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The polar star and the northern sky mythology

The most common explanation of the word “Druid” is “the one who knows the tree”. This “tree” is, in fact, a “world tree”. Its stem is the rotational axes of the Earth. Its highest point is the polar star, and its fruits are the stars and the planets. Therefore, the one who knows the tree is the one who knows the universe and the movement of the stars.

Nobody knows for sure how old is astronomy. But the oldest megalithic constructions definitely followed the cardinal directions. Still, this fact alone does not make them observatories. NASA has several criteria that define an ancient observatory. One of them is the main observation spot – “throne”.

Megalithic thrones and star observation

A throne was a huge megalithic rock where the observer could sit and watch the stars. They often look as if intended for a giant, not a mere human. I have seen examples of these giant thrones in Balkans and Ireland, but they are very common in all megalithic cultures. Here is an article about Kokino observatory in Macedonia. NASA ranks Kokino as the 4th most ancient observatory in the world.

It is precisely from these thrones that we can see how important were these holy men to society. They were the masters of time and subsequently masters of human destiny. They knew when the seasons will change, when is the best time to cultivate the land, go to war, or to get married…

Their basic method was fairly simple. Once they had the cardinal points marked on the ground, they could easily keep track of the changes in the movement of the stars. For this purpose, they used wooden poles, megalithic stones, or simply holes cut in the stones or edges of the cliff.

But we are only coming to realize how complex was this knowledge. It was also very likely a secret. The facts accumulated over time, and in order to easier transfer them to the next generation, they became a star-lore. Epic stories of heroes, animals, and supernatural beasts, had a purpose that was practical, as well as mystical, spiritual.

The little dipper as the seasonal marker

Ptolemy knew 48 constellations. Each of them relates to an important myth, but amongst the most important are the big dipper and the little dipper. (Ursa Major and Ursa Minor). In our times, the little dipper is probably the most important, as on its “tail” lies Polaris – the north star. Moreover, rotation of the little dipper around the fixed north star marks the seasons of the year. In the process, it forms the shape of the swastika:

The picture was taken from Graham Hancock’s website forum

Even the polar star is not “fixed”

It is very important to understand that our north is not really fixed. It moves for 1 degree of a circle every 72 years, or we can say for 30 degrees every 2160 years. This is why the further we go back through time, the closer we get to the point where the north was not near the little, but the big dipper – for the last time roughly 5000 years ago.

As we have “two bears”, the big and the small one, it seems that the ancient idea of a “big bear in the sky” (Ursa Major) had simply shifted to the smaller one (Ursa Minor), somewhere around this period.

North is currently near Polaris, but it moves 30 degrees every 2160 years (here circled at 2000)

Now, it is a fact that different tribes saw different things in these constellations. In North America, they saw them as bears, (as in most European countries). But some tribes saw them as wagons or plows. The boundaries between these representations in European countries are not clear. Usually, two or three different representations exist in the same place.

I believe that the reason for these different ideas is surprisingly simple:

If I am correct, it would mean that these believes are simply the result of a lifestyle, rather than belonging to a specific group of people, or a nation. For example, Slavs knew about all three representations. At the same time, Slavic tribal names come from their specific lifestyle – Drevljani, tribes of the forests and Poles, tribes of the fields…

Once again, we see that it is logical that an image of a bear is probably the oldest one. It relates to hunter-gatherers. And back then, the polar star was near the Ursa Major, big bear.

The change of the lifestyle brought the new imagery. But these changes are only cosmetic, as the main function of a star calendar did not change a bit.

If the polar star is not the same, neither are the myths

Now, since all the three images of these constellations are related to the late autumn – the bear, the wagon and the plow, we can easily determine the precise moment that the ancient priest would use to give a signal to his tribe – a fall equinox of 22nd of September! Sitting on his throne, observing the markers allied to the cardinal directions, he would just need to wait for the Sun to set and look towards the north.

I will now show you what he would see, but during the fall equinox of 3,000 BC. I chose this specific date because since then the stars had moved for the whole 70 degrees on the sky, and this particular star-lore has lost its meaning.

It is not only because of the shift of the north star that I know this. 3,000 BC was one of the last years in which the Sun was setting in the constellation of Libra. The name of this constellation clearly comes from the “balance” of the day and night during the equinox. Nowadays Sun sets between Virgo and Lion, 70 degrees further.

And this is how the fall equinox of 3,000 BC would look like:


Northern constellations after sunset on the fall equinox of 3000BC (created with Stellarium)

We see that the big dipper stands horizontal, marking the beginning of the fall. Currently, due to the effects of the precession, the big dipper is slowly moving upwards diagonally. In a few thousand years it will stand vertically, instead of horizontally, at the beginning of the fall. However, this does not affect the main symbol of the swastika – eternal rotation, a wheel of life.

Bootes constellation – the bear watcher, plowman, and the ox-driver

In the picture above, we see that in 3,000 BC constellation Bootes stood to the left of Ursa major (currently not visible during the equinox). The name of this constellation comes from Greek and it means a “plowman”, or an “ox-driver”. Whatever the translation, this image relates to the big dipper as a plow, pulled by the oxen. This representation obviously comes from an agricultural society, as for the nomadic tribe Bootes would probably be a “wagon driver”.

However, the brightest star of Bootes is Arcturus (from Arctur – bear). And the older name of Bootes, for the ancient Greeks, was Arctophylax – “the bear watcher”. In previous examples, we got the idea that Bootes is “pulling” the big dipper, whether it is a wagon or an ox. In the case of a man and the bear, we should look no further than the image of Ursari, nomadic bear handlers. They used to make bears dance in public since the times immemorial, mainly during the celebrations of fall, winter, and spring holidays. (solstice and equinoxes)

Without a doubt, this custom originates from the Neolithic period at least. It is a vestige of ancient shamanic rituals related to the movement of the big dipper and the change of seasons. A shaman would carry a pole – a representation of the Axis Mundi, while his control of the bear was a symbolical control of the cosmic law.

The Ursari tradition was banned in Germany in the 1920s because of the concerns of animal cruelty. However, it remained alive in Balkans until recent decades. It is now almost extinct, but not because of the concerns for the animals. I suppose because the stars had shifted, and the original meaning and purpose were lost with their movement. Anyhow, a typical representation of Bootes looks almost identical to this photo of Ursar from the Belgrade museum archives, if we exchange the dogs on his leash with the bear.

“When a bear sees his shadow”

The position of Ursa major during the final winter months signaled the end of winter to Druids. This is the real meaning of the saying “if the bear sees his shadow”, typical in Western Europe, or its equivalent, the “Groundhog Day” in America, as well as St. Brigid’s day in Ireland. That is why the symbol of Saint Brigid is a swastika (aka St Brigid’s cross). During this time of the year, the Ursa Major appears very high in the sky. It is taking away the winter, as illustrated in this rhyme chanted by the Ursari:

Dance, dance Old Boy Martin,
And I shall give you bread and olives!
Green leaf of crab apple,
Climb, bear on the stick,
Climb higher and higher still,
For I brought you honey, too.
Dance, dance Old Boy Martin,
For I give you the honey of bees.
Dance, dance nicely,
And take little steps.
Jump, jump, higher and higher,
For your master has gone away!

Now, I used the date of 3000BC to illustrate this, as this was the last date when this star-lore was fully functional. However, the setting of the stars was appropriate for this kind of star-lore already from the 6th millennium BC!

Hercules and the polar star

Following this path, we can maybe go even further back in time in tracing the polar star mythology. For example, all the way to around 9000 BC when the north star was near the constellation of Hercules. Besides looking very similar to a swastika, Hercules is clearly related to the polar star mythology through the story of “the apples of the Hesperides”.

In the myth of the Hesperides, Hercules meets Atlas, who is holding the world on his shoulders. This is a clear reference to the Axis Mundi. Hercules takes the weight off him for a while, causing the earth to tremble as they exchange. Bootes is the nearest constellation to Hercules, and it is on the line of precession. MAYBE we can assume that something important had happened around 9000 BC when the earth’s axes passed in between these two constellations. An event that caused the earth to tremble – something like an earthquake or a meteorite strike. This is the approximate time when the ice age had ended. (!)

Bootes and Hercules on the star chart

Moreover, did the story of apples of Hesperides originate in this period? Did it survive several millennia within the star lore – only to be recycled once the polar star became Polaris of Ursa minor – the tree of the Hesperides?

Lyra and the polar star

If we go even further back, to around 11000 BC, the north star was Vega of the constellation Lyra. We may see an analogy with the myth of Orpheus. He was the most famous lyre player in history, and his wife Eurydice had been killed by a snake. (constellation Draco). Orpheus (the Sun) goes to the underworld in search of his beloved Euridice (the Earth). He makes a deal to rescue her if he doesn’t look back to see if she follows. But he does look, and so she returns to the underworld. What is this myth describing if not the change of seasons?

If you think that I went too far back in time – I didn’t. First, the oldest swastika ever discovered is the one from Mezine, Ukraine, and dated to 10,500BC.. The swastika was obviously a sacred symbol even back then. Its relation to the star lore is debatable, but I believe that we have a firm ground to make such assumptions.

Besides, very few scholars would nowadays argue that amazing finds at Göbekli tepe, dated to the 10th millennium BC, are filled with astrological symbols. We see scorpions, lions, bulls… and even Cygnus – the swan.

After these findings, can anyone challenge the fact the knowledge of astronomy existed even in the 10th millennium BC? And why wouldn’t it? Homo sapiens have been walking under the stars for at least 100,000 years! During this period the precession circle has turned at least 5 times. (not to mention the knowledge of our predecessors)

Cygnus and the polar star

From all the animals of Göbekli tepe, a bird identified as a constellation Cygnus – the swan, seems to be the most popular motif. The north star was in this constellation around the 16th millennium BC. Moreover, there is a very strong body of mythology around this constellation, too much to fit in this short article. But let’s just mention that both Zeus and Orpheus had transformed into a swan, and a Vedic Brahma rides on one.

And even more importantly, Cygnus – and more precisely its brightest star Deneb – the polar star of the 16th millennium BC, can perhaps be related to the myth of the cosmic egg. This was an extremely important ontological myth that resonated from ancient Egypt to Vedic India, and even further. The position of the Deneb star, as well as the very importance of the polar star, reminds of the cosmic egg mythology.

  1. Brahma on a swan 2. Cygnus constellation, with Deneb as the cosmic egg

Now, Cygnus means a “swan”. This is because the ancients considered this part of the sky as the celestial “water”. In Arabic culture, it was a hen. However, even the image of a stork would not be out of place. Storks still migrate around the fall equinox and return in the springtime. This event would have been even more important during the ice age.

From 16,000BC when Deneb was the polar star, to 11-10000BC, the age of Göbekli tepe, there would be a shift in the position, just like the one we witnessed from the 3,000BC to now. For builders of Göbekli tepe, the Cygnus constellation would be in the same position where we now see Ursa major!

But perhaps the most striking parallel comes from Mal’ta, Siberia, where we see Cygnus looking bird figurines, dated to 20000BC!

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