Athena's Web Weekly Column

Week of Aug 12th - Aug 18th, 2005

Ancient Fires, Distant Lands

Columns Archive

  Spring throws back the heavy,

Spring Morning

woolen blanket of winter and unthinkingly rubs the sleep from her eyes. Tossing her long, auburn hair over her shoulder, she stands up, looks about and slowly stretches, her youthful body caressed by the warming, golden rays of the Sun smiling down from just above the distant hills. Taking hold of her waiting dress, vibrant in white iris, yellow daffodils and red tulips, she races barefoot out across the meadow, still wet with the morning dew, eagerly running to greet the new dawn.

  Spring has a personality which stands out from the other seasons, in her youthfulness, enthusiasm, and promise of things to come. At this time, the Earth's body softens and gives birth to seed, her fingers reaching up to the sky for sunlight while digging her toes down into the soil below for cool nourishment. This season marks a competitive race against time, the elements, and everything else striving for life. After the hard, cold grip of winter has released its spell, eyes turn to watch expectantly for her coming.

      Between approximately 4300 and 2000 BC, Spring (the Vernal Equinox)
Semetic Bull King

The rulers:
At one with heaven

was dancing through the stars of Taurus. She was the start of both the agricultural and the civil year. This was when their calendars began, and it's inception was carefully monitored in the movements of the stars overhead. Throughout this era the Wild Bull of Heaven permeated culture as leader of the celestial parade. Everyone under the Sun revered it. Kings and pharaohs sought to channel his power as Earthly representatives, for their kingdom and people. Navigators, nomads, and voyagers learned to watch the heavens in order to travel from place to place. This theme can be traced back more than a thousand years before Abraham, when learning to work with Mother Nature, cultivating a land of 'milk and honey', creating a 'Garden of Eden' were what was most important to agricultural civilizations everywhere, especially in lands surrounded by the desert river valleys of the Middle East.

  If, indeed, civilizations prior to 2000 BC saw creation as authored by a bovine 'over-lord-ship', emanating from the stars and influencing the course of events here on the Earth, then it should not be surprising that this image would be found under a variety of different names from different cultures, and so it is. But what IS surprising is when this same image emerges in geographical locations a great distance from one another, within very different cultures, and yet has the SAME name and associations in each of these far-flung locations. We are going to be looking at a ritual which has a common origin in the stars, viewed from within and without, first by those seeing it as sin and sacrilege, and then looking at it as tradition and joyous ceremony. These two vantage points should hopefully provide a fuller understanding of what, when and why.



      The terms 'Ba'al' and 'Bel' permeate the Old Testament. We know Ba'al meant 'Lord and Master.' It was often added to names as veneration, whether of persons or places. Ba'al was revered among the Canaanites, the Western Semitic peoples which generally include the Tyrians, Moabites, Philistines, and Phoenicians, among others. It is precisely this association with the Bull of Heaven which the Hebrews of the Old Testament are trying to distance themselves from; both this deity and the fertility rituals associated with him. We see this break quite clearly in Hosea 2:18-19, where it is expressly stated,

'When that day comes- it is Yahweh who speaks-
she will call me "My husband,"
no longer will she call me "My Baal."
("My Lord" or "My Master")
I will take the names of the Baals off her lips,
their names shall never more be uttered again.'

      In many of the books of the Old Testament, we witness this tug-of-war between Jehovah (Yahweh) and the Ba'als; of the people of Israel first adhearing to the counsel and guidance of Jehovah, and then slowly falling back on the traditions and practices of the peoples all about them, namely the Canaanites. The following passage from the Bible is typical of this struggle. Age-old rituals are being embraced by the Israelites, in violation of the commandments of Moses. These paragraphs are a moral explanation, the Bible's rationalization if you will, of why the Hebrew tribes were taken into captivity in 587 BC by the Assyrians.

Jehovah (Yahweh)

Sacred poles are being set up in high places and on hill tops, of wood and stone, steeped in traditions which celebrate the sacred fertility of the Earth. But we also know that following the collapse of the Old Kingdom of Egypt in the centuries at the end of the third millenium BC, the ephemeredes (the records which log the accurate positions of the stars) are slowly drifting out of alignment as precession carries them from their final, correctly observed paths. Apparently the 'high tech' community of those who really did the precision work had slipped into a state of serious disrepair. The temples, and the priests who monitor them, have fallen into darkness following a period which has been compared to the dark ages of Medieval Europe. Embedded in habits of centuries old tradition, the people of the surrounding countryside continue to celebrate these rituals, on hill tops, by standing poles, with the sacred rites of fire, without really understanding what they are doing astronomically. Those closely monitoring the celestial choreography oriented on the distant horizons have passed away, long ago, and the open air, natural observatories which once had been carefully positioned to calibrate precessional passage have lapsed into the local populace simply celebrating on any and every hilltop they choose, without regard to the stellar information being passed on in a systemizied, orchestrated fashion. The original 'guiding star' which inspired these rituals has lost its light. They have come to pursue 'emptiness.'

      From Kings II, 17:7-18,

Pharaoh of Egypt


      'This happened because the Israelites had sinned against Yahweh their God who had brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the grip of Pharaoh king of Egypt. They worshiped other gods, they followed the practices of the nations that Yahweh had dispossessed for them. The Israelites, and the kings they had made for themselves, plotted wicked schemes against their God. They built high places for themselves wherever they lived, from watchtower to fortified town. They set up pillars and sacred poles for themselves on every high hill and under every spreading tree. They sacrificed there after the manner of the nations that Yahweh had expelled before them, and did wicked things there, provoking the anger of Yahweh. They served idols, although Yahweh had told them, "This you must not do."'

      'And yet through all the prophets and all the seers, Yahweh had given Israel and Judah this warning, "Turn from your wicked ways and keep my commandments and my laws in accordance with the entire Law I laid down for your fathers and delivered to them through my servants the prophets." But they would not listen, they were more stubborn than their ancestors had been who had no faith in Yahweh their God. They despised his laws and the covenant he had made with their ancestors, and the warning he had given them. They pursued emptiness, and themselves became empty through copying the nations around them although Yahweh had ordered them not to act as they did. They rejected all the commandments of Yahweh their God and made idols of cast metal for themselves, two calves; they made themselves sacred poles, they worshiped the whole array of heaven, and they served Baal. They made their sons and daughters pass through fire, they practiced divination and sorcery, they sold themselves to evil-doing in the sight of Yahweh, provoking his anger. For this, Yahweh was enraged with Israel and thrust them away from him. There was none left but the tribe of Judah only.'

      The people didn't know then what the celestial mechanics were all about, any more than the general populace today knows about precessional motion, the ecliptic, Right Ascension or how to track them through the skies. Nor were these ancient peoples necessarily concerned with leaving their mark for the future as they were attempting to command the present. They wanted an understanding of their specific moment in time, to master their moment more than making some impression on the future. IF they managed to rise above all the competing conditions around them and triumph over adversity and foes, then fame and legend would take care of themselves. While the common populace did not know about the mechanical specifics, what they DID know was the oral tradtions, the pictures and stories which were being woven into the stars and became the oral tradtions which have also been passed on to us today. Their myths were the historical records of their relationship to heaven, and to the divine in life as they saw it. It does not matter whether we believe as a culture that the stars had a powerful and dramatic influence over the events here on Earth; what historically matters is that is how these peoples saw it. It is how they viewed their relationship with God in heaven, and honored that relationship as best they knew how.

      The term Ba'al, representing both the god and his companion the Bull, was found in many forms. The name of the Carthaginian commander Hani-bal is one example. Baal-gad (Lord of Good Fortune) and Baal-ze'bub (Lord of the [heavenly] habitation) are others. This last name has come to be associated with Satanic rituals (as indeed they all have in being set up as Jehovah's oppostion) and is thought to be 'The Lord of the Flies.' Anyone who has spent anytime at all with cattle will quickly understand just where this association came from. The Cow God or bovine archetype is indeed the 'Lord of the Flies.'

      Ba'al Hadad was a term now translated as "Lord of Thunder." On a cylinder seal in the Boston Museum his image is depicted as a man with a lance; while behind him is represented his animal attribute, the bull. At the beginning of the second millennium along the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, Hadad, armed with a thunderbolt and standing on a bull, faces a god who holds a spear with its point lowered towards the man stretched at his feet. According to Canaanite tradition, Ba'al was the first and most powerful son of El. One of El's epithets was "Tor," which also means bull. The headwaters of Spring, the source of nature's creation, were born of the stars of the constellation Taurus between 4300 and 2000 BC, but the tradition continued for many centuries longer because the dimmer stars at the back of the constellation of the Ram offered a poor visual substitute as Vernal Equinox markers when compared to the brighter stars of Taurus. Mythologically, it would then make sense that so many of the cultures which shared these same skies should see similar patterns at work there.

The Phoenicians

The Phoenicians

      Like our Megalithic culture in Ireland and the Native Americans of this continent, the Canaanites conducted their rituals in temples and on hilltop "high places." From these vantage points they used the horizon as an observational network to track the motions of the stars, by initially using the contours of hills and/or islands located close to the horizon, or later by lighting fires in carefully selected locations on certain pre-designated days we think of as holidays. By the time of the Old Testament, the Vernal Equinox's passage through the constellation of the bull was over, yet in many places, tradition continued to revere the rituals rooted in over two thousand plus years of repetition. We think we have a rich background with a little over two hundred years of history. Multiply that by ten, and then some. During the historical epochs of the Exodus and centuries later period of Assyrian captivity, the VE had precessed into the constellation of the Ram, and Moses, raised in the princely court of the Egyptian pharaohs and schooled in the stars by that court, knew it. Astronomically, the primary Bovine stellar group was now incorrect. It had, in the eyes of the Old Testament authors, become a 'false god.' The Bull was no longer the leader of the 'celestial parade,' known as the 'Annunaki.' The religion of the Ram had taken over, throwing a new light upon the words, "Though shalt have no other gods before me." Yahweh, or in more contemporary terms, Jehovah, was now number one; in heaven, before God.

Phoenician ship

Phoenician ship

  But imagine our surprise to find both Bel and Ba'al, together with their fire rituals in Ireland. The Canaanite tradition, located on the shores of modern day Lebanon and Palestine (Israel) is a long way from the Emerald Isle. We know much later the Phoenicians developed colonies in Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily, the northern coast of Africa and Spain. We know they sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar (the Pillars of Hercules) and 'beyond.' But what does it mean when we say that? How far did they go, and how early did these voyages commence? In Ireland, Britain and northwestern Europe there's an abundance of place names dedicated to Baal. Baal-y-gowan, Baal-y-Nahinsh, Baal-y-Castell, Baal-y-Moni, Baal-y-ner and Baal-y-nah are just a few found in Ireland. It would seem the signal fires of old also passed on the rhythms of the more distant watchfires of heaven.

  In many parts of the world, children dance and play around the Maypole on May Day. This custom presents a joyous sight for all who see it. From ancient times it was associated with Baal worship. The word 'Belus' or 'Baal' is the same in Babylonian, Phoenician, Gaelic, and other languages. The old May Day ritual was called Beltina in the British Isles and Ireland. Such place names as Ball Hill, Val Hill, and Baalbeg are examples of Baal place names in England. Baalbeg is a deserted village above Loch Ness in Scotland. Whether the Phoenicians had a much earlier maritime connection with the peoples of Ireland than has commonly been believed (they were known to have had contact with the Egyptians as early as 3200 BC), or whether (the possibility should not be entirely ruled out) the Irish had earlier contacts with the Middle East, should be also considered. We know that at their peak the Celts sacked Rome and Delphi, and extended from Ireland to Turkey (Asia Minor). It is not impossible that their predecessors may have also made the overland journey from one to the other, either as traders or on what we might consider today a 'diplomatic' mission, to share knowledge or learn about the motions of heaven.

Phoenician Sea Routes

Phoenician Sea Routes:
Off the Map?

  The Phoenicians were also thought to have carried Baal worship to the western and northern coasts of Europe. Baal gave his name to the Baltic Sea, and to the Great Belt and Little Belt channels of Denmark, to towns such as Baleshaugen, Balestranden, and to many localities in the British Isles, such as Belan, and the Baal hills in Yorkshire. In fact, even today there are over fifty Irish towns which begin with Bal-, Ball- or Bel-, including Baltimore.

      Another word, 'Peor,' is also associated with this tradition, and appears in Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Psalms and Hosea. It was the name of a mountain, located somewhere in the vicinity of Jericho, from which Baalam last blessed Israel. This word was combined with Baal to become Baalpeor. Peor is a Hittite word for fire, and is related to the Greek 'pyr', found in many English words and meaning 'fire.' Thus we have fire on the mountain, and 'Baalpeor' can easily be translated as the 'Lord of Fire,''Fire of the Lord,' or 'Baal's Fire,' in this case found on or associated with the mountain. Fortunately, there is much in Irish tradition which remembers some of these ancient rites, and are preserved in the folk traditions from just a century or two ago.

Sacred Fire

Sacred Fire

      The following is from 'Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland' by Lady "Speranza' Wilde, first published in 1888:

      'This season is still made memorable in Ireland by lighting fires on every hill, according to the ancient pagan usage, when the Baal fires were kindled as part of the ritual of sun-worship, though now they are lit in honour of St. John. The great bonfire of the year is still made on St. John's Eve, (April 30th) when all the people dance round it, and every young man takes a lighted brand from the pile to bring home with him for good luck to the house.'

      'In ancient times the sacred fire was lighted with great ceremony on Midsummer Eve (Summer Solstice); and on that night all the people of the adjacent country kept fixed watch on the western promontory of Howth, and the moment the first flash was seen from that spot the fact of ignition was announced with wild cries and cheers repeated from village to village, when all the local fires began to blaze, and Ireland was circled by a cordon of flame rising up from every hill. Then the dance and song began around every fire, and the wild hurrahs filled the air with the most frantic revelry.'

Fire leaping

Fire leaping

      'Many of these ancient customs are still continued, and the fires are still lighted on St. John's Eve on every hill in Ireland. When the fire has burned down to a red glow the young men strip to the waist and leap over or through the flames; this is done backwards and forwards several times, and he who braves the greatest blaze is considered the victor over the powers of evil, and is greeted with tremendous applause. When the fire burns still lower, the young girls leap the flame, and those who leap clean over three times back and forward will be certain of a speedy marriage and good luck in after life, with many children.'

      'The married women then walk through the lines of the burning embers; and when the fire is nearly burnt and trampled down, the yearling cattle are driven through the hot ashes, and their back is singed with a lighted hazel twig. These hazel rods are kept safely afterwards, being considered of immense power to drive the cattle to and from the watering places.'

      'As the fire diminishes the shouting grows fainter, and the song and the dance commence; while professional story-tellers narrate tales of fairyland, or of the good old times long ago, when the kings and princes of Ireland dwelt amongst their own people, and there was food to eat and wine to drink for all the comers to the feast at the king's house.'

      'When the crowd at length separate, every one carries home a brand from the fire, and great virtue is attached to the lighted brone which is safely carried to the house without breaking or falling to the ground.'

      'Many contests also arise amongst the young men; for whoever enters his house first with the sacred fire brings the good luck of the year with him.'

Fire leap

Dancing Bonfire

      Embodied in these rituals were the essence of the constellation's blessing. The Great Bull was believed to be the source of life, power, victory, fertility and fecundity. Agricultural tips, some as simple as using a hazel twig to help drive cattle or of when to plant or reap the crops of the seasons, where part of the cornicopia of riches which this divine creature was thought to bring and are found embedded in these myths from various lands. The precise moment of the Winter Solstice, Equinox or passage of the Cross-quarter holidays, carefully calibrated by the monuments at Newgrange, Dowth, Knowth, Tara, and other sacred hills and temples throughout the anceint world were ignited and the knowledge of this moment quickly passed around the country, as only the speed of signal fires can. It was a leaping national heartbeat of living flame. It was the pulse of life, drummed out by the seasons, carrying the joyous news of celbration in the return of Spring, once again turning another cog in the eight spoked wheel of time. It was a huge, national party of joy, celebration, life and time. It is no wonder that the Hebrew leaders had a hard time keeping their followers from joinning in this infectious celebration taking place everywhere around them in the countryside.

      It was said that on the night Troy fell, the signal fires told the story that very night back in Greece. Whether this tradition began in the more northern lands, where the seasonal differences are more greatly contrasted, or in the Mediterranean climates where the stars are nearly always apparent due to the lack of cloud and rain, is a secondary point. Each of these traditions remember a time when they were carefully monitoring the motions of heaven, and indigenous cultures everywhere were using the local materials necessary (sometimes carted from miles away, such as the Blue Stones at Stonehenge, but still part of the larger local environment), in order to either set up sites on the top of hills, or by building artificial mounds where the former where not readily available or not in the proper location.

      What we have been examining in the last few weeks of the Megalithic culture established in Ireland, radiocarbon dated to between 3700 and 3100 BC, may represent some of the beginnings of this formalized, astronomer/priest controlled ceremony. What we are witnessing in the Bible, as Judaism seeks to stomp out the embers of this ancient fire because the time of the Bull is over (c. 578 BC) occurs thousands of years later. 'As the fires diminish and the shouting grows fainter' the folk traditions of Ireland continued to preserve these same rituals, thousands of years later still, right down to the 19th century and beyond. The clue which binds them all together is the names under which they honored heaven, the skies, and their relationship with God. These fire ceremonies carry us from one darkened end of a megalithic tunnel through time to this very day. From the period of their original construction during the 4th millennia, to the Biblical protests and attempts at eradication in the Middle East, through to the Celtic ceremonies continuing to be celebrated throughout northwestern Europe down to the most recent Cross-quarter ceremony. These fires, and the standing stones which they were once designed to illuminate at night, were originally carefully selected sacred sites crafted to be observed from a central location, ringed by fire to emphasize the cardinal points of the compass and more. In the centuries following the 'Dark Ages' of this late megalithic culture at the end of the 3rd millennia BC, it is highly probable that hill top festivities were being generated randomly, without real regard for their original intended functions, to help calibrate the paths of those who travelled across the sky.

      Baalpeor, the 'Lord of Fire' on the mountain, was not confined to a hill outside of Jericho, but was part of a world wide system of communication heralding Spring and the other seasonal holidays, originating from a time when an eager young lady once rode enthusaistically over the waves on the back of a heavenly bull.


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