The Phaistos Disk: A New Approach
Summary: The part of the path opposite the "north pole" on the board was logically the ecliptic where sun and moon
travel across the sky. Its 30 fields here show the race between the light and the darkness on the face of the moon during the standard 30-day month. The "cat head" as symbol of the light on the moon and the rounded triangle as "shield of darkness" illustrate this race, with the cat rotating to match the weakness or strength of its light with its falling distress or upright triumphant position. The "bee keeper's glove" functioned as an attribute of the darkness and matched the connection of bees with the Egyptian goddess of darkness who also had a shield as her symbol.
As you saw in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, the symbols on the formerly mysterious Phaistos Disk were not writing. They were instead the signs on the fields of an ancient gameboard that was similar to the ancient Egyptian board games of Senet and the Snake Game and survives in the modern Game of the Goose.
The 30 squares of the Senet board represented the standard 30-day month from the beginning, “when the moon was invisible”, to its next disappearance. In yet another parallel with this Egyptian game, the path on the Disk includes also a series of 30 fields that depict the monthly race between the light and dark sides of the moon. Moreover, in relation to the celestial north pole on the board we discussed in Part 2, this section of the path is located where one would expect the ecliptic, the ribbon of southern sky where the sun and moon and planets run their courses far away from that pole.
The track for this race begins in the top right corner of the board at field eleven (see image above), then runs along the top and down the left side to the bend at the bottom and returns along the inside of that course to field 40, one Chess knight’s jump away from its start. This completes a loop as far from the pole at its focus as that board allows, and this location as well as the events along its course suggest that it was meant to represent the moon’s travel along the ecliptic.
In the 30 fields of this loop, two of the Disk signs occur frequently but nowhere else on that board, except for one of them that we find also twice among the “birthdays of the gods”, outside the normal flow of time. These signs in the loop are the eleven “cat heads” and the 16 “rounded triangles”. The other two “rounded triangles” are on fields three, the birthday of Seth, and field five where Nephthys was born; these bring the total occurrences of that “rounded triangle” to 18.
The cat head is not always in the upright position, as most of the other signs are, but it rotates conspicuously as it progresses along its path. It starts upside down which was and is a position of “distress”, as for the inverted “T-shirts” in the field 59 of “difficulties” after death, or the topsy-turvy “falcon” in the forerunner of the Goose Game’s “prison” at 52. The “cat head” begins inverted in field 13. If we interpret this sign as a symbol of light, then this upside-down position expresses perfectly the faintness of the moon sickle when it first becomes visible at the beginning of the month; it is thin and stays only for a short time before it sinks below the horizon. Even two fields or days later, in field 15, that moon sliver is still weak and disappears soon, so the “cat head” remains upside down. But three days later it rights itself at the quarter moon in field 18 and looks up to show the moon is now clearly waxing. It continues in a series of forward- or up-looking appearances that culminate at the full moon in field 26 where the “cat head” looks up next to an “up arrow” and that we will examine further below.
Three days after this full-moon triumph of the light over the darkness on the moon, when that light visibly begins to wane, the “cat head” falls down. From then on and until near the end of the course, it disappears from view just like the real moon that rises later and later and shines only while most people sleep. Shortly before that end, in field 39, two “cat heads” are falling down one upon the other to announce their demise, and in 40, the last field of the series, the “cat head” is again in wrong-way-up distress, as at the beginning, to show that the lunar light is extremely dim and feeble or has already died. (The difference between the 30 days of the calendar month and the 29.53 days in the actual cycle of phases allows both these possibilities.)
The perfect match of the “cat head’s” positions with the waxing and waning of the light on the moon indicates that the “cat head” represents this light. This is also consistent with the many mythological personifications of bright-moon goddesses as a cat or mistress of felines, from the cat-headed Egyptian Bastet and her Greek counterpart Artemis who once transformed herself into a cat, to their many lion-riding Near Eastern sisters such as Astarte, Asherah, Anath, et al.. This association of the moonlight with cats persisted even as far away as the Nordic moon queen Freya in her chariot drawn by cats.
In ancient Egypt, lions and cats were symbols of light to the point that the word for “light” was the same as for “cat” and imitated the “miaow” sound our pet tabbies still use to make us obey their wishes and whims. Since many ancients believed that naming something could bring it into existence, one might argue that cats created and maintained the light by consistently speaking its name. As some cats were divine, this would have been a semi-plausible parallel to the divine speaker of “let there be light” in Genesis One.
Stone image of Sekhmet as lioness at Luxor in Middle Kingdom Egypt. Wikimedia Commons
Indeed, various Egyptian felines were gods and were made from light. Several offspring of the sun god were lion-shaped or feline-headed, including the fierce lioness Sekhmet as personification of the blazing mid-day sun and her gentler sister Bastet (see image left) who also started out as a solar lion goddess but soon evolved into a friendly symbol of the non-threatening moonlight. In that role, she was typically shown as a cat-headed “housewife” woman, often holding a sistrum rattle and sometimes herding a litter of kittens. Image: Statuette of a standing Bastet., Walters, Wikimedia Commons.
At the same time, Bastet was also the cat who in the Book of the Dead cut up the evil serpent of darkness Apep. Every night, Apep tried to kill the sun god during his return voyage through the underworld back to the eastern horizon, but in the last hour before dawn, Bastet the cat of light reliably decapitated that monster of darkness and so literally saved the day.
Cretan mountain goddess seal – Ashmolean
The culture of Crete was strongly influenced by that of nearby Egypt, so it is no surprise to find a goddess with a feline association also on Cretan seals like the one above which was found at Knossos. This commanding figure standing on a mountain, adored by a worshiper and attended by two lionesses was clearly a high goddess and therefore at that time most likely also lunar.
In addition, domestic cats in Crete are said to be the offspring of Egyptian sires, rather than of native wild cats. The people who imported these cats to Crete would have brought with them also the culture and beliefs that linked felines to light, so it is no surprise that this “cat head” symbol represented the moonlight also on the Disk.
In contrast to the “cat head” that stands for the light on the face of the moon, its companion and counterpart in this 30-field series, the “rounded triangle” (see image left), appears to have symbolized the darkness on and around the moon.
Indeed, after its two appearances outside the cycles of time on the birthday fields of Seth, a god of darkness, and of Nephthys, the wife of Seth who had mostly funerary functions and was therefore also associated with darkness, we find that “darkness” sign again in fields 11 and 12, on the first two days of the standard calendar month when the moon is still dark. In field 11, we find also a double-wave sign that occurs only together with that “sign of darkness”. This wave-sign stands for “water” in scripts such as Hittite hieroglyphic and is likely to have the same intuitively obvious meaning on the Disk. The Egyptian version of that “water” sign was similar but shaped as a zigzag with sharp angles. This association of “darkness” with “water” made sense since the ancient heaven was made of water, an image that survives in the biblical creation story when God separated the waters above from those below.
The “darkness triangle” next occurs in field 18 where it first comes together with the “cat head”. By then, the light on the moon has been growing and now covers half of its face; the “cat head” looks up to show it is gaining in its race against the darkness. The two racers are here for the first time joined by two other signs that seem to be associated with them because their group is repeated almost identically in fields 21 and 26, with some minor but telltale changes.
The fuzzy sign next to the cat looks like a double branch, and its context suggests it was a laurel wreath of the type later given to winners in athletic or intellectual contests (see images right). It joins the “cat head” only when the latter is gaining ground against the darkness, as in the half-moon field 18 where it has pulled even, in the gibbous-moon field 21 where it covers three quarters of that face, and above all in the full-moon field 26 which shows the total triumph of the light, worthy of that winner’s wreath.
The other one of these added signs is a “glove” (see image left) that appears next to the “darkness” symbol in opposition to the “laurel wreath”. That “glove” has the “sky slash” which we encountered in Part 2 as an identifier that the so marked sign belongs in the sky. In the warm Cretan climate, gloves were not needed to protect against the cold, but according to the mythologist Robert Graves, they were the trademark sign of the Cretan bee keepers’ guild whose members they protected from the stings of those otherwise much appreciated honey producers.
In both the ancient Egyptian and Cretan mythologies, the souls of the dead became bees, and the so-called “beehive tombs” in ancient Crete and Mycenaean Greece were built in the shape of beehives as proper settings for these bee souls. In the celestial version of their afterlife, these souls were the stars, and the moon was the hive for those heavenly bees.
The “sky-slash” on that bee keeper’s “glove” indicates that its wearer tended these star-soul-bees instead of their terrestrial models. This clue allows us to identify the bee-keeping owner of that “glove” and of the “rounded triangle” sign of “darkness” for which this “glove” seems to function as an emblem. A bee was the sign of the Egyptian goddess Neith who personified the primeval darkness.
Neith was also called “Net” which meant “bee” and was written with a hieroglyph depicting a bee (see image below). This bee-hieroglyph also appeared in the name of one of her temples in Saïs which was called the “house of the bee”. Moreover, Neith was the patron goddess of Lower Egypt and often wore the Red Crown of that realm. That crown was surmounted by a spiral on a stem that represented the proboscis, or long nectar-sucking tongue, of a bee. Her bee became the symbol of Lower Egypt just as the reed-like sedge stood for Upper Egypt, and both entered the pharaonic title “He of the sedge and the bee” which expressed the unity of these two lands.
In Greece and Crete, too, people valued bees and their honey. Like many Egyptian records, some of the tablets from Knossos list large jars of honey given as offerings to various deities. This religious role of honey reflected the spiritual importance of bees and their keepers also in Crete and Greece. Indeed, in a striking parallel to Net the bee goddess from Egypt, the bee was an emblem of Potnia, the Athene-like Minoan-Mycenaean "Mistress" who was also called "The Pure Mother Bee". Her priestesses, like those of the similar Cretan and Greek underworld-related goddess and “corn-mother” Demeter, were called "Melissa" which means "bee" in Greek. That same “bee”-name also designated the nymphs who nurtured the young Cretan Zeus with honey in his cave of birth.
A few days sail east from Crete, the name of Deborah, a biblical prophetess and Judge of ancient Israël, meant "Bee" in Hebrew and identified her priestesses as well. Her “bee” name came from a root “dabar” that means “Word” or “Pronouncement” and was used most frequently in holy contexts as in the “Word of God” or the “Ten Words” which English-speakers know as the Ten Commandments. That same “bee”-related root also designated the “debir”, the forever dark Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple, and so highlights again the strong spiritual connections of this now often underestimated insect with divinity and darkness.
Left Above: The Bees of Malia Crete 1800 - 1700 BC Right Above: Plaque of a bee goddess. Note the eight-petaled rosettes of birth-death-rebirth next to this bee goddess which confirm her association with souls. Found on Rhodes, 7th century BCE. Both images Wikimedia Commons
Neith the darkness was also in many other aspects the counterpart and opposite of Bastet the light. For instance, Neith the creator goddess had fashioned not only the sun god Ra but also his twin brother Apep, the almost equally mighty serpent of darkness and enemy of Ra whom Bastet kept slaying every morning. Bastet dwelt at Bubastis in the sunrise part of the Nile Delta, but Neith had her main sanctuary at Saïs in the western Delta where the sun sank into the darkness and where she resided as the famous veiled image that no mortal was allowed to behold.
Neith had some mortuary functions because her darkness associated her with the sunless underworld, and her honey was an important ingredient for the Egyptian mummification procedures. However, her main job was to be a huntress and a goddess of war -- again the opposite of the “housewife” cat Bastet. The most typical emblem of Neith was therefore a shield with a pair of crossed arrows (see image above), just as her Classical Greek counterpart Athena was usually portrayed with a shield and a spear.
Arrows would have been hard to include in the small and simplified stamps on the Disk, but the shape of the “rounded triangle” resembles that of the military shields in some depictions of Middle Kingdom soldiers. And although Neith herself was timeless, her emblem followed the changing fashions for shield shapes as the artists saw them on their own watch. The “rounded triangle” sign appears thus to have been the “shield of darkness” and symbol of Neith, or rather her Cretan equivalent.
The interpretation of the “glove” as a badge of Neith’s “shield of darkness” is confirmed by its behavior in field 21. There the “glove” is shown falling down when it is actually the darkness that is falling behind in its attempt to keep up with the light on the moon. If the “glove” shows that fall instead of the “shield of darkness” itself, then that “glove” must belong to the darkness symbolized by the “shield”.
The series of fields 18, 21, and 26 illustrates therefore successive stages of the light’s race against the darkness across the face of the moon, from half-moon to three-quarters to full moon. The signs of the contestants are paired with their respective attributes and reflect that progress through the slanting of the “cat head” and of the “glove” as well as through the adding of the “up” arrow next to the winner when the race no longer looks undecided. In 21 the cat still looks forward because it is still racing, but the “up arrow” next to it shows that it is ahead. In 26 the race is won and the cat looks up just like the “up arrow” next to it.
The other fields between those of this triplet seem to depict intermediate stages of this race and to offer generic comments, the way some modern sports casters do to fill time between highlight events. Field 19 pairs the cat with the glove, its “sky-slash” here omitted, and with a sign that looks like the rough-hewn club the Greek hero Heracles carried in much later vase paintings, and that similarly fur-clad cave-men wield in modern cartoons. Although these cartoons may not have documentary value for Stone-Age lifestyles and habits, they reflect the long known stereotype that such a club is a sign of strength and power, and this was likely also its meaning to the Disk maker. These three signs together could then express that the race is going strong, or that the forward-looking “cat head” is striving against the strength of the darkness.
In field 20 the “cat head” and “shield of darkness” are on both sides of the “water” sign which confirms again, in addition to the “sky-slash” under the “shield”, that the contestants race on the celestial waters. The “bough of life” in field 23 may allude to the life-giving powers of the darkness which makes the seeds grow under the earth and in the womb, whereas the chevron-shaped “forward arrow” belongs to another series of lunar events, as we will discuss in a later part of this series, and became morphed into a “goose” in the modern version of this ancient game.
Field 24 shows two “shields of darkness”, one of them with the “sky-slash”, and the sign of the celestial waters between them. This duplication of the “darkness” sign, just before the darkness on the moon yields completely to the light, echoes the doubling of the “cat heads” in 39 just before their light yields to the darkness. It could mean an exhortation to the apparent loser to redouble its efforts, or here also that the darkness on the moon retreats to the surrounding darkness of the primeval waters above. Field 25 seems to again convey the idea of retreat for the “darkness” where the “scepter of command” orders it to go home into its “house”. The “forward arrow” here is again part of that other series of lunar events and unrelated to this monthly race.
Field 26 represents the full moon, as we saw above. The “shields of darkness” in fields 27 and 28, as well as the one in 32, may be more related to the contexts of the other signs in those fields than to its race against the light, as we will discuss in a later chapter. The falling “cat head” in field 29 marks the beginning of its waning, and its combination with the “travel boat” and the “command scepter” confirms that the light is ordered to depart. The “shield of darkness” and “water” sign in field 30 shows then the result of this order which is that the “darkness” will have the “celestial waters” of the night sky all to itself.
Field 36 is the 26th day of this Phaistos month and corresponds to the “death square” 26 on the Senet board. Indeed, the animal head at the center of this field, which resembles the head of the Egyptian hieroglyph for “pig”, is falling down. This distress of the pig evokes the Egyptian custom to sacrifice pigs to Osiris on certain lunar festivals, and the pig shown here on the “monthly death” field appears therefore destined for the darkness symbolized by the glove next to it.
Field 37 is the 27th day of the Disk month and so marks the completion of the 27.32-day sidereal month which is the time the moon takes to return to the same background of stars. The grouping of signs here is the same as in field 11 at the beginning of that month, except that the “bough of life”, which marked there the “coming to life” of the still dark moon, is now replaced by the “zodiac circle” to show that the moon has run around that entire circle in the sky.
The lunar phase markers
One of the signs in that 30-day lunar sequence occurs three times there, in fields 22, 29, and 39, but nowhere else. This sign looks like the “shield of darkness” sign with three additional strokes along its periphery. When we arrange the lunar phases for the 30-day month along that periphery, with the two days of full moon at the top and the three days of invisibility at the bottom, then the locations of these three “marker” signs correspond to the three “seasons” of the lunar month which were probably introduced in analogy to the three seasons of the Egyptian solar year. Indeed, these markers neatly separate the waxing, bright, and waning periods of the moon, as shown on the drawing above where the markers wind up in the same positions as the three strokes added to the periphery around the “shield of darkness”.
The two upper strokes in that arrangement correspond to fields 22 and 29 which the “marker” sign shares there with the “travel boat” and the “scepter of command”. This could be the orders to “travel on” to the next “lunar season” whereas the “marker” in field 39 simply designates the last day on which the moon can be seen and therefore the end of that waning “lunar season”.
The good match of these 30 fields with the 30 days of the standard Egyptian calendar month further confirms Aleff’s interpretation that this series along the gameboard track represents the phases of the moon during that standard month. This shortest of the lunar cycles is the easiest to observe and to depict, but you will see in the next installments of this series that the Disk also recorded many other cycles of the moon and the sun, including the lunar standstills and even the Saros eclipse cycle. Stay tuned for additional surprises.
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 can be obtained 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
Victoria Shockley is a freelance writer and editor, as well as a copy editor for Wandering in the Words Press. She is currently a sophomore student at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, with a major in English (language and writing) and a minor in French. Victoria is taking extra courses in order to graduate a year ahead of her class to pursue a career in professional writing or editing. In her spare time, she enjoys reading novels, traveling, and following science and technology news.
Peter Aleff started inquiring about history and mythology even before he learned to read, and he has continued ever since. He studied history and philosophy at the University of Basel in Switzerland as well as mathematics and the dismal science of economics. Then he decided to earn a living and took technical courses at the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts et Métiers in Paris, France, to begin a career in engineering and managing manufacturing companies. He worked first in France and then in several American states where he was awarded three U.S. patents for some of his inventions.
In his free time, he researched in particular the history and meanings of board games and wrote in 1982 the rough but essentially entire draft outline of the present story about the Phaistos Disk under the title "The Labyrinth Game", then re-created that ancient game for modern users. Over the next three decades, during a busy work life but in anticipation of some day finding the time to compile and publish this fascinating story, he collected relevant books and articles and notes to flesh out the context and ramifications of the information found on the Disk. Then he pulled it all together in "Solomon's Sky: The Tapestry of Heaven from the Phaistos Disk
" for your surprise and delight.
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