Ancient Star Pictures

by Laura Lee

Lascaux, France, 17,000 years ago: in star pictures of the Pleiades and the ecliptic Astronomer Frank Edge has not only found elaborate star pictures in a whole new medium, cave paintings, he’s put them in a whole new time frame: the Stone Age.

There had been a hint of this, Dr. Wheston Price noted that 10 dots on a Neanderthal cave painting clearly represented the Pleiades, the Seven Sisters. The dots were in all the right places, but they represent four more stars than we can see today with the naked eye. For Dr. Price, that was proof that cave men had better developed senses, including sight, a result of living in harmony with natural law and better nutrition provided by the ancient ways. Dr. Price doesn’t mention where that cave painting is, but in the meantime, star pictures were recognized in two additional, well known, cave paintings.

Frank Edge’s discovery began as a moment of pattern recognition, and it would take an astronomer’s familiarity with the constellations to see it. Edge was just gazing at photos of the famed cave paintings at Lascaux, France, when he quickly identified the Pleiades in a series of six dots over the shoulder of the most prominent bull. He kept looking at the six figures, four of them bulls, that make up the Hall of Bulls mural. The more he looked, the more representations of stars he began to see in the outline of those figures.

Now that he’s sorted it all out, he can tell you that what he saw were new constellations, arbitrary groupings of stars, that are bigger than those we know today. The body of that dominant bull incorporates the constellation Taurus, of which the Pleiades is a part. In the next bull, he found Orion and Gemini, and in the next Leo, with portions of Virgo. In the next figure, a horse’s head is the feet of Virgo, and at the far end of the mural, a curious unicorn is made up of Scorpius, Sagitarrius and Libra. All the dots are in the right place, with appropriate shapes says Edge. With the Pleiades, we have it easy, with dots matching dots. All the rest are what you get when you connect dots into pictures.

It was time to turn to the computer for verification. Using Sky Globe, Edge went backwards in time to thedate archeologists assign the cave paintings, based on cave floor pollen samples. And there the computer-generated pictures of the positions of the stars showed those very same constellations, all neatly lined up on the horizon on the summer solstice of 15,000 B.C., 17,000 years ago. He had confirmed the painting’s date.

The Magdalenians, as this artistic culture is called, were Ice-Age hunter-gatherers who had practical reasons to mark the passage of time, carefully observe their environment, and pass this knowledge on to the next generation. Useful survival skills: living, celebrating and migrating in tune with the seasons. With no electric clocks, no printed calendars, no city lights to obscure the stars, and the need to travel light, the heavens were a handy timepiece, always there no matter where you were. Telling time would involve learning the rotation of the sun, moon, and stars, just like we learn to tell time today by the rotation of the hands of the clock around its face.

These paintings were teaching aids to memorize the stars and the mythology that went with them. A new breed of researchers are trampling the old view of cave art as attempts in sympathetic magic to bewitch the animals of the hunt. Instead, led by the evidence, they favor metaphysical and religious interpretations.

These star pictures are elaborate and well designed. The constellations depicted from one end of the mural to the other are just what you would see if you sat up all night watching the stars from sunset to sunrise. These stars appeared just above the horizon, along the ecliptic, the path the sun and moon follow through the sky. Most of the year, you couldn’t see all these constellations on any one night, due to their axial tilt. But the night of the summer solstice of 15,000 B.C. is the one opportunity to see them all.

It gets better still. The mural wraps around the walls of the cave, with a natural division in the center. Thefigures on each half of the wrap-around face center, to gaze at one another. Those figures on the east wall represent the constellations that were visible as the sun rose. On the west wall are the constellations that were visible as the sun set. The stars are arranged on the cave wall in just the way you would see them if you were standing outside the cave.

Edge has found this layout is more than good composition, it’s what turns this star picture into an ingenious device to fine-tune your calendar. The middle of the mural, where the two halves meet to face one another, is the same place in the sky where the full moon annually appears, closest yet prior to the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. Edge imagines the Magdalenians kept their calendar on track by watching the full moon until finally one midnight it hit that pre-designated spot, and there was no mistaking this day, it was the summer solstice. The mural, when first painted, remained accurate for several centuries.

Altamira Cave, Spain, 15,500 years ago: star pictures in a cave painting. Edge found another famous cave at the southern edge of Magdalenian territory, with a second mural that he correlated to the stars. While the Lascaux painting depicts just those constellations along the eclliptic, Altamira’s is more ambitious in scope, with the cave wall organized to represent the entire visible night sky. Selected stars are depicted among all that would have appeared through the spring nights, from sunset to sunrise, from the horizon all the way up to the pole. Those closest to the Pole, the circumpolar stars that never set, are nicely arranged across the top of the mural. At the bottom are Scorpius, Leo and Taurus, the stars then seen along the horizon. The painting is dated at 13,500 B.C. It’s fascinating to think of someone so long ago memorizing the stars and their relative positions within star groups, says Edge. He actually prefers the Paleolithic groupings, finding they make better sense, and easier identification of the stars. Our modern star groupings are a hodgepodge, he says.

Chartres, France, 700 years ago: star pictures in gothic cathedrals. And then I came across another ancient star chart in a book by Louis Charpentier, The Mysteries of Chartres Cathedral, which is not all that far from Lascaux. Amid an examination of the hidden geometry and role of the Templars in the construction of the cathedral, there is this layout showing a layout of churches all named Notre Dame, or Our Lady, of which Chartres Cathedral is one, and whose configuration matches the stars in a section of the constellation Virgo. Our Lady for the Virgin, Virgo and bulls for Taurus. Could we trace this symbolic language all the way back to Paleolithic times?

Egypt, 4-6,000 years ago: dressing your age in Egypt, during the Age of Taurus, this symbolic language was in full swing. The bull was the predominant symbol. Isis, the central goddess, wears an exotic headdress: a large disk representing the sun, held by two curving bull horns. This is the sign of times, when the sun rises at the equinox in the constellation Taurus, then it’s the age of Taurus. You’d have to be a real star watcher to know that, because the sun obscures the stars. And because the equinox is a function of the sun, that moment of equal measure between the length of night and day, the sun is the obvious symbol.

The constellation also defines the major symbol for that age, lasting roughly 2,000 years. It was helpful to know that when in ancient Egypt and you saw a bull, you are probably looking at something created between 3-4,000 years B.C.

So now both the sun and moon have a relationship with Taurus that maps a moon moment and a 2,000+ year-long sun era, or solar age. A permanent association of Taurus with the sun disk is clear, with lots of time in which the iconography is valid, and therefore lots of opportunity to paint it on walls. But I wanted to know how the moon came to be associated with Taurus. Edge answered with a bit of history: early in the Age of Taurus, Mesopotamians marked the first day of the new year with the appearance of the first thin slice of the first crescent moon after the spring equinox. The symbol for Taurus, Edge suggests, is derived from this. To demonstrate, draw a circle for the sun.. Place atop it an open half circle, representing the thinnest crescent moon. You’ve just drawn the astrological symbol for Taurus. It doesn’t hurt that the crescent moon slice, pointing upwards, also doubles nicely as a set of horns.

I have to confess that all through Egypt, I assumed Isis, with her disk/horn headdress, was wearing the full moon. My logic was sound enough. The sun and the full moon both have a simple icon, the circle. Often the sun has a dot in the center; this disk had no dot. We often portray the sun as masculine, the moon feminine, so a goddess would naturally wear a moon. Mirrors in Egypt are a thin silver disk (really silver polished to a fine reflective sheen), the color of the moon, with a handle in the shape of a cross. The circle supported by a cross is a symbol of the feminine. Often on those round Egyptian mirrors, the cross bar gently curved down on both ends, which I read as upside down bull horns. So perhaps that disk began as a moon, long ago at Lascaux, and when the solar age of Taurus arrived, naturally segued into the solar disk.

Edge said I wasn’t necessarily off. He calculated that if the disk once represented the full moon, it had to rise at midnight on the summer solstice in Taurus, placing it half a precessional great year backward in time, just the time the cave art at Lascaux was painted.

Could the bull/moon/goddess, as a symbol, traveled from the Ice Age to the present? It could have been invented and lost many times over, with ample opportunity to be rediscovered by those using the same timepiece, the heavens. But you needn’t look far for traditions that go way back. The use of herbs for medicines goes back at least to 60,000 years ago. That’s the age of the oldest known grave at which medicinal botanical were found.

Edge is sure the moon/bull symbol was carried forward at least as far as the goddess cultures and agricultural communities of 6,000 B.C. I see a direct link between the crescent moon and the horns of the bull. The bull was considered the consort of the Great Goddess. The continuity of goddess figurines from the Ice Age to the goddess cultures is well documented. I believe we can now add the crescent moon, he says. And he believes that the association of the bull, and the constellation we know as Taurus, stuck, and can be traced all the way from 15,000 B.C. to the present.

OK, maybe it’s because I’m naturally inclined this way, being a woman and all, but I’m seeing continuity between that Paleolithic moon rising between the star bull’s horns and the Neolithic Goddess, all the way to Egypt’s Isis, to her transformation to Hathor with her cow’s ears and link to the planet Venus; to Venus the goddess of beauty and love, and her astrological association with Taurus, and in France, her transformation from Earth Mother to Our Lady to the Virgin/Virgo. And let’s not forget that in William Sullivan’s Secret of the Incas, he points out that the ancient Incan cultures assigned the brightest planets the same traits as did the Greeks and Romans, and had the equivalent of the goddess Venus. This goddess just keeps going. I’m sure that’s because you can’t keep a good woman down. (But she never will tell you her age.)

Edge does concede that traditions get layered over one another, so we have no idea how far back it all goes. And, he likes the fact that before the Magdalenians, Neanderthals used these same caves, and Cro-Magnon before that. We’ve lost track of how much continuity there was in oral traditions, says Edge. We wonder how they could have remembered it all. Yet in mediaeval France, minstrels were said to be able to remember 1000 words of rhyme, verse, and song in one hearing, then perfectly mimic it.

I’ve heard it said that the memory skills necessary to preserve this oral was also good practice for the development of that part of the mind used in visionary journeying. We activate the inner screen of the mind when remembering, the same part of our brain used for visionary practices.

Edge’s discovery is important in a number of ways. It clearly sets the origins of astronomy back at least to Paleolithic times. It gives us yet another reason to update and upgrade the image of our early ancestors. And, it provides clear evidence for the long-term astronomical observations that are a cornerstone of both the iconography and the cultures that followed.

Interesting, too, that Lascaux’s Hall of Bulls pictures the stars of the ecliptic, the sun’s path around the earth, the highway the sun, moon and planets, from earth’s point of view, follow around the sky. It later became the great circle used by astrologers, the zodiac.

For Frank Edge’s complete report, Aurochs in the Sky: Dancing with the Summer Moon, A celestial interpretation of the Hall of Bulls from the cave of Lascaux, call 1-800-243-1438.

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