Robin Heath has a science degree, and has written several books based on research into the astronomy and architecture of megalithic sites. Sun, Moon & Earth and the best selling Stonehenge are published by Wooden Books and Walker & Co, NY. A recent book, The Measure of Albion, co-written with John Michell, looks at the evidence for ancient wisdom in prehistoric Britain. Robin undertakes guided tours to megalithic and Celtic sites for Sky and Landscape and has lectured widely on cultural astronomy and astrology at Oxford University and Bath Spa University College, in addition to less formal venues.
Robin has recently been elected a
Research Fellow of The University of Wales, Lampeter
Understanding the Solar Hero Myth
Original research by Robin Heath
© 2003 Robin Heath
To most people, the old myths and legends are quaint reminders of a bygone and superstitious age, and have nothing much to tell us anymore. They are just for the history books or children’s bedtime reading. Yet, for a myth to have survived for thousands of years, one might guess that it holds inherent meanings.
The Greek myths evolved a long time before they were ever written down, and originated in the preliterate cultures pre-2300 BC. The reason Jung, Campbell and other symbolists became so drawn to myths is that they encapsulate human archetypal experiences, and are therefore eternal, renewed by each generation. Mythology has thereby been linked with modern psychology. But is there still more to myth than this?
In this article I will explore myth as supporting a technical language placed within a popular context. More specifically, I want to reveal the astronomical basis underpinning the myth of the solar hero. We will discover that its origins are prehistoric and stem from the pre-Celtic culture of Britain and Ireland.
Gods in the Sky
To the ancient cultures, the gods resided in the sky. Their myths were originally inseparable from their astronomical observation. Might a myth match an important astronomical truth? Is it possible for a precision astronomy and psychology to be referred to within the same myth?
The myth of the solar hero can be found within many of the ancient civilisations even before the Christian era. The solar hero is the big saviour, often the sacrificial victim, and he has one unique common feature - he ultimately comes back, or is resurrected. Adonis, Tammuz, Bran and even Arthur were classic solar heroes, and the list embraces many cultures, even from South America.
The sun is a role model, hence the ‘solar’ part of the hero, and ‘dies’ every dusk, as the dark night takes over as the sun takes his daily journey into the underworld.. Each golden dawn then brings a renewal. Within their mythology, the ancient Egyptians made much of the Sun in this context, as so too did the ancient Celts, this latter culture obliging us with some useful numerical information.
The very ancient stories of the Tuatha de Danaan in Ireland tell us that the first battle of Mag Tuired was fought by their saviour-hero Lug and thirty-two other leaders. Alongside this, we may also read of the company of thirty-three men, all apparently thirty-two years of age who sit at the tables in the otherworld island castle in Perlesvaus. In the same vein, Nemed, another hero, reached Ireland with only one ship, thirty-three were lost on the way; Cuchulainn slays thirty-three of the Labriads in the Bru battle whilst a late account of the second battle of Mag Tuired names thirty-three leaders of the Fomore, thirty-two plus their highest king.
This material contains a common theme. It bids us to look to the number thirty-three as something relevant to a hero, a saviour. In the analysis of the Welsh White Book of Rhydderch, we may read that, “Both three and eleven were equally symbolic, the multiplicant thirty-three particularly so. It has frequently been used to imply supra-human attributes, regal authority and deification.” So, what’s so special about thirty-three?
Closer to our time the Western world has, for nearly two millennia, chosen to base its own hero myth, and hence its belief system, on the story of Jesus. Here, our solar hero, ‘officially’ born very appropriately at the winter solstice, dies and is resurrected at… thirty-three years of age. This story has much in common with the earlier European oral traditions. We must ask what is a Biblical account of a major hero within a major modern world religion doing drawing attention to the same number thirty-three to which Irish and British solar-heroes were resonating in the Bronze Age?
|Our clues are piling up: the solar hero myth itself, a repeated number - thirty-three, and a resurrection after thirty-three years, which we are told took place at Easter. The detective work may begin!|
When the oldest stories associated with this myth originated In Western Europe there was a cultural astronomy based on the accurate placement of huge stone monoliths, Stonehenge being perhaps the best known. Time and again these stone circles are shown to relate to significant Sun (and Moon) rising and setting positions against the local horizon, at solstices or equinoxes. At the equinoxes (Easter and St Michaelmas), the gap between successive sunrises (or sets) becomes a maximum, and in Britain occurs more than the sun’s disc apart, an angle of about 0.8 degrees, blatantly obvious to any observer. In just one year, 365 days would be tallied for the length of the year, and not 364 or 366 nor any other number. And there’s a basic accurate solar calendar.
Marking the Resurrection
There’s another twist to this. An equinoctial Sunrise marker, of which many still exist in Britain, will, each year, deliver the sunrise from a slight but noticeably different position on the horizon. Because there are 365 and a quarter days in the year, and not just 365 the Sun, each year, will be displaced by about a quarter of a degree from the marker stone, which is very easy to observe. A marker on the horizon, placed to the east and a good distance from an observer, acts as a rifle barrel and enables these small angular changes to be accurately monitored (Figure 1 left). During three years of observation, the Sun appears to be slipping ever more away from the original alignment until, at the fourth year, two things happen simultaneously - the Sun rises once more very close to its original position above the marker stone, and the day count - the tally - for the year is found to be 366 and not 365 days. The observer tallies 365+365+365+366, which is 1461 sunrises (days) over the four years (Figure Two). Over a few years of observation the solar year is discovered to be 365.25 days in length, as accurate as our Roman (Gregorian) solar calendar. (For those who think our ancestors couldn’t count there are plenty of examples of prehistoric tallying, as the deep tally marks on Carn Enoch, in West Wales, demonstrate. (ENOCHTALLY photo). Here the tally marks lie within a mile of both a solar and lunar observatory, Parc y Meirw or Field of the Dead.)
three years of observation, the Sun appears to be slipping ever more
away from the original alignment until, at the fourth year, two things
happen simultaneously - the Sun rises once more very close to its
original position above the marker stone, and the day count - the tally
- for the year is found to be 366 and not 365 days. The observer tallies
365+365+365+366, which is 1461 sunrises (days) over the four years
(Figure Two). Over a few years of observation the solar year is
discovered to be 365.25 days in length, as accurate as our Roman
(Gregorian) solar calendar.
For those who think our ancestors couldn’t
count there are plenty of examples of prehistoric tallying, as the deep
tally marks on Carn Enoch, in West Wales, demonstrate. (ENOCHTALLY
photo). Here the tally marks lie within a mile of both a solar and lunar
observatory, Parc y Meirw or Field of the Dead.
|But the eye can detect much more miniscule angular changes than a quarter of a degree. Using this kind of observatory, a couple of minutes of degree is detectable. And here’s|
where we pick up the solar-hero myth. After thirty-three years,
12,053 days or sunrises, one can observe an exact repeat of the
original equinoctial rising behind the marker stone.
The Sun’s diameter is half a degree. This alignment allows accurate
observation of a change in the Sun’s setting angle of less than 5
minutes of degree. The quarter day (=quarter of a degree) is easily seen
as an annual shift in the set position on 18th February.