Review Article

A Key to Ancient Greece

By Sarah Belle Dougherty

Traveling to Delphi in the late 1950s, Jean Richer, professor of literature with a special interest in symbolism, wondered about the connection between Delphi, site of Apollo's main sanctuary and oracle, and Delos, the god's traditional birthplace, as well as Delphi's relationship with Athena, so prominently represented at the sanctuary. While in Athens, insight came in a dream: a figure of Apollo, facing directly away from him, turned slowly through 180 degrees to face him. Awaking, he found a map and drew a straight line joining Delphi, Athens, and Delos, revealing a spatial relationship among these sacred sites.

Over several years Richer continued finding alignments by drawing lines on the map which formed geometric figures, many of which obviously represented projections or correspondences on earth of celestial objects and directions. In fact, "it quickly became clear that the Greeks, like the ancient Mesopotamians and the Egyptians, had wanted to make their country a living image of the heavens."* He soon became convinced that Greece had been divided into twelve sectors corresponding to the twelve signs of the zodiac, with Delphi as the center or omphalos, the "navel" of the Greek mainland. Examining art and artifacts from cities and temples in the pie-shaped sectors, Richer found that, far from containing arbitrary decorations, the images predominantly related to the seasons, solstices, cardinal points, and zodiacal signs corresponding to their particular sector of the Delphic "zodiac."

*Sacred Geography of the Ancient Greeks: Astrological Symbolism in Art, Architecture, and Landscape by Jean Richer, translated from the French by Christine Rhone, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1994, isbn 0-7914-2024-8, paper, $24.95, p.11.

Further investigation revealed a second zodiacal wheel centered on Delos, which furnished the Aegean islands with sacred celestial directions and correspondences; and a third, older wheel centered on Sardis, capital of Lydia (in present-day Turkey), a city on the same latitude as Delphi (see Map 1). Finally, he found a still more ancient system centered on Ammoneion in the Libyan desert, home of the oracle of Ammon. It shared the north-south axis or pole line with Delos and included such objects as the Sphinx at Gizeh in its sectors.

Map 1

What was the purpose of all these zodiacal wheels projected from the heavens onto Mediterranean geography?

It has long been known that the development of peoples and civilizations is influenced by the great rhythms of the earth and of the celestial bodies. The Greeks, like all ancient peoples, were aware of this and wished to put their cities and temples under the protection of forces that ruled particular places and times, mountains, springs, and rivers. -- p. 1

This system of sacred geography applies equally on a smaller scale. For example, Athens served as a sacred center for the territory of Attica. In his Laws, Plato describes the proper method of founding a city, taking as his authority the oracles of Delphi, Dodona, and Ammon. For Richer this confirms that this method represents a codification of very ancient practices. Plato says the city-state should be located in the center of the territory and be divided into twelve parts radiating from a central sanctuary, each section consecrated to one of the twelve great gods. The city's population is divided into twelve tribes, one for each god, and the people were to have two dwellings in the sector corresponding to their deity: one in the city and another in the surrounding territory. Plato enjoins that the state and people be divided further into various parts, all factors of 5040, a number which represents the product of the first seven digits and which is divisible by 7 (the planets), 12 (zodiacal signs), 36 (decans), 72 (spirits), and 360 (degrees of the zodiac), as well as 144 (12 squared). When the purpose and methods of Greek sacred geography are understood, the rationale behind these instructions becomes clear.

The author calls Sacred Geography of the Ancient Greeks "a long meditation on the forms of religion and art of Greek antiquity" (p. xxi). It is not only a description and analysis of his findings concerning astrological symbolism, but also a narrative of his investigations. (This book is the first of three volumes dealing with astrological/geographical symbology; the other two are currently not available in English. The second discusses the subject in the Mediterranean regions of the Roman Empire, and the third in Christian art from the fourth to eighteenth centuries. The first and third volumes earned the author awards from the Academie Française.) Very often the alignments had predictive ability: if he looked where the lines indicated, he often found something with the expected archeological or mythic connection. His method is illustrated in the following, which relates to Map 2:

I had assumed that latitudes had been marked out from the existence of the earth line (Delphi-Sardis), the line of Hera temples, the solar line (Hermione-Delos-Didyma), and the line of the Olympuses, and I had drawn all the latitudes on a map of Greece according to the Pythagorean diagram.
At a point on the Peloponnese, exactly where the south-north axis intersects the hypothetical "line of Hermes," I had inscribed the sign of Hermes: .
One and a half years later, when I had begun a systematic reading of the Homeric Hymns, I noticed that the point I had marked was the summit of Mount Cyllene, birthplace of the god. -- p. xxiv
Map 2

He also used these alignments to understand the apparently arbitrary siting of several temples. For instance, the temple of Tegea is located in the midst of a featureless plain; however, its position forms an equilateral triangle with Delphi and Athens. Again, investigating the "abnormal" alignments of the temple of Apollo at Bassae, which faces north-northeast, he found that it was oriented toward Delphi.

When was this astrological system adopted by the Greeks? In Richer's opinion, astronomers before the eighth century bc used stars of first magnitude as the principal celestial markers. In the ancient Egyptian calendar, for example, "the beginning of the year was related to the heliacal rising of Spica. This harked back to a more ancient age, the Age of Gemini" (p. xxxii), when the equinoxes occurred in Gemini and Sagittarius, a period corresponding to around 6500 bc. The star-based system was eventually integrated with the zodiacal system, which has been traced back in its current form to at least 2000 bc in the ancient Near East. Considering precessional correspondences, Richer believes a system of coordinates based on the four seasons and four cardinal points was introduced into Greece between 2000 and 1900 bc, along with an arrangement of latitudinal lines corresponding to the sacred planets (Map 2 indicates these features). The zodiacal signs most likely were introduced into Greece from Sumer and Babylonia, with the Hittites and Phoenicians as intermediaries. The adoption of a full-blown zodiacal projection onto Greek territory seems to have coincided with the Greek adoption of the Phoenician alphabet between 1000-850 bc.

In his studies the author uncovered the existence of many calendars; in fact, "Each city and every region of Greece had its own calendar" (p. xxxii). These were of different ages, and derived from seasonal changes, or from stellar, lunar, or solar cycles. They had varying numbers of divisions and began at different times of the year, generally at one of the solstices or equinoxes. Many Greek calendars show evidence of an ancient knowledge of the precession of the equinoxes, the slow process in which the sun seems to move backward through the zodiacal signs relative to the solar year. For the last 2000-plus years, Pisces has been on the horizon at sunrise on the first day of spring (the spring equinox). For about 2000 years before that, the sun rose in the sign of Aries, and before that in Taurus, etc. When the four cardinal points of the year shifted to different signs of the zodiac, the symbols used to represent the seasons in Greek art and myth changed too. Symbols denoting the shift of the spring equinox from Taurus to Aries, which occurred around 2000 bc, are particularly prominent.

Even the zodiacs used varied over time. The author mentions an ancient ten-sign zodiac which, by the splitting of one sign into Virgo and Scorpio and the insertion of Libra, was transformed into twelve signs. The very similar symbols for Virgo c and Scorpio e hint at this original unity. In her Secret Doctrine H. P. Blavatsky mentions that two of the zodiacal signs ``remained for ages the 'mystery signs,''' saying also that the "idea that the signs of the Zodiac were in ancient times only ten is erroneous. Ten only were known to the profane; the initiates, however, knew them all, from the time of the separation of mankind into sexes, whence arose the separation of Virgo-Scorpio into two; which, owing to a secret sign added and the Libra invented by the Greeks, instead of the secret name which was not given, made 12" (2:502&n). In considering these signs, Richer says that the marriage of Cadmus (Scorpio) and Harmonia (Libra) "may commemorate the insertion of the sign of Libra in the zodiac. Harmonia was originally from Samothrace: in allegorical terms this could mean that the priestly college of that island decided on the zodiacal reform" (p. 115).

Celestial geography was an essential element in Greek religion and philosophy. For instance, the Pythagorean representation of the soul's journey from the underworld to the heavens through the planets is projected on the world/polar axis which passes through Delphi and Mt. Olympus (see Map 2). The resulting geographic correspondences are reflected in the location of sacred sites, and in mythology, art, and artifacts. This north-south line also symbolizes the descending and ascending gateways of the two solstices. In the same way, the Mysteries of Agrae and Eleusis were closely connected with the zodiacal division of Attica and its relation to the Delphic system, wherein Athens represented 0 degreesVirgo, the sign of Athena. Richer points out that "the Greater and Lesser Mysteries took place on the solstitial axis of Attica, while their dates were those of the equinoxes. Thus the four essential times of the year were represented by a single axis" (p. 77).

This ancient astronomical religion also underlies myths about the gods, demigods, and heroes. Worship of the Greek heroes -- such as Heracles (Hercules), Perseus, Theseus, and Bellerophon -- preceded that of the Olympian gods, and often their stories were later assimilated with those of the twelve zodiacal deities. A solar hero identified with Leo, Heracles goes back to the era before 2000 bc in which the solstices were in Leo and Aquarius. His twelve labors represent

a collection of traditions from successive stages in the history of a culture or civilization, which are sometimes quite difficult to coordinate. . . . Diodorus of Sicily said that there had been several Heracles, who themselves had been the heirs of a whole mythic history that included elements of diverse origins. The Hindu Hanuman, for example, is another hero like this, and the Babylonian Gilgamesh, whose history may have been transmitted to the Greeks by the Phoenicians, and again, the Phoenician Melqart. -- p. 97

Richer makes a detailed analysis of the places and incidents in Heracles' journeys which discloses many astrological/mystical significances.

Years of studying coins, pottery, shields, temples and their sculptures, other archeological remains, myths, literature, religion, and calendars confirmed Richer's opinion that a sacred astrological geography and religion was pervasive throughout ancient Greece:

The evidence of the monuments shows in an undeniable way, but not yet clearly perceived, that during more than two thousand years, the Phoenicians, the Hittites, the ancient Greeks, and then the Etruscans, the Carthaginians, and the Romans, had patiently woven a fabric of correspondences between the sky, especially the apparent course of the sun through the zodiac, the inhabited earth, and the cities built by humanity.
If these conclusions are accepted, we have the beginnings of a meta-archeology. In fact, by simple geometry and starting from known sites, it becomes possible to locate certain points in Greece and Anatolia where methodically conducted excavations should give interesting results. . . . A team of experts, including astronomers, geographers, archeologists, and historians, could take full advantage of the concepts I am proposing. -- p. xxv

This book demonstrates convincingly both the purposefulness of much in ancient Greek culture that has been passed over as arbitrary or inexplicable, and complex geographical and astronomical knowledge that underlies so many aspects of the life of these ancient peoples.

 (From Sunrise magazine, August/September 2000; copyright © 2000 Theosophical University Press)

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