Cosmology

A cosmology is a shared system of beliefs about the nature of the world— the cosmos—as it is perceived by a group of people. The term worldview is often used to mean much the same thing, as is (less frequently) the Spanish term cosmovisión.

How people perceive the world influences what they do and where they do it. Principles of cosmology may be reflected in domestic architecture and sacred buildings, the design of great monuments, city layouts, and even whole landscapes. Numerous examples in the modern world or historically documented illustrate this point, such as the design of the Navajo hogan, the Pawnee earth lodge, and the Yekuana roundhouse; the layout of the medieval Hindu city of Vijayanagara and of the imperial Forbidden City in Beijing; and the landscape around the Hopi village of Walpi.

Cosmology intimately involves astronomy, since the sky is an integral part of the world that people see around them. But cosmology is not restricted to astronomy. In many indigenous communities people freely associate things and events in the sky with those in the terrestrial world, in spirit worlds, or in a perceived world populated with beings that, from a Western scientific point of view, are imaginary and fantastical. Objects and happenings in the sky are also seen as intimately connected with actions and occurrences in the realm of human relations. It is people in the Western world who are exceptional in this respect, separating, in accordance with the Linnaean tradition, the perceived world into different categories that can be analyzed using different branches of science such as astronomy, geology, biology, and the social sciences. (And even in the Western world, despite modern science, astrology still continues to have a strong influence.) Today, the separation of the world of everyday concerns from the domain of the sky is exacerbated by the city lights, which prevent much of the modern population ever (at least, in the normal course of things) from seeing a really dark night sky.

For many indigenous peoples, on the other hand, and (as we now suspect) for virtually every human community way back into prehistory, the sky is an important if not critical part of the world in which they live, and it is crucial to keep human activity in harmony with it. Thus, for example, the traditional seasonal progression of the Lakota through the Black Hills of South Dakota is kept in tune with the path of the sun as it moves through certain constellations. The constellations themselves are directly associated with particular landmarks.

The perceived relationships among people, land, and sky can often guide human action in what we would see as a pragmatic way. The Lakota are one example of this, since their annual cycle of movement through the landscape following the buffalo was necessary for subsistence. Two rather different examples are the Caterpillar Jaguar constellation of the Barasana people of the Colombian Amazon and the star Marpeankurrk in Aboriginal Australia.

Archaeologists can seek to identify cosmological relationships in the archaeological record—in the orientations of buildings and monuments, for example—and alignment studies within archaeoastronomy form an important part of this process. However, spotting associations that might have had cosmological significance is far from a straightforward task, especially for the prehistorian, who may have little corroborating evidence other than the existence of an alignment itself. One problem, clearly, is that any alignment could have arisen fortuitously. Just because a structure may be aligned, say, upon a prominent (as it might seem to the modern investigator) hill or the midsummer sunrise does not mean that this was either intentional or meaningful—either to the builders or to those who used the place subsequently. Another problem is that we cannot prejudge the types of association most likely to have been significant (the possibilities are almost endless), let alone the actual meaning(s) that might have been ascribed to them. We have already intimated that prominence is a subjective concept, and one has to avoid the dangers of a checklist of possibly meaningful types of association that is formulated in the context of a modern worldview but may be totally inapplicable in the context of another. This is particularly the case in seeking astronomical associations such as alignments, where all too often an investigator will approach a site with a ready-made toolkit of astronomical targets.

In fact, it is when cosmological considerations act counter to pragmatics that they may be most striking in the archaeological record. An excellent example of this is the passage tomb at Balnuaran of Clava in Invernessshire, Scotland, where an apparent cosmological necessity, the need to have taller kerbstones on the southwestern side (following a local tradition evident in the nearby recumbent stone circles) seems to have resulted in structural principles being compromised so that the whole cairn was rendered unstable. In other cases, the arguments about whether an evidently intentional alignment reflects cosmological, or simply pragmatic, concerns, may be more difficult to resolve. Thus, the fact that many Iron Age roundhouses in Britain are oriented predominantly east- and southeastwards can be interpreted in two different ways: first, that it is the result of a pragmatic consideration, an alignment that allows the warming rays of the morning sun to shine into the house; second, that the orientation was dictated by cosmological principles, paralleling many modern examples such as the Navajo hogans and Pawnee earth lodges already mentioned. And these two explanations are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

See also:

Alignment Studies; Archaeoastronomy; Astrology; Landscape; Methodology; Orientation; Sacred Geographies; Space and Time, Ancient Perceptions of.

Abroiginal Astronomy; Barasana "Caterpillar Jaguar" Constellation; Chinese Astronomy; Clava Cairns; Hopi Calendar and Worldview; Iron Age Roundhouses; Lakota Sacred Geography; Navajo Hogan; Pawnee Earth Lodge; Recumbent Stone Circles; Yekuana Roundhouses.

References and further reading

Krupp, Edwin C. Skywatchers, Shamans and Kings, 15-42. New York: Wiley, 1997.

Ruggles, Clive, and Nicholas Saunders, eds. Astronomies and Cultures, 1-31, 139-162, 254-255. Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1993.

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