Obscure Geometries: Minoan Navigator


2. Minoan Navigator

Minoan Crete was a Bronze Age society with a principal claim to maritime power status. Located on the northwestern periphery of the coastal trading routes around the eastern Mediterranean, its ships pioneered the blue-water passage crossing the Sea in a direct path from Greece to Egypt.

In achieving this feat, Minoan seafarers broke through significant technological and psychological barriers to long distance sea travel. Voyaging away from sight of land, without the security of night-time anchorage, required three things: the possession of seaworthy sailing vessels, the ability to navigate using the sun and stars as guides, and a certain mentalite to trust in both.

   "The Egyptians considered the Minoans to be 'Westerners', which indicates that they arrived via the direct western open-water route from Crete. This makes meteorological sense: during the summer sailing season the windrose in the eastern Mediterranean is primarily northwest…

Obscure Geometries: Monumental Calendar


Monumental Calendar

Monoliths, megaliths, and monuments from the Stone Age are spectacular evidence of prehistoric 'time'. They have generated an equally spectacular array of hypotheses about how they were built and why. Archaeologists and astronomers have contributed to these layers of interpretation, but their findings often seem overwhelmed by enthusiasts and 'believers' of various persuasions.

In attempting to unpick the credible from the credulous I found myself adopting three principles that guided my research. The first and most fundamental of these is to follow the science and avoid the occult. There is really no other way to deal with the claims of those who unearth ley-lines by a funny feeling in their coccyx but to ignore them. The idea that there is an ancient wisdom, a secret knowledge since lost to the cynical West and now being rediscovered by a select few, is the sort of conspiracy theory all too common in human history. 

The second is to…

Pathology of Empire: 'son of heaven'


3. 'son of heaven'

A common means of securing empire and emperor is to claim that Heaven decreed it. This legitimising assertion is difficult to rebut if an imperial ascension is accompanied by a significant astronomical event. In China, the 'Mandate of Heaven' has been used to shore up dynastic empires for thousands of years (and conversely, to justify their overthrowing).

The 'Mandate' first emerged in a recognisable form towards the end of the second millennium BC., when the Shang Dynasty was defeated and replaced by the Zhou Dynasty of King Wen and King Wu. The doctrine is thought to have been fully developed by the Duke of Zhou in the succeeding years when he acted as regent for King Wu's son Cheng.

In ancient China, the real-politik inquiry about who is manipulating whom becomes ambiguous. The degree to which political protagonists were themselves beholden to the religious beliefs of their times is unclear. In the words of the Grand Hi…

Pathology of Empire: 'the catfish'


2. 'the catfish'

At the core of enduring empire is Belief. The object of this belief is the Chosen One, recognised by signs of his anointing like victory in battle and the sacking of cities. The subject of this belief, the Genius of Empire, arranges his own adoration by adopting myth and designing ceremony. The relationship between the two is so intensely symbiotic that it becomes almost impossible to discern where religion ends and politics begins. Such was Ancient Egypt.

In her article, "Propaganda and Performance at the Dawn of the State", Ellen Morris brings disarming simplicity to this maze of meaning. She writes, "According to pharaonic ideology, the maintenance of cosmic, political, and natural order was unthinkable without the king, who served as the crucial lynchpin that held together not only Upper and Lower Egypt, but also the disparate worlds of gods and men. Because of his efforts, society functioned smoothly and the Nile floods bro…