Tag Archives: Legends

The Labarum of Constantine the Great

From the time of the Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great (306-337), it was the imperial and military banner (a vexillum). The original standard was first used by Constantine during the Battle of the Milvian Bridge against Maxentius (312) but the same name also refers to similar standards produced in imitation of the original one in the Late Antique world and later on.

A follis of Constantine (c. 337) showing a depiction of his labarum spearing a serpent on the reverse; the inscription reads SPES PVBLICA. Struck 337 AD. Constantinople mint. CONSTANTI-NVS MAX AVG, laureate head right SPES PVBLICA across field, labarum, with three medallions on drapery and crowned by a christogram, spearing serpent. CONS in exergue. RIC VII 19. According to RIC, this famous reverse type represents the defeat of tyranny by the death of Licinius. Yet, the scene also has powerful Christian imagery in that it allegorically portrays the power of Christianity over evil. Coin from CNG coins, through Wildwinds. Used with permission. Follis 337 Constantine. Photo and caption by Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. (2005). CC BY-SA 3.0. Image enlarged; colours intensified. Photo source: “Labarum” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The origin of the word labarum is a matter of scientific debate. Some suggest it derived from the Latin word labarum. Others say it is a Gallic word because Gaul was the starting point for the war against Maxentius, and there were many Gauls in the army.

The emperor Honorius (393-423) holding a variant of the labarum – the Latin phrase on the cloth means “In the name of Christ [rendered by the Greek letters XPI] be ever victorious” and the Globus with the still pagan symbol the victory. Photo and caption by Marsyas (2006). Public domain. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Labarum” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

After a Christian author and an advisor to Roman emperor, Constantine I, Lactantius (240-320), shortly before the battle, the emperor fell into ecstasy, during which he received an order from Christ to place on the shields of soldiers the sign of heaven, consisting of the first two Greek letters of the word ‘Christ’ (ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ) — Chi (χ) and Rho (ρ). This monogram is indeed found on coins and writings from the time of Constantine. Eusebius of Caesarea (260-339), a biographer of the emperor’s life, adds that at the moment of the start of the fight, the pagan ruler called for the help of the Christian God, as a result of which he saw in the daylight a radiant cross with the Greek words: ‘Through this sign you will win!’ The next night, Constantine saw Christ with the cross and was advised to have a banner made with the image of the cross, displaying the christogram of the ‘Chi-Rho’ symbol ☧. This banner is, of course, a labarum, made in the shape of the letter T, standing for the cross, and attached to the upper bar. As such it was henceforth carried by Constantine’s troops.

The day after his victory, on October 29, 312, Constantine rode triumphantly into Rome. The city gave him a wonderful party. As for the vaccination of Christianity, it was still until the end of his reign, a transitional period. But although Constantine chose not to tease the Roman pagans with a new religion in one God, he nonetheless openly manifested the origins of Christianism in the heart of the Western world by minting coins with the christogram of the ‘Chi-Rho’ while the labarum in the form of the cross flew over the ranks of his army.

Constantine’s labarum, with a wreathed Chi Rho from an antique silver medal. The “medallions” which are said to have shown portraits of Constantine and his sons are sometimes replaced by the three circles or dots. Drawing by Nordisk familjebok (1911), vol.14, p.1088. Uploaded in 2006. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Labarum” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.
Coin of Vetranio (350 AD.), a soldier is holding two labara. Notably, they differ from the labarum of Constantine in having the Chi-Rho depicted on the cloth rather than above it, and in having their staves decorated with phalerae as were earlier Roman military unit standards. Photo by Marsyas (2010). Public domain. Colours intensified. Photo and caption source: “Labarum” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Featured image: The emperor Constantine IX Monomachos (1042-1055) (centre panel of a Byzantine enamelled crown) holding a miniature labarum. Photo by Andrew massyn (2008). Public domain. Image cropped. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Labarum” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Labarum” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3tPYsM8>. [Accessed 12th February, 2021].

PWN (2007). Słownik terminologiczny sztuk pięknych, pp. 69, 224. Kubalska-Sulkiewicz K., Bielska-Łach M., Manteuffel-Szarota A. eds. Wydanie piąte. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.

Rops D. (1968). Kościół pierwszych wieków. pp. 477-480. [L’église des apôtres et des martyrs]. Ostrowska K. trans. Warszawa: Instytut Wydawniczy PAX.

Last Queen in the Valley of the Kings

It was once believed that only thanks to the Divine Consort – the Queen, the royal power could rest in the hands of the king – her husband (Żylińska 1972-1986:56; see Noble 2003:79-84). It was also a remnant of matriarchal times that Pharaohs shaved their beard to resemble their feminine consorts; when the king-warrior replaced the divine Queen in the performance of sacred rites, he put on women’s dresses and had his face close shaved (Ibid.:56). At a time when in Egypt the Pharaohs were fully in power, in accordance with the old tradition, they still close shaved, but to emphasize their masculinity – because the patriarchal time had already come – they additionally wore an artificial beard, together with their coronation garments (Ibid.:56-57).

Royal Wife and goddess by birthright

Menkaura flanked by the goddess Hathor (left) and the goddess Bat (right). Graywacke statue in Cairo Museum. The sculpture shows the concept of the Divine Consort – the Queen who grants the royal power to a male king – her husband. Photo by Chipdawes (2019). Public domain. Colours intensified. Photo and caption source: “Menkaure“ (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Also, Thutmose the First, the third pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty in the times of the New Kingdom, had his face close shaved (Żylińska 1972-1986:57). He became a Pharaoh thanks to his marriage to his half-sister, in whose veins divine blood flowed and whose offspring also had divine origins (Ibid.:57). For no matter who the queen of Egypt was married to, the god Amon-Re was considered the father of her children (Żylińska 1972-1986:57; see Noble 2003:79-84). The child of the Queen Ahmose and the god Amun-Re was a girl (Żylińska 1972-1986:57). She was given the name Hatshepsut. On the other hand, Thutmose the First had also a son with the concubine, whose name was Thutmose as well (Ibid.:57). Those events possibly took place at the turning of the fifteenth century BC.

Mortuary temples in western Thebes

I was just thinking about the life of an extraordinary Egyptian queen. Jadwiga Żylińska (1972-1986:56-70) tells her story like a fairy tale, which, however, really happened.

We had already landed on the west bank of the Nile. In a few minutes we were to reach Deir el-Bahari, a valley near the famous Valley of the Kings (“Deir el-Bahari” 2020). It is a complex of mortuary temples and a part of the Theban Necropolis in the Upper Egypt (Ibid.). The so-called mortuary temples erected in Western Thebes can be divided into two main groups: terraced temples and temples with a classical arrangement (Lipińska 2008: 160; see: Miracle of the Sun). Among the terraced temples, the oldest and largest is that of Queen Hatshepsut, built under the influence of the construction of the Mortuary Temple of Nebhepetre Mentuhotep the Second, erected during the reign of the Eleventh Dynasty, which ruled at the end of the third millennium BC. (Ibid.:160). In turn, the temple of Queen Hatshepsut was a model for others, later sepulchral edifices (Ibid.:160).

Djeser-Djeseru – Hatshepsut’s temple, the focal point of the compound. Photo by Dan Lundberg (2011). CC BY-SA 2.0. Colours intensified. Photo and caption source: “Deir el-Bahari” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Surviving for eternity

Our bus was rocking on the way to our next destination, and my mind again went back to the Eighteenth Dynasty and Hatshepsut herself. At that time, the capital of Egypt was in Thebes. After the Hyksos were driven out of the land of the Pharaohs (see: The World Ended When Gods Turned against the Minoans), the city returned to its former glory and grew in splendour with each passing year (Żylińska 1972-1986:57). Hatshepsut often sailed from the east bank of the Nile, where the palace was located, to the West Thebes, where the dead reigned (Ibid.:57-58). She wanted to see if the work on the tomb being erected for her earthly father had already progressed (Ibid.:58). It was the only time when the inhabitants of the commercial district and the port could see the tall, long-legged and motionless-faced Pharaoh’s divine daughter (Ibid.:58).

Seeing the tomb erected by the Chief Royal Architect, Ineni, Hatshepsut thought that a mortuary temple should also be built for herself (Żylińska 1972-1986:58). That one would survive for eternity when there was no more trace of her on earth (Ibid.:58).

My thoughts were interrupted by the whistle of the opening doors of the bus. When we got out of it, a long train with six-seat carriages came to take us to the foot of the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut.

Successor of her father

Hatshepsut’s representation in a documentary (screenshot). Source: TV db; Administrator (2019) “16:9 Screencap 60792152 of the documentary Secrets of Egypt’s Lost Queen”, directed by Brando Quilici (2007). In: Discovery Channel Documentaries. TV db.

When Hatshepsut turned twenty-four, Thutmose the First announced her as his successor (Żylińska 1972-1986:58). The celebration took place in Karnak, in the temple of Amun-Re (Ibid.:58). It was followed by her marriage to her sick and weak half-brother, Thutmose the Second, who was seven years old (Ibid.:59). Three years later, Thutmose the First died and the new royal couple began reigning together over a united Egypt (Ibid.:59). Yet, although Hatshepsut was just a Great Royal Wife, it was clear that Egypt was ruled mainly by her (Ibid.:59).

Just after starting her reign over Egypt, the Queen immediately began erecting her mortuary temple in the Nile Valley, on the west side of Thebes (Żylińska 1972-1986:59).

The Alley of Sphinxes

The train slowly coiled like a snake just before the road leading to the Temple. By order of the Queen, it was erected directly opposite the district of Amun-Re, on the eastern side of the Nile (Lipińska 2008:160). The Alley of Sphinxes once led to the sanctuary, each with Hatshepsut’s face (Żylińska 1972-1986:66). Now there is no trace of the Alley, except for one or two partially reconstructed sphinxes … (Dr Andrzej Ćwiek in PAP – Nauka w Polsce, Zdziebłowski 2008).

There is no trace of the Alley in front of the Mortuary Temple, except for one or two partially reconstructed sphinxes. Each was with Hatshepsut’s face. Photo by Dezalb (2018). Colours intensified. Photo source: Free pictures at Pixbay.

‘The alley of sphinxes was about 500 m, or 1000 Egyptian cubits long. Based on the recorded databases, we assume that there were about 70 sphinxes. The alley was 6 meters wide, and the distance between the statues was about 17 m’, explains Dr Andrzej Ćwiek, a member of Polish-Egyptian archaeological and conservation mission (PAP – Nauka w Polsce, Zdziebłowski 2008).

Senenmut

The creator of the funerary complex of Hatshepsut, Senenmut, designed a building on a monumental scale Nile (Lipińska 2008:160). He was Hatshepsut’s favourite and the chief architect of the Queen’s works in Deir el-Bahari (Żylińska 1972-1986:64; Lipińska 2008:160). Senenmut “first enters the historical record as the ‘Steward of the God’s Wife’ (Hatshepsut) and ‘Steward of the King’s Daughter’ (Neferure). […] After Hatshepsut was crowned Pharaoh, Senenmut was given more prestigious titles and became high steward of the king” (“Senenmut” 2020).

TT 353 of Sen-en-Mut (Senenmut tomb) – a hypogeum built by the order of Sen-en-Mut, 97.36m long and 41.93m deep. Photo by Edal Anton Lefterov (2011). CC BY-SA 3.0. Colours intensified. Photo and caption source: “Deir el-Bahari” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Moreover, some of archaeological evidence supports the idea that he had an emotional connection with the Queen and there was an intimate relationship between them (Quilici 2007). One of the traces supporting this hypothesis is definitely Senenmut tomb, placed just beneath the Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple, and ambiguous representations and writings inside it (Ibid.). Although Senenmut was the government official, he was just of low commoner birth, and so such a relation with the Queen-Pharaoh, who was perceived as an incarnation of gods on earth would be outrageous to the public at that time (Ibid.). Still, there is no decisive evidence that such an affair took place at all (Ibid.).

Prosperity of Egypt in stone

When we were standing in front of the Temple, before our eyes a high sand cliff rose. At its foot, the irregular and jagged shapes of rocks turned into a geometric arrangement of ramps, successive terraces and porticoes, rising and climbing upwards. The temple, although largely reconstructed by archaeologists, is remarkable and still arouses admiration among visitors; It was built of local white limestone beautifully harmonizing with the natural colour of the rocks, and its well-balanced porticoes are supported either on pillars or on polygonal columns of several types (Lipińska 2008:164). A real feast for the eyes!

Our train slowly coiled like a snake just before the road leading to the Temple. Photo taken by Marek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

From the entrance to the courtyard to the main sanctuary in the heart of the complex is 240 meters in a straight line, and the width of the central courtyard exceeds 100 meters (Lipińska 2008:161). The difference in levels between the lower courtyard and the highest storey of the temple is over 15 meters (Ibid.:161). According to the classical temple plan, the temple complex began with the lower temple, also built on terraces, almost completely ruined today (Ibid.:161). A one kilometre long avenue led to it, guarded once by the mentioned Sphinxes (Lipińska 2008:161; Żylińska 1972-1986:66). The main temple had no pylons, only a stone gate in a wall of white limestone surrounding the courtyard (Lipińska 2008:161). The entire structure is situated on three successive levels: the lowest one is a courtyard closed on the west side with porticoes, between which a sloping ramp leads to the middle level (Ibid.:161). The northern portico has a badly damaged decoration depicting hunting and fishing, and the southern portico shows a unique scene of the transport of two obelisks ordered by the Queen in Aswan, and floated by a large barge to Thebes (Ibid.:161). One of these obelisks still stands in the Temple of Karnak (Ibid.:161).

‘The Queen also donated to the expansion of the Temple of Karnak itself,’ recalled Menes, our guide (Lipińska 2008:161; Quilici 2007). There, on a granite obelisk covered with a thick layer of electrum (a mixture of gold and silver), she had the following words inscribed (Żylińska 1972-1986:66; Brier 2017).

“I have thought of what people shall say, [when they see the monuments I have founded]. Don’t say my words are exaggerations but say how like her it is, to be true to her father”.

Time Trips (2021).

At that time, for a daughter to be considered as not worse than a son, she had to be twice as good as him (Żylińska 1972-1986:66).

The facade of Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple, Deir-el-Bahri. When we were standing in front of the Temple, before our eyes a high sand cliff rose. At its foot, the irregular and jagged shapes of rocks turned into a geometric arrangement of ramps, successive terraces and porticoes, rising and climbing upwards. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As the Egyptologist, Kara Cooney, states it is well shown in stone that Hatshepsut brought prosperity to the country (Quilici 2007). Not only did she greatly contribute to the growth of the Temple of Amon-Re in Karnak, but also she actually founded Luxor Temple (Ibid.).

She had brought peace and abundance

The reign of Hatshepsut therefore took place in peace, time spent on daily duties and pleasures of common Egyptians, and the growth of the Queen’s power through the foundation of monumental temples and the establishment of and strengthening trade contacts, including such rations with Caphtor (possibly Crete), and with the legendary land of Punt. It is probably thanks to the Queen’s help that the inhabitants of the Nile Delta, fleeing the effects of the volcanic eruption on Thera, found rescue and refuge in Thebes. Yet, it is unknown if the recorded disaster had been caused by the volcano or if it had happened at all at that time, as Hatshepsut’s reign was rather a period of prosperity (see: The World Ended When Gods Turned against the Minoans).

My sister in front of Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple and among the crowds of tourists visiting the monument of Deir-el-Bahri. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Years later, people got used to such affluence and common wealth, resulting from long-term peace (Żylińska 1972-1986:60). There was no hunger or thirst in any part of the country, livestock multiplied in abundance, the children of Egyptians were born on the Nile, no one lacked grain, oil, or honey (Ibid.:60). Memories of the Pharaohs’ war expeditions faded into oblivion and slowly, like all past events, became legendary (Ibid.:60). Similar stories were also told to little Thutmose, Thutmose the Second’s son, born of a concubine like his father (Ibid.:61). He listened to similar stories with bated breath and burning face, and in his heart a longing for the glory of war and a thirst for conquest was born (Ibid.:61).

Arranged miracles of Amun-Re

At that time, the priests of Amun-Re in Karnak gained more power and influence, including such matters as the appointment to the throne of Egypt (Lipińska 2008:134). The best example illustrating their dominance happened the case of the son of Thutmose the Second (Ibid.:134). Although Thutmose the Third’s father was the Pharaoh, his mother was not the Great Royal Wife but the lesser lady of the Harem (Ibid.:134). So he had no right to the throne, but he was the only male descendant of the king who died, leaving behind only a legitimate daughter, Neferure (Ibid.:134). At first, the priests of Karnak thought that the boy was more suitable to be a ruler, and ‘arranged’ a miracle; during the procession in the pillared hall of the temple of Amon-Re, the god’s statue stopped in front of the boy hiding in the shadows of the pillars and appointed him as the successor of his deceased father (Ibid.:134).

The way up to the first level of the Temple; from the entrance to the courtyard to the main sanctuary in the heart of the complex is 240 meters. Photo taken by Marek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Thutmose the Third took over the throne but it did not prevent the priests from coronating the widow of Thutmose the Second, Hatshepsut, just a few years later (Lipińska 2008:134). To justify the crowning of Hatshepsut, the priests composed a song about her divine origins, according to which the god Amon-Re himself, taking the form of Thutmose the First, visited his holy wife and conceived the daughter (Ibid.:134). When she was born, the god introduced her to all the gods as the future ruler of Egypt (Ibid.:134). The priests of Amun-Re probably understood the Pharaoh did not have to be a man, especially when the Hyksos were eventually defeated and the country needed peace (Żylińska 1972-1986:59). On the whole, there seems to be a trace in this tangled story of the existence of two factions among the priests of the Temple of Amun in Karnak, one supporting Thutmose the Third and the other, Hatshepsut (Lipińska 2008:134-135).

False beard of the Pharaoh-Queen

Hatshepsut had been crowned the Pharaoh at Karnak (Żylińska 1972-1986:61). During the ceremony, she appeared in a ritual outfit, in a diadem with a uraeus, which has always stood for ‘goddess’ and was strongly linked to royalty in Egypt (Żylińska 1972-1986:61; Noble 2003:83-84). In her hands in turn she held a golden whip and a staff, both crossed on her breast (Żylińska 1972-1986:61). According to the repeated ritual, she had a false beard attached to her face, which actually was a double mystification, but she was not aware of it (Ibid.:61). The patriarchy had already left its mark on people’s minds and there was no turning back to the old values. By attaching a false beard, the woman now imitated the man to be honoured and become the Pharaoh, the female incarnation of Horus (Ibid.:61).

Horus as a falcon in front of the Mortuary Temple, Deir el-Bahri. Photo by Dezalb (2015). Colours intensified. Photo source: Free pictures at Pixbay.

On the same base of the obelisk founded by Hatshepsut, the carving also reads (Brier 2017):

“I erected them for my father Amun. They could be seen from the other side of the Nile, their tips gleaming in electrum” (Brier 2017).

It is true that “Hatshepsut used her obelisks as a form of propaganda[?] [Nevertheless, she had never tried to] pass herself off as a man. She calls herself the female Horus—female falcon—meaning she [was] the king, although she [was] female” (Brier 2017).

Hatshepsut as the goddess Hathor in the form of a cow with a golden disc between her horns. In such an incarnation, Hathor is identified as a mother, and so the Pharaoh Hatshepsut, who played the role of a feeder of an Egyptian nation (represented as a small figure in front). In the relief, a visible human figure, standing below the cow, is drinking milk directly from the udder of a Hathor-cow. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

But Hatshepsut was also the earthly incarnation of Horus’ divine wife, Hathor. The name Hathor means ‘House of Horus’ which embodies the whole idea of ​​a divine wife giving her husband the right to the crown (Lipińska, Marciniak 2006:161; see Noble 2003:79-84). Hathor – the goddess of beauty and love – was often pictured as a cow or a woman with cow horns on her head, between which a solar disk was placed (Lipińska, Marciniak 2006:161-162; see Noble 2003:79-84). Such attributes not only emphasized her role as the mother feeding her nation (cows have always been extremely valuable in this part of the world), but also the fact that she was of extraordinary beauty.

How’s that? Beautiful? Cow ?’, I once asked my Egyptian guide.

‘Have you seen the cow’s eyes? They are large and deep framed with a veil of long lashes’, explained Menes.

I tried to remember a picture of a cow’s head from my childhood, which I spent in the countryside. There were two good lasses, although I never paid much attention to their ‘wonderful’ eyes.

‘When a man says you look like a cow, it will be the biggest compliment,’ promised the guide.

I smiled. I would like to see the expressions of European women hearing similar compliments.

Hathor (Hatshepsut) as the Cow of the Heavens in the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

At first people thought that Hatshepsut, that is to say, Horus and Hathor in one person, would be a regent until her daughter Nefrure grew up and married her half-brother Thutmose in due time, who would be thus granted the throne (Żylińska 1972-1986:61). But it soon became apparent that Hatshepsut did not intend to rule in anybody’s name but her own (Ibid.:61). She herself probably planned to prepare her daughter for the future role of the Pharaoh of Egypt (Ibid.:61). Thutmose, on the other hand, was given military training; he was to become a military commander, maybe even a general, but he was to stay away from Thebes and reigning in Egypt (Ibid.:61).

Offerings from Punt

A famous expedition of Hatshepsut to the land of Punt took place at that time (Żylińska 1972-1986:64-65). It was a commercial journey, further than before (Ibid.:61). Punt, a legendary land often associated with today’s Somalia, was beyond the fourth Nile cataract and further than Niya (a kingdom in northern Syria), where the foot of an Egyptian soldier never reached (Żylińska 1972-1986:64; Lipińska 2008:163).

Reliefs at Deir el-Bahri. A painted relief depicting scenes from Hatshepsut’s expedition to Punt. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

But at the time of the Fifth Dynasty, there had apparently been an earlier expedition from Egypt reaching Punt, when Egyptian ships entered its distant ports (Żylińska 1972-1986:64). At the time of Hatshepsut, however, in addition to the sailors, several court scribes and painters were to accompany the queen so that they could describe the whole expedition and depict it in pictures (Ibid.:64). At the rising Moon, five thirty-oar boats left the Red Sea harbour and headed south (Ibid.:64). The expedition lasted two years and returned to Thebes at the time of harvests with unbelievable treasures (Ibid.:64). The Dukes of Punt mistook the Egyptian expedition for the messengers of heavens and fell on their faces before Hatshepsut (Ibid.:65). The Egyptians prudently held the hostages, and then proceeded to exchange goods: piles of fresh incense, precious myrrh trees, ebony, ivory gold, cinnamon leaves, antimony, baboons, vines, dogs and leopard skins (Ibid.:65). In return, the Queen of Egypt offered them innumerable piles of coloured beads, various fabrics, daggers with decorative handles, painted vessels, two chairs and a multitude of hatchets, both suitable for cutting trees and killing cattle and people (Ibid.:64).

Punt Reliefs, Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el Bahri. Photo by Zigor Agirrezabala Vitoria (2016). Photo source: Free pictures at Pixbay.

The expedition returning from Punt was welcomed in Thebes with excitement and feverish curiosity, and news of the imported riches and wonders of Punt, the divine land from which the Egyptian goddess Hathor hailed, fired the imaginations of residents of the palace as well as the commercial district (Żylińska 1972-1986:65). But in this general mood of joy, there was no exultation accompanying the return of the victorious army, that incomparable triumphant intoxication aroused by the soldiers riding on the chariots of war and the long columns of prisoners with the mark of slaves on their faces following them (Ibid.:65).

Temple tells a story

Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple was also finished; it rose unsurpassed in its beauty and solitude on white terraces, surrounded by columns, against the background of a dark massif of mountains (Żylińska 1972-1986:65). Now the Queen began to decorate the walls of her temple (Ibid.:65). She had her history painted on them, from the moment when her mother, Queen Ahmose, was visited by the god Amun-Re, through her birth, the announcement of her succession to the throne, the history of the trip to Punt, until the day when she would give her divine body under the protection of the goddess Nut, asking her to make place for her among the stars lest she die forever (Ibid.:65-66).

Porticos have pillars reconstructed by archaeologists, decorated on the front with colossal Osirian statues representing the Queen in the form of the god Osiris. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

A transverse ramp led us to the middle level of the temple, with a similar architectural shape to the lower one, but more extensive (Lipińska 2008:161). On both sides of the portico closing the courtyard from the west, there are chapels of collaterally worshiped deities in the temple (Ibid.:161). The Hathor chapel was built on the south side, and the Anubis chapel on the north side (Ibid.:161,163). In the chapel of the goddess Hathor, embodied by Hatshepsut, both pillars and smooth, cylindrical columns topped with so-called Hathor’s capitals were built (Ibid.:164).

The north side of the central courtyard is occupied by a colonnade that was never completed (Lipińska 2008:163). The northern portico is decorated with bas-reliefs illustrating the legend of the divine birth of Hatshepsut (Ibid.:163). The southern portico, on the other hand, is decorated with the highly detailed image of the exotic land of Punt, famous and unusual in the history of ancient Egypt, where the Queen went with a trade expedition (Ibid.:163).

The third story of the Temple has a different spatial layout and here are the main rooms of the monument (Lipińska 2008:164). From the second, central courtyard, we climbed the ramp again (Ibid.:164). At the end of the way up, we were greeted by another terrace with porticoes on either side (Ibid.:164). Porticos have pillars reconstructed by archaeologists, decorated on the front with colossal Osirian statues representing the Queen in the form of the god Osiris; they are five meters high each (Ibid.:164). The entrance is on the axis and leads through a red granite portal (Ibid.:164). It guided us to the inner courtyard, behind which there is a barque shrine, partially carved into the rock and deeper, in the very heart of the temple, there is the sanctuary or the holy of holies (Ibid.:164). On both sides of the inner courtyard there were additionally chapels: on the north side an open courtyard with the altar of solar worship, and on the south side, there was a tomb chapel and two sarcophagi: one for Hatshepsut and the other for her earthly father; these were their sacrificial halls (Lipińska 2008:164; Żylińska 1972-1986:66). For everything that Hatshepsut undertook and everything that she did, she did with her father Thutmose the First in mind, who placed her over his son and appointed her his successor (Żylińska 1972-1986:66).

Hatred Queen

However, not everyone worshiped the Queen as their Pharaoh (Żylińska 1972-1986:67). For the son of Thutmose the Second, Hatshepsut was an ordinary usurper (Ibid.:67). Thutmose the Third hated her with the hatred of all the years spent in the shadow of her divinity (Ibid.:67). He wanted to fill them with the toil of military expeditions, the clamour of battles, the march through the deserts and the glory of the military victory (Ibid.:67).

Deir El Bahari; Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple. Photo by Nina Evensen (2015). Colours intensified. Photo source: Free pictures at Pixbay.

Eventually his wish came true (Żylińska 1972-1986:67). The news of the war fell on Egypt like a vulture from high above; Syrian cities revolted against the Egyptian crews, demolished Egyptian holy statues and proclaimed independence from Pharaoh’s rule (Ibid.:67-68). On the day of the Egyptian army’s departure, Hatshepsut handed over the highest military power to Thutmose (Ibid.:68). A few months later, news began coming into Thebes announcing the victory of the Egyptian army (Ibid.:68). All Egypt was in a frenzy of joy (Ibid.:68). It was the first triumph of war in over thirty years that struck and drunk city dwellers like young wine (Ibid.:68). Only mothers cried for their slain sons and worried that their bodies were not properly prepared for the journey to the Land of the Dead and that their souls might not have been brought to the Judgment of Osiris and so died for eternity (Ibid.:68-69).

A view to a sanctuary chamber on the upper platform of the Temple of Hatshepsut, Luxor’s west bank, Egypt. Photo by Przemyslaw “Blueshade” Idzkiewicz (2004). CC BY-SA 2.5. Colours intensified. Photo and caption source: “Deir el-Bahari” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Hatshepsut proclaimed Thutmose the Third the co-regent of Egypt, and they were to share power together (Żylińska 1972-1986:69). There were also rumours that he was going to marry Princess Neferure (Ibid.:69). And when people had ceased to worry about the change and to speculate whether the Queen’s stepson would be satisfied with his assigned share of power, Hatshepsut unexpectedly passed away (Ibid.:69). Nobody ever found out under what circumstances she died (Ibid.:69). Yet not long ago, it was still a mystery of history.

Mystery of the history

Moreover, Hatshepsut’s body mysteriously vanished from the sarcophagus she had chosen for herself, and in which she would have given her immortal soul into the hands of the goddess Nut; when the sarcophagus was reopened again, it turned out that the queen’s mummy originally buried there disappeared without a trace (Żylińska 1972-1986:69; Quilici 2007). However, the Hatshepsut’s sarcophagus had never been deposited in her Mortuary Temple, which was rather a cenotaph (Quilici 2007; Lipińska 2008:171). The Hatshepsut’s last resting place was to be in the Valley of the Kings, intended for the Pharaohs (Lipińska 2008:171). This place, due to its seclusion and difficult access, provided a better protection against robbers (Ibid.:171). It is also believed that the choice of the site could equally be influenced by the landscape, above which the mighty triangular peak of El-Kurn has stood, towering over the valley like a colossal pyramid (Ibid.:171).

Site plan of Deir el-Bahari (in French). Drawing by Gérard Ducher (user:Néfermaât) (2006). CC BY-SA 2.5. Drawing and caption source: “Deir el-Bahari” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Already at the beginning of the Eighteenth Dynasty, to which Hatshepsut belonged, the existing way of building a royal tomb and a mortuary temple in one sepulchral complex was given up (Lipińska 2008:171). It was considered that the separation of these two elements may have contributed to a better protection of the tomb, which had since been placed in the distant, hard-to-reach rocks of the mountain massif in Western Thebes (Ibid.:171). These are complexes belonging to both the Valley of the Kings and of the Queens (Pharaohs’ wives). It seems that this chapter in the sacred sepulchral architecture of Egypt was initiated by the second ruler of the Eighteenth Dynasty, Amenhotep the First (Ibid.:171). His son and Hatshepsut’s father, Thutmose the First, on the other hand, introduced the construction of a new type of royal necropolis in the Valley of the Kings, a desert valley on the other side of the massif closing the Deir el-Bahari Valley from the west (Ibid.:171).

Deir el-Bahari with Hatshepsut’s temple, temple of Thutmosis III and Mentuhotep II, West Thebes, Egypt. Above the necropolis complex towers the mighty triangular peak of El-Kurn, like a colossal pyramid, which had probably influenced the choice of the place by the pharaohs. Photo by Nowic (2003). CC BY-SA 3.0. Colours intensified. Photo and caption source: “Deir el-Bahari” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Hatshepsut’s mummy was buried in the tomb labelled today as KV20, the deepest tomb in Egypt, situated over ninety-one metres underground, in the Valley of the Kings (Quilici 2007). “It was probably the first royal tomb to be constructed in the valley, […] distinguished from other tombs in the [area], both in its general layout and because of the atypical clockwise curvature of its corridors. […] KV20 was the original burial place of Thutmose I […] and later was adapted by his daughter Hatshepsut to accommodate both her and her father” (“KV20” 2020).

The Name to be forgotten

After Hatshepsut’s death, no mourning rituals were announced, and no coronation ceremony took place, as if Thutmose the Third had been a Pharaoh since his father’s death (Żylińska 1972-1986:69). Sometime after these events, by the orders of the new Pharaoh, teams of workers began the painstaking work of destroying all traces of Hatshepsut’s existence (Ibid.:69).

Thebes – Temple Dêr el Bahri. Photo by Ephtimios Freres – Rare Books and Special Collections Library; the American University in Cairo, early twentieth century. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Deir el-Bahari” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In the Sphinx Avenue and in the porticoes on the third-level terrace of her temple, the stonemasons smashed the heads with the face of the Queen, then they threw her statue in coronation garments from a granite base and proceeded to demolish her representations in relief (Żylińska 1972-1986:69). First they hammered her eyes, then they knocked down the uraeus from her forehead, and when they did so, they smashed the statue into thousands of pieces, by throwing it from the height of a two-story building (Ibid.:69). All inscriptions with the name of Hatshepsut were being erased with chisels for many months (Ibid.:70). In their place, engravers carved the name of Thutmose the Third or his son Amenhotep the Second (Żylińska 1972-1986:70; Quilici 2007). Also the papyri with the Queen’s edicts were destroyed, and her painted images were covered with thick layers of plaster (Żylińska 1972-1986:70).

Preserving the name of the dead was essential in ancient Egypt as they would not have been recognised by gods. And if the name of a mummy had been forgotten, they would not have been able to enjoy the Eternal Life and their souls would have disappeared into nothingness. Just in the same way as it was going to happen with the soul of deceased Hatshepsut. Erased from the list of Pharaohs, without a sarcophagus, not prepared for the way to the Land of Osiris, she was to fall apart, disappear from memory and dissolve into emptiness (Żylińska 1972-1986:70).

Thutmose the Third began his reign of Egypt by denying the existence of the last divine Queen of Egypt, who was a Pharaoh (Żylińska 1972-1986:70).

Rebirth of the Pharaoh

Thirty-five centuries later, the remnants of the desecrated statue of the Queen were excavated from the sand layers, as the stonecutters had left them, and a team of archaeologists carefully put them back together, restoring the statue of the divine Hatshepsut to its original shape (Żylińska 1972-1986:69). Similarly, Osiris’ statues with her features were discovered and reconstructed, along with other covered or smashed images of the Queen, who became one of the most famous and colourful, yet mysterious Pharaohs of Egypt (Lipińska 2008:164-166).

Osiris’ statues with Hatshepsut’s features were discovered and reconstructed, along with other covered or smashed images of the Queen. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Since 1961, the Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple has been reconstructed by Polish archaeologists and other specialists, initially under the supervision of a Polish famous archaeologist, Kazimierz Michałowski (Lipińska 2008:165; see: Saint Anne of Nubia – “It Will Make You Speechless”). During the reconstruction of the retaining wall, which is the background for the temple, a terrace carved in the rock was discovered, probably to protect the temple from rock fragments falling down (Ibid.:165). The destruction of the temple was not made entirely by Thutmose the Third himself; It experienced many further destructions, for example, in the Late Period, and was rebuilt in the Ptolemaic and Coptic times (Ibid.:165). The Ptolemaic enlarged the sanctuary of Amun, creating another one behind it, devoted to the cult of the three healer deities (Ibid.:165). Deir-el Bahari was then famous for miraculous healings, where the sick came even from distant Greece (Ibid.:165-166). In the Coptic times, a Christian monastery was built on the upper level of the temple, and the valley owes its name to the monastery: Deir-el Bahari means ‘northern monastery’ (Ibid.:166).

Beside the Stepmother anyway

During the work in the Deir el-Bahari Valley, Polish archaeologists unexpectedly also found the ruins of the temple of Thutmose the Third, located in the vicinity of the temple of Hatshepsut, his hatred stepmother (Lipińska 2008:166). The construction of the Temple of Thutmose the Third began when, at the Pharaoh’s order, the statues of Hatshepsut were smashed and carvings with her names erased from the walls, which was associated with the destruction of all the traces of the reign of the Queen-Pharaoh (Ibid.:166). Although Thutmose the Third was one of the greatest Pharaohs in history, it is ironically, the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, and not the ruins of the Temple of Thutmose the Third, that arouses widespread admiration today, and the very name of the Queen, so shamefully removed, is much more often mentioned by visitors to Deir el-Bahari.

In front of Deir el-Bahri; Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple. Photo by Ron Porter (2014). Photo cropped. Colours intensified. Photo source: Free pictures at Pixbay.

The building of Thutmose the Third was situated in the centre of the Valley, obviously on a higher level than the Queen’s temple, despite very unfavourable natural conditions (Lipińska 2008:166). The structure erected had a shape borrowed from both neighbouring temples; those of Mentuhotep the Second and Hatshepsut (Ibid.:166). Tens of thousands of fragments of polychrome reliefs were recovered from the rubble of this, also three-level temple, which was destroyed at the end of the New Kingdom (Ibid.:166). Reconstruction of the wall reliefs allowed to recreate the decoration of the temple after many years (Ibid.:166).

Temples in the Valley of Deir el-Bahari

During the New Kingdom, shortly after the reign of Thutmose the Third, there were three buildings in the Valley of Deir el-Bahari, which must have been once a magnificent complex of architecture harmonizing with the natural landscape of the Valley. At that time, the temple of Mentuhotep had not yet been destroyed (Lipińska 2008:166). Next to it, the temples of Hatshepsut and Thutmose the Third rose in all their majesty (Ibid.:166). The wide processional avenues, running parallel to the bottom of the Asasif Valley, were framed by necropolises with decorated tomb facades (Ibid.:166). As underlined above, the background of the whole necropolis were rock cliffs dominated by the El-Kurn peak with a triangular top resembling a pyramid (Ibid.:166). The rhythm of the horizontal temple porticoes and the sloping ramps of the three temples, each different but consistent with the others in style, must have produced a wonderful effect in the rays of the sun continuously shining from the cloudless sky (Ibid.:166-167). This effect was enhanced by the colour contrasts between the bright brown rocks being the background of the temples, the white and rich polychrome of the buildings, and the green foliage of the trees that used to grow in the lower courtyards (Ibid.:167).

The so-called Hathor chapel on the south side of Temple’s second courtyard. A photographer at work. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

At the foot of the ramp in the courtyard of the Hatshepsut’s Temple, there were also two small pools filled with water (Lipińska 2008:167). Each part of the architectural complex harmonized with each other and with the surrounding environment; they were built gradually over the centuries, and although there is no question of spatial planning, according to scholars, the harmony of the whole complex and the organic connection of the buildings with nature are the main advantages of Deir el-Bahari, as opposed to richer but chaotic buildings in the Amun-Re district of Karnak in Eastern Thebes (Ibid.:167,170).

Hathor looking down from the capitels

I was standing on the south side of Temple’s second courtyard, admiring pillars and columns at the Hathor chapel. They are usually referred to as the Hathor or sistrum columns (The MET 2020). Their capitals show heads of Hathor in the form of a cow on four opposite sides. Each is additionally topped with a naos-sistrum sound-box (Ibid.). Such a capital had been quite typical of Egypt since the beginning of the New Kingdom. Between them, I noticed smooth movements of a photographer nimbly climbing the pillars and columns up and down with a huge camera hanging from his neck. From time to time, he froze in a peculiar pose in his acrobatic dance between the columns, and took a series of pictures of the cow goddess.

Neglected mummy from KV60

Hatshepsut’s story was still on my mind. I was trying to piece it together. Her name was wiped out from the history intentionally, her legacy destroyed, her mummy vanished for centuries (Quilici 2007). Actually, it was officially uncovered in the tomb KV60, located close to the KV20, in 1903 by Howard Carter (Ibid.). It is speculated that Hatshepsut’s mummy had been removed from her original tomb and shifted from place to place for centuries, in order to save it either from grave robbers or a final destruction by the following Pharaohs, taking into account Hatshepsut’s name was being hacked away in the entire Theban region by Thutmose the Third (Ibid.).

Matriarchy had already been over

For some reasons, her image as the Pharaoh must have been removed (Quilici 2007). It was so, along with the names of Senenmut and Hatshepsut’s daughter (Ibid.). By this means, Neferure, Hatshepsut’s desired heir to the throne, would simply vanish from history (Ibid.). Female Pharaoh grooming her own daughter to be her successor to the throne must have been too radical in her plans at the time of patriarchy (Ibid.). This is probably why Neferure’s last resting place is located high in the mountain cliff, In the small opening in the rock, very distant from Thebes and difficult to be found (Ibid.). Moreover, the hacked away name of the Queen was usually being replaced by the name of Thutmose the Third’s son, Amenhotep the Second (Ibid.).

Pillars with the Hathor capitals in the Mortuary Temple, Deir el-Bahri. Photo by Dezalb (2015). Colours intensified. Photo source: Free pictures at Pixbay.

After Kara Cooney, it is possibly the key to the whole campaign against Hatshepsut and severe attempts to destroy her legacy; she and her female heir must have been removed from common memory to avoid a woman descendant to mount the throne in Egypt (Quilici 2007). Therefore the attack on Hatshepsut’s legacy was all about the politics of succession; Thutmose the Third wanted to make sure that the succession remained patrilineal, that it to say, it would be passed down from father to his son (Ibid.). But in order to guarantee a smooth succession, it was essential to remove the Queen and her daughter from history (Ibid.). Eventually, it made Thutmose the Third’s masculine descendants take Hatshepsut’s place (Ibid.).

Tale-tale tooth

Discovered in the first decade of the twenty-first century, the mummy of Hatshepsut has finally found its place among other royal mummies in the Museum of Archaeology in Cairo, Egypt (Quilici 2007). It has her left arm bent in a royal position, the feature typical of deceased Egyptian Pharaohs, and is still well preserved, despite the fact it used to be long transferred from one tomb to another before being finally abandoned and neglected (Ibid.). Identifying the Hatshepsut mummy was only possible by means of an analysis of a tooth found in the canopy box with the Hatshepsut name (Ibid.). Further  studies have also revealed she died at the age between forty and fifty and was killed by an infection in her body (Ibid.).

Walking down the ramp of the Temple. Photo taken by Marek, Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Rescued from oblivion and becoming famous

Owing to the team of specialists, led by the Egyptian archaeologist, Zahi Hawass, the Queen was rescued from oblivion (Quilici 2007). Hatshepsut has regained her position as one of the most powerful women that the world had ever seen on the throne of the Pharaohs (Ibid.).

Since then, the mysterious story of Hatshepsut has attired attention of various scholars and authors, such as an associate professor of Egyptology, Dr Kara Cooney  whose book, The Woman Who Would Be King (2014) greatly underlines Hatshepsut’s legacy.

Author Kara Cooney on Hatshepsut’s Legacy (2014). Kara Cooney, author of “The Woman Who Would Be King” and leading Egyptologist, discusses Hatshepsut, Egypt’s longest reigning female pharaoh and her legacy. Learn more about Hatshepsut at KaraCooney.com. Film source: The Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. In: The Crown Publishing Group Youtube Channel.

Featured image: Hatshepsut’s temple. Deir el-Bahari with temples of Hatshepsut, Thutmosis III and Mentuhotep II, Luxor, Egypt. Photo by Ian Lloyd – lloydi.com (2006). CC BY-SA 3.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Deir el-Bahari” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Deir el-Bahari” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/38ldwbX>. [Accessed on 6th January, 2021].

“KV20” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/3omnZcP>. [Accessed on 6th January, 2021].

“Menkaure“ (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/39cEWA3>. [Accessed on 7th January, 2021].

“Senenmut” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/35fTkqa>. [Accessed on 6th January, 2021].

Brier B. PhD (2017) “Erecting an Obelisk: A Monument of Egyptian Grandeur”. In: The Great Courses Daily. From the Lectures Series: The History of Ancient Egypt. Available at <http://bit.ly/3hNZwdL>. [Accessed on 6th January, 2021].

Free pictures at Pixbay. Available at <https://bit.ly/2LtkZgc>. [Accessed on 7th January, 2021].

Lipińska J. (2008) Sztuka starożytnego Egiptu. Warszawa: Arkady.

Lipińska J., Marciniak M. (2006) Mitologia starożytnego Egiptu. Warszawa: Oficyna Wydawnicza ‘Auriga’.

Vicki N. (2003) The Double Goddess. Women Sharing Power. Rochester, Vermont: Bear & Compony.

PAP – Nauka w Polsce, Zdziebłowski Sz. (2008) “Rozpoczyna się kolejny sezon badań Polaków w Deir el-Bahari w Egipcie“. In: Nauka w Polsce. Ministerstwo Nauki i Szkolnictwa Wyższego. Available at <http://bit.ly/2Xfyti8>. [Accessed on 7th January, 2021].

Quilici B. (2007) Secrets of Egypt’s Lost Queen. Starring Kara Cooney and Zahi Hawass. Discovery Channel.

The Crown Publishing Group (2014). “Kara Cooney on Hatshepsut’s Legacy”. In: The Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. In: The Crown Publishing Group Youtube Channel. Available at <https://bit.ly/3pH7BUO>. [Accessed on 3rd February, 2021].

The MET (2020). “Column with Hathor-emblem capital and names of Nectanebo I on the shaft. 380–362 B.C. Late Period”. In Metropolitan Museum. Available at <http://bit.ly/3q1SMfv>. [Accessed on 6th January, 2021].

Time Trips (2021) “The Inscription on Hatshepsut’s Obelisk”. Based on the translation by Amir Hussein. In: Timetrips.co.uk. Available at <http://bit.ly/2JQb9o9>. [Accessed on 6th January, 2021].

TV db; Administrator (2019) “16:9 Screencap #60792152 of the documentary Secrets of Egypt’s Lost Queen, directed by Brando Quilici (2007). In: Discovery Channel Documentaries. TV db. Available at <http://bit.ly/3hRnTaC>. [Accessed on 7th January, 2021].

Żylińska J. (1972-1986) Kapłanki, Amazonki i Czarownice. Warszawa: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy.

Images of the ‘Infancy Gospels’ in Sgraffito

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

Room 40 in the British Museum

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

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

Biblical story of the Child Jesus

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

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

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

The House of the Holy Family

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

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

Bejt-haseter

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

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

Finding in the Temple

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

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

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

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

‘Unofficial’ God’s life

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

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

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

Jesus between His years five and twelve

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

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

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

Anecdotes about the Christ’s Childhood

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

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

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

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

Apocrypha in art

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

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

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

Medieval apocryphal writings

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

Red clay tiles

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

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

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

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

Medieval comic strip

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

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

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

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

Mediation of the Virgin Mary

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

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

Starting with a miracle

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

‘Unpleasant’ transformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Culmination of the story in the middle

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

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

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

Death and resurrection

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

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

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

Caricatured faces

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

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

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

Castle tower

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

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

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

Again in school

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

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

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

Difficult relations

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

Two other tiles

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

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

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

The well

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

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

‘Convert or die’ threat

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

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

The Humanity of God

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

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

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

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

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

The Spell of Ushabtis: ‘Verily, I Am Here’.

Servants, musicians and court craftsmen were once placed in the mounds around royal tombs and mastabas in Egypt (Żylińska 1972-1986:56). Dying with kings and queens was a privilege and a passage to eternity (Ibid.:56). Later, human sacrifices were abandoned and the old rite was replaced with others: deceased royal members were accompanied to the Afterlife by faience figurines placed in the tombs (Ibid.:56). They represented the servants and handmaids (Ibid.:56), the ushabti, originally known as shabti or shawabti (“Ushabti“ 2020).

No more work in the Afterlife

When in the times of the Old Kingdom (circa 2686-2181 BC.), the king and his relatives reached Sehet Jaru in the Afterlife, they had to do physical work themselves, sowing and harvesting, to ensure their livelihood, yet the king could have ordered the subjects who accompanied him to the Afterlife to do these works for himself (Rachet 1994:359). In the times of the Middle Kingdom (circa 2055-1795 BC.), the land of eternal happiness was opened to all subjects, but they did not intend to work in the Afterlife like ordinary peasants (Rachet 1994:359; Lipińska, Marciniak 2006:179).

Four ushabtis of Khabekhnet and their box; 1279–1213 BC; painted limestone; height of the ushabtis: 16.7 cm; Metropolitan Museum of Art. This photo was donated to Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2020). Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication. Colours intensified. This photo was donated to Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2020). Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication. Photo source: “Ushabti“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The Life After Death was supposed to be a more perfect version of earthly existence, so the Egyptians believed that it would be full of free time and would not have to do manual labour (Ikram 2003:110). Therefore, in their tombs there have been found peculiar magical objects and images to improve the quality of the Afterlife (Ibid.:110). These also include the ushabti, although the name of such objects itself appeared only in the Late Period (circa 664-332 BC.) (Ikram 2003:111; Lipińska, Marciniak 2006:179). Primarily, such statuettes were referred to as shabti or shawabti (Ibid.:110).

Fetch and carry

Statuettes of servants had already been common during the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties (the Old Kingdom), depicting Egyptians devoting themselves to their daily activities (Ikram 2003:110). Among them there are thus imagery of people milling grain, baking bread, making pots, brewing beer, and many other scenes that have been seen by the Nile (Ibid.:110). It was believed that, just like the images painted and carved on the walls of tombs, the ushabti magically came to life in the Afterlife to perform the listed activities for the deceased (Ibid.:110).

In the Old Kingdom, statuettes did not always represent offering services; sometimes they were members of the deceased’s family, carrying out everyday activities for those they loved (Ikram 2003:110). In the Middle Kingdom, statuettes of servants were replaced by wooden grave models, beautifully illustrating people performing their daily activities (Ibid.:110). They too came alive thanks to magic and satisfied the needs of the dead (Ibid.:110). While, all these painted and carved crowds did work for the deceased as much as their real-world counterparts, the ushabti were to take on the tasks assigned to their master in the Afterlife as a part of the service for gods, or the work that they had to do to ensure their existence after Death (Ikram 2003:110; Rachet 1994:359). I wish I would not have to wait till the death to have such servants …

Mummies offering services

The ushabti, were originally called shabti by the Egyptians and appeared at the beginning of the Middle Kingdom (Ikram 2003:110; Rachet 1994:359). They disappeared in the Ptolemaic Period (circa 332 – 32 BC.) (Ikram 2003:110; Lipińska, Marciniak 2006:179). Shabti usually took the form of mummy-shaped figures and, depending on the wealth of the deceased, they were made of various materials: wood, glass, clay, wax, stone, and bronze (Ikram 2003:110; Rachet 1994:360).

For the richest, the most often they were made of the famous Egyptian faience, blue in the New Kingdom (circa 1550 – 1069 BC.), and green in later eras till the fourth century BC. (Ikram 2003:110; Rachet 1994:360; Lipińska, Marciniak 2006:179). Statuettes also differed in size and quality; some were only a few centimetres high, others were half a meter high (Ikram 2003:110). Some were carefully carved statuettes, others were roughly shaped lumps of clay or even just wooden pegs of wood (Ibid.:110). Until the time of Amenhotep the Second, the deceased had only one or two figures deposited in their tombs, and initially each had its own sarcophagus (Ikram 2003:110; Rachet 1994:360). Later, also during the New Kingdom, the ushabti began to be placed in tall, chapel-shaped boxes, which by the time of the Nineteenth Dynasty (New Kingdom) already contained several hundred figurines (Ikram 2003:110). The ushabti were an extremely important element of tomb equipment, as proved by their prevalence in the graves of people of all social classes and in all periods (Ibid.:110). They served not only humans but also sacred animals; some mummies of the holy Apis also were accompanied in tombs by typical mummy-shaped figures with bull’s heads (Ibid.:110).

Enjoying the freedom of the Afterlife

Tasks of the ushabti were not always the same. Initially, the figurines took the place of the tomb models, taking over the role of their owner’s servants (Ikram 2003:110). However, they could also represent the deceased himself, which it is supported by the fact they were provided with their own sarcophagi, just like a mummy (Ibid.:110-111).

An ushabti box, probably the beginning of the Ptolemaic Period. On display at the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose, California. RC 623. Photo by BrokenSphere (2008). CC BY-SA 3.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Ushabti“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In this role, the ushabti replaced the statues of ka (Ikram 2003:111). However, their most important task was to do whatever work on behalf of the dead that gods ordered them to perform in the Afterlife (Ibid.:111). Mostly, the dead was demanded to cultivate the land and perform other farm labours, which were the backbone of the Egyptian economy (Ibid.:111). As the physical work expected of the dead was performed by their assistants or ushabti, they would not have to bother and enjoy the freedom of the Afterlife (Ibid.:111).

Spell for making an ushebti work

The ushabti came to life owing to a magical text that appeared during the Twelfth Dynasty (Middle Kingdom) as the Chapter 472 of the Sarcophagus Texts, after which it evolved in the New Kingdom into the Chapter Sixth of the Book of the Dead, also referred to as the Book of Coming Forth by Day or Book of Emerging Forth into the Light (Ikram 2003:111; “Book of the Dead” 2020). It is commonly referred to as the ‘Spell for making an ushebti work (for a man) in the God’s Land’ or simply, the ‘Shabti Spell’ The (Shabti Collections 2020). Its words were “inscribed on the shabtis with certain variations depending at which time they were made. Sometimes the complete spell was used, or certain clauses were omitted” (Ibid.).

A receipt for 401 ushabtis produced by Padikhonsu. Photo by Fæ (2010). CC BY-SA 3.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Ushabti“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

As it is seen in the Third Intermediate Period (circa 1069 – 664 BC.) and Late Period (circa 664 – 332 BC.), the figurines were usually inscribed with the title of the owner and his name along with the name of ‘Osiris’, referring to the changed status of the deceased in the Afterlife (Ikram 2003:111; Shabti Collections 2020; Lipińska, Marciniak 2006:179). It was either the ultimate inscription, or written in addition to the Spell (Ikram 2003:111; Shabti Collections 2020).  “[The] earliest version of the ‘Shabti Spell’ appeared in the Coffin Texts of the Middle Kingdom” (Shabti Collections 2020).

O, this/these shabti(s)

If one counts, if one reckons the Osiris (…)

To do all the works which are wont be done there in the god’s land

Now indeed obstacles are implanted therewith –

As a man as his duties

‘Here I am,’ you shall say when

You are counted off

At any time to serve there

To cultivate the fields, to irrigate the riparian lands, to transport by boat the sand of the east to the west

And vice-versa;‘

Here I am’ you shall say.

Shabti Collections 2020

A servant for each day of the year

Pottery ushabti with linen grave clothes. (Nineteenth Dynasty). From Heracleopolis Magna, Egypt. The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London. With thanks to the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL. Photo by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) (2016). CC BY-SA 4.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Ushabti“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

At the beginning of the New Kingdom, the ushabti were given agricultural tools, usually hoe and back basket models, but these quickly turned into images painted or carved on the figurines themselves (Ikram 2003:111; Rachet 1994:359). The number of the ushabti also increased (Ibid.:111). In some of the tombs, as many as a total of 401 figurines were discovered, including 365 servants, one for each day of the year, along with 36 overseers, each in charge of ten ‘workers’ of the ushabti (Ibid.:111). Seti the First, as the Pharaoh he was, (the New Kingdom) had seven hundred ushabti, and some dead in the Late Period had even more than a thousand, although, of course, the number of figurines varied according to the wealth of their master (Ikram 2003:111; Rachet 1994:360).

Shawabti and shabti

Some figurines of the Seventeenth and Nineteenth Dynasties (New Kingdom) were also called by the term shawabti (Ikram 2003:111). The difference between it and the more common name shabti is not clear (Ibid.:111). Generally, the etymology of the words referring to the figurines is still not clear and under debate (Rachet 1994:359). The shawabt or shabti terms may have derived from words meaning ‘stick’ or ‘food’, both of which would be appropriate for the statuettes often carved from wood and destined to work to provide their master with food (Ikram 2003:111).

Slaves in Amenti

In the New Kingdom, figurines were often considered as slaves in Amenti (Kingdom of the Dead), as shown in the preserved bills for their manufacture (Ikram 2003:111; Rachet 1994:359).

Memphis, 500 BC – Troop of funerary servant figures ushabtis in the name of Neferibreheb, Louvre-Lens. Photo by Serge Ottaviani (2013). CC BY-SA 3.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Ushabti“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Ushebtis respond

During the Third Intermediate Period and Late Period, the ushabti were made in mass-production; they were thus rather crude and carelessly made (Ikram 2003:111). The views on their role had also somewhat changed (Ibid.:111). Since then, they had been defined by the term ushabti (Ibid.:111). Its entry into the common language defines the figurines in a slightly different way; ushabti means to respond and clearly refers to the situation when the gods called the deceased to work, and the figurines replied: ‘Here I am’ (Ibid.:111).

Featured image: Ushabti in the Museum of Louvre. Photo by Néfermaât (2006). CC BY-SA 2.5. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Uszebti” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Reference to the Title: “CHAPTER VI. [From the Papyrus of Nebseni (Brit. Mus. No. 9900, sheet 10)]” (2020). In: “Ancient History & Civilisation. The Egyptian Book of the Dead Page 4. In: Erenow. Available at <https://bit.ly/3hU1SY>. [Accessed on 8th January, 2021].

Book of the Dead” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/3pZ6Xlm>. [Accessed on 8th January, 2021].

“Ushabti“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/3bt54Js>. [Accessed on 8th January, 2021].

“Uszebti” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/2LhpAlE>. [Accessed on 8th January, 2021].

Ikram S. (2003) Śmierć i pogrzeb w starożytnym Egipcie [Death and Burial in Ancient Egypt], Aksamit J. trans. Warszawa: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy.

Lipińska J., Marciniak M. (2006) Mitologia starożytnego Egiptu. Warszawa: Oficyna Wydawnicza ‘Auriga’.

Rachet G. (1994) “Uzebti” and “Antemi”. In: Słownik cywilizacji egipskiej. Śliwa J. trans. Słowniki Encyklopedyczne Książnica.

The Shabti Collections (2020) “The Shabti Spell“. In: Shabtis.com. Available at <http://bit.ly/2Leoh79>. [Accessed on 8th January, 2021].

Żylińska J. (1972-1986) Kapłanki, Amazonki i Czarownice. Warszawa: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy.

Dwarfs Dwell in the Maw of ‘Cenotes’

We landed at the Cancún airport a day ago and I felt as if I had been in Mexico for at least a week. In one day, loads of impressions, images, stories, information and guesses summoned up in my head. That would be enough for a whole month; my continuously analyzing mind was just making a trip through the Yucatan and its pre-Columbian Mayan and Toltec cities. Unfortunately, my time in Mexico was limited and so was my stay at archaeological sites.

Something good for everyone

‘One day is far not enough for Chichén Itzá’, I said with well heard regret in my voice. I was sorry to get out of there, as soon as I finally started understanding the city plan and entering its mysterious nooks and crannies more confidently.

The Ik Kil cenote, close to Chichén Itzá, México. Photo by Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (2010). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Cenote” (Polish) (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

‘We only have two weeks to stay in Mexico’ said my friend. ‘Then we have to go back to Poland, and what is worse, to winter!’ Then, she added: ‘Besides, you have promised not to explore ‘your’ rocks ALL THE TIME. You know, I can’t get along here alone. I don’t speak the language.’

Yes, I knew that, and I promised … I also understood that my friend flew here mainly to the warm sea of ​​the Gulf of Mexico to take a break from work and February frosts. She loved swimming and diving. Me too … But for me, taking holidays meant breaking through a stone forest of abandoned ruins, stumbling over stones sticking out of the ground and climbing the narrow steps of pyramidal structures. Well, there must be something good for everyone…

Longing for archaeology

If only I had not needed to work full-time during my studies in a boring office, I would have spent a few months excavating, preferably deep in the jungles of the Chiapas region. On the other hand, I read in one of Daniken’s books (1991:189) that it is not easy at all to start archaeological excavations in Mexico, even if there are sufficient funds. According to the author, digs would be willingly continued by archaeologists in Chichén Itzá, in Palenque, or in other Mayan city-states, but such efforts often fail due to the resistance of local Indians, who thus defend their still holy ancient centres (Von Daniken 1991:189). And when the excavation eventually takes place, only Indians work there (ibid.:189). Anyway, at that time, I was only on vacation in Mexico, which I could only afford because of my ‘boring job’.

After a while of lingering around, I reluctantly left the incredible archaeological site and followed another tourist attraction that my companion was waiting impatiently for.

Strange and amazing Yucatan

As a Polish traveller, Elżbieta Dzikowska (2013:201) writes, the Yucatan Peninsula is a strange place, where about eight thousand rivers flow underground. How is it possible? The Yucatan bed is made of limestone rocks through which rainwater is filtered (Tuszyńska 2007:50). Rocky ground absorbs water that collects and flows underground (Ibid.:50). Such underground rivers run through many picturesque caves (Dzikowska 2013:201). Many of them are formed exteriorly on the land, like in the case of the Loltún Cave, of which one of larger chambers features natural openings, which appeared after the ceiling collapsed (Dzikowska 2013:201; Brady 2013:297). The Maya possibly believed that such openings in the ground unite the world above with the underworld (Brady 2013:297). The Loltún Cave is located today south of the city of Mérida and its name means ‘Stone Flower’ in the Mayan language (Tuszyńska 2007:36). The Mayans used it for about two thousand years (Ibid.:36).

Cenotes and caves

The waters of underground rivers also rise to the surface in the form of cenotes, deep, borderland wells (Dzikowska 2013:201).

They are either open to the sky or occur inside deep caves and thus some of them can only be reached through underground corridors. (Tuszyńska 2007:50). Densely scattered around the northern part of the Yucatan karst area, cenotes were formed due to the collapse of the top layers of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater (Grube et al. eds. 2013:429; “Cenote” 2020). A such, the cenote is a natural deep pit, or sinkhole, filled with groundwater (Grube et al. eds. 2013:429; “Cenote” 2020).

John Lloyd Stephens (1805 – 1852) and Frederick Catherwood (1799 – 1854) introduced the subject of caves and cenotes at the beginning of studies dedicated to the Mayan history, in the 1840s (Brady 2013:297). At that time, however, only practical functions of such formations were considered, and not their religious significance in the Maya cult, which turned out to be actually the case (Ibid.:297). Catherwood’s famous lithograph, showing the wooden stairs in the village of Bolonchén, in Yucatan, focused on illustrating the scale of difficulties related to the use of caves by the local population; a powerful constructed staircase leads down from the side entrance to a small lake in the middle of the cenote. In some cases, difficult access to these natural formations has kept the treasures of the Mayan caves as a secret for centuries (Ibid.:297).

Altépetl

The name cenote originated from the Mayan word tz’ono’ot, meaning a ‘depth’, ‘an abyss’, or ‘a cave with a water reservoir’ (Grube et al. eds. 2013:429; Tuszyńska 2007:50). In the pre-Columbian times, cenotes, had ‘a decisive influence on the choice of a Mayan city location, such as in the case of Chichén Itzá, Dzibilchaltún or Mayapán (Ibid.:429). In northern Yucatan, where there are no surface rivers or lakes, cenotes and underground water reservoirs hidden in the abyss of caves guaranteed access to fresh water for local residents (Grube et al. eds. 2013:429; Brady 2013:297). But practical functions of cenotes were not the main reason for establishing a city in their proximity; the water from cenotes and caves was primarily used for ritual purposes (Brady 2013:297). Ethnohistoric records of founding rituals from all over Mesoamerica, prove that when establishing settlements, ancient people looked for specific geographic features, although they did not often choose environmentally rich areas, if they did not have a specific landscape necessary by contemporary beliefs and religious traditions (Ibid.:297-298).

Glyphs representing Texcoco, Tenochtitlan, and Tlacopan, the three primary altépetl of the Aztec Empire. Codex Osuna Triple Alliance. Published in 2006. Public domain. Image source: “Altepetl” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

According to researchers like Angel Julián García Zambrano, founding a city implied in many cultures imitating the creation of the world (Brady 2013:297-299). At the core of Mayan beliefs is a deity called the Lord of the Earth, whose name Tzuultaq’a translates as ‘hill-valley’, which may sound like a dichotomy at first (Ibid.:297-299). However, according to Mayan beliefs, the Lord of the Earth does not personify the opposite, but unites both dimensions into a single being (Ibid.:297-299). In many Mayan languages, cave means ‘stone house’ because it was believed that the Lord of the Earth lived with his entourage (animals and goods) in a cave located in a sacred mountain (Ibid.:297-299). That in turn, according to the same beliefs, was empty (Ibid.:297-299).

García Zambrano believes that another element constituting the whole of the mythical landscape was to be a source of fresh water, that is to say, the mountain should have a cave and springs at its core, and ideally it was to be surrounded by lower hills (Brady 2013:298). This form of such a landscape is best reflected in the hieroglyphs of geographical names in the Mayan inscriptions (Ibid.:298-299). According to it, the inhabitants of Mesoamerica have long considered the ideal landscape to be a holy mountain rising from the waters of the underground world (Ibid.:298-299). This imagery is also the basis of the Aztec concept of ‘city-state’ – altépetl, which literally translates as a ‘water mountain’ or ‘mountain filled with water’, and is well illustrated by a glyph showing a mountain with a cave at its foundation (Ibid.:298-299). If there was no natural cave formation on-site, it was replaced by an artificial one, usually placed beneath the foundations of pyramids (Ibid.:298299,302-303). Such openings, ritually dedicated to deities, became an important centers of established city-states (Ibid.:298299,302-303).

Recreation of the holy landscape

Assuming that the Mayan temple pyramids were referred to as witz – ‘hills’ or ‘mountains’, it can be concluded that they represented sacred mountains, and respectively the doors to the sanctuaries erected at the top were considered entrances to symbolic caves (Brady 2013:298). According to the researchers, it is clearly shown in the facades of these temples, which are to represent the open mouth of the Earth Monster – the symbol of the cave, and so the underworld (Ibid.:298; see Face of the Fifth Sun). Similarly to caves, mountains and pyramids were the basic elements of Mayan religious life, and it can be observed that they all were part of one supreme cult of the Earth (Ibid.:298) . A Mesoamerican archaeologist, ethnohistorian, epigrapher and a great expert in the Maya, Sir John Eric Sidney Thompson (1898 -1975) was first who thoroughly studied a relationship between those elements of the Maya cult (Ibid.:297). He assumed that along with the mountains and temples built on pyramids, one of the most important elements of Mayan religious life were actually caves and cenotes (Ibid.:297).

Geological cutaway of Cenote Ik Kil. Drawing by Editorcharly (2020). CC BY-SA 4.0. Drawing source: “Cenote” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Such natural formations were obviously considered as holy by the Maya; inside them life was born, and there were the legendary places of origin of tribes or dynasties (Tuszyńska 2007:37,49; Dzikowska 2013:201). Cenotes themselves, like deep caves, were treated as places of worship and pilgrimage (Tuszyńska 2007:37,49; Brady 2013:305; Dzikowska 2013:201). It was because Mesoamerica’s pre-Columbian pilgrimage sites were generally associated with deities of water and rain, and by all accounts, each Mayan deity lives in the underworld, where the rain is born (Brady 2013:305).

Destinations of Mayan pilgrimages

There are descriptions of ceremonies held in caves and by cenotes, related to both, the life-cycle and the calendar (Brady 2013:307). The most important Mayan ceremony connected to pilgrimage, is still celebrated throughout Mesoamerica (Ibid.:305). It takes place in early May, just before the rain season begins (Ibid.:305). Entire villages then go to local caves or cenotes to plead with the Lord of Earth, Ixchel or Chaak for rainfall and bountiful harvests (Brady 2013:305; Tuszyńska 2007:36,50). Cenotes themselves were closely related to the cult of fertility, and their crystal-clear water was used for ceremonial purifications preceding numerous rituals (Tuszyńska 2007:49). In the proximity of the natural wells, temples dedicated to rain and fertility deities were erected (Ibid.:49). One of the famous was the rain god, Chaak, is usually represented with features typical of water creatures, such as reptiles; it is hence covered with scales, has got a curved nose, two snakes protruding from the corners of its mouth and a large shell hanging from its pierced ear (Ibid.:49). Such rain deities are believed to have lived in cenotes and so offerings for them were thrown directly to the water of the wells (Ibid.:49-50). During the Mayan rule in the Yucatan, additional bloody rituals could be performed in emergency situations, such as drought or plague, which were understood as the discontent of the gods (Brady 2013:305).

Cenote Ik Kil; to get to a swimming platform with the wooden stairs, there is a carved stone stairway that leads down. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As it is underlined above, the concept of good and evil does not create a strong dichotomy in Mesoamerican cosmology; the earth considered a source of rain, fertility and life itself, simultaneously is regarded as the main cause of disease (Brady 2013:307). All the illnesses have been believed to arise from winds emanating from caves and from cenote wells (Ibid.:307). And when someone falls ill, the ceremony of healing has been usually combined with the rituals celebrated in these natural formations (Ibid.:307).

Cenote Ik Kil;; luckily, when we got on-site, there were not so many people swimming in the cenote. one can either walk down in the water using the wooden stairs or jump down from the platform above (on the right up) and dive in. The water was really fresh, crystal-clear and chilly, which gave a cooling relief from Mexican sunshine. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The act of pilgrimage itself seems to have been very significant to the Maya; entrances to the deepest chambers of the caves being pilgrimage sites were modified in such a way to make an access to their interiors more difficult for common people (Brady 2013:305). It suggests that only chosen visitors could enter the deepest, most hidden, and so most secret and holiest areas of a given cave (Ibid.:305). Studies of such places in Mesoamerica also confirm that pilgrimage sites were located away from inhabited centers (Ibid.:307). Nevertheless, the presence of an important pilgrimage temple within the city borders has always been considered a sign of favour with supernatural powers and a reason for great pride, as it was in the case of the Cenote of Chichén Itzá (Ibid.:305).

Cenote Sagrado of Chichén Itzá

Similarly to caves, cenotes as sacred wells played very important role in the Mayan mythology and religion (Tuszyńska 2007:142). Cenote Sagrado (Sacred) located in the archaeological zone of Chichén Itzá was a particularly important site in the late Classic Period of Maya culture, that is to say, between the years of 600–900 AD. (Ibid.:142). At that time, the city of Chichén Itzá experienced a heyday, becoming the most powerful Mayan center in the Yucatan (Ibid.:142). And so the Cenote Sagrado did (Ibid.:142). First, it was a center of religious rituals, and in the post-classical period (850-fifteenth century AD.), it became in turn a famous destination of pilgrimage for the faithful from the areas of today’s Mexico and Guatemala, but also from lands as distant as Costa Rica and Panama or even the south-western areas of today’s United States (Ibid.:142).

The Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza, Mexico. “Cenote de los Sacrificios” at Chichén Itzá, Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico. A karst lake, reflecting the karst’s water table. Photo by Ekehnel (Emil Kehnel) (2008). CC BY 3.0. Drawing source: “Cenote” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Diego de Landa (1524-1579), Spanish bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Yucatán, mentioned the great importance of the holy well at Chichén Itzá (Tuszyńska 2007:142). He describes pilgrimages of the faithful with various offerings, still taking place in the sixteenth century (Brady 2013:305). The cenote has a diameter of 60 meters, its depth reaches 13.5 meters, and the water level is about 22 meters below the ground (Tuszyńska 2007:142). The cenote‘s round eye might have been reminiscent of a mirror, which the Mayans used for prophecy and foretelling the future (Ibid.:142).

Venturing out into the earth

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Edward Herbert Thompson (1857 – 1935) an American consul to Yucatan and archaeologist, verifying De Landa’s written records, excavated many artifacts from the bottom of the natural well; here and in other cenotes in Yucatan, there were numerous artifacts of gold, jade, obsidian, rock crystal, shells, flint, wood, clay, gold, hematite, animal bones and tombac, and even scraps of fabric (Tuszyńska 2007:142; Brady 2013:305-307). Among the artifacts found in the Cenote of Chichén Itzá, there are beautiful discs made of turquoise, pyrite, coral and shells (Tuszyńska 2007:142). Sacrificial objects, along with ceremonial instruments were also found in other hard-to-reach places underground as caves; they were, as in the case of votives in the Catholic Church, offered for various intentions or for gratitude (Tuszyńska 2007:142; Brady 2013:307). Such archaeological finds also testify to the religious determination of the Maya, who were able to venture out into the earth to sixteen kilometres deep, in the search of their gods, lighting their way just with torches (Brady 2013:307).

The Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza with a temple dedicated to rain deities beside. Photo by Salhedine (2005). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo source:“Sacred Cenote“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

On the whole. Edward Thompson’s archaeological work confirmed the importance of the sacred cenote at Chichén Itzá as a place of pilgrimage for many generations (Tuszyńska 2007:142; Brady 2013:305). These and other studies have equally proved that religion was one of the most important institutions in the ancient Mayan society, and it was strongly related to such natural formations as caves or cenotes (Brady 2013:278,305-307).

Modern tourist attractions

Filtered through the limestone deposits in cenotes, the water in such natural wells is still crystal-clear (Dzikowska 2013:201). This is why, these days private and public cenotes greatly attract swimming and snorkelling tourists, along with cavern and cave divers (“Cenote” 2020). Some areas with such natural wells are also considered as National Natural Parks (Ibid.). Nothing surprising. While exploring cenotes “[great] care should be taken to avoid spoiling [their] fragile ecosystem” (Ibid.). Top recommended cenotes for tourists include but not limited to Cenote San Lorenzo Oxman, La Noria, Dos Ojos Cenote (Sistema Dos Ojos), Cenote Multum Ha, Cenote Choo-Ha, Cenote Azul, the Seven Cenotes of San Gerónimo, Hacienda Mucuyché, Tulum’s ‘Car Wash’, Dos Ojos Cenote (Sistema Dos Ojos), and Cenote Chichi de los Lagos, Homun (private cenote) (BeFree and Travel 2017; Spechler 2020).

Cenote Ik Kil

We were on the way to Cenote Ik Kil, located in the northern centre of the Yucatán Peninsula and about five minutes (3,2 km) south from Chichén Itzá (“Ik Kil” 2020). Today, it is part of the Ik Kil Archaeological Park and is publicly accessed for swimming and cliff diving (“Ik Kil” 2020; David 2020). Its water level is about 26 metres (85 ft) below ground level; It has got about 60 metres (200 ft) in diameter and is about 48 metres (157 ft) deep (“Ik Kil” 2020). Swimming in cenotes is always at one’s own risk; there are no lifeguards, and only life vests are available (David 2020). This is why one needs to feel really comfortable swimming out of their depth to enjoy this experience (Ibid.).

Cenote Ik Kil, located in the northern centre of the Yucatán Peninsula and about five minutes (3,2 km) south from Chichén Itzá. Today, it is part of the Ik Kil Archaeological Park and is publicly accessed for swimming and cliff diving. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Around the cenote, there is a well organised tourist infrastructure with two restaurants serving typical Mexican food, changing rooms with lockers and showers, shady areas for relaxing, conveniently placed viewing areas of the cenote, and even cottages for hire to stay overnight (“Ik Kil” 2020; David 2020). To get to a swimming platform with the wooden stairs, there is a carved stone stairway that leads down (“Ik Kil” 2020; David 2020). Still there are three diving platforms beside the pool as well (David 2020). The cenote is open to the sky so visitors are not enclosed, like in cave cenotes, which yet gives another invaluable experience (“Ik Kil” 2020; David 2020). To avoid doing any harm to the cenote ecosystem, the visitors intending to swim must first take a shower to remove all the cream and dirt off of their skin (David 2020). It is not either allowed to touch stones or tree roots around the well (Ibid.).

Luckily, when we got on-site, there were not so many people swimming in the cenote. The water was really fresh, crystal-clear and chilly, which gave a cooling relief from Mexican sunshine (David 2020), even in February. From time to time, I felt tiny fishes nicely nibbling my skin. I swam to the centre of the water circle and I looked up into the open roof section. The view was breathtaking with all those plant strings and tree roots cascading down from the roof edges into the water (Ibid.), and the foliage covering the damp stones of the well just intensified the effect of swimming in the jungle.

Maw of the underworld that holds the underground waters

I dived in to the abyss of the well and I found myself in a completely different world once again. Echoes of people’s voices heard above suddenly fell silent and I felt alone, as if on the threshold to the unknown, underwater realm, existing – as the Maya believed – parallel to the real one (Prager 2013:279).

It was ruled by dangerous deities, such as the rain Mayan god Chaak (Aztec’s Tlaloc), and dwelled by various mythical creatures being the gods’ helpers (Prager 2013:279; Brady 2013:299; Tuszyńska 2007:62-63; “Xibalba” 2020). Some of them personified significant forms of the landscape: mountains, caves and cenotes (Brady 2013:299). In Mayan inscriptions, scholars identify wide-open jaws of Centipede (Sak Baak Chapaata), symbolizing cenotes as the ‘maw of the underworld (or of the Earth Monster) that holds the underground waters’ (Ibid.:299). Not only cenotes, but also underwater lakes in caves, are the natural models of this mythical place, inhabited by both, animals, such as frogs, lizards, water snakes, scorpions, and more grotesque creatures, like gnomes, souls of the forest and short people, dwarfs (Prager 2013:279).

Divine dwarfs in cenotes

Dwarfs not only performed various administrative functions and entertained the ruler at pre-Columbian royal courts, but also played an important role in the mythology of the Maya, who believed in the classical and post-classical periods that the four dwarfs were tasked with raising the vault of heavens. The Olmecs also knew of the image of the four dwarfs supporting the sky, where dwarfs were equally pictured, like stone atlases, supporting the structure of the altar, possibly representing the vault of heavens (Prager 2013:278-279). The Maya even saw two dwarfs in the firmament, symbolizing undiscovered constellations (Ibid.:279). Midgets, as much as hunchbacks, cripples and albinos were viewed by the Maya and other pre-Colombian cultures as supernatural beings through their physical infirmities (Ibid.:278). They were all also regarded, like Maya rulers were, as messengers of the divine world and a means of contact with it (Ibid.:278). As such, the dwarfs are often depicted as companions of gods, including the sun and maize deities (Ibid.:279). This explains why in art, the Mayan kings considered divine, were also depicted in the company of midgets; the ruler performing religious rituals imitated the gods and became the center of the real world and the underworld (Ibid.:278).

Ruler attended by court dwarf. A photograph of a colorful ceramic vessel; origin unknown; late classical period, 600-900 AD; private collection (Kerr 1453). Court dwarfs performed many functions at the ruler’s court. In the depiction, one of them is kneeling in front of the ruler, holding a mirror, while another one below checks the quality of the food in the vessels and jugs or examines if it is not poisoned (Prager 2013:278). Photo source: Latin American Studies (2020) “Maya Dwarfs”. In: The Maya. Latin American Studies.

Mayans thus believed that dwarfs come from outside the real world and actually are divine and supernatural beings (Prager 2013:279). They dwell in the underworld or ‘place of fright’, Xibalbà, which is as much sacred as dangerous (Tuszyńska 2007:34,36; “Xibalba” 2020). In the Maya’s opinion, the boundaries and the portals to this world can be found in overgrown holes in the forest, dark caves, deep ravines, and also in shimmering water mirrors overgrown with dark green water lilies, or just in deep cenotes, like this one I was just swimming in (Tuszyńska 2007:36; Prager 2013:279). Such wells were perceived as symbolical corridors between the earthly land and underworld (Tuszyńska 2007:37).

More about dwarfs

The history of the Mayan dwarfs, however, does not end here; I have also read that among the Maya’s offerings found in the caves, there have been also found querns for producing corn flour, which was possibly related to the Mayan belief that the first world was inhabited by dwarfs, saiyam unicoob, who built the first stone cities (Tuszyńska 2007:26; Brady 2013:305). The first world was deprived of the Sun (Tuszyńska 2007:26). When it was finally created and shone for the first time, it turned the dwarfs into stone, and their images can now be seen in many ruins (Ibid.:26). The donors probably wanted to pay tribute to them by similar offerings (Brady 2013:305).

After the Maya, dwarfs took part in “a rite of passage in which [they] assist the soul of the [privileged] deceased into the domain of the dead, [the underworld], from which it would eventually be reborn in the royal lineage, [just as the maize god died in the underworld and resurrected. Similarly,] maize sprouts again in the cycle of nature’s renewal” Art (Institute Chicago 2020). This is possibly why dwarfs are often seen in art while accompanying the maize god (Prager 2013:279; Institute Chicago 2020).

Crunchy nachos and human bones

After one hour of swimming in the underworld, I woke up from a daydream, as if revitalized. I was sitting in one of the on-site restaurants. The waiter has just brought a basket full of crunchy nachos and a saucier of juicy guacamole. It was a pleasant feeling to join archaeology and mythology with a tourist attraction and delicious Mexican food.

‘Why did not you tell me?!’, my friend asked reproachfully, sitting at my table, and pulling a wicker basket with nachos towards her.

‘About what?’, I asked surprised.

‘That THEY pulled people down HERE in the water to sacrifice them!’, she explained. ‘But it is better I have found out not earlier than I got into the water’, she added without waiting for my explanation.

The Samulá Cenote in Valladolid, Yucatán, Mexico. Photo by dronepicr (2015). CC BY 2.0. Photo source: “Cenote” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Indeed, the research of archaeologists confirmed the thesis that the Maya offerings were not only composed of products made of jade, shells, flint and ceramics, but there were also sacrifices of humans (Tuszyńska 2007:37; Brady 2013:305; Dzikowska 2013:201). Diego de Landa also mentions human offerings given by the pilgrims to the Cenote Sagrado in Chichén Itzá (Brady 2013:305). Since the arrival of the Conquistadors, stories have circulated about human sacrifice practiced by the Maya (Tuszyńska 2007:37). Chroniclers of that time mention that children and young women were thrown into the water (Tuszyńska 2007:37; Brady 2013:305). However, according to the researchers, the excavated human remains do not always indicate sacrifices (Tuszyńska 2007:37). In many cases it turned out that in most cases humans were thrown into the water after their death, and this concerned both men and women of a different age (Ibid.:37). It supports a hypothesis that the remains of ancestors and important personalities were thrown into the waters of the cenotes, because they symbolized the primeval ocean in the moment of the creation of the world (Ibid.:37). In this way, the dead were reborn to a new life (Ibid.:37).

Burials or human sacrifice?

There are many other hypotheses about human skeletons found in cenotes (Tuszyńska 2007:37). One of them states that they could be burial places (Ibid.:37). The best example of such a water cemetery is the Cenote Tankah (Quintana Roo), where the walls were marked by the Maya with glyphs of darkness and the planet Venus (Ibid.:37). Both glyphs are associated with night and death, but also with life and rebirth (Ibid.:37). Assuming that the cenotes were symbolic entrances to the world of the dead, Xibalbà, the hypothesis of natural burial chambers in cenotes is justified (Ibid.:37).

Scuba diving in a cenote. Photo by Ggerdel – Buceador y camarógrafo: Gustavo Gerdel – BAB Buceo (2015). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo source: “Cenote” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

According to a related theory, human bodies were placed in cavities that were naturally hollowed in the walls of the well and emerged in periods of drought (Tuszyńska 2007:37; Dzikowska 2013:201). And droughts were actually the main reason for the human sacrifice to appease Chaak, the rain god (“Ik Kil” 2020). Such dry spells were the greatest in the ninth and tenth centuries AD., and when they finally passed away, the water flooded the bodies of the victims thus deposited (Dzikowska 2013:201).

In the Cenote Tankah, scattered bones belonging to one hundred and eighteen human skeletons were found (Tuszyńska 2007:37). Two hundred and fifty skeletons have been uncovered at Cenote Sagrado of Chichén Itzá (Dzikowska 2013:201). ItzáIk Kil cenote was equally sacred to the Mayans who used it for various offerings, including human sacrifice to their rain god, Chaak (“Ik Kil” 2020). Consequently, apart from numerous pieces of jewellery, archaeologists and speleologists have found human bones also in the deep waters of this cenote (Ibid.).

Cenote Chichi de los Lagos. Homun. Yukatan by Televisa Bicentenario. Source: Oleg Och (2011). In: Oleg Och Youtube Channel.

‘Next time, we are going to snorkel in the sea’, decided my friend, devouring the last nachos. ‘And I hope not to find any human bones’.

Touching history by accident

I smiled to myself. It is difficult not to touch the past in such places as Mexico, where the present is continuously being filtered through the ancient heritage, whose remnants are so tangible at each step taken by a modern visitor, even if they are quite unconscious of such significant ancient influences.

Featured image: Entrance to Dos Ojos Cenote, near Tulúm in Mexico. Photo by Dag Lindgren (2007). CC BY-SA 3.0. Image cropped. Photo source: “Sistema Dos Ojos“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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Brady J. E. (2013) ”Odkrywanie ciemnych sekretów – archeolodzy w jaskiniach Majów.” Jawińska M. trans. In Majowie. Niezwykła cywilizacja. [Maya. Gottkonige im Regenwald]. Grube N., Eggenbrecht E., Seidl M. eds. Warszawa: Grupa Wydawnicza Foksal.

David (2020) “Cenote Ik Kil, Chichen Itza: Ultimate Guide (2020)”. In: The Whole World is a Playground. Available at <http://bit.ly/2WUdFfM>. [Accessed on 30th December, 2020].

Doyle J. (2018). “Into the Centipede’s Jaws: Sumptuous Offerings from the Sacred Cenote at Chichén Itzá”. In: The Metropolitan Museum (The MET). Available at <http://bit.ly/38Wkvae>. [Accessed on 1st January, 2021].

Dzikowska E. (2013) Tam, gdzie byłam. Meksyk. Ameryka Środkowa. Karaiby. Wydawnictwo Bernardinum.

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Prager Ch. (2013) ”Nadworne karły – towarzysze władców i wysłannicy podziemnego świata.”Jawińska M. trans. In Majowie. Niezwykła cywilizacja. [Maya. Gottkonige im Regenwald]. Grube N., Eggenbrecht E., Seidl M. eds. Warszawa: Grupa Wydawnicza Foksal.

Ramos Ponciano M. E., Ball J. W. (2017). “Eccentric Caches of Buenavista del Cayo: Contextual Analysis and Cosmological Significance“. Thesis for: M.A. Advisor: Joseph W. Ball; Jennifer Taschek; Seth Mallios. SDSU Mopan-Macal Triangle Archaeological Project. In: ResearchGate. Available at <http://bit.ly/3o9Nde6>. [Accessed on 1st January, 2021].

Spechler D. (2020) “Visit these breathtaking underwater caves in the Yucatán Peninsula. From Maya temples to a makeshift car wash, these four cenotes offer outdoor adventure, fascinating history, and traditional culture”. In: Travel. National Geographic. Available at <http://on.natgeo.com/3n4lqud>. [Accessed on 30th December, 2020].

Tuszyńska B. (2007). Mitologie świata: Majowie. In: Rzeczpospolita. Kraków: Drukarnia Narodowa SA.

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From Slavic Rites to Old Polish and Modern Polish Christmas

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

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

When the first star appears in the sky

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

Tradition of oblatum

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

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

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

Time for children

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

Traces of mysterious Slavic past

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

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

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

Calendae becomes Polish Christmas carolling

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

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

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

Slavic Diduch (Didukh) and Christmas tree

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

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

Colours of Christmas

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

Speaking animals

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

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

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

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

Foretelling from hay

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

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

Empty seat

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

Kolędy (Christmas carols)

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

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

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

Carolling with Turoń

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

Among the latter group, the Turoń has appeared (Sławosław.pl 2019). It is In Polish folklore “a festive monstrosity in the form of a black, horned and shaggy animal with a flopping jaw. Its appearance can be noticed [not only during Christmas Eve but also] at folk events during the period after Christmas, yet most likely in times of Carnival and before Lent begins. The name is derived from the word tur, meaning aurochs” (“Turoń” 2020). The carollers usually  come to people’s houses carrying a large, multi-coloured and illuminated Star of Bethlehem on a stick (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:180). When they “enter a household, Turoń tackles anyone who stares for too long at the star or its bearers. […] Whenever the Turoń becomes unbearable for the householder and his family, they sing a song to banish it” (“Turoń” 2020):

“Idź, turoniu, do domu (Go now, Turoń, go home). Nie zawadzaj nikomu (Don’t bother anyone). Nie tuś się wychował (Here’s not the place you come from). Nie tu będziesz nocował (This not the place you shall sleep).”

(“Turoń” 2020 with own translation).
Kolęda walkers with a Turoń. S.Barański (1937). Public domain. Photo source: “Turoń” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

As part of the act of carolling, Turoń  snaps to the rhythm of the melody, related to the extinct turmoil, scares and rattles, and finally loses consciousness (Sławosław.pl 2019). At this point, the carollers start the process of its reviving (Ibid.). They do the massage to him, set fire to the straw under him, pour vodka straight into his mouth (Ibid.). All this to make the Turoń stand up and start running again (Ibid.). The resurrection of Turoń symbolizes the rebirth of the earth, which falls asleep for the winter and does not recover until spring (Ibid.).

Visited “[householders, by tradition, give to the carollers] a ‘get off ransom’ in the form of money and a gift from the pantry” (“Turoń” 2020). A donation given by the hosts to carol singers, is also called a Christmas carol (Sławosław.pl 2019). The visit of carollers was perceived as a good sign – a forecast of prosperity and fertility in the coming year. For this reason, the host felt obliged to buy favours through treats and other donations (Ibid.).

Belarusian carol singers, photo taken in 1903 in the Mogilev province. Author unknown (1903). Public domain. Photo source: “Szczodre Gody” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Bringing carols from home to home in a dress of the Nativity characters is an old custom, already well known in the seventeenth century (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:180). At that time these were the Krakow students who gained the fame of the best carollers (Ibid.). It was because they intertwined Christmas carols with very witty orations (Ibid.:180).

Nativity scenes

Szopka krakowska (Kraków’s Nativity scene) by Bronisław Pięcik, MHK, 1998. Photo by Rafał Korzeniowski (2008). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Szopki krakowskie” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Krakow’s nativity scenes are often true masterpieces of Polish folk art (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:180). Every year, in the market square in Kraków, in the run-up to Christmas, a competition for the most beautiful crib is held (Ibid.:180). Afterwards, they become a part either of a private or state collections of folk art (Ibid.:180). The tradition was established in nineteenth century Krakow (Muzeum Krakowa.pl 2020). Since then, it has been far from everything that has ever been created in this field not only in Europe, but also in the whole world (Ibid.). The first nativity scenes were created by carpenters and bricklayers from the area of Krakow, mainly from Zwierzyniec (Ibid.). It was an extra job for them during the dead season (Ibid.). On Christmas, they went with their newly constructed nativity scenes around the houses (Ibid.). The nativity scenes arranged in churches also have old traditions (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:180). The mechanized nativity scene in the Capuchin Church is very popular especially among the inhabitants of Warsaw (Ibid.:180).

Street vendors displaying nativity scenes. Krakow, interwar period. Unknown author (2018). Public domain. Photo source: “Szopki krakowskie” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Indeed, it deserves a special attention; one could see there next to a donkey, ox and camels, on which the three kings came, also a tram, railway, bus and even a plane! (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:180).

Culmination of the Polish culinary year

Christmas, like Easter, is the time of the greatest culmination of the Polish culinary year (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:178). If someone looked into the old Polish kitchen in the period immediately preceding Christmas, there would be incredible traffic there (Ibid.:181). Even today, in modern kitchens, when the housewife uses only the often problematic help of her spouse or adolescent children, it is a period of extremely intensified culinary creativity; smells and aromas blend there to create a real symphony woven from many scents that stimulate the appetite and imagination (Ibid.:181). Although some traditional Christmas specialties can be bought ready-made today, they cannot compare with the dishes that are prepared in many families according to recipes passed down from generation to generation (Ibid.:181).

Christmas Eve supper of twelve courses in Old Poland

The Christmas Eve supper has been for centuries the main culinary accent of the Polish Christmas (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:181). Poles usually eat opulently and meaty on holidays, but Christmas dishes are no different from those served on other festive occasions (Ibid.:181). Yet the Christmas Eve supper is a fasting meal (Ibid.:181). And all the dishes were once prepared with oil, olive oil or butter (Ibid.:181). Our arch-Catholic ancestors, despite their strict observance of the fast, which was essentially limited to the exclusion of meat and bacon, were able to make this restriction a truly refined delight for a taste (Ibid.:181). No wonder that Polish posts were widely known beyond the borders of the Republic of Poland (Ibid.:181).

An exemplary Christmas Eve table – modern times. Photo by Przykuta (2006). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Wigilia Bożego Narodzenia” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In wealthier noble and bourgeois houses, and wealthy monasteries, the Christmas Eve consisted of twelve courses, as many as there were apostles (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:181). For ancient Slavs, each of the twelve festive dishes symbolized thanksgiving for one month of the year (Sławosław.pl 2019). Fish dishes prepared in a variety of ways dominated, including the famous Carp or Pike in Gray Sauce (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:181). Sometimes there were so many fish dishes that the traditional number of twelve was not enough (Ibid.:181-182). But there was also a solution to this problem: all fish dishes were considered as the only one dish! (Ibid.:182).

Christmas Eve is a very special evening in Poland. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

This is how the Poles of the Old Poland fasted, setting the example to the ungodly and dissenters (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:182). Today, such Christmas Eve giant suppers belong to the irretrievable past (Ibid.:182). We do not have the appetites of our ancestors, the satisfaction of which sometimes consumed entire fortunes (Ibid.:182). Today instead of dishes, single products used in their preparation are usually counted as twelve (Wiano.eu 2012), as it also happens in my family. Who would eat all that if there are twelve opulent dishes at once?! Even though not so giant as in Old Poland, we still organize Christmas Eve supper, not only because of the poetry of tradition, but also of the atmosphere of family warmness (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:182). And the taste and ceremonial of traditional Christmas Eve dishes have the gift of evoking them, allowing us to come back to the past and dream about the future (Ibid.:182).

Fasting feast

The Christmas Eve has been opened by one of the traditional Christmas Eve soups: red borscht with dumplings, mushroom soup or, less often, almond soup (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:182).

The most popular has always been red borscht, a classic soup of Old Polish cuisine (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:182). In addition to fish dishes, there have been served famous Old Polish dish of cabbage peas, dishes made of dried mushrooms, compotes of dried fruit, mainly plums, and Christmas cakes (Ibid.:182). In the eastern parts of Poland, the famous kutia (dish consisting of boiled grain) was served (Ibid.:182). In ancient times kutia appeared regularly during all celebrations related to the worship of the dead (the leaving Sun and the old year) (Sławosław.pl 2019). Alcoholic beverages have never been excluded from the fasting menu, especially in the past, but alcohol has been drunk on Christmas Eve in less quantity than on Easter (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:182).

Christmas soups

Today we eat a slightly spicy and sour red beetroot borscht, with small dumplings stuffed with mushrooms. Its oldest recipe is from the sixteenth century (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:183). In Poland, there are two classic versions: the fasting one for Christmas and an Easter variant, on the basis of meat stock (Ibid.:183).

Both versions are made with natural beetroot acid, which gives it unique flavour (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:183). You can also drink the soup in a mug with crispy dumplings from the oven, stuffed with mushrooms or with meat after Christmas Eve (Ibid.187). In other houses, mushroom or almond soups are also made (Ibid.188-189). These are also Old Polish fasting soups, which are not meant to satiate but warm up the stomach and stimulate the appetite (Ibid.:188). Almond soup is not very popular anymore, but it has many enthusiasts among children as it is rather sweet (Ibid.:189).

Platter of Christmas fish

After the soup, fish is served. While my parents usually choose the traditional fried carp, my sisters and I tend to choose salmon from the fish platter. In Poland, we still eat Polish Carp in Gray Sauce, cold Jewish pike, zander sauteed and herring prepared in various way (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:181,190-197).

Carp is a famous, Old Polish Christmas Eve delicacy (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:192). Although it is not the cheapest dish and its preparation requires a lot of work and time, it must traditionally be placed on the Christmas table during the Christmas season (Ibid.:192). The pike also proudly represents the tradition of Old Polish cuisine, which in this case is made according to the Jewish recipe (Ibid.194). Polish Jews were famous for their excellent preparation of this fish (Ibid.:194).

Among other twelve dishes

Fish dishes are often accompanied with mashed potatoes and fried cabbage with mushrooms. The cabbage from Christmas Eve is usually reheated during the following days and served with Christmas roasted meats (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:198). In the past, people used to eat cabbage with mushrooms and nut croquettes (Ibid.:198). This dish is an example of good, traditional Polish cuisine (Ibid.:198). Seemingly very ordinary, thanks to croquettes the dish becomes original and attractive (Ibid.:198). Very filling and rather heavy, today it rarely appears in such a version on Christmas Eve tables, when our appetites, unfortunately, are not what they used to be in the Old Poland (Ibid.:198).

But it’s worth trying it, because this dish is both of the traditional Old Polish cuisine and very tasty (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:198). Some Poles additionally serve dumplings with cabbage and mushrooms or salty cheese during the supper (in contrast to the small dumplings in the borsch, these are much bigger in size and are a separate dish).

Mushrooms and mushrooms

Dumplings with mushrooms, cabbage with mushrooms, small dumplings with mushrooms – why are there so many dishes based on this one ingredient? (Sławosław.pl 2019). Probably eating mushrooms at the time of Slavs was related to an attempt to win the favour of forest demons, called Leszy, who, depending on their will, could help or hinder the travellers (Ibid.).

Christmas desserts

A traditional Polish dessert includes poppy seed twigs, of course made of properly seasoned poppy seeds, decorated with homemade oblong cookies (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:200). The platter bristling with cookies looks very effective and invariably delights the youngest participants of the Christmas Eve (Ibid.:200). We usually wash down all the fasting dishes with a compote of prunes and figs on Christmas Eve (Ibid.:203).

Typical cakes baked in our house for Christmas are cheese and poppy seed cakes. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The sweet cakes baked for Christmas have been rather less varied than the Easter cakes (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:181). The first place has been taken ex aequo by gingerbread and poppy seed cake (Ibid.:181). There is no shortage of old-Polish baba cakes and various, mostly spicy cookies for Christmas, but their role is less exposed (Ibid.:181).

Slavic honey cake and Old Polish gingerbread

Old Polish Christmas gingerbread is typical of Christmas cakes (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:204). The Polish gingerbread tradition is long (Ibid.:204).

Traditional Toruń’s gingerbread cookies. Photo by Marcin Floryan (2006). CC BY 2.5. Photo source: “Toruńskie pierniki” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The dough prepared with the addition of honey was known to the cuisine of the ancient Slavs, who also used it for religious purposes (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:204). However, it was only the discovery of aromatic spices and fluffing agents that turned the hard honey dough into tasty gingerbread (Ibid.:204). The most famous gingerbread cookies were in Nuremberg and Toruń, baked in beautifully carved forms (Ibid.:204). The popular Katarzynkas of Toruń were already known in 1640 (Ibid.). The preparation of gingerbread dough was rightly an art (Ibid.:204). It matured slowly and could be stored raw for months (Ibid.:204).

Traditional gingerbread mold. Photo by Piotr Kuczyński (2011). (Cropped) CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Toruńskie pierniki” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

A measure of the popularity of gingerbread in Poland is the fact that a firkin with gingerbread dough was often part of the dowry of Polish noble and bourgeois maidens (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:204-205). Very spicy and slightly sweet gingerbreads were nibbled with vodka, while those sweet and with dried fruits were served as dessert (Ibid.:205). An old Polish proverb assures that the best things in Poland used to be “booze from Gdańsk, gingerbread from Toruń, a maiden from Kraków, and a Warsaw shoe” (Ibid.:205).

Poppy seed cake good for all festivals

Another cake baked for Christmas is the Christmas poppy seed cake, which differs from the common one not only in that the layers of the dough are thin, but also in that the filling made of poppy seeds is made with Polish generosity (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:208).

No moderation in food at Christmas

Why has the Christmas Eve feast in Poland been so opulent and generous? (Sławosław.pl 2019). Well, because at the ancient celebration of the solstice, it was believed that the invincible Sun needed support in the fight against the darkness, hence the Slavic gods welcomed the customary overeating, which is practiced until today in Poland (Ibid.).

Opening and closure of the season

The closure of the Slavic Winter Festival was the so-called a bountiful or generous evening on the twelfth night after the solstice (around the Epiphany) (Sławosław.pl 2019). It is also worth mentioning that before this time, ancient Slavs temporarily suspended all their duties, believing that work during the Calendae season (Christmas time) could bring misfortune to people not obeying that tradition (Ibid.). The time of that evening had to be spent in a family, modestly and in the privacy of the home, and on this occasion supper was served, during which the children were gifted with apples, nuts and special cakes (Ibid.). It was possibly an ancient equivalent of the contemporarily celebrated Polish Christmas Eve. Yet we today commemorate the ancient bountiful evening as the opening of the festive season, not its closure, and now it obviously has a new religious dimension.

Nowadays, just after the Christmas Eve supper and unwrapping Christmas gifts having been brought by an angel (yes, we do it on that evening, not in the morning on the first day of Christmas), we usually go to the Midnight Mass.

Although most of the year I spend outside Poland, travelling or staying abroad, I always try my best to come back home for Christmas to spend it with my family. Only once in my lifetime I had to stay abroad during this special time. It was my first year in Ireland and a volume of work did not allow me to come back on time. Yet I could celebrate it with my Polish friends who also live in Dublin, and there were still twelve dishes on the table thanks to my friend’s cooking skills … Nevertheless, staying away from my family during Christmas Eve evening has taught me how much I am attached to this beautiful, family tradition.

Shrovetide

Shrovetide period, later also called a carnival, was a colourful and sometimes overly cheerful epilogue of Christmas (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:214). It was the period of the most active social life in Old Poland (Ibid.:214). During Shrovetide hunts for big and small animals took place, weddings often combined with feasts and balls were continuously lasting several days, there were carnivorous feasts, masquerades, or games where participants dressed up and put on masks, and the famous old Polish sleigh rides were also organised (Ibid.:214).

Shrovetide being celebrated in a tavern; peasants’ rite “leading the goat” in front of a Polish nobleman. Western Belarus, nineteenth century. The rite has been practiced during the Shrovetide, and also involves ‘leading the bear’, especially in the south-western part of Poland. Such a tradition must have originated from a pagan rite and is meant to ward off the evil. By Michał Elwiro Andriolli. Uploaded in 2016. CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo source: “Karnawał” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

These boisterous time, often combined with gluttony and drunkenness, scandalized clergymen and secular moralists, such as Jakub Wujek (1541-1597), Grzegorz of Żarnowiec (1528-1601), and Mikołaj Rej (1505-1569) (Ibid.:214).

Crazy sleigh rides of the Old Polish nobles

Sleigh rides were particularly popular among the Polish nobility (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:214). The closest neighbours made arrangements and visited other manors on a few sledges and on horseback (Ibid.:214). The surprised host had to accept unexpected guests with everything he had in the pantry and in the basement, and then he usually joined the sleigh ride to the next noble court (Ibid.:214). At each stop, not only did they feast, but also danced, so either the musicians they met by chance were used, or the sleigh ride went with their own playing group (Ibid.:214). Women, wrapped in fur, rode a sleigh, men usually accompanied them on horseback (Ibid.:214). The whole procession was accompanied by the service on horseback, lighting the road with torches at night (Ibid.:214). The Old Polish sleigh ride presented then an exceptionally colourful picture, also noisy, not only because of the bells jingling at the sleighs, but also because the men, excited after drinking alcohol, often shot ‘to the cheer’, sometimes to chase away packs of wolves, but more often out of an excess of fantasy (Ibid.:214-215).

One of the Old Polish representations of nobles’ sleigh ride (kulig in Polish) in painting. Original name or image source unknown. Present image source: Stajnia TROT (2017). “Kuligi dawniej i dziś czyli: sporo o tradycji, troszkę o współczesności”. In: Stajnia TROT.

If one would like to come back in time to such ‘noble’ attractions in winter, sleigh rides are usually organised for tourists in Polish mountains …

Donuts and faworki

Sumptuous dishes were served at balls and feasts, including native Polish dishes, such as bigos (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:215). Today bigos is a dish of chopped meat of various kinds stewed with shredded fresh cabbage but in the past it was mostly hunter’s stew, of course, always full of cabbage. Faworki (called in English angel wings are a kind of sugared oblong cakes), and donuts (without the whole in the middle) appeared among carnival sweet cakes (Ibid.:215). Polish donuts, light, aromatic and delicate, gained immense popularity already in the eighteenth century, during the reign of King Augustus III (Ibid.:215). Today, the inhabitants of Poland eat millions of confectionery donuts on the so-called Fat Thursday (Shrove Thursday), not to mention those that are fried along with faworki according to old family recipes in many homes (Ibid.:215).

Carnival for all

During Shrovetide, not only the nobility, but also plebs from towns and villages had fun (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:215).

Such celebrations were less noisy than those of the nobles but there was no shortage of food or drink, and they also included dances and masquerades (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:215). Shrovetide was primarily an opportunity for young people to entertain themselves (Ibid.:215). Many carnival pranks were played by them, which, if they had not excessed the limits of good fun, would rather go away with impunity (Ibid.:215). In rich bourgeois houses, carnival parties were not inferior to the nobility’s, although they were held without noble excesses or sleigh rides (Ibid.:215). The journeymen had the most fun among them (Ibid.). Daughters of the masters were also invited to such feasts (Ibid.:215). The men inviting girl had to take care that she had a good time, because when she did not have a partner for every dance, such a young man had to pay a fine (Ibid.:215-216). Not only did they eat, drink and dance at this occasion, but they also sang songs, sometimes with completely frivolous lyrics (Ibid.:216).

Shrovetide, or in the Krakow dialect – comber (the last frolics of the carnival) before fasting, in the image by Peter Bruegel the Elder; “Carnival fight with fasting” (1559). Image source: “Ostatki” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The priest, Jędrzej Kitowicz (1728-1804) writes about the carnival party of Kraków street vendor women, famous for their unrestrained language and fiery temperaments (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:215-216). It was a feast with an old tradition, organized on the Kraków market square, full of humour and vigour, deserving of remembrance (Ibid.:215-216). It was called comber (a folk carnival party from the Middle Ages), and it was held every Fat Thursday (Ibid.:216). The amiable comber was a kind of ‘democratic’ feast celebrated by common town people, and only the ‘distinguished’ refused to take part in it (Ibid.216).

Wooden rooster

In the countryside, on the other hand, the farmhand carried a wooden rooster on a cart, receiving cheese, butter, pork fat, sausage and eggs from girls and even from sedate housewives fun (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:216). At the end, from the collected victuals, they arranged a merry feast, sprinkled with booze. This rooster driven around the village was probably an echo of some Slavic pagan folk rite (Ibid.:216). It is probably related to the tradition of leading the Turoń, goat or the bear during the Christmas and following it Carnival.

Coming back to fasting

Turoń, Ethnographic Museum of Kraków [Muzeum Etnograficzne w Krakowie (MEK)]. Photo by ImreKiss Łukasz S. Olszewski (2009). CC BY 3.0. Photo source: “Turoń” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Finally, the Shrovetide was coming to an end, and on Ash Wednesday the long reign of fasting żur (sour rye soup) and herring began (Lemnis, Vitry 1979:216).

Nowadays, people still enjoy the period of Carnival but it is not as traditional as it used to be in Old Poland. In some regions, however, it happens that old rites, such as leading the goat or the bear, are still preserved. Especially during winter holidays, Poles go up to the Polish mountains, covered in snow, to have fun on sleigh rides with their whole families. Yet the most important still remains Polish traditional cuisine, typical of the Shrovetide: Polish, large donuts and faworki.

I usually spend both, the Shrovetide and the Ash Wednesday outside Poland; just after the New Year, I need to come back to work. Nevertheless, it is the Christmas Eve I always wish to come back to Poland for, and spend it together with my family.

Featured image:  Adoration of the Shepherds by Gerard van Honthorsts (1622), still influenced by Saint Bridget. Google Art Project. Public domain. In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia (2020).

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Sunk Island in the Sahara Desert

Only few ancient tales have ever triggered the human imagination as much as the story of Atlantis (Kosmiczne […] 2019). The idea that over 11 000 years ago an advanced civilization created by gods could have existed on Earth has long fascinated millions of people around the world (Ibid.).

Is the story of Atlantis a historical record?

The story of Atlantis was recorded by a famous Athenian philosopher, Plato (c. 428-348 BC) in his two works, the dialogues of Timaeus (c. 360 BC) and following it, Critias (left incomplete) (“Critias (dialogue)” 2020; “Timaeus (dialogue)” 2020). Although the former work merely includes an introduction to the story of the lost city, the latter gives its far detailed accounts (Ettington 2018:3-21). Nevertheless, the vast majority of scientists today consider the description of Atlantis purely a utopian story invented by the Greek author to present his political views (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Indeed, Plato recounts the story of the mighty Atlantis to show its failure in the face of the ordered society of the Athenians (“Critias (dialogue)” 2020).

Volume 3, pp. 32–33, of the 1578 Stephanus edition of Plato, showing a passage of Timaeus with the Latin translation and notes of Jean de Serres. Photo by Henri Estienne (1578). Public domain. Photo source: “Plato” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

On the other side, however, the same scientists must admit that Plato’s description of the legendary city-continent is highly comprehensive and so it does not seem to be solely a made-up philosophical story just for the purpose of moralizing the society. It is enough to mention the accurate geographical location of Atlantis given by the author with all its detailed measurements to consider the question of its existence. Moreover, Plato continuously highlights in his records that the story of Atlantis is true and he even provides his readers with the exact time of its destruction by floods, which is in fact a geologically destructive episode in the Earth history (Hancock 2020).

“[A] tale which, though strange, is certainly true, having been attested by Solon, who was the wisest of the seven sages”.

Plato, Timaeus

For some, Atlantis may only be a fiction but it should be taken into account that other legendary cities, such as Troya or Dwarka, had also been once thought as only myths until they were eventually discovered (Kosmiczne […] 2019). As much as all the facts about Atlantis are acknowledged, its phenomenon deserves more academic attention. 

From generation to generation

How did Plato hear about the continent having existed thousands of years before he was born? The author refers to Solon’s oral accounts (Kosmiczne […] 2019; Ettington 2018:3-5). Solon was Plato’s ancestor and an Athenian legislator and statesman, who lived two hundred years before the Greek Philosopher, at the turn of the seventh and sixth centuries BC (Kosmiczne […] 2019; Ettington 2018:3-4). After introducing reforms in the state of Athens, Solon travelled to Egypt, where he learned the history of Atlantis from an Egyptian priest (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Plato does not mention the priest’s name, but the famous historian Plutarch (46–120 AD) records in his work, La vita di Solone, that it was Sonchis of Sais (Ibid.). According to Plato, the Egyptian priest unrevealed to Solon the story of Atlantis (Ibid.), which was originally written down on the walls of the temple of Sais (Hancock 2020). The Delta City of Sais is actually the Greek name for the Egyptian city of Sau (Current World Archaeology 2009). Now it is an archaeological site but it used to be a great and old city of the Pharaonic Era (Ibid.). It is mostly known from the records of the Greek historian, Herodotus (484 – c. 425 BC), who enthusiastically describes Sais as a great city, brimming with colossal temples, statues and splendid kings’ tombs (Ibid.). Such a royal city must have preserved ancient records and history.

Ruins of Sais. Photo by Lepsius Projekt (2011). Public domain. Photo source: “Sais, Egypt” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Why did the Egyptian priest share the story of Atlantis? His reasons are unknown but from Plato’s accounts on Atlantis, contemporary Egypt was one of Atlantis’ colonies and so the Dynastic Egypt must have  preserved much information referring to the lost continent (Ettington 2018:4-5). Since Solon’s return to Athens, the story had been passed down from generation to generation until it reached the ears of Plato, who examined it in his youth to finally write it down (Ettington 2018:4; Kosmiczne […] 2019).

Continent, empire, island … and capital city

After the Egyptian accounts, and then Plato’s written records, Atlantis was once an advanced civilization that was destroyed 9,000 years ago (Kosmiczne […] 2019).

“This power came forth out of the Atlantic Ocean, for in those days the Atlantic was navigable; and there was an island situated in front of the straits which are by you called the Pillars of Heracles; the island was larger than Libya and Asia put together, and was the way to other islands, and from these you might pass to the whole of the opposite continent which surrounded the true ocean; for this sea which is within the Straits of Heracles is only a harbour, having a narrow entrance, but that other is a real sea, and the surrounding land may be most truly called a boundless continent. Now in this island of Atlantis there was a great and wonderful empire which had rule over the whole island and several others, and over parts of the continent, and, furthermore, the men of Atlantis had subjected the parts of Libya within the columns of Heracles as far as Egypt, and of Europe as far as Tyrrhenia”.

Plato, Timaeus

According to Plato, the legendary land was once located behind the Pillars of Hercules, that is to say, in the Atlantic Ocean, behind Gibraltar (Kosmiczne […] 2019). The name Atlantis itself has a triple implication and simultaneously stands for the capital city, the main island and the great state or even a continent; the capital city was situated on the main island, which was in turn an integrative part of the landmass, peninsulas and islands in the Atlantic Ocean to form the whole empire of Atlantis, not to mention its colonies (Alexander, Rosen 2011; Alexander 2018).

Athanasius Kircher‘s map of Atlantis, placing it in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, from Mundus Subterraneus 1669, published in Amsterdam. Photo by Athanasius Kircher (1664). Public domain. Photo source: “Atlantis” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

As the story goes, the whole domain of Atlantis, including its numerous provinces, extended in the north towards Gades, which name sounds like the modern city of Cadiz, in southern Spain (Alexander, Rosen 2011).

“To [Atlas’] twin brother, who was born after him, and obtained as his lot the extremity of the island towards the Pillars of Heracles, facing the country which is now called the region of Gades in that part of the world, he gave the name which in the Hellenic language is Eumelus, in the language of the country which is named after him, Gadeirus”.

Plato, Critias

The region referred to by Plato as ‘controlled by Atlanteans’, which stands for its dependencies, means the territory of the modern Mediterranean world (Alexander 2018), namely: “Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Malta, Mallorca, Menorca, Ibiza, Sardinia, Corsica, Sicily, southern Spain, southern France, southern Italy” (Ibid.). At that time, the region of other adjacent countries, notably Greece, stayed outside the sphere of Atlantis’ influence (Ibid.). Possibly hence the military actions between the Atlanteans and Athenians broke out.

Poseidon’s realm

During the gods’ division of the Earth, the region of Atlantis fell to Poseidon (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Wishing to make Atlantis safe, he surrounded it with concentric ramparts and moats (Ibid.). Then, the Atlanteans built a great city based on these fortifications (Ibid.). On a hill, in the centre of the island, they constructed a royal palace with a Temple of Poseidon inside its walls (Ibid.). Within it, there was a giant golden statue of the god (Ibid.). Apart from it, there were also numerous temples and recreation areas in the city, and a powerful fleet of ships in the port open to the south, into the Ocean (Ibid.). High mountains to the north protected the inhabitants from the frosty winds (Ibid.). Herds of wild and tamed animals grazed in the meadows, among the streams of lakes (Ibid.). Plato in his description states that Atlantis was ruled by five pairs of Poseidon’s twins who were born from a mortal woman (Ibid.) (once again, there is described an intercourse between a deity and a human female; see: Gibbor in the Louvre). Accordingly, Atlantis was divided into ten provinces (Ibid.). Each of Poseidon’s descendant had ruled over them in peace until their human factor prevailed over the divine and pushed the state into collapse (Ibid.).

In search of the legend around the Globe

Despite the fact that Atlantis is regarded as a myth by mainstream historians, independent authors and researchers  have been looking for a real source of the legend for centuries, which in a way contributed to the development of various fields of science, such as geography, archaeology or geology, and consequently expanded human knowledge about the formation of continents, the nature of the seabed, or about ancient civilizations in general (Kosmiczne […] 2019).

A map showing the supposed extent of the Atlantean Empire, from Ignatius L. Donnelly’s Atlantis: the Antediluvian World, 1882. Photo by Ignatius Donnelly (1882); cropped by Beyond My Ken (talk) (2010) (This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division. Public domain. Photo source: “Atlantis” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

According to some sources, there have been more than twenty-seven sites studied as potential locations of the circular city of Atlantis (Ettington 2018:23). The Greek islands of Thera and Crete[1] (see: When Gods Turned against the Minoans), and an Italian Sardinia[2] and Malta were mentioned, among others (Ettington 2018:23-25; Kosmiczne […] 2019). However, Plato clearly states that the lost city was beyond the Straits of Gibraltar (‘Gates of Hercules’) (Ettington 2018:25; Kosmiczne […] 2019). Thus, Atlantis was also connected with the Canary Islands, Madeira and the Azores[3] (Ettington 2018:25-26; Kosmiczne […] 2019). Some researchers have equally speculated that Atlantis may have actually been an ice-free Antarctica[4], or it may have been located in the Caribbean (Bermuda, Cuba)[5] or South America, in the Andes[6] (Ettington 2018:26-28; Kosmiczne […] 2019).  


[1] See: Gavin Menzies (2011) The Lost Empire of Atlantis: History’s Greatest Mystery Revealed.

[2] See: Alberino, T., Quayle, S. (2017) True Legends, Episode 3: Holocaust of Giants. GenSix Productions.

[3] See: Ignatius L. Donnelly (1882). Atlantis: The Antediluvian World.

[4] See: Graham Hancock (1996) Fingerprints Of The Gods.

[5] See: Paul Weinzweig and Pauline Zalitzki’s theory.

[6] See: Jim Allen (2009). Atlantis: Lost Kingdom of the Andes.

The real Atlantis

Myself, I have also chased down documentaries announcing to disclose the phenomena of Atlantis, but unfortunately, each of them has only finished with another promise that someday the mystery will be revealed, providing that more research is conducted. And here’s the rub! Mainstream Academia is hardly involved in the research dedicated to Atlantis as it considers it just as a moralistic tale, which cannot be found on a map. Even if such studies are undertaken, they are mostly carried out by alternative and independent researchers and authors. Huge budget at their disposal is a must; it is needed not only for the exploration of the subject but also for a dissemination of their theory. This is why some invaluable ideas and conclusions have hardly been ever heard by a larger public. A very similar situation occurred at the beginning of the twenty-first century, regarding another proposed location of Atlantis. This site is known as the Eye of the Sahara and has lately been called by some researchers the real Atlantis.

First, I learnt about the theory in English and I still remember how great impression made on me the sight of the newly proposed location of the legendary island …

The Eye of Africa aka Atlantis

In the English-language part of the Internet, the thesis linking the Eye of the Sahara with the lost continent was more recognizable long after the first decade of the twenty-first century but the first researchers who have connected the Eye of the Sahara with Atlantis documented their theory already in 2011 (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Those were George Alexander and Natalis Rosen (Ibid.). In their research and study trip to the site, they were both amazed at how the Eye of the Sahara resembles the description of Atlantis by Plato (Ibid.). The result of their studies is a self-recorded documentary, entitled Visiting Atlantis. Gateway to a Lost World (2011) (Ibid.). Seven years later, Jimmy from the Bright Insight Youtube channel became passionate about the topic, thanks to which the thesis gained greater popularity among English speaking public (Ibid.). In Poland, this topic was rather unknown and popularized only in 2019 by the Polish-language Youtube channel, Kosmiczne Opowieści (The Cosmic Tales) (Ibid.).

The Eye of the Sahara, aka Richat structure. Astronaut photograph ISS030-E-12516 acquired on December 17, 2011, and is provided by the ISS Crew Earth Observations Facility and the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, Johnson Space Center. The image was taken by a member of the Expedition 30 crew. The image has been cropped and enhanced to improve contrast, and lens artifacts have been removed. The International Space Station Program supports the laboratory as part of the ISS National Lab to help astronauts take pictures of Earth that will be of the greatest value to scientists and the public, and to make those images freely available on the Internet. Caption by Andrea Meado, Jacobs Technology, JETS Contract at NASA-JSC. Photo source: “Richat structure” (2011). In: NASA Earth Observatory.

I assume that not all the people in Poland are interested in the subject (as they do not have to be so). However, each time I mention to my acquaintances the site of the Eye of the Sahara and its potential connections to Atlantis, they are surprised that such a structure can be found on Earth at all. But this mysterious formation is, yet only discernible from the above.

Bull’s eye in the plain

As the Eye of the Sahara cannot be seen from the ground level, while one is walking around it, it was then well hidden from the public, also because it lies on the territory, which is not frequently visited by tourists or researchers (Ettington 2018:32; Kosmiczne […] 2019). Only an aerial view of the Eye of the Sahara (aka the Eye of Africa) was able to reveal a vast, crater-like geological structure (Kosmiczne […] 2019; “Richat Structure” 2020). It is located in the Northwest Africa, in the Sahara desert, within the state of Mauritania (Ibid.). Concentrically arranged circles in shades of yellow, brown, grey, together with blue on the edge, resemble the iris of the giant eye, from which the popular name of the formation derives (Kosmiczne […] 2019).

Space shuttle. People only learnt about the Richat structure, when humans were sent into space and took satellite photos. Photo by WikiImages (2011). Photo source : free images at Pixabay.

The Eye was also labelled Richât Crater or buttonhole (Ettington 2018:31). Today, the structure is formally known as the Richât or Guelb er Richât (“Richat Structure” 2020).

NASA photographs again reveal a wonder

The Eye was first noticed and depicted in the 1930s and 1940s, only with the help of the first space flights and NASA satellite photographs of the planet, which eventually showed this extraordinary structure in the Sahara desert (Ettington 2018:31-32; Kosmiczne […] 2019). By these means also other mysterious formations on the Earth were exposed and studied. One of the most famous is undoubtedly Ram Setu or Rama’s Bridge, connecting India and Sri Lanka (see: Ram Setu: Ape Engineer Builds a Bridge).

Looking for a natural cause

For many centuries, scientists have studied the Eye of the Sahara as a geological structure. It was first believed that its circular shape had been caused by a meteorite impact (Ettington 2018:31; Kosmiczne […] 2019). However, the more closely the Eye of the Sahara was studied, the more the structure became a mystery (Ettington 2018:31-32; Kosmiczne […] 2019). An object (a meteorite) rushing at tens of thousands of kilometres per hour into the atmosphere and then hitting the planet leaves behind many elements that appear on the hit surface of the Earth (Kosmiczne […] 2019). These elements are missing in the case of Richât; for example, there is no trace of a characteristic central elevation, rocks affected by temperature and pressure, and damage around the alleged crater (Ibid.). The possibility of creating a structure by volcanic eruptions also seems unlikely, as it again lacks an eruptive cone and, above all, volcanic rocks (Ibid.).

Plato (left) and Aristotle (right) a detail of The School of Athens, a fresco by Raphael (1509–1511). Aristotle gestures to the earth while holding a copy of his  Nicomachean Ethics in his hand. Plato holds his Timaeus and gestures to the heavens. Public domain. Photo source: “Plato” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

When a theory of an extra-terrestrial impact deformation was rejected, a closer study of the structure in the 1960s showed that it had been rather an effect of terrestrial processes, namely of a laccolithic thrust (Ettington 2018:31-32). Such an explanation was first considered and proposed by Richard-Molard in 1948 and it is also current today (Ettington 2018:31-32); the layered sedimentary rocks of the Eye of the Sahara are considered by geologists to be the final product of erosion that shaped the raised rock (Kosmiczne […] 2019). According to this theory, the process of formation of the Eye of the Sahara began when the giant super-continent Pangea that existed during the late Palaeozoic and early Mesozoic eras was disintegrating (Ibid.). It assembled from earlier continental units approximately 335 million years ago, and it began to break apart about 175 million years ago (Ibid.). The area of ​​today’s Western Sahara was then subjected to rapid seismic changes (Ibid.). From the deeper regions up, a huge drop of magma began to pierce the rock underneath (Ibid.). On the way, it melted and pushed the rocks without breaking into the surface (Ibid.). Such processes created something like an underground dome of rock (Ibid.). About 100 million years ago, there was a huge eruption and the dome partially collapsed (Ibid.). Since then, erosion has exposed successive layers of compressed rock, creating what today looks so majestic and mysterious (Ibid.). This is the most likely explanation for the Eye of the Sahara phenomenon (Ibid.), however, it is not fully understood even today (Ettington 2018:32).

Geology or the supernatural?

According to Plato, it was the god Poseidon who had created the circular formation. Geologists have been looking for purely scientific explanations for the existence of the structure in Africa, such as natural terrestrial (or extra-terrestrial) processes. Some researchers of Atlantis have reached a compromise suggesting that the Atlanteans must have adopted the natural, geological structure for their own use (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Who would believe in Greek gods as the driving force lying  behind such a formation? Nevertheless, the Richat’s astonishing symmetry makes it look like a nearly man-made structure (Alexander, Rosen 2011).

Undebatable analogies

Naturally, the peculiar appearance of the Eye of the Sahara could not be unnoticed  and was eventually linked to Atlantis (Kosmiczne […] 2019). With the twenty-first century, the mentioned researchers, George Alexander and Natalis Rosen (2011) studied the structure and compellingly decided that it closely resembles the description of Plato’s Atlantis (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Other propagators of the theory also reached similar conclusions (Ibid.).

Richat structure. Photo by Alejandro BGN (2019). Photo source: Google Maps (2020).

In the self-recorded documentary Visiting Atlantis. Gateway to a lost world (2011), the couple of researchers mentioned many similarities between Atlantis and structure in the Sahara (Kosmiczne […] 2019). The first and perhaps the key argument for the Eye of the Sahara as Atlantis refers to the appearance of the formation in Africa (Ibid.). Analyzing the appearance of this structure, it is easy to conclude that it is very similar to the description of the legendary city (Ibid.).

“Looking towards the sea, but in the centre of the whole island, there was a plain which is said to have been the fairest of all plains and very fertile. Near the plain again, and also in the centre of the island at a distance of about fifty stadia, there was a mountain not very high on any side. [Breaking] the ground, [Poseidon] inclosed the hill […], making alternate zones of sea and land larger and smaller, encircling one another; there were two of land and three of water, which he turned as with a lathe, each having its circumference equidistant every way from the centre, so that no man could get to the island, for ships and voyages were not as yet”.

Plato, Critias

Comparing this description to the appearance of the Eye of the Sahara, the similarity is striking (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Richât also consists of the central part of land and of concentric circles around it. (Ibid.). If the reconstructive appearance of Atlantis is compared to the Eye of the Sahara, they both look very similar (Ibid.). Plato describes two rings of land, between which there were three deeper rings filled with water (Ibid.). Exactly the same number of rings is seen in the grey and brown Eye of the Sahara: apart from its center, there are two brown circular ramps or shafts visibly protruding out of the surface, and three deeper circles lying alternately with those of the land (Ibid.). That part looks like a separate entity. Far beyond the center, aerial photographs also show the outlines of blue-like demi-circles of salty sediments, visible just from the east (“Richat structure” 2020). As such, the Eye of the Sahara is a very large structure (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Google Map shows that it measures approximately 40 kilometres in diameter (Ibid.).

Dimensions of the legend found on Earth

The question of the size of Atlantis is a very interesting matter (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Plato’s description shows that the concentric island with land and water levels measured 127 stadiums in diameter (Ibid.). However, the exact measurement of the stadium in relation to kilometres is problematic to establish (Ibid.). This unit had different dimensions in the ancient world (Ibid.). The difference could be as much as 20 meters, which would badly influence the final result of calculations (Ibid.).

The capital city of Atlantis located on the main island of the same name. Circled structure was made by Poseidon as described by Plato. Image by Jimmy (2018). In: Bright Insight. Photo source: Kettley S. (2018). “Atlantis FOUND? Conspiracist convinced THIS PHOTO proves location of lost city of Atlantis”. In: Express.co.uk.

The author of the Bright Insight channel, Jimmy, has used the stadium size used in Plato’s Athens, where 1 stadium is 185 meters, so 127 stadiums equal to 23,495 kilometres respectively (Kosmiczne […] 2019). When these dimensions are applied to the whole formation of the Eye of the Sahara, the entire structure is greater of about 16,5 kilometres in diameter (Ibid.). Nonetheless, researchers in favour of the thesis indicate that only the central unit of the concentric portion with the three levels of land and two deeper levels between them should be measured (Ibid.). The same number of levels is also given by Plato in his records of Atlantis, and his measurements given describe exactly such a structure (Ettington 2018:35). And if the width of the five successive rings of the Eye of Africa is measured, the obtained result ranges from 22 to 24 kilometres (Ibid.). Consequently, by using the Athenian unit of the stadium, the dimension of the Eye of the Sahara coincides with the description of Plato  (Ibid.). Moreover, the use of most of the stadium units applied in ancient Greece gives a result within the same limit (Ibid.). Such a similarity is highly puzzling (Kosmiczne […] 2019).

To the north and south of Atlantis

“The whole country was said by [Solon] to be very lofty and precipitous on the side of the sea, but the country immediately about and surrounding the city was a level plain, itself surrounded by mountains which descended towards the sea; it was smooth and even, and of an oblong shape, extending in one direction three thousand stadia, but across the centre inland it was two thousand stadia. This part of the island looked towards the south, and was sheltered from the north. The surrounding mountains were celebrated for their number and size and beauty, far beyond any which still exist, having in them also many wealthy villages of country folk, and rivers, and lakes, and meadows supplying food enough for every animal, wild or tame, and much wood of various sorts, abundant for each and every kind of work”.

Plato, Critias

Accordingly, the entrance or exit of the capital city of Atlantis was to the south, as it is in the case of the Eye of Africa, with its plain and almost deserted terrain descending towards the south (Ettington 2018:35).

A topographic reconstruction (scaled 6:1 on the vertical axis) from satellite photos. False colouring as follows: • Brown: bedrock • Yellow/white: sand • Green: vegetation • Blue: salty sediments. Photo by NASA/JPL/NIMA (2004). Public domain. Photo source: “Richat structure” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Whereas, to the north, the range of mountains surrounded Atlantis and shielded the city from the north winds (Ettington 2018:35; Kosmiczne […] 2019). Likewise, in the north of the Eye of the Sahara there are mountains (Ettington 2018:35; Kosmiczne […] 2019). Actually, they look quite impressive and, what is more, there are the riverbeds of ancient rivers, which are also mentioned by Plato (Ettington 2018:35; Kosmiczne […] 2019). This is therefore another argument in favour of the theory that the Eye of the Sahara may be the real location of the legendary Atlantis (Ibid.).

Fresh water in salty ocean of sand

“[Poseidon] himself, being a god, found no difficulty in making special arrangements for the centre island, bringing up two springs of water from beneath the earth, one of warm water and the other of cold, and making every variety of food to spring up abundantly from the soil.”

Plato, Critias

“In the next place, they had fountains, one of cold and another of hot water, in gracious plenty flowing; and they were wonderfully adapted for use by reason of the pleasantness and excellence of their waters. They constructed buildings about them and planted suitable trees, also they made cisterns, some open to the heavens, others roofed over, to be used in winter as warm baths; there were the kings’ baths, and the baths of private persons, which were kept apart; and there were separate baths for women, and for horses and cattle, and to each of them they gave as much adornment as was suitable. Of the water which ran off they carried some to the grove of Poseidon, where were growing all manner of trees of wonderful height and beauty, owing to the excellence of the soil, while the remainder was conveyed by aqueducts along the bridges to the outer circles”.

Plato, Critias

The authors of the documentary (Alexander, Rosen 2011) point out that the region of Richat is full of salt and wells producing just salt water, but in the central part of the structure there is one spring with fresh water (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Local inhabitants use this source for their everyday needs (Ibid.). Therefore, there is once again a surprising correlation to the description of Plato, where the author reports the presence of the source of water in the central part of the city (Ibid.).

Geographic correspondence and no archaeologists

According to the above, the geographic description of Atlantis corresponds to that of Richat (Kosmiczne […] 2019). However, there is still missing solid archaeological evidence of the advanced civilization described by Plato in the Eye of the Sahara (Ibid.). Artifacts and remnants of structures created once with the hands of the Atlanteans are absent (Ibid.). Yet, such an argument should not be regarded against the proposed theory. Archaeological remains, if any exist buried on site, cannot dig themselves out. They need archaeologists’ systematic work and study. Unfortunately, if the subject is not treated seriously by mainstream Academia, there will not be any excavations in the region. Moreover, Mauritania is not a safe country, and the Eye of the Sahara itself is vast; it takes a multi-day trip to get to Richat from the coast of Mauritania (Kosmiczne […] 2019; Ettington 2018:33). As the region does not attract tourists at all, the organisation of transport there may be problematic and expensive (Ettington 2018:33). So far, no official institution has been interested in undertaking long-term thorough excavations of the structure with specialistic equipment (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Even if such a project appears, its realization will be costly.

Despite the lack of proper archaeological digs, many artifacts have already been found on the surface of the structure, such as tools, jewellery, interesting spheres with precise shapes, and a mysterious oval stone artefact weighing about fort kilograms that locals call ‘a surfboard of the gods’ (see: Alexander, Rosen, “Archaeology. Visiting Atlantis” 2018; Kosmiczne […] 2019). Independently, some people have also found within the structure various geometric structures on Google Maps; they resemble the foundations of buildings covered with soil (Ibid.). However, one has to wait for specific archaeological works (if they miraculously happen) (Ibid.).

Elephants live in Africa

Another interesting argument for the Eye of the Sahara as real Atlantis relates to the following description of Plato (Kosmiczne […] 2019):

” Moreover, there were a great number of elephants in the island; for as there was provision for all other sorts of animals, both for those which live in lakes and marshes and rivers, and also for those which live in mountains and on plains, so there was for the animal which is the largest and most voracious of all”.

Plato, Critias

Virtually every proposed location of Atlantis contradicted the passage saying that there were, among other animals, elephants in Atlantis (Ettington 2018:38; Kosmiczne […] 2019). Indeed, elephants lived in Mauritania, unfortunately they have recently died out, though (Kosmiczne […] 2019). In addition, many elephant skeletons and petroglyphs depicting these animals on rocks have been found in the region (Ibid.).

Disasters came in the past

As mentioned above, a very convincing argument for the theory that Atlantis really existed is Plato’s timeframe for the destruction of the city  (Ettington 2018:37-38).

“Many great deluges have taken place during the nine thousand years, for that is the number of years which have elapsed since the time of which I am speaking”.

Plato, Critias

 “Let me begin by observing first of all, that nine thousand was the sum of years which had elapsed since the war which was said to have taken place between those who dwelt outside the Pillars of Heracles and all who dwelt within them; this war I am going to describe”.

Plato, Critias

According to the records, Solon heard the story of Atlantis in ancient Sais in 600 BC. (Kosmiczne […] 2019). The priest told him that the city had been destroyed 9,000 years ago (Ibid.). Consequently, the destruction of Atlantis must have occurred around 9,600 BC. (Ibid.)

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

This date 9,600 BC. is extremely interesting; in the period between 10,900 and 9,500 B.C. the sudden cold period of the last Ice Age, the so-called Younger Dryas, took place (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Reasons behind it have not been yet fully understood, however, there is the Younger Dryas impact hypothesis, namely the cooling event happened after the Earth was hit with meteorites or there was an explosion of a swarm of comets in the Earth’s atmosphere (Ettington 2018:39-40; Kosmiczne […] 2019). According to this hypothesis, the sequence of such events eventually caused a sudden change in climate and a global cooling (Ettington 2018:39-40; Kosmiczne […] 2019). At that time, the so-called Clovis culture had disappeared, ocean currents altered, and much of North America’s megafauna had gone extinct (Ettington 2018:40; Kosmiczne […] 2019).  

But it did not finish there.

“But afterwards there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea. For which reason the sea in those parts is impassable and impenetrable, because there is a shoal of mud in the way; and this was caused by the subsidence of the island”.

Plato, Timaeus

Plato writes that “the island of Atlantis disappeared in the depths of the sea”, and “violent earthquakes and floods” could have been a successive result of the Younger Dryas impact, which is called by geologists Meltwater Pulse 1B (Hancock 2020). The latter was triggered by “the rapid release of meltwater into the oceans from the collapse of continental ice sheets” (“Meltwater pulse 1B” 2020). At the end or just after the Younger Drays, it was a period of either rapid or just accelerated post-glacial sea level rise (it is hypothesised to have occurred between 11,500 and 11,200 years ago at the beginning of the Holocene) (Ibid.), and could be the reasons for gigantic tsunamis, which were able to flood the whole landmass (Kosmiczne […] 2019); Hancock 2020). Was it the time of the Biblical Flood?

The so-called influence of the Younger Dryas impact hypothesis, however, still remains unproven in academic circles (Kosmiczne […] 2019).

Island in the desert

While the formation of the Eye of the Sahara is promising as a potential location of Atlantis, its main problem is that, it is not an island and is now situated as much as 500 kilometres north-east of the Atlantic Ocean (Kosmiczne […] 2019). The authors of Visiting Atlantis (2011) say that approximately 12 000 years ago, some of the lands of Africa were beyond sea level, which made its coastline different from the contemporary one. Moreover, proponents of the geographic location of Atlantis in the Eye of Africa, however, refer to the hypothesis of a Younger Dryas impact on the destruction of Atlantis (Ettington 2018:45; 39-44; Kosmiczne […] 2019).

Sea thiasos depicting the wedding of Poseidon and Amphitrite (female prsonification of the sea) from the Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus in the Field of Mars, bas-relief, Roman Republic, 2nd century BC. According to Greek mythology, Poseidon was the god of the sea and the founder of the city of Atlantis, sometimes depicted as half-fish, half-human. Some authors compare such sea creatures to the Dogon’s ancestral spirits, Nommos. Photo uploaded by the user Bibi Saint-Pol (2007). Public domain. Photo source: “Poseidon” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In their opinion, photos of the structure in the Sahara desert show that the place looks as if it was once flooded by powerful waves of the ocean, similar to giant tsunamis (Kosmiczne […] 2019). As George S. Alexander (2011) says, the place is harshly eroded and washed out, which is unusual for one of the driest places on Earth.

“For the fact is that a single night of excessive rain washed away the earth and laid bare the rock; at the same time there were earthquakes, and then occurred the extraordinary inundation […]”

Plato, Critias

“[…] when afterwards sunk by an earthquake, [Atlantis] became an impassable barrier of mud to voyagers sailing from hence to any part of the ocean.

Plato, Critias

The fragments above are intended to indicate that Atlantis was flooded with waves, which resulted in mud covering of the entire area (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Then the water was withdrawn and the ocean was cut off from the south, so that the ships could no longer get there (Ibid.). It is worth remembering about the huge amount of wells producing just salt water as well as thousands of shells discovered around the Sahara on the way to Richat (Alexander, Rosen 2011; Kosmiczne […] 2019). Additionally, the Bright Insight channel (2018) has shown pictures of the remains of a whale in Mauritania (Ibid.). The inhabitants of this country have equally encountered skeletons of fish and marine mammals in the area (Kosmiczne […] 2019).

Welcome to Atlantis

The researchers’ journey in contemporary Mauritania, from its seaside to a small town of Atar, led them through the desert (Alexander, Rosen 2011).

Guelb er Richât, Mauritania. Photo by Clemens Schmillen (2020). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo source: “Richat structure” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In the time of Atlantis, that place must have been under the ocean, yet on the threshold to its main island; today the Adrar Highlands would border its western steep and mountainous edges, as Plato also describes the Atlantis island’s landform (Alexander, Rosen 2011). And to the east of the range of mountains, there lies a large plain with the Eye of Africa, which may have been once the capital of Atlantis (Ibid.). The terrain is now covered in tricoloured stone; it is white, black and red, as Plato portrays the natural material the Atlanteans used to construct their dwellings (Ibid.). According to the Philosopher, the stone was quarried from the centre of the island (Ibid.). Surprisingly, by a careful examination of satellite images of Richat, one coul