Non European cosmology and constellation development

The study of the structure and evolution of the universe belongs to the field of cosmology, as opposed to the description and representation of this structure, which is cosmography. Cosmographical images are depicted in many celestial charts, so it is important to have a sense of various cosmological systems. Since printed star maps are essentially a European development, I will go into much detail in the next chapter about the thread of cosmological development that began with the classical Greeks as background for an understanding of what is shown on these maps.

However, a number of cultures interacted with Europe and influenced the course of its development. In particular, Mesopotamia and Egypt played a role in Greek astronomy. In turn, Hellenistic astronomy influenced India after the conquests of Alexander the Great, and in turn India influenced Islamic (and then European) astronomy during the Middle Ages. Although China had less direct impact, the Chinese were great traders with India and Europe and had some scientific influences on the West as well.

An example of the fertility that ensued from such inter-cultural contact has been nicely summarized by the great historian of astronomy, Otto Neugebauer:

Three different systems of astronomical reference were independently developed in early antiquity: the "zodiac" in Mesopotamia, the "lunar mansions" in India, and the "decans" in Egypt. The first system alone has survived to the present day because it was the only system which at an early date (probably in the fifth century bc) was associated with an accurate numerical scheme, the 360-division of the ecliptic. The lunar mansions, i.e., the twenty-seven or twenty-eight places occupied by the Moon during one sidereal rotation, were later absorbed into the zodiacal system which the Hindus adopted through Greek astronomy and astrology. With Islamic astronomy the mansions returned to the west but mainly as an astrological concept. A similar fate befell the decans. When Egypt became part of the Hellenistic world the zodiacal signs soon show a division into three decans of 10° each. As "drekkana" they appear again prominently in Indian astrology, and return in oriental disguise to the west, forming an important element in the iconography of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance (Neugebauer, 1983, p. 205).

For these reasons, this chapter will focus on cosmological developments in four ancient cultures: China, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and India. Although the Mesopota-mian constellation system was on the direct path leading to Greek constellation development, Chinese, Egyptian, and Indian constellations for a time preserved their own unique constellation features that were separate from those in the West. Since some star maps depict these non-European models, I will present an overview of these as well. For information on other interesting cosmological development in places such as early Britain, Australia and Polynesia, Africa, and the Americas, the reader is referred to the standard texts mentioned in the Bibliography (e.g., Selin, 2000; Walker, 1996).

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