Sunday (aptly enough) marked the Solstice – Winter if you’re down here in Patala-loka, Summer if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere. With that in mind, it seemed an ideal time to produce an article on one of the most intriguing artefacts of the Indo-European Bronze Age – the Nebra Sky Disk, of the Unetice Culture in central Germany circa the first half of the 2nd Millennium B.C.
Interestingly, for our purposes, the likely construction of the Disc in the 18th-17th century B.C. (before its eventual burial in the late 1600s or early 1500s) places this roughly contemporaneous with the entry of the Indo-Aryans into India. A matter we shall (briefly) return to later in the piece.
But first, let us admire the Disc itself. Even despite its near four millennia of antiquity from us in our advanced (post-)modern age, it is difficult not to be moved by it simply as an aesthetic object. In some ways, it may seem crude, but with the combination of the glittering of gold and the dark patina (which ‘in life’ would likely have had a more blue colouration – a deliberately derived effect of the application of rotten eggs to it to replicate the distinctive tincture of the night sky, which has slowly faded to the more usual green), there’s just something about it that seems to resonate. It radiates a powerful, primal energy that does not require the sophistication of latter ages to make itself known.
Although having said that, it would be fallacious in the extreme to attempt to state that this artefact is not the product of sophistication. The metals utilized in its construction come from right across Europe – copper from relatively close by in modern-day Austria, joined with tin from Cornwall in order to make the bronze; gold from both the Carpathians and the western United Kingdom for the varying layers of ornamentation thereupon. The aformentioned chemical treatments of the bronze in order to produce a colouration more apt for the starry night sky. These speak to complex and interconnected trade-routes, and a perhaps surprising practical knowledge of chemistry. And even before we begin to consider the astronomical design and purpose of the device, we can show that the notion of the ‘barbarians’ of the Bronze Age as ‘unsophisticated’ is a theme-park conceit of limited practical application.
This becomes particularly so in light of those aforementioned astronomical design features. For you see, the Disk is not merely an aesthetic object – encoded upon it is specific information, most plausibly for both a functional and a commemorative purpose.
The arrangement of the Stars upon the Disc is not random – but quite deliberate. This is demonstrable not only through the Pleiades cluster’s prominent reproduction in between the golden disc of the Sun and the crescent Moon (and note that it is the seven Pleiades, the ‘Seven Sisters’, rather than the six that are visible to most naked-eye observers today – reflecting what appears to be the disappearance of one of the seven at some point in the past three and a half thousand years; as also suggested by the Greek myth of the disappearance of Merope, and the dysjunction between the Seven visible here with the Six Krtikka that find mention in the Puranic-era accountings for Lord Skanda’s unusual birth); but also through the careful placement of other stars to form imprintings of other constellations as they’d be seen in the night sky of the era.
In addition to these, there are also to be found three further ‘stars’ located between the Moon and Sun which do not easily accord with what we know of the position of the prominently visible constellations of the time … because they’re not stars at all, but rather planets. Mercury, Mars, and Venus, to be exact, in ascending order and from left to right. This helps us to affix the Sky Disc in terms of time – and suggests rather strongly that the arrangement of celestial bodies is a quite deliberate reproduction of the night sky circa the 16th of April 1699 BC. Which, as it happens, is also the date of a rather impressive total solar eclipse. The sort of event, you’d have to agree, that it would make indelible sense to commemorate and record in suitably fine materials – perhaps poetic verse or some other such enduring substance. But more, again, upon that a bit later.
At some point subsequent to the affixing of the aforementioned heavenly topography, a further series of alterations were made to the Disk – chiefly the attachment of two golden arcs to either side of the Disc (which also necessitated the movement of one star to the right – and straight-ahead til morning; as well as the obscuration the right-hand arch of two others that are still in place underneath the new arrival). These have attracted the most attention for those seeking to reconstruct the functionalist meaning for the Disc, and understandably so. Measuring eighty two degrees wide in span each, when the Disc is oriented via the position of the Pleiades in the (Winter) Sky above the nearby Mittelberg Hill, they show the height in the sky of sunrise and sunset upon both the Summer and Winter Solstices. This therefore has obvious (and highly localized) calendrical utility for the people who authored (and then somewhat edited) the Disc’s existence, as it would have allowed the Bronze Age user to accurately assay how close to these dates they were via comparing sunrise and sunset to the respective extremities of each Arc.
However, the application of these Arcs to the Disk was obviously a later addition. We can tell this in part due to the notably different source of gold utilized for their manufacture (an Eastern European source in the Carpathians that would have been relatively more local, rather than the British gold initially used for the celestial objects depicted thereupon in the first phase of ornamentation); as well as the fact that the Arcs’ placement necessitated the moving or covering over of three stars. There would, after all, be little reason to place the two stars on the right that are completely covered by the respective Arch , if it were known by the artificers of the initial phase of its manufacture that that was going to happen.
A third phase of addition took place somewhat later still (although how much later is a matter for conjecture), to add a downwards-facing crescent to the base of the Disc. This has been much theorized about over the years since the Disk’s discovery, but with many speculated explanations for the shape seeming both unsatisfying and unsound. The major exception is the notion that this represents a Solar Boat – a concept that has clearly found expression throughout not only the better-known Egyptian mythological instance, but which also seems to have been known (and materially represented in not dissimilar terms) to the Bronze Age Indo-Europeans of Europe.
In some ways, it might be slightly surprising – as we are often more used to thinking of the Chariot or Wagon when we are conceiving of Solar Vehicles; the Sun, perhaps, forming the Wheel visible to us of such a mode of conveyance – or pulled along behind it. However, as I have repeatedly demonstrated in the course of my work, for (Early) Indo-European Man, Space is an Ocean (the Sea may also be another kind of Steppe – but more upon that, some other time). It therefore makes a considerable sense for the Sun to be borne across the Sea of Stars amidst the darkness via just such a vessel. A Space Ship, you might say.
Although there is one curious detail obvious via its omission in relation to the above – namely, the lack of the Sun actually being positioned in or near the boat. But this, too, is reasonably explicable within the context of the mythic interpretation – the mythic resonancy – of both the depiction, as well as of the event itself.
So what is that? Well, on one level – the scientific one, perhaps, or more accurately the euhemeric – it is an astronomical event. An eclipse; specifically the total solar eclipse occurring upon the 16th of April 1699 BC. Yet on another level – the mythic level – it is something rather more significant.
The coming together of Sun and Moon in this manner, is no mere astronomical event – the procedural motion of inscrutable and inscrutably remote far-flung glob(e)s of fire and cratered stone in the sky. Rather, it is the intersection, the interplay, of two great and powerful beings – two Gods. One Female (the Sun), one Male (the Moon). [And, before somebody takes issue with this … I have a forthcoming work that sets out in some depth the strong argument for the Proto-Indo-European Solar Deity portfolio being prominently held by a Goddess, and likewise the Moon Deity being a God – something that continued amongst the Nordic people and Baltics, as well as to a more mixed extent the Vedic Aryans; yet also finds ‘echoing’ expression even amidst the Greek and the Roman mythunderstandings that are mostly responsible for modern eyes thinking it’s all the other way around].
What would we term this coming together, I wonder? Perhaps we might call it for what it is – a “Marriage”!
As it happens, this theory, this interpretation has been put forward before. A chap by the name of Andis Kaulins made reference to just such a possibility, specifically with reference to the Nebra Sky Disk some years ago, building his analysis upon certain Latvian folk-songs that could be interpreted as referring to such an occasion (in general terms that is – the meeting of Sun and Moon as a marriage, rather than directly referencing this particular eclipse with its salient identifying features). Personally, I think he may have been over-reading them somewhat – but in such a manner as to produce an actually-correct outcome.
We can tell this, via the application of an authentically ancient Indo-European text to the matter – one that, it now seems, may actually have been roughly contemporaneous with the events under our present discussion. This is, RigVeda X 85 – The Bridal of Surya. In the course of this hymnal, Surya [that is, the female Surya – also The Sun] undertakes a marriage with Soma [the Moon]. The preparations for this are undertaken in the Lunar month of Magha, the act itself in the following month of Phalgun. These would correspond with, broadly speaking, March and April, respectively. Three figures are stated to have appeared to act as the Bridesmen for the ceremony – the Asvin Twins and Lord Agni. These would correspond with the three mysterious stars that are located between the Moon and Sun upon the Nebra Sky Disk – and which Kaulins’ archaeo-astronomical reconstruction has demonstrated should be the planets Mercury, Mars, and Venus; which he interestingly assigns the roles of “bridesmaids” in his own Latvian-inflected ‘reconstruction’ of the marriage myth in question. There are further points of symbolic coterminity between the words of the relevant RigVedic Hymnal and the poetic descriptiveness of a (total) solar eclipse – but we shall, perhaps, leave those for another time. For now and for our purposes, it is enough to know that various important identifying elements (including, all-importantly, the date – April) match up rather well with what we know of the situation of the Skies on the 16th of April 1699 BC.
And therefore – that it seems rather likely that these two artefacts – one physical, one scriptural/textual – are in fact depicting the same event.
Although this invites the question – why think about such a cosmic event in positive terms? Why not the far more familiar and understandably explicable myth of a Demon devouring the Sun? And that is because – this is being presented as a fundamentally, indeed foundationally Lawful event. It is not the random chaos and malefic un-balancing of a rapacious demon robbing us of the source of our light and life. It is a predictable, pre-ordained phenomenon [as we find attested in the Hymnal’s notation that Surya’s Father has expressed His support for the union; and the first lines beginning with the dual precepts of ‘Satya’ and ‘Rta’ – Truth and Cosmic Order. And, further, the notation that the Soma, the Moon, Who is shortly to be in receipt of His Bride, is an important, powerful, respected, and integral constituent of the Divine (and Divinely Ordered) Kingdom]. Instead of placing the Power of the Sun under threat of extinguishment – it, the Eclipse, is portrayed as a noble, necessary, re-vital-izing action (and therefore also for the Adityas – the Solar Gods); an acknowledgement of Soma’s core place in the cosmos (even despite His seeming waxing and waning and shifting faces). In other words, it is the complete opposite of something to be feared – even though it may look like something that one should be needfully reassured about, if one is uninitiated as to the underlying Purpose and Order of such an occurrence.
Interestingly, this also suggests that the state of Vedic astrology was sufficiently advanced to have some comprehension not only of solar eclipses as a general phenomenon (rather than a specific and world-ending/imperilling one) – but also to perhaps be able to predict these, as well. Which connotes a state of astronomical technical ability and understanding rather in advance of what various commentators have suggested could have been the case for the Bronze Age elsewhere. This latter objection is, as it happens, one of the objections that has previously been mooted to the possibility of the Nebra Sky Disc depicting an Eclipse – the idea that Bronze Age European Man had no concept of an Eclipse and therefore presumably even after directly witnessing one unfolding in the skies above him, could not depict such and same again in symbolic terms.
So – what does this mean in terms of our interpretation of the Nebra Sky Disc?
Well, for starters it suggests that the original purpose of the Disc was not, in fact, Solstice marking and time measuring. But rather, a quite specific commemoration of a suitably impressive stellar and therefore mythological event. This explains the particular patterning of several elements upon the Disk – including those aforementioned trio of Planets; as well as the lack of those two golden arcs that turn it into a more ‘mundanely’ functional device upon either side. Those are added later, perhaps some decades subsequent – after the initial, powerfully resounding recollection of the Solar Eclipse had faded somewhat, and it became apparent that the handily accurate ‘star map’ could be utilized for such a purpose [and I say ‘handily’ because, unlike pretty much every other instance of such a device we have found of contemporaneous or earlier construction … it’s man-portable rather than a fixed and often downright gigantic physical structure rooted in the Earth’s sturdy palm, with protruding fingers of megalithic construction and durability, if not perhaps ‘convenience’ in other respects].
Later still, with the ‘functional’ utilization of the Disc also perhaps fading (or not – who can say, that far back), the Solar Barque is added to the bottom of the Disk. This may also recall somewhat the Eclipse symbolism that should have been initially there – the ‘waves’ or ‘oars’ of the deliberately grooved crescent perhaps echoing the appearance of the corona of the Sun during its Eclipsing marriage [and which may also find expression in the aforementioned RigVedic Hymnal when speaking about the veiling of the bride and its fringes, etc. . This helps to make much more visually striking and apparent the nature of the event to those who were not around/alive to see it – and also, via the utilization of the Solar Boat mytheme, helps to show that such an occurrence is not a portent of immediate, impending doom – but a temporary phase within an ongoing, Solar cycle.
Finally, somebody put holes all around the rim of the Disc, presumably so that it might become affixed to something – whether a wall or some mobile facing, or a standard of cloth or wood … or, as has also been suggested from time to time, as the device upon a suitably impressive looking shield. We can but speculate.
At some point after this, either in the late 1600s or early 1500s, the Sky Disc is buried. The possible explanation for which, being that the immense ash and dust-clouds thrown up by the Santorini eruption of 1613 BC (or thereabouts) – would have rendered pretty much everything in the skies above and over Central Europe … pretty dark and dim for some years; thus rendering the Disk’s stellar cartography of limited utility, especially in light of changed climatological conditions that would have meant that what may have been predicted-by-proxy by the Disc’s users via the Solstice distance, may not have eventuated (for some years afterward) anyway. This severely noticeable impact upon the Sky as well as the surrounding natural and habitable environment (including a significant deterioration on plant-growth and therefore yields) may have been taken as a religious occurrence – thus, perhaps, mandating some act to set things back ‘in balance’ , which might have included the consignment to the Earth (Mother), of one of the most precious and fantastically valuable (Sky) artefacts in the tribe’s ownership. Who can say.
What we CAN state – and I believe it is with some certainty – is that the Nebra Sky Disk is not only visually impressive, but remarkable as well in terms of what it tells us about our ancestors, and those closely related or at the very least contemporaneous with them. It shows us that despite all the stereotypes and insistent interpretations – of both our time, with its technological might, and of theirs – that Ancient (Indo-)European Man was no uncultured, rock-headed primitive. But rather a thoughtful, creative figure – capable of living in both surprising harmony and comprehension with the world around him; taking advantage of continental-spanning trade-networks and the stored, storied, but above all shared insights and observations of that world passed down to him from years, perhaps even generations afore.
As it happens, on the eve of the Winter Solstice itself this year, I was out in the darkness; myself and an associate had visited a graveyard for the purposes of paying our respects and asking for national assistance of a particular prominent figure interred therein, and we had noticed the prominent alignment of Jupiter, Saturn, and eventually a rising Mars (Neptune was also there, although for obvious reasons not visually apparent). We checked and confirmed these by using my associate’s cellphone astronomy ap. Seeking for a better view of the Heavens with which to deploy said hand-held stellar chart, we headed up to a higher, more open location. The same day, there was also a solar eclipse.
I had not, until just now, considered the overt resonancy of these proceedings – and yet it now seems inescapably apparent.
Albeit with one really key difference – unlike the artificers of the Nebra Sky Disc … I somehow doubt either of us would have been able to hand-manufacture and accurately plot the stars upon such a device. Even with the cellphone.
Some things do change. Others – like the Power of the Sun and our wonderment in staring up at the incomprehensibly vast Heavens as They Move and Move Us Here Below … Others remain. Even if they must, by necessity, remain in waiting for us just out of sight pending their eventual recovery.
Rather like an Eclipse in that manner, come to think of it.