The Descent of the Gods and the Purposes of Ancient Astronomy

The central themes of archaeoastronomy are the relationships that people have seen between themselves and the heavens and the ways in which these relationships have been reflected in archeological remains. The related study of ancient astronomy needs to be integrated with all available relevant information on myths and religious practices in as clear a cultural context as possible. In many cases, myths provide a descriptive account of astronomical processes or events, related to behavioral patterns of the particular group. We have found that the purposes of ancient astronomy tend to fall in the general areas of calendrics, navigation, and astrology. In this section, we draw attention to notable similarities and differences among cultures around the world and offer some interpretations of the patterns we recognize. The major difficulties of interpretation lie in deciding what material is relevant. If we try to interpret a myth astronomically when it had no astronomical referent, we distort both the myth and our perception of the culture. If a myth has a deliberate astronomical component and we do not study it, we lose culturally important information. Similarly, we know that many cultures created structures with deliberately incorporated astronomical alignments, sometimes with a high degree of precision, and sometimes loosely. We also know that there is great variation in the degree of interest in such alignments in different cultures, and that there are a tremendous number of possible alignments. Some cultures and individuals have little interest in alignments that are crucially important in other cultures. Again, we run the contrasting risks of perceiving alignments that never had any cultural existence, and of missing information that was of major cultural importance. The cultural treatment of numbers presents a comparable problem. Schaefer (1997) has provided a long list of "astronomical" numbers, which suggests that scholars can "create astronomy" from essentially random numbers. Yet we know cultures in which simple dots are representations of gods with astronomical functions, and carefully counted. Because cultures differ from each other, judgments on such problems need to be made for specific cases. In the following mater ial, we point out some problems and offer some possible solutions.

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