Sunday, December 14, 2008
SEEING OURSELVES IN THE COSMOS
SEEING OURSELVES IN THE COSMOS
John S. Cline
October 18, 1998
In his quest towards increasing self-consciousness, mankind searches for meaning in the world he occupies. Using the tools at hand to help him explore, he uses the most logical technique available to explain his surroundings… categorization. Combining rationalism, empiricism, and emotionalism to arrive at the most sensible answers, mankind has defined his place in the cosmos to the finest detail, often redefining his own perceptions in the process (Krupp 82-4).
Since the first glimmerings of intelligence, man has sought order in the seemingly chaotic world around him. Probably the first realization was the cycle of birth and death, along with the intimate part humans play in this process. We are born, we mate, and then we die, but our children live on to mate and continue the cycle. Perhaps shortly following this revelation was the development of the afterlife concept. Taking as many forms as there have been cultures to promulgate them, these conceptions of an afterlife had one underlying common thread… immortality.
What better symbol for immortality did our prehistoric (and modern) ancestors have than the heavens? Unlike the constantly changing and uncertain world around them, up there everything was orderly and relatively unchanging. While an earthquake may wipe out your village, you can rest assured that the Sun will rise the next morning and the stars will still shine. Explaining why such orderliness existed in the heavens, however, required the further development of mankind’s worldview.
One can make the assumption that even as our prehistoric ancestors began leaving the forests and savannas and began forming communal units, they had developed some sort of underlying mythology about the world around them (Asimov 27-30; Hadingham et al; Calvin 194-99; Abetti 3-7). For humans with limited technology, the simple existence of a rock or tree or animal must have seemed far removed from human abilities to fully understand, much less create. Therefore, it was only “natural” that supernatural beings must have created mankind and their world (Aveni 82-3; Armstrong xix). Every rock and tree may have had a minor god or spirit associated with it, and as they turned their thoughts to the sky, it was a foregone conclusion that more gods must occupy such grandeur as well.
Though evidence is sporadic and often conflicting, our theories about Stone Age and non-literate cultures do include some intriguing physical evidence to support their preoccupation with the cyclic nature of the sky. Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon cave paintings and bone carvings over 50,000 years old, from such scattered locations as Australia, France, China, and the Americas, suggest a strong sky-oriented ritualistic motive for their creation (Hadingham 86-8). A carved bone found in southern France dating back to 30,000 BCE records what appears to be phases of the Moon or perhaps a lunar calendar (Krupp 158-64). Whether this was the result of careful astronomical observation or simply some bored caveman whittling on a bone, we will probably never know. However, we do know that beginning about 5,000 BCE careful observations and even rough calculations were being conducted in order to catalogue, and predict, events in the sky.
In Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Americas, Africa and China, cultures began to arise which observed and kept regular records of heavenly activities. Although written records were sketchy or nonexistent until approximately 3,500 BCE, we have stone carvings (known as stelae) which detail astronomical events from before this period. In addition, the Egyptian pyramids were constructed as early as 4,000 BCE, and there is ample evidence of considerable astronomical and mathematical skill in their construction. These monuments and writings were almost certainly not astronomical observatories or scientific studies as we know them today, but are instead the physical representations of that culture’s need to understand the world through ritual and myth.
The Babylonians were primarily interested in astronomy for astrological purposes and for keeping time, as were the Chinese and the Egyptians. Time, in fact, is the central concept behind many astronomical observations. With time, mankind could introduce order into the world surrounding him, and predict what was to come. It was a sense of power derived from a supernatural source. As such, the ability to measure time from the heavens became a source of political and economic power to those who could “divine the will of the gods”. Though this seems a despotic view, in actuality the rulers were just as much a product of and just as bound by their cosmologies as the people they governed .
To the ancient Egyptians, their great monuments and temples were erected to reflect their cosmological views. The god Osiris, lord of the underworld, was associated with the constellation Orion, while the north celestial pole represented eternal life. For this reason (we believe) the famous “airshafts” built into the Great Pyramid point directly towards the ancient positions of Thuban (a star in Orion’s Belt) and the north celestial pole (Hadingham 22-4). This allowed the dead Pharaoh’s spirit to rise towards heaven under the watchful eye of Osiris, there to join the other gods. This use of astronomy was entirely funerary, with no intended scientific or evaluative purpose. Included in the mythos of the Egyptians (at least by the time the first pyramid was constructed) was the belief that the Pharaoh was a god incarnate among men, deriving his power from the heavens itself. With great ritual and passionate fervor, the people joyfully (and voluntarily) constructed hundreds of tombs, pyramids, temples, and palaces throughout Egypt for the purpose of worshiping their gods and ensuring the return of their Pharaoh to his heavenly realm.
Even among non-literate cultures, there exist today startling monuments and artwork testifying to the astronomical sophistication of their creators. In ancient Britain near present-day London a culture predating the Celts by over 2,500 years built the famous Stonehenge (Hadingham 36-8). Obvious alignments of solstices and equinoxes lead to the conclusion that this was a significantly astronomical monument. Less certain are the actual purposes intended by it. Was it supposed to be a central calendar, by which anyone could know when to plant and when to harvest? Was it a simple religious symbol, only aligning on the Sun’s positions in order to signal significant religious holidays? Was it the seat of some government or a meeting place to resolve differences? As the history of Stonehenge spans over 3,000 years before the Romans arrived, and it was in almost constant use and renovation during that time, the possibility of Stonehenge representing all of these things and more is very great. In addition, other monuments erected in both the Pre-Celtic and Celtic periods also indicate a strong attraction to astronomical symbolism and design.
We can make fairly accurate assumptions about the myths and beliefs of both pre-literate and literate cultures, and actually may be able to better understand the relatively simple (yet remarkably sophisticated) cosmologies of pre-literate, semi-nomadic cultures. With the benefit of both archeology and cultural hindsight, we can safely assume that Stone Age man’s gods probably reflected a very pragmatic and physically relevant worldview. Gods of the hunt, the harvest, the sky, and the earth would have been prevalent, as well as gods controlling natural forces such as the weather and the water. God-spirits inhabiting living things would explain much of the apparently conscious activities found in animals and even plants.
Even when the nomadic tribes began settling into villages and cities, these pre-agrarian gods would have remained with the cultural mythos. After agriculture began in earnest, gods controlling the weather or the Sun began to also take responsibility for the harvests and seasons. Gods of the earth, already representing fertility, took on more significance. With the advent of a stratified culture, long before cities and agriculture, common sense told our ancestors that the sky produced rain and the earth produced food. It would be only sensible then to associate life-giving sky with a male god-entity and the fecund earth with a female god-entity. By the time cities and agrarian culture was established, these gods had been formalized into the originators of the cosmos, often with a whole pantheon of gods (some stronger, some lesser) springing from them. One notable exception was the Egyptians, who viewed the life-giver as Osiris (the male god who is associated with the Nile) and Nut (the female goddess who is associated with the sky). Perhaps the aridity of Egypt and the infrequent rains there influenced this viewpoint (Krupp 72-3).
Both nomadic and agrarian communities share common roots in their mythologies; after all, agrarian communities began as collections of nomadic peoples. What is more important, perhaps, is that no matter what form of culture is represented, their mythology is adapted to suit their purposes and temperament (Aveni 81-3). Although seldom artificially introduced, the gods and the mythologies these people used worked for them. Their mythologies gave them a mental “handle” on the world, which allowed them to order their lives and develop socially. In many cases, gods which no longer “fit” the society’s needs were eventually dropped and forgotten, while new gods and mythologies were adopted, or even artificially introduced, as the need arose.
A commonality between most mythologies is the anthropomorphism used to portray the various gods. Even Meso-American and Egyptian gods who were represented as animals had human features. Native American cultures had, in various forms, a Great Spirit as the central god, and various animal gods as well, but they all shared anthropomorphic characteristics. As Sigmund Freud said, we make gods so that we may call them up when needed. So too do we make them in our own image, that they may be more accessible. What that image may be depends largely on the culture and the mythos they have developed.
In the drive towards defining their place in the cosmos, various cultures throughout history have recorded their observations of the heavens. In fact, in many cases the earliest examples of writing contain references to astronomical phenomena, recorded alongside commercial transactions, current weather conditions, and the equivalent of Mrs. McGuffey’s recipe for chicken soup. Obviously, astronomy was tied into the everyday life and times of the cultures which recorded these events. Astronomy was not the pursuit of science as we know it today, but a highly evolved and socially-intertwined astrological prognostication device. Every event which took place was analyzed and intuited to determine the astrological significance, and the accumulated records of centuries were compiled and scrutinized by astrologers and priests to forecast the future.
Though by today’s standards the forecasts were unscientific and heavily biased, when one reads them carefully we can see the incredible feats of observationally-based calculations which went into the predictions. If in an ancient Chaldean text we read that some event will occur when Ishtar rises against a full moon at the same time Marduk is in such and such a constellation, we should not dismiss the value of the observations based on the modern worldview that neither Ishtar (Venus) nor Marduk (Jupiter) could possibly affect our lives in any appreciable way (Krupp 68). To the Chaldeans, or the Egyptians or Greeks or Romans or any other ancient culture, the movement of the planets was actually the movement of their gods through the heavens. We know today that Venus is an inhospitable, cloudy world resembling a hellish Earth, and Jupiter is a giant ball of gas. We accord them no special influence on our daily lives because we view them as inanimate, non-living things. To the ancients, they were far more animated and fully alive, and certainly powerful (Aveni 47).
As time progressed, some astrologers began questioning the study of the heavens for portents and signs. They began seeing the patterns and movements of the Sun, moon and planets as possibilities of something more physical in nature. By the 1st Century CE some Chaldeans had broken away from astrology and began studying the sky from an almost modern scientific viewpoint, chastising their astrology-minded compatriots as being quacks (Hadingham 17). Unfortunately, we may never know exactly where their studies would have taken them, since Babylon suffered many invasions and was eventually destroyed. The ancient Greeks and Romans, however, seem to have taken some interest in these Chaldean cosmological theories and expanded upon them, although they became diluted amidst the prevalent worldviews of those cultures. Aristotle adapted much of Babylonian and Chaldean astronomy and its centuries of data to develop his concepts of the universe, and Ptolemy refined them into the cosmological model which survived for over 1,500 years (Abetti 42-5; Hetherington 74, 105-145).
The greatest leap which Plato, Aristotle, and Ptolemy made was the development of a cosmology based, not on the whimsical motion of the gods, but on the movement of physical (though “ethereal”) bodies in some mechanistic framework of shells and orbs. This shifted the entire worldview of the ancients, which though still cloaked in mystery and occupied by gods, was now something which could be openly studied and explored (Aveni 33; Abetti 33-6, 42-5).
Today, we unabashedly study the heavens and develop new cosmological theories largely due to the influence of Aristotle and Ptolemy. Though they were incorrect in their theories, and though treated dogmatically for centuries, in reality they spawned the first instances of scientifically-based cosmological study. Though we can trace the advent of calendars, astrolabes, eclipse prediction and even our holidays to the pre-Aristotelian era, we owe him and his contemporaries for giving us science.
We are constantly in contact with our prehistoric and pre-literate ancestors. Their gods, their worldviews, their cultures, all are reflected in our day-to-day speech and thought. We can still look up into the sky and invent our own gods and mythologies, whether they are fantastic visions of mystical beings and supernatural deeds or the dreams of spacecraft soaring out to the stars and men walking on Mars. Our viewpoint may change, but our mythologies live on.
SOURCES AND CITATIONS
Abetti, Giorgio. The History of Astronomy. Trans. Betty Burr Abetti. Henry Shuman, Inc. 1952.
Armstrong, Karen. A History of God. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1993.
Asimov, Isaac. Beginnings: The Story of Origins. Walker Publishing Company, Inc. 1987.
Aveni, Anthony. Conversing With the Planets. Times Books. 1992.
Calvin, William. How the Shaman Stole the Moon. Bantam Books. 1991.
Cornell, James. The First Stargazers. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1981.
Hadingham, Evan. Early Man and the Cosmos. Walker Publishing Company, Inc. 1984.
Hetherington, Norriss S. Cosmology. Garland Publishing, Inc. 1993.
Krupp, Edwin C. Echoes of the Ancient Skies. Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. 1983.
Sagan, Carl. Cosmos. Random House, Inc. 1980.
Wilson, Colin. Starseekers. Doubleday & Co., Inc. 1980.