The Doors of Precession: Lunar Deities and the Sacred Landscape of the Neolithic Peoples
by Helen Benigni
The doors of precession were opened by our ancestors eons ago when our deepest sense of the infinite was reaffirmed through scientific observation and the belief in something much larger and more powerful than ourselves. The moon afforded our first glimpses of eternity through careful observation of its changing face. Not only did it act as a guide through the seasons of the year, but miraculously, the moon showed change over longer periods of time. The doors to the precessional cycles of the moon and the stars were accessible and the worship began. Both woman and man became a vital part of the process, and the moon became a symbol of life, death and regeneration. As progenitor of growth, the moon opened the doors to the mystery of time, and the evidence of the moon’s power over the ebb and flow of the tides, over the lives of plants and animals, and over the human cycles took definite mythological form.
In the Paleolithic Era, the first moon goddess appears holding the horn of a bison or auroch. Known to archeologists as the Venus of Laussel, Dordogne, France this figure portrays the moon’s growth cycle from the newly crescent moon to the full moon in the thirteen vertical strokes on her elevated bison horn. Here, we have firmly established two concepts that will remain constant from the Paleolithic Era of approximately 23,000 BC to the Bronze Age. The first concept is that the moon is a power of regeneration of life from death, a parallel made from observing the growth of the moon from the new moon to the full moon with the growth of plants and with the growth of humans; the goddess’s left hand draws the viewer’s attention to her womb indicating the parallel to the growth of life itself. The second concept is the idea that the moon and the bison are one in the same power. Therefore, the process of regeneration of life from death or the creation of life itself must involve both a feminine and a masculine force as the bison is an adept representation of the fecund power of the masculine.
The sacredness of the number thirteen also identifies lunar cycles beyond their monthly course. Every two and one half years, a thirteenth moon occurs in order for lunar time to be in sync with the journey of the sun throughout the year. In the context of Paleolithic art, early man was most interested in depicting what Joseph Campbell describes as a “timeless idol of the nature religions” where man records the unusual or the aberrant as forms of nature worthy of deification (Transformations of Myth Vol. I). The thirteenth moon held by the goddess is just such a “timeless idol” because it allows us to believe in the unusual or magnificent departure of nature from the aesthetic field of concrete abstraction to the dramatically different, a concept indigenous to Paleolithic art.
The shift from the timeless idol of nature in the Paleolithic art to the abstract and temporarily ordered process of Neolithic art is as remarkable as the shift from a cyclical to a linear understanding of time and history from ancient times to the present. We harken back to our first recognition of the counterparts between the celestial and the earthly in the figure of Laussel with an understanding of how much we have changed. As W.B. Yeats outlines in his book A Vision, the moon must remain the primary mask in the development of our lives (78-81). Our first moon goddess and bison’s horn is therefore understandably part of a group of four of goddesses which might possibly represent each mask we must don or each of the four phases of the moon: first quarter, full, last quarter and new. Unfortunately, little detail on the figures in low relief is clearly discernible other than the fact that two of the four elevate an object and the fourth is a mirror image of herself (Leroi-Gourhan 303).
However, the one perceptible image of our goddess with the thirteen strokes on the bison’s horn might be the most telling. In an astounding work of archeoastronomy, Sun, Moon and Stonehenge, Robin Heath remarks that the number thirteen is “a very lunar number.” Heath reminds us that our own age has lost track of the larger cycles of the precession of the stars at the vernal equinox where each 2,000 years is measured by the rising constellation at the vernal equinox. The Taurean Age or the Age of the Bull, from approximately 4,000 to 2,000 BC, was an era ruled by Venus with the Moon exalted. The worship, that perhaps is even older than this recorded time with its roots reaching into the Paleolithic Era, was eventually dissipated by the Iron Age, or the Age of Aries, and then the modern age, or the Age of Pisces which “threw out the Goddess religions, and anything lunar automatically went out with the package” (33). The precessional cycles, divisible by thirteen to yield exact 2000 year periods, were ignored, and we were no longer interested in “the realities which inform us that there should be thirteen ages.” Likewise, the fact that the moon moves just over thirteen degrees a day around the earth, and the fact that it makes just over thirteen orbits in one solar year, clearly visible to a causal observer, have also been ignored (Heath 34). With this in mind, our goddess’ thirteen takes on deeper significance and leaves us to ponder exactly how much our ancestors were aware of the cycles of precession.
When the Paleolithic period of cave sanctuaries gives way to the emergence of the city civilizations of the Neolithic Era, the belief in the moon goddess and her bison remains a dominant motif with some adaptations. Here, notes Campbell, “a remarkable thing happens in certain places and certain times, namely the timeless idol of the nature religions yields to a temporally ordered process so that civilizations emerge that have histories, a youth, a maturity and an aging” (Transformations of Myth Vol. I). With this emphasis on time and its continuum, it is no wonder that the goddess and the bull, now a domesticated bison that needs protection and food, become a central image of the Neolithic culture at places such as Çatal Hüyük. New images of bucrania and other depiction of bulls are still associated with time, regeneration, birthing and, of course, the moon, when the bison or auroch now extinct in the nearby Taurus Mountains and on the Konya Plain are replaced by the image of the bull. The goddess and the bull have evolved, yet they retain much of their former symbolic value.
In a study of The Goddess of Anatolia, James Mellaart remarks that the bull is now represented by its head alone in many of the temples at Çatal Hüyük. He offers several sound reasons for this. First, Mellaart states, the bull’s head emerges from the goddess in her birthing position as a frontal representation of the actual birth process and that the uterus with its fallopian tubes looks remarkably like a bull’s head, hence the choice of the bull’s heads at Çatal Hüyük. Then, Mellaart asserts, the bull’s horns represent the moon in its waxing and waning stages and are associated with the regeneration of the life forces such as women’s menstrual cycles and water as a source of life (23). Likewise, Campbell states that the bull’s heads at Çatal Hüyük are representations of the moon dying and being resurrected again through the “birth giving form” of the goddess where the mother receives us in death and the mother brings us into life (Transformations of Myth Vol. I).
Although the goddess is portrayed as the mother in her birthing form, she might also be considered as consort and lover to the bull. In Neolithic symbology, the goddess figures are transformers of the life force in a dual role as both mother and lover. This is best represented in a relief of the goddess discovered at Çatal Hüyük where the goddess is back-to-back with herself embracing a male on the left side and holding a child on the right. As the center of the agricultural and emotional life of the community, the goddess acts as the key symbol of the mythology. She is “the primary mythological figure personifying the energies of nature which transform past into future, semen into child, seed into produce, and so forth” (Campbell Transformations of Myth Vol. I). The moon in bull form, therefore, might be considered both the consort and the son of the goddess. In one wall painting at Çatal Hüyük, a male is actually depicted with bull’s horns perhaps indicating his ritual role.
According to Marija Gimbutas, the bull as the moon is part of a cluster of images surrounding the goddess of the Neolithic Era in her role as the goddess of life, death and regeneration. This image-cluster, states Gimbutas, is made up of “symbols of becoming” such as crescents and the horns of the bull which symbolize the waxing and waning aspects of the moon. The bull and moon are clearly the invigorating force of life, and “the worship of the moon and horns is the worship of the creative and fecund powers of nature.” The role of the goddess is primary in this process, and the role of the bull is essential in both its life-giving and death embracing aspects. Therefore, the bull is represented in sets of four to symbolize the four stages of the moon from the first quarter moon, to the full moon, to the third quarter moon of descending energy and subsequent disappearing, and, finally, to the death of the moon in its new moon phase. Often depicted as four-fold designs on pottery, this abstract symbology presents a continuous striving towards the act of creation from death (Old Europe 91).
Gimbutas remarks that “a portrayal of the head of a bull with the lunar disc between its horns occurs in a relief on a vase from a Late Cucuteni site of Podei” with the bull’s horns shown upside down in one section of the vase perhaps to symbolize the dead or sacrificed bull. “The Great Goddess,” states Gimbutas “emerges from the dead bull in the shape of a bee or butterfly “(91). This symbol emphasizing the birth and death process as a continuum with what Gimbutas calls “periodic regeneration” is easily adapted and aptly suited for the process in the heavens where the moon is observed as doing much the same. It is no wonder that the horns of the bull or the sacred horns of consecration, which resemble the lunar crescents, become important symbols in the Neolithic Era. Hundreds of horned stands with a hole in the center for the insertion of some divine image associated with the goddess of regeneration are found in Vinca and East Balkan civilizations. Gimubtas asserts that they are probably associated with the sacrificed bull’s body from which new life emerges in the form of the “epiphany of the Goddess” (93).
The “epiphany of the Goddess,” continues Gimbutas, takes on many forms in Neolithic culture when shown in conjunction with the horns of the bull or moon. Her epiphany may take the form of the bee and the butterfly, or it may take the form of a flower, a tree, or a column of watery substance. In frescos at Çatal Hüyük, the bull and goddess are also associated with triangles, diamonds, honeycombs, caterpillars, bands or multiple zig-zags (water), hands, brushes, whirls, and eggs, all symbols of becoming and regeneration. On ceramic art, sculptures of bulls or horns, especially in vase painting, are “consistently allied with the energy symbols of snake coils, concentric circles, eggs, cupmarks, antithetic spirals, and life columns.” A tiny bull from Bavaria even has four dots on its forehead which are repeated over concentric circles most likely representing the four phases of the moon (Language of the Goddess 265-67).
In human terms, the “epiphany of the Goddess” would most likely be equivalent to the resurrection and rebirth of the soul of the individual after death. This would easily explain why the horns of the bull are found on or inside many of the megalithic monuments of the Neolithic Era in Western Europe. Gimbutas notes that in the tombs on Sardina which date to the fifth millennium B.C., “Sardinians carved one of the important symbols of regeneration-the bovid head, or bucranium-into many hypogea walls” (Living Goddesses 63). The bucrania are found above the tomb’s entrance, on both sides of the entrance, or inside the tomb. The idea of regeneration of life or resurrection of the soul is further emphasized by the ochre-red walls of the tomb, symbolizing re-birth from the mother-goddess, and the decorations on the walls in the tomb that often contain images of regeneration such as double spirals and/or moon cycle symbols (63).
On the entrance to a subterranean tomb of the Ozieri of Sardinia, there are four bull’s heads across the top of the entrance to the tomb and one larger bucrania on the side of the entrance (Gimbutas Living Goddesses 36). The four bucrania, like the four bucrania in the temples of Çatal Hüyük and the four-fold designs on the pottery of the other Neolithic peoples, quite possibly represent the four phases of the moon. The larger, fifth head on the side entrance might signify the completion of the process of the moon’s precessional cycle. In other words, the moon’s orbit around the earth will be in sync with the orbit of the earth around the sun in five years. This coordination of lunar-solar time is often represented by the number five in archeoastronomy where monuments such as Stonehenge accurately record the syncretization of the moon and the sun, an event noticeable and perhaps sacred to the ancients.
In The Serpent in the Sky: The High Wisdom of Ancient Egypt, Anthony West remarks that the number five is the number of eternity or the universal number symbolizing reconciliation, “incorporating the principles of polarity in the manifested universe” (52). In this philosophy, the regeneration of the soul might be seen as both an event in the sky and an event in human history where the finite is reconciled with the infinite or the individual is reunited with the goddess and becomes part of eternity through her powers of regeneration. The four directions of the universe and the four phases of the moon are made complete with the addition of the fifth element representing the human transformed into the eternal. As a person stands in an ancient monument, the four directions become her vantage point, and she becomes the fifth dimension or the zenith. Hence, the form of the Egyptian pyramids which enable the soul to aspire to the heavens. Whether the Neolithic peoples of Western Europe and the Mediterranean were suggesting this in their bucrania on their tombs is speculative; however, it is quite possible that civilizations such as these were as advanced as the Egyptians when it came to archeoastronomy and the philosophy of the infinite.
The actual process of ascension and the rising of the soul to eternal life are often symbolized by life itself emerging from the horns of the bucrania in Neolithic sculpture and art. Like the epiphany of the goddess, the epiphany of all life depends on the growth cycles represented by the bull or the moon. According to Gimbutas, the process of new life emerging from the bull or the moon is often associated with “cosmogonic primordial waters” of a “taurian nature” where the invocation of a name in Lithuanian such as “Bitinelis (from ‘bite, bee’) or “Pilvinas (fat drones with a round, drumlike stomach)” invokes the creation of a lake. Gimbutas remarks that: “The names of such bull-lakes are of great semantic interest for the connections they reveal between the bull, the moon, water, drones, peas and snakes.” Some small bull figurines were found near the edge or in the middle of water basins with plants and flowers or bees springing from the bull’s body. Additionally, the regeneration of life from the bull is represented by the butterfly, an apt symbol of ascension (Language of the Goddess 270).
Some confusion as to the actual nature of these symbols emerging from the bull or the sacrificed body of the bull occurs later in history when Porphyry, a philosopher of the Third Century from the Levant, quotes Sophocles as saying: “Moreover, the ancients gave the name of ‘Melissae’ to the priestesses of Demeter who were initiates of the chthonian goddess; the name ‘Melitodes’ to Kore (Persephone) herself; the moon (Artemis) too, whose province it was to bring the birth, they called ‘Melissa,’ because the moon being a bull and its ascension the bull, bees are begotten of bulls. And souls that pass to the earth are bull-begotten” (Ransome 107). Although this statement unknowingly echoes the Neolithic beliefs of regeneration, it was literally interpreted as a swarm of insects appearing from the carcass of the sacrificed bull as a symbol of new life; fortunately, this idea was laid to rest by the mid-nineteenth century, and the idea of “spontaneous generation” is interpreted as dramatic (Gimbutas Language of the Goddess 270).
However, the tradition of strange bee-like creatures or goddesses of a butterfly nature emerging from the sacrificed bull does have a literal and very real basis. Near many slaughterhouses, there is a pond or run-off water source where the blood of the sacrificed bulls drains. On the surface of the water of this blood-pond, bees and butterflies gather to feed on the blood-filled waters. On occasions where the bull has just been sacrificed, the water surface of the pond may be covered with masses of butterflies and bees sustaining themselves on the nourishment of the bull’s blood. The entire water surface appears as a pulsating force of new and vibrantly colored life seemingly possible only with the blood of the sacrifice. Interestingly enough, this gives yet another meaning or dimension to Gimbutas’ references to the bull ponds or lakes and the association of the bull with water, butterflies, and bees. The bull, bees, and butterflies are also connected, by both Porphyry and Sophocles, with the chthonian goddess, or the goddess of the waters of death, and with the moon goddess, or the goddess of regeneration.
The associations of the bull’s heads and the image-clusters of regenerative life forms with emblems such as the bee and butterfly with their “antennae like bull horns and wings in the form of a lunar crescent” become a dominant theme in Neolithic art because of their similar forms (Gimbutas Old Europe 183). However, the images of death such as the vulture or vulture skulls which also appear frequently with bucrania are less similar in schematic form to the bull and the moon. Although they are depicted in many Neolithic temples, the vultures and bird forms appear as separate deities from the image-cluster, yet as a necessary part of the schemata. As an early association of the bird-goddess, the vulture appears on temple murals at Çatal Hüyük in reference to the Neolithic excarnation rites. According to Melaart, as the giver of life, the goddess as vulture is also the taker of life because she cleaned the dead before the bodies were returned to the family for burial and rebirth (24). Campbell also notes a chapel in Çatal Hüyük where the bull’s head as returning moon has a vulture facing it on another wall where the vulture is eating back the head of a headless body as a type of rebirth or recycling of the soul which,
according to Campbell, might be construed as being contained in the head. (Transformations of Myth Vol. I).
Although the majority of the representations of the bull or moon and the goddess of regeneration are in artistic forms, a significant number of representations in the Neolithic Era are abstract symbols depicting the same process of life, death, and re-birth associated with the moon and the passage of time. It is almost as if a symbolic language has been created to express the passage of cyclical time. Gimbutas notes that spirals, circles, coils, crescents, hook, horns, four-corner signs, brushes, combs, hands and feet, and animals with whirls or processions are all symbols of energy and unfolding. Gimbutas continues: “These dynamic symbols are either themselves energy incarnate or are stimulators of the process of becoming. Moving up, down, or in a circle, they symbolize cyclical time. The pulse of life demands an unending stream of vital energy to keep it going” (Language of the Goddess 277). Among those mentioned many such as horns, crescents,
and the four-corner signs are obviously notations of lunar cycles.
The lunar cycle is represented by a left crescent, a full moon in the center, and a right crescent moon. This symbol used today to indicate the monthly cycle of the moon is an exact representation of the moon as it rises in the east as first quarter moon, becomes full further south, and then sets in the south-west as the third quarter moon each month. As a unit of four, which takes into account the new or dark phase of the moon, the symbols appear as four-corner signs. Crescents and concentric circles on Neolithic pottery and on passage graves are lunar notations indicating the waxing moon, the full moon, the waning moon and the new moon in its four stages, respectively. The bull is represented in this symbolic language in the abstract with a crescent moon as his horns or as a U-sign indicating the bucrania. As mentioned previously, the U-sign for the bucrania is on hypogea and tombs as well as on the pottery.
Perhaps, the most interesting symbol of this language of lunar becoming is what Gimbutas calls “the hands of the Goddess” found on the walls of Neolithic shrines (Language of the Goddess 306). At Çatal Hüyük, one panel contains nineteen hands of red and black, which represent the colors of life and death, respectively. The hands form two vertical columns and are joined by a honeycomb, the symbol of regeneration associated with bees. In the palm of each hand is a circle or concentric circles with dots or lines in the center of each circle, most likely full moon symbols for different full moons over a period of nineteen years. In another shrine, the same hand motif appears below two bull’s heads, each marked with a honeycomb pattern. Although there are considerably more than nineteen hands on the second shrine, the motif is consistent, clearly depicting the cycles of the moon.
On the standing stones, mounds and circles found in Europe, there is evidence that the Neolithic culture reached a sophisticated and advanced stage in astronomy. Monuments, passage-graves and stone circles such as those found in France, Germany, Great Britain, and Spain contain ancient calendar notations which represent the cycles of the year as well as the cycles of precession. The symbolic language containing notations of astronomy which has been depicted on the walls of shrines and hypogea as well as on the Neolithic pottery at Çatal Hüyük takes a sophisticated form on the monuments of the late Neolithic Era in Europe and the British Isles. On the monuments of this culture, the cycles of the moon are clearly indicated as a vital part of the religious life, the language, and the science of an advanced civilization concerned with the passage of time beyond the yearly cycle. The documentation of the lunisolar and stellar precessional cycles through the skies is an attempt on the part of our ancestors to understand the infinite, important enough to them as it could be to us, to carve into the stones of time.
The language of the stones on the ancient monuments in Europe and the British Isles resembles the symbolic language described by Gimbutas as a language with an energy incarnate to stimulate the process of becoming. Although there is a lack of any animal forms, such as the bull and the bee or butterfly, the language itself is a vibrant language created to express the passage of cyclical time as a monumental event. In The Stones of Time by Martin Brennan, Brennan observes that: “It is essential to realize that in megalithic art the elements in a composition are frequently different aspects of one thing in the process of change” (156). The position of the designs in the mound and the relative time at which the moon or the sun’s rays illuminate the designs brings them to life as a process rather than a static form of symbolic expression.
In the Brú na Bóinne complex of mounds which includes Newgrange, Dowth, and Knowth and the nearby mounds at Loughcrew in northern Ireland, the symbolism of the moon is depicted as twelve full moons to represent the yearly cycle using circles and crescents much the same as those depicted at Çatal Hüyük. However, on a stone on the outer circumference of the mound at Knowth, the intercalary moon is represented in a more complicated pattern than it is represented on the five bucrania at Çatal Hüyük. Here, the pattern of the full moons and crescents has a center wave depicting the five year calendar complete with the intercalary moons in order to balance lunar and solar time, the basis of the calendar of the ancient Celts. On the Knowth stone, according to Brennan, “Each turn of the wavy line represents one month, or a complete circuit of the distinct but related pattern of crescent and circle repeat units which are closely matched to the phases of the moon” (144).
Precessional cycles of the moon engraved on the monuments are as complicated as the circles, crescents, and wavy lines when they represent the cycles of the moon longer than the five year cycle. At the Neolithic mounds of Knowth and Dowth, spirals indicate the way in which sequences are arranged perhaps indicating the unfolding of time, and a cartouche of nineteen lines near a group of arcs and circles indicates the nineteen year cycle of the moon (Brennan 143). At Dowth, one kerbstone charts the series of eclipses in the nineteen year lunar cycle, and the total number of kerbstones around the monument represents the nineteen year cycle (Murphy 1-4). Although the bucrania are not represented in the symbolic language on the stones at the Brú na Bóinne, the symbol of the “U,” depicted in sets or four or outlining a set of crescents at Knowth reflects the “inherent symmetry manifested by the moon and the heavens.” Brennan believes it may represent “the dome of the heavens,” or a figure of the firmament of the heavens hovering over the stones themselves (154).
Both the nineteen year cycle and the “U” are represented at the Neolithic stone circles in Europe and the British Isles as well as on the mounds. Instead of using symbols and notations to illustrate the astronomy, the stone circles of time are interactive with the elements. The patterns of the moon, sun, and stars are seen through the trilithons or over the site lines of the circles of stones bringing our ancestors an immediate experience with the infinite cycles of time. The sense of becoming an active part of the changing cycles of time by observing the celestial bodies first hand, perhaps in ritual as well as individual use, brought our ancestors a full sensory and intellectual experience with the heavens. In bringing down the moon, the ancients were concerned with identifying the lunisolar precessional cycles caused by the pulls of the moon and the sun on the earth by noting what astronomers call “nutation.”
“The circular path of precession that the celestial pole of the earth traces out on the celestial sphere is not perfectly smooth, but slightly wavy. This irregularity is called “nutation,” the result of a regular ‘nodding’ of the earth’s poles towards and away from the ecliptic poles” (Ridpath 43). Lunar nutation is represented by the wave described in the notations of the Brú na Bóinne stones, but on the stone circles, nutation is actually seen where the full moon rises and sets at different declinations over a period of 18.6 years or what is also called the nineteen year cycle of the moon. Represented perhaps in the hands of the goddess at Çatal Hüyük, and more certainly on the stones at Knowth in the wavy lines and crescents, the nineteen year cycle of the moon is an important foundation to express the idea of the infinite through the precise. Here, in the stone circles, is where science melds with the symbols of a culture that reveres the moon both in the imagination and in reality. This does not take away from the art and symbolic language of the ancients in their desire to express their awe of the infinite, but adds a dimension to it.
The nineteen year cycle of the moon recorded at the stone circles expresses the idea of regeneration or periodic growth and a sense of becoming by directly witnessing the powers of regeneration. Like the monthly and five year cycles of the regeneration of the moon, the nineteen year cycle is part of the lunar wave of eternal undulating energy which all plant and animal life responds to. In a practical sense, the observations of these declinations of the rising and setting of the full moon on the horizon in different positions forming an arc or part of a continuing wave over nineteen years afforded the ancients a calculable way of determining when they would have more moonlight at the winter solstice or how the tides would change over time. In an abstract sense, the chartings of the nineteen year cycle gave them a sense of being part of an infinitely larger cosmos than themselves. Even in a ritual sense, observing the wave of moons over the stones in nineteen years helped them keep track of time in their own lives.
When the builders of Stonehenge began to record the cycles of time in the late Neolithic Era, they started with the lunar notations of the nineteen year cycle. In Stonehenge I, the first circle of holes called the Aubrey Holes, is a circle of 56 holes which represents three nineteen year cycles of the moon or more precisely what is closer to three 18.6 year cycles. Perhaps, the circle also represents a full lifetime of an adult, or in the language of the goddess, it may represent the triskele of the maiden, the mother and the crone, three stages of the feminine cycle. The 56 markings in the circle are siting holes on the horizon which may have once held huge posts, perhaps posts which supported a circular platform of wooden lintels used as a level wooden horizon to accurately record the risings and settings of the heavenly bodies (Heath 4). Thus, the ancients would have had a full circle of the horizon for viewing the moon, the stars, the planets and the sun. In other words, the Aubrey Holes may have acted as a full representation of the life cycle on earth and in the heavens.
The Aubrey Holes also act as a lunisolar calendar, another symbol of the circle or wheel of life where the moon and the sun are brought into the same circle and their cycles are charted in corresponding patterns. In this configuration, markers are moved from one hole to another at dawn and dusk to chart the diurnal rhythm of the day/night cycle. According to Heath: “The Sun marker is moved two holes every thirteen days, thus copying the Moon’s daily angular motion. The calendar is therefore an ‘integrated’ soli-lunar calendar, and if the Moon marker is made to skip over the Sun marker at every new Moon, and a further skip forwards is made at the four key points in the year, equinoxes and solstices, an accuracy of 99.9% may be achieved for the Moon, whilst the Sun’s accuracy remains at 99.8%” (55). At a glance, the Aubrey Holes depict the current phase of the moon, the current season, and the position of the moon and the sun in the year.
Finally, the Aubrey Holes accurately predict lunar eclipses. By moving marker stones around the 56 Aubrey Holes, one move for each year, the position of the moon in the nineteen year cycle is easily kept track of thereby allowing the ancients to know the most likely time of the year when lunar eclipses occur. Using the Aubrey Holes, a lunar eclipse occurs “about three holes in a clockwise direction from the previous eclipse on one particular side of the circle. Three holes corresponds to nineteen days, and in nineteen years, the cycle of eclipses completes a full circuit” (Heath 57). The symbolic use and the sacredness of the number “nineteen” is both aesthetically pleasing and mathematically accurate. It is no wonder that the Druids when using Stonehenge at a later date in history still sang their sunrise and sunset songs to deify the movements of the moon and the sun while moving a marker around the circle of life.
Almost contemporary with the Aubrey Holes, a ditch and bank with a wide gap in the bank facing the northeast were dug at Stonehenge I in the late Neolithic Era. The ditch and the bank which was originally six feet high would have provided a level horizon in the center of the circle to view the heavenly bodies. From the center of Stonehenge, the gap in the bank subtends an angle of 10 degrees, just covering the arc of the horizon where the moon would appear to rise during one half of the nineteen year cycle (Wood 100). The gap in the bank was once flanked with two large stones, one of which is the Slaughterstone. During this early stage of Stonehenge, a number of post-holes were also discovered around the entrance of the gap in the bank which marks the extreme lunar risings in the nineteen year cycle of the moon. These post-holes mark the direction of the rising of the midwinter full moon, as seen from the center of the circle, disclosing yet another marking of the worship of the moon in its nineteen year cycle in the night sky (Wood 101).
Astronomers who have studied Stonehenge from Gerald S. Hawkins and Alexander Thom, to John Edwin Wood and Robin Heath agree that the original Stonehenge was about lunar astronomy and was a lunar observatory from its earliest times. The earliest known observer of this phenomenon was Diodorus Siculus, a Greco-Roman historian writing in the first century B.C, who describes the ancient peoples to the north, called the Hyperboreans. Diodorus states that these ancient peoples worshipped the god Apollo when Apollo visited the island they inhabited every nineteen years at their “magnificent circular temple adorned with many rich offerings” (Heath 181). Although Diodorus accurately records the observance of the nineteen year cycle of the moon at the circular temple, which is presumably Stonehenge, he might have translated their worship of Apollo as a worship of Apollo and Artemis, the deities of the sun and the moon, respectively, enlivening the discussion to include both the sun and the moon in their corresponding cyclical patterns that are depicted at the circle of the Neolithic peoples.
The observance of the cycles of the precession of the moon is indigenous to the stone circles and circle formations of the Neolithic culture of Europe and the British Isles and not just a phenomenon of Stonehenge I. Of the many circles, standing stones, U-shaped stone formations, and stone rows of the Neolithic culture, there are a dozen or so sites that have been identified as observatories of the lunar cycles beyond the year. Within a few hundred years of building Stonehenge I, the Neolithic peoples built the Dorset Cursus, a ceremonial path or enclosure bordered on either side by a low bank and ditch similar to the one on the Avenue of Stonehenge I (Hawkins 78). From the center of the cursus, there is a terminal which is a carefully leveled platform that acts as an observatory for sitings of the moon on the horizon. The cursus provides sightlines for the moon at minor and major standstill points in its nineteen year cycle (Wood 102).
Further to the south-west of Stonehenge and the Dorset Cursus, on the moors of Dartmoor in Devon, is a stone complex that dates to 3500 B.C. Merrivale, or “the pleasant valley,” is a complex of several stone circles, an avenue, a double row, a single row, a cist, standing stones, and hut-circles that formed a Neolithic settlement. The row of standing stones marks the moon’s maximum and minimum rising points against the horizon serving as a backsight for the nineteen year cycle of the moon (Heath 26). At lands-end in Cornwall at the very tip of south-west England, four stone circles, known as Boscawen-Un, Maen yu daus, the Merry Maidens, and Tregeseal East are all circles of nineteen stones that date to the Late Neolithic Era. Boscawen-Un and the Merry Maidens, both with granite stones that face towards the interior of the ring, have legends associated with them about maidens turning to stone as they danced for the full moon ceremonies (Burl 34). These circles, as well as Tregeseal and Maen yu daus, clearly mark the nineteen year cycle of the moon and perhaps served as temples of the moon.
In Scotland, the Stones of Stenness in Orkney or “The Temple of the Moon” and Temple Wood in Kilmartin or “Half Moon Wood” are two Neolithic observatories that are associated with the moon through their popular names. The Standing Stones of Stenness or Temple of the Moon is a Late Neolithic circle-henge with more impressive and taller stones than the Ring of Brodgar or Temple of the Sun whose stones are visible to the north. At Stenness, the henge’s ditch and bank may have risen 6 feet above ground, and the stones themselves stand as tall as 18’9″ high. Legend has it that in the time it takes for the moon to travel its path through nineteen years, a dance or procession around the stone called the Odin Stone by the Vikings was performed; at nine full moons, the dancers looked through a hole in the Odin Stone hoping for a vision of the future (Burl 148). At Temple Wood or Half Moon Wood, the Kilmartin stones, a small northern ring which began as a timber setting, accurately measures the declinations of the moon in its nineteen year journey (Wood 109-12).
In addition to the circles and standing stones in the Neolithic complexes, the “U” formation of stones take a central role in depicting the cycles of the moon. Looking back to the bucrania images with their “U” shape and the association of the “U” as part of the lunar wave charted at Knowth, and looking forward to the “U” shape of the bluestones at the center of Stonehenge III that measures the nineteen year cycle of the moon, the “U” acts as a central image for the moon in many cultures. From the northern islands of Scotland to Central Europe, the image is dominant. For instance, the stones Machrie Moor in Southwest Scotland on the Isle of Arran, are Neolithic monuments consisting of ruined chambered tombs, hut-circles, and megalithic rings erected around two concentric rings of posts with a horseshoe-shaped timber setting at their center (Burl 114-15). Like the horseshoe stones discovered at Carnac and in the Gulf of Morbihan, France, the Machrie Moor horseshoe marks the extreme rising and setting points of the nineteen year cycle of the moon using the “U” shape.
The Neolithic horseshoes of stone discovered in France are Tossen-Keler on the northwest coast of Brittany, Er-Lannic on the Gulf of Morbihan in Brittany, and Kerlescan West and North at Carnac on the southwest coast of Brittany. At Tossen-Keler, there is a horseshoe-shaped cromlech open to the east with fifty six stones flanked by two entrance stones. This granite horseshoe that dates back to 3300 B.C., most likely represents the same lunar alignments that the 56 Aubrey Holes mark as the cycles of precession of the moon. The opposing chevrons and the hafted stone axe engraved on three of the stones are similar to the images of regeneration discovered at Çatal Hüyük. Unfortunately, the horseshoe at Er-Lannic in the Gulf of Moriban was partly-submerged when the sea level rose in Roman times; however, the stones that are still visible measure the moonsets and moonrises at their most northern positions. There are two horseshoes at Carnac: Kerlescan West is a horseshoe open to the north-east with an avenue of eighteen stones, and Kerlescan North is an enormous horseshoe whose exact number of stones is beyond determining (Burl 251-59).
Although the stones of time speak to us of the patterns of the moon in terms of astronomy and symbology, traces of the ideology represented in the lunar cycles of precession are apparent in later texts that describe the Neolithic peoples and their beliefs. The beginning of what Gimbutas has called the belief in the moon’s ability to regenerate life and bring forth life through symbols of becoming is evident in the Irish mythology in the Lebor na h Uidre, The Book of the Dun Cow, a surviving manuscript from the Twelfth Century. Here, one of the five holy people mentioned in the “Dinnsenchas” or poems of the sacred places of Ireland, named Tuan, The White Ancient, represents the belief in reincarnation and the regeneration of the spirit. Moreover, Tuan is the memory of learned truth, legend and knowledge. He is the story-bearer who witnesses the conquests of the tribes of Ireland over thousands of years, first as a man and then as a stag, a boar, and a sea-eagle, Lord of the Skies. Finally, he is born as a salmon, eaten by the wife of Cairell, and born again as a man, the son of Cairell, King of Ireland. As a precursor of Taliesin, the Welsh bard, and Amairgen, the Irish bard, Tuan truly represents the ideas of becoming and regeneration. Like the bull and the moon that are born of the goddess, Tuan opens the doors of precession recording the life of our ancestors and regenerating with each cycle of time. As The White Ancient and Lord of the Skies, Tuan embodies the cycles of time.
The myths of life, death and regeneration evolve into a monomyth of importance in the Bronze and Iron Ages of Europe and the Mediterranean. From the Minoan mythology of the goddess and the moon as the bull, to the Greek and Celtic myths of the goddess and the moon as the bull, the moon is an ever-present symbol in the process of becoming. Its phases act as a guide throughout the year, and the cycles of precession evident in the five and nineteen year cycles of the moon open doors to cycles in our lives and the lives of our ancestors. Again, through the magnificent temples of the ancients, the lunar cycles of precession are experienced as a rejuvenation of spirit which offers glimpses of eternity. From the epiphany of the goddess, the progenitor of birth, and the waxing and waning of the moon as the fecund powers of the bull, the primary masks of our development open the doors of precession.
For more information about the subject of the article Dr. Benigni my be contacted at email@example.com
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