It will come as no shock that western scholars have long overlooked ancient symbols of female power, including the near-universal mystery of the cosmic egg and its role in the afterlife.
Across ancient cultures, people once believed that female birds flew the souls of the dead along the Milky Way to heal and incubate in a cosmic nest at the celestial pole. Ultimately the souls ‘hatched’ as part of the reincarnation process and enjoyed a return flight to another life on Earth. Across northern latitudes the cosmic migration was led by swans, which were long believed to be an all-female species. The presumption that each swan was miraculously born reflected the bird’s divine status. Vultures were also thought to carry souls to the heavens and were also thought to be all female. A 4th century Christian monk wrote that vultures wishing to conceive “turn their womb to the north wind.”
From wailing women at funerals to the placing of eggs in tombs and the swan and stork’s mythic delivery of infants, the pagan afterlife was once managed and operated entirely by nurturing female figures. There was profound power in overseeing the reincarnation process and ensuring the continuity of family lines, especially royal ones. The age of the cosmic egg phenomenon is impossible to pin down, but it may predate Homo sapiens.
In the Serengeti Plain of northern Tanzania is the oldest structure in the archaeological record: An egg-shaped ring with stone tools and bones inside the boundary. Located at Olduvai Gorge and estimated to be 1.9 million years old, archaeologists can’t say who built the ring or what purpose it served. About 176,000 years ago, deep inside Bruniquel Cave in southern France, Neanderthals built small fires on an egg-shaped ring of stones while engaging in “some kind of symbolic or ritual behavior,” according to a study by a team of 18 scientists in the May 2016 edition of Nature. Not far away in modern-day Nice, Neanderthals built 20 egg-shaped huts. Taken together with widespread forensic evidence that Neanderthals plucked feathers and removed talons from golden eagles and vultures for ceremonial purposes, it’s plausible their core beliefs included some kind of “cosmic egg.”
Although the size and shape of the ovals at Olduvai Gorge and Bruniquel Cave are nearly identical, it’s unlikely the measurements were handed down over almost two million years. In both cases the ratio of the short axis to the long axis is about 2/3, a match for eggs laid by pheasants, hens, ducks, turkeys, and other birds. The ring-builders may simply have copied the form of eggs they observed in nature.
Scholars agree that the megaliths built by early farming cultures around the globe were usually intended to represent the setting of creation. Despite the near-universal status of cosmic egg creation mythology, little attention has been paid to the oval forms found in numerous ancient megaliths. Dating back 11,500 years, Göbekli Tepe in eastern Turkey is the oldest megalithic temple in the world, and looks like a giant nest filled with egg-shaped stone enclosures up to 100 feet across. About 5,600 years ago on the Mediterranean island of Malta, the Mnajdra and Ġgantija temples both featured two main ovals that some scholars believe were meant to appear as a mother goddess figure from above, with over-large breasts atop even larger hips.
On the northwest coast of France, the Scottish engineer Alexander Thom measured the 6,000-year-old Alignments at Menec, including 12 rows of standing stones leading up a hill to a large stone mound that he described simply as an “egg.” British archaeologist Aubrey Burl wrote that it’s inaccurate to use the phrase “stone ring” because “so many are not round but ovoid, egg-shaped.”
Built by hunter-gatherers across northwest Finland between 5,500 and 4,000 years ago, some Giant’s Churches were ovate and aligned to the solstices and equinoxes. Among the largest oval churches is Kastelli Giant’s Church, at 197 feet on the long axis and 115 feet across.
In ancient Egypt the sarcophagus was referred to as an “egg” where the soul rejuvenates, reflecting the belief that death was a temporary state, not unlike incubation. It was the voice of the ibis-headed god Thoth that hatched the cosmic egg.
Eggs and the Winter Solstice
Across numerous cultures the sacred theater of the winter solstice once told a supernatural story of the afterlife. The plot went something like this:
In late October, people gathered to bury the bodies and release the souls of the year’s dead so migratory birds could fly the souls beyond the horizon to a sacred place. Megalithic temples with egg-shaped forms were built on the winter grounds of migratory birds around the world, where it was thought birds delivered the souls of the dead for incubation. Six or seven weeks later, in front of a crowd at dawn on the winter solstice, the first rays of the reborn sun entered the temples and quickened the incubating souls of the dead to reincarnation and new life.
The reborn souls took up residence in the unusually high number of newborn infants and pregnant women about to give birth around the winter solstice, conception having occurred around the spring equinox. Ancient farming cultures from Mesopotamia to Egypt and Europe practiced ritualized sexual intercourse during planting season as an act of sympathetic magic to evoke the universal power of fertility. It was believed that babies born around the winter solstice were blessed by the reborn sun, and would grow up to be leaders, cultural heroes, or even demi-gods.
Spanning more than 4,000 years, the six ancient sites explored below share the major elements of the mythic story: a location on the winter grounds of migratory birds, egg-shaped megaliths, a direct alignment to sunrise on the winter solstice, all constructed when the belief in reincarnation was nearly universal.
- Whooper flocks head southeast from Iceland every autumn, with one group spending the winter among the megalithic mounds of the Boyne Valley in County Meath, Ireland. The 5,200-year-old ovate mound known as Brú na Bóinne was designed so the winter solstice sunrise would shine down a 60-foot passage and into a central chamber. Thousands of smooth, egg-shaped, ‘river-rolled’ quartz stones fill much of the mound, like a nest of eggs.
- Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia is one of the largest wintering grounds for migratory birds in Southeast Asia. Just a few miles away, observers at a small temple watched the winter solstice sun rise over the ovoid conical towers at 900-year-old Angkor Wat, representing the mythical Mount Meru where Hindu souls reincarnate.
- In Maharashtra, India, the Ajanta Caves date back more than 2,000 years, located near the Jaikwadi Bird Sanctuary, a winter ground for about 30 species of migratory birds. On the winter solstice, Cave 19 receives the dawning sun, which shines on a standing Buddha as he appears to emerge from an egg of polished white stone.
- Dating back at least 1,000 years, the Great Serpent Mound in southeast Ohio is located where the Central and Atlantic Americas global bird migration flyways converge in a narrow corridor south of the Great Lakes. Various curves in the Native American structure align to the winter and summer solstices and the equinoxes while the snake’s mouth stretches around an egg-shaped mound. The egg form may have been the mythic bait in a metaphysical scheme to induce sacred birds to descend from the sky and engage with their nemesis the serpent, about to devour the egg.
- The main feature of the 800-year-old Great Zimbabwe Ruins is the oval Great Enclosure, the largest prehistoric stone structure south of the Sahara, located near the convergence of three global bird flyways, a rare occurrence producing enormous avian populations. A 2002 study found that the three bright stars in Orion rise over three standing stone pillars on the morning of the winter solstice.
- Located where a route of the Pacific Americas Flyway makes landfall on the coast of northern Peru, the boundary line of the 2,400-year-old village of Chankillo was an oval stone ring. Above the village on a north-south running ridge are the Thirteen Towers of Chankillo, with the north end aligned to the summer solstice and the south end to the winter solstice.
The pagan conceptions of birth, death, and the afterlife were all part of a story that unfolded in sync with the sacred calendar, incorporating and drawing upon the entire community in celebrating the perpetual cycle of life as embodied in the cosmic egg.
[Ben H. Gagnon is the author of Church of Birds: An Eco-History of Myth and Religion, to be released in April 2023 by John Hunt Publishing, London. It’s currently available for pre-order.]