Shedding New Light On Ilkley's Swastika Stone

Yorkshire’s famous Ilkley Moor is home to many strange markings and tumuli, but none so strange as the so-called ‘Swastika Stone’. Martin Hickes attempts to re-shed light on an old story from the ancient past.

THE word ‘Swastika’ and imagery of such still sends a shiver down the spine these days for obvious reasons.

But high above Ilkley, at the edge of the famous moor, lie the crude, some say Neolithic markings of the mysterious ‘Swastika Stone’, a remnant from the ancient past, and a time when the term ‘swastika’ had quite the opposite connotations to its modern day implications.

For more than 3,000 years,  the word swastika – taken from the Sanskrit  ’su-asti-ka’ meaning  ‘to be good’ or ‘to be well’  - has had benign historical meanings, not just throughout numerous pagan creation myths from the past, but also in those beliefs beyond Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Only since the 1930s onwards with the rise of Nazi Germany, has the symbol become the antithesis, ironically, of everything the original symbol was deemed to reflect, for reasons best left to historians.

Ilkley’s ‘Swastika Stone’ – deemed important enough to be guarded by railings just on the edge of Ilkley Moor –unique in style Britain and one of only a few similar designs throughout the world – has been in situ for possibly as many as 4,000 years and has been the subject of myth, counter myth and rumour for at least the last 100 years.

The’ cup and ring’ rock engraving (pictured) is at best a vague swastika shape – in fact, to the casual passer-by, it would hardly merit the name; but comparisons with the ‘old’ swastikas of Hindu origin, and those which are scattered richly throughout world history, are striking.

The markings show an alignment of nine ‘cups’ or ball-bearing sized bore holes in the rocks on Woodhouse Crag, interwoven with an enclosed snaking ring shape which itself forms a rudimentary swastika shape. A tenth cup, partly encircled, lies to the side of the arrangement.

Each of the Stone’s arms point to compass points; due north – within one degree  - towards Simon’s Seat, close to Bolton Abbey; east, towards Almscliff Crag, while the tenth rogue cup, also easterly, has long been thought to point to the position of the sun at the dawning of the summer solstice.

Some scholars believe the markings have a Celtic connection with St Brigid, and that Brigantia, the goddess worshiped by the Brigantes tribe of Northern England, (meaning ‘after Brigid’ or ‘the people of Brigid’) is synonymous with her name.

Devotees of St Brigid's  - with strong associations in Ireland – would often  make a cross from straw; the design of these varied from place to place but often resembled a swastika or ‘sun wheel’. It’s perhaps significant that the Brigantes were active around Ilkley.

As Britain’s invading Romans marched northwards from 79 AD onwards, they abutted the Celtic Brigantes tribe - one time allies, and then later overran them and the Pennines to establish hill a fort in Ilkley, near All Saints Church, and outposts at Adel, among others.

All Saints Church/Manor House complex exhibited within its grounds an altar stone to the water goddess Verbeia, which also corresponds to the name of the ‘goddess of Wharfedale’, apparently the figure of a woman holding two serpents or either being flanked by two rivers.

The stone bears the words in Latin: ‘To holy Verbeia, [made by] Clodius Fronto, prefect of the Second Cohort of Lingones.’

The Ilkley regiment contained 500 foot soldiers who were originally recruited from among the Celtic-turned-Roman Lingones tribe inhabiting the Adriatic coast of Northern Italy, the old province of Cisalpine Gaul, but one-time migrants from the Lingones region of Eastern France, close to the Champagne region, flanked by the rivers Marne and Seine.

Could the Ilkley stone have been carved by a Celtic-influenced, Verbeia/Brigid-equivalent-worshipping second century AD Roman cohort, or even by Ilkley’s subdued Brigantes remembering the sun wheels of their Celtic past?

The evidence is perhaps circumstantial at best, but the fact that the ‘Swastika Stone’ is almost identical in form to a design called the ‘Celtic’ Cammunian Rose (see pic), found in rocks overlooking the river valleys of northern Italy in Val Cominica is perhaps more than coincidental. The Italian markings depict a hunter to the left of the design. 

In 2004, claims were made that markings were found in Brisbane, Australia were identical to those of the ‘Stone’ above Ilkley Moor and even a suggestion that the markings represented the very first boomerang.

Perhaps as an even more remote chance, the solution might lie in new technology and the heavens. Polaris is well known as the Pole Star today, but due to the wobble or ‘precession’ of the imperfect sphere of the earth, well known to astronomers, it has not always been so.

Before Polaris, the last significant star to be at the north celestial pole – the point around which the heavens appear to revolve – was the star Thuban – in around 2750 BC, at the time of the early Bronze Age in Britain. Anyone with readily-available basic desktop astronomy software can easily determine this.

The major constellation rotating around Thuban was Draco – the Dragon or Serpent, and to a lesser degree Ursa Minor, contained within the arms of the ‘dragon’.

Again it may be pure coincidence, but Draco bisects Thuban, and could be viewed as exhibiting ‘bent arms’ around Thuban’s rotating point at this period on Earth at the four major points of the year.  

Perhaps significantly, Hercules, the warrior constellation, is immediately ‘next door’ at this distant time – a mirror, perhaps, of Italy’s Cammunian Rose? At this point the line between fact and supposition becomes increasingly blurred, but certainly a Bronze Age inhabitant of Ilkley Moor would have seen the stars swirling around Thuban and not Polaris.

His Egyptian contemporaries would, it seems, have certainly been aware of this, and recent evidence suggests what were once thought to be angular ‘air shafts’ in the Great Pyramid were actually astronomical devices or windows pointing towards Thuban, the then Pole.

What is known is that in Britain, the common name given to the swastika by Anglo Saxons was Fylfot, said to have been derived from the Anglo-Saxon fower fot, meaning four-footed, or many-footed.

Several well-intentioned world movements currently exist aiming to restore the swastika icon -still banned in Germany - to its pre-Nazi connotations.  Whatever the outcome of the debate, its unlikely the icon, for good or bad, will disappear, from the moor or in human culture, for some time yet.