Solomon's Sky: The Tapestry of Heaven from the Phaistos Disk

2015 Peter Aleff     





"The archaeologist's job, at this final stage [after collecting the data], is to interpret the mass of data, and to construct from it a narrative about the human past that might otherwise be completely unknown."
Elizabeth Bartman, President, Archaeological Institute of America, in Archaeology, January/February 2014, page 6

Just as the correct key easily opens a hard-to-pick lock, the rational approach used in this book easily unlocks the wealth of information on the
Phaistos Disk, a famously hard-to-solve archaeological puzzle from Bronze Age Crete. The key to the pretty pictures in the path of fields on that Disk is the recognition that they were not writing signs, as most of its many "translators" had assumed. It turns out instead that those pictures were the marks for the fields of a board game that closely resembled the ancient Egyptian board games of Senet and Snake Game which still survives as the popular children's Game of the Goose. Its clear parallels with those better-known games allow us to reliably reconstruct the familiar events described by those pictures along the path on that Disk and so to unlock its verifiable and externally confirmed interpretation.

The verb "senet" meant "to pass". This game of "passing" was popular in ancient Egypt from late pre-dynastic times on and appears in several early tomb murals. It is particularly well documented during the New Kingdom when it became an important part of the funerary magic where the deceased played against an unseen opponent to win their passage to rebirth into eternal paradise. This game later evolved into today's Backgammon where the pieces are still "born" at the end of their pursuit. The progress of the Senet pieces simulated the passage of the players through life and, even more importantly, through death and to their rebirth with and/or as the sun god. When they reached the last field of their gameboard, they won and were reborn into that forever blessed afterlife.

The Snake Game appeared even earlier and left us the so far oldest surviving boards for any known board game. In the Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts, when the religious importance of that game had already long been a hallowed tradition, it enabled at least one king to ascend to heaven. It represented therefore the same journey towards the players' rebirth into the eternal next world as on the Senet board, except that its path was not folded with two U-turns, as in Senet and on the Disk, but coiled into the spiral of a snake's rolled-up body. On some of its sculpted stone boards, the tail of that snake ended in the head of a goose. That bird had laid the cosmic egg from which the creator of the universe hatched, so the goose was a major emblem of the earth god Geb and also of the heavenly ruler Amun.

That spiral of the snake with the goose head on its tail end is still the same in today's children's Game of the Goose which re-appeared in Renaissance Italy in royal garb as a celebrity pastime. Like those earlier versions of that long-lived  game, the modern Goose Game also still represents the players' path through life and death before their pieces are also "born" into heaven. In some countries, this spiral game is known instead as Snake Game, matching the boards from ancient Egypt, but otherwise identical to the Goose Game. In either version, many of the gameboard fields are consistently marked with certain special events that have remained the same in most of the many editions of both that were published since the alleged invention but actually re-introduction of this Goose Game in Renaissance times.

That spiral is also the same as the inner part of the path on each side of the Disk, after an U-turn at the completion of each periphery in the direction "against the sun". The signs on these Disk paths include the same rosette with eight petals that marked the significant fields on many ancient Near Eastern gameboards, from ancient Sumerian Ur to Canaanite Megiddo and beyond. This rosette appears also in other contexts where it typically had a "transition" meaning of "birth", "death", or "rebirth".

Two of the four rosettes on the Disk, near and at the center of one side, are paired with a picture of a bald head that stands in marked contrast to the head with a prominent crest of hair which is the most frequent sign on the combined path.

Hair was a symbol for life-force, as in the biblical story of Samson. Its absence meant loss of that force and therefore death, so the combination of the bald head with that "transition" rosette shortly before the center matches the "death" fields in Senet and in the Game of the Goose, and the same group of bald head and "rebirth" rosette in the center itself fits the rebirth of the bald head from Phaistos into the afterlife at the end of the journey.

Moreover, when you rejoin the paths on both sides of the Disk, the bald heads with rosettes wind up on fields 58 and 61 which is the end. These are excellent matches for the "death" in field 58 of the Goose and Snake Games, and for the "being born" in field 63 at their modern end.

The number of fields before that "death" was the number of 57 seasons in the 19 Cretan three-season years before the periodical "meeting of sun and moon" when the new moon rose again on the day of the midwinter solstice. At these events, the old sun was believed to die and then to be reborn for the next of these 19-year cycles. The later Classical Greeks called that cycle "Metonic" after the astronomer who allegedly discovered it in 432 BCE. This 19-year cycle also matches the total of 19 such sun-heads on the Disk from more than a millennium before Meton.

The other rosette on that side of the Disk marks the entrance to that side on field 31 where the Goose Game features a "well". Wells, from the baptismal font to the fountain of youth, were and are a common symbol for rebirth and renewal, so the match of this rosette with the Goose game in the same field 31 is again perfect. That "well" fits also the "renewal" field in the middle of the Senet track which stood for an initiation or early form of baptism.

These and many other parallels between Senet, the Goose and Snake Game, and the Disk supply now the context and key for the meanings of many signs and fields on the latter. They give us a uniquely detailed portrait of the corresponding religious and astronomical beliefs and organize many of the mythological fragments known from ancient Egypt into a coherent story preserved on the Disk from nearby Crete.

The clues from the Disk shed also new light on the early roots of some later Greek and Christian beliefs, including still familiar ancient ideas about death and resurrection. Most prominently, the career of the "sun head" along its path through life as reproduced on that Disk board strongly resembles that of Jesus Christ which appears already outlined on this Disk from more than 1,600 years before the birth of Christ.

Woven into the journey of the players' gamepieces towards their and the "sun head's" rebirth, this gameboard further recorded the cycles of sun and moon which the gamepieces re-enacted. The most easily observed of these cycles was, of course, the time it took the moon to run through its phases. The "cat head" as symbol of the light on the moon and the "rounded triangle" as emblem of the darkness present this Egyptian-style standard month on a sequence of 30 fields, as on the Senet board, that starts with two days of darkness and an obviously distressed upside-down cat on day three to show how weak the first sliver of the new moonlight still is. However, that cat gradually gains strength and victory laurels as its light displaces the darkness until the complete triumph of the full moon which is, however, soon followed by the cat falling back into doom as its light wanes and disappears at the end of the month.

The pictograph of a striding man serves as a marker to bracket important periods of the ancient Egyptian calendar and astronomical cycles. His first step covers the five days "outside of time" which the Egyptians added before their 360-day-year to reduce the difference between this mathematically convenient count and the actual solar year. In Egypt, these extra days were the birthdays of five major gods, and the Disk fields from Crete depict the emblems of these gods.

The strider in field 6 marks the start for the regular flow of time, and the steps to its next appearances correspond to the lengths of the ten-day week, the twelve standard months in the year, the 27 days it takes the moon to return to the same background stars, the 36 weeks in the year, and the 56 years of the so-called lunar standstill cycle which some astronomers have also associated with the 56 holes of the Aubrey Circle at Stonehenge that is said to have reflected this same cycle about a millennium before the Disk was buried under earthquake debris.

That 56-year standstill cycle is again displayed with the "chevron forward arrows" that evoke the flight formation of a flock of geese. Half of their twelve locations still coincide in the Goose Game with geese shown on the corresponding fields. The ancient "chevrons" precisely bracket the transitions from one sub-segment of this cycle to the next. Moreover, three of the four "lady" signs mark the 18, 19, and 19-year parts of that lunar cycle and so identify her as aspects of the ancient triple moon goddess. These three aspects were also the three seasons of the Cretan and Egyptian calendar, as reflected by the companion signs for each of these "ladies" in their respective fields. The location of the remaining "lady" in field 28, the number of "lunar mansions" and twelve fields after her appearance as "Spring Maiden" shows her as the ruler of the entire year and all three seasons.

Another important time span shown on the Disk is the 54-season or 18-year eclipse cycle described on much later Babylonian tablets and now known as the "Saros". Field 54 is the field of the "Winter Witch" and shows with her the "down" arrow familiar from other fields as well as a unique sign that appears to illustrate one small circle disappearing into or behind a larger object, as the moon disappears into the earth shadow during its eclipses.

When you recombine the paths from both sides of the Disk end to end and include its present two U-turns in this reconstruction, you obtain a basic labyrinth of the unicursal Cretan type, except that this one from the Disk has three circuits instead of the seven more commonly shown as the full-size design on ancient doodles and later Cretan coins. The simulation of the world encapsulated on gameboards is by necessity always a highly simplified version, and the board condensed on the Disk adheres to this rule.

That three-circuit layout of sixty fields around a central one also happens to match the "Mystery Circles" of Rogem Hiri in Isral's Golan Heights, a large stone structure of concentric rings built up to a millennium or so before the Disk was baked. The main rings there and the radial "spokes" between them suggest they were likely designed to feature 60 fields around a larger one in their center, just like the 60 fields surrounding the double-width central ONE on the proposed path from the Disk. Rogem Hiri hints that the proposed round labyrinth form for that recombined Disk path of 60 + 1 fields may have had this still preserved  precedent, and that this path could be much older than the Disk.

Ancient labyrinths came in both round and square forms. When you convert this proposed round Disk labyrinth into the equally well attested square form of that design, you see immediately that this must have been the original layout. Like tumblers in a lock opened with the right key, some groups of fields with matching signs fall into place to present the coherent sky chart on the cover page of this book. These fields distinctly define a hub or axis around which they appear to rotate. Moreover, some of the signs in these "circumpolar" fields clearly reproduce the most prominent groupings of the actual circumpolar stars, and the motions of these "Cretan Constellations" match Egyptian myths about the major gods represented by those signs for the "immortal" stars that never sank below the horizon.

And the above 30 fields on which the "cat head" of moonlight and "rounded triangle" of darkness perform their monthly race become a closed loop on the sides of the path that are farthest from this "celestial north pole" -- exactly where you expect to find the ecliptic along which this race of light and dark on the moon takes place in the southern sky.

By adding these visual portrayals of the sky to the calendrical and astronomical cycles embedded in its sequence of fields, this square Labyrinth board was and remains an ingenious chart of heaven, displaying its easily visible spectacle and encoding its more hidden workings. It provides us now a clear record of the ancient and partly still surviving beliefs the maker of that Disk associated with heaven and its lights, particularly with the perceived rebirths of sun and moon which sustained the players' hopes for their own resurrection.

The value of this square labyrinth sky board as likely the best and broadest then available diagram of heaven appears to have influenced the layout of King Solomon's Temple precinct which was intended to reflect here on Earth God's design of heaven. That design was admirably condensed on this sky board, and any tradition-respecting temple architect would have tried to emulate such an existing and culturally well anchored diagram before trying to concoct a new one from scratch and get it accepted over the tried-and-true one.

Indeed, when you superimpose the square labyrinth grid over the reported layout of the originally square Temple Mount, then the "north pole" from the sky board grid lands in the Holy of Holies, the outside altar sits in the enlarged central square, and the only formal entrance into the Temple Mount concides with the entrance into the path on that sky board.

This reconstructed sky board is now the Labyrinth Game, with a set of rules that are partly adapted from reconstructions of Senet and from the modern Game of the Snake and/or Goose, and partly re-created to follow the signs and path from the Disk.

One set of the "Cretan Constellations" on the Labyrinth sky board, the "falcon" and the "serpent", travel around the "north pole" of that board in a series of Chess knight jumps that continues beyond the pole in the same pattern which is unique to games of the Chess family. Its presence here suggests that this board of 8 x 8 squares with this characteristic and identity-defining move outlined on its appears to be an early ancestor of Chess from more than two millennia before the first documented mention of that game.

Chess has often been described as mirroring the world of its players. This was true for the Age dominated by kings and knights and bishops, but Chess has not kept up with the evolution of our modern lives, and it is time for yet another update in the continuing renewal of this ancient world-reflecting game from the Phaistos Disk.


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