Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The Constellation Art of Knossos - by William Glyn-Jones

The Constellation Art of Knossos
by William Glyn-Jones

It is not doubted that sacred geometry was used in the Renaissance as part of the structure of compositions to imbue art with a transcendent harmony, as outlined in the Platonic and Hermetic philosophies of old, and that this same idea was used to give the classical architecture of antiquity its sense of light, harmony and beauty. The Platonic philosophy says that forms which are universal, intelligible and eternal partake of the essence of beauty from a realm of ideas that has objective existence. The fact that intelligibility, universality and antiquity should facilitate this suggests that this philosophy is speaking of more than simply a pleasing effect due to symmetry and balance. The more universal and intelligible a form or idea, the more mental resonance will occur, if there is such a realm of ideas. The closest modern scientific theory is Morphic Resonance and indeed it says the same things. It suggests that anomalies in the learning patterns of both animals and humans are due to a morphic resonance, a resonance between things of like form, be they the ideas or the creatures doing the thinking or behaving. The older the form, then, the richer the accumulation of morphic fields around it…and a deeper sense of its beauty in the perceiver? This would certainly accord with the experience people have when finding themselves before such treasures of antiquity as the acropolis or the pyramids.

Whether or not we choose to accept this, it is certainly the case that if it is true, then logically there are certain other kinds of forms which should have a similar effect to those that are geometric, and which we might thus expect to have been similarly treasured by artists adhering to the hermetic philosophy. A particularly interesting example is that of constellation patterns. They are very, very old, very slow to change, and they are effectively universal in human terms, in that the same patterns are seen in the sky across a wide range of geography. The shape of Orion for example is the same for onlookers in the northern hemisphere as it is for the people in Australia or South America.

The hermetic artist would be interested not only in the pattern itself, but also in the mythological figure projected onto that pattern, for it is the collective thought-form that they are aiming to create a resonance with, so that their art appears ancient in beauty, redolent with a timeless ancestral imprint – the Dreamtime.

It is for each individual appreciator of such art to decide whether or not they adhere to this philosophy themselves. It certainly does not appear to be impossible when looked at in terms of some scientific studies that claim to be empirical, for example those that have been written of in books like The Presence of the Past by Rupert Sheldrake. But more than that I will not say on the question of the validation of the philosophy itself. The topic here is that of whether the artists of a particular place and time – Minoan Knossos – were adherents of this type of philosophy and exponents of this type of art, and I am talking here specifically about the use [of]constellation imagery rather than the geometric type. This will bring us closer to the intentions of those artists – whether you want to call this intimacy ‘resonance’, or call it ‘insight’ and leave it at that. In which camp do I place myself? I think you can probably guess.

The Bull Leaper Fresco

The first image we will look at here is perhaps the most famous of the Knossos frescoes, that of the Bull Leaper. An exciting theme, beautifully portrayed, but is there more to it than has been realized? For me it has always been not just beautiful but exquisitely so.

These images below show how well the constellation of Perseus matches the image of the bull leaper in mid flight, his hands on the shoulder of the bull. Except, in the Knossos fresco his hands are not on the bull’s shoulder, but further along his back. A possible reason for this will be given below.


In the sky, the constellation of Perseus is located over the shoulder of Taurus the Bull. For this reason, it seems highly likely to me that this is the subject of the Bull Leaper fresco. In other depictions of the same scene, the bull leaper is shown more over the horns themselves, closer to the actual position of Perseus over Taurus. An example is this image from a cylinder seal at Knossos.

This cylinder seal shows two other figures off to the left. Their chief characteristic is that their poses match each other perfectly, they are in this respect twins. They are also in the location relative to Taurus of Gemini, the Twins constellation, so I suggest that this is exactly who there are, and that we appear to have here the depiction of some archaic Minoan sky myth regarding a great hunt of a wild bull in which the Twins (Castor and Pollux?) played some heroic part. We can probably come close to it by picturing something along the lines of the Greek myth of the hunt of the wild boar, which has a Celtic equivalent.

As such this image adds some more weight to the hypothesis – that the bull is Taurus and the leaper is Perseus. But best of all is the way that Perseus moves across the sky. When he is due South at the meridian he is in the position depicted in the Knossos fresco, that is to say heels over head, upside down, mid somersault. In fact Perseus actually performs the leap over the course of the night, moving from the East to the West and flipping over when crossing the meridian. This really does give us a deep insight, surely, into the way that Perseus was viewed by the Minoans.

In terms of the drama played out in the starry sky, a feature of the animation that is somewhat at odds with this is that of course while the leaper leaps, the bull retreats, and if this was the end of the matter we could not really say that the leap has been completed. However, as we have said the flip occurs when Perseus is due South, and south of the palace of Knossos containing the bull leaper fresco is a mountain – Mount Iuctas [also spelled Juktas or Jouchtas] - which is believed to have been viewed by the Minoans as totemic bull mountain. The reason for this is that the southern view from the palace to was framed through a pair of ‘sacral bulls horns’, and some have suggested that the slightly cleft peak of the mountain may have suggested horns. A tradition has come down in which the mountain is sacred to Zeus, who was originally a Cretan bull god, as seen for example in the Europa myth.

Therefore the bull is fixed to the South (as a landscape feature) while the leaper in the sky completes the leap over it. And when we compare the shape of the mountain seen from Knossos with the shape of the shoulder of the bull in the Minoan bull leaper images the match up is very good. So rather than or possibly as well as the cleft peak / bull’s horns image, I suggest that it is almost definite that the Minoans saw Iuctas as the shoulder of the bull seen from the side.

However, from Knossos itself the mountain can only have been the bull in a figurative sense, because even back in the Minoan period the altitude of Perseus was much more than the inclination to the top of the mountain seen from the palace. In order to really observe Perseus actually placing hands on the shoulder of the bull, as it were, they would have had to processes South to the foot of the mountain so that the inclination was much steeper. This they may have done.

September 12, 1400 B.C., from the foot of Mount Iuctas, looking South during the night

Why then does the leaper have his hands further along the back of the bull in the Knossos fresco? The Cretans were accomplished seafarers, and one thing we can be certain of is that they had a good sense of the shape of their own land. Funnily enough, the shape of Crete is rather like the bull. Most notably there are the two promontories like horns on the northwest corner.

This may be a rather quirky addition, but given that the Cretans almost certainly did have a bull-totem Earth god, and given that they were expert sailors and would thus have had an understanding of the shape the island, I doubt that this would have gone unnoticed. Knossos, then, is located further back than the shoulder of the bull which I put forward as a possible explanation for why the leaper is in this position in the Knossos fresco.

The Knossos Zodiac

That then is the theory I am proposing concerning the Knossos Bull Leaper, but other frescoes and figurines have been found in the ruins of the palace, and it would appear from what we have discovered so far that it may be worth having a look at these to see whether a similar hermetic approach is evident, in other words are there other constellation images? It very quickly becomes apparent that the likelihood is very high indeed.

After all, these are images of a Serpent Bearer, a Cup-Bearer, Doves, a Throne surrounded by leonine creatures…

My suggestion then, of which I am pretty confident, is that the Cup-Bearer fresco is simply the Cup-Bearer constellation – Aquarius. The Serpent Bearer figurines are simply the Serpent Bearer constellation, The Blue Doves fresco simply depicts the Doves Constellation, i.e. the Pleiades cluster. ‘Pleiades’ = ‘The Doves’ and as such were they mythologized in Greek tradition.

. .

I would go further and suggest that there are other constellation pattern images that are not quite so immediately obvious. In Egypt Isis’ main totem is the throne or seat, and She is there the Mother Goddess. In Catal Huyuk in Anatolia there is an image of a very voluptuous Earth Mother figure in a seated posture, and the arm rests are wild cats, leopards perhaps. Back in Egypt again thrones are known with a similar imagery – lions flanking a throne as for example in the treasures of the tomb of Tutankhamun. The Mother house of Astrology is the 4th House, the house which corresponds to the Zodiac sign of Cancer. And when we look at the shape of this constellation we see that it is that of a chair. And if we look at this constellation in the sky we see that behind and below it is Leo, and behind and above it is Leo Minor. This is looking from the side, but were we to look at the scene from the front we would see the throne flanked by the two lions. And in Knossos in the throne room the seat is flanked by the eagle headed lions. These griffins are admittedly some of the less certain images of Arthur Evans’ reconstruction work, and they probably didn’t look like the ones there today. A griffin was found on one of the walls of the throne room, and if I understand correctly the ones that flank the throne were identified by their paws. We might say that this theory serves to validate this reconstruction to some extent.


Above: the throne room, and right the throne headdress of Isis

In Minoan and Mycenean art the labyrs or double axe is often shown in between bulls’ horns. There is in fact a
crossing point in the sky between the horns of the bull. It is the crossing of the Galactic Axis that runs along the Milky Way and the ecliptic, the path of the Sun, Moon and planets. The other crossing point of these two is near Ophiuchus, the Serpent Bearer, which may explain instances where a figure similar to the serpent bearer figures is shown holding double axes.


Plato said the Master Craftsman Arche-Tektos placed two strips crosswise in the Platonic creation story, and the meaning of Daidalos is similar – The Skillful Craftsman. Daidalos was the designer of the Labyrinth, so does this hint at an older creation story where the Labyrinth was in fact the ecliptic – the Zodiac - with its two labyrs crossing points? This is of course rather more speculative.

But with the simple identification of these crossing points as the labyrs we have enough to now look at the position of these frescos and figurines in the plan of Knossos, and notice a rough Zodiac order, as shown here.

So it seems that the ‘palace’ of Knossos was an hermetic art gallery that functioned by (or, if you prefer, had the intention of) accessing the old Arcadian Dreamtime, the timeless ancestral imprint in the constellation patterns of the
sky, and in its relation to the local countryside it also grounded this vision into the landscape, creating a rich sense of place.

From the academic point of view the interesting thing about all this is that this is 1400 B.C., while these constellations are not officially recognized as appearing on the scene until 500 B.C. in Mesopotamia. This essay is therefore part of the growing strong evidence that a revision of that date and place is long overdue. Not only did they exist thousands of years earlier, but they were central to the Mediterranean culture.

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