The Mystery of Greek Temple Alignments

The alignments of Greek temples have puzzled archaeologists for over a century. Originally it was thought that the Greeks aligned their temples to the sun and stars on the feast day of the deity to which they were dedicated. Subsequent research revealed the nature of the alignments to be more complex with no simple or obvious explanation.

A New Study of Greek Temple Sites

A recent study of 59 temples, oracles, and other important archaeological sites in Greece, Sicily, western Turkey, and northern Africa found only about a third of the sites to be aligned astronomically. (Click here to read the full paper.) The inability of archaeoastronomy to explain the alignment of most ancient sites in Greece as well as in other parts of the world has led archaeologists to consider the influence of other factors besides astronomy such as local culture, agricultural practices, and landscape. That so few sites can be explained by alignments to the sun, moon, and stars suggest the possibility that the ancients could have used other points of reference or even different frames of reference not previously considered by archaeologists.

Katherine Carlotto, Hyperborea (2019) Acrylic on canvas

Geomagnetic Pole Alignments

Charvátová et al (2011) argue that numerous earthen mounds in China could have been aligned using a magnetic compass toward the north geomagnetic pole at the time of construction. Ioannis Liritzis and Helen Vassiliou (2006) suggest that certain Greek temples were aligned to observe the aurora borealis – a geomagnetic phenomenon commonly known as the “northern lights.” Could the Greeks, who were familiar with the magnetic properties of certain materials, have used some primitive form of a magnetic compass to align temples in the direction of the geomagnetic pole, which is generally displaced from the geographic pole much like many Greek temples are from the cardinal directions?

Although it is not known if the  Greeks had actually developed some form of magnetic compass and used it to align sites as the ancient Chinese are thought to have done, using archaeomagnetic data to compute the location of the north geomagnetic pole over the past 4000 years, 6 of the 59 sites are aligned in the direction of the geomagnetic pole at their estimated time of construction.

Temple of Poseidon at Paestum (400 BCE) could have been aligned to the north geomagnetic pole at around the time of construction. (Sacred Directions/Apple Maps)

Alignments to Oracles and Other Places of Importance

The Greek writer Vitruvius, in his work De Architectura, states that sunrise was not always the principal direction for aligning temples and that there was sometimes a preference for facing nearby cities or directions of approach along rivers or roads. Jean Richer (1994) proposed that the locations of certain sacred places in ancient Greece provided a geographical reference frame for a zodiacal interpretation of the alignments of ancient sites to places such as the Amun Temple in the Siwa Oasis near Libya in northwestern Egypt, Mt. Ida on the island of Crete, and oracles at Dodoni and Delphi in Greece.

Sequence showing the alignments of sites to the Amun Temple in the Siwa Oasis near Libya in northwestern Egypt, Mt. Ida and the Cave of Zeus on the island of Crete, the oracles at Dodoni and Delphi, and Mycenae. (Google Earth)

By examining the orientations of rectangular structures and rectilinear features such as walls, 25 of the 59 sites were found to be aligned in the directions of six “centers”- the Amun Temple in northwestern Egypt, Mt. Ida and the Cave of Zeus on the island of Crete, the oracles at Dodoni and Delphi, and the fortress of Mycenae.

Amphitheater at Dodoni faces toward the Amun Temple in Siwa.
Amun Temple, Siwa, in turn, faces in the direction of Dodoni.

A particularly interesting discovery is that the Amun Temple in Siwa and certain structures at the Greek oracle center of Dodoni face each other implying that they might have been built at the same time. This idea is consistent with the following passage from Herodotus (Book 2, Chapter 55):

“That, then, I heard from the Theban priests; and what follows, is told by the prophetesses of Dodoni: to wit, that two black doves had come flying from Thebes in Egypt, one to Libya and one to Dodoni; this last settled on an oak tree, and uttered there human speech, declaring that there must be there a place of divination from Zeus; the people of Dodoni understood that the message was divine, and therefore they established the oracular shrine. The dove which came to Libya bade the Libyans (so they say) to make an oracle of Ammon; this also is sacred to Zeus…”

How did the Greek build two sites almost 800 miles apart aligned to face one another? Perhaps they did not.

Alignments to Old Poles

Two papers to be published next year based on an analysis of over two hundred ancient sites across the world find that more than half of the sites cannot be explained in terms of alignments to celestial or other known points of reference but can be explained in terms of alignments to previous locations of the North Pole. Remarkably, an even smaller fraction of the sites considered in this study have a conventional explanation but almost all of them appear to reference previous locations of the pole.

Color-coded alignments of sites to the current pole (white), Hudson Bay pole (magenta), Greenland pole (green), Norwegian Sea pole (yellow), and Bering Sea pole (red). (Google Earth)

By referencing Greek sites to previous pole locations, site alignments can be interpreted in a new way. Two locations on the island of Crete, Mt. Ida and the Cave of Zeus, appear to be extensions of meridians through Mycenae and Delphi relative to the Hudson Bay pole as shown in the figure below. Were Mycenae and Delphi aligned to Mt. Ida and the Cave of Zeus or were these two locations on Crete established based on the locations of Mycenae and Delphi?

Alignments between Mycenae, Delphi, and Crete. Magenta lines are meridians relative to the Hudson Bay pole. Orange lines between sites are aligned to within 1° of the corresponding meridians..

Implications

The existence of sites aligned to previous locations of the North Pole suggests that the area of what is now Greece has been inhabited for a considerable period of time. If our hypothesized pole shift chronology is correct, to up to about 125,000 years ago, when the North Pole was in the Bering Sea, Greece was located near the equator. A crustal displacement and pole shift to the Norwegian Sea thrusted Greece into the far northern temperate climate zone with cataclymic consequences. The next crustal displacement moved the pole to Greenland shifting Greece south to where it existed for several tens of thousands of years. This may have been the period that Critias tells us about in Plato’s dialog:

“Now the city in those days was arranged on this wise. In the first place, the Acropolis was not as now. For the fact is that a single night of excessive rain washed away the earth and laid bare the rock; at the same time there were earthquakes, and then occurred the extraordinary inundation, which was the third before the great destruction of Deucalion.”

The Parthenon atop the Acropolis in Athens is one of many structures in Greece that is aligned to the Greenland pole. According to Critias’ count of destructions/inundations, the Bering Sea to Norwegian Sea pole shift would have been the first, the Norwegian Sea to Greenland pole shift would have been the second, and the Greenland to Hudson Bay pole shift would have been the third. The destruction of Deucalion caused by the last pole shift from Hudson Bay was the fourth.

Shifts in the location of Greece relative to the geographic pole over the past 125,000 years. (Google Earth)

We propose that the Greek temple sites referencing previous geographic pole locations were established by earlier civilizations and later co-opted by the Greeks. Our hypothesis is that, over time, as certain sites were destroyed or fell into ruin, they were rebuilt and expanded, and new structures were added above and/or around consistent with the original site plan. What exists today is an indication of the original alignment of the site. For sites that contain structures aligned to current and past poles there may not be obvious differences between the two if the older pole structures were rebuilt or built over at the same time current pole structures were added.

References

Charvátová, Ivanka , Klokočník , Jaroslav, Kolmaš, Josef, and Kostelecký, Jan (2011) “Chinese tombs oriented by a compass: Evidence from paleomagnetic changes versus the age of tombs,” Studia Geophysica et Geodaetica, Vol. 55, pp 159–174.

Liritzis, Ioannis, and Vassiliou, Helen (2006) “Were Greek temples oriented towards aurorae?” Astronomy & Geophysics, Vol. 47, Issue. 2.

Richer, Jean (1994) Sacred Geography of the Ancient Greeks, State University of New York Press, Albany.

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