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45. Some Thoughts on Easter and Passover, the Moon and the Sun

Updated: Feb 20

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ, fresco by Piero della Francesca, 1463, Wikimedia Commons

Easter is about the death and resurrection over a three day period (Good Friday, Easter Saturday, Easter Sunday) of Jesus Christ. It is a moveable feast, which means it has no fixed date in the solar calendar. Passover is about the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, as well as the paschal lamb. Both Easter and Passover depend on the lunar calendar in relation to the spring equinox. Specifically, Easter has to be on the first Sunday after the first ecclesiastical full moon following the 21st March. In the lunar calendar, Easter is always the third Sunday in the paschal lunar month. Confusingly, this date is not necessarily the same as the astronomical full moon after the 21st March. The ecclesiastical full moon is a date derived from tables that themselves have traditionally been derived from the Metonic cycle. In the Hebrew calendar, the lunar new year is at the new moon of Aviv, in the month of Nisan. The fourteenth day of the lunar month is considered the day of the full moon, and Passover is the 14th of Nisan, the paschal full moon. So both traditions set their date in relation to the first full moon after the spring equinox.

Crossing of the Red Sea, Nicolas Poussin, Wikimedia Commons

Getting the date for Easter right has been hugely problematic, historically, partly because of differing opinions about best practice, partly as a result of calendrical issues. While the Christian Church ditched the Hebrew luni-solar calendar, one of its most important festivals is not only quite obviously luni-solar in its placing within the year, but also has many points in common with Passover. Good Friday is on the same day as Passover this year (2022). According to the Christian Church, Easter is linked to Passover in that Jesus's final days happened during Passover. Perhaps both festivals have roots in an ancient spring festival which depends on both the sun and the moon's cycles. The words 'Easter' and 'Paschal' offer clues about their ancient origins. Paschal, which is linked to the latin language words for Easter such as Paques and Pascua, derives from the Pesach, the paschal lamb which was sacrificed. This provides a link not only to the Hebrew tradition of sacrificing a lamb at Passover, but also to lambs, and perhaps rams and sheep in general, as symbols of spring, and a time when the spring equinox sunrise was in the constellation of Aries, the Ram. The word 'Easter' may derive from the goddess Ishtar, who journeyed to the underworld and returned.

Many other Christian festivals depend on the date for Easter in any given year, from Ash Wednesday, and Lent, the 40 day period before Easter, to Pentecost, 50 days after Easter. The date chosen for Easter is an important point in the year. Despite clear links to the Jewish tradition, the Christian Church has, historically, tried hard to dissociate itself from the Hebrew Calendar. Officially, it goes by a purely solar calendar to calculate a soli-lunar event. Why officially stick to a solar calendar to calculate a luni-solar feast? What's the ecclesiastical calendar, and why is it different to what is actually happening in the sky? Why are Easter and Passover both connected to the cycles of the sun and the moon, not just the spring equinox?


The 19 year Metonic cycle, and other ways of harmonising the solar and lunar cycles

Depiction of the 19 years of the Metonic cycle as a wheel, with the Julian date of the Easter New Moon, from a 9th-century computistic manuscript made in St. Emmeram's Abbey (Clm 14456, fol. 71r) Wikimedia Commons

As there are at least 12 but sometimes 13 lunations in a year, it is necessary for a lunar calendar to re-anchor itself to the sun's cycle every year. A celebration of spring is an ideal time to do this. The lunar months never match the solar year, and yet, even in the lunar calendar, spring muct be marked somehow. Picking a lunar date after the equinox in spring is a way of marking both solar and lunar years, without aligning their cycles in any way. However, these cycles do need to be aligned over a longer period of time to make the necessary calculations for a calendar. There are perfectly good reasons for approximating the length of a lunar month into regular chunks of time with an integer number of days, but as a result, the calendars created in this way will contain errors that have be periodically corrected. This is what calendars are all about, approximations and averages of astronomical cycles, with corrections to keep them in line as much as possible with what is going on in the sky. A lunar cycle as seen from earth, or a synodic month, i.e. the visible phases of the moon as seen from down here, lasts on average 29.53059 days. In practical terms, 29.53059 days is not a helpful unit of time. In solar calendars, such as the Gregorian, a month is one lunation plus a day or two, to make up for the 11 days that differ between the lengths of the lunar and solar years, so 30 and 31 days, with one month of 28 days. In English common law a lunar month is 28 days. The ecclesiastical lunar calendar spans the year with lunar months of 30 and 29 days, alternating, which is of course much closer to an average of 29.53059 days. These ecclesiastical months of 29 and 30 days are useful approximations. The Hebrew calendar year also features twelve lunar months of 29 or 30 days, with an extra lunar month added periodically to synchronize the twelve lunar cycles with the longer solar year. When this happens, the year becomes a leap year. (nothing to do with the 29th February, just an extra lunar month)

A year that has 12 months is a non-leap year ( common year, also known as a simple year in Hebrew: שנה פשוטה). A year that has 13 months is a leap year (also known as a pregnant year in Hebrew: שנה מעוברת). The leap month, which is the 30-day Adar Rishon ('אדר א), is inserted between the months of Shevat (שבט) and Adar (אדר, which is renamed to Adar Sheini 'אדר ב) according to a permanently fixed 19-year cycle. (1)

Figurine of Thoth, in the form of a baboon, holding the wedjat eye, seventh to fourth century BC Anonymous (Egypt) - Walters Art Museum. The patron of scribes and deity of wisdom, Thoth was associated with the sun and the moon, traditionally the two "eyes" of the celestial-god Horus. The baboon, identified with Thoth, here holds a sacred Wedjat-eye, the so-called Eye of Horus, which symbolizes legitimate kingship, the structured universe, and life. This carefully formed baboon holds the eye in front of his chest with his left hand below and the right above. Wikimedia Commons

Because the moon's appearance depends on the position of the moon with respect to the sun as seen from the earth, it might seem, on the face it (no pun intended), a good idea to come up with a calendar that fuses the lunar and solar cycles. After all, what we see in the sky when we look up at the moon is a lunar cycle that is dependent on the solar cycle as seen from earth. What's more, using the changing sun's activities, as they appear to us, to mark out a year makes a lot of sense, as our lives depend very much on the changing seasons and length in days which the sun's apparent cycle as seen from earth brings. Until very recently, in human history, the moon's phases were of practical importance, in fixing dates, meetings, or journeys, but they are now secondary to the widely used Gregorian calendar. It seems there may also have been a deeper reason for wanting to align feast days to the moon and the sun at the same time. The sun and the moon have a strange relationship, both so different in size and distance from us, yet appearing the same size in the sky to us, one lit up by the other, and both crucial to life on this planet. The Egyptian god Horus is said to have had two eyes, one the sun and one the moon (this is debated however, some believe the moon was Horus's eye, while the sun was Ra's, or that Horus's eye was the planet Venus). In the Pyramid texts, Horus's uncle Set is said to have stolen the Eye of Horus, and trampled or eaten it. However, Horus not only steals his eye back, but also takes Set's testicles. It's a complicated story. The eye of Horus was believed to have restorative powers, and was a symbol of protection against evil. The sun and the moon have a privileged relationship to our planet, and hold influence on our daily lives. A soli-lunar calendar is already a recognition of this, and an attempt to live by their dance.

Designing a soli-lunar calendar is no easy feat. The solar (tropical) year is 365.242199 days long. Twelve lunar months are 354.36708 days, a difference of 10.875119 days. The solar year is 1.03068885 times longer than the lunar year (or twelve lunar months). All these figures are averages, based on long term observation. In the Gregorian calendar, used mostly today around the world, a solar year is approximated to 365.25 days, and then positioned within a four year period to create an integer period of days. 365.25 x 4 = 1,461 = 365 x 3 + 366. This is why we have a leap year every four years. This four year period is also the interval between Olympic games, and as it happens, these games were traditionally held on the first or second full moon after the summer solstice, in ancient Greece. This is a similar way of fixing a date to the way Easter and Passover are determined, but using the summer solstice instead of the vernal equinox.

The earliest known tables devised for the dates of Easter were based on 8 year cycles, in 222, by Hippolytus of Rome. This Egyptian period of 1461 days multiplied by 25 / 100 gives 365.25 days, a good approximation of the solar year. The Egyptians also had a period of 25 civil years of just 365 days, which went hand in hand with 309 lunar months (309.00161). While the civil year also matched up nicely with Sirius's cycle of 1460 days, off by just 12 days after 1461 years, it did not align with the solar year without corrections, and extra days added. The civil year of 365 days relates to the more precise year of 365.25 days as 1461 to 1460.

The remaining difference between the solar cycle as seen from earth, and the solar year that we use in practice of 365 days, plus a leap year every fourth year, is solved with additional days placed less frequently, in a more complicated pattern. A purely lunar calendar would also need a similar system. The Islamic calendar for example has a year of 354 or 355 days. Leap years are essential to any calendar, because natural astronomical cycles don't come in nice handy integer numbers of days and years.

However, there are certain periods of time which do seem to come close to reconciling the two different cycles. The sun and moon's cycles fit quite nicely within a 19 solar year period, called the Metonic cycle. It is named after a Greek, Meton, though it is no more a Greek invention than Fibonacci numbers are Italian in origin, because it was used by civilisations prior to ancient Greece (as were Fibonacci's numbers). The Metonic cycle is not about anything intrinsic to the moon's activity, or the sun's; it is simply a nice number of lunar months (235) which almost perfectly matches up to 19 solar years. (19 x 365.242199 / 29.53059 = 234.997058). The 19 year period is then divided by 235 to create these slightly artificial lunar months. The cycle is very important to luni-solar calendars because it allows for the creation of alternating 29 and 30 day months over a specific period.

There are other periods of time within which the sun and moon's cycles seem to meet up quite nicely. Irv Bromberg, an excellent expert on the Hebrew calendar, identifies one he found himself:

An alternative accurate leap cycle with a superb fixed lunar cycle has 1803 years and 22300 lunar months, including 664 leap months. Its mean year is only about one second too long, its mean month is less than 1/2 second too short". (2)

This is a great match, especially as it also incorporates the Saros eclipse cycle, that other way that the sun and moon have of meeting, at least as seen from earth. The 223 lunar months of the saros cycle are very close to 18.0300129 years. Multiply this by 100, and there is an excellent match, 22300 lunar months for approximately 1803 years. This is a very surprising find of his, as it marries the solar and lunar cycles as well as the saros cycle. Irv Bromberg also mentions a 353 year period, which contains almost exactly 4366 lunar months (4365.997979). There is no evidence that either of these was used in ancient times.

Another much shorter, but less precise, option is an 8 year period of 2922 days, which is roughly 99 lunar months, mentioned by Cleostratus, a Greek astronomer. Eudoxus of Cnidus offers a slightly different 99 lunar month of 2923.5 days. It's really just the Egyptian 1461 day period (i.e 365.25 days x 4), multiplied by 2, but it has the advantage of tying with Venus's 8 year cycle. This could offer a link to Venus deities such as Ishtar.

It seems that Meton proposed his 19 year cycle as a better alternative. Meton's cycle was 'corrected' by Calippus, who suggested a cycle of 76 solar years, or 939.988 lunar months, but it's really just 4 x 19 years. The Chaldeans had a 60 and 600 year system. 60 years are 742.096 lunar months, which is quite close to an integer. 600 years are really very close to 7421 lunar months (7420.9597). Josephus writes of this Great Year of 600 years, and Cassini was struck by this. (17)

One cycle that was used to compute the Easter tables was 84 years long, close to 1039 lunar months (1038.93436), used traditionally in the British Isles and Ireland. An error in the tables caused a discrepancy with the dates used elsewhere, and famously led to a quarrel afterwards; in the year 665, Queen Eanfled's Palm Sunday (the Sunday before Easter) fell on the day her husband, King Oswy of Northumbria, celebrated Easter, so while she fasted, he feasted, and, as Bede wrote, "Easter was kept twice in one year".(4) The queen, who must have been quite annoyed, was following the Roman tables, while the king went by the Irish tables. There must have been an argument, because shortly afterwards, it was agreed their kingdom (Northumbria), would follow Rome, like the queen.

Of all these luni-solar cycle options, the 600 year one is really good at matching up the two cycles of the sun and moon, but it is a very long period of time. The 1803 year and 353 year cycles found by Irv Bromberg are brilliant matches, but also quite long. The Metonic cycle of 19 years is more manageable, but the errors accumulate more quickly. By the 16th century, the moon's visible phases were out of sync with the tables derived from the 19 year cycle by four days. Below is a brief recap of some of these cycles in order of precision for the lunar and solar cycles matching up, starting with the most precise.

353 years or 4366 lunar months

  • 353 x 365.242199 / 29.53059 = 4365.9979786

  • 4365.9979786 / 4366 = 0.999999537

1803 years or 22300 lunar months

  • 1803 x 365.242199 / 29.53059 = 22299.98401

  • 22299.98401 / 22300 = 0.9999992829

600 years or 7421 lunar months

  • 600 x 365.242199 / 29.53059 = 7420.959737

  • 7420.959737 / 7421 = 0.99999457

19 years or 235 lunar months

  • 19 x 365.242199 / 29.53059 = 234.99705834

  • 234.99705834/235 = 0.99998748

76 years or 940 lunar months

  • 76 x 365.242199 / 29.53059 = 939.988233

  • 939.988233 / 940 = 0.99998748

84 years or 1039 lunar months

  • 84 x 365.242199 / 29.53059 = 1038.93436

  • 1038.93436/1039 = 0.99993683

8 years or 99 lunar months

(sometimes 100 lunations are known as a 'Great Year', 8 solar years and a month) (21)

  • 8 x 365.242199 / 29.53059 = 98.9461298

  • 98.9461298 / 99 = 0.999455857

In any case, the 235 lunar months of the Metonic cycle have been at the root of Easter and Passover calculations for a long time. Corrections have been made of course, over the centuries, and different people have preferred different amendments, and so there are still differences in the dates for Easter between the western and eastern churches, add to which the requirement for Easter to fall on a Sunday, and these are often different to the date for Passover. It is considered preferable to use the tables derived from cycles such as the Metonic, rather than astronomical observation from year to year because, it is a fairly precise way of merging the lunar and solar calendars. The Eastern Orthodox Church uses the Julian calendar, the western churches use the Gregorian calendar, which is a revised version of the older Julian calendar, partly dealing with the problem of the errors accrued by the Metonic cycle. Both churches are working with different dates for the equinox and full moons, neither of them based on daily observation but on tables. This year, in the Orthodox Church, Easter will be on Sunday the 24th April, whereas in the west, Easter will be Sunday, 17th April. Indeed, while the the date of Easter is determined as the first Sunday after the "paschal full moon" that falls on or after March 21, this "full moon" does not correspond directly to what is going on up in the sky. It is instead the 14th day of a lunar month that has been determined from tables, and it can differ from the date of the actual full moon by up to two days.

Curiously, in the Metonic cycle, 19 solar years are 19 lunar years (of 12 lunar months each) plus an extra 7 lunar months. This is how it works in the Hebrew calendar, according to Irv Bromberg.

In 19 non-leap years there are 12 × 19 = 228 regular months, so this cycle requires 235 – 228 = 7 leap years per cycle to make up the full complement of 235 months. Traditionally the leap years of each Hebrew 19-year cycle are years 3, 6, 8, 11, 14, 17, and 19 in that cycle. The leap status of any given year is easily calculated as follows:
It is a Leap Year only if the remainder of ( 7 × Hebrew Year + 1 ) / 19 is less than 7.
The intervals between leap years can be either 3 or 2 years. There are five 3-year intervals and two 2-year intervals per 19-year cycle. If a leap year remainder is less than 2 then the next leap year will be 2 years later, otherwise 3 years later.
With 7 leap years per 19-year cycle, the average interval between leap years = 19/7 = 2+5/7 years = 2.714285... years. (3)

Stained glass at Gloucester Cathedral depicting Bede dictating to a scribe, photo by Weglinde, Wikimedia Commons

Bede discusses the 19 year cycle and Easter's date at length in his Reckoning of Time.

Apart from getting as good a correspondence as possible between the solar and lunar cycles, getting the date right for the vernal equinox is crucial. The date of the equinox has a tendency to drift.

The equinox

March 21st is the date for the ecclesiastical equinox, used to determine the date of Easter, not the actual astronomical event of the equinox. In fact, this year the equinox was on the 20th at 15:33, and it can fall as early as the 19th March. The Gregorian calendar, the official calendar of the western Christian churches (Catholic and Protestant churches) is named after a pope. It's essentially a solar calendar. The equinox is not that easy to observe, because it is not simply the day of equal day and night as the name would suggest, and which in fact differs for people on earth depending on the latitude on which they are. In Ireland, the day of equal day and night is generally on 17th March, St Patrick's Day. St Patrick is a figure both historical and mythical, and depictions of him in art reflect the constllation Ophiuchus, just like Horus and St Michael, as he slays snakes and holds a long staff. The equinox is slightly differernt, it's the precise moment in time at which the earth's rotation axis is perpendicular to the sun-earth line, and this is true for the whole planet, not dependent on latitude. It was the drift of the 21st March from the observed equinox that led to the Gregorian reform of the calendar to bring them back into line. In fact, Bede had noticed the drift of the equinox when he was writing.

At Alexandria, in Egypt, it was decided that the paschal full moon should never precede the equinox. This was apparently in response to a disagreement with the Hebrew calendar at the time. However, Irv Bromberg writes,

"According to Rashi, the spring equinox moment should occur before the omer offering (first barley) on the 16th of Nisan [before Noon in Jerusalem], otherwise the year should be intercalated (by renaming the 29-day previous month from Adar to Adar Sheini and inserting the 30-day leap month Adar Rishon before Adar Sheini)."(5)

The principles developed at Alexandria eventually became the norm in the Christian western churches, but their reception was a centuries-long process during which Alexandrian Easter tables competed with other tables. So for a period of several centuries the sequences of dates of the paschal full moon applied by different churches could show great differences.

Bede firmly places the spring equinox as the pivotal point in the year:

So let us speak briefly about the spring equinox, which is the chief of the four annual changes we mentioned, as the Creation of the world indicates. The rule of the Church’s observance, confirmed at the Council of Nicea, holds that Easter Day is to be sought between the 11th kalends of April [22 March] and the 7th kalends of May [25th April]. Again, the rule of catholic teaching commands that Easter is not to be celebrated before the passing of the spring equinox. (...) For a doctrine not only of our won way but also of the Mosaic law decrees that the day of the Paschal feast cannot be celebrated before this equinox has passed. (6)

How paintings of the Resurrection rely on a convention of portraying the constellation Ophiuchus and its surrounding stars

Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Kinnaird Resurrection) by Raphael, 1502, Wikimedia Commons

In this painting by Raphael, Jesus has resurrected from his tomb. The painting can perhaps tell us something about some of the ideas that underpin this story. David Warner Mathisen has shown that many myths and much art work representing mythical and religious figures are directly related to constellations. This painting is a good example.

Below is a drawing by H.A Rey of the constellation Ophiuchus. If you look at it and then look back at the painting you will be able to see certain parallels. For example, in terms of the composition and placing, the figure of Jesus is like Ophiuchus, the two fallen soldiers are like Scorpio, and the little winged angels, with their swishing banners, are like the serpent that Ophiuchus is said to carry. David Warner Mathisen has shown in that in a lot of art, from all round the world, figures that derive from Ophiuchus often have one item in each hand, perhaps two staffs, or a staff and another object. Also, they often have a stream or flow of water to their feet, and this is because the Milky Way runs by Ophiuchus's feet. In art, the Milky Way is often portrayed as a river or water flowing from a fountain. Often Ophiuchus figures are represented by stone or a tree, and the tomb seems to emphasise this potentially stoney quality of Ophiuchus figures. Finally, the constellation Scorpio is often represented by a demon or a snake, or even the devil, being slayed by Ophiuchus, but here, while the soldiers have not been attacked, they seem to echo the shape or Scorpio beneath Ophiuchus's feet. The flag of St George that Jesus carries is perhaps a reference to that other Ophiuchus figure, Saint George, who is famous for having slayed a dragon (an Ophiuchus and Scorpio eternal duel that also underlies the St Michael - Dragon / Devil duel). The figures to the left of Jesus and the tomb form a shape that roughly echoes the contours of the constellation Sagittarius, the archer. Finally, the sun that has appeared just at Jesus's feet corresponds to the centre of the Milky Way, a point at Ophiuchus's feet which in fact is usually assigned to the constellation Sagittarius, Sagittarius A*. In fact, the sun at Jesus's feet could also be telling us that Jesus is a solar figure. It is important to the Christian story of Easter that Jesus resurrected on a Sunday, the day of the sun. Many Ophiuchus figures in ancient art are in fact deities with solar links. The artistic convention that Raphael is following tells us that there are different levels of meaning to the story of Jesus's Passion at Easter, and that there is a continuity between religious traditions over time, as well as parallels between existing religions today.

The constellation Ophiuchus, drawn by H.A Rey, in The Stars

In the representation of the Denderah Zodiac below, from a temple in Egypt, the constellation Ophiuchus is clearly in the part of the sky where a solar boat has been drawn, and so it is reasonable to assume that Ophiuchus represented, for the Ancient Egyptians, either the solar boat Atet, or the sun itself.

Raphael's painting of the resurrection is ful of astronomical significance. the point where the sun is marks the 'golden gate', or the 'gate of the gods'. This is one of two precise points in the sky where the sun's path, the ecliptic, crosses the Milky Way. This spot is also the centre of the Milky Way, at Ophiuchus's left foot. The 'silver gate' is directly across the sky, in the constellation connected to the Egyptian god Osiris, Orion the Hunter. This is the gate believed to be the portal through which human souls pass to the afterlife, in Egyptian and other Mediterranean sources. together, these two points where the ecliptic meets the Milky Way were known as the gateways of the soul. Researcher J. W. Barlament writes:

In some of those cultures, Ophiuchus may have been the usher for those souls fortunate enough to leave the underworld after bodily death and spend eternity amongst the stars. In those cultures more inclined toward reincarnation, Ophiuchus may have received the souls of the dead and kept them in a stellar afterlife, considering how he seems to raise his gate up and Orion drags his down. This, of course, makes Orion the one to guide the death of these astral souls and their rebirth down on earth. Perhaps it was the other way around; Ophiuchus is the resurrector after all. Perhaps the two were originally even avatars of one seasonally resurrecting stellar deity, serving as sole gatekeeper on the road or bridge of souls. The details would obviously have changed between different groups, but the core of the myth remains.(14)

This is what an interpretation of Raphael's painting, using H.A. Rey's picture of the constellations (in the way that David Warner Mathisen has pioneered), might look like:

The two reclining figures at the bottom of the painting echo the position of Scorpio; they are certainly part of a familiar pattern that is clear in many paintings of the Archangel Michael and the devil, also replicating the Ophiuchus / Scorpio dualism.

Almost all the paintings of the resurrection stick to this convention of Jesus facing the viewer, standing, or rising, directly above the tomb, with several reclining figures at the base of the tomb. Piero della Francesca focuses on the Ophiuchus - Scorpio dualism, and the strong contrast between the vertical and horizontal lines this provides. The scales of libra can perhaps be understood to have been subsumed into this dynamic. The trees either side of the figure of Christ reinforce the contrast between horizontal and vertical, and could be understood as the serpent (understood as a life force) that Ophiuchus carries.

Below are other examples of paintings with the same convention:

This is a fairly conventional painting, but here again the astronomical parralells are there, Ophiuchus and Scorpio.

The Resurrection of Christ, Alte Kirche St-André (Meistratzheim), Wikimedia Commons

Occasionally, in the many depictions of the resurrection, the figure of a woman appears on the right, Mary Magdalene, and she is in the right place to correspond to the constellation Virgo.

This painting by Fra Angelico has a slightly different structure, the story focusing on the woemn, who appear on the right, perhaps as Libra or as Virgo. The figure of Christ has Ophiuchus characteristics, for example, Jesus is standing facing the viewer, and is holding something in each hand: a flag, and I think, the branch of hyssop that may have been used to give Jesus a drink of vinegar, via a sponge attached to the end of it. (At Passover, hyssop was also used in a significant way, to sprinkle the blood of the sacrificial lamb on the doorposts, see Exodus 12:22). Also, the central character is shining like a light. While sun worship is not permitted in the Christian religion, halos and images of light emanating from Jesus are common in religious art. This could be a reference to the connection, in history, between Ophiuchus characters and the sun.

Women at the empty tomb, by Fra Angelico, 1437–1446, Wikimedia Commons

The flag is a reminder that in religious art, often the Lamb of God carries the same flag, a cross of St George. The lamb itself, a symbol of Jesus in Christianity, is an important symbol shared by both Christian and Hebrew traditions. During the Christian era, the sun has risen in the constellation Pisces at the spring equinox, and another symbol of Jesus is in fact the fish. However, before the sun rose in Pisces, it rose in the constellation Aries, the ram. The point where the Sun crosses the celestial equator northwards is still called the First Point of Aries, even though the precession of the equinoxes has changed the star background against which the sun rises now. It is possible that both Aries and Pisces are connected to a long lost tradition of sun worship, in particular to the vernal equinox sun. This tradition, though not made explicit in the religious texts, is there in art.

In the painting below, the figures of Ophiuchus in the centre, Scorpio to the bottom right, and Sagittarius to the bottom left, with his bow and arrows, are instantly recognisable. The running figure would be Libra, and the women to the right, though in the distance, would stand in for Virgo, then. Though the archer's bow is at rest, his arrows seem to point to a spot, also pointed to by the Scorpio figure's lance, at Christ's foot. In the sky, this would be the Golden Gate, mentioned above, the intersection between the ecliptic and the Milky Way that is located below Ophiuchus, or the super massive black hole that is Sagittarius A*. The two soldiers who are slightly above, to the left and to the right, have spears that seem to point to the jewel that holds Christ's cloak together. Together, the four soldiers form a rough diamond shape, which is also present in Raphael's painting, and reinforces the verticality of the rising figure of Christ and his staff.

Resurrection, by the Frei Carlos Workshop, c. 1525-1550 - Museu Nacional de Machado de Castro - Coimbra, Portugal

Here is one last painting of the resurrection, one of my favourites because of the colours and the background. You can see the figure of Jesus Christ is standing before a rock. Rocks and trees often stand in for Ophiuchus in paintings, or are connected to figures connected to Ophiuchus. Sometimes the tomb, sometimes the reclining soldier to the bottom left fills the role of Scorpio. Here it's clearly the soldier. As in the previous painting, the figure to the bottom left, in the place of Sagittarius the archer, carries a bow. Again, the four soldiers form a diamond shape from which the figure of Christ emerges.

Resurrection of Jesus, Circle of Dieric Bouts, Wikimedia Commons

Lastly, here is an image of a deity with similar features in the design of the portrait. It could well also be based on the constellation Ophiuchus, standing on Scorpio, and holding two serpents, or one serpet in both hands, or two items of some other sort.

Center panel of the Metternich Stela, Wikimedia Commons

Horus is depicted holding snakes and scorpions, as well as two animals, and standing on a crocodile. This has clear similarities to the constellation Ophiuchus above Scorpio. In fact, Horus was stung by a scorpio as a child, thanks to his jealous uncle Set. Horus is the son of Osiris and Isis, sun and moon deities, and was said to be the sky. He was considered to contain the Sun and Moon. He celebrated his birthday on December 25th. There are many comparisons to be drawn between Horus and Jesus-Christ.

Stela of Metternich E A Budge - The Gods of the Egyptians, t.2, Wikimedia Commons

New beginnings

Spring is about the animal and plant worlds starting to grow and reproduce, after the winter. It's about the lengthening of the days, and the prospect of summer, and harvest. Easter in particular is seen as a celebration of spring, hence the endless bunnies, eggs, and chicks that appear at this time of year on packaging and greeting cards. But why do we have to wait for the full moon after the equinox to celebrate it? After all, the daffodils are almost finished at this point. Spring has been around for a while. Is there an ancient spring festival at the origin of Easter or Passover that might involve not just the sun but also requires the moon to be full? Many cultures around the world have festivals to mark the vernal equinox. by contrast, a festival that marks the first full moon after the equinox is not so common, and quite intriguing. In Christian tradition, the resurrection of Jesus is the culmination of the Easter story.

Ophiuchus has not generally been considered a Zodiac constellation, which means it is not one of the twelve that the sun officially crosses, over the course of a year (or at least it didn't used to be, it's now beginning to be considered the 13th Zodiac). When the moon is full, it rises almost directly across the sky from the sun. Bede writes:

And when [the Sun] keeps to one equinox, the Moon, when she is full, keeps to the other. And the distance by which the Sun has passed the equinox or solstice which it has most recently illuminated obviously corresponds to the distance by which the Moon has passed the opposite solstice or equinox. (8)

The full moon is in opposition to the sun and at roughly the opposite point of the zodiacal circle where the sun will be six months later.

When six months are over, that is, when half his journey through the circuit of the year is complete, the Sun will enter the part of the heavens in which the Moon is borne about when fifteen days old.(9)

Bede goes on to explain to those of us who are “slower of understanding” that the “Moon one day old, when its age is complete, is distant from the Sun by a space of twelve days; when two days old by a space of twenty four days”, and so on, “when fourteen days old by a space of five months and eighteen days; when fifteen days old by a space of six months.”

When the moon is 30 days old it is in conjunction with the sun, in exactly the same part of the zodiac, and the sun will return to that part of the zodiac one year later.

It is possible that, in Babylonian tradition, the reason the full moon was used to mark the goddess Ishtar’s return from the underworld is in anticipation of where the sun will be in six months time. This could well apply to Easter and Passover too. When the full moon in spring is present, it announces winter in six months. Bede quotes Augustine:

they say that [the Moon] does not have its own light, but is lit up by the Sun. But when it is [in conjunction] with [the sun], it turns towards us the part which is not lit up and so no light can be seen. But when it begins to draws away from [the Sun], it is lit up in the part which faces the earth, beginning (as it must) with a crescent, until the fifteenth Moon is in opposition to the Sun. At that point ‘the Moon] rises when the Sun sets, so that anyone who is observing the setting Sun, if he turns to the east when he can no longer see the Sun may see the Moon rise. (10)

Irv Bromberg reminds us of the religious importance of the paschal moon being soon after the equinox, and the complexity of the lunar aspect of a luni-solar calendar, and the extra 13th month that occurs periodically:

The slaughter and sacrifice of the Paschal lamb (Korban Pesach) used to take place in the afternoon of the 14th of Nisan, starting 1/2 hour after Noon, so this could imply that the calendar leap cycle should keep that moment at the earliest opportunity that is after the equinox, within the constraints of the lunar month structure.(12)

Bede is also clear that the feast day must be the full moon after the equinox, writes in his Reckoning of Time:

So let us speak briefly about the spring equinox, which is the chief of the four annual changes we mentioned, as the Creation of the world indicates. The rule of the Church’s observance, confirmed at the Council of Nicea, holds that Easter Day is to be sought between the 11th kalends of April [22 March] and the 7th kalends of May [25th April]. Again, the rule of catholic teaching commands that Easter is not to be celebrated before the passing of the spring equinox. (...) For a doctrine not only of our won way but also of the Mosaic law decrees that the day of the Paschal feast cannot be celebrated before this equinox has passed.(13)

This Easter / Passover, the sun rises in Aries (the dates for these two festivals being quite late this year, and Pisces having moved along a little since the equinox). In six months time, the sun will be rising in Scorpio, and then, briefly, Ophiuchus. Below are some images taken from the program Stellarium, showing sunrise and moonrise for this year at Easter, and in 6 months time, and also Passover for the years 33 and 30, roughly the time at which the story of Jesus's Passion is supposed to have occurred. you can see this year the sun is rising in the sign of the fish and the moon in Virgo. The fish is one of the symbols of Jesus, and Virgo is a constellation associated with his mother, Mary.

You can see that the sun rose in Aries, the ram, at Passover time, two thousand years ago, the moon rose in Virgo, and six months later, the sun would be rising in the claw of Scorpio, just below Ophiuchus. The connection with the ram or lamb would make the sacrificial paschal lamb extra significant, for Hebrew and Christian traditions alike, especially when one remembers that in the Hebrew story of the twelve plagues of Egypt. The blood of the sacrificed lamb, painted over the front doors, was to protect the houses from the wrath of the Lord, allowing the plagues of Egypt to 'skip' over, or pass over them. Today, some Christian traditions in the east have a red egg at Easter which they keep in their house for the year until the following Easter, symbolising the blood of Christ, to protect the household. This is not so different from the idea of the blood of the paschal lamb to protect the houses from the death of a first born. While this may sound blasphemous, the lamb, or the great Ram in the sky, Aries, is perhaps partly the protector itself, by virtue of the fact that the sun rises in it.

The role the full moon have played in the story of Moses crossing the Red Sea is also interesting. Possibly, Moses may have had knowledge of the tides which enabled his people to cross the sea safely. Dr Bruce Parker has written in his book The Power of the Sea: Tsunamis, Storm Surges, Rogue Waves, and Our Quest to Predict Disasters.:

Moses had lived in the nearby wilderness in his early years, and he knew where caravans crossed the Red Sea at low tide. He knew the night sky and the ancient methods of predicting the tide, based on where the moon was overhead and how full it was. Pharaoh and his advisers, by contrast, lived along the Nile River, which is connected to the almost tideless Mediterranean Sea. They probably had little knowledge of the tides of the Red Sea and how dangerous they could be.

This is cited by David Warner Mathisen, who writes in a post here:

In those stories of sacrifice, which contain clues to indicate that they pertain to one or the other of the equinoxes, there is almost always a direction mentioned: the sacrifice is at a crossing going up (the spring equinox) or at a crossing going down (the fall equinox). Is it possible that the crossing of the Red Sea, in which the ancient scriptures tell us that Moses led the children of Israel up out of Egypt,* also represents an equinoctial crossing? I believe there is good evidence to suggest that this is the case.

There may be a connection between the story of the crossing of the Red Sea with the journey the sun makes in the sky, crossing certain key parts of the zodiac, at key times of the year, namely the equinoxes and solstices. David goes on to write further:

In the wheel above, which depicts the Age of Aries, that leader is the zodiac constellation of Aries the Ram (you can see that it is the first sign "above the line" at the left of the diagram, at the equinox crossing-up point).
This is the sign who leads the "children of Israel" (the other eleven signs) up "out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage." In this version of the metaphor, the lower half of the year, the wintery half of the year, the half of the year in which the forces of darkness oppress the forces of light, is allegorized as the land of Egypt, "the house of bondage." In other myths, this lower half is allegorized as Hades, or Tartaros, or Sheol, or the land of Troy in the Iliad of Homer, and many other depictions in many different cultures.
Thus, Moses can be seen as playing the role of Aries the Ram in this particular story, leading his people up out of bondage (the lower half of the wheel) and making the upward crossing at the spring equinox over to the other side, where there is much rejoicing (days once again becoming longer than nights). Further evidence to support this reading can be found later, at the incident of the golden calf (Exodus 32), when Aaron the brother of Moses makes the idol of a bull-calf and tells the people that "These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt" (Exodus 32:4). Moses is furious at this declaration: Taurus the Bull is not the leader of the zodiac band: the precessional Age of Taurus preceded the Age of Aries, but it is over and now the declaration that the bull led them up out of Egypt is infuriating to Moses.
Further confirmation that this entire episode is metaphorical and based upon the zodiac wheel comes from an examination of the chariots and horsemen that the Exodus account is very careful to describe as being destroyed by the sea. The actual crossing of the Red Sea is described in Exodus 14, and in verses 18 and 19 the Egyptian army is twice described in identical terms, as consisting of "Pharaoh, his chariots, and his horsemen," as if we are to be very clear that horses are present. But this emphasis on the host of chariots and horsemen, as the Reverend Robert Taylor (1784 - 1844) points out in his Astronomico-Theological Lectures (see especially 393-394), creates a significant problem for those who take the Exodus account as intending to depict literal terrestrial events, because in Exodus 9 just a few chapters before, God declared in no uncertain terms to Moses to tell Pharaoh that the next plague visited upon Egypt would be upon "thy cattle which is in the field, upon the horses, upon the asses, upon the camels, upon the oxen, and upon the sheep" (Exodus 9:3), and that on the next morrow "all the cattle of Egypt died: but of the cattle of the children of Israel died not one" (verse 6).
It is possible, of course, to argue that the plague promised only sickened the horses of Egypt and did not kill them all, but even so it is rather astonishing to see the mighty armies of Pharaoh which pursue Moses and the children of Israel so full of chariots and horses -- unless the entire story is describing the celestial cycles involving the zodiac wheel and not a literal and historic event that took place on the earth.

G. Santillana and H. Dechend write about the prcession of the equinoxes, the slow drift of the backdrop of the stars against which the sun and moon are seen to rise, in relation to cultural shifts:

This phenomenon is called the Precession of the Equinoxes, and it was conceived as causing the rise and the cataclysmic fall of ages of the world. Its cause is a bad habit of the axis of our globe, which turns around in the manner of a spinning top, its tip being in the center of our small earth-ball, whence our earth axis, prolonged to the celestial North Pole, describes a circle around he North Pole of the ecliptic, the true "center" of the planetary system, the radius of this circle being of the same magnitude as the obliquity of the ecliptic with respect to the equator: 23 ½ o. The time which this prolonged axis needs to circumscribe the ecliptical North Pole is roughly 26,000 years, during which period it points to one star after another: around 3000 B.C. the Pole star was alpha Draconis; at the time of the Greeks it was beta Ursae Minoris; for the time being it is alpha Ursae Minoris; in A.D. 14,000 it will be Vega. The equinoxes, the points of intersection of ecliptic and equator, swinging from the spinning axis of the earth, move with the same speed of 26,000 years along the ecliptic.
The sun's position among the constellations at the vernal equinox was the pointer that indicated the "hours" of the precessional cycle--very long hours indeed, the equinoctial sun occupying each zodiacal constellation for about 2,200 years. The constellation that rose in the east just before the sun (that is, rose heliacally) marked the "place" where the sun rested. At this time it was known as the sun's "carrier," and as the main "pillar" of the sky, the vernal equinox being recognized as the fiducial point of the "system," determining the first degree of the sun's yearly circle, and the first day of the year. (When we say, it was "recognized" we mean that it was spelled "carrier" or "pillar," and the like; it must be kept in mind that we are dealing with a specific terminology, and not with vague and primitively rude "beliefs.") A time Zero (say, 5000 B.C.--there are reasons for this approximate date), the sun was in Gemini; it moved ever so slowly from Gemini into Taurus, then Aries, then Pisces, which it still occupies and will for some centuries more. The advent of Christ the Fish marks our age. It was hailed by Virgil, shortly before Anno Domini: "a new great order of centuries is now being born. . ." which earned Virgil the strange title of prophet of Christianity. The preceding age, that of Aries, had been heralded by Moses coming down from Mount Sinai as "two-horned," that is, crowned with the Ram's horns, while his flock disobediently insisted upon dancing around the "Golden Calf" that was, rather, a "Golden Bull," Taurus. (15)

John Anthony West writes about how the bull was an important motif for a lot of Old Kingdom Egyptian art during the age of Taurus, and that this is shared by other cultures of the period.

"The evidence shows a shift of symbolism, from the duality under Gemini, to the bull, to the ram. These shifts coincide with the dates of the astronomical precession."(16)

It seems that with Moses, the Age of Taurus was at its end, and the age of Aries beginning. Similarly, it's possible that early Christians latched on to the Jesus story as they felt the Age of Aries was coming to an end and ushering in the Age of Pisces, which we are just about coming out of now, today. And as the song goes, it's the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. In any case, the importance of the sun, the moon and the stars in understanding cultural shifts is clear. It is intriguing, to say the least, to think that Moses is a believed by some ushered in the Age of Aries, the ram, and that Jesus Christ is believed by some to have ushered in the Age of Pisces, the fish.

The moon's cycles may also be connected to the story of Moses, in particular the 19 year cycle which corresponds almost exactly to 235 lunations, named Metonic. As Chris Johnson has noted: "The whole biblical journey of the Israelites is a journey between two places and thus invites division of their 470 year journey (430 years plus 40 years "wandering" gives 470 years) by two (because half the journey was in Egypt and half in Canaan) so 470 years / 2 = 235 "years" (I like to look at them as months giving us the number of months in the Metonic) cycle." (23) The reconciliation of the cycles of the moon and sun in this period of time takes on an important symbolic aspect, reminiscent of the timing of Easter and Passover.

Other traditions

Combining the moon's phases with the sun's might be at the heart of this idea of new beginnings in spring, and celebrations of these new beginnings are not complete if the moon is not full, and opposite the sun in the sky, one rising while the other sets. For the Babylonians, the new year actuially started with the new moon after the spring equinox, the day after the return of the Sumerian goddess Innana/Ishtar from the underworld. Like Jesus, she also was brought back from the dead on the third day. Bede, in his eighth-century work The Reckoning of Time, wrote about Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of Spring whose name later gave rise to modern the English "Easter," and there may be an etymological connection to the goddess Ishtar. Bede wrote that Ēosturmōnaþ (Old English 'Month of Ēostre', was an English month, corresponding to April, which he says "was once called after a goddess of theirs named Ēostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month". (11)

Ishtar on an Akkadian seal, photo by Sailko, Wikimedia Commons

Bede writes about the old English months, which were lunar, and the calendar which had twelve to thirteen months in a year, and four seasons, or "originally", just two seasons, summer and winter. He says winter began on a full moon. This is very reminiscent of Ishtar's descent into the underworld, and return (as well as other mythical stories that symbolise the seasons, like Cybele and Attis, Adonis and Aphrodite, etc). Ishtar was known as the Queen of Heaven, and her major temple was in the city of Uruk. The story of Ishtar's descent into the underworld is a good one. She went to visit her sister there, but got stuck, and had to be rescued. The rescue was successful but her unfortunate husband Dumuzid was dragged down to the underworld in her place. Eventually he was allowed to return, but only every six months, and when was up, his sister had to take his place. This is the cycle of the seasons.

Through the link drawn between Ēostre and Easter, we can also tentatively link the constellation Virgo, and all the mythological and religious figures associated with her, as well as with harvest. Allen, in his comprehensive book on myths and stars, writes:

In Egypt Virgo was drawn on the zodiacs of Denderah and Thebes, much disproportioned and without wings, holding an object said to be a distaff marked by the stars of Coma Berenices; while Eratosthenes and Avienus identified her with Isis, the thousand-named goddess, with the wheat ears in her hand that she afterwards dropped to form the Milky Way, or clasping in her arms the young Horus, the infant Southern sun- god, the last of the divine kings. This very ancient figuring reappeared in the Middle Ages as the Virgin Mary with the child Jesus, Shakespeare alluding to it in Titus Andronicus as the Good Boy in Virgo's lap ;
and Albertus Magnus, of our 13th century, asserted that the Saviour's horo- scope lay here. It has been said that her initials, MV, are the symbol for the sign, ")? ; although the International Dictionary considers this a mono- gram of Uap, the first syllable of Uapdsvoq, one of Virgo's Greek titles ; and others, a rude picturing of the wing of Ifltar, the divinity that the Semites assigned to its stars, and prominent in the Epic of Creation.
This Irtar, or Ishtar, the Queen of the Stars, was the Ashtoreth of the 1st Book of the Kings, xi, 5, 33, the original of the Aphrodite of Greece and the Venus of Rome; perhaps equivalent to Athyr, Athor, or Hathor of the Nile, and the Astarte of Syria, the last philologically akin to our Esther and Star, the Greek 'Aorfjp. Astarte, too, was identified by the Venerable Bede with the Saxon goddess of spring, Eostre, at whose festival, our Easter, the stars of Virgo shine so brightly in the eastern evening sky ; and the Sumerians of southern Babylonia assigned this constellation to their sixth month as the Errand, or Message, of Istar.
In Assyria Virgo represented Baaltis, Belat, Belit, and Beltis, Bel's wife ; while some thought her the Mylitta of Herodotus. But this was a very different divinity, the Babylonian Molatta, the Moon, the Mother, or Queen, of Heaven, against whose worship the Jews were warned in the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, xliv, 17, 19, and should not be confounded with Ashtoreth, the goddess of the Zidonians, that our figure symbolized.
In India Virgo was Kanya, the Tamil Kauni, or Maiden, — in Hyde's transcription, Xannae, — mother of the great Krishna, figured as a Goddess sitting before a fire, or as a Gul ; and in the Cingalese zodiac as a Woman in a Ship, with a stalk of wheat in her hand. Al Biruni thought this ship marked by the line of stars j3, i\, y, d, and e, like a ship's keel. Varaha Mihira borrowed the Greek name, turning it into Parthena, Partina, or Pathona. (20)

The constellation is associated with harvest, be it wheat, corn or barley. Allen also notes:

Those who claim very high antiquity for the zodiacal signs assert that the idea of these titles originated when the sun was in Virgo at the spring equinox, the time of the Egyptian harvest. This, however, carries them back nearly 15,000 years, while Aratos said that Leo first marked the harvest moon. (19)

In many parts of the world, spring is not a time for harvest, but for sowing. in any case the connection between Easter and the constellation associated with a harvest goddess is there. With interpretations of this constellation sometimes placing wheat, sometimes an infant in her arms, the curious Catholic belief that the body of Jesus Christ resides inside the holy bread, the communion wafer, consumed by the believer during mass, makes a little more sense. The concept of transubstantiation may originally come from equating the child of the harvest goddess, given shape by the constellation Virgo, and her brightest star Spica, meaning ear of wheat, with bread.

While the Virgo constellation, with its bright star Spica, is connected to the Virgin Mary and Jesus in one aspect of their story, in other aspects, Jesus may more closely identify with Ophiuchus. Other aspects of Ishtar's story (also Astarte and Aphrodite), as sea goddess, connect her to the constellation Andromeda, or even one of the serpent constellations, in her emanation as tiamat, the sea serpent, killed by Marduk) (22)

In both the Christian and Jewish traditions, the lamb symbolises innocence and purification, and there is a possible connection to be made to another deity, sometimes seen riding a ram or sheep, or seen next to a lamb. Funnily enough, his name sounds a little like the latin for lamb, agnus. Agni is a Sanskrit word meaning fire, and the god Agni is the Hindu god of fire, who features prominently in the major and minor Upanishads of Hinduism.

Agni, god of fire, shown riding a goat, Wikimedia Commons

Agni with goddess Svaha.Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps in the image on the right, you could see the pattern of the constellations Ophiuchus and Virgo, with the Milky Way flowing below. The connection with fire seems perplexing. In Irish tradition, St Patrick may offer us a clue about an ancient link to a fire purification at this time of year. In the story of Saint Patrick, we are told that he lit a "paschal fire" on the Hill of Slane, in Ireland, despite the local king's wishes. Paschal is a word derived rom the Hebrew Peseach. Perhaps in pre-Christian and early Christian Ireland, fires were lit on a hill tops, and considered essential for purification, and to mark the new year, in the Babylonian sense, the first full moon after the equinox. In modern Christian belief, the first candle to be lit with a flame from a sacred fire is the paschal candle, it represents the light of Christ coming into the world, a symbol of light dispelling darkness. Perhaps this tradition and the Hindu god of fire share a common ancestor.

Robert Graves writes about a tradition of a spring bonfire in his Greek Myths.

The myth of Deadalus and Talos, like its variant, the myth of Daedalus and Icarus, seems to combine the ritual of burning the solar king's surrogate, who had put on eagle's wings (see 29.1) in the spring bonfire - when the Palestinian New Year began - with the rituals of flinging the partridge-winged pharmacos, a similar surrogate, over a cliff in the sea (see 96.30) and of pricking the king in the heel with a poisoned arrow (see 10 below). But the fishermen's and peasant's admiration of the flying of Daedalus is probably serived from an icon of winged Perseus or Marduk (see 73.7).

Perhaps this is conencted to Perseus / Marduk slaying the sea-serpent Tiamat, which is, as Robert Graves explains, an emanation of Ishtar, as sea goddess. Perseus, like Horus, is the son of sun and moon deities (Zeus and Danae). This spring bonfire seems connected to a solar and lunar figure and the sea. The partridge itself offers and intrigiuing connection to the word Pesach, as Robert Graves explains:

It seems that in the spring, an erotic partridge dance was perfromed in honour of the Moon-goddess, and that the male dancers hobbled and wore wings. In Palestine, this ceremony, called Pesach ('the hobbling') was, according to Jerome, still performed at Beth Hoglah, ('The Shrine of the hobbler'), where the devotees danced in a spiral. Beth-Hoglah is identified with the 'threshing-floor of Atad', on which mourning was made or the lame king Jacob, whose name may mean Jah Aceb ('the heel'god'). Jeremiah warns the Jews not to take part in those orgiastic Canaanite rites, quoting 'The partridge gathereth young that she hath not brought forth'.

The hobbling of the partridge is very curious. Robert Graves makes another connection, between the hobbling associated with the partidge and the hobbing of Talos, who is also Hephaestus, or Vulcan, the black-smith god, husband of Aphrodite (who herself is associated with Ishtar, Astarte and Eostre). Graves adds: "Talos is said by Hesychius to be a name for the sun" (p.317). In many parts of the Ancient world, there are different aspects to be found of sun-god and moon-goddess worship in connection with the sea, with hobbling and wings, two bird-like features, and a spring bonfire.

It is possible that there was once an ancient and widespread tradition of celebrating the new year at the first full moon after the spring equinox, which involved a ritual fire purification, and the sacrifice of a lamb, from which the Hindu, Irish, Christian and Jewish traditions mentioned above may partly derive. Perhaps the lamb marks the age of Aries, and perhaps a bull marked the age of Taurus before that.

Robert Brown writes about the symbolism of the ram as the sun:

The comparison of the sun to a ram or bull is a line of thought which naturally and spontaneously arises in the mind of archaic man ; and even a modern writer can use quite similar language, and tell how the sun ‘ thrusts forth his golden horns’ (Jeremy Taylor, Holy Dying, p. 17); and in so doing, butts triumphantly against the darkness which he thus puts to flight. Similarly, in IF. A. 7. IV. xxvii. 21, we have the comparison, ‘Its horns shine like the splendour of the Sun-god.’ In the Euphrates Valley the sun was styled a Lubat (* Old-sheep '), and ultimately the seven planets were called hakkabdni Lubati (* Old-sheep-stars’), and, as observation of the sun must necessarily have long preceded any classification of planets, this symbolic view of the sun, as an old-sheep or Ram, is necessarily of a remote antiquity. Thus, again, in ancient Egypt the Ram-sun is, ‘The brilliant One who shines in the waters of the inundation ; He who enters and comes forth continually from his highly mysterious cavern [the Under-world |, He who raised his head and lifts his forehead ; The Ram, the greatest of the creatures ' (Litany of Rd, i. 20, ap. Naville). The Ram-headed sun-god is frequently portrayed upon the monuments. Similarly, in India the solar Indra is styled 'the Ram irradiating the firmament’ (Rig-veda, I. li. 1, 2); so that the idea is neither specially Akkadian, Egyptian or Aryan, but one which arises naturally in the mind of man. The solar Ram, who opened the day, was in time re- duplicated by the stellar Ram, who onwards from n.c. 2540, opened the year; and led the starry flock through it as their bell-weather. And this stellar ram was, in the first place, only the star Hamal (‘the Ram, a Arietis), the nucleus of the constol- lation, called in Ak. Simul GV. ALL. II. vi. 9), ‘Horn-star, = As. Aduv (‘Ram’),

In Egypt, one of the most important deities was Amun, or Amun-Ra, who was often depicted with a ram's head.

Amon-Ra (l'esprit des quatre elements, lame du monde matérial), N372.2., Brooklyn Museum Jean-François Champollion - Brooklyn Museum Panthéon égyptien, collection des personnages mythologiques de l'ancienne Égypte, d'apres les monuments; / avec un texte explicatif par M. J. F. Champollion le jeune, et les figures d'apres les dessins de M. L. J. J. Dubois ... , Author: Champollion, Jean-François, 1790-1832. Description: 14 pts. in 1 : 82 plates (some col.) ; 29 cm. Citation: Brooklyn Museum Libraries. Wilbour Library of Egyptology. Special Collections Imprint: Paris : Firmin Didot, 1823-1825. Date Display: 1823-25 Call Number: N372.2 C35 Wikimedia commons

Here is another example of Amun depicted with a ram's head:

Amun was equated to Zeus and Jupiter in the Greek and Roman traditions. Below is a prayer to Amun-Ra, which reveals something of the importance of this deity.

HAIL to thee, Amun-Ra, Lord of the thrones of the earth, the oldest existence, ancient of heaven, support of all things;
Chief of the gods, lord of truth; father of the gods, maker of men and beasts and herbs; maker of all things above and below;
Deliverer of the sufferer and oppressed, judging the poor;
Lord of wisdom, lord of mercy; most loving, opener of every eye, source of joy, in whose goodness the gods rejoice, thou whose name is hidden.
Thou art the one, maker of all that is, the one; the only one; maker of gods and men; giving food to all.
Hail to thee, thou one with many heads; sleepless when all others sleep, adoration to thee.
Hail to thee from all creatures from every land, from the height of heaven, from the depth of the sea.
The spirits thou hast made extol thee, saying, welcome to thee, father of the fathers of the gods; we worship thy spirit which is in us.

Amun-Ra was clearly one of the most important gods, and was asociated with the sun, and with a ram, which can be taken for the constellation Aries. Prior to the Age of Aries, the sun would of course not have risen in the constellation Aries at the vernal equinox, nor at Passover or Easter. However, it may be that the constellation Aries was considered the first and most important anyway, even before the epoch in which the sun rose against the backdrop of Aries at the vernal equinox. Why did almost every ancient civilisation start its constellations of the zodia with Aries? That is a question for another day.

A note on 7/19

With 7 leap years per 19-year cycle, the average interval between leap years = 19/7 = 2+5/7 years = 2.714285... years.

Researcher into prehistoric engineering, Robin Heath, likes to express the average difference in days between the lunar year and the solar year, 10.87512 days, in terms of pi, or at least, an approximation of pi: one way of expressing the average difference between lunar and solar year is with 19/7, or more precisely, 19.008 / 7, which can also be expressed as 864 x 22 / 7,000, which is close to 864 x Pi. The 22/7 fraction is thought to have been a commonly used approximation of Pi in antiquity, useful for preserving integers in the measures of diameters and circumferences of the same circle, and a sort pragmatic solution to the problem of incommensurability between diameter and circumference that ‘true’ pi presents. It’s use has been deduced from studies of circular layouts in monuments from ancient times. The number of days in a lunar month divided by the difference in days between twelve lunar months and a year is therefore very close to Pi as 22/7 times 0.864. Twelve lunar months of 29.53059 days give a lunar year of 354.36708 days. That’s 10.875119 days fewer than a solar year of 365.242199 days. You could say that pi itself can be approximated as 1 lunation / difference in days between twelve lunar months and a year multiplied by 0.864.

29.53059 / 10.875119= 2.7154268

864 x 22 / 7,000 = 2.71542857

This number, 2.71542857, is a key part of the Metonic cycle, and also approximates the relationship between twelve lunar months and a solar year. Both 19 and 7 are numbers associated with moon cycles: the week (of 7 days) and the Metonic cycle (of 19 years). Robin Heath points out that 19/7 is 2.7142857, and one lunation in days, 29.53059, divided by the average difference in days between the lunar year and the solar year, 10.87512 days, is 2.715426. As a result of the similarity of these two numbers, and the importance of 19 and 7 in moon cycles, as well as the close connection between 2.7142857 and Professor Thom’s value in feet for his Megalithic Yard of around 2.72 feet, Heath comes up with a new measure of his own: the Astronomical Megalithic Yard (AMY). Hi co-author John Michell translates this AMY as a ‘Druisian step’, of 2.5 ‘Druisian feet’, or 2.7154286 feet. This value for the Druisian foot is not the only possible value however, and Neal and Michell equate this the ‘root canonical Belgic foot’. Another potential value for the Druisian foot, borne out by archaeology, is 0.33 metres, which is 1.082677 feet, the ‘step’ of which would be 2.70669 feet. Or 1/3 of the ancient 39.375” metre, which is also 18 Roman / Egyptian digits.

But either way, Heath’s work illustrates that far from being just a logistical headache for calendar designers long ago, it seems that the difference between the solar and lunar calendars could have been understood as a fascinating, perhaps sacred, thing, the expression of which can be seen concentrated within units of time, and even in units of space. It is the numerical marriage of the two most important heavenly bodies for our planet, moon and sun being the main sources of light, and apparently equal in size due to a quirk of distance and actual size. This ratio is used as a starting point for carving up space and time in a systematic manner. Whether a 2.7142857 foot measure existed is open to debate (Robin Heath offers compelling evidence), but it is this number which defines the periodicity of lunar leap years in the Hebrew calendar based on the Metonic 19 year cycle. A ratio between two different time cycles can become a a number of inches, to form a spatial unit of measure. Just as both the sun and moon's cycles are essential for the dating of Passover and Easter, the ratios between their cycles are important to ancient metrology.

Calculating religious festivals depends on astronomical observation and good maths. Why are astronomy and maths not taught during religious classes for children more?

Special thanks to Adva for the discussion and information.

Thanks also to Jim Kernicky for his discussion on the equinox.


  1. Irv Bromberg, "The Seasonal Drift of the Traditional (Fixed Arithmetic) Hebrew Calendar (הלוח העברי הקבוע)", Seasonal Drift of the Traditional Hebrew Calendar (

2. Ibid

3. Ibid

5. Irv Bromberg, "The Seasonal Drift of theTraditional (Fixed Arithmetic) Hebrew Calendar (הלוח העברי הקבוע)", Seasonal Drift of the Traditional Hebrew Calendar (

6. Ibid

8. Ibid


10. Ibid

11. Ibid

12. Irv Bromberg, " They Year 6000", The Year 6000 (

14. "Orion, Ophiuchus, the Silver Gate & the Journey of Souls", J.W. Barlament, Orion, Ophiuchus, the Silver Gate & the Journey of Souls | by J. W. Barlament | Interfaith Now | Medium

15. Santillana, G. and Dechend, H., 1969, Hamlet's Mill, Gambit, Boston, p 59-60

16. West, John Anthony, 1993, Serpent in the Sky, quest, p. 100

19. Ibid. p. 461

21. See for example Robert Graves' Greek Myths: "kings had been permitted to prolong their reigns to a Great Year of one hundred lunations and offer annual boy victims in thier stead.", p 42, 7.1, 1965 edition.

22. Ibid p 244, 73.7

23. Personal correspondence. See Chris Johnsons's article (99+) The Swan Maidens and Elf Princes.pdf | Chris Johnsen -

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