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Bull Leaper Constellation


Knossos Bull Leaper Constellation

 

As for the Bull Leaper from the Knossos fresco of about 1500 BC, shown in Figure 1,  as it relates to constellations, this is identified by Glyn-Jones and McGillivray before him as Taurus represented as the bull and Perseus represented as the leaper.  While this is a highly stylized painting, it does appear to represent a truly immense area of the night sky, about a quarter of the entire circumference.  However, it also appears to represent another alternate perception rather than part of a continuing astronomical tradition of the Lascaux cave depictions.

Figure 1.

“Bull leaper” frieze from the palace at Knossos

 

bullleaping

 

The bull itself appears around the portion of the sky that also contains Taurus and the buffalo mentioned on the Lascaux Cave page.  However, the horns are curved rather than straight, and the horns of Taurus appear to correspond here to the bulls head, with Aldebaran as its nose and Alnath as its eye.  This means that Orion is the figure holding the bull’s horns, in this case the belt of this first figure corresponds to the three "belt of Orion" stars.  Just as Glyn-Jones says, the “leaper” would be Perseus.  This means the figure on the other side with two outstretched arms corresponds to the constellation of Andromeda.  This region of the night sky and some likely stars making up the pattern are shown in Figure 2.  There certainly is evidence for a direct link between this depiction and the Greek Perseus and Andromeda.

 

Figure 2.

Modern star map showing region encompassed by the "Bull leaper" freize

 

bullleaper

 

bullleaping_constellations

 

What is interesting but not surprising is that some Greek constellations were known at this early time, but that others including Pegasus and Aries - both incorporated here - were not yet individual constellations.

 


Egyptian Pharaoh Constellation

 

These same stars comprising Orion, Taurus, Andromeda and Pegasus were apparently highly regarded amongst the Egyptians at one time, where it appears to have been used in representations of pharaoh upon his chariot.[1]  Although reproduced several times by various pharaohs it is unknown if any of them represent an incipient form or whether they are all are stylistic renditions from a line of traditional representation.  One of these shown as Figure 3 is represented upon the walls of Abu Simbel, purported to show Ramses II leading the charge in the Battle of Kadesh, his significant victory over the Hittites around 1273 BC.  The depiction is from around 1250 BC during construction of the temple complex, towards the end of the Bronze Age.

 

Figure 3.

Depiction of Ramses II at Battle of Kadesh

 

pharaoh

 

This is even more encompassing than the Bull Leaper, occupying roughly half the circumference of the night sky, which is truly immense, but also engenders problems to develop a proper correspondence with the stars.  The stars curve around the axis of the celestial sphere, while the depiction here has been "straightened out" by the Egyptians.  This means it is better to treat the front half and the rear half separately, which are shown in Figure 4, while recognizing that the stars will appear to "fall off" more and more on either side in relation to the wall carving (for this reason narrow sections are more appropriately matched with stars).  This motif has never been associated with a constellation pattern before.

 

Figure 4.

Front half and rear half of Ramses II viewed against a modern star map

 

pharaoh_horses     pharaoh_chariot

 

The significant correspondences are the form and belt of Orion and the leaping posture of Pegasus.  It appears however that the form of the large constellation of Pegasus that initially might have been viewed as the horse, was later expanded so as to include Aquarius as the feather headdress of the horses and one of the fish of Pisces as the circle behind the horses neck, with the “Great Square” to better match a blanket upon the horses back.  The correspondences of the stars are nearly perfect with the proportions of the chariot and pharaoh.  It is interesting too that the constellation of Auriga was known to the ancient Babylonians, Greeks, Arabs and Chinese as a chariot (Olcott 2004: 63).[1]  It is also possible that the three horses shown following him might be equated with the bright stars Sirius, Procyon and Pollux, with associated stars filling in the details, and the protective falcon shown behind his head being also represented by stars.

     With such a high correspondence between the depiction and the stars it at least should encourage an effort to track down the earliest possible representation of this sort, which should be only within the prior 500 years or so (the first time the constellation might have been recognized as a horse and chariot), since once the image was established it would be reproduced as a symbol of divine power but appearing more stylized and less representative of the proportions dictated by the star positions.  It might still be argued that these correspondences are merely coincidence, or that the stars are merely chosen because they happen to fit the depiction, however these are major star patterns that already constitute recognized constellations, so it cannot be dismissed so easily.

     While not entirely accurate, due to problems of spatial mismatch mentioned before, the complete choice of stars for this immense constellation is shown in Figure 5.

 

Figure 5.

Representation of entire Pharaoh Constellation

 

pharaoh_constellation

 

The direction of apparent travel through the sky is in the forward direction.  Notice however that this places the entire orientation in a manner that are viewed as being "upside-down", but in reality the constellation can be viewed best when it is directly overhead looking up into the sky, rather than standing facing either horizon.  It does substantiate the significance of the night sky to the ancient Egyptians, although the significance of its use by the pharaoh probably relates to the Orion constellation having represented Osiris, who was identified with the dead pharaoh.  This could also be a reason for orienting the pyramids with the Orion belt stars, in Figure 6, which has been hypothesized by some and doubted by others, but appears to be well founded.  Within the ancient religion the Egyptians believed “the land of Egypt itself was believed to be an image of the heavens” (Condos 1997:196) while in The Constellations of Pseudo-Eratosthenes: “Some say that the geographical configuration of Egypt is modeled on the Delta-shape in the heavens [Triangulum] and that the Nile River caused the outline of Egypt to be such” (Condos 1997:195).

 

Figure 6.

Overlay spatial arrangement between Giza pyramids and Orion Belt stars

 

Pyramids_OrionBelt

 

 

[1] This was also represented graphically by the Hurrians, see http://arevordi.blogspot.com/2005/12/hurrian-and-mitanni-kingdoms-of.html.


Cetus the Sea Monster Amphora

 

Running across this amphora depiction shown in Figure 7, within The First Fossil Hunters, a first impression of it was that this was representative of constellations, and thus seemed out of place within a book that is about ancient discoveries of buried bones.

 

Figure 7.

Amphora depiction of Perseus saving Andromeda

 

figure7

 

This depiction is one of Perseus saving Andromeda from the monster of Joppa (Corinth, early 6th century) and is presented for its apparent representation of an artistically “fleshed-out” paleontological skull found in antiquity.  Yet there is something about the unusual strained quality in the poses of the figures and their arrangement that gives the immediate impression that star patterns are their source.  However, at first it was not apparent which stars could be represented here, but a possibility was provided in Orion, in the very same “upside-down” manner in which it was viewed with the Pharaoh constellation above.

     Although difficulty arises form the fact that modern star charts form patterns to correspond with the commonly recognized constellation patterns, by isolating the stars and re-connecting the dots the figures can be reproduced convincingly and are shown in Figure 8.

 

Figure 8.

Identification of stars contained on the Cetus amphora

(note how significant star placements correspond well to artistic depiction)

 

figure8

 

Some other features that are important to note are the accurate location of the eye in Cetus, represented as in the drawing as a large circle, with Aldebaran corresponding to the beast’s nose, the Pleiades to the tooth.  The high-brim cap Perseus wears arises from star placements in Lepus, the bag hanging from his arm is explained by a pattern of stars corresponding to Orion’s bow, and the feathers on his legs also seem to arise from nearby star positions.  (It is tempting to think that the bag, cap, and winged sandals of the myth actually arose out of these star patterns.  It is difficult to know if the disproportionate size of the cap meant to them it must have been that of a god.)  While the nine stones between his legs are not represented so well positionally, it is likely the stars there were merely recognized as a pile of additional stones.  It is unclear how far divorced the painting is from the constellations, and whether the artist was copying from the star pattern or from a known artistic tradition, but the latter is probably the case.  The strange position of Andromeda’s arms also are held in the stars, although this figure is not quite so well defined as the other two.  All the shapes are well represented and are prominent components of visible constellations, although differently arranged.

     What is interesting is that Perseus and Andromeda appearing as constellations here are not the familiar Greek ones, although the constellation Cetus is contained here including the eye, is the sea monster of the same myth.  What it indicates is that there was no single set of constellations that were agreed upon by all members of the ancient world, and we shouldn’t be surprised that this is the case.  Although it is probable that attempts to systematize them later required one preferred choice over another; so that having two Perseus and two Andromeda constellations to select from, and with Orion already speaking for these stars, certain choices had to be made.  In any case it certainly broadens our understanding about the evolutionary history of the Greek constellations and there are likely more artistic depictions that remain unrecognized.


Sources

 

[1] Constellation Mythology, "The Constellation Auriga", http://www.coldwater.k12.mi.us/lms/planetarium/myth/auriga.html, retrieved December 28, 2008.

Condos, Theony.  Star Myths of the Greeks and Romans: A Sourcebook.  Grand Rapids: Phanes, 1997.

Mayor, Adrienne.  The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times.  Princeton University Press: Princeton, 2000.

Olcott, William Tyler.  Star Lore: Myths, Legends, and Facts.  Dover: New York, 2004


 

Notes:

For more on the Bull Leaper constellation visit the Arcadian Dreamtime link on the Links page.

The star charts are taken from David H. Levy's "Guide to the Stars", Northern Hemisphere, Latitudes 30 to 60 North, that adds this note about their projection: "Any planisphere tries to project the sphere of stars onto a flat surface.  There are many types of projections, which all result in some stretching of star patterns, especially in the south.  Our projection is designed to minimize this effect, but the southern constellations are stretched somewhat and others appear squeezed."

As always, you can take the opportunity to look upon these constellations yourself on a clear night away from city lights. 
Not only can it be as interesting to locate them but to know also that these are the same stars that were gazed upon so
many thousands of years ago by early humans, a direct and real link from their world to ours.