Misminay

Misminay is a small village in the Peruvian Andes, geographically quite close to well-trodden tourist destinations, since it is situated almost midway between the city of Cusco and the famous ruins at Machu Picchu. It is, however, off the main tourist routes and thus relatively remote and difficult of access. In many ways it is unexceptional; what is unusual is that the astronomical knowledge and practices of the villagers are known in some detail, owing to the particular interest taken by anthropologist and ethnoas-tronomer Gary Urton in the 1970s.

The villagers recognize various objects in the sky and use several different types of astronomical observation to regulate their seasonal agricultural activities. One is to observe the annual cycles of appearance (heliacal rise) and disappearance (heliacal set) of different stars and asterisms. For example, there are two "celestial storehouses," the Pleiades and the five stars at the tail or hook of Scorpius. These are almost opposite in the sky, so one or the other is generally visible at any time in the night. In fact, the most significant event in the cycle, the heliacal rise of the Pleiades in June, does not directly signal the time to begin planting but instead heralds observations where prognostications are made about the year's crop yield on the basis of the perceived brightness of the stars. The times for planting and harvesting maize and potatoes are determined by another method: by looking at the changing rising position of the sun on the eastern horizon, and in particular, noting when it passes a given spot going in one or the other direction. The lunar phases are also said by some to be important in determining the best times for planting. In sum, the calendar is not regulated by simple observations of one type, but by a mix of observations of the heliacal risings and settings of stars, the changing rising position of the sun along the horizon, and (to some extent) the phases of the moon.

But there is a good deal more to Misminay astronomy than the agricultural calendar. The villagers' conception of the sky forms part of a world-view that affects many aspects of life, including the very layout of the village. Central to this worldview is the Milky Way, which at the latitude of Misminay (14°S) has a very distinctive cycle of motions about the heavens during each twenty-four-hour period. For several hours it appears to hang in the sky, arcing over from roughly the northeast to the southwest, dividing the sky into two parts. Then, relatively suddenly, it starts to tumble toward the horizon, falling and tipping until it seems to surround the observer, just above the horizon. Equally suddenly, it starts to rise again, climbing up until it partitions the heavens in the orthogonal direction, from the northwest to the southeast. The sequence is then repeated in reverse. This pattern of motions only occurs at around this latitude and is difficult to visualize without the aid of a planetarium; but when seen it is extremely impressive. Only half of this diurnal cycle can be seen at any particular time of the year, since the other half occurs during daylight hours. This means that, for example, when the sky first gets dark during the rainy season at Misminay, from November to February, the Milky Way is seen arcing over from the northwest to the southeast; whereas during the dry season, May to August, it divides the sky the other way. For people living at this latitude and watching the skies through the year, these patterns of motion soon become apparent. A natural reaction is to conflate the two axes in one's mind and to perceive them as a cross, dividing the celestial dome into four quarters. This is precisely what the inhabitants of Misminay do, and this perception is reflected on the ground in a very direct way.

The central gathering place in the village is a chapel, standing at a crossroads from which four paths head off in the intercardinal directions. Apart from anything else, this alignment reflects a widespread tendency to organize space around lines radiating out from a central place, a tendency that stretches back to Inca and even pre-Inca times. The paths also mark out social divisions, again reflecting broader practices long established in the region. But the specifics of the layout of Misminay also bear important relationships to the sky. The center of the village is the crossing point of two irrigation canals. Their directions, as well as those of the paths they follow, reflect the two axes of the Milky Way in the sky. Terrestrial water flows downhill, southward to northward, and the Milky Way is seen as a celestial river that carries water back in the opposite direction, southward and up into the sky, from which it falls as rain. By this means, the village is appropriately placed within an integrated system that serves to circulate water through the cosmos as a whole, and by so doing ensures the continued success of the crops and the survival of the community.

In fact, these are just some of the principal elements of a much more complex conceptual scheme that links together, both in time and space, the layout of things on the ground with different objects and events in the sky. The directions of the four paths also correspond quite closely to the rising and setting positions of the sun at the solstices. The June solstice, when the sun rises in the northeast, corresponds to the time of year when the Milky Way appears after sunset oriented in this direction. The same is true with regard to the southeast and the December solstice. Then again, the rising direction of the Pleiades, and the opposite setting direction of the tail of Scor-

pius, also coincide quite closely with the directions of the paths, the Milky Way, and the solstitial directions. The heliacal rise of the Pleiades coincides with the time when the sun rises in the same direction at the June solstice. In short, the quartering of the earth by the cross-shaped paths and ditches reflects many significant aspects of the quartering of the sky. (The quarters are actually far from equal in size—the solstitial azimuths at Misminay are roughly 63 degrees, 117 degrees, 243 degrees and 297 degrees—but this is a detail that has no significance to the villagers.) The chapel at the center of the village is appropriately named: its name is Crucero (cross).

Another interesting aspect of the Misminay villagers' conception of the sky is the "dark cloud constellations." They perceive the shapes of dark patches in the Milky Way to be creatures such as a llama, toad, fox, and snake. The part of the Milky Way that appears in southern skies is especially bright and impressive, and it is scarcely surprising to see these dark shapes, hugely imposing against the foreground of bright stars, singled out as significant in southern hemisphere cosmologies. The celestial llama is one of the largest and most imposing shapes of all, and broadly corresponds to what is seen as an emu across Aboriginal Australia. It also reminds us that the practice of imagining stars as bright points on invisible objects and creatures, which underlies the Western concept of constellations, is not the only way of perceiving entities in the sky.

Finally, according to the villagers at Misminay, there is a correspondence between the gradual rise of the celestial llama in the sky each morning and the breeding period of terrestrial llamas. This is one of many examples from around the world of people perceiving a direct correspondence between linked events on the earth and in the sky, another being the Barasana "Caterpillar Jaguar" constellation.

See also:

Cosmology; Solstitial Directions.

Barasana "Caterpillar Jaguar" Constellation; Ceque System; Emu in the Sky; Nasca Lines and Figures.

Azimuth; Heliacal Rise.

References and further reading

Urton, Gary. At the Crossroads of the Earth and Sky: An Andean Cosmology. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.

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