iii. The Circle of Cygnus

Unable to determine whether the star Vega had been an object of veneration in the Early Neolithic world, we turn our attentions to Deneb, the brightest star in Cygnus, which until around 9300 BC was circumpolar (i.e. it never set) at the latitude of Göbekli Tepe and Karahan Tepe. Moreover, on its lower transit of the meridian - the north-south zenith line that bisects the night sky - it crossed from left to right just above the northern horizon. Were these early temples orientated towards this star as it crossed the meridian each night? Had Deneb and the stars of Cygnus been important among the Early Neolithic peoples? If so, then why?

Cygnus was identified as a celestial bird on the Euphrates as early as c. 2000 BC. Although most obviously a swan in Europe, Cygnus had, like Lyra, once been seen as a vulture, making it an obvious destination for those human souls being accompanied into the afterlife by a psychopromp (Greek for 'soul carrier') in the guise of the celestial vulture. In pre-Islamic Arabic tradition, Cygnus was the Eagle of the Arabs, a mythical bird known also as the roc, or rukh. This was venerated by the Yezidi, the angel-worshipping descendants of the Sabians of Harran, as a form of Khuda (Kurdish for 'God'), associated with the Mysteries of the North.

The Yezidi depicted Khuda as a bird called anfar, which was seen perched on top of a pole used in private services and called a sanjak. Since the anfar is identified as a dove, it can be equated with the pigeon bird idols venerated prior to the age of Mohammed at Mecca, originally a Sabian shrine. These idols have been identified variously with Allah and/or al-Lat, al-Uzza and Manat, three pre-Islamic goddesses associated with the swan, or crane. Their avian associations link them directly with Cygnus, which as the celestial swan came under the influence of Near Eastern love goddesses, who in Classical tradition were identified as Aphrodite and Venus.

In Christian tradition, Cygnus was seen as the Cross of Calvary as early as the sixth century, and arguably as far back as Roman times, where the crucifixion scene was associated more with the pagan god Orpheus, whom Jesus was portrayed as in a number of early Christian statues and murals found in Rome. In Classical tradition the swan of Cygnus was originally said to have been Orpheus, god of the underworld.
Cygnus was occasionally shown in Christian planispheres as Christ on the Cross, his wounds perhaps corresponding to its principal stars. Moreover, the dove as a Christian symbol of the Holy Spirit (Greek pnuema), derives from the Hebrew concept of the Spirit or Breath of God (ruach), and stems from the same cosmological root as the Yezidi concept of the anfar, the form of Khuda (God) as a bird that brought the universe into manifestation. In the first chapter of Genesis the Spirit of God (ruach) hovers over the primordial waters moments before God's Creation of the universe. The dove or pigeon was equated with Cygnus in Arabic tradition.

Cygnus can be found in the centre of the Milky Way, universally seen in past ages as a road or river of stars used by the dead, or the shaman in a state of trance. In ancient cosmology the Milky Way was equated with the World Tree, around which curled a serpent and on top was a celestial bird. In shamanic tradition worldwide, this World Tree had to be ascended to reach the celestial abode, or sky-world, either via the Milky Way or the north-south meridian line. It was a realm accessed via a hole, door or gate at its most northerly point, and often this was seen as being located someone in the proximity of the cosmic axis, marked by the bird at the top of the tree, which we can safely identify as the Cygnus constellation.

This realisation is expressed in the Mandaean concept of entry into the afterlife, which is gained via the Pole Star. Mandaean tradition speaks of no less than 360 melki, or divine beings. Among them is Abathur-Muzania (or Awather-Muzania), whose 'throne' is located 'behind the North star', known as the 'House of Abathur'. It is he 'who judges the souls of men after they have passed through Purgatory, seeing whether they are purged enough to pass on into Paradise'. If deemed pure enough, the soul then makes its onward journey by boat over a celestial 'river', arguably the Milky Way, to one of the countless 'worlds of light', inhabited by their dead kinsmen. In these unimaginable realms, governed by 'great spirits of light', they meet other purified souls as well as their own 'dmutha or over-soul'.

It also makes sense of Karahan Tepe's secondary alignment towards sunrise on the summer solstice. From here in 9500-9000 BC, the Milky Way emerged from the horizon and rose almost horizontally until it reached the stars of Cygnus which would have hung just above the northern horizon. Did the Early Neolithic world associate Deneb and the stars of Cygnus with cosmic life and death, as their descendants, the Sabians, Mandaeans and Yezidi would seem to have done?

If correct, how did Deneb and the stars of Cygnus become so important to our earliest Neolithic ancestors? The answer appears to lie in the fact that between c. 16,000-15,000 BC Deneb was Pole Star. At the same time, the Milky Way would have risen up from the eastern horizon to where Cygnus occupied pole position, whilst the stars of Scorpio, anciently seen as a serpent, were placed at the base of the Milky Way expressed as the World Tree.

Did a veneration of Deneb and Cygnus linger over from the Late Palaeolithic era, c. 15,000 BC, through until Early Neolithic times, even after a dimmer star, delta Cygni (also in Cygnus), took over as Pole Star in c. 15,000 BC, retaining this role until 13,000 BC, when pole position was finally claimed by Vega? The Early Neolithic sites in South-east Turkey as well as ancient cosmologies worldwide suggest that this was indeed the case. Yet how universal were these concepts, really? Only by tracing the roots of this apparently Palaeolithic ideology could the theory really be proved.

To achieve this aim, we turn our attentions to the ancient cosmology of the Native American peoples. They, having arrived on the continent from Asia in Late Palaeolithic times and, in theory, having remained in isolation through until the time of the conquest, might well have preserved some semblance of knowledge regarding the former significance of Cygnus to the prehistoric mindset, imported on to the continent by nomadic peoples using the Bering land bridge between Siberia and Alaska, which emerged as the ice sheets withdrew at the end of the last Ice Age, c. 10,500-9500 BC.