Astronomy in Mythology and Ancient Religion

This topic has been dealt with, in varying detail, in sections of previous chapters, but nowhere comprehensively. Here, we attempt a more general summary. As we have examined these ancient astronomies and the associated beliefs, we have found widespread similarities embedded in strikingly different cultural matrices. DHK thinks that the similarities are far greater than would be found by a random assortment of phenomena linked only by happenstance. To the extent that such similarities are arbitrary features, representing particular historical associations, their presence in distinct cultures suggest past contacts. However, we have increasingly found that similarities that, at first, seemed utterly arbitrary and inconsistent have an understandable common basis in human thought processes. Anthropologists have called the spread of ideas from one culture to another "diffusion," and the commonality of symbolism, "the psychic unity of mankind," that is, the separate, independent development of comparable ideas. The two interpretations have usually been opposed, but the ideas that will spread most easily are precisely those that embody new combinations of basically appealing "natural" symbols. For present purposes, it seems desirable to draw attention to some of the most striking parallels that we have noted without trying to specify what combination of normal human thinking processes and historical or ahistorical contacts between groups could have produced the similarities. Whatever the causes of specific similarities, the material presented here supports the view that interest in abstract data and the intellectual capacity to use such data are normal in all human groups. In summary, we pose the threefold question: Are such ideas accidental correspondences, do they represent ideas that recur repeatedly because of the inevitable connotations of symbolic systems, or, finally, are they vestiges of historical contacts? In many cases, detailed appraisal would be inappropriate, and sometimes it is difficult to find a plausible explanatory hypothesis. We have admitted some cases of this sort.

Perhaps the interpretation of mythology that has been most influential in anthropology (including archaeology) is that of Levi-Strauss, who examines the structure of myths. He uses three basic terms to characterize myths (Levi-Strauss 1969, p. 199):

(1) Armature, "a combination of properties that remain invariant in two or several myths"

(2) Code, "the pattern of functions ascribed by each myth to these properties"

(3) Message, "the subject matter of an individual myth"

A great deal of his presentation is devoted to an analogy between myth and music that presupposes that the reader has a detailed knowledge of modern music and of the history and theory of music. Levi-Strauss claims that the structures of music and of myth are dependent on the same basic properties of the human brain and particularly on binary oppositions. In terms of archaeoastronomy, his most interesting conclusion is that a considerable number of myths incorporate an astronomical "code" that is hidden behind surface "messages" that have no astronomical content. Unfortunately, his "astronomy" is merely a statement of structural oppositions about astronomy, such as a widespread contrast between "organized" Orion and "chaotic" Pleiades. He makes no attempt either to reconstruct mythical prototypes or to determine whether astronomical events or processes are being described. He sometimes concludes that widespread similarities among myths (of which he has striking knowledge) are due to similar structural patterning rather than to historical contacts (Levi-Strauss 1969, pp. 226-239). At other times, he writes as if certain widespread stories, particularly parallels between South American and North American myths, are due to the dissemination of a story with changes. Moreover, he usually seems to assume that only the "message" was conscious on the part of storytellers. He maintains that myth has meaning only in the sense that a symphony does, resonating, as it were, in the soul of the listener.

Precession is the basis for all myths of disorder and the ending of world ages according to Thomas Worthen (1991), largely a follower of Levi-Strauss in his techniques of myth analysis. He also depended heavily on Dumezil, particularly for his study of the "ambrosia" cycle of myths dealing with the sacred drink of the gods. Worthen (1991, p. 157) departs markedly from Levi-Strauss by maintaining that observable astronomical events were conceptualized in myths in a coherent way by observers who knew very well what they were saying. Worthen's data, myth constructions, and con clusions are very similar to Santillana and Dechend (1969), although they are hardly mentioned.

Worthen (1991, p. 171) accepts that Hipparchos was the first to make a serious technical effort to determine the rate of precession. He distinguishes this from the knowledge that "a continuous nondirunal [sic], nonseasonal motion alters the stars' positions relative to the equator." Both should be distinguished from simple recognition of the fact that stellar markers for the equinoxes and poles are no longer functioning. For the latter position, he presents evidence that some find substantial. In light of the dismal knowledge of precession exhibited by astronomers after Hipparchos2 [due, in no small extent, to Ptolemy whose lower value for the precession gave rise to the notion of trepidation (see §7.3 and §7.7)], it is most unlikely that any appreciation of the true nature of precession would have permeated the consciousness of other groups of people; the commonly cited but very slowly changing pole location among the stars and circumpolar constellations, notwithstanding. The effects of precession on the positions of star groups relative to the equinoxes encapsulated in myth and poetry could be recognized as changing with time. Such recognition does not necessarily imply any sophisticated appreciation of the nature of precession.

There are other, more direct, objections to Worthen's position as well. His dependence on structuralism leads him to say that "If something is like another in one way, it is like it in every way, even though some of those ways may not be immediately apparent." This seems to DHK utterly contrary to his knowledge of comparative mythology. The way in which Worthen (1991, pp. 94-95) makes things alike "in every way" may be seen in his attempt to equate all cultivated plants, fire, vultures, hummingbirds, jaguars, and rodents because they are all amphibian! Apparently, the differences that most of us would see in such a varied list are to be considered merely superficial. Worthen's knowledge of the Indo-European languages and of comparative linguistics is such that some of his linguistic interpretations are worthwhile contributions and much of his analysis is more sober than the previous citations might suggest. However, he has no hesitation in suggesting that Vedic myths antedate 4500 b.c., and he thinks that the full nakshatra system in India with the so-called junction stars was in use at that time (Worthen 1991, pp. 218-222).

Among the rare studies that attempt to show how convergent myths may derive from parallel observations of real phenomena, rather than merely asserting it, the study of the opossum by Munn (1984) is outstanding. The opossum's habit of pretending to be dead and then appearing very much alive made it a natural symbol of rebirth, just as the Moon wastes away, "dies," and is reborn again. Its immunity to snake bite and ability to survive even after very rough treatment reen-forced the theme that opossums did not die. Its nocturnal habits make it a natural companion for the Moon and stars, its fondness for corn fields associates it with agriculture, and its fiercely protective attitude toward its young make it a fitting associate of Mother Moon and Mother Earth. Babies

2 With the important exception of al-Battani (see §7.4).

are born 13 days after conception, and the mother has 13 teats. Although Munn does not explicitly point it out, the number 13 creates a parallel with the Moon in years that have an intercalary month. The bare tail is widely associated with loss of original hair by burning, which leads naturally to the Mesoamerican identification of opossum as the "man" who stole fire for people; the pouch is sometimes identified as a burnt out area created by the burning coals that the animal stole. South American myths of a Star Woman (sometimes identified as Jupiter, although this is not mentioned by Munn) who becomes an Opossum and helps men to get corn agriculture may be associated with the opossum's fondness for corn as a food and cornfields as a habitat. If one is to argue that parallel myths throughout the world arise independently, studies like this one of Munn's are essential. One also needs to ask whether the celestial analogies are basic to a widely transmitted story or are independently "tacked on" to animal stories that originally had no celestial component, and if "tacked on," whether that was done in observationally and psychologically similar ways. On present evidence, a legitimate argument could be presented for either view. Formal reconstructions of prototypes of related tales to determine whether this increases or decreases similarities with other areas seems to DHK a highly desirable way to approach these problems.

The most comprehensive studies of myth in a worldwide context are those of Joseph Campbell (especially, 1959,1962, 1964, 1988, 1989). Despite his preliminary work explaining widespread mythic parallels in terms of Jungian archetypes, Campbell seems to have been more and more convinced that many similarities in myths around the world were due to movements of peoples and ideas. His magnificently illustrated Historical Atlas of World Mythology is actually a culture history of the world with an emphasis on belief systems. Perhaps his most basic point is that all existing belief systems are transformations and adaptations of earlier systems with patterns traceable in broad outlines from the Palaeolithic to the present. Plant distributions and artifact distributions often show congruences with patterns of myth distribution, and they show no respect for conventional cultural boundaries, although he is entirely willing to accept concepts of cultural matrices. For purposes of archaeo-astronomy, his approach to culture history helps to furnish a context for parallels in astronomical beliefs and practices. However, at least in the volumes that have so far been published, there is little direct mention of the role of astronomy in myth except for some very broad generalizations.

To our knowledge, the only attempt to treat myths as astronomical systems on a worldwide basis is that of Santillana and Dechend (1969). They proposed that most mythic motifs incorporate descriptions of astronomical phenomena, including, but not limited to, descriptions of precession in terms of catastrophes. Their procedure is to present comparative motifs from many areas, not to demonstrate historical relationships, which are assumed, but to illuminate the prototypical meaning of the motifs. They maintain that many mythic motifs are analogical and once had a technical meaning as astronomy. Iconographic similarities are likewise constructed as historical derivations of diffused knowledge about astronomy and examined for the light they throw on the meanings of myth. There is no formal attempt to arrange motifs according to chronology nor, in most cases, to specify particular cultures that share groups of motifs or interpretations. To the extent that Santillana and Dechend are correct, massive reinterpretations of mythology are needed. We have not attempted the detailed study of their work that would be necessary to make a fully informed judgment about the extent to which their ideas might be justified. Some of their ideas parallel interpretations put forth by DHK in his unpublished Ph.D. dissertation (1957), and he has been influenced by some of their ideas in subsequent studies of comparative mythology.

Among many scholars who have worked on mythology and religion, the works of Erwin Goodenough seem particularly important for three reasons. First, his massive work on early Jewish art and its relationships provides extensive information on the use of astronomical and astrological symbolism in Greco-Roman Judaism. Second, he has proposed a consistent theory of the interrelationships of religion, iconography, and astronomy. Third, DHK has noted certain striking similarities between Gnostic (Egypto-Judaic) symbols described by Goodenough and religious symbols in Mesoamerican art that he thinks need explanation (discussed below). The rest of this section examines them.

To most interested scholars, the presence of representational art in synagogues was unexpected. In the same milieu, the presence of pagan symbolic art, including the signs of the zodiac and the Sun God in his chariot, was in strong opposition to the position of the rabbis in Talmudic literature. Indeed, Goodenough pointed out that the most common representations in the synagogues were precisely the elements against which the rabbis fulminated most strongly. Goodenough contrasted "normative" Judaism as it had been set forth by later Jewish scholars with a more Hellenized and mystical "other" Judaism. The latter incorporated widespread pagan concepts of sacraments associated with concepts of resurrection and important elements of Egyptian gnosticism. However, to Goodenough, this other Judaism consistently used pagan symbols that had fixed and relatively unchanging interpretations, which were consonant with Jewish ideas of deity. He tried to determine the meaning of these symbols by a combination of Freudian and Jungian psychology, with a liberal dash of his intuition. In literature, this mystical movement was represented primarily by the works of Philo Judaeaus. The most important physical remnants of this Judaism were magical amulets and charms. Christian murals suggested to him the prior existence of then unknown Jewish murals, and he emphasized the use of Greco-Roman symbols in Jewish tombs, especially symbols connected with the life-giving wine of Dionysos. Subsequent archeological work has amply confirmed the remarkable degree of Hellenization present in many synagogues and other monuments of Judaism, but there seems to be no evidence to support the basic thesis of a two-way split in Judaism. Instead, "normative" Judaism seems to have been much more eclectic and locally varied than anyone had supposed (cf. Shanks 1979, especially, pp. 152-158).

Goodenough (1953-1968, Vol. 2, p. 201) quotes a charm that mixed Greek, Egyptian, and Jewish concepts in addressing Eros, said to sit upon the lotus "enthroned" as a croco-

Figure 15.1. Comparisons of astronomical and astrological symbolism in amulets of Greco-Roman Judaism (a1 to a4) with Mesoamerican representations from pottery and monuments (b1 to b5). Drawings by Sharon Hanna.

dile and "to the south" of a winged serpent. Goodenough (1953-1968, Vol. 2, p. 215) maintained that "Symbols could not have been put publicly into the synagogues and cemeteries of the period unless they had already won such widespread tolerance among Jews as the literature of Judaism has never suggested." He goes on to claim that amulets and charms such as the one to Eros were the primary mechanism by which pagan symbols were adopted. This is apparently still an acceptable position. However, Morton Smith, a strong admirer but also critic of Goodenough, concluded that several of Goodenough's crucial positions were mistaken. Widespread "sacramental paganism" did not exist, and many of Goodenough's equations of different symbols were based on the premise that it did exist. At the level of comparative detail, many of his insights have been widely accepted.

From time to time, scholars have emphasized the striking difference between the Mediterranean and Mayan concepts of religion. It seems worthwhile to emphasize that there are also striking similarities clustering both geographically and conceptually. Although DHK has no hypothesis at present to explain similarities between a gnostic form of Judaism and Mesoamerica, he thinks that the similarities might easily be missed by other scholars and that they deserve attention, and, hopefully, explanation. In Figure 15.1, there are a few parallel items that would seem unusual wherever they were found, all associated with the deity name Iao.

Many of the Egypto-Judaic representations come from protective amulets. The more sophisticated possessors of such amulets might well have explained that they were not intended to represent the deity but only to symbolize some aspects of this power. DHK is particularly struck by the strange idea of incorporating a bearded human head with a prominent nose as the breast of a bird (Goodenough 1953-1968, Fig. 1086; see Figure 15.1a1 and b1). Beards are rare in Mesoamerica, and representations of human heads were offensive to many Jews; yet, they appear in similar figures in both areas. The Judaic amulet shows a rooster, and the Mesoamerican examples depict water birds (probably stylized herons), but we know of no similar depictions from anywhere else in the world. In Mesoamerica, the heads are accompanied by star glyphs in some cases and resemble those of known deities (cf., Figure 15.2). The six-pointed star of David with the Egypto-Judaic representation may also embody a planetary reference. It is noteworthy that among the Egyptians, Heron (bak) was a planetary name. The Mayan for heron is also bak.

Another resemblance is found in the so-called angui-pedes, or serpent-footed gods (Figure 15.1a3 and b3). In the Mediterranean, such figures are often labeled Iao (law) or Abrasax, Hebrew names given to God. DHK thinks that Iao seems to be a syncretism of Hebrew Yahweh with Egyptian ideas of a supreme creator, himself a syncretism of ancient Egyptian concepts with Hellenized Greek ideas. Abrasax is an artificial name, and the numerical values of the letters add to 365, which suggests solar symbolism. Goodenough (1953-1968, p. 251) writes, "We have already seen the name Iao attached to a considerable variety of forms, and we shall see it with many more, none of which need to be taken to stand for a likeness of Yahweh, or should be so taken in any direct sense. On the other hand, a complete denial of the reference of Iao to the God of the Jews, or to God in any sense, such as Ganschinietz has made, seems to me just as misleading." Goodenough is suggesting syncretistic identification of Yahweh with the Egypto-Judaic deity, of whom all other deities were manifestations. Both the rooster head and the lion head found on anguiped representations are also

Figure 15.2. Bird breasts in the form of bearded human heads representing star deities: Representations on a Mayan vase (Kerr 1991), K5082. Copyright, Justin Kerr. Reproduced with permission.

typically associated with solar symbolism across much of Eurasia. The lion-headed anguiped holding a shield and a torch resembles the Mayan god Ah Bolon Tzacab, "he of many generations," usually depicted with a single serpent-foot and a torch in his forehead, inset in a mirror. His Aztec counterpart, Tezcatlipoca, was associated with a smoking mirror (and we have argued for a solar role for him). In the latter case, his foot was lost to a crocodile, and he was replaced sometimes with a serpent and sometimes with a smoking mirror. The smoking mirror is associated in turn with New Fire ceremonies and the winter solstice. Although other gods with serpent feet are known, notably, the Greek Boreas and the Kogi Duginavi, the torch attributes seem to be restricted to Iao and to Ah Bolon Tzacab. Another representation labeled Iao shows a tree, the fruits of which are human heads (Figure 15.1a2). In Mesoamerica, the equivalent heads appear as gourds (Figure 15.1b2) and seem to represent the decapitated Sun god and, we have argued, solar eclipses. The calendar name of the decapitated god was Hun Ahau, literally "One Lord." Finally, a snake with a lions's head set with solar rays is also labeled Iao and finds a parallel in the Jaguar-Sun and in a jaguar-headed snake from Mesoamerica (Figure 15.1a4, b4, and b5).

All of the scholars we have discussed in §15.1 recognize major relationships between religion and social order. To the extent that a perceived concept of the heavens serves as the pattern for social relationships, any change in the way that Heaven is ordered may be regarded as a mandate for change in social relationships. Thus, evidence for a necessary change in governance in China was found in "unpredicted" eclipses, and other disturbing heavenly phenomena and changes in dynasties and in religious paradigms in the Near East were attributed to or associated with Jupiter-Saturn conjunctions by a number of Arabic scholars.

Telescopes Mastery

Telescopes Mastery

Through this ebook, you are going to learn what you will need to know all about the telescopes that can provide a fun and rewarding hobby for you and your family!

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment