As related in Part 1 of this series, the two sequences of fields on both sides of this ancient Disk recorded the path of a gameboard on which the players re-enacted the lives of the sun god as well as their own. This previously under-investigated context allowed us to deduce that the location of the two “bald head” signs near and at the center of the Disk side “A” marked this center as the end of the players’ path because losing one’s hair meant losing the life-force, as in the story of Samson. Often, it even meant death, as in many other ancient examples. This symbol of death had to be near the end of the life-path, shortly before the resurrection at the actual finish, as on the closely related but better known gameboards of that time from ancient Egypt. Having so located the end of the combined Disk path, we were able to rejoin its two segments in their original order and direction.
When trying to reconstruct the original shape of this re-united path, a logical start is to fold its string of fields in three rings around that center, similar to the layout on each side of the Disk. The easiest and most obvious way to fold that path of 60 fields around the central 61st is to make a U-turn after each circuit so that the path bends smoothly inwards to the next ring, as it does after the outer ring on each side of the Disk. Including these two U-turns in the reconstruction creates a mini-labyrinth with three circuits, a design that fits well into the context since the Phaistos Disk was found on Crete, and this island has long been strongly associated with the legendary labyrinth of Minotaur fame.
The full-size, seven-circuit classical labyrinth design on later Cretan coins was interchangeably round or square. When we similarly convert the three-layer labyrinth derived from the Disk from its circle to a square, with the entrance near the middle of one side as in the classical labyrinth design and as on the square board shown here, the result clearly confirms that this folding of the path into a mini-labyrinth must have been the original arrangement because many of the fields fall into place to form an unmistakably intentional design.
A Mycenaean scribe doodled this oldest known labyrinth design about 1200 BCE on the back of a book-keeping tablet found at Pylos in Greece. Reproduced with the kind permission of Jeff Saward/www.labyrinthos.net)
The rejoined path from both sides of the Phaistos Disk, folded here
into a mini-labyrinth with two U-turns like the two U-turns on the Disk.
The most prominent and most surprising feature on this labyrinth gameboard is that of the “hub” or “pole” around which some fields with the same sign groups appear to rotate. Two pairs of identical and diagonally opposed fields, numbered 44/50 and 45/51, suggest that they are revolving around the shared point in their middle. The sign groups in these field pairs are unique and do not appear anywhere else on the Disk in those combinations.
The 44/50 pair each contain the “forward arrow”, the “command scepter”, the grouping of “ship” and “T-shirt”, and the “ray-haired head” which represents the sun or sun god. In addition to these frequently occurring signs, these two fields also feature the same “feather” that we find elsewhere only in fields 58 and 61, both times together with the bald head and the rosette of birth, death, and rebirth. That context of the “feather” in the fields of “death” and “resurrection” suggests that it symbolized the soul of that head’s owner. Moreover, its presence in the fields next to that “pole” evokes the ancient Egyptians’ belief that the soul of their deceased sun king ascended to the northern stars to circle there forever around the celestial North Pole together with the “Immortals”, the constellations that never sank below the horizon.
The fields in the group 45/51 each contain a sign that looks like a hoof on a lower leg that occurs nowhere else, and one of the “strider” figures that are more frequent but appear nowhere else with the downward “slash” that marks these two striders as different.
Indeed, the other striders all fit into an orderly sequence of calendrical and astronomical periods that were important in ancient Egypt:
The use of the non-slashed strider as marker for important time periods identifies this figure
as the Cretan equivalent to the Egyptian moon god Thoth who had the title “Measurer of Time” ______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
An ancient Egyptian legend recorded by the Roman-era Greek writer Plutarch explains that Thoth had inserted five extra days before the beginning of the standard 360-day year as the birthdays for the gods Osiris, Horus, and Seth, and for the goddesses Isis and Nephthys. The Disk strider stakes out the first and last of these five days which were considered as being outside the flow of time, and he marks the other time periods with his steps that begin in field 6. Most of these periods were and are well known, but the 56 fields counted inclusively from 6 to the end of the path in 61 match the only recently re-discovered 56-year cycle of lunar standstills, as well as its divisions into individual segments which you will find discussed in the next part of this series, together with several other lunar references on the Disk.
Besides being the “Measurer of Time” and inventor of the board games that allowed their users to track his time periods, busy Thoth was also the Vizier of the Pantheon ruler and the powerful “Messenger of the Gods” who executed their decrees. In addition, he also had the title “Umpire of the Two Combatants”. These two combatants were in Egypt the almost interchangeable Osiris/Horus on one side and their evil brother/uncle Seth on the other. The Disk fields surrounding that “pole” on the labyrinth board illustrate how these combatants, or rather their identifying emblems, conducted their feud under the watchful supervision and arbitration of the two “strider” signs with the slashes that set these apart and help to define the “pole” on the board. The central position of these specially marked “strider” signs in relation to that “pole” also qualifies them for Thoth’s title as “Umpire of the Two Combatants” because these eternal opponents circle the same “pole” right next to those “striders”. The offset position of the “pole” itself from the center of the board matches its position in the sky where you see it not straight overhead (unless you look from the terrestrial North Pole), but at an elevation corresponding to your latitude angle.
Indeed, the three fields labeled 46, 49, and 52, rotate around that “pole” in a series of “Chess-knight’s jumps” that continues to fields 55 and then 34 for two more such jumps beyond those in that rotation. The five fields in that series are the only ones that contain the sign group of the “falcon” and the “horn or serpent”. Actually, the “falcon” occurs nowhere else on the Disk, and the “serpent” only one other time, in field 2. Finding this conspicuous pair only in this obviously organized series of fields connected by those Chess knight’s moves shows that the Disk maker had clearly intended this layout, and it confirms beyond any rational doubt that the reconstruction of the folded labyrinth path reproduces the original. What would be the odds that this coherent pattern of unique signs were formed by mere chance?
Moreover, when you compare some of the signs in the “rotation” around that gameboard “pole” with the stars that rotate around the actual celestial North Pole, you find that these signs accurately portray the groups of the brightest stars there and organize these into simple “Cretan Constellations”. The simplicity and clarity of the matching images may help to explain why ancient Cretan mariners had such a great reputation for their navigational skills. These plain “Cretan constellations” are much easier to remember and recognize, even when partly obscured by clouds, than the rather complicated Greek constellations our Western civilization later adopted. Aleff says that he routinely and successfully used these Cretan images for his orientation when sailing at night off the New England coast. He also suggests that this mental tool kit would have enabled Cretan sailors to breeze through voyages that may have baffled their rivals who had to locate some part of the widely meandering Draco or of the meaninglessly abstract Cepheus and the dim Little Dipper among those northern stars to get their bearings.
The image of the northern night sky at left displays non-intuitive modern circumpolar constellation lines,
as drawn here by the SkyMap 4.0 astronomy program. Contrasting with these, the picture at right
features the same stars but connects them with different and more obvious-looking lines. These lines
project on the sky the signs circling around the “north pole” on the board derived from the Disk.
In addition to providing reliable navigational help to their users, these signs on the Disk also match the ancient Egyptian mythology of the Osiris cycle. They illustrate it so well that they imply this myth was derived from the ancient interpretation of these northern stars as the celestial battle between Osiris/Horus and Seth that drove the pharaonic culture and that we find also on the Disk.
What we call the Big Dipper was the abode of Seth. The Egyptian artists depicted it as the hind leg of a bull, the only constellation in their repertoire that actually resembled its shape in the sky. The Disk maker came still closer to its real shape with the sign I called “horn" or "serpent”. If it represents a horn this could refer to the bull connected with Seth in Egypt, but its designation as a serpent matches equally well the identity of that god with the evil serpent Apep who tried every night to prevent the new sun from rising, just as Seth kept battling Horus. In either case, that sign shaped like the Big Dipper represented Seth, and the raptor bird next to it was then the falcon of Osiris and Horus.
First image above: The hind leg of a bull representing the Big Dipper as abode of the evil desert god Seth is here shown with the head of a bull to identify it as belonging to that species, and with seven stars surrounding it as the seven stars of the Big Dipper. The hippopotamus goddess to the left is the celestial mooring pole to which the Big Dipper is chained. The falcon-headed god to the right is Horus battling his inseparable twin brother and uncle Seth. (From E.A. Wallis Budge: "The Gods of the Egyptians", Volume 2, Chicago and London, 1904, as reprinted in 1969 by Dover Publications, New York, page 249). Second image: The actual vignette on the ceiling of the hypostyle hall in the Temple of Hathor in Dendera which Budge described. (Wikimedia Commons)
There are no directly recognizable Egyptian images of the “falcon” stars as that falcon. This bird, or the god Horus with that bird’s head, was typically depicted in the vicinity of that celestial “hind leg of a bull” and of the hippo “mooring post”, as in the example above, but never in the easily recognizable and star-matching form from the Disk. However, the Egyptians must have seen a constellation representing Horus in the area of that “falcon” constellation because four of the stars in the Cretan “hoof” were in Egypt called the “Followers of Horus” and must therefore have been located close to that “Horus falcon” which the sky chart derived from the Disk shows just below them.
Moreover, Plutarch tells us that the hippo goddess of the celestial North Pole had been the concubine of Seth (who also changed sometimes into a big red hippo) but then she moved away from him to follow Horus instead (Isis and Osiris, 358:19). This describes exactly the movement of that pole over the centuries preceding Plutarch towards the wing tip of that proposed “falcon” constellation. However, it makes sense only if Horus was among the stars in the place of that “Cretan falcon”. The priests who instructed Plutarch must therefore have been familiar with that “falcon” constellation which we now know only from the Disk.
Seth was the patron of Upper Egypt, god of the desert and storms and chaos. He was also the twin brother of Osiris whom he murdered and who then became the ruler of the afterworld as yesterday’s dead sun. Osiris was also reborn and/or resurrected each morning as his son Horus, the new sun and patron of Lower Egypt incarnated in the person of the king. Since this father and son were one and the same, Seth was both the uncle and also the twin brother of Horus, sometimes even both in the same utterance of the Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts (Utterance 667A, §1945 in Faulkner), and his unrelenting opponent. Both Osiris and Horus were represented as falcons.
The fields in the series of Chess-knight’s jumps illustrate clearly the inseparable relationship between Seth and Osiris/Horus and the Egyptian legends about them. In the first two fields, the “Falcon” flies upright, its tail towards the Dipper the same way its constellation is oriented in the sky. However, in the third field of that tour, the last one in “orbit” around the pole, the “Falcon” is shown inverted or fallen down, just as its celestial counterpart appears to fall down when its rotation carries it to the part of the sky below the pole.
At the time of the Disk, and for many centuries before and after, the celestial North Pole was about midway between the Big Dipper and the “Falcon” so that these appeared opposed to each other much more than today when they cruise together on the same side of our Pole Star. This would have made the ascent of one at the expense of the other’s falling even more dramatic and may well explain the myths about Seth and Horus as the everlasting “Two Combatants”.
We saw earlier that this upside-down position, like that of the falcon, was and is a sign of distress, and the place of this calamity, field 52, survives in the Goose game as the “Prison”. Its number is twice that of the “death” field 26 in Senet, which is in turn twice the (even then) unlucky thirteen. That “Prison” number is also twice the unlucky date of the crucial battle between Horus and Seth which took place on the 26th day of the month of Thoth. The doubling of that battle date to 52 matches again the doubling of the fields from that “Game of 30 Squares” to the labyrinth board’s 60 fields around the center. In terms of the picture story on the labyrinth board, the “fallen Falcon” shows therefore clearly that Osiris or his Horus successor is incapacitated “in prison” or has died. Even in the latter case, ancient Egyptian death was as temporary as a prison term and was seen as the prelude to another and this time immortal life.
In the next field of this series, 55, the twin Combatants have left the rotation around the “pole” on the board, and they have lost the “ray-haired sun head” that had accompanied them during their tour around the pole. This indicates that the falcon who had died in 52 is now in the sunless afterworld. He is upright again and therefore no longer in distress, but he is still together with his inseparable twin who belongs there, too, since Seth was a god of darkness, death, and decay, but also, ever ambivalent, a friend of the dead. The two signs still share their field here with the “World Circle” which we can read as a sign that the Osiris falcon or “Horus of the Netherworld” rules over this sunless world as judge of the dead, possibly together with the serpent Seth.
From there, the Chess knight jumps to field 34 where the “Falcon” and Dipper are now paired with the “Bough of Life”. This illustrates the resurrection of Osiris into life as the new Horus, and it follows again the familiar pattern of resurrection on the third day after death because it happens three fields after the symbolic death of the initiation or baptism in 31. Seth is still with the “falcon” since the two are as inseparable as their constellations overhead.
The number 34 of this “resurrection” field matches the 34 boats with 365 lamps which the gods rode in their solemn procession during the annual festival that celebrated the resurrection of Osiris, as shown on the walls of the Osiris suite in the Graeco-Roman Hathor Temple at Dendera. This number of boats reflects the legend reported by Plutarch that Osiris was killed on the 17th of the month when it is quite evident to the eye that the period of the full moon is over. Similarly, the Wag festival of honoring Osiris and the dead took place on the 17th day in the month of Thoth, which was the month represented on the Senet board. This festival date in the Senet calendar was again half the corresponding number on the Disk, where twice the number of this death day became that of the resurrection field 34.
The “serpent of Seth” has the downward “slash” appended to it only in the three fields of its rotation around the labyrinth “pole”, but not in the other two, just as the strider has that “slash” only in the fields next to that “pole” but nowhere else. This “slash” on these signs appears therefore to be a determinative that indicates the so-marked sign represents its actual counterpart “in the sky” instead of its mythological version that appears in other contexts.
This “in-the-sky” meaning of the “slash” is also consistent with its other uses on the Disk, beginning with the one added to the “stippled triangle” in field 7. This is the field that would complete the circuit of the Chess knight’s jumps around the pole if that “falcon and serpent” series continued all around. And it appears that field 7 does indeed belong to this series because that sky-slashed “stippled triangle” has also its counterpart in the northern sky near those “combatants” and their “striding umpire” as well as in the mythology about these.
The three brightest stars in Cassiopeia form a similar triangle, and the Milky Way behind them provides the stippling. A stippled triangle often depicted the female pubic triangle. In the case at hand it appears to symbolize the womb of the sky goddess Nut who gave birth to those two enemy brothers as well as to the other gods born on those five “extra” days between the years. Closing the circuit of jumps around the “pole” would join the field 52 of the dead falcon to the field 7 of its birth, and this would again correspond to the ancient Egyptian belief that the dead Osiris returned to his mother Nut to be reborn from her womb, and that Nut each evening swallowed the sinking sun to then give birth to the new Horus in the morning. It seems therefore likely that the Disk maker referred to these mythological as well as astronomical events when he or she placed that “stippled triangle” and its “sky-slash” into that field.
The other occurrences of that proposed “sky slash” on other signs also fit well into their contexts, as you will see in the next parts of this article series about the no longer mysterious but now even more fascinating Phaistos Disk. These parts will cover the location of the ecliptic on this labyrinth board and sky chart as well as the race of light and darkness on the face of the moon during its travel along that track, plus some other lunar cycles, and also the deeds of the sun god between the “meetings of sun and moon” when the new moon coincided with the winter solstice. You will also see how the series of Chess knight’s jumps embedded on the labyrinth board makes that board game an early ancestor of Chess, some two millennia before the earliest known mention of that game, current histories of which have appeared suddenly and out of nowhere.
Read the entire series of this article:
Part 1: The case for the Phaistos Disk as an ancient game board, 12/1/2012,
Part 2: The reconstructed ancient labyrinth gameboard and its chart of the northern sky. 3/5/2013,
Part 3: The race between the light and dark sides of the moon on the Phaistos gameboard. 6/1/2013,
Part 4: Eclipses and lunar standstill cycles on the Disk, 9/1/2013
Part 5: Parallels between the path of the "sun head" and the Life of Christ 1600 years before Christ,
to be published in the 12/1/2013 issue of Popular Archaeology.
Part 6: The Labyrinth gameboard as template for the layout of Solomon's Temple,
to be published in the 3/1/2014 issue of Popular Archaeology.
Part 7: The evolution of the game on the Labyrinth board into Chess,
to be published in the 6/1/2014 issue of Popular Archaeology.
A complete reading of this new interpretation of the Phaistos Disk will be published in Peter Aleff’s upcoming book “Solomon’s Sky: The Tapestry of Heaven from the Phaistos Disk
For the next 30 days, interested readers may access the online copy of the entire book at http://phaistosgame.com/PhaistosforPopularArchaeology.htm.
All illustrations not otherwise credited are © 1987 to 2013 by Peter Aleff and are reproduced here with his permission. Cover Photo, Top Left: Detail of the Phaistos Disk. Wikimedia Commons