Monday, 22 June 2009

Old Mythology in India and the Nordic: Sea Monster, Centaur and Angels

A relief of a figure that is interpreted as an "angel" over the entrance to the crypt holding a scepter or hammer. The crypt belongs to the older part of the Lund Cathedral (founded around 1085) on a pre-christian religious center in Lund, Scania, Southern Sweden. Photo by Wolfgang Sauber, 2007. In this old stone carving there are other important Buddhist symbols, such as: 1) The carved fan-shaped palmette Lotus acroterion ornaments under the figure. Similar carvings are found in Ajanta caves (1-2nd century BCE to 5-6 century CE) and in the Jain caves of Ellora. 2) A Scepter which resembles a Buddhist Shiva Trident. In Sanskrit the trident is called Trisula or Trishula. 3) A ceremonial vase or vessel.




Buddhist Iconography Identification Guide Attributes e.g. Vase.

Dancer with Magic Bowl
A serpent over an Eight-Spooked Wheel ornament on a vessel found at Hedeskoga in Skåne or Scania, Sweden. It is dated to the Bronze Age. The previous blog-post mentioned the important symbols of the eight-spooked wheel and the serpent within ancient Buddhism.


An Iron Age religious figure that resembles an angel found in Oppdal, Trondelag, Norway. Click on the photo. Sometimes these pagan or pre-christian angels were depicted on Sami shaman runic drums e.g. Runic drum from 1723 (Norway).

The Nordic & Russian Sami people had three saints or angel-figures that represented trinity and sometimes was depicted with wings (Friis, 1871, p. 75-76): Frid Ailek (God of Friday), Lava Ailek or Lavardak (God of Saturday) and Sodnabæivve Ailek (God of Sunday). The saints were described as messengers for the gods Thor (Thunder God), Storjunkare (Freyr fertility God) and Biegg Olmai (the Wind and Storm God) and each delivered prayers to the God. Source: Lappisk mythologi, eventyr og folkesagn: eventyr og folkesagn (1871) (Danish-Norwegian Language).

Other Medieval Period relief's from the areas of present Sweden that resembles "Angels" can be seen in the following links from the Museum of National Antiquities, Stockholm, Sweden :



Visa bild | Sök i samlingarna | Historiska museet




Visa bild | Sök i samlingarna | Historiska museet




Visa föremål | Sök i samlingarna | Historiska museet


This schist from Norway is a winged figure ornament resembling an "Atlant" or "Angel" found at Lunner church dates to about 1100 CE (to a period when pagan religion still was practiced in Norway) . Photo by John Erling Blad, 2005. Pay attention to the turban on it's head and compare it with the following ancient angel-alike figure from the India in the Asoka era.

Ancient Buddhist Angel Icons:

An angel like figure called Suparna from Mathura from the Asoka reign era. Exhibited at Lakhnay museum. Suparna is also known as Garuda. Garuda in Buddhism and Garuda in Hinduism

Gandhara Atlants are Buddhist figures with wings that resemble "Angels". This schist is dated to the period from the last century BCE to the 2nd century CE. Photo by mharrsch at Flickr, Creative Commons file.

Two other Greco-Buddhist Atlants:



Gandharan Atlant from the 2nd century CE at Musee Guimet

Winged Atalant, Gandhara at Tokyo National Museum

Figures that looked like “angels” with wings and halos were also part of Buddhism from early on, for instance in Gandhara. The kingdom of Gandhara lasted from 6th century BCE to the 11th century CE. Taxila was a city in ancient Gandhara that was an important center of Buddhist learning from the 5th century BCE to the 2nd century CE. As mentioned earlier thousands of monks were sent to Taxila by emperor Asoka a few hundred years before the Common Era. Buddhist monks were sent from Gandhara as missionaries for the Dharma in all directions, including to Europe. These missions are documented in the Asokan edicts and for instance in the Old Greek literature.

Within Buddhism figures resembling “angels” have many different names, here are some:
Atlant: Atlant with wings.
Varjapani: See photo. The name means "Thunderbolt in hand".

The Gautama Buddha And Vajrapani, Gandhara 2nd Century. Photo by PHGCOM, 2007.

Bodhisattva: Read more about Bodhisattva. Varjapani is a bodhisattva for Wisdom. Avalokiteshvara (Padmapani) is Bodhisattva for compassion.
More about Avalokiteshvara:
Loki is in Tibetan Buddhism one of three divisions of the universe. Tri-Loka is in Hinduism: Heaven, Earth and Hell. Lokeswara is a Buddhist God: Lord of the world, which is also called Avalokitesvara. (Source: “Dictionary of Ancient Deities” by Patricia Turner, Charles Russell Coulter, 2001). Avalokitesvara is in Northern Buddhism: 1) The manifested Logos i.e. Ishvara. 2) The Second Logos i.e. Padmapani defined as the Divine in man. (Powis Hoult, 1910).

Yaksa, Yaksha or Yakkha (male) or Yakshi (female) are nature spirits: Yaksha.
Deva: There are many types of Devas and Devas are not Gods.
Yidams: See same source as over.

A Mythological Sea Monster
This is an ornament from the Stupa of Bharhut in Madhya Pradesh, India. Parts of the Bharhut stupa dates back to the reign of Chandragupta Maurya, about 324 – 300 BCE. Men in a fishing boat and a huge fish swallowing humans.

Timingala Jataka Scene. Displayed at the Varanasi University Museum. This rondell dates according to the linked source back to ca. 200 BCE - 101 BCE.

Does anyone know more about the mythology or story of the scene in this Makara relief?

About this scene by Cunningham: “A great marine monster, with mouth wide open, in the act of swallowing a boat with its crew of three men. A second boat is drifting towards the same fate stern foremost, while her crew of three men have given up rowing, in despair. The waves are rough, and several small fishes appear between the sea monster and the second boat. This bas - relief is valuable as being the only Bhahut Sculpture, which represents us with the view of the ancient Indian boat. Here we have two boats, with their zigzag-cut planks fastened by Iron cramps, just like those of the present day. The oars also and rudder are of the same as those now in use, the former being made of a simple bamboo with a piece of flat wood tied to the end for a blade. The men in the second boat who have given up rowing have placed their right hands on their breasts, a mode of action, which was probably understood to signify despair. The head of the leviathan is particularly stiff and clumsy, but as the animal has to swallow a boat the mouth is necessarily large.

The boats themselves are of exactly the same build as the boat in the Sanchi Sculptures. The Bharhut examples however are about three centuries older; but as the very same pattern of boat and the same oars are still in use at the present day, this relief only affords another example of the unchanging habits of the Hindus. Such as their Boat was in the days of Asoka, such it is now. The planks are notched on their edges to prevent their sliding, and they are fastened together by iron clamps. The oars are shaped somewhat like large spoons: each has a long Bambu handle, with a flat piece of wood at the end to hold the water."

Cunningham tells that the fishtailed elephant can be seen among the Buddhist Sculptures of Buddha Gaya, but of a later date.

Some of this text is interpretations made by Cunningham, such as what feelings the men in the boat likely had and why they had stopped rowing. I could not at first see the second boat, but likely what is being swallowed with the three other men.

The origin of the Makara might be the Greek Sea Monster called Ketos or Cetus that is documented from the 5th century BCE. There were long lasting cultural connections between ancient Buddhist areas of India & Pakistan and ancient Greece. The cultural exchange could have come in both directions and via ancient land and sea trade routes and also indirectly via other trade partners such as ancient Egypt.

Nereid and Ketos, Sirkap, Gandhara., Pakistan. From Musee Guimet

In Nordic Mythology there is a Sea Monster called the Midgard Serpent or “Goarmes Guolle” (Sami language) - can be translated to "Troll-fish" or "Monster Fish". “The Midgard Serpent” i.e. Jörmungandr or Jormungand is the son of the Giants Loki and Angerboda described as the enemy of the thunder God Thor in Nordic Mythology. Here is an article where the author assumes that the myth about the Midgard Serpent has been re-written and changed by the Christians: The one that got away? I will add more about this Nordic myth later on.

The Midgard Serpent (Jörmungandr) is carved on the Altuna Runestone from 11th century in Uppland, Sweden. At this time the “heathen” i.e. pre-Christian religion was still practiced.

Jörmungandr (the Midgard Serpent) gets an ox head as bait, from a 17th Century Icelandic document.

Centaur in Norway:
The relief is dating back to about 1100 CE, when pagan or pre-Christian religion still was practiced in the Nordic areas.

Old ornament from about 1100 CE of a Centaur from the God house that was replaced by Lunner church in Oppland, Norway. Photo by John Erling Blad, 2005

An Centaur relief made about 1170 - 1215 CE on Grotlingbo church at Gotland, Sweden. Photo by Wolfgang Sauber, 2007.

Centaur from Gandhara Indo-Greek Buddhism Era.

Ichhyo Centaur from Gandhara, exhibited at Victoria and Albert Museum. Photo by PHGCOM, 2005.

Many figures and animals that was common in Greek Mythology from about 5th Century BCE (according to this article on Greco-Buddhist art) are also part of the early Buddhist Indo-Greek-Chinese-Iranian cultures (Khotan or Kushan) that inhabited the present areas of India and Pakistan. Such mythological figures are for instance: The Centaur, Ketos or Cetus (Makara in India), and tritons. I am unsure about the origin of the Atlants or Angel-like figures.

If it is so that the ancient Nordic Goths brought a form of early Buddhism to the Nordic, and since Buddhist resembling figures, ornaments and symbols are found in relation to pre-Christian religion here, then the Nordic Goths must have arrived in a period when these symbols were commonly used in the Indo-Greek Buddhism of Asia. The Indo-Greek Buddhist symbols came into use after the conquest by Alexander the Great (336–323 BCE), which went as far east as India and northeastwards to the present areas of Xinjiang, China. The easternmost areas were remains of Greek soldiers have been found is Tian Shan, China from the 4th - 3rd Century BCE.

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