonework from Northumbria and Mercia (Ibid.). Colour is also a strong feature of Hiberno-Irish Christian manuscripts such as the Book of Durrow and the Book of Kells (Ibid.).

Alongside another Pictish fish-like symbol, there is the crescent with the V-rod. Sculptor’s cave near Lossiemouth on the Moray Firth. Photo posted by thelonius©. Photo source: Julian Cope (2009). “Sculptors Cave. Rock Shelter”. In: The Modern Antiquarian.

Pictish symbols were mainly carved on standing stones although a small number appeared on jewellery and some of the earliest were carved on cave walls in Fife and at the Sculptor’s cave near Lossiemouth on the Moray Firth (Short 2016). The latter is decorated with one of the key Pictish symbols, namely the crescent with the V-rod (Ibid.). The stela belongs to the Class I of the Pictish stelae, according to the classic study of the Pictish symbol stones by J. Romilly Allen and Joseph Anderson, entitled Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (Ibid.). In 1903, the authors for the very first time properly arranged a large group of various Pictish stone slabs by dividing them into three subsequent classes.

Class I of the Pictish stelae

The earliest category, falling in the so-called Class I, are the oldest irregular stone slabs (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). Their surface is natural and undressed so it was not smoothed or shaped in any way (Short 2016). The sculptor has created a simple outline of the symbol using a punch and a hammer (Ibid.). A chisel was also used to make a deeper and wider line, which was then smoothed out probably by rubbing with a stone tool. This style of carving is referred to as incised carving (Ibid.).

Some of the Pictish symbols known from the Class I and II of standing stones. Drawings source: The Highland Council Archaeology Unit (2017). The Highland Pictish Trail. PDF, p.3.

Stelae of the Class I appeared in the sixth to the nineth century, which have no counterparts in terms of form or decoration in art in other island areas (“Pictish Stones” 2015). Considering the time of their appearance, they correspond to the earliest period of the monumental Scottish sculpture (Ibid.). At that time, Pictish stelae do not yet have decorations in the form of a Christian cross symbol, but pictograms referring mainly to the mysterious Celtic pagan symbolism (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). They are simply incised into the rough stone surface (Ibid.). The predominance of the shapes of a horseshoe, inverted letter “L”, single or double discs integrated into the sign of inverted letter “Z” (the so-called Z-rod), which is accompanied by even more enigmatic symbols resembling a mirror, or a key and a comb, as well as a crescent shape with two straight lines crossing it, in the shape of the letter “V” (the so-called V-rod) (Ibid.). Those letters’ lines usually end with floral symbols, similar to open flowers and buds. Such a spectrum of abstract signs has not yet been identified (Ibid.).

Pictish symbol stone (Class I) at Saint Fergus’ Old Church in Dyce, Aberdeenshire. Photo source: Kimberly Borchardt (2020). In: “Pictish symbol stone at Dyce, St Fergus Church.” In: Historic Scotland. Pinterest.

There are also naturalistic figures  found in the repertoire of the Class I stones (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Short 2016). Among others, there are usually incised zoomorphic images of both realistic and mythical animals (Ibid.). There are some legendary beats, wolves, deer (or horses), birds or the sign of fish, which is believed to be a pagan symbol of the salmon of wisdom, known from Celtic myths (Ibid.). All the symbols certainly refer to old pagan traditions and perhaps, at that time, some aspects of the symbolic dimension of the Christian religion may have been already introduced in the Scottish system of beliefs (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Short 2016). However, there is no evidence of such an interruption in art of the Class I (Ibid.).

In the ruins of Saint Fergus’ Old Church in Dyce, Aberdeenshire, there are two Pictish stelae that have been re-erected inside it (Short 2016). One of them, is also a perfect example of the Class I (Ibid.). Both symbols incised in the stone: the Pictish beast in the upper part and the double disc with the Z-rod appear simple and uncomplicated (Ibid.). Still they both show a remarkable degree of artistry and skill (Ibid.).

Class II of the Pictish stelae

Stones of the Class II are more or less rectangular in shape (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). They are usually referred to as cross slabs as they feature visible Christian symbols, especially crosses, on one or both sides of stelae, which are always accompanied by the Pagan geometrical and abstract motifs, known already from the Class I (Ibid.). Although the Christian Latin cross predominates, such stelae also display hagiographical and biblical stories (Ibid.). They are equivalent to the so-called early Irish high crosses and stone slabs with Christian imagery.

Class II symbols stones were carved in the eighth and nineth centuries although there was a period overlap between Class I and Class II (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Short 2016). Both classes represent the Pictish art in its prime (Short 2016). 

Aberlemno II Kirkyard Stone (Class II),
Angus. Photo by Anne Burgess (2006). CC BY-SA 2.0. Photo source: “Aberlemno Sculptured Stones” (2019) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In contrast to the incised representations of the Class I, the Class II is characterized by carvings in relief (Short 2016). Accordingly, objects were carved proud of the background surface, which has been chipped away all around it (Ibid.). All the depictions in relief, with the Christian cross in the center, are additionally filled in with various designs and are characterized by more detailed and intricate iconography than it is present in the Class I (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). Among them, there are variations of geometric decorations, including Greek meanders, stylized floral-zoomorphic motifs, spirals, plaits and scrolls similar to the illuminated version of designs adorning the Hiberno-Scottish manuscripts and the metallurgy objects of religious significance (Ibid.).

The second Pictish stela at Saint Fergus’ Old Church in Dyce belongs to the Class II (Short 2016). Although the cross occupies here the central position, there are also four pagan symbols, known mainly from the Class I: the crescent with the V-rod, the double disc with the Z-rod, the mirror case and a triple disc (Ibid.). Another example of the Class II is found in Aberlemno, Angus (Ibid.). It is the so-called Aberlemno II Kirkyard Stone with a wonderful and impressive relief of the Christian Latin cross on the front. The sculptor has created a high relief design with beautiful scroll-work and an imagery of mythical and real animals around it (Ibid.).

Class III of the Pictish stelae

Class III is now completely free of the mysterious idiomatic Pictish pagan symbols, which are so numerous in the Class I and II (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Short 2016).

The Camus Cross (Class III), East face (the tenth century), Carnoustie, Angus. The Standing stone in the form of the Latin cross with exclusively Christian scenes. Photo by Catfish Jim and the soapdish at English Wikipedia (2008). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Camus Cross” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The stones can be cross-slabs, recumbent grave markers, free-standing crosses, such as fully developed High Crosses in Ireland, and composite stone shrines (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). Signs adorning the stones are easier to be interpreted because they are entirely set in the Christian context (Ibid.). In addition to images of Christian symbols, the Class III also contains figural representations of people and animals, occurring in the real and mythical worlds (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Short 2016). Pictish stelae of the Class III developed dynamically between the eighth and ninth centuries (Ibid.). Such examples also appeared in the tenth century (Ibid.). The later Pictish sculpture approaches English and later European iconographic traditions (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887).

The Class III examples have got a wider range of figures and ornamentation carved in relief but, as underlined above, they have no pre-Christian Pictish symbols carved (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Short 2016). They stared to appear in Scotland at the time, when Pictland was under intense pressure and ultimately conquered and colonized by the Gaels of Dalriata (Short 2016). 

Pagan Pictish symbols (Class I and II)

The Class I and II of the symbol stones contain symbols from a recognizable set of standard ideograms, that is to say a graphic symbol that represents an idea or concept, many of which are unique to Pictish art (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). One of the most striking characteristics of those two classes is the fact that Pictish symbols are almost always arranged in pairs or sets of pairs (Ibid.). The symbols cover a wide range of geometric shapes and patterns (Ibid.).

Some of the Pictish symbols of the Class I and II standing stones. Drawing posted by aimee leah (2020). “Pictish Stones”. In: Pinterest.

As it is mentioned above, Pictish sculptors were also fascinated by the zoomorphic figures and they depicted both, naturalistic animals and mythical creatures. Among them, there are representations of animals such as the snake, adder, salmon, wolf, stag, eagle, as well as the so-called mythical Pictish beast (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Short 2016). Anthropomorphic characters were also part of the Pictish sculptor’s repertoire, they do not appear very often though. The exact number of Pictish symbols is uncertain as there is some debate as to what actually constitutes such a symbol (Short 2016). Generally, there are between forty and fifty symbols depending exactly on how they are defined (Ibid.).

Kintore Pictish Stone by Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service on Sketchfab.

Crescent with the V-rod and double disc with the Z-rod

Crescent is one of the key Pictish symbols, usually found in a combination with an overlaid V-rod (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Short 2016). As such it usually appears in the proximity of other symbols, particularly with the double disc and the Z-rod (Ibid.). Double disc, in turn, can be seen alone or, more typically, overlaid with the Z-rod (Ibid.). As a matter of fact, the Crescent and the V-rod symbol appears most often of all (Short 2016; Cowie 2019).

Key Pictish symbols known from the Class I and II of standing stones. Drawings source: The Highland Council Archaeology Unit (2017). The Highland Pictish Trail. PDF, p.3.
This Class I Pictish symbol stone has the double disc symbol above a snake-with-Z-rod. Photo and caption posted by June Young Shin (2020). “The Newton Stone I”. In: Pinterest.

Second in their frequency of occurrence on Pictish stelae are the double disc and the Z-rod symbols (Short 2016; Cowie 2019). Some researchers think that the double disc and the Z-rod symbol depicts a lightning strike between two thunder clouds (Ibid.). If there is any underlying meaning of the symbols, it remains unclear (Ibid.). It has also been suggested that it is a bird’s eye view of two adjacent round barrows used for some Pictish burials (Ibid.). Some other scholars believe that it is a symbol for the deceased Pictish king (Ibid.). In this sense, the double disc and Z-rod would have represented a broken spear signifying death (Ibid.). Accordingly, the crescent and V-rod would have been a symbol for a lesser royal and would have signified a broken arrow meaning death (Ibid.). As Z-rod sometimes appears in a combination with a serpent, such a symbol may be understood as the notion for a king’s magician or wizard (Ibid.).

Beast of the Picts

Broomend of Crichie Stone Circle: ‘Pictish beast’ (sometimes called an ‘elephant’) above, and a crescent and V-rod below. Photo by Anne Burgess (2017). CC BY-SA 2.0. Photo source: “Broomend of Crichie stone” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia (2019).

The Pictish beast, which is the third most common of all the Pictish symbols (Shorts 2016; Cowie 2019), has been linked both to a seahorse, a dolphin and even to an elephant-like creature (Short 2016). However, art historians specialized in Pictish iconography do not think that it is an attempt to represent a real animal (Ibid.).  In their opinion, it is an imagery of a mythical creature that encompasses the elements of land and water, possibly in the form of a sea-monster (Ibid.).

One of the most frequent Pictish symbols, known as the Pictish Beast. Original drawing from 19th century work by John Romilly Allen´s “Early Christian Monuments”. Drawing uploaded by Struthious Bandersnatch (2013). CC BY-SA 1.0. Source: “Pictish Beast” (2013). In : Wikimedia Commons.

Mirror and the comb

Two symbols, which almost always appear together are referred to as the mirror and the comb. Such a pair is usually found near the three previously described symbols (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Short 2016).

The mirror and the comb symbols are both represented, for example, on the Maiden Stone also known as the Drumdurno Stone, near Bennachie in Aberdeenshire (Short 2016). It is a cross slab with carvings in relief and therefore it belongs to the Class II of Pictish symbol stones (Ibid.). Here, the paired symbol is situated at the lowest part of the stone (Ibid.). Above, there is the so-called Pictish Beast and, at the top, some zoomorphic figures appear (Ibid.). On the other side, the stela represents the Latin Cross (Ibid.).

The Maiden Stone also known as the Drumdurno Stone, near Bennachie in Aberdeenshire. Drawing source: “Maiden Stone” (2020) In: Wikiwand.

The mirror and comb are not regarded as one of the main Pictish symbols but they are thought as a subsidiary symbol signifying the female gender (Short 2016). As such they may have represented a woman who has raised the stone in memory of a deceased husband or a woman who was herself memorialized or remembered by the stone (Ibid.).

Cross slab at Hilton of Cadboll on the Moray Firth with the Hunt scene and the paired symbol of the Mirror and the comb. Photo cropped. Photo source: Joan Pearson (2020). Photo source: Farrar, S. Pearson, J. (2020) “Hunt scene, Hilton of Cadboll Pictish Stone”. In: Pinterest.

On the cross slab at Hilton of Cadboll on the Moray Firth, there is a wonderful depiction of a horse, a woman is riding side saddle (Short 2016). The adjacent mirror and comb seems to confirm the gender connection (Ibid.). Such theories on the mirror and comb reflect the idea of many early scholars that the Picts were the matrilineal society (Ibid.; see Jackson 1984). On the other side, however, the symbols are also represented by the side of other anthropo-zoomorphic figures with no analogies to any female aspect (Short 2016). In this context, the theory of the Picts’ matrilineal society has been challenged (Ibid.). Nowadays, many art historians reject the idea that the Picts traced their descent through the female line (Ibid.). Some recent thinking interprets the mirror and comb symbols not as a statement of gender but as a simple declaration of who is buried beneath or who was memorialized by means of a given stone slab (Ibid.). Yet the true meaning of the symbols remain uncertain (Ibid.).

Triple disc

The symbol is constructed from a larger central circle or disc flanked by two smaller circles/discs on either side. It is sometimes shown with a “bar” bisecting all three circles or with concentric circles inside the largest disc (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). Notably, it is represented near the crescent with the V-rod. However, there are also other symbols accompanying the Triple Disc symbol (Ibid.).

Glamis Manse Pictish Stone (Class II), Angus. Drawing from Simon Andrew Stirling (2015). The Grail: Relic of an Ancient Religion. UK: Moon Books. (Page unknown).

The Triple Disc is sometimes referred to as cauldron seen from above, which is explained by its shape and practical or religious function it may have for the Celts (“Mithraic Symbols Decoded – Triple Disc” 2020; see Lost Myth of the Gundestrup Cauldron – Wild Hunt, Sacrifice and Rebirth). Such an analogy of the Triple Disc symbol to a cauldron may be noticed on Glamis Manse Pictish Stone (Class II), Angus, where it is depicted below the left arm of the centrally positioned cross (Stirling 2015). The three-dimensional depth of the container is suggested by two pairs of human legs sticking out of it (Ibid.). The Triple Disc is visible on the opposite side of the cross staff, diagonally to the cauldron on the left, and it is interpreted as a two-handled cauldron seen from a different perspective (Ibid.). In this context, the Triple Disc “has also been termed crater, [libation] vase and water container” (“Mithraic Symbols Decoded – Triple Disc” 2020). On the other side, the cross bar joining the three circles suggests a means of carrying (Ibid.).

“Complementing other key [symbols] on the Pictish Stones, the Triple Disc may represent the Zodiac with Cancer and Capricorn Constellations (the gates from and to Heaven) 180° apart. They coincide with the summer and winter solstices” (“Mithraic Symbols Decoded – Triple Disc” 2020). In this context, the symbols may have been connected to early astronomical calculations (Short “Part 2” 2016).

Endless debate

The sculptured symbol stones have for very long time been the main focus of popular interest in the Picts and so they have become a source of almost endless discussion and controversy (Short 2016). What was their meaning and purpose? What do they actually mean? What message is being conveyed by the symbols? What are they actually for? Is it close to uncovering the symbol code? (Ibid.) For centuries, similar questions have baffled experts and amateurs alike (Ibid.).

One of the key problems in interpreting the Pictish stelae of the Class I and II, is the lack of contemporary documents, which would explain their meaning or purpose, or which would even refer to them by giving them any iconographical background (Short 2016). The arguments over the Pictish symbols are a timely reminder that while the symbols themselves are carved in stone, their real meaning and purpose are certainly not (Ibid.). Yet it can be assumed that Pictish Symbols tend to complement one another and collectively conceal but also reveal some truths (“Mithraic Symbols Decoded – Triple Disc” 2020).

Iron tools

The so-called iron tools on the Dunfallandy Stone (Class II). Photo source: Historic Scotland (2020) “Investigating the Dunfallandy Stone”. Information for Teachers”. In: Historic Scotland Education (PDF), p.5.

For many scholars, the Pictish symbols are purely abstract or mythical (Short 2016). As such, they remain resolutely enigmatic (Ibid.). However, a few of them seem rooted in a real world (Ibid.). For example, there are the so-called tools represented on the Dunfallandy Stone (Class II), which is situated atop a mound south of Pitlochry (Ibid.). Among the representations of tools, scholars recognize hammer, tongs and anvil for beating metal (Historic Scotland 2020). All of them are depicted at the bottom of the stone, below the horse (Ibid.). Possibly the stone itself was connected in some way with a blacksmith or someone who worked with iron (Short 2016; Historic Scotland 2020). Nevertheless, the number of real objects represented on the symbol stones is rather limited. 

Burial memorials with mythological or religious meanings

The Pictish symbols are present exclusively on the stelae of the Class I and II (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Short 2016). They have been interpreted in a number of different ways and on a number of different levels (Short 2016). Initially, it was suggested that the symbol stones were memorial stones to deceased members of the Pictish elite and so the symbols carved on them were representations of their belongings or badges of office (Ibid.). The symbols were suggested to have been worn as tattoos by the office holder during their lifetime (Ibid.). After their death, the tattooed symbols were subsequently carved on a standing stone as a memorial to the deceased (Ibid.).

The mysterious imagery of the Class I stelae could also express the Pictish intricate system of beliefs, like in the case of the Triple Disk, its symbolic association with a cauldron and a religious meaning of the cauldron itself  (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Stirling 2015). Nevertheless, the Celtic pagan religion, as much as its symbols, are of unknown meaning and any attempts of their identification or interpretation are based only on speculations. Simultaneously, like in the case of Irish High Crosses, on the Class II stones various Christian depictions are accompanied by the Pictish ones. In such a combined context, the former may be for scholars key to the translation of the pagan symbols and a way of better understanding of the Pictish religion and mythology.

Territory markers

Some scholars believe that symbol stones represented marriages between the two members of different Pictish lineages, which were part of the Picts’ ruling elite (Short 2016; see Jackson 1984). This theory also seems to explain why most symbols appear in pairs and why a small number of symbols were disproportionately represented on the stelae (Ibid.). In this view, symbol stones were probably erected and carved as territory markers (Ibid.).  

Craw Stane stela (Class I), situated on top of a hill near Rhynie. Photo source: Dmitriy Smyatkin (2020). “Picture Craw Stane Pictish Symbol Stone – Scotland”. In: Pinterest.

The gateway to one of the Pictish fifth or sixth century high-status residences was marked by the Craw Stane stela, situated on top of a hill near Rhynie (Short 2016). The stone belongs to the Class I and shows fish (possibly a salmon) and the Pictish Beast, incised on the south-facing side (Ibid.). According to the theory given above, both symbols may stand for the two Pictish royals having occupied the residence (Ibid.).

On the other hand, another stela, Tillytarmont Stone, was discovered on the spot, where two rivers meet (Short 2016). Some of rivers and streams became boundaries between Scottish medieval parishes and possibly they even reflect ancient territorial divisions established yet in the times of Picts (Ibid.).

Pictish hieroglyphs

Could there be a Pictish Rosetta Stone, which would unlock the symbol code of the Picts, like the Rosetta Stone helped to decipher the Egyptian hieroglyphs? (Short 2016).

Another theory emerging among modern researchers suggests that the symbols were not any badges of office, nor did they represent alliances between different lineages (Short 2016; see Jackson 1984). In fact, they may stand for the characteristics of language or pictographic system of writing (Short 2016). Simply speaking, they should be read as Pictish royal names (Ibid.). Therefore, the most frequently occurring names in the lists of Pictish kings may equate to the most frequently carved Pictish symbols (Ibid.). It can actually be examined by comparing the context of stelae, which include both, the symbols and accompanying them inscriptions, which are mostly in the mentioned above Ogham script (Short 2016; Short “Part 2” 2016). About two hundred and fifty symbol stones feature such inscriptions alongside the symbols, like on Brandsbutt Stone in Inverurie.

Apart from the Ogham script, there is also an enigmatic writing found on one of the Newton Stones, Aberdeenshire. The ancient monolith is inscribed with an engraved message written in a mysterious language (Cowie 2018). It is accompanied by the Ogham inscription visible on the same stone and also by two Pictish symbols incised on the other Newton Stone standing nearby (Ibid.). Initially claimed to be of oriental origins, (Ibid.) the writing “has never been accurately identified and it has become known in academic circles as the ‘unknown script’ [or just a modern forgery]” (Ibid.).

Generally, the results of comparative studies between the symbols and the accompanying them inscriptions are not conclusive and therefore they are often contested (Short “Part 2” 2016).

Astronomical code

Quite a radical theory proposed by Iain W. G. Forbes (2012) is that the Pictish “symbols are actually astrological in nature and relate to specific astronomical events in the night sky.” Such a suggestion has already appeared above, in an interpretation of the Triple Disc and its relation to the Zodiac (“Mithraic Symbols Decoded – Triple Disc” 2020).

In the context of particular monuments, the paired symbols (Forbes 2012), such as the double disc with the Z-rod, “might be a graphic representation of a specific auspicious alignment of the Sun, Moon, or planets, and effectively proclaiming a divine blessing on whatever endeavour or event was marked by the stone” (Ibid.). After the engineer, Dr. Martin Sweatman, one of the most repetitive Pictish symbols in different combinations may be the notions of celestial objects or important astronomical events (Cowie 2019). Accordingly, the Crescent may represent the Moon, while the Double Disk – the summer and winter solstice (Cowie 2019). Simultaneously, the Pictish Beast would stand for Gemini, which is the summer solstice constellation (Ibid.), as on June 20th, the sun moves out of the constellation Taurus the Bull and into the constellation Gemini the Twins. Furthermore, Dr. Sweatman claims that the Pictish Beast would be an analogous symbol to the ibex-like creature from Pillar 43 at Göbekli Tepe, in Turkey, which is also believed to represent Gemini (Ibid.).

It is also possible that potentially sacred Pictish symbols were created by ancient Celtic druids and so they would be a link to a wider system of Celtic beliefs and tradition (Forbes 2012). In this view, the Pictish astrological code could not have been made in isolation (Ibid.), “but rather represents the vast vestiges of a form of astrology once widespread across Eurasia” (Ibid.).

Perplexing study

After millennium, Pictish symbol stones still have a power to fascinate and engage people in an endless attempt of their deciphering (Short 2016). So far there has been no agreement or a credible theory regarding their meaning or purpose (Forbes 2012). Nonetheless, most scholars agree that they all must convey some significant messages (Ibid.). If so, the Pictish symbols could be key to general understanding of the Celtic society and culture (Ibid.). For now, the symbols raise more questions than answers, remaining one of numerous ancient mysteries that historians and archaeologists need to face (Ibid.).

Are there any other convincing ideas and explanations what the symbols’ message of the Pictish stone slabs could be?

Featured image: Historic Scotland (2020) “Dyce Symbol Stones”. In: National Record of the Historic Environment Scotland.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Mithraic Symbols Decoded – Triple Disc” (2020) PDF, p. 75. Available at  <https://bit.ly/2VxAlCT>. [Accessed on 24th April, 2020].

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Jackson, A. (1984) The Symbol Stones of Scotland. Stromness, Orkney: The Orkney Press.

June Young Shin (2020) “The Newton Stone I”. In: Pinterest. Available at <https://bit.ly/3eW8Z15>. [Accessed on 25th April, 2020].

Kintore Pictish Stone by Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service on Sketchfab. Available at <https://skfb.ly/LyMF>. [Accessed on 25th April, 2020].

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Stirling, S. A. (2015) The Grail: Relic of an Ancient Religion. UK: Moon Books.

Sacred Geography Enclosed in the Idea of the Apollo-Saint Michael Axis

The definition of Sacred Geography “may be broadly [understood] as the regional [or global] geographic locating of sacred places according to various […] factors” (Gray 1982-2020). Accordingly, “certain geographical features and areas figure more prominently than others on the sacred map” (Forbes-Boyte 2011). Were they all chosen by a mere accident or were they selected for a purpose?

“The World Grid”. Photo by Misztika (2020). Ley-vonalak. Source: Ley-vonalak (2020).

The layout of such sites may be perceived as a sacred code created for unknown reasons by ancient civilizations. All around the world, mankind built extraordinary structures on powerful sites, and although they can be separated by large distances and thousands of years, they are simultaneously interconnected all over the planet by invisible paths, similar to latitudinal and longitudinal lines, and  commonly known as the world grid (Burns 2011; Serena 2018). Amateur archaeologist, Alfred Watkins, discovered in 1921 that ancient features and structures across the English landscape appear to be arranged on straight ley lines (Ibid.). In 1925, he published his remarks in the book The Old Straight Track, where he proposes that ancient monuments are linked by a network of intersecting straight and measurable tracks (Ibid.). Such sites are usually geographically higher than other areas around them, and some, especially in England and France, feature prominent Christian monuments but usually constructed over more ancient ruins (Burns 2011). In his work, Watkins further theorizes that ancient landmarks along ley lines were deliberately constructed by men for the purpose of lining the trade routes, which is questionable, as many of such sites are naturally situated in the areas difficult for being simply reached by a human-being, such as mounts, islands and bogs (Burns 2011; Serena 2018). Some other researchers believe that ley lines are geomagnetic and are points of the Earth’s energies, and subsequently marked by man-made sacral constructions (Burns 2011).

According to independent authors and researchers, there is a notable alignment of sacred and ancient sites, called the Apollo/St Michael Axis, stretching from the shores of Ireland south to Greece and Israel. The GIS project I has been involved in is to illustrate that Line, which crosses the sanctuaries dedicated to both, the Christian Archangel, Michael and the Greek god, Apollo. By using different tools, such as hillshade and viewshed, its major aim is to investigate if the sites are geographically related, as the authors claim, and the Axis itself is more than just an enigmatic coincidence.

Discovery of the Apollo/St Michael’s Axis

Jean Richer, an eminent French scholar living in Greece in 1950s, was engaged in the study of literature and mythology. He was also interested in the holy character (Genius Loci) of landscapes, especially in terms of ancient architecture. According to him, the sacred geometry had been once reflected in temples and monuments built on significant sites (Michell 2000: xiii; Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-9). “His studies led him to suspect that there may have been some underlying plan that determined the form and positioning of temple architecture in relation to the topography of the land, and for this idea he coined the term Sacred Geography” (Ibid.:7).

While visiting ancient sites in Greece, Jean Richer  posed several questions: why are certain temples situated on top of inaccessible mounts or in isolated plains? Is their location a matter of a coincidence or a well-planed positioning? And finally: what factors did decide about their site? The same questions came to Richer’s mind while he was visiting megalithic monuments of Celtic Brittany. Is there any relations between the Celtic and classical landscapes? (Michell 2000: xiii; Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-9).

Apollo’s Line

“Apollo Citharoedus (“Apollo with a kithara”), Musei
Capitolini, Rome”.
Photo by Ricardo André Frantz
(2006). CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: “Apollo” (2020). In. Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In the process of his research, the French scholar discovered that at least three of the most significant Greek temples and oracles connected with the ancient god, Apollo, were in direct alignment, and all of them lying on a straight line (Michell 2000: xiii).

  1. Delos – Apollo’s legendary birthplace,
  2. Delphi – main sanctuary of the same Greek god,
  3. Athens – the centre of the goddess Athena, with Apollo’s altar in the cave at the Acropolis (Richer 1994:1-16, 29-36, 120-125, 209).

Later, two other sites have been added to that group of Apollo’s sanctuaries (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-9).

Left: Surya on a quadriga, Bodh Gaya relief, India. Right: Classical example of Phoebus Apollo on quadriga (1870). Photo: anonymous, 19th century. Drawing: Alexander Cunningham (1814-1893). Report For The Year 1871-72 Volume III, Plate XXVII, and description p.97. Bodh Gaya quadriga relief of Surya and Classical example of Phoebus Apollo on quadriga. A coin of Plato of Bactria (145-130 BCE), Ai Khanoum. Public domain. Source: “Apollo” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

4. Kerkyra – Corfu, with the so-called Secret Temple of Apollo, 5. Rhodes – the island of the Sun God, Helios/Phoebus, also identified with Apollo (Richer 1994:22, 39, 94, 201, 122, 297; Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-9).

Most prominent of all Apollo’s sites is the temple of Delphi, in Greece. After the Greek mythology, the god took his heavenly chariot twice a year to travel from Delphi to the faraway land in the north (Burns 2011).

St Michael’s Line

Richer also discovered that the Apollo’s Line extends north beyond ancient sites of Greece to pass through most ancient pre-Christian and Christian sites in Italy, France, Great Britain and Ireland, all connected, in turn, with the Christian figure of Archangel Michael (Michell 2000: xiii).

Thirty-sixth tapestry of the Apocalypse tapestry: “Saint Michael fighting the Dragon” by Hennequin de Bruges and Robert Poisson (1375 and 1382). Public domain. {{PD-US}}. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

These encompassed such spectacular sites as, starting from the south:

  1. Monte Sant’ Angelo on the Gargano peninsula (Italy),
  2. Sacra Di San Michele (the Italian Alpes),
  3. Mont Saint Michel (Normandy, France),
  4. St. Michael’s Mount (Cornwall, UK),
  5. Skellig Michael (Co. Kerry, Ireland) (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:11-12).

Seven Mounts

Bronze statue of Archangel Michael, Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome. Photo by Wuestenigel (2017). Source: Catholic Herald (2017).

After the Book of Enoch, which is the apocrypha to the Bible, “St. Michael appears to be a protector of [seven] mountains and the Tree of Life that is located on one of [them]” (Kosloski 2019). According to the same tradition, “an imaginary line links seven different monasteries from Ireland to Israel, [which are all dedicated to the Archangel] (Ibid.). Usually, it is called the Sacred Line/Axis of St. Michael, St. Michael’s Line/Axis or the Sword of St. Michael (Ibid.). The latter is clearly a reference to Saint Michael as the Archangel with the sword and His victorious fight with the devil, usually represented as a dragon speared with the sword under His feet (Ibid.).

According to such a theory, the Axis revolves around the following seven ancient monasteries: (Kosloski 2019).

  1. Skellig Michael (Co. Kerry, Ireland),
  2. Saint Michael’s Mount (Cornwall, UK),
  3. Mont Saint Michel (Normandy, France),
  4. Sacra Di San Michele (the Italian Alpes),
  5. Monte Sant’ Angelo on the Gargano peninsula (Italy),
  6. Archangel Michael of Panormitis (Symi, Greece – in the north-west of Rhodes),
  7. Stella Maris Monastery (Mount Carmel, Israel) (Kosloski 2019).

However, the number of sites varies by tradition (Kosloski 2019) and after some other sources there are over thirty such places related to the same Line/Axis.

The Final Point

“St. Michael” by Raphael (c. 1504–1505). Public domain. Source: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Although the seventh and ultimate location on the Line in the south, namely Stella Maris Monastery or the Monastery of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, is definitely associated with Saint Michael’s Sword, “[there] doesn’t seem to be a direct connection between the Mount Carmel [and the Archangel]” (Michael 2018). Mount Carmel may be considered as the closing point because of its alignment and topography, and also because it is mentioned in the Bible as the place where the Pagan worship of Baal was replaced by that of Jehovah, and His Prophet, Elijah, triumphant over the pagan priest is represented just in the same way as the Archangel killing the devil-dragon (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003: 347-366; Kosloski 2019 “How Mount Carmel …”).

Michael casts out rebel angels. Illustration by Gustave Doré or John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Source: “War in Heaven” (2020). Public domain. {{PD-1925}} In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Nevertheless, if “the curvature of the earth [is taken] into account, the [Line] ends at the ‘Gates of Hell’ at the foot of Mount Hermon” (Michael 2018), situated between Syria and Lebanon and north to Mount Carmel. The Book of Enoch (Enoch 6:1-6) describes the legendary Mount Hermon as the place where fallen angels descended to earth or, after the Revelation (Rev.12:7–10), they were cast down from Heaven by Saint Michael and His angelic army. According to other sources, however, the last point of the Axis should be Megiddo Tell (in Greek known as Armageddon – the location of the final battle between the good and evil), lying close to Mount Carmel (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003: 347-366) Consequently, “the remarkable alignment of all the [places] is perceived as a sign, pointing to an apocalyptic battle between St. Michael and [the devil]” (Kosloski 2019).

“Archangel Michael Slaying the Dragon” by Master of Saint Verdiana (c. 1380 -1389). Public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The given above sites are all said to be located in a straight line and are either “associated with apparitions of [the Archangel or] ancient [sanctuaries] of devotion to the heavenly messenger (Kosloski 2019).” .

Two key characters

The Apollo-Saint Michael Axis “thus formed a corridor of sanctuaries that ran right through western Europe, linking the ancient Greek world to some of the most prominent centres of the Christian religion” (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1).

“Apollo Killing the Python” by Hendrik Goltzius (after) (Holland, Mülbracht, (1558-1617). Public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

What do these two characters, pagan Apollo and Christian Archangel Michael, have in common? Obviously, they share the same attributes and associations. They are both connected with the symbol of the Sun, and their legends give the same archetypal type of a dragon’s slayer; whereas St Michael kills the devil in the disguise of the dragon, Apollo slays the famous Python, the serpent guardian of the Delphic oracle. Sometimes, Archangel Michael is even related to as the Christian counterpart of the Greek god of the sun, and furthermore his name itself means: “He who is like God” (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-4).

Alignments – General Characterisation of Sites and their Coordinates

The first English publication on Richer’s discovery took place in 1991 by Christine Rhone and John Michell (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:12) who observed that “the first thing one wants to know about this line is its degree of accuracy when it is projected across the surface of the globe. Richer defines it as a line of constant bearing with the meridian, a so called rhumb line, which can be represented on Mercator’s projection of the globe by a straight line drawn between Skellig Michael and Mount Carmel” (Ibid.).

“Saint Michael fighting a dragon” by Lambert de
Saint-Omer, c.1448 (vellum), in Chantilly, Musée
Condé. From: Shuker, K. (2006). Public domain
(modified). {{PD-US}}. Wikipedia.

In order to investigate if the theory of Apollo/St. Michael’s Axis is correct, the very first step is to use ArchGis Map in order to mark the points of the sites and check if they are aligned according to the direction described by Jean Richer, namely of 60 degrees NW-SE. If this alignment exists, the successive points should be placed on the same line. It is to visually verify whether by using a map projection, all the points are represented along the straight line. Here the first problem occurs: although the sites associated with St. Michael can be accurately marked as points on a map and their coordinates can be easily found, Apollo’s sites are not so evident in this case. Unlike Saint Michael who resides on particular mounts or mountains, Apollo is associated with the whole islands; on some of them, there is more than one temple dedicated to this solar god. On Rhodes, for instance, there may be two Apollo’s sites; one is in the north, in Rhodes (the island’s capital), and the second possibly in Camiros (Kameiros), situated around forty kilometres to the south-west of the City of Rhodes. Yet the most prominent of the two seems to be the Temple of Apollo Pythios on the Acropolis of Rhodes (see Island of the Sun). The authors also point to Camiros and Rhodes but additionally identify Feraklos and Lindos (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:8, 343-346).

The initial lines (Figure 1 and 2), which have been drawn by means of GIS, include both: the sites of Saint Michael and Apollo, from the first point (Skellig Michael) to the last one given by the authors, that is to say, Mount Carmel in Israel. If we take into consideration all the Archangel’s sites including Saint Michael’s Monastery on the Greek island of Symi, the line would go slightly astray to the north from the line of Apollo’s sanctuaries, which starts itself from the Greek island of Corfu.

Figure1: The Apollo/St Michael’s Axis with the starting and final points. GIS Project. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As the coordinates slightly differ in several cases, the straight line consequently breaks at some points. To reach a relative compromise, the coordinates of Apollo’s islands, and not particular points with the temples, have been chosen for the sake of this project.

60 Degrees 11 Minutes West of North

As it is illustrated by the Figure 1, the Axis goes across the planet almost 60 degrees 11 minutes west of north (Creightmore, Rocka 1996-2018; Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:13). Nevertheless, Richer (1998) admits that “each segment may not be oriented perfectly in the direction of 60 degrees NW-SE (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:12). Although there are differences, according to the scholar, they are “minimal and compensate for one another, so that the direction as a whole is indeed very close to this theoretic angle” (Ibid.), as it is shown in the Figure 2 (below).

Figure 2: The Apollo/St Michael’s Axis. GIS Project. Copyright©Archaeotravel. LineAxis – the line running across the sites (through all the points). Linia archeo – the line joining the starting and ending points. St Michael’s Axis – the line joining the mounts dedicated to St. Michael. Apollo’s Axis – the line joining the temples dedicated to Apollo.

As it is mentioned above, St Michael’s Line joins with Apollo’s between Monte Sant’Angelo and the island of Corfu. There the Line seems slightly broken, while it is moving south and changing into Apollo’s Axis (red line of “LineAxis” indicates such breaks). Nevertheless, if we draw a line that omits Apollo’s sites on its way and goes directly from Monte Sant’Angelo, in Italy, further to the site of the Archangel on Symi, in Greece, it would keep a more straight axis (Figure 3). In this case, however, it would not finish exactly at Mont Carmel, situated to the south, but more likely it would reach closer to the point of Mont Hermon.

“Archangel Michael Panormitis.” Source: Fred and
Bev’s Odyssey. (2014)
.

What is also quite interesting is the fact that the Monastery of Archangel Michael of Panormitis (Symi, Greece) was built around the fifth century AD “over the site of an ancient temple dedicated to the pagan god Apollo” (Sanidopoulos 2010). Accordingly, at least one of the sites of Saint Michael overlaps with an ancient site dedicated to Apollo. It is also observed that a few sites of the cult of Apollo or of Saint Michael are clustered around in the proximity of the main Line, yet not being directly crossed by its axis. For example, on Symi, most of the monasteries and churches scattered around the island are dedicated to Saint Michael (Sanidopoulos 2010). The same phenomenon appears in France, where the Archangel is venerated as the patron saint. Similar multiplicity of Apollo’s temples is noticed on the Greek islands.

To sum up, although some sites are a little bit astray from the exact direction of Apollo/St. Michael’s Axis, it is the result of natural orientation of the landscape, where the temples/monasteries were located. As it is underlined above, another issue concerns the exact coordinates of the sites in question; on Rhodes, there may be more sites associated with Apollo/Helios, and thus the coordinates may differ respective of the chosen site. Furthermore, although some of the sites do not exactly lie on Apollo/St. Michael Line, they all run along the straight line drawn between the first and last points, which can be graphically illustrated and analysed by means of the GIS map, providing that all the coordinates are adequate. Finally as John Michell and Christine Rhone (1998) conclude: “Bearing in mind the distance from the west of Ireland to the Holy Land, some 2 500 miles, [around 4 024 km], and the fact that many of the sites are natural landmarks, sanctifies by nature rather than by human choice, the straight path on which they all stand is indeed narrow” (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:12). Nonetheless, it can be observed that the closer the Line a particular site is located, the more significant it seems in terms of the cult and heritage.

“The Legendary Colossus of Rhodes straddling over the harbour” (1886) Painting by Ferdinand Knab. Included in “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World” by Ferdinand Knab. Public domain; {{PD-US}}. In: Wikimedia Commons.

Chosen Points on Apollo/St. Michael Axis

Richer’s study has been continued by several researchers, among others, the authors of the book, entitled The Dance of the Dragon. An Odyssey into Earth Energies and Ancient Religion, namely Paul Broadhurst, Hamish Miller, Vivienne Shanley, and Ba Russell. According to their and Richer’s studies, the mentioned alignment of sacred sites stretches for around 2, 500 miles (4024 kilometres). It starts from the Atlantic remote coast of Ireland, and then goes across western Europe and, if extended, it reaches Mount Carmel in Israel, near the infamous Armageddon site (Megiddo) (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-16). Apart from the most important sites mentioned above, others also fall on this alignment (Le Mans, Bourges), or are situated nearby (Tours, Nevers, Blois, Perugia), however, still connected to the mentioned heroes. On the whole, the authors enumerate and describe over thirty sites related to Apollo/St Michael’s Axis (Creightmore, Rocka 1996-2018; Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-16 ).

Figure 4: Saint Michael’s Axis with the five prominent sanctuaries studied in the GIS project. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Accordingly, Apollo/St Michael Axis passes across or nearby (with all the main sanctuaries in bold):

  1. Skellig Michael, Ireland,
  2. St. Michael’s Mount, UK,
  3. Mont St. Michel, France,
  4. Mayenne, France,
  5. Le Mans, France,
  6. Tours, France,
  7. Blois, France,
  8. Issoudun, France,
  9. Bourges, France,
  10. Sancoins, France,
  11. Nevers, France,
  12. Moulins, France,
  13. Digois, France,
  14. Charolles, France,
  15. St.Vincent des Pres, France,
  16. Cluny, France,
  17. Macon, France,
  18. Perouges, France,
  19. Lyons, France,
  20. Vienne, France,
  21. St. Beron, France,
  22. Bozel, France,
  23. Sacra di San Michele (Turin), Italy,
  24. San Michele (Castiglione di Garfagnana), Italy,
  25. Monte Sant Angelo (Gargano), Italy,
  26. Kerkyra, Greece,
  27. Delphi, Greece,
  28. Athens, Greece,
  29. Delos, Greece, (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-16 ),
  30. Archangel Michael of Panormitis, Symi, Greece, (Kosloski 2019),
  31. Rhodes, Greece,
  32. Mount Carmel (or nearby Armageddon), Israel, (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-16 ) or Mount Hermon, Israel, (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-16 ).

In the GIS presentation, there is only a limited number of sites included in order to provide a more detailed description of their landscape (Figure 4). Furthermore, the project focuses particularly on Saint Michael Axis and the features of His five prominent mont-sanctuaries, in terms of their coordinates, natural location, elevation and geographical visibility.

Coordinates of the chosen Apollo/Saint Michael’s sites

As it is illustrated above, the ley St. Michael/Apollo Line breaks at some points on its way southwards, especially as it moves from the northern Saint Michael’s way to the southern Apollo’s path. However, when we separate the two ley lines and and draw them one by one, they both keep a more straight axis. It is also because they include less points on their way than when they are combined together.

Five Apollo’s sites (all in Greece) and their coordinates according to Google Maps:

Apollo’s Axis with five temples on its way. Copyright©Archaeotravel.
  1. Kerkyra – Corfu: 39,6243°N; 19,9217°E
  2. Delphi: 38.4824°N; 22.5010°E
  3. Athens: 37.9838°N; 23.7275°E
  4. Delos: 37.3963°N; 25.2689°E
  5. Acropolis of Rhodes: 36.4399 °N; 28.2106 °E

Five St Michael’s sites and their coordinates according to Google Maps:

Saint Michael’s Axis with five sanctuaries on its way. Copyright©Archaeotravel.
  1. Skellig Michael (Ireland): 51.7707°N; 10.5405°W
  2. St Michael’s Mount (UK): 51.7707°N; 10.5405°W      
  3. Mont St Michel (France): 48.6361°N, 1.5115°W
  4. Sacra di San Michele (Italy): 45.0964°N, 7.3422°E
  5. Monte Sant’Angelo (Italy): 44.1527°N, 10.4113°E

Geographical Features and Origins of Saint Michael’s Sites on the Axis

Local map of Saint Michael’s Mount from 1946. Public domain. Source: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Both characters, Apollo and St. Michael, possess high rocks or islands. Although St Michael preferred rocky summits, Apollo and his twin sister, Artemis, seem to have owned the entire Greek islands: Corfu, Rhodes, Delos, Delphi, all located on the Line. Apollo’s sanctuaries are usually situated on the slopes of mountains, apparently chosen for their spiritual features. Some temples, dedicated both to Apollo and St Michael, are also set in the rocky caverns (Athens/Sacra di San Michele) (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-29). According to Jean Richer (1994), they were placed “in the middle of nowhere, on top of inaccessible mountains or isolated in remote plains” (Ibid.:7).

Plan of the Mount Saint Michel by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc” (2020). Public domain. Source: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Saint Michael’s sanctuaries share not only their dedication to the Archangel but also the way in which He inspired their creation, through dreams and visions (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-29). “One obvious feature is that they are all rocky summits or mountains, […] traditionally associated with the “angel of high places” (Ibid.:13). All of them reach up not less than over 60 meters above sea level and are not easily accessible, located either some distance off the coasts or in the mountains, like floating islands on the ocean or castles high in the clouds. All monasteries have also been the pilgrim centers for centuries and most prominent St Michael’s sites in their regions (Ibid.:1-29).

Digital Elevation Models and Visualizing the Terrain Data

In order to illustrate a geographical shape and topographic features typical of Saint Michael’s sites, their digital elevation models (DEM) have been used for all the five enumerated above sites. Then the hillshade effect has been applied to all of them so as to obtain a 3D representation of the surface. Land-forms are mapped with the help of colour levels, which represent geographical features of all the sites, such as their heights, and visually depict the layout of lowlands (green) and highlands (red).

Skellig Michael’s elevation: 218 metres (715 feet) above sea level.

Skellig Michael, Ireland. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Skellig Michael, also called the Great Skellig is the most dramatic Saint Michael’s sanctuary of all. It looks like a black and hardly accessible pyramidal rock in the Atlantic Ocean, eight miles (12 km) off the west coast of Ireland, in County Kerry (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:12,55; Department of Culture 2010). Skellig Michael is known for legendary apparitions of the Archangel over its rocks but mostly it is recognized as one of the most significant examples of early Christian Irish monasticism and its highly ascetic character (Department of Culture 2010). Probably already in the sixth century, a small group of monks chose the isle for their remote and inaccessible monastery (Ibid.). As such the Skellig is usually described as the loneliest place on earth (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:12,55).

Saint Michael’s Mount’s elevation: 67 metres (221 feet) above sea level.

Saint Michael’s Mount, UK. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

A rocky island in Cornwall is connected to the mainland by a cobbled causeway at low tide, and can be reached only by boat at high tide (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:12). It has been regarded as the Cornish counterpart of Mont Saint Michel in France since it was handed to the Benedictine religious order by Edward the Confessor in the eleventh century (“St Michael’s Mount” 2020). Yet the site had featured a monastery already around the eighth century (Ibid.). Saint Michael’s Mount is situated in the lowest point of land above sea level of all the sanctuaries.

Mont Saint Michel’s elevation: 92 metres (301 feet) above sea level.

Mount Saint Michel, France. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

It is one of the most spectacular monasteries dedicated to Saint Michael, situated just off the coast of Normandy in northern France, on a large rocky island encrusted with a complex of medieval constructions (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:11). As a legend goes, in 708 Aubert, the bishop of Avranches had in his dream a vision of the Archangel Michael who instructed him to build an oratory on a large isolated rocky islet (Harpur, Westwood 1997:166). Eventually, Mont Saint Michel grew to become a powerful religious center in the Middle Ages, drawing pilgrims from far and wide (Ibid.:166).

Sacra Di San Michele’s elevation: 888 metres (2913 feet) above sea level.

“Sacra Di San Michele”. Photo by Elio Pallard (2013). CC BY-SA 4.0. Source: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The last two monasteries are set high in the mountains. The first one is placed in the highest point above sea level of all sanctuaries. It is located in the Piedmont region of north-west Italy, forty kilometers from Turin Sacra di San Michele 2020). The monastery dedicated to Saint Michael was built in the tenth or eleventh century, on the summit of mount Pirchiriano, which is still guarding the natural route through the Italian Alps into France (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:11; Sacra di San Michele 2020). The monastery is apparently the very same place that inspired the writer Umberto Eco to conceive the best-seller work in 1980, the Name of the Rose (Il nome della rosa) (Sacra di San Michele 2020).

Monte Sant’ Angelo Di Gargano’s elevation: 800 metres (2625 feet) above sea level.

Monte Sant’ Angelo Di Gargano, Italy. Photo by Angelo Totaro; “Emozioni Photo”. Please see Emozioni Foto Video by Angelo Tataro. Source: Foggia Today.

San Michele di Monte Gargano is the last footprint of the Archangel, placed in Italy, on the spur on the boot-shaped outline of the country, on the ridge of Gargano mountain (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:11). The heart of Saint Michael’s Sanctuary is placed in the grotto, which has been the destination of numerous pilgrimages, starting from the Norman monastery of Mont Saint Michel (“Monte Sant’ Angelo” 2020). According to a legend, the grotto was dedicated to Saint Michael as the Archangel had appeared there three times, in 490, 492 and 493 (Ibid.). Additionally, in 2019 archaeologists of the Ludwig Maximilian University excavating the site announced their discovery of traces of Hellenistic temple dated to the second century B.C. (Ibid.).

Visualizing the Visibility

The DEM data set has been used to create viewsheds as in the analysis of the elevation and landform of the sites. The maps represent the areas visible within 10 km from the sites in red, and those invisible in green.

Skellig Michael’s visibility: 218 meters (715 feet) above sea level.

St Michael’s Mount’s visibility: 67 meters (221 feet) above sea level.

Mont Saint Michel’s visibility: 92 metres (301 feet) above sea level.

Sacra Di San Michele’s visibility: 888 meters (2913 feet) above sea level.

Monte Sant’ Angelo Di Gargano’s visibility: 800 metres (2625 feet) above sea level.

The results look quite interesting. In all cases, there is a wide range of visibility as all the sites are located on the summits of mounts/mountains. The visibility from Mont Saint Michael and Saint Michael’s Mount is strongly concentrated around the sites and then is scattered in red spots around the area, especially in the case of Skellig Michael. Additionally, at the site of Sacra Di San Michele and Monte Sant’ Angelo Di Gargano, the reach of visibility forms long red belts, as both sanctuaries are situated on the ridge of the mountains.

There are, however, some factors that should be taken into consideration while evaluating the viewshed tool, as they may greatly affect the visibility. First of all these are atmospheric conditions at the sites in question; the weather in those areas is prone to sudden changes and has a disturbing influence on the view from the top of the monasteries, especially due to dense mists and clouds.

Results of the GIS Project

On the whole, GIS turned out to be a very valuable and beneficial tool in description and deeper analysis of the subject, providing that the data applied is of a good quality to fully illustrate all the points of the project.

“Sacra Di San Michele in the clouds” (2018). Photo credits: Franco Borrelli. Source: Munumento Symbolo Del Piemonte.
“Saint Michael’s Abbey over the fog”. Photo by Elio Pallard (2014). CC BY-SA 4.0. Source: “Sacra di San Michele” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The results show that the major sites dedicated to Apollo/St Michael are on a straight ley Line, more or less aligned to the direction of 60 degrees NW-SE. Others stay close to this Line. Furthermore, it is demonstrated that St Michael’s monasteries accomplish their main purpose of being the sacral centers: not easily accessible but visible and welcoming pilgrims venerating the Archangel.

My own pilgrimage

I have always dreamed of making a pilgrimage along St.Michael/Apollo Line. However, due to a vast distance of the track, it is unlikely for me to complete it at once. Therefore, it will be more reasonable to divide the route into shorter sections or visit the sanctuaries while traveling around a particular country.

The Limbourg brothers (XV century) the Miniature (folio 195r), showing “La Fête de l’archange : le Mont Saint-Michel. In: Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. Public domain. {{PD-US}}. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

So far I have visited three of the seven Saint Michael’s Mounts and some of Apollo’s temples while visiting Greece. The first site of the listed sanctuaries I have ever seen was Mont Saint Michel in Normandy. I went there in 2006, during my year stay in France. As I studied history of art in Paris, I usually travelled at that time around the country to see its artistic and architectural treasure, which France is so famous for. It was long before I had ever learned about Saint Michael’s Axis, which eventually happened in 2008, during my visit in Cornwall – a charming Celtic peninsula belonging to United Kingdom. I spent there a long May weekend with my friend. Having reached the most westerly town, Penzance, we both travelled to Saint Michael’s Mount, situated in the bay, near the town of Marazion. At that moment, I understood there must be a strong connection between these two Saint Michael’s mounts, the Norman and the Cornish, but I mainly thought of their mutual dedication to the Archangel, their similar architecture and natural terrain of their location. I had not realized yet, they could be both geographically interconnected and that there are other sanctuaries of that kind in Europe.

It was in 2008, in Tintagel (Cornwall), where I learnt about Saint Michael/Apollo’s Axis. In a small bookshop, just by the seaside, I had found a very interesting book telling a story about Saint Michael the Archangel, his pagan counterpart, Apollo, and their ongoing war on the Ley Line going straight across Europe, from Ireland southwards to Israel … The Cover of the book by Broadhurst, P., Miller, H.  Shanley, V., Russel B. (2000) The Dance of the Dragon: An Odyssey into Earth Energies and Ancient Religion. Photo by Karolina Jędrzejko. Copyright©Archaeotravel

Eventually, after travelling westwards along the Cornish peninsula, we reached the legendary site of Tintagel. There, in one of local library shops, I found a very interesting and thick book by P. Broadhurst, H. Miller, V. Shanley, B. Russel (2003) The Dance of the Dragon. An Odyssey into Earth Energies and Ancient Religion, which explains in detail the idea of St. Michael/Apollo Axis. Since then, I have involved myself in the authors’ research by means of my own studies, including for example the represented above the GIS project. The book itself has become my personal guide through the pilgrimage along the Axis. Also this is why I broadly share here the theories I have found in the undertaken research.

Saint Michael’s Mount in Cornwall depicted in 1890s painting by James Webb. Public domain. Source: “Saint Michael’s Mount” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

After visiting the Cornish sanctuary in 2008, yet in the same year, I travelled once again to Mount Saint Michel, in France, to see it from the perspective of the Axis research. Only in July, 2015, had I a rare opportunity to land on one of the most inaccessible sites of the Archangel – the Skellig Michael in Ireland, which has already been fully described in one of my previous posts, entitled, Hermitage of the Archangel. In all cases (Cornwall, Normandy and Ireland), the three sites share not only highly spiritual atmosphere but also very similar geographical features. All of them are off the shore, with their summits covered in monastery structures. First two are additionally tidal islands of more or less conical shape, located deeply in the bays with salty marches and wetlands (Bonnot 2013; “Birdwatching – Marazion Marshes” 2018). Visiting them was both inspiring and deeply motivating for my work.

Hopefully, I will continue my pilgrimage southwards in the coming years …

Featured image: Drawing: The Apollo-St. Michael Axis.

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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Squared Humanity inscribed in the Universe of God

Among art works preserved in the Condé Museum in Chantilly, in France, there is a lavishly illuminated and decorated manuscript created at the beginning of the fifteenth century. Commonly known from French as Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry [The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry], the bookcontains undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and important cycle of Gothic miniatures shaped by the Late Middle Ages (Żylińska 1986:236; Białostocki 2008:213).

The Limbourg Brothers and the Duke of Berry

Jean de Berry, the Duke. Detail from January. By Limbourg brothers – R-G Ojéda/RMN (created between 1412 and 1416). Public domain. Photo cropped. Photo source: “Très Riches Heures …” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

It is believed that the medieval masterpiece was produced by the three Limbourg brothers who came from the Low Countries. The authorship of the Book of Hours is also ascribed to other great contemporary illuminators, namely Barthélemy d’Eyck and Jean Colombe, who successively illuminated the manuscript after the death of the Limbourg, in the years between 1440s and 1480s (“Très Riches Heures …” 2020). As a matter of fact, it took a number of skillful craftsmen to produce a manuscript of that kind. (Husband, Cambell 2010). The writing, the calligraphy and the text was done by scribes (Ibid.). Somebody else did the decorating of the letters, the line enders and all the decorations within the text (Ibid.). Yet other craftsmen did all the rest of the borders (Ibid.).

The duc d’Aumale with a friend in his study at Chantilly. By Gabriel Ferrier – Bibliothèque et Archives du Château de Chantilly (created circa 1880). Public domain. Photo from “Très Riches Heures …” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

As the name of the book indicates, the manuscript was commissioned by a well-known great patron of the arts Jean, Duke of Berry. Although he had already owned a few books of such kind, he was always eager to get involved in a new ambitious project. (Secomska 1972:14-25; Husband, Cambell 2010). One can almost envisage the Duke flicking through his precious books by candlelight, savouring their charming illuminations (Husband, Cambell 2010). One of his other famous manuscripts, the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry was also painted by the brothers Limbourg, between 1405 and 1409 (Ibid.). What makes the manuscript really unique among other Books of Hours is that it consists of seven inserted “story-like cycles that read like picture books” (“Belles Heures …” 2018; see Husband, Cambell 2010). They are devoted to saints, particularly venerated by the Valois princes, and to other important historical moments in Christianity (Husband, Cambell 2010). “Each section of the Belle Heures is customized to the personal wishes of its patron” (“Belles Heures …” 2018) and the Duke’s ownership of the book is indicated by representations of his coat of arms and personal emblems, namely the swans and bears, in each elaborate border of its pages (Husband, Cambell 2010). “Along with the Très Riches Heures, […] the Belles Heures ranks among the great masterpieces of the Middle Ages. The manuscript is now in The Cloisters in New York (“Belles Heures …” 2018).

The Art of Illumination: The Limbourg Brothers and the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry. (Husband, Cambell 2010). Video source: Husband, T., Cambell, T. (2010) “The Art of Illumination: The Limbourg Brothers and the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry”. In: Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In: The Met Youtube Channel.

The Very Rich Book of Hours was painted by the Limbourg between circa 1412 and 1416 but eventually, the manuscript could not be finished by the three brothers who died, as their patron, in 1416 (“Très Riches Heures …” 2020). In 1856, the masterpiece was acquired by the Duke of Aumale and now it is preserved as the MS 65 in the Musée Condé in Chantilly, France (Ibid.).

Livres D’Heures

BOOK OF HOURS A book of prayers to be said at the canonical Hours, intended for a lay person’s private devotion (e.g. Hours of the Blessed Virgin). Popular in the Late Middle Ages and often containing rich ILLUMINATION.

(Lucie-Smith 2003:36)

Books of Hours were used as prayer books that developed in late medieval Europe World (Digital Library 2017). Although they were made for the wealthy laity and so were used for private devotion, it had been based on the books used by the clergy but much simplified (World Digital Library 2017; Husband, Cambell 2010). Accordingly, they were devotional manuals used as personal prayer books; usually beautifully covered in jewels and with a silver fastening (Pijoan 2006:56-57; Białostocki 2008:211-213). Sometimes they open with a portrait of an owner and of their patron saint (Ibid.).

Books of Hours universally include a register of Church feasts together with multiple texts of everyday prayers (Pijoan 2006:56-57; Białostocki 2008:211-213; Digital Library 2017). The text is accompanied by rich miniature cycles, representing the Christian iconography characteristic of the Middle Ages, such as the Annunciation, Nativity, the Three Wise Men, the Life of Christ, the Virgin, various Saints, and sometimes also scenes depicting episodes of the Old Testament (Pijoan 2006:56-57; Białostocki 2008:211-213).

Illuminated manuscript page illustrating the Annunciation from the Belles Heures du Duc de Berry. Photo from “Belles Heures …” 2018. Books of Hours were mainly dedicated to the “Hours of the Virgin”. That component begins in the Belles Heures with the scene of the “Annunciation” (Husband, Cambell 2010). By Pol, Jean, and Herman de Limbourg (Franco-Netherlandish, active in France, by 1399–1416). Public domain. Photo source: “Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry” (2018) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

One of the most dominant and significant parts of Book of Hours, particularly in the case of the Très Riches Heures, is unquestionably a multi-coloured calendar year with vibrantly dynamic miniatures (Pijoan 2006:56-57; Białostocki 2008:211-213).

Owning such a manuscript was also a way for wealthy individuals to establish a more direct relationship with the God than exclusively through the Church, and in particular to express a more personal prayer to the Virgin Mary for at the core of each Book of Hours, there are the “Hours of the Virgin” (World Digital Library 2017; Husband, Cambell 2010).

Art of Luxury

The Reign of Saint Louis the Ninth in France (1226-1270) was the very peak for medieval illumination being developed mainly in Paris. Dante, the author of the Divine Comedy, describes the moment while he meets the most famous illuminator of his times in Purgatory and pays honour to this art (Pijoan 2006:56), which “is in Paris called illuminating” (Alighieri: CantoX:79).

ILLUMINATION The illustrations and book decorations found in medieval and later manuscripts, usually painted in GOUACHE or TEMPERA with gold highlights – hence the name. Synonym of ILLUMINATIONMINIATURE.

(Lucie-Smith 2003:117,139)

Not only the Bible and canonical books were decorated at that time – like in the Carolingian epoch – but there were also various texts, psalters and prayer books for a personal use. The most characteristic books of the times of Philip August and Louis IX were definitely psalters illuminated with two kinds of miniatures. Some in their forms imitating stained glasses cover the pages in circles, within which various episodes are told; in others, the entire compositions of scenes are enclosed in an intricate frame of Gothic architectural motifs: pinnacles, rosettes, roofs and arcades with flying buttresses (Pijoan 2006:56).

Château de Saumur, France. Its representation is shown in the miniature of September. Photo by Kamel15 (2008). R.M.N. / R.-G. Ojéda. CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: Château de Saumur (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.
Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, in the miniature of June. View of the chapel from approximate position of the Palace gateway (lower parts obscured by much later buildings). Photo by Beckstet (2005). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Sainte-Chapelle” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

After a thousand years, non-religious themes in art had reappeared and the Limbourg brothers painted the Duke’s properties: castles, lands and peasants (Beckett 1996). Towers, battlements, pinnacles – a castle seems the main witness to events illustrated by the Limbourg brothers and the Duke of Berry actually owned seventeen castles (Ibid.). Regrettably, not much original architecture depicted has been preserved; some of the examples painted by the artists that survived to our times are the castle of Saumur by the River Loire (Ibid.), the castle of Vincennes to the east of Paris, and St. Chapelle on the Île de la Cité.

Château de Vincennes, shown by the miniature of December. Photo by Selbymay (2012). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Château de Vincennes” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

As the artwork commissioned by the Duke of Berry, his Very Rich Book of Hours also “celebrates the luxuries and sophistication of court life. Partially, it was designed to delight, flatter and amuse the patron” (Prof. Elizabeth 2019).

European Courts of the Late Middle Ages

The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry was created in the Late Middle Ages where the world of art was becoming smaller (Beckett 1996). Artists were travelling and meeting one another (Ibid.). Consequently, the so-called international style had been born (Ibid.).

The Nativity of Jesus, folio 44v. By Limbourg brothers (created between 1411 and 1416). Public domain. Photo from “Très Riches Heures …” (2020). In Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In the span of the years 1320-1420, royal and duke’s courts, mainly of Paris, Berry, Dijon, Burgundy and Low Countries, started to witness an unusual florescence of miniature painting within contemporary manuscripts. In the fourteenth century, together with a transformation of the feudal society hierarchical structure and a formation of a new social stratum, namely the rich intellectuals, a considerable need for a decorated book substantially increased. In about one hundred years the same need would result in the invention of the printing press, which rapid development consequently brought the end to the illuminated manuscript (Pijoan 2006:56-57; Białostocki 2008:211-213).

In the heyday of the medieval handwritten book, there was also a rapid artistic growth of illustrations within its frame. With the development of a medieval image in wooden panel paintings, the illustration had also flourished on parchment or vellum used for miniatures and illuminated manuscripts, particularly lavishly in prayers books of hours, called in French, livres d’heures. Their rich and intricate decorations at the time constituted a manifestation of a luxury and personal wealth, and even satisfied snobbery (Pijoan 2006:56-57; Białostocki 2008:211-213).

Calendar in Medieval Art aka Labours of the Months

Life at the Duke’s Court is the subject of the secular scenes that portray the seasons (Prof. Elizabeth 2019). “The pictorial calendar convention […] has a very long history and a very wide circulation” (Henisch 1999:vii). In Western Europe its origins date back to “the ninth century onwards; by the twelve century it had become firmly established, and was to grow especially strong and popular in France, Italy, England and Flanders” (Ibid.:5). Medieval calendar year not only was represented on sheet of vellum inside devotional books but also designed by skillful artists in wood, stone, glass, and woven into mosaics, most universally, however, used in the magnificent sculpture of Gothic cathedrals (Henisch 1999:4; Białostocki 2008:211-213; Cerinotti 2009:68-69).

The Limbourg brothers. Christ Led to Judgment, folio 143r. Uploaded by the User: Petrusbarbygere (2005). Public domain. Photo from “Très Riches Heures …” (2020). In Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Wherever it is depicted, and irrespective of small deviations in its details, the calendar pattern always consists of twenty-four scenes. Twelve of them stands for each month of the year. Correspondingly, they unfold tasks, popular occupations at the countryside, detailed scenery landmarks, and all other features characteristic of a given month (Henisch 1999:vii-3; Białostocki 2008:213; Cerinotti 2009:68-69). The successive months of the year chase one another like shifting scenes in a wheel of a vibrant kaleidoscope, “and each of these represents one stage in the never-ending process of providing food for society” (Henisch 1999:vii). Hence the medieval calendar year is also known as the “labours cycle” or the “Labours of the Months” (Ibid.:vii).

“As the year unfolds, each season has its own character and concerns. The winter months are spent indoors, in feasting and keeping warm by the fire. In the early work spring begins on the land, getting it ready to yield the best crops in the months ahead. At spring’s high tide, in April and May, there is a pause to celebrate the new life bursting out of the ground, the vigor and vitality coursing through the world’s veins. After the joy, the hard work starts again. June, July, and August are dominated by the raking of hay, the reaping of wheat, and the threshing of grain. In September, attention turns to the grape harvest and the making of wine. In the late autumn fields are plowed and seed in sown, for next year’s food supply, and animals are fattened and killed, to make sure there is plenty to enjoy when the year swings around once more to the time for feasting by the fireside.”

(Henisch 1999:2)

General plan

The overall pattern of the monthly labours inscribed in the framework of the calendar was thoroughly set up, conventionally repeated by artists throughout centuries, and therefore recognized elsewhere by the medieval mind (Henisch 1999:3-7).

“Little jingles, [usually chanted by children] – like the following, copied down in mid-fifteenth century England – also served to make the general plan well known and easy to remember” (Henisch 1999:3).

January: By thys fyre I warme my handys

Februar: And with my spade I delfe my landys.

Marche: Here I sette my thynge to sprynge;

Aprile: And here I here [hear] the fowlis synge.

Maij: I am as light as byrde in bowe;

Junij: And I wede my corne well I-know [enough].

Julij: With my sythe [scythe] my mede [meadow] I mawe [mow];

Auguste: And here I shere my corne full lowe.

September: With my flyll I erne my brede:

October: And here I sawe [sow] my whete so rede.

November: At Martynessmasse I kylle my swine;

December: And at Cristesmasse I drynke redde wyne” (Henisch 1999:3)

Reliefs of the Zodiac signs and Labors of the months at Portal of Saint Fermin, Amiens Cathedral. Photo by Olivier (2010-2015). Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0. Photo cropped and colours intensified. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.

From Labours of the Months to the Cycle of Occupations

LABOURS OF THE MONTHS A series of twelve scenes, one for each month, each showing a different country occupation, and usually accompanied by the appropriate sign of the zodiac. Found in medieval sculpture and STAINED GLASS and often in the calendar of the BOOK OF HOURS decorated with ILLUMINATION.

(Lucie-Smith 2003:127)

By the end of the epoch in question, however, a set of the illustrations – traditionally called the Labours of the Months – had become more often known as  “a cycle of occupations than labors” (Henisch 1999:7). It was because instead of duties people usually carried out in due seasons, artists started to illustrate seasonal activities and pleasures the contemporary society themselves indulged in with a full engagement and fantasy (Ibid.:7) “from snowball fights in December to boating parties in May” (Ibid.:7).

Photos by Martin Greslou (2013). Public domain. Photos source: “Zodiac on Chartres cathedral stained-glass windows.” In: Wikimedia Commons.

Signs of the Zodiac

In the medieval calendar the twelve scenes of the Labours or Occupations of the Months are always matched pair with the remaining twelve scenes representing each month’s principal zodiac sign (Henisch 1999:vii-3). It is because every month is identified with a certain planet and the divine power, an influence of which was believed to be very present in the world of nature and human disposition (Battistini 2005:47). In view of that, “the occupation scene for each month is usually linked in some way with the month’s zodiac sign, whose familiar emblem helps to pinpoint the position of each activity of the year’s map” (Henisch 1999:2). Just as it is illustrated by the cycle of stained glass scenes depicted in the Cathedral of Chartres in France, where a particular zodiac sign on the right is ascribe to each of monthly human occupations on the left.

“January – Aquarius, the Water Carrier,

 February – Pisces, the Fish,

 March – Aries, the Ram,

 April – Taurus, the Bull,

 May – Gemini, the Twins,

 June – Cancer, the Crab,

 July – Leo, the Lion,

 August – Virgo, the Maiden,

 September – Libra, the Scales,

 October – Scorpio, the Scorpion,

 November – Sagittarius, the Archer,

 December – Capricorn, the Goat” (Henisch 1999:2-3).

The Anatomical Zodiac Man, folio 14. By Limbourg brothers (created between 1411 and 1416). Public domain. Photo from “Très Riches Heures …” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In the Very Rich Book of Hours of the Duke of Berry, the zodiac signs depicted at the top of the page tract the cycle of months represented below (Prof. Elizabeth 2019).

Long Ancient Tradition Inscribed in the Medieval Iconography

As the tradition goes, the zodiac signs were first of all to represent the endless, subsequent cycle of the passing time. Still they also gave the evidence of a close and harmonious relation between human activities and the movements of heavenly bodies in the sky. Their origins reach the ancient civilizations, such as of Egypt, China, Persia, and India. The zodiac was then adapted by the Christianity on the way of the religious syncretism, to eventually find its central place in the medieval iconography, where it was linked to twelve labours depictions characterizing twelve months of the year. As it was said above, the calendar year was being commonly worked out in the stones of Gothic cathedrals where, like in the late medieval illuminations, the zodiac signs correspond to human occupations (Cerinotti 2009:68-69).

Accordingly, while the sign of Aries, the Ram is joined with March’s activity of trimming the Vines, Libra, the Scales illustrates a grape picking in September (Maye, Stones 2009). Sometimes, the zodiac signs are placed in a tympanum semicircle, surrounding the figure of Christ; in this case they show a close connection between the earth and the Heavens, people and God, and so they illustrate that the actual order of the Creation and events on the earth meets the order imposed by the Creator (Cerinotti 2009:68-69).

Angers Cathedral South Rose Window of Christ (centre) with elders (bottom half) and Zodiac (top half). Medieval stained glass by Andre Robin after the fire of 1451. Photo by Chiswick Chap (2013). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Zodiac” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

“The zodiac is the narrow pathway across the sky, in which the sun, the moon and the principal planets seem to move throughout the year. It is divided into twelve equal sections, or signs, each named after a constellation, whose position once, long ago lay within it. The sun passes through one of these sections each month, as it makes its progress from one year’s end to the next. Because the sun was all-important in the life of men and women, its movement was studied with the greatest attention, and it was only natural and fitting, that the twelve divisions of the calendar should be marked with the zodiac signs, as reminders of the sun’s journey through the sky, as well as with the scenes that show the round of labors needed to sustain society on the earth below.”

(Henisch 1999:2)

Square and Cycle Intertwined

January: A New Year’s Day feast including Jean de Berry. By Limbourg brothers – R-G Ojéda/RMN (created between 1412 and 1416). Public domain. Photo from “Très Riches Heures …” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The zodiac signs and labours of the medieval calendar many a time were represented as scenes inscribed in the forms of cycles (medallions or quatrefoils). A cycle – an ideal geometrical figure – was believed to have been created to reflect the perfection of God. Correspondingly, its shape incorporated into art assured the balance of the universe, and so regulated the cycle of life (Cerinotti 2009:68-69). In this context, the shape of a square on the other side stands for the earthly world and human sphere of influence. Not without reason these two geometrical figures predominate in the calendar illuminations of the Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry. The entire composition of the calendar including two scenes is thus divided into two geometrical zones: at the bottom of the framework there is a square-shaped image of human labours, whereas at the top – a semi-circular forms with zodiac signs and the symbols of the planets (Białostocki 2008:213). In each of the zodiac spheres, there is additionally a representation of “the Greek deity Apollo who rides his [heavenly] chariot while carrying the Sun across the sky (Prof. Elizabeth 2019). Such an illustration referring to the ancient tradition not only introduces a divine element in the human everyday life but also it is a sing of the coming Renaissance.

December: Château de Vincennes. By Barthélemy d’Eyck– R.M.N. / R.-G. Ojéda (created circa 1440). Public domain. Photo source: “Très Riches Heures …” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The overall set of illustrations in the Book of Hours successfully “depicts the year as a round of seasonal activities on the land, […] almost always drawn from the countryside and the farm, [which sequence] represents the annual, endlessly repeated cycle of necessary, basic tasks which put food on the table” (Henisch 1999:vii,1-2). On the other side, all the human occupations framed in the squares are regulated by the divine element above – the earthly world of a human being inscribed into the sphere and order of God.

Featured image: The upper semi-circular frame of the scene of Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry: “January”, representing the zodiac signs depicted at the top of the page, assigned to the month of January and its occupations, represented below. By Limbourg brothers – R-G Ojéda/RMN (created between 1412 and 1416). Public domain. Image cropped. Photo from “Très Riches Heures …” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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Białostocki, J. (2008) Sztuka cenniejsza niż złoto. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.

Cerinotti, A. ed. (2009) Tajemnicze katedry [Cattedrali del mistero]. Cieśla, H. trans. Warszawa: Bellona.

Henisch, B. A. (1999) The Medieval Calendar Year. Pennsylvania: University Park, Penn State Press.

Huizinga, J. (2003) Jesień średniowiecza [Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen]. Brzostowski, T. trans. Warszawa: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy.

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Miniature Great Mother of the Paleolithic

Civilizations primary arising from agriculture have often believed that the creator of all things is the feminine element. Earth, the source of life, was imagined as the holy and fertile mother who was the matrix of all creation. In many myths of ancient civilizations, such as Babylonian or Hebrew, there are echoes of worship and faith in Magna Mater – the Great Mother, the creator of the world, which naturally resulted from her feminine ability to give life. In pre-patriarchal times, goddesses – not gods – were supposed to be  supreme powers. Hence there are many stories about the goddesses-creators of the world (Leeming 1999). However, with the rise of patriarchal cultures, they were supplanted in favour of more desirable tales about almighty gods and their male prophets.

From Matriarchy to Patriarchy

The etymology of the word matriarchy is derived from Latin and Greek: mater, matris – mother and arche – power (Jabłońska 2010). The period of matriarchy dates back to the Upper Paleolithic, and can still be observed in the late Neolithic period – the younger Stone Age – when a visible transition to patriarchy follows. In the Bronze Age, patriarchy is definitely dominating, which is associated with changes in the understanding of higher beings and religion in general. The way of life in the matriarchate differs significantly from the one prevailing in the patriarchate. At the time of patriarchy, life and culture were dominated by venerating harsh and ruthless male divinities (Ibid.) – warriors who slay the bodies of snake-like monsters. Simultaneously, the latter were associated in many myths with the female aspect, present in the elements of water, fire, earth and air (Absalon, Canard 2006:15-23). The tradition of the male creator god continues in monotheistic religions. In Judeo-Christian culture it is Yahweh, and for Muslims it is Allah (Jabłońska 2010).

Magna Mater and her Origins

The beginnings of Mother-Earth veneration were already visible in the older Stone Age, when the Paleolithic hunter worshiped the Moon, observed its phases and cyclical nature. The lunar worship of that time was undeniably associated with devotion to life and fertility, and thus dedicated to womanhood and menstrual cycle that has always corresponded to subsequent phases of the Moon (Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:31-32; Frazer 1971:378- 381).

Echoes of the Paleolithic connection of Magna Mater with the worship of the Moon resound in the pantheon of ancient lunar goddesses; the moon lady is Syrian Astarte and Egyptian Isis or Hathor with the ears and horns of a cow symbolizing the Moon. The next incarnation of the Great Mother is Babylonian-Assyrian Ishtar, similar to Sumerian Inanna (“Bóstwa lunarne” 2010; Żak-Bucholc 2003, “Astarte” 2010) and the Greek Selene – the personification of the Moon par excellence. In Roman mythology the goddess was known as Luna – the Moon. Her cult was associated with the cult of Artemis, in Roman mythology most often associated with Diana – the goddess of fertility and moonlight, and with the Greek Hekate – the goddess of death and magic. The most common attribute of lunar goddesses was the lunar sickle in their hair (“Artemida” 2010; ”Diana” 2010; ”Selene” 2010). Diana herself even took the form of the Moon and sailing into the cloudless sky, she looked with pleasure at her beautiful reflection in the calm shimmering surface of the lake, the mirror of the goddess (Frazer 1971:366-367). It is not surprising that today many scholars consider Paleolithic lunar worship as the source and foundation of all subsequent mythology (“Bóstwa lunarne” 2010).

Goddess in the Darkness of Caves

At the time of lunar worship, the female element hid in the dark, underground channels of cave-sanctuaries. From her womb all creation was born: mammoths, horses and bison are still emerging from the underground wells and are swirling in the colours of the cave ceilings – a gift from the Mother Goddess, which was invoked by magical rituals of the Paleolithic hunter (Jabłońska 2010; Nougier 1989:32-39; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:30-33). The naturalistic art of Paleolithic is dominated by the animal which had a sacred dimension at that time. Compared to realistically depicted images of animals, man was represented very schematically, and even in a caricatural way. On the verge of a flourishing matriarchate, among a few anthropomorphic performances, the image of a naked woman definitely dominates (Nougier 1989:39; Osińska 2004:14-16).

Palaeolithic Venus

Commonly known as Paleolithic Venus, female representations in the form of small sculpture or relief do not bring to mind ancient goddesses of beauty. Still the name of the statuettes refers to the famous statue of Venus of Milo, because, like the statue itself, figurines of Paleolithic Venus are basically devoid of arms (“Wenus Paleolityczna” 2010). The so-called Venus figurines occur across Eurasia from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Baikal, and given that the creators of these carvings were separated by hundreds of kilometers, it is remarkable that so many of statuettes share the same traits (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015).

They are generally quite small with sizes typically ranging from 2.5 cm to 10 cm though a few examples are as large as 24 cm but they are mostly small enough to be held in the hand (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015). The most common material used to carve these statuettes is mammoth tusk, horse teeth, hematite, antlers, bone, limonite and stone (Ibid.). A very small number of sites produced clay figurines, which are among the earliest known examples of ceramic art. Some of their features are greatly exaggerated while other are absent or downplayed (Ibid.).

Upper Paleolithic Europe with some locations of sites where Venus figurines were found. 1. 1. Brassempouy, France; 2. Lespugue, France; 3. Laussel, France; 4. Grimaldi Caves, Italy; 5. Dolni Vestonice, Czech Republic; 6. Pavlov, Czech Republic; 7. Willendorf, Austria; 8. Avdeevo, Russia; 9. Kostenki, Russia; 10. Gagarino, Kazakhstan. Map from Soffer et al. (2000) “The ‘Venus” Figurines’. Current Anthropology 41(4), pp. 511-537.

Paleolithic Venus image is dominated by obesity and excessive exposure of sexual characteristics: exaggerated buttocks, abdomen, thighs and womb may indicate a body deformed by frequent births (Jabłońska 2010; Nougier 1989:9,39; “Wenus paleolityczna” 2010; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32; Osińska 2004:14-16; “Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006). Due to such characteristics, Paleolithic figurines are sometimes referred to as Steatopygian Venus figures as they expose body features typical of African women, namely an excessive fat accumulation in and around the buttocks (“Steatopygia” 2020). Additionally, it is quite common for the figurines to be faceless with poorly defined arms (hence their name) and legs and a silhouette that is tapered at the top and bottom. The carvings often lack defined hands and feet (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015).

Bias interpretations

Venuses’ physical appearance provoke different interpretation (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015).

Venus from Savignano, Italy (c. 25 000-20 000 BC). Photo from Biologus.eu. Figurine with a silhouette tapered at the top and bottom . The middle depiction is displaying steatopygia.

They may stand for :

  1. Fertility symbols,
  2. Mother goddess,
  3. Paleoerotica,
  4. Self-portraiture,
  5. Beauty standards,
  6. Protective talismans,
  7. Good luck amulets playing religious and ritual functions,
  8. Ancestors,
  9. Women throughout the lifespan,
  10. Puppets, dolls,
  11. Witches keeping strangers away (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015).
Venus of Gagarino (c.20,000 BCE) Among the oldest art of Russia.” Photo source:: Venus Figurines.

Those bias interpretations result from different aspects of gender(Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015). There were androcentric (men as creators of figurines with an objectified understanding of representations of females) and feminist interpretations and approaches to the subject (Ibid.). Moreover, great number of found figurines and their realistic features contrast with the scarcity of depictions of males whose representation are usually schematic, stylised or abstract (Ibid.).

Notion of Motherhood and Self-Representation

Statues are characterized by the lack of facial features, which may indicate their character and purpose; Venus is not a beauty with individual features, but a notion of motherhood in general (Jabłońska 2010; Nougier 1989:9,39; “Wenus paleolityczna” 2010; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32; Osińska 2004:14-16; “Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006). Simultaneously, her major features express respect and reverence for a woman as a source of life and refer to the cult of fertility. In the image of Paleolithic Venus, one can see a goddess taking care of women during pregnancy and childbirth, which was justified in the period of low birth rate and high mortality among new-born children (Ibid.).

Venus of Willendorf. Photo by MatthiasKabel (2007). Creative Commons CC-BY 2.5. In: Wikimedia Commons.

Finally, the figurines may have been self-representations by female creators (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015). This assumption is supported by statuettes’ proportions (Ibid.). Their bodies were shaped as if they were observed from the top down (Ibid.). At the time for a woman to know what she looked like, she could only look down upon herself (Ibid.). That would explain lack their faces, smaller heads, and why legs seem to disappear (Ibid.).

Worldwide worship

Due to a wide number of Paleolithic female statuettes – from Western Europe to Siberia – the conclusion is that their worship was highly widespread in the whole contemporary world (Jabłońska 2010; Nougier 1989:9,39; “Wenus paleolityczna” 2010; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32; Osińska 2004:14-16; “Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006). Venus figurines are one of the most distinctive components of Stone Age material culture and the earliest examples of art created in the human image (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015). Those remarkable statuettes were created in Upper Paleolithic 50 000 – 10 000, mostly by Gravettian people who spread out all over Europe around 33000 to 22000 or even 17000 BP(Ibid.). Some statuettes have been found inside dwellings, in pits, some come from cultural layers (Ibid.).  They were first brought to the attention of modern society during 1890s when they were discovered in southwestern France and northern Italy by Edouard Petite and Salomon Reinach. The oldest was discovered in 2008 in Germany, dated to over 35 000 years old (Ibid.).

Venus of Kostenki; c. 23 000 BC. Photo from: Senko, K. N. Venus of Kostenki. Upper body decorations – linear wedge-shaped notching looking like bandeaux, usually present on Eastern European figurines with headgear. When such clothing is absent, it is probably replaced by the hands folded on top of the breasts (e.g. Venus of Willendorf).

Palaeolithic fashion

Fragment of a Venus from Kostenki (c. 23 000 BC) with the rope-like coil around both wrists hanging on the belly.” Photo by Cohen (2003). In: Venus figures from the Kostenki.

Decorations on the Venus bodies suggest some of them might represent clothing (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015).It was generally thought that Venus, if dressed, should have worn animal furs, leathers or hides (Ibid.).According to information from burials, the dead were fully clad with abundance of bracelets and necklaces (Ibid.). Venus figurines reflect plant based textiles and basketry (Ibid.). According to undertaken studies, there are at least three different types of dressed female depictions: different headgear, body bandeaux and at least one type of skirt (Ibid.).

Venus of Brassempouy , France 22 000 BC; head covering: stylized and indistinct in detail, rather hairnets or netted snoods. Photo source: “The Venus Figurines of the European Paleolithic Era”. In: Ancient Origins.

Venuses’ dressing underlines the importance of textile industry in Upper Paleolithic cultures, which must have been associated with women, and stood for their prestige in a society (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015).Similar value can be given to basketry: apparently weaving of textiles, plaiting and coiling of baskets were dominant female occupations employed already in Upper Palaeolith (50 000-10 000 BP). It is the earliest evidence of technologies such as textile – usually much more associated with the later Mesolithic and Neolithic periods (Ibid.).Factually, the stone age probably produced more wood tools and fibre artefacts than lithic items (Ibid.).

Venus of Lespugue, France, 26 000 BC : belts attached to string skirts, low on the hips with a high attention to detail. Photo from “Upper Paleolithic Venus Figurines” Slide 7. In: Slide Share.

No detail is accidental

The figurines of  the Upper Paleolithic may be unclad or partially clad and the modelling of their bodies differs. Such a depiction is not random but rigidly patterned within one particular type (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015). Among a massive number of figurines, they represent a female image of different functions; each has got its own symbolic meaning conveyed by the pose and underlined body parts (Ibid.). No detail is accidental; their creators made a selection of attributes and human identity (Ibid.). The Venus body becomes a medium to reflect social differences, also by means of their attire (Ibid.). Paleolithic imagery associates the wearing of clothing with a category of women whose attire included basket hats or caps, netted snoods, bandeaux, string skirts, and belts (Ibid.). These garments may have been of a ritual wear, which served as a notion of distinct social categories (Ibid.). Creators of clad Venuses must have been well familiar with the art of making textiles and fiber technology in general, or they could have been guided by such experts (Ibid.).

Venus of Laussel, France, on the left (c. 25 000-23 000 BC) and Venus of Dolni Vestonice, Czech Rebublic, on the right (34 000-26 500 BC) with highly abstracted horizontal lines girdling the body . Photo from “Upper Paleolithic Venus Figurines” Slide 6. In. Slide Share.

Venus from Laussel

Among most famous prehistoric statuettes of Venus of the Paleolithic period there is undoubtedly the relief of Venus from Laussel, Aquitaine, dating from 22 000 to the 18 000 BC. Currently, the object, commonly known as Venus with the Horn, is a part of the collection of the Museum of National Antiquities in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France. An iconographic analysis of the relief indicates a close relationship between Venus, the lunar cult discussed above and the mystery of the Great Mother. While the naked woman’s left hand rests on her swollen womb, in her right hand she holds a buffalo’s horn with thirteen cuts. A woman’s womb may stand for the matrix of all creation, while the horn is interpreted as a crescent moon – a symbol of chthonic and lunar powers (“Kult lunarny” 2009; Wenus paleolityczna” 2010; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32; Osińska 2004:14-16, “Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006; Nougier 1989:9). The thirteen marks on the horn refer to the thirteen days in which the moon is in the growing phase and the thirteen lunar cycles making up the solar year. All this testifies not only to the Paleolithic knowledge of the lunar month, but also to the fact that makers of the relief must have understood the connection between the woman’s menstrual cycle and the lunar month (“Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006).

Venus of Moravany, Czech Republic (c. 24 000-24 000 BC) Statuette dominated by obesity and excessive exposure of sexual characteristics. Photo from “Upper Paleolithic Venus Figurines” Slide 4. In. Slide Share.

The buffalo horn held by Venus of Laussel is also of great iconographic significance: horned animals such as a bull, cow or buffalo are often attributed to fertility goddesses and were once used as sacrificial animals. It was believed that their blood was a source of purification, spiritual strength and life. Menstrual blood was interpreted similarly, given that the lush shapes of Venus with a horn were once covered by a red layer of ochre (Nougier 1989:9; “Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006).

There are apparently complicated relationships between women, Paleolithic Venuses, red colour, the Moon, fertility cycle, the first attempts to control nature and the very first beliefs.

“Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006.

Venus of Willendorf

Venus of Willendorf, Austria (c. 28,000 –25,000 BC ). Her heads depicted with radially or spirally produced hair gear or a fiber based woven cap or hat with a knotted center, which looks like a coiled basket with circuits encircling the head. Photo from “Upper Paleolithic Venus Figurines” Slide 2. In: Slide Share.

One of the most famous Paleolithic female mothers, Venus of Willendorf, also has traces of red dye. Dated to the period between 32 000 and 30 000 BC, it is now kept among the collections of the Naturhistorisches Museum, in Vienna. The figurine is one of the first images of this type found by archaeologists, thanks to which it became a kind of an ambassador of the prehistoric art. Like her Paleolithic sisters, Venus of Willendorf boasts a lush shape of thighs, hips, buttocks, breasts and abdomen with a clearly enhanced womb. The author did not show the woman’s face (“Paleolityczne Wenus” 2016; Pastuszka 2010). Her whole head is adorned with a haircut in a form of rollers surrounding most of the head with concentric circles (Szombathy 2010), or a round-like headgear (“Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006; Pastuszka 2010; “Wenus z Willendorfu” 2010). As it is described above, it may have been also a kind of a head cover. Unlike most figurines, the Willendorf statuette has the outline of small arms falling on the chest (Ibid.).

Venus figurine from Kostenki, Russia (c. 23 000-21 000 BC). Like in the case of Venus of Willendorf, Venus of Kostenki features a coiled basket around the head but with extra half-circuits over the nape of the neck.Photo from “Upper Paleolithic Venus Figurines” Slide 5. In: Slide Share.

Venus’ Evolution from Paleolithic to Neolithic

Venus of Lespugue, France. Photo source:: Venus Figurines.

In addition to the two Paleolithic figurines described more closely, one should also mention the mammoth Venus of Lespugue and Venus of Kostenki, the burnt clay Venus of Dolni Vestovice, the serpentine Venus of Savignano or the ivory Venus of Gagarino. Regardless of the origin and material from which they were made, the number of figurines found proves their mass production, and so a large demand for this type of product. Findings of single statues in houses, near hearths and in sacrificial places could testify to their relationship with domestic worship. Probably prehistoric Venus was used in rites of ancestor and fertility cult as art products associated with the household. As it is mentioned above, there is also a theory that they served as votive gifts, fetishes, or – due to their small size and convenience – they may have been amulets.

Venus of Dolni Vestonice , Czech Republic. Photo source:: Venus Figurines.

When the Paleolithic passed away, the image of the Great Mother gradually evolved acquiring new values in Neolithic (Jabłońska 2010; “Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006; Nougier 1989:25). In conjunction with that evolution, we cannot reject Magna Mater’s firmly sexual connotations. At the beginning of Neolithic, some artistic streams formed more abstract and stylized expressions in sculpture that existed and developed alongside more naturalistic expressions  – clothing disappears but sexual attributes remain (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015).

Featured image: Laussel Venus, Upper Paleolithic Bas-Relief, Aquitaine Museum, Bordeaux, France. Apic / Hulton Archive / Getty Images. Photo source: In: K. Kris Hirst (2019). “History of Alcohol: A Timeline How Long Have Humans Been Consuming Alcohol?” In: Thought.Co.

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Burda, B., Halczak, R. M. Józefiak, M. Szymczak (2002) Historia. Od dziejów najdawniejszych do schyłku starożytności. Gdynia: Wydawnictwo Pedagogiczne Operon.

Frazer, J. G. (1971) Złota gałąź, tom I, II [The Golden Bough, vol. I, II], Krzeczkowski, H. trans. Warszawa: Państwowy Instytu Wydawniczy.

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Louis-René Nougier (1989) ”Sztuka pradziejowa” In: Sztuka świata, tom 1, [Historia del Arte, vol. 1], Marzyńska, T. trans. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Arkady.

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Sliabh na Callighe (Mountains of the Witch)

In March we left for one-week study trip to the Boyne Valley. It was just a few days after heavy snowfall swamped the whole Ireland. Dubbed by the media as the “Beast from the East”, the cold wave had subsided after three days leaving behind white patches of snow and a hope for spring. Personally, as somebody who comes from Poland, I was used to the view of bigger snows and lower temperatures and so I got surprised by the reaction of people cleaning the shop shelves from food products on the day of the sinister weather forecast.

Brú na Bóinne

According to archaeological studies, the Boyne Valley, called in Irish Brú na Bóinne, has been inhabited uninterruptedly since the end of the Ice Age, and is said to be the birthplace of Ireland’s Ancient East featuring one of the most sacred and mythical landscapes in the country. For these reasons, the region has always been very attractive in terms of archaeological research and international tourism (“About Boyne Valley Tourism” 2018).

The Boyne Valley mainly encompasses two counties, namely Co. Meath and Co. Louth, and it is itself a hugely attractive and unique region of Ireland to be explored by researchers, scholars and tourists. Unfortunately, its well-deserved fame and grandeur of incomparable monuments are not sufficiently illustrious and extended, except for the Stone Age passage tomb of Newgrange, which has become a significant ambassador of the local history encouraging the development of tourism in this area. Except for scholars and archaeologists widely interested in the region, tourists mostly head off to the Boyne Valley to visit only the passage tombs of Newgrange and Knowth, and possibly also the Norman Castle of Trim, which was the location for King John’s Castle in the film Braveheart (1995). Other monuments appear to generally exist in their shadow, and seem to be less attractive and more obscure to a broader group of visitors.

Less known but essential

The key role of promoting the Boyne Valley is to point out and attract attention to other significant archaeological sites in the region, and simultaneously interesting tourist spots to be taken into account. It concerns prehistoric monuments of Dowth, Fourknocks and Loughcrew, royal and mythological Hills of Tara and Slane and finally medieval monuments of Mellifont, Duleek, Bective and Fore Abbeys as significant witnesses to European influence on insular tradition and architecture of Ireland (Michael 2018). Not without significant importance to the Irish history is also the site of  the seventeenth century Battle of the Boyne (Ibid.). Last but not least, there are ones of Ireland’s earliest Christian monastic sites, especially early medieval monuments of Irish sculpture – exceptional High Crosses of Kells in County Meath and those of Monasterboice in nearby Co. Louth (Ibid.). The monastic sites also feature Round Towers, which are not less interesting than the High Crosses themselves.

Archaeological assignments under the Irish sky

Yet before our study trip, we were divided into groups who each worked on a project dedicated to one particular site within the Boyne Valley. During our one-week trip, we stopped daily at three or four different sites and every group was supposed to give a lecture on a given monument in front of other students. Such a procedure would have been quite interesting unless a typical Irish weather that usually occurs in March. The snow gave its way to lashing and freezing rainfalls. Mixed with the prevailing winds, the rain was literally attacking us at each possible angle while we were trying to listen to the lectures in front of unmoved ancient stones, in the open space. Speakers suffered terribly: their voices were howled down by sudden blasts of icy cold air and their damped notes were literally falling apart between their fingers or were torn out by the wind.

Working in the field. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

I and two of my colleagues were assigned to the ancient site of  Loughcrew. However, the Beast from the East efficiently cut it off from the outside world due to the heavy snows, which still covered its ancient hills. Consequently, we were left without the subject of our study. To makes things even worse, our group was caught by an epidemic of stomach flu and some members of the study trip got sick and had to come back to Dublin, including one colleague of our three-person group. Therefore, two of us were left in the battlefield.

One of the sunniest days. Still wet and muddy. Wellingtons were the only option … Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As it turned out later on, we were compensated for all the inconvenience as we got a chance to present our project in much more favourable conditions than others. To make up for another rotten day, after visiting the High Crosses under the crying sky, we finally entered a warm coffeeshop in Kells where we were served fragrant sweet pastries and freshly ground coffee. Suddenly, our Professor came up with the idea of presenting the site of Loughcrew inside. We looked hesitantly at each other and then at clients curiously looking in our direction, possibly waiting for further development of the situation.

‘Well’, my colleague stopped the awkward silence. ‘Why not?’, he asked. ‘Unless it disturbs others …’ By saying ‘others’ he actually meant clients of the coffee shop.

‘No, not at all’, we heard some voices. Some members of the unexpected audience also approached our group to listen to what was going to be said. At once I got nervous. One thing is giving a lecture in front of my colleagues, the other thing was to expose yourself to criticism of strangers. I took a sip of my coffee, gathered my notes and joined my colleague who was already standing in a more open space, by the door.

Ancient site of Loughcrew

Loughcrew “gets its name from a nearby lake, originally called Lough Creeve: meaning lake of the tree, and is believed to refer to an ancient tree where rituals were held” (Celentano, Mulcahy, Pyrgies 2018). The site is deeply ancient as it dates back to around 3500-3300BC (O’Kelly 1978; Brennan 1994; Murphy 2018). It is spread across four hills: Carnbane West, Carnbane East and Patrickstown, the highest of which is around 274 meters above sea level (Celentano, Mulcahy, Pyrgies 2018). The hills were also known in the past as Sliabh na Calliaghe, which can be translated from Irish as Mountains of the Witch, referring to a folk tale surrounding the cairns (Ibid.).

Three hills with neolithic mounds. Photo source: Scott & Elaine Jones (2020). “Loughcrew Complex: (Passage Mounds)” In: Ancient-Wisdom.

“Nowadays [Loughcrew] is probably the best preserved example of a Neolithic landscape in the world. Nevertheless, the site initially “escaped the attention and well documented archaeological investigation devoted to other Boyne Valley [monuments]” (Brennan 1994:46).

“All things are full of gods” – Thales (c. 636 – c. 546 B.C.)

There are a few legends about the hills of Loughcrew, but perhaps the most famous is “the story of the hag for which the hills are named” (Celentano, Mulcahy, Pyrgies 2018). “The story goes that to rule over all of Ireland the Hag [or Witch – Calliaghe] had to complete a feat of enormous strength. She had to leap from hill to hill with stones in her apron. As she jumped from peak to peak she dropped a handful of stones. These stones became the cairns. On her final jump, to make her [ruler over] Ireland, she broke her neck and was buried under the stones on the side of the hill” (Shortt, Heery 2020). Another folklore says it was actually “a giant goddess named Garavoge, who came from the north-west with a collection of rocks which she dropped from her white apron” (Byrne 2020). In Celtic Folklore by John Rhys (1901-2015:393), the author gives an account of the legend he heard from his guide – a young shepherd, when he was visiting the cairns of Loughcrew in the summer of 1894. “He knew all about the hag after whom the hill was called except her name: she was, he said, a giantess, and so she brought there, in three apronfuls, the stones forming the three principal cairns” (Ibid.).

‘Ollamh Fodhla’s Seat’ – The ‘Hag’s chair’. Photo credits: Knowth.com. Colours intensified. Photo source: Scott & Elaine Jones (2020). “Loughcrew Complex: (Passage Mounds)” In: Ancient-Wisdom.

One of the most significant cairns of Loughcrew, Cairn T, is commonly known as the Hag’s Cairn as it is believed to be a burial place of the Witch. Furthermore, outside the Cairn T, there is a large stone, possibly a kerbstone, in the form similar to an armchair, named the Witch or Hag’s chair. Rhys’ guide also describes the same stone, which was “placed there by the hag to serve as her seat when she wished to have a quiet look on the country round” (Rhys 1901-2015:393). Yet he added that “usually she was to be seen riding on a wonderful pony she had: that creature was so nimble and strong that it used to take the hag at a leap from one hill-top to another. However, the end of it all was that the hag rode so hard that the pony fell down, and that both horse and rider were killed” (Ibid.). The author also notices that “the hag appears to have been Cailleach Bheara, or Caillech Berre, ‘the Old Woman of Beare’, that is, Bearhaven, in County Cork” (Ibid.).


Cartoon of the Caillech/Witch dropping the stones from her apron. Photo by Eibhlin Nu Sheinchin 1937. Photo and caption source: Lynda McCormack (2020). “The Autumnal Equinox and the Sliabh na Calliagh Passage Tomb Complex” In: Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland.

The figure of the Witch or Giantess flying on her broomstick and dropping the stones seems to be always associated with the megaliths built on the summits (Hugh 2017). Her mysterious character not only joins the cairns of Loughcrew with those of Carrowmore and Carrowkeel in Co. Sligo, of Sheemor and Sheebeg in Co. Leitrim or of Corn Hill in Co. Longford (Hugh 2017; Byrne 2020), but she also appears in folklore far beyond Ireland.

“Determined now her tomb to build, Her ample skirt with stones she filled, And dropped a heap on Carnmore; Then stepped one thousand yards, to Loar, And dropped another goodly heap; And then with one prodigious leap Gained Carnbeg; and on its height Displayed the wonders of her might. And when approached death’s awful doom, Her chair was placed within the womb Of hills whose tops with heather bloom”


Jonathan Swift, c. 1720

Some sources say that Loughcrew became known as the Mountains of the Witch because Ireland was once a matriarchy (O’Bryan 2017). After the Annals of Irish High Kings, female judges, who were later nicknamed as witches, could take away human life as a penalty for heavy crimes, which was believed to have been imposed at the time of the year, referred today as Halloween (31st October) (Ibid.).

Loughcrew as a passage tomb

Loughcrew is one of the so-called passage tomb sites in Ireland. The centre of the passage tomb typically consists of several upright supports (orthostats) topped with a corbelled roofing or covered with a flat slab or capstone (Brennan 1994). Its plan usually creates a cruciform chamber, like in the case of the ground plan of Cairn T at Loughcrew, which takes the shape of one of the most ancient and universal sun symbols known as the equinoctial or Greek Cross (Ibid.). Another element characteristic of passage tombs is the passage itself, which is formed by the addition of a long entrance passageway to the central chamber (Ibid.). The entire structure is furthermore covered with a circular mound of earth, occasionally edged with external kerbstones (Ibid.).

Magical properties?

Structural stones of the Loughcrew monuments were made of local green gritstone, which is soft to carve (O’Kelly 1978; Brennan 1994; Murphy 2018). “Cairn T may [also] have once been covered with milky white quartz, the same stone which was used on the facade at Newgrange” (Murphy 2017-2020).

The inner passage of Cairn T. Loughcrew Passage Tomb cairn T, The wall on the left is pitted with so-called “cup marks”. When the tomb was opened, a large number of chalk balls were found at the base of this stone. These balls fitted the stone precisely; they may represent the stars in the sky. Photo and caption by Rob Hurson (2014). CC BY-SA 4.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Loughcrew” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

An author Jean McMann (1993) claims that “large pieces of quartz could be found behind the kerbstones and around the entry. Conwell also reported small lumps of quartz ‘strewn about’ at the base of the Hag’s Chair” (Murphy 2017-2020). It is generally known that quartz crystal is usually found at constructions known as passage tombs. Unquestionably, it was “valued and held in awe by almost every ancient culture as a magical stone (DeSalvo 2012:11)” Quartz is an example of hard mineral (7 on the Mohs’ scale) with a few interesting properties (Ibid.:14), of which “[the] piezoelectric effect is perhaps the most fascinating. [Namely], when stress is place across the crystal it develops an electrical potential. [Additionally, quartz is] able to transmit ultraviolet light, which glass cannot” (Ibid.:14-15). Why did the builders of passage tombs were so interested in using it at their constructions? Was it just because of its beautiful appearance or magical powers? If it was the second option, what should be understood by term “magical”? Some authors suggest that quartz crystal was selected due to its mentioned properties “and its use in information storage. […] Can quartz record information like a video recorder and then be played back centuries later? These are questions to consider” (Ibid.:15)

Astronomical instrument?

The Loughcrew mountains give a panoramic view nearly “from coast to coast and into both northern and southern provinces of Ireland” (Brennan 1994:46), which actually bears out is astronomical function. Undeniably the Loughcrew mounds constitute a large complex of astronomically aligned megalithic mounds (Brennan 1994) and after such authors as Martin Brennan (1994) they could have been originally designed as astronomical devices – not tombs.

Stone Age writings

Inside passage tombs, there are usually multiple megalithic petroglyphs (O’Kelly 1978; Brennan 1994). They are typically carved in stone in the forms of lozenge, triangles, leaf shapes, spirals, zigzags, circles, some surrounded by radiating lines, as it is observed in the Cairn T at Loughcrew (Ibid.). At some sites, anthropomorphic elements are believed to have been represented (Ibid.). They are usually interpreted as various facial features or body outlines (Ibid.). Some researches, as George Coffey claim such motifs are mostly ornamental and they may represent the style of decoration of the period (O’Kelly 1978). At the same time Coffey admitted himself that some of them may originally have been symbolical (Ibid.).

Usually the motifs are picked or pitted on the natural surface of the stone slabs, using a sharply pointed tool (O’Kelly 1978). Sometimes, however, the same motifs are just incised or scratched, which can be explained by an assumption they are unfinished petroglyphs (Ibid.). Accordingly, in the process of their creation, the outlines were first scratched on the slab and then picked over (Ibid.). The most sophisticated effect was achieved while picking back the stone surface, leaving an unpicked area in relief, which eventually forms the pattern or motif (Ibid.). This technique is seen at Newgrange and Knowth (Ibid.).

Some researchers believe the Loughcrew complex is earlier than other Neolithic sites in the Valley as its engraving techniques seem to be more primitive (Brennan 1994:46). Still there are not radiocarbon dates to support this thesis (Ibid.). Motifs found at passage tombs were generally carved on the surface of well displayed slab stones, whereas some others were mysteriously hidden – such signs are placed in or above the passage roof, at the bottom of orthostats, and even below the ground level (O’Kelly 1978; Brennan 1994). However, the group of well visible motifs placed at the backstones could have played an essential role at the time of important astronomical events, such as equinoxes and solstices, giving an encrypted message by their interaction with the beam of sunlight (Brennan 1994).

Personally, I wish I could participate in such a celestial performance, when the stones of megalithic constructions seem to come alive under the touch of the rising sun. It is as if the right fuel had restarted the old mechanism of a complicated device, the function of which, however, is still hardly known to us.

Featured image: Bing Map: the Cairns of Sliabh na Caillighe (Loughcrew complex, Ireland). Carnbane West and Carbane East. The map created by Archaeotravel by means of the Bing Maps. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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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