Is this Minoan Artistic Marvel a Miniaturization of the Heavens?
The discovery of the Pylos Combat Agate in a Mycenaean shaft-grave tomb dating to 1500 BC may be one of the most significant archaeological and artistic finds in decades, perhaps in centuries. The level of artistic sophistication and detail are stunning -- the more so because the piece itself is so small and the level of detail is so incredibly high. Some details are only a half a millimeter in size. But is there an extra dimension to this immaculate artistry that would put it on a whole new celestial scale?
A Scene From the Stars?
Scholars are already debating the meaning of the scene, which shows a triumphant warrior plunging a sword into a shield-bearing combatant wearing a crested helmet, while another warrior lies sprawled-out beneath their feet, apparently already dead. Unnoticed until now, however, is the fact that this scene contains details which reveal that its pattern is in the heavens, corresponding to specific constellations.
This new discovery provides yet another example of a pattern I have been researching and writing about for several years now, demonstrating that ancient myths, scriptures and sacred stories from around the globe – together with ancient artwork depicting mythical scenes - are frequently based on celestial metaphor, part of a system which appears to have been fully mature before the earliest texts such as the Gilgamesh cycle were written. This surely suggests the existence of some even earlier culture or civilization, upending conventional timelines of early human history.
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In the spring of 2015, a team of scholars working in the Pylos region of Greece discovered an undisturbed shaft-grave tomb of a Bronze Age warrior which included an intact skeleton and more than 3,000 artifacts arrayed on and around the body. The tomb is believed to date to the period around 1500 BC and to be from the Mycenaean civilization, but with many of the objects appearing to be of Minoan origin. The discovery, with its rich trove of artifacts, was described as the most significant in the region to be found in several decades -- but it would be another year before the most astonishing find was uncovered: a dirt-encrusted agate stone measuring only 3.6 centimeters which, when carefully cleaned, revealed artwork depicting a close combat scene with stunning detail and artistic sophistication.
The Combat Scene
Below is a simplified, hand-drawn reproduction of the scene containing the major outlines of the figures, based upon images published thus far. I have added colorization to the three figures in the scene in order to help distinguish them. We see a triumphant, long-haired warrior in an extreme lunge, stabbing downwards with a sword held in his right hand, his right arm raised over his head. This figure, whom I will call the Swordsman, has been tinted red in the diagram. The figure into whom the Swordsman is plunging his sword has a large shield, which appears to have been battered into a somewhat folded lozenge- or diamond-shape, possibly by the prior combat. This figure's right arm holds a long spear, the point of which can be seen on the other side of the Swordsman whom he is facing. I'll call him the Spearman, and he is tinted blue in the colored diagram. He is evidently about to receive a mortal wound from the Swordsman. Finally, there is a third figure stretched out below the two fighting figures of the Swordsman and the Spearman: this figure has apparently already been killed and his body is twisted into a contorted position. He is tinted green in the diagram below and we'll call him the Fallen Warrior. His head is to the left as we face the seal, and his lower leg (his right) is fully extended to the right as we look at the scene. His left leg is sharply bent with the knee pointing upwards. His arms are splayed out at different angles, with one bent over his head with the back of the hand against the ground.
A simplified, hand-drawn reproduction of the scene containing the major outlines of the figures. (Author Sketch)
The details of this scene are strongly suggestive of the outlines of specific constellations in the night sky -- and constellations which appear to have formed the basis for many other pieces of ancient artwork and ancient myths. Below is an image showing the region of the night sky containing the constellations Hercules, Ophiucus, Corona Borealis (the "Northern Crown"), and Scorpio. Sagittarius is also included for reference.
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The night sky constellations Hercules, Ophiucus, Corona Borealis and Scorpio. (Author provided).
Hercules: The Swordsman vs Ophiucus
Note the outline of the constellation Hercules: the figure in the sky appears to be executing a deep lunge, with one arm raised above its head, brandishing a sword. The similarities to the Swordsman in the Pylos Agate should be self-evident: that figure also has an extended rear leg, and the arm holding the sword arches over his head in a similar manner.
Immediately below Hercules in the sky we find the oblong shape of the constellation Ophiucus. Note that the constellation Ophiucus is located below the constellation Hercules as seen in the sky (for an observer in the northern hemisphere of our planet, such as an observer in the region of ancient Greece, Mycenae, or Minoan Crete). This suggests that the constellation Hercules, brandishing a mighty sword, could be envisioned as being in the act of striking a mortal blow to the figure of Ophiucus (the Spearman) -- and indeed there are details in the artwork which suggest that the Spearman corresponds to Ophiucus. First, the serpent-halves held by Ophiucus could be envisioned as spears rather than as serpents, and I have previously shown how some figures in ancient Greek myth who carry spears may be associated with Ophiucus -- including the goddess Athena. Note that the Spearman in the Pylos Agate appears to be wearing a fringed garment of some sort, visible between his legs, below the rim of his broad shield (perhaps suggestive of the "multiple heads" of the constellation Scorpio just below). Similarly, Athena is frequently depicted wearing the Aegis, often depicted as a triangular cloak or shawl fringed with serpents (see for instance the ancient statue shown below from the sixth century BC, featuring an intricately detailed Aegis):
Colossal statue of Athena, from the Gigantomachy group ca. 525 BC. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The Spearman’s Celestial Armory
The Spearman on the Pylos Agate carries a large, somewhat crumpled shield. Note that the shape on the left side of Ophiucus could easily be envisioned as a large, battered shield:
The blue area could equate with the shield central to the Agate. (Author provided).
In fact, if an additional line is envisioned in the sky just above the colored region shown above, the resemblance to the shield of the Spearman in the artwork becomes even more convincing:
More shield-like. (Author provided)
Additionally, the triangular "head" atop the oblong body of Ophiucus could be envisioned as a helmet -- and in the Pylos Agate, it is the Spearman who wears a helmet -- just as Athena is also often depicted with a helmet. It should be fairly obvious that Ophiucus could be envisioned as a heavily-armored combatant, with only the legs protruding from beneath the well-protected body -- precisely what we see in the depiction of the Spearman.
A Decisive Correlation
But the confirmatory detail which indicates that we are indeed looking at a celestial scene in the Pylos Agate is found in the extended arm of the Swordsman which can be seen to be grasping the distinctive, curving helmet-crest of the Spearman. The ancient artist of the Pylos Agate has depicted this crest as a sort of open "C-shape," with the opening pointing upwards. This detail in the Pylos Agate can be seen to correspond to the constellation of Corona Borealis -- the Northern Crown -- in the night sky.
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Detail of the top center section of the Pylos Agate. (Public Domain )
The dominant figure of the Swordsman in the Pylos Agate reaches out his lower arm (the arm not holding the sword) to grasp the curved helmet-crest, just as the menacing figure of Hercules can be envisioned to be reaching out his lower arm (the arm not holding the sword) to grasp the Northern Crown. It is only a small adjustment to envision a line between one of the lower stars of the downward-reaching arm of Hercules and the stars of the Northern Crown and thus to see how Hercules could be envisioned as grasping the arc in the sky -- just as the Swordsman in the Pylos Agate is doing:
The Swordsman clutches the crown/helmet. (Author provided).
Does the Fallen Warrior Match With Scorpio?
As for the contorted form of the Fallen Warrior in the Pylos Agate, he almost certainly corresponds to the figure of the constellation Scorpio, beneath the feet of Ophiucus (and thus below both Hercules and Ophiucus, or in this case the Swordsman and the Spearman). Note how the arm of the Fallen Warrior which flops over his head creates a shape reminiscent of the barbed "tail" of the Scorpion in the night sky, while the three "lower limbs" of the same Fallen Warrior (his two legs plus his downward-splayed arm) create a kind of "delta-shape" corresponding to the triangular "head-end" of the constellation Scorpio.
I've previously noted strong historical precedent for envisioning Scorpio as the figure of a slain warrior or youth. Below is an image of the famous bell-krater, dated to the early fifth century BC, depicting the goddess Artemis slaying Actaeon, towards whom she is pointing her bow as the unfortunate hunter is torn apart by his own pack of dogs:
Artemis slaying Actaeon. From Beazley, John D. Attic Red-figure Vases in American Museums. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1918. This drawing is found on page 113 of that text.
Below is the same ancient artwork, depicted as a drawing, in order to enable the viewer to see "around the curve" of the ancient vase, thereby allowing us to appreciate the entire scene:
It should be readily apparent, from the angle of Actaeon's body as well as from the "delta-shape" created by the youth's upwards-stretched arm and head, that the ancient artist of the above scene has envisioned Actaeon as corresponding to Scorpio in the heavens. We could even argue that the hind legs and upward-curving tail of lowest-left dog correspond to the "stinger" portion of Scorpio's tail.
But the most conclusive details can be found in the outline of the goddess herself. From the angle of her body, to the height at which she is holding her bow, to the length of her dress, it is evident that Artemis corresponds to Sagittarius in the night sky -- and Sagittarius does indeed point a bow in the direction of Scorpio, as seen in the outlines of the constellations:
Below we see the same stars juxtaposed with the artwork of the ancient vase:
The above example should confirm that Scorpio was indeed used as a celestial model for artwork featuring a fallen warrior (or hunter) in ancient Greek art -- but of course this bell-krater is nearly a thousand years later than the artwork on the Pylos Combat Agate.
A Mindboggling Miniature
In fact, based on these examples, it is quite evident that artists in ancient Greece depicted mythological scenes based upon heavenly models corresponding to constellations which we still know and use today -- and now that we have access to the newly-discovered, exquisitely-wrought Pylos Combat Agate, we know that this practice was well developed about a thousand years prior to other examples of constellational artwork from the same region.
Thus, in addition to executing a work of superlative artistic quality, the ancient artist (or artists) responsible for the Pylos Combat Agate also managed to conceive the scene in such a way as to reflect the heavens above, with numerous features which confirm the correspondence of the characters depicted in the artwork to actors in the celestial sphere, among the infinite realm of the stars.
Beazley, John D. Attic Red-figure Vases in American Museums . Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1918.
Rey, H. A. The Stars: A New Way to See Them . Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1952. Enlarged World-Wide Edition, 1988.
Richardson, Rachel. "Unearthing a masterpiece: A University of Cincinnati team's stunning discovery of a rare Minoan sealstone in the trasure-laden tomb of a Bronze Age Greek warrior promises to rewrite the history of ancient Greek art." UC Magazine . November 6, 2017. http://magazine.uc.edu/editors_picks/recent_features/unearthingamasterpiece.html