Göbekli Tepe & The Great Year
The megalithic circles of Göbekli Tepe mark a transitioning from the last Ice Age to the beginning of the Neolithic Revolution. The circles are not coterminous in age but were built progressively over a near two millennia period and likely served different functions. The circles or enclosures excavated to date are arranged in calendar-like structures made up of nearly 12 pillars, with two larger T-shape pillars dominating the centre of each. Arranged on a North-South axis from their vista commanding hill and built on a slow gradient, their design and locality suggest their builders had an interest in the sky. Based on the drifting southwest trajectories of Enclosures D, C, B, and A, the geologist Robert Schoch proposed the builders of Göbekli Tepe were aware of the Precession of the Equinoxes (the observed gradual change in the rising point of stars) or discovered its effect over the period of c.10,000-8500 B.C. corresponding to when the Orion-Taurus-Pleiades constellations were visible before dawn on vernal equinoxes from the direction of the central T-shape pillars. (fig.1, 2, 3). Other Enclosures, however, face other directions so no grand orientation could be uniformly applied. Yet, pillar 43 of Enclosure D (to date the oldest circle realized at the site), otherwise known as the ‘Vulture Stone’, suggests that iconography at the site was used to record dates connected to precession, the movement of the seasons or astronomical phenomena.
Figure 1. Aerial plan of Gobekli Tepe. Credit: Alistair Coombs
Figure 2. Gobekli Tepe looking south. Credit: Alistair Coombs
Figure 3. Massive megaliths of Enclosure D. Credit: Alistair Coombs
A relief decorating the Vulture Stone portrays a central orb, or ball, poised on the vulture’s wing which appears to depict the sun. (fig.4) Below the jubilant looking vulture is the figure of a scorpion, below which is a headless ithyphallic man to which the orb above may have belonged as a head. Using StarryNight software, it can be determined that at Göbekli Tepe from 10,000-9500 B.C. the summer solstice sun occupied the region of Scorpius. If the Vulture Stone depicts this region of space, there is an ethnographic example of a zodiac which reflects its features to considerable extent. This comes from the Barasana people whom, today, are a small hunter-gatherer group from the Colombian Vaupés region. Their religion is shamanic, they hold ayahuasca ceremonies and practice rituals associated with a secret society in which astronomical myth and symbolism figure. Archaeologist David Lewis-Williams has compared the longhouse buildings of these Amazonian people to the ‘spirit houses’ of the Neolithic Near East from ‘Ain Ghazal and Ҫatalhӧyük in relation to how cosmology intersects with architecture to facilitate access to supernatural realms. But the Barasana cosmology which is incorporated into architecture is astronomically informed rather than neurologically generated.
Figure 4. The ‘Vulture-Stone’. Credit: Alistair Coombs
Their zodiac maps an annual antagonism between an Old Star Path and a New Star Path. (fig.5) The old path includes stars and constellations which, from our perspective on earth, appear to cluster about the galactic centre (Sagittarius, Scorpio, Ophiuchus, etc.) while the new star path consists of stars and constellations at the galactic anti-centre (Orion, Taurus, Pleiades, etc.). As can be seen, personifications of the Old Path show a surprising correspondence to the Vulture Stone ensemble. As their venomous and necrophagous natures imply, these constellations signify death and danger, also severe storms and unusual astronomical events such as lunar eclipses when galactic scavengers are said to descend to earth and dig up graves. Stories surrounding the snake, spider and scorpion link them to sorcery and supernatural attack whereas the vulture and corpse bundle are associated with mortuary rites. The ‘caterpillar jaguar’ which occupies Scorpius is not a caterpillar or jaguar but a snake: ‘jaguar’ is an ancestral moniker as leader of the Old Star Path, and as the ‘father of snakes’ it signifies deadly regeneration.
Figure 5. The old star path and the new star path. Credit: Alistair Coombs
These constellations are divided from constellations of the New Path since they are vehicles of poison, death, and sorcery, as conceivably they were, at one level, to the people of Göbekli Tepe. In his research of Barasana cosmology, the anthropologist Stephen Hugh-Jones estimates the positive and negative connotations of the New and Old Paths is due to the zodiac charting the annual passage of the seasons: e.g. those of spring/summer were considered good because of abundant food, feasting and ritual events; while those of the winter were considered bad since marked by thunderstorm, rain, scarcity of food and susceptibility to illness and death. In his interpretation of early zodiacs as cataclysm folklores, the astrophysicist Paul A. LaViolette questions Hugh-Jones’ appraisal of the Barasana zodiac along such simplistic lines, querying, amid other points, that if it originally intended to depict the polarization of the seasons over the course of a year, why large attention was given to constellations other than those which mark the ecliptic. For LaViolette, this zodiac, as with others, was a memory system recording events occurring at the Younger Dryas terminus of the last Ice Age. The case LaViolette builds for this needs to be seen in the context of his wider research.
While the Vulture Stone appears to story characteristics of the Old Star Path, we do not find any corresponding relief of Enclosure D that could be said to reflect the New Star Path, unless we consider designs on the T-Shape pillars at the center. The pillars that make up the circles were intended to depict people, as if to evoke a notion of a gathering. The imposing pair dominating Enclosure D, the largest T-shapes at the site, were designed to depict two especially powerful anthropomorphic beings indicated by their arms and items of clothing. As for their identity, it is tempting to think of the twins, or brothers, behind many world mythologies, such as the god-king Yima, who can be identified with the Vedic Yama, the Scandinavian giant Ymir, all traceable to the Proto-Indo-European root yemo – ‘twin’. The origin of this archaic myth involves the dismemberment of a primordial anthropoid, his two halves become a man and a bull.
Recalling the possible celestial orientation of Enclosure D, we find both T-shapes facing south, indicated by the position of their arms and loincloths. Pillar 18 to the left is stationed East, while its twin to the right (pillar 31) stands West. Pillar 18 wears a belt studded with the H symbol (fig.6) including its 90˚ variation, which plays out a drama on other pillars. Given the setting, and that pillar 18 might embody a giant hunter upon this holy hill, it is notable how the variously upright-supine H is Orion-shaped.
Figure 6. Pillar 18 wears a belt emblazoned with the ‘H’. Credit: Alistair Coombs
The concept of a sky ladder and notational device at the same time would not be unrelated. Notably, adorning the plinth of this pillar are seven birds looking to the East (fig.7) a highly esoteric number in myth and initiation lore which may designate the Pleiades cluster for too many reasons to discuss here. Like their pivotal position in the Barasana zodiac, there is good indication that this cluster coupled with stars in Scorpius and, since Palaeolithic times, became markers which provided an orientation in the cosmos and segmentation of the sky.
Figure 7. The seven birds carved into the plinth. Credit: Alistair Coombs
At the pillar’s neck (fig.8) are convincing astronomical markings of a sun or planet disk with a crescent below. Not only was the crescent a cultic image of the moon across later Mesopotamia, but even more immediately south of Göbekli Tepe at Harran, once a major cult centre of the moon god Sin. Immediately above the disk and crescent are what appear to be identical stump-headed, beaked-beings joined in hand – a depiction of the Gemini constellation which sits just above Orion, straddling the Milky Way?
Figure 8. Markings which appear to depict a sun or planet with supporting crescent, and two beaked twins above. Credit: Alistair Coombs
The twin T-shape of pillar 18 (pillar 31), is not so richly dressed in symbolic apparel, but it wears a bucranium at the neck. (fig.9) It would be surprising if this emblem did not correspond to Taurus, and it would be an even more surprising coincidence if these symbols did not in toto indicate Orion, Taurus and the Pleiades.
Figure 9. The bucranium on pillar 31. Credit: Alistair Coombs
The Younger Dryas event from which this site emerged happened, although if its cause was a galactic-core explosion, solar radiation or a cometary encounter, remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the reliefs of Enclosure D do suggest their builders were sky watchers concerned with understanding how astronomical phenomena influenced the world in which they lived in a mythological guise. This was possibly not only to track seasonal abundance and decline and to plot the ritual calendar in tandem, but to record and monumentalize events of wider scale.
Victor Clube and Bill Napier. The Cosmic Winter. Oxford: Basil Blackwell 1990
Paul A. LaViolette. Earth Under Fire: Humanity’s Survival of the Last Ice Age. Rochester, Vt.: Bear & Company, 1997 p281
Stephen Hugh-Jones. “The Pleiades and Scorpius in Barasana Cosmology.” Annals of New York Academy of Sciences 385, 1982 pp190-1
Robert M. Schoch, PhD. Forgotten Civilisation. Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions 2012 pp53-56
David Lewis-Williams, and David Pearce. Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos and the Realm of the Gods. London: Thames & Hudson, 2009 pp88-122