Canon of Yao
This article considers the possibility of a link between the ancient Chinese text, known as the Canon of Yao, and Orkney.
The Canon of Yao or Yáodiǎn is the first chapter in the Classic of Documents or Shūjīng.
Martin Kern says that the initial passage of the Canon is laid out in the form of a song¹. This is the format used by oral historians. Hence, it is likely that the canon was passed down by word of mouth before it was added to the written record.
Emperor Yao sent students (my interpretation) to scientific observatories that were located at four very different places on the planet. The students were to study astronomy and climate, and how people and wildlife adapted to the different climates.
One of those places was called Yōudū 幽都. Yōu can be translated as remote, quiet, secluded, tranquil or dark. Dū means capital or major city. It seems possible that this describes Yur, which is the modern Orcadian name for the archaeological site known as Ness of Brodgar (Gar is the anglicised form of Yur).
Yur's Role as an Observatory
There are a number of factors that support an argument for Yur’s role as an observatory.
The 59th Parallel
Each of the observatories listed in the Canon of Yao was set up at a different latitude. In this way, the Canon divides the Northern Hemisphere into broad climate zones.
The observatory of Yur was set up at the 59th parallel. This is marked by the Comet Stone which is near to the Ring of Brodgar. Orkney benefits from the North Atlantic Current of the Gulf Stream, which means that the climate is benign for the latitude. Indeed, it could be argued that Orkney is the only place on the 59th parallel that could have supported the observatory.
The stone circle named Ring of Brodgar was known as the Temple of the Sun in local lore. The circle is thought to have had 60 standing stones. The Sun's position would move from one stone to the next roughly every six days. By observing local phenomena, the scientists would have been able to establish a calendar similar to the East Asian system of solar terms.
Some local landmarks which could have been used as sights from the Ring of Brodgar are:
• Mid Hill, which aligns at 138 degrees to the Ring of Brodgar, and marks the position for the midwinter sunrise.
• Hill of Miffia, which aligns due west of the Ring of Brodgar, and equates to the position for the sunset at the equinoxes.
• Linga Fiold, which aligns at 323 degrees to the Ring of Brodgar, and marks the position for the midsummer sunset.
Local lore also mentions a temple for the Moon, which has not been identified.
There may have been four stone circles in the immediate vicinity of the Ness of Brodgar site. The Ring of Brodgar, the Ring of Bookan, the Stones of Stenness, and another circle, which is now submerged in the Loch of Stenness. The number four brings to mind the four temples in Bejing (Sun, Moon, Heaven and Earth), which have their roots in antiquity, and which were used to mark important dates in the calendar.
The Temple Dedicated to Taurus
The archaeologists have described Structure 10 at the Ness of Brodgar as being ‘temple like’. The temple hypothesis is supported by the following:
1. The ground plan for Structure 10 at the Ness resembles the solar symbol that was found in structure 10. The solar symbol shares a common root with a Bronze Age version² of the Chinese character rì 日. Rì can mean the Sun, day, date, or day of the month.
2. The entrance to Structure 10 faces east, so that it would have received the rising sun on the equinoxes.
3. The Canon of Yao gives the star for Yōudū as Mǎo 昴, which is the star cluster known in English as the Pleiades. The Pleiades would have been seen to set in the west during nautical twilight at the vernal equinox. In other words, the Sun would have set followed by the Pleiades.
Here you can see two views of the horizon from the Ness of Brodgar. They depict the sky on the 18 March at 19:26 UTC. The 18 March is the day on which the sun rises at an azimuth of 90 degrees and sets at an azimuth of 270 degrees. 19:26 UTC is the mid-point of nautical twilight. In other words midway through the transition from light to dark.
The construction of Structure 10 is dated to around 2900 BCE, when you can see M45 (the Pleiades) setting at due west (above). Six hundred years later, when Structure 10 was dismantled, you can see that the position of the Pleiades has moved slightly due to axial precession (below).
4. The Pleiades is part of the Taurus constellation. When Structure 10 was dismantled in around 2300 BCE, the tibia from a few hundred cattle were placed around the building and a cattle skull
was placed in the hearth at the centre of the building along with the solar symbol stone. The decommissioning took place at around the time of the Hekla eruption known as Hekla 4. It is
therefore, possible that the cattle died from fluorine poisoning.
5. Thus, it seems possible that the solar temple dedicated to the day of the bull was used to honour the dead cattle. It was impossible to bury all of the cattle in the temple, so a shin bone was taken from each animal. Hence, the temple was decommissioned, and became a resting place for the spirits of the cattle killed in the Hekla 4 catastrophe.
6. One of the oldest known representations of the Pleiades star cluster was found inside Structure Ten. It consists of six cupmarks on a sandstone block that was part of a wall³. Each cupmark represents a different star from the Pleiades cluster. The stars can be seen in the diagram above left.
7. It is worth noting that the Pleiades would also have been seen in the west at the autumnal equinox. However, at that time of year, it would have set in the west just after dawn.
Wild cattle calve in the months around the vernal equinox, and are more likely to give birth during the hours of darkness. These traits were probably inherited by the cattle at the Ness of Brodgar. Therefore, it seems likely that the Temple dedicated to Taurus would have been linked to the vernal rather than the autumnal equinox.
Another Group of Stars on the Ecliptic: The Furrow
In August 2019, four cupmarks were found on a sandstone block at the eastern entrance to Structure 12, in what is now classed as Structure 26⁴.
Each cupmark probably represents a star from the asterism known as the Furrow. The stars can be seen in the diagram on the right.
The Furrow is significant because of its position on the ecliptic, and its association, in Babylonian astronomy, with autumn. It was an asterism listed in MUL.APIN, the Babylonian star catalogues, as mulAB.SIN, where the equatorial stars are classed as being in the Path of Anu (the sky father).
In Hunger and Pingree, the Furrow is identified as α + Virginis⁵. However, in the translation of the text of MUL.APIN, both the Furrow and the Ear of Corn (α Virginis) are mentioned in the same line of text⁶. I therefore, suggest that α Virginis may have been used to locate the area of the sky in which to spot the Furrow, and that the composition of mulAB.SIN equates to the Kàng 亢 asterism in Chinese astronomy.
The estimated construction date for Structure 12 is 3,000 BCE. I have created an horizon view of the sky at the vernal equinox in that year. The four yellow dots mark the positions of the stars in the Furrow as they would have appeared at sunset. In March 3,000 BCE, the Furrow asterism rose in the East, just before the sun set in the west.
Six months later in September 3,000 BCE the Furrow would also have been seen in the east. However, at this time, it rose just before dawn.
I suggest that, it may have been this heliacal rising that was significant for Structure 12 at the Ness of Brodgar. It would have marked the middle of the harvest and ploughing season.
The remains of huge pots were found in the infill of Structure 12. Such pots could have been used to store grain.
The Canon of Yao makes specific reference to the use of the lunar mansions in the calendar system. The representations of the Pleiades and the Furrow may be evidence that a similar system of using groups of stars along the ecliptic to monitor the passing seasons was in use at the Ness.
The Timing of the Yao Story
Raymond Dragan (my understanding is that the source was the Records of the Grand Historian) gives Yao’s date of birth as around 2356 BCE⁷. Yao is one of a number of mythical rulers that preceded the Xia Dynasty in the period from around 2800 BCE. Hence, these legendary tales overlap in time with the observatory at Yur.
I have explained how the solar temple dedicated to Taurus was aligned with the star cluster Mǎo or Pleiades mentioned in the Canon of Yao. Precession means that the stars are perceived to move along the ecliptic. They currently move by one degree every 72 years, and a full cycle takes around 25,772 years. Hence, the Pleiades cluster was only the mid-spring star at Yur for a limited period of time.
Thus, I conclude that the Canon of Yao refers to scientific observatories that existed at around the same time as Yur.
Yule and Maeshowe
The Temple Dedicated to Aquarius
Maeshowe is another structure on Orkney associated with the Sun. The entrance passage is aligned with the midwinter sunset.
Reference to the Canon of Yao gives us a fascinating insight into this midwinter connection. The star Xū 虛 or Emptiness is assigned to Mèigǔ, one of the other observatories listed in the Canon.
Xū, otherwise known as Sadalsuud or Beta Aquarii, can be found in the constellation of Aquarius. In the Bronze Age, the constellation of Aquarius was associated with the midwinter solstice.
Therefore, it seems likely that Maeshowe was also linked to Aquarius. Indeed, this could explain the water ditch around the temple.
Maeshowe has not been dated. However, if we take an estimated date for its construction of 2600 BCE, we can see, from horizon views of the night sky, that Sadalmelik or Alpha Aquarii was the Yule star at that time.
Images: Your Sky
Making the assumption that the festival of Yule began and ended when the sun set at an azimuth of 225 degrees, the horizon views of Aquarius in the south west on key dates show Sadalmelik as follows:
- Sadalmelik is centred on the south west on 2 December 2600 BCE at the end of astronomical twilight (the end of the transition from light to dark). The sun sets at south west (azimuth 225 degrees) on this day.
- Sadalmelik is centred on the south west on 21 December 2600 BCE in the middle of nautical twilight (the middle of the transition from light to dark). The sun sets at an azimuth of 222 degrees on this day.
- Sadalmelik is centred on south west on 7 January 2601 BCE at sunset (the beginning of the transition from light to dark). The sun sets at south west (azimuth 225 degrees) on this day.
Reference to the Canon of Yao gives us a possible role for the Ness of Brodgar and the surrounding area.
The role of scientific observatory may also be supported by some of the inscriptions found on artifacts. However, there are discrepancies in and between drawings and photographs of the artifacts that appear on the web. If and when I am able to verify the original inscriptions, I will publish more pages about Yur.
Solar Symbol Stone from Structure 10: Image courtesy of Bernie Bell.
Horizon diagrams from Your Sky: https://www.fourmilab.ch/cgi-bin/Yourhorizon: Accessed: 3, 4 and 26 September 2018, and 9 August 2019.
The Pleiades Star Cluster: Lynn Fawcett, 2018.
The Furrow Asterism: Lynn Fawcett, 2019.
1. Martin Kern, 2015: Language and the Ideology of Kingship in the "Canon of Yao": Ideology of Power and Power of Ideology in Early China, p.127: Koninklijke Brill NV.
2. Example of a Bronze Age character for rì: See B09945: Chinese Etymology: http://hanziyuan.net/: Accessed: 3 September 2018.
3. Ness of Brodgar: Dig Diary for 10 August 2016: Photograph of the cupmarked stone from Structure Ten (NB. The star pattern on the stone is a reversed and inverted version of what would be seen in the sky. This suggests that the astronomers at the Ness of Brodgar may have used camerae obscurae.): http://www.nessofbrodgar.co.uk/dig-diary-wednesday-august-10-2016/: Accessed: 25 September 2018.
4. Ness of Brodgar: Dig Diary for 8 August 2019: Photographs of the cupmarked stone from Structure 12 (26): https://www.nessofbrodgar.co.uk/dig-diary-thursday-august-8-2019/: Accessed: 8 August 2019.
5. Hermann Hunger and David Pingree, 1989: MUL.APIN: An Astronomical Compendium in Cuneiform: Path of Anu 15(41), Page 138: Archiv für Orientforschung, Beiheft 24:
Verlag Ferdinand Berger & Söhne GmbH, A-3580 Horn, Austria.
6. Ibid., ii10, Page 33.
7. Raymond Dragan: The Dragon in Chinese Myth and Ritual: Rites of Passage and Sympathetic Magic: Ching, Julia; R.W.L. Guisso, 1991: Sages and Filial Sons: Mythology and Archaeology in Ancient China, Chapter 7, p.140: The Chinese University Press.