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Eagle’s Wings Spread over the Round Face of the Earth

Unlike the present prevailing idea of linearly running time, many ancient peoples around the world have thought of time as cyclic, which was particularly common in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica (Gillan 2019). “The Aztecs, among other groups, [such as the Mayans], believed in a succession of world ages and they depicted those ages on [the Calendar Stone]” (Andrews 1998:21).

Cyclic time

Representation of the Aztec glyph for Nahui Ollin (4 Movement), showing an eye (ixtli) in the center of the Ollin element, replaced by the god’s face on the Calendar Stone. Illustration from the Codex Borbonicus. Photo: “Figure 3. A standard presentation of the hieroglyph for Nahui Olin (Four Movement), showing an eye (ixtli) in the center of the Olin element. From the Codex Borbonicus”. Source: David Stuart (2016). In: Nahui Ollin. Maya Decipherment.

According to one version of the story, which is also analogous to the Mayan understanding of time, the Calendar Stone of the the Aztecs represents four ended eras or suns and the fifth one that is lasting now in the middle (George 2004:25; McDonald 2013). Each of the four rectangles standing for the four eras/suns additionally includes a number 4 in the forms of 4 dots or beads, which is quite significant while reading the glyphs (Aztekayolokalli 2018). Accordingly, 4 (as there are four dots) Jaguar is the oldest era of creation, supposedly between 956-280 BC (McDonald 2013). Giants who populated the Earth in that era were devoured by jaguars as they had not performed their duties to the gods (Andrews 1998:21; McDonald 2013). The next era – 4 Wind, ruled by the god Ehecatl – lasted for 364 years and it had monkey men in some versions, who were carried away and destroyed by hurricanes (Ibid.). 4 Rain was ruled by a water deity, Tlaloc, and it ended when its denizens, who were near human beings, were destroyed by the rain and fire (probably a volcano eruption) and supposedly eaten by turkeys (Ibid.). The last date – 4 Water – was the era ruled by the goddess Chalchihuiticue and destroyed by a 52-year flood and within which men drowned and maybe turned into fish (Ibid.).

Center of the Sun Stone with Nahui Ollin and five eras or suns: four destroyed and one that still exists (Painting by R. S. Flandes. Source: Source: O’Connell (2020).

The present creation (the fifth era) began on 4 Movement/Earthquake in around 1195 AD (McDonald 2013). Tonatiuh, the sun god and Tlaltecuhtli, the Earth Monster, were both created for this era by means of their own bloody sacrifice (McDonald 2013; “Tlaltecuhtli” 2019). This current creation was meant to be stable on the condition that the blood sacrifice was continuously made to the gods and it could probably last forever (Ibid.). Constant penitent sacrifice of human blood was therefore required for this era so the symbolism shown in the Sunstone is apparently all about the Aztec current world (Ibid.). By means of the Sunstone it was foretold that if the blood sacrifices had ceased, the world would have ended in earthquakes (Andrews 1998:21; McDonald 2013). These are some pretty vivid and scarily specific cataclysms responsible for the final destruction of the following eras but the most significant is the very central part of the Calendar Stone, as it stands for the current world and possible circumstances of its end (McDonald 2013).

If it is the Earth, where is the Sun?

Although the central face of the Calendar Stone may not represent Tonatiuh (see: Faces of the Fifth Sun in the World of the Aztecs) the image of the Sun is very present in the Calendar Stone (Aztekayolokalli 2018). The Sun is, however, hidden for those who do not want to see it (Ibid.).

The Calendar Stone represents four ended eras or suns and the fifth one that is lasting now in the middle. Source: Shot from the lecture by Mazatzin Aztekayolokalli (2018). Source: Justin Me (2018). In Youtube.

In artistic representation of Tonatiuh, where he is wearing eagle feathers, there are direct connections between the Sun and an eagle (Aztekayolokalli 2018; “Tōnatiuh” 2020). It is “relating to the belief that an eagle is a reference to the ascending and descending eagle talons, a visual metaphor for capturing the heart or life force of a person. This particular form of symbolism points to ritual of human sacrifice, which was associated with Tonatiuh and his devouring of the hearts of victims” (“Tōnatiuh” 2020). Hence the sacrifice of human heart offered to the Sun was called the Eagle Cactus Fruit (McDonald 2013). Tonatiuh‘s symbolic association with the eagle [also] alludes to the Aztec belief of his journey as the Sun, […] travelling across the sky each day, where he descended in the west and ascended in the east” (“Tōnatiuh” 2020).

Accordingly, Tonatiuh may have been represented in the Calendar Stone in its zoomorphic disguise (Aztekayolokalli 2018). If so, where is it? Just in the center, caught in its flight (Ibid.).

Eagle representation as the symbol of the sun god, Tonatiuh, hidden within the complex image of Calendar Stone. Source: Shot from the lecture by Mazatzin Aztekayolokalli (2018). Source: Justin Me (2018). In Youtube.

In order to discern it, one should look beyond the both elements building up its picture, the goddess Tlaltecuhtli and the Nahui-Ollin glyph (Aztekayolokalli 2018). There is the eagle’s beak sticking out of the Earth and pointing up to the sky, in the direction of the date of 13 Reed (Ibid.). There are its talons being at once Tlaltecuhtli’s claws grasping human hearts and tail feathers, just below the round Face of the Earth (Ibid.). The eagle’s wings are in turn shaped by the four “wings’ of the cosmic Butterfly, and outspread to four corners of the universe (Ibid.).

The three superimposed images create Nahui Ollin glyph (4 Movement) within the Calendar Stone. Source: Shot from the lecture by Mazatzin Aztekayolokalli (2018). Source: Shot from the lecture by Mazatzin Aztekayolokalli (2018). Source: Justin Me (2018). In Youtube.

The Sun is then superimposed over the shape of the Butterfly, and subsequently, they are both superimposed over the Face of Earth – astronomical event that takes place every year on July 26th, when the Sun is directly above Mexico City, in its zenith (Aztekayolokalli 2018).

Combined worlds

In the deeply carved background of the ring surrounding 4 Movement glyph, there are a few smaller date glyphs (McDonald 2013). On the right of the pointer at the top, there is the date 1 Flint Knife (Ibid.). On the left, there is a headdress glyph (Ibid.), which is interpreted as the name of Montezuma (Stuart 2016).

Four other Aztec glyphs adjacent to the Nahui Olin sign. On top in blue, there is a hairdress on the left , and 1 Flint on the right. At the bottom, there are 7 Monkey on the right and 1 Rain on the left. Drawing by E. Umberger: “Figure 4. The two principal hieroglyphs (in blue) adjacent to the Nahui Olin sign. To the left is the name of Moteuczoma II, to the right is 1 Flint, the likely calendar name of Huitzilopochtli”. Source: David Stuart (2016). “The Face of the Calendar Stone: A New Interpretation”. In: Nahui Ollin. Maya Decipherment.

Hence, some scholars ascribe the Calendar Stone to the last emperor of the Aztecs (McDonald 2013). At the bottom of the same field, adjacent to the Nahui-Oliln glyph, there are also 7 Monkey (on the right) and 1 Rain (on the left) (Stuart 2016; McDonald 2013). These dates may refer to actual historical milestones in Aztec history (Ibid.). For instant, 1 Flint is likely to be the calendar name of Huitzilopochtli (Stuart 2016). As the god is the patron of the Aztecs’ city of Tenochtitlan, it may refer to the date when the Mexica tribe left their homeland, a legendary Aztlan, to found their new capital, which is now Mexico City (McDonald 2013). Accordingly, the Calendar Stone would also contain historic records (Ibid.).

Xiuhpohualli and Tōnalpōhualli

The Mesoamerican “calendar consisted of a 365-day calendar cycle called Xiuhpohualli (year count) and a 260-day ritual cycle called Tōnalpōhualli (day count). These two cycles together formed a 52-year calendar round. The Xiuhpohualli is considered to be the agricultural calendar, since it is based on the Sun” (Gillan 2019), whereas Tōnalpōhualli is regarded more in a sacred dimension of time counting (Ibid.).

Some scholars see the reference to Xiuhpohualli in the Calendar Stone, representing 20 days of each of 18 months of the Aztec year in its second ring, whereas additional 5 days of the year are said to be found as 5 stone bosses around the Nahui-Ollin glyph. Photo: “Figure 1. Photograph of the sculpted face of the Aztec Calendar Stone, or Piedra del Sol. Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City.” Source: David Stuart (2016). “The Face of the Calendar Stone: A New Interpretation”. In: Nahui Ollin. Maya Decipherment.

“[The] Aztecs divided their year into 18 months of 20 days plus 5 days at the end” (Noble 2009:51). Some scholars see the reference to Xiuhpohualli in the Calendar Stone, representing 20 days of each of 18 months of the Aztec year in its second ring, whereas additional 5 days of the year are said to be found as 5 stone bosses around the Nahui-Ollin glyph (Noble 2009:51; see Gillan 2019; “Aztec Calendar” 2020). However, according to others, these 5 signs refer to the five suns; the four gone and the one, which is currently lasting in the current era (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018). Although the same sings may have got a double meaning, it is probable that only one of the two significant Mesoamerican calendars has been depicted by the Aztecs in the Sunstone (Ibid.). It is Tōnalpōhualli (day count).

Tōnalpōhualli (day count)

A ring of 20-day names circles the key image of the central creation in the Calendar Stone (McDonald 2013). The cycle starts slightly to the left of the pointer above the central face; so the cycle begins with the glyph of a Crocodile and ends with the glyph of a Flower (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018). Accordingly, the first day is represented by a Crocodile or an Alligator (McDonald 2013). The next to the left is Wind (Ibid.). After that a House, Lizard, Serpent, Death, Deer, Rabbit, Water, Dog, Monkey, Grass, Reed, Jaguar, Eagle, Vulture, Movement (Earthquake), Flint knife, Rain and finally a Flower (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018; “Aztec Calendar” 2020). To the right, the glyphs representing the Movement and Flint knife are depicted in miniature, compared to their larger characters around the central face (McDonald 2013). Additionally, “each of the day signs also bears an association with one of the four cardinal directions” (“Aztec Calendar” 2020).

A representation of the Tonalpohualli – ‘Counting of the Days’ 260-day calendar used by ancient Mesoamerican cultures. Two systems ran simultaneously with a group of 13 numbered days combined with a group of 20 name days. Thus, each day had a unique combination of day and number. Illustration by Richard Graeber (2016). Source: Ancient History Encyclopedia.

That cycle of 20-day names consisted of a 260-day period (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018), which “was recorded in 13-day cycles” (“Aztec Calendar” 2020). It means that “each day [was] signified by a combination of a number from 1 to 13 and one of the twenty day signs. With each new day, both the number and day sign would be incremented: 1 Crocodile is followed by 2 Wind, 3 House, 4 Lizard, and so forth up to 13 Reed, after which the cycle of numbers would restart (though the twenty day signs had not yet been exhausted) resulting in 1 Jaguar, 2 Eagle, and so on, as the days immediately following 13 Reed. This cycle of number and day signs would continue similarly until the [twentieth] week, which would start on 1 Rabbit, and end on 13 Flower. It would take a full 260 [20×13] days for the two cycles, [where twenty day signs are multiplied by thirteen numbers] to realign and repeat the sequence back on 1 Crocodile” (Ibid.). Accordingly, the whole cycle “was broken up into 20 periods, [or 20-day names] of 13 days each, which was reflected in two interlocking wheels in this 260-day ritual calendar” (Gillan 2019).

This round of days was not meant by the Aztecs to depict an actual date but rather to represent the counting of time itself (McDonald 2013). The 260-day ritual calendar was an important characteristic of all Mesoamerican pre-Colombian cultures (Ibid.). Apparently, “it originated by ancient peoples observing that the [Sun] crossed a certain zenith point near the Mayan city of Copan, every 260 days” (Gillan 2019). Yet for the Aztecs it was not related to any solar or astronomical calendar features as it seems (McDonald 2013). Most likely it could have been related to the length of pregnancy (9 months) in correlation with the period of the earth’s translation around the Sun in a 365.25 days of the solar year (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2012; “Aztec Calendar” 2019). This idea is confirmed by the fact that Mesoamerican peoples named their children after the day name of their birth in this ritual calendar (McDonald 2013). “When the child was born he or she was given the name and number of that particular 24 hour piece of time. The ancestors could identify the potential, qualities and capabilities that existed in that space of time, and this was the basis of his/her responsibility to everybody and everything that surrounded them. [In this context], mother and father were responsible for insuring their child grew up recognizing and knowing its potential and capacities and thus its responsibilities by maintaining the rhythm in which it was born” (Aztekayolokalli 2012).

Quetzalcoatl and Xolotl

The next ring of carvings consists of a repeated design of 5 dots, called quincunx, which are inscribed in little squares (McDonald 2013). After scholars they seem to represent preciousness or maybe jadeite (Ibid.). An archaeologist, Nicoletta Maestri (2019) writes they represent the five-day Aztec week in each square. Aztekayolokalli (2018), however, interprets that symbol differently. He claims that 5-dot symbol represents the five movements of Venus around the Sun in a period of eight years (Ibid.). The last number comes from 8 triangular signs set upon the ring of quincunx, which can be interpreted as rays of the Sun (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018; Maestri 2019).

Tlāhuizcalpantecuhtli, as depicted on page 14 of the Codex Telleriano-Remensis. The sign above him is the year 1 Reed in the Aztec Calendar. The god manifested the dual aspect of the planet Venus. Painting by an unknown author – Codex Telleriano-Remensis. Public domain. Source: “Tlāhuizcalpantecuhtli” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

“Known to the Mesoamericans as a bright star, […] Venus was especially important in [their] religious and agricultural calendar with its average 584-day cycle being carefully observed and precisely calculated. Even the architectural layout of [important Mesoamerican cities] were built and aligned in accordance with the appearance of Venus at particular moments during its cycle. […] Mesoamerican astronomers recorded that the planet appears for 236 days as the morning star in the east, then sinks below the horizon for 90 days, and reappears for 250 days as the evening star in the west before disappearing again for 8 days before restarting the cycle over again. In actual fact, Venus can be seen with the naked eye for approximately 263 days in each spell, and it is not known quite why or how the ancient astronomers had arrived at their particular calculations” (Cartwright 2017). And it is probably a coincidence that this number of days when Venus is visible also overlaps with the 260-day ritual calendar. However, there is no evidence confirming that the Mesoamerican day count, Tōnalpōhualli, was related in any way to the appearance of Venus.

As the morning star, Venus was described as the Beginning of the Daylight, and as the evening star – it was named the Companion of the Sun (Aztekayolokalli 2018). “Each aspect of Venus – morning and evening – was manifested in the form of two ancient Mesoamerican gods: the feathered-serpent Quetzalcoatl and his canine companion Xolotl. Quetzalcoatl represented Venus as the morning star, and Xolotl represented it as the evening star” (Cartwright 2017; see Aztekayolokalli 2018). Simultaneously, another Mesoamerican deity, “Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli manifested the dual aspect of the planet Venus (Ibid.). As the twin brother of Xolotl and the avatar of Quetzalcoatl, he was imagined as both and so represented the morning and evening star aspects of Venus (Ibid.).

The Moon

Going outwards, the next string or band of images in the Calendar Stone is obscure to scholars (Mc Donald 2013).

“The image above reproduces the Coyolxauhqui Stone, showing the Aztec goddess of the Moon. The giant monolith was found at the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan. Image courtesy of the Museo del Templo Mayor, Mexico. Source: National Earth Science Teachers Association (2020). “Coyolxauhqui”. In: Windows to the Universe.

There may be some representations of feathers, beads and blood drops but it is really not clear (Mc Donald 2013). Aztekayolokalli  (2018) believes the ring represents kernels of corn. There are 10 such kernels between each of the 8 sun-rays (or triangles pointing outside the center), which create a pattern looking like a lace decorating the ring (Ibid.). Additional 3 grains of corn are visible on top of the square, sticking out in the middle of the “corn lace” (Ibid.) Consequently there are 13 grains of corn altogether, and the number 13 represents the number of the Moon rises in a year cycle (Ibid.). What is more, the Moon also moves 13 degrees per day around the Earth (Ibid.).

Two encircling dragons

The final, encircling ring consists of two thick fire serpents or dragons, called Xiuhcoatl (McDonald 2013). Such imagery points to the fact that symbols of serpents are significant in Mesoamerican cultures (Ibid.). The fire serpents’ tails are at the very top with their pointed ends framing the date of 13 Reed (Ibid.).

Ballcourt marker from the Postclassic site of Mixco Viejo in Guatemala. This sculpture depicts Kukulkan (Quetzacoatl) with a human head sticking out of its jaws agape. Some scholars define it as the head of a human warrior emerging from the serpent’s maw. In the Calendar Stone such images are identified with divine beings. Photo by Simon Burchell. Photo: “Ballcourt marker at Mixco Viejo” by Simon Burchell (2005). CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: “Kukulkan” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Their bodies are divided into squared segments that have butterfly symbols (Nahui-Ollin glyphs) inside them and the serpents encircle the whole disc only to end with their open moss at the bottom of the Stone (McDonald 2013). These rather nasty looking serpent faces have noses or perhaps tongues that curl up and back (Ibid.). They are probably adorned by star signs (Ibid.). Revealed in the dragons’ mouths are two more deities, represented as two anthropomorphic heads sticking out of the animal bulks (Ibid.). Such imagery is typical of the Mayan god, Kukulcan (the equivalent of Quetzacoatl), who has been similarly represented among others in Chichen Itza (Mexico) or Mixco Viejo (Guatemala) as a feathered serpent with a human head protruding out of its open jaws. Yet the gods on the Calendar Stone are identified by archaeologists as other deities. The left god is probably the Sun god and one on the right is the fire god, Xiuhtecuhtli (Ibid.). One interesting thing about more or less human looking faces of the deities on this stone is that they all look quite ferocious (Ibid.). They have got open mouths as if screaming or biting in a hostile and aggressive manner (Ibid.).

In the margin of the Circle

But It is not the end of the mysteries of the Stone (McDonald 2013). The ragged looking edges of the Calendar Stone have some meaning as well (Ibid.).

Depiction of Itzpapalotl, Queen of the Tzitzimimeh, known as Aztec star demons. Illustration from the Codex Borgia. Painting: “A drawing of Itzpapalotl, one of the deities described in the Codex Borgio”. By an Unknown author. Public domain. Source: “Tzitzimitl” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

These unfinished looking side areas depict the constellations or, as the Aztecs called them Tzitzimimeh, which means star demons (McDonald 2013; “Tzitzimitl” 2020). They were “associated with the stars and especially the stars that can be seen around the Sun during a solar eclipse. This was interpreted as the Tzitzimimeh attacking the Sun, thus causing the belief that during a solar eclipse, the tzitzimime would descend to the earth and possess men” (“Tzitzimitl” 2020). These demonic beings were terrifying to the Aztecs as they were responsible for the eclipse of the Sun and by extension for the death of the Sun and the Earth (McDonald 2013). Eclipses were the moments of terror for the populace of the Aztecs and the only thing they could do to keep the Sun moving in the sky was to feed it human hearts and blood, as much as the gods once sacrificed themselves in order to create the Sun, the Earth and the Moon (Ibid.).

The Queen observing the ceremony of offering human sacrifice at the top of the pyramid. Shot from the film Apocalypto (2006), directed by Mel Gibson, with the Queen played by Diana Botello. Photo: “Sophisticated culture … Apocalypto”. Source: Alex Von Tunzelmann (2008) In: “Apocalypto and the end of the wrong civilisation”. In: The Guardian.

Star demons were part of the Mesoamerican cosmic mythology but it does not mean that the Aztecs did not understand the eclipse phenomenon. Such an assumption would be rather peculiar, providing that Mesoamerican cultures used to reflect important astronomical events not only through their art but also in layouts of their whole cities. The Calendar Stone itself is a complex mechanism combining the Aztec multi-dimensional understanding of time with particular dates and astronomical events. And even though the Aztecs dressed most celestial bodies and events in colourful mythical costumes, they held the essential knowledge of the universe and its cosmic scheme. It is probable, however, that such knowledge was ultimately reserved for the Aztec elite, namely emperors and priests, in order to keep control over the peoples within the Empire and to threaten their enemies.

Fragment from Apocalypto (2006): Director: Mel Gibson; Writer: Farhad Safinia Stars: Rudy Youngblood, Dalia Hernandez, Gerardo Taracena; Network: Touchstone Pictures. Icon Productions.
Although the film tells the story of the Mayas, it looks more like a portrayal of the Aztec Empire just in the eve of the Spanish Conquest (see: Von Tunzelmann A. (2008). The fragment shows the solar eclipse and the reason of the Aztec dominance due to their astronomical knowledge. Source: vsprlnd25 (2012). In: vsprlnd25 Youtube Channel.

Such an idea has been well represented in one of the scenes from the film Apocalypto, directed by Mel Gibson (2006). Although the director has meant to represent the culture of the Maya, its interpretation rather fits the Aztecs and their ceremony of massive human sacrifice in the city of Tenochtitlan. In the scene, when the eclipse of the Sun takes place, darkness falls down on the crowd at the foot of the pyramid. It looks as if the end of the world was coming. People are terrified, the next victim is stretched over the altar and waiting for cruel death. But the emperor and the High Priest are not afraid. They exchange a knowing look as if they knew what is going to happen. Another religious attendant is theatrically entering into trance, while the High Priest is assuring the gathered faithful that the gods have been sated by the offered sacrifice; hence they will spare the Sun and life. Finally, he turns to the gods asking them to let the Sun shine again. And after a while, the Sun reappears in the sky. The crowd is cheering. The Aztec elite has once again legitimized their power and right to intermediate between people and the deities.

The Stone of Tizoc

Apart from the Sunstone, probably the best and most interesting example of other Aztec stones to look at is the Stone of Tizoc (McDonald 2013). This is also because it may shed some light on the meaning on the Calendar Stone (Ibid.). By comparing both monuments, it can be seen what a masterpiece and a great accomplishment the Sunstone is (Ibid.).

The Stone of Tizoc. The sun-disk and band of stars on top represent the heavens. National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City; Central Mexico room. Photo: “The sun-disk and band of stars on top represent the heavens”. Source: George Grant MacCurdy, An Aztec “Calendar Stone” in Yale University Museum, American Anthropologist, (Oct. – Dec., 1910), pp. 481-496.

The Stone of Tizoc was found buried in the Zocalo just a year after the Calendar Stone was found, namely in 1791 (McDonald 2013). Tizoc was the Aztec tlatoani (1481-1486) who came just after Axayacatl (1469-1481) (Ibid.). He was not a very successful emperor and so he did not reign very long, just about six years (Ibid.). Yet his stone is a masterwork of propaganda and cosmic imagery (Ibid.). It is proportionally thicker than the Calendar Stone but has a much simpler design on its topmost surface (Ibid.). The image there is probably meant to be a solar disc and it is very similar to the Calendar Stone (Ibid.). Although much simplified (Ibid.). There is also a carved depression in its center, which was meant to hold the blood and hearts of sacrificed warriors (McDonald 2013; “Tlaltecuhtli” 2019). Hence it is likely that this stone was used as Cuauhxicalli for holy sacrifices (McDonald 2013).

Tom sides of the Stone of Tizoc represent historical, though mythologized scenes. Its size is impressive while observed beside the Museum visitors. National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City; Central Mexico room. Photo: “Piedra de Tízoc original. Museo Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico City” (2006). No machine-readable author provided. GNU Free Documentation License. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The most interesting part of the Stone of Tizoc is actually represented on its tom sides (McDonald 2013). First of all, there are fifteen repeated images of Tizoc carved in very sharp cut but fairly shallow relief on the surface (Ibid.). Tizoc is not shown as himself but rather in the guise of the god Tetzcatlipoca, known as the Smoking Mirror, or Huitzilopotchtli – the patron deity of the Aztecs (Ibid.). The scenes depict Tizoc conquering neighbouring places in the repetitive motif in which the emperor-god grasps the hair of the personified town (Ibid.) (likewise pharaohs are represented in Egypt while fighting back their enemies). In reality Tizoc had a reputation of a coward and an unsuccessful ruler (Ibid.). But the interesting thing about the Tizoc monument is that it combines historical events and places with the cosmic ones, just like the Calendar Stone (Ibid.). As such, they both serve at once as a historical document and a religious one (Ibid.). Tizoc has been shown conquering or rather claiming to have conquered real places, like Xochimilco (Ibid.). On the other hand, he has got a divine mission (Ibid.). On the surface of the sacrificial stone there is probably depicted the Sun, on the underside – the Earth Monster; in such a context, Tizoc is depicted just between them, metaphorically holding apart the Sun from the Earth (Ibid.). So this device gives a ruler the central role, not only in military expansion but in cosmic terms, just like in the Maya world, or elsewhere in other ancient cultures beyond America (Ibid.).

The Stone of Tizoc (detail). The scenes depict Tizoc
conquering neighbouring places in the repetitive motif
in which the emperor-god grasps the hair of the
personified town. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Calendar Stone is similar in its meaning to the Stone of Tizoc but even more significant (McDonald 2013). As it seems, It functions at several levels at the same time (Ibid.). It combines some historical dates with the cosmic scheme of creation and destruction of the previous worlds/eras or the suns (Ibid.). And it commands in a sense a continuation of sacrifices to the gods through its imagery and places all these variables in the mandala like scheme of really great complexity (Ibid.).

Definition of the Disc

Not all is still understood about the Calendar Stone (McDonald 2013). So great is the content and the information depicted (Ibid.). Whatever the final and exact interpretation of the Sunstone is, it gives some interesting knowledge about Mesoamerican cultures and their relation to the cosmic scheme of the universe and their deities (Ibid.). The Calendar Disc also contains “millennia of accumulated astronomical knowledge and wisdom” (Aztekayolokalli 2012). It combines historical and mythological worlds and translates their truths through various understandings of the time. “It was not just a way to keep time – it was a complete philosophy of time in which every day had a religious significance. [The Aztecs] also believed that time went in cycles – ultimately in the repeated destruction and recreation of the world” (Gillan 2019).

The Calendar Stone combines historical and mythological worlds and translates their truths through various understandings of the time. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As Dr McDonald (2013) also believes the enormous sculpture of the Calendar Stone not only has encoded a message about the cataclysm and cosmic destruction but also the warlike imagery of the Aztec nation itself. It must have been an imposing and threatening message to those who saw it (Ibid.). There was serious intimidation going on there and cooperation must have been coerced through the art (Ibid.). The very shape of the stone itself calls to mind the ultimate human sacrifice of blood and hearts (Ibid.). This was the kind of monument which reminded the populace of Tenochtitlan and of the peripheral provinces of the Empire of the power of the gods and of the rulers and state itself (Ibid.). The destruction of the Sun and the universe hung in the balance, so obviously obeying the authorities was the best course to follow for survival (Ibid.).

Featured image: Calendar Aztec Stone in the Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City. Photo by Dezalb (2018). Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.

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

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Maestri N. (2019). “The Aztec Calendar Stone: Dedicated to the Aztec Sun God”, Hirst K.K. ed. In: ThoughtCo. Available at <https://bit.ly/3cv40BP>. [Accessed on 4th June, 2020].

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Photo: “Piedra de Tízoc original. Museo Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico City” (2006). No machine-readable author provided. GNU Free Documentation License. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Available at <https://bit.ly/36XtF6T>. [Accessed on 8th December, 2020].

Stuart D. (2016). “The Face of the Calendar Stone: A New Interpretation”. In: Nahui Ollin. Maya Decipherment. Available at <https://bit.ly/2XZABdS>. [Accessed on 5th June, 2020].

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Dwarfs Dwell in the Maw of ‘Cenotes’

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).

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.

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

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.).

Ik Kil Cenote seen from the upper viewing area of the well. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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).

The view from the well of Kil Cenote is breathtaking with all those plant strings and tree roots cascading down from the roof edges into the water, and the foliage covering the damp stones just intensified the effect of swimming in the jungle. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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; also see the drawing a: “Maw of the underworld from Pakal’s sarcophagous”. In: Schele and Mathews (1998). Drawing source: Ramos Ponciano M. E., Ball J. W. (2017). 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.

Cenote Ik Kil is one of main tourist attractions of Yucatan Peninsula. Photo by Matias Cruz (2014). Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.

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 it 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.

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

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Cenote” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/2L9bXVb>. [Accessed on 30th December, 2020].

“Ik Kil” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/3pyPobr>. [Accessed on 30th December, 2020].

“Sistema Dos Ojos“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/354EZN7>. [Accessed on 2nd January, 2021].

“Xibalba” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/2JBW21v>. [Accessed on 2nd January, 2021].

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].

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

Free images at Pixabay. Available at <https://bit.ly/3fTQX0u>. [Accessed on 30th June, 2021].

Latin American Studies (2020). “Maya Dwarfs”. In: The Maya. Latin American Studies. Available at <http://bit.ly/3rKBQvn>. [Accessed on 1st January, 2021].

Oleg Och (2011). “Cenote Chichi de los Lagos. Homun. Yukatan by Televisa Bicentenario”. In: Oleg Och Youtube Channel. Available at <https://bit.ly/3rFAfXS>. [Accessed on 30th December, 2020].

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].

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

Through the Passageway of the Khmers’ Stargate of Angkor Tom

A soaring, pyramidal stone gateway was rising just in front of me. It was covered with terraces of carvings, shaped by mythological world of ancient Khmers and their beliefs. The gate was one of five identical monumental portals built as a part of a defensive, twelve-metres long wall surrounding a squared area of Angkor Thom – the Great City (Renown Travel 2010-2020).

Walled City

Each of the four of the wall’s sides measures three kilometres (Renown Travel 2010-2020). The fortifications were “built […] at [nearly eight metres] high, […] and [with] moats that are [one hundred kilometres] wide. [Their construction is] of laterite buttressed by earth, with a parapet on the top [but without battlements]. As the [city’s central temple, Bayon], itself has no wall or moat of its own, those of the city are interpreted by archaeologists as representing the mountains and oceans surrounding the Bayon’s Mount Meru” (Teo 2014).

South gate of Angkor Thom. Photo taken by Supanut Arunoprayote (2019). CC BY 4.0. Source: “Angkor Thom” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

“The general flow of water within the square city was apparently established from the north-east to the south-west, in which corner it discharges into a kind of reservoir – the ‘Beng Thom’ – itself draining to the external moat through a row of five tunnels cut through the embankment and the wall” (Glaize 1944).

Portals to the stars

There are four gates at each of the cardinal points, namely the North, the South, the East and the West Gates, built in the middle of the four sides of the wall. While the West Gate is said to be best preserved of all (Glaize 1944), “the mysterious East Gate […] is left in ruins. [It] once served a different purpose and is also known as the Death Gate. Legend has it that it was through East Gate that convicts were sent to be executed” (Teo 2014). From the gates roads lead to the very heart of the City (Glaize 1944; Teo 2014; Renown Travel 2010-2020).

The additional fifth gate, called the Victory Gate, is today well preserved and placed on the axis of the Royal Palace to the East Baray and was apparently dedicated to processions of the victorious king (Glaize 1944; Teo 2014; Renown Travel 2010-2020).

South Gate

I was just admiring the South Gate. Today it is the main entrance for tourists coming to this famous and gigantesque archaeological site (Teo 2014). Like always during peak seasons, that entrance to Angkor Thom was extremely crowded with a traffic jam of tuk-tuks, motorbikes, small cars and even elephants carrying tourists (Ibid.). All around there were heard voices of people shouting over each other in different languages, the terrifying screech of vehicles and the sound of horns.

Another reason why the place attracts loads of people is the fact that the South Gate is situated “on the path between the two great Angkor complexes” (Teo 2014). Adjacent to Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom additionally constituted the successive capital of the Khmer Empire, which was built in the late twelfth century by King Jayavarman VII (1181-1218), and since then it has been constantly crowded, maybe except the time of the Red Khmers regime (Ibid.).

Three Towers

Each of the gateways, although some overgrown with sprouting roots, made a truly hypnotic impressions (Pałkiewicz 2007:136). They all are composed of a group of three aligned towers (Glaize 1944); the central tower of the portal is flanked by two smaller towers (Teo 2014).

Three towers at the South Gate of Angkor Thom. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Between them, there are the sculpted statues of three-headed “elephants Airavan, whose trunks are pulling lotus flowers” (Teo 2014; see Pałkiewicz 2007:136). The animals are mounted by the Hindu god Indra with his two wives (Teo 2014). Behind, there are possibly the remains of the Naga’s snake heads, as it is visible in the nineteenth century’s engraving (see Pałkiewicz 2007:136, photo). Between the side towers there is the entrance with the arched vaulting (Ibid.:136). “The opening of the gates are [seven] meters high by [three and half] meters wide in which there were originally massive wooden doors that were closed at night” (Renown Travel 2010-2020).

The entrance is crowned with the major sculpture of the gates: four megalithic faces beautifully enlivened by the play of light and shadow (Pałkiewicz 2007:136). They all are placed at the height of twenty-three metres above the ground, looking down on those who dare to enter their kingdom (Teo 2014; Renown Travel 2010-2020).

The Gate is known in architecture as gopura. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The so-called ‘face towers’ are similar to those erected at the Bayon (Renown Travel 2010-2020); they “contain four very large heads on top of the gates facing each of the four cardinal directions” (Ibid.). They are apparently crowned with a headdress resembling a closed flower of lotus. “[The sculpted heads] are believed to represent [Avalokiteshvara] or Lokeshvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion. The central tower contains [two] faces looking in opposite directions; [every] of the smaller towers have [one] face, each looking in one of the remaining two directions” (Ibid.). According to “the accounts of Zhou Daguan, a Chinese diplomat who lived in Angkor for a year until July 1297, […] there was [also] a fifth head on the [very] top at the time, of which nothing, [however], remains today” (Ibid.).

Also known as a gopura

By its intricate carvings, the whole construction of the five gateways looks as if it was shaped by a cascading waterfall. In Indian architecture, also typical of South-East Asia, such a stone gate in the shape of a multi-storey stepped tower, narrowing towards the top and richly decorated with carvings, was referred to as a gopura (PWN 2007:135). Like in the Khmer Empire, since the Middle Ages, gopuras had been usually placed from the four corners of the world, in the wall surrounding temples in southern India (Ibid.:135).

Five causeways

The five gopuras are all preceded by the causeways thrown over the moats, which are, like the gateways, identical in their construction and decorations (Theo 2014; Renown Travel 2010-2020).

South Gate; a row of Devas pulling the body of Naga. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Before I passed through the South Gate and entered the Great City, I stopped for longer on the causeway to enjoy my eyes with a view that I deeply remembered (Pałkiewicz 2007:131). Behind a hundred-meter wide moat was the citadel, Angkor Thom, the capital of the late medieval monarchy, where the administrative, religious and commercial life of the kingdom was concentrated (Ibid.:131).

Together with Asuras at the South Gate to Angkor Thom. Photo taken by Małgorzata Nowa. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“It was [undoubtedly] the world’s largest city during that time, [ruled] by the famous and great king Jayavarman VII. [He] took over […] the Khmer Empire at a difficult moment, [just] after the invasion of a Cham fleet [that] had destroyed the [previous] capital […], and had taken away the greater part of the country’s properties. […] Angkor Thom covers an area of [nearly] 10 km² [and 900 hectares) within which are located several monuments from earlier eras as well as those established by Jayavarman and his successors” (Teo 2014; see Glaize 1944); apart from a large complex of Bayon, the City also includes four small temples at the corners, known as the Prasat Chrung, Jayavarman VII’s Palace and densely decorated terraces (Glaize 1944; Renown Travel 2010-2020; Pałkiewicz 2007:165-177).

Asuras and Devas

The entrance to the city is guarded by 108 statues of colossal size, holding, or rather pulling, a giant Naga serpent in their hands (Pałkiewicz 2007:131; Hancock 2016:265-266; Copestake, Hancock 1998). The length of the snake body is estimated to around 75 metres (Baskin 2012). On the right side, there are 54 Asuras (demons) with grimace faces, announcing misfortune, and opposite them on the other side of the causeway, there is the same number of demigods (Devas) with distinctively  good-natured expressions (Pałkiewicz 2007:131; Hancock 2016:265-266; Copestake, Hancock 1998).

Some of the heads of the statues along the causeways are badly restored, damaged or even missing. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“Lining either side of the causeway are 54 gigantic divinities, like fearsome war-lords. The parapets of the causeway are in solid stone, sculpted to represent [seven]-headed serpents, with the 54 divinities holding the serpents as if to prevent them from escaping.”

Tcheou Ta-Kouan (Glaize 1944).

Lost heads

The other four city causeways are similarly decorated; however, Maurice Glaize (1944), a French architect, archaeologist and Conservator of Angkor (1937-1945), notices that at “the north gate […] the grimacing faces of the demons are particularly expressive, in sharp contrast to the serene faces of the gods.”

North Gate leading to Angkor Thom. The statues are deprived of heads, possibly sold on the black market. Photo by Marcin Konsek/Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 4.0. Source: “Angkor Thom” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Unfortunately, many of the statues’ heads are now gone, which is especially visible on the northern causeway leading to Angkor Thom (Lessik 2015; see Pałkiewicz 2007:131, photo); they were mostly cut off during the time when Cambodia was under the rule of the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979 (Lessik 2015). “While [their] ideology might have been part of the decapitations, apparently the main reason was that the […] heads were worth money. Hundreds if not thousands of heads and sometimes whole statues and other antiquities were stolen and sold to buy arms” (Ibid.). Today the statues are more or less preserved but, according to the journalist Jacek Pałkiewicz (2007:131), they bear the hallmarks of carelessly conducted restoration works, because their bodies and heads were not well matched to each other.

Samudra manthan

However, regardless of their modern scars, made by time and men, the statues still express a clear message transmitted from the past (Copestake, Hancock 1998).

A row of Asuras (demons) between the moat and causeway of the South Gate. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

They are actually a three dimensional version of the Hindu story of the Churning of the Sea of ​​Milk (Samudra manthan) (Ibid.). The sculpture complex is nearly analogical in its interpretation to one of ten bas-relief scenes carved on the inside walls of Angkor Wat (Ibid.). Both, the sculpture of Angkor Thom and the bas-relief of Angkor Wat represent the same mythological event, though with some differences (Ibid.). The story is the most famous Hindu parable, frequent in Cambodian culture, and it dates back to the times when Devas (semi-gods) and Asuras (demons) fought with each other for domination over the world (Rafał 2018). Although the Khmer Empire of the king Jayavarman VII was primarily devoted to Buddhism, the Khmer architecture and art had preserved many symbolical elements of the Hindu beliefs, which were intertwined with the major rituals, dedicated to Buddha.

Pulling the Naga

As the legend says, long eras ago, the Devas weakened with time and the Asuras grew stronger (Rafał 2018). The depressed Devas finally went to the god Vishnu for help (Ibid.). He ordered them to get Amrit, the nectar of Immortality, which, lost during the Great Flood, lay at the bottom of the endless ocean (Ibid.). However, the Devas were not able to do it themselves, so as strange as it sounds, they made peace with the Asuras and ask them for help (Ibid.).

Various scenes from the samudra manthan episode. Source: “Samudra manthan” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

To extract the Nectar of Immortality, the spirits used Mount Mandara as a whisk and wrapped it in the bulk of the multi-headed serpent Wasuk (the snake king of Naga) (Rafał 2018). Devas grabbed the serpent’s tail, and Asuras held its heads (Ibid.). Pulling it alternately, the serpent spun the mountain that churn the Ocean (Ibid.). The mountain, however, began to collapse into the depths of the water, to which Vishnu came in the form of the Kurma turtle and supported it on his shell (Ibid.).

Amrit

The churning took thousands of years; first, the terrible kalakuta poison appeared, which was a by-product of churning and threatened all existence on earth (Rafał 2018).

One of the four faces adorning the South Gate.
Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In order to save the world, Shiva drank the poison, but did not manage to swallow it because his wife Parvati held his throat to stop the poisoning of her husband’s body (Rafał 2018). From then on, Shiva’s neck was blue in colour (Ibid.). During the churning of the Ocean of ​​Milk, jewels began to emerge from the water, including: Moon, Ayravata – an elephant with four tusks, Kamadhenu – a cow of abundance which is an eternal source of milk, goddess of alcoholic beverages, Kalpawryksza – a wonderful tree that fulfils all wishes, a white horse Uććhajśravas, Sankha – the conch of victory, the miraculous bow, the heavenly Apsaras, and finally Lakshmi – the goddess of happiness, wealth and beauty (Ibid.). After all this, Dhanwantari (the doctor of the gods) came out of the ocean holding a pot with Amrit (Ibid.). The gods and demons rushed on the vessel, whereupon Vishnu transformed into a beautiful Mohini and took Amrit (Rafał 2018). The demons, enchanted by her beauty, fell down before her, asking her to decide who deserved the Nectar of Immortality (Ibid.). Mohini gave the Amrit to the Devas who drank it quickly (Ibid.). Only one of the demons – Rahu, managed to enter the ranks of the gods under disguise and taste the drink (Ibid.).

One of the restored heads at the South Gate representing a demon with a grimace face. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Sun and Moon, however, recognised Rahu’s disguise and reported it to Vishnu (Rafał 2018). The enraged god cut off the demon’s head when he had not yet swallowed his drink (Ibid.). The separated head of Rahu remained immortal thanks to Nectar and ascended to heaven as a planet, and his dead body (Ketu) fell to the ground (Ibid.). Rahu, wanting to take revenge on the Sun and Moon, tries to swallow them every time he comes close to them, but since it has no body, the Sun and Moon are safe (Ibid.). Hence, according to Hindu theology, the cyclical eclipses of both celestial bodies take place (Ibid.).

Bas-relief and full sculpture

The rejuvenated Devas defeated the Asuras, but the age-old struggle between them every now and then is reborn again (Rafał 2018). Nevertheless, thanks to the Nectar of Immortality, the Devas always win with the Asuras and still have control over the universe (Ibid.). The bas-relief in Angkor Wat adds to the story of the Churning of the Ocean of ​​Milk some characters of the Hindu epic of Ramayana (Ibid.). This is why there is Ravana among the demons, and Hanuman along with demi-gods (Ibid.; see In the Realm of Demon Ravana; Ram Setu: Ape Engineer Builds a Bridge). On the whole, there are 92 demons on the left, and on the other side, 88 gods are pulling the Naga’s tail in the opposite direction (Ibid.).

South Gate moat. Photo by Marcin Konsek/Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 4.0. Source: “Angkor Thom” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

On the causeways of Angkor Thom, The Ocean of Milk seems to be represented by deep waters of the moats, which flow under the causeway and stretch around the city (Copestake, Hancock 1998). Yet the numbers of Asuras and Devas differ from what is illustrated in Angkor Thom; while approaching the City’s gates, on the right there are 54 demons and, on the left, 54 demi-gods, depicted while pulling the bulk of the serpent (Ibid.). Moreover, unlike in the story, the Naga’s heads are not only wielded by Asuras but also by Devas. It is probably the matter of symmetry and representation of the guards as the open cobra fans in front of the gateway.

Message

Some scholars ascribe a mythological-religious meaning to the sculpture represented on the causeway (Glaize 1944).

“[This] double railing in the form of a [Naga] was perhaps ‘one way of symbolising a rainbow which, in the Indian tradition (and not only), is the expression of the union of man with the world of the gods – materialised here on earth by the royal city. In adding the two lines of giants – devas on the one side and asuras on the other – the architect aimed to suggest the myth of the churning of the ocean in unison by the gods and demons in order to extract the elixir of life. The representation of the churning, with the moats for the ocean and the enclosure wall – and specifically the mass of its gate – for the mountain, is a kind of magic device destined to assure victory and prosperity to the country.’”

Mr Cœdes and Paul Mus (Glaize 1944).
Airavata, the three-headed elephant, is the mount of Indra, who is the king of the Devas. Photo by Michael Gunther (2014); modified. CC BY 4.0.Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Maurice Glaize (1944) seems to share such an idea; it is supported by “the presence of [a guardian deity, Indra], at the extremity of the access causeway” (Ibid.). That would confirm the hypothesis suggested above that the Naga imitates the rainbow as, according to the Hindu mythology, the bow belonging to Indra is in fact the rainbow as well (Glaize 1944).

Another message

According to the author, Graham Hancock (1988; 2016:265-266), the complex of Angkor Tom is a monumental, metaphorical representation of precession.

Intricate carvings of the gateways looking like cascading waters of stone. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Depicted there numbers bear out this theory: 54 figures in a row on each side of the causeway, so 108 statues per bridge (Copestake, Hancock 1998; Hancock 2016:265-266). There are five causeways leading to the city and surrounding the whole complex, so it gives 540 statues on the whole (Copestake, Hancock 1998; Hancock 2016:265-266). As the author claims, these are all the Precession numbers (Copestake, Hancock 1998; Hancock 2016:265-266). The bridge leads to a gateway (gopura) so the gateway itself and what lies beyond are possibly connected to the mystery of precession (Copestake, Hancock 1998). As such Angkor Tom appears as a vast, sacred enclosure, with its meaningful measurements and a sacral complex in its centre, known as Bayon, the very heart of the City (Ibid.).

Precession

But what does the precession actually stand for? One would assume it sounds like the subject of astronomy. And indeed, it is so. But the process of precession gains more importance in terms of its presence in ancient myths (literature) and architecture (art), assuming it is the case. Then the precession becomes the study of archaeoastronomy. That fact becomes even more intriguing when its duration is taken into account. In order to understand entirely the astronomical mechanism of precession, mankind must once have observed its whole and complete process.

South gate of Angkor Thom along with a bridge of statues of gods and demons. Two rows of figures each carry the body of seven-headed Naga. Photo taken by Supanut Arunoprayote (2019). CC BY 4.0. Source: “Angkor Thom” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The problem is that it takes nearly 26 000 years. Accordingly, its mystery must have been studied by long generations. An archaeoastronomer and Egyptologist, Jane B. Sellers, points out that astronomy, especially precession, is an indispensable tool for studying ancient Egypt and its religion (Hancock 2016:261). According to her, ‘the vast majority of archaeologists do not understand the phenomenon of precession, which affects their interpretations of ancient myths, gods and the correlation of ancient temples’ (Ibid.:261). ‘For astronomers, precession is a well-known fact and it is the responsibility of ancient scholars to learn about this phenomenon’, she claims (Ibid.:261).

Astronomical phenomenon

It is worth starting here from the very beginning. The planet Earth spins around its axis in a rotary motion, and it goes around the sun in a circular motion (Kosmiczne … 2020). Hence, as a result of the first movement, day follows night (24 hours), and of the second, there are seasons (365 days).

But some astronomical phenomena, such as the position of the constellations of stars in relation to the Earth, are due to another phenomenon, which is called precession (Kosmiczne … 2020). The earth axis moves along the side of the cone surface with its vertex in the center of the earth (Ibid.). In other words, the Earth’s axis draws a circle against the sky (Ibid.). This phenomenon can be compared to a spinning bittern toy (Ibid.). When the axis of such an object is not vertical, the gravitation tries to overturn the toy (Ibid.). Still it cannot be overturn, but characteristically staggers, which is a reflection of the phenomenon of precession (Ibid.). The Earth rotates around its axis, which is not perpendicular to the orbit encircling the Sun, but is invariably deviated from the perpendicular direction, at approximately 23.5 degrees (Ibid.).

Steven Sanders (2013). “Precession of the Earth”. This movie was created with Blender and is used in the Spitz Fulldome Curriculum for the SciDome planetariums around the world. In: RBITA. The Absolute Magnitude.

The Earth is not exactly a ball because the spinning flattened it slightly at the poles and bulged at the equator (Kosmiczne … 2020). The forces of gravitational pull of the Moon and the Sun to the Earth’s equatorial bulge tend to position the deviated axis of the Planet perpendicularly to its orbit (Ibid.). The Earth, however, spins too fast to yield to these forces, which in turn generates a compromise: the processional movement of the Earth’s axis along the surface of the cone and the axis perpendicular to the Earth’s orbit (Ibid.). In this way, the Earth’s axis cannot be straightened while maintaining a constant inclination to the orbit plane (Ibid.). Yet the axis cannot maintain a fixed position in space and draws an entire cone in about 26,000 years, a period called the Platonic year, the Great Year or the Great Return (Kosmiczne … 2020; Hancock 2016:263). Every Platonic year the points of equinoxes are at the same point on the sky (Kosmiczne … 2020). The Sun returns to the starting point and the new Great Year begins anew (Ibid.). Precession very slowly affects the appearance of the Earth’s sky (Ibid.). The reflection of the Earth’s orbit on the celestial sphere is the ecliptic, and of the Earth’s equator is the Celestial Equator (Ibid.). Due to precession, the Celestial Equator traverses the ecliptic at 1 degree every 72 years, and the Celestial Pole traces a circle around the Ecliptic Pole with a radius of 23.5 degrees  (Ibid.).

Hence the position of the stars in the sky is not constant and changes gradually over a very long precession cycle (Ibid.). As a result of the precession of the equinoxes, the position of the stars in the sky changes, including the polar star (Ibid.). Currently, due to precession, the polar star is Polaris (Ibid.).

Zodiac

The phenomenon of precession is predominantly related to the zodiac. The zodiac is a belt on the celestial sphere that consists of 12 parts, about 30 degrees each (Kosmiczne … 2020). The sky changes at a rate of 1 degree every 72 years Ibid.). The Sun, therefore, spends about 2,160 years in each of the 12 houses of the zodiac constellations (Kosmiczne … 2020; Hancock 2016:263). The constellation where the Sun is at a given moment very slowly moves along the horizon, until finally another constellation takes its place (Kosmiczne … 2020). The boundaries of the zodiacal constellations are arbitrary, hence there are minor differences in the exact determination of the zodiac era (Ibid.).

Who was first?

The slow pace of changes in the sky caused by the precession of the equinoxes is very difficult to be observed in the lifetime of a single human being (Kosmiczne … 2020).

Animation of the cycle of precession of Earth’s axis, depicting the orientation of the axis in relation to the North Ecliptic Pole (2012). By Tfr000. CC by-SA 3.0. Source: “Precesja” (2020) Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Who and when then discovered it? In 1687, Isaac Newton argued that the precession phenomenon was caused by the forces of gravitation (Ibid.). In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus characterized the precession as the third movement of the Earth (Ibid.). However, people must have known about the precession thousands of years earlier (Ibid.). Already in the second century BC, a Greek astronomer and mathematician, Hipparchus (Hipparch), wrote about the phenomenon of precession and is credited with its discovery (Kosmiczne … 2020; Hancock 2016:246-247).

North Gate Bridhe with Devas. Photo by Colin W. (2006). CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: “Angkor Thom” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

By comparing his own measurements during sky observations with those of his predecessors in ancient Babylon and Alexandria, Hipparch noticed that the positions of the stars in the sky were different (Hancock 2016:246-247). To explain the inconsistencies, he presented the precession hypothesis and assigned a value of 45 or 46 angular seconds per year, now the value is more precisely calculated and so is recognised as 50, 274 arcseconds (Ibid.:247). The arcsecond is the smallest unit of the angle (Ibid.:247). There are 60 seconds per arcminute and 60 arcminutes is 1 angular degree; 360 degrees is a complete turn of the Earth around the Sun (Ibid.:247). The annual change is 50, 274 arcseconds (less than an arcminute) (Ibid.:247). And it only takes 72 years (precisely 71,6) for the spring sunrise to shift one degree. By these means it shows how slow the whole process is (Ibid.:247).

Approach to the Gate of the Dead. Photo by Stephen Bain (2019). CC BY 4.0. Source: “Angkor Thom” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Astronomy hidden in myths

In 1969, a historian of science, Prof. Giorgio de Santillana proposed that the phenomenon of precession was already known thousands of years before the discovery of the Greek astronomer (Kosmiczne … 2020). Santillana pointed out that ancient civilizations knew about the mechanism of precession and referred to it in their myths, many of which have survived to our day (Ibid.). Despite criticism from scientists, some experts over time expressed the belief that the phenomenon of precession was indeed known much earlier than it was initially assumed (Ibid.). But then how did the ancient reveal their knowledge of precession? Like in many cases, it was possible only by means of a universal language of mathematics and astronomy. It is a pity I was not very dedicated to science at school …

Numbers and numbers

Ancient myths tell stories, such as one cited above, most of which seem to be just a fruit of human imagination. As such the myths are many a time treated entirely as fictional fairy tales. For some experts, however, their certain details seem rather meaningful, especially because they constantly have been repeated throughout ages (Hancock 2016:263). Among them, there are interesting numbers associated by some scholars with important astronomical events (Ibid.:262).

The South Gate: all the gates are “lined with 54 gods and 54 demons.  Both teams are holding a Naga (a snake-like creature with multiple snake heads) that is 75 meters long” (Baskin 2012). Photo by Michael Lai (2013). Source: Retiree Diary. The Diary of a Retiree.

Accordingly, 12 – number of zodiacal constellations; 30 – number of angular degrees on the ecliptic assigned to each constellation; 72 – number of years during which the sunrise point on the equinox moves one angular degree; 360 – number of angular degrees on the ecliptic plane; 2160 (72×30 ) – the number of years during which the Sun moves on the ecliptic plane by 30 degrees, that is, it passes through one of the 12 zodiacal constellations; 25920 (2160×12) – the length in years of the full precession cycle, i.e. the so-called Great Year, also called the Great Return; 36 – the period in which the sunrise on the equinox day moves by half a degree; 4320 – the period when the sunrise on the day of the equinox moves 60 degrees, which are two constellations of the zodiac (Hancock 2016:262-263).

Language of ancient architecture

Jane B. Sellers is convinced that these numbers form a code of precession, which appears not only in ancient mythology but also in sacred architecture (Hancock 2016:263,265). Examples include the Egyptian temples in Dendera and Karnak, Baalbek in Lebanon, some Hindu temples, in Indonesia the temple of Borobudur, and in Cambodia, the city of Angkor Thom described above (Hancock 2016:265-269; Kosmiczne … 2020). Such knowledge may have been present even at the time of architects of Göbekli Tepe (Kosmiczne … 2020). A fairly rich set of numbers was also included in the so-called long count of the Mayan calendar (Hancock 2016:265).

The South Gate: Naga snake’s heads are also held be Devas as well (not only by Asuras visible on the other side); such an arrangement, contrary to the narratives, is possibly the architectural result of preserving the symmetry. Photo by Steve Baskin (2012). Source: Camp Champions Blog.

Moreover, among the major numbers of precessions, there are present their various possible combinations; the precession code allows to freely shift the decimal places, thanks to which almost any sum, permutation, quotient or fraction of basic numbers related to the precession rate of the equinoxes can be achieved (Hancock 2016:263). For example, if one add 36 to 72, they get 108, the number of the statues on one causeway leading to Angkor Thom (Ibid.:263,265). 108 can be multiplied by 2, which gives the number of demons on one side and the number of demigods on the other (Ibid.:263,265). In turn, 54 can be multiplied by 10, which gives 540 statues on all the five causeways, or 108 can be multiplied by the number of causeways (108×5), which gives the same value: 540, the number of all the statues (Ibid.:263,265). What is more, the number 54 is quite frequent in ancient architecture; in Baalbek, for example, there are 54 monumental columns surrounding the temple (Ibid.:267).

Scientific message of fairy tales

It is also worth to mention the fact that the given set of ancient precession numbers are more precise than Hipparch’s calculations made in the fifth century BC (Hancock 2016:264). His calculations show that the precession rate is 45 or 46 angular seconds per year, which shows that the Sun moves one degree on the ecliptic surface in 80 or 78.26 years (Ibid.:264). As calculated today, the true number is 71.6 years (Ibid.:264). Thus, the number 72 given by ancient myths is much more accurate than the later calculations of the Greek mathematician (Ibid.:264).

Western face of the East Gate, also known as the Gate of the Dead. Photo by Stephen Bain (2019). CC BY 4.0. Source: “Angkor Thom” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Myths also give 2160 for the amount of years, during which the Sun goes through one sign of the zodiac (Hancock 2016:264). Today, this value is said to be 2148 years, and the value proposed by Hipparch is 2400 and 2347.8, respectively (Ibid.:264). Finally, the complete precession cycle according to myths is 25920 years, when the Sun completes its journey through all 12 zodiac signs (Ibid.:264). The Greek’s calculations show that it is 28,800 or 28173.6, whereas today it is known that this number is 25,776 years (Ibid.:264). So Hipparchus’ error is 3000 years, and the one visible in the myths is only 144 years, and probably only because the narrative context forced the authors to round the number 71.6 to 72 (Ibid.:264). In architecture, too, it was necessary; In Borobudur, in Java, 72 statues of Buddha are imagined (Ibid.:266). So to follow the exact values, sculptors must have created only 71 whole statues, with one completed just in 0.6 parts.

Through the Gateway

I stared at the carvings of the causeway for a long while, as series of numbers spilled out of my head. I tried to find astronomical solution in every number imagined in the sculpture: the number of mythical serpent’s heads, of elephants’ fangs and trunks, of the faces illustrated on the South Gate. Then I multiplied, divided and subtracted the collective results. In the end, I lost my strength. I don’t have such a head for mathematics as the ancients did …

South Gate with the aligned row of Devas along the causeway. Source: Pixabay (2016).

Finally, tired with my own thoughts, I decided to enter the gateway. Standing in front of the huge gopura, I looked up at the carved faces; they had their still and narrow eyes gazing in the four cardinal points. Suddenly, a scene from my childhood movie came to my mind. In Never Ending Story, the main character, Atreyu, walks through the Sphinx Gate, and when he is losing his confidence, the eyes of the stone colossi get alive and are slowly opening to strike him with their deadly rays. Although I did not feel confident at that time either, I gathered all my courage and walked through the gateway. Bodhisattvas’ eyes remained focused and unblinking.

Three towers of one of the gopuras in Angkor Thom. Photo by Stacy Rushton (2020). Source: Freeimages.

After a while I found myself in the citadel covered with a damp equatorial forest (Pałkiewicz 2007:136). I had the impression that everything came alive there; sounds of birds were heard in the air, heavy drops of rain fell on the undergrowth and trickles of water flowed from the branches of trees here and there (Ibid.:136). It was the result of heavy rains that rolled through Angkor at dawn. In November, the end of the rainy season still made itself felt. But it was a warm, refreshing rain. The late morning slowly gave way to a sunny day making Angkor Tom’s fragrances and colours more intensive (Ibid.:136). I had entered the kingdom of myths and art but also of astronomy and mathematics.

Featured image: South Gate with the aligned row of Devas along the causeway. Source: Free photo at Pixabay (2016).

By Joanna
Faculty of History of Art and Archaeology
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland
University College Dublin, Ireland

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

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Lady of the Labyrinth and her Powers

The cicadas are extremely noisy during the summer months in Crete, and particularly in Knossos.

Exploring Knossos … Photo by
Beata Pazdej.
Copyright©Archaeotravel.

For a good while, I could not gather my thoughts as I stood in the vestibule of the Throne Room and looked deeper into its abyss. The name of this part of the so-called Palace of Knossos comes from the limestone throne found there, which has surprisingly survived in its entire form and which is still in the same location where Evans discovered it and where it was probably used in the past (Łogiadu-Platonos date unknown:60). Although it does not resemble the royal Egyptian thrones of the pharaohs or those of the ancient East, the archaeologist was convinced that he had come across a Cretan royal mansion where King Minos had once been enthroned (Gregor 1997:16).

Since then, however, various hypotheses have been made about the Throne Room of Knossos (Gregor 1997:16).

Kefalia Hill

Arthur Evans began excavations on the Kafala Hill – at the site of the the so-called palace at Knossos – on 23rd March, 1900 (Witcombe 1995; Archaeological Institute of America 2017). An early discovery, made on 30th March, was a great number of clay tablets inscribed in Linear B script in the Room of the Chariot Tables (Ibid.). The most significant discovery, however, turned out to be the Throne Room complex (Ibid.). During the following months, Evans’s group unearthed a series of mysterious rooms along the west side of what later was known as the Central Court (Ibid.).

Reconstructed Fresco of a Tripartite Shrine
Grandstand fresco from the palace of Knossos (reconstruction). Source: Pinterest (2020)..

Unexpected discovery

During this first season of excavation at Knossos, the area between the Throne Room and the Room of the Chariot Tables was uncovered (Witcombe 1995; Archaeological Institute of America 2017). It included the Room of the Tall Pithos and a small room with two open, and empty, cists or vats in the floor (Ibid.). At the time of their discovery, the cists were of a very little interest … (Ibid.).

Temple repositories

Three years later, in 1903, it was noticed that the pavement around the cists was sagging and upon investigation, two much larger stone-lined cists, or repositories, were discovered beneath the floor (Witcombe 1995; Archaeological Institute of America 2017). This area  was called the Temple Repositories of the Snake Goddess Sanctuary at Knossos (Witcombe 1995; Castleden 2000:80-81; Archaeological Institute of America 2017). The Tripartite Shrine depicted in one of the Grandstand Fresco may have once been its façade (Witcombe 1995; Archaeological Institute of America 2017). Sir Arthur Evans found a large quantity of amazing objects there, probably deposited just after the huge earthquake, around 1700 BC. (Ibid.).

Excavation of the temple repositories, from Sir Arthur Evans, The Neolithic and Early and Middle Minoan Ages (London: Macmillan, 1921), p. 465 (Universitäts-Bibliothek Heidelberg).Source: German (2018).

“Duncan Mckenzie found, on top, a large quantity of vases […] tightly packed together. Then, about a metre down, he found seal impressions, large quantities of painted sea shells, imitation shells and flying fish, fruit and flowers made of faience, beads, faience chalices with sacred tree motifs, decorative inlays, objects made of bone and ivory, gold leaf, a finely polished but broken marble cross [and] two beautiful faience plaques of a goat with her kids and a cow with her calf” (Castleden 2000:81).

Ritually killed?

The most spectacular finds, however, were the broken pieces of at least three female faience statuettes (Witcombe 1995; Archaeological Institute of America 2017; German 2018). “Vast numbers of shells accompanied the terra-cotta figures, along with votive robes for the statues” (Johnson 1990:144). They all were actually represented opulently dressed with two of them with snakes (Witcombe 1995; Archaeological Institute of America 2017; German 2018). The third one lacks the upper part so it is difficult to say if she held the snakes as well but it is highly possible (Ibid.). “One of the [figures holding snakes] found in the East Repository had been [also] broken before it was sealed up in the vault; a matching fragment of it was found in the West Repository. These and other pieces of cult furniture may have been deliberately, ritually killed [by their depositors] by breaking before being sealed up in the large repositories as a re-foundation offering. After they were filled and closed, the repositories were replaced by two new and smaller [ones]” (Castleden 2000:81).

Objects from the temple repositories f Knossos, just after its discovery in 1903. Evans, A.J. (1921-35). The Palace of Minos – Volumes 1-4. Source: “Minoan Snake Goddess Figurine” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

“The most significant thing about the temple treasure is that it hints at the sort of cult activities that may have been conducted in the surrounding chambers of the Snake Goddess Sanctuary” (Castleden 2000:81).

Snake Goddesses’ epiphany and her Votary

The larger statuette (left) stands some thirty-five centimetres high and possibly depicts a female idol, representing the Snake Goddess, her Epiphany or the Great Priestess performing religious rituals (Witcombe 1995; Archaeological Institute of America 2017). She is wearing a tall hat, an embroidered bodice and a skirt with a short apron (Witcombe 1995; Archaeological Institute of America 2017).

The information table in the area of the West Wing of Knossos, where the faience female figures were found. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“Her omnipotence is expressed through a triple tiara topped […] by a snake’s head, [the] bodice, a laced corset exposing her full breasts, suggests her nourishing aspects. The skirt is bordered with the sacred net pattern and partially covered by a short double apron edged with the wave design. The figurine’s most striking features are her staring eyes, black and hypnotic. The eyebrows are sculpted in relief to enhance the mantic expression. Hair hair, cut short in front, falls down her back to her waist. Large ears, quite out of proportion, are a feature noted in other Cretan goddesses of the period” (Johnson 1990:142). Probably three snakes are swirling around her body (Witcombe 1995; Archaeological Institute of America 2017). One is draped around her neck so that it hangs well down her back with its bulk slithering along both of her arms (Ibid.). She holds the snake’s head in her right hand and the tail in her left (Ibid.). Two other snakes appear to slither down her body from the top of her headdress, gliding past her breasts to intertwine their heads just below her waist (Ibid.). All of them “twine [around the faience woman] as if offering life or death” (Johnson 1990:142).

The Snake Goddesses and her Votary from the palace of Knossos, c. 1600 B.C.E., faience, 34.2 cm and 29.5 cm high (Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, photo (modified): Jill_Ion, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; modified). Source: German (2018).

The smaller figure (far right), which is about twenty centimetres tall, was found with the head and part of the left arm missing (now reconstructed) (Witcombe 1995; Castleden 2000:81-82; Archaeological Institute of America 2017). At the time of being found, she grasped a small snake in her surviving outstretched hand and presumably there had been another one in the right one (Johnson 1990:143; Witcombe 1995; Archaeological Institute of America 2017). The snake’ “size and distinctive markings identify [it] as [a] sacred [adder]” (Johnson 1990:143). Evans found a small fragment of what he took to be her headdress, a circular crown decorated with raised medallions (Witcombe 1995; Archaeological Institute of America 2017). There was a small rivet hole in the top that matched exactly with another fragment representing the small seated figure of a feline, perhaps a lioness, and the figure was restored on that basis (Ibid.). “The restoration of the Snake Goddess was done by the Danish artist Halvor Bagge together with Evans. Their contribution to the figurine was the creation of a matching arm and stripy snake, the head of the goddess, and the placement of the hat and cat […] on her head, [composed of] separate faience pieces found in the Temple Repositories […]” (German 2018).

The Snake Goddess prior to restoration by Evans,
from Angelo Mosso, The Palaces of Crete and
Their Builders (London: Unwin, 1907), p. 137
(University of Toronto Libraries). Source: German (2018).

“The nubile figure of the smaller goddess is robed in the same fashion as the more matronly figure. A tight-fitting jacket exposes her breasts. Her bell-shaped skirt hangs from the waist in seven flounces, and her apron is covered with the cross-hatched net pattern. Like the larger [figure, the smaller’s] skirt covers her feet, a mark of divinity” (Johnson 1990:143). Evans believed the larger figure to be the Goddess herself or a High Priestess as her epiphany, while the smaller was perhaps a lesser and younger priestess or a votary (Witcombe 1995; Castleden 2000:82; Archaeological Institute of America 2017).

Two Snake Goddesses from the palace of Knossos, c. 1600 B.C.E., faience, 34.2 cm and 29.5 cm high (Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, photo: Jill_Ion, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; modified). Source: German (2018).

The figurines must have been created long before the time of the earthquake (Witcombe 1995; Archaeological Institute of America 2017). Nevertheless, they are usually dated back to the time of their destruction (Ibid.). “[Now] reconstructed and deservedly among the most famous and memorable relics of the Minoan culture, [they both show] how the Minoan Snake Goddess was visualized [and] her High Priestess ritually and ecstatically transformed into an epiphany of the goddess” (Castleden 2000:82-82).

The Palace of Knossos is not a palace

As Sir Arthur Evans excavated the magnificent ruins at Knossos, he grew more certain that this was a palace of King Minos and home of the legendary labyrinth (Lilley 2006). He even believed that he had found a royal throne (Ibid.). However, new revelations about Minoan religion and language are transforming a modern understanding of those people (Ibid.). Some archaeologists believe that these buildings are not a palace (Ibid.). Instead they see the Daedalus’ labyrinth or a temple [or both] to harness the chthonic and celestial powers of the divine (Castleden 2000:70-76; Lilley 2006; ).

The Throne Room

Rodney Castleden thinks that “[the] Throne Room has an oppressive, claustrophobic quality that is often missed in photographs” (Castleden 2000:77). I share his opinion. “Windowless and low-ceilinged, approached by way of a deep anteroom that itself is depressed four steps below the level of the Central Court, the room has an almost subterranean quality” (Ibid.:77). Such a character of the Room was also expressed by the colour of the floors and pillars (Ibid.:77). They were pained red (Ibid.:77). The colour itself was associated with sacrificial blood and by extension also with the underworld (Ibid.:77). “The red floor panel was apparently the centre of the religious rituals in the Throne Sanctuary and the manifestation of the deity on the throne itself was their focus” (Ibid.:77).

The so-called Throne Room discovered by Sir Arthur Evans in 1900, with a fully preserved gypsum throne. Was it for a king? Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The throne was made of gypsum and, unlike flanking it benches, it was surely intended as a seat (Castleden 2000:77). Surprisingly enough, “it does not face the doorway, but looks across the width of the room towards the half-hidden sunken adyton (holy of holies), [which is also referred to as the lustral basin]” (Ibid.:77). Its design particularly indicates its chthonic character and purpose, and its setting visibly relates it to the throne itself (Ibid.:77). Some scholars even interpret it as the walled pit used for holding sacred snakes (Gregor 1997:17).

“The whole complex of chambers, sixteen in all, [with the adyton included], was evidently designed as a self-contained unit within the temple building” (Castleden 2000:78). It may have been dedicated to the Snake Goddess as her major attribute has been specifically linked to the powers coming from the underworld.

Priestess of the light and darkness

In 2001, the archaeologist, Dr Sandy McGillivray realized that each of the doorways in the Throne Room is aligned with the rising sun on key days in the calendar (Lilley 2006).

The Vase of Zakros. Museum of Heraklion, Crete. CC BY-SA 3.0.; 2012. Source:Source: “Zakros” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

‘What we’re looking at here is a solar temple’, he claims (Lilley 2006). Accordingly, like the Egyptians, the Minoans may have worshiped the changing cycles of the Sun, the Moon and the stars (Ibid.). Light has always been born from darkness and “[the] adyta were certainly places to descend into […] dark and secret places for mystic rituals, places where the subterranean deities might be invoked, places for individual initiation” (Castleden 2000:78). In the darkness of the adyton, the whole ceremony of the Throne Room may have started with the throne as its focal point. “What we have here is essentially a theater of the senses’, says Dr McGillivray (Lilley 2006). “You can start off with complete blackness and then you can fling open these doors at that [very] moment of sunrise and experience [the] beginning of something new. And in the winter, the Sun comes through on the winter solstice and illuminates the throne” (Ibid.).

Peak Sanctuary re-creation

“The nature of the frescoes [of the Throne Room themselves] suggests an attempt was being made to re-create [there] the wild landscape of the mountain tops. The peculiar wavy shape of the throne […] is a representation of a mountain peak; a rhyton from the temple at Zakro shows a very similar form to indicate the summit of a mountain rising behind an elaborately designed peak sanctuary” (Castleden 2000:79).

The Vase of Zakros. Museum of Heraklion; detail showing the outlines of the throne imitating a mountain peak (between the wild goats’ heads), Crete. CC BY-SA 3.0.; 2012. Source:Source: “Zakros” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Accordingly, “[the] intention of the Throne Sanctuary […] was to honour the same deity or deities that were honoured in the peak sanctuaries by a symbolic re-creation of the peak setting” (Castleden 2000:79). This was mostly a domain of the Mountain Goddess, and the peak dominated by her presence was usually interpreted as a form of her throne (Żak-Bucholc 2005). The latter was also a symbolical representation of the goddess herself (Żak-Bucholc 2005; see Image of the Goddess: between Matriarchy and Patriarchy).

Who sat on the Throne?

“But which god or goddess was being worshiped or appeared to in the Throne Room is far more difficult to say” (Castleden 2000:79). Who then would have sat upon the throne? (History Channel 1980s). Was it used by a king to hold court or did snake princesses practice their rituals of sacrifice there? (Ibid.). Who may have worn the Isopata Signet Ring illustrating rituals led by women? (Ibid.). Was it the privilege of royal or priestly dignity? (Ibid.).

“It was on 13th April 1900 that Evans’ workmen started uncovering the north wall of the Throne Room with its palm tree fresco fragments and the throne itself” (Castleden 2000:43). The Throne Room with its seat, still perfectly intact, is the oldest ever found in Europe dating back to the fifteenth century BC. (circa 3500 years old) (“Throne Room” 2020; see Castleden 2000:31-32,43-44). “[It] seemed to provide Evans with the solid proof of kingship that would support his palace interpretation, but it also provided him with less welcome evidence of religious use” (Castleden 2000:77).

From one side, there is evidence suggesting the existence of a real King Minos; later on, archaeologists found an inscription in an ancient language that may even mention the King by name (Cassel, Conway 2009). ‘In the archives of Knossos there were stone tablets which have inscribed on the words which looked to be like the name of King Minos’, says the author, Tom Stone (Ibid.). Some scholars, however, claim that the word ‘Minos’ does not stand for the name of a particular king but refers to the common title of the monarchs of the Minoans (Castleden 2000:171-172; see Santarcangeli 1982). Also “the strength of the Greeks’ belief in King Minos suggests that there were kings in bronze age Crete” (Castleden 2000:171). These clues suggest the King may have actually lived but the most intriguing connection to the ruins in Knossos appears on another tablet found at the site (Cassel, Conway 2009). “On tablet Gg 702, the inscription [written in the Linear B] refers to an offering made to [the so called Mistress or Lady or Potnia of the Labyrinth]” (Castleden 2000:107; see: Cassel, Conway 2009). So there is in writing not only a direct reference to the Labyrinth, described by Greeks in the Myth of Minotaur, but also a unmistakable connection between the Palace of Knossos and the Labyrinth itself (Cassel, Conway 2009).

Ariadne at the threshold of the Labyrinth. Shot from the documentary Cassel C., Conway J. (2009) The Labyrinth of the Minotaur. Clash of the Gods, Season 1, Episode 4. Dreamaker Productions; KPI.

“[The word ‘Potnia’ [itself] was [long] in use in the classical period as an honorific title in addressing women of rank, such as queens, goddesses and mothers; it seems to have had the same flavour of archaic deference as the phrase ‘my lady’. [It] appears again and again as [the main female title referring to the Minoans’ goddess]. Hers, probably, was the double-axe symbol that [is found] at so many Minoan sanctuaries on Crete, but possibly the pillar and the snake were her symbols too. [Truly], the snake may particularly have made a natural symbol for the chtonic, Earth-mother aspect of Potnia” (Castleden 2000:107). Are then the faience female statuettes with snakes linked to the cult of Potnia, and so to the Lady of the Labyrinth?

Mistress of the Labyrinth

Some authors believe, there was a living epiphany of Potnia in Knossos, as much as it is illustrated by the faience figurines (Cassel, Conway 2009). Her identity is, however, an intriguing mystery (Ibid.). Experts believe it was a woman of great importance in the palace, a High Priestess or even the king’s daughter who held this title (Ibid.). In the myth, the King Minos’ daughter was Ariadne and she plays an important role in the myth (Ibid.). ‘We do not know who the Mistress of the Labyrinth was’, says Stone (Ibid.). ‘But it could have been Ariadne in as much as she was entitled to be the priestess of the temple because she was the first daughter of King Minos’ (Ibid.).

“Harriet Boyd, an American pioneer archaeologist […], was at Knossos when the Throne Room was opened up. She described in her diary how Evans straight away named the stone seat ‘the Throne of Ariadne’. The throne’s broad moulded seat, Evans explained, was more likely designed for a woman’s hips than a man’s” (Castleden 2000:43-44).

Sir Arthur Evans, 1911, in Knossos. Source: German
(2020). In: Khan Academy.

For this reason it happened “he […] referred to the stone seat as ‘Ariadne’s throne’ and the sunken area opposite as ‘Ariadne’s bath’. […] But the association of the throne with Ariadne did not lead Evans anywhere, evocative though it was. [On the other side], Evans sometimes referred to the Throne Room as ‘King Minos’ Council Chamber’ to get round this problem. Even so, that initial inspiration witnessed by Miss Boyd, that the throne was Ariadne’s persisted” (Castleden 2000:44). As a matter of fact, “Evans gave different impressions about the throne on different occasions, [calling it either Ariadne’s or King Minos’ seat]. The accuracy of the name was perhaps unimportant to [him]. What seemed to have mattered most to [the archaeologist] was the names evoked the right response in the visitor, that he or she should feel the place to be a great palace and connected with glittering and exotic names from [the] Greek myth” (Ibid.:44-45).

Solar Virgin

According to the Greek myth, Ariadne is a Cretan princess, the daughter of King Minos and his wife Pazyfae, and the half-sister of the monstrous hybrid, Minotaur (Kowalski, Krzak 2003:24). Ariadne enters the mythical scene with the arrival of Theseus in Crete, who is intended together with his Athenian companions as a sacrificial offering to the Minotaur living in the Labyrinth (Ibid.:24). After falling in love with the hero, the girl reveals him the secret of how to leave the Labyrinth, and when he is saved she decides to abandon her home island by his side (Ibid.:24). One version of the myth tells of Ariadne’s breakup with Theseus; reportedly he abandons her on the island of Dia (now Naxos), where she eventually marries Dionysus (Ibid.:25-26). Thus, the meeting with the hero is only a short-lived episode in her life and is only a transition to the essential part of her divine destiny alongside Dionysus – the regenerating god par excellence (Ibid.:26). In this context, Ariadne was seen as a wild goddess, “associated with untamed landscape and consorting with wild beasts” (Castleden 2000:107), as much as it is illustrated by the found female figures.

Ariadne as the Lady of the Labyrinth. Shot from the documentary Cassel C., Conway J. (2009) The Labyrinth of the Minotaur. Clash of the Gods, Season 1, Episode 4. Dreamaker Productions; KPI.

In the Greek tradition, Ariadne was considered a solar virgin, a daughter of the sun and a spring maiden (Kowalski, Krzak 2003:25). Moreover, in Crete her name meant radiant and luminous (Ibid.:25). The Sun in its daily and annual journey illustrates the mystery of the resurrection, hence Ariadne was a symbol of rebirth (Ibid.:25). As such, she is the goddess of life, love and death (Ibid.:25). If she was a priestess in Knossos, she must have led the revival cult; it was finally believed that she disappeared annually and reappeared in the spring (Ibid.:25-26).

Ariadne’s guideline through the darkness

As Theseus goes deeper and farther, and with each step he comes closer to death at the bottom of the abyss, at the center of the maze, Ariadne is a ‘potential opportunity’ for him to see the light again (Kowalski, Krzak 2003:26).

Isopata Signet Ring from Knossos, showing some sort of ritual being performed by priestesses. Source: Tausch (2012). In: Wikidata.

The hero who reaches the end of death and kills the Minotaur would never have escaped from the dark Labyrinth if not for Ariadne’s help (Kowalski, Krzak 2003:26). The myth is therefore a story of rebirth, of leaving the Labyrinth in a physical and mystical, literal and figurative sense (Ibid.:26). On the threshold of the Labyrinth, in whose deepest recess lurks a mortal monster, stands Ariadne, the Lady of the Labyrinth (Ibid.:26). She offers the hero a ball of thread and holds its end in her hand as if she held the hero’s destiny (Ibid.:26). In this context, Ariadne personifies and combines two aspects: chtonic and solar, which are also closely intertwined in human life by death and rebirth (Ibid.:26). The Throne Room seems to illustrate this mystery, which is also well revealed by the Greek myth.

Ariadne on the Throne

Like chthonic powers, out of the underground depository of the Snake Goddess Sanctuary came the figures looking like Minoan deities or their priestesses (Lilley 2006). “[Snakes] characterize [their] domination of the underworld” (Johnson 1990:143). Such women apparently controlled religious life and there are scholars who believe that the gypsum throne at Knossos was occupied not by a king but by a priestess (Ibid.). ‘Whoever [sat] on that throne [was] basically being illuminated […] on the day when the Sun is reborn’, says Dr. McGillivray (Ibid.). Still he believes that it was rather a High Priestess who sat there to celebrate the rebirth of the Sun and re-forge the Minoan bond with nature (Ibid.). It is also likely that she was “mysteriously transformed by ritual into an epiphany of a deity (Castleden 2000:82).

Snake Goddess from the palace at Knossos, c. 1600 B.C.E., faience, 29.5 cm high (Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, photo: Zde. CC BY-SA 4.0). Source: German (2018); Joy of Museums Virtual Tours (2020).

The female figurines found at Knossos themselves suggest a strong cult of the snake deity in the Throne Room (Lilley 2006). Not only is the snake chthonic in its character but also did it appear as a symbol of the renewal coming with the rising Sun. As such it perfectly illustrates the opposite but co-substantiating one another powers of Ariadne. The presence of the snake imagery is also reinforcing the idea that the Knossos palace was actually a temple and that it was led by the Lady of the Labyrinth (Ibid.). Yet [its] size and evident […] seems to leave little room for a king. It is tempting to see King Minos as forever living in the shadow of the High Priestess of the Labyrinth, just as the worshipful Velchanos, Minoan male deity], always lived in the shadow of Potnia. The king may have been a puppet of the priestesses, dependent on them for the divine validation of his reign and perhaps even dependent on them for material sustenance; a share of a large tribute income of the Labyrinth may have been diverted discreetly into the king’s coffers” (Castleden 2000:172).

Women superior to men?

Apart from priestesses, who are believed to have stood at the forefront of the Minoan prosperous society, these were apparently Minoan women who enjoyed significant influence and independence (Mitchell 2011). The legal code found in Crete testifies that Minoan women had more marital rights than wives in other societies of that time (Ibid.). In the event of divorce, they could even order the return of the dowry (Ibid.). And only men were punished for adultery (Ibid.).

The Sacred Grove miniature fresco. Source: Antiquated Antiquarian (2015).

Such a high status of women and their religious leadership is also highlighted by the Minoan art. In the Grandstand or the Sacred Grove frescoes, there is a group of women “who are obviously the [significant] figures. [On the other side], there is still no sign of Evans’ king and no sign of any male officials” (Castleden 2000:116; see 54-55).

The presiding spirit of the Minoan Golden Age

The presiding spirit of Minoan Crete in its Golden Age was undoubtedly the Snake Goddess, the Minoan icon of the feminine power (Hughes 2004). Together with her diminutive companion, often described as a votary, the figurines are both beautifully attired but even their fine craftsmanship cannot disguise the fact that something elemental and very wild is hiding behind their elegant posture (Ibid.). The goddess’ fierce, wide-eyed stare is matched by her votary’s concentration; simultaneously, the gigantic snake grips her in a protective embrace from her slender waist right up to the tip of her headdress (Ibid.).

Hughes B. “The Snake Goddess”. In: Archer M, Kirby T. (2004) The Minoans. The Ancient Worlds: Episode 3 (fragment). Source: Higging (2018). In: Youtube.

The Minoan world was undoubtedly governed by such potent and vindictive powers as personified by the Snake Goddess (Hughes 2004). They could not be understood only placated (Ibid.). “For all the Goddess’ glamour and sexual power this is the deity who feeds off respect and fear and not love” (Ibid.). “Her fearsome expression is a reminder of the volcanic eruptions, tidal waves, and earthquakes that destroyed the temple-palaces on more than one occasion. The greatest eruption ever known is that of the volcano of nearby Thera, [today Santorini]. It blew up the island in a terrible holocaust […] that probably [began the destruction of] the Minoan civilization” (Johnson 1990:143; see: The World Ended When Gods Turned against the Minoans).

Here on Crete, although separated by millennia from the Minoans, I felt closer to the ancient mysterious forces, hidden in the hypnotic gaze of the Snake Goddess and Ariadne’s shining smile, indicating the exit from the Labyrinth’s abyss.

Featured image: Lesser figure of the Snake Goddess, priestess of a votary from the palace at Knossos (detail), c. 1700-1600 B.C.E., majolica, 29.5 cm high (Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, photo: Zde, CC BY-SA 4.0). Source: German (2018).

By Joanna
Faculty of History of Art and Archaeology
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland
University College Dublin, Ireland

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Faces of the Fifth Sun in the World of the Aztecs

We started our first day in the capital of Mexico with a visit at National Museum of Anthropology and History in Chalpultepek Park, called in Spanish El Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico City. When we entered the Museum, we found ourselves overwhelmed by the opulence and variation of the world’s greatest collection of ancient Mesoamerican art. I admit it is one of my most favourites museums in the world I have ever visited. As the exhibition is vast and its collections highly extensive, we allocated the whole day to explore it right (Semantika 2014). As a matter of fact, the museum edifice is built around a large courtyard, which is a pleasant and shady place to stay when you want to take a break or have lunch, so we did not leave the building before its closure (Ibid.).

The Central Courtyard Umbrella, Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico (National Museum of Anthropology). Photo by Ziko van Dijk. CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: “National Museum of Anthropology (Mexico)” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

“The museum [contains twenty-three] permanent exhibit halls. Archaeology [displays] are located on the ground floor and ethnographic exhibits about present-day indigenous groups in Mexico are on the upper level. […] On the left of the entrance, [there] are halls devoted to [different] cultural areas of Mexico [and each room is extremely impressive. Also] several of the rooms have recreations of archaeological scenes: murals in the Teotihuacan exhibit and tombs in the Oaxaca and Maya rooms, which gives the chance to see the pieces in the context in which they were found” (Semantika 2014). Some of the museum highlights are found on displays dedicated to the last of the great pre-Columbian cultures of Mesoamerica, who furthermore founded the Mexico City itself. It is the culture of the Aztecs, originally known as the tribe of Mexica.

Archaeological journey through the Central Mexico to Tonalmachiot

When we entered the museum, first we turned right to study artifacts showing the cultures that developed in Central Mexico (Semantika 2014). Display units are organized there in a chronological order so starting on the right and making our way around counter-clockwise, we got a feel for how the cultures had changed over time (Ibid.). The archaeological tour of the Central Mexico culminates in the Mexica, aka Aztec exhibit, fulfilled with monumental stone sculptures, of which the most famous is undoubtedly the Aztec Calendar Stone, also known as El Piedro del Sol, which is the Sunstone in Spanish (Ibid.).

The Aztec Calendar Stone, also known as El Piedro del Sol, which is the Sunstone in Spanish. Aztekayolokalli (2012) claims it has its own name and should be called Tonalmachiot; Central Mexico display in National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Photo by Dennis Jarvis (2013). Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike. Source: Ancient History Encyclopedia.

What is today known as the Aztec Calendar Stone should be rather called Tonalmachiot, where Tonal stands for the Sun and Machiotl for the Pattern (Aztekayolokalli 2012). The huge stone disc is hanging today on the wall, showing its most interesting topmost face and occupying a central stage of the room dedicated to the last prominent culture of Mesoamerica before the Conquest.

Disc of mysteries

The so-called Calendar Stone of the Aztecs, aka Tonalmachiot, is certainly the most iconic object from pre-Columbian Mexico (Aztekayolokalli 2012; McDonald 2013). It is probably one of the most famous and frequently studied excavated objects from the ancient world (McDonald 2013).

In the foreground the Aztec god of suffering, Xipe Totec. Behind it, the Calendar Stone in the background. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Nonetheless, despite of all the attention given to the round disc by various scholars and authors, it is still an object of mystery (McDonald 2013). Since the Calendar Stone was found, its enigma has caught human imagination and sparkled a fierce debate over its meaning but so far the disc has not revealed all its secrets to the modern viewer (Ibid.). The Aztecs did not write about it at all so it should be examined carefully on its own to be understood (Ibid.). It needs to be put in the context of what is known today about the Aztec Empire from the Spanish accounts and the Aztecs own history in order to acknowledge its significance (Ibid.). So what is this stone, known as the Piedra del Sol or Sunstone in Spanish and why is it so difficult to figure out the meanings of the images on the stone? (Ibid.).

Not Mayan but Aztec idea

It happens that the Calendar Disc is misinterpreted and perceived as a simple object, especially to people not aware of its true meaning (McDonald 2013). Actually, it is quite complex and enigmatic even to scholars (Ibid.). Surprisingly enough, the Calendar Stone has nothing to do with the so-called ending of times and the apocalypse foretold for 2012 (Ibid.). Although the Sunstone is believed to have been a “next logical step of the Mayan Calendar – proven by modern scientific means to be the most precise calendar system invented by humankind” (Aztekayolokalli 2012) – the Aztec Calendar is not Mayan and it is not a calendar for keeping track of time (McDonald 2013).

The monument is huge; it is made of basalt and measures about 3,6 metres in diameter and is about 1,2 metres thick. Its weight reaches about 24 tons. It is hanging today on the wall, showing its most interesting topmost face and occupying a central stage of the Central Mexico room in the Museum. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Although there are historical dates recorded in the Calendar Stone of the Aztecs, “unlike the Mayan calendar, which is very precise, the Aztec system was [not so, and] a certain date [in it] could refer to a couple of different times in a year. [Hence often disagreements] among scholars about when certain events occurred in the Aztec [Empire]” (Gillan 2019). After an historian of art, Dr Diana McDonald (2013), the Calendar Stone does, however, tell a story about the previous Aztec eras which apparently ended in destruction. Accordingly, the idea of different ages of creation and destruction is present there (Ibid.). Yet it is a particularly Aztec idea and not Mayan (Ibid.). The Maya were notable for their long count of time and dates found on their monuments were figured from a fixed event (point) in the past but the Aztecs were thinking in terms of the dates of the ages of creation (Ibid.). Probably the Calendar Stone is more connected with cosmic events and with human sacrifice than with telling exact time or foretelling future events (Ibid.).

Unearthed treasure of the past

The Calendar Stone was excavated on December 17, 1790 along with another masterpiece of the Aztec sculpture, a colossal statue of Coatlicue, which was a major deity in the Aztec pantheon (Aztekayolokalli 2012; McDonald 2013).

The statue of the goddess Coatlicue, one of the
centrals deities in the Aztec Pantheon. The
sculpture was unearthed together with the
Calendar Stone in 1790, on the grounds of
Zócalo, in Mexico City. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The both artifacts were unearthed on the grounds of Zócalo, the central square of Mexico City (McDonald 2013).The Zócalo in its previous incarnation was the central plaza of the magnificent Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan (Ibid.). “After the conquest, the Spanish moved the [Calendar Stone] a few hundred meters south of [its original] precinct, in a position facing upward and near the Templo Mayor and the Viceregal Palace. Sometime between 1551-1572, the religious officials in Mexico City decided the image was a bad influence on their citizens, and the stone was buried facing down” (Maestri 2019), probably to deflect its powerful imagery (McDonald 2013). The Spanish also destroyed the main temple, the Templo Mayor, and stones from the Aztec period were re-used in colonial buildings, such as the Catholic Cathedral (Ibid.). Like the Sunstone, the whole Aztec statuary was buried in the mid-sixteenth century in the aftermath of the Spanish conquest and a terrifying smallpox epidemic (Ibid.).

In 1790s, the Sunstone was put on display at a tower of the Cathedral in Mexico City. In the nineteenth century it was first moved to the Museo Nacional, and finally , in the twentieth century it found its place in the new Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Chapultepec Park, where it is displayed also today. Photo: “Catedral Piedra del sol, 1950s”. Source: Mia Forbes (2020) “Aztec Calendar: It Is More Than What We Know”. In: The Collector.

By these means, the two most prominent pieces, the colossal statue of Coatlicue and the Calendar Stone had not been seen again until their accidental unearthing in the eighteenth century (McDonald 2013). Having been found, the Sunstone was first put on display at a tower of the Cathedral (Ibid.). “In 1885, the disk was moved to the early Museo Nacional, where it was held in the monolithic gallery. […] In 1964 it was transferred to the new Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Chapultepec Park, [where] it is displayed [today] on the ground floor, […] within the Aztec/Mexica exhibition room” (Maestri 2019).

The Aztec Calendar in the early Museo Nacional, Casasola Archive, 1913. Photo: “The discovery of the Aztec Calendar, Casasola Archive, 1913”. Source: Mia Forbes (2020) “Aztec Calendar: It Is More Than What We Know”. In: The Collector.

The monument is an outstanding masterpiece; it is made of basalt and measures about 3,6 metres in diameter and is about 1,2 metres thick (McDonald 2013; Maestri 2019). Its weight reaches about 24 tons (Ibid.). “Scholars surmise that the basalt was quarried somewhere in the southern basin of Mexico, at least 18-22 kilometres […] south of Tenochtitlan” (Maestri 2019). The topmost part of the disc is intricately carved in hieroglyphs in low and high relief, creating a play of light and shadow (McDonald 2013; Gillan 2019). Additionally, it can have originally been multi-colourfully polychromed. After the author and heir of the Mexica culture, Mazatzin Aztekayolokalli (2018), not only the Calendar Stone is a beautiful piece of art reflecting good artistic qualities but it also contains a significant message.

The greatest in its class

Photograph of the Piedra del Sol with Porfirio Díaz, President of Mexico, in the early Museo National in Mexico City. Photo: AGN Mexico (1910). Photo by A. Carrillo (2016). Public domain. Source: К.Лаврентьев (2016). In: Wikimedia Commons.

Surprisingly to most of the visitors of the Aztec section in the Museum of Anthropology, it turns out that the Calendar Stone is not the only disc produced by the Aztecs. In the same room, where the Sunstone is exposed, there are also other similar discs but smaller and carved less intricately (McDonald 2013). Unlike other Aztec round discs of a similar character, the Calendar Stone is irregular since it has got a ragged stone edge, looking to some people as if it were not completed (Ibid.). As it turned out later on it is not the case. El Piedra del Sol is also by far the largest and most complex example of this kind of stone sculpture and indeed of any Aztec sculpture (Ibid.). After Dr McDonald (2013) it can be described as the most intricate, beautiful and detailed enumeration of a cosmic scheme made by any ancient American culture.

The Empire of bloody rituals

The Aztec Empire itself had grown vast and influential in a fairly short period of time before Spanish conquistadors arrived and destroyed it in the sixteenth century (McDonald 2013). At that time, it was at its height and seemed to have been in power for a bit more than a century, at least according to their own accounts (Ibid.). One of the most important aspects of the Aztec Empire was its alliance with and conquest of many different neighbouring peoples from the Pacific coast to the Gulf coast of today Mexico, and in the mosaic of regions down to Oaxaca (Ibid.). These allied and conquered peoples were required to give tribute to the Aztec capital (Ibid.). At the center of Tenochtitlan many goods were exchanged in this way (Ibid.). The economy was based on the tribute in such things as valuable woven cloth, cacao beans, animal pelts, feathers, jadeite. All that was offered to the Aztec emperor (Ibid.).

Human sacrifice offered to gods at the top of the pyramid. Shot from the film Apocalypto (2006), directed by Mel Gibson. Source: The Cinema Archives (2012-2020).

Most remarkably, however, part of the tribute consisted of people, men and women who were destined for sacrifice (McDonald 2013). It is debated who these sacrificial victims were but many seemed to come from neighbouring regions and from the center of the Aztec Empire as well (Ibid.). Different kinds of people were offered to specific gods at designated times (Ibid.). Some high status captives were offered during important ceremonies on a special sort of stone disc, like the Calendar Stone, but smaller (Ibid.). These sacrificial vessels or platforms were termed Eagle Boxes or Cuauhxicalli in the Aztec language of Nahuatl (McDonald 2013; “Tlaltecuhtli” 2019). The sacrificial person was stretched with his back over the stone disc and held down by four attendants, each holding one limb of a victim (McDonald 2013). A priest made a quick incision in the chest with a special flint knife (Ibid.). Then he reached into his chest and removed the heart, which was then offered as the precious gift to the Sun, called by the Aztecs, the precious Eagle Cactus Fruit (Ibid.). Human blood would have been caught in the central depression that was usually carved into these stones (Ibid.). Probably it would have also served to hold sacrificial hearts (“Tlaltecuhtli” 2019; Maestri 2019).

Aztec Warriors with a typical Aztec weapon, called a macuahuitl. Illustration from the Florentine Codex, sixteenth century. Source:
History Crunch Writers (2018-2019).

There was also another sacrificial use for this shape of stone (McDonald 2013). One of the most interesting sort of sacrifice was a kind mock combat, a gladiatorial contest between a captured warrior meant for sacrifice and an Aztec warrior (Ibid.). The tribute warrior or sacrifice was tethered to a round stone disc, rather like the Calendar Stone but again smaller, usually with a hole drilled through the middle (Ibid.). It was the base for the final sacrifice of a gladiatorial combatant and was called Temalacatl in Nahuatl (Maestri 2019). The sacrificial warrior was given a weapon which consisted of a sort of wooden club or sword studded with feathers, which was rather ineffective in fight (McDonald 2013). He then engaged in combat, obviously pretty limited by being tied to the stone with another warrior who had a real weapon, which was a club as well but this one was studded with sharp and cutting obsidian blades (Ibid.). This typical Aztec weapon was called a macuahuitl and it was capable of serious damage (Ibid.). So this kind of combat was pretty much unequal and one-sided but it was made to be a part of a religious rite (Ibid.). Moreover, bloody rituals conducted by the Aztecs certainly served to strike terror into the hearts of those who may have opposed their absolute rule (Ibid.).

Illustration from the Durán Codex, also known as the History of the Indies of New Spain, which was completed in about 1581. The illustration shows a human sacrifice on Cuauhxicalli, These were sacrificial vessels or platforms also termed Eagle Boxes. Source: “Aztec Human Sacrifice” (2016). Public domain. In: Wikimedia Commons.

Cuauhxicalli and Temalacatl objects are also the possible symbolic associations for the shape of the  Calendar Stone (McDonald 2013; Maestri 2019). The large circular sacrificial stones were set on the horizonal as it is represented in the Durán Codex illustration and the Calendar Stone was likely meant to be horizontal as well (McDonald 2013). Having been carved, the Sunstone “must have been located in the ceremonial precinct of Tenochtitlán, […] and likely near where ritual human sacrifices took place” (Maestri 2019). Yet it is not clear if the Calendar Stone was going to be used as an actual Cuauhxicalli or Temalacatl, or just meant to look like one for symbolic reasons, which is supported by the fact that it is deprived of a similar depression or drilled whole in the middle (McDonald 2013).  

13 Reed and gods’ sacrifice

The essential key to understanding the message of the Calendar Stone itself is, however, what is actually represented upon it (McDonald 2013). Some scholars have worked out that the Aztec Calendar was made in 1479 AD (Ibid.). It is because at the top of the stone, there is the date of 13 Acatl (13 Reed), which directly refers to this particular year (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018). Although some scholars claim the Calendar Stone was carved for Motecuhzoma II, aka Montezuma, the last Aztec tlatoani (emperor) whose reign was eventually disturbed by the Spanish conquest, the year 1479 AD actually fell during the time of the rule of the Aztec emperor, Axayacatl (1469-1481) (McDonald 2013).

Dr McDonald (2013) claims that the date associated with the construction of the Calendar Stone is also what makes the Calendar Stone so important and such a masterpiece. It is due to the fact that 13 Reed or 1479 was also the time of the gathering of gods at Teotihuacan, when they gave the beginning of the era of 4 Earthquake Sun (Ibid.). Emily Umberger, the archaeologist, believes that the date is also “an anniversary […] of a politically crucial event [for the Aztecs. The] birth of the Sun and the rebirth of Huitzilopochtli as the Sun [was] the political message [and] for those who saw the stone [it] was clear: this was an important year of rebirth for the Aztec Empire, and the emperor’s right to rule comes directly from the Sun God and is embedded with the sacred power of time, directionality, and sacrifice” (Maestri 2019).

The king supervising the ceremony of human sacrifice. Shot from the film Apocalypto (2006), directed by Mel Gibson, with the emperor played by Rafael Velez. Source:Apocalypto Eclipse” by vsprlnd25. In: vsprlnd25 Youtube Channel.

In the creation of the new world, the gods sacrificed themselves in bloody rituals (McDonald 2013). Therefore, as it is observed in the case of Coatlicue statue, Aztec gods were usually represented dismembered or as sacrificial victims at the moment of death (Ibid.). This is also why the Aztecs continued human sacrifice; they felt in dept to their gods who had saved the whole creation and supported life on Earth (Ibid.). In this way, they just followed their gods’ example (Ibid.).

The High Priest performing human sacrifice at the top of the pyramid. Shot from the film Apocalypto (2006), directed by Mel Gibson, with the High Priest played by Fernando Hernandez. Source: The Cinema Archives (2012-2020).

The Aztecs believed in extreme penitential suffering: self-sacrifice and human sacrifice, which was in all sense devoted to the gods (McDonald 2013). On the other hand, the sacrificial theme may really have served to control the populations of the Empire through terror and intimidation: seeing as many as thousand sacrificial victims having their hearts torn out on the top of the temple and seeing their heads displayed on skull racks must have had a strong effect on coercing cooperation (Ibid.). This sort of activity was like ruling with terror and probably only few societies have done it on this scale (Ibid.). Illustrations of such deeds still strike and make a powerful effect; open mouths with sharp teeth, blood and dismembered human limbs depicted in threatening and destructive sense, both in anthropomorphic and zoomorphic imagery created by the Aztecs, reveals a rather aggressive imperial and warlike culture (Ibid.). The Aztecs certainly believed that they were very survival depended on war penance and tribute to their gods (Ibid.).

Aztec bloody heritage

When it comes to the art of Mexico after the Conquest and even today, there are visible results of the Aztec heritage (McDonald 2013). The depiction of gods at death, or in the aftermath of gory sacrifice, probably had some influence in how Mexicans have seen and depicted the images of Catholicism (Ibid.).

Souvenirs from Mexico: colourful skulls. Photo by Lexie Harrison-Cripps; Sopa Images; Lightrocket/Getty Images. Source: Smith (2019).

In Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, the sufferings of Christ are usually depicted in more realistic and almost brutal manner than in much of European sculpture and painting (McDonald 2013). They usually show Christ’s Passion with lots of blood, suffering and physical pain emphasize (Ibid.). The penitential aspect of religion is more important in today Mexico than elsewhere (Ibid.). The requirement of personal suffering for the sake of piety has not disappeared (Ibid.). The obliquity of skulls in Mexican art today is another evidence of the strong influence of the pre-Columbian culture (Ibid.). Except that skulls of sacrificial victims on skull racks from Tenochtitlan have been today replaced by ones created out of spun sugar for the Day of the Dead (Ibid.).

Grimace of the Stone’s face

Upon the Calendar Stone, there are a series of carved concentric circles, some cut much deeper than the others (McDonald 2013). These bands are in turn divided into rectangular compartments with smaller motifs inside them (Ibid.). In the center, there is a monstrous face, which appears to have its tongue sticking out (Ibid.). Dr McDonald (2013) thinks this is not a tongue but a sacrificial flint knife, just like the ones used by priests. There are also dots or beads below the neck, which have been interpreted as drops of blood  (Ibid.). Large claws that seem to be extending from the face grasp human hearts  (Ibid.). This blood and sacrificial imagery seems to imply that the face is of a god, one who has been decapitated and sacrificed (Ibid.).

The Calendar Stone of the Aztecs was certainly covered in colourful polychrome. In the center a ferocious face of a mysterious god. Source: O’Connell (2020).

For over two hundred years scholars have not been able to agree on exactly what Aztec deity this is meant to portray (McDonald 2013). Dr McDonald (2013) says that it may be the Sun god, Tonatiuh or the consuming Earth Monster, Tlaltecuhtli, or a combination of both or even some other deity (Ibid.). Mazatzin Aztekayolokalli (2018) claims that the real meaning behind the Calendar Stone is hidden in the symbol of that central character but its face belongs not to the Sun god but to the Aztec goddess personifying the Earth. A very similar image from the Calendar Stone, has also been carved underneath the sacrificial Stone of Tizoc or on the Monolith of Tlaltecuhtli, discovered in Mexico City in 2006 (Aztekayolokalli 2018; “Tlaltecuhtli” 2019). However, this image belongs to the Earth Monster and not to the sun god.

Aztec sun god, Tōnatiuh. Illustration from the Codex Borgia. Public domain. Source: “Tōnatiuh” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Tonatiuh has been usually represented in profile, while wearing an eagle feather headdress and holding a shield as a solar disc (“Tōnatiuh” 2020). Portrayals of Tlaltecuhtli, usually referred to by scholars as the Earth Monster, can be seen carved by the Aztecs just in the same manner as it is visible in the Calendar Stone (Aztekayolokalli 2018). The Earth imagery is very present in Aztec carvings displayed by the Mexican Museum (Ibid.). Tlaltecuhtli is often depicted there as an anthropomorphic squatting toad-like creature with splayed legs and arms (“Tlaltecuhtli” 2019).

Monolith of Tlaltecuhtli discovered in Mexico City in 2006 (1502 AD). Her face is very similar to the one of the Calendar Stone deity. “Monolith of Tlaltecuhtli discovered in Mexico City in 2006 (1502 CE)”. Unknown photographer of ancient artwork (2018). CC0. Source: “Tlaltecuhtli” (2019) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The goddess’ hands and feet are armed with massive claws (“Tlaltecuhtli” 2019). Goddess’ body is covered in crocodile or serpent skin, which probably stands for the surface of the earth (Ibid.). The most characteristic is her full round face with huge golden earrings and a gaping mouth with sharp teeth and a long tongue sticking out of it (Ibid.). The latter is usually interpreted by scholars as a river of blood flowing from the mouth or a flint knife between her teeth (Ibid.).

After Aztekayolokalli (2018), however, the sticking tongue does not represent the flint knife and the need to be fed but it stands for speaking. The deity is speaking to humankind to whom it is bringing a message (Ibid.). As it represents the Earth, the goddess was usually carved onto the bottom of sculptures where they made contact with the earth, or on the undersides of Cuauhxicalli (“Tlaltecuhtli” 2019).

The underside of the Stone of Tizoc showing the Earth Monster, Tlaltecuhtli, with the same grimace as on the Calendar Stone. Source: Shot from the lecture by Mazatzin Aztekayolokalli (2018). Source: Justin Me (2018). In Youtube.

As the face is carved on the topmost part of the Calendar Stone and not onto its bottom, some scholars suggest that the image may actually stand for a collective representation of two different Aztec deities, Tlaltecuhtli and Tonatiuh (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018).

Nahui-Ollin, knowns as the cosmic butterfly

The outline of the sign in which the face resides is the glyph for 4 Nahui-Ollin, which indicates 4 Movement (or Earthquake) and the date of destruction of the previous era (McDonald 2013). Furthermore, inside the glyph, there are four flanges in the forms of rectangles around the face, which are associated not only with the four previous eras or suns of the Aztec cosmos but also with the four cardinal points, four elements and four corners of the universe (Andrews 1998:21; McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018).

The central Nahui Ollin glyph of the Calendar Stone. Photo: “Figure 2. The central Nahui Olin glyph of the Calendar Stone.” Source: David Stuart (2016). “The Face of the Calendar Stone: A New Interpretation”. In: Nahui Ollin. Maya Decipherment.

The ensemble of 4 Nahui-Ollin and four rectangles symbolically paints the image of the wings of a butterfly (Aztekayolokalli 2018). Hence the whole image is called the Movement (Ollin) (Ibid.). Dr McDonald (2013) claims that in that context the central image is in fact 5 sun or era, meaning it is all about the coming destruction of the fifth world and so the end of the current time (Ibid.). At the same time, the glyphs inscribed in the four rectangles, they all portray the dates of destruction of the previous eras (Ibid.). It is believed they should be read from the right to the left as they go counter clockwise (Ibid.). Starting from the right side, there is the symbol of the Earth, standing for the North – a day sign of the Jaguar (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018). On the left, there is the symbol of the Wind, meaning the West – a day sign of the wind (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018). Going further down, there is the symbol of the Rain, which also implies the South – a day sign of the fire, and finally on the right of it, there is the symbol of the Water – the East – a day sign of the water (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018).

Accordingly, there are four elements giving life and keeping it in harmony and balance (Aztekayolokalli 2018). Nevertheless, they also stand for a cataclysm while such a balance is interrupted. In this context, they represent all the natural forces responsible for a destruction of each of the four successive eras preceding the fifth world or sun, which is represented just in the middle of the cosmic butterfly. But what does the Calendar Stone say about the current era and its final destruction?

Featured image: Calendar Aztec Stone (detail). Source: Mia Forbes (2020). “Aztec Calendar: It Is More Than What We Know”. In: The Collector.

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

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The World Ended When Gods Turned against the Minoans

The Bronze Age. Dusk in the eastern Mediterranean (Westbrook 1995). The people on the island of Thera felt something frightening and cataclysmic in the air (Ibid.). They were preparing to abandon their home island (Ibid.). They had filled storage jars with wine, olive and wheat as if one day they would have come back to reclaim them (Ibid.). They carefully closed each lid (Ibid.). They also hid some valuables in their houses’ basements or under door frames (Mitchell 2011). Yet, their most precious possessions, like gold and jewels, they took with them (Westbrook 1995). They carefully sealed their houses as if protecting them from thieves and rushed to their boats (Mitchell 2011). What those people felt was the earth itself trembling beneath them but they had already survived similar earthquakes in the past (Westbrook 1995). That time, however, it was not a mere earthquake (Ibid.). Those people were to never return to their olive, wine and idyllic life they had depicted in their frescoes (Ibid.). They would have simply fled into the night and into the sea (Ibid.).

Sunset at the northern coast of Crete. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Idyllic Island

In the Mediterranean region, in the wide expense of the Blue Aegean Sea, a group of islands stands out in a Greek archipelago (Masjum 2006). They are thrown north of Crete, with a huge caldera at their center (Wengler 2009). The archipelago’s dark and brooding nature appears in contrast to the white limestone and pristine marble of the buildings (Masjum 2006). This islands are collectively known today as Santorini (Ibid.). The terraced landscape and rich volcanic soil make the them ideal for vineyards (History Channel 1980s). For this reason, Santorini is home to some of the finest wines in the world (Ibid.). But while tourists travel to Santorini for sun and the island’s quaint village life, archaeologists keep searching there for more clues about the destruction of the Minoan empire (Ibid.).

In the wide expense of the Blue Aegean Sea, a group of islands of Santorini stands out in a Greek archipelago. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

For years, teams of various scientists, each specialized in a particular field, have joined their forces to solve the mystery (Lilley 2006). They are still finding new evidence of a dreadful disaster that overwhelmed Europe’s first civilisation (Ibid.) ‘Did their terrible fate create the myth of Atlantis, the continent-city that drowned?’, speculates the archaeologist, Dr Sandy McGillivray (Ibid.). ‘They worshiped the sea and the sea [eventually] turned against them’ (Ibid.)

Everlasting myths

More than two thousand years ago, the Greek historian Plato wrote about Atlantis, the fabulous civilization that had been swallowed by the sea but no one has been able to trace the origins of Plato’s story yet (Lilley 2006). Appearing evidence from the island of Crete led some archaeologists to speculate that the Atlantis legend was in fact created in the Mediterranean (Ibid.). Is the legendary destruction of Atlantis just a folk memory of what happened to the Minoans, who flourished on Crete in the Bronze Age, over two thousand years before Plato? (Ibid.)

One of the most charming and visited cities on Santorini, Oia, also known as Pano Meria. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Atlantis was mentioned in Plato’s works Timaeus and Critias, in the fourth century BC. (Westbrook 1995; Harpur, Westwood 1997:18). The great Athenian philosopher claimed the story had originally come from Egypt (Westbrook 1995; Harpur, Westwood 1997:20). It was handed down to him from an Athenian lawmaker, Solon, who had in turn heard it from Egyptian priests from Sais, the capital of Lower Egypt (Ibid.). Solon, and after him Plato, both claimed these were facts, no fiction (Westbrook 1995; Harpur, Westwood 1997:20). According to their accounts, a highly advanced civilization would have developed on the island of Atlantis (Westbrook 1995; Harpur, Westwood 1997:18-21).

The Minoans

In the Bronze Age, the Greek islands were in fact home to an advanced civilization, competing for cultural, artistic and commercial influences in the region, even with the pharaohs of Egypt (Mitchell 2011). These were the Minoans (Ibid.). Centuries before the Greek built the Parthenon, Minoan artists recorded their achievements through exquisite carvings and stunning frescoes (Lilley 2006). They were the first Europeans to use writing but at the height of their powers they were wiped from the pages of history (Ibid.). Their disappearance is still one of the ancient world’s greatest mysteries (Ibid.). Some think the Minoans were slaughtered by conquers from overseas (Ibid.). Others claim that the cataclysmic eruption destroyed them (Ibid).

The Bull Chamber with the relief fresco, probably representing hunting for a bull. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Apart from the legend of Atlantis, there are also other famous stories passionately haunting human imagination. Until the twentieth century, the Minoans had been the mysterious people known only from Greek myths about hybrid monsters and human sacrifice (Lilley 2006). The archaeologist, Dr Sandy McGillivray has been studying Minoan culture on Crete for twenty-five years (Ibid.). He has explored ancient caves in the centre of the island (Ibid.). For hundreds of years, people have believed their winding corridors were actually the Cretan labyrinth, which was the home of legendary Minotaur (Ibid.). Greek myths describe the beast as a feeding on human flesh, half-bull and half-human creature, who was imprisoned in the subterranean chambers by King Minos (Ibid.). According to the myth, the Minotaur had a very particular taste (Ibid.). He liked to consume its human prey alive (Ibid.). ‘To keep a Minotaur fed, Minos executed the tribute of seven maids and seven youths from the Athenians and once they entered the labyrinth, they never left it’, recounts Dr Sandy McGillivray (Ibid.). The myth suggests that Minoans practiced human sacrifice and were even cannibals (Ibid.). Or was this simply a propaganda generated by Greek fears of a powerful people? (Ibid.).

Remains of the so-called palace of King Minos with architectural elements characteristic of the Minoan culture. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

When the explosion of Thera occurred, the Minoan empire must have been at its highest (Westbrook 1995). However, despite their power and remarkable achievements, the Minoans disappeared after 1500 BC (Lilley 2006). Their fate is still a mystery (Ibid.). Were they wiped out by ancient Greek invaders, described by Homer in his epic poems about the Trojan war? (Ibid.). Or was it a catastrophic natural event, like the one that supposedly destroyed the Atlantis? (Ibid.).

Knossos

In 1900, the British archaeologist Arthur Evans started excavating at Knossos in northern Crete, near the modern capital of the island, Heraklion (History Channel 1980s; Lilley 2006). The whole western world was astonished by his discovery (Lilley 2006). Evans devoted forty years of his life to this endeavour, for which he was eventually knighted (History Channel 1980s).

The Minoan ‘Prince of the Lilies’ (copy) on the wall of the “Knossos Palace”. The original restored fresco is preserved in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Crete. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

After the excavations started, it shortly turned out that the archaeologist had come across the capital of the highly advanced civilisation of the Bronze Age (Lilley 2006). Whilst the ancient Europeans were living as barbarian warriors, building clay huts, Cretans were creating monumental architecture and living in overwhelming luxury (History Channel 1980s; Lilley 2006; Mitchell 2011). Men in Knossos must have moved about proudly and confidently (History Channel 1980s). Women were attired elegantly and glamorously (Ibid.). Evans exhumed in Knossos a huge architectural complex, he soon called a palace (History Channel 1980s; (Lilley 2006). It was a complex of buildings of the size of four football fields consisting of one thousand and three hundred courtyards, halls, passageways and rooms (History Channel 1980s; Mitchell 2011). All of them belonged to one single building, which was the heartbeat of the Minoan empire (History Channel 1980s). The palace was approached by massive entrance portals, leading  deep inside its subterranean complex (Ibid.). Above the surface, the palace was two to three storeys high and built of cut stone (Ibid.). The walls were decorated with serene motifs of flowers and animals (Ibid.). War was not glorified there (Ibid.).

Minoan ‘Ladies in Blue’ Fresco, largely recreated according to a modern interpretation, basing just on a few preserved fragments. Nobody can actually know how it looked initially. The original is exposed at Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, Crete. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The architecture was so bewildering that Evans was convinced that he had found the Minotaur’s labyrinth, incorporated into the King Minos’ royal residence (History Channel 1980s). He found there marble walls and alabaster floors, which had been protected by the earth for millennia (Ibid.). In the lavishly decorated private chambers of the priest-king, as Evans assumed, a bathtub was even found (Ibid.). Staircases functioned as ingenuously designed air-conditioners (Ibid.). Light shafts provided subdued lighting (Ibid.). Below the floors, complicated drainage conduits have been built for bathrooms and, first in Europe, flush toilets (Ibid.). Even rainwater, which was collected in the open courtyards of the palace, passed through a special system of drains (Ibid.).

In the storehouses of the palace of Knossos, archaeologists have found huge jars, also called pithoi, for wine, oil, grains and honey. Some are larger, some smaller but many a time they are approximately the size of a human. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In the storehouses there were as many as four hundred storage vats for wine, oil, grains and honey (History Channel 1980s). The Minoans’ capital itself was a masterpiece of contemporary town planning, with its buildings being connected by Europe’s first paved roads (Lilley 2006). Surrounding the palace, there was a town with a population of more than forty thousand inhabitants (Ibid.).

The Empire

Based on what Evans found, archaeologists have built a more accurate picture of what this once great empire looked like (History Channel 1980s). Modern technology offers an impression of extraordinary splendour of the civilization around the whole Crete; ceremonial buildings, holy places, storehouses and workshops were once grouped around large central courtyards (Ibid.). Successively, archaeologists have discovered similar Minoan settlements with the so-called palaces throughout Crete and far beyond it (Lilley 2006). Among them, Knossos is believed to have been the most significant.

Representation of a probably dancing woman or goddess. The preserved fragment of the fresco is showing only the upper part of the woman figure with open bodice and tresses flying in the air. The original can be seen in the Herakleion Archaeological Museum. The copy is exposed in the Queen’s Megaron at Knossos, Crete, where the fragment has been found. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Minoans were the contemporaries of the mighty ancient Egyptians, with a language of their own and a distinctive culture, widely revered by others (Masjum 2006). Highly cultured and civilized, the Minoans held much promise as a people (Ibid.). It was their culture that provided the seed of Greek civilization a thousand years later (Ibid.). They had an advanced state of bureaucracy and organization (Ibid.). The Minoans were equally skilled craftsmen capable of producing exquisite treasures and sophisticated objects of art (Lilley 2006). Their pottery was known throughout the contemporary world for its outstanding beauty and craftsmanship (History Channel 1980s). Its distinctive geometric patterns and naturalistic imagery were prized even by the pharaohs (Ibid.).

Merchants, not warriors

The source of Minoan wealth was their rule at sea (Mitchell 2011). They were peace-loving traders who placed strong emphasis on commerce and not war (Masjum 2006).

Fragments of the cup-bearers fresco found in the area of the South Propylaeum of the palace of Knossos, Crete. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

A geologist, Jelle Zeilinga de Boer, says  that the Minoans created a commercial empire (Masjum 2006). ‘They did not have any defensive walls or anything to protect themselves because they had the [powerful fleet], and they were known in the entire eastern Mediterranean as traders’ (Ibid.). Also artistic influences of the Minoans were far-reaching (Wengler 2009). Minoan pottery and other various artifacts carried by their ships have been found from Spain to Mesopotamia (Lilley 2006). Their distinguished artistic style and motifs, flourished in frescoes also in foreign palaces of Mycenaeans, Egyptians and even Canaanites, such as Tel Kabri, in modern day Israel (Cline 2013). In the Egyptian city of Avaris (also Awaris), in the north-eastern region of the Nile Delta, the Egyptologist, Prof. Manfred Bietak has found a Minoan fresco, dated back to the sixteenth century BC. (Wengler 2009). It represents a recurring theme of the Minoan iconography, especially on Crete, which is a bull-leaping (Ibid.). Bietak claims that the fresco must have been painted by a Minoan artist, probably living and working in Avaris and decorating an Egyptian palace in a typical Minoan style (Ibid.). At the time of the Eighteenth Dynasty, the artistic influence of the Minoans on Egyptian art became highly noticeable (Ibid.). The presence of Minoan frescoes in the Nile Delta is further evidence of close contacts between these two worlds: Egyptian and Minoan (Ibid.).

Reconstructed Minoan Fresco from Tell El-Dab’a, in Egypt. The archaeological site is also known as Avaris, the capital of the Hyksos, which was developed in the Nile delta region of Egypt. However, the fresco itself is dated back to the Eighteenth Dynasty. It represents a bull-leaping, which is a recurring theme in Minoan art. Photo by Martin Dürrschnabel – Own work by Martin Dürrschnabel, de:Benutzer:Martin-D1,(2005). CC BY-SA 2.5. Photo and caption source: “Minoan Frescoes from Tell el-Daba” (2017). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In ancient times, the Minoans traded with the peoples of the Aegean and were amongst the first to sail to distant foreign lands (History Channel 1980s). After the British author, Gavin Menzies (2011), their boats voyaged westwards through the Pillars of Hercules to finally reach not only the British Isles but even northern America. Although scholars have rejected such theories as pseudohistory, all of them agree that the Minoan representatives surely travelled to the Near East and up the River Nile to the legendary city of Thebes, in Egypt (History Channel 1980s; Cline 2013). The palaces in their homeland of Crete, in Knossos, Phaistos and Malia were on a smaller scale than in Egypt but archaeologists claim to have observed in Cretan monumental architecture, structural designs similar to the temples dedicated to Egyptian gods, like Osiris, Isis or Hathor (History Channel 1980s). As Diodorus of Sicily writes in the first century BC. (Bibliotheca historica, Book I, 61), the architect of the labyrinth in Knossos, Dedalus, had first seen such an edifice in Egypt and designed a similar one for King Minos (Santarcangeli 1982:85). Although the Egyptian one was more monumental than the Cretan, it apparently served as its prototype (Ibid.:85).

The North Entrance to the Palace of Knossos, Crete. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

On the other side, the Minoans’ maritime empire was so vast that it even rivalled the ancient Egyptians (Lilley 2006; Mitchell 2011). Nonetheless, the islanders must have been popular and respected in ancient Egypt (Ibid.), particularly because they did not sail with warships on buccaneering raids but as peaceful merchants (History Channel 1980s). Apart from mutual trading, as some scholars underline, there may have also been other Egyptian – Minoan relations, especially in the context of religion and ritual (Santarcangeli 1982:73-85). Yet, all of the sudden, all records of the Minoans came to an abrupt end in the papyrus texts of the Egyptian scribes. Why? (History Channel 1980s).

Northern coast of Crete. Today it attracts flocks of tourists, especially because of the sun and warm sea. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

With time, the Minoans colonized Aegean islands also in the parts of mainland Turkey (Lilley 2006). Consequently, their powerful fleet could significantly control the Mediterranean’s trade routes (Mitchell 2011). At their intersection between Europe, Asia and Africa was Crete, the strategic centre of Minoan power (Ibid.). One hundred and twelve kilometres north lay the island of Thera, known today as the group of Santorini islands (Ibid.).

Restless island

The island of Santorini may provide a clue to solving the Minoan disappearance from history (Lilley 2006). The wild scenery and jagged cliffs draw countless tourists but they do not realize that this is in fact a highly explosive volcano (Ibid.). Nor did the colony of Minoans, who lived on Santorini in the Bronze Age and had built their town on the most dangerous island in Eurasia (Ibid.). At that time, the island was known as Thera. Its crescent shape testifies to a violent volcanic past (History Channel 1980s). Its harbour is now a gigantic caldera, so deep that no ship’s anchor can touch the bottom (Ibid.). In the middle, a volcanic dome rises out of the sea (Ibid.). Today it is an awesome monument to the fourth largest eruption in the last twenty thousand years (Ibid.). It was a cataclysm that some believed led the Minoan civilization to its final end (Ibid.).

“Some scholars identify [Atlantis] with the Greek volcanic island of Thera. […] The circular rim of [the island’s] crater is clearly shown in the aerial photograph” (Harpur, Westwood 1997). Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In 1967, archaeologists discovered the Minoan town of Akrotiri, located on the southern coast of Santorini (History Channel 1980s). It was buried on the slopes of the vast volcano crater (Lilley 2006). Traces of Thera’s wealth can be seen in the ruins of this town (Mitchell 2011). Kitchens and storehouses offered a glimpse of people’s daily life (History Channel 1980s). At the moment they were found, storage jars still contained green kernels and olive pips (Ibid). Along the streets stood buildings whose walls were richly decorated with sophisticated frescoes (Mitchell 2011).

Famous Minoan Spring Fresco in the West Wall Swallows Scene, Akrotiri, Santorini. Subjects undertaken in art by the Minoans on Thera mostly showed the beauty and serenity of nature, with its different colours emanating during the day. Colours intensified. Photo and caption source: W. Sheppard Baird (2010). “Minoan Spring Fresco West Wall Swallows Scene”. In: Official Art Gallery.

Prof. Floyd McCoy, a geo-archaeologist, pays attention to the way Akrotiri’s inhabitants may have celebrated their life, which is well reflected in Minoan art. ‘If you take a look at the wall paintings that have been discovered [there], they are portraying their landscape. This is a happy landscape: animal bouncing around and [girls] picking saffron’, he says (Lilley 2006). ‘They [are] showing a nice lifestyle, comfortable one. It’s a pity it was all destroyed’ (Ibid.). People living on Thera, like the Cretans, built a highly advanced  society, provided with such facilities as the world’s first home toilets combined with an underground sewage system (Mitchell 2011). For such a luxury most Europeans waited another two thousand years (Ibid.).

Island cursed by gods

In the rubble of the ancient town, scientists have found clues, which suggest that Thera eruption may have coincided with the downfall of the Minoan civilization (History Channel 1980s).

Unearthing the Spring Fresco. ©”Prehistoric Thera” by Christos Doumas, published by the John S. Latsis public benefit foundation. In 1974, Marinatos passed away and the following year Doumas himself took over running the excavation, bringing to light an amazing wealth of finds and information. Unlike in Knossos, Minoan frescoes of Akrotiri are better preserved due to having been covered by the layers of volcanic ash and pumice stones. Photo and caption source: Tassoula Eptakili  (2017). “A Life’s Work: The Excavation of Akrotiri in Santorini”. In: Greece Is Santorini. Colours intensified.

Gradually the buried city began to divulge its secrets (History Channel 1980s). However, working among the crumbling walls was dangerous and the man who first discovered Akrotiri, the veteran Greek archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos (1901-1974), was killed by falling rocks and buried in his town (Ibid.). His daughter, Nanno Marinatos, is carrying on his work (Ibid.). She says that most archaeologists agree that the Minoans established a theocratic empire of the seas (Ibid.). Still they do not know what their ruling class was like (Ibid.). Marinatos thinks that its representatives were priests and they claimed their special connections with a deity (Ibid.). Minoan priestesses apparently had the greatest power of all (Mitchell 2011).


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

As Marinatos claims, Minoan priests usually appeared in front of the public dressed as deities, which is well defined by the preserved frescoes (History Channel 1980s). Indeed, the Minoan art represents the mysterious world, where powerful priestesses performed strange and dangerous rituals (Mitchell 2011). Their task as it seems was to communicate with the gods, often through complex rituals in which saffron served as a hallucinogen (Ibid.). Like all ancient civilizations, the Minoans believed that their gods were present everywhere (Ibid.).

Fresco of a fisherman with Coryphaena hippurus from Akrotiri, Thera. Probably an offering to gods. Photo by Marcus Cyron (2008). Public domain. {{PD-US}}. Colours intensified. Photo and caption source: “Fresco of a fisherman” (2015). In: Wikimedia Commons.

Deity was responsible for every natural phenomenon, from the birth of a child to earthquakes, from the seas to the mountain peaks (Mitchell 2011). And the ancient peoples seemed to treat them as flesh and blood figures. Minoan gods were not considered gentle and merciful beings, but rather impulsive and often vindictive (Ibid.). To obtain the favour of the gods sacrifices were made to them and rituals were a way for priests to know their desires (Ibid.). In many houses in the town, rich and colourful paintings reveal images of the Minoan spiritual life: priestesses paying homage to their gods, maids and youths depicted at different stages of their initiation (History Channel 1980s). Even the young man with his abundant catch of fish, archaeologists believe may be on his way to the sacrificial altar (Ibid.). But with time, the Minoan belief system had to begin to break down (History Channel 1980s; Mitchell 2011). It was due to the geological forces that contributed to the destruction of Thera and this glittering world sank in the chaos of the powers of nature (Ibid.).

Earth-shaker is getting furious

In the second millennium BC., Akrotiri was shaken by a violent earthquake but this was merely the beginning of the natural disaster and subsequently the collapse of the entire Minoan civilization (History Channel 1980s; Mitchell 2011).

Stone Staircase destroyed by a devastating earthquake in ancient city of Akrotiri, Thera. It was also one of the warnings, announcing the final explosion of the volcano. Photo and caption source: Alan V. Morgan (2020). “Stone Staircase in a Wrecked Building at Akrotiri”. In: The Greek Field Trip, 1994.

One of the most powerful Minoan gods was called ‘earth-shaker, also identified with Poseidon (Harpur, Westwood 1997:18; Mitchell 2011). As a deity, he was responsible for sea powers and earthquakes and for this reason he was particularly frightening (Ibid.). Structural damage discovered on Thera shows that just before the volcanic eruption there was an earthquake with magnitudes exceeding seven degrees on the Richter scale (0-9) (Mitchell 2011). The buildings on Thera had been designed to withstand weaker shocks, which usually happened in that region (Ibid.). The houses were therefore strengthened by a skeleton made of thick, wooden logs (Ibid.) However, that earthquake was strong enough to smash a stone staircase, as it is visible in ancient Akrotiri, and triggered a series of fatal events for the inhabitants of Thera (Ibid.).

Heralds of the coming disaster

Yet before the deciding earthquake came, the great eruption announced itself slowly and gradually (Wengler 2009). As the black mountain, the volcano was slowly coming to life (Ibid.). One of the first signals of volcano activity were hydrothermal explosions caused by heated groundwaters (Mitchell 2011). Boiling fountains of steam bursting from the sea were accompanied by the first tremors shaking the island (Wengler 2009). Sea quakes caused giant waves to form (Ibid.). These were the heralds of the coming disaster a few months ahead (Ibid.) A Minoan wall painting from the island of Santorini represents a giant wave and drowning people beneath it (Ibid.). Is this a portrayal of the events just before the eruption? (Ibid).

Detail of the so-called Naval Battle shown on the north wall frieze of Room 5 of the West House in Akrotiri, Santorini. Some scholars think that casualties in the water have resulted from the naval battle, others point to giant waves of the sea quakes, which were the heralds of the coming eruption. Source: Antiquated Antiquarian (2015). “The Minoans: Frescoes”. In: The Stream of Time.

For over seventeen thousand years, the magma reservoir beneath the island’s surface was closed but recurring tremors kept deepening cracks and lava began to rise (Mitchell 2011). The rising magma was accompanied by the larger release of sulphurous vapours and other toxic gases (Ibid.). It was another sinister harbinger of the approaching eruption (Ibid.). Foul-smelling sulphurous vapours emerged and spread (Wengler 2009).

Typical of the Minoan architecture, a column tapered at the bottom and larger at the top, with a pillow-like capital (bulbous). Minoan columns were made of timber and painted black and red. Designed is this way to be more resistant to seismic shocks. Copyright©Archaeotravel

Certainly, for the inhabitants of the island it became a race against time (Wengler 2009).  According to archaeological research, the damage after the final earthquake was so severe that residents of Akrotiri had to leave their weakened homes and probably moved to temporary camps, in the hope that they would be able to return to their town soon (Mitchell 2011). “There is evidence [that] people [even] started to repair the damage, but before repairs were complete, another set of quakes hit the town. It appears people abandoned it then and left fairly quickly, as many belongings were [found in Akrotiri]” (Jensen 2018). Undoubtedly, the residents had tried to save whatever they could (Wengler 2009). Just before the eruption, they managed to gather food and water supply and other domestic equipment, but eventually, food jars and the beds tied together and ready to go had to be left behind (Ibid.). The excavations at Akrotiri has showed that while some houses were almost completely emptied before eruption (Ibid.), in others, precious belongings were found safely under the bed or wooden frame (Mitchell 2011). Houses’ doors were shut tight (Ibid.). When the mountain belched hot volcanic ash, for the Minoan islanders it was high time to leave their island (Wengler 2009). Experts believe the population got off Thera just in time; unlike in Pompeii, no trace of human remains have ever been found in Akrotiri (Wengler 2009; Jensen 2018). Yet nobody knows where they sailed to take refuge (Wengler 2009). 

Stages of eruption

‘And suddenly [the volcano] exploded’, says Prof. Floyd McCoy, a geo-archaeologist (Lilley 2006). Thera was erupting (Ibid.). The vast volcano blasted ash, gas and rock up to into the stratosphere (Ibid.).

“Sheer volcanic cliffs bear witness to the terrible cataclysm that befall Thera” (Harpur, Westwood 1997). Copyright©Archaeotravel.

On Santorini, a team of geologists, volcanologists, botanists, archaeologists and physicists has regularly studied the site of the disaster (Wengler 2009). Evidence of the volcano power is all around the island (Lilley 2006; Mitchell 2011). There are deposits that are more than sixty metres deep in places (Lilley 2006). The scientists have made an attempt to reconstruct different stages of the Thera’s eruption (Ibid.). ‘There, in that cliffs face,’ Prof. Floyd McCoy points to the multicoloured high rock face on Santorini, ‘[there are] all four [visible] layers representing the four major faces of this huge dramatic eruption’ (Ibid.).

Ruthless gods

Following the final earthquake, the pressure of magma burst the rock, which for thousands of years had clogged the volcano funnel (Mitchell 2011). It was only a preview of an impending explosion (Ibid.). The volcano was only clearing its throat (Ibid.).

A number of the fragments of frescoes found at Knossos have been restored to give the sense of what the original image might have looked like. [The] ‘Cup-bearer’ from the South Propylaeum shows a young man carrying a large silver rhyton. This is the only life-size figure in a Minoan fresco whose head and torso are preserved. Today exposed at Heraklion Museum, Crete. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Earlier generations had already seen similar but minor eruptions and recognized them as signs from the gods (Mitchell 2011). These were signs whose understanding was the task of the priests (Ibid.). For the Minoans, there was no better way to satisfy threatening and unpredictable gods than through sacrifice (Ibid.). They performed such rituals in sanctuaries, high in the mountains, where they were physically closest to the gods (Ibid.). Twenty-three such places have been discovered in Crete itself, and in them the remains of thousands of clay figurines (Ibid.) Clay parts of the body were to heal the same human limbs, and animal figurines were to heal and protect livestock (Ibid.). In Minoan shrines, bones of animals have also been found, of goats, sheep, pigs and even bulls (Ibid.). Possibly blood sacrifice was considered the most powerful (Ibid.). The power of priests and priestesses depended on their ability to win the favour of the gods, but the forces released beneath Thera’s surface could not be stopped any more (Ibid.). Consequently, confidence in the powers of priests weakened, which eventually led to the collapse of Minoan social and religious systems (Ibid.).

From the earthquake to Plinian eruption

Plinian eruption of Mt. St. Helens on May 18, 1980. USGS Photograph taken on May 18, 1980, by Donald A. Swanson. Photo and caption source: Volcano Discovery (2020). “Illustrated Glossary: Plinian eruption. Volcanology”. In: Volcano Discovery.

From the structure of volcanic sediments in the initial phase of eruption, the island was covered with bright ash (Mitchell 2011). It was enough to poison the sources of drinking water (Ibid.). But it was not the worst awaiting the people living on Thera (Ibid.). What distinguished this eruption from all others experienced so far by the inhabitants of the island was the interaction of two types of magma that triggered a catastrophic chemical reaction (Ibid.). This reaction spewed about a hundred and fifty billion tons of magma onto the surface and made the eruption the greatest natural disaster of the ancient world (Ibid.). Columns of glowing gas of ash and stones flew at over nine kilometres up into the stratosphere, forming a cloud shaped like an atomic mushroom (Ibid.). Consequently, large clouds of rubble and dust rose into the sky after the explosion (Ibid.). Their force can be compared to the detonation of a nuclear bomb (Ibid.). The sound of explosion must have been heard even in Egypt, and clouds of smoke have been seen from Crete after a few minutes (Ibid.).

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

Thera’s eruption has been called the Plinian, which is the most devastating of all (Mitchell 2011). “Plinian eruptions or Vesuvian eruptions are […] marked by their similarity to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, which destroyed the ancient Roman cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii. The eruption was described in a letter written by Pliny the Younger, after the death of his uncle Pliny the Elder” (“Plinian eruption” 2020). Hence its name. Such “eruptions are marked by columns of volcanic debris and hot gases ejected high into the stratosphere, the second layer of Earth’s atmosphere. The key characteristics are ejection of large amount of pumice and very powerful continuous gas-driven eruptions” (Ibid.)

Shot from the documentary: Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell. Source: Yesterday (2020). “Atlantis – End of a World, Birth of a Legend”. In: Yesterday.

During the first four hours of Thera’s eruption, the volcano ejected five billion tons of magma from the crater (Mitchell 2011). The day turned into night, because volcanic dust began to cover the entire island (Ibid.). The cooling magma began to fall as pumice (Ibid.). These were small stones filled with air bubbles but deadly in such large quantities (Ibid.). Prof. McCoy points out to the cliffs on Santorini, saying that at this stage of the eruption, the first layer was created (Lilley 2006). ‘[It] is that brown [one] at the bottom. [This] granular brown layer that’s pumice. Pumice is frothy rock. It represents magma frozen in place, a frozen explosion’, he says (Ibid.).

Deadly ashes

Probably one of the first stages of an initiation for Minoan women: a young girl gathering saffron. Fresco from Akrotiri, Thera. Anonymous author. Public domain. Created: 1600-1500 BC. Photo source: “Wall Paintings of Thera” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

But it was ash, not pumice stone, that posed the greatest threat (Mitchell 2011). Volcanic ashes are different from ordinary ones, as they contain silicone (Ibid.). Drawn into wet human lungs, volcanic ash turns into liquid cement (Ibid.). Breathing then is difficult and finally impossible (Ibid.). Although archaeologists have not found any human remains in Akrotiri, it is still possible some residents of the town could have been stopped on the island, imprisoned by subsequent deadly effects of the eruption, either in their contemporary camps (Ibid.), or elsewhere on the island. Some scholars estimate that in Thera’s case, there were probably only few survivors who had escaped the island (Mitchell 2011).

Pyroclastic flows and torrential rains

The layer on top of the pumice from the cross-section of the cliffs proves the real power of this mighty eruption (Lilley 2006). This is the ash left by pyroclastic flows (Ibid.). ‘Pyroclastic flows [are made by] hot gas material that comes up and flows laterally across the landscape, sometimes at supersonic speeds’, says Prof. McCoy (Ibid.). These gases were forced out by massive explosions in the heart of the volcano, the caldera (Ibid.). But what caused these blasts? (Ibid.).

The archaeological site of Akrotiri on Santorini island. The ancient houses were strengthened by a skeleton made of thick, wooden logs to avoid their destruction during often on Thera earthquakes. Photo source: photos of the archaeological site of Akrotiri. In: Print & Web Guides Ltd. (2020). “Akrotiri” In: Santorini Island, Greece.

When the magma first erupted, it left behind a huge empty chamber (Lilley 2006). The surface above the chamber collapsed, creating a vast cavity (Ibid.). Then seawaters rushed into the expanding crater (Mitchell 2011; Lilley 2006). Upon contact with magma, the water turned into vapour, starting another wave of eruptions (Mitchell 2011). ‘Magma and water do not mix [but] create an explosion’, explains Prof. McCoy (Lilley 2006). ‘The entire Aegean Sea [was] pouring in this vent, mixing with new magma coming up and explosion was tremendous […] and from that [came] these pyroclastic flows’ (Ibid.).

The violent reaction of water with magma led to a phreatomagmatic eruptions (Mitchell 2011). It is estimated that the sound pressure level of this explosion reached three hundred decibels (Ibid.). It was enough to burst the tympanic membrane of everyone within sixteen kilometres (Ibid.). Moreover, the power of this eruption threw rocks from the inside of the crater, turning them into deadly rockets – lava bombs (Ibid.). Such burning lumps of stone could reach the size of a small truck and weigh up to eight tons (Ibid.). As the crater widened, the pressure was pushing the column upwards (Ibid.). The gases and rocks forming it began to fall in all directions (Ibid.). Pyroclastic flows reached the speed of two hundred and ninety kilometres per hour and a temperature of seven hundred degrees (Ibid.). Finally, the sizzling wave of rocks fell into the sea, and when it made the water surface boil, it began to move even faster on the layer of hot steam (Ibid.). After the final monstrous pyroclastic flow, ten metres deposit of ash and pumice were left, which have eventually formed the third layer that the best demonstrates the awesome forces of this eruption (Lilley 2006).

Santorini cliffs encrusted with white buildings, standing out clearly against the brown background of the volcanic rock. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

And on their top Santorini cliffs are built of the final, fourth layer (Lilley 2006). ‘It started to rain’, says Prof. McCoy (Ibid.). ‘Torrential rains came down and then all this loose ash and pumice on the surface started to move downslope. That’s what we call debris flows and then it was over’ (Ibid.).

Far-reaching disaster

What caused Thera eruption to be so far-reaching? (Masjum 2006). Thera sat on a string of volcanic islands straddling four plates (Ibid.). This convergence of plates creates the chain of volcanic islands and makes Thera eruption highly potent (Ibid.). Magma is formed when the African plate gets pushed beneath the Eurasian (Ibid.). The result is a gas rich and thick magma that erupts explosively (Ibid.). Prof. McCoy believes that the explosion was so loud that it could be heard throughout southern Europe, northern Africa and the Middle East (Ibid.).

More importantly, the blast has changed completely the shape of the land (Masjum 2006). Thousands years before the Minoan eruption, Santorini was believed to have joined as one island but after several eruptions the single island was blasted apart into smaller ones (Ibid.). At the time of the Minoans, the volcano was situated at the centre of these islands (Ibid.). When it erupted, it again changed the shape (Ibid.). When the centre of the volcano eventually collapsed, it formed a huge caldera (Ibid.). Today all that remains of the volcano is Nea Kameni, a tiny uninhabited island within the flooded Santorini caldera (Ibid.). With the birth of this new island the volcano is slowly rebuilding itself (Ibid.). Prof. McCoy claims that ‘over next twenty thousand years, this island is going to get larger and larger and then possibly it explodes again’ (Ibid.). ‘In the course of history of this volcano, an eruption repeats itself every twenty thousand years’, he explains (Ibid.).

Shot from the documentary: Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell. Photo source: Nigel Jones (2011). “Blast from the Past! With the Most Breathtaking CGI Effects ever Seen on TV, a Drama that Imagines Atlantis’s Catastrophic End Makes for Explosive Viewing”. In: Mail Online.

I sat down on a whitewashed fence interrupted by the deep blue of a wooden gate suspended over a steep cliff. Only the navy blue waters of the sea stretched further, fading into turquoise green, crashing against the feet of the island. The idyllic landscape and tranquility of the island contrasted strongly with the ragged nature whose dormant forces were likely to wait yet a while before they finally break free.

Was the Thera eruption in the Bronze Age powerful enough to have destroyed the Minoans on Crete as well? (Lilley 2006; see: Disaster of the Bronze Age Spreads Beyond the Epicenter).

Featured image: Shot from the documentary: Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell. Photo source: Far Future Horizons (2016). “Atlantis: The End of a World and the Birth of a Legend”. In: Far Future Horizons.

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

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‘The Way of Rama’ Between India and Sri Lanka

In May 2012, a NASA satellite passed over shallow waters of the Indian Ocean (Woolford-Gibbon, Durkin 2017). It sent back images of a chain of largely submerged objects running between Sri Lanka and India (Ibid.). The NASA image analyst, Marc D’Antonio, describes it as “a string of pearls between two islands” (Ibid.). Similarly, the archaeologist, Chelsea Rose compares it to “a rocky jetty but pretty bigger” (Ibid.). On closer analysis of the satellite image investigators calculate the line of rocks is over thirty kilometres long (Ibid.). What makes the image especially intriguing is that the displayed rocks are located in the area of sea, mentioned in an ancient Indian Sanskrit epic, which also refers to a mythical bridge (Ibid.).

The location of Adam’s Bridge between India and Sri Lanka on Google’s Map. Photo source: Dr. Rita Louise (2013). “Rama’s Bridge: Where Modern Science And Ancient Myths Collide”. In: Ancient Origins.

The Way of Rama

The Indian Sanskrit epic is known as Ramayana. It literally means the ‘Way of Rama’ and constitutes one of the great epics of India, of which the other is known as Mahabharata (Van Nooted 2000:xiii). Both epics had originated from folk tales and belong to the so-called Smriti scriptures (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica 2020). Such writings encompass Hindu stories originally passed down by oral tradition (Ibid.). Ramayana is generally believed to have been written by the sage-poet Valmiki, between the fifth century BC and first century AD (Basu 2016).

According to the Sanskrit, Valmiki tells the story of Ramayana to Rama’s sons, the twins Lava and Kush (Ibid.). Nevertheless, the Ramayana date is not certain as much as the authorship of the epic (Van Nooted 2000:xv). The poet, Valmiki, himself is a half-legendary character (Ibid.:xv). Therefore, although Ramayana is very important of the Hindu tradition, it is usually said to have nothing to do with an exact historical chronology (Ibid.). As it speaks of the events recorded orally for centuries, the story itself may be much older that the written version (Ibid.:xv). However, to make their assumptions safe, scholars usually say “that Valmiki (if he really was the composer) drew upon a number of popular Rama folk tales for his epic, which he wove together into a great frame story, together with numerous exotic and fabulous incidents” (Ibid.:xv).

Valmiki training Lava Kusha (sons of Rama & Sita) in the art of archery. Author: Tej Kumar Book Depo. Public domain. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons (2018).

Chronological discrepancies

As a matter of fact, there are a few alternative chronologies concerning the events described by Ramayana, as much as it occurs in other archaeological areas, such as the Egyptology, where there is a difference of around one hundred years between the so called ‘high’ (the older) and ‘low’ (the younger) chronologies of the ancient Egypt. In case of the time frames for Ramayana, however, such a gap is incomparably larger.

According to the Hindu tradition, the events described by Ramayana took place during the Treta Yuga, which is the second of the four Yugas and the so-called Silver Age (Jagadisa Ayyar 1996:3). All of the periods are cosmic cycles as the starting point of each of them was formed by the conjunction of planets (Ibid.:3). Additionally, each successive age is shorter than the previous one (Ibid.:3). Some Hindu sources say that the Treta Yuga had lasted for 1 296 000 years (Ibid.:3). When did it start? According to such calculations, it was a period of time that began from over two millions years BC and ended around eight hundred thousand BC (!!!) (Jagadisa Ayyar 1996:3; Louise 2013), which sounds absurd (Louise 2013). This is probably why some scholars have re-calculated the time to make it “more” plausible. After their assumptions, the same epoch started in 5 500 BC and ended in 4 250 BC (Mittal 2006:xxiv). Such a time frame would be possible providing that twenty years is an average reign of each of sixty-three kings who were historically recorded (Ibid.:xxiv). Whereas according to the Hindu tradition, the average age of man in the Treta Yuga was three hundred years (Jagadisa Ayyar 1996:3), which is actually similar to the age ascribed to great biblical patriarchs in Genesis.

Statue of Rama in Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh, India (published in 2012). Photo by Ashish3724 (2012). CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: Wikipedia Commons (2020).

There have also been other surveys carried out in order to prove the historicity of Ramayana. By using modern scientific tools, such as archaeoastronomy, some Hindu researches have studied if any exact dates in the western calendar can be attributed to Rama’s lifetime (Hari, Hema Hari 2015). Ramayana, as much as Mahabharata, are regarded as traditional historical and religious texts of India and as such they are believed to contain real astronomical information also supported by observations recorded by the Hindu chronicles (Ibid.). Subsequently, the researches applied the ancient knowledge of configurations of celestial bodies to calculate the time when Rama’s birth may have happened (Ibid.). As a result, they have obtained the precise date of 10th January, 5 114 BC and then, using the same key, they have received further dates of successive events appearing in Ramayana, among which the construction of Ram Setu falls between the 14th and 20th September, 5076 BC (Ibid.). Accordingly, the research results are closer to the so called ‘low’ chronology of Treta Yunga, and consequently of Ramayana, if we can apply such a definition also to the ancient times of India and Sri Lanka.

Is the story a historical record or a myth?

The theory that the events of Ramayana should be dated back to thousands or even millions years ago is considered highly unscientific to western researches. But while it is not acceptable for real historical events, after the same scholars, it fits well in the sphere of myths, which is believed to have been actually presented in the epic. For many mainstream historians who have analysed the text, such a theory is supported by the fact that Ramayana tells a story filled with fairy like characters and describes unrealistic events typical of fiction: divine beings fly on aircrafts between masses of lands, giants, hybrids and demons walk the earth, ape-men construct an engineering feat, and all that is observed by powerful gods who decide about the course of earthly events. In this case, however, what means fiction for western scholars is a religious truth for the Hindus.

Ravana’s sister Suparnakha attempts to seduce Rama. He refuses and spurns her.
Internet Archive Book Images (2015) Image from page 534 of “Indian myth and legend” by Mackencie, D. (1913). Public domain. Uploaded in 2015. Photo source: “Rama” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Rama of Ayodhya is the protagonist of the story (Van Nooted 2000:xiii). He is born as a prince but he is forced to abdicate his claim to the throne in favour of his half-brother (Ibid.:xiii). As a result, “Rama himself withdraws into the forest for thirteen years accompanied by his faithful wife Sita and a his devoted half-brother, Lakshmana” (Ibid.:xiii-xiv).

The action of the story is rising when they all get into conflict with “the legions of the dark, the Rakshasas or demons” (Ibid.:xiv). The struggle culminates when two brothers, Rama and Lakshmana, humiliate Shurpanakha who is the demon king’s sister. As a result, her powerful brother, ten-headed Ravana takes revenge for his sister’s disgrace by abducting Sita (Ibid.:xiv). The demon takes Rama’s wife on board of his aircraft, vimana, and they fly together to Ravana’s kingdom on the island Lanka, today associated with Sri Lanka” (Ibid.:xiv). The demon’s capital, in turn, is usually localized at the famous Rock of Sigiriya, which is rising just in the middle of the island (see In the Realm of Demon Ravana).

Movie Still From The Film Raavan (2010), directed by Mani Ratnam; starring: Abhishek Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai. In the photo:  Abhishek Bachchan. Photo Source: “Raavan” (2016). In: Bollywood Hungama. Bollywood Entertainment at its Best.

In search for Sita, Rama and Lakshmana ally with the Vanara – an army of ape men and bears under the generalship of the mighty ape-man Hanuman (Van Nooted 2000:xiv; Louise 2013). Finally, they discover the place where Sita is kept captive (Van Nooted 2000:xiv). To reach the island, Rama is advised by the sea god to construct a bridge between the mainland to Lanka and move his army of ape-men on the enemy’s territory (Van Nooted 2000:xiv; Louise 2013). Once the bridge is ready, they all cross it from India to Lanka and a great battle between Rama’s army and Ravana’s demons ensues (Van Nooted 2000:xiv). Eventually, the good wins and at the moment of victory, Rama discovers his divine origins (Ibid.:xiv-xv): “[he] is an incarnation of the great god Vishnu who has come on earth to save mankind from oppression by demonic forces” (Ibid.:xiv-xv). Having killed Ravana, Rama wins Sita back and they come back to India by air using Ravana’s vimana (Ibid.:xv).

Ravana’s Celestial Chariot carrying Rama and Sita back to India, ca. 1650. Among the earliest Ramayana paintings of the manuscript, Panjab Hills. Uploaded by Yann (2015). Public domain. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons (2020).

After coming back to Ayodhya, Rama is crowned king (Ibid.:xv). Yet the story does not end well. Rama suspects his wife of having been unfaithful to him during her stay on Lanka and he banishes her back to the forest (Ibid.:xv). There, Sita gives the birth to Rama’s twins (Ibid.:xv). At this point, Valmiki appears in the narrative (Ibid.:xv). He takes care of Rama’s sons and teaches them the story of Rama’s great exploits, which is actually the Ramayana itself (Ibid.:xv).

Floating stones of Ram Setu

The causeway or bridge between India and Lanka described by the Ramayana is usually referred to as Ram setu (Rama’s Bridge) but it is also known as Nala’s bridge, as it is the name of the ape-man engineer who has designed the whole construction (Hari, Hema Hari 2015; Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office 2017).

The text of Ramayana gives the records of the building project in detail including all the techniques used (Hari, Hema Hari 2015). The bridge has been built over a natural sea ridge (Ibid.). First the Vanara used various wood to construct a pile foundation, and then on top of it larger stones were piled on, rising up to the flat finished level (Ibid.).

The Vanara Army is constructing the Bridge. The name ‘Rama’ is written down on the stones to make them float. Photo source: Soma Tiwari (2018). “Here’s the Real Story of Ram Setu Bridge”. In: Scientific Mystery.

As the epic says, there were special stones employed; namely, they could float on the water surface after the name Rama was written on them (Das 2017; Tiwari 2018). Actually floating stones can be still found on the coast of Rameshwaram, where the bridge starts in India (Ibid.). Some scientists claim it is pumice, which is the volcanic rock that can initially float on the water due to its smaller density (Ibid.). The theory of pumice stones, however, has been strongly contested (Ibid.). First of all, there is no volcano in the areas of Rameswaram, nor any evidence of its existence there in the past (Tiwari 2018). So how did pumice stones appear there, if they are volcanic rocks? (Ibid.). Moreover, an analysis of the stones “has revealed that floating stones in Rameswaram are not lightweight as pumice stones” (Ibid.). Hindu scholars claim that although rocks found near the bridge are similar to corals or pumice in appearance, at closer examination it is found that they are not (Das 2017).

After all, the concept of floating stones found in Rameshwaram and potentially used in Ramayana has not been explained yet (Das 2017; Tiwari 2018). For scholars who try to resolve that matter, the problem occurs together with the following question: could the ancient builders of the bridge know the technology to make stones float on water? (Das 2017:27).

Natural or planned construction?

The bridge was built in a proper linear alignment, which is visible even today in aerial images (Hari, Hema Hari 2015). So it was not just random throwing of stones here or there or a usually irregular natural formation (Ibid.). “’It is the context which tells the story,’ said [the marine archaeologist, Alok] Tripathi, who became the first head of the Archaeological Survey of India’s underwater archaeology wing in 2001. ‘In nature, stones would lie haphazardly,’ he said. ‘If you find them aligned or you find layers of stone and sand, from the manner of their arrangement you know there has been human intervention’” (Roy Chowdhury 2017).

Scientific and literary data linkage

The measurements of the causeway, namely 35 kilometres long and 3,5 kilometres wide, are also analogous to the measurements of the bridge given by the epic, which is 100 leagues in length and 10 in width (Hari, Hema Hari 2015). This gives the ratio of 1 (width) : 10 (length) (Ibid.). As Ramayana goes, the whole project lasted for just five days (Ibid.).

Aerial image of Rama’s Bridge. Source: Tiwari (2018) and Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office (2017). Photo source: Soma Tiwari (2018). “Here’s the Real Story of Ram Setu Bridge”. In: Scientific Mystery and Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office (2017) “Adam’s Bridge – The Mythical Bridge Over the Ocean” In: Sri Lanka. Wonder of Asia.

“On the first day, fourteen yojans of bridge was constructed by the monkeys speedily, thrilled with delight as they were, resembling elephants. In the same manner, on the second day twenty yojans of bridge was constructed speedily by the monkeys of terrific bodies and of mighty strength. Thus, on the third day twenty-one yojans of the bridge was constructed in the ocean speedily by the monkeys with their colossal bodies. On the fourth day, a further of twenty-two yojans was constructed by the dashing monkeys with a great speed. In that manner, on the fifth day, the monkeys working quickly constructed twenty-three yojans of the bridge up to the other seashore.”


The translated version of the excerpt taken from Ramayana, describing the construction of Ram Setu. In: Tiwari (2018).

What could an archaeologist uncover?

Since the bridge was built, the layers of sand have accumulated over the structure making sandbars and shoals (Hari, Hema Hari 2015). Some scholars, like Alok Tripathi, believe that archaeological examination of the site would uncover the successive layers of the ancient bridge, at the bottom of which, there should be the solidified wood, which would have become carbonaceous material over thousands of years (Hari, Hema Hari 2015; Roy Chowdhury 2017). Consequently, Tripathi has submitted research proposal to investigate the structure (Roy Chowdhury 2017). He argues that the “belief that Rama’s army built that bridge is well-established. [The Vanara may have] filled the gaps between the islets with stones and logs [and] archaeological investigation may reveal material evidence, if any” (Ibid.).

The marine archaeologist, Alok Tripathi, working at the sunken legendary city of Dwarka, India, in 2007. Photo by Alok Tripathi. Photo source: Roy Chowdhury S.  (2017) “‘I am 100% sure we will find archaeological remains’: Researcher who aims to study Ram Setu to Lanka”. In: Scroll.in.

Historical records of fiction

According to historical records, such a land connection between India and Sri Lanka, as described by Ramayana, really existed and it was first mentioned in the ninth century AD in The Book of Roads and Kingdoms by the Persian geographer Ibn Khordadbeh, who refers to it as Set Bandhhai, which means Bridge of the Sea (Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office 2017). By all accounts, the causeway interconnected Rameswaram Island, off the south-eastern coast of Tamil Nadu (Palk Strait), in India, and Mannar Island (Gulf of Mannar), off the north-western coast of Sri Lanka (Ibid.) and “was reportedly passable on foot up to the fifteenth century until storms deepened the channel. The Rameshwaram temple records suggest that Rama’s Bridge was completely above sea level until it was destroyed in a cyclone in […] 1480” (Ibid.).

Ptolemy’s Map of Ceylon and Ram Setu reaching to India. Claudius Ptolemaeus (fl. AD 127-145, Alexandria). Photo by Wilfriedbluhm.de. Map source Admin (2013) “Most Ramy, budowla z prehistorii łącząca Indie z Cejlonem”. In: Inne Medium.pl.

Nevertheless, the structure was still marked on the nineteenth century’s maps. In 1804, a British cartographer describes the same structure as Adam’s bridge “in reference to an Abrahamic myth, in which Adam used the bridge to reach a mountain, which the British identified with Adam’s Peak, where he stood repentant on one foot for one thousand years, leaving a large hollow mark resembling a footprint” (Ibid.). Yet, according to the Hindu tradition, the footprint has been actually left by the god Shiva.

Aerial photos

The Rama’ bridge was brought again into attention by aerial images sent by NASA in 2012. The stones in the satellite image are sitting on something that the oceanographers call a shoal or sandbar (Woolford-Gibbon, Durkin 2017). Accordingly, geological evidence suggests that the ‘bridge’ was “made with chain of limestone shoals surrounded by a shallow sea of one to ten meters depth” (Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office 2017). Some geologists, as Dr Erin Argyilan, admit that “the structure occurs in an area where there is shallow waters and sand could accumulate between two land masses [over the time]” (Woolford-Gibbon, Durkin 2017). As a result, a long and narrow strip of land was composed (Ibid.).

Natural or manmade

There is no doubt such a structure exists but the key matter is now answering the question whether the construction is natural or manmade. Provided evidence could either reject or at least partially confirm the events described by Ramayana.  

Adam’s Bridge Between India and Sri Lanka Before 1480, when it may have been yet passable. Map found via reddit from Brilliant Maps (2015).

In the past, some scholars claimed it to “[have been] formed by a process of accretion and rising of the land, while the other surmised that it had been [shaped] by the breaking away of Sri Lanka from the Indian mainland” (Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office 2017). However, the fact that the remains of the structure are situated in the place indicated by the epic is itself quite intriguing. In case it is a natural formation, as some researchers believe, it would mean that the author of Ramayana or earlier oral folks must have based a description of the “fictional” Ram Setu on the appearance of the actual causeway joining India with Sri Lanka. On the other side, there is evidence supporting the claim that this strip of land is the same one described in Hindu literature (Louise 2013).

NASA and geology

Although Ram Setu was once believed to be a natural deposition of sand, silt and small pebbles, the NASA images definitely show it looks more like a broken bridge under the ocean’s surface than a creation of nature (Louise 2013; Woolford-Gibbon, Durkin 2017). Dr. Badrinarayanan, the former director of the Geological Survey of India thoroughly studied the causeway and went to conclusions in favour of the theory saying it is an artificial construction (Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office 2017). Also other interdisciplinary scholars, including archaeologists and geologists, claim that “although the sandbar may be natural, what is sitting above it is not” (Woolford-Gibbon, Durkin 2017). Marc D’Antonio, the NASA Image Analyst agrees that it is not just a simple sandbar (Ibid.). He says: “there are larger objects within it that have not been eroded away” (Ibid.). Dr Alan Lester, the geologist identifies “these objects as stones that have been brought from afar and set on top of the sandbar island chain” (Ibid.). Dr Badrinarayanan justifies the same by the presence of coral reef above loose sands layer for the entire stretch of the causeway (Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office 2017). As he explains “corals normally form above rocks and not over sand layers” (Ibid.).

Aerial image of Rama’s Bridge. CC-by-sa PlaneMad/Wikimedia. Photo source: Roy Chowdhury S.  (2017) “‘I am 100% sure we will find archaeological remains’: Researcher who aims to study Ram Setu to Lanka”. In: Scroll.in.

Traditional research methods also supported the NASA results by a deeper analysis of the causeway layers . A team of Indian archaeologists and geologists had embarked on the underwater expedition to physically explore the mysterious structure (Woolford-Gibbon, Durkin 2017). “Dr Badrinarayanan and his team drilled [ten] bore holes along the alignment of [Ram Setu]. What [they] discovered was startling. About [six] meters below the surface they found a consistent layer of calcareous sand stone, corals and boulder like materials” (Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office 2017).  Next, some four to five meters further down, the team discovered layers of loose sand, and then again hard rock formations below the sand (Ibid.). But how the stones got above the sand layer is a mystery (Woolford-Gibbon, Durkin 2017).

Today some sections are still only between 1 and 10 meters (3 and 30 feet deep) as can be seen in this photo from NASA’s Landsat 7 satellite. Photo and caption from Brilliant Maps (2015).

According to further analysis of the boulders, the team of divers claims “they were not composed of a typical marine formation [but] they were identified as having come from either side of the causeway” (Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office 2017). Dr Badrinarayanan’s team also indicates that stone boulders may have been quarried from either shore to be finally placed upon the sandy bottom and form the causeway (Ibid.). Could they be the so-called floating stones found in the coastal area of Rameshwaram?

Time for dating

Providing the above scientific results, it is strongly indicated that the structure in the satellite image is not natural but created artificially. And when a team of geologists dates the stones the mystery deepens … (Woolford-Gibbon, Durkin 2017).

In 2003, “a team from the Centre for Remote Sensing (CRS) of Bharathidasan University, […] led by Professor S.M. Ramasamy […] claimed that the “Rama’s bridge could only be 3,500 years old, [which is hardly 1 500 BC and] as the carbon dating of the beaches roughly matches the dates of Ramayana, its link to the epic needs to be explored” (Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office 2017). Professor S.M. Ramasamy did not mention, however that the carbon dating in 2013 had been conducted ultimately on corals grown on the causeway itself and so it represents only the age of the corals, not the stones (Ibid.). Meantime, the rocks underneath the corals have been dated back to thousands of years earlier (Ibid.).

Video Material. Source: Woolford-Gibbon, J., Durkin, M. (2017) “Ramasetu” (fragment) In: What on Earth. WAG TV for Science Channel (SCI) Youtube Channel.

The archaeologist, Chelsea Rose also notices that “the rocks on top of the sand actually predate the sand so there’s more to the story” (Woolford-Gibbon, Durkin 2017). Accordingly, scientific analysis of the stones reveals they are around seven thousands years old but are sitting on top of sand that is only four thousand years old (Ibid.).

Further dating

Such dating has been also supported by another method, which is apparently against the theory of the floating stones.

Today the causeway is around two metres below the present day sea-level, which can be explained by the fact that such floating stones as pumice would have eventually sunk (Hari, Hema Hari 2015; Das 2017:26). Whereas the alternative theory says that the boulders were supported by the wooded scaffolding and when the bridge was completed they must have been at least one metre above the water level (Hari, Hema Hari 2015). In this case, the sea must have risen around three metres since the construction of the bridge took place (Ibid.). As oceanography reports say, in the course of seven thousand years, three metres rise of the sea level has occurred in the ocean due to climatic changes, such as global warming (Ibid.). Consequently, using such a dating tool, the bridge can be dated again to around 5 000 BC (Ibid.).

In spite of significant differences in dating the events of Ramayana, It can be definitely concluded that the causeway itself must be an artificial construction. Moreover, due to the overwhelming evidence, it can be convincingly dated back to around 5 000 BC, unless there is another strong evidence against such dating. At this point, it is not risky to suggest that the material remains of the bridge between India and Sri Lanka are equivalent to the structure described in Ramayana, and by these means, the bridge itself can become a basis for the chronology of the epic.

If the bridge exists, who built it?

What about Ramayana’s characters? Did they really exist? On the Indian subcontinent, such ancient texts as Ramayana or Mahabharata are taken literally so there is a strong conviction they tell the truth. And although such protagonists as Rama or Ravana are historical for Hindus, most western scholars reject the epic as a historical record and treat it as a legend or even a fairy tale.

General of the Vanara Army, Hanuman. Photo source: Wikiwand (2020).

According to the sacred texts of the Ramayana, the bridge was built by the Vanara, the demigod ape-men (Louise 2013). Dr Rita Louise (2013) suggests that it may be a real story if we assume the ‘high’ time frames for the Treta Yuga are correct. If so, by introducing the Vanara ape-men, Ramayana may actually refer to the representatives of Homo erectus (upright man) who appeared in Eurasia by around 2 million years ago (Louise 2013).

Nevertheless, researchers are more likely to believe these were humans who constructed the bridge themselves, without any supernatural powers. Marc D’Antonio suggests that although it must have been a gargantuan task, “ancient people transported stones in to cover areas to make them higher and so make it more passable to keep the bridge” (Woolford-Gibbon, Durkin 2017). If the ancient text of Ramayana refers to a time of 5 000 BC, at this point in mankind history, building such a long bridge would have been a superhuman achievement (Ibid.). Still Dr Patrick Hunt, the archaeologist, claims that humans surely were capable to build the Ram Setu, as much as they were able to design and erect such megastructure as the Pyramids of Giza (Ibid.).

Ravana abducting Sita. Chitra Ramayana by Ramachandra Madhwa Mahishi, Illustrated by Balasaheb Pandit Pant Pratinidhi, (1916). Public domain. Photo source: “Vanara” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Also in India and Sri Lanka there are incredible ancient structures including mysterious religious monuments (Ibid.). “For this reason” says Hunt’, “we should never underestimate people of the past. If archaeological investigation actually finds that these chains of islands was indeed man made, it really could change our understanding of ancient people’s times and technologies” (Ibid.). Likewise, Marc D’Antonio admits that “the people who designed and built the bridge must have actually been very clever engineers and they certainly would have found a way to maintain this connection using stones and bring them in to actually make some type of a bridge between Sri Lanka and India” (Ibid.).

Other questions without an answer

There are, however, other questions one should answer. Generally, if scholars agree that men were skilled enough to build such megastructures as Ram Setu thousands of years ago, it must be also admitted that even in their times they were highly advanced in terms of technology and engineering. Meantime, archaeological finds in Egypt expose a number of primitive tools, which are claimed to have been used in the third millennium BC by the builders of the Giza Pyramids.

Tools, which were apparently used by the builders of the Egyptian pyramids. Documentary shot from Grimault, Pooyard (2012) The Revelation of the Pyramids.

‘If they built pyramids with such tools’ one would say. ‘They had been able to build the bridge across the ocean as well’.

Yet, according to the theory of evolution, human technology should have been even less developed at the time of Ram Setu, which is believed to be an earlier construction than the Egyptian pyramids, not to mention the megalithic constructions of Göbekli Tepe, which are dated back even to 10 000 BC. In this case, how is it possible to explain that after all contemporary people were able to make it? Could it be sure that it was possible to construct the bridge only by means of primitive tools, said to be available at that stage of technological development? (Grimault, Pooyard 2012)