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The design is frequently found in the symbolism of prehistoric cultures, particularly during the Neolithic to Bronze Age periods of European prehistory. The symbol's ubiquity and apparent importance in prehistoric religion have given rise to its interpretation as a solar symbol, whence the modern English term "sun cross" (a calque of German Sonnenkreuz).
Interpretation as solar symbol
The interpretation of the simple equilateral cross as a solar symbol in Bronze Age religion was widespread in 19th-century scholarship. The cross-in-a-circle was interpreted as a solar symbol derived from the interpretation of the disc of the Sun as the wheel of the chariot of the Sun god. Wieseler (1881) postulated an (unattested) Gothic rune hvel ("wheel") representing the solar deity by the "wheel" symbol of a cross-in-a-circle, reflected by the Gothic letter hwair (𐍈).
The English term "Sun-Cross", on the other hand, is comparatively recent, apparently loaned from German Sonnenkreuz and used in the 1955 translation of Rudolf Koch's Book of Signs ("The Sun-Cross or Cross of Wotan", p. 94).
The German term Sonnenkreuz was used in 19th-century scholarly literature of any cross symbol interpreted as a solar symbol, an equilateral cross either with or without a circle, or an oblique cross (Saint Andrew's cross). Sonnenkreuz was used of the flag design of the Paneuropean Union in the 1920s. In the 1930s, the symbol was popular as a link between Christianity and Germanic paganism in the völkisch German Faith Movement.
In the prehistoric religion of Bronze Age Europe, crosses in circles appear frequently on artifacts identified as cult items, for example the "miniature standard" with an amber inlay that shows a cross shape when held against the light, dating to the Nordic Bronze Age, held at the National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen. The Bronze Age symbol has also been connected with the spoked chariot wheel, which at the time was four-spoked (compare the Linear B ideogram 243 "wheel" 𐃏). In the context of a culture that celebrated the Sun chariot, it may thus have had a "solar" connotation (c.f. the Trundholm sun chariot).
The wheel appears as a solar motif in Celtic mythology, presumably associated with Taranis,[clarification needed] e.g. on the Gundestrup cauldron, and at an altar to the sun god at Lypiatt, Gloucestershire. The symbol appears also on the Snoldelev stone.
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- Martin Persson Nilsson, The Minoan-Mycenaean Religion and Its Survival in Greek Religion, Biblo & Tannen Publishers, 1950, p. 421. "there is a wide-spread opinion that the equal-limbed cross is another symbol of the sun. It was, for example, a favourite theory of the late Professor Montelius, and has been embraced by many other archaeologists; its wide acceptance being due to an interest in finding a pre-Christian origin of the symbol of Christianity. The disc of the sun was regarded as a wheel; hence the myth that the sun-god drives in a chariot across the heavens"
- Karl Georg Wieseler (1813–1883), Untersuchungen Zur Geschichte Und Religion Der Alten Germanen in Asien Und Europa, 1881, p. 157. The suggestion of a specifically Gothic variant of the runic alphabet partially preserved in the Gothic alphabet is due to Jacob Grimm's Deutsche Mythologie (1835).
- Richard Nicolaus Graf von Coudenhove-Kalergi, Kampf um Paneuropa aus dem 1. Jahrgang von Paneuropa, Paneuropa Verlag, 1925, p. 36.
- e.g. Karl Hans Strobl, Die Runen und das Marterholz, Zwinger-Verlag, 1936, p. 138; Waldemar Müller-Eberhart, Kopf und herz des Weltkrieges: General Ludendorffs Wertung als Deutscher, Georg Kummer, 1935 p. 244.
- entry at the Nebra sky disk exhibition site (landesmuseum-fuer-vorgeschichte-halle.de)
- Snoldevel stone's photograph depicted in arild-hauge.com.