David Warner Mathisen is a one trick pony, a self-described “star myth investigator” who reads basically every story in world mythology and religion as a description of astronomical movements. He was inspired by Hamlet’s Mill, the complex and dense but ultimately self-referential fantasy concocted by Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend to argue for the existence of a lost civilization based on the flawed assumption that only an advanced civilization could have gazed up at the sky and told stories about the stars they saw there. Mathisen’s schtick, which he has been promoting since he started selling books on the subject back in 2015, is predictable, but his attempt to tie his hobbyhorse to the spectacular Bronze age gemstone that made headlines last year is bizarre even by his standards.
Mathisen’s new claims, published this weekend on Graham Hancock’s website, revolve around the Pylos Combat Agate, a Bronze Age artifact uncovered in a Mycenaean tomb in 2015. Careful analysis uncovered a spectacular miniature carving of exceptionally rich detail, similar in style to but unparalleled in execution among the known artifacts of Mycenaean and Minoan cultures. Its features are so well-carved and so small that some believe they imply the use of magnifying lenses at a time when their use was unknown or rare. The gemstone depicts three figures, a warrior with a raised sword, a helmeted soldier holding a shield and about to receive the blow, and a prostrate figure, presumably dead. The agate is believed to have originated in Crete and was either manufactured for or acquired by the warrior in whose tomb it was found.
There are two main scholarly interpretations of the scene. One, the more literal, argues that it is a scene drawn from life and depicts the warrior in the tomb. The second, more symbolic, agues that it is a mythological scene of importance to the Minoans and Mycenaeans but unknown to us today, perhaps carved as a miniature of a more elaborate, now lost, wall painting.
Mathisen rejects both views:
Unnoticed until now, however, is that the scene details a pattern in the heavens. For the figures contain details specific to the constellations Hercules, Ophiucus, Corona Borealis, Scorpio and Sagittarius—using constellational references and artistic conventions that can be found in other ancient works of art from other cultures around the globe, and which also continue to appear in sacred art spanning thousands of years.
It’s almost not worth discussing the silliness of the claim, but I get annoyed by the people who try to read Classical constellations back in time before such things existed.
The first and most important issue to note is that the figures on the gems bear no resemblance to the constellations as classically depicted. They are not in the same orientation or position, and their limbs do not approximate the imaginary lines connecting the stars, even allowing for the fact that the stars of Hercules and Ophiucus have been connected to create the characters in several different ways over the centuries. I will repeat that: You cannot map the stars onto the gemstone. The characters are not literal depictions of the constellations.
The second problem is that the constellations did not exist when Mathisen claims they did. The agate dates back to around 1450 BCE, but there is no evidence for the existence of the constellation Ophiucus before the fourth century BCE, when Eudoxus of Cnidus wrote of it. His work is lost, which means that we know of it only from Aratus’ slightly later Astronomicon, of the later fourth century, the first record of Ophiucus. Because the constellation does not exist in Babylonian astronomy (at least, it has never been conclusively identified with a Babylonian constellation), which the Greeks took over around 500 BCE, the likelihood is that it dates from the 400s BCE, a thousand years too late. At any rate, we can’t trace the constellations back before Babylon with any security, so there is little reason to suspect that the Greeks of Mycenaean times identified the constellations of their day the same way that the Greeks didn’t get around to developing until after 500 BCE.
The agate scene is missing, after all, the usual form of the most important constellation from that part of the sky: Scorpius, which Ophiuchus stands upon. Mathisen says that Scorpius was originally a “wounded warrior” in mythology, even though it is one of the few constellations we can trace back in time, near always as a scorpion. It was a scorpion for the Babylonians, and it remained one when the Greeks took it over. It seems the decided on his claim by working backward rather than finding evidence independent of his own hypothesis.
Mathisen disagrees with most authorities, who see the serpent Ophiuchus holds (Serpens) as the oldest element of the constellation; he proposes that it was a spear for the Mycenaeans so that it would better agree with the gemstone. He ludicrously suggests that the shield-bearing warrior’s fringed tunic is akin to Athena’s serpent-fringed aegis, to symbolize Ophiuchus’ serpent-bearing, and it is clear that Mathisen knows nothing of Greek mythology or else he would recognize that the aegis was first described in Homer as bearing golden tassels, like the Golden Fleece, not serpents (Iliad 2.445-449). A Mycenaean prototype seems to exist in a sculpture of two goddesses wrapped in just such a tasseled shawl. If Homer did not see it as a serpent-cloth, the Mycenaeans almost certainly did not.
The majority of his argument is based on identifying modern diagrams of the constellations with elements of the gem, but he doesn’t realize that those modern diagrams are just that: modern. They are not necessarily (or even likely) how the Greeks envisioned the shapes of the constellations. The argument descends into little more than “looks like therefore is” and reveals that the author, like so many of his peers, has developed a monomaniacal obsession with an odd idea and sees evidence of it everywhere. He writes at length, for example, about what he sees as constellation shapes in medieval and Renaissance art, which he says encodes the same information as the agate. “This presents grave problems for the conventional historical paradigm. It thus takes its place among a now-overwhelming pile of other evidence from both archaeology and mythology, all of which points towards some now-forgotten culture or civilisation of great sophistication in humanity’s ancient past, predating all of those known to academia or admitted by conventional scholars.” He seems not to recognize that even if medieval and Renaissance artists were depicting constellation shapes in their human figures—and they weren’t—it implies nothing about a lost civilization since those star shapes were well-known to everyone alive at that time. There is no secret knowledge needed to copy constellation shapes that were in every reference book on the subject.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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