Despite its place at the center of modern Christian culture, the symbol of the cross significantly predates Western religion. The 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica puts it plainly: “The cross has been used both as a religious symbol and as an ornament from the dawn of man's civilization.” In the ancient world, the cross appeared everywhere from Scandinavia to Egypt. Among the symbol's notable appearances, the cross played a role in the spiritual culture of Chaldea, which thrived from 612 to 539 B.C.
A Chaldean Primer
Ancient Chaldea was located in modern-day southern Iraq and Kuwait. Historians typically refer to the 11th dynasty of the Kings of Babylon as the Chaldean Dynasty, or the “New Babylonians.” Most notably, Nebuchadnezzar and Nebuchadnezzar II ruled the Chaldeans. Under their rule, the peoples of Chaldea rebuilt the city Babylon, which served as a cultural center of the Middle Eastern world until the mid-550s B.C.
Birth of a Symbol
Just as the swastika-shaped crosses with inward- or outward-turned crampons that appeared in cultures such as ancient India and Western Europe are thought to have represented the sun, the Chaldean cross began as a circular sun symbol. Eventually, two beams crossed the circle as a representation of the sun's rays, cementing the Chaldean cross's place among the earliest of two-beamed crosses in recorded history.
The Cross Evolves
G. Maspero's “History of Egypt: Chaldea, Syria, Babylonia and Assyria” speculates on the evolution of the Chaldean cross from sun symbol to a form closer to the modern Christian insignia. The Chaldeans viewed the sky as a vault split into eight segments featuring four cardinal points. As such, the four points of a two-beamed cross stand in for these points, perhaps emanating from the symbolic rays of the original circular “sun” symbol. Eventually the Chaldeans dropped the circle altogether, leaving only the two beams. Maspero theorizes that the two-beam cross may also symbolize the form of a man standing upright with open arms, as this cross typically features a series of rounded protrusions on each point, which could be interpreted as fingers.
Significance in Chaldea
The Chaldean cross served as a symbol of the ancient Babylonian deity Tammuz, Accadian sun-god and husband of the goddess Ishtar. The Chaldeans honored Tammuz, who was thought to have founded Babylon, with a six-day festival at the start of the summer solstice. Both the Chaldean and Hebrew calendar feature a month named for Tammuz.
- Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance: Christian Symbols: Fish (Ichthus), Cross and Crucifix
- Jewish Virtual Library: The Chaldeans
- History of Egypt: Chaldea, Syria, Babylonia and Assyria; G. Maspero
- Harvard University: “Nature,” Volume 35, Issue 902, pp. 345-346: The Cross as a Sun Symbol
- The Philadelphia Church of God: The Cross: Pagan Symbol or Symbol of Faith?
- The Official King James Bible Online: Tammuz
- Hemera Technologies/PhotoObjects.net/Getty Images