Sardinia and the ancient Cult of the Bull

Sardinia with its dramatic coastline of rose-pink granite and white limestone, azure and emerald coloured waters and sun kissed climate is one of the greatest jewels of the Mediterranean. It teems with wildlife that seek out its lagoons and saline marshlands, the dense green shrub that fringe the coastline, or the forests of the mountainous interior. Prickly pear figs grow by the roadside along with fragrant frangipani, and cork forests abound in the north. The Romans mined its salt and the Phoenicians exploited its minerals, but before they arrived the island already had a fully fledged and highly developed culture that had itself evolved from the Neolithic farming communities which arrived from the Levant during the sixth millennium B.C.E.

Volumetric goddess figurine

These people brought with them sheep, goats, pigs and most importantly, cattle, and they knew how to farm the land and harvest its natural abundance. Later known as the Bonuighinu culture, they made pottery decorated with plant and geometric motifs, and tools and ornaments from bones. They worshipped the Mother Goddess in her guise as bountiful giver of life and abundance, as the presence of volumetric statuettes attests. They also built small megalithic circles and used red ochre in burials to symbolise menstrual blood.

Hypogeum temple at Anghelu Ruhu

This culture developed into the Ozieri culture, famous for the building of large necropolis, known as domus de janas, or fairy houses, where elaborate underground tombs were hewn into the limestone and used to bury the dead. These hypogeum were carefully constructed and sometimes sculpted in relief, even painted, and many sacred objects have been found within including thinner and more planar goddess figurines. At Anghelu Ruhu, occupied between 3500 to 1800 B.C.E. there are numerous well preserved ‘fairy houses’ and an underground temple, or hypogeum, with two pillars one of which is carved with the image of bull horns. These bucranium, or bovine protomes as the archaeologists call them, is one of the most prolific, and enduring, symbol to be found on the island, continuing throughout the Chalcolithic, until well into the Bronze Age when bull’s horns are depicted in relief on Nuragic tombs.

Hall of Bulls, Lascaux

The depiction of bulls as sacred animals is extremely ancient and deeply ingrained in the collective unconscious. In around 15,000 B.C.E., aurochs (the ancestor of our contemporary bulls) were painted in exquisite relief in the caves at Lascaux, featured in the famous Hall of the Bulls. Though wild and fierce, the auroch migrated at certain times of the year when they could be hunted for meat more easily, and also provided prized horn and hide. 

Bucranium at Catal Huyuk

Later, in around 7,000 B.C.E. bull paintings were used to decorate the northern wall of houses in the Anatolian village of Catal Huyuk. Sometimes they are shown being born of the Goddess, emphasising that is She who is the matrix from which all things emerge, the primal creatrix who needs no consort. There were also numerous intact bucranium hanging from the walls, which could symbolise (because of their shape) the primal uterus that gives birth to everything, and to which all life will one day return. Later when cattle became fully domesticated during the Neolithic, and when humans developed the gene that could enable them to digest raw cow’s milk, they became the nourisher par excellence, with milk being one of the elixirs of life.

Bull leaping, Knossos

The bull cult spread throughout the Mediterranean during the late Chalcolithic age, presumably transmitted via seafarers on trade routes. Most notably, the sumptuous palace of Knossos in Crete was adorned with frescoes of bulls and depicted in detail the sacred rite of bull jumping. In Egypt during the Pyramid Age, the Apis bull was considered to be the embodiment of the god Ptah and so sacred it was allowed to roam freely in the palace. After its (sacrificial) death, it was embalmed and kept in the huge Serapeum in Saqqara, which can still be seen to this day.

Nuraghe Giant’s tomb, Coddu Vecchiu

With the dawn of the Bronze Age, the Nuragic civilisation of Sardinia inherited an aspect of the bull cult. They built the famous cyclopean towers dotted over the island, but they also buried their (important) dead in long gallery graves, adorned with a row of huge stellae at the front (giant’s tombs). These standing stones form a semi-circular shape, and it has been suggested that they are deliberately curved to resemble bull’s horns. Also, when viewed from above, the complex bears a distinct resemblance to a bucranium, which again could be symbolic of a primal uterus of birth and death. Furthermore, it is also possible that these giant’s tombs (e.g. Coddu Vecchio near Arzachena) were aligned to the Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation of Taurus. This would then add a whole new dimension to the meaning associated with the bovine protomes.

Orion the Hunter and Taurus

During the period 4000 to 2000 B.C.E, the sun rose on the Spring Equinox against the stellar background of Taurus, ‘blinding’ the constellation. We call this the astrological age of Taurus, and there is evidence that the Bronze Age cultures of the Mediterranean also shared this understanding. In the night sky, Taurus is adjacent to that of Orion the Hunter, and consists of a  U-shaped muzzle (the stars of the Hyades) and two ‘horns.’ The brightest star, Aldebaran, looks like an eye, and has been described in cosmic myths as the angry red eye of the bull looking at Orion. It is entirely feasible that the protomes, which just consist of a shout and horns, are also symbolic of the constellation of Taurus and therefore reflect an understanding of the precession of the ages.

Bull’s horns carving, Elephant Rock

None of these interpretations are exclusive; symbols are powerful precisely because they have dual, or multi layered meanings, and often function on many levels. And they change over time, as the religious beliefs of people evolve or adapt. The wild auroch was important to our ancestors as though it was fierce and wild, it could be hunted for precious meat, hide and horn. With domestication, the bull became a symbol of fertility and virility, but could also be easily tamed and was associated with farming and agriculture. On Sardinia, as in the wider Mediterranean milieu, the bucranium could have been a symbol of the Great Goddess, the matrix from which all things arose, including the fecundity and fertility of the Earth, which gifted them cattle and the nourishment in the form of meat and milk, the giver of life and primal uterus to which all things eventually returned. Then during the Bronze Age, when the sun rose in the constellation of Taurus at the Spring Equinox, the heavens mirrored what was happening below and the cult of the bull took on a broader stellar dimension now linked more to sacrifice and bloodshed, and reflecting the turmoil and trauma of that Age.

Callanish: lunar standstills and an Equinox solar eclipse

The Spring Equinox is the time of balance between light and darkness, heralding the promise of warmer weather and longer days. The daily rhythm of the rising and setting Sun is one that we cannot fail to notice; even in our electrically powered world we are aware that the Sun, Moon and Earth are somehow bound together in orbital cycles that give rise to day and night, the seasons, and the waxing and waning of the full and dark Moon. But these intricate relationships also give rise to some less well understood phenomena, including solar eclipses and lunar standstills, and there is plenty of evidence from Neolithic stone circles that are ancestors knew about them. Therefore, when I heard that a solar eclipse at the Equinox would have 98% coverage on the Isle of Lewis, location of the famous Callanish stone circles, I jumped at the opportunity to find out more.

The main site at Callanish was built between 2900 and 2600 BCE and is centred round a circle of 13 gneiss stones, from which radiate four avenues towards the cardinal points, roughly in the shape of a Celtic cross. Alexander Thom mapped the site in detail and suggested that the southern stone avenue points to where the midsummer full Moon sets behind the Clisham Hills. [1] There are also theories that the large monolith in the centre of the circle lines up with the avenues to create an accurate north-south meridian, or pole, around which the stars appear to revolve. Given its position in the far north and the availability of some of the most beautiful (and ancient) rocks on the planet, the Lewisian gneiss, it is no wonder that this site is one of the foremost in prehistory.

I joined the other throngs of people at the Stones early on the morning of the Equinox and watched with baited breath as the clouds thinned and patches of blue sky became visible. We were in luck! Though thick cloud cover would have prevented us from seeing anything, intermittent clouds could even enhance the effect of the eclipse through the interplay of the light and the shadow.

It was amazing to see one of Nature’s most admired, and feared, phenomena over Callanish. At the Equinox, the light and the shadow provided by the Sun’s orbital journey are in balance and during a solar eclipse a complementary relationship between the Sun and the Moon is at play. Though the Sun is 400 times larger than the Moon, it also happens to be 400 times further away. So, when the Moon’s orbit comes passes in front of the Sun, it has the effect of blocking out the light for a short period of time, it is eclipsed. The coverage here was not quite total, but nevertheless, the light of the Sun was eclipsed for long enough to witness overshadowing and some interesting light effects. I knew that Callanish was used to observe cycles of the Moon, but had it also been used as an eclipse predicter? I wanted to know about the relationship between the Sun and the Moon so I sought out resident Callanish expert and researcher, Margaret Curtis, to find out more.

Generally speaking, the cycles of the Moon as viewed from Earth are the opposite to those of the Sun. In the midwinter, when the Sun is at its lowest and weakest, the full Moon is at its highest and  brightest. Then at midsummer, with the Sun at its zenith, the Moon is at its weakest. However, over a period of around 19 years, the position of the full Moon around the solstices appears to oscillate and this is due to something called the Moon’s declination. The Moon’s orbit is not in the plane of the Earth’s Equator but inclined to it by approximately 5 degrees.  Additionally, as the Earth is inclined at 23.4 degrees to the plane of the Ecliptic (i.e. its tilt angle), this means that the Moon can change altitude in the sky ranging from 28.5 degrees (5.1 + 23.4) and 18.5 degrees (23.4 – 5.1). When at its greatest altitude, the full Moon will rise at its most northerly position in relation to the horizon, appear to hover, then retrace its steps. Two weeks later it will set at its most southerly extreme. Though lunar standstill happen to a degree every lunar cycle, a major lunar standstill (and the opposite, a minor lunar standstill) occcurs only once every 18.6 years, the timespan of the Moon’s precessional orbit.

Alexander Thom first coined the term ‘lunar standstill’ in 1971 after studying the alignments of many Neolithic stone circles in NW Europe, but in particular Callanish. He put forward evidence that Neolithic stone circle builders were not only aware of this phenomenon but used alignments between strategically placed stones and objects on the horizon to map and calculate them. Though his work is widely debated, researchers Ron and Margaret Curtis have continued over many years to investigate the alignments at Callanish.[2] During the most southerly stage of the major lunar standstill, the Moon when seen from the viewpoint of the Stones, rises over a range of hills known as the Old Woman of the Moors (bearing a resemblance to a reclined pregnant woman), skims the horizon and appears to touch the tips of certain stones, before setting, then magically reappearing between strategically placed stones in the central circle. The Moon appears very large and close during this time, and the effect is entirely magical (there are some good videos on U-tube).

Could an understanding of the geodesic relationships between lunar standstills and solstices be used to map and predict lunar and solar eclipses? It could be. In some ways, the standstills are polar opposites to eclipses, but both are linked through the Moon’s nodal cycle. Twice a year, the Moon will cross the Ecliptic, the path taken by the Sun across the sky. When it crosses in front of the Sun, a solar eclipse will happen. During eclipses the Moon is right on the nodes, at standstills, the Moon is at right angles to them.[3] As the builders of Callanish had an understanding of the 18.6 Metonic cycle as referenced in the lunar standstill alignments, could they also have applied this to predict eclipses? This area is certainly worthy of future research.

In March 2014, the Sun and Moon were aligned both to each other, and to the Celestial Equator and the Ecliptic, giving rise to an Equinox solar eclipse. It is fascinating to consider that as the Moon continued on its descending orbital path after this event, it would reach minimum declination over the autumn Equinox (2015), resulting in a minor lunar standstill the following year. Though we can begin to understand these events through science, the full magic of them only comes to life when we experience them. Something our ancestors did over the course of many thousands of years at places like Callanish.


[1] http://www.ancient-wisdom.com

[2] Ron and Margaret Curtis ‘Callanish: Stones, Moon and Sacred Landscape’

[3] ‘The Lunar Standstill Season’ by Jean Elliott at http://www.skyscript.co.uk