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 a theory that myth is a technical language placed within a popular context. More specifically, I want to reveal the astronomical basis underpinning the myth of the solar hero.
Gods in the Sky
To the ancient cultures, the pantheon of the gods resided in the sky. Their myths were originally inseparable from their astronomical observation. Could 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. The sun is a role model, hence the 'solar' part of the hero, and 'dies' every dusk, as the dark night takes over. 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 tells the knowing listener or reader 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 atů 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.
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. 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.
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.
Perhaps it would be a good thing to look more closely at the numbers involved. Our modern calendar 'works' with 365.25 days for the solar or seasonal year. As a fraction this is 365 and a quarter. The 33-year repeat cycle is based on a solar year which is 365.24242424+ or 365 and eight thirty-thirds in length. The astronomical truth is that the seasonal or solar year is 365.242199 days in length. The 33-year repeat cycle is therefore accurate to within 20 seconds, while our modern calendar is, each year, in error by over 11 minutes.
Here is a solution to our repeated use of the number thirty-three. There is enough evidence to link the astronomical phenomenon to the biblical story. This particular resurrection took place at Easter, a festival tagged onto the much older one of the equinox, which then locates the sunrise in question as being exactly due East of the observer. Because the daily change in the sunrise position is at a maximum at the equinoxes, it is the optimum time to take angular readings.
A Plagiarised Resurrection
Our solar hero, Jesus, rose from the dead after thirty-three years, witnessed at 'the rising of the sun' by Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus. Mary was there at the birth - the start of the life-journey. Both women noticed that the large stone blocking the entrance of the tomb holding the body of the crucified hero had been rolled way. The resurrection story concerns itself with a solar hero rising again, at the same place, with the sunrise, at Easter, after thirty-three years. There is a very large stone blocking the tomb - the entrance to the underworld - which rolls away revealing the resurrected form and Jesus's entrance back into the visible world. We now have a reason why the number thirty-three assumed such importance in folklore and the oral traditions, many of which probably date back to the late stone age. It was the prime long-term solar repeat rising cycle observed at the megalithic solar observatories. The later Jesus story, whatever else it may be for Christians around the world, rides on the back of this astronomical fact, derived from what are now termed 'Pagan practices' in megalithic Europe. Ironically these very same practices were stamped out ruthlessly by the later Christian Church, and the astronomical source of the solar hero myth thereby lost.
Modern Consequences of the myth
The number 33 may be found elsewhere, but always in a solar context. Sometimes this is astronomic: the sunspot cycle is 11 years in duration, times three and 33 pops up. Every thirty three years the Leonid meteor shower is brightest, in mid-November. Other times the connection is human and social. There are 33 degrees of initiation in freemasonry, the 33rd degree being the highest. Then there's also the lonely little game of solitaire, where the aim is to remove 32 marbles and place the last one in the 33rd hole. In French, solitaire is sol and taire, words well worth looking up in a dictionary.
Megalithic Science Revealed
Until 2000, my research lacked proof. Then, an archaeologist friend of mine, Dr Euan MacKie, sent me his full 1976 survey report of an equinoctial site at Brainport Bay in Argyll, Scotland. At the place where the observer would have stood in 2500 BC, was a standing stone - the backsite. Underneath it, and hidden from view, MacKie and Colonel Peter Gladwin discovered some 33 white smooth quartz pebbles, tightly packed together, suggesting that they were once held in a leather bag. There were 33 of these pebbles and they are now on display in the Kilmartin Museum, Argyll. I asked Dr MacKie the same question I now leave you with: What do you think they were for? Why else would one find 33 stones here in this location unless megalithic man was monitoring the 33 year solar cycle? Precision astronomy drove the numerical content of the solar hero myth, which clearly dates from before 2500 BC. It's a very old and very useful calendar myth.
is an independent full-time researcher of cosmic cycles living in Pembrokeshire, Wales, having previously enjoyed an industrial career in electronics and been a senior lecturer in mathematics and engineering, where he also taught surveying techniques. He is a regular contributor to many publications around the world and is also researching the pre-literate roots of astronomy and astrology, particularly the sacred geometry and calendar systems of the megalithic culture of northwestern Europe.
Author of Sun, Moon and Stonehenge
(Bluestone Press, 1998), Sun, Moon, Earth
(Wooden Books, 1999) and A Beginner's Guide to Stone Circles
(Hodder & Stoughton, 1999), he conducts guided tours to sites in Europe. All books can be purchased signed by the author. Contact Robin via email at firstname.lastname@example.org