David Mathisen, in this original analysis of the Pylos Combat Agate, offers a stunning glimpse of “the great world-wide archaic construction” described in De Santillana and Von Dechend’s Hamlet’s Mill.
The discovery of the Pylos Combat Agate in a Mycenaean shaft-grave tomb dating to 1500 BC may be one of the most significant archaeological and artistic finds in decades, or centuries. The level of artistic sophistication and detail is stunning—the more so because the piece itself is so “incomprehensibly small” and the level of detail, some of which is only half a millimetre in size, is so incredibly high.i
Experts are already debating the meaning of the scene, in which a triumphant warrior plunges a sword into a heavily-shielded combatant wearing a crested helmet, while another lies sprawled-out beneath their feet, apparently dead. Unnoticed until now, however, is that the scene details a pattern in the heavens. For the figures contain details specific to the constellations Hercules, Ophiucus, Corona Borealis, Scorpio and Sagittarius—using constellational references and artistic conventions that can be found in other ancient works of art from other cultures around the globe, and which also continue to appear in sacred art spanning thousands of years.
This astonishing discovery provides compelling new evidence supporting De Santillana and Von Dechend’s argument for a worldwide pattern of tremendous antiquity, relating to the cycles of the heavens and seen in the motions of the stars and planets; a system so old that, “The dust of centuries had settled upon the remains of this great world-wide archaic construction when the Greeks came upon the scene.”ii
Indeed, building upon the hints offered in Hamlet’s Mill, I have found evidence in both ancient myth and ancient artwork that clearly demonstrates that ancient myths, scriptures and sacred stories from around the globe—including ancient artwork depicting mythical scenes—are frequently based on celestial metaphor, as part of a system that appears to have been mature before the earliest tablets of the Gilgamesh cycle or the stone walls containing the Pyramid Texts were inscribed. This suggests the existence of some even earlier culture or civilisation, upending conventional timelines of early human history.
In the spring of 2015, a team of scholars working in the Pylos region of Greece discovered an undisturbed shaft-grave tomb of a Bronze Age warrior, which included an intact skeleton and more than 3,000 artefacts arrayed on and around the body. The tomb is believed to date to the period around 1500 BCE and to be from the Mycenaean civilisation, but with many of the objects appearing to be of Minoan origin. The discovery, with its rich trove of artefacts, was described as the most significant in the region to be found in several decades—but it would be another year before the most astonishing find was uncovered: a dirt-encrusted agate stone measuring only 3.6 centimetres which, since being carefully cleaned, reveals artwork depicting a close combat scene with stunning detail and artistic sophistication. Indeed, those studying the piece have been surprised to find that “Many of the seal’s details, such as the intricate weaponry ornamentation, become clear only when viewed via photomicroscopy.”iii
The scholars who led the team that discovered the tomb, Sharon R. (Shari) Stocker and Jack L. Davis, have speculated that the scene may reflect a scene from a myth or legend well-known to the Minoan and Mycenaean cultures.iv They may be correct, but in addition to any mythological connections, the posture of the figures and specific details of their armour and ornamentation point to a celestial foundation for this groundbreaking piece of ancient artwork. In an article published by The Telegraph, Shari Stocker says, “This seal should be included in all forthcoming history texts, and will change the way that prehistoric art is viewed”.v I could not agree more—and will go further by suggesting that it should change the way that ancient human history is viewed as well.
The Pylos Combat Agate gemstone, dating back to c. 1500 BC, is one of thousands of artefacts found in an undisturbed shaft-grave identified with a warrior from the Mycenaean civilisation. The archaeologists who worked on the excavations dubbed the warrior whose grave it was “The Griffin Warrior” after an ivory plaque with griffin artwork found between the legs of the body.vi
Below is a reproduction of the scene in which the major outlines of the figures have been coloured to help distinguish them (the original figures are not coloured in this way).
The scene depicts a triumphant, long-haired warrior in an extreme lunge, stabbing downwards into a foe with a sword held in his right hand, his right arm raised over his own head. This figure, to whom I will refer as the Swordsman, has been tinted red in the diagram. The figure into whom the Swordsman is plunging his sword has a large shield, which appears to have been battered into a somewhat folded lozenge or diamond-shape, possibly by the prior combat. This figure’s right arm is extended straight back from his shoulder and holds a long spear, the point of which can be seen on the other side of the Swordsman, whom he is facing. I will refer to this second figure as the Spearman, and he is tinted blue. He is evidently about to receive a mortal wound from the Swordsman. Additionally, the Spearman wears a helmet with a prominent curving crest: the left arm of the Swordsman is extended towards this curve and the left hand of the Swordsman is grasping this curved crest of the Spearman’s helmet as the Swordsman delivers the downward sword-blow.
Finally, there is a third figure stretched out below the two fighting figures of the Swordsman and the Spearman: this figure has apparently already been killed and his body is twisted into a contorted position even while stretched-out. He is tinted green in the diagram above and I will refer to him as the Fallen Warrior. His head is to the left as we look at the seal, and his lower (right) leg is fully extended to the right as we look at the scene. His left leg is sharply bent with the knee pointing upwards. His body is twisted so that his back is facing the viewer, and the detail of the musculature of his back is extremely skilfully rendered. His arms are splayed out at different angles, with one drooping down towards his legs and the other bent over his head, and the back of his hand against the ground.
The details of this scene are strongly suggestive of the outlines of specific constellations in the night sky, and of constellations that appear to have formed the basis of other pieces of ancient artwork. Below is an image depicting the region of the night sky containing the constellations Hercules, Ophiucus, Corona Borealis (the Northern Crown), Sagittarius and Scorpio. The brightest part of the Milky Way galaxy can be seen to rise up from the horizon between the constellations of Sagittarius and Scorpio. In this image, the colour scheme has been inverted such that dark is light and light is dark, so that the background night sky, which ordinarily would be black, is light-coloured, and the stars are shown as black dots. The Milky Way, which would be a shining light in the actual night sky, appears here as dark-coloured clouds.
Note that the Hercules figure in the sky appears to be executing a deep lunge, with one arm raised above its head, brandishing a sword. The other arm reaches downwards, and is extended nearly straight-out from the body. The similarities to the figure of the Swordsman in the Pylos Combat Agate should be self-evident: that figure also has an extended rear leg, and the arm holding the sword arches over the head of the figure on the agate in much the same manner as the outline of Hercules in the sky. Alone, these similarities are not enough to make a conclusive argument, but as we will see from further investigation, the ancient artist has included other features that make the celestial identification extremely compelling.
Immediately below Hercules in the sky we find the oblong, rectangular shape of the constellation Ophiucus, whose name derives from the Greek word for “serpent” and who is known as the Serpent-handler or Serpent-bearer. The figure of Ophiucus appears to be holding a serpent, which can be seen on either side of the tall, rectangular body of the celestial figure. Note that the constellation Ophiucus is located below the constellation Hercules, as seen in the sky of an observer in the northern hemisphere of our planet, such as ancient Greece, Mycenae, or Minoan Crete. This suggests that the constellation Hercules, brandishing a mighty sword, could be envisioned as striking (or preparing to strike) a mortal blow to the figure of Ophiucus.
Indeed, other details suggest that the figure of the Spearman in the Pylos Combat Agate corresponds with the outline of Ophiucus in the night sky.
First, the two serpent-halves on either side of Ophiucus could be envisioned as spears rather than as serpents; and other figures in ancient Greece who carry spears could arguably also be associated with the figure of Ophiucus, including depictions of the goddess Athena. Note that the Spearman in the Pylos Agate appears to be wearing a fringed garment of some sort, visible between his legs, below the rim of his broad shield. Athena is also frequently depicted as wearing the Aegis, which is often portrayed as a long, triangular cloak or shawl fringed with serpents, such as in this ancient sixth century BCE statue:
Additional support for the argument that the Spearman on the Pylos Agate contains references to the heavenly outline of the constellation Ophiucus is in the shape of his large, somewhat crumpled shield. Note that the shape outlined on the left side of Ophiucus as we look at the constellation in the night sky (the east side of the constellation, since this star-chart faces towards the south and depicts the view for an observer in the northern hemisphere) could easily be envisioned as a large, albeit crumpled or battered shield:
In fact, if an additional line is envisioned in the sky just above the coloured region shown above, then the “shield area” belonging to the constellation Ophiucus becomes a little larger at the top, and the resemblance to the shield of the Spearman in the Pylos Agate is even more convincing:
Additionally, the triangular “head” of Ophiucus could be envisioned as a helmet—and in the Pylos Combat Agate, it is the Spearman (in contrast to the Swordsman) who wears a helmet. The outline of Ophiucus portrayed here connects the stars at the top of Ophiucus into a triangle, but if a more curved line were to be envisioned, that triangle could become a “dome” or a semicircle instead of a triangle— sufficient for a helmet (and note, once again, that the goddess Athena is notable for being described and depicted as wearing a helmet in many instances, thus further indication that she, too, may correspond to the same constellation Ophiucus). In any case, it should be fairly obvious when looking at the constellation Ophiucus that it could be envisioned as a rather heavily-armoured combat figure, with only the legs protruding from beneath the well-protected body—and that is precisely what we see in the case of the Spearman on the Pylos Agate.
The confirmatory detail indicating that we are indeed looking at a celestial scene involving Hercules and Ophiucus in the Pylos Combat Agate is found in the extended arm of the Swordsman, which is grasping the distinctive, curving helmet-crest of the Spearman. The ancient artist of the Pylos Agate has depicted this crest as a sort of open “C-shape,” with the opening pointing upwards. This detail in the Pylos Agate can be seen to correspond to the constellation of Corona Borealis, the “Northern Crown” in the night sky.
The dominant figure of the Swordsman in the Pylos Agate reaches out his lower arm (the arm not holding the sword) to grasp the curved helmet-crest, just as the menacing figure of Hercules can be envisioned as reaching out his lower arm (the arm not holding the sword) to grasp the Northern Crown. The constellation Hercules as drawn above does not actually connect its lower arm to the Crown. It is, however, only a small matter to envision a line between one of the lower stars of the downward-reaching arm of Hercules and the stars of the Northern Crown, to see Hercules as reaching out to grasp the arc in the sky:
This detail, in addition to the general outline of the Swordsman’s body posture, confirms that the Swordsman corresponds to the figure of the constellation Hercules in the night sky. This detail jumped out at me the moment that I first saw images of the artwork on the Pylos Combat Agate, because I have found numerous myths from around the world in which a Hercules figure grasps a Northern Crown-type figure. I also explore these connections in books published well before the Pylos Agate came to light.
Among those ancient stories involving a Swordsman grasping an arching figure is the episode from the Hebrew Scriptures, or “Old Testament” of the Bible, known as the Judgment of Solomon, described in 1 Kings chapter 3, in which Solomon instructs a swordsman to cut a living baby in two:
In this seventeenth century painting, we see a powerful swordsman with a sword held over his back, grasping an infant by the heel. The infant is arching his body vigorously as infants do when they are upset, frightened, or angry. The swordsman in this case corresponds to the constellation Hercules, and the arching infant corresponds to the Northern Crown, or Corona Borealis, which (as we have seen) is close enough to Hercules in the night sky for us to imagine the constellation reaching out to grasp it.
Other myths from around the world also feature a “Hercules figure” grasping an infant—notably the story of baby Maui from the Maui cycle of myths found across the cultures of the islands of the Pacific Ocean, from Hawai’i to Aotearoa (New Zealand). In the Maui stories, baby Maui is described as being thrown into the sea foam by his parents, who do not want him. The child is protected by seaweed and jellyfish so that he does not perish, until his mighty grandfather, Tama of the Sky, rescues the abandoned baby Maui and hangs him up in the rafters to dry above the fire.
In this myth, Tama is again Hercules, and the baby is Corona Borealis (which is indeed located high up in the “rafters” of the sky, not far from the north celestial pole). The fire in this case corresponds to the smoky column of the Milky Way galaxy, which rises up towards Hercules and passes by his extended rear leg.
Other myths and stories involving the grasping of Corona Borealis by Hercules, which have been discussed my blog posts and books published long before the Pylos Combat Agate artwork was revealed, include the “rapture” described in Revelation chapter 12, in which a child is “caught up” to God and his throne in verse 5. Another is the story that begins the entire cycle of tales in the Thousand Nights and a Night (also known as the Thousand and One Nights, or the Arabian Nights), in which Shah Zaman departs from his palace to visit his brother King Shahryar, but forgets a string of jewels, which Zaman had intended to bring with him as a gift.
When Shah Zaman returns to get the necklace, he discovers his wife copulating with another man, and immediately draws his scimitar and cuts both his wife and her lover in half (cutting “the two into four pieces,” as the text says). Once again, a figure that is reaching for a string of jewels while swinging a mighty sword can be seen to correspond to Hercules and the shining arc of the Northern Crown. This is discussed in my October 2014 blog posts (in this case with the Northern Crown playing the string of jewels).
In case these correspondences are not enough to conclusively seal the argument, it appears that the ancient artist has chosen to include a reference to the brilliant star Vega in the constellation of Lyra the Lyre, immediately adjacent to the constellation Hercules in the night sky. In the diagram below, I have drawn an arrow in the star-chart to indicate the location of the star Vega, one of the five brightest fixed stars in the heavens—and another arrow on the diagram of the Pylos Agate artwork. The artwork clearly places the bulbous end of the sword-sheath protruding from the hip of the Swordsman in the correct position to indicate the star Vega in relationship to the outline of Hercules:
Other figures in the Pylos Agate display similar correspondences to constellations, as well as to artwork found in cultures around the world. As explained, the Spearman clearly corresponds to the outline of the constellation Ophiucus in the night sky. Ophiucus is located immediately below Hercules in the heavens; thus, in some mythical episodes, he corresponds to a figure who is slain by a Hercules figure (although in other myths Ophiucus corresponds to a descendent of a Hercules figure, which is also understandable and revealing of another intriguing angle of this ancient world-wide system of patterning myths on the stars).
In my 2016 book, Star Myths of the World, Volume Three (Star Myths of the Bible), I provide an extended discussion arguing that the giant Goliath, slain by David with his sling, corresponds to the towering figure of Ophiucus in the night sky. There are numerous details in the description of Goliath in the scriptural text (specifically in 1 Samuel chapter 17) that reveal Goliath’s correspondence to Ophiucus, including the description of his armour. Note that the Spearman in the Pylos Agate scene is also heavily-armoured, and that (like Goliath) he carries a spear as his chosen weapon, consistent with other Ophiucus figures in mythology.
In the confrontation between David and Goliath, David wields a sling, and the weapon brandished above the head of the constellation Hercules could easily be envisioned as a sling rather than as the sword or club it usually plays in other myths. Furthermore, after David has stunned Goliath with a stone from his sling, the text describes David as taking the mighty sword of Goliath and cutting off his head. Below is a painting of David slaying Goliath from c.1616, in which David is clearly portrayed in a manner that corresponds to the outline of Hercules:
Note that David, in this Peter Paul Rubens painting, has placed one foot on the side of Goliath’s head—a detail which can be seen to correspond to the outlines of Hercules and Ophiucus in the heavens (see the lower foot of Hercules in the constellation diagrams above).
This correspondence shows that the identification of the Swordsman and the Spearman in the Pylos Combat Agate scene with the constellations Hercules and Ophiucus (respectively) is well-founded, and that it also aligns closely with sacred stories from other cultures (as well as with artistic conventions which appear to have continued to be employed for thousands of years after the Griffin Warrior was laid to rest in his tomb).
Finally, the outline of the third figure in the Pylos Agate artwork, whom I refer to as the Fallen Warrior in the scene, can be seen to be depicted with details that correspond to the features of Scorpio and Sagittarius in the heavens, both of which are constellations located beneath both Ophiucus and Hercules in the night sky.
As I have noted in numerous books and blog posts published prior to the discovery of the Pylos Combat Agate, the constellation Scorpio plays the role of a wounded warrior in other ancient myths, as well as in ancient artwork such as the scene on the Greek bell-krater from the early sixth century BC depicting Artemis slaying the unfortunate young hunter Actaeon:
The correspondences between the figures of Artemis and Actaeon from the ancient artwork and the figures of Sagittarius and Scorpio in the heavens should be obvious.
Additionally, the arrangement of the arms of the Fallen Warrior in the artwork on the Pylos Combat Agate show that the ancient artist (or artists) was using artistic conventions for figures associated with this region of the sky in other artwork from other eras, depicting sacred stories from other cultures.
Specifically, I have previously argued that the convention of draping a hand over the head corresponds to the constellation Sagittarius, and that it has to do with the “plume” or line of stars that we can see rising up on the left side of the outline of the head of Sagittarius in the above image (and in the star-charts included in the illustrations).
Below is a painting from the year 1665 of the episode in Genesis commonly referred to as “Jacob’s Ladder” or “Jacob’s Dream,” in which Jacob has a vision of a stair or ladder reaching from the Earth up to the heavens, and angels ascending and descending upon it (Genesis 28). Jacob is asleep with his head upon the stone at the lower left corner of the painting, in red:
Note the configuration of the arms of the figure of Jacob as depicted by artist Salvatore Rosa (1615 – 1673) and compare them to the positioning of the arms of the Fallen Warrior in the scene from the Pylos Combat Agate from 1500 BC (or earlier). The correspondence could not be more compelling!
In Star Myths of the World (2016), I spend some time discussing the celestial details in the Salvator Rosa painting, and in other depictions of the Genesis 28 episode of “Jacob’s Ladder.” Rosa has clearly envisioned Jacob as corresponding to the position of Sagittarius in the night sky, and the ladder stretching to heaven is of course the shining band of the Milky Way galaxy, which rises up between Sagittarius and Scorpio. The brightest and widest part of the Milky Way is found just above the point where it passes between Sagittarius and Scorpio—this brightest, widest portion corresponds to the Galactic Core—and you can see that Salvatore Rosa has painted the clouds in a manner suggestive of that very portion of the Milky Way.
The angels which the scriptural text describes as ascending and descending upon the ladder in Jacob’s Vision almost certainly correspond to the winged figures of the constellations Aquila and Cygnus, the two great birds of the Milky Way galaxy, one of which can be seen to be flying upwards (or ascending) in the Milky Way band, and the other flying downwards (descending). This detail, as well as others in that text, confirm that the sleeping Jacob corresponds to either Sagittarius or Scorpio (or perhaps a combination of the two).
Below is another example, this time from a painting of Bathsheba at her bath, by Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – 1656):
This is another painting that I discuss at some length in Star Myths of the Bible (see for example pages 156 – 157 and 530 – 535). In that analysis, I argue that Bathsheba almost certainly corresponds to the constellation Sagittarius in the night sky, and that the positioning of her arms once again corresponds to the positioning of the arms found in the artwork on the Pylos Combat Agate for the figure of the Fallen Warrior.
It is certainly remarkable that this artistic convention appears to be in use in artwork conceived before 1500 BC and in the 1600s AD (and later)!
Taken together, they form compelling evidence for the existence of a worldwide system of celestial metaphor which informs ancient myth and ancient artwork in cultures literally around the globe and across vast gulfs of time.
The fact that the Pylos Combat Agate was not even unearthed until after I had written about these correspondences makes it a conclusive piece of evidence for the widespread operation of this system in antiquity. Added to the fact that it is such an early piece of artwork, and such a technically and artistically sophisticated artefact, the Pylos Combat Agate becomes a paradigm-shifting discovery.
The constellational correspondences within the artwork, etched upon a gemstone seal which was buried beneath the earth in the shaft-grave of the Griffin Warrior nearly a thousand years before the period of classical Greek culture and its more familiar black-figure and red-figure pottery, provide vivid support to the assertion by Santillana and von Dechend that the “dust of centuries” had already settled upon this world-wide system of celestial metaphor long before the Greeks “came upon the scene.”
Added to the other astonishing aspects of the artifact, including its level of technical, artistic, and aesthetic sophistication, its great antiquity, and its tiny size—all of which are causing even conventional scholars to declare that this artefact upends many aspects of the accepted framework of ancient human history— is the clear correspondence of the characters depicted in the artwork to figures in the celestial sphere, dwelling among the infinite realm of the stars, using conventions that can be shown to belong to some world-wide system of myth and sacred iconography. This presents grave problems for the conventional historical paradigm. It thus takes its place among a now-overwhelming pile of other evidence from both archaeology and mythology, all of which points towards some now-forgotten culture or civilisation of great sophistication in humanity’s ancient past, predating all of those known to academia or admitted by conventional scholars.
Illustration in Figure 12 is from:
Beazley, John D. Attic Red-figure Vases in American Museums. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1918. This drawing is found on page 113 of that text.
All other images from Wikimedia Commons.
Star charts created by the author using the free open-source planetarium app, Stellarium.
Constellation outlines are based on those suggested in H. A. Rey, The Stars: A New Way to See Them. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1952. Enlarged World-wide edition, 1988. Rey expresses his frustration with the ornate outlines of previous centuries, as well as the abstract geometric outlines of the twentieth century, on pages 11 – 16. Intriguingly, Rey’s suggested outlines demonstrate amazing correspondence to the artwork from ancient sources and provide invaluable insight into the celestial foundation of ancient myth. Rey does not, however, appear to have ever mentioned this connection in his writings.
i Richardson, Rachel. “Unearthing a masterpiece: A University of Cincinnati team’s stunning discovery of a rare Minoan sealstone in the trasure-laden tomb of a Bronze Age Greek warrior promises to rewrite the history of ancient Greek art.” UC Magazine. November 6, 2017.
ii De Santillana, Giorgio and Hertha von Dechend. Hamlet’s Mill: An Essay on Myth and the Frame of Time. Boston: Godine, 1969. First paperback ed. 1977, p. 4.
iii Richardson, Rachel, “Unearthing a masterpiece: University of Cincinnati team’s stunning discovery of a rare Minoan stone in the treasure-laden tomb of a Bronze Age Greek warrior promises to rewrite the history of ancient Greek art”.
v Knapton, Sarah. “History of art rewritten as archaeologists unearth 3,500-year-old carving of ancient Greek battle.” Telegraph, November 8, 2017.
vi Marchant, Jo. “This 3,500-Year-Old Greek Tomb Upended What We Thought We Knew About the Roots of Western Civilization.” Smithsonian Magazine, January 2017.