Featured image: Detail of Astrology Manuscript, ink on silk, BCE 2th century, Han, unearthed from Mawangdui tomb 3rd, Chansha, Hunan Province, China. Hunan Province Museum by Unknown author – China Arts, Volume 1st, Wen Wu Publishing, Beijing, China, 1979-10, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19264187
Philip Jamieson and Marianne Schmidt
In the last weeks of 2020 the Sydney Dance Company performed Indian-Australian Raghav Handa’s Cult of the Titans, a work exploring the Nazi appropriation of the swastika from Hindu culture. The Company was so concerned at the depth of animosity in the community towards the symbol that it provided a content warning that the work contained swastika images and invited concerned audience members to leave if they wished. In a video introduction, Handa explained his piece as an attempt to reclaim from its horrific association with Nazism the Swastika’s ancient symbolism in Hinduism of light and peace.
While this positive symbolism in Hinduism is indeed millenia old, the origins of the swastika are actually far more ancient and its original meaning still the subject of much speculation. While long found in Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, its use is also found in many ancient cultures around the world, in some cases dating from the Neolithic and even late Paleolithic Periods. The earliest known example, excavated at an Ice Age site at Mezin in the Ukraine and dating from at least 12,000 years ago (in some accounts 15,000 years old and possibly even older), is a bird figurine carved from mammoth ivory tusk, its torso displaying what Mukti Jain Campion has elegantly described as “an intricate meander pattern of joined-up swastikas”. Photos of the figurine can be seen in her article at https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-29644591.
So what might this swastika imagery have been intended to represent in antiquity? While the word “swastika” comes from the Sanskrit “svastika”, having the meaning good fortune or well being, as Sanskrit dates back no more than a few thousand years at most, this use of the symbol clearly predates that term. Its use on the figurine has been suggested to represent fertility, the carving having been found near phallic objects.
While the context in which an image, representation or symbol is found can assist in determining its meaning in antiquity, another consideration is its origin.
While there are various theories about the origins of the swastika, one that has attracted our particular interest is its possible astronomical origins. As early as the 19th century a conundrum had been identified. The symbol’s presence widely across ancient cultures suggests a connection via cultural diffusion, yet it was early noted that there is little evidence that the symbol passed from culture to culture by diffusion. Equally, while there is the suggestion that the design might arise independently across communities practising basket weaving (created by the edges of the reeds in a square basket-weave), it is arguably not such a simple design that its use so widely across cultures would likely have been the result of simple convergence of design. While we see merit in the suggestion that Carl Jung’s “collective unconscious” may be at least part of the explanation for the widespread use of the image, we also support the view that this conundrum may suggest a common astronomical origin – an ancient phenomenon that would have been observable independently across widely separated cultures.
One popular astronomical theory focusses upon the most widely used form of the symbol, the right handed version with its broken arms pointing clockwise. It has been suggested that this represents the motion of the Sun across the sky. But why would the arms of the symbol be bent in representing the Sun? Another suggested astronomical association that accounts for the symbol’s bent arms resonates more strongly with us – that it may have originally been a visual representation of a comet.
In 1973 a silk atlas was discovered in the village of Mawangdui in the Hunan Province of China in a tomb dating from the Han Dynasty, 2nd Century BCE. It contains drawings of 29 different cometary forms. Significantly, one of the comet forms depicted is what is clearly a swastika.
Detail of Astrology Manuscript, ink on silk, BCE 2th century, Han, unearthed from Mawangdui tomb 3rd, Chansha, Hunan Province, China. Hunan Province Museum by Unknown author – China Arts, Volume 1st, Wen Wu Publishing, Beijing, China, 1979-10, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19264187 (at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mawangdui_Astrology_Comets_Ms.JPG#/media/File:Mawangdui_Astrology_Comets_Ms.JPG)
Carl Sagan and Anne Druyan have proffered an explanation for this appearance, suggesting that if a rapidly spinning comet with four active trailing streamers were heading in the direction of the Earth, ground observers looking towards the comet on its axis of rotation would see something like a swastika. Such an appearance by a comet, brilliant in the sky, at some point in our ancient past may have given rise to the image.
David Seargent comments that this theory doesn’t obviously account for the commentary that accompanies the drawing. This commentary states (as translated) that when this form of comet is “seen in Spring [it] means good harvest, seen in summer means drought, in Autumn means flood, in winter means small battles”. This suggests that one or more comets were visible in this form regularly enough to be used to identify seasonal events by reference to their appearance. Seargent proposes a more likely possibility – that a comet given to super outbursts of brightness and moving in an orbit of very low eccentricity with perihelion beyond the orbit of the Earth, potentially visible all around its orbit but most readily when at opposition, might equally assume a swastika form during outbursts. And, he observes, “because outbursts of a comet in an almost circular orbit can occur at any point within that orbit … they could occur at any season of Earth’s year, neatly accounting for the noted seasonal variation in its astrological significance”.
While it is true that any number of comets might have been responsible for this image in antiquity, Comet Encke has on occasion been postulated as the source.
Comet Encke as rendered in Celestia using data acquired from Earth-based observations by Celestia Team – Celestia, GPL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43153338 (at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comet_Encke#/media/File:Comet_Encke_in_Celestia.jpg)
Fred Whipple has pointed out that Encke’s polar axis is only 5 degrees from its orbital plane, an orientation which it has been commented is “ideal to have presented a pinwheel like aspect to our ancestors”, and at a time when Encke would have been much more active. Although the diameter of its nucleus is today some 4.8 km, its orbit implies that this is only a small fragment of what was in antiquity a much larger, now disintegrated object, a comet comfortably in excess of 10 km (perhaps as much as 100 km) in diameter. With the shortest known orbital period of any active (reasonably bright) comet at 3.3 years and given the relative closeness of its orbit to Earth’s, Encke has been observed many times. There have been more than 60 known visits of the comet to the inner solar system – noted to be far more than any other comet. Moreover, its small inclination and the slow “wobble” of its orbital plane have been identified as resulting in the Earth having extremely close encounters with the comet every 3,500 years.
At such times it would have been a spectacular, if not frighteningly brilliant, object in the sky. However, there would also have been the very real prospect of debris impacts, one suggestion being that the 1908 Tunguska event was probably an example of a fragmentary impact from Encke. Indeed, in what Marianne points to as possibly one of Jung’s “meaningful coincidences”, it is interesting that 1908 is the same year that the Ukrainian Mezin site, home of the bird figurine carving displaying the most ancient known swastika image, was discovered.
While the Tunguska event may be one example of a fragmentary impact from Encke, it has been commented that there will have been many damaging Earth impacts, often witnessed by our ancestors, during the 15,000 years or more that the comet has been fragmenting.
The Neolithic Revolution
Marianne has suggested that there may even be a relationship between the development of agriculture and such an impact. The Neolithic (or First Agricultural) Revolution saw the wide-scale transition of a number of communities from a hunting/gathering lifestyle to agrarian settlements. What brought this Revolution about remains a matter of debate – as indeed does the question whether we are a more successful society for the development, although our views on this latter question are beyond the scope of this post.
There are a number of theories as to the cause of this Revolution. One which resonates with us relates the development to the Younger Dryas (YD) impact hypothesis. This posits that around 12,800 years ago, fragments from a large (more than 4 kilometers in diameter) comet (or asteroid) resulted in multiple airbursts/impacts on at least four continents – the Americas, Europe and western Asia. In an earlier post, We are NOT Alone: Thoughts on Comets and Meteorites – Where Life Began?, we referred to a recently published study supporting this hypothesis, suggesting that a cosmic event (most likely an airburst that may have been accompanied by ground impacts from fragments) occurred near the prehistoric village of Abu Hureyra in Syria at around this same time. Apparently subjected to temperatures of at least 1,700°C, as astronomer Bill Napier has described it, the village was “in effect … blowtorched from the sky”.
These hypothesized impacts returned the planet to something like glacial conditions for some 1,300 years. Dating from around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, the Neolithic Revolution has been found to correspond broadly with the period of quickly rising temperatures that followed this “impact winter” and which heralded the onset of the warm Holocene Period with which we are familiar today. More particularly, astrophysicist Hugh Ross notes that it appears that large-scale, specialized agriculture was launched about 10,000 years ago almost simultaneously in at least three widely separated locations – amongst western Anatolians living in Greece and western Turkey, Levantines living in southern Israel, and Zagros Mountain people living in Iraq and Iran. Ross comments that although each group used their own farming tools and adopted different kinds of agriculture, “as soon as Earth’s climate permitted” large-scale, specialized agriculture appears and does so in widely separated locations.
The role of cometary impacts?
Climate change is obviously at the heart of this theory. However, even if it is an answer to the development of the Neolithic Revolution, it may well not be the whole answer. Another possible consideration may be the impact of such cometary debris itself. In our post, We are NOT Alone, we postulated that cometary (and meteoritic) debris may contain energies capable of interacting with the terrestrial environment.
One of a number of examples we provided in the post that we believe may point to this potential was the possible impact on Aboriginal culture of meteoritic debris around Darwin Crater in southwest Tasmania. In her book, Archaeology of the Dreamtime (2004 edition), Josephine Flood concludes of Aboriginal Pleistocene sites within the general vicinity of the Crater that they “show a higher degree of archaeological richness, complexity and variability than any other known Australian Pleistocene sites”. Darwin glass (glass formed as a result of the meteorite impact) has been found at each of these sites (within around 100 km of the crater), in at least some cases manufactured into cutting tools and scrapers. Yet at a site only another 10 km or so distant, in central Tasmania, no Darwin glass has been found – and the site also shows “significant distinctions in technology, raw materials, faunal quantities and processing strategies”, “supporting the idea that the eastern border of the Southwestern geographic zone also marked a human behavioural boundary in the late Pleistocene”.
We suggested in our earlier post that it is the presence of the Darwin glass that may provide the explanation for these distinctive behavioural differences. And the distinctive presence noted by Flood of rock art in the area we believe speaks against these behavioural differences being simply the result of some technological advantage provided by the glass. Rather, we concluded that there is in our view a case to be made that it was the energies in the meteoritic glass that impacted the population using it.
In a similar vein, if we accept the YD impact hypothesis, could the Neolithic Revolution have been facilitated by something associated with the cometary debris? While one theory noted in the study of the destruction of the prehistoric village at Abu Hureyra is that the YD impacts triggered climate change which in turn “caused the prehistoric villagers at Abu Hureyra to transition from hunting/gathering to cultivation”, we wondered in our earlier post whether it was possible that this cultural transformation was also facilitated by something associated with the cosmic debris itself? In support of their thesis that a cosmic event occurred near Abu Hureyra around 12,800 years ago the authors point to the fact that meltglass at the site appears to have been formed as a result of an intense and sudden high‐temperature cosmic impact. Did this meltglass have a similar effect on the local population to that we postulate for Darwin glass in Tasmania? The authors note an earlier study suggesting that the transition by the ancient inhabitants of Abu Hureyra from hunting/gathering to cultivation is indicative of earliest agriculture. It seems an interesting synchronicity that they are the earliest known farmers in the world.
Younger Dryas, Comet Encke and the swastika symbol?
This begs the further question, fragments from which comet may have been responsible for the hypothesized YD impacts around 13,000 years ago? One it seems more than 4 kilometers in diameter, which would certainly have been true of the Encke progenitor at that time. Napier has described one or more damaging encounters with cometary fragments from the Encke progenitor, in the course of its disintegration over a 20,000-30,000 year period, as a reasonably probable event. And an encounter with cometary fragments on an orbit at least similar to that of Encke has been proposed as a possible cause of the YD event. Napier also recently adopted Encke as an archetype in using its progenitor to model the course of the disintegration of a large comet in a short-period orbit as a possible trigger for the event. All of this raises one’s suspicions about the possible role of the Encke progenitor, and certainly Napier considers that given “the Earth has probably run through a fragment swarm at least once, and possibly a few times, over the active lifetime of [this] progenitor”, it may be one such encounter that took place 12,800 years ago.
As we noted earlier, these theorized YD impacts also appear to have occurred broadly around the same time as the earliest known example of the use of swastika imagery. Recent research is suggesting that carvings on one of the pillars at the temple site of Gobekli Tepe in southern Turkey, the world’s oldest known temple thought to have been built around 11,000 years ago, tell the story of this devastating cometary impact some 2,000 years earlier. It is interesting to note in this context that Clifford Richey (although developing a thesis of the swastika as a composition of elements from an ancient sign language) has pointed to the T-shaped stone pillars at Gobekli Tepe as examples of part of the compound sign – a four part swastika composition of “T”s arranged both vertically and horizontally. Richey points to this swastika composition on the eves of roofs at the Forbidden City in China, visible in the pattern below from one of the buildings.
Longevity pattern, Forbidden City by Gisling – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7485470 (at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%E6%95%85%E5%AE%AB%E4%B9%BE%E6%B8%85%E9%97%A8%E6%A4%BD%E5%AD%90%E4%B8%87%E5%AF%BF%E5%BD%A9%E7%94%BB.JPG#/media/File:故宫乾清门椽子万寿彩画.JPG)
So what might be the symbol’s most ancient meaning?
We believe that these potential connections to the YD event and Encke may be important in understanding the meaning of the earliest known swastika imagery. While the various dates potentially ascribed to the ancient bird figurine bracket the cataclysmic YD event, that its carving may well have predated the event may derive support from the observation of Mimirs Brunnr that its disruptive impact, if occurring subsequently, could explain why it is some thousands of years before the use of the swastika is next identified in the archaeological record. This would support the positive associations attributed to the carving, its link to fertility suggested by its having been found near phallic objects. In fact, it was one of several bird figurines discovered at Mezin and is one of those now housed at the National Museum of the History of Ukraine. Photos of some of these on the Museum’s website are described as “stylized figures of women, portrayed as anthropomorphic birds … supposed to promote fertility”. The figurine having been carved from mammoth tusk may also assist this interpretation, given that in at least some ancient communities mammoths are believed to have been a symbol of virility and fertility.
We wonder though if there is more to the interpretation of the symbol on this ancient bird figurine carving. With their power of flight, birds are in mythology commonly seen as a bridge between humanity and its gods, in some cases themselves being depicted as sky gods, such as Horus the ancient Egyptian sky god who was commonly depicted with a bird’s head. It is in the skies that our ancestors saw comets such as Encke. It is interesting then, as noted for example by Ancient Origins writer, John Syrigos (writing as John Black), that in Norse mythology “Odin is represented passing through space as a whirling disk or swastika looking down through all worlds”. Moreover, not only was the Norse sky deity Thor a fertility god as much as the god of thunder and lightning, but it has also been suggested that his spinning hammer may have been associated with the swastika, its spinning we wonder perhaps reminiscent of the representation in the Han Dynasty swastika drawing. Is this possible cometary association also perhaps suggested in Thor’s role as the god of weather, the commentary accompanying the Han Dynsasty swastika drawing suggesting that one or more comets were visible in this form regularly enough to be used to identify seasonal events by reference to their appearance? And can we stretch this possible allusion even further? Is it just possibly another of Jung’s “meaningful coincidences” that Thor’s Finnish equivalent, Ukko, was in Finnish mythology the god not of only of sky and weather but also of crops (harvest), the product of the Neolithic Revolution that we suggest may have been the result of cometary impact from fragments of Encke’s progenitor?
In his Cult of the Titans, Raghav Handa has attempted to reclaim from its horrific association with Nazism the swastika’s ancient symbolism in Hinduism of light and peace. The effort is important. While its use and meaning has varied across the many cultures that have adopted it, the swastika is a widely held symbol of good fortune and well being. Western society lost this positive association when Nazism became identified with the symbol last century.
The swastika is an extremely ancient symbol. It dates from at least 12,000 years ago. It may be that at least some of its earliest representation may have been drawn from our ancestors’ views of the Comet Encke progenitor, many thousands of years ago. We have also proposed that the cometary impacts postulated under the YD impact hypothesis may have derived from fragments of this progenitor. We believe it is likely that the earliest known swastika image was carved prior to this event. While the meaning of the image on that ancient figurine remains a matter of conjecture, mythology may hold clues to assist our understanding.
However, our most significant proposition is that the YD impacting fragments, perhaps from the Encke progenitor, may have contained an energetic imprint that served to facilitate the agricultural transformation of the subsequent Neolithic Revolution. If true, Encke may have provided not merely the foundation for the now ubiquitous swastika symbol, but an inestimable contribution to our modern culture and way of life.
We are not astronomers or related professionals. We offer our views not as experts but in the spirit of generating discussion. People are of course free to take our thoughts, observations and analysis on board, or not, as they wish.
References (internet citations are as at 1 January 2021)
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On Handa’s Cult of the Titans, see:
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