Of Dolmens, Sacred Cows and Orion
(Throughout this post I shall persist in using the English plural-form of dolmens, although everything in me screams that it ought to be ‘dolmen’)
So, yea, I know there are some clever clogs out there who have already seen the connection of dolmens, cows and Orion. In fact, one guy (an Italian, I’m guessing), Andrea Polcaro, wrote in his paper ‘Jebel Mulawwaq Dolmens: Cult of Ancestors in EB1 Wadi Az-Zarqa Valley’ (Rome, 2008), of a connection between the Jordanian dolmens and the constellation Orion. Unlike my friend ‘pack-in-enough-to-make-a-chain’ Crimmy, it’s not my habit to provide links. But if your interests roll in that direction you might check out said chappy: AndreaPolcaro on academia.edu (that gets you access to several of his papers as well. And they’re in English!)
But since this post is for the rest of us-not-so-academically-minded rabble, we’ll start at the top (which was good enough for Julia Andrews).
Q: What is a dolmen?
A: This is a dolmen.
Okay, so it looks like a Hungry Hippo, but if you’ve noticed that, then collect £200 as you whizz past ‘Go’ and do not go to Jail
The earliest dolmens are found in Northwest Europe – along the Atlantic seaboard whence they spread rather rapidly inland. A picture paints a thousand words, and here’s one I prepared earlier. Though I’ve since had occasion to question certain dolmens’ qualifications for inclusion, yet the general trend remains.
There are, however, more variations upon the dolmen-theme than Beethoven wrote into his Opus 120 (the Diabelli Variations). Here are some:
The ‘rough and tumble’ of dolmens in Jordan.
I call this one the ‘Tortoise Look’.
The ‘Elven House’ look from the Urals.
The ‘Modern Art-Form’ form found in Galicia.
The ‘Wendy-House Look-Alike Look’ as found in Sardinia.
The ‘Slab Look’, from Russia
still favoured by Soviet architects in C20th
The ‘Slightly Aslant’ Korean look.
But the look par excellence is that displayed by the Brits.
Lanyon Quoit in Cornwall
The only thing is, this isn’t the original form. The original collapsed in 1815 in a storm and was ‘reassembled’ under the guidance of Captain Giddy of the Royal Navy – no doubt a part-time antiquary.
Fortunately, before the collapse a local naturalist (and antiquary) William Borlase (1695-1772) made a drawing of it.
I think of this as the ‘Grand Victorian Railway Station’ look;
a kind of Neolithic ‘steam-punk’.
But despite the local variations on-a-theme, we can see one common factor: a slab-like chunk of rock is raised off the ground on 3+ variously unlikely legs. Plus that ‘table-top’ chunk – at least in the early examples – is always, always, of granite.
Now, of all the rocks our Earth has sprouted, granite has a special quality. This you’ll know if you live in a place where granite has a habit of sticking its head out of the ground. Or if your local council has opted to use granite as cobbles or kerbs and you’ve been out at night after a light shower of rain. Though it does require you to be above the norm in being observant. Myself, it took a week’s hiking holiday on the North Norfolk coast before I discovered it (but then, Norfolk isn’t granite’s natural habitat).
See, the cliffs along the North Norfolk coast aren’t hard and stable as they are, say, in Yorkshire or Cornwall. They’re rather weak and crumbly things. One sneeze and whoosh, they slip into the sea. So in recent years it’s been the practice to protect them – with huge chunks of granite imported from somewhere ‘Scandinavian’.
So imagine this: the day’s walk done, the appetite sated with pizza and . . . well, more pizza, off we would toddle for an evening stroll. And this being late September, dusk was early and the streetlights on – shining their unlikely blueness upon the granite blocks that tumbled in gay abandon against the sea-battered promenade. And . . . wow!
These granite blocks, drying now after their afternoon session of playing at spas, twinkled and sparkled like . . . well, like a Disney version of fairyland.
Yea, sure, I know it’s the mica-content of granite that does it; I’d known since schooldays that granite has mica. But I’d never seen it at twilight – that liminal hour – and with a very slight filming of water. The two are needed together to get the effect. And what an effect.
“Look!” I said excitedly to my hiking partner. “A chunk of the night sky has fallen down.”
And likewise, so I believe, said our Neolithic forebears. And right after saying it, they set to raising the sky-chunks back up.
So, Principle One: The dolmen’s granite capstone equals the twilight sky.
And before we leave dolmens . . .
Principle Two: The dolmen was associated with a Cult of the Ancestors.
There is archaeological evidence of food and drink being left within the dolmen’s front legs. Folklore, too, suggests a belief that the dolmen formed an entrance to the Land of the Dead.
And now we have established that, we can look again at its form.
Images here taken from Wikipedia: Egyptian Mythology
This is a common image of Nut, the sky goddess. A woman arched on her toes and fingertips over the earth, her body portrayed as the star-filled sky. During the day, the sun and the moon travelled across her body. But at dusk she swallowed them (whole). It took them the night to pass through her belly. At dawn they were born again.
But to the ancient Egyptians, Nut was more than a sky goddess. She was the friend and protector of the dead.
“O my Mother Nut, stretch Yourself over me, that I may be placed among the imperishable stars which are in You, and that I may not die.”
It was thought that Nut drew the dead into her star-filled sky, and refreshed them with food and wine.
Nut was known as ‘Mistress of All’ and ‘She who Bore the Gods’. Her children were Osiris, Isis, Set and Nephthys, begotten whilst she lay atop the Earth (Geb) in a state of constant intercourse (O how I admire thee, goddess Nut).
Of her children, she was perhaps closest to Osiris, god of the afterlife, the underworld and the dead. But Osiris was no Hades to keep the dead by his side, there to worship him. His cult was one of hope, of renewal, of the cycles of life. Later, through his association with the annual flooding of the Nile, Osiris merged with Orion.
This massive cow is also Nut.
To recap – before returning to the research of Andrea Polcaro . . .
A typical dolmen:
- Has a capstone of granite – in the eyes of our forbears, a chunk of the night-sky fallen down
- The capstone is raised upon three or more ‘legs’ – thus resembling some massive beast, be it cow or, more likely considering its Neolithic origins, an aurochs (that’s like an elephant-sized bison that shops for his clothes at Mr Big).
- Both folklore and archaeological finds suggest associations with the dead – food and drink offerings plus a possible entrance to Land of the Dead.
The Egyptian goddess Nut:
- Portrayed as the night sky
- Raised up on her arms and legs, her body a’twinkle with stars
- Also portrayed as a massive cow
- Protector and friend of the dead – her arms (and mouth) might be said to be the entrance to the Land of the Dead
- Mother of Osiris, Lord of the Dead
Later, Osiris and Orion merged.
~ ~ ~
Andrea Polcaro in his paper, ‘Cult of Ancestors in EB1 Wadi Az-Zarqa Valley’, reports a significant percentage of the dolmens he studied aligned with the rising of Orion at the winter solstice (when the constellation is fully above the horizon).
Orion, he notes, is the ‘Messenger of the Gods’ in Sumerian mythology. The Babylonian star catalogues of Late Bronze Age names Orion as MULSIPA.ZI.AN.NA, i.e. ‘The Heavenly Shepherd’ or ‘True Shepherd of Anu’ (Anu being the chief god of the heavens). Polcaro suggests these Jordanian dolmens were aligned N-S to allow the officiating priest to seek protection of this Messenger for the dead being interred. (I take this to mean the final deposition of bones after excarnalisation in a Bronze Age equivalent of a ‘tower of silence’.)
But that was in Jordan, and the dolmen phenomenon began in Northwest Europe, a good year’s cruise away using Neolithic state-of-the-art shipping. It’s also set against Sumerian mythology which was still 2,000 years in the future. Though we might note whilst we’re in that area, that Inanna, the Sumerian’s goddess of Love and Lust, of War and Fertility, was also known as Queen of Heaven. Her lover was the shepherd Dumuzid whose absence – because in a pique she’d banished him to the Land of the Dead – was used to explain the infertility of summer. His banishment and subsequent return coincided with the set and rise of Orion.
So let’s look at Orion, the most easily recognised of all constellations.
Here we see Orion aiming a shot at a charging bull while his faithful hound gets distracted chasing a hare, and the twins, Castor and Pollux, look over his shoulder.
The Internet will yield you thousands of images of Orion but they tend to divide between ‘Orion alone’ and highly visible, or ‘Orion & Co’ and more of a muddle. There are also some that are downright inaccurate. So I offer my own.
In the northern hemisphere, Orion is visible in the night sky from November to February. Ah-ha! I hear the gasps of Celtic enthusiasts everywhere. But doesn’t Samhain, the feast of year’s ending – also the feast of the dead – fall at the start of November; and Imbolc, the feast of ewe’s lactation (I’ve never understood that one; I’m sure there was more to it than that) fall at February’s start?
The Wild Hunt, too, was a feature of old Halloween, when Arawn, or Gwynn, or Finn, or Arthur, or Woden rides forth at night to gather the souls of the dead. Those second two, Gwynn and Finn, have names meaning light, and Arawn is aka’d as ‘Light of the Otherworld’. You need be no linguist to see the likeness twixt Orion and Arawn.
All very well, you’re saying. So Orion was the ‘Messenger’ who gathered up the souls of the newly-deceased, to lead them to the Otherworld, Land of the Ancestors, Land of the Dead. And the dolmens played some part in the cult. But what of the sacred cow?
May I direct you to one of most favourite websites: piereligion.org –no, not yet. Wait till I’ve finished.
Under the heading of ‘Proto-Indo-European Myths’ you’ll find the myth of how the World was made from the body of a giant cow, ox or bull. Several versions are given, from several Indo-European language groups, dating across more than 2000 years.
The main elements are:
- *Yama or *Yemós, the ‘twin’
- is dismembered by
- *Mánu, his brother
- the parts of the twin’s body are used to create the world according to a specific formula – ‘his bones are the rocks, his blood made the rivers and seas’, etc.
However, few of the versions known to us have all of these elements.
Sanskrit has a bull, and Manâvî (wife of Manu), killed in a sacrifice by the Ashuras – note, no Yama killed by Manu, and no world making; however, Yama also dies (it doesn’t say how): ‘Yamá surrendered his dear body,’ and, ‘Yama died as the first of mortals.’
In the earliest Avestan (of the Iranian languages) the ‘twin’ was known as Yima Kshaetra (Kshaetra means ‘shepherd’ though it later became shah, king). Later, Yima takes the name Jamshid, and later still, Jems.
“….Aži Dahâka and Spityura, he who sawed Yima in twain.”
Spityura was the brother of Yima. That’s as close as it gets to the four essential elements.
In a Middle Persian text, dating to between 224 BCE and 664 CE, both a cow and Gayomard (Gaya Maratan = ‘mortal life’) are killed. Then out of the cow’s body grows the world, and from Gayomard’s body are born the first humans (thus he is the first ancestor).
To the West we have the story in Latin played out by the twins Romulus and Remus. Romulus kills his twin brother Remus at the foundation of Rome – and subsequently the senators dismember Romulus. No world-making here, the myth being more local, yet Romulus is the founder of Rome and first ancestor to the Romans. Gemini, as in Castor and Pollux (last seen looking over Orion’s shoulder), is the Latin for ‘twins’ – and as such they were worshiped right across the Roman empire.
Early Irish texts contain the story of Táin Bó Cúalnge (in English, The Cattle Raid of Cooley). This may not seem the same myth , yet see this: When the White Bull of Ai and the Brown Bull of Cúalnge fight, the parts of the defeated, dismembered White Bull are distributed around Ireland to form many features of the landscape. It is a mere suggestion, I know, yet both Irish and Cumbrian folklore have a magic cow that’s not only huge but is ever-yielding.
In the Germanic languages there is both Ymir and Mannus, though they don’t appear in the same myth. According to Tacitus (writing in 98 CE), Mannus, son of Tuisto, was ancestor of the Germanic people. Tuisto means ‘twin’. And Ymir appears in Old Norse texts written in the 13th century, though composed earlier. Ymir the giant was dismembered by Odin and his brother-gods to make the World.
Finally (at least in this review), there is this delightful Lithuanian folktale.
“. . . . The maiden upon returning released her bull. The bull knelt down and spoke in a man’s voice: ‘Chop off my head!’ The maiden did not want to chop it off, but she had to. She chopped the head off—a fourth of the seas disappeared, became land. Her brother emerged from the bull. She cut off the heads of all three cows, who were her sisters. All the seas disappeared, turned to land. The earth sprang to life.”
These, though only remnants, are accepted as proof of a Proto-Indo-European myth that ran something like this:
In the beginning there was a man and his twin, and a cow. The man and his twin killed the cow and from its body the World was formed. The man and his twin then fought for who would rule over this newly formed world. In the course of their fight the man killed his twin. Remorseful, he sent him ahead to the Land of the Dead to be the first ancestor there.
This myth has an odd resonance with the Egyptian myth of Set and Osiris, being twin brothers who fought. I say odd because . . . how could the Egyptians attain this (Pre) Indo-European story? A connection between Egypt and Britain has often been suggested but always from East to West, from the ‘higher’ civilisation to the ‘lesser’. Yet here we see a move in the opposite direction, from West to East, and at a vastly earlier period.
Whatever the process involved, I do not doubt that the first dolmens constructed were imagined as chunks of the night-sky raised in the form of the first-killed cow, and between the celestial beast’s front legs was the portal to the Ancestors’ Land of the Dead, where the slain Twin awaited his children, to welcome them in. Gifts left there were not for the sustenance of the newly-deceased, but as offerings to the Ancestor, Lord of the Dead.